Making lists like this is not my favorite thing. On the whole, they take up a lot of time and are usually just a snapshot of what I like at that specific moment. They could change in a week. They could even change five hours from now. The reason I’ve decided to make this list is to challenge myself – to sit down, analyze the games I always say I like, and go through why I actually like each and every one of them. I think it’s been a productive exercise, as it forces me to stop hiding behind lame excuses and make a commitment. Now when people ask me for a list of my favorite games, I can just post a link when this series is done and say “here, read this list.”
I should be clear: the following twenty-five games are not what I consider the best. They’re just my favorites. Every possible reason something could be on this list is taken into consideration, including: time and place, nostalgia, how much I think about the game, how much a mechanic or mode might shape what I look for in other games, impact on my life, and so on. Most of these games have very specific memories attached to them. They’ve been partially responsible for some great things that have happened in my life.
There’s another reason why I’m doing this list, too. I had planned this out weeks ago, but with all the talk about violence in video games coming back, and ignorant politicians linking them to the rise in mass shootings in this country, I want to talk about why video games are good. They’re pieces of art that reflect our interests, our cultures, and our times. They help us heal, understand new ideas, and figure out solutions to complex problems. Much of the gaming community is unfortunately toxic and aggressive, but it’s not a case of one causing the other. Not all of us are sending death threats to the developers of Ooblets for making their game exclusive to the Epic Games Store, but enough people are doing it to make it clear that this is something we need to work on. We need to find a way to get this toxicity out of our community. Video games are awesome; I’d rather focus more on positivity like that, personally.
Anyway, here we go.
25. Kirby Air Ride
Publisher: Nintendo / Developer: HAL Laboratory / Platform: Gamecube / Release Year: 2003
Kirby Air Ride is one of my favorites because of the hours I spent achievement hunting as a kid. Before the Xbox 360 made Achievements standard, the idea that a game could be driven by this giant checklist of things to do was incredibly novel to me. Air Ride is kind of a mess when you look at it – it’s a mishmash of racing modes and this open world car combat City Trial that ends in a competitive minigame, and it has no overarching goal or story of its own. The game’s achievement system gives it a purpose, and was enough to make me, an only child, gather up four Gamecube controllers to try to get as many multiplayer achievements as I could, controlling all four Kirbys at the same time. It’s the most I’ve ever cared about a racing game in my life, and that’s including the hours upon hours I put into Hot Wheels: Stunt Track Driver when I was even younger.
Publisher: AIA / Developer: Crazy Games / Platform: Dreamcast / Release Year: 2001
There is nothing quite like a Shinya Nishigaki game. If he hadn’t unfortunately died in 2004, I fully believe his name would be mentioned in the same breath as Hideo Kojima and Yoko Taro today. As it stands, Illbleed, one of Nishigaki’s last works, is his masterpiece, and the best example of what Dreamcast games were like as Sega began to exit the hardware market. Starting off as a survival horror game set in a horror-themed amusement park, Illbleed keeps up this appearance for about half of the first level before venturing off on its own. It picks up and tosses mechanics at will. It parodies other games in the genre before turning on itself and, later, other media. One level is a murder mystery set within the Illbleed park itself, while another is an interactive story that has almost nothing to do with the rest of the game, but is so strange and bizarre that it’s compelling on its own. There’s nothing quite like Illbleed, but I wish there was. We need more games like this.
23. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune
Publisher: Sony / Developer: Naughty Dog / Platform: Playstation 3 / Release Year: 2007
I’ve beaten Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune so many times, it’s become one of those games I can pick up anytime, anywhere and play until the end without a problem. The breezy story makes Nathan Drake and Elena Fisher interesting, but doesn’t bog us down with a ton of detail. It’s simple, but that’s actually the best thing about it – Uncharted 2 and Uncharted 3 get too in the weeds with story that I frankly do not care about, while the gameplay is largely the same, just transplanted into other environments. It wasn’t until Golden Abyss that I felt like a development team understood what makes Drake’s Fortune so interesting, and not until Uncharted 4 and Lost Legacy that the series evolved in substantial and meaningful ways. Drake’s Fortune is a charming game that takes some weird story turns, but can be forgiven because it’s so much fun to play. It’s like settling in to watch a good action flick with comfy pajamas, your snack food of choice, and not a care in the world. It’s blissfully entertaining.
22. Legacy of Ys: Books I & II
Publisher: Atlus / Developer: Dreams / Platform: DS / Release Year: 2009
I played Legacy of Ys at a pivotal point in high school, when I went through a string of games that left a major impact on me. With low level caps, simple combat, and a rigid structure that made each game only a few hours long, it didn’t surprise me to find out that Ys I and Ys II were originally developed in the 80’s. What did surprise me, upon further research, was that Xseed Games was, at the time, preparing to release several Nihon Falcom games on PSP, including three Ys games and the Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky trilogy. I had never bought a system just for one developer’s games before, but the decision had never been so easy. Ironically, I later found out that the DS port of Legacy of Ys was outsourced and is considered by fans to be mediocre and buggy, but it was the perfect introduction to the franchise for me. Whenever I think of Ys, I think of how much joy this specific entry brought me, and it’s made me excited for every game in the series that’s come out since. if it wasn’t for this game, I don’t think I would have found Falcom, and my gaming experience would be much worse without them.
21. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD
Publisher: Nintendo / Developer: Nintendo EAD / Platform: Wii U / Release Year: 2013
Wind Waker and Ocarina of Time are both amazing games, and there’s no way I could have a list without them. However, where I appreciate Ocarina more for the way it boggled my mind and consumed me as child, my connection with Wind Waker is more personal. I have clear memories of a random day in May 2005, where I’m ten years old and just sitting down to play Wind Waker yet again. Before I can even get comfortable, as the prologue video is still playing, the phone rings, and I nonchalantly answer it, my eyes on the TV the whole time. Unbeknownst to me, my grandma had been admitted the night before to the hospital, and this was the call to say she wasn’t going to make it and we should get there as soon as possible. Since I didn’t know, it took me several seconds to process all of this, and I just remember standing in my basement, frozen, with Wind Waker‘s music setting the stage for another story about a boy and his grandmother that, thankfully, turns out much better.
When an HD version of Wind Waker was announced for Wii U, of course I got excited about it. The game still looks great on its native hardware, but it’s amazing how better lighting can help bring out a game’s style. Plus, the list of improvements fix a lot of complaints lodged at the original, like a simplified Triforce shard hunt and a better sail for Link’s boat, without sacrificing the vision of the game. I also credit this version for making me fall in love with selfie modes in games. The amount of time I spent making Toon Link rap along to Das Racist alone made my second purchase worth it. As I edited this entry, I began rethinking my list, going “wow, Wind Waker is only at #21? It sounds much higher.” But I looked again and no, it’s exactly where it should be. As much as I love this game and relate to it, there are twenty more games I can think of that mean something more. How that’s possible, I’m not really sure, but you’ll see what I mean in the coming weeks.
Disagree with this list? Feel free to tell me so. You can leave a comment below, message me on Twitter, or email me at dcichocki(at)tiltingwindmillstudios.com. Stay tuned for Part Two of this series, where we look at entries 20-16. I’m sure to have plenty more personal stories to share about these games, so get ready for that!