Folks, we’re back with the third part of my Top 25 Games of All Time, and we’re at what I would call the “awkward” part of the list. Not quite the Top 10, but also nowhere near the bottom, these games sit in limbo. They’re all great games. I suggest you play all of them, but, I don’t know, I would also suggest playing my Top Ten before any of these. If I have any frustration with a list like this right now, it’s that everything is presented so linearly, I’m essentially creating a fictional hierarchy for these titles when I really love all of them and want them to equally get the time and attention they need.
For those that have been leaving feedback about this project thus far – I see you. I appreciate you. Thank you so much. It seems like a weird list, I know, but I would like to think my journey through video games is just as unique as anyone else’s. When you’re a kid, you’re much more likely to take whatever’s given to you, and you end up falling in love with games that are either bad, super niche, or forgotten by everybody else. I remember when my parents bought a Playstation for me, the games I got with it were Star Ocean: The Second Story and Saiyuki: Journey West. Both are fine RPGs in their own right, but I don’t expect anyone to remember Saiyuki but me. Except maybe if you were a fan of the 90’s Saiyuki anime and rented this out of confusion. Ten of you might remember it then.
Anyway, on to the next portion on the list.
THE LIST SO FAR:
25. Kirby Air Ride
23. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune
22. Legacy of Ys: Books I & II
21. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD
20. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood
19. Mega Man Legends
18. Life is Strange
17. Super Smash Bros Ultimate
15. Chrono Trigger
Publisher: Square Enix / Developer: Square Enix / Platform: DS / Release Year: 2008
This version of Chrono Trigger was my first chance to experience the game, and before I got it, I was afraid I would hate it. I was thirteen, and worried about how much my tastes in games didn’t lineup with my peers. I liked Call of Duty 4, sure, but the appeal of Grand Theft Auto was a mystery to me. Instead of getting into Kingdom Hearts, my PS2 RPG series of choice was Xenosaga. On and on, there was the fear of being different, and when it came to Chrono Trigger, I kept telling myself, “I don’t know. I’m hard to impress. I might like it, but will I like it that much?”
As it turns out, I did indeed like it that much. I was surprised by the way the game presents the apocalypse to the player as this near-unavoidable event that only they can stop. I loved traveling to different time periods, to see how the map changed over the course of centuries. Major characters died, rivals joined the party, and beating the game in multiple ways offered new endings. Even today, when other RPGs like Radiant Historia have taken inspiration from Chrono Trigger, nothing feels quite like it. Not even its sequels.
On top of being a great game on its own, I also credit Chrono Trigger as being ground zero for some of my other favorite games. This is the project that brought together several of the founding members and collaborators of Monolith Soft, including Masato Kato, Makoto Shimamoto, Tetsuya Takahashi, Taizo Inukai, Yasunori Mitsuda, and Yasuyuki Honne. After this game, several of these staff members would later work together again on projects like Radical Dreamers, Xenogears, and Chrono Cross before leaving Square to work on the first Xenosaga and Baten Kaitos games. If it wasn’t for Chrono Trigger bringing together all of this talent, I don’t think Monolith Soft would exist today.
14. Shenmue II
Publisher: Microsoft/Sega / Developer: Sega AM2 / Platform: Xbox / Release Year: 2002
I think, from beginning to end, Shenmue II is one of the most fascinating AAA games to ever come out. Comprised of three chapters from the overall Shenmue saga, the game does a very good job of making them feel distinct from one another. The first is much like the original Shenmue, where players are let loose in Wan Chai, Hong Kong and expected to make enough money to live, while hunting down leads as part of Ryo’s amateur detective work. The second chapter takes place in Kowloon, a rough district of Hong Kong, as Ryo zeroes in on a man named Yuanda Zhu, who might know something about Ryo’s father’s murderer, Lan Di. Kowloon is still a big section, but notably smaller than Wan Chai, and with much less to do. By the end of this chapter, as Ryo rushes to save Zhu from the local gang, the game gets rid of the open world entirely. Instead, it resembles an action game as Ryo and his ally, Ren, fight their way to the top of a skyscraper floor by floor.
The last chapter of Shenmue II is by far the most interesting. Where many games would think to end once Zhu is confirmed safe and sound, Ryo is sent to the mountains of Guilin, to find a small village where Lan Di will supposedly go next. To get to the village, Ryo must travel by foot for days on end. Along the way, he meets a girl named Shenhua, who thankfully lives in the same village. With nothing else to do but walk and talk (and complete the occasional QTE sequence), Ryo and Shenhua do exactly that. Until the very end of the game, Shenmue II turns into an ultra-linear conversation simulator. Players press forward, and then they select topics to discuss. That’s about it.
What I love about this sequence, and the overall structure of the game, is that it proves Shenmue can literally be about anything, at any scale. There’s a saying that I’m probably about to butcher, that goes something like “the sign of a good story is when you like the protagonist so much, you’ll follow them wherever they go next, no matter what.” This is what Shenmue II asks the player to do – cast aside all they think Shenmue is, and realize that it can be almost anything, as long as Ryo is still on his quest for revenge. I love the first game a lot, but even I can see that it gets boring at points because there’s too much monotony until late in the game. Shenmue II fixes that from the start, and constantly challenges itself to change and improve in ways that I can’t help but appreciate. I’d love to see modern AAA games take even half the chances this game does.
13. Animal Crossing: New Leaf
Publisher: Nintendo / Developer: Nintendo / Platform: 3DS / Release Year: 2013
One trend that’s jumped out on this list a number of times is my appreciation for recent sequels to Nintendo games that I loved as a kid. It’s not something I really thought about before, but the evidence speaks for itself – Super Smash Bros Ultimate, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, and (as you’ll see in a minute) Super Mario Odyssey are all on this list, while the Gamecube versions I grew up with are not. I think this is really great, actually, as it shows that it’s not just childhood nostalgia talking. Those games were great back then, but the sequels that exist now take those ideas and improve on them in every way. This is way better than the Wii era, where I thought almost everything Nintendo put out was inferior to their past work.
What makes New Leaf so great is that it’s the Animal Crossing I knew as a kid: chill, idealistic, a power fantasy about the stability of life I’ll never have. The difference is that New Leaf is portable, has more features, and lets you be the mayor of your little village, not just a resident. I didn’t know that being a mayor would make a huge difference to me, but enacting ordinances and raising funds for new projects made me more attached to my town than any other game in the series. It’s a huge evolution of the franchise formula, where City Folk and Wild World were not.
I’m tempted to make more jokes about how Animal Crossing‘s optimism is a special ray of sunshine in these dark times, but that’s a lot to put on such an innocent series. Instead, I’ll cap off this entry with some memories of the summer of 2013, when both New Leaf and Fire Emblem Awakening brought the 3DS hype to its peak. A bunch of people I knew were playing one, the other, or both. It was a brief blip of greatness that, for some reason, the handheld was never able to recapture. I loved seeing all the snapshots people uploaded to Tumblr and Facebook, and it was great to see people react to Awakening the way people react to Fire Emblem: Three Houses today. it’s one of those moments of relative peace I’m not sure we’ll ever get back. Oh, well. At least I can dumpster dive in these games and not feel bad about it.
12. Final Fantasy VIII
Publisher: Square EA / Developer: Square / Platform: PS1 / Release Year: 1999
Final Fantasy VIII was one of the first Final Fantasy games I beat because I thought it’d be fun to do a level one run. It was a technique I learned about shortly after buying it: because the game levels up enemies with the player, if the player stays at a low level, so do they. It seemed really weird, but also great because it meant engaging in all of the random battles was optional. No grinding needed. I could just sit back and treat the experience like an adventure game, only fighting the occasional story-related boss when I had to.
In the years since, I’ve grown more patient, and don’t mind grinding levels as much as I used to. Even still, I like that FFVIII is courteous enough to offer this option. Ironically, I remember getting bored running away from battles after a while, so I began experimenting with the battle system, seeing what I could get away with without killing anybody. This is how I learned about the game’s Draw system, and came to appreciate how broken it is. A one-level run is something I’d still recommend if you feel up to it; it’s like doing a non-lethal run through a Metal Gear game, but more interesting.
There are plenty of other reasons why I love FFVIII, too. I think its serious tone holds up well. The realistic-but-messy polygonal models still communicate a striking atmosphere. The use of FMV backgrounds during gameplay to heighten tension is also fantastic. Even the love story between Squall and Rinoa is pretty good, and I tend to think a lot of love stories in JRPGs are half-baked. But if I’m honest with myself, what I’ll always remember about Final Fantasy VIII is that level one run. It made me approach this game with open arms, and no fear that I’d get stuck somewhere 40 hours in because I went through it too fast. If you’re interested, Final Fantasy VIII is getting an HD remaster next week – September 3rd. Pick it up if you can, it looks stellar.
11. Super Mario Odyssey
Publisher: Nintendo / Developer: Nintendo / Platform: Switch / Release Year: 2017
Playing Super Mario Odyssey was the experience I needed to say that, yes, Mario games are good after all. I’m serious – I loved Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine as a kid, but became disappointed when 3D Mario games moved away from their sandbox-ish gameplay. Super Mario Galaxy‘s levels feel spread out and linear by comparison, almost a nod back to earlier titles like Super Mario Bros 3 and Super Mario World. Those games aren’t bad by any means, but not what I wanted after loving Sunshine so much.
This isn’t to say Nintendo can’t experiment with their most well-known franchise. That’s how Mario stays fresh. It’s just that there will inevitably be changes in direction that some of us will like more than others. Some people love the Galaxy games the most of any 3D Mario, and others prefer New Super Mario Bros because it hews even closer to the series’ roots. It could just be that I associate Mario with 64 and Sunshine, and subconsciously see that as “my Mario,” but I’d like to think I’m better than that.
What makes Odyssey my favorite of the Mario games, is the way it refines every system to encourage level exploration. I prefer the way moons are rewarded to stars, because it feels like a moon could be anywhere. Just ground pound in the right spot, or do a complex jump at the right angle, and you could grab another one in seconds. Plus, without the need to go back to a hub world after grabbing a moon, it’s so much easier to get familiar with the levels and see how everything interconnects. The difficulty comes in trying to get all of the moons, because at a certain point you’re just figuring out what the game will and won’t let you do. But, it’s only there if you want it. At the very least, death is a slap on the wrist. There aren’t arbitrary lives to lose anymore should you be stuck on a tricky moon – only a handful of coins you’ll no doubt get back in seconds.
From the level diversity, to the way Cappy, the hat, adds so many cool mechanics, to just how the look of Odyssey puts Sunshine to shame, it’s an all around better game. New Donk City is an easy highlight that I know gets cited a lot, but there’s a lot of fascination that comes with seeing Mario compared to regular-sized humans. Are there just two types of humans in the Mario universe? Plus, there’s all the things Mario can control with Cappy, like a T-Rex or a slab of meat. Those are special, one-off segments that I’d love to see Nintendo embrace more in the future. In my mind, this is truly the “play this Mario game until you’re sick of it” experience I’ve always wanted, and only a Super Mario 3D Maker can top it. Super Mario Odyssey one of the best games on Switch, and it rejuvenated my love of Mario.
If you disagree with this list, I’m willing to hear your thoughts. You can leave a comment, message me on Twitter, or email me at dcichocki(at)tiltingwindmillstudios.com to tell me all the ways you think I’m wrong. You can find Part One of this list here, and Part Two is here. Part Four, covering entries 10-6 will be up soon! Stay tuned!