We’ve reached the end of My Top 25 Games of All Time. For a five part series that got progressively longer in each installment, the writing process somehow took longer than I expected. That said, the experience has been very much worth the effort. I’ve gotten the chance to talk about games I love, and share what they mean to me. The effect they’ve had on my life. If it weren’t for these titles, who knows if I’d be still playing games today?
So many people make lists about their favorite titles, it’s nothing new. I think it’s worth mentioning why I did this now. One of my concerns about games criticism is that critics generally spend a lot of time only looking forward to new releases. They might fit an older game or two in between writing reviews, but they’re mostly focused on the chase. Finding the next big thing. I’ve been guilty of this myself in recent months, so I understand why it happens. There’s only so much time in the day to play a game, and audiences tend to react more to articles about recent releases than something from five years ago. With some exceptions, this has been true as long as I’ve followed the industry.
However, I think it’s important that we don’t ignore video game history. It’s only a few decades old, but there’s so many different consoles and ways to play. We need to challenge ourselves to keep seeking out titles that are new to us, whether they’re from 1999 or 2019. They help us understand this history piece by piece. Even if you think you’ve played everything worth playing, I would ask then: have you played Untold Legends: Brotherhood of the Blade? Odama? How about The Twisted Tales of Spike McFang? I don’t want to sound gatekeep-y, but I believe there are always more games worth your time. Even if it goes for a couple bucks on itch.io or seems like a piece of PS2 shovelware, there’s a chance you may still enjoy it. You won’t know until you try.
Anyway, I’ll get off my soapbox now. Let’s end this party! Shoutout to Super Mario Sunshine, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Trials and Tribulations, 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, and Tony Hawk’s American Sk8land on DS for being the games I would have added, had I bumped this list up to a Top Thirty. You fought valiantly for your spots, but you just missed the cut.
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
14. Shenmue II
13. Animal Crossing: New Leaf
12. Final Fantasy VIII
11. Super Mario Odyssey
10. Demon’s Souls
9. Wolfenstein: The New Order
8. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
7. Pokemon Crystal Version
5. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
Publisher: Capcom / Developer: Capcom / Platform: DS / Release Year: 2005
Another entrant from the Ten Games That Changed Me Forever list, playing Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney was a watershed moment in my gaming history. I still have a clear memory of picking it up from Gamestop on a Black Friday, and demolishing it over the next few days. It made me fall in love with what was possible on the DS, reignited my interest in point-and-click adventures, and introduced me to the world of visual novels. I got it based on my dad’s recommendation, and though he doesn’t play games, I was touched that he knew my tastes enough to know I’d like Ace Attorney. I’m grateful he spoke up.
I’m also grateful that Capcom gave the series a chance, after leaving the original GBA entries in Japan only. It’s important to remember that, back in 2005, adventure games were at their nadir, with Lucasarts shuttering their division in 2004, and Humongous Entertainment (which made titles like Spy Fox and Pajama Sam) ceasing game development around the same time. Telltale’s popularity was still years away. The advent of 3D graphics taking over the industry was winding down. The idea of a 2D point-and-click game seemed quaint. What changed was that Nintendo put a touchscreen on the DS, which allowed developers to take advantage of the new hardware to present something different.
When I started playing Ace Attorney in 2007, things were looking better. My exposure to different types of games, however, was random at best. Right away, I knew this title was different from the other adventure games I’d played. The way it pushed me to read captivated me as much as the mysteries and fun characters. Even now, the cases in the original Ace Attorney are still fun to play. Special notice should go to to the last case, “Rise From the Ashes,” which Capcom created when they ported the game from GBA to DS. A standalone tale of police corruption, it feels unique and self-contained when so many characters and cases in Ace Attorney are all interconnected. I specifically remember the way this case pushed the rules of the world to the breaking point as the moment I went from liking this game, to absolutely loving it.
I loved the game so much, I tried to draw awareness to it wherever I could. Especially on forums. I realized though, that Ace Attorney was not for everyone, because one of the most popular arguments at the time was what best defined a “video game.” From my memory, people who took this argument seriously had one of two answers: either it was Half-Life 2, for the way it mixed story and gameplay without taking control from the player, or something like Tetris or early Tony Hawks, because they were focused only on gameplay. Sometimes, when I brought Ace Attorney into the conversation, I was told it didn’t really count as a game because it was a visual novel. “If I wanted to read that much, I’d open a book,” was a response I commonly saw.
My frustration with this rationale pushed me to find other Ace Attorney fans who thought like I did, and that lead me to the fansite Court Records. For the first time, I experienced a game fandom up close as I gleefully took part; talking about Ace Attorney, contributing to site-wide contests, and playing forum games. The latter activity somehow spun off into a dedicated group of us turning the parlor game Mafia into a hardcore, Ace Attorney-themed forum experience, but that’s a story for another time. Basically put, playing the original Ace Attorney opened a lot of doors for me, and started so many long-lasting friendships, my life would look totally different without it.
4. Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht
Publisher: Namco / Developer: Monolith Soft / Platform: PS2 / Release Year: 2003
I discovered Xenosaga around the same time I got into Ace Attorney. For as much as I liked the way Ace Attorney mixed a light tone with a highly dramatic story, filled with great characters and mysteries, I also liked Xenosaga for being this dark, ambitious space opera that dealt with intense religious themes, fantastic worldbuilding, and long-term character development. These games don’t have many overlapping qualities, but there are a couple I think are important. One, is that they each have one of the best game soundtracks of all time. The other, is their willingness to tackle gaming taboos. I took pride in defending Ace Attorney when people criticized it for the amount of reading it had, and took a similar stance with Xenosaga, which got some flack for having cutscenes that lasted up to an hour.
I never agreed with these criticisms because what some saw as a flaw, I saw as an awesome (if not radical) stylistic choice. Xenosaga focused so much on telling the story that I got sucked in not only by what was happening, but also the technology behind it. The cinematography, the small character moments, everything came across so clearly, that I actually felt smarter for playing it. Especially with its Teen rating, too. Turning thirteen in 2007, Mass Effect was still new and Metal Gear Solid was as popular as ever. I was able to read about those games all I wanted, but their Mature ratings prevented me from playing them. Xenosaga seemed like a cool compromise, combining the sci-fi setting and story-heavy style I craved so much.
As I got further into the game, I realized that a Teen rating was actually pretty generous. With all of the dismemberment, beheadings, and a handful of cutscenes that hint very strongly at sexual violence, I felt like I was lying to my parents by playing a game this disturbing. I tried my best to hide it from them, but for some reason had no problem telling everyone else how much I liked it. I remember one particularly embarrassing moment when I emailed a bunch of Youtube links of Episode I‘s cutscenes to my eighth grade English teacher to show him how powerful game storytelling could be. He didn’t quite understand it, and was likely creeped out, so we went about the rest of the year pretending it never happened.
After playing the other Xenosaga games, I became really fascinated by the history of the franchise. It’s one of the industry’s biggest “what could have been” moments. IGN’s review of the first game, by Jeremy Dunham, summarizes Monolith Soft’s ambition at the time. Especially this quote: “Xenosaga is an epic six-part story that’s rumored to span three different consoles and almost a decade of time before it finally reaches a conclusion.” The review also makes mention of how the series is “loosely based” on Xenogears, going so far as to bring up Xenogears Perfect Works: The Real Thing. Released only in Japan, Perfect Works is an outline for the original six-part story, with clear indication of which chapter was later reworked into Xenosaga to avoid a lawsuit between Square Enix and Namco.
While multi-part game sagas aren’t as novel these days (the Mass Effect trilogy achieved a similar, if smaller goal), back then it was more unheard of. The idea drew me in so much (even though by the time I got into Xenosaga, its fate was already cut off at Episode III), that I held out hope for years there’d be another revival. Preferably by Nintendo, since they’d purchased Monolith Soft by then. The Wii came and went, as did the Wii U, and these days Monolith Soft is making different games and doing better than ever, particularly on Switch. I held out hope for twelve years, but it wasn’t until I started writing this post that I realized it’s time to throw in the towel. I still love the first Xenosaga and what it represents, but times have changed and the company has moved on. I probably should, too.
3. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3
Publisher: Activision O2 / Developer: Neversoft / Platform: Gamecube / Release Year: 2001
For my ninth birthday, my grandma gave me three gifts that have stuck with me for over fifteen years: my first subscription to Game Informer Magazine, a copy of Metroid Prime, and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 on Gamecube. As an only child with older parents and not many friends, Pro Skater 3 was essentially my gateway into pop culture. It opened my eyes to skateboarding as a sport. I briefly wondered if I’d be any good as a skater, and found out I was not. That was okay, though, because that lesson taught me there were plenty of things I could appreciate at a distance. Especially if they had awesome music and blood splatter like this game did.
I rented the first two Pro Skater games on N64 when I was even younger, but didn’t really get the appeal because the graphics looked terrible, and no matter what I did, I could never save my progress. Pro Skater 3 looked way better, and saving on a memory card made more sense by that point. Everything about it was an improvement. The natural controls, the faster framerate, even the variety of levels. When I think of the second level, Canada, I can still imagine the route I’d use to trick across the park to get high scores. Pro Skater 3 became my go-to game, and because I was a little kid who actually sucked, there were always plenty of goals to get and secrets to find.
Another reason I kept coming back to Pro Skater 3 was the soundtrack. If you asked me about my favorite music until I was sixteen, I would have told you “strictly classic rock and Tony Hawk soundtracks.” It’s unreal to me now that I was unwilling to listen to music made after 1990 unless it was in a skating game from the early 2000’s, but no one around me really cared. I spent so much time tweaking the in-game tracklist, sometimes just using the game to listen to the music, it’s no surprise that these bands would pop up in my life in the most unexpected ways. In college, I started listening to an AFI podcast, A Fire Inside Out, only to discover that the band was responsible for my favorite song in the game, “The Boy Who Destroyed the World.” After that, I fell in love with the Henry Rollins movie He Never Died before realizing his band’s song “What’s The Matter Man” was also in the game. Even when a co-worker innocently tried to get me into Alien Ant Farm, one of the first songs he played was “Wish” and I felt literally trapped.
There are other stories like these, but the point is that my life has revolved around this game in strange ways. Stranger still, because I don’t enjoy many of the other Tony Hawk games, American Sk8land on DS being the lone exception. The games after Pro Skater 3 generally went too far in the open-world Jackass direction, while the games before didn’t have enough tricks to flow right. People often talk about how Pro Skater 2‘s introduction of the Manual was the greatest thing to happen to the series, but I think it’s actually a combination of two things. One, is Pro Skater 3‘s introduction of the Revert, which let tricks go on theoretically forever, and the other, is the jump from the PS1 era to consoles like the Gamecube, where the franchise could shred with tighter controls and a higher framerate.
If I ever had to pick a desert island game, it would be Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3. I could play it forever. My only caveat would be that it had to be the Gamecube version, because I’ve spent so much time with that controller in my hands, no other control scheme feels as right. Typically, I prefer games that present a well-told story, but exceptions can be made. Tony Hawk games don’t need a story, never did, and the execution of Pro Skater 3 proves that some games really don’t need a more enticing hook than “it’s fun, idiot.”
Publisher: Square EA / Developer: Square / Platform: PS1 / Release Year: 1998
I can’t really tell you why Xenogears is so high on this list. I love the game dearly for just about everything it represents: the art style, story, characters, music, and the deep themes behind it. However, I’ve only played it once and I don’t remember it as well as I do other games on this list. There are bits and pieces I definitely remember, a variety of moments that remind me why I respect this game so much. But, if it weren’t for my gut telling me this is where it belonged, I don’t know if I would have included it in my Top Five at all.
Originally, my plan was to give Xenogears the top spot. Make no mistake, my memory is a bit hazy, but Xenogears is one of the most important games that cater to my specific tastes. The development process resulted in fissures at Square that led to several people leaving the company to start Monolith Soft at Namco. The reasons why have been the cause of speculation for years, but one has to assume it starts with the problems Xenogears faces in disc 2. After establishing balanced amounts of gameplay and story in the first disc, the second turns into a sort of visual novel, where the main characters tell the player what happens next without letting them direct control of the events.
Over at Kotaku, Jason Schreier interviewed Xenogears’ director, Tetsuya Takasashi, in 2017 to talk about the “unfinished” state of the disc. According to Takahashi, the reason it became this way was because at the time, all Square games took two years to make and the Xenogears team was filled with newer employees who learned as they went, often causing delays. Faced with cutting the game off after the first disc or figuring something out, Takahashi told Schreier, “‘so we had a proposal – I proposed that if we do disc 2 in this way that it turned out to be, we can finish the game with the current number of staff and the current time allotted for the schedule and the remaining budget we have.’” Whether people choose to believe this or the alternate conspiracy theories out there, what Takahashi essentially says is that he chose to preserve the team’s vision, and their jobs, by sacrificing gameplay to tell the whole story.
Takahashi’s quote makes me think of how much I appreciate what made it in. Specifically, the little moments that could have been easily cut to save time, had things gone a different way. I actually remember these little things more than some of the plot twists, because they filled me with such simple joy, I was always excited to explore and find more. Stuff like jumping on command, petting animals, getting drunk at a festival just because, and winning a balloon and watching it float away in the clouds. These little moments build Xenogears up in vital ways, adding to the believability of the world. They give the game a soul, making it more than the sum of its technical accomplishments.
I suppose I’ll keep listing the things that make Xenogears so spectacular. The game’s story takes a lot from religion, as well as the works of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, and while I don’t put much stock in those ideas in real life, I’m nonetheless fascinated to see them explored in fictional spaces. The game’s art style employs a combination of 2D sprites and 3D environments that holds up well. Even the game’s cutscenes capture the 90’s anime aesthetic. And Yasunori Mitsuda’s soundtrack is one of the best of all time. Some people may consider this game an incomplete masterpiece for the way the disc 2 turned out, but I can’t fault the development team for doing their best. As much as I would love to see a remake, Xenogears is a triumph against the odds. It’s perfectly tailored to my interests, and is worthy of being preserved as-is.
1. Fire Emblem
Publisher: Nintendo / Developer: Intelligent Systems / Platform: GBA / Release Year: 2003
What made me decide that Fire Emblem ultimately deserved the top spot, is that I realized it’s pretty much perfect. It has the right balance between story, gameplay, and difficulty. The sprites are pixel-perfect, the animations are still gorgeously fluid, and the music is evocative even today. The story, too, is something I come back to a lot, not because it’s revolutionary, but because it gets progressively better over time. Even the prologue campaign/tutorial serves a purpose, highlighting Lyndis’ role in the story and giving her a proper character arc.
Everything is so carefully considered, I have to dig deep to find things I don’t like about the game. I guess the multiplayer is kind of weak, but it’s the first time that mode was ever introduced into the series. Not being able to unlock all of the songs in the sound test without linking the game to the bonus disc for Mario Kart Double-Dash!! is pretty annoying too, but that’s Nintendo’s decision, that’s not the game’s fault. The same goes for the fact that this game is a prequel to the previous GBA FIre Emblem, The Blinding Blade, but Nintendo of America skipped on localizing that in favor of The Sacred Stones and Path of Radiance. I can’t dock Fire Emblem itself for Nintendo’s actions, but I still feel the frustration I felt years ago, coming to the end of game only to see a brief sequel hook tease another story.
Still, I return to Fire Emblem more than I do most RPGs. Part of it is because its hardest difficulty mode, Hector Hard Mode, is my gaming white whale. It’s an alternate take on the main campaign designed to demolish the player for making a single mistake. I’m still convinced I can muddle through, as I once thought Eliwood’s version of the campaign was hard, but now it’s something I can blast through in my sleep. I’ve come a long way and I’m still learning. I have a lot of respect for a title that’s still able to challenge me after all this time.
When it comes to the story, it’s not revolutionary, but it’s still told well and structured better than most RPGs. Some titles are often content to give the player an experience that simply takes them from A to B. A character is faced with great evil, the player moves them across a number of obstacles to face that evil, and in the end they beat it and win, no extra fluff or surprise. Fire Emblem is notably different, changing course about every ten chapters. The player usually learns information the same time the characters do, so when something unexpected happens, like victory getting snuffed out at the last moment, it comes as a genuine surprise. It’s pulled off so naturally the player doesn’t really notice, and it keeps them ready for anything.
The game eventually settles into a dramatic groove that sucks the player in because they’ve experienced pain and hardship along with the characters. They’ve seen the consequences of their best intentions. In its later stages, Fire Emblem takes on this tone that splits the difference between Tolkein-esque high fantasy and standard anime tropes, with a sense of foreboding looming over everything. When the titular Fire Emblem finally comes into play, it comes as a genuine surprise, a “oh yeah, I guess we have to deal with that” moment. Still, despite the twists and turns, nothing feels like filler. Every chapter of the game has a clear purpose, and the characters almost always move forward.
It’s as I said: on just about every level, Fire Emblem is pretty much perfect. The parts that aren’t perfect don’t matter all that much. It’s so good, I’m disappointed that more Fire Emblem games don’t stick to this template. It’s the best art style the series has had, and the 3D entries have yet to live up to it. I’d be very disappointed to see this art style replaced, in the event this game and The Blinding Blade were ever remade for Switch. I know Three Houses is now one of the best selling installments now, but you don’t need to remake what’s already great. I’d like an HD remaster maybe, and a translation for the continuation of the story, but that’s it. Just a way for people to still play these games another fifteen years down the road, because it’s not like they’ll ever age badly.
That’s it! My Top 25 Games of All Time list is complete. You can find previous installments here: Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Part Four. I would really appreciate it if you told me what you thought of this project! The easiest way would be by leaving a comment below. You can also email me at dcichocki(at)tiltingwindmillstudios.com, or contact me on Twitter by following this link. Thank you so much for reading. I’ll see you soon!