I'm no western aficionado, but Red Dead Redemption's greatest strength is its atmosphere. Some of my favorite moments in that game simply involved riding my horse into town as I looked out on the beautiful landscape. The appealing western setting was populated by a cast of interesting and rich personalities, including protagonist John Marston. Rockstar really knows how to create memorable characters, don' they? It also felt like Red Dead Redemption improved on the structure of GTA games, with no shortage of entertaining side activities to take part in. The game also gets bonus points for having a bold and compelling ending, something I don't say about a lot of video games. Oh yeah, and the lead guitarist of my favorite band likes this game too, so that's gotta count for something.
Shadow of the Colossus
I'm just as tired of the “games as art” debate as the rest of you, but then I play something like Shadow of the Colossus and I'm ready to spark up discussion again. The artistic vision and scope of this game is still astounding in 2013, and even if The Last Guardian never comes out, I'll continue to place Fumito Ueda among the industry's greatest visionaries. Shadow of the Colossus is absolutely masterful from a presentational standpoint, but the beauty of video games is the interactivity. The epic boss battles also factor into the game's artistic prowess, as players tackle each new colossi encounter like a puzzle and search for the weak spots. I still remember the sense of accomplishment as I felled each new behemoth when I first played it, and that feeling did not go away when I played it again on the PS3 HD collection.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
I love Star Wars, so my affinity for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was established before I even played the game. But KOTOR is special because BioWare takes that historic Star Wars foundation and creates a world that still feels unique in many important ways. The characters in particular stand out as a high point; I mean, who can forget HK-47 and his sinister humor? In addition, BioWare does a wonderful job of incorporating key Star Wars elements in order to appeal to fans like myself – when I first got a lightsaber in that game, I had a giddy smile on my face for hours.
Super Mario 64
We all know that Super Mario 64 was a defining moment in the videogame industry – it demonstrated the limitless possibilities that come with 3D worlds, and did so in a way that managed to be fun in addition to influential. The level of imagination and wonderment that Super Mario 64 brought gamers everywhere was truly amazing, and I recall plenty of fond memories as I child when I first played the game. It also established itself as a classic that holds up with each passing year – there may be platformers that improved on the basic formula, but if I were to play Super Mario 64 right now I'm sure I'd have plenty of fun.
Super Mario Galaxy 2
A large part of the Super Mario Galaxy 2 design philosophy boils down to throwing in everything but the kitchen sink to see what works. Multiple levels introduce brand new mechanics, only to be abandoned on the next set of levels. And yet nearly every idea works, whether it's forming clouds or carefully rolling on a giant ball. It adds a level of variety to the experience that few games manage to pull off, resulting in an enjoyable time the whole way through. It should also be noted that this was the main reason I purchased a Wii – it ended up collecting a lot of dust after that, but I'm glad I got to experience Super Mario Galaxy 2.
Super Meat Boy
Now you guys can't fault me for looking down on the first two Mega Man games because they're difficult. There are few games that drive me to master mechanics and push my skillful limits, but Super Meat Boy is one of those games. The level of precision in the controls limits the frustration, because any mistake is always the player's fault. The expert level design also helps, providing hundreds of simultaneously creative and difficult obstacles to overcome. The fast-paced nature of the game and the brilliant replay system establishes an addictive pattern, in which I want to play just one more level. That one more level becomes 20 or 30, and then I see that the hours have flown by. I also love that I can see growth the more and more I play Super Meat Boy. When I beat it on the 360 (and did quite a few dark world levels) I died 5000+ times. I cut that number in half when I played it on the PC a year later. That's progress folks!
The first game I ever played is still the greatest. I've presented this as an alphabetical list, but I can at least say that Super Metroid is my favorite game of all time. The open-ended world encouraged extensive exploration on my part as a child, and I can remember my brother and I taking turns playing the game as we tried to help each other through each new area. The game itself displayed a masterful sense of game design as each new upgrade pushed me even further, so that I wanted to go back and find every nook and cranny in the game's map. And man, what an intense conclusion conclusion, as the timer counts down and Samus escapes to safety. I should stop talking about Super Metroid right now, otherwise I'm liable to take up the rest of this blog post with more and more thoughts on this amazing game.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
When Uncharted 2 first came out, many people described it as a great summer blockbuster movie in videogame form, and they weren't entirely wrong. But when I think of summer blockbusters, I don't necessarily equate that to top-notch quality. Fun certainly applies, but there's a certain guilty pleasure quality to such a category (a majority of the time). Uncharted 2 has plenty of action and thrills, including one of the more memorable openings of all time, but it's a lot more than that. Nathan Drake and the rest of the characters in Uncharted 2 contain an immense amount of charisma and likability that takes the narrative to a whole new height, even if the last quarter or so goes in some silly places. And actually playing the game is a joy as well, with tight third-person shooting and platforming mechanics. I'm not sure I've played any other game that had me on the edge of my seat quite like Uncharted 2 – it had me invested right from the get-go, and each subsequent playthrough has provided hours and hours of fun.
Oh, how I wish more people bought/played Valkyria Chronicles! This strategy RPG did so many things right – meaningful upgrade systems, a unique on-field mechanic in which players took direct control of the characters, and a wonderful story that touched upon all kinds of topics, from racism to romance. I played this game for 40+ hours and did not get tired of it once. That's when you know everything has fallen right into place.