I don't think it's really possible to have a “favorite” favorite game, or at least it's not possible for me. I've never been able to answer any of those hypothetical questions where you have to choose one album or movie or game you'd want if you were stranded on a deserted island (that inexplicably has electricity). If I wanted to self diagnose, I'd say it was a symptom of my latent fear of commitment - what if I don't always love Ocarina of Time?
But I think the reason is simpler. I just love too many games for too many different reasons to ever pick an overall favorite. Reasons that only make sense to me in the context of my life. Crazy reasons that may even contradict and trip over themselves. The thing I love about one game might be unremarkable in the next, or even offensive. I want XCOM to take a crap in my lunch, but I'm only playing Fire Emblem so I can be an amateur match-maker for cute anime characters and produce the next generation of adorable super soldiers. I love a detailed and rich story-driven game, except for when I'm in the mood for a nihilistic sandbox where I can do whatever I want without any bullshit like plot and narrative getting in my way.
I can't tell you what my favorite game is, but I can tell what my favorite games have been.
1989 – Super Mario Bros.
A deeply unoriginal pick, but God's honest truth. Super Mario Bros was the first game I played on the Nintendo, and that plucky red plumber doomed me to a life sitting in front of glowing screens and deeply caring about warp zones and secret 1-ups.
The NES was a random Christmas gift, I didn't play many games before that year. When me and my brother started Mario, we couldn't get past the first goomba without having to use a continue. We had no idea what games were or how they worked, but even then, it felt special. It felt like we were given something BIG. During that winter Mario would teach us all of the important fundamentals of videogames; moving, jumping, secrets. I started having dreams about the Mushroom Kingdom, world 3-1 with its dark sky and illuminated outlines stuck in my subconscious, Bowser starred in a slasher film-esq nightmare that I still remember today.
My favorite game changed monthly in those days, maybe weekly. New games kept coming out, and we already missed so many. Me and my brother felt like we were lagging behind, missing out, and we scrambled to catch up. Rental became our way of life. Bandito Video was only two blocks away, easy walking distance, and they gave out tiny free bags of popcorn with every purchase. It wasn't long before the staff knew to tip us off about new releases or to hold something in reserve.
Nintendo Power was giving away copies of Dragon Warrior with a monthly subscription that I begged/badgered my mother into signing up to. For an intense month, that was my favorite game, I'd keep getting in trouble at school for reading the free strategy guide that came with it when I should have been counting apples or something. Bizarrely, the elderly couple two townhouses down got really into it too. I discussed problematic Metal Slimes with a pair of gray haired retirees on their postage stamp of a front lawn. I didn't know yet that games were supposed to be just for kids.
Sometime later, my grandma rescued Metroid from a used games bin and it would become the new obsession. I'd scribble my childish recreations of its labyrinthine levels in the margins of my notebooks; it was a point of contention with my teacher, but I still maintain those games had more educational value than the stale grade 1 curriculum she was teaching.
1991 – Sonic
Sometime in 1991, we got the Sega Genesis and Sonic the Hedgehog. It was amazing, a technological leap forward into vibrant colorful worlds and funky beats that made our beloved NES instantly feel archaic and embarrassingly outdated. But there was no money for any other games, and the mom and pop rental shop we frequented didn't quite keep up with the 16-bit era. Their Genesis selection was quarantined off to one tiny little shelf choked with sports games that even then I instinctively sneered at (a primal predator/prey tension I would feel my entire scholastic life). Eventually we would get a Blockbuster in town, and games like Strider and Streets of Rage would enter our lives, but not for a while. So for those first months we had the Genesis, I played Sonic. I played Sonic over and over again. Then I played it more.
I beat the game. I beat it again. I learned to beat it faster. The later levels were never as much fun though; the thrill of Sonic was in the fluid satisfying speed, the popping sound of bouncing off TVs, of hitting a checkpoint at mach 1 and never looking back - not navigating spikes and waiting for elevators. Eventually the rest of the game melted away, and I just played the Green Hill Zone over and over.
Years later I'd see speedrunning videos on YouTube and suddenly have a name to put to what I was doing with Sonic back then. I burned the Green Hill Zone into my neural patterns, pounded my nerves into committing the jumps to muscle memory. Lord knows what kind of cognitive trade-off I made back then, it's probably not healthy for a child at that age to be so intensely focused on something that obscure and specific. I frequently wonder if only I could have devoted that weird monomaniacal obsession into something useful or interesting like piano, or basic coding, how my life could have changed. In fact, as much as I love watching speedrunning videos now, I harbor some of the same nagging reservations about the players performing them.
Dubious life choices aside, it can't be ignored that at one point Sonic the Hedgehog was the most important thing in the world to me. Oddly enough, that affection wouldn't last. I got Sonic 2 when it was released and enjoyed it, maybe even told my mom I loved it a little more than I really did (it was a Christmas gift after all). By the time Sonic 3 came around, I barely played it, even the novelty of a Knuckles “lock-on” cartridge that would retroactively insert the echidna into previous games couldn't sway me.
Maybe I never really loved Sonic. Maybe I just loved the Green Hill Zone.
1992 – Zelda 2: The Adventures of Link
Whenever someone says they love the Zelda series except for the Adventures of Link, I instantly take their opinions less seriously. In fact, I lose the potential for loving that person. I can still respect them, we can even be friends, but I know deep down that we'll never feel the kind of connection that love demands.
There really are only two kinds of people in the world. The people who think Zelda 2 is a tragically underrated masterpiece, and the people who are wrong.
Zelda 2 is an adventure that requires total commitment. A dangerous world full of secrets to discover and chances for the intrepid to prove their worth. It respects the player to an absurd degree and expects you to rise to its challenges, without ever feeling punishingly unfair like other notably difficult games of the NES era.
I've written about Zelda 2 extensively, so I'll skip the sermon. Just know that even though I don't think I can have a favorite game, if you savagely pistol whipped me, pressed the barrel of the gun hard against the back of my skull and DEMANDED I tell you a favorite, Zelda 2 is probably the name I'd scream through panicked bloody teeth.
1994 – The SNES
I think there is a convincing argument to be made for 1994 as the best year in Nintendo's history. It was certainly the year where the SNES asserted itself as the dominant 16-bit system (I don't care how much anyone beats the Sega drum, they got blown out hard). An outstanding first party effort was delivered from Nintendo with Super Metroid, Donkey Kong Country, Uniracers, and Super Punch-Out, some of the best games released for the celebrated console. Those gifts were backed up by some of the most memorable third party games of the entire generation, like Earthworm Jim and the genre defining Final Fantasy 3 (or 6 for all you miserable technically correct people). It was a fantastic year for sealing yourself in the basement and faking sick to get out of school.
I can't tell you what my favorite game was from that time, that's some straight up Kobayashi Maru shit, there is no right answer. I could write entire articles about the masterful opening sequence of Super Metroid, or the music of DKC, or how much I adored The Secret of Mana (which actually came out in 1993, but I'd only play it after Final Fantasy 3 left me ravenous for more adventure). It's like choosing between favorite children or siblings, it feels tacky and laced with betrayal. While there may be a favorite floating around in your mind somewhere, it's the kind of comment that is best kept to oneself.
1998 – Zelda: Ocarina of Time (actually Metal Gear Solid)
Another betrayal. Some sentimental pocket of my heart forces me to say that Ocarina of Time is my favorite title from the year of our Lord 1998. It's so OBVIOUSLY brilliant, so universally loved, it provides such a clear and bright connection to my childhood adoration of the series. It seems like the only possible choice.
But, like the duplicitous Decoy Octopus, I have a hidden agenda. A secret scheme of nuclear rail guns, walking tanks, and double crossing agents. I know what really beats inside my chest, what fascinates me to this day. I'd like to be the kind of person who resonates more closely to bright eyed adventure and stories of boys earning their way into manhood through bravery and selflessness, I really would. But like a secret codec radio transmission stimulating the small bones of my inner ear, MGS whispers to me and reminds me that I'll always be more interested in the dirty work of intrigue, sabotage, and espionage than I'll ever be in actually saving the world from evil.
2001 – Day of Defeat
2001 marks the year my family finally got a PC and I could join the online multiplayer world of gaming. It also marks the year where my grades and personal attitude took a steep negative decline. Just two random unrelated facts.
While my friends proselytized the virtues of Counter-Strike and Quake 3 (and those are certainly fine games), I spent almost all of 2001 fighting through the western theater of WW2 in Day of Defeat. I stormed Normandy more times than the History Channel that year.
Not only was I drunk on the very concept of playing with up to 23 other people all around the world (it's easy to forget just how stunning that idea was to kids who grew up entirely on consoles and thought Bomberman with a multi-tap was the height of multiplayer excitement), the game was just so good. Day of Defeat was more dangerous and tense than Quake 3, with a single bullet spelling death for a careless infantryman. But it was faster and more frantic than Counter-Strike, respawning players in waves instead of holding them hostage for the next round. Objectives needed to be seized en masse, dominated by troops taking and holding ground; not planting a bomb and playing hide & seek while ghosts watch and heckle. And I was good at it, unusually so. Everyone secretly thinks they are an above average player, but Day of Defeat was the only game I ever felt gifted at – something just clicked.
The reality of an MLG or e-sports franchise didn't exist yet, it was just the dreamy fantasy of 14 year old FPS nerds (and maybe forward thinking slimy investment capital types, salivating at the idea of exploiting them), and that probably saved my life. If I had even an inkling during those days that I could somehow parlay my ability to stitch up the Wehrmacht with a Bren gun into an “athletic” career of dubious fame and a paycheck, I probably would have dropped out of school then and there. When I think about it like that, I can easily understand how teenagers these days are getting sucked into the black hole of professional Dota 2, and LoL competitions.
2007 – Team Fortress 2
I didn't have a favorite game for years. Things were moving too fast in my life for favorites. I joined the workforce like a big boy. Then I went to university and constantly messed up my student loan applications like a child. Gaming was still a big part of my life, but it was getting strange and disjointed. There were so many games and so many systems and I finally had the money to buy stuff, but no time to play it. I was all over the place gamewise. I played City of Heroes off and on for years, but I never took a character to the level cap; I just enjoyed playing with different power builds and costumes. Does that make it a favorite? It was weird even at the time, I'm not sure what I was getting from it, but it was something. I played through countless amazing PS2 era games, I caught up on PC classics I missed. It was a renaissance of great games, but I'm hard pressed to name favorites, everything just kind of blurs together.
That changed in 2007 when Team Fortress 2 snatched me in its Pixar-esq claws, and I suddenly very much had a favorite game again.
TF2 and Bioshock were the two games that convinced me I needed to join the current generation of gaming and pick up an Xbox 360. But while Bioshock was a great game that I enjoyed, digested, and put aside, I'd continued to play TF2 on a regular basis for the next four or five years, and occasionally here and there after that.
It helps that TF2 has been supported with updates, maps, and weapons since it's inception. It helps that the wonderful cartoon/espionage/dark comedy world Valve has created is appealing to even non-gamers. It helps that the constant cut-rate sales and eventual move to an F2P model has ensured a thriving and diverse playerbase (instead of withering on the vine like many shooters). These are all great reasons why TF2 has been a staple for me for the better part of a decade.
Mostly though, TF2 is simply one of the best games ever created, and that's probably a good enough reason right there.
2012 – Dark Souls
What can I say about Dark Souls? It's Zelda 2: The Adventures of Link for this generation (a comment that is both the highest praise I can offer, and also one of the greatest criticisms a naysayer could launch at the title).
Dark Souls takes all of the best qualities of Zelda, Castlevania, 3rd person adventure/exploration games, and even fighting games (yes I said it, play Dark Souls PvP and you'll have a wonderful primer to the nuances behind the best fighting games) and somehow manages to blend them all together in it's own strikingly unique world.
Without a trace of irony I really do believe Dark Souls should be on display in museums. I don't know if we'll ever see a “Citizen Kane of gaming”, I don't know what the criteria for judging that looks like. But I do know that Dark Souls expresses the very best elements of the medium. That it demonstrates a masterful command of both the technical components of game development, and a keen artistic vision. It's lightning in a bottle, and almost makes me sad because I'm not sure if I'll ever play another game that makes me feel the same.
If you savagely pistol whipped me, pressed the barrel of the gun hard against the back of my skull and DEMANDED I tell you my favorite game, Zelda 2 is probably the name I'd scream through panicked bloody teeth. But I'd feel shame later that I didn't call out for Dark Souls.