With the PlayStation 4 out last weekend and the Xbox One landing in just a few days, it feels like a good time to reflect on some of my favorite titles from the last generation, or what Wikipedia would call the “seventh generation.” This is by no means an objective list; I’ve never owned a PS3, so there are some notable omissions from its library of exclusives. There probably aren’t too many surprises in here, either; these are simply the games that I enjoyed the most or that stuck with me the longest or that I find myself coming back to again and again. I’ll try to avoid spoilers just in case no one’s played them, but I make no guarantees. In no particular order (okay, you got me, it’s alphabetical order), here are my favorite games of the last generation:
999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors
This is notably the only handheld game I’ve included on this list. (The Professor Layton series just barely missed the cut.) Although it was marketed for American audiences as a variation on the popular “escape the room” web game genre, 999 is really one of the few Japanese visual novels I’m aware of that’s ever made it to the States, and Aksys did a phenomenal job on the translation and localization. It’s smart, tense, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, and it sports one of my favorite twist endings of any game ever.
Batman: Arkham Asylum
When Arkham Asylum was first announced, I was a little put off by the brawny art style which reminded me of nothing so much as Gears of War. These fears were put to rest upon playing the game, however, as the marriage of this art direction with the familiar voice talent was surprisingly effective, and the Metroidvania influence on the game’s narrative progression proved to be as compelling as I could have hoped. It was the inclusion of the truly surprising and devious Scarecrow sequences that really pushed this one over the edge, though.
As much as I loved this game, it was disappointing that its sequel, Arkham City, didn’t resonate nearly as strongly with me. That one moved in a more combat-oriented direction and abandoned the Metroidvania nature in favor of a linear narrative woven throughout an open world; an experience that, at least for me, wasn’t nearly as compelling as the first game’s.
Bayonetta is a triumph of form over function in my book. That’s not to say that it’s not a masterfully designed game, only that I’m not the right person to appreciate it on those merits. I’m not the biggest fan of the third-person brawler genre to begin with (or “character action games” or whatever silly name we’re calling these now). I’m just not very good at them, so the subtleties of their mechanics tend to go over my head. When I play these games, I mash buttons and hope for the best. And to my amazement, not only did Bayonetta not punish me for my lack of skill, it also won me over with what is possibly the slickest presentation of any game this generation. The cutscenes, the shop, the HUD and UI, even the loading screen all exude an insane attention to detail that lends the entire game a sense of polish that few can match.
Rapture is, hands-down, my favorite video game environment of all time. Moreso than any other game world I’ve ever traversed, it seems to occupy a real physical space in a way that’s difficult to put into words. Even ignoring the mind-blowing narrative twist, BioShock succeeded in the way systems-driven games should: it offers a wealth of tools and a number of goals and leaves the rest for the player to fill in.
It’s interesting to note, in light of how much I’ve evangelized BioShock since its release, that I wasn’t actually interested in it throughout most of its development. Despite my love of Thief, I had had several bad experiences trying to play through System Shock 2, and the idea of a spiritual successor to a widely-acclaimed-but-personally-frustrating title did nothing for me except dread having to hear about. In fact, it wasn’t until I played the BioShock demo that I finally drank the Kool-Aid. One of these days I might even go back and finish System Shock 2.
I couldn’t tell you when I first became aware of Braid or why I played it. What I do know is that, as a programmer, its time-bending mechanics blew my mind. I remember watching for any artifact that would hint at falsity or cheating in the implementation, and I found none. As seems to be a theme among many of the titles I’ve selected, it also contained a twist that took me by surprise, and then a further ending sequence that simply intrigued me. To this day, I couldn’t say with certainty what Braid is about, or whether it even is about any one specific thing. And that’s okay. I love the mystery.
Between the mid-90s and the late 2000s, I think the only racing games I played were kart racers. That all changed with Burnout Paradise. I had somehow missed every previous iteration of the Burnout series, but Paradise caught my attention, and I’ve been following Criterion ever since. I would argue that Need for Speed: Most Wanted is actually the better game from an objective standpoint, but Burnout Paradise made such a large impression on me that I had to include it. I think it would be fair to say that Burnout Paradise and Criterion’s more recent titles have mostly filled the action-sports void left with the decline of the Tony Hawk series.
As I mentioned above, I’ve never owned a PlayStation 3. Never was this more palpable than when Demon’s Souls was released back in 2009. (In fact, despite not owning the console, I did eventually purchase a copy of Demon’s Souls in anticipation of one day being able to play it.) So naturally, I was thrilled when its sequel/spiritual successor Dark Souls when announced for Xbox 360 as well. Not counting games I’ve had a hand in developing, I’ve invested more hours in Dark Souls than any other game this generation by an exceedingly wide margin. Despite a few design gripes such as an over-reliance on summoning (which could frequently turn impossibly difficult boss battles into trivially easy ones), it’s one of the most compelling games I’ve played in years, and it displays an admirable consistency in its adherence to its own internal narrative…which I guess is a wordy and probably inaccurate way of saying that, much like Rapture in BioShock, the world of Lordran feels like a tangible place more than a game world, and its occupants feel real and threatening.
I love me some science fiction horror. It’s my favorite subgenre of film, and Dead Space is one of the few games I’ve ever played to precisely hit that sweet spot on the spectrum of science fiction and horror. It combines many of the best elements of such sci-fi horror titles as System Shock 2, Doom 3, and movies like Aliens and Event Horizon. Although its sequels shed some of the tense psychological horror aspects in favor of increasingly elaborate cinematic combat sequences, the first one remains an amazing exercise in dread, perhaps in part due to the more constrained and confined environment.
Deadly Premonition is probably the only game I’ve ever played that completely embraces everything I could want a “B-grade” game to be. Despite numerous problems (among the most egregious being that it’s simply too long), Deadly Premonition was one of the most unique and memorable games I played this generation. I’m not sure there’s much I can say about it that hasn’t been said already. It’s a bizarre, baffling, often objectively poorly made survival horror title that makes no attempt to hide its Twin Peaks influence, and yet I couldn’t stop playing it.
Well, I mean, yeah. I almost forgot to include this one because at this point, it just feels like something that’s always been there, and to some extent, it feels more like a toy or a hobby than a consumable game experience like most of the rest of these games I’m naming. Even years after its initial release, I keep finding reasons to come back to Minecraft again and again, the most recent being the addition of a hardcore mode (or “YOLO mode,” as I’m partial to calling it).
Pac-Man Championship Edition DX
This has become my go-to “hey, I need something quick and engaging to play on Xbox Live” title. The original Championship Edition was fun in its own right, but DX completely blew it out of the water. If you had told me eight years ago that one of my favorite games of the upcoming generation would be a mechanically familiar update of Pac-Man, I’d…well, probably I’d ask how you knew that and what the winning lottery numbers were. But then I might laugh and accuse developers of being lazy* and creatively bankrupt. And yet nothing could be further from the truth. DX is an absolutely brilliant example of how to take simple, familiar mechanics to new places. The feature that always grabs me is the “bullet time” effect, the way the game slows down slightly and zooms in on the action whenever Pac-Man is in imminent danger of touching a ghost. It’s such a current-gen feature and wouldn’t have been possible back in the early days of the arcade, but it’s also a natural accompaniment to the gameplay and one that I miss when I go back to the original games.
Portal is one of the smartest, funniest, most surprising games I’ve ever played, and (unpopular opinion warning!) one of only two Valve games I’ve actually enjoyed. (The other one was Portal 2.) The cultural impact of Portal is so massive that it’s very nearly impossible to recall a time when “the cake is a lie” was more than just a silly meme or catchphrase, and while it may be played out today, that’s also a testament to the strength of Portal‘s narrative. When GlaDOS finally stopped being merely taunting and became legitimately threatening, there was a real sense of rebellion and subversion in the act of survival. That’s something few games have made me experience, and it’s interesting that Portal accomplished it with relatively minimal production values.
Resident Evil 5
Often decried as a mediocre or predictable follow-up to the more revolutionary RE4, or criticized for its co-op buddy AI, I actually consider this game to be the better of the two. Where RE4 often felt overly long and tedious to me, RE5 was divided into bite-sized levels that facilitated and encouraged replayability and grinding in the best possible way. In an age in which I rarely play games more than once anymore; RE5 was the rare exception that I played twice by myself and once in co-op.
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories
This is the only Wii game I’ve included on this list and by far the best game to be released on that console, in my opinion. A vast departure from the usual survival horror trappings of the series, Shattered Memories plays more like a point-and-click adventure game interspersed with panicky chase scenes and interludes set in a therapist’s office, in which your responses to psychological tests affect various elements of the narrative and environment. Telltale’s The Walking Dead received more press and positive criticism, but I feel like Shattered Memories tackled some of the same design issues a couple years earlier, and to comparable effect. Along with 999, it also has one of my favorite endings of this generation.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t like the original Game Maker version of Spelunky very much. I loved the idea of it, fan that I am of procedurally generated content, but I couldn’t get past the unrefined, skippy feel of movement and the overly punishing mechanics. So when this updated version was announced for Xbox Live Arcade, I was naturally wary. As it turned out, this version solved all of my qualms, and I finally felt like I was able to enjoy the experience that others had described years earlier. It was the PC release and its brilliant daily challenge feature that really cemented this one, and though I may never make it to the hell levels, must less through them, I did at least finish the main game in a daily challenge once or twice, so I feel pretty good about that.
This one shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, considering I wore its influence on my sleeve when making You Have to Win the Game. VVVVVV is far and away my most replayed game of this generation. (I think I’m up to five or six playthroughs now.) It hits a sweet spot between challenging and punishing, keeping most of the truly brutal segments off the critical path. Even beyond the gameplay and the amazing soundtrack, VVVVVV clings to a sense of mystery that I find infinitely and desperately compelling. The elephant room in particular stuck with me, and was probably subconsciously the inspiration for some of the more opaque aspects of YHtWtG.
So yep. Those are my favorite games of the last eight years or so. I’m sure as soon as I press the Publish button, I’ll panic and freak out and remember some other game I forgot. Did I miss anything obvious? Did I overlook some hidden gems? Was my non-specifically-themed website non-specifically helpful or informative to you? Leave me a comment and maybe it won’t get spam filtered!
*Stay tuned for my next blog post, “The Myth of the Lazy Dev.” It’ll be a doozy! I wish I knew what a doozy were.