The Greatest Games: Resident Evil 4 (2005)

Resident Evil 4 (2005)
Developed by Capcom Production Studio 4

It’s always funny to reflect on those things which once seemed so very important in a juvenile mind. Only once I sat down to begin writing this did I remember Resident Evil 4 was the first M-rated game my mother allowed me to purchase. Of course, I had secretly played Grand Theft Auto while visiting friends, but there’s something powerful about receiving this permission, like my innocent cocoon was finally being shed. I wish I could remember the details of this battle; what caused her to cave?

I imagine there being some insistence on my part. The advertising made this game look cool, and reviews made it clear that this was the event game not just of 2005, which had only just begun, but perhaps of the entire generation. To not play this would have been doing myself a disservice. And believe me, dear reader, when I claim to have once been quite skilled at pestering.

It’s not that Resident Evil 4 did anything particularly new. There had been plenty of third-person shooters before, and Resident Evil had been a major franchise from its first release. Despite this, the classic Resident Evil formula was archaic almost by design. Tank controls were forced upon the player to make sense of the fixed camera angles. Yet this somehow worked, because the frustrating controls only added to the tension.

The most impressive element here is that Resident Evil 4 did little to actually change those controls. All it really did was change the camera angle. This seems like such a minor upgrade on paper. But in action, Resident Evil’s tank controls transformed from needlessly difficult to an impressively fluid system. The third-person shooter genre was reinvented overnight. Yet at its heart, Resident Evil 4 still relies on tank controls – it’s truly astounding how much a simple change in perspective can cause a total shift in perception.

While I have always loved Resident Evil 4, another element which never struck me until now is how it essentially formed the backbone of the Naughty Dog-style action game. Additionally, the team behind Gears of War directly cited RE4 as an influence, which itself inspired countless others. And while Half-Life 2 will get most of the credit, Resident Evil 4 had just as much influence on set piece-based game design. Half-Life 2 beat RE4 to the market by two months, but they both pulled off the same quality execution without each other’s influence.

But, clearly, I still think Resident Evil 4 stands a step above most of those it influenced. Controls have only gotten smoother with time, but like so many other classics, it’s really the individual moments that hold up. Modern takes on this formula have become increasingly serious – RE4 is in the same vein of Metal Gear Solid, the kind of nonsensical narrative which is simply a ton of fun in video game form.

Take the opening sequence. Leon is attacked while in a lone house, but that’s about all that happens for the opening few minutes. A few stray enemies are here and there, and Leon can help a dog who has become trapped. Eventually, he stumbles across the village square. Finally, all hell breaks loose.

Enemy after enemy spawn with no way to escape. There are plenty of places to hide, and with a pathetic handgun, the player is certainly going to explore for something better. But as soon as Leon sneaks inside one of the houses, a cutscene plays, introducing a man with a chainsaw who absolutely will kill Leon in a single attack. But in this same house, there are objects to block the doors and windows (until they are inevitably destroyed), along with a shotgun upstairs. The game gives exactly what you need, but only after triggering the threat in the first place. While many fans of the classic Resident Evils lament the lack of a true survival horror experience, this moment establishes a sense of dread which will linger over the entire experience.

And then, suddenly, this barrage will just end (mechanically, either through a certain amount of time or number of kills, but neither condition is made explicit). A church bell rings, and everyone wanders off as if they weren’t just attempting to murder someone. Most games want to build up to bigger challenges, but Resident Evil 4 throws the player straight into the deep end.

Resident Evil 4 is loaded with these killer moments. Leon must defend a cabin, battle a gigantic lake monster, do battle on a mine cart, run from a giant statue of a dwarf, protect the president’s daughter, don an infrared scope to fight regenerating enemies, get in a big quick time event knife fight but, like, before we were all annoyed by the idea. This is one of those games which throws out every stray idea, and it’s a masterpiece because the grand majority of those ideas work. Few games manage such a consistent wow factor. Even minor moments like talking with a merchant or bantering with the enemy leave an impact through the sheer hilarity of the script.

What Resident Evil 4 lacks in pure horror is made up for through stellar design. Alongside Half-Life 2, this was a key final step in pushing the video game industry into the modern era. Its influence can be seen everywhere, but the endless creativity of its design assures its status as an enduring classic – there’s a reason it has been released over and over and over and over again.

The Greatest Games: Chrono Trigger (1995)

Chrono Trigger (1995)
Developed by Square

Released between Final Fantasy VI and VII, Chrono Trigger feels surprisingly ahead of its time. There’s usually some sort of caveat I feel the need to include when discussing games of this era – most games have a few moments where the player will be reminded of the relative age, or where you can see how a few indie games have outdone a concept or two. Chrono Trigger, however, remains ageless and irreplaceable.

Chrono Trigger is the story of Crono, a silent young man who runs into a princess who has snuck out to visit a fair in the traditional fantasy medieval setting. While there, Marle’s pendant causes a teleporter to tear a rift in time. Crono and Lucca create another portal to find her, setting off a journey through several unique eras, from a prehistoric age to a desolate future.

Part of Chrono Trigger’s quality stems from its relative simplicity. The world itself isn’t large, instead built around the idea of seeing the same general location across various states in time. Finding a new location in a video game usually doesn’t leave much impact beyond a sense of discovery, but seeing a familiar place in an entirely new form can hit a bit harder. This is especially true when something in the future has changed due to a player’s actions in the past. This is a game which really lets the player see the impact of their actions. That impact is carried into the structure of Chrono Trigger’s finale. Due to these time travel shenanigans, the final boss can be confronted at several different points, resulting in several different endings based on the state of the timelines.

Chrono Trigger also has excellent presentation. Being a late-era SNES game, the sprites are incredibly detailed. The soundtrack is an all-time great. Most striking is the way it avoids random encounters. Enemies can be seen on the map, with many waiting in ambush. Meanwhile, the similar Final Fantasy series kept using random encounters until 2006. Every battle in Chrono Trigger feels planned, which results in the balance feeling just right throughout. Most JRPGs seem to be designed with the idea that a longer playtime is better, resulting in a lot of dead space. Chrono Trigger never really hits a lull, keeping its plot moving in a meaningful way despite the ability to potentially end it at any time.

Unlike most games in the Final Fantasy series, levelling up in Chrono Trigger remains relatively straightforward. Each member of its central cast is made to feel like a specific character with their own functions in battle, and its unique trait is combo attacks using multiple party members. Each pair has their own specialties, making it fun to mix and match team members to see what they can pull off together. As characters, Frog and Magus stand as two of the genre’s best, with a significant portion of the plot dedicated to their feud.

In a genre where most games attempt to be as expansive as possible, Chrono Trigger perseveres as a classic by remaining so thoughtfully contained. Like Ocarina of Time, this is a game where the world comes alive through repeated visits. This may not be a game where the player will spend dozens and dozens of hours grinding to face off against super-bosses, but every second of the experience is top-notch.

The Greatest Games: Portal 2 (2011)

Portal 2 (2011)
Developed by Valve

Portal is a perfect little experience which proves games don’t need to be particularly long to leave a lasting impact. At the same time, I’m certainly not going to complain that they made a sequel which expanded upon the core ideas while maintaining the same consistent quality in both puzzles and comedic writing, all sustained over a longer experience.

The central concept of the portal gun is one of the best ideas in gaming. In the original Portal, the puzzles revolve around finding the right place to put the two portals, with harder puzzles adding elements of momentum. Portal 2 adds a bit more complexity through the introduction of colored gels. The blue repulsion gel repels anything which touches it, resulting in the player being able to jump onto it and bounce back to a similar height. The orange propulsion gel makes anything which comes in contact move faster, while the white conversion gel allows portals to be applied to otherwise impossible surfaces.

While these are initially introduced as static features, the player soon accesses tubes which endlessly pour out the gel. By placing a portal where the gel lands, the player can splatter the various corridors with the necessary paint. Understanding how all of this works is simple, but figuring out what to place where can be challenging. It’s also just fun to do things like coat the bottom of two adjacent towers with conversion gel, only to place a new portal ever higher up the opposing towers until they’re both completely coated – Valve knows how to make observing physics effects fun. Where the original was largely concerned with finding just the right angle, Portal 2 adds the fun step of first making those angles accessible. The best levels leave Chell in a massive room with little obvious guidance beyond the presence of these tubes.

While the original Portal had a lot of charm, the only truly developed characters were GLaDOS and the Weighted Companion Cube. With the latter being the tragic silent type, it was largely a one-character show. To play against GLaDOS’s cold passive aggressive nature, the game introduces Wheatley, another artificial intelligence who is literally programmed to just be the most unbearable idiot. Stephen Merchant plays the role with a perfect frantic energy, another stark contrast against GLaDOS’s robotic monotony.

And when you reach an abandoned section of the laboratory, pre-recorded messages by company founder Cave Johnson guide Chell through the puzzles. He’s an overbearing tycoon who puts new ideas and profits over safety, making it clear how the company ended up in this mess. He also has a wonderful performance provided by J.K. Simmons. All three of these characters form a perfect triangle of foils, all hilarious in their own distinct style.

There’s not much more to say about Portal 2 without diving too deep into specifics – the charm is simple and straightforward. This sequel expanded upon the already stellar concept of the original. This is the physics puzzle genre at its best, with a wonderful cooperative campaign adding an additional layer of complexity. Meanwhile, the entire experience is wrapped in some of the best writing the medium has to offer. Portal 2 is video game presentation at its sleekest.

The Greatest Games: The Last of Us (2013)

The Last of Us (2013)
Developed by Naughty Dog

With the Uncharted series, Naughty Dog pulled off every design trick they could to simulate an action blockbuster in video game form. The Last of Us used the same formula to create a more solemn experience. While not shedding the genre label by shifting from Indiana Jones-styled adventure to a post-apocalyptic ‘zombie’ narrative, The Last of Us goes the Walking Dead route by acting as an observation on human morality under the pressure of a decaying world.

At the heart of all this is the relationship between Joel and Ellie. Many of the games I have discussed follow the same guardian and ward structure, but this relationship stands above the others due to the grey morality which corrupts their relationship. The game begins with a prologue where Joel fails to save his daughter during the initial outbreak. Joel’s sometimes vicious need to protect Ellie comes off more as a desperate and entirely self-serving attempt at redemption.

What makes The Last of Us so riveting is the way it rejects player influence. In many ways, the narrative progression feels like the dark side option in a more subtle BioWare game – but the fun of doing the bad route in games which give choices is predicated on the fact that you could have always taken the positive path. Meanwhile, other linear narratives with questionable protagonists tend to be more straightforward. When Kratos slaughters an entire pantheon of gods, his actions end up being extreme enough that it’s easy to consume his story from a distance.

Joel operates in a different capacity because he straddles the line between good and evil. His more shocking actions fall a mere inch outside of acceptable behavior. The grand majority of the time, Joel will be a largely relatable protagonist. But those few moments where he goes too far create a sense of dissonance between player and characters that most games try to avoid. This is a dire follow-up to the question of control posed by Portal and BioShock. Most games make up for this lack by creating the illusion of choice or at least letting the audience play the hero. Here, you’re stuck playing an ordinary and broken man.

The Last of Us manages to pull off its unpleasant narrative because Joel’s actions so perfectly match his character. It’s not that he’s pulling these decisions out of nowhere. Everything fits firmly in the realm of a disturbed man trying to survive while treating a young girl as a symbol of his own past failures. The final moment hits so hard because *spoilers* we realize Joel has not only negated our rather meaningless ability to influence the narrative, but has also robbed Ellie of her own agency while denying she ever had a choice. *end spoilers*

The actual gameplay of The Last of Us is very much in the set piece mindset of Uncharted but at the opposite end. Where Uncharted is all about big things falling apart while Nathan Drake is trapped inside, The Last of Us operates more as a stealth game. The gameplay does a serviceable job and a sequence where you play as Ellie is truly outstanding, but this is not the main draw. Much like Psychonauts, this is an adventure with interactivity. Traversing these terrains is less about shooting bad guys than it is about experiencing the dire atmosphere first-hand.

A rather controversial tweet about the sequel declared it as not being ‘fun’ – and this was meant as praise. Some people took offense at the mere concept, as if The Last of Us Part II was at fault for this person’s poor choice of words. ‘Fun’ is a subset of what people are really after when they engage with media – tragedies and dramas wouldn’t exist if art only existed to be ‘fun.’ What we are really after, even if our vocabulary is apparently limited, is engagement.

So, while not being ‘fun,’ the original Last of Us is absolutely enthralling. This was video game storytelling on a whole new level. Despite its obvious favoring of narrative over mechanics, it was hard to put the controller down after getting started. Every moment had me hooked, from that heartbreaking opening sequence to its many complex characters to that jaw-dropping finale. While the Naughty Dog formula could easily be criticized as a cheap imitation of movies, no other medium could capture the specific sense of dissonance created by playing as Joel.

The Greatest Games: Psychonauts (2005)

Psychonauts (2005)
Developed by Double Fine Productions

The platformer has been ever-present since nearly the beginning of gaming, but rarely has the genre been used to tell a tightly-woven narrative. In something like Mario, various world designs exist more to signal mechanical changes, such as an ice world being slippery. Psychonauts goes a step further – the game stars a psychic child named Raz, and each level is an exploration inside the mind of a character. Almost every world in this game is like nothing before or since, and each is loaded with a heavy dose of symbolism to build a mesmerizing narrative presentation.

Psychonauts was directed by Tim Schafer, whose previous experience was entirely contained within the point-and-click adventure genre. In those games, gameplay was treated more as a necessity to pass as a game than a true focus. The real draw was the bizarre narratives and the goofy writing. In many ways, Psychonauts acts as a hybrid of the two ideas – there are several sequences of Psychonauts where the focus is more on figuring out how to progress than in jumping between platforms. This is better understood as a more interactive adventure game than a traditional platformer. The many Mario games and others beat it out mechanically, but few games offer this specific blend of experiences.

The early stages are all safely structured as Raz learns from psychic camp counselors who have learned to better control their own psyche. Agent Sasha Nein’s world is a single cube, as he is able to show exactly what he wants to others. Counselor Milla’s world is a colorful dance party throughout, as she wants the children to have fun while learning their powers. But buried deep inside her party is a room of screaming orphans who had burned to death in a fire. This room is there but neatly compartmentalized. Milla can never forget this fire, but she can at least put it far enough out of the way that Raz will only discover it unintentionally.

The style of these worlds take a hard shift once the plot necessitates Raz visit an asylum. Each has a distinct mental illness which they are struggling to cope with, and this is reflected in how their mental worlds form. This kicks off with Boyd Cooper’s Milkman Conspiracy, an absolutely wonderful level where Raz must explore a twisted 1950s suburban layout while being watched by agents in poor disguises. The design of this world feels like a predecessor to Super Mario Galaxy. All of this adds up to a stage representing a paranoid man obsessed with conspiracy theories, filled with stellar lines as the agents struggle to perform their roles to the point of sometimes even failing to pass as human. I loved hearing dialogue like “When my husband drinks excessively, I may threaten him with this rolling pin, though we still love each other very much,” spoken in a completely monotonous tone.

Other residents are coping with bipolar disorder, anger management, and a Napoleon complex. Each of their levels have ingenious ways of exploring these concepts. In many hands, this whole experience could have fallen into exploitation. Especially with such a goofy atmosphere, there was a risk of making fun of people with these disorders. But with how Psychonauts confronts these topics, it’s less about judgment and more an exploration of how we must learn to cope with past traumas.

There are dozens of ‘goofy’ video games. What sets Psychonauts apart is that Tim Schafer is simply a better writer than the grand majority of people working in the gaming industry. When Psychonauts tries to be funny, it generally succeeds. Raz’s backstory is hilarious, twisting the ‘running away from home to join the circus’ narrative by having Raz’s home be the circus. Lines like “I am the Milkman, my milk is delicious” are inexplicable yet unforgettable. This game is endlessly creative from beginning to end.

Psychonauts may not be the greatest platformer, but it is a simply phenomenal adventure game. Outside of a notorious finale, the levels go above and beyond in their merging of mechanics and narrative elements. This is one of the most singular games to ever exist. How many designers could pull off jumping from a stage where you terrify fish people as a kaiju to helping an aging actress cope with her inner critic? Few works have ever been so scattered yet unified; not a single level operates in the same way, and the fact it adds up to something so grand is glorious.

The Greatest Games: Pokemon Gold and Silver (1999)

Pokemon Gold and Silver (1999)
Developed by Game Freak

Note: While I have been listing the original versions of games during this project, the assumption should be that I am talking about these games in their ‘definitive’ form. Pokemon Gold/Silver have both the Crystal version and the 2009 remakes. Though HeartGold and SoulSilver are quite improved thanks to the mechanical evolution of the Pokemon series, the original versions are perhaps the most important games in my experience with the medium – if I treated them all as different entities, I would have put them in a tie like the Super Mario Galaxy games.

While I had grown up with a Sega Genesis, my family purchased that console a year after the Nintendo 64 was released. Similarly, we never owned many great games for it beyond the Sonic series and Street Fighter II – no one in my family actually knew enough about video games to know which were actually good. I played most of my favorite Genesis games a decade later on the Wii Virtual Console.

Thus, Christmas 2000 was a real game changer when I received a Game Boy Color with Super Mario Bros. Deluxe and Pokemon Gold. I would soon pick up a copy of Pokemon Red, but that earlier game was a bit hard to get into after experiencing all the improvements in the sequel. For most of my childhood, Pokemon was the big thing, but no future installment would hit me in quite the same way until Gold’s own remake.

So part of my love for this specific generation is nostalgia. I wouldn’t be surprised if most people’s favorite Pokemon games were the first they played. This is because the experience of playing through a Pokemon adventure has a very unique charm, and the first experience with that charm, no matter the form, will be heightened above those which follow. So even if one can recognize objective improvements in concepts like battle mechanics, it’s hard to negate the personal experience.

But that isn’t to say Pokemon Gold and Silver have no legitimate merits when discussing the most important Pokemon games. While Red and Blue laid out the basic structure, the mechanics were a bit too simple. But as a kid, I didn’t know anything about the special stat or the lack of bug and ghost attacks making psychic Pokemon overpowered.

What I did notice, however, was how needlessly difficult it was to truly catch them all in Red and Blue. Without the breeding system introduced in Gold and Silver, getting all three stages of the three starter lines pretty much required having a friend with a spare copy to reset the game and trade them over. Fully evolved Pokemon were useless in helping to complete the Pokedex. Breeding is as essential to the experience as catching and trading, and it’s bizarre to think this wasn’t included initially.

But the changes and improvements don’t stop there. Dark and steel type Pokemon were added for a bit more balance. Hold items were introduced, which have become an essential variable in competitive play. Splitting the special stat into special attack and special defense helped level the playing field. Even minor changes like the introduction of shiny Pokemon and alternate Poke Balls have become series staples. The jump between the first two generations was simply astronomical when compared to any future changes.

While many of my favorite RPGs view bigger as better, I enjoy Gold and Silver for its almost quaint atmosphere. The first two games in the series really do capture the feeling of a child going on a small adventure. Future games would introduce more dangerous Teams, but I truly feel like the introduction of ‘save the world’ narratives detract from the unique traits of the series. There are a few big moments like confronting the red Gyarados, but that is relatively small scale.

In fact, let’s use the red Gyarados as a jumping off point to discuss how the series uses legendary Pokemon. Starting with Ruby and Sapphire, confronting the cover legendary Pokemon became part of the central narrative. But in the first two generations, these legendary Pokemon were truly legends. There’s something about finding Mewtwo hidden away in Cerulean Cave or Lugia deep inside the Whirl Islands that leaves a bigger impact than being forced to face Kyogre. Having the legends be something to seek out simply gives more reason to explore. Later entries tried to have it both ways, and now the series is bloated with forgettable ‘legendary’ Pokemon. Even the remakes of Gold and Silver unfortunately force these encounters.

All of this is to say, even if later games improved upon the central battle mechanics, Gold and Silver stand as the epitome of design choices. It’s not that these choices are flawless – the return to Kanto is a neat idea without great implementation. But this all adds up to a uniquely cozy experience which few games truly offer. After all, the most iconic confrontation in the series isn’t capturing one of the many cover legendaries or beating the evil team leader. No, the big moment is stumbling through a cave and happening across Pokemon Trainer Red at the end of Gold and Silver. In a series where the selling point is its massive variability, the best moments are rarely forced.

So, Gold and Silver may not be the ‘best’ Pokemon games on a mechanical level – but they are the ‘most’ Pokemon games. With HeartGold and SoulSilver benefitting from most of those mechanical improvements and also improving the Kanto revisit, this trip through Johto still feels like the definitive Pokemon experience.

The Greatest Games: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)
Developed by Nintendo EAD

Ocarina of Time is essentially the Holy Grail of video games, and it’s easy to understand why. If Super Mario 64 was the first grand leap into 3D gaming, then Ocarina of Time was the solid landing. It’s not that it manages to outright avoid the clunkiness of other early 3D games, but it does enough to mitigate those issues to still hold up well enough mechanically for a new player to enjoy the places where it truly excels.

The key feature of OoT’s mechanical design is the lock-on camera. Instead of constantly having to wrangle with camera controls, a simple button press allows the player to keep a single enemy in focus. But I’m not one to overemphasize revolutionary features – this idea has been replicated hundreds of times over, and the feature has been improved. If simple technological leaps were the only element Ocarina of Time had going for it, then there would be no reason for a modern player to favor it over the sequels.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time captures a sense of scale like few other games. It all starts with a humble beginning, young Link exploring Kokiri Forest to gather his sword and shield before assisting the nearby Great Deku Tree with a curse eating away at his insides. This tree sends the young boy on a quest to protect Princess Zelda from the nefarious Ganondorf.

Our perception of size is not necessarily proportional to the actual size of a game’s map. Part of the magic of a game like Ocarina of Time is how it captures the imagination in getting from one point to another. So many of its best surprises are from the realization that some important location or item has been just out of the way the entire time. An area turning out to feature more content than expected does just as much to impress as a wide open map where everything is scattered about.

Kakariko Village is the perfect embodiment of this detailed design. On first visit, it feels like a nice breather zone before continuing up to the Gorons. But a bit of exploration reveals a few mysterious locations, such as a graveyard or a windmill. The narrative eventually necessitates a return to this quaint village to discover the dark secrets hidden beneath. No area in Ocarina of Time’s version of Hyrule feels like a simple stop along the way. All of these places are hiding some secret, whether it be a heart piece or two or an entire central dungeon tucked away.

All of this is centered on Ocarina of Time’s turning point, when young Link grabs the Master Sword and wakes up seven years later. In this time, the world has fallen into ruin. Like Final Fantasy VI and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night before it, this moment creates the sense of a completely new world to explore. That opening trip out of Hyrule Castle and through the town is especially effective, with the town in shambles and swarming with ReDead.

This transition causes a few neat elements to pop up. Most importantly, with the world changed, many of these mysterious areas become accessible. But what makes this especially interesting is that Link can also jump back in time, with some locations requiring interaction in both periods after the jump.

But the heart of nearly every Zelda game is the dungeons, and Ocarina of Time simply has phenomenal dungeon design. Each of these are filled with strong puzzles and enemies, and figuring out where to go next can be a challenge. The Forest Temple stands as one of the most iconic locations in the series, an eerie, overgrown mansion with twisting corridors and a complex structure. Even getting to this temple is a challenge, forcing Link to navigate the Lost Woods and then a maze. The Spirit Temple makes great use of the age mechanic. Few of the later Zelda games really capture the masterful complexity of these designs.

While Ocarina of Time may have captured our collective attention with its improvements on 3D gameplay mechanics, it is the detailed world design which makes it an enduring classic. Even writing about it now, nearly a decade after my last playthrough, I’m in awe of how much was packed into this relatively small world. While Ocarina of Time laid the foundation for the 3D Zelda series, few of its sequels have even attempted a similarly narrow-yet-expansive design. Every inch of this game has soul.

The Greatest Games: Super Mario Odyssey (2017)

Super Mario Odyssey (2017)
Developed by Nintendo EPD

As mentioned while discussing Super Mario Galaxy, there are now two major variants of the Mario formula. While it took over a decade for the series to finally manage effortlessly smooth gameplay in 3D, both Galaxy and Super Mario 3D World were designed in the classic obstacle course style. It took another decade for Nintendo to return to the open level exploration formula with these smoother controls. Luckily, they went all out with Super Mario Odyssey, featuring 14 massive kingdoms. After 21 years, Super Mario 64 finally has a worthy successor.

Though not quite an open world game, Odyssey captures the magic of gigantic areas with little things to explore around every corner. These levels are loaded with power moons, which Mario needs to gather to move on to the next kingdom. There are so many of these that the initial trip through the game only requires gathering a fraction of the total, making it easy to choose which ones to chase after until you inevitably return for 100% completion. With over 800 scattered across these many worlds, Odyssey provides a reason to search every corner.

Odyssey makes a major departure by doing away with the traditional power-ups, instead introducing a hat which can possess over 50 different entities. Like Galaxy, this results in powers being more situational. For example, the Moe-Eye statues have sunglasses which reveal hidden platforms, but their movement is limited, especially while wearing the glasses. Glydon allows Mario to glide down from great heights. One section involves racing a round Shiverian who moves faster by bouncing off corners. All of these are simple to control as a Mario game should be, but it offers a large variety in navigation.

The kingdoms are wildly different and feature some of the best visual designs Nintendo has offered. The gloomy Cap Kingdom which opens the game is covered in fog and is almost monochromatic, yet it still captures the Mario charm with its rolling hills and friendly residents.

The Metro Kingdom hits twice. Upon first arriving, New Donk City is cast in the darkness of night and Mario must navigate a modern city under siege. After that, Mario gets to explore a bright and colorful city full of skyscrapers to climb. This can be a bit jarring with its realistically-proportioned human residents, but Nintendo is clearly having fun with that choice. One of the game’s most unforgettable power moons comes from sitting next to a lonely man on a bench. If the power moons are there for us to explore every inch of these kingdoms, there’s something charming about using some to capture the spirit more than the physical layout.

Even the Ruined Kingdom, which serves more as an interlude than a true kingdom, stands out. Despite their various designs, the other kingdoms all fit within the Mario aesthetic. The Ruined Kingdom pointedly does not, instead looking like it was pulled from a Dark Souls game. Yet this clash in design helps build it up as a truly unique location, which is key in making it a minor yet memorable sequence.

Though it took a few decades for the Mario series to really recapture the design of Super Mario 64, plenty of other great games followed in its footsteps. Like Super Mario Bros. 3 and World, what makes Super Mario Odyssey stand above many of its competitors is the simplicity and smoothness of the basic mechanics. These many kingdoms are largely fun to explore because of how easy it is to get around with Mario. With Super Mario 64 not aging particularly well, Super Mario Odyssey has taken its place as Nintendo’s definitive open-level platforming game.

The Greatest Games: What Remains of Edith Finch (2017)

What Remains of Edith Finch (2017)
Developed by Giant Sparrow

Sam Barlow, developer of Her Story, once described What Remains of Edith Finch as not a walking simulator but a ‘narrative WarioWare.’ Few descriptions have ever felt so apt.

Fair warning, this is a game best experienced blind. It’s hard to call anything below spoilers considering the nature of the story, but the experience might still be ruined with any minor details which I find necessary to explore while describing why this resonated with me.

The constant shifting of this game’s nature is key to capturing the central theme. This is the story of the Finch family as told by the only living member, Edith. As long as they can remember, the family has been seemingly cursed to die tragic deaths, most at a young age – most generations see a single member live long enough to have children. Again, this is not a spoiler. At any time, the player can pause and look at the family tree which is marked with years of birth and death, which is filled in with pictures as Edith learns their stories.

The game certainly starts as a walking simulator, with Edith approaching her family’s abandoned estate. They lived on an island, with the matriarch of the family sealing off the several bedrooms as shrines to the deceased. As such, the house continued to grow upwards into a perilous tower as the generations went on. This is an unforgettable location, both in the originality of its design and what it represents, a gigantic monument to those otherwise doomed to being forgotten.

What Remains of Edith Finch shakes things up once Edith enters the room of Molly Finch, who was born in 1937 and died in 1947. Edith reads her diary, which transitions into Molly’s memory of the day she died. This starts with a similar control scheme as Molly searches desperately for food after being sent to bed without dinner. After swallowing some questionable berries and a tube of toothpaste, Molly goes to her window and transforms into a cat, chasing a bird through the trees. Then she becomes an owl, and then a shark. It’s the shark which really hits people – the shark falls out of the sky and has to flop down a mountainside to find the ocean, almost getting hit by a car on the way down. It’s a bit awkward to play through (it might be the weakest of the several narratives), but it so perfectly captures the headspace of this character once you realize this is the dying fantasy of a girl who accidentally poisoned herself.

What these constant changes in style do is establish a theme that, despite their unifying curse, each of these were individuals who deserve to be remembered in their own way. The overall experience is macabre – this is the story of a young woman exploring the deaths of her several family members after her mother kept this information hidden. Yet it looks upon death only to make a grander statement about life – we need to cherish these fleeting moments, because we never truly know when everything will end.

What makes this theme come through so strong is that, despite their obvious curse, the Finch family chooses to live. While their stories focus on their deaths, the rooms where you must find these stories first expose the player to their aspirations. Barbara was a child star. Calvin wanted to be an astronaut. Milton enjoyed painting. And all of their deaths ooze with irony.

The ways in which these stories are told is also unique. Outside Molly’s straightforward diary, we get these stories through flipbooks, poetry, and a therapist’s condolence letter. The most striking is a schlocky horror comic about Barbara, a perfect statement on how horrific deaths can become cold cultural fodder. In a story about how we honor the dead, this is a poignant moment about how we sometimes reduce people to nothing more than victims.

Like a walking simulator, there is no way to fail these levels. Yet that does not stop each of them from being engaging. There’s a controversial trend over games forcing players to commit awful acts. Edith Finch is in a similar boat, as each level forces the player to act out someone’s death. But it’s the framing of these as memories which makes this easier to swallow. Still, many of these moments are difficult to get through in their own ways. Calvin’s sequence is a prime example. You know exactly what’s going to happen as soon as you find yourself sitting in a swing placed precariously close to a cliff. But the game forces you to put yourself through the same stupid decisions, if only to better understand what these characters must have felt.

What Remains of Edith Finch saves the best for the penultimate story. The therapist’s note about Lewis is absolutely devastating, and the gameplay is like nothing I’ve experienced. As it begins, Lewis is working his job at a cannery, where he’s stuck performing the awful task of deheading fish over and over and over. As his therapist notes, Lewis admitted to creating elaborate fantasies to play out in his head which started to become hallucinatory. As you play through this sequence, this fantasy takes over more of the screen until Lewis’s present moment is completely overtaken. During this time, the player controls both the movement of fantasy Lewis and his grabbing and deheading of the fish. If you stick with it, the awful clanking of the machine pounds over and over again. Like Calvin, it is obvious where this story will be headed, yet actually playing through this sequence is about as devastated as a game has left me.

When we talk about video games as an art form, we get stuck on comparing narratives. Many games simulate movies, simply showing a few scenes with little being implemented into the gameplay experience. Meanwhile, there’s a common adage in writing workshops: show, don’t tell. Video games are a wonderful form because they offer us the ability to go one step further. A great video game narrative goes beyond showing – a great video game allows the audience to experience the events from a personal perspective. What Remains of Edith Finch is simply a flurry of these moments. Where the grand majority of games are about avoiding death, this odd little title demands the player die over and over again. Yet at the heart is an achingly beautiful tale about the desire to live and move on to something greater. Though this is a game which can be completed in a matter of hours, every single second has lingered with me.

The Greatest Games: Super Mario Galaxy (2007) and Super Mario Galaxy 2 (2010)

Super Mario Galaxy (2007)
Developed by Nintendo EAD Tokyo

Super Mario Galaxy 2 (2010)
Developed by Nintendo EAD Tokyo

Most video game sequels go in a few obvious directions. Like Left 4 Dead 2, some simply improve the mechanics until the original is reduced to obsolescence. Like Twilight Princess in relation to Ocarina of Time, some stray too close while failing to capture the same magic. Like the other Zelda games, some sequels go out of their way to carve out their own niche. Super Mario Galaxy 2 is the rare sequel to simply match the quality of its predecessor on nearly every level. Both feel individually essential as two of the finest examples of 3D platforming.

Super Mario 64 was an essential work in bringing the platformer into the third dimension, but its clunky mechanics in comparison to the smoothness of SMB3 and Super Mario World correlated to a shift in level design. Nintendo built bigger levels with more areas, changing the focus from smoothly bopping off of enemies while racing toward the end to exploration. This became perhaps the definitive form of the 3D platformer, but there was still room for other games to capture the simple magic of essentially running an obstacle course.

With smoother controls and a shift back toward more linear level designs, Super Mario Galaxy felt like a return to the classic Mario formula. If 64 was about exploration, Galaxy was instead about navigation – most levels would lock you onto a minor planet until figuring out the path forward. Most of the time, this would be as simple as finding the next launch star to shoot off toward the next section, but getting there was always inventive.

Part of this is Super Mario Galaxy’s unique take on the power-up system. In most of the older Mario games, these power-ups simply made the game easier. The classic Super Mushroom gave Mario another hit before failing, while the Fire Flower made it possible to fight enemies from a distance. In Galaxy, the power-ups are more situational, meaning the individual areas which include them are built around their functionality. These don’t quite have the iconic element of these older power-ups due to this, but they help each section of Galaxy capture its own charm.

Part of the appeal is purely mechanical. Mario feels smoother in 3D than ever before, as his methods to combat enemies feel more natural. The spin attack is key to this; where punching and kicking required sometimes difficult directional input, spinning allows for the entire area around Mario to be attacked. This lends itself to quicker, less precision-based enemy encounters. It is difficult to overemphasize how fluid this game feels due to this simple change. Simplicity of movement was key to the initial success of the series, and it took over a decade to get it down pat with a third dimension – but they finally succeeded with Galaxy.

More than a refinement, Super Mario Galaxy also pushes boundaries by questioning the very core of the platformer. Based on a simple understanding of gravity, most platformers are built around the idea that falling off the stage means instant death. Galaxy shakes this up with gravity being processed in varying directions. Most of its stages wrap around to simulate the idea of minor planets. The danger of falling is still there, but made obvious with black holes. The fact Nintendo managed to make this both function and so easy to visually process as a player is one of their most astounding feats. Moments where you jump from one planet only to have gravity shift toward another are awe-inspiring.

The two Super Mario Galaxy games can be praised for capturing the spirit of the classic Mario games and perfecting the controls of the 3D installments. But Galaxy goes a step beyond due to its unique mechanics. These power-ups and the use of gravity resulted in some of Nintendo’s most inventive level designs. The fact that they sustained this creativity across two full entries is truly astounding.