The Greatest Games: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997)

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997)
Developed by Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo

Where several other series gracelessly stumbled into the PlayStation era and its 3D technology, Castlevania was a rare series which decided to hold back and continue to evolve 2D gameplay. While its contemporaries were treading murky water in a new form, few 2D games had ever felt as smooth as Symphony of the Night.

That’s not to say Symphony of the Night was just another Castlevania with a stronger aesthetic. The series started as a traditional platformer, but Symphony of the Night mixed in elements from the Metroid series. This led to the specific niche being titled ‘Metroidvania.’

This is a popular style to imitate among indie developers, but few have ever neared the heights of the two games which popularized the genre. The format is an excuse to make platforming games with one giant world. The difficulty here is making sure that world both offers reasons to revisit earlier areas while also never being too unruly. The trick to a good Metroidvania is a design which subtly guides the player in the right direction while giving tons of room to explore.

Another key element is a certain thematic consistency. Get too scattered without much cycling back through older areas, and a ‘Metroidvania’ game might simply come off as a traditional platformer where the levels are linked together. Symphony of the Night achieves this by being all about Dracula’s Castle. Even as Alucard wanders through endlessly different halls, this feeling of one massive location remains throughout the experience. This sense of one epic level is something few genres can pull off.

And then you reach the top, and this massive world literally turns upside down. The second half of the game finds Alucard in an inverted castle, which carries over the exact same layout with stronger enemies. While plenty of games get deserved flack for repeating areas, the realization they had to design these areas to work in both directions is truly impressive. Despite the same visual aesthetic, navigating these areas becomes an entirely new experience. Meanwhile, the player is still able to explore based on their knowledge of the original castle. It’s a bold choice which could have come off as simple padding, but it turned out to be an efficient and effective way of doubling the length of a fantastic game.

The combat in the Castlevania series has always been simple fun. Most of it revolves around the cycle of getting close enough to enemies to land a hit, with a few special moves to hit from some distance. The skill is based around adapting to the unique enemy designs. Some fly around the screen, others give narrow windows between attacks. Add in the fluid movement, and it’s simply enjoyable to wander aimlessly around this castle until stumbling into the next boss.

A major reason I prefer Metroidvania games to traditional platformers is their focus on sustained damage. In games where levels are broken into smaller chunks, death tends to come in one or two hits. For a proper Metroidvania, enemies slowly chip away at health, and the challenge stems from trying to safely arrive at the next safe zone. I find this experience less stressful – dying in a traditional platformer can feel like punishment when the game keeps sending the player back to the beginning when only one section is actually giving trouble. It feels as those these games are asking the player to be perfect and exaggerating any failure. Generally, when you die in a Metroidvania, it means a lot of little things went wrong, so going back to the last check point actually feels deserved.

Dozens of great Metroidvania games have been released since Symphony of the Night, but few have matched the contained environmental design. Sure, the maps have gotten bigger, but the sheer style of Castlevania is difficult to match. Outside the genre, few moments are as shocking as the castle flip. Symphony of the Night offers tons of surprises and variety, all made easy to consume through its top-notch 2D gameplay.

The Greatest Games: Okami (2006)

Okami (2006)
Developed by Clover Studio

I will always favor unique art styles over realistic graphics, and Okami is a testament to how well a game can hold up if the developers simply add some style. 2006 was a year into the Xbox 360 and saw the release of both the PS3 and the Nintendo Wii. Plenty of great games were released in the early years of these new consoles, pushing graphical boundaries. If we talk about Gears of War or Oblivion these days, it certainly isn’t for the then-impressive graphics. Yet Okami on an even older console has maintained its position as one of the most beautiful games ever made.

The visual design is made to evoke classical Japanese ink wash and Ukiyo-e paintings, using cel-shading to emphasize the effects. This goes beyond a mere visual quirk, as the narrative features figures from Shintoism and Japanese legends. This is simply one of those games where I’d find myself in awe, stopping to look around at the little visual details.

Even major gameplay mechanics revolve around this artistry. The player can freeze time to control a Celestial Brush. This can interact with the world in certain ways, from offering different methods of attacking enemies to revitalizing wild life. There are many gods to find to receive new powers for the brush. While plenty of games have unique styles, Okami is one of the few which seamlessly integrates the design as part of the gameplay experience.

As an actual game, Okami plays much like a Legend of Zelda clone. Which, it’s rather strange to realize, but there are very few major games which have outright copied the 3D Zelda formula despite its many influences. Due to this, Okami still feels like a fresh experience – with a new Zelda only being released every few years, there’s plenty of room for imitation. Okami very much captures the idea of a wide world to explore with several major dungeons being central to plot progression. In fact, Okami was released the same year as The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, which also happened to feature a (temporary) wolf protagonist. This is a prime example of when a copy matches the quality of the original – in fact, it was Twilight Princess which felt too derivative of its own series.

The combat is quite involved – it’s easy to tell this is from the same director as Devil May Cry and Bayonetta. Battles lock Amaterasu into a temporary arena with enemies. The game has several weapons to unlock, which mixed with the brush mechanics make some truly unique encounters. It’s not quite on the level of a full-fledged action game, but it settles into its own niche.

But the true selling point is exploring this beautiful world. There are so many little things to do, and like Zelda with its heart containers, exploration is rewarded with outright improvements which can make the central game easier. Each location has its own charm, and there’s a playful nature to much of the experience. Part of this is that Ammy is literally in wolf form, meaning she can’t speak. The Navi-like Issun does all the talking for her, who is just as annoying but in a more intentionally comedic form.

Okami is a great example of exploring familiar ground in a new way. This is a Zelda clone, but like the many actual Zelda games, it does just enough different to be its own unique entity. From controlling a wolf to its focus on painting not just as an art style but as an element of gameplay, there is no game quite like this. That’s the bizarre truth about Okami – it is easy to name the conceptual influences, but the combination of all those pieces has proven inimitable.

The Greatest Games: Final Fantasy IX (2000)

Final Fantasy IX (2000)
Developed by Square

In many ways, Final Fantasy IX feels like the last traditional Final Fantasy, as much as a series which constantly changes features can have a traditional form. Most grew to know the series with the SNES and PS1 titles, with all six games built around the Active Time Battle system. Though the last entry on the PS1, FF9 felt like a throwback to the SNES titles, focused on a more fantastical world than 7 and 8 while also featuring character designs by Yoshitaka Amano. Even the battle theme features the signature bassline from the earlier games. In many ways, IX is the best of both worlds and feels like a celebration of the whole series up to that point.

There’s a certain charm to Final Fantasy IX that the other games never achieved. Though the plot ends up as dire as any other entry, the game features a consistently lighter atmosphere. Each central character is designed to look nothing like another. The standout here is Vivi Ornitier, a shy boy with a design based upon the original Black Mage. Even the world design feels fresh, mixing together the more medieval styling of the earlier games with ever-present future technology.

Though it might be a minor point, I simply enjoy having more members in the active party. The SNES Final Fantasy games had four or five characters each, yet 7 and 8 reduced this number to three. FF9 brings this back up to four. Meanwhile, the twist on the ability system feels concise yet expansive. Each weapon comes with its own ability, which can be used whenever the item is equipped and becomes permanent after enough use. This gives a greater meaning to both finding and using each weapon.

Nobuo Uematsu is at the top of his game here, the final Final Fantasy to exclusively feature his music. The music is generally more whimsical than the other entries while also featuring some of the most singularly emotional pieces in the series. As mentioned before, the main battle theme builds upon the classic bassline to great effect. Many of the best tracks are limited to single moments. Otherwise minor character General Beatrix is elevated to another level through her wondrous piano theme, “Roses of May.” “The Darkness of Eternity” stands alongside the other classic final battle themes. My personal favorite is “You’re Not Alone,” which plays during a powerful moment where Zidane rejects the assistance of his friends after a devastating revelation. The piece starts as a gentle, melancholic arrangement, slowly building until finally bringing in a guitar and then chanting. It’s an epic theme to a great moment.

While I began by discussing the lighthearted charm, this cutesy aesthetic masks some of the darker themes in the series. The “You’re Not Alone” sequence helps elevate Zidane into a strong protagonist after a rocky introduction – one thing that often gets neglected when discussing the Final Fantasy protagonists is how much they evolve during the course of the story. Zidane and Tidus both get the short end of the stick. Characters like Cecil and Cloud start off cool and then gain more depth, while these later protagonists start as obnoxious teenagers and slowly mature. They may be abrasive, but seeing them grow is ultimately a rewarding experience.

Final Fantasy IX is the series at its most existential, with both Zidane and Vivi getting the brunt of this theme. Vivi is one of the best characters in this series, and this extends far beyond his iconic design. As a character, he is unaware of his origins. An early moment has the group stumble across an assembly line where black mages are being manufactured. What, exactly, is his purpose in existing? The revelations only get worse from there, but like Zidane, he’s not alone. This is a game about characters trying to break free of their intended purpose, whether it involves social roles or being literally manufactured. Kuja makes the perfect foil as the central antagonist. Where the heroes are learning to cope with their destinies, Kuja lashes out.

Final Fantasy IX also takes one of my favorite pages from the SNES era and jumps between characters until they finally come together. The game even includes a dungeon where the player must split the party into two. There’s also a massive world to explore, with plenty of rare collectables to gather. This game offers everything you could want from this series.

Everyone has a different Final Fantasy they call their favorite – the series is just that good. But IX stands as a culmination of all the stray ideas the series had explored during its breakthrough era. The only reason it gets less attention is due to the Wind Waker effect – certain gamers simply refused to try a game with this art style. Which is a shame, as this truly captures the spirit of Final Fantasy on every level.

The Greatest Games: Silent Hill (1999)

Silent Hill (1999)
Developed by Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo (Team Silent)

I will very openly remark upon how difficult it is to return to the first PlayStation era. Graphics were blocky while most games featured rough controls. The fact I played the original Silent Hill a decade after the fact and it still managed to terrify me is a testament to how the development team created something magnificent within these constraints.

Silent Hill succeeds by actively attempting to hide these graphical limitations with ideas which build upon the horror. The perpetual fog is the most famous example. Harry Mason’s visibility is limited to only a few feet, making even outdoor sections awfully claustrophobic. If we could simply see into the distance, nothing at all would be scary. It’s this sense that an enemy could stumble into range at any time which ramps up the tension.

At certain points, the world shifts another layer closer to hell. This transition is signified by an air raid siren. The first transition is unforgettable. Harry stumbles into an alleyway which slowly gets darker. The camera remains angled to prevent the player from seeing where he’s headed. This first encounter is presented almost as a nightmare, but it’s the second time as Harry travels through the elementary school where the player must truly confront this other world. Everything becomes rusted and covered in blood while an all-consuming darkness replaces the fog.

Few locations in video games are as iconic as Silent Hill. All of these elements add up to the suggestion that this wretched resort town preys upon the psychological fears of its visitors. Where a series like Resident Evil was focused entirely on external threats, Silent Hill went straight beneath the skin. To truly praise the atmosphere, Silent Hill manages to be more terrifying when no enemies are present. This game thrives on the anticipation of something worse. And, boy, do things get worse, and that’s saying a lot when the streets themselves are terrifying. The music adds to the experience, with the soundtrack jumping back and forth between dark ambience and violent industrial pieces.

While video games started pushing toward cinematic ideas during the PlayStation era, most which made this attempt like Resident Evil or Metal Gear Solid were happy to wrestle with B-movie shlock. These obviously worked – most games were still pushing toward sheer fun, and these stories perfectly matched traditional game design. But Silent Hill feels like the first real success at going beyond blockbuster fare and really pushing into the territory of art films. Silent Hill is a game with the ambience of the most terrifying David Lynch films, throwing horror after horror at the audience with only a sliver of context.

The real kicker is the completely ordinary nature of Harry Mason. He’s not a trained cop like the Resident Evil protagonists. He’s just a writer. There’s no confidence in him getting through these encounters, which encourages avoiding conflict whenever possible. There are few other humans he runs into along the way, and there’s this dreadful sense that he can’t help any of them – not that Silent Hill would allow their escape, anyway.

Despite its age, Silent Hill still stands as one of the best examples of ambient horror. While its sequel would improve upon this experience on nearly every level, it cannot be understated how much this first game pushed narrative presentation to new heights. The original game perfectly established one of gaming’s most iconic locations, and the simple fact is that we might have never gotten this specific design if not some ingenious handling of the PS1’s technical limits. I struggle to think of another game which benefited so much from working within the constraints of this era.

The Greatest Games: Xenoblade Chronicles (2010)

Xenoblade Chronicles (2010)
Developed by Monolith Soft

The western release of Xenoblade Chronicles is one of those wonderful moments where gamers came together to bring about an absolute good. This niche JRPG was never planned to reach a worldwide audience, but a group known as Operation Rainfall came together to show Nintendo that this game could easily achieve a positive reception in the west. It’s hard to believe what now seems the definitive JRPG of the seventh console generation required an audience to beg for its release – if only such a plan could have worked to bring over the still missing Mother 3.

Xenoblade Chronicles feels like the one game to really capitalize upon Final Fantasy XII’s example as a bridge between the traditional and MMO RPG experience. Each new area is simply massive with tons of minor quests to fulfill. With some areas blocked off by high-levelled enemies, there’s always encouragement to come back later. This game is simply loaded with content from beginning to end and perfectly establishes an expectation for more.

More than just the size, these areas are simply beautiful. Stepping onto the Gaur Plains for the first time is breathtaking, with all its jutting rock formations and roaming packs of rhino-like Armus. The bioluminescent glow and eternal fog of Satorl Marsh creates a dreamlike quality. Throughout many of these areas, the titanic Mechonis looms in the background. This game is set on the bodies of two dormant giants, a world truly like no other.

While most modern JRPG games have avoided random encounters, the way in which Xenoblade Chronicles handles this aspect is quite inventive. Some enemies will chase down the heroes on sight, while others go on sound and can be snuck by with care, while others will respond only when a nearby member of their species is attacked. Thus, many late game areas can be navigated purely by watching your step around the enemies. Meanwhile, enemies six levels lower than the party simply won’t engage on their own, making older areas easier to navigate. There are enough quests which provide experience that the player will never have to grind – in my most recent playthrough, there was never an area I entered under-leveled. This game is perfectly paced.

The gameplay feels like a perfect midpoint between turn-based and action combat. Like FF12, the characters are set to auto-attack every couple seconds, but they also come loaded with special moves. Shulk’s abilities highlight the way positioning works in this game. Two of his attacks only work to their full potential from the side, while another works from behind. Meanwhile, enemies choose their targets based on an aggro system related to damage received. Thus, if Shulk is dealing the most damage, the enemy will stay focused on him, resulting in these weaknesses not being exposed. However, Shulk has an ability which temporarily reduces his aggro, which results in them turning their focus to an ally. Thus, most battles revolve around a rhythm of dealing a big early attack, shedding the gained aggro, and then getting a few more hits. Making another teammate specialize in drawing attention is almost essential. Each party member is playable and require their own unique rhythm to function at their full potential. This focus on positioning and timing gives the right oomph to make even basic encounters exciting.

Shulk also has the ability to foresee disaster, which is perfectly integrated into the combat. He can warn allies when an attack is likely to leave them dead or seriously wounded, allowing the player to give a direct command to these otherwise AI-controlled characters. Shulk’s weapon, the Monado, also has several abilities to mitigate these disasters, such as being able to generate shields which reduce certain attacks to nothing. As enemies become more complex, juggling these abilities is both essential and a lot of fun.

Xenoblade Chronicles is defined by constant promises of something bigger and better which it manages to fulfill over and over again. The progression is obvious from the beginning – Shulk and pals start from the bottom of the giant Bionis, climb to the top, and eventually cross over to the other giant, Mechonis. The narrative starts off in a rather familiar place, but the pacing is exceptional enough to make it work, while the second half finally starts going into surprising places. Some moments seem inevitable, but seeing them in action leaves quite an impact.

While several of the party members first appear like standard JRPG fare, little ‘heart to heart’ moments are scattered across the map which flesh out their individual characters. Each pair has several of these moments. It’s simply a nice feature to see the party members interact on their own, without the context of forwarding the central narrative and without necessitating the presence of the protagonist. I knew this game was working a special charm after realizing even the cutesy mascot character had hidden depth.

Xenoblade Chronicles is simply a massive JRPG with a ton of heart and a battle system which remains engaging throughout.

The Greatest Games: Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair (2014)

Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair (2014)
Developed by Spike Chunsoft

There are certain pieces of media I will praise which I feel the need to partially explain with my concept of the High School Angst Factor. The most emblematic work of this particular niche is the film Donnie Darko. Its view of life and human relationships are absolutely juvenile, but it all works perfectly if you take the film as an exaggerated embodiment of the lonely teen experience. The problem is, most people refuse to take teenagers seriously, and thus look down on these works which attempt to confront those heightened emotions. These are the works that ask, “what if high school really was as bad as your anxiety led you to believe?”

The Danganronpa series works within this same exaggerated structure. For many of us, high school was an emotional battleground. Some of us were bullied for immutable traits, others hid struggles at home, while those who led the gossip were constantly aware how easy those words could be turned against them. At the heart of the series is a predatory force who abuses their knowledge to manipulate others into harming one another.

Danganronpa 2 works so much better than the other two games in its series largely due to the cast. The first game rapidly chews through a third of its cast before you ever truly connect with them, and most remain underdeveloped. The characters in the third game are too exaggerated to connect with – this may be intentional, but that still lessens the emotional impact. The characters in Danganronpa 2 balance on the line between absurdity and believability, adding up to what just might be my favorite ensemble cast in any video game. The other games in this series hooked me with their central mystery. In Danganronpa 2, I became so attached to these characters that I truly dreaded progression.

The bellweather character of Danganronpa 2 is Gundham Tanaka. On the surface, he’s the most bizarre member of the cast. Gundham dresses in gothic fashion and constantly speaks of himself as an evil overlord. Yet he’s not the ‘Ultimate Sorcerer’ or whatever you might imagine. No, he’s the Ultimate Animal Breeder. The more he speaks, the clearer it becomes that his behavior is a defense mechanism for his underdeveloped social skills. He’s that awkward kid who understands animals better than people and knows certain abrasive behavior will turn people away. Under all the more extreme characters is a meaningful explanation to ground them – except maybe Ibuki, who really appears to be a hyperactive yet loveable goofball.

The central trinity of Hajime Hinata, Chiaki Nanami, and Nagito Komaeda is quickly made apparent. In many ways, Danganronpa 2 is a deconstruction of the simplistic theme of the original game, which pitted hope against despair. In contrast to the optimism of the first protagonist, Hajime Hinata remains largely cynical throughout. Meanwhile, a central problem in the original game is that one character guided most of the investigation. Chiaki takes on a similar narrative role, but her lack of expertise gives other characters more room to speak. In many ways, she simply acts as a calming agent among everyone else’s panic. And like the protagonist of the first game, Nagito Komaeda is the Ultimate Lucky Student. He clearly strives to be the embodiment of the shallow ‘hope’ which overwhelmed the original game’s message, which obviously annoys the more cynical Hajime.

Like most games of this type, it can be difficult to discuss without spoilers. While I will not discuss anything beyond the first trial in detail, too much of Danganronpa 2’s spirit relies on a twist during the first trial. Thus, the next two paragraphs will freely discuss that revelation (so feel free to skip below the picture if you aim to avoid spoilers).

Halfway through the first trial, it becomes apparent that Nagito Komaeda set everything up in the hope that he would be murdered. In his frenzy, he explains his twisted desire to be a stepping stone for everyone else. Danganronpa 2 posits hope as a negative delusional energy which thrives in moments of despair – to create a need for hope, Nagito intentionally drags his fellow students into despair. Even Nagito’s label as the Ultimate Lucky Student is corrupted in a similar fashion – his unnatural luck has more to do with surviving awful predicaments, which naturally requires him to constantly be put in horrid situations. After a lifetime of this perpetual torment, it makes sense his view of hope and despair are so entangled.

This twist adds a lingering internal tension which the other games lack. All of these games have a clear external agent serving as a puppetmaster, but Danganronpa 2 is smart enough to include a blatant antagonist among the central cast. Hajime acts as a perfect foil to Nagito’s nonsense – in such an awful situation, one can’t fall back on mere hope.

Much like the cast, each of the six cases are better than anything from the original game. The chemistry between these characters makes this possible. Even when cases tread familiar ground from the first game, they work so much better because you’ll inevitably be pointing a finger at a character you actually like. While it’s easy to compare this series to Ace Attorney, keeping each case focused around the same set of characters adds extra emotional potential. This culminates in the fifth case – no other video game moment has hit me so hard. It’s something which simply needs to be experienced, a disarming mystery only Danganronpa could pull off through all its twisted logic and rules.

Which, I have gone all this time talking about the narrative. But like Ace Attorney, the gameplay is the narrative. Making sense of these various characters and their potential motivations is key to solving these mysteries. One of the fun ways to compare the two series is how, in each Ace Attorney game, the cast tends to get bigger with each case. More characters means more suspects. Danganronpa works in reverse. One might think the shrinking cast would make the mysteries easier to solve, but there were few moments in the second game where I identified the murderer until right before the game prompted the final accusation. These are well-crafted mysteries with dozens of stunning “a-ha” moments – and a few other moments where proving the truth feels like a sinister but necessary act. Survival has rarely felt so numbing.

Like its characters, Danganronpa 2 hides some serious emotional depth beneath an aggressively stylized exterior. Video games are the perfect medium for mysteries, and this game with its island setting is a magnificent evolution of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Looking past the aesthetic can be hard – even as a huge fan of Phoenix Wright, I spent years overlooking this series because its thematic content appeared exploitative. I assumed from the edgy presentation that this is a series where death came cheap. This may have been true in the original. But in Danganronpa 2, each and every death carries weight. Plenty of stories have copied Battle Royale, but Danganronpa 2 is the first since the original book to really treat all of its characters like individuals with their own dreams for the future. While this may appear a hokey high school horror on its surface, at its core is a deeply upsetting tragedy.

The Greatest Games: Streets of Rage 2 (1992)

Streets of Rage 2 (1992)
Developed by Sega, Ancient, MNM Software, Shout! Designworks, and H.I.C.

The beat ‘em up is one of the simplest genres around. You play a character who walks along a straight road and beats up anyone who dares cross their path. This is classic ‘easy to learn, hard to master’ territory, and this simplicity is key to the cooperative dynamic which made a lot of these games popular with any of us who had siblings.

This is one of those classic genres which faded away in the early days of the medium, though I’d argue the ‘character action game’ genre captures the spirit in a new form. There simply wasn’t much variance between games in the genre, so there was little reason not to stick to the best of the best. Streets of Rage 2 stood at the top.

More than any other video game, Streets of Rage 2 is indebted to its soundtrack. I would argue this is the greatest video game soundtrack ever. During early video game eras, music was limited by technology. A few ingenious composers worked their magic and invented what would become a new genre during the NES era. The Genesis had a bit more power, but not much. Even a classic like Final Fantasy VII on a later console has many people who prefer the soundtrack in a fully orchestrated form – the game itself was limited to what the PlayStation could handle, with most of the tracks suggesting something beyond the actual sound.

Meanwhile, the music from Streets of Rage 2 cannot be improved beyond what managed to fit inside the Genesis cartridge. Yuzo Koshiro looked at the Detroit techno scene and made a masterpiece in the genre. This is the type of music so simple the Genesis can process the sound flawlessly, yet complex enough to be truly excellent dance music. The music perfectly reinforces the game’s aesthetic of a city being overrun with crime, where every alley leads to another mugger or three waiting for a roundhouse kick to the face. Between its pulsing beats, shrill sirens, and frenetic rhythm, it’s simultaneously anxiety-inducing and an absolute jam from beginning to end.

It’s hard to define what makes the gameplay of one beat-em-up better than another. But I’ve played quite a few, and Streets of Rage 2 simply feels smoother than most. Despite the easy inputs, the game gives a ton of options beyond simple punch and kicks. Approaching a character can lead to a grapple, the characters can do a mid-air kick, and so on. Many enemies are designed around cancelling out a few of these techniques – that flying kick is essential when someone runs at the player knife-first, for example. The many weapons can also be picked up for longer range or to be thrown. The playable characters offer their own variety, from the aptly-named skater known as Skate to the slow but powerful professional wrestler named Max.

Even the character designs are wonderful, from the central cast down to the bosses and even the minor mooks. There are fat fire breathers, bikers who torment the player until knocked away from their machines, women with electrified whips. One boss uses a jetpack and another boss fight consists of two robots. The sprite design of all of these are lovingly detailed. As minimal as the narrative can be, so much is suggested purely through these unique designs.

Streets of Rage 2 is simply a masterwork of Genesis-era presentation. From the music to the visual design, everything about this game will stick with you. Many beat ‘em ups fall quickly into repetition, but Streets of Rage 2 overcomes this with a stunning aesthetic and consistently smooth gameplay matched with ever more complex enemy designs.

The Greatest Games: Metal Gear Solid (1998)

Metal Gear Solid (1998)
Developed by Konami Computer Entertainment Japan

While the stealth genre had obviously been around for a while (this game follows Metal Gear 1 and 2), Metal Gear Solid helped popularize the genre. The gameplay itself has been massively improved upon; the simplistic enemy A.I. is almost comedic, with plenty cracking jokes about the guards being severely nearsighted. The gameplay of the original MGS only holds up as a simplified, arcade-style experience. The simple fact is, the non-stealth-based bosses stand out because the basic gameplay does not quite function as it should.

Metal Gear Solid is a flawed experience from nearly every angle. If analyzing art was as simple as going down a checklist and marking off every element which did not quite work like some emotionally void inspector, then MGS could easily be disregarded as a nonsensical attempt at capturing the spirit of an 80s blockbuster film in video game form. But the story of Solid Snake infiltrating Shadow Moses Island has hung over the industry for a reason. Despite the numerous flaws, there’s never a moment when Metal Gear Solid stops being engaging. The series has had several strong sequels with much-improved gameplay, but few have hit at the same level.

The key to Metal Gear Solid’s success is how each new section pushes the experience in an insane direction. This is assisted by the colorful cast of characters, from FOXHOUND’s team consisting of six animal-themed villains to Solid Snake and his support to the mysterious cyborg ninja Gray Fox. We kept playing because we never knew what Kojima would end up throwing at us.

The six central member of FOXHOUND are what really guide this experience. Liquid Snake leads the band of terrorists, somehow failing to challenge his twin brother even with the advantage of a helicopter and eventually a Metal Gear. Revolver Ocelot makes his stellar debut as a gun-twirling Russian western wannabe, and the eventual torture sequence is unforgettable. Sniper Wolf leads a stellar boss fight and a few classic lines in regards to her strange relationship with Otacon. Vulcan Raven exists. Don’t even get me started on Decoy Octopus.

Okay, maybe the FOXHOUND team isn’t without its issues. But what matters is the set-up, how this game establishes an elite band of soldiers gone rogue. Everything in Metal Gear Solid is larger than life, and the boss fights are suitably challenging and rewarding experiences loaded with that extra bit of meaning.

Of course, I had to save the best for his own section. Hideo Kojima enjoys messing with his audience, and no moment since has quite matched Psycho Mantis. Everything about the fourth-wall breaking works, from the memory card reading to the vibrating controller to the HIDEO input display. The cleverest moment is the need to plug the controller into the second port. Little moments like this pervade the rest of the game. Revolver Ocelot taunts the player directly during the torture sequence, pointing out how long it’s been since they last saved. Meanwhile, reaching one of the characters by codec requires looking at a screenshot on the back of the box.

Metal Gear Solid is emblematic of early video game storytelling. In a medium waiting to be taken seriously, Hideo Kojima threw every stray concept into a blender. The medium would go on to tell better written and more socially relevant narratives, but something about MGS’s absurd and almost juvenile approach to storytelling gives it a special place. For Hideo Kojima, anything goes, and the singular moments throughout Metal Gear Solid stand far above its otherwise shaky foundation. Like the best pulp novels, Metal Gear Solid sinks its nonsensical teeth so deep that even the flaws are just part of the charm. And the sad thing is, we’re likely never going to see something of this nature again on the AAA level – even Kojima’s later work ended up becoming needlessly complex. The original Metal Gear Solid is B-movie action through and through, and I mean that in the most loving way.

The Greatest Games: Doom (2016)

Doom (2016)
Developed by id Software

The original Doom is as frantic as video games come, requiring the player to weave in and out of demonic fireballs and charging enemies as they dive deeper into hell. As the first-person shooter evolved, the genre shifted towards a more realistic presentation. With this realism came a seemingly contradictory shift. As bullets started flying faster, battles became more methodical. Few modern FPS games allow the player to simply run headfirst into a group of enemies while dodging their shots. Honestly, the original Doom feels like it has less in common with Half-Life than classical shooters like Contra. The genre has largely lost the focus on simple maneuvering.

No game has quite captured the spirit of Doom like, well, Doom, which perfectly earns the shared titled. 23 years later, Doom 2016 feels like a glimpse into an alternate reality where the genre had forsaken needless realism and focused on evolving direct confrontations. While other FPS games might have more compelling set pieces, no modern FPS offers as much adrenaline-pumping fun as Doom 2016.

The key difference between these two mindsets can be broken down into two concepts: projectile versus hitscan bullets. With the now-common hitscan method, the game simply checks if the target was in line of sight and applies damage based on this check. No bullet is generated; this method is used to simulate the rapid velocity of actual gunfire. The player simply hits whatever they were looking at when they press the fire button. Projectiles, on the other hand, generate an actual object which must move through the space between gun and target, meaning the bullet could potentially be dodged. Projectile bullets can move at various speeds. A lot of modern FPS games relegate projectiles to weapons like rocket launchers.

Doom is lucky to have its setting. The game can get away with slower attacks because most demons aren’t going to charge at the player with modern human weaponry. This gives a distinct design while never feeling unnatural. With attacks which are easier to dodge, Doom makes up for it by throwing wave upon wave of enemies.

Playing through a level of Doom feels like a dangerous dance. The player must keep track of the various enemies and their attack styles, picking off those which pose the most immediate threat while dodging continual fire. An ingenious element is the implementation of glory kills. After enough damage, most enemies will become staggered. The player can perform a melee attack, resulting in a brutal animation as Doomguy tears the demon apart. The reward for making this dangerous approach is a little bit of healing. Thus, a lot of Doom 2016’s gameplay can involve staying at close enough range to benefit from this risky yet constant source of health. This results in there never being a lull during combat. Meanwhile, the game contains enough secrets to make exploration just as fun.

Traipsing into hell itself seems like the perfect recipe for horror, and the many monstrous designs would suggest as much. But there’s a very distinct atmosphere given off by the first enemy. He gives off a horrid scream, which could be taken as an attempt at intimidation. But the more you add up the pieces, the clearer it becomes that these demons literally fear the Doom Slayer. This turns Doom 2016 into the perfect power fantasy. The player gets to be the nightmare which keeps demons up at night.

The appeal of Doom is simple. Through intelligent enemy design, the game manages a unique balance between constant movement and aiming. This is a game which stands apart from its contemporaries. Many FPS games reward patience, but it’s so much more satisfying to charge a crowd of demons and blast them in the face with a shotgun. I hold many of my favorite games on their pedestal due to particularly resonant moments or sheer innovation in tandem with their quality gameplay. Doom 2016 never has a big revelatory moment where it feels like I’m seeing something no game has done before. The gameplay alone is just that thrilling for it to stand with the best of the best. Few games have ever been this fun.

The Greatest Games: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017)

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017)
Developed by Nintendo EPD

Breath of the Wild just might be the most ambitious Zelda game yet, transposing the traditional dungeon puzzles all across an open world map. While trying on this new form, The Legend of Zelda manages to maintain its colorful style. And despite all the space, the central cities are among the most populated places in the series. Like The Witcher 3 and Skyrim, this is an open world game which never feels empty or lifeless.

In classic Nintendo form, Breath of the Wild sets itself apart by capturing the large scale of an open world game while maintaining a simple focus. The grand majority of side quests in this game revolve around shrines, which reward the player with orbs which can be exchanged for increased health or endurance. By letting the player know what they stand to gain by completing each shrine, BotW offers a straightforward sense of progress despite its open nature. While some might deride the lack of complexity, this simplicity separates this experience from its endless competition.

The puzzles themselves are expertly designed. Many are built around Link’s unique tools and end up being ingenious timing or physics puzzles. A few more offer challenging battles. The best go a step beyond and involve the outside world. Some involve finding the right thing to gain access, like one shrine demanding Link approach while riding a buck. At the far corners of the map are a few labyrinths which feel like mini-dungeons. My absolute favorite is Eventide Island, hidden in the southeastern corner of the map and only accessible with a hefty stamina wheel. This sequence operates as a microcosm of the full game, stripping Link of his armor and items and forcing him to make do with what he finds until he manages to find and place three orbs.

Navigating the world itself can be its own puzzle. Each major location has a tower which must be climbed to reveal that section of the map. This again offers some form of a guided experience, as the tower will usually be the first place the player will want to tackle. Each of these have their own dangers to overcome, adding to the sense of this game being a series of micro-dungeons. Yet travelling is never a hassle – the game offers fast travel to any of its towers and shrines.

Each corner of the map has its own immersive gimmick. Cold mountains and an active volcano require the right gear to safely navigate. The Lost Woods are as dizzying as ever, while the Gerudo town requires Link to pass as a woman to enter. Adding flavor to many smaller locations is a bardic bird named Kass who will sing songs hinting at hidden shrines. BotW has a dense cast for a Zelda game with many heroic figures, yet this wandering accordionist stands above the rest thanks to being the one recurring face among the wilds.

The art style might be The Legend of Zelda at its best, mixing the vibrant colors of The Wind Waker with the more realistically proportioned designs of the other games. Anytime I climbed to the top of a tower, I had to take a moment and look around to take in the sights. The Hyrule Compendium encourages taking a closer look, letting Link keep track of every creature, enemy, and item he stumbles across by taking a picture. Everything from the mountains to the wildlife to the trees is a wondrous sight.

This Hyrule is a partially ruined world, and nothing quite reinforces this like the guardian stalker. These mechanical, spider-like beings hunt down anything which crosses their line of sight. Areas like Hyrule Castle Town remain largely inaccessible due to their presence, and the reward for finally crossing the field is a saddening glimpse of what was lost. The stalkers also have a simply anxiety-inducing theme anytime they begin their hunt, with most encounters devolving into a mad dash behind cover just to make the music stop. There will be several times you abandon all current goals just to panic and dive off a cliff, and there’s nothing quite as fulfilling as finally learning how to take these suckers down.

This game is filled with some surprising emotional depth, especially once you unlock a feature on Link’s Sheikah Slate (the legendary ancient iPhone) which allows him to regain lost memories by visiting certain places on the map. These moments really help build the otherwise distant relationship he now has with Zelda, who’s been busy warding off Ganon during the 100 years that Link was unconscious. This is absolutely Zelda at her most complex, and the reversal of her being the one trapping Ganon this time is a perfect note.

Yet the most powerful moment comes completely out of nowhere and largely by chance. Link has a tendency to climb all over everything to try and get to new locations. When he climbs onto the railing of a certain bridge, an NPC will mistake his unthinking heroics for a suicide attempt. What makes this moment so compelling is its unexpectedly organic nature. Most conversations with NPCs are prompted by the player, and the few who reach out are usually there to block access to certain areas. No one expects an interruption in this particular location with this particular trigger. It’s a small moment, yes, only accounting for a few lines of dialogue. But Breath of the Wild is all about hundreds of small yet brilliant moments stitched together.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild offers the same scale as any massive open world game. What makes it stand out is the vibrant Zelda charm mixed with Nintendo’s penchant for simple yet expansive creations. Skyrim can feel like several distinct episodes while The Witcher 3 is firmly divided into acts. The unique aspect of BotW is that Link conquers these many shrines to gain better favor with the goddess before confronting Ganon. Even taking down the Divine Beasts is in purpose of that central conflict. By shaping every action around this battle, Breath of the Wild manages to feel like one distinct journey from beginning to end; the only difference is how you get to that end.