The Greatest Games: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (2000)

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (2000)
Developed by Nintendo EAD

While writing about Ocarina of Time, I noted that the biggest sticking point for that game holding up despite its aged controls is the way each location feels intricately detailed. Instead of throwing in a new location every time the story needed to progress, Ocarina of Time would bring the player back to somewhere familiar under a new light.

In many ways, Majora’s Mask is the black sheep of the 3D Zelda games. Where Nintendo’s major franchises traditionally aim toward simplicity, Majora’s Mask is an intricately woven time puzzle spread across an entire game. This game was daring in a way Nintendo rarely attempts, and I found the experience surprisingly inaccessible in my younger days. The three day cycle at the heart of Majora’s Mask creates an overwhelmingly oppressive atmosphere like few others. As a follow-up to the epic adventure of Ocarina of Time, it feels jarring to have so much of this game cycle around a few days in a seemingly contained environment.

While Majora’s Mask can feel like an inexplicable sequel, it actually takes Ocarina of Time’s best feature and builds an entire game around this one aspect. Instead of manually jumping between a seven year period, Termina slowly changes over the three-day structure. Locations become accessible, people disappear – the game challenges the player to learn when to go where. The only other game I know which captures this same experience is 2019’s Outer Wilds, but that doesn’t get the benefit of also being a Zelda game.

Part of the success is that Nintendo fully embraces the inherent stress of a repeating cycle. This game is darkly apocalyptic, with an angry moon getting closer as the days pass. There’s enough mysteries around this town that something always feels a bit off. The majority of darker sequels go for the obvious, but Majora’s Mask slips under the skin.

This is also the rare Zelda game to drop both Ganon and Zelda, surprisingly to its benefit. Skull Kid is the best sort of one-time villain, a largely sympathetic character who has clearly been corrupted. The mask itself has a suitably ominous design.

Speaking of masks, there are still several joyous moments to make up for the dread. One of my favorites is the various masks which allow Link to turn into other races. Playing as a Deku, Goron, or Zora open up new methods of navigation and attacking which change up the core Zelda gameplay just enough to be both fresh and familiar.

But again, the main draw here is seeing how this world slowly changes over the course of each cycle and learning how to overcome the many obstacles. The fun is that doing everything in one go is impossible, but there are certain points which remain forever changed. Gaining an item or a certain piece of information might permanently open a path, and the experience gets less and less oppressive the more you conquer these obstacles.

The magic of this experience is that, when you begin, you might reasonably convince yourself that this game is asking too much. But the further you get, the more manageable this journey begins to feel. In most games, completing a boss or dungeon feels like simple progress. For whatever reason, the added stress in Majora’s Mask makes every success feel like conquering something much bigger. And while Majora’s Mask has less dungeons than the average Zelda game, the world itself feels like one big dungeon waiting to be conquered.

The final of the four main temples is one of the greatest dungeons the Zelda series has ever produced. Stone Tower Temple requires using everything you have learned in the game so far, including the four forms Link can take. The aesthetic is suitably oppressive, while the central mechanic of flipping the temple adds some extra navigational depth.

Every Zelda game since Ocarina of Time has attempted to differentiate itself by including some sort of gimmick, but most are still straightforward adventures across a large world – that world being flooded or Link being able to change into a Wolf does not actually change much. Majora’s Mask, on the other hand, has stood as its own unique entity while still incorporating most core features. While not the most accessible game, actually managing to see this journey through to the end gave me a feeling of victory which is difficult to describe. In a medium which revolves around endless sequels, Majora’s Mask is one of the finest examples of pushing beyond these firmly established expectations to create something singular in a familiar form.

The Greatest Games: Undertale (2015)

Undertale (2015)
Developed by Toby Fox

Since its release, Undertale has become memetic to the point of oversaturation. It is difficult for me to assess how this experience hit others after this indie game had already blown up; can lines like “Despite everything, it’s still you” or Sans’s endgame speech leave as much impact if you know they’re coming? I was one of the lucky few to play this before it took off, and playing Undertale almost completely blind (all I knew was the existence of a moral element, not even how it was implemented) was one of the best experiences of my life.

Before I dive into the gameplay and narrative elements, I want to start off by drawing attention to Undertale’s soundtrack. 8-bit video games had to develop a new sound to accommodate for the limitations of the hardware. These chiptunes have maintained a certain popularity, and Undertale is a phenomenal take on the genre. From the peaceful title theme to the boss battle bangers, this is one of gaming’s best soundtracks.

Morality in video games is a hot issue, and few games do this as well as Undertale. Many games give rather cheap options. From Mass Effect to the Walking Dead, moral choice is a button you click and then the protagonist performs those good or bad deeds for you. Undertale takes the Metal Gear Solid approach – to find a peaceful solution, the player must work for it. And when the player finds a clean resolution, they fail to gain EXP, leaving them weaker for the next battle. In Undertale, being a little bit evil is the easy option. Being the better person in the face of adversity has always been a difficult task, and few games capture that feeling so honestly.

I recognized this idea immediately, so I went all in as a pacifist on my first playthrough. With its obvious inspirations including Earthbound, Undertale is an aesthetic oddity. But like Earthbound, there is emotional depth buried beneath its seemingly random design choices. Because the spare mechanic requires making peace with the enemy, even the minor enemies have some depth. People get so attached to these characters because they have to relate to them to win. Boss battles especially can be frustrating, but overcoming that frustration largely leads to deeper connection.

Undertale only works on this level due to its strong writing. Despite playing a silent protagonist, it’s clear how their presence is changing this world. The central bosses are all revealed to have hidden depths, with each having compelling scenes where you simply spend time together. This game gets quoted so much because the dialogue truly resonates. Sans especially stands out as an enigma – despite being there from almost the beginning, his true role seems evasive. Yet this mysterious nature does not stop him from stealing every scene which features his presence.

Despite featuring the aesthetic of an old school RPG, the gameplay is essentially a hybrid between dating simulators and traditional shooters. To ‘attack’ on the pacifist route, the player must choose between a handful of options until they find the right combination. Meanwhile, the enemy will counter by throwing the player into a micro-shooter level where they must simply avoid all objects for a few seconds. Toby Fox goes above and beyond in making each encounter unique, throwing out new concepts around every corner.

Even if one were to only play through the pacifist route, the mere knowledge of there being another option changes everything. Tons of games have cutesy characters bringing peace to a colorful world, and it was difficult for me to even imagine there being another way. Why would anyone choose to harm these characters, other than because they can?

What sets Undertale apart from other morality-based games is that there clearly is a ‘correct’ path to take. Many similar games simply offer a protagonist in a few similar flavors; Commander Shepard gets the same general job done either way. To find a peaceful conclusion here takes effort, and that effort is rewarded with an additional act and a powerful ending. The emotions of this true ending are built upon your refusal to give in to violent temptation – to have this proper ending work requires the option to falter, which necessitates alternatives. Most of these variants are mere reminders of how killing even a few people naturally devastates this world – a nudge to do better next time.

But Undertale also allows a total fall into depravity. The player can literally wipe out everything they encounter. This doesn’t simply involve choosing to fight in every battle, but going out of the way to kill every possible enemy in the location until they stop spawning. The narrative shifts gears entirely – people begin fleeing, and even most bosses are felled in a single blow. None of this is enjoyable, like playing through the early stages of an RPG at max level. Yet many will keep pushing forward, simply because we can. This isn’t like certain other games, where the veil is lifted and you realize the atrocities you have committed. Choosing to do this is entirely your own twisted decision to see what will happen (spoilers: a lot of lovely characters die because you are choosing to kill them). In the main path, fighting can sometimes be justified due to the enemies presenting a threat. After a certain point in the genocide route, it is the player who is being actively malicious. The player is ‘rewarded’ with the two most challenging bosses the game has to offer, but even those come off as the game actively begging you to stop. The final boss doesn’t feel so notoriously difficult because Toby Fox wants to challenge the player – it instead feels like a last ditch effort to convince the player to turn back and start over before it’s too late.

Undertale succeeds where other moral-based games largely fail because it understands the battle between good and evil as something greater than a choice. Goodness takes effort, while evil is a temptation which will both destroy the weak and find massive resistance from the strong. Too many games try to tell the exact same story with either a good or bad character, but this largely descends into a nice vs. rude dichotomy. Here, the genocide ending is the void-like antithesis to the true experience. The two extremes feed off one another, even if the player only engages with one. Becoming pals with Papyrus, Undyne, Alphys, and Sans carries so much more meaning by knowing this happy ending required steadfast determination.

The Greatest Games: Persona 5 (2016)

Persona 5 (2016)
Developed by P-Studio

Persona 3 established a phenomenal structure for long-form narratives favoring day-to-day moments over a more unified epic struggle. The two games which followed expanded upon the concept by building complex narratives spread across the entire length of the game, all while diving deeper into the central theme of what it means to create a persona. Persona 5 comes off as a maximalist piece, eschewing the everyday presentation of the two previous entries for a stylish take on life in the big city.

Few if any games have such jaw-dropping visual design. Even navigating menus is a striking experience. Of the many games I have now written about, I don’t think anything else has made me want to highlight the interface. These are screens which can be acceptably utilitarian, after all. Yet Persona 5, never wanting to drop its aesthetic for even a second, imbues these with motion and color. Most works have their own grand aesthetic goals, but few have ever been so all-consuming.

The Phantom Thieves is one of the coolest video game parties around. The Persona games typically tell the story of a covert group fighting comparatively minor evils under the cover of a mysterious world. The masquerade is a much larger element of this story, with the Phantom Thieves loudly announcing their operations to the world. This sense of public anonymity is a unique and tense structure. Additionally, their goals feel a lot more active. Many JRPGs games, including the other Persona games, revolve around the idea of fighting back against evil. Here, the Phantom Thieves are the instigators, fighting for what they think will cause a better world. This helps add an edge to their moral position which casts them in a complex light.

Persona 5 also makes the many stray elements all feel more strongly connected. Even the non-party social links have a more meaningful connection to the task at hand, giving benefits beyond stat increases for personas of the same type. Befriending someone like the doctor Tae Takemi can feel more beneficial than focusing on party members. Everyone from the protagonists to the antagonists to the bit players play a notable role, and it’s hard to find another game with this big of a cast with such consistently well-defined characters.

On a gameplay level, the biggest change is that the dungeons are now defined instead of randomly-generated. Thus, every section is more intricate. With the dungeons representing the inner workings of the game’s many villains, the defined structure can help to better symbolize their mental processes. This also allows more big events to occur midway through a dungeon. All of these palaces have a distinct atmosphere, from an art museum to a bank to a spaceport. Meanwhile, those who like the randomly-generated dungeon crawls still have Mementos, a journey through a twisted subway system representing the city at large.

Otherwise, Persona 5 is largely more of the same thing. But with such a strong structure and so few games attempting this general idea, more of this is a great thing. Balancing the daily life between forming bonds and tackling the monthly dungeon is as fun as always. The key part of Persona 5’s stellar features is that they are largely a horizontal evolution. The three Persona games since the third are all clearly part of the same series, yet their atmospheres vary enough that none feel like a direct attempt to simply outdo what came before. Like Final Fantasy, the best Persona game comes down to taste; do you prefer the rural slice-of-life murder mystery of Persona 4 or the aggressively stylized urban heist narrative of Persona 5? It’s easy to love both without either feeling like too much of the same experience.

Persona 5 is simply as cool as video games come. This is what Tetsuya Nomura wishes his nonsensical designs managed to pull off. Sure, the Phantom Thieves may look a bit silly running around in fox masks, but the performative nature of creating an outward persona gives a lot of leeway. The structure of the Persona series is simply phenomenal at incorporating a lot of concepts spread over an extended period. While I sometimes question the apparent need for video games to keep getting longer, every second of Persona 5’s 100 hours feels earned.

The Greatest Games: Final Fantasy X (2001)

Final Fantasy X (2001)
Developed by Square Product Development Division 1

Starting with this tenth entry, the Final Fantasy series started pushing itself in increasingly different directions. Gone was the ATB system that defined the six previous entries. Even something as universal as levelling characters had a massive overhaul. For me, the systems which acted as replacements were outright improvements. No future game implemented these ideas at the same capacity, neither within the series nor outside. Yet Final Fantasy X can easily be lumped in with IV through IX as the ‘classic’ era of Final Fantasy, largely thanks to its strong design and colorful cast of characters. There may be some hiccups with the voice acting, but if Final Fantasy VII fans can look past the in-game visuals, it’s kind of absurd that Final Fantasy X is endlessly criticized for a small handful of sound mixing issues.

The Conditional Turn-Based Battle system might be my favorite JRPG battle system. The ATB system the previous entries used has always hit me as odd. Having a bar slowly fill up does not change much compared to a traditional turn-based system, and having time continue as you choose adds an unnecessary source of stress. There were weird moments of downtime between actions. The CTB system in X captured the spirit (that some characters might have their bar fill up faster than others) while implementing a more traditional turn-based feeling. The trick here is that the turn order was displayed in the top right corner.

This could have been purely informational, but Final Fantasy X goes to great lengths to give the player control over turn order. Tidus operates somewhat as a time mage, and his abilities focus on getting more hits between enemy turns. The game also includes the option to switch out party members on a character’s turn, which opens up a few possibilities. It can be good to keep white mage Yuna in the back until she’s needed. But there’s a balance here, in that the game relies a bit more on buffs than previous entries and someone switching into the party will be lacking. The common encounter doesn’t take the greatest advantage of this system, but the bosses are some of the best in the series due to some extra strategic layers. Add in the late-game monster arena and the International Version’s bonus bosses, and there are a lot of fights which show off the best aspects of this system. The worst part is, it’s so easy to see how this system could be refined further, but no future game has made a real attempt.

Adding to this being my favorite Final Fantasy purely on a gameplay level is the sphere grid. Instead of levelling up, the characters gain points which let them move around a grid. In the beginning, each character has a clearly defined path with a few off-shooting branches. The central draw is that each of these characters share the same grid but start at different points. There is a promise here that you will eventually be able to mix and match classes, ultimately reaching the point where everyone is maxed out. Kimahri’s role is intriguing, as he starts in the center and essentially exists as an early excuse to jump between sections while others stick to their path. Several of the small branches have locks blocking the stronger abilities, and it can become a question of waiting for the necessary sphere to break the lock or passing it by to keep levelling. Usually, levelling simply means watching a few numbers go up, but there’s an extra feeling of control here.

Final Fantasy X showcased how big of a leap there was between the first two PlayStation consoles. Other than the aforementioned voice acting issue (which really isn’t that bad outside of a few scenes – the focus always being on a scene which is intentionally awkward should be telling), this was a great step forward in video game presentation. X felt cinematic in places where the PS1 games could only suggest.

Instead of an overworld map, this game is instead set inside large areas. Linear vs. open design will always be an endlessly tiring debate, but it really depends on the game. This linearity works because this is the story of a pilgrimage – the goal is to get from point A to point B. Despite the lack of room to explore, everything still feels larger than life and magical. Additionally, despite one of the obvious complaints about linearity being an assumed lack of content, FFX might just be the longest game in the series for a completionist run. The secrets are simply mixed into these large areas.

I’m also one of those weirdos who actually likes Tidus. This isn’t to say he isn’t annoying – you will absolutely want to slap him across the face several times. But he grows into something greater. Despite so many games insisting on having teenage characters, Final Fantasy X feels like one of the few to actually tackle maturing into an adult. I’m also fond of Yuna, the quiet, self-sacrificing summoner at the heart of this pilgrimage. The revelation of the pilgrimage being a suicide run for potentially negligible benefits hit me hard, especially with Tidus being kept in the dark just so he could be obliviously happy during the journey. It’s somewhat embarrassing to admit, but this game’s themes of sacrifice have been a major influence on my own writing (in fact, the novel I’ve been working on for the last year essentially started as a deconstruction of the fantasy stories I grew up with, with Final Fantasy X serving as the backbone). So, sure, some of these scenes might have been cheesy. But, as far as I can remember, this is the only game to make me cry. I was admittedly only twelve or thirteen when I first played this game, but still. Simply hearing “To Zanarkand” is enough to make me sadly nostalgic.

Final Fantasy has enough variants on a classic formula that several could easily be argued as the best. For me, that title has always belonged to Final Fantasy X. From the addicting and simple combat system to the wonderful presentation and setting, this game has stuck with me like few others. Everything works so well that I can almost overlook the fact that none of these characters know how to dress. Lulu, what are you doing with those belts? For Yevon’s sake, this freaking game made me cry over a dude who wears zip-off pants with only one leg removed.

The Greatest Games: Metal Gear Solid 3 (2004)

Metal Gear Solid 3 (2004)
Developed by Konami Computer Entertainment Japan

The Metal Gear Solid series walks a thin line between joyous absurdity and convoluted nothingness. Later entries become bogged down with information. Sometimes, the best option is to just go with it without asking questions. Metal Gear Solid 3 stands as the best because this excess weight is lifted off its shoulders by being the first chronologically, allowing it to tell a story which could easily stand alone.

The narrative of Metal Gear Solid 3 finds the series at its most emotionally mature. This is not to say it takes itself too seriously – there’s still a bad guy squad with absurd powers. In fact, they might be the most absurd team in the series, from a man who controls bees to a flaming cosmonaut. This is the exact B-movie magic which made the original so oddly compelling.

But something much more complex is buried beneath the surface. The story of Naked Snake and The Boss is simultaneously mind-boggling and gut-wrenching. This is a game which has made several people cry, and not by pulling out a cheap shot by killing off a character unexpectedly. The entire game is building toward a phenomenal payoff, remarking on the nature of betrayal, duty, and inevitability.

Metal Gear Solid 3 is one of those rare games where an updated version is actually essential. Snake Eater pushes the map sizes to an extreme degree, yet the original release stuck to the same limited camera system as the first two games. A year later, they released Subsistence, which brings the camera closer to Snake and gives the player control over its movement. Much like Resident Evil 4, the controls remain the same, proving just how essential a proper camera can be to our perception of movement. Metal Gear Solid 3 immediately jumped from archaic to modern.

Though classified under the stealth genre, the success of Metal Gear Solid in general is better understood through the lens of a set-piece style action-adventure game. In fact, despite this being one of my favorite games, I don’t think I actually like the basic idea of stealth gameplay – the hits I have encountered in the genre all go above and beyond. The strong narrative and excellent boss battles are a perfect reward for the stress of sneaking through such a busy environment.

The most striking moments in MGS3 are the boss fights. Revolver Ocelot’s younger self makes a classic entrance. He gives a high-pitched mew to summon his allies (before telling them to leave ten seconds later), does this weird gesture with his hands, and then begins twirling and juggling his revolvers around for literally thirty seconds. The battle itself is a simple duel, but it’s hard to forget Ocelot’s awkward turn as an eccentric young man.

If controlling bees wasn’t enough, The Pain will get his little allies to form weapons by simply shouting out commands. It’s hard to forget a man shouting “Tommy gun” and then shooting literal bees at you. The Fear has a neat feature where you can trick him into poisoning himself. The End is an epic sniper battle. But he’s also a fragile old man, and there’s a brief window earlier in the game when Snake can simply snipe him. Alternatively, you can set the system clock ahead a week and he’ll die of old age. It’s these odd little touches that give these already excellent fights the Kojima charm.

Though not a traditional boss fight in the slightest, The Sorrow deserves special mention. During this sequence, Naked Snake is forced to walk down a narrow river as the ghosts of those he has killed throughout the story stumble along. The game doesn’t just keep track of the number killed but also the method. If the player has been successfully stealthy or relied on non-lethal means, this will be a quick walk. Meanwhile, if Snake has gone on a killing spree, you will have to dodge wave after wave of angry spirits. It’s a surprisingly effective way to reflect on player actions.

One non-boss moment I adore simply has Snake climb a ladder which seems to go on literally forever. A few feet up, an a cappella version of the theme song starts playing, and the ladder is just long enough for the whole thing to play out. There’s no reason for this to actually exist, but it’s fun to play in a space created purely for Kojima’s own audacious enjoyment. It takes a special skill to make something as innocuous as climbing a ladder stand out in a game full of intrigue and inexplicable powers.

Metal Gear Solid 3 is a game which reaches for new narrative heights while fully engaging with the more outlandish concepts the medium was built upon. Kojima understands emotional resonance does not necessitate an appeal toward absolute realism. The audience can engage with both the absurdity of The Fury and the tragedy of The Boss. And while it may rely a bit heavily on cutscenes, MGS3 makes sure the player is the one to pull the trigger at key moments.

The Greatest Games: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991)

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991)
Developed by Nintendo EAD

Part of the reason Ocarina of Time was a perfect conversion into 3D was due to being built upon a solid foundation. Some have even flatly stated that Ocarina of Time is just a variant on the A Link to the Past formula. With Ocarina of Time being an imitation of that and the following 3D games until Breath of the Wild an imitation of Ocarina, it’s easy to view A Link to the Past as the first ‘true’ Zelda experience – the original game holds up well enough, but A Link to the Past is where we see the familiar structure take over. Being the only 2D console Zelda game in this style puts A Link to the Past on a special pedestal.

There’s something about the top-down gameplay of the classic Zelda games that will always speak to me. Sword and shield battles with the option of strafing are fun, but the simple act of positioning Link just close enough to hit without being hit carries a unique and quick charm that few modern games capture. Options like tossing out a boomerang to freeze an enemy and then following up with a quick slash make battles short and sweet.

A Link to the Past may not be as long as those which followed, but it still feels loaded with content. A lot of this difference has less to do with there being fewer places to explore and more with a sense of scale. From Ocarina of Time on, The Legend of Zelda series captures a sense of exploring a huge world. A lot of this scale comes about simply by making it take longer to get between points of interest. That’s not to say that scale is bad – I do love the 3D Zelda games – but A Link to the Past offers a sense of immediacy between destinations. It’s like comparing Chrono Trigger to future JRPG games. This experience feels tightly woven, where every inch of the journey has been planned and fully realized.

The dungeons in A Link to the Past may not be as iconic, but this again has to do with a sense of scale. Few great experiences in gaming fall apart faster than getting stuck in a modern Zelda dungeon. This can become a mad race of retracing your footsteps to see what corner you missed. With some of the trickier dungeons, this can become a nuisance. A Link to the Past has the same experience, but the simple navigation makes it much easier to get a sense of where the right path forward could be. This tight design even carries into the outside world – there is some reason for each section to exist, whether it be a path to the next dungeon, a special item, or a piece of heart. Taking the time to check never feels like too much of an investment, even if it turns out you’re missing a necessary item to proceed.

A Link to the Past established a lot of the Legend of Zelda staples, and this is a clear example where the initial development was handled perfectly. In fact, I’d argue A Link to the Past, like most SNES games, aged better than its sequels during the Nintendo 64 era. This is where we get heart pieces scattered across the world, the hookshot, the Master Sword. The Dark World is an obvious precursor to Ocarina of Time’s two ages. This is where the series solidified the idea of taking the dungeons in a certain order due to the items contained within. This was even the first to really capture a sense of Hyrule and its lore. While I never want to credit something purely for innovation, that is only in the case where those innovations have been outright improved upon. A Link to the Past both evolved and excelled.

A Link to the Past is the Zelda series at its most focused. This set the foundation for so many action games which followed while being one of the earliest games to truly capture a sense of going on an epic adventure in a defined world. It’s the same Zelda everyone has known and loved through its many iterations, so it easily deserves praise for both setting the scene and doing it well.

The Greatest Games: Bloodborne (2015)

Bloodborne (2015)
Developed by FromSoftware

While Bloodborne and its ilk may get treated like their main appeal is the difficult design by the popular cultural osmosis, everyone who has truly experienced these games know these hardcore boss fights are just one of many pieces in building a top-class atmospheric experience. Nothing quite makes each area as foreboding as a killer climax demanding the best of your abilities. But there’s so much more substance to this experience. I’m not the type who ever enjoys being asked to repeat the same segment again and again, so the fact someone like me can be this fond of the Soulsborne concept shows there is something more.

As much as I love the original Dark Souls, the setting is rather familiar. This is expanded upon within the lore and the level design itself is phenomenal, but the general aesthetics have never been the main draw. While Bloodborne also draws from familiar sources, such as Lovecraft and gothic horror, this is much rarer in the video game industry and especially in this particular, action-oriented form. Additionally, From’s obscuring take on narrative presentation perfectly matches the inspiring material. This form of horror works best when the audience can’t quite wrap their head around every detail.

Bloodborne stands out among the games which followed Dark Souls’ footsteps due to a massive change in pace. Where the original Dark Souls rewarded a methodical approach, Bloodborne expects constant confrontation. There’s no shield to hide behind here – the only line of defense is dodging or well-timed parries. Yet there are also rewards for this frenzied approach. The rally system is an excellent mechanic, allowing the player to briefly heal after being hit by hitting the enemy back. Thus, there’s a choice between retreating to safety and popping a blood vial or staying in the middle of the fight.

Yet the exploration itself captures the same methodical magic of Dark Souls. Little corners might hide enemies and traps, with entire sections of the game hidden behind obscured paths. There’s reason to search every inch of the map, and what you find is generally rewarding. Enemies are perfectly-placed – while it can be easy to pass this design off as trial-and-error, an observant player will recognize when an ambush is inevitable. The gothic architecture of Central Yharnam is wondrous, and the game only goes to more extreme and nightmarish designs. Yahar’gul feels especially malicious, forcing a frantic sprint with regenerating enemies. This will likely be your least favorite area, but for very good reasons.

While I typically prefer the exploration in this genre, the boss fights in Bloodborne are truly exceptional. They combine fascinating designs shrouded in mystery with largely unique mechanical designs – few of these bosses feel like one another. Father Gascoigne proves this game is going to be a challenge throughout, starting as a hunter vs. hunter battle before transforming into something else entirely. And if you followed a specific side story to this point, there’s a neat little trick. This battle gets the extra ambience of a graveyard setting.

The Shadow of Yharnam provides the extra challenge of having to manage three tough enemies simultaneously. Oddities like Micolash turn the concept of a boss fight on its head. Their arenas all stand apart. Most feel perfectly balanced, where the first few attempts involve learning their strategies, then slowly adapting as applying the counter is also a challenge. But everything feels manageable in the same way as the other From games – if you truly feel stuck, you can always call a buddy for help.

The sheer scope of this game is what I find most surprising. Bloodborne borrows from some specific literary influences. Despite this, every single area has a unique atmosphere and feel. This explores seemingly every genre of horror it can manage, even trailing off into ghosts and what might be aliens. And the detailed design throughout is simply awe-inspiring.

I feel like I need to emphasize the exploration aspects here, as I truly feel this is the big selling point. When one is looking for a game to give a sense of discovery, it is easy to jump toward the open world genre. But in open world games, getting from point A to point B is largely as simple as walking in the right direction. Bloodborne makes the player earn their trips to these locations.  Some of these places are simply off the beaten path. Stumbling across the Abandoned Old Workshop is as simple as making a precise leap. Meanwhile, finding Ebrietas is an engaged process with multiple steps, a secret inside a secret. Reaching my favorite area in the game, Forsaken Castle Cainhurst, first requires taking a side path which circles back to the first area of the game. Many developers load their games up with content, but so much of this can end up feeling like tedious busywork. Every stray location in Bloodborne, meanwhile, has a proper reward, whether it be additional lore, a cool new weapon, or literally an entire new area which adds several more hours to the experience. There may not be as many locations here, but this is a clear example of quality over quantity.

The From formula might be popular to imitate, but few pull off the central mechanics better than Bloodborne. Even if the fights can be frustrating and knowing where to go next can be dizzying, this all fits perfectly with this specific setting and atmosphere. In a game where ‘insight’ is a central currency, finding secrets properly feels like crossing the threshold into madness.

The Greatest Games: Nier: Automata (2017)

Nier: Automata (2017)
Developed by PlatinumGames

Where do I even begin with an experience like Nier: Automata? When broken down, most of my favorite games are surprisingly simple. This game, however, is an exercise in the overwhelming. Every detail, from its complex Action-RPG combat system to its philosophy-drenched narrative, is seemingly designed to mystify. Even having played through the full central narrative, I’m still not sure I ever fully grasped proper combat techniques. Yet everything from the thematic content to the visual design to the wonderful soundtrack to the epic encounters had me hooked, dragging me precariously forward as I helplessly tried getting to my feet.

Like Resident Evil 4, this is a game which immediately drops the player into the deep end. The opening line states “Everything that lives is designed to end.” This statement is central to the entire narrative, but it feels like a warning in retrospect. The opening sequence is long and features no checkpoints. The game begins as a vertical shooter, quickly transitions to a twin-stick shooter, then goes through a brief sequence as a forward rail shooter before returning to a simple horizontal shooter, again to a twin-stick shooter, all before finally transitioning to the stylish action gameplay for which Platinum is known. When I say that this game is overwhelming, it’s not that it mismanages its core system. This is a stylistic choice leading to a dense atmosphere. This sequence is not particularly hard (unless you’re playing on one of the harder difficulties), but its punishment is extreme. And while the game will largely stick to the action gameplay, it’s a fair warning that several sequences will blur these genres together, with even the action combat sometimes feeling like a bullet hell game.

And then there’s the art direction. Protagonist 2B has one of the more striking designs of recent video game protagonists. She’s an android dressed like a gothic maid in high heels, but the most compelling aspect is the blindfold both she and 9S wear. Like Platinum’s other leading lady, Bayonetta, there’s this strange appeal that transcends other overly sexualized designs. This feels like a bizarre power statement. Meanwhile, the blindfolds carry an obvious symbolism, that these characters are blind to some truth – finding out what that missing truth might be drives the heart of this game.

The stellar art direction goes far beyond the characters. This small but open world features a city in ruins, with plenty of room to explore. The forest kingdom has this majestic sense of a decayed world being reclaimed by the wild. A massive factory stands ominously on the edge of the city. My personal favorite location is the amusement park, swarming with playful machines which have until this point been hostile enemies. The central castle has constant fireworks going off, adding an eerie sense of life to this seemingly abandoned world. Late game areas effectively push into the realm of surrealism, helping this game feel larger than life and even reality itself.

Nier: Automata is about as existentialist as video games come. Even the name of the protagonist is a direct allusion, 2B or not 2B. What does it mean to exist? The game opens with some clearly defined goals, but as more is revealed of this world, the purpose of these characters becomes increasingly murky. Does anything we do really have purpose? Is it better to pretend there’s some greater meaning or directly confront a sense of nothingness? Every twist and turn builds upon this; despite being about androids and machines, the heart of this experience is what it means to be human.

The game is loaded with references to real-life philosophers. Many NPCs and bosses are direct references, with most of their stories having an ironic twist on their namesake’s beliefs. Even if you’re not well-versed in who these people are, these little takes add relevant perspectives on the central theme.

Altogether, Nier: Automata is an experience like no other. This is one of the densest narratives video games have to offer, but its themes resonate in surprising ways. Existentialism can be a difficult subject to tackle, but Nier: Automata finds a perfect balance between atmospheric dread and a persistent sense of hope. Despite the intentionally stylized design and distant narrative elements, this game has a lot to say about coping with the mundanity of everyday life. With some excellent gameplay on the part of Platinum and one of the best soundtracks in recent years, the final product hits from every angle.

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.