Friday, September 30, 2016

My Top 115 Favorite Video Games (15-11)

Click here for the introduction!

15. Okami (PS2)

Some people call Okami “the best Zelda game Nintendo never made”, but I don’t think that does the game justice. Yes, in terms of its structure and feel Okami definitely takes inspiration from my favorite video game series, but similar to Beyond Good and Evil it is also a uniquely brilliant game in its own right. The level of artistry on every level of Okami is awe-inspiring. The art design is breathtaking, the musical score is wonderful, and the Celestial Brush is one of the most inventive mechanics in video games. The world, a fantastical version of Japan, is a layered land of wonders and the narrative and endearing characters truly moved me in a way that only a handful of games, or any works for that matter, have ever done. There are few feelings as magical as dashing through the fields of Nippon as Amaterasu as flowers bloom in my wake. The way mechanics, art design, and the central narrative themes of good vs. evil and restoring nature all come together in Okami is nothing short of poetic, and more than just an endlessly imaginative journey, Okami feels like a lifetime. Okami is a video game masterpiece if there ever was one.

14. Shenmue (Dreamcast)

There has never been a video game that has amazed me as much as Shenmue did in 2000. It was way ahead of its time and revolutionary in many ways. Many video games strive for realism, and while graphical prowess has continued to evolve, few feature a world that truly feels “real”. With its dense, yet hyper-detailed world, Shenmue felt like I actually lived in Japan throughout my duration of playing it. It appealed to me because of my interest in eastern culture, but the magic of Shenmue is also in the mundanity of it. I mentioned when talking about Animal Crossing that despite it being a very unique experience, there was actually another game somewhat similar to it that I had played previously. I was referring, of course, to Shenmue, and like Animal Crossing, it is the simple act of living a life day to day that makes Shenmue so special. In other words, it’s another game where “downtime” is the focus. I could walk around Ryo Hazuki’s house and open every drawer, I could buy and drink soda from a vending machine (and even inspect the cans), I could enter a convenience store and browse through different packets of noodles, or I could waste hours buying toy capsules from a machine outside of it. I could play classic Sega games at the local arcade, I had a daily allowance from my sweet housekeeper, I went to work, I practiced martial arts in the park, and I could talk to a wide variety of other people living their lives (and at the time, I was astounded by the sheer amount of voice acting in the game). Shenmue immersed me in its ordinary yet foreign world, it made me want to travel, it catered to my love of Japanese culture, and it made me gain more of an appreciation for other cultures in general. The sense of realism in the game, the wide degree of interactivity, the atmosphere, the ambitious storytelling…Shenmue was and still is in a league of its own and is an experience that will always stick with me.

13. Super Mario 64 (N64)

I don’t specifically remember the very first time I played Super Mario 64, but I remember the time period. The Sony PlayStation and Nintendo 64 were taking console video games into a bold new dimension, and everyone on the N64 side was either playing Wave Race 64 or Super Mario 64. Mario 64 truly felt massive back then, with an intricate, labyrinthine overworld full of secrets and what seemed like a never-ending supply of colorful and imaginative levels to explore. I remember even being taken aback by the peaceful courtyard of Peach’s Castle; Mario’s world had come to life in a way it never had before. Super Mario 64 is a playground; it’s a joyous, bounding experience in which it is a wonder to just move around. That’s perhaps what I remember most about my initial experience with the game: just how damn good it felt to move Mario around in 3D, to do backflips and triple jumps and climb trees. I’ve gone back to 64 in the past simply to run and jump around just for the hell of it. Super Mario 64 is more than just great control though. Its many worlds feel like the epitome of classic Super Mario themes (which, for the record, I don’t inherently hate) and all of them are jam-packed with memorable moments, like the terrifying piano in Big Boo’s Haunt, exploring the pyramid in Shifting Sand Land, and finding the hidden town in Wet-Dry World. Beyond the worlds is the brilliantly-designed hub from which you access them: Peach’s Castle, which might be my favorite thing about the whole game. There are just so many secrets and little details to discover inside and outside the castle: the secret aquarium, looking at the sun in the lobby, following a Big Boo and leaping into a birdcage to access a new world, not to mention the surprise waiting on the roof…so much effort was put into making the hub just as interesting to play around in as the levels themselves. Mario 64’s Koji Kondo-composed soundtrack is also one of my absolute favorites in the series, with “Dire, Dire Docks” and “Koopa’s Road” being particular highlights. The game’s colorful art and smooth, simple geometry also really stood out to me back then over the grainy, jaggy PS1 visuals and still holds up pretty well today despite the obviously dated technical aspects. It’s amazing that Nintendo got 3D Super Mario so right right out of the gate and paved the way for intuitive 3D control in video games with this one exceptional title.

12. Super Mario Bros. (NES)

Super Mario 64 changed the game in a major way, but there might not be a game at all if it wasn’t for Super Mario Bros., which essentially saved video games from a tragic early demise and is in my opinion basically the moment that video games stopped being merely “games” and started being works of art. It is also one of my earliest gaming memories along with Sonic the Hedgehog and Kirby’s Dream Land and very likely the first video game I ever played. Super Mario Bros. is basically the reason I care about video games at all. Video games were no longer a single screen with simple rules and only a few actions, they weren’t merely about getting a high score anymore; Super Mario Bros. was an adventure over land, air, and sea, it was a fantastical world, it had a story to it, there was a beginning and an ending. The first major post on this blog that I wrote four years ago was a breakdown detailing how Super Mario Bros. basically contains all of the core elements that make me love video games so much, and while I’m not sure I’d break it down into such a cut and dry list anymore, I still basically feel the same way; hell it even has the kind of progression and level-to-level connection that I love in platformers so much. Not only is Super Mario Bros. a game that I can go back to and play at any time, at any place, at any point in my life and get an immense amount of enjoyment out of, but there’s something about the stark atmosphere of Mario’s original Mushroom Kingdom adventure that I really love. I love the idea, whether official or not, of two plumbers supposedly stumbling upon a surreal fantasy world that has been conquered and brought to ruin by a fascist turtle monster (a set-up that the infamous 1993 film was actually surprisingly pretty “faithful” to) and whether intentional or merely a byproduct of the limited technology of the time, there’s a mystery and somewhat somber vibe about this game that was largely lost the more the series went on. The game’s narrative premise and backdrop of what essentially is a post-apocalyptic Mushroom Kingdom is at least a fair bit more interesting than the “Bowser absconds with the Princess to lava land” routine that the series constantly recycles today. Of course, even though I consistently replay it and do think the game has aged wonderfully, I also simply cannot deny how large a role nostalgia plays in my undying love for Super Mario Bros., and every art asset, music track, and sound effect evokes powerful feelings deep within me. A masterpiece of surreal art, a masterpiece of game design and game feel, Super Mario Bros. simply is eternal.

11. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (GameCube)

When I think of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, I think of a cool Saturday morning in October, the sun gently falling through the window, a little bit of heat coming through the radiator, and exploring the mysteries of the Glitz Pit, where Mario had enlisted as a prize fighter and was trying to weed out seedy corruption in the floating entertainment center accompanied by a newly-hatched baby Yoshi with a spunky attitude. Around the same time, I remember proclaiming that The Thousand-Year Door was my favorite game of all time. It’s hard to put into words just how good this game truly is, but let me try: Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is one of the most creative, subversive, and memorable games that not only Nintendo has ever made, but that I’ve ever played period. It is the complete antithesis to the staleness the Mario franchise largely wallows in today and I find it hard to believe that the current Nintendo even created a game like this once upon a time. Like the original Paper Mario, The Thousand-Year Door is comprised of several chapters, each complete with their own unique characters and subplots that all tie into a larger story, which in this game’s case involves the core mystery of what lies behind the sealed Thousand-Year Door that a secret society known as the X-Nauts want desperately to unlock for some reason. Unlike the first game’s more familiar Mushroom Kingdom setting, TTYD takes Mario to a bizarre new land where he sets foot in the risqué harbor town of Rogueport, which features a gallows as a centerpiece, is full of the Paper Mario universe’s versions of criminals, and even has its own mafia. From here, we meet a host of colorful and memorable characters and go on one captivating adventure after the next throughout one of the most interesting worlds Nintendo has ever created, from the aforementioned corrupt fighting arena, to a cursed town in the woods, to a murder mystery aboard a ritzy locomotive. That’s the key word: mystery. The Thousand-Year Door is like a series of short stories and every one of them is compelling and full of mystery and intrigue. On that note, TTYD probably has the best writing of any Nintendo game aside from some of the Zelda games (namely the ones Yoshiaki Koizumi was involved with such as Link’s Awakening and Majora’s Mask) and is also probably the funniest game the company has ever produced as well, and one of the funniest games I’ve ever played period. Even if you don’t care about Mario or Nintendo, you owe it to yourself to try this game out. This list is all about special games, and it really doesn’t get much more special than Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door.


We head into the top ten next time with #10-4, followed by the big finale!

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