We’re finally here – the top twenty absolute best PlayStation games of all time.
Whittling down PlayStation’s greatest ever video games to a top twenty wasn’t easy, but the monkeys at GoombaStomp HQ have worked tirelessly around the clock to separate the Metal Gear Solids from the Metal Gear Survives all for your reading pleasure. Nobody ever completely agrees with lists like these, and while we’re sure there’ll be one or two placings that are guaranteed to make your blood boil – hey, I’m still furious No One Can Stop Mr. Domino! didn’t crack the top ten – what’s certain is that if you pick up any of these titles you’ll be in for a good time.
So, sit back with a mug of hot coffee and take a trip down memory lane as we reminisce about games from long, long ago, and some from not quite so long ago, in our quest to slap the GoombaStomp Seal of Approval™ on what we think is the absolute best PlayStation game of all time.
* * Nominations for games released as of 11/28/2018
The 20 Best PlayStation Games
20 – Ico
When Roger Ebert famously said video games can never be art, I would have pointed him in the direction of Ico – a visually brilliant, thematically rich fable that isn’t just a game, but a powerful emotional journey for anyone who’s ever experienced it. Players assume the role of Ico, a courageous young boy born with horns who has been delivered to a mysterious castle to be sacrificed so that, according to legend, the community will be saved. From there, you must try and escape the grounds and save a princess through a variety of mazes and other brain-twisting puzzles.
Under development for a very long time and released with little fanfare, Ico is a true cult hit. The game was developed by a relatively fresh internal team at Sony, and didn’t receive a big enough marketing push. It was not a commercial success, but it was critically acclaimed for its art and story elements and received several awards, including “Game of the Year” nominations and three Game Developers Choice Awards.
At its core, Ico is a simple, almost classical game, but it served as a strong testament to the potential of video games when released; influencing subsequent games thanks to its minimal dialogue, bloom lighting, and keyframe animation. Anyone who relishes seeing the reach and scope of the genre redefined should not miss this marvelously accomplished work of art. (Ricky D)
19 – Persona 4
Persona 4 is in many ways the perfect sequel to Persona 3. It expands upon the part-dungeon-crawler-part-Japanese-dating-sim framework laid out by its predecessor, while refining the battle system and telling a more accessible but deftly crafted story. The only thing Persona 4 lacks in comparison to part 3 is that the kids don’t shoot themselves in the head to summon their personae this time around, but that’s a small price to pay. Persona 4 is one of the great JRPGs of all time and one that any fan of the genre should make sure to play.
Set in a small town in Japan, the player is put into the shoes of a big city kid dropped into the boonies when his parents leave the country due to work commitments. We go to school, we make friends, and we socialize. But then a series of gruesome murders kicks off, there’s an alternate universe hidden inside television sets, and there’s a talking teddy bear that might hold the key to getting to the bottom of the mystery.
The story is, on paper, bonkers. But the town has such a lived-in feel, and the characters are so well developed and earnestly portrayed by their voice actors that the initially ridiculous premise can be easily overlooked. Socializing with the people of the town is as much of a draw as battling evil creatures, and helping friends through tricky situations at school or home becomes as rewarding as killing a tough boss or enemy. By the time this sixty hour plus JRPG reaches its conclusion, the game will make you care about these characters and friendships, and that’s something that few video games can truly say. (John Cal McCormick)
18 – Final Fantasy Tactics
What would you get if you were to take a medieval setting, throw in a couple of warring factions fighting for dominance over a kingdom, add a hefty dose of political intrigue, some religious fanatics, and toss in a few dragons for good measure? Yes, A Game of Thrones is a perfectly valid answer, but I was actually thinking about Final Fantasy Tactics. Seeing as the first book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series does pre-date FFT, it’s possible that Hironobu Sakaguchi got inspiration from George R.R. Martin’s work, because Final Fantasy Tactics truly is to video games what A Song of Ice and Fire is to books (and television), with its beautiful settings, mesmerizing-yet-believable characters, and above all else, its truly epic story.
With that said, all would be for naught if the gameplay wasn’t up-to-snuff. Thankfully, though, FFT not only met the bar, but raised it, becoming the gold standard for all Tactical-RPGs moving forward. Paving the way for games like Advance Wars, The Banner Saga, Disgaea, and many more, the influence of Final Fantasy Tactics can still be seen in games being released today.
Right from the get-go, the odds were stacked against FFT gaining main-stream popularity, as it released just 6 months after the titan known as Final Fantasy VII. With the world still enamored with Cloud Strife and co., and tactics-based games being a niche genre, many would simply look upon the game as a silly spin-off, not worthy of the praise given to its Roman numeral-numbered cousins, but they couldn’t be more wrong. Not only is Final Fantasy Tactics the pinnacle of T-RPG gameplay, but to many its the rightful king of the Final Fantasy series and the epitome of video game storytelling. A true masterpiece. (Matt De Azevedo)
17 – Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
One of the most controversial ideas from the Hideo Kojima super series, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty has you playing as series newcomer Raiden for an overwhelming majority of the game, making the Solid portion of the title misleading for one who expects the playable hero to be the character you grew to love from the game that preceded Sons of Liberty – Metal Gear Solid.
Controversial idea though it was, it was an idea that worked, as Sons of Liberty was one of the most well-received Metal Gear Solid games of all time upon release. The game opens to find Solid Snake infiltrating a tanker on the Hudson River, seeking a prototype Metal Gear being developed by the United States Government. Soon after the opening introduces the player to the villainous (or not?) Revolver Ocelot – who’s been darn busy – a mysterious military group invades the ship and we see the last of Solid Snake. The next sequence catches up to the boyish and mysterious Raiden, who’s playing the infiltration game himself.
Metal Gear Solid games perfected the action-stealth genre, and Sons of Liberty is as responsible as any of the titles in this series for building the reputation. The stealth sequences haven’t passed their sticker dates, as they’re still fresh fifteen years later – this is a game that has aged remarkably well – and the cinematics were top notch in their day. Trying to follow the story without consulting Wikipedia is only slightly easier than gleaning coherence from Leviticus, which may be the only consistent blemish the game has. Though, to be fair, mixing cyberpunk themes and political conspiracies could never be easily followed without being criticized as simplistic and watered-down. A tough, intriguing, and incredibly memorable game, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty was, for at least a time, one of the best PlayStation exclusives ever released. (Tyler Sawyer)
16 – Silent Hill
Considered by many to be the definitive survival horror video game, the first entry in the Silent Hill franchise kick-started the genre’s golden age by foregoing the typical action-oriented approach that was popularized by Resident Evil and taking a more subtle approach to its gameplay and story.
The game follows Harry Mason’s search for his lost daughter after crashing his car in the titular town of Silent Hill. Deserted and blanketed in a thick fog, the town gradually becomes darker and more terrifying as its past is revealed through its remaining residents such as the religious fanatic, Dahlia Gillespie, and the mysterious Dr. Kaufmann. By never overtly explaining its events, the setting maintains its permeable sense of mystery, making the town feel like a character in and of itself.
Although the voice acting hasn’t aged particularly well, the writing and atmosphere are as brilliant as ever and are leagues ahead of what was being released at the time. What truly makes the game shine is how its mechanics support its narrative. Emphasizing the ‘horror’ aspect of survival horror, the player’s movement and vision are extremely limited, requiring Harry to stand still to aim firearms or slowly wind up melee attacks, and the environments are kept dimly lit or obscured by fog to effectively use the fully-3D world. Enemies are expertly placed to surprise and overwhelm the player, who already has a low amount of health to begin with and a short supply of healing items. Complicating matters further, the game’s use of controller vibrations to convey the player’s health instead of a HUD adds to the immersion.
Similar to successful horror films, Team Silent’s minimalistic sound design and composer Akira Yamaoka’s industrial soundtrack heighten the overbearing sense of dread throughout the game, most notably in the use of the series’ staple radio static to signal the presence of monsters, and the game’s iconic theme song. Whether roaming its abandoned streets or fending off its nightmarish inhabitants, Silent Hill continues to be one of the most horrific experiences in gaming. (Matt Bruzzano)
15 – Persona 5
Persona 5 is a JRPG triumph. The latest in the Shin Megami Tensei franchise, its tried and tested turn-based combat and unique mechanics are out in full force, and what results is one of the best games in recent years, if not ever.
As a Japanese teenager, you do typical Japanese teenager-y things, like attending school, hanging out with friends, and infiltrating the minds of corrupt adults to battle their evil desires. Y’know, the usual. Persona 5 grants players the freedom to spend their finite time as they see fit. Will they kick back with Ryuji to increase their teamwork in battle? Will they study to increase their knowledge? Or perhaps they’ll make coffee and curry to aid their adventure? Multiple playthroughs are incentivized through Persona 5’s grandiose depth and endless possibilities.
Persona 5’s interface pops with style, modernizing the traditional turn-based combat by eliminating the tedious list approach of command selection. The Phantom Thieves members (the main characters) are superb, with each being entertaining and relatably flawed (also, the English dubbed voices fit the characters perfectly). Persona 5’s story is super long but thoroughly engrossing with immeasurable payoff upon its conclusion (and this comes from someone who almost always dislikes video game stories).
Truthfully, explaining the excellence of a game as gigantic as Persona 5 in a capsule review is impossible. But it’s one of my favorite games ever, and you’d do yourself a disservice to miss it. (Harry Morris)
14 – Shadow of the Colossus
Shadow of the Colossus was the first game that ever me feel bad. While many video games charge you with killing monsters with no real justification for doing so, Shadow of the Colossus asked you to do that and then forced you to question the ethics of what you were actually doing. Did these magnificent creatures, many of which are not hostile at all until you attack them, really deserve to die? Am I… the bad guy here?
It’s questions like these that transform Shadow of the Colossus from a game about nothing more than killing sixteen bosses into one of the most profoundly moving games of all time. Playing as a boy named Wander, you must hunt down and kill the beasts known as Colossi in order to save the life of a comatose young girl. The details of how or why this will work are scant, and much of the game is left up to the interpretation of the player. But as each beast falls, Wander becomes noticeably sicker, and it becomes apparent that maybe he shouldn’t be doing this.
As you ride up to a Colossus upon your mighty steed, there’s something awe-inspiring about the creatures. They’re huge, towering beasts that cause the ground to shudder with every footstep, and in order to defeat them, you’ll have to discover the weakness of each monster. The Colossi all have weak points you’ll need to stab, but it’s getting to those weak points that provide the challenge. Each beast is a puzzle for you to solve, and climbing up the back of a hairy giant, or hanging on for dear life as an enormous flying beast soars above a desert is all just a part of the thrill. With ingenious ideas to spare and plenty of quiet time to think about the implications of what you’re doing, Shadow of the Colossus is a thoughtful game that will make sure you never look at video game bosses the same way again. (John Cal McCormick)
13 – Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
Like most Konami series of late, Castlevania is in a bit of an identity crisis at the moment. From the God of War meets Shadow of the Colossus design of the Lords of Shadow reboot, to the ongoing parade of me-too clones that drag off the coat tails of this classic: Symphony of the Night.
While it’s uncertain that we’ll ever get another Castlevania game at all – let alone a good one after the recent shake-up at Konami – the fact that we were ever graced with a gem like this at all is reason enough to be satisfied…and what a gem it is!
The first masterstroke was casting the lead as a someone other than a Belmont; a series first that allowed for a redemptive plot line rather than the squeaky clean “Holy warrior, killer of demons” schtick. The second is that this character happens to be the badass son of Dracula himself. Alucard (read it backward and then marvel at what a cool name it still is) is a far cry from the Belmont clan, and even though he’s on the same mission, he can go about it in a lot of different ways. Roaming Castle Dracula as a wolf, a bat, or even mist, Alucard’s powers mixed the old school Castlevania gameplay of battling undead legions with a Metroid-style progression and exploration system that opened the world up as you gained more abilities. In addition, it also melded action platforming with RPG elements, becoming one of the very first successful action-RPGs in the process.
If you’ve never battled a giant monster made up of slithering dead bodies in an upside-down castle, then you’ve never truly un-lived. Get it together and play catch up with this game, you miserable pile of secrets! (Mike Worby)
12 – Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
Grand Theft Auto III was a game that revolutionized the industry as much as any game ever has. To follow up such an enormous success, Rockstar released Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, shockingly, only one year later, which was bigger, prettier, and far more depraved. Taking place in fictional, Miami-esque Vice City, players follow the antics of former mafia hitman Tommy Vercetti, as he seeks vengeance on those who put him in the clink. All the cocaine, neon lights, and ’80s music in Vice City compel me to make a comparison to a druglord movie here, but I just can’t think of a perfect one – I guess Vice City is a kind of original source for mafia media. Someone call Al Pacino.
I can imagine a person who would be slightly disappointed with Vice City as the game doesn’t do much different from GTA III, but I really don’t know if that person exists. Vice City is the perfect successor to a nearly perfect game – for its time – in GTA III, an enjoyable satire on the drug and party culture of Hollywood’s representation of Miami, and a helluva good time blowing things up.
Helicopters and motorcycles, seemingly minor additions, improved the game by breaking up the monotony of the car-only travel in GTA III. It became such a pleasure threading between cars on a PCJ 600 that I obsessively combed the streets in search of one of these bikes anytime I lost mine in a five-star shootout – an obsession that I feel to this day. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was the first GTA I ever played, and, for me, quintessential GTA. It enhanced the greatness founded by GTA III through better graphics, a more compelling setting, and, most importantly, motorcycles. (Tyler Sawyer)
11 – Final Fantasy IX
Final Fantasy IX was overlooked by many people upon release. Whether the switch to high fantasy after two moodier, sci-fi tinged Final Fantasy games was unappealing to some, or whether releasing the game for the original PlayStation after the launch of the ultra-popular PS2 meant their focus was elsewhere, sales for the ninth entry in the long-running franchise took a hit. But those that took a chance on Final Fantasy IX were in for a treat.
Eschewing the jack-of-all-trades battle systems of Final Fantasy VII and VIII and returning to a job-based system like older entries in the franchise, the combat in Final Fantasy IX is altogether more tactical and rewarding than the other PlayStation games in the series. The story too, while whimsical at first glance, has some fairly heavyweight themes hidden beneath the surface, and the development of a few of the characters rivals any seen in the series to date. Throw in one of the best soundtracks that series stalwart Nobuo Uematsu has ever crafted, and you’ve got the trappings of a classic Final Fantasy game. (John Cal McCormick)
10 – God of War (2018)
The God of War franchise looked ready to be put out to pasture after 2013’s coolly-received Ascension, but maybe all it needed was a change of scenery. Enter 2018’s God of War – not a remake, not quite a reboot, but certainly the reinvention that the struggling series sorely required.
This time around the perennially angry spartan Kratos is found living in a hut in the snowy wilds of Midgard – one of the nine realms of Norse mythology – and sets out on a quest to take the ashes of his recently deceased wife to the highest peak in the land. Kratos’ young son Atreus comes along for the journey, and so begins the story of a man desperately attempting to stifle his worst traits in order to raise his son to be a better man than he, all while hitting things in the face with a massive, gnarly axe.
God of War is the rare game that absolutely excels in every category. It’s not a strong story propping up lackluster gameplay, fantastically paced combat encounters resulting in suffocating linearity, or a wonderfully realized open world crafted at the expensive of a strong narrative focus. God of War nails it all, somehow managing the incredible task of making Kratos a somewhat likeable and sympathetic character, while also building a new combat system from the ground up that is absolutely thrilling from the first battle to the last.
Throw in some wonderful storytelling full of fantastical characters, a semi-open world jam-packed with worthwhile optional objectives to enjoy, and an absolutely glorious orchestral soundtrack, and God of War is not just the best game in the long-running franchise, but one of the best PlayStation games of all time. (John Cal McCormick)
9 – Journey
Visionary. Emotional. Other one word sentences.
Journey was released in 2013 on the PlayStation 3 to incredibly high praise. From critics, anyway. To the general gamer crowd, though, Journey wasn’t quite as highly regarded. Some said it was dull, empty, or pointless, and even went to chastising games media for honoring it the way they did. And it all comes down to prejudices. Whether we want to or not, every gamer approaches a new game prejudging it. Without any experience of a particular thing, we make conclusions about it based on past experiences and things that are probably wholly irrelevant factors.
Instead of letting the game take us somewhere new or guide us through an unfamiliar experience, we assume it has to conform to present ideas of what that game portrays. What this does not mean, though, is that there is to be a huge nebulous of subjective opinion where no one gets to say whether a thing is good or bad; what this means is that there are creators, artists, in our world who want to communicate their perception of the world to those around them who may be interested. That’s what Journey is.
Journey is a game of struggle and ambition. A game of depression and rebirth and interpretation. In it, you are a crimson-cloaked stranger who has to find her way to the mountains in the vast distance. Along the way you’ll encounter monsters who act as guards, trying to halt any progress. Your only job is to evade and escape. There’s no battle mechanic, no way to destroy the mindless foe, just find a way around. After some time and several breathtaking landscapes traversed, you will have found your way.
An unconventional developer and game company that has been one of the only consistent sparks to the “games as art conversation,” and they did it again with Journey. A truly one of a kind, must-play game. (Tyler Sawyer)
8 – Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
After a change in direction, a bit of internal strife, and a few delays, fans could have easily been forgiven for being a tad worried about Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. Luckily, though, as anyone who has played it will no doubt tell you, the 4th installment in the incredibly implausible adventures of Nathan Drake delivers in spades.
The first thing worth noting here is just what an incredibly gorgeous game this is. Now, I know we live in an age where one in every five triple-A titles seems to get the “MOST BEAUTIFUL GAME EVER” moniker bandied about, but rest assured, this is no hyperbole. Uncharted 4 is authentically the most intricately designed, incredibly detailed, and indelibly jaw-dropping game that I have ever seen–and I’ve played a great many games in my life.
Now, for those of you used to Uncharted‘s particular brand of tricks, this game is not going to have too much new to show you, generally speaking. The set pieces are crazy, the goose chase is wild, and the characters talk to each other (and themselves) as if their always sure they’re on-camera. However, look closer and you’ll see the extra effort that’s been put into an insane degree of understated wonder. Marvel at how there is almost always multiple ways to reach your destination, let your mind boggle at the sheer size of the areas you explore, and simply quake at the amount of gravitas that this hilariously unlikely series of events is able to instill in you. (Mike Worby)
7 – Resident Evil 2
Sequels sometimes get a bad reputation, and not without reason. From rehashing the conflicts and ideas of their forebears to shamelessly running their stories into the ground, sequels can be so detrimental to the stories and experiences that preceded them as to tarnish their legacies entirely.
Luckily, Resident Evil 2 is exactly the opposite of that kind of sequel. Literally, everything here is an improvement over the original. The storytelling is better, the gameplay is smoother, the environments are more diverse, and, thank the gods, there’s no horrible live action opening.
Resident Evil 2 is a true pioneer of game design, from the dual interceding campaigns of its two leads, Leon, and Claire, to its A/B scenario system that allowed for 4 different stories to be experienced through its undead lens. It even introduced the stalking monster trope, which has since become a staple of the entire genre, and would find itself as the lynchpin of the next title in the series, Resident Evil 3: Nemesis. Resident Evil 2 is a standout classic of the PSX era and one of the most enduring titles the survival horror genre has ever produced. (Mike Worby)
6 – Silent Hill 2
Silent Hill 2 is a bit of an odd duck in the Silent Hill series, and it always has been. Of the three original, classic games, all well regarded in their own rights, Silent Hill 2 is of a decidedly different ilk than its younger brother and older sister. Whereas Silent Hill and Silent Hill 3 focused ostensibly on the history of Silent Hill and the how the Mason family connects with that history, Silent Hill 2 is largely a completely independent entity, and it couldn’t be better for it.
Silent Hill has always drawn from the works of David Lynch, and this is the series at its most Lynchian, with one particularly disturbing scene being a deliberate homage to Blue Velvet. The game also has a clear lineage to Mulholland Drive, with players never exactly sure how much, if anything, is actually real as the game goes on.
A living, shifting, ever-changing box of horror, Silent Hill 2 is easily the best entry in this franchise, and with the recent restructuring of Konami, it will probably remain that way indefinitely. (Mike Worby)
5 – Bloodborne
What could possibly be better than Dark Souls? How about Dark Souls with a hefty dose of HP Lovecraft thrown in?
Bloodborne took what was already one of the best and most revolutionary series of the previous console generation and amped it up the point of perfection. Introducing trick weapons which could be altered to fight in two different ways, nixing the defensive aspect of the Souls series in favor of perfectly timed momentum, and rewarding players even more for gambling with their souls…err blood echoes, Bloodborne made a lot of changes to the formula and, through some miracle, all of them worked out.
To wit, the series’ notorious attention to detail was catapulted even further via the technology of the PS4. The design of the world, the enemies, and especially the bosses, is arguably the best the series has ever seen, and the tighter narrative and theme of the game make for a more focused experience in general.
Plus, Bloodborne is creepy as all hell. When you’re not being stalked by werewolves and other eldritch horrors, you’ll be finding them crucified and on fire as warnings to people just like you. When you swallow your fear and go on anyway, you make a choice that can’t be undone. This game will beat you, bloody you and leave you nearly weeping with fear and frustration, but when those credits roll, you better believe you’re gonna find yourself satisfied…if you can make it, that is.
The first, and still the best, reason to own a PS4, Bloodborne will certainly be fondly remembered as one of the standout games of this era. (Mike Worby)
4 – Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
What more can be said of Naughty Dog’s great generational touchdown? A bigger, better Uncharted game that solidified their reputation for amazing playable action scenes, likeable characters, and gorgeous in-game graphics. It was a huge step up from the first game and, at the same time, is more focused and iconic than its successor, Drake’s Deception.
I suppose that’s a start. With Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Naughty Dog were able to cement their blockbuster chops, bringing us a franchise so critically praised and audience-approved that it outlasted its original console – a first for the studio.
Taking everything that worked in the first Uncharted title and polishing it to a mirror shine, while leaving behind some of the more rough elements, Among Thieves is a true, playable Indiana Jones-style adventure with high stakes, a terrifying villain and fantastical locales for the player to shoot, climb and puzzle their way through. Throw in a few brand new characters that have proven to be fan favorites (Chloe and Tenzin) and you’ve got a monumentally memorable game.
Of course, Uncharted 2 isn’t perfect (what game is?); the writing and characters are as surface-level as any Indiana Jones-wannabe movie. A really well-written wannabe, but a wannabe nonetheless. The cover-based shooting mechanics, while far from boring, never evolve much and were simple even in the year of the game’s release. The levels are also crushingly linear, much more so than any of the other games in the Sony Top 10. Those who want more from their adventure than a single, wonderfully scripted route need not apply.
These criticisms aren’t to be dismissed, but they are by no means deal-breakers. The Uncharted series, like Half-Life 2, or the contemporaneous Modern Warfare series, is best enjoyed as a meticulously designed roller-coaster with (at the time) unparalleled graphics and a thrilling story. (Mitchell Akhurst)
3 – Final Fantasy VII
A game has to be more than just a game. In order to truly make itself stand out, a game has to be an experience, not a mere piece of electronic components on a disc. It has to be an adventure, something larger than life that you as the player can immerse yourself in, and become one with. As soon as the game displays the title screen, you have to be there in spirit, and then, if the game is truly remarkable, you will find yourself in tune with the game you’re experiencing alongside the characters. You’re feeling the same emotions as the characters, you’re even fighting the same battles, facing the same struggles, and overcoming the same obstacles as the characters.
Final Fantasy VII is this kind of game. As you progress through the levels of the game, you progress on a personal level. You get to bond with Tifa and Barrett as if you were truly Cloud incarnate. The game is so well put together, the combat system manages to be exciting and thrilling, unlike many other games where the combat is turn-based. Sure, the graphics are a little outdated now, but the positive aspects of the game are so great in number that they completely redeem the damage time has inflicted upon its visuals.
One may wonder why exactly this game stands out so much from the other Final Fantasy installations, and truth be told, it’s near impossible to say for sure. Chances are, Final Fantasy VII just struck gold, as the characters are appealing, the levels are intricate-yet-inviting, the combat is exciting, and the story itself draws you in and refuses to let you go until you have seen everything the game has to offer. This is truly a remarkable game, and we’re all excited to see the HD remake that’s in the works right now. Can the technology of today stand up to the mesmerizing original work? Only time will tell. (Johnny Pedersen)
2 – Metal Gear Solid
The PlayStation 1-era was a time of fast-paced, chaotic, loud platforming games. The main plot of games like these were to transport yourself from A to B in a simple fashion – you’d go forth, running and beating up every enemy on your way with no discretion, rampaging through the various breakables in the levels in order to find some sort of power-up that would make you able to beat up even more enemies, and break even more of the scenery. Sure, it was a glorious mess, but at one point, things had to change.
1998 marked the debut of Metal Gear Solid. Instead of relying on your ability to rampage through everything that could possibly be broken, you had to really sit back and think for a while, as stealth and cunning were the main aspects of the game. You play as Solid Snake, an elite super soldier who can infiltrate pretty much anything, anywhere. Sure, you did have the option to simply shoot at the opposition and attempt to fend off the retaliation. However, developer Hideo Kojima had managed to create a game where the sophisticated mannerisms of operating in a covert fashion were fun.
Because of this groundbreaking game, we’re now faced with an abundance of stealth games on pretty much every major platform. Metal Gear Solid managed to make slow-paced, intelligent gaming just as appealing as the rowdy platformers of the same era. Eventually, Metal Gear Solid became just as essential a game as Crash Bandicoot, Ape Escape, Final Fantasy, Tomb Raider and Tekken. Hideo Kojima managed to revolutionize gaming forever, and every video game enthusiast should try this game. (Johnny Pederson)
1 – The Last of Us
With The Last of Us, the cinematic-loving geniuses at Naughty Dog proved themselves once again as one of the most accomplished development teams in the world. The confident and handsome survival thriller was instantly hailed as the new bar for what gaming could and should be moving forward. The Last of Us is Hollywood stuff, of course, and it borrows from dozens of carefully chosen inspirations, among them George A. Romero’s original Dead trilogy, The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later and Cormac Mccarthy’s The Road. While the game’s cynical portrayal of survivors turning on each other is a very familiar premise – The Last of Us is also the rare video game that follows a traditional storyline and then improves upon it. Set twenty years after a pandemic radically transformed civilization – The Last of Us follows Joel, a salty survivor, who is hired to smuggle a fourteen-year-old girl, Ellie, out of a rough military quarantine. What begins as a straightforward, albeit risky job, quickly turns into a highly emotional, palm-sweating journey that you won’t ever forget.
‘Donkey Kong Country’ – Still As Difficult, Demanding And Amazing To This Day
Donkey Kong Country: 25 Years Later
Back in 1994, Nintendo was struggling with their 16-bit Super Nintendo Entertainment System, which wasn’t selling as well as they’d hoped it would. With the release of the Saturn and Playstation on the horizon, the Super Nintendo needed a visually impressive and original title to reinforce its market dominance. After three years of intense competition and heated rivalries, Nintendo desperately needed a hit that could prove the Super NES could output graphics on the same level as the forthcoming 32-bit consoles. They teamed up with Rare to produce Donkey Kong Country, a Mario-style platformer, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Donkey Kong Country is a game held in high regard and with reason. Monumental! Monstrous! Magnificent! Use any term you want, there’s no denying how important this game was for Nintendo and Rare. The graphics for the time were above and beyond anything anyone would imagine possible for the 16-bit system. For a two-dimensional side-scroller, Donkey Kong Country conveys a three-dimensional sense of dept. The characters are fluidly animated and the rich tropical environments make use of every visual effect in the Super NES’s armory. Each stage has its own theme, forcing players to swim underwater, navigate through a misty swamp, swing from vines, or transport DK using a set of barrels (cannons) to advance. And let’s not forget the mine cart stages where you ride on rails and use your quick reflexes to successfully reach the end. Every level has little nooks and crannies too, hiding secret areas and passageways that lead to bonus games where you can earn bananas and balloons, which you can trade in for additional lives. And in Donkey Kong Country, you’re not alone; your simian sidekick Diddy tags along for the adventure. You control one character at a time, and each has his own unique strengths. Donkey Kong can dispatch larger enemies with his giant fists, while Diddy can jump a little higher than his bulky cousin. It isn’t the most original platforming feature, but it works. The two heroes can also rely on various animal friends to help guide them through their adventure. Predating Super Mario World: Yoshi’s Island, Diddy and DK can also ride on the backs of Rambi the Rhino, Winky the Frog, Enguarde the Swordfish and more!
What’s really impressive about Donkey Kong Country is how it has withstood the passage of time. In 1994, Donkey Kong Country’s visuals were spectacular with its rendered 3D models, lively character animations, detailed backgrounds, and a lush jungle setting, and while some would argue the game is dated, in my eyes it still looks great to this day. Kong has heart, and he’s willing to show it in a game made with wit, excitement and moments of visionary beauty. Meanwhile, the soundtrack by David Wise is guaranteed to win listener’s over. Practically every piece on the soundtrack exudes a certain lyricism that has become a staple of Rare’s games – from its upbeat tropical introduction to the unforgettable climax which secures its place as one of the Super Nintendo’s most memorable boss fights. The result is an apt accompaniment to the colorful characters, tropical landscape, and tomfoolery that proceeds.
What really stands out the most about Donkey Kong Country after all of these years is just how challenging this game is.
But what really stands out the most after all of these years is just how challenging this game is. Donkey Kong Country is a platformer you can only finish through persistence and with a lot of patience. Right from the start, you’re in for one hell of a ride. In fact, some of the hardest levels come early on. There are constant pitfalls and Donkey Kong can only take a single hit before he loses a life. If your companion Diddy is following you he will take over but then if he takes a single hit you lose a life and it’s back to the start of a level. Needless to say, the game is unforgiving and requires quick reflexes and precise pattern memorization to continue. This game requires so much fine precision that it will definitely appeal to hardcore platforming veterans looking for a challenge and those that do are in for one hundred eighty minutes of mesmerization, astonishment, thrills, chills, spills, kills and ills. The only real downfall of Donkey Kong Country is the boss battles. Yes, Donkey Kong Country gave us some memorable villains such as Dumb Drum (a giant Oil Drum that spawns enemies after it hits the floor), and The Kremling King (who is responsible for stealing Donkey Kong’s Banana Hoard), but these enemies have very basic attack patterns and far too easy to defeat.
It’s one of the rare, great works of art that stands up endlessly despite repeated playthroughs, each time revealing something new.
Along with its two SNES sequels, Donkey Kong Country is one of the defining platformers for the SNES. The game looks great and sounds great and the platforming, while incredibly difficult, is still very fun. Rare did the unexpected by recasting a classic Nintendo villain as the titular hero and it paid off in spades. It’s one of the rare, great works of art that stands up endlessly despite repeated playthroughs, each time revealing something new.
The beauty of the original is that there’s more to it than the oversized gorilla. Donkey Kong Country is truly amazing!
– Ricky D
‘Aria of Sorrow’: The Symphony of the Night Sequel Castlevania Needed
Castlevania’s run from 1986 to 1997 is downright legendary. While there are a few duds sprinkled throughout the series’ first decade (Simon’s Quest, The Adventure, Dracula X), this is the same franchise that produced Super Castlevania IV, Rondo of Blood, and Bloodlines over the course of three years– three of the greatest action platformers of all time. 1997 saw Castlevania reach what was arguably its highest point when, unprompted and with no real need to do so, Symphony of the Night pulled off such an expert reinvention that it ended up creating a new genre altogether. With 11 years of goodwill to bank on, Castlevania’s future would never look as bright again– and unfortunately for good reason.
Following the revolutionary success of Symphony of the Night, Castlevania almost immediately fumbled as a franchise. 1997 closed out not with Symphony of the Night, but the ferociously underwhelming Legends, a Game Boy title that took a cleaver to the franchise’s lore and massacred it. The Nintendo 64 would see the release of Castlevania in 1999, arguably the worst transition from 2D to 3D on the N64, followed by a moderately improved but still mediocre re-release that same year, Legacy of Darkness. By 2000, Castlevania had entered the 21st Century at its lowest point, with Symphony of the Night silently in the background, untouched.
As if to signal a return to form, however, 2001 saw Konami release two fairly noteworthy titles: Circle of the Moon for the Game Boy Advance and Castlevania Chronicles for the PlayStation. Where the latter was a remake of the first game, Circle of the Moon marked the series’ first attempt at producing a mechanical sequel to Symphony of the Night. Utilizing the Metroidvania format SotN popularised, Circle of the Moon was met with near universal acclaim at release due to its difficulty curve, tight platforming, and a gameplay loop catered towards old school fans.
Which alone is enough to make Circle of the Moon less a Symphony sequel, and more a Castlevania stuck between the Classicvania and Metroidvania model. It’s a good title for what it is, but Circle of the Moon is so fundamentally different from Symphony of the Night that series producer Koji Igarashi overcorrected when re-taking the reins for 2002’s Harmony of Dissonance, a game that– while good– shamelessly apes everything it can from SotN in an attempt to win over audiences. Juste Belmont looks like Alucard, there’s a variation of the Inverted Castle twist, and the game was designed with the explicit purpose of capitalizing on Symphony of the Night.
To Konami’s credit, the series had regained its legitimacy between both Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance, but neither game captured Symphony’s inventiveness. CotM deserves some slack for generally doing its own thing and remaining the most unique Metroidvania in the series to date, but Harmony of Dissonance plays itself too safe, ultimately just winding up a worse version of Symphony of the Night. Not just that, there was the matter of the series’ story. 19 games in and past the turn of the century, the story couldn’t stay in the background anymore. Legends, Legacy of Darkness, Circle of the Moon, and Harmony of Dissonance all tried to tell a compelling story and they all faltered along the way.
Castlevania wasn’t in need of reinvention in 2003, but refinement. The series was good, not great, and every new release was only shining a spotlight on how good Symphony of the Night was, not on how its successors were following it up. It only makes sense, though. How is a franchise meant to follow-up a game like Symphony of the Night? How can Castlevania even be discussed anymore without mention of what is unquestionably one of the greatest video games of all time? It seemed as though the franchise was suffering for no reason at all, but there’s actually a fairly simple answer as to why the series struggled between 1997 and 2003: the lack of the dream team.
Castlevania often shuffled around its development teams, but Symphony of the Night managed to land a team that in retrospect is on-par with the likes of Chrono Trigger’s legendary development team. Alongside Koji Igarashi– who at the time was assistant director, a programmer, and the scenario writer– Michiru Yamane composed her second soundtrack for the series following Bloodlines, and Ayami Kojima made her debut as a character designer, solidifying the franchise’s gothic aesthetic for good. Unfortunately, the three wouldn’t all intersect again for some time, leaving the Castlevania games to come without the essential players who made Symphony of the Night what it was.
Igarashi and Kojima would work together again on both Chronicles & Harmony of Dissonance, but Yamane’s other work kept her from Castlevania between 1997 & 2003, and none of them would work on Legends, Legacy of Darkness, or Circle of the Moon. The nature of the industry meant there was no guarantee the three would work on the same project again, but now Castlevania’s lead producer, Koji Igarashi had pull to hire Yamane as the lead composer of his next Castlevania game. Ready to address Harmony of the Night’s criticisms, Koji Igarashi set the stage for the game that would breathe new life into Castlevania– Aria of Sorrow.
Instead of calling attention to itself as a successor to Symphony of the Night– something the game admittedly could’ve gotten away with given its production team– Aria of Sorrow does everything it can to assert its individuality asap. Soma Cruz has seemingly no connection to the Belmonts or Dracula, Dracula’s Castle is now inside of an eclipse, and the timeline is no longer rooted in history with the story set in 2035. This is all information conveyed in the opening title crawl, but less than a full minute into gameplay and audiences are already introduced to the Soul mechanic, a system which allows Soma to absorb enemy Souls in order to use their techniques. From there, it’s on the onus of the player to explore.
For such an all encompassing opening, Aria actually kicks off with little fanfare. Symphony of the Night, Circle of the Moon, and Harmony of Dissonance all open with spectacle, but Aria of Sorrow keeps itself subdued, understanding that while Symphony’s spectacle was indeed an important part of its identity, it’s the gameplay that ultimately won audiences over. Aria of Sorrow wastes no time in presenting its defining Soul mechanic, making it the very first concept players will fully understand: kill enemies to get Souls, use Souls to kill enemies. It’s a simple gameplay loop, but it keeps Aria of Sorrow’s blood pumping long after the credits roll.
With Soul drops determined by RNG, no two playthroughs will be the same. Such an approach might bother those looking to 100% the game, but it’s exactly this reason why Aria of Sorrow remains so enjoyable to replay. With over 100 Souls available for use, Soma can accomplish far more than any other Castlevania protagonist. Soma can equip three Souls in total at any given moment: one Bullet Soul, Aria’s sub-weapons; one Guardian Soul, skills that can be triggered with R; and one Enchanted Soul, passive abilities that don’t need to be activated. Soma also has access to Ability Souls, inherent techniques that he can activate & deactivate ala Alucard’s skills from Symphony.
While the Soul system is more than enough to freshen up the series’ core combat, Aria of Sorrow ditches whips and goes back to the Alucard method of collecting multiple different weapons. Between Souls and Soma’s generous arsenal of weaponry, all play styles are accommodated. Normal Mode is also more forgiving than usual, with Hard Mode better designed for series veterans. This isn’t ideal since most will play Normal and miss out on Hard Mode altogether, but it’s an approach that– in theory– does accommodate fans old and new alike. Aria of Sorrow has an almost overwhelming amount of content, but that’s exactly why it’s so accessible. There’s a weapon, Soul, or difficulty for everyone.
Engaging combat mechanics mean very little without the proper level design, however. Where Harmony of Dissonance comfortably followed a “bigger is better” mentality to its castle’s design, Aria of Sorrow shows a considerable amount of restraint. There is no second castle to unlock– what you see is what you get. Areas are more interconnected than usual, ensuring that fewer areas end up in dead ends, and the castle’s settings are visually grounded for the most part. Aria indulges in chaotic visuals and level design for the final area, but the castle leading up to the finale is unusually comprehensible. As far as navigation goes, this is the best castle in the series.
Of course, the high quality castle only makes sense when one remembers that it’s Ayami Kojima’s art style that serves as Aria of Sorrow’s base. Moody and gothic, Kojima’s self-taught style has an earthy quality that easily tips into the fantastical, an aesthetic that fits Castlevania perfectly. Michiru Yamane’s score seemingly builds off of Kojima’s art, following the lead with less catchy and more atmospheric tracks on a whole. This doesn’t mean Aria of Sorrow isn’t bursting with amazing songs– one only needs to listen to Heart of Fire to understand that– rather, it’s Aria’s way of keeping a mature, sorrowful tone throughout.
And Aria of Sorrow is indeed more mature than previous Castlevania titles when it comes to story. Where both Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance played their stories straight, Aria of Sorrow features a decent amount of subtext to bolster its already incredibly intriguing plot. Aria doesn’t just take place in the future, it takes place in a future where Dracula has been killed for good. No Dracula means that a new villain can rise up in the form of Graham Jones, and while he’s not that compelling, he ends up representing everything Dracula claims to despise in humanity. Graham is a hateful coward who thinks too highly of himself, and too little of others. A miserable little pile of secrets.
That said, while it’s always beneficial to keep characters who fill similar roles antithetical to one another, Graham’s personality is more layered than that. He may be the main antagonist, but he’s no Dracula. Literally. The main plot of Aria of Sorrow concerns itself with who Dracula has reincarnated into. It’s obviously Soma, a fact the series no longer tries to hide, but Aria of Sorrow very cleverly gets around this by doubling down on Graham’s evilness. He’s blatantly evil from his first interaction with Soma, but that’s exactly what keeps players from guessing the Dracula twist their first playthrough.
Soma being Dracula is the cherry on top of Aria of Sorrow, that last little detail that makes everything just right– not just in the game, but in the context of the series. Fast-forwarding far into the future, Aria of Sorrow establishes Dracula’s demise, a grand battle that took place in 1999, and the last Belmont– Julius– the man who killed Dracula for good, but lost his memory in the process. Aria doesn’t hold any punches when it comes to Soma either, making him succumb before the end of the game and even featuring an alternate ending where he embraces his demonic powers, leaving Julius to kill Dracula yet again.
Although Soma has a clear love interest in Mina Hakuba, it’s the relationship between Soma and Julius that ties the story together. Aria is just as much a character study of Dracula through Soma as it is a celebration of the ultimate struggle between the Belmont clan and the Count. The roles have been flipped this time around, with Julius serving as the penultimate battle in one of the best (& hardest) boss fights in the franchise. As he’s not the main character, Julius is also allowed greater depth than the average Belmont. When he appears, it’s because the story calls for it and his scenes are never wasted.
They’re always used as a means to either flesh out the game’s backstory, or build up to the confrontation between Soma and Julius. The two build a slight bond over the course of the game, one that turns into genuine respect by the time the two men are fighting to the death. It’s easy to overlook the substance in Julius’ interactions since he’s only in six scenes (including the bad ending), but they all slowly chip away at the man underneath– his history, his connection to Dracula, and what it means to be a Belmont. Which in itself is important, as it gives audiences an opportunity to see a Belmont in his element from not only an outsider’s perspective, but Dracula’s.
Soma’s relationship with Julius may be what best contextualizes Aria of Sorrow’s role in the franchise, but this isn’t to say that the supporting players don’t contribute. Hammer and Yoko Belnades are both on the flat side, but Mina and Genya Arikado do some heavy narrative lifting. Mina evokes images of Dracula’s wife, Lisa, who was first introduced in Symphony of the Night. Their dialogue shows how deeply they care for one another, and Soma’s Dracula-related insecurities end up tainting their dynamic at the end of the game, cutting Soma off from his only source of genuine affection and love. Not just that, Mina proves that Dracula could have adjusted to a normal life had mankind not killed Lisa.
Then there’s Genya Arikado, a man so blatantly Alucard that the word “Alucard” doesn’t need to appear in the script a single time for fans to make the connection– which it doesn’t. Aria of Sorrow features the main character from Symphony of the Night in an incredibly important and relevant capacity, and he neither looks like he did in Symphony of the Night or directly acknowledges his identity. Frankly, it’s the only tasteful way to use Alucard in a post-Symphony of the Night context. His character has evolved with time, and seeing him in a supportive capacity only makes sense given the events of his own game. His presence helps draw in a sense of finality alongside Mina and Julius.
These three characters thematically represent the main fixtures of Dracula’s life: Mina, the love that ties Dracula to humanity; Genya, the son who in spite of his father’s evil, loves him enough to ensure he can truly rest; and Julius, the final descendant of the Belmont clan and perhaps the strongest man alive. At the center of it all is Soma Cruz, the reincarnation of Dracula. Aria of Sorrow feels like the end of everything Castlevania represents. More games would follow, and Aria would even see a direct sequel in Dawn, but what makes Aria such a worthy successor to Symphony of the Night is that it wasn’t afraid to do something new and bold with Castlevania. Most of this boldness stems from the gameplay, but the story presents itself as a thematic end for Castlevania if nothing else. Dracula and the Belmonts may finally put their feud to rest.
Or not. As previously mentioned, Aria of Sorrow features an ending where Soma goes full-Dracula. It’s morbid and cuts off right before Julius begins his fight with the dark lord, but it only makes sense. Aria doesn’t shy away from Dracula’s nastier aspects, and that means allowing Soma to be corrupted. Castlevania was always about the eternal struggle between Dracula and the Belmonts, so it’s only fair an ending offer a scenario where the cycle simply repeats. Regardless of which ending players find most appropriate, Michiru Yamane’s use of Bloody Tears in the track Epilogue makes one thing clear: Aria marks a new chapter for Castlevania.
When all is said and done, Aria of Sorrow doesn’t even feel like a sequel to Symphony of the Night. Aria goes beyond wanting to replicate the greats and instead chooses to be great in its own right. The end product is the end result of the series living in Symphony’s shadow for years. Koji Igarashi went beyond parroting himself, and instead entered production prepared to take Castlevania to the next level with a tried and true team. But even in sharing the same core members as Symphony, Aria never feels like anything but its own distinct game– a mature goodbye to Count Dracula, the Belmont legacy, and everything that happened inbetween. Aria of Sorrow might not have had the same cultural impact of Symphony of the Night, but it’s exemplary of Castlevania at its best.
Awesome Mixtape: Best Video Game Soundtracks 2019
Awesome Mixtape Vol. 5
It’s that time once again in which I bring to you my awesome mixtape featuring the best tracks from the best video game soundtracks of the year. Last year, my mixtape featured tracks from Triple-A titles such as Red Dead Redemption 2 and indie darlings like Celeste. In 2017, my picks for best soundtracks included tracks from some of my favorite games including Cuphead, Breath of the Wild and Into the Woods, to name just a few. Well, 2019 has been another banner year for the industry and as always, the games were blessed with an astounding selection of musical scores— some would argue the soundtracks were even better than the actual games at times. As always, it wasn’t easy deciding which songs to include and what to leave out— and as always, I’ve also mixed in some audio clips from various cut scenes while trying to keep it spoiler-free. Feel free to share this link and let me know if you think I’ve missed any great soundtracks in the comments below.
Best Video Game Soundtracks 2019 Playlist
Death Stranding clip
Death Stranding: Low Roar – “I’ll Keep Coming”
Life Is Strange 2 clip
Life is Strange 2: Seyr – “Colour To Colour”
Life is Strange 2: Jonathan Morali – “Into the Woods”
Life Is Strange 2 clip
Sayonara Wild Hearts: Daniel Olsen – “Sayonara Wild Heart”
Sayonara Wild Hearts: Daniel Olsen – “Wild Hearts Never Die”
Death Stranding: CHVRCHES – “Death Stranding”
Untitled Goose Game – Dan Golding – “Title and Credits”
Afterparty: scntfc – “Hades Gonna Hate”
Afterparty: scntfc – “Schoolyard Strangler”
Untitled Goose Game – Dan Golding – “The Garden”
Octopath Traveler: Yasunori Nishiki – Main Theme
Octopath Traveler: Yasunori Nishiki – Cyrus the Scholar
Kingdom Hearts 3 clip
Fire Emblem Three Houses clip
Fire Emblem Three Houses: Yuka Tsujiyoko, Hirokazu Tanaka – “Main Theme”
Fire Emblem Three Houses: Yuka Tsujiyoko, Hirokazu Tanaka – “Blue Skies and a Battle”
Devil May Cry 5 clip
Devil May Cry 5: Kota Suzuki – “Urizen Boss Battle Music”
Untitled Goose Game – Dan Golding – “The Garden”
FAR: Lone Sails: Joel Schoch – “Colored Engine”
Days Gone: Nathan Whitehead— “Soldier’s Eye”
Death Stranding: Low Roar – “Easy Way Out”
Death Stranding clip
Death Stranding: Low Roar – “Easy Way Out”
Metro Exodus: Alexey Omelchuk – “Main Theme”
Resident Evil 2 Remake clip
Resident Evil 2 Remake: Masami Ueda, Shusaku Uchiyama, Shun Nishigaki – “Mr.X Theme Music (T-103)”
Sayonara Wild Hearts: Daniel Olsen – “Begin Again”
Life is Strange 2: Lincoln Grounds, Pat Reyford – “Morning Good Morning”
Life is Strange 2: Sufjan Stevens – “Death With Dignity”
Luigi’s Mansion 3 clip
Luigi’s Mansion 3: Koji Kondo – “Main Theme”
Ape Out: Matt Boch – “Intro”
Deltarune: Toby Fox – “Field of Hopes and Dreams”
Return of the Obra Dinn: Lucas Pope – “Loose Cargo”
“Star Wars: Imperial March” Hip Hop Remix
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order: John Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra
Death Stranding: Silent Poets – “Asylum for The Feeling”
Catherine: Full Body: Shoji Meguro – “Tomorrow”
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening: Koji Kondo – “Marin’s Ballad of the Windfish”
Metro Exodus – Alexey Omelchuk: “Teardrops”
Sekiro: Yuka Kitamura – “Ashina Reservoir”
Return of the Obra Dinn: Lucas Pope – “The Doom”
Medley: Eye of Death / Wild Hearts Never Die / Dragon Heart / Clair De Lune
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