Top 10 Games is a new, semi-regular series that hopes to offer a bit of insight into the twisted minds of Goomba Stomp’s writers, editors and podcasters by allowing them to tell you about their all time favorite games, and why they love them to such an unhealthy degree.
From playing old DOS games on my Dad’s accounting computer, to getting our first NES and SNES, gaming has been one of the most constant things in my life. Growing up with three brothers it wasn’t just a way to kill time after school, but also a bonding exercise, or occasionally the cause of a fight after particularly nasty rounds of Perfect Dark. Even through high school and college gaming was a way to ground myself, wind down after stressful exams or long days of lectures. I’ve played a lot of games over the years, and picking 10 wasn’t always that easy, but here they are: the best of my best, and maybe yours too.
Crusader Kings 2
A lot of games have great stories, but often my favourite stories are the ones I create myself while playing. That’s what Crusader Kings 2 is all about, creating and experiencing your own story, and the tools it provides to do this are astounding. At times the game is equal parts medivial sitcom, and Game of Thrones fanfic, and weaving these tales has kept me coming back for several hundred hours.
This is easily the most daunting of games on my list to recommend to anyone, and I know several people that have attempted to play it because of me only to give it up in frustration after a few hours. That’s the trick to CK2 though, is you can’t give up in a few hours. I honestly took 50 or so hours to understand some of the basic ideas, along with several dozen visits to the forums and wiki for the game, but it truly did pay off, as playing the game now is a relaxing break from some of the more intensive titles on this list.
Yes, it’s mostly menus, and yes there’s a lot of reading, but CK2 isn’t a game just about storming castles and killing citizens. It’s a game about seducing your aunt to distract her from you killing her son because he’s next in line for the throne and you want that spot. It’s a game about outing the pope as a criminal because he wouldn’t support your crusade so you accidentally plunge half of Europe into civil war. It’s a game about marrying your daughter off to your enemy so she can act as a spy while you quietly buy the support of his neighbors in preparation for a coup. CK2 doesn’t need a main plot because it lets my story be the main plot, and it truly does it better than any other game to date.
Yes, games that make you think are great. You complete a puzzle, you feel smart, and you move on. But I don’t always want a game that makes me feel smart. Sometimes I just want to tune out everything, crank some metal, and get lost in the carnage. Sometimes I just want Doom 2, over and over again till it’s done.
Doom 2 is like going to your grandmother’s house for me. Yes, everything is old, and covered in dust, and in comparison to newer things it just doesn’t look that great. But I don’t care. I’m sitting down with a cup of marshmallows and chocolate chips watching The Honeymooners on a 24′ CRT, but I’m happy. Doom 2 is that, only instead of weird snacks and outdated TV shows from the ’50s, it’s ripping demons in half and blowing them apart with a double-barreled shotgun.
What really pushes Doom 2 over the first one for me, aside from the aforementioned shotgun, was the maps. Doom had some great maps, sure, but they were just learning what John Romero and John Carmack were capable of. With the second game not only did id get more creative, but their community did too, and some of the maps are downright insane. Particular favorites: Tricks and Traps, Downtown, and best of the best: Barrels O’ Fun.
It sometimes surprises me that Doom 2 is still fun to this day, but every time I load it up, especially with some fan mods like Brutal Doom or Pirate Doom it brings me back to my youth again, and for that it earns a spot in my pantheon of greatness.
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
This list isn’t technically presented in any particular order, save for Morrowind‘s position at the top. When it comes to video games, this is my be-all and end-all, my golden standard, and the one game I’ve returned to more times then I can recall. Morrowind is everything I love about games, not just RPGs per se but all games across all genres. It may have aged like milk, but I still love Morrowind.
I won’t spend too much time talking about why I love Morrowind, as I’ve already done that in great length here, but a few things are worth going over again. The absolute freedom of Morrowind still floors me to this day, and while its world is nowhere near as big and open as games like Skyrim or Breath of the Wild, the level of detail is outstanding, with seemingly every tree and rock specifically placed. It feels believable, with well-worn roads going between different cities and hidden caves and points of interest just off the beaten path. Despite playing it for 15 years, occasionally I’ll still run into something I haven’t seen before, some secret just out of sight that I’ve missed.
The second, and biggest thing I love about Morrowind is its community. I’d love to one-day run the numbers, but I’m confident in saying that Morrowind is one of the most modded games in existence, and the fact that people are still modding it to this day astonishes me. There’s even an open-source port of the game being worked on to allow for further modding, but the retail release is getting on just fine. Mods that change the graphics, change AI, change weapons and armor, add new cities, add entirely new landscapes. There are hundreds of mods for this game, and if you think Morrowind is missing a feature there’s a good chance someone else did too and has done their best to add it in. I’d like to think at least a portion of people working in gaming today got their start making Morrowind mods, and its overall effect on the industry, particularly Bethesda is still being felt today.
Morrowind really is the ultimate expression of why gaming is the greatest art form today. A total sandbox of creativity and fun, and an experience that you can only get in a video game.
Fallout: New Vegas
I’ve said before that I love open world games, games that react to you, and the post-apocalypse, and that’s exactly what Fallout:NV delivers. This is as close to RPG perfection as you can get, and the definitive Fallout game for fans and new-comers alike. There’s a reason people were legitimately upset when Obsidian weren’t tapped to make Fallout 4, and a reason most people still prefer this game over the newer title.
Fallout 3 and 4 were both written as action games with RPG mechanics, where the larger focus is on the shooting and making minor choices to move you to the next shooting section. NV was written almost like a pen and paper RPG, with dozens of choices based on your abilities, your interactions with other people, and your history in the wasteland. This is what sets this game a step above, is that it recognizes what a proper RPG is about. It’s not just about killing things and leveling up, but doing that with a purpose and feeding that back into your next encounters.
Like other games on this list though, its the world that really draws me in, mixing the old west with the Fallout series signature retro-futuristic vibe. Yes it looks like crap even with a tonne of mods, but there’s a lot of character drawn into every nook and cranny, and every location feels like it has a story to tell. Compared to both Fallout 3 and 4 it also just feels more creative with some really unique and memorable areas, even if it is mostly desert.
Half-Life 2 (w/ Episode 1 & 2)
In 2004 most games still looked blocky and weird, with really obvious visual tricks to try and hide or gloss over their imperfections. It made having a high-end PC feel like a waste of money, since most games didn’t look or run all that better then PS2/Xbox titles. Then came along Half-Life 2, a thinking person’s game for a thinking person’s platform, and it changed how I would think about games for a long time to come.
The sheer brilliance in Half-Life 2 is the now infamous 1->2->3 program Valve implemented for progression. First, introduce the player to a new mechanic in a safe, controlled environment, basically a tutorial they can’t fail at. Then introduce some challenge, add some danger to the situation. Finally let the player and the mechanic go wild as you slowly transition them to the next part of the game. It’s simple, but it goes a long way to make the gameplay of Half-Life 2 endearing even today.
The real thing that keeps me coming back to Half Life 2 though is the level of satisfaction it provides. The game is just rewarding to play, be it the exciting shootouts or puzzle sections. The world in and around City 17 is cool to explore and the characters are memorable, even if they only appear for a few minutes. It’s a shame we’ll likely never see the conclusion to the series, but for me the second game is still more than fine.
Growing up on a farm wasn’t always that great. I didn’t ever bike to a friend’s house, it smelled like chicken crap half the time, and there was dirt everywhere. As is often the case however, farming in a video game proved to be much more enjoyable, and the SNES cult classic Harvest Moon was a welcome reprieve from the drudgery of real farming.
The simplicity of the original is what does it for me, even 20 years later. There’s no grand story about Harvest Sprites or freeing Goddesses, or rebuilding a town or unifying a small country. Rather, you’re given 2.5 years to make your parents proud and how you do that is up to you. There’s plants to grow and sell, upgrades to earn, and girls in town to marry. All just to make sure Mom and Pops still love you when they get back.
The series has evolved in many ways since the first game, some for the better (HM64, Friends of Mineral Town, Wonderful Life) and a lot for the worse (Island of Happiness, Save the Homeland, Tale of Two Towns) but the original game is the one that truly keeps me coming back. It’s simple nature and mechanics give it a timeless feel that just never seems to age, no matter how many times I boot it back up again.
Red Dead Redemption
Ever since GTA III I’ve been a big fan of Rockstar games, and getting lost in their open worlds rank among my favorite gaming activities. Ever since watching The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly I’ve been a big fan of Westerns, and watching larger than life characters duke it out in larger than life scenarios. Understandably when I heard that Rockstar would be making a game that combined their open worlds with the themes and settings of the Wild West I was pretty excited, and as it turned out, rightfully so.
Read Dead is Rockstar’s magnum opus, the total combination of everything we love about them, so much so that even GTA V felt like little in comparision. Everything here is just as it should be. The characters are Rockstar’s best, with John Marston being among my favourite protagonists ever written. Marston’s story about the lengths a man goes to for his family, and facing the future in the waning years of the world he once knew, still resonate today, and many of the themes transcend the game itself. A good game is one you enjoy, but a great game like RDR is one you think about long after the game is off.
It’s not just the story that makes RDR legendary to me. Gameplay is both perfected and improved from GTA IV. I’ve always found it interesting when games don’t include any automatic weapons in their roster, and with RDR its clear there’s a new level of balance to make fights interesting and deadly. When you can’t spray and pray there’s a bigger focus on making your shots count and staying mobile, which is easy to do thanks to RDR‘s amazingly detailed horses. Even when you’re not shooting there’s a tonne to do like play poker or go hunting, more than enough to keep you busy.
But the real pepper on this plate of fries is the world of RDR, and this is a high watermark I still hold all other games to. RDR and Rockstar’s games in general, truly understand that it’s not good enough to just make your game world open, there needs to be things happening in it too. Groups of bandits or lawmen riding around, farmers taking their cattle to pasture, settlers headed into the unknown, and people having a break around a camp fire. There’s so much dynamic activity in RDR that you truly can just get lost in the immersion, and that’s what puts this game on my list.
Resident Evil 4
My first experience with RE4 was at a friends house for a sleepover. His parents were far less strict about what games he was and wasn’t allowed to play, and so we loaded up RE4 to see how far I, as a totally new player, could get in the game. Throughout the night we made it to about the halfway mark, partway through the castle in the second act. Despite being completely tired and only kept awake by cans of coke and whatever candy hadn’t been devoured I knew this game was special.
It wasn’t until some time later when I finally got to revisit RE4 and figure out what it was exactly I loved about it. My first time beating it was with the disastrous PC port, the one that didn’t allow mouse-input without a fan-made patch. That didn’t matter, the core of what I loved about RE4 transcended controls, and it still remains firmly in place today.
RE4 is one of the few games I’ve played that understands that “survival horror” isn’t about jump-scares and spooky feelings. It’s about making the idea of surviving moment to moment the horror element. Only ever giving the player just barely enough resources to make it through and trusting you to figure out how to use them. There are very few jump-scares throughout RE4, meaning that you’ll almost always see your death coming and its up to you to figure out how to stop it. Few other games, even today, seem to understand that, and it frustrates me that more developers can’t seem to figure out what made RE4 work.
Despite it’s constant struggle for survival RE4 is just fun to play. People often deride its “tank-controls” but for me this fed back into the horror element, forcing you to think about how best to conduct your fights, rather than just letting you sit back with a machine gun and mow down your enemies. Couple that with the fact that the game has an obvious sense of humour and the whole thing is just consistently enjoyable, even after seven or eight replays.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl
I love the surreal and the abstract, things just barely removed from normal that off-put people and make them feel unsure of themselves. I also love post-apocolyptic settings, seeing what modern man can do when everything is stripped from them. S.T.A.L.K.E.R scratches all of these itches so well I pray someone buys the IP so we can get another one.
In 2007 there weren’t open world first person shooters, and save for Deus Ex there weren’t any FPS-RPG games. First person horror existed sure, but mostly in the form of slow and boring point-and-click titles. S.T.A.L.K.E.R changed all of that, and most certainly changed me when I first played it. Here was a game truly unlike anything else, but steeped in the familiar. All I wanted to do was experience more of it.
The Zone still feels like one of the most fully realized game worlds ever made. Every inch of it feels hand-crafted and tooled for horror and action. Mutants, zombies, and hidden treasures all await the unwary in this twisted hellscape. To add to it is the game’s A-Life AI engine which occasionally breaks, but when it works you get to watch groups of AI fight it out organically. The first time you watch a group of dogs take down a boar then drag its carcass away to feast on you’ll understand why people love this game.
I’ve played all three S.T.A.L.K.E.R titles for hundreds of hours, and while I concede that 2009’s Call of Pripyat is in many ways superior, for me the first game is still the crown jewel of the series. It’s world is more detailed than most games I’ve played today, and it has a greater focus on progression, something the later games don’t always do right with their more open natures. Finally out of all three it’s the most refreshingly different, truly a world apart from other games, and for someone that constantly craves originality this was like finding a vodka soaked holy grail.
Super Mario World
The amount of times I’ve beaten this game is truly staggering. I’ve seen every level, every enemy, and every boss and I still love it to death. To me this is the pinnacle of Mario games, the title everything else is held to in comparison, and many fall flat. This is Mario as it should be forever. This is how most games should be.
I love the challenge in SMW. The levels have a steady progression to them, slowly building harder and harder until you get to the final boss. Sometimes the world has a particular theme, sometimes it’s just a series of levels which are barely connected. A lot of times there’s secrets to unlock, but you’ll need to go beyond the norm to find them. Even after you’ve defeated Bowser there are entire worlds off the beaten path for you to unlock, should you be willing to look for them. I’m convinced there may still be levels I haven’t played yet, not for lack of trying.
I love the creativity in SMW. The color palette is bright and vibrant, 16-bit as it is. It’s not the SNES’ best looking game, but it is one of the system’s cheeriest. There are minor details in each level I love looking at, and the layouts of the levels are as expertly crafted as they are fun to observe. Then there are the enemies and power-ups, the graphics for which are still sometimes used today.
To me, when someone says Mario, this is the game that instantly springs into my mind, and that’s unlikely to ever change. Many Mario games are great, most of them amazing, but this is truly the Mario game that still does it for me.
There are a lot of games that almost made this list, and a few that were on it up until the last second. Even as I write this I’m re-thinking some of these choices and this list is not totally representative of games that I hold in high esteem. Still, these are the 10 games that I can play over and over again and still enjoy, and I hope there’s something here for you too.
10 Honorable Mentions: Far Cry 2, Saints Row 2, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, Bioshock, Metal Gear Solid 5, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War 2, Spec Ops: The Line, The Sims 3, Chrono Trigger