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.
I was born in 1983, and grew up in a small village in the north-east of England. I wasn’t allowed out of the house unsupervised until I was ten years old since my parents had moved from a big city where there was danger lurking around every corner, and had failed to adjust to living in an area in which in which the biggest worry was bumping into a neighbour and winding up stuck in a conversation about how her rhubarb was coming along for an hour. I didn’t go to the same school as any of the other children in the village – an unfortunate consequence of being raised Catholic and not being allowed to go to the heathen school – and so the only people I really knew as a child were my mum, dad and brother. Eventually we got some sea monkeys but they met an untimely demise when their tank was knocked off of the window sill and landed on top of our old gas heater, tragically sizzling them all on an ad-hoc barbecue in front of my very eyes. Later we got a dog named Zoe who was, thankfully, not barbecued.
There’s only so many times that you can play hide and seek with your brother in a two-bedroom house, and so much of my entertainment as a child came from stories. I loved books, television shows, movies, and eventually video games. I also loved Pogs. Pogs weren’t particularly memorable for any sort of stirring narrative, but the time that I heroically flipped over my brother’s limited edition shiny and left him in tears was only a Kenny Loggins soundtrack away from being my own personal ’80s underdog film. Many video games back then didn’t have fully fleshed out stories either, but like most religious people I had a vivid imagination, and so I’d fill in the blanks myself. I’d read the instruction manuals for games cover to cover and absorb every piece of information regarding the characters, the plot, and the world that the stories took place in. Video games were my golden ticket to a world filled with pure imagination. I also really liked that Willy Wonka movie with Gene Wilder in it a lot.
Anyway, as I’ve grown up my tastes in pretty much everything have become wildly eclectic. It’s lovely being able to join in musical conversations about everything from Fannypack to Finntroll, but it also sucks when some wise guy asks you to whip up a list of your top ten favorite video games and you sit thinking, “But it might be totally different tomorrow!” That’s why I’ve decided to organize my top ten video games not as a definitive list of what I think the ten greatest games ever made are, nor as a list of games with the tightest or most refined gameplay, or even as a list of the games I actually enjoy the most, but as a personal list of what games made the biggest impact upon my life and shaped me going forward. As such, this list won’t be numbered from ten to one in order of increasing quality. I’m doing it autobiographically like John Cusack’s record collection in High Fidelity.
Yes fucking way.
1) Prince of Persia
Prince of Persia was, to the best of my recollection, the first video game that I ever played. We didn’t have a PC or a console at home and so the closest I’d ever come to a video game before this was when my dad made me watch Tron one Sunday morning after church. While I may never have forgiven my father for those two hours that I’ll never get back – oh fuck off, Tron‘s rubbish – I do have to thank him for showing me my first video game and introducing me to what has now become a lifelong obsession.
Back in the late ’80s we’d sit around the dinner table as a family each night while my parents would recant to us stories of what they’d done with their day. While I spent most of this time staring off into space, daydreaming about the latest episode of Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles – they seriously weren’t allowed to be called “Ninja” in the UK – I was glued to my chair once my old man started telling me about this thing he had on his computer at work called Prince of Persia. He explained how using the keyboard you could control the prince, and how you’d have to make him jump perilous gaps, sword-fight with nefarious foes, and avoid death-traps of deadly cunning. An image formed in my mind, and while the actual game would in no way compare to the visual treat that I’d imagined sitting at the dinner table, it didn’t matter one iota to me.
My dad snook me into his office one Saturday morning and I sat and played Prince of Persia for what must have amounted to nothing more than ten minutes, but those ten minutes blew my little mind. Later, we got a PC in the house. It was old even for the time and wasn’t capable of running Windows. It had less internal memory than my calculator, and it made a noise like a Reaper from Mass Effect whenever you first turned it on. But it didn’t need to be anything flashy, because as long as I could remember the DOS command to get Prince of Persia up and running I’d be fine. Even taking my rose-tinted spectacles into account, Prince of Persia was an impressive game for the time, with surprisingly strong animations, and a sword-fighting mechanic that’s still better than most that we see today. Way better than Assassin’s Creed, anyway.
2) Treasure Island Dizzy
Treasure Island Dizzy was actually released before Prince of Persia, but since my family didn’t have very much money when I was growing up, we didn’t get any consoles until I was a little older than most gamers, and I’m pretty sure that the PC I had in my bedroom was, shall we say, permanently borrowed from my dad’s work. Eventually we got a Commodore 64 in the early ’90s, which for the uninitiated was a sort of console/PC hybrid that ran video games from magnetic tapes that took about four years to load. One of the first games I played on the system was Treasure Island Dizzy – a puzzle platformer about an egg who had been marooned on a desert island by a dastardly, mutineering pirate, and he would have to use objects he’d find in the environment in order to engineer his escape. He also wore boxing gloves, which seemed a mite impractical given he was constantly required to use his hands, but then who among us can truly comprehend the motivations of an anthropomorphic egg?
Even when considering Treasure Island Dizzy within the vacuum of just the Dizzy series (there were loads of these games, all about the same egg and his stupid egg friends) it wasn’t a particularly good game for a bunch of reasons. The inventory system flat out sucked, and the puzzles rarely made sense at all. One such puzzle at the bottom of the sea (the egg was wearing a rubber snorkel so he didn’t drown, obviously) involved using a shovel to dig up a stone which somehow caused a bubble to rise up from the floor which you could then stand on to float up to higher ground. That’s not even remotely logical. A rubber snorkel providing sufficient respiratory support to someone, egg or no, while they’re hundreds of feet deep underwater? Even as science fiction that would be a stretch. And why does the shovel make the bubble in the first place? And why can the egg stand on the bubble? I still don’t understand it. We had to use a video game telephone helpline to solve that one, which cost something like 50p per minute back in 1990 – or roughly £6,000 in 2017 money.
By far the most egregious issue with Treasure Island Dizzy was that you only had one life, and if you died you had to start the whole game again regardless of how far through it you were. People harp on about Dark Souls today, but you kids ain’t seen nothing. Every game was harder than Dark Souls back then. Dizzy had one life and he could be killed by pretty much anything. Brushing against an open flame killed him. Water killed him the second he dipped a toe into it. Wildlife killed him, regardless of size or traditional dietary requirements. Falling cages killed him, despite presumably being built for the express purpose of taking prisoners and not murdering eggs. Falling off a speed boat killed him, although, to be fair, that one sounds legit. He could even get killed by a lightning bolt if you forgot to bring a copy of the Holy Bible with you when you went grave robbing (don’t ask). I never actually managed to beat Treasure Island Dizzy, which still haunts me to this day, and I was frequently frustrated by it thanks to the quirks of its design. But I absolutely loved the character of Dizzy, and went on to buy each and every other (superior) game in the long running series despite my grievances with it. Dizzy was my first obsession as a gamer thanks to Treasure Island. And it also had a killer soundtrack. Seriously, check it out:
3) Super Street Fighter II
The summer of 1994 remains quite clear in my mind, certainly to a greater extent than any year that came before it. The World Cup was in the United States that year, and while ordinarily a World Cup would provide most of the entertainment I’d need for a summer away from school, thanks to a combination of poor refereeing and being massively shit, England hadn’t qualified for the tournament. The highlight of USA ’94 for me was the opening ceremony, when Diana Ross tried to take a penalty in her high heels with predictably hilarious results. That was also the year that Doritos first came out in old Blighty. “They taste like cardboard,” my mum would say. “Shut up, mum!” I would say. Honestly, I was out of control. But as much as I loved Doritos – Tangy Cheese only, the other flavours can get in the sea – my happiest memories of the summer of ’94 all involve Super Street Fighter II on SNES.
Super Street Fighter II was the first competitive game that I ever got well and truly addicted to. I never actually owned my own copy of the game until years later when it was ported to PlayStation as Hyper Street Fighter II, but I played it almost every day of the summer of ’94 with a bunch of my friends. Video games weren’t ubiquitous back then like they are now, and so while the cool kids were all out playing football and talking to girls and smoking the marijuana like cigarettes, we were holed up in my friend’s house competing in Street Fighter tournaments and eating our own weight in Doritos. It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had playing competitive video games.
As far as pure gameplay goes, Super Street Fighter II is one of the most refined games that I’ve ever played. It’s a cliché now to say that a game is easy to pick up but difficult to master, but if there’s one game that truly exemplifies that mantra it’s Super Street Fighter II, for my money. Everyone used to love Ken and Ryu but I was always a Vega man. He was quite tough to play as but his unpredictable move-set could be tricky to defend against. Over the years I’ve fallen out with fighting games and competitive gaming in general, but I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Super Street Fighter II, and I’ll save a seat on the bus to hell for anybody that says Mortal Kombat was better.
4) Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars
The original PlayStation is my favourite video game console of all time for a number of reasons. Thanks to a combination of shrewd marketing aimed at adults rather than children, and a line-up of exciting, original games that other consoles of the time simply couldn’t compete with, it changed the medium forever going forward. When I said that video games weren’t cool back in the early ’90s I meant it. Video games only became cool after the release of the PlayStation. Of course, regardless of how cool gaming was poised to become, I was still a massive dork back in ’96. And so while gamers around the world were whipping themselves up into a frenzy over Lara Croft and her tomb raiding shenanigans, I was on the hunt for ancient artifacts and buried treasures in the point and click adventure title, Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars.
Broken Sword was probably the first game I ever played with genuinely impressive voice acting. It was well ahead of its time, released like five years before Final Fantasy X‘s laughing scene. The game was a traditional point and click title, with all of the quirks and frustrations that come with the genre as standard, but it was in the story that I found myself utterly enamored, and it remains one of my favorite tales that the medium has ever told.
The game takes place in the wake of what is ostensibly a terrorist attack in Paris. A café is blown up by a man in a clown costume, and an American tourist named George Stobbartt is caught in the blast but survives. Rather than leaving the investigation to the bumbling Parisian police force, he decides to begin investigating the incident on his own, and later with the help of a French journalist named Nico Collard. I’m a sucker for stories that weave real history with totally made up history in order to spin a fantastical yarn that somehow still feels a little bit grounded, a la the Uncharted series, or of course, the National Treasure series starring the greatest actor in the world, Nicholas Cage. Broken Sword is just like that, only with some really confusing puzzles, and a really annoying goat.
5) Final Fantasy VII
It feels somewhat trite at this point to feature Final Fantasy VII on a best ever list, and while I wouldn’t necessarily go as far as to say that VII is the best in the series – that honor goes to Final Fantasy IX, in the Gospel according to John – it’s undoubtedly the most important of the games to me. Final Fantasy VII made me care about role playing games in a way that I never had prior to playing it. Yeah, I’d dabbled with other JRPGs, and even other Final Fantasy games, but I was wholly absorbed by Final Fantasy VII immediately upon starting it in a way that no other game, regardless of genre, had managed until that point. I got it for Christmas in ’97 and played it relentlessly until I finished it, later spending countless more hours breeding a golden chocobo and fighting the optional super-bosses Ruby and Emerald Weapon.
Like a lot of people, Final Fantasy VII was the first JRPG that I ever fell in love with, and it was the game responsible for getting me into so many others in later years that I might never have tried were it not for the adventures of Cloud and Sephiroth. Looking back, the game is somewhat shambolic in parts, featuring no less than three disparate art styles, and some appalling translation errors that lead to the whole thing feeling a little incohesive at times. But the game was also a product of its time, before Japanese role playing games were popular enough to warrant more money being spent on their production – ironically, the success of Final Fantasy VII would lead to Squaresoft upping the budget for future titles in the series – and it was released at a time when three dimensional games were still a fledgling concept. While it may be rough around the edges the game is still more than playable, and the cast of characters and compelling story are still a lot stronger than what we’ve seen from the majority of the games in the series since then.
More than anything, Final Fantasy VII invigorated an interest in me for long-form gaming that had, until that time, remained dormant. Most of the games I was used to playing prior to the launch of the PlayStation could be wrapped up in a few hours, or less than twenty at the most, but FFVII taught me to appreciate the time commitment required to experience the dense, sprawling narratives, and slow-burning character development that role playing games could and would go on to provide in the years subsequent to the release of FFVII. Final Fantasy became one of the most popular franchises in the world off the back of the success of VII, directly inspiring a slew of tributes and knock-offs, as well as opening the door for more ambitious role playing games like the more recent Persona games that unfold over an even longer time frame, not unlike an interactive television show, much to my delight.
Phew. This article is getting long, isn’t it? Here’s one of the training montages from Rocky IV to perk you up for the second half:
6) Metal Gear Solid
If there was ever a game that was seemingly made just for me, Metal Gear Solid is it. Starring a grizzled, chain-smoking, hard-drinking recluse that is forced to come out of retirement for one last job when terrorists take over a nuclear weapons facility on a remote island, Metal Gear Solid was the interactive action movie that I’d dreamed about since I was but a boy. My love for stories went hand in hand with my love for playing games, but until the release of the original Metal Gear Solid on PlayStation, there’d never been a game that managed to successfully blend gameplay and storytelling to such an extent that it actually felt like playing a movie, while also using the advantages of an interactive medium in some inventive, fourth-wall breaking ways.
It wasn’t just the story of Metal Gear Solid that appealed to me, although that was a large part of it. Such was the quality of the entire production that I felt compelled to pore over every nook and cranny of the game looking for secrets, hoping to find brand new tid-bits of information about the lore of the world, or perhaps hear a codec conversation that I’d never heard before. Even the demo disc for the game, which came with a PlayStation magazine I used to subscribe to years ago, provided me with more entertainment than some fully fledged games. I played that demo over and over and over again, and then I treated the final release of the game with the same dedication.
Of course, pick up Metal Gear Solid today and it plays like arse and it looks even worse. But the story of Solid Snake and the cavalcade of absurd villains that make up the terrorist unit FOXHOUND still stands up as one of the finer narratives in gaming history. Most importantly to me, Metal Gear Solid showed me that video games would become more ambitious in their narratives going forward, and I wasn’t disappointed. Well, I was when I played Beyond: Two Souls. But some of the story-based games that came out in the wake of Metal Gear Solid were wonderful, and it’s hard to imagine a world in which story-focused, mature games are so prevalent had Metal Gear not paved the way for them first.
7) Mass Effect 2
The observant amongst you may well have noticed that I skipped an entire generation, and there’s good reason for that. The Dreamcast/PS2/Gamecube/Xbox generation has always been my least favourite, in part because the PS2 had absolutely no serious competition and just dominated every other machine, and in part because it took place during a point in my life where I was playing relatively few video games. At the turn of the millennium I was first discovering the joys of painting the town red, and it’s hard to come up with the money for video games when you’re giving all of your money to bartenders and jukeboxes. That’s not to say that there weren’t games that I loved from that time, but just that I didn’t form a bond with many games quite as deeply as I did at other times in my life.
By the time I’d got myself an Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii, I was once again fully committed to spend all of my hard earned coin on video games, and while all three of those systems featured numerous games that could quite happily find themselves on this list, it was Mass Effect 2 (which I played on PS3) that helped to rekindle my love for gaming and keep me on the straight(ish) and narrow. Mass Effect 2 was the first game that I ever got a platinum trophy in, since I’d played it so much upon release that I’d organically gotten every gong in the game except for the one for playing it on the hardest difficulty setting. I decided to play it through one more time on Insane difficulty since I figured I might as well get a platinum once in my life, but all things considered, it was a frustrating experience and I’d probably have been better off just waiting for Telltale to start making games with easy trophy lists. Either way, that platinum was like the first toke on a joint that – according to my teachers at school – always leads to heroin addiction, and now I’m hunting for trophies in practically every game I play.
Mass Effect 2 appealed to me in a way that games hadn’t since the classics of the original PlayStation because the tight gunplay was perfectly interwoven with a wonderful cast of characters and compelling storyline made up of a dozen or so self-contained narratives akin to monster-of-the-week episodes of a television show. While not all of the stories were created equally – let’s not pretend anybody gives a flying fruit about Jacob and his daddy issues – there were stand-out moments involving delightful characters like Thane, Legion, Mordin and Tali that were worth savoring. Mass Effect 2 was also a shining example of how to get player choice right, not content to just go the inFamous route of forcing you to choose between explicitly good or evil options, but in having characters you may have grown fond of live or die on a whim, based on your performance throughout the campaign.
8) Persona 4 Golden
Persona 4 was one of the late, great PlayStation 2 games released after the PS3 hit the streets. I loved that game after having discovered the series with Persona 3, but found the characters and more lighthearted tone of Persona 4 preferable to the faux-suicide emo imagery and the bleak overarching narrative of the previous entry. I loved Persona 4 to such an extent that when an expanded re-release was announced for Sony’s flailing Vita, I had absolutely no qualms about ponying up the dough for the system and the game despite not actually wanting anything else in the handheld’s library.
Golden is just a superior version of Persona 4, adding new characters, extra story beats, and a slick graphical overhaul to an already stellar JRPG. While it perhaps feels a little overwhelming to some players – particularly for completionists who like to do everything in a game – the finely tuned balance between the freedom to do as you wish with your spare time and a tightly crafted central storyline has perhaps never been so expertly realized, at least until the release of Persona 5. Role playing games often have to choose whether to provide players with a world to explore at their leisure or a well paced narrative that will hold their attention, but the unique approach that Atlus took with Persona 4 made for a happy balance between the two seemingly at-odds concepts.
The game takes place over a calendar year at a high-school in Japan, and particular moments of the story will always happen on the same day, at the same time, no matter what you do. But the rest of the time is yours to use as you wish, whether that be studying for your upcoming exams, going out for food at the local diner with your friends, or exploring the randomly generated dungeons in order to battle monsters and earn experience and loot. The cast of characters are well above par in terms of writing and voice acting, and while the storyline of the game adheres to many of the tropes of a stereotypical Japanese role playing game, it’s delivered so earnestly and with so many twists and turns that it remains compelling right up until the hundredth hour. I’ve played the game three or four times, and still never managed to platinum it thanks to that fucking Hardcore Risette Fan trophy, but the game is most important to me for reinvigorating my interest in JRPGs after the Final Fantasy series took a nosedive post-IX.
9) Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is a good MMO and little more to most people, but it’s massively important to me personally. It was the first game that I ever reviewed, back in 2013, for the now defunct website Sound On Sight. I’d seen an ad somewhere on the web looking for writers, and I took a chance. I was asked to write a review as a trial, and since I was already playing FFXIV at the time it seemed like a natural fit. A quick search on the internets reveals that the review isn’t actually online any more, but there’s a snippet of the review still featured on IMDB which I can now post here for posterity.
“To say that the launch of Final Fantasy XIV in 2010 went a little awry for Square Enix is like saying that opening the Ark of the Covenant at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark went a little awry for the Nazis. Depending on your frustration threshold, the game was either a cumbersome, obtuse but ultimately rewarding experience, or a nigh unplayable mess. Regardless of which camp you fell into, the general consensus is that the game was rushed, buggy, and a massive disappointment.
Fast forward three years, a couple of apologies, and more than a couple of changes, and Final Fantasy XIV has been re-launched as Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. Square Enix have an even more difficult job selling A Realm Reborn since the bitter taste left by the original release is still in the mouths of many gamers. They really had to get this one right.”
Aside from that opening line which I still think is pretty funny, the review, as I remember it, was unequivocally awful. I’m pretty sure the first sentence in the second paragraph above doesn’t actually make sense, and that should be a “has” after Square Enix rather than a “have.” Perhaps I’m just being hard on myself like how when you turn thirty you suddenly realize that everything you did in your twenties was embarrassing, but I distinctly recall looking back on the review a year or two ago and shuddering. Still, that review led on to another, and then some opinion pieces, eventually leading to me getting work writing in a freelance capacity for numerous websites dedicated to video games as well as within other mediums.
I’m by no means Roger Ebert, but as someone who loves to write and loves to game, writing about video games is a treat for me, and the opportunity to do so was afforded to me by the good people of Sound On Sight who either somehow enjoyed my Final Fantasy XIV review, or were so drunk that they didn’t notice how appalling it was. Sound On Sight was owned by Ricky D, and though the site later changed ownership and ultimately altered in vision quite dramatically, Ricky went on to start up the very site on which you’re reading this article today, and that’s why I’m here. That and to mock Nintendo and annoy people.
Without that review I would never have had the opportunity to review dreadful games like Ghostbusters and Valkyria Revolution for the PlayStation website Push Square. I would never have reviewed some games that I loved, too. I would never have received comments telling me to “get raped by refugees” in response to an article I wrote about Donald Trump. I would never have tried my hand at podcasting with features editor Mike Worby, who once made a very silly bet with me that resulted in him having to eat his shoe. And I wouldn’t be writing about the top ten games that are most important to me right now. And you wouldn’t be bored reading it.
So thanks, guys.
PS. I’m a level 56 Bard on Final Fantasy XIV. It’s really good.
10) Divinity: Original Sin — Enhanced Edition
Divinity: Original Sin is a good RPG, made incredibly special to me because I played the game through entirely with my then girlfriend, now fiancé, Lauren. We met at the end of 2015. Our first date was spent drinking in gay bars. Our second date was spent playing Streets of Rage and eating take-out. We beat Streets of Rage, although we struggled to finish the take-out as I recall. Anyway, she was a filthy Xbox gamer, but since I only had a PlayStation 4 when we started dating, when she was at my house we’d do some co-op gaming on my system, and one of the first games we played together was Divinity.
Since we only saw each other two days a week before we moved in together, it took us like six months to beat Divinity. Sometimes we spent hours fighting bosses that were too hard for us. We spent an age perusing the markets looking for bargains, listening to the incredibly annoying shop-keeps recanting the same obnoxious lines of dialogue over and over and over again. We occasionally got confused about where we were supposed to be going on quests because the tracking system in the game is practically non-existent. And sometimes it felt like despite all the time we’d put into it, we hadn’t actually made much progress at all. But it was a hell of a lot of fun, and now she’s got her own PlayStation 4 sat at the opposite side of our living room to mine, and we both game at the same time. We play different games now, though, since there’s precious little in the way of co-operative gaming on the go in 2017.
Divinity 2 is on the horizon, though. And I can’t wait to step back into that world and do it all again. If you actually want to know about the game and not just about me making googly eyes at my girlfriend while slaying orcs and whatnot, here’s the gist: it’s a turn based RPG with an entertaining story, a cast of colourful characters, and a battle system that should provide a hefty amount of challenge for most gamers. If you’re thinking about giving it a go, take it from me; it’s much more fun playing it with someone you love.
Honourable mentions: Super Mario World, Super Mario Galaxy 2, Toejam and Earl, Persona 5, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, Silent Hill, Championship Manager ’98, Civilization V, BioShock Infinite, The Last of Us, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, Super Paper Mario, Xenoblade Chronicles, Pokémon Soul Silver, Final Fantasy IX, Tetris, and of course, PaRappa the Rapper.