A few days ago one of my friends that works in the games industry was talking about a thing that had been circulating around his studio. The idea was for each of the folks to create a list of the fifteen games that most influenced them, or taunt them something new that games could do. While this is a really helpful exercise in the gaming industry I am sure, I figured it would also be pretty fun to do as a lifelong gamer and gaming blogger. The thing I was not realizing while going into it… was just how hard it would be to pair things down to a list of fifteen games. There are so many titles I wanted to include, but I had to come up with a hard rationale for each and every one on the list. So there will be titles that are conspicuously absent, and others that I have included that you wouldn’t think of. However the final list includes titles that I learned some lesson from along the way.
I grew up essentially during the beginning of the video game era. There is really not a time I can remember where they did not exist. Early on my parents had a sears pong system, and as I entered elementary we got an Atari 2600. For the most part each and every game I played was a mostly single player experience, or if there was any form of multiplayer it was limited to the kind of interaction you had in pong.
Gauntlet was really the first game to teach me that you could play video games as a team. I thought this was a profound thing and every time my cousins and I managed to squirrel away a few quarters we wanted to spend it on what felt like at the time the “massively” multiplayer experience of Gauntlet. Over the years the game changed, and gauntlet became gauntlet 2 which turned into teenage mutant ninja turtles and later the avengers or simpsons. However the mission was always the same. There were three to four of us, and we wanted to play a game that we could all play together. My eldest cousin and I would help shelter the younger and less skilled players, so it fundamentally changed the way we gamed together.
Mega Man 2 (1988)
For the most part games evolved like I expected them to. While I feel like maybe I should have included Super Mario Brothers in the list, because when I first played it I was absolutely blown away. However it was less about the game itself and more about the massive jump in fidelity. I didn’t really experience a true “mind blown” moment during the Nintendo era until I first played Mega Man 2. Somehow I had completely missed the original Mega Man, in part I think the horrific elementary school quality box artwork was to blame. Seriously take a look at this… nothing about this cover makes a kid want to spend their allowance on even renting it. So it was only after the release of 2 that I started to pay attention to the franchise.
I can remember I got this game when my cousin was over and we proceeded to play the shit out of this game for the next 72 hours. There was something so cool about being able to complete the game in any order you chose. This is really one of my first “sandbox” moments in a game, and we tried multiple paths to the end trying to figure out which was more efficient. Having to determine which weapon worked best on which boss, and finally which weapons were our favorites were completely new concepts to us. While the Mega Man franchise has evolved over the years, and I have to say everything about Mega Man X trumps this one… it is still this original one that brought me into the franchise that I hold above all of the others.
Now this one is going to probably seem odd to a lot of people, but you have to understand. I did not get a PC until the 386 16 my parents got during my high school years. So there is an entire era of PC gaming that I mostly missed. I had played Zork and various text based games like that, but mostly over at friends houses and mostly with them at the console. By the time I got to experience the game they had already figured out 90% of it… and were mostly showing off their mastery. Shadowgate was really my first experience with the “adventure” game genre, because it was really the first big one to come out on a system I owned and could play. I remember the first time I played Shadowgate, my friend and I had rented it and we stayed up literally all night trying to delve its secrets.
I proceeded to keep it out overdue for a good few weeks trying to figure out how to beat it. During the day at school my friends and I would brainstorm ways to solve the puzzles, and then that night I would try them all attempting to progress to the next area. Over the course of this we managed to beat the game, and it was one of the most triumphant experiences I have had in gaming. It definitely took a team, because there were so many things that I wouldn’t have thought of doing. Of course I moved on from here to Maniac Mansion, Deja Vu, and eventually became a fan of the Lucasarts PC adventure games. However Shadowgate will always have a special place in my heart as the “first”.
Part of the reason why I buy so many games these days, is in part because there was a time in my life when I had no money and was a pretty egregious pirate. Truth be told ALL of us were, it was just an accepted thing growing up when and where I did. One of my good friends had a brother in college, and every so often he would go up to stay the weekend with him. It was pretty much expected practice for us each to pony up for a brand new box of verbatim 3.5 inch disks and that at the end of the weekend he would return with a bounty of new games for us to play. Our lives pretty much changed the weekend he came home with Civilization.
I had never played a game like this and I wanted more. I spent countless hours and lost entire days trying to conquer other nations, establish trade routes and come up with new ways to win. One of the cooler moments is when we figured out how to hex edit the game and change the names of the nations leaders to whatever we wanted. Each of us had a different strategy, mine centered around two things… 1) getting the chariot as fast as I could, and 2) getting gunpowder as fast after that as I could. This is also the game I learned that I am have extreme nesting tendencies, since I would build everything available for each and every town I conquered. I also learned about my darker side in that I would leave a race alone, making trade with them… up until the point they decided to attack me. Then the next several turns would be all about me pouring war machines from every town I had and completely obliterating that race off the face of the planet. Sadly this is still pretty much how I play 4X style games. I am your best friend until you attack me then it is total obliteration time.
Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991)
This game has a weird story, and will always have a special place in my heart. I had some pretty significant sinus surgery, and we picked this game up on the way home from the hospital. Laying in bed playing this game is essentially how I recovered and took my mind off the pain and constant grossness that was having to wear “nasal drip pads” after a sinus surgery. This is now why this game is on this list however. Everything about the game is perfect, it to me will always be the ultimate Zelda game… however not even that is worth putting it on the list for. I remember when I first played it feeling like I was getting ripped off. The original Zelda had taken me months to beat, and here I was sitting at home and it seemed like I was just about to beat the game after only a few days of gameplay. I was getting to the point where I wanted to throw the controller at the screen for getting ripped off.
Then it happened… the game turned the tables on me. Not only was I nowhere near the end of the game… I wasn’t even halfway through. This is the first game that did the bait and switch on me, where I think I am nearing the end only to find out I maybe completed the first act. This has happened so many times with so many games that at this point it has just become a trope. However Link to the Past was my first, and will be the one I always remember. I can remember lying in bed thinking “holy shit, there is a whole other world?”. Few games have had as much impact on me as that original mind blown moment. As a result I will always be able to return to this game and play it happily, each time basking in the warm glow of nostalgia.
Street Fighter 2 (1991)
Obviously 1991 was a big year for me in shaping the way I looked at games from that point on. The local circle K had at one point had Street Fighter, and while I played it and enjoyed it… the game didn’t really feel that much different than Ye Ar Kung Fu… which granted was a favorite of mine in the arcades. However the game play all seemed to revolve around mashing the right button at the right time. You have to understand the street fighter cabinet I played was not the original game that had been in the cabinet, and the operator had not bothered to include the stickers that showed us that something like a fireball move existed. So each of us played the game pretty much like a button masher, with different attack buttons to mash.
When Street Fighter 2 came out, my first experience of seeing it was in a true arcade… not a gas station. The first time I saw someone pull off a fireball motion, I was completely blown away. What the hell was he doing, you could move the controller in a certain way and get a certain move? I became absolutely obsessed with learning everything I could about the game. I bought an EGM magazine… which in those days was a pretty epic 300 page thing. My friends and I memorized every move and tried our best to master every character. When an arcade opened in our town called the “Wooden Nickel” we spent most of our money plugging the machine. What was so cool about SF2 was not necessarily the game, but the culture that evolved around it. Every respected everyone else, and there were simple rules… loser pays, winner stays. Anyone could slap their quarter up on the bezel to reserve the next fight.
Wolfenstein 3D (1992)
This game came to us through another one of those weekend diskette runs, and much like Civ it changed the way we thought about our games. I can remember back then I had no sound card, but instead had a device that plugged into the back of the computer that created the sounds through a speaker. So if nothing else, this was one of the first games I had played that attempted to replicate human voice. Hearing the Nazi troopers yell “Achtung!” freaked me the hell out the first time I heard it. More so than that, this was the first 3D game we had played. Granted I had played some stuff in the arcade that pretended to be 3D with massive rotating polygons…. but this game gave it to me in blazing speed and gorgeous sprites. Of course now I realize just now “not” 3D the game really was, but at the time we were in awe of it.
As cool Wolf was, for being essentially the first 3D FPS I would ever play, this is not why it made the list. Shipped along with our illegitimate version of Wolf was a nifty little program called “WolfEdit.exe”. The first time we cracked it open and saw that WE could edit the levels in Wolfenstien it changed the way we looked at games forever. Up until this point, game creation was a black box. It was a thing that the common man just couldn’t do. Being able to edit and create our own levels and there for extend the gameplay indefinitely was a completely new concept to me. Sure we could edit the track in Excitebike, but this was just fundamentally different and game changing. From this point on, I pretty much dabbled in editing and modding whatever games I happened to play, and this was the point at which I really shifted to being extremely serious about PC gaming.
Final Fantasy VI (1994)
This one I debated about for a long time… do I include Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy IV or Final Fantasy VI. They each had their own influence on me. The first one really was less about the game, and more about “I can finally play D&D on my Nintendo”. The second US release, was less about the storyline and more about “look at how much prettier this is than the original”. When Final Fantasy VI came out I rented it over Christmas break, and when it came time to take it back… I begged the local rental place to let me buy their copy off of them so I wouldn’t have to start over again. They of course declined and I ended up going to Target and picking up a copy and beginning my journey a new. This game was so many things to me, but more than anything I loved the story and the characters.
This game probably goes down in history as the first time I really cared about a character as more than just pixels on the screen. Up until this point, any story being told was just an excuse for me to accumulate interesting loot or kill lots of bad guys. This is the game that got me in the heart, and when a character triumphed or died… I had so many “feels”. I feel like this game was for me what seven was for so many other people. The level of intricacy and the awesome steam punk setting were just gravy. Looking back now, the story feels so primitive compared to massive epic sagas like Mass Effect, but it was enough to make me care about each and every character I picked up… and even make me hate a few of them.
Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall (1996)
With the upcoming release of Elder Scrolls Online, and all my fanboyism about it… this seems extremely relevant. Daggerfall was my entry into the series and the world and lore hooked me. More than any of that the reason why this game stands out is it taught me just how mind blowingly vast a video game could be. You could explore for literally hours, constantly coming across brand new stuff. On top of this it was fully 3D just like Wolf or Doom… but used it in a way that produced what felt like a real world to me at the time. I still feel like this might have been the single biggest game I have ever played. Granted some of the MMOs that came later probably have eventually… after years and years gotten to a size that was larger.
Looking back now, it looks extremely primitive and I have a hard time believing we felt this game was real, but for awhile it absolutely was. At some point I want to try going back and playing it again. Bethesda in all their graciousness offers the full game available for download on their website. This is the game that started my obsession with the elder scrolls, but I fear going back it will not have held up to the test of time the way that Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim have. Some games work just fine going back and playing them, like Commander Keen for example. But others like Wolfenstein 3D just have not held the magic because of the extreme changes in what we can do technologically. Luckily I will be able to revisit Daggerfall in a way, since my guild has chosen to go Daggerfall Covenant for the launch of Elder Scrolls Online.
This game… so many hours lost to it. Lately I have been playing the hell out of Diablo 3, and really to me it is the same addiction that came with the first one. My mind was completely blown when I realized that Diablo was a new game each and every time I played it. I could not fathom that a game could be creating levels on the fly, and this was really the first game I realized had procedural generation happening behind the scenes. This game is like the purest version of what I am looking for in any game. Interesting places to explore, awesome loot to earn and lots and lots of bad guys to slaughter. I really am a big dumb monkey, and this at its core is a big dumb beer and pizza game.
At the time I was working as the lab administrator for the Fine Arts lab, and since it had Ethernet internet access… something that was extremely rare at the time… I spent so many hours playing this game off zip drive while waiting for someone to come into the lab and need assistance. What I find funny is that years after the fact people seem to have almost complete forgotten that there was an expansion for this game. Sierra games released the Hellfire expansion that allowed you to play an additional and extremely overpowered “monk” class. For that matter they also released a Starcraft expansion if I can remember correctly. Neither will ever be listed on the Blizzard page, but I can remember both and played the hell out of the modded version of Diablo for years.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997)
Metroidvania was not really a thing before the existance of this game for me. Metroid was a cool game, and I remember playing it, but it didn’t really feel that different from any other platformer at the time. I was like a side scrolling Legend of Zelda to me. Super Metroid felt like a big upgrade, but was not that different. Symphony of the Night was just a complete and total gamechanger in the way I felt about the genre. Firstly in addition to gaining gear, you also gained levels. So everything I did felt purposeful, killing easy mobs felt like it was helping me towards reaching my lofty goals. On top of this, the Mega Man 2 non-linear aspect of the game play felt like a 2D roleplaying game to me. It had everything I loved about console RPGs in an action form.
The real hook of the game was just how mind blowingly gorgeous it was, and how great the soundtrack was. Everything about this game screamed awesome, and how cool is it to play a noble vampire as the main hero? I am gushing a little bit here, but Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is pretty much my favorite video game. It exemplifies everything I look for in a game wrapped up in one neat package. On top of this, it has the switcheroo at the end as you can play through the upside down castle vastly extending the gameplay. To date no game has dethroned the title. The Saturn version did not control nearly as well as the playstation, but it had some interesting changes like the ability to control Maria. I keep hoping at some point there will be a version the incorporates the best features of both games.
I have always loved the concept of a post apocalyptic world. As a kid, probably influenced by Mad Max, I used to have dreams about living in a post nuclear landscape. Fallout took all of these fantasies and wrapped them up into one game with an interesting premise and characters I cared about. The big thing about Fallout however was just how “free” and “open” the world felt. There were no hard objectives, you could just wander about the wasteland dispensing justice in any fashion you felt. However there was very much a central storyline to the game, but you were under no obligation to follow it.
I have played this game so many different ways over the years, and each time it has felt as fresh and entertaining as the first. Additionally there were so many secrets that you could only find by wandering around the map and looking for special events. Did you guys find the crashed UFO? I found it by generally faffing about the map looking for secrets. As the series has progressed, I have loved every moment of the games that followed. Well with the exception of maybe Fallout Tactics… that game was a bit too far off the path for my tastes. War never changes… and lets hope the core principals of the Fallout franchise never do either.
PlaneScape: Torment (1999)
Planescape holds a special place in my heart for several reasons, but the biggest is that this is the first game I played that felt like i was reading a good novel, and not just playing a video game. While I cared about the characters from other games… they were “good for a video game”. The story of Planescape Torment felt like it would hold up against the best stories anywhere. This was the first game that made me feel like games could be more. While I don’t always want it, and most of the time I want a big dumb beer and pizza game… I can fully appreciate that a video game can be something phenominal. This game was the game that proved it to me.
Another interesting thing about this game, is it made me deeply care about a Dungeons and Dragons setting that I pretty much ignored to date. I was a huge fan of the Dark Sun setting, but I pretty much completely ignored Planescape. Upstairs I have tons of the source material and world books… and this is all inspired by the fact that this game made me LOVE this setting. I am really hoping the kickstarter sequel to this game lives up to the brilliant of the original. I realize in many ways it will be a new setting… since they do not have the rights to do a direct sequel. I am hopeful, but even if it is perfect… this game will stand out as a special thing to me.
This game was the beginning of the end for me. While I have already told the tale of me starting to play Everquest many times, the game reserves a special spot on this list for showing me exactly what an MMO could be. I was extremely leery of the title, namely because at the time I had a pretty crappy intel graphics card, and an even crappier internet connection. However upon playing this game I was completely enthralled with the fact that a game world that was huge like Daggerfall could exist online, with hundreds of other players and existed 24/7. That concept was a real game changer for me, and gave me something I had apparently craved… large scale social interaction with other gamers.
So much of the way I view online games today came through everquest, and the importance it placed on the social unit of gaming…. the guild. Hell the fact that I run House Stalwart the way that I do is a direct influence of how much I hated the way the guild was run in Everquest. I can’t view the game entirely through rose colored lenses. I remember reading a GDC article from the creators talking about many of the game design decisions being centered around the fact that originally they had planned to charge by the hour for the game. So things were purposefully designed in a way to take large blocks of real time. But for all of the flaws, this game was my first large scale online world. I dabbled in Ultima Online a bit, but it just felt like Massively Multiplayer Diablo. Everquest was the first game that felt like a whole other world to me.
World of Warcraft (2004)
What can I really say about World of Wacraft that has not already been said. After coming from Everquest, Horizon, Dark Age of Camelot and City of Heroes… playing WoW for the first time… was like watching a movie in High Definition. It was everything I ever wanted a game to be, and more… at a level of detail I simply could not fathom existing to that point. Prior to getting into beta, I was deeply skeptical about the game. I pretty much had the opinion that Blizzard games had just enough storyline to keep them from completely falling down on their asses. Granted at this point I had not played Warcraft 3. That really seems like it was the game changer for Blizzard and a shift from really awesome mechanics to a focus on the storytelling. Prior to that they made really technically awesome games, but super limited storyline. The story arc of Warcraft 2 and Diablo were cool, but nothing really worth writing home about.
World of Warcraft is a game that just raised the bar. They took the best features of every game that came before that and elevated them. They added so many things, both good and bad to the genre. Instanced dungeons was so amazing…. “you mean I don’t have to compete with other groups of players for spawns?”. Then there was the amazing backstory behind each of the enemy factions. I remember at one point I ran my own Everquest emulator server and I tried to do just that. Instead of having generic goblins, I wanted to give each goblin tribe a backstory… then damned if Warcraft didn’t do that. This game will always hold a special place in my heart, but this game is the gauntlet that is constantly thrown down to other MMOs. While niche games have evolved the genre, there has yet to be a game that is just light-years better than everything else on the market in quite the same way that World of Warcraft was simply universally so.
For most of the week there was a four way tie between Assassins Creed II, Brutal Legend, FTL and Alan Wake. However while writing this post a tiebreaker vote came in and it looks like I will be playing Brutal Legend tomorrow. I really don’t know much about this game other than the fact that it is Heavy Metal, stars Jack Black and is from Double Fine Productions. I am perfectly okay going into this with little knowledge. I got this as part of a humble bundle package, or I am not sure if I would have bought it. When it came out, it looked really interesting, but didn’t really trigger the response of “man I need to get that.” So we will see what you all have gotten me into. I will be picking a winner and contacting them today at some point to give away the copy of Bioshock. I want to thank all of you for voting. Tomorrow we will have another contest at the end of the regularly scheduled game play write-up.