Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The greatest video games ever

Although I don't talk about it much, I am a gamer. I really like video games. I became smitten with video games the first time I saw Space Invaders in England somewhere around 1979-1980 or so. One of my best friends had an Atari (there was no number 2600 back in those days, it was just "Atari") with games like Combat, Air/Sea Battle, and the aforementioned Space Invaders.

For Christmas one year (1981 or 1982) I was given an Intellivision. Technically superior to the Atari, it had some of the worst controllers ever designed, and didn't have as many licensed properties as the Atari did. Still, there were great games for it. Star Strike had that "star wars fight in a tunnel" feel to it, and Utopia was a very early version of what later became popular as sim city. Demon Attack had nothing to do with demons, and everything to do with being a much better version of the space invaders game play (well, close to phoenix, too close in fact, resulting in a lawsuit) than the "real thing" the atari had. It also had boss battles, the first time I ever remember seeing those in games.

I played a lot of those games (and many others for the intellivision), and had a lot of fun, but none of them stand out to me 27 years later as a singularly fantastic game experience. I did not stop playing games with the death of the Intellivision (known as the video game crash, all of the consoles died pretty much simultaneously. a little playing card company called nintendo stepped into the subsequent void in the market...). I have played games on the computer pretty much forever, and have also owned a few more consoles over the years.

So I've been a gamer for at least 27 years. Of all the games I've ever played, a few stand out. This is a tribute to those few.

My first computer was an Apple //e. I played a lot of games on that computer. I remember Captain Goodnight, Karateka, F15 Strike Eagle, and a few others, but the one game that really stands out is Ultima IV. Prior to Ultima all of my game playing friends had their favorite games, but we generally were playing lots of different things. After Ultima IV was released, for a time, we were ALL playing it. At school, we were talking about Ultima IV, we were calling each other at home to ask questions, we were talking about it any chance we got. I remember one of the kids bringing the map and some of the goodies from some sort of special edition to school and how we were all jealous. One of the things about Ultima IV was that everyone could play it. It worked on the Atari ST, Apple II, and Commodore 64. It also ran on other systems, but everyone I knew had one of those three.

I have no idea how many hours I put into Ultima IV, but I know that I played it for a long, long time. It offered a very large world with eight different quests for virtues. It's gameplay focused on achieving virtues rather than killing demons and other underworld creatures, which was very unusual and unique for an RPG at the time.

I had played Ultima I, II and III a bit but never really got into them. I never played Ultima V or any of the later games. There were nine games in the series, and the only one I ever spent more than about an hour with was Ultima IV, but I finished that game. As I recall, I did everything there was to do. Ultima IV was the highpoint of the series, an epic adventure that goes down as the best role playing game of the 1980's, in my opinion. If you are curious, it is available for Mac OS X and Linux! You can download it by clicking here.

My next computer was a Mac SE. The original tetris was a simple arcade style game, but was such a good game that my computer stayed on 24/7 when I was in college. If someone wasn't doing homework on it, someone else was playing tetris on it. Seriously, everyone on my floor would come to my room to play tetris. It was that addictive. Not much to say about it other than the single best puzzle game ever.

My second mac was a huge step up from my first one, a full color Quadra 700. Graphics, sound and gameplay expanded dramatically. I didn't play a lot of games on my computer by then, it was mostly to get work done on, but I did find a little game called Marathon. At the time Doom was all the rage, and Marathon was looked on by some as the Mac alternative to Doom. But it was much more than an alternative, it was vastly superior. Marathon had great graphics for its time, it had the ability to look up and down (revolutionary at the time), and may have been the first game to ever combine keyboard and mouse for gameplay. These things are so obvious now it's funny, but for its day, Marathon was amazing.

But more than just innovations in gameplay, marathon had a story. A good story. Rather than cutscenes, which are used now to tell the story, Marathon had you interact with terminals that directed you as to what you were to do next, and moved the story along. It was engaging, well written, and made the game much more fun than just "kill everything" would have been.

Marathon was the first game I had finished (that had an ending) since Ultima IV. After I finished it, I played it again. I bought the sequel Marathon 2 the moment it was released and completed that. Ditto for Marathon Infinity. I liked this game so much I bought t-shirts (which I still have). But what marathon really brought to the table for the first time was multiplayer. I played a few games of Marathon multiplayer, but it was Marathon 2 where it really came into its own. We would take up to eight people to my office, and put Marathon 2 on eight of the office machines (each copy allowed two machines for multiplayer, and enough people owned it to pull it off). Then we would create an eight way conference call with the phone system and have a multiplayer frag fest. We would generally play until security asked us to leave at midnight. This is still the most fun playing multiplayer I've ever had. Eight friends, eight machines, eight phones, a fast network, and one really great game. The Marathon games are also available for free (Mac, Windows and Linux) under the name AlephOne.

Myth followed Marathon. Same game company, completely different style of game. Myth was a game in which you controlled an army of creatures in battle. There was no resource management, only battle. I never finished the campaign for Myth or Myth II, but multiplayer was what caused this to make the list. Multiplayer was awesome. Myth was the first game I had that allowed multiplayer over the internet. Now I could play with my friends without having to get everyone to the office, and this was convenient because my daughter was born shortly after the release of this game, making late night gaming sessions out of the house all but impossible.

Somewhere between Marathon and Myth I found a game called Burn:Cycle. This game had a great story, fun puzzles, and a sense of urgency created by the story. I loved the feel as well. It had a Blade Runner motif to the whole thing, and is for me a highlight of adventure type games. Burn:Cycle is mostly forgotten, other than people who refer to it as "the one good cd-i game" although I played it on the mac. The graphics leave a lot to be desired in this day and age, but I'd love to play it again.

As much as I loved computer gaming, my computer was really to be worked on, not to play games on, and I found myself wanting to upgrade my computer unnecessarily simply to play better games. This is a losing proposition, as it's very expensive. So I bought a console to play games on, and pretty much stopped worrying about what my computer could play.

My first console was a 3DO. A little known and mostly unsuccessful console, it had some really fun games. I played a lot of Need for Speed, Road Rage, and a fun little game called PO'ed. But years later after my 3DO broke, the one game that I still longed to play (enough to buy another 3DO off ebay) was Space Hulk. Space Hulk was the first squad combat game I ever played, and still my favorite. It's a cross between a first person shooter and an intense strategy game.

To win at Space Hulk you have to be good at a first person shooter, and great at devising battlefield strategy under duress. You don't have unlimited time to plan things out, there is a timer on the pause screen. Once that timer is up, the game resumes even if you are staring at the map...

I sold most of my 3DO games. I kept the very best, and the one game that kept me from selling everything was Space Hulk. Unfortunately this game was totally off the radar screen for most people. Those who expected Doom were disappointed, because it is impossible to succeed if you treat this like a straightforward FPS. Those who expected a pure strategy game didn't like having to shoot their way through the game. The game came out for all of the competing consoles of the day, Saturn, Playstation, and 3DO, but I don't believe it was that successful on any of them.

The problem with owning a 3DO is that it died an early death due to the success of the playstation. As a result, in a few years it was time for a new console. I wanted the "next generation" and the first console to offer that was the Dreamcast. The Dreamcast had some outstanding games, and I got my money's worth out of that console, to be sure.

The one game that stands out though, was Test Drive LeMans. I was not a big LeMans fan before this game, but this game was the perfect storm of racing games for me. Great driving feel, great selection of cars, great selection of tracks, good opponent AI. I beat this game at every level. I won every race on expert, including the 24 hours of LeMans that took a full 24 hours to complete. I won every car and every track. I don't know how many hours of gameplay I got out of this game, but it was certainly worth every penny.

I have other racing games for the dreamcast: F1 World Grand Prix, Sega Rally 2, 18 Wheeler American Pro Trucker, Vanishing Point, Test Drive V-Rally, F355 Challenge Passion Rossa, Sega GT, Hydro Thunder, Tokyo Extreme Racer 1 & 2, Wacky Racers, Crazy Taxi, Speed Devils, Trick Style, Rippin' Riders, Metropolis Street Racer, Demolition Racer: No Exit, Daytona USA, Star Wars Episode 1 Racer, Super Runabout: San Francisco Edition, and Looney Tunes Space Race. They were all fun, but it was Test Drive LeMans that was the best of the bunch.

The Dreamcast died a premature death due to the dominance of the PS2. Sadly, it could not compete with the hype machine Sony put out regarding it's console. The Dreamcast had one of the best collections of games of any console ever, and died way too early. After they stopped making games for the dreamcast, I stopped buying games because I didn't want to buy either an xbox or a PS2 as they were essentially not any more powerful than what I already had. So I continued to play the dreamcast, and then I decided to go to seminary. While in seminary I did not have time to play games, so I waited until after seminary to look at games again.

As I drew to the end of my seminary career, I decided to buy a PS3. I figured that playstation had killed off the last two platforms I played, so why not go with the leader? And then it came out for $600. I just couldn't bring myself to buy one, and neither could anyone else apparently. As I stared at the system and it's insane price tag, I began to ask what games I wanted to play that were out for it. In short, Resistance: Fall of Man was the only PS3 exclusive title that I really cared about. On the other hand, the Xbox 360 had Gears of War, the Halo Series, and Project Gotham Racing 3. That was three games to one, and it cost half as much. I looked at the market, and the 360 was kicking butt over the PS3, so I decided to go for it.

I liked Gears of War, and had a great time playing all three halo games, but none of those make my "greatest games ever" list. That honor goes to Mass Effect. The first game to be added to the list in about eight years, Mass Effect is a stunning achievement. The game has one of the best stories ever for a video game. Good characters, political intrigue, and lots of depth. I love the fact that you can walk by people and they are talking about stuff that matters. If you just cruise by you will never hear it, but if you stop and listen, you will learn more about what is going on.

The game mixes RPG with first person shooter elements, and you have a team of three people drawn from a group of seven (your character is always there, and you pick two companions for every mission out of the six possible). One of the keys to this game is knowing when is the optimal time to use each character. If you choose wisely, the game is a lot easier.

The game is very engaging. I felt like I had just been part of an epic movie when I reached the end of the game. I found myself reading about random planets that I couldn't even visit, and excited to complete every last side mission. The 360 has something called achievements, and Mass Effect is the first game that ever had me care about getting those.

As great as Mass Effect is, it isn't perfect. Driving the mako gets annoying after a while, and the repeating layouts of compounds and caves is a little disappointing. But none of that matters. The game is so great on its good merits that it still deserves a ten. It also deserves the latest place on my list.

When I finished Mass Effect, I watched the credits, stared at the title screen for a moment, and then hit the start button and started over. I have never done that before with _any_ game, even the other games on my list. It is one of the very few games I have ever played through twice (Marathon and Halo were the other two, and Halo didn't even make my list!).

Gaming is a fun hobby. It is also interactive instead of just sitting there watching tv or movies. The games I've listed here are the games that have proven to be the very best of the very best over the last 27 years. If you like games and have access to any of them, you should definitely give them a try. You won't regret it.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ah, sweet mistress. Yes, I too was taken by Marathon when it first came out. So much so, I would play it in the morning before work and arrive hopefully no later than an hour. That didn't happen much, but it did happen. I was simply intrigued by the environment. Walking through darkened halls, coming around a corner and finding some alien ready to suck my brains out of my ears. I felt like I was really there. I could escape this predictable life for a time and explore spaceships and alien planets. This was my first FPS and what better FPS to start with. It was simply delicious!

Of course, I too liked the multiplayer aspect of the game. And I too would join a bunch of friends at the office late at night to engage in a frag fest. What fun, taking out your friends over and over again and never being taken out yourself....hehe. I was good, oh, very good....

But then came Myth which I greatly enjoyed as well. I liked the story and the battle w/o resource mgt. aspect. And I mostly liked the multiplayer portion, but alas. This game I got schooled much more than did the schooling, and try as I might, I never did get quite that good.

I have enjoyed games my entire life, except for currently. (I am too busy working and being a responsible father and husband. ) But, I remember as a kid seeing my first video game at Sears. It had a yellow, smooth shaped outer shell that cradled a monitor- head height. You plopped in a quarter and you were a space ship blowing up other space ships. I can't remember much more than that, but if you ever saw Soylent Green with Charlton Heston, there is that same video game in one of the beginning scenes in the rich apartment room. Yes, I am old to remember such a thing. I can remember having a conversation with my boss when I was in high school about video games. I told him there was big money in video games. He said I was crazy.....hehe.