The Best Years for Gaming: Part One
I love lists. Let me be frank: I have a strange obsession with giving objects value relative to other objects. I don’t want to just accept that one thing is good, and another is great: I want to know how much better the great thing is than other great things.
One topic that comes up this time of year is how good this year was for video games. Invariably, the arguments go one of two ways: either the years in the nineties were so much better than now, or that now is so much better than then, with absolutely no middle ground. We love to put our current year up against the past and find it lacking, or go the other way and pump video games up. Video games! Yeah!
But why not take it further? Why not rank the last twenty-odd years of video game releases against one another? Why not make a big old power rankings, a tier list of every year of video game releases?
Well, for one, because it’s fucking insane. But that doesn’t matter, because we’re gonna do it anyway! For two, video games, like nearly any art form, is incredibly subjective: my favorite game of 2012 isn’t your favorite game of 2012. In fact, I strongly considered leaving 2011 and 2012 off the list, for the simple fact that we usually don’t see the fruits of a year’s labors until years later. 2012 is the hardest single year to rank on this list, because no one knows whether Dishonored, or The Walking Dead, are going to inspire countless imitators who take the medium further.
The biggest reason, though, is that it’s fucking insane. The process of making this list had me looking like this guy:
Which can’t be a good thing. That said, these were all quitter’s reasons. So join me, my friends, on a reverse-order ranking of every year in video games from 1990 until 2012.
Some ground rules:
1: Yes, I said 1990 until 2012. I was four in 1990. If we go back before then, we dive into a morass of games I’m much less familiar with. I’ve played plenty of NES games, to be sure—probably more than 80% of my readership has—but let’s be frank, I’m looking at them with a historian’s gaze. After 1990, I feel like I can be a little bit more invested in the discussion.
2: My methodology is thus: I’ve picked the four best games of every year, and two runners up. What best means, in my book, is a combination of influence and whether or not the game’s still worthwhile now. On the former, I feel like I’ve been pretty objective: I know what’s been influential. On the latter, there’s a serious amount of personal bias. I try to be objective—I pick plenty of classics I’ve never played myself, on account of their reputation—but let’s be honest: I like certain things more, and less, than the average gamer. I love the obscure JRPG. I dislike military manshooters. This comes through.
3: The four games matter more than the two. Other games released that year will merit only passing mention (for instance, if I have to leave off a stone cold classic, or if the second honorable mention is a mediocre game because nothing good released that year). Basically, it’s not a perfect system, but it keeps the emphasis on the best games, with the idea that most sane people buy probably about six games a year. I said sane people, not you or I.
Final note: this list is incredibly subjective, and you will disagree. Feel free to do so. Though, especially on this first post, I’d recommend holding off until you have things to compare them to. These may be the worst years, but there haven’t been any bad years in game releases. Though, on that note, I guess we should start with…
Tier N: Not a Very Good Year
Number Twenty-Three: 2006
Okami, Gears of War, Twilight Princess, Oblivion, Final Fantasy XII, Dead Rising
I said there were no bad years, but 2006 comes as close as humanly possible. Sorry, 2006.
It also completely bucks the imagined trend, that consoles only get better with age. 2006 featured the last years of the Playstation’s life cycle (though games from 2007 and 2008 will make the cut), the beginnings of the Xbox 360, and the eventual release of the Wii. So we should have seen a lot of new ideas on new consoles and the best of the old consoles.
Yeah, not so much.
Part of the problem is that the year’s absolute best game, Okami, is such an orphan in terms of influence: it’s basically The Legend of Zelda in beautifully realized feudal Japan. Its developer, Clover Studios, closed soon after, offering up only the cult hit God Hand afterward. Okami didn’t influence a whole lot of games, and its influence, I’d say, stretched only as far as Nintendo’s own Twilight Princess, which wouldn’t have cracked the list in a better year.
Gears of War worked, and it tried its hardest to pull the year up by introducing the entire concept of cover based shooters to the video game industry; it was a great game, besides. The problem is, there’s nothing beyond it. Twilight Princess is the middle child of the Zelda franchise; Oblivion wears the same hat in the Elder Scrolls franchise, the obvious weakling when compared to the atmospheric Morrowind and the brilliantly engrossing Skyrim. Final Fantasy XII and Dead Rising don’t belong anywhere near this list, meanwhile. Both were good games with good ideas, but neither was particularly influential or undeniably brilliant.
Let’s just move on. This year is making me depressed. Sorry, 2006, you’re the skunk.
Tier M: The End is the Beginnings
Number Twenty-Two: 1996
Super Mario 64, Quake, Resident Evil, Command and Conquer: Red Alert, The Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall, Kirby Super Star
Here’s another year that got stuck in the awkward space between consoles. 1996 has games from the Nintendo 64 (released that year), the Sony Playstation (released the year before), the Super Nintendo, and the PC, which takes the crown with three releases on the list.
Unlike exactly a decade later, however, there’s a lot more to love about 1996. We had nominal birthplaces of the three dimensional platformer, the arena shooter, and survival horror; we have the video game with the most square mileage of any title in Daggerfall.
1996 has a problem, though: ask any gamer what their ten favorite games are of all time and, once they beat the nostalgia monster to death with a spoon, how many of these games are on their lists? Kirby Super Star, my second honorable mention, is the only game to sniff “Best of the Franchise” status, and Kirby is a lot less prestigious than Mario or Resident Evil. Further, a lot of these games suffer from the ravages of age. Early polygons haven’t held up very well, and neither have Resident Evil’s tank controls and really bad voice acting.
However, let me be plain: 1996 was in no way a bad year. We’re out of bad years now, folks. It wins the least good prize, but you know what? That’s not a bad thing.
Number Twenty-One: 1992
Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Ultima VII, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Streets of Rage 2, Dune 2, Wolfenstein 3D
I waffled here, between this and 1996, and eventually I gave 1992 the benefit of the doubt. Of every year on this list, I have the least firsthand knowledge of 1992; it’s heavy on PC only games that I didn’t play when they first came out on account of being, well, six. Games like Ultima VII and Fate of Atlantis have been on my list forever, and Dune 2 and Wolfenstein 3D were monumentally influential titles, but I’ve played none of them.
That said, these games cast very long shadows. My two honorable mentions, Dune 2 and Wolfenstein 3D, practically created the genres of real time strategy and first person shooter. Ultima VII gets bandied about as one of the best Ultima games, and Fate of Atlantis was the original immensely successful adventure game tie-in, twenty years before The Walking Dead.
So the failure of this year comes down to the other two games. Sonic 2 and Streets of Rage 2 were both incredibly polished sequels, and they’re both classics of the Sega Genesis. The problem is, Sonic 2 pales compared to Sonic 3, and Streets of Rage 2, besides not being much more influential than your average brawler, has aged as well as any game in that genre has: not well. Basically, you might tell a neophyte to play Sonic 2, but you’d probably recommend Sonic 3 first, and you wouldn’t even mention Sonic 3. I bet you also wouldn’t tell anyone but the historian to play Dune 2 or Wolfenstein 3D.
Basically, 1992 gets here on influence, not on playability. I’ve moved it about a fair bit, but it feels comfortable here, as a bit of a transition year between the SNES’ incredible launch and its incredible follow ups.
TIER L: Cult Classical
Number Twenty: 2002
Kingdom Hearts, The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind, Warcraft 3, Battlefield 1942, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Metroid Prime
I’m going to show a little bit of bias here by putting this below the next couple years, but you know what, I’m worth it. And I loathe Kingdom Hearts.
That said, we’re getting up into the range where some seriously good games are being listed. 2002 could easily be two or three or four spots higher; then again, you can make that case for any year from now on. Warcraft 3 birthed its own genre—the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena—and built the foundation of a Massively Multiplayer empire, while Battlefield 1942 was the first modern first person shooter, with massive maps and ludicrously fun airplane stunts.
So why’s it so low? Did I mention I loathe Kingdom Hearts? It’s a weak link, objectively, too: it inspired few games outside of the Square-Enixian milieu, and really just shows what combining two big properties will give you. It’s the ultimate hindsight game: at the time, we thought this would change gaming forever, but it never did.
Morrowind, the other game in the big four, gets dinged, not for any major reason but a host of smaller ones. It suffers because it’s been outdone so dramatically by Skyrim, a game less atmospheric but so much superior mechanically; it falls because its greatest asset, its alien atmosphere, hasn’t been what’s carried on from it. By the same token, Warcraft 3′s heroes never caught on as much as Starcraft. And while Battlefield 1942 is a classic, it’s largely a nostalgic one, falling victim to the first person shooter churn.
So: a good year, one where I’m sure a lot of you are enthusiastic about its games, but one which falls apart on closer inspection. Still, good for not last place.
Number Nineteen: 2003
Wind Waker, Beyond Good and Evil, Call of Duty, Prince of Persia, Fire Emblem, Knights of the Old Republic
Ahead of 2002, we have…2003. They’re tough years to compare. What we really, immediately, compare 2003 to is 2007, another year (where will it rank!) that introduced a ton of new franchises to the gaming public.
2003 gave us Call of Duty and Prince of Persia, one of which has made more money than I can imagine, while the other was so big for so long that it became a motion picture event before inevitably petering out. Their inaugural entries were great titles, too: Call of Duty gave us cinematic first person shooter trappings without any of the exhaustion its many, many sequels offered, while Prince of Persia practically birthed the fascination with parkour in video games. I remember playing it for the first time and saying, “You can’t do this in a video game!”
You pair these two with the first Zelda title to take top billing in a year, the game I think might be the best in the franchise, and Beyond Good and Evil, Ubisoft’s incredibly odd, wonderfully progressive Zelda-alike mystery. Fire Emblem, the first in the series to hit stateside, brought Nintendo’s wonderfully odd strategy opus to Western audiences, and Knights of the Old Republic was the first modern Bioware game, the game that practically birthed the now-commonplace “morality meter”.
So why’s it so low? Can I go with my first instinct, and say it’s because better games are yet to come? Or maybe it’s because, despite their success birthing franchises, nobody’s going to go back and play Call of Duty now (the same first person shooter churn that’s rendered Battlefield 1942 irrelevant), and few are going to play Prince of Persia with its follow-up series Assassin’s Creed much more beloved. And heck, neither game matters much, now, with Prince of Persia DOA and Call of Duty sublimated into two spin-off franchises, Modern Warfare and Black Ops. Maybe I could cite how Beyond Good and Evil’s a cult classic, one that never got much play in the public eye? Or maybe even that Wind Waker was just a twist on a classic formula?
I’m sticking with the first: better games followed it. These games are good, but they’re decidedly mid-generation offerings. We’re not at the big boys yet.
TIER K: Tier Doom
Number Eighteen: 1993
Doom, Mortal Kombat 2, Gunstar Heroes, Myst, Secret of Mana, Link’s Awakening
You probably didn’t expect Doom to show up so soon. Doom is, of course, one of video gaming’s watershed moments, where video games really punched even further into the collective consciousness. Two other games released this year did the same thing, too! What Doom did for violence, Mortal Kombat 2 did for ultraviolence, and what Doom did for graphics Myst did for…well, also for graphics. These were beautiful games for the time, beloved by many.
That said, why is Doom so early? The question is, have you played Mortal Kombat 2 or Myst recently? No? Would you recommend them to anyone outside of people who’d have opinions on a “Years of Gaming” list? Probably not. Myst is an archaic adventure game with a lot of really obscure puzzles, while Mortal Kombat 2 is—it has to be said—a pretty bad fighting game. Sorry, but it is. Even Doom, with its awkward to modern eyes graphics and endless key card searches, doesn’t jive with the modern palette at all.
The year is brought up in part because those three games were so damn influential it hurts, but also because it offered a few incredibly playable games. Gunstar Heroes, the only Treasure game on this list, is perhaps the perfection of the Contra formula: run from one side of the screen to the other, shooting enemies left and right. Secret of Mana was the original co-op game, and Link’s Awakening—the third Zelda title so far, and definitely not the last, in case you’re keeping score—was the perfect road trip game, Link to the Past made to fit into the palm of your hand. More than any other game, I think, it sold us on handhelds.
So, 1993: a very, very important year, hamstrung a bit by the fact that I’m making this list in 2012, not in 2002. Its influences are deeply embedded into gaming, but its classics are difficult for the modern palette.
And with that, part one is spent. Look for part two tomorrow, New Years’ Day!