This list is something I have been working on for some time, the most difficult time I have had putting one together to date. I think this is partially due to me being very passionate about video games and what they have provided to me throughout my life. The main reason, however, is that these games span decades and many different genres so I struggled mightily with even beginning to compare them to one another. Finding ways to quantify what makes a game great, that can transcend whatever technology was available at the time, seemed almost impossible. And while this is my personal Top 10, based only on games I have actually played through to completion, I couldn't just list out what I got the most personal enjoyment from. I wanted to remain objective when possible and be able to admit even some of my favorites have such heavy flaws they couldn't possibly qualify.
Every game here, including my honorable mentions, is without question a masterpiece. I also think that every one has flaws, but what separates these from other great games are that the flaws are not something I simply overlooked because the rest is great. They became part of the game's identity and something I embraced. Before I could even begin ranking them, I needed to collect all the titles that I would make no changes to, despite their shortcomings.
I came up with 15 total and have spent weeks struggling to rank them, seeming to change my mind about some every other day. Which have I spent the most time with? What have I replayed the most? What have I played recently, and how biased is that recency bias? Which have the best scores? Story? Characters? Gameplay? How important are each of those things to me? Which game has resonated with me the most? I think that last point is one that ultimately helped me make up my mind on the final ranking, even if 90% of the rest was created much more methodically. So before I change my mind yet again, let's begin with the honorable mentions, in no particular order.
Bloodborne was my first game made by FromSoftware, creators of the Dark Souls franchise. All I really knew about their games was that they were Action RPGs well known for their difficulty, and that Bloodborne was centered around Lovecraftian horror. After banging my head against the starting area for hours, I put the game down deciding that perhaps it wasn’t for me. I mentioned my frustrations to a friend who was a big fan of FromSoftware titles and they jumped at the chance to play some co-op so they could show me the ropes. A few hours later something clicked for me, and now I can proudly say I have completed every game in the SoulsBorne series. Bloodborne is my personal favorite of the bunch, with faster paced combat than Dark Souls paired with the astoundingly beautiful, Lovecraftian world. If you have a PS4 you owe it to yourself to give this one a shot, don’t give up skeleton!
Final Fantasy X is my most recently completed game appearing here despite being the 4th oldest. I’ve been working my way through many of the Final Fantasy games over the last couple years, enjoying my time spent on all of them, but always feeling slightly let down. This tenth installment was the first that really blew me away, especially knowing it was released over 15 years ago. Full voice acting, a massive world to explore, and a complex narrative that kept me engaged throughout my entire 80 hour playtime was unheard of in 2001. Both the turn-based battle system and sphere grid leveling system represent some of the best the series has to offer. I think if I had played this at release it would probably be in my top 10, but coming to it so late makes me hesitate to put it up among my childhood favorites.
The Uncharted series is my favorite Sony franchise, the best Indiana Jones game there never was. I played the first three games in the span of just one month and eagerly awaited the release of 4 just two years ago. It was always the one series that made me regret gaming on an Xbox 360 instead of a PS3 and made my decision to switch to Sony for this latest console generation an easy one. Uncharted 2 remains the pinnacle of the series in my opinion, although I will admit 4 was the most polished of the lot and is probably the best looking console game I have ever played. Yet there is just something special about Among Thieves - I love the Tibetan setting, the set pieces, the character development. It really took the series to a completely different level and is one of the best games of the last generation.
Journey is a game that everyone should experience, gamers and non-gamers alike. I convinced Jenny to play through it in one sitting (takes around 2 hours) and even she loved it! For a game without any sort of dialogue or exposition, I felt some intense emotional connections to the world and the other characters who joined me throughout my journey. The game manages to strike this delicate balance between whimsical discovery, nervous tension, and blissful joy, all the while nurturing a wordless bond between two players. I had the pleasure of running through the game with the speed run world record holder, Rebishaz, which was just an absolute delight and cemented it as one of my favorite video game experiences ever.
Many of my favorite games are considered jRPG’s, but unfortunately very few of those have made this list. They can be grindy, tedious or even flat out boring at times, and they lack the universal appeal that many of the other titles here possess. My last honorable mention totally defies these expectations - Chrono Trigger, released on the SNES in 1995, was the first jRPG I ever played and remains one of my favorites to this day. The NES/SNES era jRPG’s typically required you to use your imagination frequently to get the most out of them, but Chrono Trigger created a beautiful and fantastic world accompanied by one of the best video game soundtracks ever made. Despite being two dimensional and sprite based, I have rarely got as lost in a world as I have in Chrono Trigger. I only wish that today more modern games would take some cues on what made this game so good.
Now onto our Top 10:
10. Phantasy Star Online
Of all the games on my list, PSO is perhaps my most sentimental pick. When I think of games I played with my childhood friends, this is the first one I think of. We would play it for entire weekends, from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon, only taking breaks to scarf down pizza and Mountain Dew Code Red. The game is quite repetitive, requiring players to tackle the same 8 worlds over and over again, but there is just enough dungeon randomization and weapon variety to keep you engaged. We quickly learned how to duplicate items and amassed huge collections of the rarest items in the game. We also raised dozens of Mags, basically little robot assistants that grant you special abilities. There was just something so magical about slowly unraveling every bit the game had to offer, together, sitting side by side on the couch. Couch co-op is no longer really a thing with the aggressive push towards online play, and as an adult it is hard to find time for something like that nowadays anyway. I do feel bad that the current generation or kids might never get a similar experience to what I had with Phantasy Star, but I suppose that type of game has been replaced with online multiplayer games like Destiny and The Division.
9. Mass Effect 2
A vast, compelling sci-fi adventure released over a 5 year span, Mass Effect is the greatest video game trilogy ever made. The original Mass Effect was the first game I ever played where I felt like my choices actually had consequences, with different playthroughs resulting in different party members falling in love or falling in battle. Mass Effect 2 refined all the systems in the original, smoothed out some of the jankiness, and greatly improved the combat. In addition, it invested higher quality writing in individual character's loyalty missions, instead of staying focused on the main story. As you played through the game, gathering more party members in preparation for the big, Rogue One-esque suicide mission at the end, you truly felt like you were writing your own story, making your own personal allegiances and engaging with the narrative in a way few games have been able to replicate. The third game in the trilogy had the challenge of making good on all the promises the series had made, an impossible task that I think BioWare handled as best they could, but the end result still left me a little disappointed. Mass Effect 2 on the other hand seemed full of unlimited potential, a world I desperately never wanted to leave.
8. Halo: Combat Evolved
Halo was the game that convinced me to purchase an Xbox and subsequently stick with Xbox for almost 15 years until 2016 when I finally switched over to Sony. It was the first FPS on console that actually felt good to play, making use of two joysticks, one controlling head movement and the other controlling body movement. Every console shooter works like this now, but at the time this was revolutionary and changed the console gaming landscape forever. In addition to feeling great to play, Halo told a brilliant and original story centered around Master Chief, now an icon in gaming fandom. I have fond memories of running through that campaign over and over, discovering new secrets and tricks on every run. As a pre-teen our parties consisted of 4 Xbox's all linked up to play big team battles with 8 to 16 people, a riotously fun time that would typically last til the crack of dawn. Halo 2 and 3 would soon follow, upgraded in appearance and features, yet staying true to what made the original so great. I just have to give the top 10 spot to the game that started it all, for without Halo what would console gaming look like today?
7. The Witcher III: Wild Hunt
The Witcher III is the best game of the current generation and, in fact, is the only game on this list that was released in the last 5 years. For a decade we were promised bigger and better open-world RPG's from nearly all of the top AAA studios, but the Polish squad CD Projekt Red was the first and only to deliver. Having played the first two Witcher games in college, I was skeptical that an open world would add much to the series. The narrative was what made those first two entries work for me, and in my experience open-world games tend to take away emphasis from the narrative and place it more on world design and gameplay. My fears were misplaced, however, as CDPR expertly wove narrative into their beautiful world, delivering to me some of the strongest writing and characters I've ever seen in a game. Even the side content and DLC is superb, never a drop in quality from start to finish. Once I was finally finished with my playthrough some 180 odd hours later, I felt such an intense emptiness knowing my journey with Geralt was over. Here's to hoping CDPR's next venture, Cyperpunk 2077, releases soon and raises the bar on the modern RPG even higher.
6. Pokémon Gold/Silver/Crystal
I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I didn't include at least one Pokémon game in my top 10. A series I have been playing for 22 years, I have beaten every single one, and yes I have caught them all... 806 in total with one more coming later this year. It is my go-to most embarrassing fact, but I'm still a little proud of it. I've cooled off a bit on the series as a whole, though, partly due to burn out of playing a ton while I was traveling for work each week, and also because the recent entries to the series have been far too easy and uninteresting. Reflecting on the series as a whole, it was easy for me to pick out a favorite: the 2nd generation. Gold and Silver came out nearly 4 years after the original Red and Blue version and they improved on it in every way. They added 100 more Pokémon, a day/night cycle, breeding, and tons of other new features. If that wasn't enough, once you cleared the new region of Johto they let you fly back to Kanto, the setting of the original game, battle all of those gym leaders and challenge the Elite Four once again. It was the game that took over elementary school for an entire year, pretty much all anyone would talk about at recess. Challenging each other to battles, making trades and sharing what new secrets we had found. These games not only represent the best of what Pokémon has had to offer, they also represent a huge part of my childhood and are a big reason why I am still such a huge fan of portable gaming today.
BioShock garners most of its critical acclaim for its story, one packed with interesting characters and plot twists. While I very much appreciate what BioShock did with its story, an inventive take on Ayn Rand’s Objectivism which I’m sure she would have hated, the reason it occupies the fifth spot on my list is because of the world that Ken Levine and his team built. Rapture was a world unlike any that had been seen before - giant Big Daddies fiercely protecting nightmarish little girls, an entire population hopelessly addicted to genetic mutations, and most importantly it was all housed in an elaborate, Art Deco designed underwater metropolis. The aesthetics of this game even rival film and television, most notably for how meticulously detailed each environment is - they manage to tell some stories entirely on their own, which for me were some of the most powerful moments of the game. Honestly, BioShock would be in my top 3 if it wasn’t for the last third of the game, which felt anticlimactic and drawn out.
4. Dota 2
I have an obscene amount of hours logged in Dota 2, more than the rest of this list combined. I started playing during the beta way back in 2011 all the way up until 2016 when I decided to hang up my keyboard. Simply put, Dota is the greatest competitive multiplyer game ever made, mostly thanks to the superb rebalancing done every few months by Icefrog and the rest of his team at Valve. Every time I was growing tired of the same stale meta and strategies, there would be a new patch around the corner that completely revitalized my interest in the game. The tournament scene also is spectacular, the only esport that I find interesting to watch. Seeing that scene grow over time has been nothing short of incredible, with now over 50 professional players from all over the world that have become millionaires. To put that into perspective, there is only one other game that boasts a millionaire, a solitary League of Legends player that still only sits at 39th on the all-time esports earnings list. Despite the fact that this is my favorite multiplayer game, I have a hard time recommending Dota to anyone, which is why I had to knock it down to just the fourth spot. The learning curve is immense, the community is fairly toxic, and you will not have a good time unless you are willing to put in hundreds of hours to learn the intricacies of the game. I don't even have time to keep up with it anymore.
3. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Ocarina of Time is the game I credit for igniting my fervent passion for video games, elevating it beyond just a toy or hobby. For the first time in my life I felt completely immersed in a world and a story, a total escape to an imaginary land packed with mystery and delight. Each time I would boot it up I would find something new and exciting, discover a new secret or sidequest. I would be spend hours and hours on each temple, determined to explore every nook and cranny, until I was satisfied that I had seen it all. I spent an entire year on just a single playthrough of that game as a child. It was funny to run back through it as an adult a couple years ago on 3DS, I 100%ed the game in just a couple weeks. But all that excitement and adventure was unchanged, even 20 years later. There is a very short list of video games that I would consider to be "timeless". In fact, most of this top 10 is decidedly not timeless and probably won't hold up even 10 years from now. Ocarina of Time will most likely be considered a timeless classic forever, a game alongside Mario 64 that heralded in a new generation of 3d, polygonal worlds that changed the gaming landscape. If Nintendo's track record lately is any indication, I think this current generation may have spawned new classics that hopefully I can talk about with the same reverence 20 years from now.
2. Super Mario World
I wrote about timelessness in the last section - Super Mario World is the other best example of it. But unlike Ocarina of Time, it is hard to find any flaws with SMW at all, even today. It is platforming at its purest and most charming form. The crisp, 2-D graphics still look fantastic today, bright with color and iconic in its style. The sound design might actually be the most memorable in my mind, every time I think about the game I feel like I can hear the sound of Mario's cape, Yoshi, and the football chucking dudes. It was the first game I ever played, on my SNES with my father at the ripe, old age of 3 and a half! We were both terrible and could never get past the castle 3, the cocky wizards killing us over and over. As I grew older I was able to conquer more and more of the game, bit by bit unlocking more of the star world and progressing through some of the numbered castles. We would eventually give away my SNES before I could finish, but 10 years later the Wii was released and I was able to come back to it on the Virtual Console. I cleared every level in a matter of days, on a mission to finally put this game to rest. It cemented this game's status as one of my favorites of all-time; somehow it was even better than I remembered. I try to run through it every other year and probably won't ever stop.
1. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
Even if you aren't a gamer, you will have no doubt heard of Skyrim. You may have even heard of its predecessor, Oblivion. The Elder Scrolls game that came before that, released in May of 2002, was Morrowind. I got it at release for my Xbox after being coerced by a EB games employee who told me the Elder Scrolls games were the greatest role playing games ever made. I was skeptical, but also hungry for a new game after playing Halo for 6 straight months. Well, thank you random EB games employee because you got me hooked on my favorite game of all-time. So what makes this game so special?
Well, consider Skyrim and the standard open-world formula. Most of the game your actions consist of talking to people, get quest, follow map marker to quest location, kill things and return. You can see the same from most Ubisoft games, Horizon Zero Dawn, etc. In Morrowind, things don't work like that. First, you have to learn about the culture, the people, the politics of the region you are in. You have to carefully read everything that is said to you, you have to pick up in-game books to understand context, you have to understand the major players in the world, the stakes, what different groups might want. When a quest is given to you, you just get a journal update, which might give a few clues as to where you need to go. There is no compass, no map markers. It is up to you to decide how you're going to tackle the quest, where you are going to gleam some information on how to complete it, and who's side you might take in the end. The amount of freedom you have to explore and engage with the world was just unparalleled, something that no modern game has even come close to accomplishing.
I will make no claim that Morrowind is a perfect game. It is very janky. The combat is atrocious at early levels (although I don't really think Skyrim combat is that great, either). You will encounter many, many bugs. You will get lost or stuck or immensely frustrated trying to accomplish the simplest of tasks. But despite all this, there was no way I could place Morrowind anywhere else but numero uno. This experience was way more than just a game to me, it was a journey that captivated me time and time again for over a decade of my life.