Reminder: Try not to stress out too much about the order of the items on this list, what games made it and which ones didn’t. Just use this as an excuse to talk about / praise / eviscerate games we might not get to discuss very often. Read the intro to learn why we’re doing this.
24. Eve Online
In contrast to the endless procession of doomed WoW-clones, here is an immensely successful online game that has not a single challenger. It’s not that games have gone out of business trying to imitate this success, it’s that in the eleven years since its launch, nobody has made a serious try at cutting out a piece of this market.
To a certain extent, that’s understandable. This is a scary game. It’s a space game where people shoot at each other with player-built weapons, from player-built ships, made from player-built parts, made from player-harvested raw materials in player-built factories. The factions are entirely shaped by players. Everything interesting about this world from its politics to its wars – is emergent.
If you’re looking to make a quick buck copying an established and proven formula, just about anything else is going to look safer than this.
23. Secret of Monkey Island
One day Ron Gilbert looked at everything that was wrong and stupid about adventure games and asked, “Why don’t we make a game that doesn’t do those things?” And then he did. And in one stroke he blew away everything Sierra had ever done. The jokes were better, and have aged better. (Space Quest jokes were very topical. Iran-contra jokes don’t have the sting now that they did in the 80’sKings Quest jokes were always forced and awkward. And we’ve already talked about Larry’s jokes..) The puzzles were still silly, but now they were silly in a fun way. The visuals were delicious. The music was some of the best in the business at the time, and still holds up really well today.
22. Prince of Persia: Sands of Time
The platforming flow in Sands of Time felt so good. It was natural and intuitive and yet sometimes challenging and heart-stopping. The visuals were a feast and the arc of the arrogant Prince who learned compassion and humility still resonates with me today. The later entries might have improved the gameplayAlthough I never thought so. But people keep insisting. but they never hit that magic mix of Arabian fantasy, personal growth, and playful whimsy.
The puzzles were pretty good and the environments always managed to balance the need for interesting things to climb with the need to have rooms make sense.
I’d play through it more often, but the combat was a cruel choreWhen you get to the point in the fight where you’re bored and restless and anxious to get back to the platforming, it usually means you’re about halfway there..
I’ve been saying for years that developers should base a long-running franchise on a series of themes and situations, rather than trying to tell a set of connected stories. This series is exhibit A. I did not want to see what happened after the events of Sands of TimeESPECIALLY if “what happened” turns out to be “pretend the Prince was suddenly a boring unlikable asshole”.. What I wanted was another game with platforming, puzzles, and swordplay set in an Arabian-esque world. Play as a street rat. Play as someone cursed by a genie. Play as a princess. You know – mix things up, rather than grafting endlessly muddled and convoluted bits onto a story that had already ended perfectly.
And now we get annual Assassins Creed instead of this, and it suffers from the same problem. Only moreso. Stupid Ubisoft.
Looking back, the most amazing thing about Fallout to me is the extreme lack of hand-holding. A generation after the bombs fell, you’re sent out from your nuclear fallout shelter to find some hardware to repair your water purification system. The vault overseer gives you a thin lead, which doesn’t pan out. Thus you find yourself alone in a hostile world with no idea how to proceed. You basically have to spend a few weeks exploring the wasteland and getting to know the place before you pick up the next breadcrumb.
No AAA game today would dare to leave players adrift like that. And to be fair, even back in 1997 a lot of players didn’t like playing a game where you had a time limit and no clue how to proceed. It makes the game frustrating if you’re just looking to “beat” a videogame, but if you like to explore a world and don’t want to feel like you’re just following a fixed path set down by a game designer, then this kind of liberal approach to player agency can feel really goodStill, that time limit was probably a bad idea..
Also, the game nailed a wonderful dark comedy vibe, which Bethesda completely misunderstood as goofball comedy in Fallout 3, like they can’t tell the difference between Dr. Strangelove and Adam Sandler movies. Not that I’m bitter or anything.
20. Saints Row The Third
When Grand Theft Auto cast aside the crown of “Gleeful Open-World Mayhem Simulator”, Saints Row picked the crown up and wore it on its crotch, pelvic-thrusting into a new era of ridiculous stupidity. While GTA wanted to ram you through its fixed story with fixed characters, Saints Row lets you make just about anyone you want – whether they would fit with the designer’s vision for a gang leader or not.
It almost feels like the designer wants you to have fun, and isn’t sneering at you for being a stupid shallow consumerist phony.
19. Team Fortress 2
This game marks the point where Valve left the videogame business and began selling virtual hats. It’s also a good illustration of the problem with making online shooters: Everyone assumes you just need to make a “balanced” game and you’re good. But Team Fortress 2 has more than simply balanced classes. It has style. Charm. I could take a dozen screenshots from online shooters of the last decade and very few people would be able to match the game with the screenshot. But everyone recognizes TF2, even people who have never played it. TF2 has a sense of humor and playfulness about it, which matters when you’re spending hundreds of hours with a game.
Also, the classes aren’t just “balanced”, they’re radically different. Team Fortress 2 feels like nine different games that share the same space.
18. Max Payne
Like Deus Ex, System Shock 2, and No One Lives Forever, Max Payne is a product of that magical golden age when graphics were just good enough to be able to sell a mood or art style but not quite so good that we had to start cutting down the size and scope of our games to pay for them. It couldn’t last, and I’m not saying we’d be better off if graphics hadn’t advanced at all, but it shows that we did lose something.
I liked all three Max Payne titles. But for me the first one was the one that won my heart.
17. Thief II: The Metal Age
While a lot can be said of the Shalebridge Cradle as one of the best levels in gamingOf course, the reason it was so powerful was that it was totally unexpected. Now that it has all kinds of hype surrounding it, it’s doomed to disappoint. It can only be great as long as we fail to recognize its greatness., one level is not enough to earn you a place on this list. And the rest of Thief: Deadly ShadowsWhy didn’t they call it Thief 3? I suppose we should be grateful they didn’t call it Thi3f. does not measure up. (Small levels, inadvertently hokey story, terrible cutscenes.)
But Thief II is strong in every way that its sequel wasn’t. The levels were massive, giving you hours of gameplay without ever hitting a single loading screen. It used the great live-action-but-also-animated cutscenes that were so successful in the first game. They didn’t wow us the way Starcraft cutscenes (two years earlier) did, but now 14 years later they have retained their charm while Starcraft’s 1998 CGI looks dated and silly.
Sadly, the in-game graphics haven’t aged nearly as well. Thief II technically came out at the start of the golden age, when environments were still cheap but juuust good enough that characters could emote and show bits of environmental detail. But Thief II was still using the same engine from the original Thief game from two years earlier, and even then it had looked kind of dated. So Thief II looked really pathetic compared to its contemporaries.
However, when given the choice between the boxy sprawling levels of Thief II and the bump-mapped closet maps of Thief: Deadly Shadows, it’s no contest. This was the series at its best, and we’re still waiting for a proper sequel.
 Kings Quest jokes were always forced and awkward. And we’ve already talked about Larry’s jokes.
 Although I never thought so. But people keep insisting.
 When you get to the point in the fight where you’re bored and restless and anxious to get back to the platforming, it usually means you’re about halfway there.
 ESPECIALLY if “what happened” turns out to be “pretend the Prince was suddenly a boring unlikable asshole”.
 Still, that time limit was probably a bad idea.
 Of course, the reason it was so powerful was that it was totally unexpected. Now that it has all kinds of hype surrounding it, it’s doomed to disappoint. It can only be great as long as we fail to recognize its greatness.
 Why didn’t they call it Thief 3? I suppose we should be grateful they didn’t call it Thi3f.
A stream-of-gameplay review of Dead Island. This game is a cavalcade of bugs and bad design choices.
Skyrim Thieves Guild
The Thieves Guild quest in Skyrim is a vortex of disjointed plot-holes, contrivances, and nonsense.
Deus Ex and The Treachery of Labels
Deus Ex Mankind Divided was a clumsy, tone-deaf allegory that thought it was clever, and it managed to annoy people of all political stripes.
If Star Wars Was Made in 2006?
Imagine if the original Star Wars hadn't appeared in the 1970's, but instead was pitched to studios in 2006. How would that turn out?
The Middle Ages
Would you have survived in the middle ages?