QUALIFICATIONS: These are both console & computer titles. Nostalgia does play a factor in these games, but I did my best not to let it influence my scoring too much. The ranking of these is not at all influenced by other “Best Of” lists, and is ranked entirely by my affection for and experience playing these titles.
Scoring is done via the following specifications:
GAMEPLAY – Is playing the game fun? How easy is it to pick up? How elegant/intuitive are the controls? Does the controller/console/etc. hinder its pleasure factor? Is the experience overall a joy?
STORY/FATIGUE – For games that have a campaign (or the game itself is plot-driven) how engrossing is the story? Do the characters have depth? For games that are not story oriented, how much can I play these games before I’m sick of them? Does the repetitive nature wear on me?
MUSIC – Self-explanatory
STYLE – Does the game have a unique look? Is it an experience unto itself to simply watch the game playing out? Did the creators use a great deal of skill? Is the world interesting to look at?
CHALLENGE – Is the game hard to play? Did I feel like I was getting crushed or blowing through things too drastically? Is there a learning curve?
MEAT – A vaguer subject, how is the shelf life and replayability of the game? Are there extras? Can I explore? Can I mod? Did this game emotionally resonate with me in various ways?
Without further ado, let us begin.
- Pokemon (1998, Game Boy) – 39/60
Gameplay – 7.7
Limited to the Game Boy, you have pretty basic stuff to work with, but it didn’t matter. Pokemon was intrinsic in its approach, and it was satisfying as hell. The grind of hunting down new Pokemon was never really a chore for the duration of the game, and training them to the point of evolving never failed to delight. The combat windows are now considered iconic.
Story – 8
While now a far more convoluted and expanded-upon saga, the initial Pokemon universe was a hoot. I liked playing the part of Ash (or whatever you wanted to name yourself), worming my way throughout Kanto and conquering gym upon gym. Team Rocket isn’t too fleshed out in the game, but the anime series, as dorky as it is, was so damned fun. They lay it out there for you that this is a basic world, it just happens to have and always had Pokemon as part of it, and for whatever reason I’m totally cool with this.
Music – 6.9
A few of the familiar melodies from Pokemon are always going to stand the test of time (intro song, battle music, the research lab, Viridian City, Jigglypuff’s tune, etc) but there’s a great deal that is rather par for the course.
Challenge – 3.8
Not terribly difficult. More like occasionally frustrating and grindy, Pokemon rarely ventures anywhere near being a hard game, but it can be a pain in the ass to wait for RNG to smile upon you or the right wild Pokemon to appear as you blindly circle around a known habitat.
Meat – 7.4
For the bulk of Pokemon, you get out of it what you put in. If you grind and train a useful variety of Pokemon, you’ll be rewarded by kicking some ass. Spin your tires with a select few, you’ll get stuck a lot and ultimately need to go back the way you came to hunt and gather. I had a great time playing Pokemon, and it never ceases to amaze me how much game was inside of that tiny cartridge.
- Papers, Please (2013, PC) – 39.8/60
Gameplay – 8.2
Not much to it – you use your mouse to sort shit out working your shit job in the shit – I mean GLORIOUS – country of Arstotzka. The premise of this game is so wonderfully dry and clerical that a lot of players may have been immediately repulsed, but I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed the tedium of being a miserable customs agent.
Story – 7.2
The campaign is straightforward – you’re given daily tasks to prevent outsiders from penetrating your borders, but they regularly bombard you with temptation. Whether to aid the mysterious revolutionaries or sympathize with a heartstring-tugging excuse, I got morally intrigued by how I’d follow through on things. Mistakes are costly, but literally and figuratively, at the end of each game day, but they don’t really give you much else to go off of besides summary texts after tallying the day’s results.
Music – 4
There’s only ONE song, but it so perfectly fits the game that I couldn’t just give it a measly score. As soon as you see the title screen and the enormous monolithic game logo thunk down in time with the song, you’ll understand why I couldn’t leave it out in the cold.
Style – 8.4
I adore modern games that not only take a single-player approach to games, but are usually sculpted by a single game designer and utilize old motifs. Papers please is so crude in some areas with its artwork, but it looks beautiful (in a bleak 1980s way) on a 1080p monitor.
Challenge – 7
This game is honestly infuriating at portions of the game, especially as the requirements get more and more demanding of your character further in the plot. You have to hustle people through, but with mistakes being so costly, you can’t afford to fuck up. Each time someone enters your office, you’ve got an immediate checklist of things to cross-reference, which takes up precious seconds, and if that’s not bad enough, you’re working against yourself. When people don’t have violations, I’d often wonder where I went wrong. It’s so engrossing, however, that it absolutely compensates for that frustration.
Meat – 5
Papers, Please is a great game, don’t get me wrong, and it has tons of alternate endings and a non-campaign mode with no ending at all. While the alternative endings are neat, I was so burned out after the initial play through that I couldn’t bring myself to churn through the admittedly satisfying grind just to see another screen telling me how the story ended. Great initial experience, absolutely; not exactly (for me) a title I wanted to retread to the bitter end.
- MARIO KART 64 (1996 – N64) – 40.1/60
Gameplay – 8
Like most Mario titles, you really can’t go wrong with keeping things fundamental. Mario Kart is immediately accessible and a lot of fun to play. 64 in particular was a blast to use on their wonky controllers.
Fatigue – 7.5
We played MK64 for years. It was a staple of many a bored night, but it never really dominated our evenings either. Filler game, but always a welcome filler.
Music – 8.1
Mario Kart’s menu theme is enough to usually power my nostalgia, but the tracks for each level are great. The banjo and whistles of the farm, steel drums for the beach, or thrumming synth for Toad’s Turnpike – you can’t go wrong. They do a great job fleshing out each course with familiar tunes.
Style – 7.5
The 64 was somewhat limited in its powers since the polygonal chunkiness of that console era wasn’t very flattering, but Nintendo was ahead of the pack in translating its familiar faces into 3D. Looks great for the time, even if it doesn’t hold up immaculately.
Challenge – 2
Feels harsh to give a low score, but the game isn’t meant to really provide much of a challenge. It’s fun, accessible, for everybody – just like Nintendo always prefers. That’s why we love them, but that’s how the cookie crumbles.
Meat – 7
This game is still fun to play even today. Lot of fun memories playing it with friends over a long span of years doing battle mode and grand prix over and over again, but I’d still totally sit down and play the solo mode right now. I think I just might, actually.
- Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009 – X360) – 40.8/60
Gameplay – 9.6
CoD has become something of a running joke these days (insert Mountain Dew/Doritos joke here), but CoD 4 Modern Warfare and its successor Modern Warfare 2 were the shit. MW2 in particular was where I jumped into the fray, and it essentially became the gold standard for shooters afterward. There’s a reason people still go out and buy CoD games annually like they’re Madden titles – these games are easy to pick up and fun as hell to play.
Story – 7.2
I had to give this a mixed grade because the campaign is really good for what it is – essentially an action movie you happen to participate in, and the controversy regarding the airport mission was both deserved and fascinating to execute. I wasn’t very familiar with Soap or the other characters going into it, so it didn’t resonate very much with me personally (thus the low score), but it was quite fun to play through, even if they hold your hand through it all.
Music – 5.5
While not amazing, I have to give credit for them employing the great Howard Shore to do their score. The cinematic nature of the OST puts you into their mini-movie for sure, but it’s also not anywhere remotely close to Shore’s best.
Style – 3.1
The game doesn’t really do anything innovative here, which is fine for the most part, but for that it suffers. It aims for realism and executes it decently, yet being stuck in that bubble makes it unexceptional.
Challenge – 7.9
The storyline isn’t terribly difficult to play through at all, but the online multiplayer could be somewhat unforgiving, depending on your teammates, the game mode, and most important of all, if some asshole was using akimbo models. It took a lot of time, practice, and competitive play to grind out a positive score regularly.
Meat – 7.5
The campaign is worth doing once for sure, but doesn’t have a lot of repeat value. Online multiplayer, however, was a total blast. I put a lot of hours into MW2 online, getting my perks set up to knife bastards in the back, etc. In cowardly fashion, I only prestiged once. That said, the amount of people who eventually resorted to overpowered combos and/or hacks to win at all costs ruined the game for me in the end. Plus I realized I’m not 14 and don’t have the time to play at a competitive level, so that depressed the hell out of me by the time I gave up MW2.
- Stardew Valley (2016, PC) – 42.5/60
Gameplay – 7
With a game as approachable and fuzzy as Stardew, I thought I’d be more generous about its gameplay, but it’s definitely not perfect. I hate having to close then re-open the game just to go back to the main menu. It gets annoying mis-aiming your watering can or pickaxe, wasting precious energy, and I don’t like that I have to adjust a setting to know where my character will aim, but otherwise? Simple, accessible, and welcoming.
Story – 7.6
You get to pick your own adventure, more or less, but overall your character’s arc is straightforward: Rejecting the corporate lifelessness at your Joja job, you inherit your grandfather’s farm near Pelican Town, and after a few years (or whatever pace you feel like playing at) you complete the Community Center and unite the townsfolk around you. It’s basic, but I felt involved. I felt like my character reflected that tiny bit of urban rejection that lives in all of us and did want to start a farm, harvest crops, raise animals, and start a simple family. It’s extremely pleasant; almost cloyingly so.
Music – 8.9
It’s remarkable that this game was done by a single designer, sure, but consider that he made 70(!!!) unique tracks for the score and its borderline amazing. The songs themselves aren’t going to sell on iTunes, but they are as amiable as they are crafted. I haven’t turned the music volume down once, and don’t intend to.
Style – 9
The game’s retro aesthetic borrows heavily from its muse, Harvest Moon, to immerse you in a vibrant pixel-art area where you can meet a bevy of interesting NPCs and encounter various baddies. I love that there’s a combination of fantasy elements in this farm-and-charm world: A witch and a wizard, “Jumino” alien-things, slimes, a dwarf, a friendly monster, and various other magical elements that not only fit seamlessly into the game, but add so much flavor to what’s already a fantastic premise.
Challenge – 1
By design, Stardew Valley is mostly effortless. Outside of a couple busy planting days a few, you’re playing this game for the leisurely nature of it. There’s no ticking clocks, no real chances to die (and if you do, you can just restart the day with no big penalty), no major punishment, no big obstacles, and essentially the game goes at YOUR pace. It’s part of what makes it absolutely wonderful, yet it becomes so gentle toward the endgame that I found myself wondering what was worth doing anymore.
Meat – 9
There is a lot to do in Stardew Valley, so much so that you really don’t want to rush through it. The farming part of it is an enormous task: Making sure you grow a variety of crops, raise an abundance of livestock, and treat these endeavors with care on a daily basis. There’s the NPCs to worry about, as you want to get to know all of them, getting them gifts on their birthdays, participating in seasonal events, unlocking “friendship events,” and talking to them as often as possible, if only just to learn something new about them or what’s going on that particular day. There’s a bunch of extra quests, unlockable areas of the map, a few mini games, fishing to be done, materials to forage…I could go on and on.