Ten Exemplary Games

Today, I re-read an old post I made on an older blog, in which I’d been requested to list ten games I thought were exemplary. Interestingly, my views have not changed at all on this subject since 2010, hence this re-post.

DOOM

The game that both popularised the first-person genre and made the world stand up and take the personal computer seriously as a gaming platform; and it is a game of pure balance. Playing something like a first-person Robotron 2084 with lock-and-key puzzles thrown in, every element of Doom is distinct from the other – weapons have unique and exclusive function, enemies behave in distinctly different fashions. The FPS of today are completely homogenised in contrast, even Doom’s own sequels offered weapons (Doom 2’s Super Shotgun) and enemies (Hell Knights) that were very slight parameter-shifts from existing ones. But this game offers an understandable and memorable balance between elements.

All would fall apart if the game world were of a poor quality, and thankfully it isn’t. A play through the original three ‘episodes’ is a varied experience indeed, the designers managing to betray the technology’s limitations and offer a great variety of puzzles and setups. The physics may be a bit suspect at times, and the game now horribly ugly and dated graphically, but beneath all that there are many reasons this was a genre-defining title.

F-ZERO X

Though I have tried to stay away from sequels for this list, some of them do just the right things and end up the definitive title of their franchise. F-Zero X is one such game; as an abstraction not just of racing but racing fast, F-Zero would be an incredibly exhilarating thrill-ride as-is; but the boost/shield gauge mechanic adds such an undeniably sharp risk/reward mechanic, I would consider this title to actually be more of a ‘pure’ racing game than a dedicated simulator such as the Gran Turismo franchise.

Track design is excellent, too. One gets the feeling that every possible great idea found during development was employed at some point during the construction of the courses, and most have an amount of nuance which is sure to reward extended play.

Competitively-speaking, the multiplayer of F-Zero X is also rather strong, the sparse visuals making sure that clarity is not at all lost in the 4-way screen split.

R-TYPE

Derided as a memory test by some, I ask; what videogame isn’t in some way? That said, it’s complete and utter balderdash – R-Type’s clever weapon system is as versatile as it is ingenious, offering an invincible droid (a “Force”) to command and soak up minor projectiles, with three very distinct and equally useful weapon types with which to slay the incoming hordes of alien sprite.

Although not as intense an audiovisual kick as say, the Thunder Force series, R-Type’s calculated scenes of destruction still challenge. And for those ballsy enough to experiment with unusual Force usage and/or the charged Wave Shot, there are surprising strategies to be found; more than one way to skin an end-of level bad guy.

POKEMON

As a rule, turn-based combat RPGs are terrible examples of videogames. The mechanic essentially ‘n’ multiplied by a virtual dice throw, the results of which will manipulate an unseen spreadsheet of statistics in some way; where ‘n’ is the character’s “level”, a thing which is increased by the brainless and rote repetition of tasks. Increased level = game won, right?

Pokemon says ‘no’, or rather ‘not necessarily’. Building off an initially quite basic scissors-paper-stone strength/weakness mechanic, the elemental types of the titular pocket monsters are a thing which can be used to even the playfield, or to tip the balance heavily in one’s favour, or even against. With 150 Pokemon to get normal gameplay, the possibilities would seem almost immeasurably innumerate – and with a vast variety of moves at the monster’s disposal, they pretty much are.

So, the traditional dirge of RPG walk-left-and-right-to-random-battle might still be present, but it is also fortified with a very solid-yet-simple elemental system that more than bolsters the potential for clever strategy in this title.

ROBOTRON 2084

Pure abstraction. It is said that designer/programmer Eugene Jarvis didn’t concentrate on the graphics of this game, whilst he made every effort to ensure that the gameplay was balanced perfectly. It shows.

This is shooting, abstracted. The mechanics live on even now in titles such as the Geometry Wars series, but the moving-with-one-hand-shooting-with-the-other stuff started right here. And it places you in an ever-cramping space in which the player avatar is the largest sitting duck known to man. But that’s cool, because it’s all possible – enemies all take a singular hit (those that can be destroyed), so it becomes as much a game of path-clearing as it does shooting and rescuing “the last human family”. Speaking of which, it is in this risky activity that the higher points are gained, adding a risk/reward element to the proceedings, and forcing the player to make value judgements and prioritise at a split-second’s notice.

SUPER METROID

Get lost. Seriously, you’ll enjoy every bit of doing so. If game-worlds are to be explored, then this is the title which takes that concept to it’s fullest; each area being host to a whole range of niches and cracks that hide who-knows-what. Such triumph in non-linear game progression this third Metroid game was, that it has been aped and even parodied more times than can be easily counted.

Super Metroid’s game world is exactly that: a game world. It is so completely consistent and so precisely-crafted that it’s various areas can almost be heard begging for player exploration. And the rewards for this come in more forms than just power-ups, too – to clever players who know the layouts like the back of their hands, the game can be completed in under an hour.

A special mention must go to the narrative in this game; contrary to the nature of this list, or is it? Very late on there is a moving cut-scene which serves as an excellent demonstration of story told without a single word of either text or speech. And that’s saying nothing of the utterly sublime alternate method of vanquishing the boss of Maridia, Draygon.

SUPER STREET FIGHTER II TURBO

The thing with Capcom is that their fighting titles are always heavily subject to improvements borne of audience feedback. This is a great thing, embarrassingly-protracted nomenclature aside.

Street Fighter II was genre-defining. Before, fighting games were a very stoic and stiff affair, though still offering more to the side of luck than anything else. And here came a title that was fluid, fast and downright playable.

‘Super Turbo’ being the apex of the second game’s improvement cycle, offers much in the way of deep strategy; high-level play can often resemble that of aging chess masters, the pawns exchanged for punches, rooks for roundhouse kicks… and the ‘horses’ exchanged for hadoukens. No doubt the dedication toward such proficiency is almost akin to that of learning a real martial art, let alone a virtual one (or even, sixteen).

Though much of it seems horribly trite and clichéd by today’s standards, the thing to remember is that Street Fighter II was the one to create the clichés. And for good reason; everything about this just works, and well.

MARIO 64

Wheras the original Super Mario built on what was already established by both Pitfall and it’s own predecessor Donkey Kong, Mario 64 instead threw everything previous attempts at 3D platforming aside as it stomped onto the scene and provided an undeniable template on doing it right.

From the analogue controls, to the acrobatics, to the multi-tiered level objectives; everything about this title was fresher and more dynamic than what came before it, and pretty much hasn’t been beaten since. The different caps Mario can utilise offer a sneakily-subtle sense of progression on top of a wonderfully varied and charming set of levels in amazingly unique environments. Again a much-copied title, Mario 64 is 3D platforming.

LEMMINGS

Wheras most videogames offer an avatar over which the player has direct control, often there is a more ‘second-hand’ type of interaction at work. None of these more distinct than the forces at work in Lemmings. Eight skills can be granted to the titular creatures – often in combination – to allow them to navigate the treacherous environs in which they are placed.

However it is the puzzles which really make the game; throughout each of the original 120 levels, pretty much each and every possible way to use the 8 skills is called upon. The player can, will, and will be demanded to think creatively to solve them all – ranging from the simple and obvious, through those which test reactions more than the grey matter, to the downright devious; intelligent levels which upon completion offer a refreshed mini-epiphany that this game is brilliant.

And it is.

TETRIS

It seems almost unimaginative to list this as the best videogame ever. However, that fact supports a certain truth about the decision; that Tetris is a design classic in every sense of the word. The magic number of seven piece variants, each with their own advantages and potential for game-ruination, and an ever-increasing pace together with a simple scoring system; all these elements make for a game which transcends many societal boundaries, a title anyone can enjoy.

There has so much been wrote about this game, I don’t feel like I have to continue.

Honourable mentions, games which I’d have loved to include but didn’t: Ikaruga, Rogue, Bubble Bobble, Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Gunstar Heroes.

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