Updated: Mar 17, 2021
Welcome back from the weekend! These write-ups are getting more and more difficult, because I love all these games so much. Every game from here is in my Top Ten. Too bad there are twenty of them. Welcome to the realm of perfect games.
20. Metroid Prime
Nintendo really hedged their bets on Metroid Prime. They outsourced it to Retro, an unproven Texas studio, probably with the intention of making them the fall guys if it didn't pan out. Not only that, but they also released it day-and-date with Metroid Fusion on GBA, a more traditional sidescroller meant to be a direct spiritual successor to Super Metroid. If Prime failed, they could always point to Fusion as the game they "wanted" to make all along.
Joke's on them, though, because Metroid Prime is perfect and Metroid Fusion isn't. (I love Metroid Fusion, but let's call a spade a spade.)
Have you ever played a fan game that made you think, "Wow, these fans of the series apparently have a better understanding than the actual developers on what makes these games good!" In some ways, that's the feeling you get from Metroid Prime. The Metroid series has always been better received in the West, especially the US, than in Japan; so when Nintendo handed Retro the keys to the 3D Metroid experiment, we really shouldn't have been surprised when the product they developed seemed to embody heart and soul of the franchise even moreso than Nintendo's own game. This is a an officially licensed fan game. And we, they players, benefited from that.
The entire game is a home-run swing from Retro--God bless them for it. It's a toss-up for me whether Metroid Prime or F-Zero GX is the best looking GameCube game, but they're both in the conversation. While the game looks fantastic, though, it wouldn't be nearly so successful if it weren't for the brilliant and loving design on macro- and micro-levels. The whole map is satisfying to explore, with just enough secrets and just enough backtracking to really get you invested in the space. Each individual room is then also hand-crafted with so much care that you can't help but check everything out. The implementation of the Scan Visor allowed for environmental storytelling that was somehow both background and foreground at the same time, resulting in the most compelling Metroid narrative to date.
It's a dirty rotten shame that Nintendo could never learn the right lessons about the Metroid series going forward. Even Prime's sequels ended up missing the magic of what made the first game so special. That said, nothing will ever take away the beauty and finesse of this wild 3D Metroid experiment.
19. Super Smash Bros. Melee
As a fighting game, I think I may like Project M more than Melee. However, I simply can't deny how much Melee means to me.
I could not stop playing this game as a kid. I perfected every Event Match and beat every single-player mode in the game with every character on the roster. My friend Kevin and I played for hours-long sessions, messing with items and stages but eventually gravitating toward more of an RNG-free experience where we could. I participated in tailor-made challenges on VGF hosted by Tub-O-Troopa, almost like an extra set of special Event Matches just for us. I discovered Smashboards in its infancy and reading up on advanced techniques and strategies. I started playing Melee on a semi-competitive level almost as soon as anyone possibly could, even getting my brother to take me to Ann Arbor-area Smashfests in people's weed-rank apartments before I was even old enough to know what that smell was.
Brawl released as I entered high school and became the go-to party game, but occasionally I could find someone who wanted to return to Melee with me. They usually regretted it after I absolutely slaughtered them, which backfired on me a bit because no one wanted to play Melee with me anymore.
Sophomore year of college, I heard the familiar sounds of the Melee announcer ringing from someone's dorm room. In the class below me there formed an enclave of Melee "doc kids," fans of the game who were pulled in from the wildly popular YouTube documentary The Smash Brothers. (This is as opposed to me, who was a Doc Kid, AKA a Doctor Mario main since 2001.) I asked them if I could hop in. When I started wavedashing and L-cancelling, I instantly became the most impressive person in the room. It was a good feeling.
That crew and I would go on to train together and up our game, eventually competing individually and as teams in the Minnesota Smash Scene (see the above picture). In 2013 and 2014 we made near-monthly pilgrimages to the Twin Cities to play, in addition to regular get-togethers with players from the next town over. Melee has made me happy, it has made me friends, and it has even made me some money.
Melee is sick.
18. TMNT IV: Turtles in Time
I'm not well-versed in the world of beat-em-ups, but I can say confidently that Turtles in Time for the SNES is the best beat-em-up ever made. The amount of different moves you can do with just a D-Pad and two buttons is wild. The four characters all feel comfortable but entirely distinct. It's a short game with replayability levels off the charts. I know the game like the back of my hand at this point, and it is always there for me.
The multiplayer experience of Turtles in Time brings back variety of memories, ranging from my earliest game-playing days with my siblings, to my parents-at-church-choir nights with my friend Micah, to high school, to college, to even just last year when I hung out with Gibby. Where two people and an SNES gather, there Turtles in Time is, ready to be picked up and conquered in a single play session.
17. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (HD)
I wish it were possible to fully capture the spirit of the 2002 Internet and its response to Wind Waker. Has anyone ever written an oral history of that era? Most of the posts are probably lost to time at this point, so it would be a little difficult. But man, it was wild.
I honestly forget to what extent I bought into the "Celda" derision. I was probably at least a little skeptical, especially as a 9/10-year old kid who wasn't sure if he wanted his games to be "kiddy" like everyone was saying. Whatever doubts I had, though, were instantly taken away when I got my hands on the game and was captivated by its charm. The world of Wind Waker really did feel massive back then. Even though I now look at the Great Ocean as a small hindrance between the "fun" parts of the game, back then it made everything seem so vast and open.
It's hard to look at Wind Waker without lamenting the potential that could have been there--namely the obviously missing dungeons and the artificially inflated back third of the game. On the other hand, what is there is beautiful and wonderful. I was happy to play this game again with my daughter last year and see her get excited about it. She's not a critic yet; I didn't have to be brought down by questions like "Why is this island so empty?" or "Why are we hunting for Triforce pieces?" Instead I was met with the excited "Dad! An island, let's go there!!" and "Dad! Another piece of the Triforce!!" She reminded me that it's possible to love a game for what it is, rather than pine for things a game isn't. And what Wind Waker is, is a special game.
I know I wasn't the only child who sat down one day playing Super Smash Bros. on his N64 to unlock the fourth and final character, only to be met with...wait, who's this kid?
But I also know I was not the only child who was curious enough about Ness to look up his origins and check out his game. I wasn't quite savvy enough to pick up a $5 copy of EarthBound out of a Toys R Us bargain bin right around this time before the aftermarket price skyrocketed, but I was at least persistent enough to find a ROM and experience Earthbound on emulator for the first time. This was the height of my JRPG obsession, and Earthbound nestled right in.
The thing that makes Earthbound so special is not only the game itself, but the community it fostered. The off-the-wall, goofy, heartfelt nature of this game created a sort of relatable haven for kids and adolescents like me. The community has even transcended the game itself in some ways, leading to one of my favorite Hard Drive articles, "Huge Earthbound Fan Excited to Play It For First Time." This is no surprise, though, because so much of Earthbound is a meta experience, engaging you as the player directly in ways that get you to consider the game in ways you likely hadn't considered games before. Leo aptly described the Mother series as constantly engaging in conversation with the player, and I think that's one of the things that captures people's imaginations so much when they come to the game.
When faced with the decision to re-play a game in the Mother franchise, I almost always pick Earthbound. Mother 3 is also wonderful, but it's heavy and existential in a way I have to be in a very specific mood for. Earthbound isn't shallow by any means, but it is more approachable. I also need to justify my decision to buy it on both Wii U and 3DS. Maybe if I keep buying it, Nintendo will localize Mother 3...?
15. Super Metroid
Everything I love about the Metroidvania genre stems from my love for Super Metroid. If a Metroidvania is more like Super Metroid, I'll probably like it more. If a Metroidvania is less like Super Metroid, I'll probably like it less. It's the reason that the genre term "Metroidvania" includes the word "Metroid" in the first place.
I've mentioned elsewhere on the list that the keys to a good Metroidvania for me are quality of exploration and a satisfying power growth curve. I can't think of another game in this vein that gets both of these things so perfectly spot-on. The game is designed in such a way that you are challenged on your way to each power-up, but then each power-up provides you with the means to overcome both the preceding challenge and the next one to come. It's a constant push-pull of feeling like you need something, then receiving that thing, and feeling really good about it for a while until you get the next thing. By the end of the game, you feel invincible.
Super Metroid also nails one of my favorite aspects of Metroidvania design that is best described by Jeremy Parish (the one who coined the genre name in the first place): the need for "funny-looking keys." The game doesn't ask you to unlock a door with a key; it asks you to gain access to new areas by way of funny-looking keys. Those keys may take the form of the morph ball, or the high jump boots, or the spazer, or the ice beam. Each addition to your arsenal opens up new sections of the world for you as well as new shortcuts between areas you've seen.
Many games are modeled after Super Metroid, but no game is Super Metroid but Super Metroid. It's the gold standard, and it has held its value as a timeless masterpiece of design and gameplay.
14. Mega Man X
I first encountered MMX by way of its weird PC release in the late 90's. It was one of the first games I played on a computer instead of a console, so there was an interesting novelty to it, which is partially why I played it over and over and over again. The other reason I played it so much is because I was beginning to understand just how highly I value movement and game feel in video games. At a young age I started to wonder "Why doesn't every game just feel this good?"
It didn't take me long to realize what everyone who has played this game discovers instantly: the ideal way to play MMX is to instantly go to Chill Penguin's stage and get the dash boots. If there were any criticism of the game, it would be that dashing isn't automatic--but even then, the thrill of getting them after not having them, even for half a stage, is a great feeling. While not a Metroidvania, MMX still epitomizes a perfect power growth curve. You get stronger and stronger throughout the game in a way that no other Mega Man game had really done before. Not only do you get the boss abilities, but you also get incremental armor upgrades that drastically affect gameplay.
This is probably the first game that I ever approached in terms of speedrunning, although when I was trying to play this game fast I didn't even really know what speedrunning was. I wanted to dash through the levels as quickly as possible, mastering every aspect of every level. I wanted to beat the game in one sitting, sometimes getting all the powerups and sometimes challenging myself to skip some. I wanted to know this game inside and out, and I ended up getting there. I did end up practicing and clocking an actual speedrun in 2017, finishing the game in 49 minutes. I think I might revisit that someday, or maybe try a 100% speedrun.
13. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
This is a sentiment to be repeated in the Top 10, but it feels necessary to say how incredible it was that Nintendo was able to take their power franchises so competently from 2D to 3D. In many ways, Ocarina of Time is A Link to the Past in a 3D space--and even though I'm reaching a little bit with that direct of a comparison, the fact alone that I can even reach for that comparison is astounding.
Ocarina was a huge part of my childhood, which is far from a unique perspective on the game. I may have played and loved LttP first, but OoT was the Zelda game that first truly captured my imagination and that I really latched onto. I also consider it the first game that I really remember beating "by myself" without gleaning all the key information from my brother. Since this game was released in 1998, my brother was already away to school, so he played it mostly up there without my wondering eyes tracing his every move through the game. So when I got my hands on it on his breaks, it really was up to me to discover the world for myself, which made it all the more magical then and all the more nostalgic now. (I'm not sure to what extent my brother actually did help me through the game. Maybe it was more than I remember. Either way, this is how I remember it!)
Dungeons are possibly my number one favorite aspect of any Zelda game, and Ocarina's dungeons set a high bar for 3D Zelda right out the gate. Most subsequent games were able to match or clear the bar, but the heights they reached on the first attempt were so impressive. The Forest Temple is still one of my favorite dungeons in any video game, let alone Zelda.
People really love OoT, which has given rise to a vocally contrarian swell of people trying to tear it down lately (partially thanks to Egoraptor's total inability to either competently play games or shut up about them). Screw 'em. Nostalgia or not, this game rules.
12. Final Fantasy VI
Final Fantasies I, II, III, and V are all primarily mechanics- and systems-driven. In the middle of that run came FFIV, the first truly story-driven FF game. While I love FFIV, the series' first foray into story focus wasn't without its faults, Spoony Bards notwithstanding.
Final Fantasies VII and onward (non-MMO) were all heavily story-focused, although they did play on systems in their own ways. My experience with the this half of the series is admittedly limited, but I know what I like, and I know that the latter day FF games tip the balance between story and systems a bit more heavily than I prefer.
The perfect balance between the two, ergo the perfect FF game for me, is Final Fantasy VI.
System-wise, VI has the highly customizable and hugely impactful Espers. Each character has echoes of a base class--Locke is a Thief, Terra is a Red Mage, Celes is a Black Mage, and so on--but using Espers, you can mess with character builds and growth in so many satisfying ways. The ATB battles are paced well. The difficulty curve is beautifully even, barely requiring any grinding, if it does at all. The only FF game that I find more mechanically satisfying is V, which is the series' mechanical peak and not a slight on VI at all.
Story-wise, VI has an amazing ensemble cast, in which even the uninteresting characters are either optional or ignorable. As mentioned above, I love character-driven narratives, and while VI does have an enjoyable overarching story with a fantastic villain (I mean, look at that final boss up there), VI shines in its personal character stories. Two princes flip a coin to decide who gets to become king and who gets to run away forever? That's what I said, now. A fallen war general has to feed an old man fish until he dies peacefully in a half-destroyed world? Sign me up. And, of course, all of these beautiful stories are underscored by Nobuo Uematsu's magnum opus score.
If you've played Final Fantasy games and haven't played VI, I implore you to do so.
People are right to draw so many comparisons from Undertale to Earthbound. The visual style, the colors, the character designs, even certain aspects of the battles are all very Mother-inspired. Even Sans comes directly from Earthbound (lol). But I think the biggest and most important lesson that Undertale learned and applied from Earthbound is the way the game interacts with you, the player.
Undertale asks one important question as a central theme: if you can, does that mean you should? The game asks this question of its characters, though I can't discuss why without spoiling a bit too much. The game also asks this question of you in how you choose to approach the game. You can kill every enemy in the game. There's a whole segment of gameplay, dialogue, story, and music all dedicated to you doing this. But should you? I never have, because I simply don't want to. There is a part of me that wonders...what if I did? There's a lot of the game I haven't seen yet. It's right there, and it's a great challenge. But even though these characters are just pixels and programming, I feel like I shouldn't do it. I'd be disappointed in myself if I did.
I hate that this game became an irony-poisoned meme for a while, but I'm glad that's (mostly) over and it can be enjoyed (mostly) stigma-free again, because more people should play it. If you've been clamoring for a Mother 3 localization, Undertale is what you should be looking toward to fill the void. The fact that Undertale was made by one person is absolutely mind-boggling. I'm glad that Toby Fox has employed help for finishing Deltarune, because I'm excited to see what twists he brings to this world, its gameplay, and its metanarrative in a sequel to this beautiful game.
99. Mass Effect 3 (XBox 360, 2012)
98. The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening (Switch, 2019)
97. Yoku's Island Express (Switch, 2018)
96. Slay the Spire (Switch, 2017)
95. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (NES, 1987)
94. Mega Man 11 (Switch, 2018)
93. Baba is You (Switch, 2019)
92. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (Wii, 2006)
91. Tetris & Dr. Mario (SNES, 1994)
89. Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse (NES, 1989)
88. Mega Man 3 (NES, 1990)
87. Mighty Switch Force (3DS, 2011)
86. Ori and the Blind Forest (PC, 2015)
85. WarioWare Gold (3DS, 2018)
84. Mega Man X3 (SNES, 1995)
83. The Legend of Zelda: Oracles of Ages and Seasons (GBC, 2001)
82. Gris (Switch, 2018)
81. Sonic Mania (Switch, 2017)
79. AM2R: Another Metroid 2 Remake (PC, 2016)
78. SteamWorld: Dig (3DS, 2013)
77. WarioWare, Inc.: Mega Microgame$ (GBA, 2003)
76. Rayman Legends (Wii U, 2013)
75. Mega Man X2 (SNES, 1994)
74. Pokemon Red/Blue/Yellow (Game Boy, 1998)
73. F-Zero GX (GameCube, 2003)
72. Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour (GameCube, 2003)
71. Donkey Kong Country 3 (SNES, 1996)
69. Donkey Kong Jungle Beat (GameCube, 2004)
68. Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Project M (Wii, 2008)
67. Super Mario Galaxy (Wii, 2007)
66. Sonic Adventure 2: Battle (GameCube, 2001)
65. Pokemon FireRed/LeafGreen (GBA, 2004)
64. Super Mario Bros. (NES, 1985)
63. Pokemon Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald (GBA, 2002)
62. Shantae and the Pirate's Curse (Wii U, 2014)
61. Super Meat Boy (PC, 2010)
59. Yoshi's Island (SNES, 1995)
58. Fire Emblem Awakening (3DS, 2012)
57. Banjo-Kazooie (N64, 1998)
56. Tetris 99 (Switch, 2019)
55. Donkey Kong Country (SNES, 1994)
54. Mole Mania (Game Boy, 1996)
53. Luigi's Mansion (GameCube, 2001)
52. Stardew Valley (PC, 2016)
51. Paper Mario (N64, 2000)
49. Fire Emblem: Three Houses (Switch, 2019)
48. New Super Mario Bros. U (Wii U, 2012)
47. Golf Story (Switch, 2017)
46. Super Mario Bros. 2 (USA) (NES, 1988)
45. The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening (Game Boy, 1993)
44. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (Wii U, 2014)
43. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (3DS, 2013)
42. Octopath Traveler (Switch, 2017)
41. Elite Beat Agents (DS, 2006)
39. Animal Crossing: New Leaf (3DS, 2012)
38. Mario Kart 8 (Wii U, 2014)
37. Kirby's Adventure (NES, 1993)
36. Tales of Symphonia (GameCube, 2003)
35. Super Mario Odyssey (Switch, 2017)
34. Mega Man 2 (NES, 1988)
33. Diddy Kong Racing (N64, 1997)
32. Super Mario 3D World (Wii U, 2013)
31. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES, 1991)
29. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Switch, 2017)
28. Mother 3 (GBA, 2006)
27. Tetris Effect (PS4, 2018)
26. Final Fantasy V (Super Famicom, 1992)
25. Golden Sun (GBA, 2001)
24. Star Fox 64 (N64, 1997)
23. Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door (GameCube, 2004)
22. Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES, 1988)
21. Donkey Kong Country 2 (SNES, 1995)
20. Metroid Prime (GameCube, 2002)
19. Super Smash Bros. Melee (GameCube, 2001)
18. TMNT IV: Turtles in Time (SNES, 1991)
17. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (GameCube, 2002)
16. EarthBound (SNES, 1994)
15. Super Metroid (SNES, 1994)
14. Mega Man X (SNES, 1993)
13. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (N64, 1998)
12. Final Fantasy VI (SNES, 1994)
11. Undertale (PC, 2015)