Sometimes I see a bandwagon and some people jumping on it. Oftentimes, I jump on it too and we roll on to our destination, like an enormous, beautiful katamari. This is one of those times.
I'm rating the following games based on a few things: obviously graphical quality will only be worse the further into the past you go, so I'll try and rate them as they appeared at the time. Equally, they'll be rated partially on the influence they had on the games that followed them. I'm trying to avoid personal preference, so my list of my Five Favourite Video Games Ever would be different to this one. I'm obviously not going to include anything I've not played, that would be silly. I'm not keeping spoilers out of these, the most recent one came out around eight years ago and you've no excuse for never having played any of them. I'm only reviewing the games as they appeared on their primary system (i.e. for the first time), no GBA ports dated a couple of years later nor things appearing on the Wii virtual console.
With all that said, my own opinions do move back and forth a bit, it all depends on my mood. A bit like asking which my five favourite bands are. If I ever get around to playing GTA: IV then that might make this list. Spore too, depending a bit on what it's like. Anyway, enough equivocating, here's game number five.
5. Planescape: Torment (1999) Metacritic score: 91
You begin the game as a heavily scarred man, who knows nothing of his identity, waking up in a mortuary; your only companion, a sarcastic floating skull. Things get stranger from there. You discover you're immortal and are haunted by a question: "what can change the nature of a man?" Never before or since have I felt like every action I took had a consequence, for good or evil; law or chaos. The NPCs you can have in your party are a strange but massively compelling group. Some of the other people you meet are even more so. Highlights include challenging a rather arrogant preacher to a suicide-off (which, unsurprisingly and hilariously, you win.) and debating with a man until you convince him he does not exist. At which point he stops. The setting is a far cry from your standard D&D with Sigil, city of doors, an incredible place filled with different factions vying for control. Your group even finds itself in the middle of the Blood War on Baator and later in the Abyss at one point. The script is unparalleled, probably more dialogue than in any other game I've ever played and every single line worth reading. The very greatest thing about it? The name. Planescape is only the setting, as it were, the actual game's name is 'Torment', the one thing that drives every single character in it. Vital for heavily influencing Baldur's Gate and its sequel, which would take the importance of NPCs in your party to an even greater level, although few of them would be as cool and individual as Fall-From-Grace, Morte, Nordom, Ignus, Anna et al.
4. Super Mario 64 (1996 Japan/US, 1997 Europe) Metacritic score: 94
The level design is unbelievable. The graphics, for the time, were unbelievable. The sheer level of exploration required to get all 120 stars is unbelievable. The camera was innovative and having complete control over it was unbelievable. The entire damned game is pretty freaking unbelievable. Ok, so it lacks a bit in terms of the storyline, which is why the last few games beat it to the top, but this game did so much for the 3d platformer as a genre, I can't even begin to describe it. Oh, and the last ingredient? A healthy dose of fun. Few other games are more fun to simply jump into and go and grab a random star. This game showed the true power of the N64 and made it the must-have system (unless you preferred the Playstation, which I heard was good too). This game's existence was directly responsible for dozens of others, including the recent Super Mario Galaxy and the next one on the list.
3. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998) Metacritic score: 99
If Super Mario 64 gave some indications of what the N64 could do, then this game was the one to really let loose with everything it had. Again, the graphics for the time were absurdly good, especially things like the draw distance. This game, to my mind, took the series back to the quality of A Link to the Past, a game I have very fond memories of playing on my cousin's SNES, after the disappointing Link's Awakening. The time travelling and ability to move from being an adult to a child made was an idea that had not been implemented as well before. The dungeons were exactly the right length to dip in and out of and the use of music, not just the orchestral score (which naturally was brilliant) but also the use of the titular ocarina to teleport around. Without this, there would not have been any Majora's Mask nor Wind Waker nor Twilight Princess nor countless other similar games.
2. Deus Ex (2000) Metacritic score: 90
Terrorism. It's a complicated word these days. Deus Ex was fortunate in exactly when it was released, I doubt that a character who starts the game attacking terrorists (who have in the past blown up the Statue of Liberty) in said statue's ruins would have been approved of in late 2001. I'm reminded of the exploding buildings at the end of 1999's Fight Club film. Very much a product of its time, it owes the style mostly to The Matrix and cyberpunk more generally and its plot to numerous conspiracy theories and leftover fear about the Millennium Bug mixed with some incredibly interesting philosophical questions about the nature of humanity as found in Blade Runner or Ghost in the Shell. In short, then, these are a few of my favourite things. The gameplay is sort of FPS-y with added stealthy bits taken from Thief: The Dark Project and RPG inventory management and an experience system. Quite apart from all of that, however, Deus Ex has something that is all its own. It combines these things fluidly. In any one mission, you have multiple different ways to go about things. That was, essentially, totally new for the time. The choice to be extremely stealthy one mission and then blow up everything in sight the next still staggers my mind. I've not seen any game, not even the sequel, that attempted to keep up the multiplicity of choice throughout. Not only that, but the decisions you make have huge and lasting impacts on the game as a whole. For example, when I first played it, JC's brother Paul was killed. I assumed that was scripted and 'just what happened', but no. Paul can live. Right through the whole damn game. There are almost no characters you're forced to kill at all, in fact. You can go through the entire game and just tranquilize your enemies. This was beyond mindblowing. Combined with superb set pieces and a plot that dragged you in until you practically forgot that a world existed outside this futuristic globetrot, I was stunned. Shame the sequel sucked a bit. But the one thing that the game owes the very most to? The last game on my list, of course.
1. Half-Life (1998) Metacritic score: 96
This game brought me into gaming. Sure, I'd played other things before, but this was the catalyst that made me into who I am today. This totally rewrote the book on the first-person shooter. As revolutionary as Wolfenstein 3d or Doom or anything else, but perhaps more so. It took the rest of the industry years to catch up to Valve. Even simple things at the time, like the water effects, were very cool. The AI was the best at the time bar nothing. The fights and oh dear God the beautiful, beautiful set pieces. Each one like a short movie that defied you not to drop your jaw. An example: you're in a nuclear silo of some sort, where a rocket engine is being tested. But wait, what's that banging sound? No idea. Keeps getting louder the closer you get to the centre of things. You go through a door and see a scientist grabbed by an enormous tentacle thing. And then you realise that the only way out is past a whole bunch of tentacles. Oh, by the way, they were making the banging with their enormous, razor sharp nose things. Razor sharp nose things that kill you extremely dead if they ever make contact. Scary, immersive and wonderful. This was the first FPS I played where you didn't start with a weapon. No, instead you are a scientist. So you walk around, interacting with other characters and then the entire world goes to hell. It was also the first FPS I played where they actually took away all the nifty weapons you'd found up until that point and had to get them back again. This trick was used later in nearly everything ever. Even now, I still play the game occasionally and, even if it looks pretty dated, I am still immersed and sucked right into the gameplay. The sequel undoubtedly has its fans and I'm tempted to give that the equal first position. It brought a much-needed level of humanity and plot into a game that had previously been mostly "Kill aliens. Kill soldiers. Do a jumping puzzle. Kill a helicopter. Do a teleporter puzzle." although Valve did become quite keen on the physics puzzles. Still, the vehicle sections are great, the physics engine is great, especially the gravity gun and the set pieces. Oh my yes. Yesyesyes. If you throw in Episodes 1 and 2, you only get more of the character interaction I like so much and a bit more of a feeling of the world. I'll admit that the game has its flaws, but I'm not sure there are many games out there that really are totally flawless. Anyway, time for the Honourable Mentions.
Starcraft (1998) Metacritic score: 88
Any game that is still regularly played for its perfect multiplayer balance a full 10 years after its release is worthy of this sort of list. The single player campaign is brilliant too, especially the events of Brood War. And the cinematics conjure up the sense of an epic space war at least on a par with Star Wars. Seriously, look on YouTube for the Starcraft: Brood War opening and I dare you not to get a tingle in your spine when that music starts. I'll admit that it owes a lot to Warhammer 40K for the world, but it's still a damned awesome game.
Goldeneye 007 (1997) Metacritic score: 96
The game with a sniper rifle in it that meant that essentially every single game after it also had a sniper rifle in it. Also fantastic multiplayer, even if four of you were squinting at a tiny screen and jostling for position with controllers and whatnot.
Day of the Tentacle (1993) Metacritic score: 93
I like the Monkey Island series. I like it a lot. But I played this first. Sometimes that's enough in a game to change your mind about which is best. All the classic SCUMM games fit in here, though.
Baldur's Gate (1998) Metacritic score: 91 and Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn (2000) Metacritic score: 95
A much more accessible and traditional look at the world of Dungeons and Dragons. Following the life of your protagonist from random level 1 guy to the epic hero they become is a fantastic experience. If the isometric thing gets to you, play Neverwinter Nights, it's not as good, but I know how some people can't actually play games that don't have 3d graphics.
This has gone on for a long time. Rather longer than I'd intended. I guess I'll just have to revisit this list and see if there are many other games that I would load onto someone who had never experienced a game before. Probably a few. Thanks for reading.