Top 5 Video Games: Honorable Mentions

Below is my long list of video games that almost make it to my top 5, but not quite for whatever reason.  In general, I have a more favorable opinion of the games at the top compared to those near the bottom, thought that's subject to change depending on my mood.

Next up will be a post dedicated to my #5 favorite game of all time!

Gothic 2
There was a time a few years ago when this game unseated my long-time favorite for the top spot.  Granted, the newness of Gothic 2 wore off eventually and it slid down a bit when I was able to see things more objectively, but I still have to say that if there was one game that deserves my "sixth man" award, this is it.  It hurts a little to leave this off my top 5, and I can say without any hesitation that this is something very special.  This is one of the very last games made with a modern 3D engine that still held true to old-school RPG mechanics.  And by that I mean, puzzle-solving and high difficulty over level-grinding.  This game reminds me of Fable without the cheesiness of Peter Molyneux; a beautiful, non-scaled open world full of quests galore, and highly realistic AI.

This game makes you feel like there is nobody there to hold your hand.  It's very easy to wander into an area with monsters way beyond your level, but the game never stops you from doing that.  It also doesn't stop you from taking on quests in any order or of any difficulty that you want.  This is one of the few games during this time period that had NPC AI that used real schedules, you had to wait until dawn for the shops to open, and important characters for quests could only be found at the right time of day depending on where you were.  Although this is common in later games like Oblivion and Skyrim, this game was way ahead of its time.  "Radiant AI" truly started with Gothic 2.

Even monsters made use of a highly advanced AI.  Like a Monster Hunter game, each monster had its own tactics that took time and effort to overcome.  They even stayed dead permanently after you killed them, making you feel a large sense of accomplishment after defeating them.

One other thing I have to mention about this game that no other game has ever done as well, is make you feel a sense of belonging.  You don't start out feeling like a hero at all.  You feel like a peasant, and you are treated like one from the very beginning.  However, as time goes on and you accomplish more things, people start reacting to you differently.  I don't think that any other game has ever done this as smoothly and as effectively as Gothic 2.

What hurt this game was the lack of character creation options - sure you could mold your hero between melee, ranged and magic, but you were limited to a static male human to start out with.  Also, the control system was pretty poor.  I would play this game a lot more often if it wasn't so difficult to actually control.

Even with its flaws, this game is amazing.  And while I haven't played it myself, I've heard that the original Gothic is also superb, even if it falls just short of its sequel.

Baldur's Gate 2
Some may be a little shocked to see that this game isn't in my top 5, and to be honest, I'm surprised myself that it isn't there because this game is legendary among RPG fans.  This game is epic in every sense of the word.  Loosely based on the 2nd Edition D&D rule-set and set in the Forgotten Realms, BG2 is a massive game with tons of quests, treasure, NPCs (many of which are recruitable) and story arcs.  Character creation is deep with nearly all of the 2E kits and subraces available to play with.  I've always felt that 2E D&D worked far better as a video game system than a pen & paper game.  The tactical nature of the combat, the strict rules, and all the options worked great with a computer DM running things.

The story of this game is pretty amazing, and features probably one of my favorite gaming villains of all time (perhaps I need to do a top 5 villain list sometime), Irenicus.  There are many choices to be made during the game that can influence the characters you can recruit as well as the direction the story goes.  There are factions that can be joined, including the assassins guild, where you will have a chance to ascend the ranks and battle the opposing factions.  The variety of people, places and things to find is staggering.

The combat system is something that many grognards of cRPGs constantly pine for whenever a new RPG is made.  Each battle can be solved in a variety of ways depending upon your party make-up, and because of the huge amount of spells, combat often reminds me of a frantic wizard battle with a large variety of spells and counter spells.

Now you may be asking why this isn't in my top 5.  For me, its strengths are also part of its weaknesses.  The game, especially later on, starts to become a little too overpowered and bloated if that makes sense.  I've always said that D&D was a game balanced for low level characters, and the high levels kind of got left along the wayside.  On paper, things work okay, but in real practice slaying demi-gods with demi-gods begins to wear thin after a while. 

Another bother for me in this game is the combat system.  In the late game especially, magic characters have become so powerful that combat becomes a puzzle or mini-game and really starts to bog down everything.  In fact, it gets bad enough that in order to win combat encounters you often find yourself dying the first couple times on purpose just to know what spells and attacks the opposition uses.  For me that, really kills the immersion.  In D&D you don't get to save scum failed encounters, you live and learn with your mistakes.  Of course, you do have a choice not to save/reload but much of the large story-based dungeon crawls in the game basically require this or your party will be unable to continue on at all (only way to get out is forward).

Those reasons keep this game out of my top 5.  A great and enormous game, kind of buried by its own weight in a way.  For someone else this may not be a big deal, as I think many people love running battles over and over again to get them pitch-perfect.  Even though I love this game, the high-level combat slog puts a damper on it.

No, not Diablo 2 and certainly not Diablo 3.  Diablo was the game that still kept intact many of the concepts of the rogue-likes it mimicked while providing a superbly atmospheric real-time action experience.  The first time I saw this game was on the back of a Warcraft II CD case.  One single screenshot of one of the most amazing games I had ever seen before got me so excited that I pre-ordered almost immediately.  I remembered gazing at that screenshot for weeks and weeks prior to the game's arrival in the mail.  This seemed to be the game I had been waiting for, for a very long time.

When the package finally arrived in the mail, I remember seeing the black and red cover and the amazing gothic art and calling my best friend to run over as fast as he could to check it out.  Over the next few days, I played the game non-stop from dawn to dusk.  My friend bought the game and we were soon slaying demons together.  The initial hype of the game matched the game-play so well that I soon started to feel obsessed over the game, as if the game itself was some kind of Lovecraftian relic of evil.

One day after dying a gruesome death deep in the caves and losing all of my equipment, I took the disk out of the tray, put it back in its case and packaged it back in the box.  I gave the game to my mom and told her to hide it.  "No matter what I say or do", I told her, "don't give me the game back".  What followed was something I can only describe as the scene from Young Frankenstein where Frederick locks himself up with the monster and wants to get out.  Of course my mother wouldn't give me the game back and I had to tear the house apart to finally find it after she had gone shopping.  Yeah, I was hooked on Diablo.

Why is this game on my list other than for the reason above?  Well, the game's good, really good.  This was before we were spoiled with green, blue, yellow, and purple drops, when good drops were really rare.  Hearing that ring or amulet drop became the most awesome sound in the world, it was like hitting the jackpot.  The difficulty was high as well which made a great risk vs reward system.  On a normal game taking on the skeleton king or the butcher was extremely difficult because you couldn't go back to an easier level and grind for experience.  You had to use what you were given up to that point.

The game's theme was really dark, perhaps the darkest, most creepiest game made up to that point.  Corpses were hanging all over the place, blood spattered on the floor when you killed a monster, there were terrifying screams in the soundtrack.  You have to realize that at this point in time, games didn't go this far.  But Diablo didn't pull any punches, it wanted to make you feel like you were literally going to a place of your worst nightmares when you played this game.

On top of that, each time you died in multiplayer, you dropped everything....everything.  Unless you had a friend nearby who had inventory room, or you were extremely lucky, you would never see your accumulated items again.  To add insult to injury, if you lost your internet connection after losing your equipment (someone picked up the phone in your house, for example), you knew you would never see your stuff again.  I can't tell you the episodes of terrible of rage I would feel when the game would suddenly freeze up and I'd hear my sister upstairs yell, "oops, sorry".  NOOOOOO!!!!!

But that's what made Diablo great.  It was a hard, unforgiving game, and the theme matched it perfectly.  Death meant something in this game, entering a new level meant risking everything each and every time.  When those acid spitters started to surround me in the caves, I'd start sweating and tensing up, knowing that I could lose at any moment, and I knew I might possibly never see my new yellow sword again.  Games, especially modern action RPGs, just don't do this anymore.  That's why I'll never see them hold a candle to the original.  All of the crazy loot drops and crap you can get in D2 and D3 will never compare to the chilling moments of survival in Diablo where each step meant life or death.

I recently came across a mod for Diablo that I like very much.  It's called The Hell.  This mod takes everything I loved about the game and enhances it big time.  The game is even harder, multi-player is better, many bugs are fixed, and there is a far greater variety of items and monsters with better AI.  I highly recommend this mod to anyone who wants to make the game even richer and more rewarding than vanilla.

Space Rangers 2
This game will always be special for me.  It's not often that I like a game that is not themed swords & sorcery fantasy, but for so many reasons SR2 does enough to make it one of my favorite games of all time.

What I love most about this game is the living, breathing universe that it is set in.  I can't think of many games that give you the same kind of simulation.  Every NPC-controlled ship in the game has real motivations and goals and affect the way the world works in many ways.  Pirates gangs target specific ships and systems, merchant and other commercial ships travel from system to system trading their goods for profit.  The economy is constantly changing based on how these NPCs move their goods and how things are being impacted around the galaxy.

For example, if pirates are raiding a nearby system, you can get news updates about the situation including quests that will ask for your help in eradicating them.  Depending on the situation, the price of medicine will also go up from the supply shortages due to the destruction in the area.  It is a completely dynamic system that makes you feel a part of an amazing greater world that operates with or without your participation.

The enemy in the game, the Dominators, are also dynamic and survive on their own AI.  They take over systems all on their own, conquering like some Borg intelligence regardless of your participation in the war.  If the game goes on long enough without your help, it is very possible for the Dominators to take over the whole galaxy.  Now, why haven't there really been any games made like this in a fantasy setting?  I think it would work tremendously well.

The dynamic world is not the only thing that makes this game great.  The game-play itself is tight, diverse and a lot of fun.  The game is unique in that it combines a lot of different systems to mix it up.  In addition to the open world exploration where you'll spend most of your time, you'll engage in a turn-based tactical combat system with multiple combatants.  You can recruit a helpful bystandard to your battle or even be called upon by others to help those under attack or preparing to attack.  Many of the game's planetary quests are done using a text-based decision system very similar to the old Choose Your Own Adventure books, some of them are very complex and very difficult, including exploring a planet's surface, and even the adventure of serving prison time.  Less often you will partake in planetary skirmishes with robot armies using a simple RTS interface.

All of these sub-systems taken on their own wouldn't be very interesting, but taken together, the game feels like a collection of working parts that operate well together.  They provide a nice break from the regular space exploration and do a great job of filling in the gaps that most other space games like Elite fail to deliver.

I just love this game, it's a fun romp through the universe, even if it does get a tad monotonous if played over a long period of time.  I recommend getting the reboot edition which fixes bugs and adds even more content to the game.

Wizards & Warriors
Of all the games on this list, I think this may surprise people the most.  The game got panned pretty hard, not only by reviewers, but by many gamers even today.  Some love it, but most probably dislike it.  W&W suffers, more than anything else, because of its timing.  The game was not only released during the same year as Diablo II and Baldur's Gate II, but just 5 days later in late September of 2000.  Had it released a few months earlier or later, it may have had a better shot at success.  Evidence of that can be seen in Wizardry 8 which was released the following year and got far more accolades than W&W.  The result was a game that was unfairly judged based on the elephant in the room rather than on its own merits.

Some criticism of the game was deserving, it shipped with a lot of bugs, some game-breaking which also hurt its score, even if most were later fixed.  This game was also criticized for so many old school mechanics that many people were trying to get away from in the age of isometric, tactical RPGs.  Many, however, fail to realize that the game was designed and programmed by D.W. Bradley, who did Wizardry 5,6 and 7.  This game was meant to be the ultimate culmination of his ideas from those games - the ultimate first person RPG in the vein of the classics.  And in many ways, unlike the opinion of many (with the notable exception of IGN), I think he succeeded.

I've always felt that Wizardry 8 did too much to abandon its predecessors' mechanics in favor of modern gaming trends.  Wiz 8 is much more of a hack-n-slash game with highly-linear locales and a high emphasis on grinding.  W&W still held true to the old-school RPG: a massive open world to explore, crazy options for character creation, difficult and maze-like dungeons, and lots and lots of puzzles.

The reason for my putting this game on this list is simply to recognize that this is probably the best incarnation of the classic first-person RPG ever done.  The game is a joy to play, the world is full of things to see and do, the combat system feels great, puzzles are fun, and customization is deep.  The graphics engine is dark and atmospheric and provides just enough graphical innovation to make it feel fresh while not sacrificing the old-school feel that it was based on.

For whomever has missed this game, or those who want an accessible version of the old school style first-person RPG, this is quite possibly the best representation I can think of.  I highly recommend it.

This is a game I only recently purchased for my Commodore 64.  But I've had so much fun with it, I couldn't rightly justify keeping it off my list of honorable mentions.  In a lot of ways Deathlord is to Ultima as Wizards & Warriors is to Wizardry.  Take what you loved about Ultima 3, 4 or 5; huge world to explore with lots of secrets, dungeons, monsters and treasure, puzzle quests that are solved by deduction, and then multiply it 10-fold and you get something like Deathlord.  I do love the Ultima games, Exodus being my favorite, but I think Deathlord is just plain better.

This game is huge.  It's made up of 16 continents both small and huge, 128 different monsters, 20 gigantic dungeons, 8 races, and 16 classes.  I can't think of another computer game with that many race/class combos.  The game-play is very similar to the early Ultima games which comprises mainly of searching towns and dungeons for clues, gathering relics, and gaining experience points and gold to spend on levels and loot.  It's classic fantasy computer role-playing at its finest.

The game is extremely hard as well.  If a party member dies, the game will auto-save meaning that there is no way to really load a backup on the same disk and replay a battle.  I honestly wish every RPG had this built in, especially for a game like Baldur's Gate where it's simply too much of a temptation to reload and get every fight perfect.  If a character dies in Deathlord, the player will have to resurrect him or replace him with a new character.  If there is a total party wipe, then the player will either have to start over completely with a new party, or use the new party to get cash to raise the old one.

The dungeons are awesome, and unlike Ultima and other early tile-based RPGS, vary wildly from one to the next.  They are full of killer traps, monsters and treasure and, best of all, require you to map with paper and pencil.  A game that has no auto-mapper will always get extra props from me.  A great game should transcend the screen, it should be an experience.

The biggest downside for this game, personally, is the oriental setting, which is quite unfortunate.  Originally, the developer had planned for it to be set in a standard medieval world, but EA forced him to change it last minute.  Leave it to EA to screw a game up, even all the way back then.  This makes it difficult for westerners to figure out the Japanese word for Elf and Chainmail and ends up becoming a barrier to new players.  That being said, the game itself is so good I can live with the setting, even if it takes a little more manual checking (Hint: Don't even try playing without a manual!).

Although I haven't played this game long enough to put it in my top five, it may end up there some day, that is if I can survive long enough to find out!

Pool of Radiance
I've always felt like this is the spiritual precursor to Baldur's Gate.  The game takes place in the Forgotten Realms and was the first game to really get tactical combat right.  The game is really one of the best translations of D&D to the computer, and I believe this is only one of the few games that uses the first edition rule-set.

The reason why I love this game is because it combines Bard's Tale exploration (first-person) with tactical combat to create a very balanced and effective combination.  All of the components, from quest gathering, to shopping for items or hanging out at the inn, to dungeon-crawling make a sweet combination.  This is a complete game here, not a cute system pigeonholed to be an RPG.  The old Might & Magic games were great (2 being my favorite), but they were essentially a grind.  Grind mechanics have become a convention for the lazy developer and are pretty inferior to the old-school puzzle-solving mechanics.  While PoR has some grinding, it mixes it up enough to minimize the effects pretty well.

This, along with its sequel, is a game that I haven't played long enough to put in my top rankings, but there is a great game here.

I've already discussed this game in a lot of detail in an earlier post, so I won't repeat it all here.  I just want to say that there's no way I could not include this game on my honorable mentions list.  The game's method of providing a completely open experience, nearly unparalleled by any game, is highly unique.

Why Fallout and not Fallout 2?  Well, unlike most, I felt that the sequel, while even bigger and more detailed, was just a bit too unfocused.  The game meanders a little too much and there just isn't the tight experience there like in the original.  Fallout 2 is a great game, but I felt the original was just a little better.

One might also ask why I didn't put up Wasteland or even Fallout 3.  Wasteland is a great game, but it still lacks the amazing options of Fallout as well as the great combat system and deep options.  And, I'm sorry, but Fallout 3 is just no good at all.  The game doesn't even try to simulate the deep world-changing choices of the original, nor does it make resource management all that important.  Like other recent Bethesda games, it's a first-person-shooter at heart disguised as an RPG.

Space Empires 4
SE4 is the only non video game RPG on my list.  It was a hard decision to include it as I don't play many strategy games, at least those that don't include some sort of character development and choice.  But this game is so good, I couldn't leave it off.

SE4 is the best turn-based strategy game I've played.  This game is as detailed as a strategy game gets.  The tech tree is so vast and detailed, and there are so many options in the way that you can build your empire that games can vary in vast ways.  The game is also one of the most moddable in existence.  You can tweak nearly everything including many core game mechanics.  I'll admit that SE5 is even more detailed than SE4, and I love that game too, but it suffered a little from a poor interface and a little more barrier to modding (and required a better machine anyway).

SE4's game-play is just about as good as Master of Orion 2, but the more modern engine and the modding support push it over the top as my favorite space strategy game.

Final Fantasy 6
I know, I know, an eastern RPG?!  Am I nuts?  Well, no, not exactly.  I put so many hours into these games during my childhood that I don't think I could keep this off my list and feel good about myself.  And maybe this mention is more of a compiled tribute to all of my favorite console-style RPGs like Dragon Quest, Chrono Trigger, Tactics Ogre and the Final Fantasy series up to and including 6.  For table-top gamers, admitting you like some of these games could be considered heresy, but having had a chance to revisit a few of these games recently, I have to say that they share a lot in common with D&D.  They often feature customizable character parties, non-linear worlds (at least for some of them), and lots and lots of dungeon crawling.

Are these sandbox worlds?  No, of course not.  And that really makes their label as an "RPG" questionable at best.  But take them for what they are, enjoyable stories with some interesting mechanics, and they can be a fun ride.

I think the thing about these games that many fail to see and what sets them apart from western computer RPGs is the meta-game systems.  What I mean by that is that these games are not meant to be immersive.  If you go into these games attempting to get the same, "I feel like I'm part of another world" experience as a wRPG, you're doing it wrong.  These games and their mechanics are really meant to be exploited and "gamified", if that makes any sense.  The best way to enjoy a console RPG is by using walk-throughs, player guides, and player collaboration.  The Monster Hunter series continues to work in Japan because people understand this there.  Don't play for the scenery, play to exploit.  Creating the most awesome character by finding the best piece of equipment, battling the most rewarding monsters, and combing through the deepest dungeons is how you get the most out of it.  In other words, don't play a console RPG like an RPG, play it like a treasure hunt.

Now, the reason why I put Final Fantasy 6 on this list is because this is simply the best eastern RPG ever made.  I would put Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy 4, and Dragon Quest 4 just after it, but FF6 has it all; amazing story, huge list of characters, awesome villain, lots of freedom, and great dungeons with lots of loot.  You'll lose over 100 hours here hunting down the secrets of this world, building up your perfect fighting force, and finding and overcoming challenges.  There's a lot here to have fun with, the type of console RPG fun that has never been outdone since in the console world.

Having said that, I don't put this game, nor any console RPG in the same area as western games.  They make for a fun diversion, but they don't have the same lasting appeal to me as a true fantasy simulation.  That doesn't make them completely worthless, nor worthy of some of the scorn I see them given by some RPG grognards on our side.  Enjoy them for what they are, and you'll see its good qualities.


My Top 5 Video Games

Ever since I started this blog, I've been wanting to do a post about my favorite video games of all time.  I've been spending some time playing my #1 favorite over the last few days, so I thought it was the perfect time to do a countdown.  Rather than do a single post, however, I thought it would be better to do a separate post on each since there is simply so much to talk about for each one.

The problem with doing favorite game lists is that you inevitably leave some games out that were just on the border, or perhaps so similar to another (that ended up being just a little inferior) that they didn't need to be on the list.  Rather than just make my list even longer by doing a top 10 or top 20 or something like that, I decided to just create a list of special mentions or "runner-ups".  There are simply too many great games out there that come near to perfection, even if they aren't my greatest ever.

It is incredibly difficult to narrow down a list of games as your "best" and do it in an objective manner.   Too often our tastes are clouded by nostalgia or, the opposite, novelty and sometimes the flavor of the moment fades into obscurity.  When coming up with this list, I tried to be as objective as possible, explicitly leaving games off that I may be infatuated with right now that I know may be impacting fair judgement.  Perhaps the new games I am playing (new to me, not necessarily newly released) may end up in my favs list, but it would be unfair to do that until I've let some time to let it sink in or have had more time to play it.

I felt that limiting my list to 5 games was the best because I think that making a list any longer than that results in games being added purely out of a particular mechanic or system that I may be a little too impartial toward.  Another thing I want to say is that my top 5 games likely won't stay the same forever.  If you asked me just a few years ago, my favorites list would look a lot different.  In a few years I may have to revisit the list and add updates.  Having said that, as I said above, I'm trying to add only the games that have lasted the test of time for me, games that have been favorites for many years.  Barring the retail release of Star Trek style holo-decks in my lifetime (which may not be so hard to believe considering how fast technology moves), I can guarantee you that most of the games in my top 5 (especially my #1) will be there forever.

One last thing I want to briefly mention is the the way I judge games.  Right off the bat, I want to say that I don't go by some mathematical formula to figure this stuff out.  If you want that, there's another guy doing this on his own blog.  While I can see the value of this, I feel that it boils things down in such a stale, black and white fashion, that all emotion gets sucked out of the review.  Since I see video games as an art form, you can't simply run a formula to figure out their value.  For example, counting the amount of colors, paint mixture, size and shadowing does not tell you whether a painting has value or not.  "What feelings does the art invoke through its elements?", is the better question to ask.  And, yes, this means that it all boils down to subjectivity in the end, but most people can agree that there are just certain video games that fall within their favorites because of the way the games' components come together to deliver an amazing experience.

So to begin my countdown, in the next post, I'm going to start with the runner-ups and honorable mentions together first.  From there I will dedicate a single post to each of my top 5.


Tracy Hickman

While visiting my parents over the weekend, I had a chance to briefly chat with Tracy Hickman for a few minutes about some of the projects he's currently working on.  He was out doing a yard sale with his wife as is customary with much of the local community every May. 

He sounded pretty excited about Garriot's Shroud of the Avatar project and has been putting a lot of work into making it as great as it can be.  He also hinted about a new story-based boardgame he's going to be kickstarting very soon which sounds pretty awesome.  This got me talking a little about how I thought it was great that I share the same vision for player-driven content with him and that I thought it was awesome that he was trying to push such innovations on a market that seems to be stuck in a bit of a rut lately.  Before I left, he gave me a signed copy of The Immortals which was great.

I'll admit that I'm not the biggest fan of his books themselves.  I haven't read anything outside of the Dragonlance series, and while I enjoyed those books, I've always had a softer spot for Salvatore's Drizzt and company (sorry Tracy!).  Nonetheless, I greatly admire Hickman's contribution to D&D and table-top RPGs in general, probably more than any other Fantasy novelist.  His story about how he got into the hobby is pretty amazing and something I've always considered a real act of bravery.  Not only were his parents against it at the time (his dad wanted him to work at Sizzler instead), but the faith that both he and I share, like many Christians, was not exactly friendly to Dungeons and Dragons back in the 80s.

We will never know for sure, but without the contribution to D&D from Tracy Hickman, table-top RPGs as we know them may have never truly caught on as a mainstream phenomenon in the United States.  For the first time, the title of Dungeons and Dragons was being widely seen on store shelves, not only in hobby-shops, but in your average bookstore.  Even though this is the point where D&D began to become more commercialized and bloated by rules and supplements, I can't argue that without this metamorphosis, many, including myself, may have never even heard about the game.  So in a round-about sort of way, Tracy Hickman led me to this game through his work and I greatly appreciate him for that.

I hope to have more chats with him in the future, it certainly helps that he lives almost directly across the street from my parents in Salt Lake County.  I'm excited about his new projects and hope I can get some personal insight into his work.  Rubbing shoulders with one of the great RPG pioneers is an awesome opportunity.