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To be honest, I thought making this list would surprise me more, forcing me to drag what I might consider to be “ancient” games kicking and screaming into the second decade of the new millennium. But what surprises me most about some of these choices is how little things have changed (and no games from the last two years either!). Here then, in no particular order, are my games of the decade, in roughly chronological order.
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask – 2000
In an age of cookie-cutter sequels, Majora’s Mask is a masterclass in just how far you can reuse assets with a ingenious core idea. Majora’s Mask‘s central time-bending conceit is impressive enough. When you consider the team put the whole thing together in just a year, that’s when jaws start dropping.
With that time schedule, the logical course – which 99% of developers would have taken – would be to add a few more weapons, dust off a few leftover dungeon ideas, and try to hammer them into something salvageable. Thank God for that 1%.
Majora’s Mask‘s 3-day structure may have confused as many as it charmed, but those that “got it” have never forgotten it. At times it is pure Zelda with that winning combination of action and puzzles, but at others it ventures into strange new territory – psychedilc and dark, with a real sense of danger. Er, and it had Tingle too. Well, they didn’t have that much time, I guess.
Superior to both Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, both flawed masterpieces, Majora’s Mask remains the best Zelda of the past decade – and therefore, one of the very best games too.
Shenmue 2 – 2001
Shenmue 2 is probably the game on this list that the fewest amount of people have played. I am unashamedly one of those gamers in love with the original Shenmue, but the sequel is superior in every way. The scale of the game dwarfs not only the original, but also most games made in the decade since.
Moving from a poky Japanese suburb to the vast sprawl of Hong Kong showed us a world where action awaits around every corner. The plot of Shenmue 2 moves at a breathtaking pace – comparatively speaking at least. Gone are many of Shenmue‘s worst flaws including, at least in the precious European-only Dreamcast version, the dreadful English voice acting.
What Shenmue achieved, what its sequel brilliantly expands on, was not just to create a world that feels alive, but to create a living world that is fun. Both games still look and sound amazing even today – which is just as well, seeing as they’re all we have in the absence of Shenmue 3.
Silent Hill 2 – 2001
Despite the foggy visuals and clunky control scheme, Silent Hill 2 only seems to appreciate in value as it ages. Perhaps it’s the growing realization amongst gamers that in the nine years since its release, no other game has been able to create such a haunting story and affecting atmosphere.
Silent Hill 2 gets into your head and does not want to leave. From beginning to end the sense of dread is almost palpable. Combat can be a nightmare. Puzzles drive you to despair. But it’s the atmosphere that pushes you forward, compelling you to keep walking down that corridor when you’d rather do almost anything else, breathing a sigh of relief at each locked door.
This was the high watermark for the series, which has since been tarnished by Konami’s poor management of the franchise. It’s likely that Silent Hill will continue to fall into irrelevance while its one-time competitor, Resident Evil, continues down a totally different track. Perhaps it’s for the best. Silent Hill will leave us with nothing more than what it’s all about – haunting memories.
Halo/Halo 2 – 2001/2004
A slight bit of “top ten list” accounting magic here, but they’re both included for a reason.
Halo: Combat Evolved was nothing short of a revolution. First and foremost, it made the Xbox – Microsoft wouldn’t even be in the business anymore without Halo. And this was a game worthy of the title “system seller.” The open battles, the hop-in, hop-out vehicles, were all built around the perfect combination of shoot/grenade/melee.
It all fell apart in the second act, of course, and Halo 2 picked up where that disappointment left off, with a last-minute cliffhanger, an unnecessary second character and restrictive levels. But what it did have was a multiplayer mode that, after years of false starts, finally brought online gaming to the console masses. Halo 2 was the gaming equivalent of Windows 95.
With Halo 3: ODST disappointing, and the next entry a prequel, it could be that Halo’s best days are behind it. The series may pass into obscurity before ever creating that one “perfect” game. But taken as a whole, Bungie’s series is a tour de force, and the studio’s accomplishments have changed gaming forever.
Metroid Prime – 2002
Metroid Prime is a masterpiece of level design. To take Super Metroid‘s combination of shooting, exploring, and puzzling, all within a hauntingly lonely atmosphere, and bring it into the new millennium was challenge enough – a challenge which almost destroyed Retro Studios. But with Nintendo’s help, Retro not only rose to the challenge, but created one of gaming’s most brilliantly realized worlds.
Both sequels, with their disjointed worlds and unnecessary extra characters, failed to recreate what made Prime so special. Sadly, with the possible exception of Mirror’s Edge, Prime did not seem to inspire a new genre of “first person adventures.” And Metroid: Other M seems like it will take the series in a new direction. All of this leaves Metroid Prime, like Samus Aran herself, all alone. Maybe that’s just the way she likes it.
Resident Evil 4 – 2005
Few teams would have been brave enough to rip up what had been one of gaming’s winning formulas. Fewer still would have been capable of making the replacement not only good, but a work of inspiration that continues to revolutionize the action genre nearly five years later.
It’s the standout moments of Resident Evil 4 that linger in the memory – the music that plays in a save point, the first time your head is lopped from your body with a chainsaw, the epic battle on the lake. But what makes RE4 so successful is its near-perfect pacing. From the opening village to the final all-out assault and every roller coaster turn in between, it constantly keeps the player on their toes, and never outstays its welcome.
Perfect it isn’t – the plot is confusing, the dialogue hammy and the inventory system needlessly complex – but these are nothing more than scratches on the frame of the Mona Lisa. Resident Evil 4‘s influence continues to extend deep into this generation – so much so that I reckon if RE4 came out today, it would still be better than any other action game on the market. You might even say that “I’d buy it at a high price.”
Nintendogs/Brain Age – 2005
Fair enough, this one is outright cheating, but the two games belong in a set. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity without tipping my hat to what will shortly be the best-selling game platform of all time, the Nintendo DS
As pieces of software, they do not appear to be exceptional. Nintendogs is the reworking of the familiar Tamagotchi theme. Brain Age seems like it belongs in a remedial classroom. But together these two titles, released over a one-month period in Japan, propelled the DS from an underpowered machine relegated to the back-shelves to a worldwide phenomenon that indelibly changed the gaming audience. If that doesn’t deserve recognition, I don’t know what does.
Wii Sports – 2006
The game that launched a thousand Wiis, and burned the topless towers of the self-righteous hardcore. I will, like Wii Sports itself, keep this simple. Whatever you think of the Wii or its bundled software, know this: more people had fun with Wii Sports, and therefore with videogames, than any other title this decade. Just think of it as the Harry Potter of videogames – so long as it gets people into the medium, that’s a good thing, right? People of different generations, gathered around the TV, bonding over videogames. That’s the goal. And Wii Sports has succeeded like nothing before it.
Super Mario Galaxy – 2007
Super Mario Galaxy made me remember why I love videogames. I am one of the few who liked Super Mario Sunshine, but Galaxy puts into stark perspective how lacking it truly was. Gleefully abandoning many of the existing Mario tropes while simultaneously holding onto the series’ sense of fun, Galaxy is pure, condensed videogaming brilliance, from beginning to end.
Much like the game’s gravity-defying tricks, Galaxy also turns the existing wisdom of the games industry on its head. It is by far the best game of this generation, running on a console that is magnitudes of power weaker than its rivals. It is testament, once again, to the power of great ideas.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare – 2007
By including both this and Halo on my list, I think I’ll have to hand in my Videogame Elitist membership card. But it’s hard to deny that CoD4 is a masterpiece, even if the sequel’s controversies have taken the sheen off the series somewhat.
A rollercoaster single-player that takes the player across the globe on land, sea and air, it may last only 8 hours, but has more “did you see that?!” moments than in a game 4 times its size. Added to this was a multiplayer mode that sucked in players better than the best RPGs, constantly dangling carrots in front of our noses.
CoD4 did very little first, but that doesn’t matter – it pulled off the impossible by doing both single-player and multiplayer better than anyone else. At the turn of the decade, this is the biggest thing in gaming, bar none.
As someone who pushes for more original IP and new ideas, the inclusion of so many sequels and franchise entries on my own list was unexpected. I suppose that’s the power of iteration. Out with the old, in with the new? Not if they’re as good as these games.
Christian Ward works for a major publisher. The answer to “Why is BLANK not on the list” is “Because I’ve had one too many Christmas brandies and I forgot.”