You may notice some games that are missing from this list and are on every other list. Well, I didn’t play everything because I didn’t have the time or the money, so that accounts for some of the big misses like Pyschonauts or Resident Evil 4. Other games are deliberately omitted :cough: HALO :cough:
This list is also way long, but I didn’t want to limit myself to an arbitrary number like 10 or 20, so here it is:
Half-Life 2 (2004, 2006 – Episode 1, 2007 – Episode 2)
There are two divergent paths for shooters in the aughts. Halo and Half-Life. In the first corner you’ve got everything on the consoles since then: Regenerating health, aim assist, silly physics, and general jackassery. In the better corner you’ve got everything that’s come out of Half-Life and the Source engine: more realistic weaponry, realistic physics, and a much better legacy. Say what you will about the future of shooters and the PC market being antiquated, but this is a damn good shooter. I’d call it the best I’ve ever played. Valve has completely mastered the art of environmental storytelling and player manipulation. They can make you look where they want you to look and feel what they want you to feel all without ever wresting control from the player or relying on cutscenes. This game has brilliant pacing and amazing characters that you actually care about. Who’s ever heard of an NPC sidekick that you don’t hate? H-L 2 and its episodes are among the greatest gaming experiences I’ve ever had.
Rock Band 2 (2008)
Ok, so rhythm games are kind of saturated now, but Rock Band 2 is the pinnacle (only because The Beatles: Rock Band doesn’t let players bring their dlc in) of music gaming. It hits at just the right sweet spot, four players, and its filled with music from all kinds of genres. Better yet, the interface and note tracking isn’t sloppy like that other franchise and it’s a fantastic way to get people together for a fun time and even grow as a person. It’s probably the game I’ve played the most since 2008 and a ridiculously fun time.
Left 4 Dead (2008) and Left 4 Dead 2 (2009)
There are a lot of Valve games on this list. The Left 4 Dead series is on it because it has done cooperative, first-person multiplayer right in a way I’ve yet to see done better elsewhere. Everything about these games is top notch, tons of fun, and worth returning to time and time again. Beyond the mechanics, the games also feature great environmental storytelling and fantastic voice acting putting it at the top of my list for the best games of the past two years. Zombies may be getting old, but this series will always feel fresh.
Jonathan Blow didn’t revolutionize video gaming when he released Braid last summer. What he did do was bring indie games (and XBL games, in general) firmly into the spotlight for consideration. A self-funded and self-made game, Braid proved that one man (and one hired artist) could still create a top-notch, professional caliber game. Braid is deep and complex and tons of fun to play, especially when you’ve figured out a tricky puzzle.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney (2005)
OBJECTION! This game should be higher on the list. Overruled, this list has no numerical ordering.
The Japanese sensation that brought visual novels and a resurgence in adventure games to America may have a niche audience and play real loose with the legal system of the real world, but it’s tons of fun. Just think quirky anime and you’ll get the idea of what playing this game is like. It just feels right to present a damning piece of evidence while Phoenix screams OBJECTION!
Shadow of the Colossus (2005)
I have yet to beat Shadow of the Colossus, but I absolutely love what I’ve played so far. Ueda is among the genius game designers in how well he understands presentation. The game world feels absolutely empty, as it should. All you come across, as the player, are the giant Colossi and man, they are wild. Each one is a dungeon/level to itself and the player is tasked with taking them down to save his love. But what have these giants done to you? Each one I take down makes me feel sad inside and a little empty. I usually find myself thinking What have I done? What did he ever do to me? The best art makes you think.
Final Fantasy XII (2006)
I had my choice of any Final Fantasy game between 9 and 12 for this spot, but I really couldn’t go with anything but the best. X was definitely a close second, but there are just so many things that XII did right in its evolution of the series that I couldn’t pick anything else. Maybe it’s because I’m in love with the world of Ivalice, but everything about this game just grabs me in a way I hadn’t been grabbed since VI. Maybe it was because I wasn’t being assaulted by too many belt buckles and leather by Nomura. It was probably because the story was mature, the characters way less annoying than before, and the battle system was finally revamped and moved into the 21st century. In any case, the best FF game of the decade.
Portal really does everything right. The game gets you acquainted with its mechanics quickly, gets you doing neat things with them right away, and then finishes up with a climactic and cool boss fight all comfortably within the span of 5-8 hours, if you’re slow. With mechanics and dialogue that are beyond brilliant, the only thing that could make this great game better would be to give it a hilarious end credit song penned by Jonathan Coulton. Oh wait, you’ve gone and done that already, haven’t you Valve? Bravo.
Burnout Paradise (2008)
Realistic racing games are kind of boring to me. Until Burnout Paradise, I would have said that I only enjoyed Mario Kart games, and those were starting to wear on me too. Then Criterion put out the first open-world racing game (that I can think of). Burnout Paradise would be tons of fun if all we had to do was run into walls and other cars. The fact that the game is so easy to get online and play (and purchasable as a digital download on the PSN) is brilliant and makes for tons of fun.
Mass Effect (2007)
Shepard. Wrex. It’s brilliant. It really is. Hard science fiction is always tons of fun to me, but when you go and flesh out this world to the nth degree, you’ve got me drooling already. Add in characters I genuinely cared about and enjoyed having in my party and a morality system that was finally free of cheap moral choices and I’d say that Bioware had a genuine hit on their hands. I anxiously await the sequel in January.
Eternal Darkness (2002)
I’m really not a big scary games guy. It’s simple: I’m too jumpy and I’ve got an overactive imagination. Those things don’t combine to make a pleasant gaming experience. Now you want me to play a game that’s actively trying to mess with my head to freak me the hell out? I’d normally say “No thanks,” but I was eventually convinced to try this Lovecraftian horror game and I found myself loving it. The plot is interesting and the characters are neat, but the insanity effects are what stick with me to this day. I can still see that image of Alex lying dead in a bathtub filled with her own blood when I think about it and it still gives me the chills.
New Super Mario Bros. Wii (2009)
You know what? I really loved the old-school Mario games. Those 3D ones are way too easy. This game does it right. What makes it even more awesome is that you can play it with four dudes, making it both infinitely harder and easier while also making it more fun and frustrating. Use the multiplayer mode at your own risk, it may start fights.
Rhythm Heaven (2009)
Scratch-O, HA! The Rhythm Heaven (Paradise in Europe) series is loosely based on the bizarre Wario world, which is totally obvious after three minutes of play, which is great, because that series is brilliant (if stale by now) too. This game features simple rhythm mini-games, but man are they fun AND catchy. As I write this I’ve got the Moai statue song stuck in my head. Go play this.
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2004, Subsistence – 2006)
I love this game. MGS 2 may be the biggest practical joke (and most significant of the four), but this is undoubtedly the best. The epic cycle of the Metal Gear universe is made clear in this game that does its best to subvert war in every way possible. I do truly find it significant that in a Cold War game focused on stealth action, you can make it through from start to finish without killing one person. Well, almost. Metal Gear Solid 3 is almost heartbreaking when you play it non-violently and the ending still has a strong effect on me to this day. Definitely Kojima’s finest work.
World of Warcraft (2004)
I would give anything to get the time I spent playing this game back, but I definitely can’t deny how truly great it is. We’re talking about a bona fide phenomenon here. The absolute refinement of social engineering to such a degree that escape is nearly futile. Blizzard has truly outdone itself with this one.
Team Fortress 2 (2007)
What a surprise, more Valve. The Orange Box was a groundbreaking offering in value and Team Fortress 2 continues to be a huge part of that. I bought this game at launch back in 2007. Since then they have added achievements for nearly every class, new weapons for nearly every class, new game types and maps, hats, and an item crafting system. I’ve never seen so much free support for a game in my life. It’s no reason that Valve is my favorite developer of all time. They really know how to treat their customers and put out a great game.
The Sims 2 (2004)
Yes, I did create Sims of my friends and family. You’d better believe I killed some of them, turned one into a vampire, another into a werewolf, one into a zombie, and bargained with death to revive another. The Sims certainly don’t feel as relevant as they did at the start of this decade, but man were they a success and tons of fun. Sure, I should feel a little guilty that I spent so much time in what amounts to a digital dollhouse, but I really don’t. It was fun.
Super Smash Bros. Brawl (2008)
If you don’t think that this is the best in the series, you’re wrong and you’re clinging to the past. Tons of characters, great level design, fantastic music, and all the right refinements to the battle system are what makes this great. The fact that I can listen to Snake Eater or the Love Theme from Mother 3 is just icing on the cake.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (2003)