Key reference points for industry execs
With the help of some industry friends, we've compiled a list of the 50 games every developer should play, in no particular order.
We've worked long and hard to make sure the top-50 is comprehensive, but a lot of great games made it to the cutting room floor. If you feel there's an essential release missing, or an inclusion that doesn't deserve its standing, be sure to let the world know in the comments section below.
Proof if proof were needed – and it sadly is – that a story and wonderfully detailed characters and a great art style can turn a relatively basic game into one of the most compelling experiences around. Make sure you play the US version, though: the voice acting is significantly better.
A game with absolutely nothing to do in it – and yet, at the same time, there are endless things to do, and endless pointless reasons to do them.
The campest game in existence, yes – and all the better for it. The ridiculousness is expounded by the glam sixties jazz and future-retro stylings, and for us it’s far closer to any concept of synesthesia than Rez. More games should be about happiness, peace and love – and how better to convey that concept than mass euphoric dancing?
Given that they were developed at almost exactly the same time, Super Mario 64 often unfairly gets the credit for getting 3D movement right – something Core’s effort did equally well, if differently. Just remember the first time you swam through that underwater tunnel, executed that perfect vault, or scaled that seemingly-impossible cliff.
“This is where you can see how creative Shigeru Miyamoto is. How do you go about revisiting Mario on the Wii? Here lies an amazing answer to that question.”
Julien Merceron, Eidos
Think arty games and ‘feelings through play’ are all a load of wank? So did we, until Flower. The joy felt when bringing colour to nothingness is compounded by an actual use for the Sixaxis and some of the most understated but perfect music around.
Music and gameplay doesn’t have to mean merely Rock Band and Guitar Hero – it can mean so much more, as anybody who fought their way to the penultimate encounter in Gitaroo Man can attest.
The moment that Xenogears’ many disparate and confusing pieces come together to form a whole is special; not just because it’s a brilliant plot twist, but because it makes your 30 hour ‘hero’s journey’ feel like a single grain of sand in the flow of universal time – before empowering you to flip the whole hourglass upside down.
“Kings Quest, for me, was the pioneer of narrative-driven adventures – an immersive world full of great characters and challenging puzzles. It set the scene for the hugely successful point and click adventure genre plus many spin-off genres. It’s also interesting to note how similar it is to modern hits like the Professor Layton series.”
Patrick O’Luanaigh, nDreams
The original Zone of the Enders made robot fighting less… well, robotic, making the player feel like a ballet choreographer for hundred-ton hulkbots. The sequel added some incredible set pieces that should go down in the history books, plus some of the most amazing particle effects ever. For the time, anyway.
Not necessarily the best example of procedurally-generated content in a game, but Semi Secret’s randomly-generated levels, based on a smartly modest set of variables, making it worth paying attention to. The running game’s one-button play mechanic, complemented with a sense of real speed and inertia, is also something to envy.
“The way you had to learn to use the three characters’ different abilities to help each other overcome the challenges was brilliant, and the way the design team constantly managed to create new obstacles that meant you had to use the base abilities for each character in new interesting ways was really impressive.” – Billy Thomson, Ruffian
We barely need to mention reasons why, really. Although the pacing at the beginning might be a bit hit-and-miss – hello sewers and Route Canal – the build up to the Citadel is one of the most perfectly-executed moments ever.
“Write a Game Design Masters thesis, and call it ‘What Would Zelda Do?’ A chapter on progression, one on purity of mechanics, another on boss fights, and level design, and visual evolution, and, and, and. There’s not a gram of fat on it. Some rules, when followed, guarantee better results, like the photographer’s Rule of Thirds – and Hyrule.”
Ben Board, Microsoft
It’s not the best looking game, no, but you’re not playing it for the graphics. This game, which is about the decay of a relationship between man and wife, puts players in the role of a third party asking questions and trying to council the couple back to romance. It’s use of dialogue and player inputs to create drama should be admired by all – and emulated by more people.
The reason this is worth studying is simple: spreadsheets don’t have a right to be this much fun.
Open world games are ten-a-penny, but the flexibile modularity of the narrative and the mixture of RPG and shooter has set a template many should copy.
“I need to go just as bad as you / What I had this morning I don’t even want to say to you!” Need we say more? Never had diarrhoea proved such a brilliant game motive.
“Ico needs to be played not because it is the best game ever. It isn’t. But because it is so beautiful in its simplicity, so haunting in its ambiance, so moving. It is a truly inspiring work of art.”
Charles Cecil, Revolution
Proof that, actually, you don’t need motion controllers to come up with a control scheme that perfectly mimics the sport.
“Many people talked about Call of Duty 4 reinvigorating multiplayer games online, but Left 4 Dead reinvented them. Valve managed to create a game that enforced co-operative play whilst simultaneously creating a whole new brand of versus player – all the while creating a solid horror experience.”
Jim Mummery, Doublesix
A bunch of coloured circles and one click: that’s all Boomshine is. But it’s also one of the most addictive examples of reductive design ever. Only one click required.
How do you take an old and outdated genre and repackage it for the modern market? Exactly as Chair have done. Slight issues with background shooting aside, it’s a wonderful example of next-gen flourishes in a digitally-distributed package. Shame about the shocking writing though.
So while eight hours of cutscenes per episode is something you’d not want to ape, Xenosaga’s portrayal of broken human relationships – from mother/daughter to brother/sister and even creator/created – breaks through a humanistic frontier beyond the saddening ‘male + female = love interest’ trope on which most games writing is stuck.
Don’t play it to ape it – please, there’s more than enough wannabes to go around – but what WoW really shows is that the key to reaching more people is to be kinder, and guide the player through that massive journey rather than just set them loose.
Making things 3D for the sake of it is not always the best move, but HAL Laboratory’s attempt to add weight to the pixel-perfection of Picross is brilliant. Don’t rely on skill points and new abilities to make the player stronger – help them gradually figure out new tactics themselves.
“It’s a turn-based strategy game, yet it makes you genuinely terrified to look around the corner. It turns what people thought as one of the most hardcore genres into something that a lot of people remember with very fond memories.” James Brooksby, Doublesix
Sometimes mechanics are so perfect that, even though the AI might regularly beat you, the act of trying is satisfying enough.
“As an example of how easy it is to miss the point of videogames, Dragon’s Lair is canonical, and so by definition must be included. Used creatively QTEs are a respectable mechanic, but even 25 years on Dragon’s Lair remains a cautionary tale about what gameplay isn’t, that can – and must – frighten our children, and our children’s children.”
Ben Board, Microsoft
“It was one of the biggest RPGs of all time, and it was the first time many people experienced big emotions in a game. I’ve played it through 5 times!”
Julien Merceron, Eidos
It might be a pretty standard puzzle, and so hardly innovative, but it’s the attention to detail that makes Hudson’s DS implementation so incredible – as far as to introduce jokes into the solutions.
“It brings out the designer in all of us by presenting you with a very simple concept, then slowly but surely training you to use that concept in different ways to progress through the levels. By the end of the game your mind is completely brimming with ideas for puzzles you could create to baffle your friends.”
Billy Thomson, Ruffian
“Easy does it? Hardly. Missile Command for the finger-flicking generation.”
Owain Bennallack, Develop daddy
It might seem like an odd choice, but Spider-Man 2 was the first game to really capture the feel of being a superhero. Swinging around that city was a joy that never got old. Sadly, none of its sequels have managed to get close to that magic.
Too much has been written by a certain set of people about the wonders of this game, but Rez is a success that it is worth referring too. Its sparse graphics and gameplay, which pushes music to the fore, and relatively short playtime remain uncopied to this day.
(Sensible Software, Amiga)
What Sensible Soccer shows is that you need to translate a sport into a workable gameplay mechanic, rather than make game fit around a sport’s real-world rules.
Proof that if it’s gone that bad, you can always hastily come up with a retro easter egg to sell a game.
The game might be impressive mechanically, but the real jewel in Metal Slug’s crown is its still-unsurpassed hand-drawn animation, which adds so much character to the game that it could be said to contribute more to the experience than the unrelenting action.
“Midwinter provided a huge open world to explore many years before the GTA series, with a great story, characters to find and multiple vehicles to use. I remember getting totally and utterly immersed in the Midwinter world with its 3D graphics and freeform gameplay. It was truly ahead of its time.”
Patrick O’Luanaigh, nDreams
“A surprisingly thoughtful horizontal shooter with brilliantly varied level design. The usage of the Force power-up, as a means of defense either forward or back, added a tricky puzzle based element to the proceedings as well. Traversing an entire level to realise it was one large spaceship was a clever use of assets for one and made the whole endeavour feel much more epic in scope.”
Ollie Barder, Doublesix
Yes, it’s sub-par on a lot of fronts, but Astro Boy has the best flying controls of all time – making aimlessly gliding around the impressive reconstruction of future Tokyo much more fun than actually following the game’s path.
Rather than relying on stats, graphs or readouts to indicate the successes or failures of your colonisation, The Settlers conveyed the results graphically through the actions of your citizens and the appearance of the world.
Not a game per-se, but OE-CAKE! – Prometech’s outrageously fun sandbox demo app for its soft-body and fluid simulation technology OctaveEngine Casual – is so much fun that you’ll soon be making amazing set-pieces and sharing them with friends.
Hudson takes the tech powering OE-CAKE! and makes an iPhone game out of it, fully utilising the iPhone’s accelerometer to play with physics – and the player’s intellect – in even more astonishing ways. The less said about the frame-rate the better, though.
Any game that starts with a pop concert is something special, but what’s great about FFX-2 is its girl-power take on the existing Final Fantasy X world. Lighter and breezier than traditional emo Square Enix fare, it’s also an excellent lesson in business: it reused assets from FFX and took one year to develop with just a third of the original team – and yet still sold four million copies with a Metacritic rating of 85.
“For today’s diverse audiences, there are no universal reference points. Any kind of canon is necessarily reductive. And, as a principle of civilization, models of perfection should be lampooned and overthrown. But I can’t love anyone who doesn’t love Yoshi’s Island.”
Jonathan Smith, Traveller’s Tales
Any of them will suffice; the staples that make it a success are the same through the franchise. Yes, there’s a sense of freedom, and a closely-controlled scope that widens with player progress – but its real achievements (whether you like them or not) are in story. The narratives are epic, and usually unshaped by player behaviour. But the level of detail – whether you appreciate or tolerate the Hollywood-aping aspects are not – is to be envied.
Capturing the spirit of the seminal Street Fighter II while simultaneously making it contemporary and relevant once again, Street Fighter IV is exactly what you imagined the series might one day become as a child.
Shoot and dodge. That’s how simple it is. But behind it all is the most ridiculously detailed model for deciding how the game plays out – from the order you power up weapons to how you navigate the interface. 13 years (and over 400 pages of fan docs) later, people are still far from completely understanding its inner workings.
“I’m not going to name any names, but play the bad games – not the slightly disappointing ones, but the really bad ones – and you’ll learn far more from them than the greats. You can see how someone could interpret a viable mechanic or brief and still get so wrong. You can see someone can try and imitate a God of War or Zelda very closely and create something that doesn’t still work, and you can see what was missing which takes a long way toward getting it right yourself.”
Jim Mummery, Doublesix