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The List: My Top 100 Favorite Video Games of All Time, part one

By Damien Wilkens
28 January 2011 — In the days before the Internet, we had these things called magazines. As luck would have it, there were even some focused entirely on the topic of video games. Around some point in the mid-to-late 1990s, a lot of these publications hit their 100th issue, and would often commemorate this with their list of the top 100 games of all time. While some magazines did it better than others (EGM, in particular, had a pretty fair list given the time period), often times it felt like the editors were simply going through their review scores and putting them in sequential order. Granted, I never expected Bubsy 3D to make the cut, but surprises were few and far between.

About a year and a half ago, I decided that I wanted to make my own top 100 list, half because I don't think that any one person had attempted a solo list before, and half to see if I could actually do it. Early in the process I realized that my tastes are not reflective enough of the average gamer to quantify anything as "the best." Even if I loved Halo and Modern Warfare, it would be simply foolish of me to make some sort of list and pretend it's definitive. I can only vouch for what I personally like, the games that helped shape my tastes over the years, and that's what I'm hoping to capture here.

Throughout 2011 I will be sharing with you a list of my top 100 favorite games ever, five games at a time. Some may surprise you and others should be more than obvious, but all of them hold a special place in my heart. Along the way I'll try to give some perspective, a little history, and a lot of unyielding praise to the games that made me fall in love with the industry.

#100 - Bad News Baseball
System: NES
Originally released: 1989

What is it?
Simple, arcade baseball at its finest. The umpire is a rabbit. Home runs are frequent and sometimes leave the planet. There were a meager 12 teams available, and the only goal to speak of was to defeat the other 11. Your players went by first names only (like the world famous shortstop "Marty") and games could end on a first inning shutout. Despite the silliness, it was a shockingly deep experience. You had to deal with line-up changes, pitching fatigue, and a base-stealing mechanic that rewarded risk taking. In between plays were animations ranging from a player throwing his bat in frustration, to a runner falling unconscious after getting thrown out. There was even a random appearance by Mr. T!

Why did it make the list?
Something you're likely to notice as we get deeper into the list is that I'm not a huge fan of sports games. The ones that I do enjoy are usually over-the-top and easy to get into. The fact that Bad News Baseball was made in Japan meant that the developers were less worried about an accurate simulation of the sport than they were about making something that was fun to play. CPU games often lasted no more than 15 minutes, but two-player battles could get quite heated. Beaning the other player was worth it just to see the stars circling their head, and catching that epic pop fly right before it passed the fence was always a thing of beauty.

Were there better baseball games for the NES? Absolutely. But the love for Bad News Baseball comes from its representation of a bygone era where games were designed to be played for more than a week. When you were young, you didn't have a ton of money to invest in new games, so you did what everyone else did: you played the hell out of the ones you had. Bad News Baseball understands this. There is no ultimate goal, and no sweeping objective. The only objective is have fun. You'd be surprised how difficult this is for some people in the gaming industry to understand.

Best Moment: Hitting a home run that literally goes into outer space. Steroids be damned, that Marty is from the planet Krypton!

Fun Fact: The game only had one code, which enabled you to play with an all-girl rosters, no doubt reflecting the female baseball revolution that took the early 90s by storm. I may or may not have made that last part up.

#99 - Lost Eden
Systems: MS-DOS, Mac, CD-i, 3DO
Originally released: 1995

What is it?
No, that's not a typo. This is a CD-i game. The best CD-i game in fact.

Lost Eden is a first-person point-and-click adventure, much in the vein of Myst and The 7th Guest, which had been released only two years before. What makes Lost Eden stand out is the focus away from your standard puzzle-solving fare, with more emphasis on the creation of a universe unlike anything the genre had seen before or since. Set in a world where dinosaurs and humans coexist, you are Adam, young prince of Mor, the only place left untouched by the evil Tyranns. Your father, the king, has locked himself inside the citadel, afraid to act. Having come of age, it is your duty to fight back and unlock the secrets of this strange world.

Why did it make the list?
I fell in love with Lost Eden the first time I saw the intro movie. It was really just simple plot exposition narrated by Eloi, Adam's navigator and friend. What made it stand out to me was how, in those five minutes, you were given such a strong sense of this very unique world, accompanied by an organic score composed by the criminally underused Stéphane Picq. We really don't see worlds like this in gaming anymore, and there's really no good reason why. There is so much charm and atmosphere here that's it's a shame more people haven't played it.

Modern gaming and the growth of the Internet have created a generation wherein there is no product anonymity. Chances are, if you're a hardcore gamer, there aren't many games that have been released in the past few years that you aren't aware of. You likely haven't played them all, but you'll at least be aware of the latest and greatest. Part of what I love about older games like this is that there are hundreds of unknown gems sitting in the history books that have been ignored. Experiencing a game like Lost Eden makes you feel as if you're part of an exclusive club. You may never run into another person that's played it, but if you do, you're pretty much guaranteed to be buds for life.

Best Moment: That intro. Seriously, just look at it. In 2011, there are few game cinematics that leave me as breathless.

Fun Fact: The soundtrack is so mind-blowingly good that it was commercially released on CD, despite the relative obscurity of the game.

#98 - Gain Ground
Systems: Arcade, Master System, Mega Drive / Genesis, TurboGrafix-16, PlayStation 2 (remake and compilation), Wii Virtual Console, Xbox 360 (compilation)
Originally released: 1988

What is it?
A puzzle / strategy game disguised as an overhead action romp. You begin with three characters, traveling through various eras of time to rescue abandoned warriors and add them to your ranks. Each of the 20 characters comes with their own weapons, walking speed, and abilities. One hit from any enemy kills you and the only way to retrieve a lost fighter is to use another to escort them to the exit. It is as easy to learn as it is difficult to master.

Why did it make the list?
You're going to see me say this a lot, but Gain Ground was ahead of its time.

It's not just because 20 years later I haven't been able to beat it. It's because 20 years later I'm still trying.

There's something about how the game makes you believe you should be able to beat it in a few minutes. Your objectives are, after all, clearly within reach and only limited to one screen. But poor character choices or altogether bad preparation can leave you with half the team that you started the previous level with. And unlike in most games, you're not getting those characters back. Failed to save that awesome Viking that could shoot enemies at higher elevations? Too bad. He won't be making a repeat appearance. He's dead, Jim.

The magical thing about the difficulty is that it never once feels cheap. Getting upset at the game would be comparable to being angry at a chess board. Losses, like victories, are always earned.

Best Moment: Any time you hear the infectious Gain Ground theme. It is everything a 16-bit video game theme should be. It's catchy, pounding, and makes you want to vanquish your foes with a loud proclamation of, "You taste that? That's the syrupy flavor of pixel justice!" Okay, maybe that was just me.

Fun Fact: Many of the characters appear to be direct rip-offs of action heroes like Robocop and Rambo. Yeah, it was the 80s. You could get away with that sort of thing.

#97 - Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Systems: PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube, PC
Originally released: 2003

What is it?
The re-imagining of a 1989 classic that managed to both stay true to and surpass the original.

Rare is a game of the modern era such an influence on so many high profile titles in such a short time. The time rewinding of Braid, the seamless multi-directional combat of Arkham Asylum, and the free-running of Assassin's Creed all have Sands of Time to thank for some of their most highly lauded components.

The tale of the eponymous Prince and his Dagger of Time seem so well engrained in gaming memory that it's difficult to imagine a time before it all existed.

Why did it make the list?
Sands of Time is a well deserved slap in the face to anyone in a creative field that's been given the task of salvaging something and expended most of their effort making excuses. By 2000, Jordan Mechner's Prince of Persia series was all but forgotten, and the previous effort, Prince of Persia 3D, was a colossal flop. So what did Mechner do? He tried again. And this time, he went for something. A game like this, notable on the merits of its own quality alone, is an example of what happens when you have the creative drive to put all past failures behind and really go balls out. One could easily go on about the innovations in storytelling, animation, and mechanics, just as they could easily point to this game whilst asking developers of half-assed licensed games, "What's your excuse?"

It's a game that exudes charm, beauty, and fun, but chances are, you already knew that.

Best Moment: That very first time you fall into a pit and rewind time back to before you started, as if you'd never erred to begin with.

Fun Fact: The first two Prince of Persia games are actually hidden and playable in Sands of Time. Prince of Persia 3D, mercifully, is not.

#96 - M.U.L.E.
Systems: Atari 400 / 800, Commodore 64, PC, MSX, NES
Originally released: 1983

What is it?
An economics game with monsters. This is so much more fun that it sounds, it's not even funny.

One of the very first games ever released by Electronic Arts, M.U.L.E. was the brainchild of Daniel / Danielle Bunton (same person, long story). You are an alien colonist on the transparently named planet Irata, hoping to mine the resources for profit. In your way are three others looking to do the same. From then on, you must manage your real estate to best acquire the valuable Smithore element, whilst also keeping your budget low and your opponents ill-prepared. Price gouging, fixed auctions, and other dirty tricks make for a game much more tense than the simplistic graphics represent.

Why did it make the list?
M.U.L.E. was ahead of its time. (Hey, I warned you.)

Like every game on this list, M.U.L.E. proves a point. Here we see an example of staggering creativity in light of technical limitations, innovating, among other things, the concept of multiplayer games. Like to frag noobs online? You have M.U.L.E. to thank for that.

Given the time of its release, it surprising just how well balanced a game M.U.L.E. is. Part of that can, of course, be due to the supply and demand nature of the game, but also because the game itself will often "fix" games in later rounds, calling forth random doom for dominating players, and glimmers of luck for anyone falling behind. This not only makes for competitive games between players of varied skill, but it also means that nearly every game will be a nail-biting experience that comes down to the wire.

Like Gain Ground, this game should have been ported to the Xbox Marketplace yesterday.

Best Moment: Any of the numerous cruel ways you can aggravate a fellow human player. About to reach an agreement at an auction? Don't forget to jack up the price at the last minute!

Fun Fact: In December 2009, a freeware version of M.U.L.E. was released under the title Planet Mule. With online multiplayer compatibility, you can now be a dick to complete strangers with the sheer power of the free market.

Join me next time for games #95-91. Pull up a chair. This is going to be a long one.

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