10. Super Mario Galaxy (Nintendo, 2007, Wii)
Why not Sunshine, you might ask? Why not New Super Mario Bros for the Nintendo DS? What makes Super Mario Galaxy the best Mario game in the decade and what gives it the right to sit on this list?
Only because it was the single most innovative platformer of the last ten years.
Taking a concept and improving on it is something Nintendo has excelled at for almost three decades. When they had a chance to bring their biggest ticketed franchise over to the latest console, they couldn’t just make a normal 3D platformer. They’d already done that twice already. They needed a way to change it up.
Making Mario run around on three-dimensional objects with their own gravitational field? Check. Making players wonder how to reach that next object, relative to the gravity and physics of the surrounding celestial bodies? Check. Taking something as simple as run-and-jump and elevating it beyond a point it has ever been? Check.
Beyond all that, the game is insanely fun and challenging at the same time. Mastering Mario’s many types of jumps, bouncing off of corners, spinning into the stratosphere, and gaining a free-flight ability are all part of the awesomeness that awaits.
They also integrated the WiiMote in an innovative way, allowing it to act as a magnet to attract and a reticle to shoot the in-game collectable meteor bits, sometimes to great effect on the screen, sometimes just for show. Adding these additional elements plumbed (ha!) new depth and gave all future platformers something to strive for: perfection.
9. Portal (Valve Corporation, 2007, 360, XBLA, PC)
The cake is a lie.
If you haven’t had the chance to play Portal, sit down, spend the couple bucks to download it on XBLA, and give it a good run through.
A puzzle game that pretends to be a first person shooter, or the other way around, is an awesome concept. The small team that put Portal together to be included in the Orange Box with Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and Team Fortress 2. Though TF2 is still enjoying some intense popularity, Portal quickly became the main attraction and the real reason you bought the Orange Box, even with the second part of a highly-anticipated sequel on board.
With some great voice acting portraying the seemingly cold and uncaring GLaDOS, the insane computer who is watching your every move within the Aperture Science Testing Facility, you find yourself laughing even when you’re frustrated because you can’t finish the puzzle at hand. Plus, she gives a killer cake recipe near the end. The turrets have some absolutely awesome dialogue as well.
The physics of the game are incredible. Being able to open a portal on any flat surface in any direction helps to achieve a number of awesome effects and requires some creativity to figure out a solution to some problems.
It also has one of the best ending songs of the decade with GLaDOS cheerfully singing the written report she’s making in reference to your performance and the performance of the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device.
Don’t even bother with the whole Orange Box. Download this and be done with it. You don’t need that other trash stinking up your Portal. And I mean that double-entendre.
8. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater Series (Neversoft, 1999 – 2009, All Platforms)
When I say all platforms, I mean all platforms. The Tony Hawk video game franchise is something which is storied. From the original Playstation version in 1999 (I know, it’s not technically this decade, but the majority of the series was, so suck it) with ports leaking into Dreamcast and even N64 territory, up through the current Tony Hawk’s Ride for 360 and PS3, this game has always been active and awesome.
Personally costing me countless sleepless nights and horrifying thumb calluses which I still have to this day (actually called Tony Hawk calluses among some of my friends), this game helped transition skateboarding from the 90s into the new millennium by showing people how difficult skateboarding, even fantasy skateboarding at times, can be. It introduced a new generation of kids to the true pro generation of skaters such as the titular Tony Hawk, Bob Burnquist, Bucky Lasek, and even Bam Margera to an extent. It prompted some of the younger children playing the game to run out, grab a board, and take it to the streets. Tony Hawk games, for all their addictive nature, were, in the opinion of your humble narrator, instrumental in inspiring a new brood of extreme athletes.
When it first came out, the only other skateboarding game I could think of was Skate or Die for the NES, and I remembered how much it sucked. It took a friend from out of town to sit me down in front of a PS1, jam a controller into my hand, and get me well on my way to becoming the dominant Tony Hawk Pro of my particular postal district.
With every iteration came new features, new nuances of skating, new modes, new courses, and new fun. Even now, Tony Hawk Ride, though panned by critics, introduced a new skateboard controller which responded to motion. Pretty sick in theory, but apparently not yet perfected enough to be good.
It was also one of the first game series to offer serious customization, from boards to skateparks, in any significant way. Eventually, having the ability to sandbox around levels and careen through the areas in search of the best trick spots was the greatest thing. Stringing combo after combo after combo was a point of pride for my gaming clique on just about every incarnation of the game. I still hold the record as the only person I know to have gotten a 2500000+ (that’s two-point-five million plus) combo on the carnival level of Tony Hawk 3.
Tony Hawk has since influenced every extreme sports game on the market. When you have a system as awesome as the original Tony Hawk package, you can’t really argue with it. Often imitated, never duplicated. Tony owes me some new thumbs.
7. Marvel vs. Capcom 2 (Capcom, 2000, Arcade, Dreamcast, XBX, 360, PS2, PS3)
The battle for survival unfolds.
As the follow-up to one of the greatest arcade fighting games and the source of many a fanboy’s uncontrollable orgasm, MvC2 claims the spot of greatest fighting game of the decade. With characters from a previous decade’s worth of fighting games (both shitty and spectactular) brought to us by our friends at Capcom all rounded up and jammed into one sleek little package, there was no doubt that from the moment this machine was revealed in your local arcade/movie theater/generic gaming area, you would be pumping your hard-earned quarters into the slot to try and unlock all the still-unrevealed mystery characters behind the wealth of questions marks on the selection screen. When you weren’t actively playing, you would most certainly have your 50 cents up on the glass claiming that you got next.
With a smorgasboard of characters both new and old combining with the ability to make three-character tag teams, matches could be extended and fierce, often running through the end of the 99 second time limit and being judged by the amount of energy both sides had left. Fights were much more intense with this game than they ever had been in 2D fighting. Strategy was a major key. Choosing the right squad and which special abilities they’d use when tagged or summoned for the three-character hyper-combo became the definitive way of gaining a leg up on your competition. If your three-way (heh heh…) didn’t jive, your team would have a much tougher time winning.
Even my wife loves this game. So much that, when we unburied our Dreamcast upon moving but couldn’t find the game disc, she promptly went to eBay and bought the cheapest working one she could find. When it came up for download on XBLA just this summer, we downloaded it and played for 3 days straight.
This is the definitive fighter. The hell with Street Fighter 3. The hell with Mortal Kombat and all it’s garbage. This fighter beats all comers and stands proudly at the king of the hill for the decade.
6. Final Fantasy X (Squaresoft, 2001, PS2)
With a next-gen graphics update as well as fully spoken dialogue, FFX changed the way RPGs could tell a story as well as changing the way it could affect a player.
X was the first game in the Final Fantasy series to incorporate a seamless character transfer from world map to battle system to cinematic, replacing the old switcheroo we’d seen many times in games past. This gave the game a better flow and allowed for more believability.
Because of its true, flowing play, watching the game felt like watching a computer animated feature. Ask my mother who, as I was playing it while still living at home in college, would beg me not to play when she wasn’t around so that she could watch the compelling story unfold.
The addition of voices to the normally powerful Final Fantasy method of storytelling grabbed you by the heart and would not let go. You became involved in the tentative love story between Tidus and Yuna even more than you had within the Cloud/Tifa/Aerith triangle in VII back in the 90s (I’m sure I’ll get debated on that point, but I’m being honest).
It was one of the shortest in the series, easily beaten within a 40 hour window, but side-quests and unlocks as well as searching for parts of the background story became a great lengthener. Sure, the world of Spira wasn’t quite as big as previous FF iterations, but it was excellent for what it was.
Also, the sphere grid system brought up the idea of characters crossing classes within the same game and contributed to flexibility in many Squaresoft and other games to come, including a big time carry over to Final Fantasy XII’s license system.
In addition to being graphically amazing and including a heart-wrenchingly wonderful story, it also allowed you to do something no other Final Fantasy had done before: break the 9999 damage barrier. Tell me it wasn’t sweet the first time you summoned Bahamut and you saw that great flare-breathing bastard smack a bitch for 10k+. Aww, yeah.
When Yuna’s standing on the dock at the end, whistling into the ocean, I always get choked up. I’m not usually a crier when it comes to stuff like this, but I wept my eyes out the first time I watched that ending. Like a little bitch. I’m not ashamed to admit it, either.
5. Wii Sports Series (Nintendo, 2006 – 2009, Wii)
Both Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort showed us how to have fun while playing video games again.
While I’ve heard from many non-gamers that they’re frustrated with the advances gaming has taken as far as the controller is concerned, Nintendo busted out the Wii console aimed at bringing their old two-button-one-d-pad audience into the next generation not by making things more complicated, but by simplifying.
Where the gaming industry was losing interest by continuously providing anime-styled epic adventures and an ever-growing library of faceless first-person shooters which may not appeal to all audiences, Nintendo came along and said: “Hey, you guys wanna go bowling instead?”
The Wii Sports games brought back the idea of family gaming, allowing everyone from little kids to grandparents a chance to play and have a good opportunity to win.
Better bowlers bowled better games. Better golfers could chip for a birdie over the inexperienced gamer. Boxers could stick and move. My wife could take her vast softball experience and soundly thrash me in baseball. For once, the non-gamer could get the other hand.
Sure, there are the dicks out there who don’t play fair and won’t get off their lazy asses to stand and pretend to throw a bowling ball. They’ll just sit there and casually flick the Wiimote in such a way to grant them a strike every time. This negates the entire point of the game and these people should be slapped and possibly have their pasty-skinned asses pushed (or forklifted if necessary) out of the house to get some fresh air.
Wii Sports Resort added even more events and better motion control with the WiiMotion Plus accessory. If it didn’t feel real before, it’ll sure as hell feel real now. Especially when you re-experience the horror of your off-the-tee slice in a virtual setting. Just try not to throw the club at the screen.
What was once just a demo for the Wii’s innovative motion controls became a family fun activity and really brought gaming back to a level of more friendly competition out of a world of teabagging and pwning. You may have been scratching your head at the beginning of this entry, but you should now realize how much this deserves a spot on this list.
4. BioShock (2k Games, 2007, 360, PC, PS3)
Quite possibly the safest choice for one of the best games of the decade. BioShock is a true mind-blower in just about every way possible.
If you’ve never played it, get your ass out to the store and buy this game as quickly as possible. Trust me, this is one game you don’t want to order from GameFly. You’re going to end up replaying it at least once and will probably get a hankering to pick it up again soon after.
With a story as rich and deep as the sea in which it takes place and a crazy mash-up of styles that could be classified as deco-punk (a combination of art deco and steampunk) which fits that story perfectly, this is one you will not be able to put down.
BioShock was one of the few first-person shooters where you will be almost compelled to stop and pay attention to the story rather than just blasting your way through the entire game in a few hours. The plot twists have as much of an impact as a movie and will leave you in disbelief.
It’s also one of the few first-person shooters that makes you think about things other than, well, shooting. With the ability to hack machines and turn them to your advantage and Plasmid abilities (essentially psychic powers) in addition to traditional and not-so traditional firearms, there are more creative and sometimes more effective ways of taking out your enemies. Trust me, you’ll want to conserve that ammo as much as possible (don’t forget you can re-loot your crossbow bolts, kids) because you’re gonna need it in the end.
Easily the most innovative first-person shooter of the decade, if not one of the most innovative games period, BioShock is certainly a must have in your collection. With BioShock 2 due in early 2010 and slated to be one of next years biggest sellers, make sure you get your hands on this instant-classic while you can (and while it’s still relatively cheap and available used).
3. World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 2004, PC)
Yeah, I had to put it here. I admit, I was not prepared.
Like it or not, the MMO world exploded with the November 2004 release of World of Warcraft. Yes, I purchased the game during the opening week. Yes, I played for almost five years. I was tenured. It was only within this very year that I decided to give it all up and run away from Azeroth, never to look back.
Well, I look back, but I won’t go back.
World of Warcraft brought the World of Reality to its knees as it continuously steamrolled over every shred of competition. Gamer after gamer joined the growing snowball and it still holds true today. Millions of players around the world log in daily for their dose of WarCrack.
What was thought to be a safe place to flitter about for “casual gamers” (as opposed to career ones) quickly turned into a cemetery of addictions and time ill-spent gaming online to no end. Planning and grouping raids. Timing runs. Scheduling life around a particular world or guild event. Dominating your every free moment with material grinding for professions or power-running guild lowbies through instances.
Is it all that bad, you may ask? Is WoW, indeed, the Devil Itself? Nay nay, I say to you.
For all of its bad notes, World of Warcraft is one of the most important games of the decade, if not for sheer player number and dedication, then for the fact that it is the one true consistently expanding MMO experience. Blizzard learned from the mistakes of the games that had come before and built Azeroth on the dying corpses of previous also-rans.
They found what was right and what was wrong with the flood of MMOs. Even as new competition would pop up, they would analyze and learn from it. They are the MMO Borg (if I may counter one geeky reference with an even geekier one), absorbing everything good and spitting out the bad as it rolls on across the gaming universe. They created one fairly simple and, for the most part, user friendly interface and continued to improve on it, even though some may call such improvements detriments simply due to what they’re used to.
It is, truly, an ever expanding world with new areas, quests, and enemies opening with every patch, sometimes long before the giant expansion sets (of which there will soon be three) drop. They’re going as far as to revamp their original world, Azeroth, as an entirely different map for an entirely different leveling experience and adding two more races to their already impressive collection of 10.
It is such a juggernaut that it warranted and entire in-game animated episode of South Park. How funny was that shit, by the way?
I was staved off from actually buying new games for a long time due to my obsession with WoW. That, in itself, makes this game one of the best of the decade.
2. Guitar Hero and Rock Band Series (Harmonix, Neversoft, 2005 – 2009, PS2, PS3, 360, Wii)
Say what you will about fake-bands. These two franchises have changed the industry.
You may be incensed at me for naming both of these franchises as games of the decade on the same entry. What you need to realize is that one wouldn’t exist without the other which wouldn’t have evolved without the other.
Guitar Hero coming on to the scene in 2005 was something incredible and new. Though the Japanese had similar rhythm games dominating their arcade and home scenes since the early 90s and DDR was, at the time, insanely popular in the States, Guitar Hero brought something along which none of the other rhythm games had before. Real music
DDR may have offered a few remixes and some 80s pop before that, but most of it was J-Pop or Techno Trash. Guitar Hero was the first to feature real rock tracks – real popular rock tracks – even though the first iteration was mostly a series of well-played covers by a studio band. But, it sounded real enough.
Later, in 2007, as the popularity of Guitar Hero grew, Harmonix split from the franchise and created Rock Band, a combination of elements from Guitar Hero as well as singing and drumming games, to provide a more immersive multiplayer experience. Being backed by MTV gave them the ability to recruit actual artists to their cause, contributing the actual tracks instead of just the rights. Neversoft countered with Guitar Hero: World Tour, including the same elements and a larger drum kit. With the advent of things like XBLA and the WiiShop, both games started flooding the market with downloadable content. Rock Band came up with the idea of allowing their additional games to be used within the same game system (Rock Band and Lego Rock Band tracks can be downloaded to your hard drive and played on the main Rock Band 2 platform). People got serious about it, including me, who was gifted a pricey “fake” bass for his birthday right as he decided to make the jump to Expert mode and also including my “band-mate” Budda who I helped to purchase an Ion drum set (which can actually be used as synth-drums with an attachment).
With the Beatles, Aerosmith, AC/DC, Van Halen, and Metallica all contributing entire solo games of music to these two franchises, the future can only go up from here.
It may be fake band, but for those of us who have no idea how to play a rock instrument, it’s the closest thing we’re gonna get to jamming on the songs we love.
1. Grand Theft Auto III & IV Series (Rockstar Games, 2001-2009, PS2, XBX, GBA, DS, X360, PS3, PSP, PC)
Is there anyone playing video games out there who hasn’t played at least one iteration of the GTA series at some point in their life? Better yet, is there someone out there who hasn’t at least played a game influenced in one way or another by the GTA series? I defy you to find one.
Though the series found its humble origins in the late-90s, with groundbreaking open-world game play and earth-shattering ultraviolence from an overhead perspective, it was GTA III that truly got the ball rolling in 2001 and brought the series to legendary status.
GTA III was the beginning of something new – a gaming experience which would be directed by the classic mission-giving NPCs in the game, but would be ultimately and completely controlled by the player. You could completely ignore the brutal missions to perform even more brutal or insane acts on your own.
This was also the first game where you were not penalized for killing innocent bystanders or other normally helpful characters. Nothing compared to beating an old lady to death in front of the police station, jacking a sports car, and leading the police on a lengthy chase around Liberty City, opening fire until they broke out the National Guard to stop me (that’s six-stars for those of you playing along at home). It was fun and it was an incredible way to let off steam after a hard day. Still is, really.
Former Lawyer (disbarred, in case you hadn’t heard) and notorious enemy to gamer-kind, Jack Thompson, slammed the series from III onward. He described the proliferation of these games as “Pearl Harbor 2”, slamming not only the cultural impact but also as a racial slur against Japan-based Sony. He called the GTA series “murder simulators” and condemned both the adults who played it and the adults who would buy it so that their children could play it. There has yet to be a link established between a rise in real-world violence and the wide distribution of GTA games.
Though it did bring a new brand of ultraviolence to the home console, the GTA series also allowed for incredible industrial breakthroughs in graphics, processing, physics, and most notably the introduction of celebrity voices for video game parts. With most of the first chapter in the III saga being voiced by the cast of the Sopranos, it suddenly became cool for real actors to get involved in gaming. It added more depth to games when it wasn’t just some third-tier voice actor whose skills were relative to a plank of wood as far as emotion. It made you feel like this world around which you were riding and causing havoc was a real place, no matter how farfetched the mission goals were.
Beyond the voices came the soundtrack. The radio stations have always been the best part of the game. Riding around San Andreas listening to gangsta rap in the games early 90s LA setting made me remember the hours I wasted watching MTV when it actually played videos. Rolling around Vice City blasting hair metal and 80s pop or Liberty City in GTA IV tuned in to classic rock, the game keeps you bobbing your head and makes your foot (thumb) just as heavy as it would be in real life if you heard the right song at the right time. As with the celebrity voices, GTA was probably the first series to really attract the attention of the mainstream recording industry to video games.
With GTA IV now setting the bar for the concept of continual gaming by offering two downloadable mission packs for the same city (including new places, vehicles, weapons, and features) which seamlessly integrate with the original product, something unheard of in the scope with which Rockstar delivered, this series is pushing the envelope again.
Sure, most games don’t even profess to be anything like GTA, but they have all been influenced by the way Rockstar and the next-gen GTA series have consistently driven the industry by setting trends and paving the way for breakthroughs that have us arriving at the end of this first millennial decade still enamored with consoles as a whole.