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May 13, 2014

On Video Games, Finally and Lengthily

-- Ranking the author's top ten

Back in the halcyon era of this blog, yes those glory days when I boasted upwards of 10 followers and even three or four loyal readers, I carefully monitored my content making sure too never drop a line on any subject that could put that viewership in jeopardy.11.  Cut to all non-BYU fan readers looking around with a puzzled look on their face.  Hence in all my years I never wrote a word on video gaming even as it gobbled up more than its share of space in my brain.  Skip to the present where a combination of beleaguered CPA study, married laze and the terror that is work has since killed any such heyday which means, "Alright who cares what I write about now!"  And wouldn't you know it but over at IGN the video game experts have been running a month-long series of their editors favorite games. This brings two thoughts to mind:

A) I want to list my favorite games of all-time too!
B) Why the $!@# didn't you IGN guys hire me so I could do crap like this for a living?

The majority of these editors detailed 25 games (and sometimes more) in their lists which seems a bit of a cop out in my eyes.  I mean you shouldn't be allowed 25 of a favorite thing, right?  Each time you add another 'favorite' to the list you're lowering the value of the others, which is my way of saying I'm only going to be ranking a Top-10,22.  Oh ... that's why you didn't hire me? Because I'm lazy? Gotta admit, I was hoping you hadn't noticed. and even at less than half the size of an IGN list I trust this will be a bit long and on the boring side.  With that in mind I suggest Grantland as a deserving alternative for any reader who has made it this far.

Before we get to the favorites let's hold a moment of silence for those honorable mentions that were good games but just not great enough to make the cut: Medal of Honor Frontline, Resident Evil 2, Michael Jackson Moonwalker,33. Yes sir this was a real game and an incredible one at that. Halo, Clock Tower,4

                                                                                                                                          4.  I will not play this game at night.  WWF No Mercy, Crime Fighter and Batman Arkham City. Take a bow my faux-favorites.  There’s no shame in being 10th or 11th best out of a group of twelve.  Just ask the Utes football team!  Now on to the favorites.

(One rule to be aware of when reading this list: for games that have multiple titles I've allowed myself to pick my favorite of the series only.)

10. Final Fantasy VII 

Boasting three discs and spanning over 75 hours of gameplay (yes, you read that right), playing Final Fantasy VII was more or less my full-time job in junior high. And if Final Fantasy was in fact my job that would have made Ian Wright my boss, he being the provider of said discs and thereby my employ.  This deserves mention only because throwing Ian in the mix bumps Heather Martinos from her perch as undisputed number one boss to a close but trailing number two.  It's a sad day for the Martinos family, but at least we'll always have our business golf escapade at Logan River.  Remember Nathan's four putt?   Me too.  Wonderful times, dear 2008.

Final Fantasy VII's gameplay was actually only average and that's the only game on this list I'll say that about. RPGs in general have rarely captured my attention; to this day VII is the only one of its many RPG brothers I've ever successfully completed.  That's because its characters, score, enemies, bosses, endless customizables, chocobo-breeding side-quests and most of all scope of story -- 3 discs! 75 hours! Multiple continents to explore! -- make up for the many issues inherent in any turn-based game.  Final Fantasy VII delivered in all these peripheral areas.  I'm not sure I could pick this game up today and begin the quest anew, but that doesn't mean it should be denied a spot among the all-time ranks.

9. Madden 2005

Judging by its bankrupt state I think it's safe to say that no one rented more sports games from Blockbuster than I did.  I'm just sorry I wasn't enough. And I mean really sorry considering I once bet $150 on Blockbuster stock in a move so horrendously stupid I ought to have my pocket protector and accounting degrees cashiered in the same manner George Banks' bowler hat and umbrella once were. But I digress.

This coming fall is the 10-year anniversary of Madden 2005 -- sports games are weird in that they always are one year ahead; NBA 2K14 comes out in 2013, Madden 2005 comes out in 2004, who knows why -- and a decade later this version remains the Madden standard. You can take my word for it or the word of the authority on video game rankings, IGN.  Their rankings for the last 10 years of Madden follow.5
5.  I'm not above sucking up to try and get a job.
2005: 9.5 (out of 10)
2006: 8.8
2007: 8.5
2008: 7.9
2009: 7.0
2010: 8.9
2011: 8
2012: 8
2013: 9
2014 (aka 25th edition): 7.6

Looking at the numbers you can see that while gaming systems have made leaps and bounds in their 3rd and recently 4th generations, the quality of the football game has followed an opposite trajectory.  But what makes Madden 2005 great is not the suckiness of its successors.  Madden 2005 built on what worked in the prior versions (the fun of unstoppable offenses) by leaving the power of the offense unchanged while making the defense invincible as well.  The result was a forced focus on the chess match that makes football so appealing: play-calling and in-game adjustments.  This game required wits!  If you ran the same hook route from the same formation on 3rd down more than twice in a game, you could count on it getting picked and taken to the house.  It could be frustrating at times, but the satisfaction of directing a successful drive in Madden 2005 has no sporting equal, well, besides doing the real life equivalent, of course.66.  One final note about Madden 2005. This game came out in August 2004. I was playing it two weeks before my wedding, in December 2011. There are not a lot of games with that level of staying power.

8. Kingdom Hearts

I have to admit that of the ten games to be mentioned here, this one probably is the most embarrassing to talk about.  The game's premise, today as much as ever, is ludicrous: copy the fundamental layout and mechanics of N64's Zelda and then replace everyone with famous Disney characters and  ... (uhm) ... Final Fantasy characters. Huh?  Exactly.  Considering that background it wouldn't have been a stretch for this game to turn out a flop of Ostertag proportion. Instead the opposite occurred, Square Enix managed the stew perfectly and the next thing I knew I was fighting Final Fantasy legends with Donald and Goofy at my side, traversing Neverland, Agrabah and other Disney-inspired locales.  

If you're assuming I didn't date many girls at this point in my life, you are correct.

7. Goldeneye 007

Ah, Goldeneye, the first of two games to make this list thanks solely to how fun it was to play with friends. Goldeneye on the 64 invented the modern day multiplayer, and while I'm not sure that claim is actually true in the real world or if it’s just blogger braggadocio, it is true for me.  Beyond introducing me to the world of multiplayer first-person shooters, Goldeneye also holds the honor of being the first game I saw that had bad guys drop their guns when killed AND allowed you to pick up those guns for your use.  When I first learned of these two details on the playground at Valley Crest Elementary, during lunch recess, from a BYU fan and full-time womanizer named Colby, my 6th grade self went into shock.  What golden era of technology was I privileged to live in?  Months later during a fall session of conference a General Authority confirmed my thoughts by repeating that favorite phrase of the elderly:  "You the youth of the church are a chosen generation!"  I nodded along as I heard the words, pleased to know that church leaders, despite their busy lives, still had time to recognize the greatness that was 007.

License to Kill mode was Goldeneye’s crown jewel. Really, what was better than creeping around a corner, wondering if your radar was right or if that dot was actually one floor above you, knowing all the while that one bullet could end your life and send blood cascading down your fourth of the TV? License to Kill provided no armor advantage, no weapon advantage; equal terms were had for all. (Hey Modern Warfare, maybe you should consider trying this sometime?) In addition there were the karate fights, proximity mine traps, Bunna's invented Slave mode and endless arguments over whether it was fair to play as Oddjob. And one other thing too: a never-fading image of John Warr, 64 controller in one hand, sandwich in the other, dominating all the while.

Sadly Goldeneye does not pass the test of time. Its control scheme is an abomination compared to the standard first-person experience and the graphics were never much to brag about even in 1997. Yet in the vast world of shooters, no game has brought me more fun. 

6. Red Dead Redemption

There is a scene in The Big Bang Theory where Sheldon, after a particularly tiresome day, settles in for a stroll and a hard drink within the virtual world of Red Dead Redemption.  The joke is a good one, but I'll bet you anything the writer who penned it was inspired by a friend who once did that very thing, because there's no way Sheldon and I are the only persons to have loaded Red Dead with the idea of just getting away for a few.  How many times did I start this game with no intention to further the story, the only goal being to ride around and explore?  I have no idea.  The setting of this game -- the hills, rivers, wildlife -- is the game; nothing says open-world like Red Dead. Sure, dragging gang members behind your horse, robbing stage coaches, blasting enemies off their steed at point blank range ... that's all done really well but the part of this game that sticks with me is the first time me and my brother stood stationary, spun the camera the full 360 and admired the amount of landscape and skyline and detail put into this game.  Can video games be art?  Who cares?  Either way this game looks amazing.

5. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Another game I played due only to the grace of a friend (I owe you Bunna), Zelda was so good it demanded the sharing of systems so non-N64 owners could get a chance to live the adventure.  The fighting mechanic of this game remains the model for its type and as the first game to allow you to ride a horse and shoot arrows at the same time, well, Ocarina was really freaking awesome.   How many innovative ideas did this game come up with?   The mirror shield, time traveling, 1st-person shooting in a 3rd-person game  … my personal favorite was the use of the iron boots in the water temple.  There's creativity and then there's equipping cement shoes to drop yourself to the sunken levels of a caved temple underneath a lake.  Once you factor in the memorable tunes, day-to-evening effects and the fact that this game was among the pioneers in bringing us into the 3D era, you have a clear top-ten game on anyone’s list.

4. The Last of Us

The Last of Us came into my life when Jackie went to [REDACTED] and every feeling I had was angry and alone.77.  It didn’t help that Utah beat BYU for the 4th straight time on the same weekend Jackie was [REDACTED].  If you know anything about this game, then, you’ll realize how perfectly The Last of Us aligned with my soul at that time in my life.   Or to put it in a much nerdier fashion, if 'the wand chooses the wizard', then The Last of Us chose me last fall.   

Now make no mistake, this game did not attempt to cheer me up; it is not ‘fun’ in the rollicking adventure sort of way. No, The Last of Us is bloody, hopeless and dreary to the max.  If anything its apocalyptic setting made my anger and loneliness grow.  But what mattered is The Last of Us let me do in the game what I couldn’t do in real life:  protect the person I cared about and deal violent, ferocious wrath on all enemies who threatened that care.   I don't want to get too carried away so I’ll state the obvious caveat:  video games are not reality;  a CPU-generated Ellie is not the same as a living Jackie;  and Hunters and Infected are not as fun to pummel as Smithfielders would have been. Still the point is that in a time when I needed to do something, anything to make me feel even one percent better -- and real life wouldn’t give me a chance -- The Last of Us delivered.

Stepping away from the emotional element for a minute, The Last of Us may be the most fundamentally perfect game ever created.  Just as with Metal Gear Solid (a game to be mentioned later in the list), it would be shocking if in 16 years people still aren’t talking about this game and comparing it to the new releases of the day. But guess what? The emotional impact from the Last of Us is part of the game experience!  Every player to pick up the controller feels this story as they play, which is something that just doesn’t happen in video games. And that ending.  When the fate of humanity is in your hands this game has the genius to take away your agency and force you to do what Joel wants, not what you want. It's a fabulous twist that makes you realize the whole time you were just along for the ride.  Man, what a ride it was. 

3. Super Smash Brothers Melee 

Do you think when we're dead a foreman from the heavens will be able to tell me on which game I clocked the most time in my life?  Because I’d like to know, even if there is a clear downside to having such knowledge.  (That downside being the feeling of regret in knowing Harvest Moon received more of my life’s attention than styling my hair ever did.  Believe me, I could've used the extra time.)

That said, if I had to guess which game held the time-title it would be this one. What is Super Smash Brothers? The greatest multiplayer fighting game in existence.  And that's all it is.  Unlike Goldeneye which had a decent single-player mode to provide some variety, SSB is a true one trick pony.  What this means is that the game’s value fluctuates based on the number of friends you have.  If you have one friend, you’ll experience more fun than you do with most fighters, but at the end of the day it’s still just a fighter and one-on-one fighters are pretty blah.  If you have two friends things improve as you can engage in some quality three-way battles or even call down a surprisingly effective CPU to get two-on-two going. But if you have three friends … three friends means you reached multiplayer nirvana.

Me, Bunna, Ian and Chris reached this nirvana. It came in the form of Mario and Link versus Falco and Marth, or Herb-Goro versus the Wright Brothers, as the papers reported it.   If I had the power to re-live one gaming moment and just one moment only, the four of us battling in Herb-Goro stadium would probably be it. The glazed eyes and sore fingers were worth it then and would be worth it now.

2. Metal Gear Solid (PS1)

This is a sampling of what one does in Metal Gear Solid:  hide in boxes to dodge patrols, snap enemy necks if out of bullets, use cigarette smoke to locate infrared lasers, knock on walls to lure guards off path, fake a death using ketchup, repel a building while dodging chopper fire, wall-slide under security camera blind spots,  blow your cover by leaving footprints in the snow, take drugs to limit the waver of your aim, and mow down enemies from the back of a jeep. Again, just a sampling.

Ah what the heck, I can't help myself when it comes to this game.  Along the way you'll encounter a boss that reads your memory(card), succumb to or withstand torture in a button-smashing endurance test88.  I’ve only seen one man capable of withstanding the torture without use of the turbo controller. That man? Bunna Veth. (Did you really need to ask?)  that determines the very ending of the game, blow up a rat that eats your security key, identify a disguised ally by the chic nature of her walk, knock out a guy while he's taking a wizz, toss grenades into the hull of a moving tank, fight a series of the greatest final boss battles in any game  and avoid mauling by wolf if you can find the appropriately scented handkerchief.

This game came out in 1998.  16 years and three system advancements later, the vast majority of current games still can't compete with Metal Gear's detail, storytelling or creativity.  I would like to say that current-gen games should be ashamed ... but I'm not sure they should be.  Metal Gear is just that good.

1. Uncharted 2 Among Thieves 

Back in that wonderful year of 2011 I had almost given up video games.  Please note I say ‘given up’ as opposed to ‘given up on’, for I always would and will love video games, but I felt like I was running out of time for them in my life. (This belief existed primarily due to the time constraints of my booming podcast career. LOLs.) I had been left behind during the critical PS2 to PS3 juncture, never having a spare $300 bucks to make the investment and while I still got together randomly for Halo nights or the like, my one-on-one time with games was dwindling.  I felt happy about it, thinking this was a good thing for productivity and life in general.

The spring of 2011 came along and at this point in life all my college friends were gone from Logan:  Nathan to work, Nicole to student teaching, Brooke to mission, Freshman to missions, Pearson to streets.99.  Maddie had returned from China by now but she lived in Old Farm and who would ever want to hang out with that crowd? Given those facts I did not forecast participation in a spring break of any sort. Then the great Caitlyn Ellis, she of the Alaskan-Germany-Australia adventures, took mercy on me and invited me to join in on a Caribbean cruise.  I began saving money.

For whatever reason -- fate? fear of water? fear of gaining 60 pounds on boat food? -- I never made it on the cruise.  What I do remember is that I was bummed, and like the girl who gorges on cookie dough and chick flicks, I comforted my broken heart the best way I knew: I bought a PS3.1010.  It is interesting to recognize that the same day I bought the PS3 Jimmer scored his career high with 52 points. I didn't realize it at the time but now know that was heaven’s way of giving me their stamp of approval on the purchase.

I did so with two games in mind, Uncharted Drake’s Fortune and Uncharted 2 Among Thieves.  Regarding these two games, let's just say I had heard the rave reviews, absorbed my brother’s constant praise, and figured these games deserved the debut spin in the new machine.  I completed the first Uncharted and came away impressed, but not entirely sure my $300 wouldn’t have been better spent on Rogaine.  Then I inserted Uncharted II.

I didn’t have to finish this game to know it was the best I would ever play; no, that recognition came about two minutes in, while Nathan Drake1111.  Ah, Nathan Drake: the greatest character in video gaming, the reincarnation of Indiana Jones and half of the reason why I watch Pretty Little Liars. If you've read this far, you deserve to see the other half as well.  hung from a dangling train on a snow-capped cliff, working his way (that is to say, my way) through an opening scene that would make any movie jealous.  A train ride for the ages would later confirm the sentiment.  In whole, 
Among Thieves single-handedly killed any thoughts of video game retirement I'd previously entertained.

Typically spring break of one’s senior year in college is spent cozying up to females, not video games, but what can I say, I’ve always been more prolific with the latter than the former. After writing 3,500 words on the subject, I can’t say the admission surprises me much.

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