Digital Polyphony

film, games, memories & random thoughts

Top 50: Videogames You Must Play Before You Die



I asked myself a questions as I wandered through a local videogame store and saw quite a number of people perusing the aisles, picking games and discussing how much they have played and dedicated themselves to playing. It then occurred to me that, in reality, most of these people have only been playing videogames for a few years, if that, and really had no idea what they were talking about.

That question was this: for someone to say "I know videogames" and have an all-around understanding and appreciation, what games should they play to be achieve such a feat? Videogames have an interesting history, numerous genres and styles and varying degrees of quality that are often determined by technology of a given era, not by overall design. To answer this question, I had to think of games. Important games. fifty in total, that if a new gamer were to start, by the end of playing the final one they would have covered all the basics in style and genre, understand a bit of videogame history and then, truly know what videogames are all about (or, at the very least, appreciate them before diving into the next shotgun-enhanced gorefest).

 I thought to myself "if someone had never played a videogame before, what should they play to get the quickest and most well-rounded experience? What will cover the basis and, at the same, allow them to understand and appreciate the history of gaming?" Arcades, consoles, PC...limiting to such a short list was hard enough, but that's the challenge and fun in doing so, and it always makes for good conversation.

As I compiled, I realized that these games are, in fact, so good, significant, influential and simply fun to play, that every gamer, new and old should take the time to play them. Every gamer should play them, at least once, before kicking that rusty bucket. This was particularly difficult to compile because trying to remove the subjective me is hard in this case and trying to keep it from being a "greatest games of all time" list even harder (which this is not, as strange as that may sound, although many here would perhaps appear on such a list).

I suppose you can see it as some sort of an order, at least the second part. If I were to be more subjective, I would have games like Mario 3 or Chrono Trigger much much higher, but I tried to remove that element (not entirely, of course, as that's impossible). It's a balance of important games, genres that need to be represented, influential games, historical mascots, new game styles intorduced, games that just got everything right and a little dash of how I interpret it all. There's also the consideration of games as good representatives for their cause and genre has a whole; like presidential candidates, if you will, all vying for you attention.

It was difficult to balance and weigh all the various criteria, like deciding on what ingredient to put into a stew. Coming up with great games was easy, giving reasons why was the hard part. Incidentally, coming up with the potential alternatives was even more difficult. There I had to balance two things 1) The game has to have some similarities to the one listed enough to cover those bases and 2) It still needs to be a worthy game to be played before you die. Hence the delay in new articles lately, this one had a lot of research going on and me needing to jog my memories.

Speaking of jogging memories, let's begin with Part I...


50: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

Xbox/PC, Bioware/Lucasarts 2003


For the past few years, Western RPGs have become more and more impressive in terms or their presentation and visual style and especially in how they handle story progression.  One that has really led the way in doing so is Bioware, who has consistently been making solid role playing titles since Shattered Steel and Baulder's Gate in the late 1990s. A developer with one of the more impressive trackrecords, many cite Knights of the Old republic as their crowning achievement. Whether or not you agree with that isn't as important as what KOTOR was able to do in terms of uping the presentation and really getting a person involved in the world its set in. If one doesn't play for the role playing factor, surely you must play for it as the best Star Wars game to be made (along with its sequel, the Sith Lords).

Alternative: Neverwinter Nights

49: Super Mario Bros 3

NES, Nintendo 1990


Most side scrolling platform games are pretty much the same. You move left to right and doge obstacles. Some, though, are simply so well designed in what you do along the way, that they are clearly and easily better than their counterparts. Most are in agreement that Super Mario Bros. 3 is, probably, the greatest platformer ever created. It offers everything to love about the traditional style of platforming but has level design and gameplay mechanics that many others either attempt to copy or fail at trying to surpass.

Alternative: Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island


48: X-Wing vs. TIE-Fighter

PC, Totally Games/Lucasarts 1997


There was a time when flight games ruled the world of gaming. It's a bygone era that will probably never return without some major leap in technology and this title was really one of the last great ones. Arguably the best were those that took place in space, and the best out of those were the Star Wars games X-Wing and TIE Fighter culminating in this brilliant piece of work from once-illustrious Lucasarts. No other series really quite got it this right, and probably never will.

Alternative: Microsoft Flight Simulator


47: Space Invaders

Arcade, Taito/Midway 1978


Space Invaders is considered by many to be the first game to really become popular. It's the granddaddy of arcade gaming and hit arcades way back in 1978. It's ranked as the most successful arcade game of all time by revenue generated. Like many early arcade games, it's focus in solely on point scoring and completing an endless series of levels. Why a requirement for a new gamer and one any old gamer must play? To understand where you're going, you have to understand where you've been. While it may have been surpassed, it laid a very important foundation and is, at the very least, still a fun game to play on top of it all.

Alternative: Pong



46: Super Metroid

Super Nintendo, Nintendo 1994


The Metroid series has a unique approach. It looks conventional on the outside, yet implements a new notion into side-scrolling (and later first person shooting) - exploration as an absolute necessity, not an alternative to merely do between goals. Exploration is itself a puzzle. There's nothing hard to figure out in games like Metroid, only when and where you need to go to continue on and what you need to do so. Super Metroid is the best at sidescrolling adventure with pitch-perfect controls and haunting atmosphere that's the best in 2D gaming. It took the elements of games, notably the original Metroid, and just brought it all to a new level.

Alternative: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

45: Devil May Cry 3: Dante's Awakening

Playstation 2/PC, Capcom/Ubisoft 2005


A flashy action game that shows that, sometimes, style over substance is a good thing when done correctly. Mindless button-mashing and combo-linking hadn't really been done outside of fighting games and brawlers like Ninja Turtles or Double Dragon, but Devil May Cry and its sequels not only did that but did it with style and a heavy anime influence. It took elements from survival horror, even platformers and meshed it all with a fighting engine that, has yet to be surpassed. This third entry is simple, fun and considered the best in the Devil May Cry series for good reason.

Alternative: Onimusha


44: System Shock 2

PC, Irrational Games/Looking Glass Studios/Electronic Arts 1999


Sometimes, something revolutionary isn't always a good game, and often a good game isn't revolutionary (see the entry above). System Shock  2 is both. Not only did it inspire many games to come, such as Deus Ex, Bioshock and STALKER, and usher in a new and unique way to tell a story and use of plot structure and brilliant atmosphere, it simply is a game that a person must play for it's brilliant design and polish. This is the first FPS on this list, definitely not the last, yet is perhaps the most influential out of any that will come after it

Alternative: Bioshock

43: Rock Band

Xbox 360/Playstation 3, Harmonix/Electronic Arts 2007


There are many music games out there, Guitar Hero being the other major one, but Rock Band has those elements in combination with the social aspect that any person would have a hard time passing up at a party. It's casual gaming for casual gaming's sake, and it's incredibly fun, intuitive and simply well-crafted from the game itself to the accessories to play it with. To appreciate it, you must play it with friends, not alone, and realize that gaming isn't always just sitting on a couch twiddling your thumbs, it can be an intuitive and active experience for all. Rock Band is the pinnacle of the music game genre, which had actually been around for quite a while in games like Space Channel 5 and Parappa the Rapper, but the addition of a hands-on attribute sets it apart from the rest by a mile and is surely one for someone to play before the die.

Alternative: Guitar Hero World Tour

42: Out of This World (a.k.a. Another World)

DOS/Apple II/Amiga/Genesis/Super Nintendo/PC/Mac, Eric Chadi/Delphine Software/US Gold 1991


Puzzle games aren't always jewels and shapes dropping from the sky and sidescrollers aren't always platformers. Out of this World and other game like its sequel Heart of the Alien and the Oddworld series are a unique genre that  combines the elements of a sidescrolling adventure game like Metroid with the puzzle solving elements of a point-and-click title like Broken Sword or Monkey Island. Out of This World is also a good example of a unique art style and cinematic movie-like presentation long before it became the norm and was one of the more successful cross-platform titles (from the Amiga to DOS to the SNES). Delphine and US Gold went on to create the similar Flashback series, which is often confused as sequels to this title.

Alternative: Oddworld Abe's Odyssey

41: R-Type III

Super Nintendo, Irem/Jaleco 1993


Shooters might be a dead genre outside of Japan, but for someone to understand gaming they have to understand the height of shooters. To me, that is the R-Type series and the best game in that series is R-Type III. Games like this will show any new gamer how difficult a game truly can be as the side-scrolling (and vertical scrolling) shooter genre is notorious for it. R-Type, but really any quality horizontal or vertical shooter, is a genre everyone must try their hands on at least once.

Alternative:  Gradius III

40: Starcraft

PC/Mac, Blizzard Entertainment  1998/1999


Probably one of the least progressive but most perfected genres is real-time strategy. The groundwork was done long ago and has since been refined repeatedly to give us, what is widley unanimous here, the greatest RTS game to ever be made: Starcraft. My personal first introduction to the genre is in another classic, Dune 2, which later gave way to some Command and Conquer: Red Alert and the quasi-RTS, Age of Empires. Starcraft is noted for not being hugely inventive, but simply hitting all the right marks. It's not as involved and micro-managed as some RTS, it's not even the most challenging, but it is perfectly balanced and accessible to just about any type of gamer.

Alternative: Command and Conquer: Red Alert

39: Final Fantasy VII

Playstation, Square 1997


The evolution of RPGs probably reached its peak with Final Fantasy VII as it seems every other RPG released since has tried to emulate it. The success of Final Fantasy VII lies solely in its mystique and its following and, as such, it's important to play the title to understand its appeal. While it hasn't aged particularly well, it is an absolute must-play to show how RPGs and fans haven't moved past it since 1997 and of course play a quality game while you're at it.

Alternative: None, really, when all is accounted for. Although for at least the time and style, Xenogears is as close to alternative I can think of but not as important to play before you die.


38: Super Smash Brothers Melee

Gamecube, HAL Laboratory/Nintendo 2001


Say what you want about the N64, but if there's anything it got 100% right it was the introduction and larger focus on community play. No better example of that was Super Smash Bros. a free-for-all fighting game with a handful of Nintendo's best characters. That handful got larger, and graphics and control sharper, with its sequels, but especially with Super Smash Bros. Melee which is like giving your best friend a facelift. It begs for the full-on four players, single player just doesn't quite cut it, and is one of the best party-games of all time.

Alternative: Super Smash Brothers Brawl


37: Gran Turismo 3: A Spec

Playstation 2, Polyphony Digital/Sony 2001


When trying to decide on what a new player should play in terms of a racing title, the list is pretty long. When trying to decide what best can be seen as an 'ambassador" of racing games, it gets a little narrower. The Gran Turismo series is all about authenticity over arcade action. Although you can only go so far in being truly authentic with just your fingers, it's more about presentation and authenticity in everything from the physics and weight to the chrome and decals... and few games come that close.

Alternative: GTR-2


36: Dance Dance Revolution

Arcade, Konami 1998


Dance Dance Revolution is entirely about joy. It's also entirely about embarrassment and maybe being a little humble when a 12 year old has more ability than you. A requirement for any respectable arcade, DDR has been constantly popular for over a decade. Much of the music genre has shifted to come consoles, but the kinetic and lively energy of Dance Dance Revolution really has not, and only falling on your face in front of onlookers can you truly appreciate it, and when you get up and try again, they appreciate you (if anything, for the comedy).

Alternative: None



35: Vagrant Story

Playstation, Square 2000


Vagrant Story is a unique title that combines the element of Japanese RPG story and presentation with gameplay elements more geared to Western audiences. It's a deep, involving game created by a master designer with an amazing attention to detail, Yasmumi Matsuno. Playing one of his titles is a requirement for any would-be gamer at some point in their life and Vagrant Story is arguably his most accessible, if you don't get lost in sub menus, that is, thanks to its fantastic presentation and cinematic style. While not an important game in the grad scheme, if one plays it, you automatically get a green belt for your gamer Gi, and that's a good start.

Alternative: Final Fantasy Tactics

34: Half Life 2

PC, Valve, 2004


Probably one of the least progressive genres is the First Person Shooter (maybe next to RTS as I already mentioned). It's all fairly the same though some games are willing to implement some new mechanics to spice things up. In the case of Half Life and Half Life 2, it's really all about polish, excellent pacing, perfected scenario directing and storytelling. It's occasionally humorous, sometimes scary, and the game can switch from you solving a puzzle to killing hordes of enemies in a blink of an eye. Half Life 2 and its additional episodes really put it all out there and many consider it the greatest FPS to ever be made thanks to its incredible refinement, solid art design and meticulous story progression and attention to detail. Many have tried to emulate these games, and many have failed and, at best, might be a pale shadow.

Alternative: Half Life

33: Mario Kart 64

Nintendo 64, Nintendo 1997


What the Mario Kart game shows is that racing games can be more than just racing. Racing games aren't just about cars and crashes, sometimes it's about simply having fun with friends and shooting them with turtle shells five feet before they cross the finish line ahead of you. Why Mario Kart 64 and not the original? Simply put, this installment hit all the right notes and the graphical upgrade helps instead of solely being limited to flat Mode-7 tracks. You could choose any of the Kart games for a new player, truthfully, but I went with the best here.

Alternative: Wipeout XL

32: ICO

Playstation 2, Team ICO/SCE 2001


Subtle and understated, simple and artistic. If Gears of War was a Pollock painting, ICO would surely be a work from Andrew Wyeth. Some call it proof of games truly to be considered as an artform, others call it poetic and lyrical and even ethereal, some just call it weird. Either way, ICO is a one-of-a-kind style of game that really hasn't been repeated, although Shadow of the Colossus is similar in tone and artistry. It has a slight influence from The Legend of Zelda series as well as something like Another World, but even that comparison just doesn't quite hit it right.

Alternative: Shadow of the Colossus


31: Sonic the Hedgehog 2

Sega Genesis, Sonic Team/Sega 1992


What does this teach a new gamer? Why must I play this before I die? A couple of things, actually. One,the original Sonic games were incredibly unique if not downright beautiful at the time. Music, graphics, control- they were poetry in motion and platformers were never before geared towards the concept of "speed." Secondly, Sonic, even if for a moment, dethroned the mighty Mario. Oh, it was brief, but an important brief time at the top is better than none at all. An important mascot and game that put Sega on the map and kicked off the whole console wars of the early 1990s. The ripples are still felt to this day.

Alternative: Sonic the Hedgehog (this is here more for Sonic, not because of a particular style of gaming)


30: Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together

Playstation/Super Famicom/Saturn (japan), Quest/Atlus 1998 (North American Playstation release)


Spawning countless imitators, Tactics Ogre was only the second game from acclaimed producer director Yashumi Matsuno and a follow up to his first hit, Ogre Battle. Tactical RPGs were fairly new in this style around the mid 1990s, the only significant ones being the then Japanese-only Fire Emblem titles, but Matsuno arguably paved the way and more or less set the bar which has yet to really be surpassed with this title. For a while, this style of Strategy RPG flooded gaming with titles like Hoshigami, Growlanser, and, of course, Final Fantasy Tactics.

Alternative: Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen for a Matsuno take, Fire Emblem for the originator.


29: Donkey Kong

Arcade, Nintendo 1981


Some arcade titles developed into obsessions in the early years. So hell-bent on getting high scores, many arcade goers spent entire days staring at games like Donkey Kong in hopes of putting their initials at the top of the list. There were some that were more significant in doing this, such as Pac Man, Frogger, Galaga and, here, Donkey Kong. Donkey Kong is also significant in this case as the first introduction of Mario and Donkey Kong, to now high-profile Nintendo characters.

Besides, there was a whole movie based on this game which shows the retro obsession of some people. Games like this are always going to be popular and known.

Alternative: Frogger

28: Sim City

About every platform ever, but let's say PC, Maxis 1989


The sim series, as a whole, gives every player a sense of being god. They are all incredibly popular and fun for all the same reason: you're in control. They play off the desire to plan, design and build in human nature, as well as our own natural God-complex. Sim City was the first to really get into that element and a timeless classic. As one of the most successful series of games, I felt the original Sim City is the one that someone should play, although its sequels have surpassed it graphically and are a little easier to get into and manage.

Alternative: The Sims


27: Mario 64

Nintendo 64, Nintendo 1996


3D platforming is insanely popular (more in the past than today) but honestly, it hasn't changed much since we first saw it with Mario 64. Some still contest it's the best 3D platformer. That's not necessarily true, but it shows the roots and foundation of it all and we see how Mario, still, is one of the more progressive franchises out there as he has quite a few entries on this list.

Alternative: Mario Galaxy

26: Chrono Trigger

Super Nintendo, Square 1995


Chrono Trigger is often considered Squaresoft's most perfect game, but that's not why I've decided to include it. Simplicity in gaming isn't the same as lack of depth, and  a short game can have as much to offer as one you spend a month playing. Chrono Trigger proves you don't need to spend two dozen hours grinding through a game and is proof that smart craftsmanship is by far the biggest attribute to a Japanese RPG than shelling out excessive plot twists, love stories, bad dialogue and hours and hours of tedious battles and micro-management. As a representative of Japanese RPGs, it would surely do it justice...but it's not the last on this list.

Alternative: Grandia

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