Digital Polyphony

film, games, memories & random thoughts

Top 50: Videogames You Must Play Before You Die




25: Shenmue

Dreamcast, Sega 2000


Ambition is the driving force of the videogame industry. It's about risks and dedication and the best games have that glimmer of ambition around it. Shenmue is arguably the most ambitious game to ever be produced. Love it or hate it, the fact is Shenmue is absolutely unique. Sure, it may not be hugely popular or even very influential, but it is a one-of-a-kind title that is bold and dares us to become surrounded in its world. It's real life reflective in a videogame. The technology emerged and people became interested in gaming in a smaller, scale - to show life in all its glory, from the insightful and adventurous to the mundane and bland as we become involved in Shenmue's world. Shenmue is about living your life on top of the everyday mystery and puzzle solving. It also gives an insight into Japanese culture and can truly take you there with its fantastic art design and attention to detail. There hasn't been a game like it since.

Alternative: Shenmue 2 

24: Silent Hill 2

Playstation 2/Xbox/PC, Konami 2001/2002


Subtlety and layered storytelling probably reached a pinnacle with the Silent Hill series and shows that the best videogame plots and storytelling can be as nuanced as talented writers will let it be. Not to mention the game is full of atmospheric scares and how what you don't see is usually more frightening than what you do; the real heart of fantastic horror. Silent Hill 2, similar at times to the haunting quality of games like Myst or The 11th Hour, presents a narrative that is a combination of philosophical, psychological and metaphysical to present something about human emotion, desire, hatred, sexuality and, of course, inner and outer fear.

Alternative: Silent Hill

23: Contra

NES, Konami 1988


The Run and Gun style of gaming is an absolute lost art. Today's titles might have lots of bullets and enemies, but now require a cover system or are reliant on stealth, but for years simply grabbing a gun and blasting enemies was the selling point of videogames. Simple, unabashed fun (and often difficulty to boot). The Contra series is the pinnacle of this and every other game, from a Ganstar Hero to a Metal Slug, should give praise and thanks as those great games would also not exist without this title. More importantly, is that Contra is universally considered the standard by gamers and truly one of those games where someone will yell "I can't belive you haven't played that" to someone. Note, I went with the NES port of the arcade version, which is actually considered superior.

Alternative: Contra III: The Alien Wars

22: Any John Madden Football game

Various consoles, EA, Year of your choice (although it didn't get really good until the Playstation)


You know, I'm not a fan of sports games. At all. in fact they're the only genre of gaming that I personally can't even stand due to so little change in style, only stats, from year to year and the short shelflife. But I can't deny that they are few as impactful on the gaming scene than the Madden football series. Going back decades, to understand the popularity you have to simply play it. Then you can understand why its important. There's a lot of detail here, especially in the recent installments, it's incredibly intuitive even during the early 16-bit installments and is best played with friends. If you want to sit and say you have an all-around understanding of games, you need, no must because it's absolute, have to play a John Madden football game at some point in your life. There's quite a few of them, so pick one, they're just a lot of fun (in short spurts).

Alternative: None

21: Grim Fandango

PC, Lucasarts 1998


I will make the following utterly insane claim: Grim Fandango has the best atmosphere of any videogame. There, I said it. More importantly though, it's one of the most loved and infamous point-and-click adventure titles because of that reason. It exudes originality and wry humor while still being incredibly accessible and easy to just fall in to and forget about our own real world for a while. Combining classic noir elements with fantasy has never been achieved to such perfected heights. Also impressive is the Latin American influenced voicework and soundtrack and its morbid and grim (pun, I know) reflection of our own world.

Alternative: Sam and Max Hit the Road


20: Mega Man 2

NES, Capcom 1989


Mega Man 2 shows one of gaming's biggest heroes up front and center, simple and efficient before a lot of the gimmicks done in the later installments. It also shows how the Mega Man series perfectly combines powerups, boss battles, platforming and just incredibly hard fun. The Mega Man games are seen this way: difficult, even frustrating, but strangely addicting. No matter how many times you die and how far you throw the controller, you take a breath and get right back into it. It's hard to explain, but great games challenge you and have you wanting to come back for me. The Mega Man game series knows this formula well and it's a formula that everybody loves to take a dose of.

Alternative: Mega Man X


19: Fallout

PC/Mac OS, Black Isle Studios/Interplay 1997


I had asked some fellow internet folk the following: "what game best represents western role playing?" Well, by the end of it all this 1997 gem came out on top. Perhaps I underestimated its popularity, I've sadly not played it myself despite owning it (and having it installed, so I really have no excuse), but I never questioned its quality as its history speaks for itself. Only in how it compared or matched up to various other western role playing games in being a representative for the entire genre. Still a game that I have yet to scratch off my own list...maybe that's what this whole Top 50 is in the first place. My own regrets.

Alternative: Baulder's Gate II

18: Any Pokemon game

Various Platforms, Nintendo, Various years


Like the Madden entry, just pick one and play it to understand what it's all about. Now understand why it's important: it's probably the biggest cultural phenomenon on this list. It's half collecting stuff and half taking care of it. It was and still is a phenomenon of videogaming that went beyond just handheld titles but eventually turned into movies, tv shows, toys and clothes. Everybody knows what a Pokemon is, even if they've never see the cartoon or played the games, and not since Mario and Sonic has something so effectively transcended into pop-culture history. Of course, this is about the games themselves, and there's really nothing quite like the Pokemon series (plenty of copycats just don't reach its balance). It's a role playing game, yes, but goes well beyond it.

Alternative: None

17: X-Com UFO Defense

PC, Mythos Games/Microprose 1993


One game that is seemingly always at the top of the strategy heap is X-Com UFO Defense. Strategy games are fairly well represented on this list, but this isn't here merely for that aspect. It's here for its showing the utterly absurd amount of depth that a game can have. It's micro-management to the extreme, from large scale world wide economy management to small-scale individual unit powers. It's also a game that is different each time you play it depending entirely on how you manage everything but also how you approach certain situations and design your strategy to take on those evil aliens.

Alternative: Civilization IV

16: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Arcade)

Arcade, Konami 1989


There are a lot of beat-em-up arcade games, not to mention on consoles, but honestly, there is only one that people think back to. No, not Final Fight, not X-Men, not even the alternative title here, The Simpsons. It's four green heroes beating the hell out of robot ninjas and mutant beasts. If that doesn't lay the groundwork for a videogame right there, then nothing will. Konami perfected this style of game, multiplayer being the big seller, and although these were quarter-munching cabinets with cheap bosses that would kill you five seconds, you're more than happy to shell out the money just to play a little bit longer.

Alternative: The Simpsons (Arcade)

15: Mortal Kombat II

Arcade, Midway/Acclaim 1993


A gory and graphic fighting game franchise that was only rivaled by Street Fighter II in popularity. Mortal Kombat II was simply amazing. Tons of fighters to choose from, blood and guts ripping across the screen, hidden secrets and easter eggs, and were all games that were easy to pick up and play and not pull yourself away from in your desire to find all those secrets and figure out that amazing fatality finishing move. The console ports were just as popular and widely played, but the arcade was the definitive version. It's sad the series is no longer popular or even relevant in today's market, but in the early 1990s, with Nirvana and flannel all the rage, Mortal Kombat was absolute king, at least for a moment, and MKII one of the best fighting games to ever come around.

Alternative: Mortal Kombat


14: Soul Calibur

Arcade/Dreamcast, Namco, 1998/1999


When trying to decide on a 3D fighter, the list is utterly staggering. In the end, I went with one that isn't necessary revolutionary or deep with technical proficiency, but its incredibly popular and fun to play, and that's really what this list is all about. It still maintains the 3D fighting elements, but is also arguably the most widely-played and loved 3D fighter of all time. It's simply a game that must be played, and surprisingly the home port of the Dreamcast overshadows the original arcade version.

Alternative: Virtua Fighter 4

13: Deus Ex

PC/Mac OS, Ion Storm/Eidos 2000


Deus Ex is the shining example of genre blending, today so utterly popular and in nearly every game. Deus Ex is really on here for one major reason on top of that: it's considered by many to have the finest story of any game, well, ever. IOn top of that, the gameplay gives you so many options on how to approach things and achieve your goals, the story is altered and shaped around those decisions. If you aren't going to play the game that is held is such high esteem by just about everyone, what kind of gamer are you? Dues Ex is also noted for its utterly fantastic design of a cyberpunk world and is still pretty unmatched in that to this day as well. Like a few others on this list, it's so utterly unique and enjoyable one just has to play it.

Alternative: None

12: Galaga

Arcade, Namco/Midway 1981


Space...the final frontier. These are the pixels and chip sounds of the arcade cabinet Galaga. Its continuing mission: to be one of the most established machines in history, to light every dark corner of pool halls, arcades, laundromats and movie theaters. To seek out new gamers who fall in love with it every time with its simple, endless onslaught of multicolored alien ships versus your one simple button that says "fire." To boldly be one of the greatest arcade game ever, and one that every person must play.

(I'd be surprised by someone not having already played Galaga than by someone who has.)

Alternative: Galaxian



11: Resident Evil (Remake)

Gamecube, Capcom 2002


Survival Horror will never be better than this remake of a Playstation classic. Simply put, horror games are more reliant on graphics than most genres, and this version of Resident Evil still looks utterly amazing to this day. I mean, look at it. With that type of atmosphere, it's easy to make anything scary. It's so simple. Giant mansion. Zombies and monsters. Nighttime, rainy and lots of guns.  Its quiet, dim hallways and cinematic angles giving the home an ominous touch as hidden corners and locked doors always keep you on edge. It's B-Movie goodness in its purest form, and you are the star as long as you don't get your brains eaten first.

Alternative: Resident Evil 2

10: Final Fantasy III

Super Nintendo, Square 1994


Videogames aren't known for their stories. Even the vaunted role-playing genre can often be full of hack-writing and atrocious plot devices. One stands above all else and shows how utterly beautiful a story can be and how effective storytelling as a device is. Final Fantasy III (VI as it's known today) isn't going to amaze a gamer with its gameplay or even its graphics, both of which were surpassed even then by other titles. What it does, though, is incorporate sincere drama in balance of all the gameplay. There's no one focus over the other, and the story is even richer as a result and lifts the entire world of videogames to new heights and possibilities. For more, you can read my write-up here.

Alternative: None

9: Grand Theft Auto III

Playstation 2, Rockstar 2001


The world was set ablaze with a flamethrower in 2001. The violence. The drugs. The controversy.  What gets lost in all this, sadly, is that Grand Theft Auto III was actually a damn brilliant piece of gaming. A fully realized city for you to play around in, and every game these days takes a cue from the "sandbox style" of game design as a result. It also had quite an interesting story on top of it, with fantastic characters and crime lords to either take down or join up with. It hasn't aged particularly well, not when better sandbox games have emerged, but is still a fun and frantic game to play that truly gives you a sense of free-reign and control in your desire to either control the city, or completely destroy it. It's significance is balanced with its quality, thus it gets a nice Top 10 spot on this list.

Alternative: Grand Them Auto- Vice City

8: The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time

N64, Nintendo 1998


The Zelda series from Nintendo is the single greatest game series going today. Always top-notch quality, consistent and just polished, and always a great adventure from beginning to end. Any Zelda adventure is a candidate, but I'm tossing aside my preferred one for the one that is often cited as the greatest videogame ever made: The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time. Implementing a new degree of immersion thanks to the cinematic nature of it being in glorious 3D. It's a quiet game, only giving you a wow-factor when needed, and rich and detailed in its world and history. For someone to not play Ocarina of Time is an absolute crime.

Alternative: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

7: The Secret of Monkey Island

DOS, Lucasfilm Games 1990


It's amazing that a game nearly 20 years old has aged so incredibly well. Graphically, perhaps not, but its story and gameplay are utterly timeless. It's a humorous title, your hero's name is Guybrush Threepwood afterall, and its tone is best reminiscent of the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Of course, designer Rob Gilbert was influenced by the ride at Disneyland, and I'm willing to bet the movies are based on this game, often considered the greatest adventure game ever made. It's incredibly witty and funny and doesn't force the humor, all allowing for a seamless and fun adventure that never feels like a chore to go on.

Alternative: Maniac Mansion

6: Metal Gear Solid

Playstation, Konami 1998


While the influence of a game isn't as important for being on this list as whether or not it's deemed the "standard," the influence of Metal Gear Solid is its main deciding factor for being on this list. It made such a huge splash across the board that its ripples are seen even today in countless games. On top of that, it's a hell of a game and could very well be considered the standard by many (although Metal Gear Solid 3 has seemed to taken that crown, if not MGS4). There really was nothing quite like it before, only a few flashes and glimpses found in games like Thief or the horrible FMV games of the ealry 1990s attempting to blend gaming and movies. It's Hideo Kojima's only entry on this list, and still considered the high point of his illustrious career. Although it's aged poorly, technical limitations of the late 1990s a sad consequence of that, it's too important to not be here.

Alternative: Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater

5: Doom

Various, ID Software 1993


Where would we be without Doom? It did a lot for gaming, yes, but is also a one-of-a-kind experience that more or less defined the First Person Shooter genre, arguably the most popular genre going today. Wofenstein 3D might have set the groundwork, but the menacing corridors of Doom brought in level design, weapon variety and just an overall better game that is often considered the first "great" FPS. It's smooth play and great use of music and sound was also a defining element, not to mention the blood. Oh, the blood. The frantic nature of it showed how fun a "run and gun" attitude can be starring down a barrel, which eventually led to games like Quake III or Unreal: Tournament. First person shooters, at their core, haven't really evolved all that much. Some are more elaborate in terms of presentation and with style, but at the heart its still a guy with some guns running around shooting people in the face. If someone tells me they've played Halo, I say "great, so has everyone else." But these days, if someone says they've played Doom, I say "Now we're talkin."

Alternative: Unreal: Tournament

4: Ms. Pac Man

Arcade, Namco 1981


Pac Man and Ms. Pac Man (and Pac Jr...I suppose) were games that pushed a lot of boundaries in terms unwanted addiction and videogame mascots. Men, women and children enjoyed these games a great deal, which was a little surprising for a time where videogames weren't looked at much more than toys. It's simple, with only one joystick and a screen, and because of that, the Pac-Family became the first major mascot of the gaming world. Pac Man and the likes were found everywhere. Pizza parlors, malls, bowling alleys, movie theaters and, of course, arcades. Not only that, they're timeless...the cabinets can still be found in many places even today and the constant orb eating and pill popping Pac-Family as addicting in playing as ever.

Alternative: Pac Man


3: Tetris

Various platform, Alexey Pajitnov 1986


The most popular game of all time? Probably. While not a personal favorite puzzle game, Tetris is a game that you couldn't even accidentally not play. Everywhere you looked, even today, there's that damn tetris game playing somewhere (and if you're lucky that catchy Tetris music). Maybe on a phone, a digital keychain or handheld system, online. People still play this game regularly. It's self explanatory and something that transcends age, gender and especially gaming experience.

Alternative: There are a lot of great puzzle games out there, but none reach the level Tetris has. So there is no alternative, it's simply one a person must play.


2: Street Fighter II: The World Champion

Arcade, Capcom 1991


No other arcade game was or ever will be (because arcade gaming is dead) as popular as Street Fighter II (and its various 'editions'). This was the only game cabinet I can recall having actual lines of people waiting to play it. Fighting games owe everything to it, and even today it still, amazingly, holds up incredibly well. Sure, there might be better looking, flashier fighter with more depth, but the pick-up-and-play approach of Street Fighter II and all its incarnations is unmatched. Truly one of the greatest games ever made and one that, if you want to be considered a 'gamer" you should play, even if it's a 16-bit console port or a high-definition remake online.

Alternative: Marvel Versus Capcom 2


1: Super Mario Bros.

NES, Nintendo 1985

The greatest game of all time? No, surely not. Many games have surpassed its formula, presentation and style and are simply better. Most influential? Perhaps, it's definitely up there and set the foundation for platformers generations to come, but even it was influenced by the likes of Pitfall and arcade titles. So why Super Mario Bros? One word: mystique. 

"What do you mean by that?" you might ask. Well, let me explain. Before Mario came along, videogames really didn't have personality in them. They were often nameless, faceless, far from anything marketable. What did Mario achieve? Marketing madness! It infiltrated every corner of our lives and media had Nintendo and the little red-capped plumber bombarding us, all from one little game. Super Mario Bros made videogames what they are today. Sure, we can thank Nintendo for that as well and cashing in, but you have to play the game, pretend it's the mid 1980s when arcades ruled the earth and that awesome new Schwarzenegger movie just came out where he scalps a guy with a buzzsaw or with Rocky fighting Russians and that damn Dire Straits video playing on MTV all the time. It became a part of pop culture, and we're all the better for it now.

But the real reason this game is on here is this: most younger gamers today have never even set eyes on it. Gaming is as popular as its ever been yet few can look back and see where it all began. Perhaps its the constant eye-popping graphics of today's consoles that make classic games, Mario in particular, look like such a turn off. It's from a different era when games were challenging, if not impossible to beat, and perhaps is too archaic for today's gamers to be appreciative of it. But I think for them to be called "gamers" in the first place, they should at least pick up the NES controller at some point and spend some time with Super Mario Bros, the most important and significant game they will ever play.

Honorable Mention:  World of Warcraft

PC/MAC, Blizzard Entertainment 2004

Why only a mention on what is arguably the most popular and most widely-played game of all time? Well, in terms of this list it's simply not a fit. The list is to give a new gamer a sense of gaming history and quality by dipping their toes in the water of various games. World of Warcraft, though, forces you to plunge right in to the deep end. It's not a game you can play and grasp right away, it's a way of life for some people.  Nonetheless, it's an important title for a lot reasons that I still feel the need to acknowledge, therefore consider this its entry.




So what does this list say? That these are all amazing games and you should play them? Well, yeah, pretty much. But a lot of these are considered some of the greatest games ever made and the variety of genres and styles should about cover any gamer who wants to feel they have reached an all-around appreciation, and hopefully understanding, of the history of the medium. There are plenty of great games left of this list, but I'm confident in the selections as something I'd give to someone who's never played a game and say "Play these." 

Perhaps next time in a such a videogame store (of course, if you've read my blog entry on videogame retailers, you probably know that won't be anytime soon) I'll have this list printed out and hand it to that kid googling over graphical the lens flare in the Playstation 3 kiosk or the "hardcore" gamers telling everyone their Halo rankings. Of course, if I did that I would look like a complete asshole and possibly mentally challenged. But I simply wanted to achieve my two main goals for this list. To reminiscence about the great games of the past. Make a list of fifty of them as I combined and weighed their quality, significance and whether or not they're considered the standard of the various genres I wanted to include.

The second goal, just to give a list of historical and important games that a new gamer should play to, not only get well-rounded perspective of videogames, but to maybe come away appreciative of the those styles and genres. Videogames have had a rough history and it was a struggle. It nearly was entirely lost. I sometimes think many gamers today take that for granted.

Is there a game I missed you feel someone should surely play before they die? Is there a particular one you feel would be a better representative for a certain genre than one I've chosen? Feel free to list or name any, this list could have easily been numbered to the hundreds.


Part One Here


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