Now that the last generation of gaming consoles is starting to see less and less in the way of exclusive releases, we here at TechnoBuffalo have taken some time to pick our favorite games from the most recent nearly decade of the medium.
The list you see below is the result of a few long Skype arguments, several months over the same-shared Google Doc and the joint responsibility of the three-person team that helms up the gaming department. These are our personal favorite selections from the PlayStation 3, Wii and Xbox 360 age in gaming; so don’t expect our picks to line up with yours directly.
We tried to limit ourselves to mostly console affairs, so games like Minecraft miss the boat. Don’t worry, we’ll probably run down our favorite PC games in the coming months for fun, too.
Also, the list runs in alphabetical order. Ranking these suckers would be a whole separate issue unto itself. Without further ado, here are the best games from the last generation… according to us.
Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood
For my money, Assassin’s Creed peaked with Brotherhood. The first game in the franchise established the basic formula, though it did so with such repetition that many found it entirely too disappointing. Assassin’s Creed 2 took what worked in that first game, and expanded it out in order to make the franchise fun and unforgettable.
Brotherhood, the title that launched after 2 in the same plotline, took the franchise from fun to incredible. It’s the best game in the Assassin’s Creed line. It features a great hero at his best; enough interesting mechanics to keep gameplay long and diverse and it arrived before Ubisoft started to dilute its vision with way too many “features.”
The new Assassin’s games are undeniably good, I won’t argue that. They do come bogged down in unnecessary components, though. They feel heavy and thick while sacrificing too much fun in favor of checking off boxart requirements. Brotherhood skirted the line between overdeveloped and just right, and that’s why it was so darn good.
Plus, the ability to recruit a group of assassins and then trigger public kills with the press of a button and an in-game whistle? Outstanding. I’d argue that no other single mechanic made me feel quite as powerful as that one, and it was introduced in Brotherhood.
Batman: Arkham City
When Rocksteady put out the first Arkham game, we finally had some proof that Batman games didn’t have to suck. We only had to wait 28 years (aside from one or maybe two exceptional side scrollers) to get one, but it happened. Developer Rocksteady had a massive hit on their hands despite being unknown only a few years before.
Building on the success of Arkham Asylum, the sequel blew things up beyond expectations. While many sequels are content to simply iterate on the formulas established in the previous game, Arkham City retained its base mechanics but changed the genre entirely. Arkham Asylum was a great game, but adhered pretty closely to the Metroidvania formula of exploring a limited space filled with enemies, upgrades, and secrets.
Arkham Asylum gave us the Batman we’d been waiting for – equal parts detective, ninja, and brawler. Arkham City, though, was the Batman game we knew we’d been waiting for. We were presented with a wide open city, filled with tall buildings and dark alleyways littered with thugs whose jaws weren’t broken yet.
Sure, new IPs are good, but there’s something satisfying about seeing a legendary license like Batman get the treatment it deserves. I don’t know that a Batman game could’ve been done before this generation and do the property justice. This is a case of the right game at the right time. Arkham Knight is sure to be great when it hits the new generation of consoles next year, but Arkham City simply wouldn’t have worked on an earlier generation of consoles. The scale, detail, and fidelity of the game would never have met with the expectations that come with such a beloved character.
It’s tough to overstate the influence of BioShock on the last generation of gaming.
BioShock starts by introducing you to the underwater city of Rapture. The art, architecture, and neon lighting are immediately captivating. The environments are believable and feel lived in despite being totally fantastical.
Then you meet the inhabitants of the social experiment – or at least the ones that didn’t make it out. The Splicers are junkies addicted to a substance known as Adam, something used in body modifications.
Finally, you pick up your first Plasmid. As you swing your wrench and fire guns with your right hand, your left glows with electricity, fire, and other powers that let you not only kill enemies in flashy, explosive ways, but allow you to interact with the environment as well.
The place, its inhabitants, and the way you interact with them are compelling and worthy of praise on their own, but the story that weaves them together is what elevates them from elements in a sci-fi first person shooter to parts of a memorable experience that stands alongside the likes of Half-Life 2.
Rapture is a city built by a man named Andrew Ryan, a powerful and successful industrialist who, instead of trying to shape the existing world to his whim, decided to build his own version of paradise. Rapture would be a place where geniuses and strong personalities could be free of government oversight and interference that might get in the way of less than ethical practices; a place for the strong to thrive without being held back by consideration for the weak.
This setting is used to explore critically concepts like Ayn Rand’s objectivism, governmental regulation, the nature of beauty, addiction and even free will to great success. Everything you do in the game, from accomplishing objectives to fighting enemies like the splicers and iconic Big Daddies, plays into these themes, making for one of the most compelling integrations of story and game we’ve ever seen.
Dark Souls and, its predecessor, Demon’s Souls were never meant to be or were designed to be “hard” games. They were simply excellent games that just happened to be “hard.” Nobody marketed these games to the point where soapbox gamers could use it to brag about their achievements and kill the authenticity of it all.
Darks Souls and Demon’s Souls were just simply gamer’s games; discovered by gamers, spread through word of mouth by gamers, and picked apart and enjoyed by gamers.
And through it all, Dark Souls just happened to become one of the most influential games of the generation. From Software, a B-tier studio previously famous for making crummy rip-offs of larger productions, managed to make the new hotness that everyone from AAA publishers to the indie scene wanted to incorporate.
You see, anyone can make a hard game. Even I could make a hard game, and I don’t know the first thing about programming or design. It’s not about making a hard game, it’s about making a game that makes you want to dust yourself off and try again and again and again.
It’s about making a game that punishes you just enough in death and gives you just enough of a chance to correct a mistake. It’s about creating a boss fight that might be just a little too hard to beat, or placing that jump which just might be a little out of reach. The best games have been doing that since Super Mario Bros.
Dark Souls wasn’t good because it was “hard.” It was good because it was balanced, and it provided just enough challenge to make you believe that you could overcome anything with just a little more effort. I’ve played “hard” games on the NES, and trust me kids, no matter how much Bandai Namco tells you, Dark Souls ain’t that hard.
The excellent jump from a small action game into a huge sprawling open-world didn’t hinder its quality either. Dark Souls’ rewards for progressing through the game extended beyond just stats and equipment. It gave you a glimpse into the insanity of its setting.
A lost kingdom once populated by a grand race of engineers and architects not slowly decaying away under the weight of time, its inhabitants having long since fled, leaving only undead tormented souls and hideous monsters of the worst description behind. Where did they all go? And what did they look like? Will you even find the secrets of this place buried in these deep halls?
Do really you need three ugly witches to spell it all out for you? No, you’re a gamer! Have some self-respect!
Demon’s Souls brought back the idea of a respectable challenge to video games after the AAA market pampered us into easy victories for years, and Dark Souls evolved its philosophies perfectly and spread it to a wider audience. It provided nothing excessive to the point of where it couldn’t be done, and nothing artificial like enemy stat boosts and more powerful bullets. Just fluid, natural, and fair challenge.
Hopefully, the AAA marketing campaign eases off of the difficulty of Bloodborne, and allows gamers naturally uncover what makes designer Hidetaka Miyazaki’s next game special in its own right. Perhaps without the interference, we will find that extra hook which was absent in Dark Souls II.
In the second half of the last decade, Electronic Arts was coming out of a long slump of building poorly conceived licensed games. CEO John Riccitiello launched an initiative to create and release unique new IPs like Dead Space and Mirror’s Edge. The franchises weren’t failures by any means, but they weren’t the runaway successes that popcorn games like Battlefield and Call of Duty are.
Of the franchises he helped launch, Visceral’s Dead Space is easily my favorite.
The game undoubtedly owes its DNA to Resident Evil 4, but it made the over-the-shoulder shooting all its own.
You play as Isaac Clarke, an engineer sent as part of a team sent to investigate a mining ship called the USG Ishimura that suddenly went silent. As an engineer, Clarke is prepared for extreme situations like zero gravity and the vacuum of space, but he’s not a soldier. As such, his tools are meant for cutting, not killing, and this makes for the primary mechanic of Dead Space: strategic dismemberment. That might just be my favorite box cover bullet point of all time.
Instead of simply grabbing a gun and aiming for the head or the heart like you would in most life-and-death situations, Isaac has a plasma cutter, a tool ostensibly meant to chip at rocks, and to take down the necromorphs rushing at him, removing their limbs is the only option.
Dismembering enemies stayed fun not just through the first game, but also through a full three games. Even as the series started to lose its way in terms of tone and atmosphere, taking apart enemies one limb at a time stayed fun.
It’s that atmosphere, though, that puts Dead Space, rather than its sequels, among the best games of the last generation.
The USG Ishimura is an old ship, and it feels like it. The vessel is lumbering, massive and creaking, filled with long corridors and flickering lights. Vents and grating are exposed, and the ship often resembles an old tanker more than something hundreds of years in the future.
Dead Space is masterfully paced, with the right rhythm of making you wait for scares that don’t happen, punctuated with sudden jump scares. Then, the action gets frantic as you fight to survive, dropping arms and legs off necromorphs just as fast as you can. This is all augmented by the subtle addition of a menu system that is integrated into Isaac’s suit. Even organizing your menu is dangerous if you pick the wrong moment.
The combination of Dead Space‘s unique combat and engineering-inspired puzzles helps to let you feel resourceful – never helpless, but rarely in a position of power. You aren’t a hero, you’re a survivor.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
As if you could forget about Skyrim. Bethesda’s masterwork is still making headlines with fans creating mind-bendingly huge mods, other developers using it as a standard to judge next-gen RPGs, and dissenters using it as a favorable comparison to show their disgust for The Elder Scrolls Online.
You haven’t forgotten about Skyrim because the Internet hasn’t let you.
That and because it has sold over 32 million copies to date, one of the biggest games of the generation. The only other RPG in history to do that was Pokemon, putting Skyrim in a very elite crowd of games. What is it about this game that makes it so grand and exciting, and yet so approachable by all spectrums of gamers?
Well, for starters, it’s really easy to pick up and play. As RPGs get more and more complicated, it’s nice to see one with such a streamlined character progression system, combat system, and even menu screen. I mean, is it that hard, guys? Bethesda gets this right every time!
Secondly, it makes everything else from Bethesda before it looks like practice. Morrowind, Oblivion, and even the impeccable Fallout 3 can’t stand up to the sheer size and might of this game. Bethesda said it was going to put a kingdom in a video game, and it very well did that.
Ice capped mountains, steamy swamps and bustling castle towns with unique citizens, and discomforting caves with monsters and treasures. Skyrim’s world feels like it could be an actual place.
Finally, Bethesda beats most other developers out there in terms of not making you feel like you are wasting any time. No frustration, no grunts about long walks, no agitation in getting from point A to point B to complete quest C for D number of E items.
This immersive world can kill five hours of a lazy afternoon’s span, and make it seem like minutes. I know I’m not the only one who sunk over 30 hours into this game and only made it to the second story quest. Skyrim’s true strength lies in the fact that it is meant to be “played,” not “beaten.”
So many time-wasting games want to shove you through so you can get your trophies and buy your next time-wasting game. Very few just sit back and let you explore at your own pace without cumbersome vehicles or annoying missions to deal with. Fight the monsters, uncover the lore, explore the cave, murder the citizens, do whatever you please.
Skyrim, for all of its ambitions of a grand fantasy world, excellent immersion, and pick up and play RPG design, succeeds mostly because it actually delivered on the kind of “freedom” most developers promised but came up short on. That’s why it sold the best.
Usually a huge shift in game style spells doom for a franchise. For Fallout, though, it was an infusion of new life.
That’s not to say that the original and its sequel weren’t great in their own right. The shift wouldn’t have met with so much consternation if Fallout and Fallout 2 weren’t so beloved.
Fallout, one of the original post-apocalyptic games, was originally a turn-based game set from an isometric perspective. Bethesda Softworks, creators of the Elder Scrolls series, took the beloved property and, much to the horror of its fans, made it a first person RPG. And somehow, they made it work.
Fallout 3 preserves the most memorable aspect of the series, VATS combat. VATS fit easily into the older turn-based games, letting the player select not only which target they wanted to attack but also which part of a target’s body they wanted to attack. Bethesda layered this on top of a real-time shooter. I’ll admit that, if taken as a shooter, Fallout 3 isn’t a great game. The shooting is sloppy and imprecise at best. VATS not only makes up for that, but gives the game a twist that sets it apart from both other shooters and other RPGs, like the company’s own Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
The best part, though, is exploring Washington D.C. in its dilapidated state. While it might seem lazy for the team to use a setting located half an hour from their office, it was a clever move that helped the exploration by littering the landscape with not just recognizable but fully iconic landmarks. You always know where you are in the wasteland, even if you’ve never been there in real life.
While Fallout 3 isn’t an extension of the real world’s potential future, it is the future of something like our world. Exploring the ruins of the recent past feels like being an archaeologist for our own time, exploring our own world as an outsider, rather than exploring something so distantly past as to be alien.
I played Fallout 3 for well over 120 hours and I think sometimes about going back again to try out some of the choices I missed, like erasing an entire city off the game’s map permanently.
Grand Theft Auto V
Grand Theft Auto V, in many ways, simply filled expectations. The game was bigger, better made, and more fun than its predecessor. It sold in huge quantities, too, to the tune of billions of dollars.
What makes Grand Theft Auto V so memorable for me – what makes me want to buy a second copy this fall – is the details.
While Los Santos isn’t nearly a 1:1 copy of Los Angeles and the surrounding cities – no game could handle urban sprawl that wide – it captures the character of the region incredibly well. As I cruise around the city I can find elements big and small that are iconic to their areas.
The colored paneling on a parking garage in Santa Monica. The giant sky-painted wall on the Paramount movie lot. The brass in-lays on the sidewalk in front of Griffith Observatory. You can see all these little things in Los Santos just the same way as in Los Angeles.
On top of that, the actual game itself is the best Grand Theft Auto has been. The variety and pacing work better than ever and the heists, though in short supply, were a lot of fun.
Where I found myself quickly bored of GTAIV and resentful of its sole main character, Nico Bellic, I actually enjoyed playing as Franklin and Michael (and, to a lesser degree, Trevor).
I’m not going to pretend like I didn’t have major issues with some of the social elements of the game, both in terms of the single player writing and online structure, but while those issues did tug at me, they didn’t keep the game from being an easy favorite last year and an instant classic for the generation.
I knew thatgamecompany was onto something special with Journey the moment I sat down to play it E3 a few years ago. They had headphones at the demo, one of the few games in that section of Sony’s booth offering them. I had no idea that the soundtrack I heard behind that demo session would go on to win awards.
Journey dropped players in a desert. If they were online when they played, the PlayStation Network did some behind the scenes work and paired gamers up randomly with others. Journey didn’t tell you who you were playing with until the credits rolled, so what you had was a completely anonymous experience that felt insanely warm and unique.
The game was beautiful, too. So, the looks, the sound, the interesting story and the completely unique take on multiplayer sort of propped Journey up almost instantly as one of the most compelling tales of the generation.
And it still stands tall. Ask any gamer what one of the best downloadable PlayStation 3 titles was during the console’s heyday, and I bet more than a few will point directly towards Journey.
They’d be right. The game is wonderful.
The Last of Us
The Last of Us was the PlayStation 3’s last hurrah. But what a hurrah it is.
There aren’t many games that deserve a higher-resolution remaster barely 14 months later, but The Last of Us is one of the very, very few that does.
Like so many other games, The Last of Us takes place after a biological event drives humankind to the brink of extinction. The opening minutes take place just before it begins, introducing us to Joel, a young single father, and his daughter, Sarah.
The game, though, takes place two decades later.
Many small details set The Last of Us apart from so many other post-apocalyptic and zombie-infested games, but the most immediate is the state of the world afterward. As we see with any place civilization has built up and left behind, nature takes over quickly. The Last of Us is, without question, the most vibrant end of the world we’ve seen.
The core of the game, though, is the relationship between Joel and Ellie, a girl immune to the spores that have infected so many other people, and the way that relationship develops as they travel west together.
Joel never fully recovered from the loss of his daughter, and his method of coping with it in this new world is not a peaceful one by any means. Ellie, on the other hand, is young enough to have no idea what the world looked like before everything went to hell, but just old enough to start understanding the kinds of things adults understand about the world and the people in it.
The interaction between the two and the other people they meet isn’t just some of the best writing we’ve ever seen in a game, but some of the best dialogue we’ve seen anywhere. As the two go through hardship after hardship, we learn that Joel isn’t exactly a good person – he might actually be a bad one – and that Ellie hardly needs protecting. Their relationship transforms from protector and protectee to something more like father and daughter, only Joel watches his daughter grow from child to independent adult in just a few months.
Many games, even great ones, fall apart at the ending, forcing a boss battle that doesn’t tell a story but fits into a standard video game framework that many developers feel they need to adhere to. The Last of Us, on the other hand, nails its ending. The final sequences of the game sell the relationships and themes that the other events have been building up to. The final shot of Ellie tells you everything you need to know about her state of mind and what she’s been through.
Mass Effect 2
You and your closest friends are on a suicide mission deep behind enemy lines. Bullets are whizzing past your heads, explosions are erupting in your face and a maniacal immortal being is inhabiting the bodies of fallen enemies and supercharging their abilities.
Which ally do you trust the most? How well do you understand their natural talents? Who is best served fighting at your side and who would be best leading another squad? How do you feel about possibly sending one to certain death?
This is Mass Effect 2, the highlight of the series and if I had to pick one, the greatest game of this past generation.
The illusion of choice in video games never had as much weight as it did with this climax of the ages. Taking down the Collectors one a time, trusted comrades likely to fall in battle with one lapse in judgment, the fate of the entire galaxy in your hands
Dozens of missions, deep RPG management, and an unrivaled level of world-building all worked together in creating this perfect game. BioWare entered this generation with a promise of delivering a science-fiction universe worthy of its strong storytelling roots, and it delivered on all fronts.
Perhaps more so than anything else though, it was the perfect characterization of this game’s brilliant cast of characters that held the most weight.
Garrus Vakarian, Tali’Zorah nar Rayyah, Thane Krios, Grunt. Who can forget Mordin Solus, Salarian Scientist and my favorite character of this last generation? Each member of Shepard’s crew is a fleshed out and nearly living person that nobody would not to see die in battle, making loyalties and decisions just that much more important.
And then there is Shepard, you. BioWare’s customizable avatar brought the fate of the universe into your vantage point. Your decisions, your style of play and progression, your appearance. Mass Effect was just that special because never before had any game made you feel so involved in evolving conflict around you.
BioWare had to skimp a little on its grand vision it had with the first Mass Effect to bring this streamlined game to the masses, but there isn’t a nerve in my body that makes me think it wasn’t worth it. Mass Effect 2 was in a class of its own this previous generation.
As much as we gripe about not having Half-Life 3 or joke about how confirmed it is, we undeniably saw Valve’s charm in this last generation, as well as their move to put their new games on consoles with Left 4 Dead and Portal.
Portal, especially, was a massive surprise. When The Orange Box came out, most gamers were picking it up for the collection of Half-Life 2 titles and Team Fortress 2 in one very nicely priced package.
Then we all loaded up Portal and had our minds blown. It was some of the tightest, most fluid gameplay I’ve seen combined with some great acting and ambient storytelling. GladOS was simultaneously hilarious and menacing, and her world, the Aperture Science laboratory, was artfully crafted to be believable, both sterile and decrepit, and always in service of the gameplay.
Then a couple years later, Portal 2 comes along and shows us how much child’s play the first was on all fronts.
Valve somehow managed to stretch the game out to roughly ten times the length of the original without it getting tiring by thinking up new ways to approach the portal idea as well as creating some more non-murder guns that gave us new ways to play with levels.
Even more, the story is a great extension of the original’s minimalist approach. GladOS, on her own, would’ve gotten stale in a few hours. But then we had the constantly frazzled AI known as Wheatley to guide us along and recordings created by Aperture Science’s founder, Cave Johnson. The original game was a veritable meme factory in terms of memorable, quotable lines, and somehow the team behind the second one struck lightning again.
And we haven’t even talked about one of the best cooperative modes we’ve seen in a long time in games. Often times, games assume or require a certain skill level for multiplayer, whether it be a matter of competition in an online shooter or just control dexterity to keep up in co-op, games expect that you and your partner, whether it’s your parent, spouse, sibling, or possibly non-gaming friend, be at the same level. Portal 2 gave us a fun, engrossing cooperative mode that was friendly to all skill levels without making it feel unchallenging for those with more experience.
Few packages are quite as complete as Portal 2.
Platforming bliss. That’s how I described Rayman Origins to a good friend of mine back when the game originally released.
Ubisoft was trying something a little different. They created an all new engine, the now famous UbiArt Framework, and they let Michel Ancel and a few others develop a wacky, 2D platformer with an emphasis on brutality and humor.
The result of that effort was Rayman Origins.
Origins starts out easily enough. A few worlds into the experience, though, and you’ll find that collecting and beating everything the game has to offer will take an exceptional amount of skill and patience. That goes double when you unlock the final world and take on those stages. Brace yourself, friendo.
Buttery smooth platforming, gorgeous art and a soundtrack that had me humming along through each of my playthroughs (once on the Xbox 360 and again on the PS Vita), Rayman Origins almost immediately won a spot on my list of favorite games ever made. It’s charming, and it still makes me smile.
That says a lot.
Red Dead Redemption
If this were a ranked list (it’s not, but let’s pretend it is for a second), I’d push exceptionally hard for Red Dead Redemption to nab the number one spot. No other game from the past generation, in my opinion, achieved the same sense of grand scale, cohesion, desperation and life that this one managed to achieve.
Rockstar took the engine that powered Grand Theft Auto IV, made it a little better and placed it in the Wild West. Here we have a genre of film and media that’s gone largely untouched by the gaming medium, and Red Dead Redemption services it oh so beautifully.
On one hand, you have a world that feels completely alive. New Austin breathes, seemingly, regardless of whether or not you’re there. Its citizens and wildlife all live amongst each other, and you’re just a man trying to bring justice to an old familiar gang.
That life bleeds into the overall scope of the game. Red Dead Redemption is, at its core, is about the slow creep of the industrial age into the west. It’s about the death of this lawless and lively land, and those components pile up to give the game’s environment a feeling of fleeting adventure.
I’m not normally the type of gamer to replay open world titles again and again, but I’ve visited Red Dead Redemption more times than I can count. I’m in the middle of a play through right now, in fact. The game ages beautifully, and I imagine it will be one of my favorites from now on.
Spec Ops: The Line
War is hell. Video games love to paint war as a patriotic action film or an online sport because it sells well, but in actuality, real people die in war. Soldiers make bigger decisions than just blindly pulling the trigger, and there is no respawning for the enemy soldiers and unarmed civilians who get caught in the crossfire.
It took a barrage of awful modern warfare games to cause us to forget that war is not a game, but a single storytelling masterpiece was all it took to bring us back down to Earth, Spec Ops: The Line.
This haunting retelling of Heart of Darkness set amongst a sandstorm ravaged Dubai hits all the important notes of reminding just how awful war can be. Yager Entertainment has our protagonist make a single bad judgment call from the start of his mission, and from there, his mission collapses into one of unnecessary murder and tragedy.
Of course, none of this is realized to most gamers while playing, who go about linearly from gunfight to gunfight like its just another action game. Our protagonist keeps babbling about the sense of duty that pushes him on, and because we are so entrenched in the mindset of modern warfare games, we easily accept the horrible things he has done.
Not until the game’s climax do we finally sit back and realize how horribly wrong we were for playing this game. Our protagonist didn’t do all those horrible acts alone. We helped him do it. We controlled him and pushed him through it all. No we were never given the choice not to, as most AAA games would provide us with these days, but we still chose to continue his rampage, serviantly pressing on because that’s just what you do in games.
When you are finally given a choice a single choice at the end of how to proceed, Spec Ops: The Line totally catches you off guard and how you react to the climax’s concluding moments should speak a lot to the kind of person you are.
Spec Ops: The Line’s story is genius enough to overcome the barebones third-person shooter gameplay. It sports some great graphics, especially the sand effects, and a few decent set pieces, but it is this haunting narrative which puts it worlds above the multimillion dollar AAA modern warfare scene.
It’s a diamond in the rough and a sadly overlooked game of the last generation, calling out all of the nonsense the competition asks you to swallow. The gamble 2K Games took on publishing a risky, challenging game like this shows why it is the best of our AAA publishers from the last few years.
Super Mario Galaxy 2
For all my time with the Wii, one game stands tallest as the masterpiece on the console. That game is Super Mario Galaxy 2.
Nintendo took their fabled plumber and twisted his classic mechanics around the spheres of heavenly bodies for an adventure that provided some of the best platforming of the last decade. Levels are varied, sections are challenging and the game is lengthy enough to warrant full repeat playthroughs.
Now, Super Mario Galaxy certainly pioneered the style for this duo of games, but it was 2 that stood as the masterwork. Miyamoto honed in on what made the original game so strong, got rid of the fluff, added Yoshi and delivered a game that was somehow even better than an already astounding effort.
I always hear rumblings of games that deserve new generation ports. One that I’ll always say “yes” to is Super Mario Galaxy 2. It looked great on the less-than-HD Wii, but imagine an HD bundle that brings the first and second together with bonus content? That sounds downright amazing to me.
Super Meat Boy
The blood, sweat, and tears Team Meat pumped into Super Meat Boy went miles in helping thousands of would-be game developers realize their dreams, and it put us on the path for the most exciting scene in video gaming: indies.
Oh yeah, luckily for them, Super Meat Boy is also a hell of an entertaining game.
At its heart, Super Meat Boy is the most basic of 2D platformers. Running and jumping are the only abilities available to Meat Boy, and this simple approach lies at the core of designer Ed McMillen’s design. Our hero never changes and never grows; he’ll always be the same character.
It is the world around him that changes, making his limited moveset capable of infinite possibilities. Each added element expands the level design exponentially, constantly building new and exciting new situations to slog through. Missiles, salt, magnets, blades. Poor Meat Boy will pay the price of a hundred painful deaths while you learn the ins and outs of each new element and each level just to nail that perfect run.
Best of all, he’ll never be stuck because he has the wrong tool, and he’ll never lose to a boss because he isn’t high enough level. This simple philosophy, which we sadly see so little of these days, puts it on the player to improve his skills and rise to each occasion.
There is no greater feeling in gaming than finally achieving a goal after failing a hundred times. No game this generation delivered that better than Super Meat Boy. No game felt so rewarding for success, and no game did it with such basic game design.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
Even as far back as the first Ninja Gaiden game on NES, game designers have been chasing the ghost of Hollywood, trying to find ways to make games more cinematic, more emulative of the movies they grew up watching. This has led to some pretty egregious developments, like quicktime events, but it’s not all bad: We got Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.
Uncharted 2 is, aside from a few thousand bullets, as close as we’ll ever get the style and pacing of an Indiana Jones movie. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was a fine game, but the sequel is where Naughty Dog cemented themselves as more than just a developer known for creating platformers.
The game started by improving on the ensemble cast that made the first one work, not only adding to the existing cast but improving on those originals as well. Drake is a charming character, but without Elena and Sully to balance him out, I think he might just seem like a bit of a sociopath. With those two along for the ride, though, Drake becomes one of the funniest and most charismatic characters in video games.
From there, though, we get a game filled with memorable set pieces, and that starts right at the beginning, when Drake wakes up, wounded, sitting on the seat of a train. A train that happens to be hanging vertically off the side of a mountain. Another sequence involving that same train – later in the game but earlier in the story – has the train chugging up a mountainside railroad. Instead of condensing this into a couple cutscenes, the whole sequence is interactive. As you work your way up the train, the background changes from jungle to mountainside to snowy crags. The sequence shows just how much care the team behind the game put into sequences like this.
The set pieces, though, never overshadow the people in them. Drake’s relationships with Sully, Elena, and Tenzen are still the center of the game, something Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception lost sight of. The final boss battle is kind of a slog, but it doesn’t diminish the gorgeous sets, excellent writing, and exciting climbing throughout the rest of the game.
You might have noticed the discouraging lack of Japanese video games on our list. Sadly, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and the rise of the Activision and EA machines brought a very Western oriented focus to the industry, one very few companies in Japan were able to keep up with.
Before this hostile takeover occurred and funds were diverted elsewhere though, SEGA’s former Overworks team, recently reshuffled into SEGA at the time, pumped out Valkyria Chronicles, the generation’s best game to encapsulate all that was once great about Japanese RPGs.
Backed with a full budget and the minds behind classics like Skies of Arcadia, SEGA set out to do what was once impossible. Many were wondering with the advent of HD gaming if “playing an anime” in in-engine graphics was becoming a possibility. Some had tried before it, but it took Valkyria Chronicles to get it right.
This not-so-subtle retelling of World War II was the first big breakthrough in pushing top-of-the-line anime visuals and storytelling into a fully controllable game. Light hearted moments, tension and drama, heartbreak and laughter, and of course, what lies at the center of every great JRPG, wonderful characters.
Valkyria Chronicles‘ wide cast truly take on the persona of your “companions” as they cover fire and blast their way through the line of fire on each war torn map. The best strategy games create an emotional attachment with the player and his units, and Valkyria Chronicles understands the importance of this better than most.
You’ll want your friends to stay alive and survive the war. You’ll want to help those who are injured, just to see if the story affects them or not. Each soldier has a personality of his or her own, and watching them evolve as characters is half the fun of gunning through the battlefield.
Luckily for Valkyria Chronicles, the gameplay was no slouch either. The strategy elements, such as raising groups of soldiers rather than individuals and the third-person controls on the battlefield proved to be very popular.
Blowing up barriers, taking down tanks, assaulting fortresses became much more up close and personal by getting your trusty comrade’s vantage point.
I won’t call it the best strategy game out there or anywhere close to the best game on this list in terms of raw gameplay. Some games are just the sum of their parts, but Valkyria Chronicles is more than that. It’s a look at what could have been if Japan hadn’t fallen off the HD console bandwagon and a great way to transport yourself back into a more innocent and fulfilling age of gaming.
That aside though, it is a very fun game with a great story that holds up.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings
CD Projekt Red started as a group of hackers who spent their time cracking copy protection on PC games to make them available for an intellectually hungry but monetarily poor Poland. The company’s first legitimate project was localizing and releasing Baldur’s Gate for their market, but they didn’t make a mark on the greater gaming world until The Witcher, a PC-only release built on the Neverwinter Nights engine. It was clunky, but those who could make it through the first few hours could see the glimmer of something greater.
It wasn’t until The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, though, that it became really apparent what a gem we had in CD Projekt Red. Looking at the game as just a technical achievement, an independent studio in a still-developing country built their own, jaw-droppingly gorgeous engine and then ported it to Xbox 360 (and then later OSX and even Linux), showing how flexible the studio is.
The game itself, though, is nothing to sneeze at, either. The setting behind The Witcher games is one of the best low fantasy settings around. This isn’t a world with good and evil, really, just dangerous and more dangerous. The titular witcher, Geralt, is suspected of murdering a king and has to prove his innocence.
After some initial investigation in the appropriately named town of Flotsam, Geralt is presented with a choice. Neither one seems better than the other, necessarily, but the effect of the choice is instant and substantial: the entire middle section of the game is changed by this choice. If you go with one character, you end up camped outside a castle, while the other gains you entry to a mountainside dwarven city, tasked with an entirely different set of missions taking place in different areas.
While The Witcher isn’t the only game to put decisions in players’ hands, most decisions will remove content from a game – such as a character or area – rather than offering the player an actual choice between two different segments of the game. Decisions like this populate the game, decisions that feel meaty and substantial, letting the player feel as if their decisions had a substantial impact on their experience, rather than just spicing it up here and there.
The world of The Witcher quickly became a fan favorite among gamers, propelling the Witcher series from the cult status it had with the first game to one of the first games from peoples’ mouths when they talk about the best role playing games of the last few years.
XCOM Enemy Unknown
Hey look, another strategy game featuring a third-person viewpoint from the battlefield. I wonder where Firaxis got the idea for that!
In actuality, XCOM Enemy Unknown is just as good if not a better strategy game than Valkyria Chronicles, just for entirely different reasons. It still has that sense of camaraderie with your units, but it gives you the imagination to define each of their personalities on your own. It still has a decent story, but it subtly treats you to new events without the melodrama of Japanese storytelling.
At its heart though, XCOM is more about the core strategy gameplay than anything else. You create a few basic soldiers, push forward the ones who excel in battle, and use them to wipe the floor with unwanted alien scum. Return home alive, improve skills, rinse and repeat.
On the battlefield, XCOM Enemy Unknown is not the deepest or most complicated of games, but it’s balanced perfectly to meet the style you choose and the flashy visual sense goes miles in making you feel involved in the action.
The core of the game occurs behind the scenes though. When not engaging in the enemy, the technical workers and officers of XCOM engage in constant management of an entire intergalactic war. Interrogate alien prisoners, play politics with Earth’s nations, research the enemy’s technology, and build new weapons and vehicles.
XCOM Enemy Unknown is a game that takes place on many different levels, and it does a fabulous job of keeping each of them relevant. A perfect balance between management and combat was needed to make this game a hit, and Firaxis nailed it exactly right.
You’ll never have a down moment playing this heart racing turn-based game.
Better than the game though is the story of how it came about. 2K Games originally contracted BioShock 2 developer 2K Marin to reboot the classic strategy series as a third-person shooter. However, after severe fan backlash, 2K eventually caved in and sought Civilization developer Firaxis’ aid in giving the series the modern day strategy treatment it deserved.
Turns out, the fans were right. XCOM Enemy Unknown surpassed 2K Games’ expectations and became one of the biggest surprise hits of 2012. It remains a firm reminder that gamers know what they want and the best example of publishers benefiting by listening to its audience.
Those are our favorite games from the last generation of consoles. Don’t worry, if Assassin’s Creed Rogue is truly that good, we’ll come back and edit this list to reflect the change. The same goes for any unforeseen titles between now and, well, the end of time.
What are some of your favorite games from the last console generation? Do you agree with our picks? Even better, how would you rank them?