A very straightforward topic for today’s article: I’m going to write about some of my all-time favourite videogames. I get asked what my favourites are every now and then, and frankly right now I could do with some unalloyed positivity in my life, so here we are. No considered judgements or critical analyses in this one, folks, just the games I’ll take with me when I finally snap and head off to live in the woods. They’ve got electricity and broadband internet in the woods these days, right?
Silent Hill 2 (PS2, Konami, 2001)
In the admittedly very unlikely scenario that I was ordered, possibly at gunpoint, to rank all my favourite games, I would struggle from number two downwards to get them into any kind of order. However, for my number one slot there can be no other choice: it’d be Konami’s classic spook-em-up Silent Hill 2 every time and probably for all time. There are a lot of games I like, but there’s yet to be another that feels so perfectly me, like it was designed solely to provide the exact experience I wanted. What makes Silent Hill 2 so great? It might sound facetious but the answer is everything. It’s a game of rare depth and even rarer nuance, one of the very few video games from a major developer that tackles some truly heavy themes – suicide, euthanasia, child abuse – and handles them in a manner that’s heartbreakingly tragic and impressively non-exploitative. Every aspect of its design, the characters, the graphics, the music and sound work, is pitch-perfect, creating the only videogame (well, apart from Soft and Cuddly) that’s managed to inspire a lasting feeling of dread in me. It’s assembled with such precision, craft and subtlety that every little detail of the game feels purposeful and redolent with meaning. On top of that, in Pyramid Head Silent Hill 2 produced one of the greatest monsters in any medium. A haunting mixture of the human and the abstract, Pyramid Head is unlike so many monsters in that it has a purpose beyond simple slaughter. It’s got something to teach you, and the idea that you might even be better off for knowing what that something is makes for a creature that’s more unsettling than any other.
As an aside, while there are plenty of reasons to dislike the Silent Hill movies (because they’re not very good, mostly,) the one thing that really annoys me about them is Pyramid Head’s redesign. By replacing the featureless geometry of the original’s “helmet” with a spiky, overly-fussy lump of metal, so much of what makes Pyramid Head unnerving is lost, and the movie version becomes yet another mindless murder machine with a head like a rejected trap design from a later movie in the Saw series.
Obviously every game on this list has earned its place in some part because of personal tastes that others might disagree with, but in Silent Hill 2's case I’d argue that there's not another game out there with such a consistent and expertly-crafted mood of melancholic horror, and as tiresome as the “are games art?” debate is I’d put forth Silent Hill 2 as the premier example of “yes, they bloody well can be.” Maybe one day Konami will reveal that their business decisions over the last few years have all been part of an elaborate hoax and they’re actually going to start making good games again, but until then I don’t think Silent Hill 2 is going to be topped.
Resident Evil 2 (PS1, Capcom, 1998)
While I was thinking about the games that would appear on this list, I realised that a lot of them would be standing in as a representative for their entire series, and nowhere is that more true than with Resident Evil 2. Picking a favourite entry from a franshise that has given me such consistent pleasure over the years was a difficult task, with the original Resident Evil, the Remake and Resident Evil 4 all making good cases for being the finest example of zombie-slaying, evil-pharmaceutical-company-fighting action available. I had to go with Resident Evil 2 in the end, though. If nothing else, the truck driver in the game’s intro who says “Dat guy’s a maniac! Why’d he bite me?!” would be enough to push me over the edge.
When I was finally lucky enough to get a Playstation and the original Resident Evil, it’s fair to say I became somewhat obsessed with it. It’s another game that feels as though it was made just for me, a B-movie in polygonal form with highly-trained police officers fighting against the undead, giant sharks and their own incompetence when it comes to spotting that their boss is the shiftiest man alive. I’m sure that somewhere in a dark corner of a wardrobe at my mother’s house there are still a few notebooks filled with terrible drawings of Jill fighting giant spiders and Wesker getting impaled by the ultimate bio-weapon, put it that way. So, when RE2 was announced, I was obviously very excited, but the excitement was tinged with trepidation – what if it wasn’t as good as the original? What if Capcom cocked it up somehow? Then RE2 arrived, and it was the exact opposite of disappointment. Is there an English word for “the exact opposite of disappointment”? I don’t think there is, so I propose we start using “Resident Evil 2” in those situations. “I opened a letter from the Inland Revenue, and it was a surprise tax refund! What a real Resident Evil 2 of a thing to happen!”
Anyway, RE2 takes the basic structure of the original and cranks everything up. Better graphics, a bigger world to explore, more puzzles and weapons, two playable characters with separate but intertwining storylines and more insanity. A good level of bonkers-ness, and the starting point for the series’ trip into the sheer madness of the later games. It’s the ideal sequel, in a way: everything you loved before, but more. A police station / art museum run by a mad taxidermist. The added tension of the relentless, Terminator-like “Mr. X” Tyrant. The introduction of series mainstays Leon and Claire. It’s all wonderful, and a rare example of a game where I can’t think of a single bad thing to say about it. Some people might complain about the voice acting, but without wanting to sound too harsh those people are wrong.
Final Fantasy Tactics (PS1, Squaresoft, 1998)
In hindsight, it was a bold move on Square’s part to follow up the incredible success of Final Fantasy VII with a sprite-based strategy game that eschewed the semi-futuristic aesthetic of FFVII and the upcoming FFVIII in favour of a traditional fantasy setting, but I’ll always be grateful that they did. I’ve played almost all of the Final Fantasy series, enjoyed most of them and outright loved a few, but Final Fantasy Tactics is always the one I return to time and again.
FFT is a three-pronged attack on my pleasure centres. First are the game’s mechanics. I always love a Job system, and FFT offers my favourite of the lot, allowing for a wide variety of customisation options for your characters. It’s not a game particularly concerned with balance, either, and there’s a huge array of completely game-breaking teams you can assemble. Want a character that shouts at themselves so much that they turn into The Flash and can run around the battlefield murdering everyone before the enemies can react? You can do that. I’m fond of giving people guns with a skill that prevents enemy movement, presumably by shooting them in the kneecaps. Or what about the only time I’ve ever enjoyed mathematics, but using the Calculator job class to pick targets based on god-damn prime numbers? I find being rewarded for figuring the intricacies of a game's systems t be very rewarding, and FFT offers that in spades.
Then there’s the story – it does descend into completely bananas “ancient evil gods” territory at the end, but which for the most part is an intriguing tale of political machinations, religious indoctrination and the unfair treatment of the poor by the ruling classes. Finally there’s the presentation, which is adorable. Tiny sprites absolutely packed with character and battlefield in a pleasingly chunky polygonal style, with possibly the best soundtrack in the series to boot. Add in all the secrets and hidden characters, including Final Fantasy VII’s Cloud being more useless then that time he was in a vegetative state, and you’d got a game that I can replay more than probably any other.
OutRun (Arcade, Sega, 1986)
I’ve already written a long and florid love-letter to Sega’s arcade racer, so I’ll keep this brief. OutRun is a game where you drive a car as far as you can, and it is perfect. At once completely relaxed and utterly precise, OutRun is about as close as you can get to driving down a beachside highway in a Ferrari without arranging a test-drive under false pretences. In fact it’s better than the real thing, because this way you can avoid human company, all while enjoying some of the best music ever to come out of an arcade cabinet. If you have a 3DS, I cannot recommend the 3D port of OutRun enough. Buy it, then play OutRun while sitting on a sunny beach. Now that’s living the dream.
OutRun 2006: Coast to Coast (PS2, Sumo Digital / Sega, 2006)
I had to split the OutRun series into two entries, because OutRun 2006 is such a different beast that its arcade forefather. It’s got all of the original’s atmosphere, though - the same sun-kissed beaches and winding mountain roads that serve as a playground for the sheer fun of driving, the same sense of escapism and the wonderful soundtrack. In my opinion, it’s also the single best example of a retro game being updated and enhanced for a modern (well, at the time,) console. The addition of drifting and the Heart Attack challenge mode keep things fresh, but without sacrificing the atmosphere that made OutRun such a joy to play. OutRun 2006 is one of those games that feel almost pure, somehow, and the simple act of playing the game is so much fun that even if it didn’t look and sound great it’d still be one of my favourite. You could be controlling a shopping trolley in a Tesco car-park and OutRun 2006’s game engine would still make it exciting as you pulled off a sick power-slide around a pensioner trying to reverse her Nissan Micra into a disabled bay.
Bloodborne (PS4, From Software, 2015)
There’s a stereotype about fans of From Software’s Souls games, and it’s that they’ll take the slightest opportunity to bang on at length about how it’s the greatest series of games ever created, and I’m here to tell you that such people do exist. I know because I’m one of them. Okay, so maybe I’m not quite that bad, and I can rein myself in when I see eyes glazing over, but the Souls games really are a phenomenal body of work. Any of them, Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls 1 – 3, could have made it on to this list but just edging them out for the position of my most cherished is Bloodborne - the one that sits most on the outside of that happy little group.
From’s blood-based Gothic masterpiece follows the template set by the rest of the series but goes off on its own unique tangent, the “medieval” fantasy setting replaced by a quasi-Victorian world of mutated beasts and madmen, which is precisely the kind of universe that I long to soak myself in like a nice hot bath. The combat is the real star of the show: where one of the pleasure of the Dark Souls games is the wide variety of viable character builds, Bloodborne almost forces the player in operating as a nimble, aggressive, melee fighter. That might sound like a regressive step, but the combat is so finely-honed and responsive that playing the game that way is just so damn fun. A big part of this is down to the “regain” mechanic – when you take damage, there’s a short window where you can restore some of your lost health by slashing tasty, healing blood out of your opponents, encouraging you to get right up in their business. Couple that with the ability to parry enemy attacks not by pushing them aside with a shield, as in Dark Souls, but by shooting them in the face, and Bloodborne offers a masterclass in risk-reward gameplay.
Also exceptional is the world that the action inhabits. Personally I think it’s the best use of Lovecraftian horror that’s ever appeared in a videogame, a universe beset by madness-inducing star-gods and strange cults that worship monstrous blood. Reaching the point in the game where you gain enough wisdom to see what’s really going on in the city of Yharnam is a moment that will stay with me for a long time. It’s a beautiful game to look at, as well. Exquisitely hideous monsters roam the dark places of the world, and the architecture alone is worth the price of admission. Plus, and this is the criteria by which I judge all Dark Souls games, it has a fine array of goofy hats to wear, including a bucket with one eyehole cut out of it and a giant golden traffic cone.
Quake (PC, id Software, 1996)
Don’t get me wrong, Doom is amazing and I love it dearly but Quake is just that little bit more special to me. I can remember the first time I ever saw it, visiting a friend who had just installed the shareware version on his dad’s then brand-new Windows ‘95 machine. It was full 3D, man! And faster than a cheetah on a rollercoaster to boot! It blew my mind, and because there was no chance of me getting a computer powerful enough to run it at the time, I made damn sure I found out which of my other friends owned Quake, too.
I think I’ve said this before, but given how many alterations and compromises Quake went through during its development, from vast and complex RPG to Doom But Moreso and Brown, it’s amazing that it turned out as great as it did. Many people will tell you that Quake’s legacy is its huge part in the rise of online multiplayer, which is true, but I’ve never been much interested in that. Instead I preferred the world of offline play, the dank castles and Satanic ziggurats, the intense satisfaction of nailing an Ogre from around the corner with the bouncing projectiles of the grenade launcher. The inclusion of jumping and swimming leads to ever-more fiendishly hidden secrets, the atmosphere is so oppressive you could mistake it for the North Korea government and the action is never less than full-on heavy metal carnage, served completely without irony or pretence.
F-Zero GX (Amusement Vision / Sega / Nintendo, 2003)
The ultimate speed crazy dream extravaganza, a game so relentlessly, maniacally fast that all other racing games feel sluggish by comparison, and home to the most bizarre cast of characters this side of The Lesser Key of Solomon, F-Zero GX must surely be the result of Nintendo looking at their previous entries in the F-Zero series and saying “yes, but what if it was more? More of all of it?” And so we were blessed with F-Zero GX, the racing game to surpass all others so long as you’re not bothered about driving actual cars. It’s not a game that messes around: if you want to be good at F-Zero GX, it demands dedication and practise, but although it’s harsh it’s always fair. Okay, outside of the Story mode, anyway. That mode isn’t fair. On the higher difficulties, it’s actually a test the developers included to secretly gather data on just how much rage-fuelled punishment a GameCube controller can take. Other than that, though, F-Zero GX offers a racing experience focussed down to laser-like intensity that provides countless endorphin hits when you blast over the finish line just as your vehicle’s about to explode or as you deftly jink left and right to avoid the holes in the track. Sometimes you’ll get it wrong and fall off the track or have your racer explode, but in my experience it really is a game where practise makes perfect and one of the things I love most about F-Zero GX is that every time I play it I can feel myself getting better at it in tiny increments. Not enough to ever beat Story Mode on the top difficulty, but still.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (PS1, Konami, 1997)
I’ll be honest, when Symphony of the Night was first released I wasn’t that familiar with the Castlevania series. I’d played Super Castlevania IV and a little of the NES games, but it’s not like nowadays where I’ve played through them all multiple times, so as well as everything else I can praise Symphony of the Night for getting me into the rest of the series in a deeper way. Not that it requires any knowledge of the franchise to enjoy, because SotN takes the themes of the series and spins them into its own unique adventure. The half-vampire son of Dracula, fighting his way through a castle filled with all manner of monsters, spooks and reimagined characters from The Wizard of Oz? I’d have been sold on that no matter the license.
A game densely packed with secrets and obscure flourishes, (as I’ve written about before,) SotN marries the joy of exploring Dracula’s vast lair with tight controls and a wide range of weapons, equipment and special moves, each enemy you defeat bringing you closer to becoming an unstoppable death-dealing instrument of justice with fabulous hair. You can still find new things after dozens of playthroughs, the voice acting reaches a level of “so bad it’s good” that it transforms into the stuff of legend and Michiru Yamane’s soundtrack is utterly sublime. It’s a game that fair sings with quality, crafted with real passion, and is absolutely as much fun to play now as it was then.
Guitar Hero: Rocks the 80s (PS2, Harmonix, 2007)
Now that the series has been crushed beneath the weight of over-familiarity and a glut of spin-offs and expansions, it’s hard to remember that Guitar Hero was a genuine phenomenon. There are very few games I’ve ever seen – Tetris and early Wii stuff being other notable examples - that had such an effect when it came to getting people who didn’t play videogames interested. Everyone wanted to play Guitar Hero, regardless of whether they’d touched a videogame or a guitar before in their lives. The reasons for Guitar Hero’s appeal are obvious: everyone loves music, it’s simple to learn but difficult to master and despite knowing on a fundamental level that playing along on a chunky plastic guitar isn’t cool, it feels cool when you’re ripping through a Megadeth solo.
The Guitar Hero games hit at a perfect time for me personally, too. I was at university when they first appeared, and I have many fond memories of extremely well-lubricated pre-night-out Guitar Hero sessions. It also works as a good warning system for alcohol consumption: when you become unable to bash out a sloppy rendition of “18 and Life,” it’s probably time to switch to water. All the early Guitar Hero games are favourites of mine. I really enjoy Rock Band too, but there’s something about it that wasn’t quite as appealing as Guitar Hero. As sense that it wanted to be “cool,” maybe, a quality that Guitar Hero most definitely didn’t possess. So, why did I pick Rocks the 80s? Because it’s the one with “Holy Diver” in it, that’s why.
That's quite a selection of games, huh? However, I forgot to stop, and I've got another bunch of favourites to discuss. With that in mind, here's Part 2!