25. Spy Hunter (NES)
As a kid, it was one of the tougher games to beat. It also represented one of the most rounded out titles available for the console. The game mechanics of the car add-ons (personal favorite: oil slick) made this scrolling shooter fun because you had to fight enemies on all different fronts. Still a blast to turn on and play, I can honestly say that I haven’t gone a year without Spy Hunter since I first got the cartridge as a kid.
24. Doom II (PC)
I love the first Doom, but the level progression in the sequel just barely beat it out. The best thing about the design of Doom II is that it is actually an open-world game – you don’t have to proceed in a linear fashion. In fact, some of the best weapons and power-ups are around odd corners and on weird platforms. The business of blowing apart demons is largely the same as the first one, but the best upgrade was the multiplayer. Doom II was a LAN party staple – along with Duke Nukem and the underrated Blood.
23. Half-Life 2 (PC)
You know you are in love with a series if you go out a purchase a computer in order to run one game. That was the case with Half-Life 2, and I can report to you that it was well worth the money. While the original is amazing in so many ways, Valve somehow reworked the action a bit while still staying true to the foundation of Half-Life. The Gravity Gun is a top-5 all-time video game weapon, in my opinion, and it gave this title such a futuristic feel. Coupled with the insanely intricate visuals, this title was ahead of its time.
22. Resident Evil (PS1)
The first time I rented Resident Evil I didn’t even finish it. I got too scared once those dogs burst through the windows. The game is a nerve-wracking experience not only because of the scares and the puzzles, but that ominous, ever-present score that guides the narrative. Since it came out 1996, the game spawned a franchise that just won’t die. While most of the titles were rehashes or deviated greatly from the central storyline, the original represents a watershed moment in survival horror games.
21. NBA Jam (Genesis)
The hands-down winner of greatest sports game, NBA Jam is still a lot of fun twenty years later. Whether you cut your teeth on the Arcade version, SNES, or Genesis, avid enthusiasts have never really abandoned the game that spawned so many fights and celebrations back in the early 1990’s. One of the best aspects of NBA Jam is that every player exploits the game in different ways. Some do it by the teams they choose (I’m impartial to the Sonics or the Jazz), others have a certain playing strategy (corner threes), and some just focus on defense so they can get on fire. But one common truth is shared amongst all players: it’s total bullshit that the computer always comes back in the second half.
20. Zombies Ate My Neighbors (Genesis)
I’m a horror geek, not to mention a zombie aficionado, so this game is close to my heart. Basically, it’s a horror-themed version of Toejam and Earl, but on a smaller scale, so that’s a win-win for me. The goal of the game is to rescue people from the monster threat, and I use the word “monster” because there is much more than just zombies patrolling the grounds. The humor is top-notch, something that was expected of developer LucasArts at the time, and the mechanics (gotta love those trampolines!) made this game an engaging and odd title.
19. Counter-Strike (PC)
Half-Life is probably the best game in terms of pure value that has ever been released for the PC. Opening the game up to modders, and not requiring them to break anything in the process, allowed for the floodgates to open on conversions, variations, and online multiplayer mods that eventually would make Valve a lot of money. Its most successful mod, Counter-Strike, became its own thing – one could talk about CS and never have HL enter the conversation, and that’s because the format of the game was so addictive. Round-based shooters are now the norm, but back then, they weren’t the most popular title. I think we can confidently say that Counter-Strike‘s trailblazing is what makes something like Call of Duty or Battlefield exist today. Compare them all – CS most likely has the same functionality and it came out in 1999.
18. Sonic the Hedgehog (Genesis)
It’s difficult to outdo Mario – he’s been around longer and he seems to get better with age, but when Sonic the Hedgehog helped launch the Sega Genesis, for once you felt like there was someone new to give Mario a run for his money. And for a while Sonic did just that – the better-built Genesis afforded Sonic the ability to fly across the screen at speeds no other platformer could handle, all the while maintaining the same gameplay and awesome level design. Others will argue that there are better titles in the series (and one of them is), but the original will always be a watershed moment for me.
17. Grand Theft Auto 3 (PS2)
Buying consoles at launch can be both exciting yet disappointing. Most of the time, there are not enough games to support the launch and those that are released alongside the system don’t push the hardware into that “next-gen” area. Hell, Halo 2 didn’t come out until three years after the release of the Xbox and it was one of the first games to look like it was pushing the limits of the system specs. That’s why it is surprising that a game as large and detailed as Grand Theft Auto 3 came out just one year following the release of the PS2. Early adopters were rewarded quickly with an industry-changing title and Sony was able to ship a lot more consoles because people wanted to play this game so badly. As a teenager, there wasn’t a console game and series I played more than GTA, and number three is the reason for that.
16. Sim City 2000 (PC)
I think everyone who grew up in the 1990’s, and whose school at an adequate computer lab, put in some massive hours on this game. While I admire the top-down original, SC2000 kicked things into overdrive. The gameplay expanded two-fold, economics were completely rewritten, and the graphics were to die for. There was a lot of Sim-like games coming out around the time of this title, but there was a clear difference between Sim City 2000 and all the pretenders.
15. Super Mario Brothers (NES)
It’s hard to believe that this game will be thirty years old next year because it is still playable. Beating Super Mario Brothers is an important part of growing up a gamer. Most men my age can remember when they did it to – I accomplished that feat one early Saturday morning sitting in front of my family’s living room television. So much is owed to this game that it is impossible to reduce its impact to one paragraph.
14. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (Genesis)
Improving on such a landmark game is tough – we’ve seen plenty of follow-up titles disappoint (I’m looking at you, Duke Nukem) – but Sonic the Hedgehog 2 remains the representation of how to roll out a successful sequel. Don’t change the gameplay too much, and add in a bunch of stuff. Nowadays, that’s called DLC, but back then it was a tall order to not blow up an original concept to stay fresh (Toejam and Earl in Panic on Funkotron was guilty of this high crime). The addition of Tails and the always fun Special Stages elevated the already perfected gameplay.
13. Unreal Tournament 2004 (PC)
I’ll never understand why Unreal Tournament didn’t become a massively successful franchise, and it’s sad that we’ve been deprived of a UT game for the last six years. Buoyed by the Unreal Engine, this game didn’t make an allusions about what it was about: this was a multiplayer game only. So many games now have to sandwich in some poorly written single-player campaign – like Call of Duty: Ghosts – when all people want to do is kill each other online. And boy, did Unreal Tournament 2004 let you do that. More weapons, better graphics, and the addition of vehicles made this game a perfect mixture of Quake and Tribes for a fan like me.
12. Toejam and Earl (Genesis)
There are a lot of games on this list that are just slight variations of others. What I’m saying is that most videogames are just shinier, modified versions of old games. There’s only so much you can do to Doom that makes it Battlefield 3, if you know what I mean. But sometimes a game creates a new space for just itself, and doesn’t lean on past titles. Toejam and Earl is that kind of game. Playing it is a weird experience because there is no point of reference. There’s isn’t a “ahh, we’re playing a [insert genre here] game” moment and that’s a special moment for a videogame fanatic. Only one other game on this list borrows from Toejam and Earl and that was the excellent Zombies Ate My Neighbors. I’m surprised there aren’t more games like this being made – tons of fun, especially with friends.
11. Maniac Mansion (NES)
LucasArts is finished as of early 2013, and that’s a huge bummer because they were responsible for some the best written games of all time, and Maniac Mansion was the one that kicked off their success in adventure games. For most of the gamers my age or older, graphical and text-based adventure games were kind of it for computer platforms (I chose the NES version because it was the first one I played and fell in love with). Fantasy games often dominated the genre, so Maniac Mansion, with its roots in the B-movie esthetic, was a refreshing change of pace. The writing is unmatched for its time and the characters were bizarre and engaging. It was tough to break down that wall between text-heavy games and the player, but Maniac Mansion smashed a hole through it with ease.
10. Fallout 3 (PC)
I always talk about the time I invested in a game as a solid representation of its quality. My wife can attest to the fact that I was missing in action in the summer of 2009, and the reason was Fallout 3. So many hours and not once did I get bored, which is surprising because many commented on the monotony of the gameplay. Perhaps it is because I’m a post-apocalyptic junkie – a lover of all things related to the end-of-the-world and beyond – but Fallout 3 was my everything for a few months. The mixture of turn-based combat, FPS, and strategy kept me interested but the storylines had me coming back for seconds and thirds.
9. Tetris (Gameboy)
I don’t think I need to go into too much detail on this one. You probably have some version of it on your smartphone. But do you want to know the power of a simple puzzle game like Tetris? My grandmother use to sit and play this on my Gameboy all the time. That’s when you know you have a solid game.
8. Hollywood Mogul (PC)
Text-based games are often slighted in these lists, which I don’t really understand. The choose-your-own-adventure videogames from the 1980’s were important in shaping the experiences we enjoy today – think Mass Effect would be around without Zork blazing the trail? I think not. Hollywood Mogul looks and feels like a sports Mogul-type game with its basic HUD and intricate details, but it invented an interesting space: the movie studio simulator. Later on, users generated database of real movies, actors, and directors so that you could make your own version of your favorite film. Want to reboot Star Wars in 2014 and see how it would do with a popular young cast? Go for it. I heard that it was rebranded recently and being sold for five dollars, but I haven’t had a shot at trying it out yet.
7. The Blue Marlin (NES)
Whoa…a throwaway fishing game from the NES? Come on, Mike, what are you thinking? I’m thinking that this was one of the most addictive and tough games to ever come out for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Blue Marlin was more of a Track and Field-style button masher than what fishing games became during the Sega Genesis-era, so it was straightforward but sometimes frustrating. Catching the elusive Blue Marlin was a sight to behold, but losing one to a snapped line or not enough stamina was a way more powerful experience. Extra points for the excellent music throughout.
6. Halo 2 (Xbox)
There probably is only one other game on this list I clocked more hours on than Halo 2, but I’m sure it is pretty close. This game was the first time I looked around and saw people who typically didn’t play videogames – amongst my friends, at least – playing a videogame with the passion and dedication of a true gamer. The game came out during my Senior year in high school, so most of us had checked out academically, leaving our afternoons open and Halo 2 quickly filled that gap. Undoubtedly the greatest console online multiplayer game ever made, the variations in combat assured that everyone had a role to play. While some killed it on a Ghost, I was known for my accuracy with sticky grenades. Man, I miss this game.