10. Shenmue II
Dreamcast, 2001, AM2/Sega
This game is so much better the second time you play it through it's not even funny. When you know what to expect from the endless QTE bits, and can take the mindless money-grubbing more in your stride because you’re no longer desperate to find out what happens next, exploring and soaking up the atmosphere becomes that much more satisfying. Kowloon especially – the mouldering tower blocks, a mixture of shabby prosperity and decrepit abandonment, are the most eerie and poignant places I’ve ever been in a game. I once spent about an hour wandering the halls of one of the more run-down ones, poking my nose in one empty apartment after another. I know that they were designed that way as a memory-saving approach, but nonetheless they just seemed to wail the long-forgotten, shattered hopes of their departed residents. It made it all the sadder when I actually came across someone living in one of them, often the only person on the floor. This is a computer game, remember. Bunch of funny made-up shapes on a screen, with three lines of dialogue chucked in for a bit of extra believability. And it works. It was a real relief to escape to Guilin’s endless beautiful mountains and valleys in disc 4. Shenmue’s core plot of revenge and discovery may be old and pretty basic, but its little, quiet, unnoticed moments are what make the series.
9. Super Smash Bros. Melee
Gamecube, 2002, HAL Laboratory/Nintendo
It took me quite a while to realise just how much I love this game, but love it I do. The deep fighting system, hidden under a simplistic brawler then hidden again under a nonsensical free-for-all, is hugely satisfying and a lot more fun than more po-faced fighters; the multiple one-player modes are fantastic (even if the last few Event Matches are far too hard); it still looks incredible six years on; there’s enough hidden stuff to power a whole other game. But above all, it’s probably the best multiplayer game I’ve ever come across. Admittedly you need to get four players who are good at the game together, but once you do it’s astonishing. In my second year of university, I and three of my flatmates played this a lot. One of them nearly always chose Dr. Mario, and nearly three years down the line the Doc is still a good few hundred ahead in terms of number of games played, K.O.s scored, losses conceded, etc. That’s how much we played it. (That’s another thing – the insane amount of stats the game somehow stores is fascinating. It tells you how many metres you’ve walked in-game, for heaven’s sake.)
8. Resident Evil 4
Gamecube, 2005, Capcom
The more I play this (seven or eight playthroughs by now? I forget), the more transparent it becomes. It is basically a shooting gallery. And the less I care. I don’t know how Capcom did it, but they made an incredibly repetitive game into one of the Bestest Fingz Evar. Blasting away at the shrieking Ganados is nothing less than completely enthralling. The impeccable presentation doesn’t hurt, either – the uncluttered HUD, the way they completely solved Resi’s storage headaches without making it seem an alien system, the top-notch direction in the cut-scenes, the fact that you can fish and then eat the fish, the whole shebang. Saddler was rubbish, mind, both as a character and a final boss. They should’ve made Salazar or Krauser the big cheese.
7. Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Mega Drive, 1992, STI/Sega
Here’s one I’ve played so many times that nowadays when I pick it up I go on auto-pilot and carve the best route through the levels without thinking (at least until I get to Metropolis Zone and a poky spear thing inevitably catches me and sends me tumbling into an area I’ve never seen before). It’s incredible how completely streamlined and focused this is, refining the first game’s formula and adding in Tails, Super Sonic and pretty much all the traditional level themes. Just look at the way Aquatic Ruin permits the skilful player to completely avoid any underwater segments, or Wing Fortress and its luring temptations of what even the most hard-bitten veteran will mistake for a shortcut but will inevitably lead to death. Inspired bosses, too.
Dreamcast, 2000, AM2/Sega
Never in the history of gaming has walking to the shops seemed so epic. Even after eight years I view Shenmue’s world as a real one. Even after eight years I’m finding new places to go and things to do.
5. Shining Force III
Saturn, 1998, Camelot Software Planning/Sega
Sad to say, but this is really showing its age now. The graphics, with sprites plonked over polygons, are blurry and somewhat silly; the loading times are more marked than ever; the fighting system is starting to look a little simplistic against your Fire Emblems and your Disgaeas. But the fantastic plot, with political shenanigans of a level rarely seen in games; the wonderful design (there aren’t enough games with tiny goblins in huge steam-powered suits of armour that fire their fists at opponents); and the general epic feel – all of these still shine through. This is a rare case, though, where I’d actually recommend a remake.
4. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
Gamecube, 2003, Nintendo
The high seas! Arrr, me buckos. Link’s swashbuckling seadog shenanigans make for the best Zelda ever (or the best one I’ve played, anyway) for many reasons. Reason #1: it’s utterly beautiful. Keep your “realistic” Lord of the Rings style, I want big-headed people and glorious swirly explosions. Reason #2: exploring the oceans is intensely satisfying, and I will maintain this in the face of the entire world’s denials. Setting sail for unknown waters captures the sense of adventure and discovery better than any other game. Reason #3: it’s huge. I keep finding previously unknown submarines and platforms and new crannies on old islands, and I don’t think I’ll ever finish the figurine collection. Reason #4: incredible sound. It’s a factor that often gets overlooked in gaming, but WW owes a lot of its impeccable atmosphere to the creaking of ships’ timbers, the cry of gulls, the swell of waves. Reason #5: the bit in Hyrule Castle. Reason #6: you can put a pear on your head and use it to hypnotise a seagull somehow.
3. Panzer Dragoon Saga
Saturn, 1998, Team Andromeda/Sega
In which Team Andromeda go out on arguably the greatest high any developer has achieved by taking their on-rails shooting series – Space Harrier with a lick of paint, basically – and turning it into an RPG. Edge’s phenomenal journey across a scarred world on the back of a laboratory-grown living weapon, taking on and taking sides with a rebel fleet, fighting off hideous mutants and an insidious, invasive Empire and trying to unlock the secret of humanity’s fall from grace would be fantastic if you just made a movie of it. In game form, with dozens of little side bits to discover, characters that are just as memorable if they are key or one-line nobodies, and a genius battle system that mixes up turn-based and real-time action just right, it’s nothing short of phenomenal. And I haven’t mentioned the still-impressive graphics, the incredible soundtrack, the unforgettable twist ending…
2. Christmas NiGHTS
Saturn, 1996, Sonic Team/Sega
Christmas time/Mistletoe and wine/Androgynous jester-things fighting giant dragons to rescue Christmas tree stars. No, that’s not right. Sonic Team’s Chrimble prezzie to the world, taking one level of their masterwork, stuffing new bits and bobs into it and giving it away for free, is very right, though. The changing seasons concept is sufficiently genius to be nabbed by several other games since, the extras range from agreeable (loads of lovely artwork) to fantastic (option to play the whole level as Sonic with Robotnik-Puffy boss at the end), and the spirit of NiGHTS and the spirit of Christmas compliment each other beautifully.
1. NiGHTS into Dreams…
Saturn, 1996, Sonic Team/Sega
It's short. It's fairly basic. It's repetitive. The two-player mode barely even exists. It's also completely wonderful. NiD is like the Matrix – you just have to play it for yourself to really get it.