Playing video games when you’re 4 years old, during the early 90’s, is an easy way to get hooked. Perhaps it was that I started playing at that specific era that I’ve never been a fan of games that attempt to peek our interest through fancy graphics.
Back then, characters were simply a bunch of pixels, with no realistic approach whatsoever. It was plainly obvious, even as a kids, that those events that take place in our TV are a game and not a reality simulation. So, developers back then focused more on getting our attention through other means; games that focused on the plot and mood are the ones that always interested me the most, and still do.
If we’re on the same page (or you’re just bored and curious), I’d like to share the following list. I wouldn’t exactly call it a top 10 of my favourites, because if I did that you’d just see 2-3 games of the same series in there. Rather, think of it as my 10 recommendations for some retro and/or plot-centered gaming.
And yes, I’m leaving Dota out of this.
10: Super Mario 64
Because of this, I decided to get a N64 instead of a Playstation. I still remember how free I felt, moving Mario around in large, 3d worlds instead of 2d platforms.
I believe what made Mario 64 shine that much is the fact that it focused mainly on searching around different worlds, each of them with a unique theme, rather than overcoming enemies. Paired with Mario’s extraordinary agility for a fat plumber, it’s obvious Nintendo wanted to give a more open-minded approach, gameplay wise. No real straight-line gaming was quite revolutionary back then.
The different concepts of each stage also roused our feelings for travelling. We often imagine striding in green fields, or climbing mountains, or messing around in the snow, or dive oceans, or even fly in the clouds, without the need to fight off too many evil creatures. Turns out all we had to do was jump into paintings (don’t try this at home).
9: Carmaggedon 2
Alright, this one wasn’t really much for feels. But I always found the gameplay to be so attractive, I spent hours and hours on it. Not being a fan of racing games, it gave me an alternative approach I found appealing.
Again, I believe it’s important to leave open choices for the player. What seemed a mindless, slaughter-based game with cars instead of bazookas, actually offered an interesting choice: 3 possible ways to clear stages. One was the traditional checkpoints clearing, the other was to kill enough pedestrians, and the last and my favourite, destroy the other cars. By crushing into them repeatedly. There were also mission stages, where you had to achieve something unique, the most questionable being activating a freaking nuke on the last one. Well, they named it Carmaggedon for a reason!
Apparently, the stages were anything but normal racing courses. And you were free of checkpoints, if you so wished, to roam around them while spreading death.
8: Warcraft 3
Warcraft’s Campaign could’ve been a game on its own, combining an interesting plot, strategy gameplay, RPG elements and so many different characters and units.
Despite that, it also offered the classic strategy gameplay, facing off with the AI or other players, but what told it apart from other titles of the genre was the number of available maps. By default, there were a good number of them, but using the free editor that came with buying Warcraft, the users have created thousands and thousands of them. Let me tell you, this was one hell of an addictive game.
That editor is what gave birth to the Dota we all hate with all our heart.
7: Pokemon Reborn
Don’t look at official pages, you won’t find it. Pokemon Reborn is a still incomplete but frequently updated fan-made game that makes the originals feel like second rate.
While still using Pokemon and mechanics from all 6 generations and adding new elements, Reborn takes it a step further and introduces a very plot-driven gameplay, with a tone of dark and realistic mood.
While I usually enjoyed playing Pokemon games, it always annoyed me that their world was corny, to say the least. As if every problem in the universe was solved and every man and woman and child was high on Pokemon drugs and all they could think of were Pokemon while playing Pokemon.
In this one though, your character arrives in Reborn City (don’t think typical towns, it’s huge) and comes across some serious stuff; criminals, corruption, murder, suicide, and generally a world with actual problems, with Pokemon simply being a part of the setting and not its one and only core. You start challenging the Pokemon League as usual, collecting badges from gyms, but you get mixed up in all sorts of situations very soon.
The lack of censorship, among other things, really showed how much latent potential there is in the Pokemon series. Paired with great (also fan-made) music, the Reborn Region will more than satisfy Pokemon masters, and not only.
6: Chrono Trigger
Take the role of Chrono (the red haired dude), in a time-travelling journey that shapes past, present and future.
The powerful plot is what makes this one pure gold. Chrono Trigger doesn’t take away your attention with too much grinding or sidequesting (in fact, a few sidequests become available near the end). It simply takes you by the hand and guides you through one of the best stories you’ll come across. There’s not much more to say without some serious spoilers, so take my word for it and try it out.
5: Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines
It’s a really pity how underrated this is.
Bloodlines is based off the Pen and Paper game, Vampire the Masquerade. Suffice to say, PnP worlds are far larger than a video game could hope to sustain, but Bloodlines was a darn good transfer.
As the player, you pick one of the 7 available clans, that is, Vampire families that share similar traits, create your character and get thrown in a world of deep shit, right off the bat.
The Masquerade games are a dark, gothic-punk fantasy. While there a few too many “what if vampires were real” settings, this one is the absolute best, hands down. Its approach is so well and realistically put that makes you think it could actually happen.
Gameplay wise, staying true to its father, Bloodlines lets you choose your approach to your problems. You could slaughter everything that gets in your path, or you could take advantage of your superior manipulative abilities, or maybe you choose to simply stay in the shadows and go around your problems. The choices and dialogue you make add a certain flavour that’s hard to resist.
What really hurt this game is, well… marketing. The developers were pushed to release it faster than they should have, resulting in an incomplete title with too many glitches, as well as unused potential. Luckily, the fanbase struck once more, creating a good number of patches and mods, making Bloodlines very (enjoyably) playable.
4: Life is Strange
I’m already getting emotional.
Life is Strange doesn’t have any action elements at all. Its gameplay is entirely decision-based, pure cause and effect. Max Caulfield (the fine lady on the left) is presented with certain choices, which determine what will happen next. Don’t think about reloading again and again, you won’t have to, as Max has the power to turn back time, thus trying out different options while using information from the near future.
The title lets us know that the main theme of this story is going to be “Life”. How much our choices, even the simplest and seemingly less important, affect those around us. And how life always tends to get us back.
This won’t be a happy go lucky run, you’ve been warned.
3: Final Fantasy 7
The old Final Fantasy series (10 and before) are games I still choose to occasionally play, even though I’ve finished them dozens of times.
I can’t say 7 is my absolute favourite; 6, 8, or 9 could’ve easily been in this spot. I chose this one because I found it to perhaps be the most timeless of them all.
The plot was pretty good, but not entirely perfect. The ATB based battles were good, but could become tedious. The Materia system was nice.
And yet, 15 years after I first played it, I still remember this bitter-sweet feeling it left me with. This was the grant merit of the Final Fantasy series; the uncanny ability to make the player experience the game and not just play through it. A good reason for this is the music too, I believe; sir Uematsu will always be a pure genius in my ears. From a purely plot perspective, Final Fantasy weren’t perfect. It was the way they presented their worlds that would get us every single time.
Forget leveling your character and enjoy the ride.
The game that looks into your SOUL. Don’t let the graphics deceive you, this was released in 2015.
For me, this experience wasn’t just a game, but a work of art. I could probably write a book going on and on about why. Suffice to say, its sheer open-mindedness and the level of detail captivated me.
People will recommend playing Undertale without knowing anything about it prior, and with very good reasons. I highly suggest not reading the minor spoilers ahead if you intend to play.
* MINOR SPOILERS *
While Undertale is a regular RPG genre-wise, you are free to choose how to deal with the battles. You can go through the game without killing anyone. Not a single person. Or, you can simply butcher everything that moves and breathes, and there’s of course the somewhere in the middle route. Every single of your choices matters, resulting in different endings. The main endings are three, but there are quite a few variations, depending on what you’ve done.
*MINOR SPOILERS END*
The setting is also extremely detailed, and while the game isn’t that long, people keep finding little clues hidden here and there. Twists, background characters, NPC interactions, you name it, it’s there.
Mister Toby Fox pulled off a masterpiece right here.
1: Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
Surprise, surprise. This here is the reason why I became a gamer.
The Zelda series became more well-known through Ocarina of Time, that may very well have been in this spot. Heck, for me, it could have been a lot of others, too. I put LttP as my personal favourite, but consider this a more of “The Zelda Series” conclusion.
I’ve heard quite a few interpretations as to why this series are considered to be the best by many. I’m still not sure myself; quite a few games from the list above have more depth and stronger plots, and yet they can’t take the #1 spot.
I think it’s because of the childhood feeling, and I don’t mean the fact that most of us played it as kids. I mean it creates a certain atmosphere similar to what we used to view the world as children. People often confuse it with nostalgia, but it’s not. Nostalgia is just a side-effect.
I could call Zelda games a boy fantasy (not to say girls won’t enjoy them, but Link is a boy and it’s easier for boys to become one with the character). Everyone of us has dreamt of going out in adventures, with a sword on our backs fighting evil. And this is the key point and Zelda’s Theme, the clear distinction and battle between good/light and evil/darkness. There are no gray lines, no big ethical dilemmas. There’s the world full of secrets ready to be explored, the evil that must be defeated, and the Hero (you).
Much like how we perceived the world as children.
The greatness of the Legend of Zelda lies in simplicity.
Thanks for reading!