Twenty Games I Think You Should Play Before You Die

NOTE: Recently, I swapped out one game for another from its series, and I still don't have a writeup for that. Sorry!

Once upon a time, I obsessively maintained a top games list. But as I've gotten older, I've grown tired of it. Really, I don't care much about telling other people what are quantifiably be my top whatever favorite games of all time - though the items on this list are reasonably close. No, I would rather talk about what games are most important to me and what games I've played that I'd like to see more people play. You may not like all the games on this list, but I (personally) think that anyone who enjoys video games should at least give all of these an honest try. It's not meant to convince anyone of anything either, though; these are my personal thoughts. But I hope it gives you some thought, and maybe, if I'm lucky, a new cherished game or two.

I tried to pick from a reasonably wide array of game genres and game studios, but it's by no means objective. Games listed in order of North American release, from oldest to newest.

Missile Command

Genre: Arcade  •  Created by: Atari  •  Original Platform: Arcade  •  Released: 1980

Why: I'll fully admit that this game doesn't exactly hold up as a game that you can play for hours on end in this modern era, and it might be kind of weird to lead off with this on this sort of list. But in the short bursts it's meant to be experienced in, and played with the correct control scheme - in other words, with a trackball - the game holds up pretty well. But it's not here for its superficial strengths as an arcade game alone. Missile Command is ahead of its time as one of the first video games to ever use mechanics as metaphor. Make no mistake - even though it was released in the fun, quarter-guzzling atmosphere of arcade games, Missile Command is a game about the horror of nuclear war. In the span of a short play session, you're organically forced to make tough decisions, like sacrificing one city to save another. But in the end, it also makes sure you realize that no matter what, you can't win. It subversively uses the arcade mechanic of "eventually the player will have to lose" to make a chilling and cogent point about mutually assured destruction. It's that - combined with the fact that it manages to truly hold up as an elegantly simple arcade challenge despite its vintage - that earns it its spot on this list.

Platform Notes: But do try to play this with its original control scheme, a trackball. I think it's a big part of why this game holds up in a gameplay sense. To be honest I don't know what the best way to readily experience it that way is - I've only ever played it on an actual arcade machine.

If You Like This, Play: Pac-Man, Space Invaders

Mega Man 2

Genre: Platformer  •  Created by: Capcom  •  Original Platform: Nintendo Entertainment System  •  Released: 1988

Why: I somehow missed out on the entire Mega Man series as a kid and only got around to trying them out during the pre-release buzz for the retro throwback Mega Man 9. Now, personally, I think most games from this era of video game history have actually aged a lot less gracefully than most people viewing them through rose-tinted glasses would have you believe. But I found that Mega Man 2 really is one of the few games to really buck that trend and deliver a mostly rock-solid gameplay experience. The controls are wonderfully tight, the pacing's good, the crisp, cartoony art style is timeless, the music is among the most memorable in video game history, and the difficulty is spot-on... right up until it skyrockets at the end of the game. Though in my humble opinion it doesn't stick the landing, it's for the most part a good ride, and holds up astoundingly well in the modern era as a fun and intelligently-designed game.

If You Like This, Play: Mega Man 3, Mega Man 6, Mega Man 9, DuckTales

Secret of Mana

Genre: Action RPG  •  Created by: Square  •  Original Platform: Super Nintendo  •  Released: 1993

Why: Not only an RPG classic but an embodiment of what makes classic RPGs great, and yet, simultaneously, doing something different and interesting that other classic RPGs don't do. The real-time combat is simple yet engaging - I'd compare it to something like The Legend Of Zelda, but it's more of an RPG than that. It's a nice middle ground. The story is total classic RPG fantasy stuff — but rather than coming off as trite or cliché, it's practically video game comfort food. And those things are fun enough on their own, but what really makes the game for me is the cooperative multiplayer. The addition of co-op to this normally single-player type of game adds a whole new dimension to the experience, which is something I wish I saw more often.

If You Like This, Play: Final Fantasy VI, Tales of Symphonia

Sonic 3 & Knuckles

Genre: Platformer  •  Created by: Sonic Team, Sega Technical Institute  •  Original Platform: Sega Genesis  •  Released: 1994

Why: This game takes you back to a time where Sonic was unquestionably one of the platformer top dogs... if not the top dog, period. Overall, the classic Sonic games excel for combining breezily-paced and well-considered multi-tiered level design with a momentum-based physics system that rewards you for good play with faster, higher routes and uninterrupted speed. I personally feel that the combined Sonic 3 / Sonic and Knuckles experience (really, it's Sonic 3 as it was originally intended, before they split it apart late in development) is the pinnacle of the series. The level design has been refined to its most streamlined, dense, and interesting point, and it presents your trek as one less through a bunch of isolated levels but through locations in a logically connected world. That and just a delicate touch of in-game, dialogueless storytelling really make the scope feel disproportionally epic for a 16-bit platformer, and I think it comes together for one of the all-time best entries in the genre.

If You Like This, Play: Sonic 2, Sonic CD

Yoshi's Island

Genre: Platformer  •  Created by: Nintendo EAD  •  Original Platform: Super Nintendo  •  Released: 1995

Why: It still makes little sense from a non-marketing perspective to have subtitled this "Super Mario World 2", as it's basically nothing like any Mario platformer before or after it. Yoshi's Island mixes up very solid platforming gameplay with a move set that sets it apart from other 2D platformers, such as the egg creation and throwing. Just as importantly, the game's art is visually breathtaking. Colorful pastel palletes and hand-drawn backgrounds make it feel like art brought to life — I'm still surprised they pulled this off on the SNES. Cap it off with great, thoughtful, varied level design and a catchy, memorable soundtrack, and you've got yourself one hell of a platformer.

Platform Notes: Unfortunately, the only way to get this via Virtual Console is the Game Boy Advance re-release (which has inferior sound quality and a smaller field of view) due to Nintendo no longer having the rights to the Super FX chip. Still, it also has extra content, so all in all it's a solid release. I personally would seek out an actual SNES cartridge though.

If You Like This, Play: Ristar

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2

Genre: Arcade/Extreme Sports  •  Created by: Neversoft  •  Original Platform: PlayStation  •  Released: 2000

Why: The Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series uses momentum and physics in gameplay in a very interesting way that's not like much of anything else in video games. It's one of the very best examples of a game where the movement and traversal of the environment itself is such a joy in of itself. The movement and momentum is smooth, stylish, empowering, and just plain fun. But it's helped by the brilliant level design. It toes the line between realistic and fantastic, presenting a superficially realistic world but quickly giving way to a world that's really there to support your toolset. It truly feels like this is a world MADE for skating, from the ubiquity of quarter-pipes to the way that the level structure comes together to present you with avenues to chain actions together and keep your momentum going. But what's truly wonderful about the game is how it leads the player into those situations with subtlety. You don't realize in the moment how you're being goaded into making these levels your momentum playgrounds, but everything from the angles of individual pieces of level to the goal design in its timeless arcade-style format is secretly training you to master your momentum through the environment. And once you've accomplished all that, you're ready to keep challenging yourself by pushing for higher and higher scores and combos.

Platform Notes: You can't really go wrong with most versions of this game. The Dreamcast version is my version of choice, but the PlayStation original is fine. The Nintendo 64 had to have its (fantastic and zeitgeist-capturing) soundtrack truncated for filesize concerns, so maybe play another version over that. The Xbox got a combined game of both this and the first game, so that might actually be the best version, but I've never played it. The PC port is ancient but if you can run it, it's fine. The GBC/GBA games are entirely different games.

If You Like This, Play: The other of the first six games in the series - Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1/3/4 and Underground 1/2. avoid anything much newer than that; the newer the game, the more awful. I'll note here that THPS2 earned the spot on this list mostly for just presenting the most well-rounded and timeless package, but most of the early games in the series are great for the same reasons. However, crucially, THPS2 is the first game to include the "manual" (read: wheelie), used to string together the long combos that make more advanced play so satisfying and wonderful.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask

Genre: Action-Adventure  •  Created by: Nintendo EAD  •  Original Platform: Nintendo 64  •  Released: 2000

Why: [to be written]

Platform Notes: The 3DS re-release of this game is just all-around better in my humble opinion. I feel like the N64 version of the game's visuals has aged poorly, but the 3DS version is a graceful update. More importantly, many things have been tweaked to streamline the game. Majora's Mask is truly a game that benefits from a completionist playstyle and the 3DS version makes pretty much everything about that more accessible. But none of those tweaks truly harm the experience or dull the tension. It supports the Circle Pad Pro add-on or the New 3DS's C-Stick for manual camera control, too, which is a welcome advancement. Overall, it's a thoughtful update that in my opinion perfects the already first-class. So I would recommend playing that unless you have absolutely no way of playing a 3DS game.

If You Like This, Play: The Legend Of Zelda: Link's Awakening, The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker

Metroid Prime

Genre: Action-Adventure  •  Created by: Retro Studios  •  Original Platform: Nintendo GameCube  •  Released: 2002

Why: Metroid Prime's pre-release media cycle was, in a word, controversial. And who could blame anyone for that? Handing a beloved series, sorely missed for an entire console generation, off to a Texan studio to get turned into a first-person shooter? It was undoubtedly a seemingly risky gamble — but it just so happens to be one that paid off in spades... in fact, ultimately, I feel that it actually outdid what came before it. Come for the amazingly-designed, cohesive world and awesome abilties; stay for the puzzles, the rich backstory, and the copious amounts of atmosphere. This is an "essential games" list, not necessarily a "Hinchy's favorite games" list, but it's worth noting that this is still my favorite game of all time.

Platform Notes: If you can track down a copy of Metroid Prime Trilogy for Wii, it contains all three Metroid Prime games on a single disc, with the superior Wii pointer controls from Metroid Prime 3: Corruption - even if you're not a fan of waggle, I think you'd be surprised by how damn good the Wii controls in these games are. For quite a while it was difficult to track down a copy, but it's now available on the Wii U eShop for just $20! That's a steal for what in my opinion is one of the most cohesive and interesting and just downright great video game trilogies of all time. Still, if you don't have a Wii U, you 're not missing out on too much. You can pick up the individual GameCube/Wii games for pretty cheap and have a grand old time.

If You Like This, Play: Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, Metroid: Zero Mission, Super Metroid

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater

Genre: Tactical Espionage Action (er, Stealth)  •  Created by: Kojima Productions  •  Original Platform: PlayStation 2  •  Released: 2004

Why: The Metal Gear Solid series is perhaps what most established Hideo Kojima as a mad genius in the public eye, but some people forget the emphasis on "genius". Its stealth gameplay is possibly the best in the series, with a large degree of freedom and a keen attention to detail. Its story is engrossing, and while still having a bit of the confusion Kojima is known for, it probably stands alone the best due to it being the chronological prequel to all other games in the series. If you like this game, definitely play the other games in the series as well — but if you only play one of them, make it this one.

Platform Notes: If you're playing the game on the PS2, make sure to seek out the Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence re-release, which includes a drastically improved camera. This is included in all subsequent re-releases of the game, including the stellar PS3 Metal Gear Solid: The Legacy Collection, which includes nearly every game in the series released through 2012; I highly recommend just picking that up if you have a PS3, as the whole collection costs less than a full priced game.

If You Like This, Play: the rest of the Metal Gear Solid series

Cave Story

Genre: Platformer  •  Created by: Studio Pixel  •  Original Platform: PC  •  Released: 2004

Why: Before the explosion of proliferation of indie game developers in the 2010s, the internet had Cave Story as its indie darling - and for good reason. Now, some people like to call it a "Metroidvania", but in truth it's much more linear and story-focused than other games of that ilk, so it's a pretty misleading label to put it on. What it is is a shooting, platforming adventure game that's tight and responsive and feels fantastic, with enjoyable weaponry and a fun and interesting world. The game has a great story — it's not terribly complex, but it's surprisingly nuanced, balancing warm humor and surprisingly effective drama and making you care about the characters through the very end. It has multiple split story and weaponry choices that give you many ways to replay the game and lend extra depth to the whole package. It's got one of my all-time favorite soundtracks - catchy as all get out. And it was all made by a single person, Daisuke "Pixel" Amaya. It's a truly astounding feat of tenacity, care, and creative vision.

Platform Notes: Any version of this game is fine. It's available on basically everything, so just pick whatever platform you prefer. You can get the original, fan-translated PC release for free, if you'd like. Some people prefer the original fan translation, some people prefer the commercial translation; I personally think they're about as good. The Cave Story 3D remake by NIS is flawed in some ways but I'd actually argue it's underappreciated. Still, whatever floats your boat on this one. It's also worth noting that some versions of the game come with alternate soundtracks - I'd highly recommend you keep the original, superior music on for whatever version you play.

If You Like This, Play: Within A Deep Forest

We Love Katamari

Genre: um, Katamari Simulator?  •  Created by: Namco  •  Original Platform: PlayStation 2  •  Released: 2005

Why: The Katamari Damacy games are weird as hell, so I'll admit that this game may not be for absolutely everyone. Still, the game's a hell of an experience (some might say a "trip", for more than one reason). The gameplay's simple but addicting, and it's just ridiculous enough to keep you interested. The graphics are primitive but intentionally so. The tank-like controls are a little clunky, but it's minor in practice and doesn't do much to mar the rest of the game. The soundtrack is insanely eclectic and all fantastic. And it's just plain funny. The original is also good but this game's better level design, more varied and numerous levels and gameplay styles, and the bizzare interwoven subplot make it the better choice if you're only going to play one.

If You Like This, Play: Katamari Damacy, Mister Mosquito

Mother 3

Genre: JRPG  •  Created by: Brownie Brown, HAL Laboratory  •  Original Platform: Game Boy Advance  •  Released: 2006

Why: One of the worst cases of Japanese game publishers deciding Americans wouldn't care about a game, Mother 3 is the Game Boy Advance's true swan song, and a well-deserved sequel to the cult SNES hit EarthBound (known as Mother 2 in Japan). In my opinion, though, it goes even further beyond its predecessor. The battle system manages to take some small, yet effective steps beyond the previous games', which basically amounted to being just a Dragon Quest parody. Characters are memorable and well-defined, both in gameplay (where the game takes much greater liberties with the party system than in previous Mother games) and in personality. And it's expectedly extremely well-written - but the darker, more emotional story it tells, with both Shigesato Itoi's original script and its astoundingly high-quality fanmade localization, blew me away, and perfectly fit the game's tagline of "strange, funny, and heartrending".

If You Like This, Play: EarthBound

Mirror's Edge

Genre: First-Person Action  •  Created by: DICE  •  Original Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3  •  Released: 2007

Why: Mirror's Edge is a short enough game that I wouldn't be able to recommend it at $60, but now that it's settled down at a price between $10-$20, depending on where you shop (and quite frequently on sale for cheaper), you owe it to yourself to play this incredibly innovative experiment in first-person game design. The style is appealing, the story and atmosphere are compelling, but most importantly, the first-person parkour gameplay is like just about nothing I've ever played before or since. The movement is fluid and intuitive while still feeling realistic, and leaves a great amount of room for mastery. It just has to be played to be believed.

Platform Notes: You won't lose out on too much by playing the console versions, but the game looks better and is cheaper on PC.

If You Like This, Play: Sonic Generations
(I know that might sound weird, but both games are about using technical skill to maintain momentum, and derive most of their replay value through your mastery of the environments.)

Super Mario Galaxy 2

Genre: Platformer  •  Created by: Nintendo EAD Tokyo  •  Original Platform: Wii  •  Released: 2010

Why: A game that subtly evolves on its predecessor is not always the type of game you would list in this sort of list, but the fact of the matter is just that Galaxy 1's incredible design becomes Galaxy 2's absolutely impeccable, expert design, its levels become more interesting and willing to toy with the laws of physics, the set pieces more epic, the game more diverse... ultimately, Galaxy 1 was an amazing game but Galaxy 2 took the concept and perfected it... to the point where I don't know how any future Mario game is going to possibly top it. Ever.

If You Like This, Play: Super Mario Galaxy, Super Mario 3D World

Minecraft

Genre: Sandbox  •  Created by: Mojang  •  Original Platform: PC  •  Released: alpha in 2009, 1.0 in 2011, continually updated

Why: Good god, this game has exploded in popularity since I first created this page. Enough that I have to rewrite this now and preface it with this acknowledgement. Minecraft is not for everyone, but it's so interesting and different that I think everyone ought to give it an honest try. Minecraft is the first "sandbox game" that I'd really actually describe as deserving of the genre name. But despite being plopped into this world to play around with no real end goal, you learn to create - and be creative - through at first just having to survive. Building your defenses and discovering the hidden secrets of your infinite, one-of-a-kind world becomes an art in Minecraft, and it's been extremely successful in sucking up huge amounts of my time for hours on end as a result. And the fact that it accomplishes so much, is so satisfying to play, despite the fact that years after "release" it still has tons of questionable design decisions that make it feel unfinished, is testament to how rock-solid the underlying foundation of the game is.

Platform Notes: The "real" version of the game, the Java one for PC, Mac, and Linux, is the one to play. The various console and mobile versions of the game are several versions behind in content, and have limited world sizes. I don't recommend those. Please play in Survival with monsters turned on for the full experience!

If You Like This, Play: Terraria

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective

Genre: Adventure/Puzzle  •  Created by: Capcom  •  Original Platform: Nintendo DS  •  Released: 2011

Why: One of the best, most engrossing tales of mystery I've ever encountered, with memorable characters and plot twists that keep you playing until the very end. Gorgeously-animated sprites, a vibrant, bold comic book art style, and a catchy soundtrack give the game audiovisual appeal to compliment the story. And it's all wrapped around a fiendishly clever puzzle game that can make turning on a light switch feel just as good and as just as important as preventing a murder.

Platform Notes: The game is available on Nintendo DS and iOS. The iOS version tends to be cheaper and has higher-resolution graphics. The game is controlled entirely with touch regardless of platform, so the iOS version doesn't lose out for that, either. So, if you have a capable device (3GS and up), I'd say get that version. The DS version is fine though!

If You Like This, Play: the Ace Attorney series

Portal 2

Genre: Puzzle  •  Created by: Valve  •  Original Platform: PC  •  Released: 2011

Why: A puzzle game that gets an amazing amount of mileage out of its mindblowing core mechanic. It'd get on this list due to the strength of its gameplay alone, but it also happens that the game is incredibly well-written, with fantastic characters, great twists, and copious amounts of humor — one of the funniest games I've ever played. (I would suggest you also play the first Portal — the story will be a little more cohesive that way. Luckily it's very short, and you can get it in a bundle with Portal 2 for $5 extra.)

Platform Notes: The game is best on Steam (PC/Mac/Linux all supported) due to it having a level editor and community levels. Other than that, the console versions are fine too. It's worth noting that the PS3 version actually has cross-platform play with Steam, and if you buy a new retail copy, you'll get a free copy of the Steam version.

If You Like This, Play: Portal, Antichamber

The Walking Dead: Season 1

Genre: Adventure  •  Created by: Telltale Games  •  Original Platform: PC  •  Released: 2012

Why: An engrossing and powerfully-written story of humanity and survival - one of the best stories ever told in the video game medium, in my opinion. If you are thinking of shrugging this game off due to not liking the TV show or being tired of zombie games, I urge you to reconsider. Also, a lot of people have complained about this game being manipulative, and, well, they're right. But I don't look on it as a bad thing. By engrossing yourself in a story, you've already kind of been tricked into suspending your disbelief. The developers and writers at Telltale just happened to take advantage of the interactive nature of the game to pull you in that much more. To that end - I've gotten misty-eyed on occasion while playing video games, but never really outright cried. This game, however, made me sob like a little girl... twice. Play it.

Platform Notes: I only have experience with the PC version of the game. I've heard some not-so-great things about Telltale's engine on non-PC platforms, so I'd probably just stick to playing it on PC. Definitely avoid playing it on iOS or Android.

If You Like This, Play: Season 2, The Wolf Among Us and other Telltale games

Bonus Recommendation: Like Game of Thrones? Telltale has a video game adaptation of that, too, using pretty much the same mechanics as The Walking Dead. And unlike The Walking Dead's TV show, I happen to quite like GoT. The budget's clearly a bit lower, and it definitely "feels like more of a licensed tie-in", but not by a ton. So definitely go give Telltale's GoT game a try if you are a fan. Maybe even try it first. Don't play it if you aren't, though — not only will it not make any damn sense, but the opening of the first episode would spoil one of the most pivotal events of the TV series. (IMO, maybe one of the greatest scenes of television ever shot???? By the way, Game of Thrones is great. And sad. Go watch it. Then, when you've seen the scene I'm talking about, contact me and we can talk about our feelings and cry it out. I'll be there for you.)

Undertale

Genre: RPG  •  Created by: Toby Fox  •  Original Platform: PC  •  Released: 2015

Why: On its surface, Undertale is a simply charming, funny, and captivating JRPG-style game with interesting battle mechanics - including the very rewarding option of being a pacifist - and a top-notch soundtrack. That basic stuff was already enough to make it one of my favorite games in recent memory. Dig a little deeper, however, and you'll discover a nuanced exploration of video games as a medium, the nature of completionism, and the subcultural conception of what it means to "own" a game. I can't say much more than that, as it's really best to go into this game knowing as little as possible. But it's well-worth it for anyone who cares about video games to dig deep into the layers of this game. If you're anything like me, you'll be surprised at how much depth, attention to detail, and thoughtfulness is beneath the surface, and it's those qualities that truly make me feel it belongs on this list.

Overwatch

Genre: Multiplayer First-Person Shooter  •  Created by: Blizzard  •  Original Platform: PC  •  Released: 2016, continually updated

Why: [to be written]

Platform Notes: There are console versions of Team Fortress 2, but they got very few to no updates, and have basically no player base now. Besides, the PC version is free now. So just play that.

If You Like This, Play: Team Fortress 2, ...Splatoon, I guess? I don't play many competitive shooters. Counter-Strike makes me have anxiety attacks.