I've been playing video games since I was 5 years old and Ben Casias introduced me to the awesomeness that was Super Mario Bros. on the NES. I'm really happy with how I grew into gaming, too. The first time I ever had a video game system in my house was when I rented a Sega Genesis and Sonic the Hedgehog and proceeded to destroy the game. I remember sitting down so much I got cramps in my legs from sitting Indian style. From there, I got a TurboGrafx-16 for my 10th birthday and I was hooked. By the way, for those who don't know anything about the TG-16, if you have a Wii, check out their games. Not as famous as their competitors, but good lord, some awesome stuff, including all the Bonk games and some amazing hidden gems (like the Jackie Chan game, the TV Sports franchises, and World Class Baseball, which was my favorite baseball game ever until I got my hands on Hardball III).
As the games grew, I went with them, and while the 2000s weren't as awesome to me as the 1990's were, where I played some of the greatest games ever made, bar none, there were still some pretty awesome stuff. I skew towards sports games, action/adventure games, fighting games, platformers and RPGs, and while this list will show off all of those biases, there will be a surprise or two in there just to keep things fresh. So without further adieu:
25. Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy - PlayStation 2, 2001
Us Livingston kids were all big fans of the Crash Bandicoot series, which was interesting as it was a straight-line platformer featuring a made-up Australian animal that had an unbelievable ability to jump really high. He was supposed to be the PlayStation mascot, and it worked for a while, but once the jump was made to PlayStation 2, the bandicoot became passe, and Sony looked for a new mascot.
Enter Jax, a...uh, what is he? And Daxter, who I think was a muskrat, but I don't really know. We got it for Christmas one year and after playing it for a while, it grew on me. It turned out that I wasn't the only one, as there were five Jax games made after this. However, none of the sequels matched up to the original, which was, at its best, a platformer that took the best from previous platformers, added a few puzzle elements to it, and voila! You have yourself a franchise starter that sells itself in future iterations. There were games beforehand in the 3D vein that were more memorable (Super Mario 64) and after it (Super Mario Galaxy, although I didn't play it nearly enough for it to get on this list, sadly) but for us who only dug us some PlayStation 2, this was a fantastic platformer.
24. Marvel vs. Capcom 2: New Age of Heroes - Arcade/PlayStation 2/Dreamcast/XBox/Everything else, 2000
When Pete and I went to EVO 2008, I called this game the "Hollywood" fighter at the tournament. It went last. It was flashy. It had the biggest crowd. During the tournament for the other games, the biggest following was a MVC2 money match between two teenagers where people bet over $1,000 on a 10-match series. Was it really that much of a technical game? Of course it was, but it was also a game that, like all fighters, had a tier system that ended up making the game unbalanced in the end.
But that doesn't stop it from being one of the funnest games I've ever played, as it has a fantastic knack for dragging you in. I remember the thing I wanted to do most was drop a 100 hit combo (which is easily possible even if you aren't that great at the game; Cable, Iron Man, War Machine, in that order, for the win) but soon after, it was air combos. And then tag-in combos, and then corner juggles, and then you realize that in order to truly be great, you had to grab the same three guys and use the same strategy over and over again to be effective. That's why of all the fighters I played, it stays relatively low, but even I can't say that many bad things about the game. It's not like Third Strike, where you're either Ken or Chun-Li and you're looking for the same thing over and over. It's re-release on the PlayStation Network puts me ever closer to buying a stick and getting my 100-hit combo on. I'm so close...
23. Tetris DS - Nintendo DS, 2006
There was a game that came out for the Nintendo 64 called "The New Tetris" that turned a couple of summers in Sonoma into giant competitions between me and my friends. It was the last time Tetris was relevant in my life, and that was in 1999. So seven years later, when I heard they were coming out with a new version of it for the Nintendo DS, I got a bit psyched. Sam got it for his DS, and then I just had to play it myself. Before I knew it, I was hooked. It had some really neat twists on the classic puzzler (Mission Mode alone could keep me occupied for hours on end) but it was the presentation that really did it for me.
If there's one thing you can count on with Nintendo, they always find a way to take the older games and release them to a new audience for them to like it as much as guys like me did back in our video game heyday. If the basics remain from what made it great, but they do enough to bring you back in, they've done their job. This game was simple to some, but to a guy like me, who can appreciate the small nuances a game has that links it to the games from its past, it makes it that much more awesome. Which reminds me...the next time I'm in California, I'm gonna have to borrow that for a while...sorry, Sam!
22. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 - Multiple platforms, 2002
I LOVED the Tony Hawk games. Tony Hawk 2 is solely responsible for getting me into Mos Def. That would get it on the list, but it was this game, that I bought as a PS2 greatest hit, that solidified it in my mind. It had the perfect balance of the incredible tricks from the previous games with the added benefits of better physics and awesome level design (The Embarcadero in San Francisco is my favorite), and, of course, the ability to do manuals, which over time allowed Will and I many a Tony Hawk trick joke, where we'd call out combos and throw about 12 manuals in the middle to keep the streak going.
It was also awesome to have the free skate career mode, where you had a list of goals that you had to complete, and then with the points you earned, allowed you to move on to the game's other levels. It also allowed your created skater the ability to earn new tricks in relation to the tricks he already used, really allowing you to be creative with what your skater could be like as he became better down the road. Besides that, the free skate mode was awesome with a big group of friends, which was revisited in the later games in the franchise. In fact, when they went to the Underground name after this game, the series started to lose its luster. This was the pinnacle, in my opinion, of the Tony Hawk franchise.
21. Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga - Game Boy Advance, 2003
One of the last games to be released for the Game Boy Advance, it was the first RPG featuring Mario and Luigi since the incredible Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. Mario and Luigi wasn't your traditional JRPG like its predecessor, but what it did well was mix in your normal Mario goofiness with a lot of neat puzzles and interactions. In fact, most people think that the best part of the game is the interactions with all the non-playable characters in the game, leading to some absolutely awesome moments, some which are some of the funniest I've ever seen in games.
The other part about this, which is seriously understated, is that it ushered in an era of role-playing games on the Nintendo handheld systems that made the Game Boy Advance's successor, the Nintendo DS, the best home for RPGs in the handheld market. This series was so successful that it spawned two sequels on the DS, but the original, which was a tight and surprisingly challenging game that put smiles on gamers faces worldwide thanks to its unique approach, is my favorite of the three. Sometimes, you just can't beat the original.
20. Winning Eleven 9: Pro Evolution Soccer - Multiple Platforms, 2005
The best soccer game I played this decade. You can take it to the bank. Technically precise, and almost too much for even the most die hard players, the Winning Eleven franchise had long been one of the premier sports series in all of video games. I got into it my junior year of college when I was looking for a soccer game to play during my "Tim gets used to soccer" phase. It took a while for me to get used to it, but when I did...good lord.
It was just fun. I remember playing FIFA 08 with Blake a few weeks before I came out to Florida and while it wasn't nearly as tight as Winning Eleven, it was still so much fun. I think it's because you really treat soccer games like a puzzle, trying to fit the right pieces together and in the right spots so that you can be successful. The best part is when you do a cross to one of the forwards, and then all of a sudden, you head one in. I don't think there's a better feeling in a sports game than a well executed centering pass that leads to a header. Fantastic stuff. FIFA got better as it got closer to the edge of the decade, with FIFA 10 being the supposed pinnacle, but I'm pretty sure that I didn't play a better soccer game than the one I played in 2005.
19. Star Ocean: Until the End of Time - PlayStation 2, 2005
I only got into the Star Ocean series because after Square Enix did Final Fantasy X, the company did a great job getting fringe fans into their secondary franchises. Not exactly hard for an RPG guy to like an epic game like this. I never beat the game, but I always loved how this game was set up. It was pretty linear in its story, but certain actions led to major parts of the story being changed, and even determined if you got certain characters or not. It was a lot like Chrono Trigger in that if you wanted to get everything in the game, you had to beat it a couple of times, which could become quite tedious.
My favorite part of the game was the battle system. It had a fantastic rewards program that allowed your party to increase certain things like experience or money or items by having a certain amount of fights without taking major damage. It meant that if you were able to extend the bonus fights out to 10, 20, 50 battles, that you could boost your characters faster and get some sweet swag. The story was pretty basic stuff (invaded planet seeks shelter, young boy is in the middle of it and somehow becomes part of even larger subplot for galactic dominance) but it was done very well. The music is one of the best parts of the game, as it sets up big moments and sets the right mood, too. I'm a fan of games that have simple premises but are done well enough that the simplicity is balanced out by fantastic execution, and this game does it in spades. The sequel to this was released on XBox 360 in 2009, but has been announced as a PS3 release in a couple of months, which is turning out to be a huge stretch for Square Enix, as it includes the release of the next game in their most important franchise: Final Fantasy XIII.
18. Virtua Tennis 2 - Dreamcast, 2001
I'll tell you the first time I played this: Santa Cruz, 2001 summer, Cocoanut Grove arcade. It was on one of the big screens and people were all around it, and I became hooked. Just like soccer, tennis can be awfully addicting (ask the Kingwood house guys about Mario Tennis for GameCube one time) and this game turned out to be one of the most addicting games I would ever play.
You were always trying to get a max serve. You were always trying to get to the net for a smash. And you knew that if you were going to play doubles, you get Tim Henman because if there's anybody you want at the net, it's the best volley guy in tennis. For me, it was always fun to get a big rally going, especially with a giant group of people waiting to get in. It always made for a good day if a lot of people were looking to play. I ended up getting Virtua Tennis 3 for my PlayStation 3 before coming out to Florida, and while it had a lot of cool new features, it doesn't touch the second game for the complete package, which has some of the best gameplay in a sports game that I have ever seen.
17. Katamari Damacy - PlayStation 2, 2004
(GOD that picture is awesome.)
The most original game on the countdown, you roll a ball all over the world (literally) so that the Prince of the Cosmos is able to win the affection of his father, the King, who sarcastically and almost sadistically forced his son to make Katamaris, large balls of objects that get collected to help restore the lost stars in the galaxy. It's quirky, it's fun, but the best part was the visuals.
The idea is to start with small things like pins, ants, and so forth, but once it got to a certain size, you were able to grab things that were larger in size, like cows, small cars, and the like. The later levels, where you start with a slightly bigger ball and look to make it hundreds and thousands of meters in diameter, sees the most ridiculous things rolled up. Buses, buildings, houses...you name it, you can roll it over and get it. It's truly the most unique game design I saw during the 2000s, and is a game that grew in popularity quickly. So quickly that it spawned a sequel. But for me, you can't really do better than this, as the initial shock and awe the game provided was unprecedented.
16. Gitaroo Man - PlayStation 2, 2002
Another one for the Japanese quirky side of things, with this one being a high schooler who loves a girl, and then all of a sudden, gets visited by a dog that tells him he's the great "Gitaroo Man", who helps fight evil forces with his legendary guitar. Unbelievably enough, the game is phenomenal, even with that goofy premise, and it's due to two things and two things only: An ncredible music soundtrack and an original way of playing the musical notes that predates all the Guitar Hero/Rock Band games.
But there was always something that bothered us when we played the game on hard: We couldn't get past that damn UFO level if we tried our damndest. (See above picture) It was just too much techno for us to come up with when it came to hitting the notes correctly. Even with that, you got some incredible level designs, with the musical numbers turning out to be tremendously catchy. It's another unique game experience that I was happy to see make it's way to the United States from Japan, as even as a niche game, it became one of the most sought after games for the PS2, eventually re-released on the PSP several years later. For my money, you can't beat this incarnation of the game, one that stands as an awesome achievement in musical gaming.
15. Golden Sun - Game Boy Advance, 2001
One of the "Dragon Quest" style JRPG's that became the Game Boy Advance's first major RPG haul. While the GBA would feature remakes of previous RPGs, this became the first game that ushered in the era of the GBA being a fantastic little nesting area for RPGs, as they would re-release past Final Fantasy games and the best Zelda game ever: A Link to the Past, soon after this.
It's a simple story of a man trying to help save his home land, but I think the story was executed very well, and I loved how the four characters could rotate back and forth between the numerous Djinni that gave them magical powers, giving them numerous combinations of magical powers. It also featured some fantastic graphics for a Game Boy Advanced game, and the hidden items in the game where fun to find because a lot of them were right there out in the open and you had to use your magical powers in order to get them, which was later used in the Mario and Luigi franchise. But this game set the GBA standard, one that would be duplicated down the road, but in my eyes, not quite as good as this one.
14. Street Fighter IV - Multiple platforms, 2008
The first time I played this game, I was hooked. It was a lot like the Street Fighter II, but much more fluid and much more responsive. I was one of the first lucky few in the US to play it on an arcade standup, as it was presented at EVO 2008 shortly after its Japanese release. I remember deciding to go with Zangief over E. Honda, who I normally played with, and was amazed at how well he played, effortlessly going into all of his special moves with ease.
But what impressed me most of all was that after Street Fighter III, which was Capcom trying to keep the old around and just throw it in with a bunch of new people, this game felt so much more like the best 2D fighter ever: Super Street Fighter II Turbo. It wasn't as technically sound as SSFII Turbo, but at the same time, you could tell that they did a lot with this game to make it feel like the old game, and it goes a long way in showing that by bringing back the the old guard that they wanted to retain that feel. Fantastically enough, the reception was so good that Capcom has decided to come out with Super Street Fighter IV in 2010, no doubt expanding on the great ideas of Street Fighter IV, and like Street Fighter II did to me as a kid, will make new fans out of one of the oldest games on the market.
13. Mega Man 9 - Numerous platforms, 2009
When I heard that they were coming out with another Mega Man, I was absolutely stoked. When I heard it was going to be done in the old Mega Man style (most notably Mega Man 2), I about lost it. Those of us who played the Mega Man series growing up knew exactly what to expect out of it: a game that looks easy in execution, but at the same time, becomes difficult to master completely. The game retained the old look, had some fantastic bosses, and, if you knew how to do it correctly, had a path that allowed you to beat the game much easier than just picking random levels.
It was also perfect for what today's systems were trying to do, which is reach out to older fans who might not be into the newer, flashier games of today. The game was executed perfectly, right down to the sprites and the 8-bit music, which still makes me smile when I think about it. It became one of the most downloaded games on any of the new systems, and with such a fantastic approach and wonderful reception, Capcom announced that they will go ahead with Mega Man 10, which will be done in the retro style as well. Go ahead and pencil that one in as one my 25 favorites for the 2010's right now.
12. Mario Kart Wii - Nintendo Wii, 2008
It was hard to pick between this and Mario Kart Double Dash, which would have been the only GameCube game on the list, but when I thought about it, the Wii version allowed me to go back and experience the play that made me love it so much way back on the SNES, when Super Mario Kart burst onto the scene and became the surprise hit of the SNES days. Staying true to the older versions of the game, the Wii version took the best of all the previous Mario Kart games and perfected its execution, with some fantastic level design on the new levels and, like other Mario Kart games, the return of classic tracks from the older games.
The presentation is what really got me, as the Wii controller fit into this wheel that allowed for a more realistic experience (well, one with go karts, at least) and they really made it feel like it was a big deal. There was this stretch that saw the Wii release this, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, and Super Mario Galaxy in the span of about five months, and it's not surprising that when these games came out, Wii sales skyrocketed. For me, it was all about nostalgia, and not only did this game do it, but it made me realize that the Wii was a lot more than the Virtual Console, and that even with the weird controller design, that it had a lot of potential to do some really cool things. This game proved that the Nintendo mantra of not fixing what wasn't broken continued to make winners. It's also one of the most fun party games you could play.
11. Kingdom Hearts II - PlayStation 2, 2006
So when fans heard that Square Enix was going to team up with Disney, we all wondered if it would work. Preview screens showed the main character, Sora, teaming up with Goofy and Donald as he went around to many different Disney worlds looking for something. And then we played it and were mesmerized about how the game was designed. Not quite RPG, but not quite a platformer, the game showed that it had an audience...but it was the game's second incarnation that really did it right.
It took all the problems in the first game and not only eliminated them, but added to the great parts. More weapons, more special attacks, different worlds, revisited worlds with some neat things added to them, and more interaction with Square Enix characters, as everyone from Squall Lionheart and Yuffie joined favorites Cloud and Sephiroth as a part of the world in which Sora was looking to save after his nearly year long sleep. The story is a little complicated to explain, and I think it would be a lot better to play the first game before tackling this one (even with them reviewing much of the key points in its predecessor at the game's onset), but as a whole, I don't think you'll see a game that took a unique idea and improved on it so much in only one iteration. The big question now is whether they finish off the trilogy, which has been one of the most requested games in the last few years. And much like Mega Man 10, if it does come out, you can bet that Kingdom Hearts III will be on my favorites from the 2010's.
Stay tuned for Part II, which should be coming out on 1/16!