As his number one pick, Contributing Editor Danny Cowan selects a game that a former Joystiq staffer infamously despised. The rest of his list is a mashup of weird and wonderful pieces of entertainment.
Nier – Cavia / 2010 The way Nier delivers its storyline is unlike anything I've ever seen in a video game. It's a slow burn – so much so that your first playthrough might end in disappointment as the story makes predictable turns and ends in a string of heroic sacrifices. On your second playthrough, though, the real Nier emerges. You'll see new cutscenes that fill you in on what was actually happening as you slaughtered the game's bosses ... and you'll probably feel terrible for it!
New dialog and story sequences paint a complete picture of what was actually happening within the game's world as you hacked away at waves of seemingly brainless enemies, and it completely changes the role you, as a player, were serving in the story. At the same time, Nier's story is unique to video games. Its repetition and selective narrative delivery can't be easily conveyed in film, and it requires a player's input and emotional investment to feel complete as a work of art. By the time you've seen all four endings, you'll feel completely awful for every living thing in the world of Nier, but the story is thoughtful and detailed enough to also leave you feeling fulfilled and inspired.
Gone Home – The Fullbright Company / 2013 Gone Home effectively condenses the adventure game genre. Where other adventure games are obtuse, Gone Home is intuitive. Where others require leaps in logic, Gone Home simply requires the player to be familiar with basic architecture. Its semi-mundane setting ensures that players innately have the ability to suss out important items as they explore a labyrinthine house and learn character backstories through environmental storytelling. Gone Home's quest is concise, perfectly paced, and unforgettable. Its intimately personal story cements it as a personal favorite.
Rock Band 2 – Harmonix / 2008 The Rock Band series brought my roommates and I together in a way that bad movies, board games, and alcohol never could. Our band "Chaotic Sausage Lodge" disbanded after many, many extensive world tours and hundreds of dollars worth of DLC. During my time on the road, I became competent at drums, sang until I was hoarse, and experienced the peak of the rhythm game genre across multiple simulated instruments. Rock Band 2 was where Chaotic Sausage Lodge hit it big, but Rock Band 3's vocal harmonies (and the inclusion of "Total Eclipse of the Heart" as DLC) made it a close contender for this list.
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 – Atlus / 2008 Persona 4's cast drives one of most memorable narratives from the last ten years, and its approach to character growth makes it shine. Extended dungeon crawling sessions are mixed with simulated schoolwork and social gatherings, and you'll need to chat up your teammates outside of battle to earn their favor while learning more about their backstories and personal quirks. As you become more absorbed in the quest, you'll feel a close kinship with each of your party members, making the unfolding mystery much more compelling as a result.
Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime – TOSE / 2006 Basically distilling everything I enjoy about action-RPGs, Rocket Slime is lighthearted and fun throughout. While the bulk of gameplay focuses on solid overhead-view action and exploration, the game's tank-battling mechanics are among the greatest gaming innovations of the last decade, challenging players to collect ammunition throughout the core campaign so that they can volley it at antagonistic platypodes in high-stakes boss battles. This game's local-only multiplayer mode is one of the best I've ever played, and it's unfortunate that few will ever get to experience it.
Fallout 3 – Bethesda Game Studios / 2008 Fallout 3 shows just how much a well-realized setting matters when crafting an open-world game. Post-apocalyptic Washington D.C. is filled with so many little stories that it fully immerses the player throughout; in-game tales range from deadly serious to hilariously pointless, with plenty of optional side-quests along the way. Fallout 3's universe felt truly complete, and it rewards players who invest the time in exploring its massive world and getting to know its characters.
Pinball Arcade – FarSight Studios / 2012 Pinball Arcade is an important step in preserving an often-ignored subset of gaming. Since its release, Pinball Arcade has expanded its catalog to include dozens of classic tables, including many childhood favorites that I hadn't seen in years and never thought I'd play again. Beyond its historical value, though, Pinball Arcade showcases that clever gameplay mechanics and objectives can shine even when confined to a limited ruleset and a mechanical wrapping -- an important lesson that rings true even in the modern era.
Spelunky – Derek Yu & Andy Hull / 2009 (PC), 2012 (XBLA) I've probably put over 100 hours into Spelunky, and I'm still terrible at it. It's a game where I can die in seconds and then immediately restart, learning from my mistakes and becoming a better player for it. Many difficulty-focused games feel unfair or cruel, but Spelunky's design is deliberate and uncompromising, keeping its difficulty level high while at the same time enticing players to return as improved, smarter explorers. The co-op mode is also ridiculously fun, and its competitive multiplayer is chaotically hilarious and wonderful.
Deadly Premonition – Access Games / 2010 Most parts of Deadly Premonition are objectively terrible, but it's one of my favorite games regardless. Trudge your way through its awkward combat (or better yet, watch supergreatfriend's excellent Let's Play series) and you'll find a twisting, irresistible narrative that puts the player at the center of an over-the-top, open-world murder mystery. During my playthrough, I went to sleep at night mentally weighing potential murder suspects, and woke up the next day eager to return to Greenvale. Few games have invaded my subconscious to such an extent, and your first time stepping into the shoes of Francis York Morgan is a real treat.
Earth Defense Force 2017 – Sandlot / 2007 The last generation saw tremendous advances in the realm of online multiplayer gameplay, but the best multiplayer experience I had on the Xbox 360 was in Earth Defense Force 2017's offline co-op mode. EDF's ramping progression is ideal for a team of two players, and if you can find a like-minded partner who can overlook its amateurish presentation, you'll spend dozens of hours acquiring ridiculously overpowered weapons and beating impossible odds as you square off against choking swarms of gigantic insects. It's not perfect, but mechanically, Earth Defense Force 2017 represents everything I love about gaming.