Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King – Level-5 / 2005
I had what you could fairly call an unhealthily co-dependent relationship with Dragon Quest VIII. Back at the end of 2005, Square-Enix was trying to finally build the series an audience in the United States while I was trying to wean myself off of the sort of melodrama-first RPGs that had dominated consoles since Final Fantasy VII hit. We found each other at exactly the right time!
What Dragon Quest VIII did that was so special was that it made the big wide world that had to be impressionistically drawn in older role-playing games an actual place for you to wander around. There was no difference between overworld and towns in terms of your perspective. When you walked out into the forests and mountains and oceans sitting in the background, they were really there. And something was always hiding away in them. If you saw on your map that there was a dead end, but you could still see trees there, you could wander back and find a treasure chest.
Even after seamless world JRPGs like Final Fantasy XII came along, even after post-WoW MMOs started flooding PCs, even after Bethesda dropped worlds like Oblivion, Skyrim, and Fallout 3 on folks, none of them felt as beautifully natural and ready to discover as the one in Dragon Quest VIII. It's a magic thing.
Everything else on top of it was pitch perfect, the culmination of every JRPG that preceded it. Only four characters with evolving skill sets you couldn't customize to an insane degree, but you really had to learn how to use them in concert with each other over a ridiculous span of time. I played 96 hours of this game over the course of two weeks. No game ever gripped me like that, before or since.
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 – Atlus / 2008 If Dragon Quest VIII was the culmination of the JRPG's evolution from 1984 to 2004, Persona 4 was the first step on the road to what they could become going forward. At heart, Atlus' game is intensely traditional, a viciously demanding and time-consuming dungeon crawler with crazy depths of customization and strategy thanks to demon fusion. Persona 4 took the narrative trappings of JRPGs, however, and made them central to all of those mechanical hooks. Meeting characters, making friends, just talking became central components to strategy. No JRPG before or since felt as human, and the PS Vita version of the game just made a good thing better. I just hope the more intense surrealism of Persona 3 and the more adult themes of Catherine get looped into where this team is going into the next decade.
Resident Evil 4 – Capcom / 2005 Looking back on the first HD console generation, you can pretty much blame the most popular shooter trends on Shinji Mikami's brilliant 2005 GameCube game. The over-the-shoulder antics of Gears of War, the easy to use weapon customization of Call of Duty, the dramatic pacing of Uncharted, The Last of Us, and even Halo: Reach. It all starts right here. But for as readily borrowed from as its been, Resident Evil 4 remains a singular entertainment, as goofy as it is tense, as claustrophobic as it is pleasurable, it remains a titan. Not just one of the best games of the past ten years, but a high water mark for games across the board, quick time events or no quick time events.
Wii Sports – Nintendo / 2006 Motion controls may ultimately prove to be an evolutionary dead end, but the experiment was validated right out the gates with the Wii's signature game. There's a damn good reason more than 100 million bought a Wii, and it's right here on this wee disc. Wii Sports just feels right. Boxing may be janky, Golf may barely function, but Tennis and especially Bowling in the 2006 set are alchemical in how they instantly satisfy the brain with the simplest of physical inputs. Forget Wii Sports Resort, Kinect Sports, or anything involving PlayStation Move. The original's elegant simplicity makes it the very best.
Ninja Gaiden – Team Ninja / 2004 Big 3D brawlers really came into their own in the past decade. Devil May Cry 3, God of War, Bayonetta, Metal Gear Rising, freaking God Hand; there have been greats. Kicking and punching stuff in 3D never felt quite so good as is has between 2004 and 2014. Compared to the Sony Santa Monica and Platinum Games of the world, Team Ninja doesn't quite stack up. It's always been a B-list studio, even if Dead or Alive is pretty swell. The house Tomonobu Itagaki built is immortal thanks to the first Ninja Gaiden, though, and every 3D brawler that followed is indebted to its combat, pace, and style. "The Way of the Ninja," the first level of the game, is ingeniously laid out, perfectly capturing the vibe of schlocky '70s ninja flicks while teaching you how to play through its blistering fights.
Pac-Man: Championship Edition – Bandai Namco / 2007 Small games made simply by small teams were not just reborn in the past ten years after being pushed out by the expensive business of console development, they've become the norm again after 30 years. Arcade and NES-minded design has enjoyed a second renaissance in the age of digital distribution. How appropriate that Toru Iwatani, one of the daddies of arcade design, helped kick off this era in 2007. Pac-Man: Championship Edition took a relatively ancient idea and perfectly evolved it into a modern game of speed, competition, and refined graphic ideas. As ripe and juicy as the cherries that little yellow himself likes to gobble up, Pac-Can: CE is the sweetest plum in the XBLA library still.
Rock Band – Harmonix / 2007 Greg Lopiccolo, Dan Teasdale, and the rest of the drunken posse at Harmonix were onto something big from the very start. Rez, Dance Dance Revolution, Parappa the Rapper, Beatmania, and many more demonstrated the very real promise of building a game around music, maintaining rhythm, and even using plastic instruments for controls, but all of them were missing something essential. Guitar Hero came close, but Rock Band nailed it. The recipe of perfect industrial design in the instruments and graphic design of the series' iconic flow of notes blended with a brilliant selection of rock songs birthed the greatest party game ever made. Real parties, where people get weird! Flooding the market may have brought the series low, but it'll be back. Rock Band's too damn sweet to lay dormant for good.
Elektroplankton – indieszero / 2006 The blooming of touch-based video games and the boom in low-cost independent design has resulted in a whole hell of a lot of software that is artful, weird, and brazenly playful about the idea of just what constitutes a video game. Without the Nintendo DS, this creative environment would never have been possible and indieszero's Electroplankton is emblematic of the world it bore. There's no winning Elektroplankton, no leader boards, no grand human drama. Even now it remains unclassifiable by genre. Is it an instrument? A music visualizer in the Jeff Minter mold? A rhythm game? Just a toy? It's neon lit landscapes and weird soothing tones are singular, the sort of thing that's only possible on a weird electronic device you must touch directly to make things happen.
Yakuza 2 – Sega / 2006 If two basic design tenets have spread to every inch of game making over the past decade, it's been the open world and RPG-style character building. Nearly every game Ubisoft makes at this point, from Assassin's Creed to Far Cry to Watch Dogs, has you wandering around an open map and gradually building up a character as you plunk through the hours. Amongst those many games born in the wake of Grand Theft Auto III and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and all their cousins, Yakuza 2 is the one that still impresses me most. Not quite another JRPG, not quite a free-roaming action game, nor a rigid set piece drama, Toshihiro Nagoshi's second crime story is quietly vast and intricate. The fictional district of Kamurocho isn't as big or as detailed as Los Santos, but its far more idiosyncratic and weird. Back alleys are confusingly laid out, full of folks that want to wrestle or share a drink at a drag bar. Plenty of games try to make epic worlds and massive cities, but few build neighborhoods. Plus: The oddly paced brawling is still brutal and awesome.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf – Nintendo, Monolith Soft / 2013 Sometimes when playing Animal Crossing: New Leaf, I start to feel like I'm playing every great game made in the past ten years. The surreal visual storytelling, dense with history, of things like Limbo and Shadow of the Colossus; the loveably puerile sense of humor from Fable; the satirical self-awareness of No More Heroes; even Minecraft's customization. It's all here, in one dopey little game with frustratingly byzantine controls where you spend an inordinate amount of time digging holes and plucking fruit. That's part of why Animal Crossing is so luminous, though. So unassuming on the surface, it hides a remarkable depth in play and storytelling, leaving you to make your own world and tale but still pushing back just enough with its own restrictions. Past games in the series, though, always felt broken in some way or another, whether thanks to even jankier controls or limited Internet accessibility. New Leaf is the lightning strike Nintendo failed to bottle in the three games that came before it.