Super Mario Galaxy 2
– Nintendo / 2010
Video games can supply a lot of amazing experiences, but entertainment was the lone attribute that kept my childhood self glued to Super Mario Bros. 3
until I could finally clear a gap. That basic essence of fun is what led to every gaming experience I've had since, and playing through Super Mario Galaxy 2
felt like a direct return to that primary focus: to just have fun with video games.
With Galaxy 2
's predecessor having plenty of time to introduce players to the series' twisting camera angles and multi-planet take on platforming, it felt like Galaxy 2
's developers approached the followup with an "anything goes" mentality. Stage designs felt more outlandish and unconcerned with constructing believable environments, and that amplified fondness for bizarrely-built pathways made Galaxy 2
feel incredibly unpredictable and engaging. Powerups bore the same brand of absurdity, wish Yoshi sprinting up walls after downing unbearably-hot Dash Peppers, or Mario summersaulting into a bowling ball-esque boulder with the Rock Mushroom. Galaxy 2
doesn't have an endless supply of items, but it blends them into its progressing level design intelligently, providing an unwavering sense of variety like the one so prevalent throughout Super Mario Bros. 3
feels so indifferent toward many of the industry's recent targets – simulating the real world, building a captivating story, or even drilling in its own framing of Mario as the lone guy to save the day. It's an expansive, intensely creative revisit to the sole reason I began playing video games, and its focus on simply being fun is why it's still so easy for me to return to it.
Rock Band 3
– Harmonix / 2010
I knew I wanted a box of plastic instruments the moment I saw Rock Band
, but I never imagined how many hours of play I'd get out of the series. Whether it was a living area in my family's home or a tiny shared dorm space, room was always made for a toy drum set, two guitars and a pile of microphones. Translating the Guitar Hero
formula into a social, teamwork-centric experience resonated well enough with my friends to inspire physical band shirts, and it kept a dozen people around for a full day to outlast its Endless Setlist. Rock Band 3
cemented its place in most of my get-togethers, serving as a game that anyone could join in on so long as they liked music and were bold enough to sing their favorite song. Whenever we felt we had seen it all, I'd do another pass through the Rock Band Network and find some new songs to play into the ground. It's almost unfair to compare other games to something so socially dynamic, but I've yet to have a stronger, more inclusive multiplayer game in my collection than Rock Band 3
. Mass Effect 2
– BioWare / 2012
Despite my friends fawning over the series debut, I ignored the Mass Effect series for a while. Space is cool and all, but it just didn't sound like something I'd enjoy. I'm really not sure what compelled me to finish the first game, which I felt was mostly a slog with a few great campaign-focused moments, but considering it led me to Mass Effect 2
, I'm glad I made the journey. The second chapter of Shepard's story felt like a Star Wars scenario that I could properly get into – it gave me a universe and cast that was effortless to obsess over, and its balance of accessible, gun-wielding gameplay with intriguing character development was struck perfectly. Everything about Mass Effect 2
was new and exciting to me, and even with the novelty of a fresh genre faded, it's my most fondly-remembered story from the last decade.
Resident Evil 4
– Capcom / 2005
The first time I reached Resident Evil 4
's initial village, I sprinted into the house that most feels like a live animal trap. After Leon blocked the front door with furniture in a cutscene, I stood with my back to it, managing the stream of crazed villagers spilling in from the adjacent window and the second floor. It was tense and I was running low on ammo, but I felt capable of handling the situation ... up until splintered remnants of the front door and its blockade flew past me, leaving Leon's neck highly susceptible to a crazed man's chainsaw. My jaw dropped – both because of the surprise decapitation and because I was so impressed by the AI. At the time, I was so used to fixed enemy patterns in games, and having to anticipate how RE4
's hordes would try to kill me was incredible. Even when several playthroughs removed that sense of danger, RE4
's ability to keep its action fresh and interesting made reunions with Las Plagas easy to attend for years beyond RE4
Gears of War
– Epic / 2006
I'm usually a casual fan of shooters. It's not that I don't enjoy them or think they're not worth my time, I just can't get to the level of competence required for online play, and I hate consistently feeling like the anchor fastened to my team's collective ankle. Gears of War
's team-emphasized style of competition was an entirely different story – I wasn't a leaderboard king, but I could actually contribute more than a negative kill:death ratio, and the rare moments of downing the opposing team as my team's last man standing felt genuinely exhilarating. Gears of War
's slower pace supplied more of an emphasis on staying alive than most other shooters that I've played, and it won me over on all fronts. Working together with utter strangers in online matches felt natural, and relying so heavily on cover and defensive strategies throughout Gears
' campaign felt fresh in comparison with other run-n-gun shooters. Whether it was surviving online matches with a squad or working through co-op with someone I actually knew, Gears of War
's focus on making shots and revved Lancers count made me a regular soldier in its Locust-swarmed war zones.
Super Smash Bros. Brawl
– Nintendo / 2008
Aside from its bizarre introduction of tripping, Super Smash Bros. Brawl
soared over my expectations with an incredibly comprehensive soundtrack, enjoyable roster additions and a slew of trophies to unlock. Brawl
's mastery of throwbacks and its "anything can happen" style of fighting kept rivalries brewing in my friends group for years, and when we got bored of what was offered, we'd turn out some awful stages with the stage creator and keep going. Brawl
's potent blend of simplistic mechanics and childhood favorites kept me fully entertained, whether I was looking for bragging rights or just a comprehensive recollection of my time sink with Nintendo's previous consoles.
– DICE / 2008
For all the superhero and walking-armory type characters that I've directed, Mirror's Edge
instilled an incredible sense of power by just letting me move. Taking out villains is comforting in its establishment of power, but sprinting through Mirror's Edge
's vibrant blurs of color and simply being too swift to be stopped felt oddly rewarding. Any area that reduced me to attacking guards felt like a personal failure – where most games encourage conquering enemies on the way to an ultimate goal, Mirror's Edge
taught me to want to avoid confrontation. It just felt more fulfilling, and it took several playthroughs for me to really understand that. Though the pre-meditated set pieces were more noticeable on returning laps, Mirror's Edge
's sense of power in movement never lost its appeal. Choosing flight was always more enjoyable than stumbling through a fight.
– Irrational / 2007
I watched BioShock
's credits scroll the day after I bought it. That's not to say it was a short game, I just didn't drop the controller during those two days for anything other than work. For something I went into relatively blind and hadn't spent any effort hyping myself for, that's a hell of an achievement, one I credit the game's universe for almost entirely. BioShock
's juggling of guns and magical plasmid attacks make for interesting bouts of violence, but it was its rundown museum of a lost civilization called Rapture that fascinated me. Recognizing settings from an audio log story in the trashed halls and deserted lobbies never lost my attention, and getting blindsided by its narrative twist was a strong reminder of how susceptible I was in BioShock
's aquarium of lunatics.
Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2
– Bizarre Creations / 2008
I was never deeply embedded in a small town arcade culture, but the incessant play that Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2
saw from my friends and I over the years helps me imagine what that scene must have been like. Sitting down for "a few rounds" was a communal lie that no one was ever called out on, probably because we were all so equally guilty. Classes were missed and nights out were curbed in favor of desperately trying to topple the high scores taped beside our TV, and the vocalized elation from those rare victories made neighboring sports fans sound timid in comparison. For as often as I scoff at leaderboards, achievements and competing for anything other than having fun, Geometry Wars 2
's incredibly-engrossing style of point-based competition has proven me to be a walking contradiction.
Super Meat Boy – Team Meat / 2010
Thinking of Super Meat Boy as one of my favorite recent games feels ... odd. This brutal platformer is likely the most generous contributor to my gaming-focused collection of seething rage, but everything about its traps and tests of patience feels entirely fair. Spending dozens of deaths on a devilish stage doesn't feel discouraging or as if the game's mechanics can't stand up to its design; instead, each failure feels like a harsh rejection of ill-contrived survival plans. Super Meat Boy is a grueling teacher, but overcoming its lessons is so intensely gratifying that it's easy to rush into the next stage and renew a short-lived sense of accomplishment.
[Images: Nintendo, Harmonix, EA, Capcom, Microsoft, 2K, Activision, Team Meat]