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Games of a Lifetime: Thomas' picks

After more than ten years devoted to video games and the people who make them, Joystiq is closing its doors. We won't be reporting on the best games of 2015, so join us for one last hurrah as the Joystiq family reveals their Games of a Lifetime.


Super Mario World

I'm not a marathon video game player – for me, binging on or tirelessly replaying masterpieces downplays the great moments within, tainting them with an undeserved state of blandness. And yet, there is something about Super Mario World's construct that is immune to my fickle play style. Though I've been hurling Luigi down pits since I was old enough to earn player 2 privileges, Super Mario World is a ceaseless joy to return to, even if an encore ensues moments after besting Bowser with a few well-aimed Mechakoopas.

I'm inclined to most romps through the Mushroom Kingdom, but Super Mario World's memorable level design, subtle secrecy and introduction of the greatest power-up of all time elevate it above every other Mario Bros outing. Above all else, it's the king of fun within my gaming career – there is not a moment coded into that rackety cartridge that isn't bliss to play, even when a pack of Rip Van Fish inspire a spike of stress with their chase. Super Mario World was, is and probably always will be my hometown in the world of video games, and I look forward to reveling in nostalgia as I shove a pack of kids into their lava-filled demise during future homecomings.


Metroid Prime


Metroid Prime was a throwaway Christmas list request – I didn't want the game in particular, I just wanted something new to play on my Gamecube. I think not knowing what I was getting into made my initial moments behind Samus' visor even more incredible; In addition to an expansive world full of engaging turns, I was exploring lore, enemies and powerups that Metroid fans had known about for years. Starting at square one really pulled me into the idea of being a lone adventurer, and I scanned everything to further inform myself on this strange universe.

It's odd how peaceful Metroid Prime's exploration is – combating diving wasps and Space Pirates often feels like slight interruptions to a solitary, relaxing hike through ancient ruins. Tense fights with Hunter Metroids and Chozo Ghosts work as compelling tonal switch-ups, but my respect and love for Metroid Prime hinges on the masterful craftsmanship on display in its labyrinth-like map and intensely interesting narrative details.

Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2

Lots of these games are special to me because they brought me together with my friends. Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 was a gathering point for my dorm floor group, but it was also a stage for unreasonably important competition. Having your high score trounced and pulled from the records taped beside our TV was basically a personal insult, and skipping class to earn retribution was absolutely the proper response.

Trash talk was rampant, but only hushed encouragement or complete silence was offered if anyone actually got near the top score, even if the reigning champion was present. It was about outdoing your competition's best, not derailing their attempts. GW2 is as close as I'll ever get to attending a competitive arcade scene, and considering it transformed a cramped dorm room into a high score exhibition hall, that's a really impressive feat.

Rock Band

Rock Band made me feel like a cool kid: I always found my niche group of friends while growing up, but I was rarely the entertainment lead – the video game card can only be played so many times before people want to do something else, you see. Rock Band was a different story, though. I think back on how I recruited friends to be in a "band," how we used YouTube playlists to teach ourselves the set list early, how we screenprinted our own band shirts so we could walk into GameStop as the official kings and queens of Taking This Too Seriously – I was the lead of this dumb initiative, and it resulted in being expected to show up with Rock Band at any social gathering for the next six months.

Roughly a dozen people shared my living room to finish the last leg of our tour, and despite having to occasionally designate a bass drum player or strategically plan out our failures so we could carry each other through a song, we felt really accomplished ... Then we unlocked The Endless Setlist, taking only moments to profess how unfair that was until we started making plans to take it on the next morning.

Rock Band got bigger and better with sequels, but it's the debut that I have to thank for providing a slew of memories with my high school group. It trounced some of my friends' disinterest in video games, and it also introduced me to new favorite bands. It's impossible to hear a Rock Band song without reminiscing about stuffing too many people into cramped basements to chase virtual fans, and I'm grateful to my friends for humoring me with our fake band and my big, dumb box of plastic musical instruments.

StarCraft

I think I will always be terrible at StarCraft, but I'm not sure that I will ever care. Home of my first experience with online gaming and my endless disdain for Zerg rushes, StarCraft was my introduction to RTS games. This stark departure from jumping over Goombas and scrounging temples for treasure chests overwhelmed me – I was used to guiding a singular hero, not micromanaging an entire army in a warzone chess match – but something about losing to superior strategies kept me from walking away in frustration. It was always disappointment in being outwitted, never fury due to being erased from the map.

There are so many branches of the RTS genre that I've never explored, and I do suspect that nostalgia is part of the reason I've never moved on from StarCraft. But I believe the series debut's rock-paper-scissors power struggle is exceptional – better visuals and grander stakes existing in modern games detracts nothing from the battle of wits that I've spent more than a decade playing, and to this day, I still don't dare to predict what's going to happen when I sit down for a match.

Well, other than the likely fall of the human race. Don't let me lead the war against powerful alien species, readers – we'll have a lot of siege tanks, but not a lot of victories.

Final Fantasy 8

"Squall is the epitome of a brooding, irredeemable young adult," Final Fantasy 8 detractors often argue. I wouldn't hear that truth for years though – I was oblivious to the Final Fantasy series in general when I first met Squall, I just liked the weird monster fighting game that came on my Pizza Hut demo disc: "These cutscenes are like a movie! And wow, this girl in blue can summon a Dragonair!?" I didn't know what an RPG was (nor did I realize Pokemon counted as one), but despite never being able to take down Elvoret, I was immediately curious about this adventure.

By the time I tried a full copy of FF8, I was a brooding, irredeemable young adult myself. Nobody understood Squall, but I did, and I was so enthralled in exploring his "we're all student mercenaries" world that I endured hundreds of deaths at the hands of Seifer, Malboros and Mobile Type 8. FF8's fascinating creativity, beautiful soundtrack and focus on personal conflicts kept me hooked through the eight years of on-and-off attempts it took me to finally see its closing cinematic. The battles shared by Squall, Selphie, Zell and my backseat party members taught me volumes about RPGs, and its allure remained even as I matured enough to realize the world doesn't have it out for me.

Dance Dance Revolution

My introduction to Dance Dance Revolution involved watching someone tear through "Max 300" like it was a gym class warmup. "I've moved my feet in rapid succession before, I can do this," I assured myself moments before failing out halfway through my first song. I wasn't crushed though – I was determined. In two weeks time, I cleaned just enough of my room to allow for a dance mat, built a towering TV stand out of scrap wood and barrels, and routinely shook the house with arrhythmic stomping. When I realized I could use Stepmania to practice difficult, arcade-only songs without losing money in the learning process, I mimicked step patterns in front of my computer, years before I even had a USB-compatible dance mat.

Part of what drew me to DDR was just how weird the experience was compared to every other game I had played at that time, but its challenge and musical culture shock kept me hooked beyond an initial infatuation. I loved how social the experience was, even before it grew beyond (and receded back to) its niche group of core followers. Though I've lost the cardio endurance I built up during my DDR obsession, I always make a point of playing a round when I see a cabinet in the wild. The charm of getting bathed in neon, synth-heavy pop and being the awkwardly-sweaty group in an arcade has yet to fade.

Super Smash Bros. Melee

After reading about Super Smash Bros. Melee for months in Nintendo Power, I finally received my copy ... long before I unwrapped my Gamecube on Christmas Eve. I survived the wait by staring at the case for three straight weeks, reading its instruction manual front-to-back once a day. Luckily, my first bout of Adventure Mode justified my anticipation – Melee was a flurry of tributes to the games I grew up on, as well as a introductory crash course on the Nintendo outings I had never tried.

Luckily, Melee outlasted the draw of its source material – its central mechanics were excellent, its roster and stage selections were immense upgrades over the series' debut, and there were hundreds of trophies to chase when I tired of fighting for 1st place. Melee was basically a social platform over the following several years for my group of friends, and talks were just as frequently about life as they were about elements of our on-screen bouts. I really enjoy the way Smash Bros. has grown since, but I sincerely doubt a future entry will exceed my expectations on a gameplay and communal level the way that Melee did.

Pokemon Red

You know how kids get attached to something, and then that subject slowly spreads across every part of their lives? I went with a friend to buy one pack of something called "Pokemon cards" because they seemed to really enjoy that game, and ... well, then I found Pokemon Red. Bedsheets, school folders, shirts, birthday party supplies – if it had a Pikachu on it I probably owned it, or at least stared at it intently in the aisles of retail.

Pokemon Red was my first game with an emphasis on amassing a complete collection, and I think that element evoked an obsession similar to how I reacted to the introduction of Achievements. I wanted everything, and my attempt to catch 'em all meant that my Game Boy Pocket only left my side when I was at school, as demanded by my mother.

I did and do genuinely love the game, though. Gary Oak was a communal playground rival, swapping Pokemon and Mew rumors supplied near-daily topics, and Pokemon Red granted me a fantastical sense of power during a very powerless stage in life. I had no control over the daily grind of school or the visitation schedule that stunted my social growth, but in Pokemon Red, I was tracking down rare fighters for my real-world friends, combating an evil organization on my own, and proving a champion status in my own little world. Pokemon Red was a comforting, engrossing escape, and I appreciate the significant part of my childhood that it inspired and provided, Zubat-plagued caves and all.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

I return to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time whenever I feel like I've forgotten enough of it to have a real adventure again. Yes, I'll always remember the main path – gather some stones, collect some medallions, ruin that secret pig man's day – but relearning Ocarina of Time's detours is something I cherish.

It feels odd to struggle with finding something else to say, especially when Ocarina of Time is probably right behind Super Mario World in my most-played game ever, but maybe it's because Link's quest explains its qualities so well on its own. Despite being graphically trounced by multiple console generations, there's still a sense of awe when I watch and play through its heights. I lose myself in Ocarina of Time effortlessly to this day, and when a decade of replays can't dampen the magic of a good story, there's not much more that needs to be said.
[Image: Nintendo, Square Enix, Konami, Blizzard, Bizarre Creations, Harmonix]

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