Video games, at the best, are more than just time sinks. They are a way to stimulate my imagination. Would my time have been better spent reading or writing rather than playing these games? Yes, undoubtedly. But I can’t say they haven’t been a significant part of my life. That’s what this list is for, not the list of the best games but games that represented something to me, that occupied a lot of time or taught me something. Yes, you can learn things from video games. Let’s begin.
Most significant games, in less-significant order:
10. Ogre Battle – This is an odd one. I played it on NES and then bought it on Playstation but it wasn’t the same or I wasn’t. At the time, the mix of real-time strategy (you’d send your units off on the main map to explore or capture points, then go into a turn-based brawl if and when you ran into an enemy unit) and turn-based party fight was unique. It added in pseudo tarot cards that could give your team a buff or damage opponents and the cards you earned were randomized and permanently expended when used. But what really hooked me was the leveling system. Your base characters were pretty weak but they could level up and specialize. An Amazon archer could become an angel eventually or a Valkerie, raining down lightning. I’m a sucker for character development. Special mention also for the world map in the game. I always thought it would be a great setting for a fantasy novel and the map really helped sell that.
9. Age of Empires – I could have chosen a number of real-time strategy games, I played a lot of the: Command and Conquer, Dune, Warcraft 2. But Age of Empires was not only one of the best games Microsoft ever made, mechanically, it was also at least somewhat historically accurate. The Egyptians, the Hitties, the Babylonians were all fielding units that their historical culture favored. Be it Egyptian archers and charioteers or what have you. The architecture also had nods towards archaeologically accurate structure. As a history buff, it was like finding little Easter eggs when the game referenced dead cultures correctly. It really added something and made me want to read more, outside of the game.
8. Call of Duty 2 – I like shooters. This was one of the best. Unlike many of the later incarnations, you weren’t as restricted in what routes you could take and enemies didn’t spawn infinitely. There was a finite number of bad guys and if you killed them all, you won. The game also made if feel like you were fighting alongside other soldiers, they’d fight with you, and actually help without getting in the way. There was a sense of accomplishment in keeping as much of your friends alive as possible. And cleaning out the tank factory by finding a good sniping spot inside an oil pipeline was awesome. Real guns and some real tactics. I still like shooters today, Borderlands 2 has devoured a lot of my time, but I have fondest memories for fighting fictionally alongside the Greatest Generation.
7. Streetfighter 2 – This was the game me and my friends played in college. After classes, two or more of us would be in front of the TV, playing. With varying degrees of success. Chun Li was a favorite for ease and deadliness of her kicks while Guile won with style points. It’s not the only fighter on the list but it was the one I was most in sync with. I was accused of witchcraft powers over this game. Which I deny. I was just….in tune with it. In fact, I once beat one of my fellow friends one-handed. I played Guile, moved with one thumb and used my pinkie to heavy kick. Won three games in a row. I don’t know about witchcraft but it was sure magic.
6. Dawn of War – The Warhammer 40,000 series is ridiculous. Let’s get that out of the way. No matter how much Dan Abnett humanized the world and characters in his Gaunt’s Ghosts series, the dark and grim world of orcs, elves and surgically-modified Space Marines in powered armor is pretty silly. But this game, oh this game is solid. It not only captures the flavor of the world, it mechanically is different from the other real-time strategy games of the time. You seized control points to gain resources to call in reinforcements rather than just cranking out workers and mining or harvesting. The focus was on the squads taking and holding terrain. And there was something very cool about two squads of Space Marines, both with Sergeants and with Apothecaries attached, buffed up with two Heavy Bolters and Two Rocket Launchers. I’d take that up against any force in the game.
5. Rome: Total War – Another one for the history nut inside me. This had history and strategy on and off the battlefield. The supremacy of the Roman Legion was breathtaking….and the limitations were there as well. The Roman faction had great infantry but relied on mercenaries for archers and cavalry. That would bite them in the ass in future centuries, though this game is set in the range of 100 BC to 50 AD. The wide variety of factions to play is a great selling point, you didn’t have to play the Romans. If you want, you could try conquering Europe with Celtic chariot archers from Britannia. Though the Romans tended to be the richest, if internally faction-ridden. The computer AI was not perfect but it was good enough for real tactics (speed, morale, flanking) to be useful. Another great piece of history come to life in game form.
4. Master of Orion – The game I still play to this day. The graphics are dated as all get out but the AI is as good as it gets. The game mostly plays fair, unlike the Total War game at higher difficulties. The computer players have the same economy you do and they are all motivated by self-interest and not just ‘gang up on the human’, which is sadly rare in most games. The ship design is amazing, the randomized tech tree and galaxy layout will keep you playing and playing. Still available on GOG.com and worth ten times what they charge for a modern pc-compatible version. The second game is good, too but the first one is a model of simplicity and replayability.
3. Dead or Alive – The ‘last’ fighting game me and my friends played (so far). This is on the list for two, jiggling reasons. I like the characters. They are fun to look at. I don’t mind losing over and over to Kasumi, I really don’t. It is a good, deep fighter as well, a solid game. But some part of every man stays 14 forever and this game is for him. Hotness without quite crossing the line, Playboy-with-clothes-on as opposed to Hustler. (Mortal Kombat, for me, crosses over that line)
2. Panzer General – Re-fighting World War 2 may be a hobby for the rest of western civilization, much the way past generations re-fought Waterloo. (In fact, one friend still plays Napoleonic battles). This game does it better than most. Persistent units you keep and upgrade from scenario to scenario gives weight to every fight. Because new recruits cost money and they never are QUITE as good as the unit you had since Poland 1939. Yes, you play the Germans in this, which can be a sticking point for some. I don’t disagree. But there is something very, very satisfying in crushing the Soviets and taking Moscow early in 1941. This game will keep you fighting for Major Victories in each scenario. And it does illustrate just how close some turning points in history can be. Luck as well as audacity can be and has been the difference between defeat and victory.
1. City of Heroes – In a way, World of Warcraft should be on this list. It, after all, is still around and collecting money month after month from millions of subscribers. But it was City of Heroes, launched at the same time, that meant the most to me. I miss this game more than any other on the list. There are other superhero games out there, some still with players, even. But this game just worked. It made you feel like a hero. You could take on five or six goons at once and not have your hat handed to you. And the character creator! No other game has done it better, given you more choices and options. You could easily duplicate real people….and fake ones. Trademarked by Marvel, say. Which is why the game is no more, thanks to a lawsuit with undisclosed settlement terms, City of Heroes never found a new owner when the publisher, may they burn in hell, decided to kill off a game with people still willing to pay them money for it. Perfect? No, it had flaws, a lack of late-game content for one. But you could fly, shoot radioactive beams from your eyes and act like a hero. Or a villain, both were options in the game, eventually. I liked putting on the spandex and getting my super-leap on.