10 – Toejam and Earl (Sega Mega Drive)
I confess this initial selection is more than slightly influenced by my wish to reiterate my undying admiration for my first console love: the peerless Sega Mega Drive. The console I first played video games on in the early 1990s remains my favourite (a fact endorsed by being treated to one as a truly wonderful 21st birthday gift); a provider of games bringing simple but regularly unadulterated joy. The arcade brawling of Streets of Rage and Golden Axe, the Tetris-esque Columns for puzzlephiles and the shape-shifting, insanely difficult Altered Beast (seriously, I’ve gotten as far as Level 6 once or twice in my entire life) all hold a special pixel in my heart but I’ve given Toejam and Earl the nod here.
For those unaware, the eponymous game follows two inhabitants of the planet Funkotron who’ve crashed their space ship on Earth and the player’s duty is to help our two heroes retrieve the scattered pieces. Along the way you come across and attempt to avoid an array of hilarious and surreal enemies – from skipping mini-devils to shopping mothers with wailing babies – while aiding (or often slowing) your progress with gifts picked up en route, allowing you access to rubber rings, pogo shoes and various types of food, amongst other things. It harks back to a previous time where games were not under pressure to be so relentlessly polished you can barely see anything past the sheen. Toejam and Earl hasn’t got an awful lot to it, it doesn’t always make sense, and it isn’t especially immersive. What it is, is silly, funny, frequently bizarre and always able to implant a smile on your face. The fact that it’s probably more fun to play two-player with a friend/relative/captive says it all; it’s simple joy you’ll want to share. Oh, and if all that wasn’t enough, it’s underscored by a mind-bendingly brilliant soundtrack.
9 – Uncharted (Playstation 3)
This is the first and probably most obvious of these selections that make it clear that I’m not particularly a connoisseur of highly-regarded games. It is also a choice that stresses this list comprises of personal favourites, rather than what I view as (as near as possible) objectively the best games. In many ways, Uncharted is Everything That’s Wrong With ModernTM Football Britain Life Games. Wisecracking American hero (with what appears to be an obsession with removing from the Earth all those unfortunate enough not to be born white and in the USA)? Check. Simplistic & unchanging plots ripped off from a Hollywood blockbuster to a frankly ludicrous degree? Check (which is why I’m including all three instalments in one here; they’re basically all the same game). Secondary characters with as many interesting character traits as Michael Owen? Check. Repetitive gameplay? Check. The constant feeling of desperately reaching for the cinematic before thinking of the plot? Check (see the utterly pointless sinking ship scene in the third game). Plot holes you could drive a hijacked armoured vehicle through? Check. In many ways, it’s the anti-Toejam and Earl.
And yet…I like it. It’s fun. It of course greatly helps that I’m a complete sucker for both the wisecracking, cardboard cut-out hero and a simplistic narrative but Uncharted always does enough to keep you interested. Though the larger fight scenes in each game are just ridiculously difficult – you die trying it about 15 times, work out a strategy, die another 15 times then fluke your way through – there is enough variation to stop it getting too monotonous, most of the time. No section is without its faults: the developers clearly feared that the puzzles section would lose their (apparently) moronic audience so essentially makes neon flashing signs appear in Drake’s notebook saying “DO THIS! NO, NOT LIKE THAT LIKE THIS! OH, JUST GIVE IT HERE!” and the climbing sections sometimes feel completely arbitrary (obviously, they are, the trick is not to feel it) in terms of which pointy-outy-looking bit of rock you can climb onto and which will leave you plummeting to a death that looks like an “arty” photo posted by a 14 year old on Instagram. It all comes together though and it’s definitely a satisfying play. Shooting people in the head, frankly, never gets old; the platforming works easily well enough to keep things moving at a decent pace and, whatever it may say about the makers’ priorities, the scenery produced in these games is staggering.
Uncharted is unremitting in its search for blandness, following the recipe for box-office games by adding exactly the right amounts of “personality”, “peril” and “humour” into the mix (note the quotation marks: not to be confused with actual personality, peril or humour). What you get out is basically a mass-produced, oven cooked dessert. You don’t derive any true emotional satisfaction from it, you don’t feel you’ve been on any unique journey or made some huge discovery (gaming or culinary) but you know that 9 times out of 10 it’s going to be nice if you don’t do anything stupid. It’s enjoyable, fairly mindless fluff. Maybe it’s not so different to Toejam and Earl after all…
8 – Spyro 2: Gateway to Glimmer (Playstation)
My first instinct was that this was something of a nostalgic inclusion: as the console I played it on suggests, this was a game I first came across years ago. In fact, it was something of a quirk I got the game at all – it was initially rented, and I’ve no idea why I chose the second game in a series the first of which I had never played ahead of competitors like Croc, Crash Bandicoot et al. Suffice to say that for whatever the reason, I’m glad I did, as the young dragon’s quest to rid the land of Avalar of Ripto quickly engrossed me. The more I think about it though, the more I think this game is included on merit, too – it has stood the test of time (not to mention two, soon to be three, new generations of console) extremely well.
What is perhaps most impressive is that the game overcomes fairly obvious flaws. It’s a children’s game, and as such to say its plot is less than demanding would be an understatement. Similarly, the script is hardly cutting edge and the characters unlikely to take you on the proverbial “emotional rollercoaster” and leave you hugely invested. The set up is also simple and repetitive: in each of the three realms of Avalar (the Summer Forest, the Autumn Plains and the Winter Tundra) Ripto takes control of the Castle and it is up to Spyro defeat him. To do this, he journeys through to other worlds, in which he is greeted by inhabitants who inform him of whatever is blighting their otherwise happy lives. Upon defeating said bane, Spyro is granted that world’s Talisman as a reward. Completion of smaller challenges within each world results in Spyro being gifted orbs. Collection of the requisite number of orbs and talismans unlocks new areas and allows the player to progress (as does collection of gems; the game’s currency).
The brilliance of this game lies in the creativity that makes this repetitiveness feel nothing of the sort – each world brings its own unique look and feel, making every level different. As previously suggested, the game also appeals to a basic instinct for lots of players – a borderline obsession with collectables. With the talismans, orbs and gems you are never short of something to be hunting down as well as being able to make very tangible progress in this regard and be rewarded accordingly. It is not a game that will leave you on the edge of your seat with nerves or tension; it is as genteel and threatening as Sunday night TV. Unlike Sunday night TV, it is a brilliant way to while away a few hours – and playing it, you’ll find these hours passing a hell of a lot quicker than you realise.
7 – Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (Playstation 2)
From this point forward, definitively ordering these games became almost impossible; from 7 to 2 the list could really go in any order, changing depending on whatever mood I happen to be in at the time. Nevertheless, I had to decide eventually, so I’ve given this place to the game that started one of the Playstation 2’s most successful franchises. When it comes to the Sands of Time Trilogy, I feel this opening game pips the second (Warrior Within) but I should also point out how close I came to including the much-maligned 2008 reboot of the series on PS3, which I adore (seriously, Ubisoft, whenever you can be bothered to make a sequel for the cliff-hanger you left that on FIVE YEARS AGO, me and about 6 other people will be incredibly grateful). The success of the series was such that it spawned the strange/deeply rubbish (depending on how generous you’re feeling) Hollywood movie – as well as ‘The Forgotten Sands’, a game put together in about 10 minutes to capitalise on the movie and forgotten just as quickly.
It was this game that the movie was broadly based on: a young Prince of Persia, helping to conquer foreign land called Azad, is tricked into releasing the Sands of Time from their hourglass. This turns everyone in the surrounding area into zombie-like sand creatures, apart from the Prince himself, Farah (a young Princess of Azad) and the man who tricked him into releasing the sands, the evil Vizier. The player’s subsequent goal is to make his way through the castle, solving numerous puzzles and killing these sand creatures with Dagger of Time (which he has picked up en route) so he can plunge the knife back into the hourglass, reversing his release of the sands. He basically spends more time stabbing sand than someone attempting to cross the Sahara on crutches. It is this dagger which provides the mechanism for perhaps the game’s best known feature – the ability to slow and rewind time (along with other abilities than are unlocked as the player collects more sand). Though it seems a bit cliché, this idea proves an ingenious one; preventing a huge number of deaths by replacing extra lives with the ability to reverse your latest cock-up (even when you run out of sand, your “death” is technically nothing of the sort as the vague outline is that the Prince is telling a story in the past tense, so any failure is written off as a mistake). The main reason this works so well is that it allows the game to showcase the superb platforming that allows for a fast-moving, slick and incredibly enjoyable experience for the player. The Prince’s wall-running, climbing and jumping have become almost as ubiquitous as his time-travelling escapades and it’s a format Ubisoft have really proven the masters of.
All this excellence explains the success and enjoyment of the franchise as a whole, but not my choice of this game in particular – after all, the platforming and graphics are arguably honed and improved in future games compared to the original. What sets this game apart from its peers, in my view, is the writing and characterisation behind it. The Prince begins the game as an arrogant, headstrong moron and throughout the tale (aided by him regularly talking to himself for the player’s benefit) you actually see him develop in a believable way into a far more mature, well-rounded individual. The game is also funny, with the interaction (and growing affection) between the Prince and Farah as amusing and well-developed as you’ll tend to find on video games. It also helps that the Prince is British rather than American (which for some reason magically changes when he goes Emo for Warrior Within) and the script-writers find the right balance so as to make him whiny without being too much so as well as (initially at least) arrogant and annoying without being irredeemable. Don’t get me wrong, it’s hardly Shakespeare, but by gaming standards (see #9 on this list), Sands of Time represents a very nicely-crafted experience as well as a hell of a lot of fun to play.
6 – Portal (from The Orange Box) and Portal 2 (Playstation 3)
There are two things which, for me, really stand out as by far the most disappointing aspects of these two games. One is that there are only two, the other is that it took me so long to get around to playing them (only in the last few months). They are – and I don’t use this term lightly – creations of absolute genius and I completely fell head over heels for them. I’ve also included both as I simply can’t choose between them. The first was essentially a mini-game, an extra chucked in on The Orange Box collection with no great expectations of success. The second was quite the opposite; a dedicated full game this time, coming out under huge pressure to match its cult phenomena predecessor. The original is beautifully compact and feels like a small gift-wrapped present specially designed for the player. The fact that Valve were then able to extrapolate this feel across an entire game and maintain the same extraordinary standards is to their immense credit and in my view make the sequel as much of a triumph as the opener (in itself a rare feat).
Ultimately, the Portal games are incredibly basic. The premise is that the player completes tests in chambers for the satisfaction of a maniacal supercomputer, each solved test moving you to the next chamber. The settings are well designed and in some cases extremely visually impressive, particularly in the second game, and are always as perfectly judged as every aspect of the games, right down to the hilarious song sung over the credits. The key, of course, is the puzzles themselves, which are solved by use of the games’ crucial feature: the portal gun. This gun, when aimed at the requisite surface, can fire a blue and an orange portal, both of which open a hole on said surface-type. Pass through the blue portal and you exit through the orange one, and vice versa. The genius in its superficial simplicity. Add to this the fact that momentum can be carried through the portal and you begin to purposefully plummet down huge drops, to shoot a portal beneath your feet before landing and come zooming out at ridiculous speeds to cross huge gaps. It’s as exhilarating as being pushed on the swings as a toddler (I mean that in a positive sense). But that’s all 90% of these games are, that’s all they need to be. Even though the second game brings you to various locations, the idea is the same: solve the puzzle, move on. Valve’s management of difficulty is also wonderfully delicate: the puzzles becoming increasingly challenging (as well as introducing more props that can and need to be used) and some can be incredibly frustrating without ever being too difficult or making you give up – you know the answer is there, and the frustration is with yourself rather than the games, something that is always an important definition.
The originality of this premise is enough to make them fantastic games, what makes them truly superb however, is the script-writing. As mentioned previously “good script for a game” is damning with faint praise taken to a ridiculous degree, possibly even surpassing “good acting for a soap”, “funny for a BBC Three sitcom” and “intelligent for a footballer”. The writing behind Portal isn’t just good for a game. It’s absolutely aeons ahead of any other game I’ve played and will stand up well to anything from TV that you’d choose to put up against it. It’s indisputably funny and having games make you regularly laugh aloud is so rare it’s almost disconcerting (at least when it’s trying to make you laugh, rather than you laughing at its incompetence, which is far more regular). What’s even more striking about this is that it is done with only 3 main characters across two games – one of whom (Chel, the character controlled by the player) doesn’t say a word in either! The despotic madness of the supercomputer, GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System, since you asked), results in brilliantly childish insulting of the player, spending much of certain segments accusing Chel of being fat and adopted. I’m probably not doing this justice at all – it really is funny. To sum up both just how good the writing is and how highly I regard the games as a whole I’m going to describe the 3rd main character and its voice (introduced in the second game) by using a phrase I honestly never thought I’d use and still find hard to believe I’m going to type: I found Stephen Merchant funny.