Nothing Says "I'm Out of Ideas" Like a Big Deuce
There's a solid chance if I asked you to name your five favorite stand-alone titles and your five favorite series, you would struggle to even finish the former. Sequelitis is big business in everyone's favorite industry, and while the smug may cry foul for a lack of innovation, the consumers are more than happy to eat a second, third, and fourth helping of titles like Call of Duty, Halo, and Pokemon.
Which brings us to the question of the hour, one that I've plumbed the depths of in recent days, usually from the toilet while browsing cat pictures on Reddit. Which sequels really mattered to me, as a boy and as a man? In classic Rob Fleming fashion, I give unto you...
"Tim's Top 10 Sequels, excluding Ocarina of Time and Super Mario 64, because they're important to everyone unless you're an asshole."
That is the title.
10. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (PSX - 1997)
Symphony of the Night owes a great debt to Super Metroid. Hell, it might owe everything to Super Metroid. At a glance, it's little more than a cut/paste/edit/nowit'smine of the classic SNES title, but we like to think it was more of an homage on the part of the developers. The community and press alike certainly held nothing against them, and in the years since, the two titles forged hand-in-hand the "Metroidvania" moniker that denotes, roughly, the open-world side-scroller. They also both find themselves in many lists of the greatest games of all time, with very good reason.
Restrictive as the 2-D side-scroller may be and bound mostly to the interior of a seemingly endless castle, Symphony of the Night managed to foster a sense of real exploration on par with almost anything you can think of. The game's incorporation of a full equipment suite and truly diverse arsenal on top of an experience system and semi-random loot took things further, making combat exciting and rewarding. Oh, and the soundtrack?
Legit as fuck, man. Even a goofy, incomprehensible story can't hold down these mad licks.
9. Red Dead Redemption (PS3, Xbox 360 - 2010)
Outside of two words in the title and their taking place in the same universe - and, I suppose, their both being westerns - Red Dead Revolver and Red Dead Redemption really wouldn't have much to talk about on a dinner date. One is a light-hearted action romp very like in tone (if nothing else) to Grand Theft Auto III - the other is a genuinely brilliant take on the classic Rockstar formula, plucked from the metro and thrust onto the wild frontier.
Everything that made Grand Theft Auto IV great is intact - and some might say improved upon - here, from the solid combat mechanics to the almost peerless writing to the sheer wonder as you stare out across a barren plain from horseback. Redemption's greatest achievement of all, though, may be in every-man protagonist John Marsden - a cowboy hero so real and likable that the game's gut-punch ending cut up more than a few onions.
8. Diablo II (PC - 2000)
If you offered me a sea of Mountain Dew and a mountain of Doritos, pizza and beef jerky, I would grin shamefully, hold up a copy of Diablo II and say, "pass," and you would nod with understanding. Because I have already drowned and buried myself in as much of everything that is bad for me in the wee-est hours of the morn, day after night after month ten years on in my struggle against the forces of Hell. All I have to show for it, really, are some calluses on my click-fingers, fifty extra pounds, and a thoroughly researched argument on why the Hammerdin is just a bad idea. It's got bullet points and everything. And I regret nothing.
Once Diablo II asks you to pump your fist, locates the bulging vein in your lower forearm, and thrusts itself into your flesh, there's really no escaping its allure. Taking all of the loot-hoarding, gold collecting, bloody monster bashing that made the first game a genre and expanding on it in so many little, special ways - from crafting to builds to skill-system overhauling patches - Diablo II forged an endless war against the demonic and undead forces of Hell that, to this day, a full thirteen years on, is still going relatively strong. Outside of Counterstrike and the original Starcraft, no game can boast that kind of longevity.
And Diablo III can lick our collective gooch. Even if I still play it occasionally, it can run its tongue right along that spot between my scrotum and my anus.
Bonus Quip: A few months ago, I referred to my gooch as a "cul de sac." You're welcome.
7. Metal Gear Solid (PSX - 1998)
I vividly remember the first time I knocked on a wall, fifteen years ago, and a guard heard it and asked aloud, "What was that noise?" I marveled at how far games had come. I did something, and someone else heard it and reacted to it. It's hard to believe all these things we take for granted in modern gaming were, less than two decades ago, considered hugely innovative.
Of course, Metal Gear Solid was more than knocking on walls and giggling (this was most of it, but there was more). While Thief may have established stealth as a mechanic, MGS turned it into a certifiable genre - complete with an engrossing story, top notch voice-acting, impressive combat sequences, and all the quirky bells and whistles that are now synonymous with a Kojima title. The game also deserves props for its mid-game, plot-altering, torture table button-mash that probably drove a lot of our more prodigious brethren right into cardiac arrest.
And creepy pictures of cute Asian girls in lockers. This, also.
6. Final Fantasy VII (PSX - 1997)
This one's kind of a doozy, isn't it? It almost didn't make it onto the list, but when I really thought about just how much I enjoyed my two or three romps through FFVII, and how much more ambitious it was back then compared to, well... pretty much everything... I decided it had more than earned a place in my heart and my ten.
Final Fantasy VII will always be remembered by most for its genuinely heart-wrenching conclusion in its first disk, but the game was so much more than a Japanese RPG with a tragedy tucked in. Just take a moment and think of everything you actually *DID* in Final Fantasy VII. We're riding a roller coaster and shooting lasers, we're giving CPR to someone who almost drowned, we're playing fucking ROAD RASH against the Shinra, now we have a giant red talking cat ally, now we're playing a fucking RTS to defend a giant bird, OH MY GOD NOW WE'RE BREEDING BIRDS... Oh, you can fish in your Zelda game? Bitch, please.
An excellent cast of characters and a deep, albeit confusing story (Jenova was like, a space alien... right?) set the rails for a game that featured not only the wonderful mix of sequences and events outlined above, but an incredibly strong RPG in its own right, with the still to-this-day beloved Materia system and some truly epic boss battles. Most consider it the undisputed gem of the series.
Side Note: I'm actually a huge Zelda fan, but it kind of makes you think, doesn't it?
5. Resident Evil 4 (GC, PS2 - 2005)
Remember how good the old Resident Evils were? Remember how fun it was to drive a T-34 tank down a narrow hallway running away from flesh eating zombies that could only be shot in the head by aiming straight up at the ceiling until they were a foot away from you and firing your weapon? It only took five years for Capcom to realize all the mediocre writing and atmosphere in the world can't mask mediocre game design forever, and in 2005, they finally buckled down to earn an honest buck. Whether or not they meant to create the quintessential action-horror masterpiece of a generation and one of the greatest games ever made is uncertain.
What is certain though is that, in terms of sequels that take what's broken and fix it, Resident Evil 4 stands head and shoulders above almost everything else. Just being able to free-aim your weapon was (sadly) a huge leap forward for this series, but everything else the game did - from the context-sensitive combat maneuvers to the weapon upgrade system - really fleshed the game out to create something so foreign to the originals that it left many purists, who will probably live out the rest of their sad collective existence in their parents' basements, shaking their fists.
The rest of us are entrenched in firm agreement that it's a landmark title that revived a stale genre - and to this day, I don't think there's a better action sequence in gaming than fighting for your life in the farming village against pitchfork toting peasants and a bag-headed chainsaw maniac. Pure gaming bliss from start to finish.
4. Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (PC - 2002)
Ah, there's that wistful pang somewhere in the back of my gut that accompanies the mere mention of Morrowind. There was a period of my life when complete, inexhaustible happiness was composed of endless free time, video games, and the free, unsanctioned flow of Mountain Dew we previously touched on already. Really, if you throw some bacon, a pair of tits and the movie Thirteen Assassins into the mix, this is still my idea of perfect happiness.
At any rate, so there was such a time when all of the former rang true, and on an early June morn, on a brand new computer that still smelled like fresh plastic and Mexico, I set first foot into the wondrous world of Morrowind.
Not everything was perfect with the game. The combat was stilted and clunky; the NPCs were, for the most part, lifeless and boring; the story was mildly interesting in concept but very poorly told... All of this cobbled together sounds like it'd be enough to plunge a game into mediocrity, but in Morrowind, Bethesda had managed to create this enormous, beautiful, so minutely detailed world that it was impossible not to just get lost in it. More than any game I had played up to that point, Morrowind managed to make me feel very small*, but in the best way possible. Oblivion brought a fresh coat of paint and trimmed a bit of the depth, while Skyrim did much the same with a bit more skill - but many (this writer included) would argue neither of these games managed to capture the raw wonder and sheer adventure that encapsulates Morrowind.
There were books filled with stories to read, cities to wander through, dungeons to plunder, and my personal favorite main theme from any game ever created (video below), and it all comes together in a package so much greater than the sum of its parts - a game that, like all those truly great titles that capture our hearts and imaginations, felt like it was made for gamers, by gamers. Go on, watch that video and reminisce. And then try not to install it again.
*The only game that's made me feel smaller is "Metal Gear Solid 4." Dat bulge.
3. Rome: Total War (PC - 2004)
Age of Empires taught me early on the most basic aspects of warfare. Spears will ruin cavalry. Cavalry will wipe the ground with archers. One villager can build a castle in thirty seconds, but two can do it in twenty four.
When I first unsheathed my gladius and set out to conquer the uncivilized barbarians of the north, I figured at least most of these rules would still apply, and they did! I quickly learned, however, in those early skirmishes that usually left me battered and weeping on the floor, that I was a veritable child when it came to sword and shield military tactics.
Simply put, the rules aren't so much guidelines here as life and death. Archers aren't just “vulnerable” to cavalry – cavalry will slaughter them wholesale if you leave them exposed. And there's a reason when I say “spear wall,” you hear Chris Tucker saying, “Da-uhm,” in the back of your head. That's because a spear wall is exactly what it sounds like. It's a wall of spears that has spelled certain doom for some many cavalry units who probably hated the mouse pointer that foolishly hurled them to their deaths more than the enemy.
The two previous entries in the lauded Total War series presented the very same hardcore mechanics, but the technical limitations of the day forced unattractive 2D sprite units onto a 3D battlefield - the classic "lofty dreams and inadequate tools" predicament. With Rome, the units were brought up to speed with the terrain, and at long last, we could live out our "Braveheart" fantasies and march a fully rendered and animated legion into glorious conflict.
Like a lot of the games on this list, Rome locked me away from sun and social for longer periods of time than one might deem healthy. The campaign map let you control everything from construction in all of your major cities to espionage to diplomacy to taxation - it was basically a stripped down version of Civilization, but it worked well.
The real star of the show, of course, were those battles that punctuated all of your political wrangling. Unlike other titles of the day that basically pit two units against one another who simply perform a static attack animation until one of the guys keeled over, the soldiers in Rome felt alive. Individual units would square off with one another, dodging, deflecting, striking, and crawling away when injured amidst the chaos. Early game skirmishes may have amounted to little more than two groups of men with sharp sticks running each other through, but by the end of the game, you were thundering through thousands of fully armored Principes with war elephants while your Hestatii hammered the gates of the enemy city, catapult volleys whistling across the sky before slamming into stone fortifications, with flaming arrows raining down all around you.
Watching (and listening) to two units of Urban Cohorts crashing together in a symphony of grunts, cries and clangs is a sensory treat equaled only by the Total Wars to follow, and many contend nearly a decade later that Rome is still the most focused and cohesive representation of Creative Assembly's vision.
PS: If you talked to me in 2005 and I was super pissed off and rude, it wasn't you. It was the Macedonians. Baby, I mean it. It was the Macedonians. I miss you.
2. Half-life 2 (PC - 2004)
When I think back on Half-life 2, I almost feel like I'm remembering a movie instead of a game. I remember huge set-piece action sequences, I remember the terrifying crawl through Ravenholm, I remember defending other survivors from those huge metal walkers. So cinematic was the experience that this is simply how it sticks out in my mind - Half-life 2 is as much a brilliant video game as it is an interactive sci-fi action movie.
Everything that made the original successful is here again, brought vividly to life with a graphics engine that, for the time, was shockingly real. Characters like Alyx Vance, with believable facial expressions and excellent voice acting to back it up, felt more like real people you were struggling with than bundles of pixels and polygons that helped you from A to B. The story itself is one of the finest in gaming, mostly due to its nonabrasive telling. There are no pre-rendered cut-scenes or long, drawn out expositions in dialogue - every bit of Half-life 2 's tale is experienced from the player's natural perspective, drawing you in without slowing you down.
The brilliant graphics, characters and storytelling all rest on what is, at its core, a near perfect first person adventure-shooter. Firefights with the Combine are intense, often brutal affairs punctuated by bursts of gunfire and explosions and that trademark 'din' that follows the cry of a dispatched enemy. This is also the game that made physics matter, thanks in no small part to the Gravity Gun, the undisputed king of FPS weaponry.
Like many games on this list, Half-life 2 raised the bar and set the tone for what people expect out its respective genre, We're creeping up on the game's ten year anniversary, and so many years later, we're still waiting for a game to match it - with Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite being the only real contenders. Just type "Half-life 3, confirmed?" into Google to get a small taste of how rabid Valve's community is for a threequel.
Everyone knows you have to tease her a bit at first, then give her what she wants, and Gabe certainly knows what the ladies like... but he sure does take his time.
1. Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn (PC - 2000)
...and when the dust settled and the smoke cleared, only a man and his hamster were left standing.
2000 was a good year for a lot of reasons, but even if I'd gotten married and had a child and acquired my dream job being a game designer, all of these would have paled in comparison to the rapturous experience that was losing my Baldur's Gate II virginity.
In the build up to the this part of the article, I was running through my head - just how the hell can I make people understand how beautiful this game is, and how much I truly adore it? Even as I tap-type-tap away in this paragraph, I feel like words alone simply aren't enough... I need a monument, I need a tattoo across my chest - I need to give someone a kidney - something more than mere text to entreat you as to what makes this game so timeless, so peerless, so utterly transcendent in every regard.
Everything that made the original Baldur's Gate so excellent isn't just improved - it's perfected. The combat leaps from being a semi-tactical party-based Diablo -like to a full-on engrossing strategy experience. Higher level characters opened up new abilities and more than three hundred unique spells, giving the fight a strategic depth more on par with dedicated strategy titles than traditional role-playing games. The quality and diversity of the encounters is nothing short of outstanding - everything in Forgotten Realms lore from the common Orc to the daunting Beholder to the seemingly insurmountable Demi-lich is well represented here. The game also features dragons, and these fights are particularly worth noting for their sheer spectacle (and the best combat theme of any game ever).
Questing is another huge piece of the puzzle, and man, did Baldur's Gate II get it right. Nearly every side-quest in the game is a fully developed and realized story that you will see through to a satisfying conclusion; the nefarious Cult of the Unseeing Eye that requires its dedicated followers remove their eyes; the too-polite-to-not-be-a-dragon-in-disguise Lord Firkraag and his orc-infested fortress in Windspear Hills; the slave rebellion in the slums of Athkatla; the misguided daughter of a noble whose home has been overrun by trolls; the halfling girl trapped in a cell in an a haunted ruin who wishes to one day be a paladin. There are so many unforgettable quests with unforgettable characters, punctuated with brilliant strategic combat that the game never grew dull, and the sense that there was always something else to do gave it a quality that remains unique to it for the simple fact that, although many games that have followed may feature more side-quests, not one holds a candle to this classic in terms of quality.
Which brings us to what, ultimately, has fostered a place for this game in the hearts of the many who hold it dear. The quality of the writing in Baldur's Gate II simply cannot be overpraised. Interacting with the characters in this game is an experience that has been imitated in recent years in everything from Mass Effect to Dragon Age and beyond, but never matched. Characters like Minsc (and Boo!), Aerie, Imoen, Korgan, Jan Jansen and Keldorn mingle nostalgia and straight-up honest to God love in everything in me that is gamer and writer. Joneleth Irenicus, the game's much lauded villain, is unequaled for both his script and - especially - the inimitable David Warner's performance.
When the final credits rolled on the game's expansion, Throne of Bhaal, and the finality of it all set in - as epilogues for each of my favorite characters - my friends, in as true a sense of the word as our medium might muster - rolled up across the screen and closed their stories forever, it was impossible for me not to shed a tear. It was a beautiful journey that remains unparalleled to this day, and it forever changed me as a writer and video game player. My thirst for reading and writing and my desire to talk about, dissect, and perhaps one day craft video games owe everything to this game, which made me understand what magnificent imagination-fostering potential a few pixels and a few lines of code can truly have in the right hands.