By no means am I a big gamer. There are probably great games from this decade that I’ve never even heard of, let alone played. And I know for a fact that there are great games out there that I haven’t played; I currently have a stack next to my TV of unopened games that includes the well-reviewed Left 4 Dead 2, Fallout 3, and Assassin’s Creed 2. I should also include the caveat that I’m not a big sports game person, or a huge first-person shooter fan, as evidenced by the fact that there is no Halo to be found here. But in the imperfect spirit of my lists, here are my 20 favorite video games of the decade (along with the year of release and the console on which I spent the most time playing them):
20) Crackdown (2007, Xbox 360)
This game seems like an afterthought, and sort of was. I’m guessing that it’s most remembered for being the game that came with an access code for the Halo 3 beta. But it’s a game that I find myself coming back to on Saturday afternoons when I’m bored and just feel like throwing cars and jumping over buildings. Great arcade-y fun, and the orb collecting is completely addictive.
19) Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare 2 (2009, Xbox 360)
I guess, according to this list, this is my favorite first-person shooter of the decade. The levels in this game are much more varied than most shooters; it sort of reminds me of my favorite FPS of last decade, GoldenEye 007. That’s also the reason that I picked this over the original Modern Warfare. Even though I don’t really play video games online (probably the main draw of this title), I didn’t mind that the single player story was pretty short. There are so many great games coming out lately that I don’t have time for all of these 30-hour epics.
18) Wii Sports (2006, Wii)
I don’t really play the Wii that often. Most people that own them seem to stop using them after a while. But when I do revisit the system, this is what I want to play. And everyone who plays this game for the first time wants to go buy a Wii. The most brilliant system and game bundling since the NES and Super Mario Brothers.
17) Fable II (2008, Xbox 360)
A huge improvement on the first game in the series. The decisions in this game are more important (and therefore more fun to make) than in maybe any other game I’ve ever played. Still, like every other post-Oblivion RPG, it feels a bit lightweight, story-wise. The fact that your character continues to earn money even when your system is off makes even not playing fun.
16) Mass Effect (2007, Xbox 360)
This game feels like a breakthrough RPG when you’re playing it, and the story is engrossing and ranks up there with almost any other video game. But it has its flaws. The side planet exploration is repetitive and not all that interesting. And it’s just not as addictive or fun to play as the KOTOR games (below), which is disappointing, since it comes from the same studio. That said, it obviously made an impression on me; I’ve already pre-ordered the sequel on Amazon.
15) Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, The Sith Lords (2004, Xbox)
Didn’t introduce much to the series; this is basically the same game as the original KOTOR. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Drops a few spots because of the really spotty ending to the story.
14) Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga (2007, Wii)
My favorite of the Lego games, although I love all of them. This is 90% mindless bashing and collecting fun, and 10% puzzles just to keep things interesting. This game even has some legitimately funny stuff going on in it, which is a serious rarity in the medium.
13) Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 (2000, Dreamcast)
This game alone made buying a Dreamcast worth it for me. The Tony Hawk games are the only ones that I’ve ever been good at. Seriously. I’ve spent my entire life playing games on the “Amateur” or “Normal” difficulty settings. I’ve always gotten thrashed by my friends at every game I’ve played with them. I never even dare to play with the amped-up 14-year-olds online. Yet, for some reason, I dominate at this game. No one ever used to beat me. That’s enough for it to make the list.
12) Bully: Scholarship Edition (2008, Xbox 360)
I often rant at Johanna about topics she has little to no interest in. One of the things I’ve talked about quite a few times is the limited number of settings that video game developers attempt to take on. Sci-fi, dragons and dwarves fantasy, WWII, sports, urban crime, maybe an occasional western or Roman era title. And even the urban crime genre didn’t really exist before GTA III. I always complain that designers should approach games the way directors approach movies; just a story about anything, although, in the case of games, one with an interactive element.
Bully is a great example of a game that is completely original in its premise. At its roots it’s just another open world title by Rockstar, but its story and setting make it feel absolutely fresh. Also, it proves that when it comes to open world games, what’s important about the world is how immersive it is, not how large it is. Quality over quantity. An underrated gem.
11) Peggle (2007, PC and Mac)
The video game market is dominated by casual titles. There are more people that play solitaire on their computers than there are that have even heard of Grand Theft Auto. PopCap makes my favorite casual games, and this is the one that is the most addictive. Basically, it’s Plinko on my computer with lots of fun sounds. I could play this for hours.
10) Out of the Park Baseball (multiple years, PC and Mac)
This game is basically a spreadsheet crossed with a database. That hasn’t stopped me from simulating a century’s worth of baseball seasons multiple times. Nothing is quite as satisfying as drafting Babe Ruth onto the St. Louis Cardinals, or duping a team into trading me Willie Mays for a washed-up catcher and a prospect that’s going nowhere. A lot of effort went into building this game; it’s pretty remarkable that it comes from an independent developer. I never would have heard of this game if not for Bryan Harris, who directed me to it after hearing that I was playing the far, far inferior MLB Front Office Manager.
9) GTA: Vice City (2003, Xbox)
This game, more than the original, really set the tone for the series. There are missions here that are more well-constructed and more fun to play than anything else the GTA games have to offer. And the story and setting are great, too. There were just too many gameplay additions in San Andreas (and, obviously, GTA IV) to rank this higher on the list.
8 ) SimCity 4 (2003, PC)
This is not my favorite of the SimCity games, but it’s the best from this decade. I never would have imagined that I would devote so many hours to urban planning for imaginary cities named things like Jaredtopia and Jaredopolis.
7) GTA: San Andreas (2004, Xbox)
The perfect send-off for the last generation of game consoles. It really seemed like it was pushing the hardware to its limits, both graphically and in content. This is a lot of game, even by current standards. This is one of the titles that I really wanted to make sure would still be compatible with the Xbox 360 before I bought one. Also, the “Hot Coffee” controversy showed us all which politicians were completely myopic when it came to video games (I’m looking at you, Joe Lieberman and Hillary Clinton).
6) FIFA (multiple years, Xbox and Xbox 360)
I was initially going to just go with the current version, FIFA 10, but that would be a slap in the face to the different iterations of this game with which I’ve spent hours and hours over the years. The current version has the best graphics, obviously, and I love the “Be A Pro” mode. Also, it feels pretty balanced; not too easy to score, not too hard. But there are features from older versions that I loved that are gone. I think the unlockables and franchise modes were more fun in the mid-decade releases. Regardless, FIFA is my favorite sports video game of all time.
5) Age of Empires III (2005, PC and Mac)
This is actually a very complex, nerdy strategy game. But that’s not how I play it. I play it the same way Johanna plays Tetris. It’s almost muscle memory to me at this point. Put it on a low difficulty level, and then start, collect resources, build military units, attack, start over. It’s a great stress-reliever.
4) The Beatles: Rock Band (2009, Xbox 360)
So, this is sort of just a stand-in for the Guitar Heroes and Rock Bands of the world, but, really, this game could make the list all by itself. By far my favorite game that uses a guitar peripheral, and the only one where I actually like every song on the tracklist. Plus, I really love the backgrounds that play over the songs. This is a game that would have been very easy to screw up, and they just did a really, really good job with it.
3) The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (2006, Xbox 360)
I discuss video game depth at number one below, and while that game is much more polished than Oblivion, and has more variety in its activities, it’s nowhere near as deep. Nothing comes close to this game in that department. I spent 200+ hours playing this and didn’t feel like I was reaching an end point. I didn’t finish it; I moved on. Games like Dragon Age: Origins, while fun, feel very slight next to this. It set a standard that will be very hard to surpass. My friend Ben printed the walkthrough to this game off of IGN for me when I worked at KPMG. It took up an entire 3” binder. For those not as familiar as me with office supplies, that’s a lot. This game is one of a kind.
2) Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003, Xbox)
The irony here is that this is the best Star Wars video game of all time, and it basically has nothing to do with Star Wars. The story takes place 4,000 years before the Star Wars movies we’re all familiar with, and therefore basically exists as its own universe, with a few lightsabers and Wookies thrown in.
This is the game that got me to start playing RPGs, a genre that had seemed forbidding previously. Also, this might be the game in which I felt most obligated to do every single thing that I was able to, talk to every single character, open every single crate. And it never stops being fun to go back and play it.
1) GTA IV (2008, Xbox 360)
There are games on this list that I spent more time playing (definitely Oblivion and Age of Empires, maybe Sim City and KOTOR). But there is no game this decade that I was more invested in. And I don’t mean plot-wise; I love Niko Bellic as much as the next guy, but, if anything, the sophistication of this game’s plot was overblown by critics. This might be the best video games have to offer in that department, but they still have a long way to go to catch up with television or movies. I was invested in this game’s existence. I spent almost as much time thinking about it before it was released as I did playing it. Its predecessors had gotten me to take video games seriously, and it I built it up so much in my head that the fact that it lived up to expectations was a minor miracle.
The original release date for this game was October 16th, 2007. The summer of 2007 was a particularly tough one for me, and I was viewing this as a light at the end of the tunnel. I was planning on buying it for myself and using it as an escape. In August it was announced that it would be delayed until the next April. I was devastated in a way I had no right to be about a video game. The fact that I remember this (and would never remember this about any other game, ever) is one of the reasons I have this at number one.
This game, along with number three on this list, is so staggeringly deep that one can’t play them without thinking about what the future of gaming may hold. There is so much to do, so many places to go. GTA IV feels like it could be the number one game of next decade. Although, considering how quickly these things advance, I’m sure that will seem like a silly statement in a year or two.
Honorable Mentions: Bioshock, Boom Blox, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Civilization IV, Gears of War, Guitar Hero 3, Guitar Hero World Tour, Guitar Hero 5, GTA III, Icy Tower, Insaniquarium, Jet Set Radio Future, Lego Indiana Jones, Lego Batman, Saints Row, Star Wars: Battlefront, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3, Viva Piñata, Zuma