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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Gaming Landscape 2000 to 2009 Part 5: Most Important Games of the Decade

When we talk about gaming, sometimes we make the mistake of discussing the systems or the technology behind the games instead of the games themselves.  That's a shame, because all of the technology in the world is worthless unless there are games to play it on.  To that end, here are the ten most important games of the decade.  These aren't the best games, but rather the games that had the farthest-reaching and hardest impact in gaming, in order of appearance.  If you've played these ten games, then you understand what the whole decade of gaming was about.

Super Mario Advance - Game Boy Advance - June 11, 2001

At first glance, having Super Mario Advance on this list sounds ridiculous.  Hear me out.

It wasn't just that it repackaged Super Mario Bros. 2, a Criminally Overlooked game, but it started the trend of repackaging and updating older games to modern standards.  There was a huge, untapped market for updated nostalgia that was revealed by Super Mario Advance, which in turn opened the door for the Virtual Console and the Rebirth series of games.  It also showed that 2-D platforming wasn't dead at all, and needed to be supported and nurtured.  This led to tons of new 2-D platformers, including games like Shadow Complex and the New Super Mario Bros. series, and proved that some types of gameplay never go out of style.

ICO - Playstation 2 - September 24, 2001

There hadn't really been a game quite like ICO.  It was a strange game, with little dialogue, little direction, and a weird, helpless mute girl who you led around.  It's not the sort of game that flies off of shelves, and the fact that it was released two weeks after 9/11 didn't help its chances at retail.  However, those who played it found that it was a starkly personal story of affection and trust, set in a beautiful, mysterious backdrop. There was darkness around the edges, but the darkness could be dispelled with bravery and kindness.

Not only was it a great game on its own merits, but it also opened the door for other triumphs, like Beyond Good & Evil, Shadow of the Colossus, Mother 3, Braid, Okami, and a host of other atmospheric, emotional tales. In many ways, it was really the start of the prestige game: The game that won't sell a lot of copies, but is a game that the makers and publishers will be proud of.

Grand Theft Auto 3 - Playstation 2 - October 22, 2001

Rockstar Games was a standard developer with a couple of fun games to their credit, but nothing special. Then Grand Theft Auto 3 hit, and they became a household name. GTA 3 was one of the first examples of an open-world game that felt real.  You could either follow the missions or not.  You could waste hours driving around, listening to the radio, and exploring. You could get into a fight with the cops and have them bring down the military on you.  The choice was really yours.  

It also brought mass media attention to gaming, and not always in a good way. The howls of "You can have sex with hookers, run over them and take your money back!" were extremely loud, and it helped give crazies like Jack Thompson a pulpit to scream from. It's telling that these choices are built into the game, but you don't have to take them if you don't want to. You don't have to go on rampages. You can just follow the well-plotted gangland storyline if you choose. In an ironic twist of fate, what you choose to do in GTA says more about you than it does the developer. If it weren't for GTA 3, we wouldn't have the other games in the GTA series, obviously, but we also wouldn't have games stretching from Saints Row to Prototype to Just Cause.

Halo - XBox - November 15, 2001

In fact, between GTA 3 and Halo, you can almost understand the entire decade. Before Halo, console multiplayer was done split-screen, where you got a few of your friends together and played in the same room. After Halo, console multiplayer was worldwide and unified. Before Halo, shooters were an also-ran on consoles, with most being ports of PC games or just plain inferior to what the PC was doing at the time. After Halo, shooters made their homes on consoles first and then filtered down to the PC.

The archetype of a space marine doing battle versus an alien horde goes back to DOOM, but Halo was what prompted the next wave of grizzled space marine games. Gears of War, Killzone, Resistance, and even Metroid Prime all owe their existence and popularity to Halo.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic - XBox - July 15, 2003

Bioware already had made a name for themselves with fun, deep RPGs, but this was their first time with someone else's work, and their first time outside of the constraints of Dungeons & Dragons. Lucasarts was also beginning to let others handle their license after several years of mismanagement. Could Bioware work with someone else's material?  Could Lucasarts actually make a good Star Wars game? Also, RPGs on consoles had been the province of spiky-haired angsty emo kids with gigantic swords. Could an RPG that didn't have an androgynous hero sell on consoles?

Yes, yes and yes. Not only was the gameplay great and the characters sharp ("Shall we find something to kill to cheer ourselves up?"), but KOTOR set the stage for a new type of console RPG, one where you dealt with real characters and real emotions.  It announced Bioware as a major player on consoles and set the stage for Jade Empire and Mass Effect. Additionally, along with Jedi Knight II, it brought Star Wars games back from the dead. Sure, there are still spiky-haired brooding heroes running around on consoles, but thanks to Knights of the Old Republic, there are more identifiable characters there too.

Half-Life 2 - PC - November 16, 2004

Half-Life 2 was important for a variety of reasons. It was one of the best games of the decade, no doubt. That much is a given. It also deserves a place on this list for offshoots like Team Fortress 2 and Portal, as well as for the physics-based gameplay that's become de rigeur for most games in the decade. It also proved that there was still a place for tightly-scripted single-player experiences, which led to the Call of Duty games exploding.

However, Half-Life 2 was one of the first major games that could be purchased digitally via Steam. If it wouldn't have worked or would have been a major hassle for customers, digital distribution would have been dead in the water. Instead, it gathered steam (pun not intended) and made its way into consoles, including the all-digital download PSPGo. Also, as stated before, Half-Life 2 killed the used PC games market, which hastened the gathering death of the single-player PC experience.

World of Warcraft - PC - November 23, 2004

Everquest arguably did just as much to expand the MMO audience, but it released in 1999, so it's not eligible for this list. Instead, we'll focus on the game that brought MMO gaming to the masses, World of Warcraft.

Everquest proved that there was a market for MMOs. World of Warcraft showed how big that market was, and in so doing, opened the door for myriads of MMOs. Before World of Warcraft, setting up an online game was a risky proposition that could very easily fail. Once indoctrinate players understood what an MMO was, the market was enlarged to the point that more MMOs could coexist. Sure, some failed, like Asheron's Call 2 and Tabula Rasa, but many free-to-play MMOs leapt into the gap and opened the door for a new type of experience. Even Facebook games like Farmville owe their existence to forerunners like World of Warcraft.

Guitar Hero - PS2 - November 8, 2005

NEEEEEOOOOOWWWWNNNN! (throws up horns)

The second half of the decade was owned by music games, and Guitar Hero led the way. Harmonix developed a fun and unique experience that went supernova within the space of two years. Guitar Hero III quickly became one of the biggest-selling games of all-time, but it came with a stark warning for future companies: When a game becomes popular, the knee-jerk reaction of most companies is "let's make more of them." That's not a bad idea, obviously, but within the space of five years, here's the list of Guitar Hero games and derivatives:

Guitar Hero, Guitar Hero 2, Guitar Hero 3, Guitar Hero World Tour, Guitar Hero 5, Guitar Hero: Rocks the 80's, Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, Guitar Hero: Metallica, Guitar Hero: Van Halen, Guitar Hero: Smash Hits, Guitar Hero: On Tour, Guitar Hero: On Tour Decades, Band Hero, DJ Hero, Rock Band, Rock Band 2, Rock Band Track Packs, Rock Band Unplugged, The Beatles: Rock Band

That's 19 games in five years, or almost four a year. That's insane. Of course, the brand is starting to weaken. The Beatles: Rock Band sold on name recognition of the Beatles alone. DJ Hero and Band Hero are flopping. Guitar Hero 5 isn't selling up to expectations. While there's a tendency among publishers to want to do what's successful, it has to be measured against long-term success, and that's the lesson we can learn here.

Brain Age - DS - April 16, 2006

Brain Age got scoffed at when it first launched, and with good reason. Who wants to play a game with nothing but math problems? The answer: About 17 million people.

Brain Age showed that there was a market for games beyond the established boundaries of gaming. You can make games that appeal to a wider audience, and they'll sell. Despite what many people thought at the time, lots of people want to play games but can't find an entry point. The most popular games are too complex and scary, and most people don't want to start out by playing kids games. Nintendo hit upon a viable idea: How about making a game that is mature but at the same time allows new people to play? It's absurdly simple, but this premise opened the door for the Expanded Audience, which, for better or worse, begat the Wii.

Wii Sports - Wii - November 19. 2006

Wii Sports is one of the most controversial games of the decade. It's not because it's violent, because it isn't. It doesn't deal with adult subject matter, and there's nothing objectionable about it. However, it's become a flashpoint for the biggest debate of the decade:  hat constitutes a game? When is a game too slight? Is this the direction that games should go in? Is this the future of gaming?

The answer, of course, is that there's room for everyone at the table. There's room for Modern Warfare 2 and Game Party 2. There's room for Mass Effect and Deca Sports. There's room for Halo 3: ODST and Rayman Raving Rabbids TV Party. Perhaps the biggest lesson from Wii Sports is that fun is universal. Maybe everyone can enjoy gaming. Maybe they won't want to jump in to Manhunt 2, but that's OK. It's a big market out there, and every can have a share.

Also receiving votes:

  • Deus Ex - Real moral choices in a game, along with wide-open decision making and multiple routes. The only reason this didn't rate higher is because of the abysmal, immersion breaking voice-acting and the lack of true successors.
  • Diablo II - Fantastic action-RPG that created a lot of imitators, but merely an improvement on the original Diablo, which had already spawned lots of imitators.
  • Metal Gear Solid 2 - One of the leaders in cinematic story-telling and the first game that truly announced the new generation of consoles. Also way too long-winded and convoluted.
  • Final Fantasy X - The first Final Fantasy in full 3D and with realistically-proportioned characters that spawned loads of imitators. However, the typical console RPG still hasn't changed in 20 years, so not as influential as you would think.
  • Call of Duty 4 - One of the biggest games of the decade, with shocking, disturbing twists and one of the most supported online games to boot, but hasn't really influenced a lot of newer games yet.
  • Super Mario Galaxy - A rousing return to form for Mario after the disappointing Super Mario Sunshine, but hasn't had a lot of influence in other games yet.