Gems of this generation: part 3

GemsHugeFixedHere’s the final part of a three-part article detailing, in no particular order, my favorite games of the PS3/360/Wii console generation. For part one, click here; for part two, click here.

Writing this list was incredibly difficult. Really, it was. There were too many games to choose from, and in some cases the cutoff was extremely close. I thought about reducing the list to ten a couple of times, and I thought about switching out some games for others.

But here we are, the final five. Keep in mind that these aren’t the top five best games of the list, but a sampling I thought would make for a compelling closer. This entire three-part article consists of favorites, games I’ve played a whole hell of a lot and keep coming back to. All fifteen are incredible.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. Feel free to post a comment and tell me what you think, or recommend a few games I should play. Because there really are too many for any sane person to parse through, and I rely on recommendations as much as anybody else.

No more waffling. Here are my final five gems of this generation. Enjoy.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

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Looking at the rest of my list, you’d think I have no room in my heart for an epic story-based adventure. And you’d mostly be right. But I fully acknowledge that there’s an emotional resonance that more arcadey, gameplay-focused games tend to lack. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword represents, for me, the high point of resonant storytelling this generation.

The gameplay is quite good, of course. Skyward Sword uses the Wii Motion Plus in novel and intuitive ways, players approximating Link’s sword swipes with a flick of the wrist. And Link’s Loftwing companion controls fluidly, providing a much more enjoyable means of transportation than is typical of Zelda’s equine mounts.

Plus, Nintendo seems to have caught on that their dungeon themes are getting a little stale, so they’ve mixed and matched them in order to combat homogeneity. This leads to inspired areas like Lanayru Desert, a barren wasteland susceptible to localized time shifts that cause ancient greenery and rusted robotry to spring back to life.

But it’s the characters that make Skyward Sword special. Bertie the potion man, cradling his baby in a basket slung on his back; Beedle the air-shop operator, cycling around Skyloft in his leg-powered airship; and all the Kikwis, Mogmas, and Gorons that inhabit the world below. And Zelda, and Link, and Groose, and Grannie. Of course.

Skyward Sword fosters the sort of attachment you’ll only find in longer games, where characters have time to change and grow. In a game this long, there’s bound to be slow sections that try players’ patience. But what stands out in my mind about Skyward Sword are all the other moments – and those are very, very special indeed.

Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed

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No other kart racer has come as close to dethroning Mario Kart as Sumo’s incredible Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed. It nails genre fundamentals before innovating on them with a flair of its own, lending a harder, more nuanced edge to a very simple style of racer.

The item selection proves as original as any kart racer, with multiple firing modes for flair and variety. The powerslide system lets players link drifts together, culminating in a boost that allows them to evade homing targets. Characters like Gilius Thunderhead and tracks like Rogues’ Landing span the entirety of Sega’s legacy instead of just a small segment.

And the transformations. At first, I was iffy on racing in boats and planes; they felt finicky and poorly implemented. But as I continued to play, I grasped their nuances and began to really enjoy the variety they brought to the races. And they influence track design to an enormous degree, allowing for transforming tracks that greatly enhance the game’s intensity and fun.

Systems issues like long load times and framerate problems prevent Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed from being utter perfection. But those are symptoms of a game reaching for the gold, and doing a damned fine job of it. If Nintendo isn’t watching their side mirrors, they definitely should be.

Culdcept Saga

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Culdcept Saga has no right to be this good. It’s a crazy fusion of Monopoly and Magic: The Gathering, two games I don’t really care for, a fusion that could suffer from any number of issues: an excessive learning curve, daunting length, card imbalances, or the plain clunkiness of playing analog board games digitally.

But Culdcept doesn’t suffer from any of that, and it’s infinitely more enjoyable than either of its constituent parts. They complement each other, Magic’s stiff deck-determinism tempered by random dice rolls, Monopoly’s wearisome fleecing tempered by the ability to fight back.

Instead of buying property, players summon creatures onto empty spaces, then level them up to make them stronger and more expensive to land on. They buff up their creatures with spells and enchantments, protecting their investments and hoping to rob others of their hard-earned mana. And when another player lands on that massive troll toll, they have to decide whether to give in and pay up, or whether to try and steal the land for themselves.

Nothing’s ever certain. The breadth of the creatures, spells, items, and enchantments means that peril lurks for even the strongest defenders. Creatures have exploitable strengths, items have surprising applications, and spells and enchantments have infinite devious uses. The card selection is nowhere near as vast as Magic, yet every one feels perfectly considered, perfectly in sync with the rest of the game. And it feels like there’s a card for everything.

There are even spells to fix die rolls, in case you need to evade that massive monster or make sure somebody lands on yours. And the battles are tight, tense affairs, their options limited by what you have on hand. They rely on bluffing and guesswork, in evaluating your opponent and what they’re likely to play. Oftentimes you can kill your opponent two ways, but he can block either one with the right selection. Other times, there’s so much information coming into play that the outcome becomes unclear.

There’s nothing else like this. It’s such a strange brew of cultural touchstones that it’s immediately attractive to a wide group of players, and the level of depth and sheer fun of play means they happily come back.

Culdcept Saga may be the best board game of all time, digital or not. There’s a richness to the design, from pure scope to perfect mechanics to beautiful card art, that’s practically unrivaled. Culdcept Saga is a true strategy treasure.

Super Smash Bros Brawl

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I get why so many people are down on Brawl. Really, I do. Super Smash Bros Melee was the Gamecube’s defining game, incredibly accessible and endlessly replayable, a cornerstone of couch-based competition. It was a legendary expansion to a solid template, blowing away any preconceived notions of what developer Hal Labs could do and of what Nintendo was all about.

The hype for Brawl was incredible. Smash Dojo revealed a seemingly endless stream of new characters, items, levels, and mechanics. Then the game came out, and it was slower, more lenient, less technical. People were disappointed. They’d built their expectations around the idea that Brawl would be Melee with extra characters and stages.

Brawl isn’t Melee – but I’d argue it’s just as great. Brawl controls more responsively, without Melee’s clunky startups. Most of Melee’s roster returns, joined by scrappy upstarts Diddy Kong, Lucas, Snake, and Olimar, to name a few. Levels like Pirate Ship and Luigi’s Mansion are dynamic without feeling unfair, while basic platform levels like Yoshi’s Island and Smashville are simple but satisfying.

And Brawl’s just more fun to play with a diverse group of players. There’s typically less dominance from veterans, and newbies are more able to get their hits in. To a lot of people, that’s evidence of inferior gameplay, of a lowered skill ceiling that confines players to one stratum.

Who gives. There’s nothing more boring than decimating your opponents, and I appreciate that new players gain traction more quickly in Brawl. I like having worthy opponents; I like having tense matches.

I like having fun. Brawl’s more accessible, more varied, and more fun for four-person fights, hands down. It’s a brilliant fighting game that withstands any amount of playing I put it through. And considering it comes out half the time I play videogames with friends, that’s a hell of a lot.

Mushihimesama Futari

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Few games can match Mushihimesama Futari’s moment-to-moment intensity, all the thrills of a twenty-hour game condensed into a pitch-perfect thirty minute blur. It’s the antithesis to bloated roleplaying endgames, never sparing a second, never letting player interest flicker and die.

Futari is the only single-player game I can play with the fervor and devotion of online multiplayer. There’s the same struggle to improve, the same elation from victory, a deep breath of knowledge gained. But there’s also more certainty. Every challenge remains consistent. Each gain is personal, a triumph over one’s past self.

Every aspect of the game encourages movement toward mastery. A wide variety of modes allow a gradual increase in difficulty and scoring complexity. Tight control and fair mechanics lend legitimacy to every death. The fullness of Futari’s visuals pushes past the senses, focusing players amidst purple lotus bursts and golden gem cascades.

There’s an inherent submission required to experience Futari to the fullest, a willingness to accept arcane ritual. Single credit clears and high-scoring are vital aspects, grounded not in arcade lore, but in the faith and knowledge that they make the experience more meaningful, more substantial, more fun.

It’s the difference between focused attacks and button-mashing, between outsmarting opponents and spray-and-pray. But when it comes to a competition against the self, many players opt out. There’s no appeal to bettering themselves if they can’t dominate others.

And that’s a shame. Mushihimesama Futari is brilliant, fully realized and absolutely breathtaking, an essential title for anyone with even the barest flicker of interest in scrolling shooters. It’s the culmination of everything good about classic game design, a microcosm of arcade perfection that can be played for years and years without growing stale.

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10 Responses to “Gems of this generation: part 3”

  1. Squire Grooktook Says:

    What you said about Skyward Sword kind of reminds me of Majora’s Mask, which despite being kind of love it or hate it among the fanbase, is still probably my favorite Zelda game (and perhaps favorite adventure game).

    • catstronaut Says:

      Majora’s Mask seems awesome, but I’ve never beat it. When I played it I had just gotten past a dungeon and there was a race with this demonic butler, and I couldn’t do it and ran out of time and quit playing out of frustration very early on -_- One day though! I liked what I played more than Ocarina of Time, for sure.

      • Squire Grooktook Says:

        It’s funny, I think there were two races with a ghostly person, but at least one of them was optional (I think it was the butler).

        Even though it might not have as many dungeons as Ocarina, I still feel Majora is the strongest in terms of atmosphere and theme.

      • catstronaut Says:

        Yeah, it was optional. But it was like… right outside the dungeon I think, and I didn’t want to walk back to it because I wasn’t sure I could find it. I suck at navigating 3D spaces -_-

        And then I couldn’t beat it in time, so I pretty much cranked myself.

  2. GFoppy Says:

    I don’t like racing games, but Transformed was an absolute joy to play. The PC version was released in Feb 2013, and does not have any framerate or loading issues from the console version. A strong contender for 2013 GOTY for me, I have never had so much pure fun in a long time.

    • catstronaut Says:

      Yeah, that’s what I’ve heard. I have other small gripes with the game, such as occasional weird glitches and cars getting stuck on awkward geometry (and that stupid adder head in the Golden Axe level), but not anything that consistently bothers me. But really, I just like playing games on my couch and TV, so I play the console version instead of the PC one. It sucks that there’s long loading, but it’s just something I have to deal with. It’s a million times better than Modnation Racers, at least.

      What’s funny is that I really didn’t like the game for the first 3 hours I played it. But then at some point it just clicked for me, and now I love it to death.

  3. Shance Says:

    Thank you for mentioning Mushihimesama. It’s a refreshing breather for me, considering I only avidly follow the Touhou Project series of games.

    It would be fun if they promote online play through co-op, though. That would be very fun for most of us here at Touhou land.

    • catstronaut Says:

      You know, I was actually fairly certain that Mushi Futari had online multiplayer, but I guess not. I do think the scoring doesn’t lend itself to multiplayer really, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be an option.

      If you like games like these, Cave has ported a bunch of real stunners to 360. Deathsmiles and Akai Katana can easily be found dirt cheap on Amazon since they received US localizations, and they’re both incredible games.

      There’s also Guwange and Deathsmiles IIX on XBLA/GoD, as well as Muchi Pork/Pink Sweets, Espgaluda II, and Dodonpachi Resurrection on import. I’d say wait until you have the others before getting those last two though, as Espgaluda II is incredibly complex while DDP Resurrection is very divisive and the only Cave game I don’t really care for.

      If you’re interested in getting even deeper into the genre, I wrote up an article featuring a bunch of standout games: https://catstronaut.wordpress.com/2013/02/18/understanding-scrolling-shooters/

      Thanks for commenting!

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