[Misc] My Top 10 Favorite Games

June 28, 2023

Since I’m reviving my website, I wanted to do something that would potentially add context for my preferences and background as a game enthusiast. I don’t intend to do a lot of “list” articles on this site, but the format works so fuck it, we’ll do it live. My favorite games were determined by unscientifically measured nostalgic value, how much I want to replay them (not necessarily replay value), and overall impact on my life. There is one game that will always be my favorite game ever, that will be at the bottom of this page, but the rest can change (and in fact have) over time, so I’m putting the bottom 9 in order of release date. Ready go:

Donkey Kong Country
Super NES - 1994

The earliest game in my bottom 9 and perhaps the first reboot in video game history, Donkey Kong Country transformed the arcade ape into the most contemporary genre of its time – the side-scrolling platformer. DKC doesn’t rely on powerups, upgrades or abilities, instead the gimmicks lie in the level design, with several levels having their own gameplay twists, like beavers that chase you on giant millstones, a factory in which the lights turn on and off, or the infamous minecart tracks. What I love about Donkey Kong Country, as corny as it might sound, is just how primal it feels. It’s as basic a platformer as you can get, but that doesn’t mean it’s boring or not a challenge. The simplicity in its game design is elegant and balanced with tight, responsive controls. Of course DKC impressed with its visuals at the time, but what holds up even better is the soundtrack, masterfully combining atmosphere with jumpy rhythms and melodies. It’s one of my favorites.

There are definitely better games later in the series, but the first DKC is one of those games I can replay again and again in part because of how short it becomes once you get good at it, which was by design. I love the whole series to death, even 3, Returns and the Land games, but the original is my favorite mainly because I just like it the most.

Super Mario 64
Nintendo 64 - 1996

There is no question: Super Mario 64 is the most important 3D video game, period. There are other early 3D games that got it right, like Ocarina of Time and Crash Bandicoot, but none got it more right than Mario. It wasn’t the first 3D platformer, but it showed that you could make a 3D game that controls excellently and with a camera that wasn’t a hindrance or stuck on a rail. Portraying the camera as a literal camera controlled by a floating entity was a genius way of conveying such a new concept to players.

Nostalgia is a big factor for why I love Mario 64, but it helps that the game itself still holds up remarkably well. Controls in future Mario titles have improved over time, but the foundation of double jumps, backflips, long jump and wallkicks was established here, as was the concept of collecting enough of a certain item to unlock doors to make progress in a hub world, which would come to be known as the collectathon. Speaking of hub worlds, Peach’s castle is completely unmatched – the idea of entering levels by jumping into paintings was brilliant. Mario 64 is a game that has been deconstructed to such an atomic level, but I still find myself replaying it quite often and learning or discovering something I hadn’t known or realized before.

Diddy Kong Racing
Nintendo 64 - 1997

We got an N64 on December 25, 1997 and the game we got with it was Diddy Kong Racing. Expecting it to be more like Mario Kart, we jumped in and quickly learned that only one course was unlocked from the start. It wasn’t until I noticed adventure mode that I started to realize what kind of game Diddy Kong Racing was, with its hub world and multiple vehicles. I remember that moment of discovery quite distinctly and it showed me that a game could be far more than what it appeared to be on the surface. Rare took a page out of Mario 64’s book and built the adventure mode around unlocking new tracks and areas by collecting items, in this case balloons. Aside from my #1 favorite game, I don’t think a video game has captivated me more than Diddy Kong Racing.

Although nostalgia plays a massive part in Diddy Kong Racing being on this list, it helps that the racing itself is fun as well. Personally I think it’s better than Mario Kart 64 in every way except the battle mode – the driving feels better, the graphics are better (with actual 3D character models instead of sprites), the music was better, and most importantly, the tracks are way better. Where Mario Kart 64’s tracks are overly long and simplistic, DKR’s tracks feel about as good as any modern kart racer. I think Rare just had a better grasp of 3D level design than Nintendo at the time, and it shows in their very next game and the very next game on my list:

Nintendo 64 - 1998

Where Mario 64 innovated, Banjo-Kazooie renovated. Released just two years after Super Mario 64 (and in fact turning 25 tomorrow as of publishing this article), though Mario 64 had better controls, Banjo-Kazooie would make up for it with loads of new abilities you’d earn over the course of the game that would be used for solving puzzles and making further progress, not unlike a Metroidvania. And if there’s any hub world that could compete with Peach’s castle, it’s Gruntilda’s lair. I loved how it felt to progress by moving further and further up the witch’s tower, culminating in a final battle on the roof – one of my favorite final bosses in any game.

Banjo-Kazooie had a certain storybook magic to it that would make Rare a household name. Each new level feels totally different from the last, with unique and often comically self-aware characters, and the fittingly whimsical soundtrack contributes to the game feeling like an adventure. It would earn Rare several reputations, from their ambitious though often unstable graphics, to their propensity for making collectathon platformers, of which their other two on the platform, Donkey Kong 64 and sequel Banjo-Tooie, are more of my favorites, though not on this list.

Half-Life 2
PC - 2004

Well this is complete tonal whiplash compared to the rest of my list so far. I started getting into PC gaming around 2002 when my brother started going to LAN parties, and being the annoying younger brother, I started tagging along. Eventually I’d get my own PC in 2004, but it wasn’t until mid-2005 that I’d start getting into the Half-Life series. I had seen reviews praising the second game and decided to take a shot, and I’m glad I did.

There is no finer single player first person shooter campaign than Half-Life 2, it’s brilliantly paced and the shooting just plain feels great, especially compared to the first game. Not to say the first Half-Life was bad, it’s another one of my favorite games, but it’s not as fun to play as its sequel, in my opinion. It’s hard to describe, but like Mario 64, Half-Life 2 just seemed to get everything right. The way Valve incorporated physics into a gameplay element is remarkable, even if the puzzles become a little obvious later on. And although I’m not huge into stories in games, the Half-Life series is particularly captivating to me – it’s dripping in mystery and wide open to speculation, which makes it engaging to think about even when you’re not playing it. Pure genius. If you want your game to have a lasting impact, make it live in your players’ heads rent-free.

Xbox, PC - 2005

Speaking of being in people’s heads, if any game had a more interesting story to me than Half-Life, it’s Psychonauts. Mildly interesting, but Psychonauts is the only game in my top 10 that wasn’t made by Nintendo, Rare, or Valve. Good job, Tim. What makes Psychonauts so great to me isn’t the interesting and fun cast of characters, or the overarching plot, or the platformer gameplay, or the adventure-game like puzzle solving – it’s how beautifully intertwined all of these aspects are. Psychonauts is a game whose whole is immensely greater than the sum of its parts.

The idea of platforming levels taking place inside the minds of other people is smart enough on its own, but each one is based around the vessel character’s mentality and personality. Taking place at Whispering Rock, a summer camp for psychic children, the early levels take place in the minds of counselors, training kids in the arts of marksmanship and levitation the way kids at a normal camp would earn badges for archery and swimming. When you make your way to the asylum across the lake, the training wheels come off and the contrast is immediately apparent. Psychonauts translates topics like obsession, insanity and impostor syndrome in a way that’s fun and approachable. When people assume I hate stories in games, it’s because I’ve seen the potential that storytelling in games can have, and few live up to that potential the way Psychonauts did.

Team Fortress 2
PC - 2007

I’ve spent more time in Team Fortress 2 than any other game, though I’m sure some would scoff at my mere 1,700 hours of playtime. In truth, when Team Fortress 2 released with Portal and Half-Life 2: Episode 2 in The Orange Box, it was the last game I would get around to, however, because it was delayed by a single day, I did play the beta of Team Fortress 2 a little bit. I was intrigued, but I had to finish the other games in the pack first. That did earn me the special badge given to people who played the beta, so suck it nerds.

When I did get around to it I found a game with a huge amount of depth in its class-based gameplay. I had little experience with Team Fortress Classic, but TF2 resonated strongly with me regardless. I could go on and on about the gameplay but I’d be here all day, but I owe Team Fortress 2 a lot for teaching me a lot about game design, either through playing the game itself or the developer blog where they’d discuss designing and developing specific mechanics. I’m a little sad that it’s not updated as frequently as it used to, but I’m glad for being there when all the good stuff happened and I don’t regret the time I spent with it.

Portal 2
PC - 2011

Portal is one of the most unique games ever made, using a concept that’s physically impossible yet east to understand. While Portal was an instant classic, it didn’t have much meat on its bones. Many preferred the original for its innovation and cohesion, not to mention the premise getting twisted later on, but I prefer the sequel for having a longer campaign with more substantial puzzle elements. Everything about Portal 2 was better, but it also has one of the best two-player co-op campaigns ever made. When I passed a cube down to a friend at a lower level than I was standing, it was like an out-of-body experience, one of those “woah” moments that I’ll never forget.

But what elevated Portal 2 for me was a feature not present at launch – the in-game map editor, known as the Perpetual Testing Initiative. It wasn’t as robust as the Hammer editor, but it was far less confusing and easier for my dumb brain to figure out. I’ve made a number of puzzles, a few of which have been very successful. As of publishing this article, I have the #21 all-time most popular co-op map on the Portal 2 workshop, an accomplishment I’ll likely never overtake, and if I recall it peaked at #6. In a specific window of time, if you finished the co-op campaign and went to the workshop looking for more, there’s a good chance you’ve played it. It’s a humbling feeling. More humbling was looking up playthroughs of said map on Youtube. Many of them were by people speaking languages other than English and it lead to an epiphany moment for me – game design, like music, is a universal language. It was something I had always known subconsciously, but Portal 2 wound up being the game that put that into perspective, even if it was through my own vanity.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Wii U, Nintendo Switch - 2017

I am a very longtime Zelda fan, as in, “I sometimes call A Link to the Past ‘Zelda 3’ and Ocarina of Time ‘Zelda 64’” long. Yet, having been born in 1989, I missed out on experiencing the original Legend of Zelda on NES when it was new. I hear stories about how people played it for hours and hours, often collaborating with friends and family members to uncover all of its secrets. Breath of the Wild enabled me to experience something similar. Breath ended up being surprisingly divisive, so the fact that it’s in my top 10 favorite games should be an indicator of my stance on it. As of writing this, I’m still in the process of finishing up its sequel, Tears of the Kingdom, but there might be a time when that game will replace Breath on this list.

That being said, what made Breath of the Wild special to me was how strongly it captured the sense of adventure. There’s so much to do, so much to see. There’s nothing wrong with taking the back streets. You’ll never know if you don’t go, and you could go everywhere in a game world that might be bigger than all of the previous Zeldas combined. There was no shortage of new discoveries – by the time I had finished the game and loaded up the Hero’s Path feature from the DLC, I noticed loads of gaps showing places I had hardly been. With landmarks everywhere, aside from Tears I don’t think I’ve ever had as much fun exploring a game world.

One of the complaints I hear from people is the divine beasts aren’t a suitable replacement for dungeons, and I agree to some extent, but shrines make up for that. A dungeon in traditional Zelda is just a string of puzzles and action sequences anyway, Breath just took those and spread them around in a way that didn’t require doing anything in a specific order. The other common complaint is breakable weapons, and I won’t argue that people find it unenjoyable, but I will argue that weapons being breakable isn’t unfun. You find new weapons all the time in Breath, you rarely ever have an empty inventory, and it’s rewarding to find weapons in chests since they’re always useful. Balancing your arsenal gives the otherwise admittedly light combat a strategic element to it – the game rewards you for being resourceful.

But as far as what is and isn’t “traditional” in a Zelda game is debatable. I’ve said it before and I’m officially putting it on the record here: Before Breath, no other Zelda game has come even close to the replicating the sense of wonder, exploration and adventure that the NES original had, and in that regard, Breath of the Wild made every other Zelda look like a fucking joke in comparison. That’s not to knock those other games, I still love them and they were serviceable for their time, but Breath just appealed to me on every level in ways no other Zelda had.

With that, the bottom 9 is done, and we’ve reached my all time favorite game of all time:

Super Mario Bros.
NES - 1985

There are three reasons Super Mario Bros. will never not be my favorite game. The first is simple – it’s just a really good game. For a game of its age, it holds up exceptionally well, but even by today’s standards it’s still very playable. There’s a simplicity to it, thanks to being designed to be played on a controller with two buttons, that modern games lack. In addition to all the licensed shovelware the NES was known for, it compares favorably to free web games and mobile games that have come and gone since. It’s an excellent game for people who are new to video games.

Secondly, it’s an important game, easily one of the most important and arguably the most important. Super Mario Bros. singlehandedly saved the North American video game market – at a time when video gaming was a passing fad verging on the brink of fading into an obscure niche hobby, people came to the NES for ROB and Duck Hunt, but they stayed for Mario. I’m aware that other regions like Japan and Europe would have still had their own markets, but at the risk of sounding patriotic, the United States is the entertainment capital of the world and considering the US was still the highest grossing market in 2022 despite China taking a large chunk of that pie, so success in the US is kind of a big deal. It also shaped the industry in terms of design – after Mario, side-scrolling platformers were the big genre before first person shooters took over, and every game that wasn’t Mario desperately wished they were Mario.

Third, it’s the first game that I can remember playing. My father brought home an NES from a garage sale one day and the rest is history. As far back as I can remember, going back to when I was 3 years old, I cannot recall a time in my life when I wasn’t playing video games, and I was obsessed with Mario. That obsession would spread and spread, and it’s why I’m even writing about them at this very moment. Gaming is my life, Mario was the seed, and my dad was the one who planted it. In 1996, when I was very young, my father passed away, completely altering my life in more ways than I can count, but my passion for games has carried on. Because of that, Super Mario Bros. has a sentimental value stronger than any other game could even hope to achieve, and it’s since lead to a yearly tradition of playing through the original Mario at least once a year, and I chose Father’s Day to do that.

No other game could possibly surpass it. I could make the universally, unanimously agreed-upon greatest game of all time myself and it still wouldn’t overtake Super Mario as my favorite. When I said Super Mario Bros. will never not be my favorite game, it’s because I owe it far, far too much and I’m eternally grateful for it.

All screenshots taken from MobyGames.