5 – Super Metriod (SNES)
Metriod will go down as a masterpiece, and deservingly so. But Super Metriod really upped the ante. It didn’t change the formula from the original Metriod, it took it to another level entirely. In this game, Samus Aran’s abilities grew, as did her foes. There was an even more expansive world to travel, with new dangers lurking. The replayability was very high here because the game almost taunts you at the end to try to find more hidden items and to do so in as quickly a time possible.
The SNES brought many more options than the original NES did, and the makers of SM ate up these advances with glee. SM is perhaps the closest thing we have gotten to a RPG from a side-scroller. This game had everything: cool bosses, cool abilities, cool story, cool music, and even a tear-jerker ending. This game pushed the limits of the SNES as well as the player. I dare a newcomer to beat this game in under three hours!
4 – AD&D Pool of Radiance (C64)
The SSI “gold box” games were all terrific, but they got their start from Pool of Radiance. This was an enormous game that neatly compiled the many rules of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and made it easy on the newcomer. Character creation is a big thing in D&D, and PoR took it seriously as well. It gave you control on how your heroes would look both from close-up and on the battlefield. It allowed you to pick classes, alignments, and even “roll the dice” to get your ability scores. Once that was done, a huge world was opened up for you. The game guided you well from your meager beginnings to become the most powerful party in the realm. PoR also allowed much greater freedom then did its successors. You could freely travel around the world, but woe be to the adventurer who strayed too far. The turn-based combat worked very well and it would change very little as the years passed. The game was so well put together that players hardly even realized that they were looking only at a small portion of the screen as they wandered about. Only combat and some static cutscenes filled the entire screen. So, while there have been many D&D games since, and even though PoR isn’t the first computer port of a D&D game it still gets most of the credit as the originator.
3 – Portal (PC)
Perhaps the most universally lauded game, and for good reason, is Valve’s Portal. Not only is the gameplay innovating and unique, but your antagonist is probably the best villain in any game ever! Portal is fun from the very beginning to –yes, it’s true– even the ending credits! Nothing in Portal isn’t done well. So, quite literally from start to finish the end is one of the most fun things you can play. It challenges your reflexes, your intellect, and most of all your sense of humor. Once you start you’ll have a hard time peeling yourself away from this one.
2 – Myst II – Riven (PC)
The Myst series holds a special place my heart. I didn’t play the first Myst game until a few years after it had been released. But once I fell into the fissure I didn’t want to leave! Above all others, Myst sets up such a lonely, bewildering atmosphere that you really do feel trapped in a strange place. Using mystical books as travel devices, and seeing the “fly by” preview of the world you will be transported too, you couldn’t help but be intrigued. But you couldn’t just stand in awe forever, because you needed your wits about you to find your way out. Afterall, there were seemingly innocent people being held that you needed to free. As beautiful as each world, or “age” was, you had a task at hand.
But that was the first Myst. And it was great. I never in my wildest dreams think that Myst could be topped, so what Riven did was quite an accomplishment. This time as the game starts you actually are shown that you aren’t the only one here. In this age, there are natives. However, they quickly disperse and you get that feeling of loneliness right away. But this world is much vaster than previous, and you quickly get the sense that something wicked is afoot. And the mysteries are plentiful here.
Among the lonely travels you start to see landmarks that aren’t quite accessible yet, but they are something to look at for sure. You almost can’t wait to see what’s over there on that island, or what’s under that golden globe. This gives you a sense of slight urgency; there are big things to uncover. But what’s the best way to do this? It’s up to you.
Travel on, and you see things like rotating domes. At first it is a stark contrast to its surroundings. Why would this big, noisy, mechanical thing be in the middle of this jungle? Upon closer inspection you’ll notice runes on the domes. Ah, one more mystery to solve. And when you do, you’ll feel a great sense of accomplishment. The pieces will start to fit together, and you’ll get more than one “aha!” moment as you traverse the land.
As the story unfolds the world just seems to get bigger as you get access to more and more places you weren’t able to get to before. But the wonder never stops. Ending the game was bittersweet for me; I wanted to finish to see what would happen but I never wanted the game to end! Quite a paradox. Of all the games I loved in my lifetime, none have I wish I could have had a “first time experience” with again moreso than Riven. I put it as a close #2 on my list only because the #1 game was so grand in scope, story, and execution, but in my mind I think it would be fair if these two titles shared the #1 spot.
Riven just did everything right. It was just big enough, just difficult enough, and really was the next best step that the Myst series could have taken. No other game of the genre has come close to what Riven has achieved even all these years later.
1 – Ultima IV (C64)
If Riven has made me gush so much, what could possibly surpass it? Well, as I already alluded to, “surpass” might not be the correct word as each game deserves to be at the top of any “best of” list. But the Ultima series, and specifically Ultima 4: Quest of the Avatar, ranks among the greatest in the world, ever.
Richard Garriot (aka Lord British, the benevolent monarch of the lands) created this fantastic series with a limited amount of resources at his disposal. With Ultima I, he did a good job of creating a land full of danger where a lone hero has to take up the mantle to destroy the evil plaguing the world. This game did well and Lord British created a sequel with a broader scope, but it wasn’t until Ultima 3: Exodus that things really started to take shape. In Exodus, the lone hero finally had a small group of companions to help him, and with that the game’s party dynamic came into being.
If Ultima 3: Exodus was a star in the Ultima universe, then Ultima IV, Quest of the Avatar is an entire galaxy! U4 brought in a new dimension of RPG gaming. While on the surface the game looked and felt similar to U3, U4 was an entirely different animal. Gone were the simple, single-line conversations and now the player had full control of interacting with the people in the world. Different terrain affected the player’s movement, and more foes attempted to kill you. The world was expansive, and the quests that needed to be accomplished were plentiful.
But aside from the great gameplay, it is the story of U4 that rises to the top here. This isn’t your typical hack-n-slash RPG. While you will spend a lot, a whole lot, of time fighting in U4, its story isn’t your typical “become strong and go kill the bad guy” tale. Instead, the story is one of religious undertones, where becoming the moral leader of the land is what’s important, not in becoming the ultimate death-dealer. In fact, if you go around and just flex your muscles too much, it will hinder your progress. This is because becoming a true champion of the people means you have to be a strong leader, a compassionate man, humble enough to know your own weaknesses, and honorable enough to gain the trust of all. You have to show valor, you must be honest, and you spirit has to be as strong as your sense of justice. And a true hero knows how to sacrifice for the greater good.
All of these are virtues that one must fulfill to his greatest potential in order to become an “Avatar” of the people. No one facet is greater than another, and all virtues compliment one another. It is not easy to attain the rank of Avatar in any one virtue, and, of course, there are forces trying to throw you off your righteous path at every turn. Once you attain the proper level of virtue, you have to face one final, daunting challenge.
As you can see, this sounds more like a religion than a game! Garriot certainly put a lot of thought into
what is essentially a morality tale. But if spiritual undertones aren’t your thing, don’t let that dissuade you from playing U4. There is a lot more going on with this game than meets the eye. It still stands on its own even today, and there has not been many games that can even come close to what U4 did.
From having to tread through poisonous swamps, to sailing the vast seas, to being instantly teleported via “moongates”, to even flying in an air balloon, you’ll have quite the experience traveling through Britannia.
Special mention should be made to Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny as well. This game closely matched U4’s gaming experience, only with an even bigger world and more refined graphics. A great game in its own right, WoD was a very worthy successor to U4.
Achieving success in Quest of the Avatar is no easy task indeed. If you are up to the challenge you will find yourself playing one of the greatest computer games ever.