As 2009 comes to a close, GameStooge is looking at the Greatest Games of the Decade. As you may guess, there were tons of awesome games and we’re only going to rank the top 50. To streamline, no handheld games were considered; that may be the subject of a different list. Occasionally, there will be some “batches” of related games. That is because they’re a series of games so similar in gameplay and quality, they’d be listed one after another on the list. Plus, it’s a semi-cheat to include more games. It was hard enough picking 50!
Part III looks at some of the new IPs that were introduced in the 2000s that became major franchises, including two that dominated the music genre. Others were the best original games for the PlayStation 3 in the late part of the decade, as the console, introduced in 2006, finally started to come into its own.
Without further ado, here’s the third batch. The year and platform listed are for the first platform it was released for, though some multiplatform games had a simultaneous release.
30. NFL 2K1
NFL 2K1 is perhaps one of the most important sports games of all time, literally changing what was to be expected from team sports games, especially American football. The previous year’s NFL 2K introduced a new look for football games, with its unique 3D layout and broadcast-style presentation, but had its share of gameplay issues. NFL 2K1 took all of the complaints and fixed them, creating a tight experience that was unmatched by any game to that point. Passing, blocking, rushing, run styles, and so forth – all were tweaked and adjusted for a realistic gameplay experience.
However, the game took it to the next level, implementing one of the Dreamcast’s touted features: online play. Online gameplay was considered the best of any console or PC, with its lobby system, near lag-free gameplay, and pure multiplayer action. Players could even communicate through the Dreamcast keyboard. This marked the point at which sports gamers began to migrate from the PC to the console arena for the superior gaming experience. NFL 2K shocked players, but NFL 2K1 mesmerized and seduced them.
Ironically, this would be the last NFL 2K game to be exclusive to the Dreamcast. As Sega’s console began to die, the company began to multiplatform its first party 2K franchise; many gamers far preferred the 2K football to its EA Games Madden counterpart. In a maneuver that embittered gamers, Electronic Arts would monopolize football, ending the series at NFL 2K5, a game which many football fans still swear by and play.
29. Guitar Hero
(PlayStation 2, 2005)
The game that started the peripheral music game craze. While some credit 1998 titles Guitar Freaks and Dance Dance Revolution with innovating the genre, it was Harmonix’s Guitar Hero that made people rush out and drop extra cash for a plastic guitar controller. The music fad became a touchstone, from being the subject of a South Park episode to being a staple at many a drunken party.
The song list of the first game knew its fan base, with such tracks as “Ace of Space” by Motorhead, “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath, “I Love Rock and Roll” by Joan Jett, “Spanish Castle Magic” by Jimi Hendrix, “Bark at the Moon” by Ozzy Osbourne, “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple, “Crossroads” by Cream, and “Sharp Dressed Man” by ZZ Top. Even more so, the game allowed players to really feel as if they were playing the guitar and rocking out with rock legends on stage.
Harmonix would leave after Guitar Hero II, and up the ante with a new music IP, while Guitar Hero, under Activision’s stewardship, would bring in a fortune while, as usual under a major publisher, would begin to stagger under oversaturation. Regardless, even now, without its original creator and overexposure, the IP has a powerful cache.
(PlayStation 3, 2008)
After the PlayStation 3 was launched, most of the promised “big” titles fell flat, basically being B-level games with AAA-level hype, such as Lair, Heavenly Sword and Resistance: Fall of Man. The first game that would make a real impact, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, burst on the scene, but in the long run, it didn’t fulfill the promises that Sony had made in its infamous E3 trailer. A few months later, LittleBigPlanet appeared on the scene, and it did what no PS3 game had up til then: deliver what it promised.
LittleBigPlanet was basically a retro title, with a next-gen coat of paint. It was a 2D platformer directly in the mold of Super Mario Bros., but with gorgeously cute 3D graphics and advanced physics that allowed for clever puzzles that involved gravity and momentum.
The other major feature was also retro: a level editor. While editors had been around since Lode Runner in the early 80′s, the advanced editor took advantage of the PlayStation Network and allowed players to exchange levels to increase the replayability of the title. While of the hundreds of thousands of levels were amateurish, unplayable, remakes of Super Mario Bros. levels (which were quickly removed by Sony), or offensive (also quickly removed), the few expertly made levels made the experience worthwhile. And while the game didn’t sell half as well as Sony had anticipated, it finally gave Sony its mascot, Sack Boy, and PS3 owners a reason to hope.
The game is currently being released for the PlayStation Portable, but any hopes for a sequel were dashed by Media Molecule – as if anyone believed no LittleBigPlanet 2 would be coming out in the next year or two.
27. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
The Elder Scrolls IV: Obilivion
While some might believe that the full 3D open world genre truly started with Grand Theft Auto III, the reality is that The Elder Scrolls: Arena allowed players to explore an entire world freely, while The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall not only provided a larger world, but allowed gamers to customize their own character class. The world was massive, but most of the side missions and dungeons were computer generated and elemental.
Four years later, Bethesda would release The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, which covered a single content in Daggerfall‘s Tamriel, but lovingly hand-crafted the world the player explored, and for practical purposes, was just as big as Daggerfall in that the player would spend just as much time exploring this detailed world than Daggerfall’s randomly generated terrain.
It was easy to grow disenchanted with the open world and aimlessness of Morrowind, however, and later, Oblivion was released that fixed some of Morrowind‘s faults, including combat, NPC interaction and main quest focus, as well as making the terrain more colorful and interesting, as well as having the normal upgrade in graphics one would expect after four years of development. With this, however, Oblivion lost a lot of the detail and complexity Morrowind featured; for example, in Morrowind there was an incredible amount of books to read that gave Tamriel a detailed history. There was less to do in Oblivion than there was in Morrowind.
Regardless, both roleplaying games have spawned many imitative first person open world roleplaying games such as the Gothic series and Two Worlds, and remain the gold standard of the genre.
(PlayStation 2, 2006)
In the original treatment of Jaws, the shark would have been a focal character, with the audience getting full views of the beast during every attack. Unfortunately, the animatronic shark was not only incredibly fake, but also cranky and prone to breaking down. This forced Steven Spielberg to keep the shark hidden most of the film through point of view shots, John Williams’ shark theme, and brief glimpses of a dorsal fin or a splash of blood in the water. The limitations of the technology at the time actually made the film better.
The same can be said of Okami, the most beloved cult classic game of the decade. Originally, the game was to attempt to portray a photorealistic wolf, but the PlayStation 2 hardware simply could not handle it. Instead, they made the brilliant decision to render the game in Japanese woodcut art, and from there, the game just exploded. Painting with the controller Japanese characters to make magical attacks, the animations, and the story all sprung from this decision.
The game exuded charm, and became an instant hit for those gamers willing to give something new a chance. When the “games as art” discussion is brought up, Okami is usually one of the first games to be mentioned, alongside such titles as Braid, Psychonauts and The Path.
25. Super Mario Galaxy
Super Mario Galaxy doesn’t quite live up to its reputation as one of the best reviewed games ever (with a 97 Metacritic score), and it’s easily dismissed as basically Super Mario 64 in three dimensions. However, it is the best Wii game ever released, and one of the most challenging platform games. As the title implies, the game takes Mario into space, where he galavants on spherical planetoids to earn stars, which adds the dizzying prospect of having objects rotating quickly, with the camera swinging around to adjust. Things get weirder when the laws of gravity are reversed, forcing the player to deal with being upside down and trying to navigate baddies.
The look of the game takes full advantage of the Wii’s power as well, getting Mario close to Pixar level, while the amount of objects are bumped up. The look of some of the levels were simply stunning, such as when Mario shoots off a planet like a missile to advance to the next level, er, planet. If the game had a fault, it was that even with the some of the new gameplay mechanics, there was still a sense of sameness to the game; Super Mario 64 was fresh and new, while Galaxy just redoes its predecessor with some better graphics and an extra Z axis; even the levels (lava, ice, and so on) were recycled. Arguably, SM64 was and still is a better game.
Regardless, Galaxy represented a triumphant return by a platformer Mario to the console after such titles as Super Mario Sunshine and Luigi’s Mansion, which gamers and critics alike ate up like a chocolate-covered mushroom.
24. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
(PlayStation 3, 2009)
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is the most awarded PlayStation 3 game of this decade, winning a few Game of the Year Awards from various sites and shows – will it win GameStooge’s top prize? It earned this from being the most cinematic game of the year, presenting itself as an Indiana Jones-style adventure with Nathan Drake, the rogue from the first game subtitled Drake’s Fortune. The graphics are among the best for a console game, rivaling fellow 2009 release Killzone 2‘s. The look, sound and action all mimic a big budget Hollywood film, and quite successfully.
Unfortunately, that is Uncharted 2‘s problem as well: it mimics. There is nothing fresh or new about the game at all, in any regard. As one caustic reviewer complained about the original game: “It had one ball from Gears of War in its mouth, another from Tomb Raider, and was sucking for all its might.” The same could be applied to Among Thieves, as well as its derivative story. However, like National Treasure, Thieves is about as good as pure popcorn fare can generate, and with its sumptuous visuals, it’s an easygoing experience, and the sort of game a player pops in to show friends what their machine can really do.
23. Rock Band
What Guitar Hero started, Rock Band took to the next level. When the guys at Harmonix fled RedOctane, they joined Electronic Arts to start the next logical step to playing a guitar – having an entire rock band. Borrowing from Karaoke Revolution and Drum Mania, the game simulates having three front men (lead singer, lead guitar and bass guitar) and a drummer playing together. The risk Harmonix and Electronic Arts were taking was large – they were banking on the consumer to purchase a $179 bundle with three peripherals: a USB mike, a guitar controller and the unwieldy drum controller that featured four heads and a kick pedal. Not only was it an investment in money, but also space.
It was a resounding success, making more than the same year’s Guitar Hero III which had been released earlier. Friends who enjoyed playing two guitars together expanded to include a singer and a drummer, which was by far the coolest role to play. Rock Band became the party game, and was supported by constant downloadable content, something Guitar Hero III was slow in giving. It wasn’t long before Rock Band 2 was released, which not only added desired features, like online Battle of the Bands, but even gave Rock Band owners a reason to upgrade by allowing them to import all of their songs for a small free to Rock Band 2 (save three due to licensing issues.) Even Activision had to keep up, and released their own full band game Guitar Hero World Tour.
While the genre is starting to slow down due to oversaturation, Rock Band can be called the pinnacle of evolution for music games – at least until someone releases Orchestra Hero.
22. Gears of War
(Xbox 360, 2006)
One of the problems with the original Xbox was that, for all intents and purposes, it had only one flagship intellectual property, starring a green armored space marine. Bungie wasn’t going to release a Halo game every year, so Microsoft needed another game that would drive sales. They targeted another game starring a space marine named Marcus Fenix, but developer Epic’s Cliff Bleszinski warned Microsoft that if they really wanted to sell the game at its best, they’d have to increase the RAM to 512MB, which reputedly cost Microsoft a billion dollars. In the end, however, Microsoft got what it wanted: a flagship title that could alternate rounds with Halo: Gears of War.
Unlike Halo, Gears of War bathed in testosterone. Even the melee kills were the ultimate “screw you”: chainsaw the enemy in half as blood splattered. Gears was not for the faint of heart. Unlike most shooters, players had to use duck and covertactics or be ripped to shreds by enemy fire. The experience was heightened by the then-amazing graphics, a bombastic score, a genuine sense of horror, and one of the best advertising campaign commercials ever. The game also proved that you didn’t need 32 players to have intense, exciting multiplayer; four-on-four matches were taut and well-balanced.
The game was released on PC later, with an extra level that made Xbox 360 owners grind their teeth with envy. When Gears of War 2 was released two years later, it sold 2.1M units on the very first day, and 360 owners are currently awaiting confirmation of a Gears 3 with baited breath.
21. Grand Theft Auto IV
Speaking of cash cows, Grand Theft Auto IV was one of the most heavily anticipated titles of the decade, and had its own record day one sales. The first true sequel to Grand Theft Auto III, IV rebooted the series, introducing a new protagonst, Niko Bellic. Bellic, an immigrant from an unnamed Eastern European country, comes to Liberty City on the advice of his cousin Roman. He does this partly because Roman brags that wealth and fortune can be found in America, and party because he’s running away from some trouble at home.
Grand Theft Auto IV was the first next gen chapter of the popular series, and it showed, as famous New York landmarks, renamed of course, were recreated with gorgeous fidelity. The game just looked beautiful, with Rockstar’s usual great voice acting, music soundtrack, and wry humor. Unfortunately, the game regressed from III in terms of its open worldness; there was far less freedom than previous games, with fewer activities. Regardless, fans still spent tens of hours on missions and exploration, with the new multiplayer games to try as well.
Microsoft pulled off a coup when it announced it would have exclusive downloadable content. In 2009, both The Lost and the Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony were released as standalone expansions to universal critical and fan praise. 2K Games admitted it had waited too long to release the content, however, as by the time the games came out, interest in IV had waned.