The Problem With Trying to Pick the 500 Best Games Ever

The Problem With Trying to Pick the 500 Best Games Ever

STARTING SCREEN | Start your week with bad lists, Altered Carbon, and music from Animal Crossing.

A couple years ago, I decided that 15 was a nice round number, so I embarked on a quest with the USgamer team to pick the 15 best games to be released since 2000.

When I started the process, I asked everyone to submit their lists. Immediately, I knew that I had my work cut out for me: There was virtually no overlap between the different selections. And this was from a comparatively limited pool of games, with a staff that had fairly similar tastes.

Last week, Polygon embarked on an even more difficult task in attempting to rank the 500 greatest games of all time. No small feat! Since a handful of researchers came together to develop Spacewar! at MIT in 1962, tens of thousands of games have been released on a variety of competing systems. In 2016, more than 4000 games were released on Steam alone.

Polygon mostly conducted their search in good faith, tapping the expertise of Retronauts creator and USG alum Jeremy Parish, Blake Hester, and others in their quest to pick the greatest games of all time. Their list contains a large number of games that are... shall we say... obscure (Habitat, anyone?).

In all honesty, it could be a lot worse. But is it definitive? Well...

The problem Polygon is facing in trying to put together this list is the same one that every outlet faces: games from 40 years ago don't have much in common with the games of today. Sure, they share some of the basic fundamentals, but can you really compare 1982's Adventure (#82 on Polygon's list) with 2003's Knights of the Old Republic (#81 on Polygon's list)? Are you really prepared to say that Pong (#64) has an advantage over Super Smash Bros. Melee (#71)?

Technical considerations also play a role. Older movies have primitive special effects, but those are easy to look past. With games, older tech fundamentally influences how you interact with the story and the mechanics. The older the game, the harder it is to separate out its natural technical limitations and argue its relative merits. Often, the best you can do is say, "Well, it was pretty revolutionary for its time."

You might argue that film critics have no problem putting Pulp Fiction in the same bucket as Wizard of Oz—two movies that were released nearly 50 years apart—but individual movies have far more in common with one another than individual games. Where every movie is out to tell some sort of story, games can vary wildly in their individual objectives. Some just want to tell an emotional story; others want to tease the brain, and still others are pure competition.

A person's understanding of gaming is also heavily influenced by their own tastes and what they played growing up. It is possible to watch every single movie on the AFI Top 100 within a reasonable amount of time. That's not the case with the greatest games, many of which take upwards of 60 to 100 hours to play, and many more to truly appreciate.

But seriously, how does Pong compare to Witcher 3? The world wants to know.

Yes, you can knock out Halo 2's campaign in the span of a weekend. But think about how many hours it takes to learn the ins and outs of the multiplayer and the community. Even the simplest games often take dozens of hours to yield hidden depths.

This is actually a problem we're facing here at USgamer as we try to put together our Game of the Year lists. We're all doing our best to keep up with 2017's best games; but for the most part, we have to defer to whoever the expert is on staff when they tell us that a game is worthy of consideration. There's simply no way to fully appreciate every one of 2017's amazing releases. It's a problem that makes me envious of film and TV critics.

Because it's impossible to play everything, historical "Best of" lists tend to skew toward the biases of whoever is creating them, with a handful of other choices thrown in to placate fans of various genres. Polygon's pick for #1 is Tetris, which is inoffensive, I suppose. The rest of the Top 10 is heavy with Nintendo games, with Mario 3, Zelda, Pokemon Red/Blue, and Super Metroid all making appearances. Meanwhile, Chrono Trigger—a true masterpiece that inarguably holds up in the present day—is mired way down in #62. If you're an RPG fan, I guess you're out of luck.

None of this is meant to trash Polygon, who did their best to put together a fair list (okay, I can fault them for the bizarre decision to put FIFA 12 in the Top 25... seriously, what the heck?). Historical "Best of" lists do great traffic because it's fun to argue the relative merits of classics like Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Metroid. What's more, it's an opportunity for your outlet to put its stamp on gaming history. From now on, the Wikipedia entry for A Link Between Worlds will probably note that Polygon once ranked it #299 in its list of the 500 best games ever made (Note: That's way the hell too low).

Ultimately, the only way to keep a "Best Games Ever" list from becoming a fool's errand is to narrow the scope. You can limit it by genre, though you'll still probably run into the inevitable problem that literally no one has played the Best 100 RPGs ever made (seriously, you haven't). You can limit it to the best games of the past decade, though you'll still have to contend with the problem that different games have wildly different objectives. You can just try to pick the best games on a given platform, which is both fun to do and even potentially useful for those wanting to revisit the best games of the past.

Fool's errand or not, though, outlets will go right on publishing "Best Games" lists, because people want to read them, even if they ultimately make no sense. We'll probably even make one ourselves someday.

But if you're planning on making a Top 500 list of your own, I have only one request: Please, for the love of god, do the right thing and put Final Fantasy Tactics in the Top 100. Seriously.

Looking Ahead to the Rest of the Week

This is it folks! December has begun and we're rounding the final corner on 2017. It's time for us to start talking about our Games of the Year, which means a lot of heated discussion, some outright fights, and some tearful reconciliations. You can expect a ton from the USgamer team this season, so look forward to that. This week though, here's what's on the docket.

The Game Awards: On December 7 at 8:30PM ET/5:30PM PT, the Game Awards will kick off, honoring the best games in our industry. Unlike some awards, these are all voted on by you, the fans, so you have to own any results. Likewise, you can expect to see some reveals and trailers at the event.

The PlayStation Experience 2017: This weekend marks Sony's celebration of all things PlayStation in Anaheim, California. The event takes place on December 9-10, but the part that everyone around the world cares about, the keynote presentation, happens on Friday, December 8 at 8 PM PT/11PM ET. Sony has already cautioned folks about getting their hopes up for megatons, since E3 2017 and Paris Games Week took most of the thunder. Still, expect a bit of magic at the show.

Destiny 2: Curse of Osiris: Most of the attention has been on Destiny 2's issues with XP throttling, but Bungie is also putting out a full-blown expansion this week, which goes live on December 5. Here's hoping it makes the endgame a little richer.

Hearthstone: Kobolds and Caverns: Hearthstone takes to dungeon diving in its latest major expansion. With new solo content, this one might be worth picking up even if you've been away for a while. It'll be out December 7.

The Best of the Rest: Not a ton of major releases this week, but there's some good stuff on the horizon. Dead Rising 4: Frank's Big Package brings the latest Dead Rising to the PlayStation 4 on December 5. A Hat in Time makes the jump to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on December 6. Finally, cult franchise Spellforce 3 is coming to PC on December 7.

Nadia's Note Block Beat Box: 4 A.M. from Animal Crossing: New Leaf

I'm a night person. Always have been. Even as a little girl, I remember being forced to go to bed at the same time each night and staring up at the ceiling because I was helpless to drift off until the wee hours. I once had a job where I started at 5 a.m. every morning. I never felt so miserable in my life.

So when I play a time-oriented game like Animal Crossing: New Leaf for the Nintendo 3DS, you can bet I become very familiar with the evening / night time environments and the fellow night hawks who populate them. 4 A.M. is a peaceful but particularly lonely hour that hangs in the limbo between midnight and dawn, and I think 4 A.M. in New Leaf perfectly captures that chill loneliness.

Kazumi Totaka's choice of gentle piano laid atop a steady, marching beat is a good audio representation for this mysterious time of night: Though the world around you feels like it's come to a dead stop, be assured the new day is heading inexorably towards you. Like a train gliding along a track. A sunshine train.

Mike's Media Minute

I usually talk about the big screen, but this week I'm moving over to the small screen for a bit. Netflix recently released the first trailer for its adaptation of Altered Carbon. The 10-episode series is an adaptation of the book of the same name by Richard K. Morgan.

The core idea of the series is people have conquered death; technology has allowed people to download their consciousness into new bodies called sleeves. The bodies still age, so most folks only live a few lives, but the rich save their minds in storage stacks and upload to new bodies all the time. When one rich person commits suicide and destroys his stack, including the memory of the last 48 hours, that person hires ex-soldier Takeshi Kovacs to figure out if that suicide was actually a murder.

Altered Carbon looks... pretty good! This is Netflix aiming hard as prestige television and it's clear that the series is not coming cheap. Altered Carbon is very much the kind of thoughtful hard science fiction that has a solid niche.

The problem has been, up until now, that the niche doesn't seem to be capable of further box office success. Blade Runner 2049 is straight up hard scifi in the best way. The budget was $150-185 million, and every dollar is up there onscreen, care of veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins. Director Denis Villeneuve did the project right: it's a film that takes its time and hopes the audience comes along for the ride. Despite everything coming out right, Blade Runner 2049 is going to lose money at the box office.

The truth is the "general audience" doesn't want to pay $15 for 3 hours of using science fiction concepts to explore ethics, morality, and humanity. And that's fine. Money is finite, folks want pure entertainment. That's why I think projects like Blade Runner 2049, Westworld, and Altered Carbon can find homes on Netflix, Amazon Instant, HBO, Hulu, and other streaming services. Folks are more apt to give a show a shot when the cost is sunk in the subscription fee they pay each month. Black Mirror found a solid fanbase in that way and I think Altered Carbon might as well.

Fingers crossed, because I like scifi, so I want it to succeed.

Caty’s AltGame Corner

In order to have a good day, it's essential to have a healthy breakfast. Or at least, that's what I was told while growing up. The new surreal game from developers Team Boogie Knights, Healthy Breakfast, kinda-sorta-but-not-really explores that message. Except it captures the topsy-turvy search for a donut, which typically isn't the first thing on your mind when you see the words "healthy" and "breakfast" sandwiched together.

It's a short game, lasting ten minutes or less depending on how fast you move through its neon-colored world. As the year winds down, weirder bite-sized games are what I'm turning to more and more. Healthy Breakfast, with all its weird floating heads and dizzying platforming, was well worth the time. You can play Healthy Breakfast from itch.io, available for PC and Mac for free.

This Week's News and Notes

  • Capcom surprised the world by actually remembering that Mega Man exists. In a livestream earlier today, Capcom announced that Mega Man 11 is coming in 2018 to PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. That's right, Switch folk, you haven't been forgotten. In addition, Mega Man Legacy Collection 1 and 2 will be making the transition over to Switch as well! Finally, the Mega Man X franchise is getting a new collection, releasing on all of the usual suspects: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. Capcom came to Mega Man's 30th Anniversary prepared, and we're glad they did.
  • Our erudite freelancer Doc Burford wrote a lengthy piece about why The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is so damned good, despite doing a number of things wrong in terms of design. If you want to understand the mechanics of games, Doc's work is always a great place to start and this piece is no different.
  • The PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X are both out and about, meaning developers are going to start having launch support for both platforms. This means their games have to be ready with 4K resolution support, high dynamic range (HDR) color, and other improvements to justify the horsepower in those consoles. Mike talked with the developers of Gears of War 4, Assassin's Creed: Origins, and Middle-Earth: Shadow of War to see if they were ready for our 4K future.
  • Nadia has some words for everyone. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is the focal point of a community discussion about revealing costumes and female character designs, but folks should know that there's more to one of the game's primary characters, Pyra, and the game itself.
  • Caty dives into the newest update for Splatoon 2, which she feels is starting to actually feel like a real sequel.
  • The death of Marvel Heroes came too quickly. Matt talks to those left behind when a free-to-play game is shuttered.
  • UFC 3 might bring the goods next year, offering a deeper, more strategic experience to digital MMA. Fans are feeling good about the feel of striking and timing has become key to the game this year. People are still coming to terms with the dramatic changes in the controls, but the community is positive ahead of the game's February 2, 2018 launch.
  • And if you're enjoying Xenoblade Chronicles 2, here's a warning, the game is better in Docked Mode!

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Kat Bailey

Editor in Chief

Kat Bailey is a former freelance writer and contributor to publications including 1UP, IGN, GameSpot, GamesRadar, and EGM. Her fondest memories as a journalist are at GamePro, where she hosted RolePlayer's Realm and had legal access to the term "Protip." She is USgamer's resident mecha enthusiast, Pokemon Master, and Minnesota Vikings nut (skol).

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