It’s my birthday today, and what better way to celebrate it than to list the games that made me who I am today?
A friend dropped by me one day and asked if I had played Ultima Underworld. I scratched my Sega-infested, 16-year-old head in bewilderment. “Ultima Underworld?,” I said. “Is that a Nintendo game? I don’t think I’ve seen it in any Sega lineups or upcoming releases.” My friend smiled and left me a copy of a game that thwarted my understanding of the medium. This game single-handedly blew wide open the doors of conventional gaming and forced me to reconsider the time I invested on Sonic in an attempt to collect all possible rings and jewels. Those of you who have played it, I salute you and share your inevitable pride of having done so. Those of you who haven’t may probably never do as The Elder Scrolls games have taken the genre to a whole new level of accessibility that renders legendary offerings as Ultima Underworld archaic and akin to a Roman Pantheon: grand, deserving of reverence, but gradually overshadowed by modern history.
You’d struggle to find a list of influential games that does not include FF7 in its ranks. It’s an androgenous, emo-cum-boy-meets-girl soap opera that may have ruined RPGs as a genre but ended up standing out more than Cloud’s Bastard Sword at a daycare center; at least that’s what the 17-year-old in me remembers. If I were to base this listing on memory alone, I’d call FF7 one of the best games ever but it really probably isn’t. I just fell in love with Aerith and played the game for her. She was the party healer. She was affectionate. She was giving. She was also brutally murdered halfway through the game. It was the first time I had ever cried because of an in-game event.
It was 2000, the whole Y2K fiasco was finally over, I was just starting university, and just like most freshmen I can recall, I was seeking a higher understanding of what life is. I dug myself in volumes and rested in the comforting sanctity of education and the attempted insight into my existence, oblivious to how little I actually knew. When I first saw the box art of this game, I picked it up, turned it over, and took note of the accolades and game-of-the-year awards. I turned it over again and stared at the then-unknown-to-me JC Denton, walked over to the cashier, and committed one of my best video game investments ever. There is no proper way for me to describe the impact this game had on me; I was absolutely awestruck with its masterful writing and storytelling. It had me doubting the world, untrusting of people, and open to all sorts of conspiracies. When I first discovered how much impact every choice I did had on the game, I froze in place as my mind attempted to wrap itself around it. I mattered as a gamer. I was no longer a puppet that just follows cues. I was JC Denton. That Deus Ex title? That was me, the gamer, the god outside of the machine. The soundtrack is still one that you can hear blaring out of my mp3 player, with the ‘Unatco’ theme being a defining one for me. I silently swore to never play anything of a less caliber for as long as I live. Yeah, sure. Try doing that and still make a living in the gaming industry.
When your father pulls off an overnight and skips work to play a game, you know you have yourself a marvel. Though this was not the first Heroes game I had played, it was the best out of the preceding three, culminating everything that made them great and stripping away the negatives. As addictive in gameplay as it was, it offered little to my gaming experience asides from introducing me to the term “hot seat.” Why, then, would a simple, albeit deep, turn-based strategy be on this list? Local multiplayer. In all honesty, “Micro Machines 2: Tournament Edition” for the Mega Drive was the first one to offer me that feature with the inclusion of two additional joypad slots on the actual cartridge — an innovation still hard to surpass given the limitations of the platfoms back then — turning the experience into a four-player frenzy, but I am a strategy buff and opted to give a mention to an unsung hero in multiplayer gaming that turned the nerd to a herd. I still, until today, prefer local multiplayer, no matter the situation.
I don’t know where to start with this one. The universe? The lore? The story? The music? This game checked all of my boxes. I’ve read up on Mass Effect history more than I have on the actual world’s. I’ve studied characters as peers and thought of them as such. If you’re of the dying breed of gamers who has not played this, you have given up on an enriching and soul-lifting experience in not only video games but multimedia as a whole. Not since Deus Ex did I feel that I belonged in the game and not just taken for the ride. Your choices altered the experience of the game and that of its two sequels, where a small decision in one could alter the story of the entire trilogy (edit in 2020: hahahaha someone pass me the tissues to wipe my tears). I played it on the PC and then bought an XBOX 360 just so I could play it again in its original form. It is for games like this that I preach the power and magic of video games and hope that one day I will be able to transmit this love to my children.