The Decade in Video Games (and Eventually the Top 10 Games of the Decade)

Introduction

With 2009 coming to a close it's time for a flood of "best/worst [something] of the decade" articles. Most will be hastily written, shallow opinion pieces sprinkled with inaccuracies. Why I'm contributing to this problem is inexplicable, I guess the reflective nature of my personality can't be suppressed.

Best of the zeros?

What can I really say about the 00s anyway? I watched very few TV shows this decade, even fewer movies. The only time I hear top 40 radio is in the dentist's office. I look forward to the sound of the drill drowning it out. Is it sad that I've completely lost touch with pop culture after 1999?

The only thing I've kept pace with is video games. Even then I spent most of this decade being about half a generation behind. My gaming experience in the 00s has mostly been on Nintendo consoles with a bit of Dreamcast and PlayStation 2 mixed-in. I still think I'm as qualified as anyone else to review the decade in video games. I don't recall making a claim that this article was intended to cover the best games of the decade for every system. Unless you work for a game magazine, or live with your parents, you probably haven't played them all. This is simply a personal perspective from an average working gamers with kids.

OK, maybe "average" isn't the best word I could have picked. You don't have to look at my site for more than 30 seconds to tell I'm at least a little obsessed with classic video games. So in the zeros I played quite a few older games too. I'll just go ahead and include them in this recap too.. only the ones that were new to me, not everything. I'd hate to bore you talking about the 100th time I played through Phantasy Star III.

How did I remember what games I played each year? I didn't, there are definitely games missing from here and even some that may be a year off. For good or bad, a lot of my memories are tied to gaming. I couldn't tell you a single event that happened in 2000 but I sure can remember playing a ton of Majora's Mask in my old apartment.

Before jumping right into 2000 let's take a little tour of late 1999. The world was anxiously awaiting the Y2K bug while listening to a lot of Will Smith songs. I was wrapping up my last semester of college while working as a programmer at the now defunct TSI Software. Between work and school I had little time for gaming, spring 1996 was about where games ended for me. Over the span of fall 1996 to December 1999 I played a bit of Doom II here and there to blow off steam. I gradually played through Phantasy Star IV and Super Mario RPG over breaks too but that was about it for that entire time span.

With this odd concept called "free time" looming on the horizon I was eager to get back into gaming. Christmas was also coming up and my girlfriend (soon to be fiancé) really wanted to know what to get me. I had to choose between three systems:

Sony PlayStation
Pros: The dominant system of the time, strongest library
Cons: The oldest of the systems, likely the first to be discontinued (which of course turned out to be a horrible assumption)

Nintendo 64
Pros: Ocarina of Time looked irresistible
Cons: Otherwise lukewarm library, no true RPGs

Sega Dreamcast
Pros: Newest system, by far the best graphics & sound
Cons: Really expensive, last Sega system flopped (last three if you count the Sega CD and 32X)

After some debate I told her I'd really like a Nintendo 64. Sure enough on December 25th there was a new Nintendo 64 Jungle Pack waiting under the proverbial tree. You can see why I proposed a week later.


2000 - Making up for lost time

Donkey Kong 64 I moved out of my crumbling college apartment and into a decent (but overpriced one) with my fiancé. It didn't take long for me to unpack the Nintendo 64 and start working my way back into current times. I started with the pack-in game, Donkey Kong 64. It was an incredible experience the first time I fired it up. The last 3D game I played was something like Battle Arena Toshinden and clearly the quality improved while I was away. I was impressed with the initial PlayStation launch lineup but so much progress had been made in just 4 years. It wasn't just that Donkey Kong 64 looked better; it's that it played smoothly. The clunky control of the early 3D games was replaced with precision and reliability. The open world was also quite welcome; I wasted many hours exploring areas to see what was hidden.

I played Donkey Kong 64 just about every night until finally hitting the 101% complete score. I tried to avoid using any guides but gave in to get the last couple missing goodies. There must have been some learning curve in the transition to 3D because I initially thought it was a difficult game, especially the fight against the jack-in-the-box boss. I played it again a couple years later and found it was much easier then.

Ocarina of Time - Shiek

As great as I thought Donkey Kong 64 was, it was no comparison to the next N64 game I played - Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. From the first notes of the opening music I knew it was going to be something great. It contained all the elements that made the original Zelda series spectacular. The world invited you to explore at your own pace. The dungeons were tricky, but not too difficult to figure out on your own.

Where it expanded the most on the original series was in the character development. Sure, there were interactions before but now the appearance and personalities had sharper definitions. In the brief time you talked to the cast of characters you felt like you really knew them. It was a new level of depth that would continue on to future Zelda games.

The soundtrack was also outstanding, still among my favorites. The background music for each area was a perfect fit. The Forest Temple had an especially haunting sound that made it one of the most memorable dungeons in any Zelda game.

Throughout the year I picked-up several other games that were cheap but otherwise forgettable. Bomberman Hero was a huge disappointment, I can't see how it's remotely related to the original. Starfox 64 was OK, seemed like it could have been a lot better. Waialae Country Club was good for a relaxing evening but didn't rack up that much playing time.

Majora's Mask

In the fall Nintendo kicked-off a full court press of advertising for the Ocarina of Time sequel Majora's Mask. What I remember most were the creepy Radio Zelda ads and accompanying web site. Although they did a horrible job explaining what the game was about, it was a viral success for Nintendo. I can't remember now, was the term "viral video" around in 2000?

Anyway, their campaign worked. I pre-ordered a copy and impatiently waited for it to arrive. I started on it the second it was in my possession. The tone of the game was every bit as unsettling as the ads. It was the first Zelda game to go in a distinctly dark direction. Mechanically it was a minor upgrade over the original but the rest of the surrounding elements matured considerably.

It wasn't a perfect game though. The dungeons were a bit on the weak side and many of the masks were little more than filler. Still, it was a worthy sequel and a game I'd play through again in the 00s.

Despite the massive hype, I didn't consider buying a PlayStation 2 when it launched. Sure it looked great, but initially it was overpriced and a pain to get. I was more than satisfied to play through my small Nintendo 64 collection.

Favorite game of 2000 (that was actually released in 2000): Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask

When this was re-released for the Virtual Console several articles called it the best of the Zelda series. It's certainly a contender. In the storyline department it's definitely the best. I think it falls just slightly short of Ocarina of Time though. As great as the 72 hour clock was, it also led to some repetition and periods of standing around doing nothing while waiting for an event to occur.

Favorite game of 2000 (that was released before 2000): Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Right now, I'd have to rank this as my favorite game of all time.



2001 - Dreamcast and GameCube

Crazy Taxi

Early in 2001 Sega somewhat surprisingly discontinued the Dreamcast. With system prices being slashed I rushed to buy one for the low price of $119.99 with the Sega Smash Pack included. I also picked-up a copy of Crazy Taxi for $20. Since I started graduate school that January I really didn't manage to play it much until summer rolled around except for an occasional stress-relief moment. My first impression of the Dreamcast was very positive, I couldn't see how it failed so quickly and am still stumped today. Maybe I don't pay attention to details well but I can't see a difference in graphic quality between it and the PlayStation 2 or GameCube.

Once I did have a little bit of leisure time I decided to fill it by starting a new RPG. Super Mario RPG was the last one I played and I'd been itching for a new one. I hit the local game store and found Grandia II for $20. It was an impressive game - the soundtrack instantly became one of my favorites. Like the last RPG I played, this had a 3/4 perspective and battles you could avoid. Up until the wacky ending it was an awesome time.

That August I got married, when I returned from my too-brief honeymoon it was back to graduate school in the evenings after work. My gaming time dried up very quickly. I managed to sneak in some time to read about this new Nintendo "GameCube" that was coming out soon. I watched all the preview videos and was sold on it right away. The visuals didn't look better than the Dreamcast but it had all the great Nintendo franchises behind it. For the first time I pre-ordered a game system.

GameCube logo

Unfortunately this was around the time that stores decided to start fleecing shoppers by only pre-selling systems in "bundles". I get why they do it; they make zero profit on the sale of the system, it's all in the games and accessories. I opted for the EBGames pre-order offer half out of loyalty and half because it wasn't the worst deal around. They forced you to buy three games and an off-brand controller with it. I went with Luigi's Mansion, Star Wars: Rebel Assault, and Madden 2002. I eventually played all three a ton so I didn't feel ripped-off.

I said "eventually" because I didn't even hook it up until December. There were two reasons - the first, and most important, is that I didn't have time until the semester was over. The second was that nobody had the s-video cable for it in stock. There's probably not much difference between regular AV output and s-video but I kept hunting for it anyway. I don't fall for crap like Monster audio cables, but I'm convinced s-video is better for some reason. Anyway, I finally found it at the now long gone Toys 'R Us store on State St. in Chicago.

With the semester over, and lots of vacation queued up, I spent hours with that little purple box. Luigi's Mansion was rather short but a good time nonetheless, a great demo of what the system could do. I kinda sucked at Star Wars: Rebel Assault and hunted down some codes to unlock the levels I couldn't get to on my own. The Bears had a freakish yet good season in 2001 that was fun to relive in Madden 2002.

Favorite game of 2001 (that was actually released in 2001): Luigi's Mansion

Looking back at those GameCube launch titles, I have to give the "best of" to Luigi's Mansion.

Favorite game of 2001 (that was released before 2001): Grandia II

I got married in August and spent the weeks leading up to the event playing Grandia II. Yeah, I wasn't exactly living up the last of my bachelor days. I have to go back and try the rest of series sometime.



2002 - Looking for sailors

Phantasy Star Online

The Dreamcast obviously wasn't a hot item for the 2001 Christmas shopping season. Most game and toy stores had a shelf or bin with a few games that collected dust until the post-holiday blowout sales started. I made a big score at a local Toys 'R Us that was clearing out their remaining selection for $5. Most of the games I didn't try until school was done for the semester... and there are a couple I still haven't played.

Over the summer break I started Phantasy Star Online Version 2, offline mode of course. Being a fan of the original series I was really looking forward to trying this. It was disappointing to see little connection back to the classics. That didn't make it a bad game though. The soundtrack and visuals were spectacular. Unfortunately I chose a character class that wasn't great for an offline quest and never finished. At some point I'll go back and try again, although I'll probably do so on the GameCube version.

The rest of the year was extremely hectic though. Between graduate school and work I found it difficult to keep organized. I bought a Palm m130 in the hopes it would help me keep things together. For the most part it did. My wacky schedule was always with me and up to date, I had a sortable to do list and notepad everywhere I went too. Of course I had to try a few games on it. I downloaded some simple and free titles: Hearts (something I got into because of an assignment in an artificial intelligence class), a remake of the Apple II classic Taipan!, and an emulator for the Zork games. I found the touch interface to be rather buggy so I never did that much gaming on the Palm. Perhaps this is why I wasn't initially warm to the Nintendo DS when it launched.

Dig Dig Arrangement

One of the reasons I flunked out of junior college was spending too much time in the arcade playing Mortal Kombat. Seriously, I ditched class on several occasions just because I had a great winning steak going. When I went back to school in 1996 I basically gave up games so I could focus on school and work. Now that I made it through a year of graduate school, I figured it was safe to start gaming during the school year again. On days that I got to the campus early I'd hit the arcade which was located in the student bowling alley. The selection was pretty poor overall there - NFL Blitz and Gauntlet Dark Legacy were the newest titles there but didn't spark much interest in me (or anyone else judging by the lack of players).

The only thing that appealed to me was this collection of Namco remakes. It was a cabinet that sported zany remakes of Pac-Man, Galaga, and Dig-Dug. They were enhanced versions of the originals only much, much easier. I tried them all and found the Dig-Dug one to be a blast. It stayed true to the original while introducing an array of new power-ups. It was just plain a lot of fun, exactly what video games should be. It couldn't have been a big money earner though because after a few tries I was able to win it on a single quarter. I estimate it didn't pull in more than a dollar an hour on a great day.

I scoured the internet to find a home version of that crazy Dig-Dug game. OK, I actually looked for a MAME ROM but no one had yet ripped it. Along the way I saw that a home version was coming to the GameCube. Not being the type of game that has pre-order offers, I resorted to stalking the nearest EBGames until it came in. The collection also included Ms. Pac Man which is one of the few games my wife likes so she recorded a little time on it too. I think I bought every arcade collection that was released for the GameCube but this was the one I played the most.

Shenmue

When the December break rolled around I fired up Shenmue. One of the first impressions I had was this was about as good as I expected games to look. I don't need games to look any better than Shenmue. Maybe that's why I haven't rushed to buy an HD system yet. Anyway, it was almost overwhelming how open the game was. I wasted many hours just seeing what you could do. I never thought I could be immersed by a game where I mostly did things I could do in real life - like go to the convenience store or practice martial arts in a playground.

I ultimately developed something of a love-hate relationship with Shenmue. The first 2/3 of the game were great, one of the best games I'd ever played. At the very end of the second disc the story starts to take a dive and the final disc is painfully monotonous. I almost quit but had invested so much time already that I couldn't bring myself to. I can't really say if I'd recommend trying Shenmue. If there was some kind of "World of Shenmue" game that was like The Sims it would be alright I suppose. Going through the story again isn't something I'd want to do.

I finished Shenmue on Christmas Day, Christmas Day in the game not in real life but it was close.

While in the Dreamcast mood I also played a bunch of Bust a Move 4. I played it off and on throughout the year and decided to now tackle the full story mode.

Really late in the year I finally got a Sega Saturn, a Christmas gift from my wife. I worked the launch for it so many years prior but didn't buy one then. Now cheap on ebay I couldn't resist adding it to my collection. I can't say I've put a ton of mileage on it but I'm always happy to pick up a new game for it now and then.

Favorite game of 2002 (that was actually released in 2002): Namco Museum

I know, pretty uninspired pick but I racked my brain to think of any other new game I bought in 2002. The backlog of Dreamcast games really consumed the little bit of free time I had. I bought very few GameCube games and this was the one I played the most.

Favorite game of 2002 (that was released before 2002): Bust a Move 4

I don't remember when I got this game, it wasn't part of the massive Toys 'R Us blowout so I think maybe late 2001. Like Dig-Dug, this was a stress relief game I played for a few minutes here and there while the semester was going. I got hooked on the original Bust a Move back in the aforementioned junior college arcade. I bought the Super Nintendo version and darn near wore out the cartridge. I couldn't resist trying the Dreamcast version and it refueled my addiction.


2003 - Gaming dad

My wife and I had our first daughter in April 2003. I'm not going to get off topic by writing about the sampler platter of emotions that went along with it. One unforeseen effect was it caused me to mellow out about a lot of things. Suddenly things at school and work that I used to feel stressed about didn't matter anymore. Now that I had something truly important in my life everything else seemed trivial. One effect of having a more relaxed attitude was getting more into gaming than before. As you'll see if you keep reading, it also got me playing a few games I otherwise wouldn't.

The months leading up to the big event were surprisingly easy. I unintentionally had an light semester. I landed one of those dream professors that never gave any assignments and didn't grade exams. I don't know what my final grade was based on and I don't care. I made it a point to take another of his courses in the fall. Work was also slower than usual which did raise my anxiety level a little, memories of Mercator Software floated in my head. Fortunately, or not, that was a temporary phase and by the end of the year I was swamped again.

Wind Waker

Earlier in 2003 Nintendo started promoting the upcoming Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. I knew I'd buy Wind Waker, it was just a matter of when. That was settled when the pre-order offer was announced - free bonus disc containing Ocarina of Time and Ocarina of Time Master Quest. I jumped to place the order and the bonus disc arrived few weeks before Wind Waker did.

Since my semester wasn't too rough I had the time to play through Ocarina of Time and Ocarina of Time Master Quest on the weekends. OK, in reality I got annoyed with Master Quest toward the end and quit but Ocarina of Time was just as much fun the second time through. My wife was teaching high school English then and sat next to me grading papers for hours on end. She seemed moderately annoyed at the thought of our unborn child being able to recognize the Ocarina of Time soundtrack at birth, specifically the Lost Woods theme which she got stuck in her head several times.

I started Wind Waker as soon as it arrived. At first I didn't care for it a lot, annoyed at how linear it was. Once it opened up and Link could sail anywhere then it instantly became a great game. I hear some found the sailing boring but I enjoyed that aspect of the game. There was something relaxing about going from island to island and just pointlessly exploring the world. The statue and flag collecting side-quests were a nice touch. The world can be on the verge of doom but there's still time to decorate the city or snap a few photographs.

Another item I pre-ordered was the Game Boy Advance SP. I skipped the Game Boy Color because I didn't think it was big upgrade over the original, plus I just wasn't into mobile gaming at the time. The Game Boy Advance was tempting but negative reviews about the lack of a backlight kept me away. When I saw pictures of the SP I was instantly sold. I liked the new layout and compact design but the rechargeable battery was the best selling point. That is the single smartest feature Nintendo has added to one of their portables. Oh, and the backlit screen of course. Except the headphone jack, Nintendo did everything right with the design of the Game Boy Advance SP.

Oracle of Seasons

The funny thing is, initially I only played Game Boy Color games on it. That's because I wanted to play the three Zelda games I missed. I started with Link's Awakening DX which was a great throwback to the original style. I think they did an amazing job moving the Zelda series into the 3D era but the classic overhead style still works. After wrapping that game up, I went on to the other two Game Boy Color Zelda games - Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons. Although a little too short, they were also nice additions to the series.

At the start of summer I finally got around to buying a PlayStation. That's right, I bought my first PlayStation in 2003. It was the slim model which was now being sold new for really cheap. The first game I bought was Destruction Derby which was an old favorite from the PlayStation launch. Heck, it's still a game I enjoy from time to time. I decided to grab a few RPGs from the "Greatest Hits" collection for $20 each.

Chrono Cross was the first one I tried and I was impressed. Although having a few annoying imperfections, it was an immediate favorite. Looking back, it was an awful lot like Grandia II - similar visual perspective, epic soundtrack, great cast of characters, totally convoluted plot.

I bought Final Fantasy VIII because I heard the soundtrack and was blown away. I figured if the game was only half as good as the soundtrack it would still be incredible. It turns out it was maybe 5% as good as the soundtrack. I just couldn't get into it at all, too much doing nothing for extended periods. I may go back and try again but I'm not sure, so many other games I'd rather play first.

When the fall semester rolled around I had to take a break from gaming for a few months. It was very difficult to start again with a baby at home. Knowing there would be 2-3 days a week when I wouldn't see my newborn daughter was nauseating. I briefly debated quitting altogether because it seemed like too much. Instead I went for broke and took double the class load I usually did. At the pace I was on I wouldn't finish until December 2004, that seemed a century away. So I decided to have one really horrific semester and shave seven months off the timeline.

Favorite game of 2003 (that was actually released in 2003): Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker

I remember reading a lot of negative opinions about the graphical style. I was skeptical at first too, I wanted the game from the GameCube previews two years earlier. In the end it worked well, well enough to spawn two sequels.

Favorite game of 2003 (that was released before 2003): Chrono Cross

No matter what flaws it has, the wide selection of characters and soundtrack make this a great game. One of the many games I plan to play next decade is the DS remake of the original Chrono Trigger which I missed out on back in the SNES days.


2004 - Retro resurgence

I finished graduate school in the spring semester of 2004. The first few months of the year were focused on wrapping up my thesis paper and preparing for the defense presentation. I didn't have any classes but put more hours than ever into school. It didn't help that I also had a major application launch at the office going on at the same time. Between those my spring was too packed for much gaming.

By May 22nd that was all behind me so I enjoyed a little recreation by visiting the Midwest Gaming Classic for the first time. Although already a fan of retro games, something about being a parent made me even more nostalgic. It was so nice to attend an event packed with other classic gaming fans, I don't come across many in my normal day to day activities. From then on I started playing old games more often and even started collecting them compulsively.

Baldurs Gate logo

While in the nostalgic mood, I decided to give Baldur's Gate: Tales of the Sword Coast a shot. It's something I picked up on sale but had sitting on the shelf for a while. I used to dig the old "gold box" AD&D computer games and this looked like something of the same spirit. I logged many, many hours on this game. It was as close to the authentic AD&D experience as you could get without breaking out the pencil and paper (now there's something I haven't done in roughly 20 years).

I played through it twice - once the "normal" way, assembling a full party and generally being good. The second time as a solo evil wizard with an incredible arsenal thanks to a bit of cheating. That was fun except for the parts when the army starts chasing you from town to town.

I'm always torn as to whether I prefer games where you create your own character or ones where the cast is fixed. In the latter case, the characters have a distinct personality and are an integral part of the story. One area where Baldur's Gate suffers is that the main character has no personality whatsoever. The plot doesn't work well for anything except a good to somewhat-neutral character. By no means would I say that locking down the main character would have improved the game. Yeah, it could have led to a stronger story but would have gone against the very point of AD&D.

Simpsons Hit and Run

On the new games front, I really got into Simpsons: Hit and Run that fall. The only reason I remember it being the fall is because I got to the Halloween level within a week of the actual holiday (much like my experience with Shenmue and Christmas two years prior). I enjoyed it because it was set in a time when the show was still good, most of the references from the first 5-8 seasons. Just roaming around to check out all the scenery was a blast in itself.

I never really thought about all the different vehicles that appear in Simpsons episodes until playing this. Things that were one-time gags, like the Book Burning Mobile, to icons like the Mr. Plow truck were all included. Most of the regular characters made an appearance - only a few were playable, others were racing opponents, and some played an auxillary role.

The only downside is it was a little short and, except for one or two races, too easy. Those negatives didn't prevent it from being an immediate classic, something I can still play today. I'd be more than happy to see a sequel that featured more locations from the early days of the show.

Four Swords Adventures

I bought Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures just before Christmas when it went on sale for some obscenely low price, lower than it goes for used today. I saw immediately why it was so cheap, it wasn't very good by Legend of Zelda standards. It was a nice homage to Link to the Past, I'll give it that much but not much more. The overall concept wasn't really all that imaginative, like Gauntlet but all the characters are the same.

It was definitely the easiest Zelda game ever made and got repetitive quickly. It's one of the few Zelda games that I'll probably not play through again.

I also gave Dragon's Lair 3D a try in 2004. I remember the feeling of awe I had when I first saw the arcade game as a kid. I heard an interview with one of the developers where they talked about wanting to recreate the look of the arcade original in a 3D environment. They succeeded in that regard but failed in the play control category. It felt like an early PlayStation game, a mediocre one at that. I gave up on it not too far along. Hopefully in a future generation they can do a better game like this.

Favorite game of 2004 (that was actually released in 2004): Simpsons: Hit and Run

I guess this has to win by default because I didn't try many new games in 2004.

Favorite game of 2004 (that was released before 2004): Baldur's Gate

I wish there were more AD&D games in this style, maybe there are and I haven't done a good job keeping up.


2005 - Time travel

I was racking my brain to figure out why I didn't play more games in 2005. Then I remembered - one of my favorite TV shows, Doctor Who, returned from a long hiatus. A good portion of my free time was spent not only watching the new episodes but going back to a few old favorites. I also got into many of the books that were published over the past 10 years or so that I missed out on. The books were never widely available in the US so I had to import them. A good deal of the summer and fall were spent hopping through often far-fetched adventure in time and space.

Ys IV

The year started off with some serious gaming though. In January, a translation group released and English patch for the PCE Engine CD version of Ys IV: The Dawn of Ys. Although I own a legitimate copy of the game, I downloaded a patched version rather than go through the steps of copying the CD to an ISO image, applying the patch, and burning it.

I'm not one to knock Ys III, but I prefer the style of the original two. Ys IV returned the series to its overhead roots while improving on the graphics a tad. Of course the spoken dialog was still in Japanese but I had an English script handy to get through those cut scenes. Just being able to read the text in English was satisfying enough. I have to give a huge thanks to the team that created this incredible translation.

I didn't buy very many GameCube games again this year. As much as I enjoyed the system, I never really bought more than 2-3 games a year for it. One factor is that when I started a game I didn't finish until I accomplished everything (or darn close to it). Case in point - Lego Star Wars. I saw this on sale and thought it looked like simple fun. My assessment was spot-on. It's definitely one of the easiest games ever made, but there are so many things to find and unlock that I played it for weeks.

I also put a bunch of time into Mario Golf which I suppose wasn't all that new in 2005. Golf is something I find relaxing on a game console but miserable in real life. I think it's the combination of being out in the sun for hours while dressing like a dork. It would be a stretch to compare Mario Golf to the actual sport though. I didn't play until I unlocked everything on this one, I just wanted to tour the courses without trying any of the other challenges.

Phantasy Star

I also took a trip back in time on the Game Boy Advance by playing a few old RPGs again. I probably don't have to mention that I bought the Phantasy Star Collection. I'll just say it was a good translation except for the frequent crashes in the first Phantasy Star. I also played through Lunar Legend, a remake of Lunar: The Silver Star. I went through the original over 10 years earlier, wow, sounds so long ago when I put it like that. Anyway, they did a commendable job moving it to a portable system. Plus it had been long enough that I didn't remember most of the storyline so it was like playing a new game in some ways.

If we're going to talk about the decade in gaming then we have to mention the Xbox 360. Not owning the original Xbox, I wasn't all hyped about it. It looked like a great system and everything, the backwards compatibility made me briefly consider it. I guess that's not a big deal when you can buy the original for $5 now. I didn't actively follow the system but I did listen to a lot of the CheapAssGamer.com podcast which talked about it incessantly. I have no doubt I would have enjoyed the system if I bought it (when it was working that is) but I couldn't justify spending the $500+ on one of the many bundles available.

Despite not owning an Xbox 360, it inadvertently inspired me to write what would become my favorite article on this site - My Loser Phase: Reflections on Video Game Retail from 1992-1997. From late 2005 to early 2006, a lot of my free time was spent working on this (cut me a break, I'm a slow writer).

Favorite game of 2005 (that was actually released in 2005): Lego Star Wars

Nothing fancy here, a small game with hours of replayability.

Favorite game of 2005 (that was released before 2005): Ys IV: Dawn of Ys (English patch)

This was the peak of the series. It did everything right - the gameplay, the soundtrack, the story, the cinemas, and so on. It's a shame this hasn't been ported in one form or another to a newer console.


2006 - Even more Zelda and Mario

Final Fantasy I and II: Dawn of Souls

I continued my Game Boy Advance RPG adventures with Final Fantasy I&II: Dawn of Souls. Despite the negative experience with Final Fantasy VIII, I thought the original would be worth a go. Not surprisingly, I preferred the classic style to the newer cinema-heavy version. Final Fantasy I was everything I liked about 8/16-bit RPGs. I started Final Fantasy II but never finished, I can't recall why now but I'll start it over one day.

Sticking with Game Boy Advance RPGs, I also played through Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga. It was reminiscent enough of Super Mario RPG although from a totally different publisher. The teamwork and special moves were innovative, from the previews of Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story it looks like it inspired the future games of the series. (I'll probably start Bowser's Inside Story next year)

Frog Bog

The Midwest Gaming Classic took a year off in 2005 but was back in 2006. It moved to a nice resort hotel so I used it as an excuse to get out of town for a long weekend. I picked-up a few Intellivison games which got me into something of an Intellivision kick for a while. It was my first game system and I still enjoy many of the games. My daughter was starting to become aware of games so I played a few of the simple ones with her. They say games aren't healthy for kids that young but really what damage can a few rounds of Frog Bog do?

A very good portion of 2006 was spent on a classic gaming kick. I also decided to start collecting games as a hobby, something that's only become a larger obsession over time.

Like the previous year, I'd be remiss not to mention the Wii and PlayStation 3 launches. I was skeptical about the Wii anddeclined on buying one while waiting in line at 5:00 AM for the Toys 'R Us "Black Friday" sales to start. I thought it was gimmicky and might not last, like many other "experts" I totally missed the mark on it. It's amazing how quickly that little system caught on fire with the general public. I didn't buy a PlayStation 3 for the same reasons I didn't buy an Xbox 360. Unlike the Xbox 360, the PlayStation 3 didn't even have any games I was interested in.

Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

If Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess had been a Wii exclusive I likely would have bought one that cold "Black Friday" morning. I wonder if there are still some waiting to buy a Wii until a new Zelda game is released? Instead, on the first day of my annual 3-4 week December sabbatical I picked it up for the GameCube and worked through it until New Years rolled around. It took a while to get into this one, in the beginning you spent so much stuck in wolf form. Once I got past that, and the overworld opened up, it improved. Wow, getting a feeling of Deja Vu - this sounds so much like my feelings toward Wind Waker.

Graphically, it was the Zelda game we'd been waiting for since the GameCube launched. They teased us with a preview video then gave us Wind Waker. It turned out to be a darn good game but we still wanted what they first showed us. Twilight Princess was exactly it. Link looked amazing and the fight animations were perfect. Each boss battle was an epic experience, far beyond any previous game in the series.

On the downside I didn't care for it much as Ocarina of Time, Majora's Mask, or Wind Waker. It continued down the slope of easiness that started with Wind Waker, most of the game was a piece of cake. The soundtrack also seemed a little uninspired, good compared to the average game but only OK compared to the rest of the series. In the attempt to create a dark mood they made the music a little bland with none of the cheery themes found in other games.

Favorite game of 2006 (that was actually released in 2006): Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

It's tough for a new Zelda game to not win "game of the year" for me. Yeah, this wasn't my favorite Zelda game but it was still a good adventure.

Favorite game of 2006 (that was released before 2006): Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga

Another series that will always be a contender. They're not a "true" RPG but they have enough of the elements to satisfy my appetite.


2007 - Closing out the previous generation

I went to the annual Midwest Gaming Classic with one purpose - buy a 3DO. That was the biggest missing piece in my collection of 90s game systems. I got a pretty good deal on one with a few games, Madden Football was among them so I was happy. Like the Saturn, I haven't played it all that much but am glad to have it. It had a few real gems in its library like Super Street Fighter II Turbo and a perfect translation of Dragon's Lair.

On the topic of buying old systems, early in the spring I finally bought a PlayStation 2. Seriously, I claim to be some kind of gamer and here I am buying the highest selling system ever after its replacement was out. I found one really cheap at a garage sale and figured what the heck.

There were no games included so I hit the nearest GameStop and grabbed a few from the bargain bin. One of the games that caught my eye was Grand Theft Auto: Vice City for a mere $6. I wasn't lured in by the prospect of running over pedestrians and getting into shootouts with the police. I knew it was set in the 1980s and featured music and cars from the era. I figured I'd get $6 worth of driving around listening to music out of it. I started it when I was stuck working overnight often.

Oh yeah, so a little background. In 2007 I was in charge of this new large WebSphere project. I'll spare all the technical details and just summarize by saying we had a lot of late night deployments that year. Since it was a live system we could only put updates into production between 10:00 PM and 6:00 AM, often on Fridays & Saturdays. The deployments were complex and touched more than just WebSphere, they regularly went the distance. Someone had to run the whole thing and that was me. I did very little actual work. I just had to stay awake and make sure everything was out and tested. Until I finished training someone in India, I was stuck with many long weekends.

Vice City: Tommy and Lance

So I spent many nights touring Vice City, initially just screwing around to see what I could do. I thought Shenmue was a wide-open environment but now it looked tiny and confined next to Vice City. I probably played 8 hours before starting a single mission, even then it was just to try and unlock access to the other islands. The missions themselves were great too. I replayed several just to see how many crazy ways I could beat them. Favorite missions - Autocide, Four Iron, Death Row, and All Hands on Deck.

The setting had a lot to do with its appeal to me, the strong 80s flavors can't be resisted by a retro game fan. Another nice surprise was the radio stations. I'm not talking about the music, even if it was the primary reason for buying it, but the commercials and talk stations. If "Pressing Issues" was a real show I'd listen to it every day. I'm not ashamed to admit I've had VCPR loaded on my mp3 player more than once.

After finishing Vice City I picked-up the sequel - Vice City Stories. The graphics looked a little cartoony compared to the first but overall the animation improved quite a bit. The collision bugs and general quirky behavior were also fixed. I didn't do quite as much exploring since the layout was basically the same so I played through it rather quickly.

As the late nights continued I tried other tactics to remain conscious like playing a bunch of Burnout 3: Takedown. I basically got it just for the crash mode. The horrible load time made it annoying after a while though. I even dozed off while waiting on more than one occasion.

When I had another long weekend on the horizon I bought Jackass: The Video Game and literally played through the entire thing over one 8 hour deployment. After that marathon I never wanted to look at it again and listed it on ebay the next day. It was alight, felt like playing a sampler disc more than a complete game.

With my daughter getting more into video games, my wife thought we should try a couple "party" games for the GameCube. We went for the cheap ones - Muppets Party Cruise and Pac Man Fever. The Muppets one was a much better time than you'd expect. My daughter figured it out right away and was darn good at some of the mini-games. I'm sure at the start of the decade I never would have imagined enjoying games like this but they became a regular family activity.

I wrapped up the year but firing up Ys VI: The Ark of Napishtim. Like the rest of the series, it had a great soundtrack and was worth it for that alone. Unfortunately it's one of the many games I started and never finished. I made it up to one of the final bosses and after 50 attempts (not exaggerating) I gave up. I guess I could have leveled-up for a few hours but I was all burnt out.

Favorite game of 2007 (that was actually released in 2007): Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories

There are some definite parallels between my selections for 2001 and 2007. In each year I played something that was a couple years old followed by its sequel. Both times I preferred the original to the technically superior sequel. Vice City Stories fell short of the original in a couple areas. The whole empire building goal was a tad monotonous, especially defending empire sites. The difficulty level was way too easy because they added auto-targeting to every weapon. I won the last gunfight in under three seconds on my first try because I had the mini-gun equipped. No joke. The radio stations lacked the same depth and entertainment as the first too. Despite all that, this is totally worth playing if you enjoyed the original. The original set a very high bar to leap over, it's no insult to say this sequel didn't quite make it.

Favorite game of 2007 (that was released before 2007): Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

At some point I've got to go back and try getting a 100% completion on this. I'm just so bad at the ambulance driving missions though.


2008 - Finally entering the current generation

Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door

The first game I started in 2008 was Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door. It was another game I bought on sale and left sitting on the shelf for a while. It was a fun little RPG, the system to power-up your characters was a nice change. No hours spent mindlessly battling enemies to gain levels, just careful planning of what to equip. At times it was a little dull, like the whole arena storyline, but it was interesting enough to play through to the end. Every time I think of this game I get the background music to Rogueport hopeless stuck in my head... it's playing right now.

Despite my initial reservations, I bought a Wii that May. OK, my wife bought it because she wanted to get Wii Fit later on. How she learned about Wii Fit I'll never know. The fact that she did indeed use it on a daily basis was a surprise too, I figured it was like a digital Thighmaster that would end up in the closet after a couple months. Every morning I'd shuffle off to work and she'd try to sneak in 30 minutes of yoga before the kids woke up.

Yeah, that was "kids" plural. The larger factor in purchasing the Wii was that we were expecting our second daughter in May and she thought it would be something fun for our oldest daughter & me to do together. Our oldest was very accustomed to being the only child and we were a little concerned she'd feel left out once there was a baby in the house. It definitely worked, we played a ton of Wii Sports together. It was simple, fun, and never grew old even after 100+ games. I was surprised by how much I liked Wii Sports, I could play a round of tennis and golf almost every day.

Dynastic Hero

I purchased a few Virtual Console games too. StarTropics was the first, it's one of the few NES games I never owned but always really wanted. Playing it was anticlimactic. It inspired me to create a Top 3 Most Overrated NES Games list. If I ever get around to creating a "List of Games I Abandoned" article it would be on there too.

I also bought Dynastic Hero because I'm a fan of the TurboGrafx-16 CD and this never made it to the US. It looked like it was all ready to ship at one point too. I'm glad I finally played it even though it was weaker than its Sega Genesis equivalent.

Oh, and of course I bought Ys Book I&II when it hit the Virtual Console. I mostly did so as a showing of support since I have the original. Against all logic I hoped that if it was successful then maybe we'd get Ys IV. I'd be thrilled just to get any more TurboGrafx-16 CD games on the Wii period. There are several that I think would appeal to gamers of any generation.

Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass

I also finally got a Nintendo DS. I was kinda on the fence about it for a while but the sheer number of RPGs available for it changed my opinion. Plus there was a sequel to Wind Waker I couldn't live without.

Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass was the first DS game I played. Talk about jumping right into the touchscreen control thing. I still wish I could have moved Link with the D-Pad and done everything else with the touchscreen but that didn't spoil the game. It was a strong follow-up to the original set in a similar parallel land [insert obvious comparison to Majora's Mask here]. In terms of portable Zelda games, this is probably second only to Link's Awakening.

I pre-ordered Madden 09: All-Play Edition in late summer because Toys 'R Us was running some crazy deal where you got a $10 gift card and a Brett Favre figure. Since I ebayed the figure for another $10 the game only came out to $30, not bad for a Madden game at launch. It had been many years since I bought a new Madden game and it was time for a new one. Obviously the Wii isn't trying to sell people on graphics because this didn't look any better than Madden 2002 for the GameCube. If anything it might look a little worse, Nintendo sure defied the trend of making new consoles look flashier than previous ones. The motion controls more than made up for it, a great new way to play an old favorite. I never did get to play Madden '09 as much as I wanted to because so much of my Wii time was spent on family games like Wii Sports and Samba De Amigo.

Sims 2: Castaway

When winter rolled around I bought Sims 2: Castaway for the DS. It was an impulse purchase from one of those $10 bargain bins. Hey, it was snowing out and I was in the mood for something tropical. It was alright, a lot of time spent watering plants and taking baths. I never understood the point of playing a game where you only do things you could do in real life (part of the reason I hated the third disc of Shenmue).

Oh, that reminds me... at some point this decade I played The Sims on GameCube but can't recall when now. Had to be somewhere in 2004-2006. I didn't take to it. I somewhat stupidly thought it would be open like the PC game but instead it was locked down to a specific quest of sorts. I don't know why I didn't buy the PC version, I'm just not much of a PC gamer I guess.

Favorite game of 2008 (that was actually released in 2008): Madden 09: All-Play Edition

You know what was unintentionally great about this game - how well it simulated the style of then Bears quarterback Rex Grossman. You'd try and throw a pass to the tight end for an easy first down and instead chuck it way down the field to a receiver who had no chance of catching it. If only there was some way to replicate his ability to fumble snaps. Anyway, once you've got the controls down this was a good installment to the series. All the great classic teams are unlocked so you didn't have to play for hours to get them.

Favorite game of 2008 (that was released before 2008): Wii sports

This was easily the most played game in 2008 for me. A big part of that was the whole family aspect, my oldest daughter liked playing tennis and bowling so it became an almost-daily activity for us. It's amazing how having kids can quickly change what you're into, I doubt I would have played this as much without them.


2009 - End of the Nintendo decade

Most would consider the 80s to be Nintendo's finest decade - the NES became a pop culture icon while the Game Boy snuck onto the scene at the end. As much as I enjoyed that golden era, the 00s truly were the Nintendo decade for me. It started with the Nintendo 64 finishing strong, some of Nintendo's greatest games emerge when a system is in its twilight. The GameCube was an incredibly fun system that revitalized every major Nintendo franchise. The Wii reinvented casual gaming and outsold its more advanced competitors. On the portable side, the Game Boy Advance was exactly the upgrade the Game Boy family needed. And the DS just might be the best system Nintendo ever produced.

I'm not delusional in my Nintendo fandom. I'll concede that they didn't have the best system of the decade. The PlayStation 2 deserves the title because of its dominance in the first half of the decade and longevity into the second. Strong arguments could be made for the Xbox 360 too. In the portable arena the DS is the clear-cut winner even if the specs on the PlayStation Portable blow it away (see Game Boy vs. Lynx, Game Boy vs. Game Gear, Game Boy vs. well you get the picture). But if you asked me to pick the best game console of the 00s, I'll have to give the PlayStation 2 my vote. As for which one I personally liked best... the GameCube wins.

So like the rest of the decade, I spent 2009 playing a lot of Nintendo games. The first one was Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap. I read some reviews on Zelda fan sites that weren't all that kind to it. It was a bit different than the earlier Game Boy Color Zelda games but it wasn't bad either. I doubt I'll play it again but it wasn't without its merits.

In March I had to take a business trip to India for a week. With 32 hours in the air in my future I needed something good to pass the time. Luckily Legacy of Ys: Book I&II for the DS was on its way. The pre-order even included a bonus soundtrack CD. From what I understand this was a port of the Ys Eternal games that never made it to the US. I was little disappointed by this game. Quite frankly it wasn't as good as the TurboGrafx-16 CD version, well the soundtrack for sure. Graphically it was better of course but the control wasn't so hot. The attack range was way too short making some fights unnecessarily difficult. It was just fine for plane ride though.

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

I stuck with the DS a little longer and went after Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars next. They did a great job capturing the feel of the 3D series while reverting back to a 2D perspective. I think I mentioned Taipan! somewhere in this article or whatever this should be called. Let's just say this had some serious similarities, I spent more time buying & selling <cough> merchandise than on the missions.

They made great use of the dual-screen in Chinatown Wars. In the lower screen you had an in-game PDA complete with GPS capabilities. You could find any location in a second and immediately get a dynamic map that adjusts to your every move.

The only complaint, one I seem to have with many newer games, it was too easy. Part of that was the aforementioned GPS which I guess I could have just not used. Although very handy, it removed the challenge of trying to find the optimal escape route. Through the entire game there was maybe one mission I had to try a second time before conquering it. That was a huge contrast to Vice City where several missions gave me grief. That could have been a limitation of the 2D environment, the missions felt somewhat confined. Unlike the 3D games there's really only one way to get through each mission in Chinatown Wars.

Final Fantasy VI Advance

Next up was Final Fantasy VI Advance on the Game Boy Advance. I never played the original Final Fantasy III on the Super Nintendo. Two reasons, the first being that I wasn't into the Final Fantasy games at the time. In hindsight I wish I was. The bigger reason though is I didn't have a whole lot of cash during the Super Nintendo era and had a very limited collection. Anyway, I quickly became engrossed in the story. It easily had one of the strongest stories of any RPG I've played. I lost a lot of sleep because I couldn't put this game down on several occasions.

Like Chrono Cross, I was thrilled to have a selectable party from a range of distinct characters. There were a couple I thought were lame, no problem I just didn't use them. I won with only 9 characters in the final party because I didn't bother building 3 of them up. I beat most of the dungeons with the party of only Edgar, Saban, and Relm. I should go back and try winning with just those 3 since that's the minimum number you can bring to the final mission.

Retro Game Challenge

I started up Retro Game Challenge on the DS over the summer. This game was apparently made for nerds like me. They did such a fine job recreating the feel of classic NES games. The first two Haggle Man games were highly addictive. The racing games were a little on the easy side which was fine since you had to finish first in every race to get the "good" ending.

The real highlight was Guadia Quest. I took a detour from the main story of the game to play through it entirely. It was an absolute perfect recreation of an RPG from that era. Yeah, the endless stream of random encounters grew old at times but it added to the accuracy. I only wish it was longer.

I can't explain why, but reading the in-game magazines was hilarious. It's probably because they were so spot-on accurate in their parody. They were a hybrid of Nintendo Power and Diehard Gamefan. The layout and style matched the former, and the editorial content the latter.

Throughout the year I also played quite a bit of Lego Star Wars II. My oldest daughter somehow got into it so we played many hours together. Like the original it's really simple yet replayable because of all the hidden stuff.

Favorite game of 2009 (that was actually released in 2009): Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

Disclaimer: Scribblenauts and Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks are on my Christmas list and if I start either before 2010 rolls around they may be the real winner. I wish I could have given the award to Legacy of Ys but it just wasn't that great.

I did start Spirit Tracks in 2009 but did not care for it as much as Chinatown Wars. Any game that uses blowing into the microphone as a major play mechanic loses a lot of points automatically. I started Scribblenauts in 2010 and it's a tough call between it and Chinatown Wars.

Favorite game of 2009 (that was released before 2009): Final Fantasy VI Advance

Another disclaimer: I plan to start Kingdom Hearts for the Game Boy Advance once I'm done writing this. And I mean 5 minutes after I'm done writing this. We went to Disney World earlier this year and that got me interested in trying this game. It's possible it could usurp Final Fantasy VI Advance. I think that's a bit of a long-shot though, we'll see.

I kept good on my pledge to start Kingdom Hearts after finishing this but gave up on it. I found it really monotonous and got bored after clearing a few worlds. I hear the original is much better so maybe I'll give it a try in the 10s.


My top 10 games of the decade

Alright, this isn't really the top 10 games of the decade - it's my top 10 games of the decade. Although I suppose 2-3 of these would make a "real" top 10 games of the decade list. You know, one written by someone who played darn near everything.

10) Retro Game Challenge

9) Crazy Taxi

8) Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

7) Grandia II

6) Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker

5) Wii Sports

4) Final Fantasy VI Advance

3) Chrono Cross

2) Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask

1) Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

Even people who played a lot more current-gen games than me have to give Grand Theft Auto: Vice City consideration for game of the decade. Admittedly I haven't played every game of this genre but from what I know this was the first sandbox game to hit every cylinder perfectly. Grand Theft Auto III set a new standard for open worlds in games, going well beyond previous attempts. Vice City expanded on it by improving the storyline, adding the biggest missing element.

Like any great game it's one I can keep going back to. I keep save games at various points in the story so I can replay favorite missions. If this game is ever remade in some kind of HD format for a new (or yet-to-be-released) console I'd have a hard time not buying it. There are very few games I can make that statement about - the rest are Nintendo titles and let's face it, I'm buying all their systems anyway.

Again, this is just a personal opinion. I wouldn't argue with anyone else's "Best games of the decade" list. I'll take it a step farther and suggest that World of Warcraft, Halo 2, God of War 2, and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas would all be contenders for the #1 slot. Despite not playing them, I respect their significance and influence in the 00s. I'm quite interested in seeing what all the professional sites have on their "Best games of the decade" features as they pour out in the coming weeks.


The next decade?

Let's gaze into the crystal ball and see what the next decade holds... for me personally I still have a bunch of catching-up to do. I have a stack of Game Boy Advance and DS RPGs waiting to be started. I expect to spend a lot of time getting through those. There's about a 99% I'll play through Final Fantasy III, IV, and/or V next year.

On the PlayStation front, I'd like to try the other Grand Theft Auto games and Bully. There are also a couple RPGs I'd like to try. I'm considering buying a PSP 3000 and stocking-up on UMD games while they're available, mostly RPGs. However, I suspect there will be a rush on these now that Sony is trying to push a download-only system. That means any hope of getting them cheap is approaching zilch.

Maybe someday someone will make a real RPG for the Wii. If that happens it'll be on my queue too. Until then I'll probably stick with the casual/family games on it.

If you can't tell, I pretty much buy every Nintendo console eventually. I wasn't high on the Wii or DS at first but came around. So whatever Nintendo releases I'll end up getting. I haven't bought a DSi yet because there haven't been any downloadable games for it that I absolutely must have. That recently announced XL revision is tempting, it would be nice to play the DS without my reading glasses on. Whenever they make a follow-up to the Wii I'll get that too. I think it's possible that will be a download-only console.

So I guess that leads to my predictions for the next decade in gaming, feel free to laugh at them in a couple years:

1) End of physical media. The next generation of consoles will have giant hard drives but no CD slots. Well, maybe not "giant" hard drives. More like overpriced drives to differentiate price points. For example, the Xbox 720 might be offered with a 320GB drive for $300 or 500GB for $400. Never mind that a 500GB hard drive will be $50 by then. The hardware manufacturers can put a 100% markup on the cost of the drive and most consumers won't know they're being fleeced. The real fleecing will be the game prices though. Once they have complete control over pricing don't expect a lot of discounts.

2) Once everyone else develops a motion control system, Nintendo will sour to the idea. Nintendo doesn't like doing what everyone else is. As more imitators arrive they'll start focusing on something different, I don't know what that will be but expect a radically different control scheme from them this decade.

3) More casual games on non-gaming devices. The average ebook reader has significantly more RAM and a faster CPU than the average 16-bit game console did. Casual games, like those flooding the iPhone, will spread to more and more devices.

4) The world does not end on 12/12/2012, all the morons who believe the 2012-theory-of-the-week will move on to the next end of the world prophecy. I know this isn't gaming related, unless you count the inevitable 2012-themed games, but I just had to say it.