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What’s the Best Video Game Since ‘Ocarina of Time’?

A look at what games belong in the conversation with ‘Breath of the Wild’

(Matt James/Ringer illustration)
(Matt James/Ringer illustration)

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s critical acclaim is staggering. So universal, in fact, that it’s getting heralded as one of the best games of all time. But to achieve that title, it has to go through its 1998 predecessor, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which achieved similar universal praise when it was released and is often considered the best game ever. So, is Breath of the Wild better than Ocarina?

We’re not here to ponder such profound questions. Ocarina of Time — and industry-definers like Super Mario Bros. and Tetris that came before it — are too wrapped up in nostalgia to be meaningfully evaluated today. Instead, we ask a different question: Is Wild even the best game since Ocarina? These are the games that deserve to be a part of that conversation:

‘Grand Theft Auto III’

Jason Concepcion: Wait, you can do THAT? That was the reaction of anyone of gaming age in 2001 the first time they played, or watched someone play, Grand Theft Auto III. It’s a cultural landmark that changed the medium. It’s also, in many ways, the culmination of the post–Vietnam era trend toward tough, violent, amoral antiheroes in entertainment. Whereas, once upon a time, the violent, blood-spattered denouement of, say, Taxi Driver stayed safely on the screen, now the murder and mayhem was dangerously interactive. Put in the disc, pick up the sticks, power on the console, and Claude, the playable protagonist almost immediately disappeared. That was me up there. The result was a thrilling frisson of unforgettable wrongness that was intoxicating. I spent hours… DAYS even… figuring out new and different ways to earn and escape six-star wanted levels. Throwing grenades at cop cars then dipping into the subway to make my getaway. Shooting down police helicopters with RPGs. Stacking stolen cars into piles then shooting them until they exploded, citizens fleeing into the night. Mugging non-playable characters for the virtual cash their pockets. Picking up prostitutes. Breaking into the army base and stealing the Rhino tank. Going anywhere I wanted, ignoring missions for weeks on end, days sliding by in a blur of digital pandemonium. For the first time, everything seemed possible. Grand Theft Auto III is still the king.

‘Resident Evil 4’

Victor Luckerson: Over the last decade, AAA games have largely splintered into two camps: the sprawling open worlds of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or the cinematic, nearly-on-rails spectacles of Uncharted 4. Resident Evil 4 perfected the happy medium between these two extremes before the conventions of either design philosophy had even been established. Capcom traded in the claustrophobic labyrinths of past Resident Evil games for a huge number of mini sandboxes filled with fast-moving body snatchers. In the process, they created the definitive modern action game (you can thank RE4 for the over-the-shoulder third-person camera that’s now standard in so many shooters). It’s yet to be topped.

You play as Leon Kennedy, a B-movie former cop spewing C-movie dialogue (Villain: “I’ve sent my right hand to dispose of you”; Leon: “Your right hand comes off?”). But the gameplay here is A+. Take the opening village, where dozens of zombified residents pull out their pitchforks to murder you, as an example. To survive, you can hole up on the top floor of the town’s biggest house with a shotgun, or hurl grenades at enemies from the top of a tower, or scramble up a ladder to pick off headshots with your handgun from the roof of a building. You might have to do all three to escape, since the zombies are great at swarming, better at hurling pickaxes, and best at decapitating via chainsaw.

The thing Resident Evil 4 gets that many of its modern imitators don’t is that video games shine most when the player is in complete control. The game is chock-full of movie-like set pieces where the player is not only the action star pulling off insane moves, but also the director deciding exactly how the scene will play out. The levels are tightly designed but open enough to allow for tons of experimentation. There’s never a “right” way to approach any fight, and thanks to the variety of smartly balanced weapons, highly mobile enemies, and environmental escape routes, it’s rare that you’ll ever even deploy the same strategy twice. It’s an improvised battle for survival, and it feels that way. No game since has offered the same adrenaline rush.

‘Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty’

Justin Charity: I spent much of this past weekend playing the new Nier: Automata, which is getting rave reviews and spends a great deal of its story animating some of my favorite Japanese video game concerns: existentialism, cyber ninjas, and hacking. Automata is a Square Enix joint, so it’s somewhat understandably compared to Final Fantasy; but its true forefather is Metal Gear Solid 2 — the game that (as far as I’m concerned) invented the 40-minute conspiracy-theory digest masquerading as a plot twist. Here’s a game that takes itself seriously enough to expand wildly and meticulously on the paranoid, shadow government mythology that underlies the global crises of the Metal Gear universe, but is still fun and dumb enough to send the protagonist, Raiden, cartwheeling nude across a hangar en route to the final bosses. For better and worse, I credit MGS2 with the ever-ambiguous convergence of certain video game genres — dramas, broadly — and cinema. On that note: The voice acting in MGS2 is way better than the B-movie scripting and overeager delivery of Metal Gear Solid, which is still a great game — third best in the series after MGS2 and then MGSV. Generally, nothing will ever top Col. Campbell subjecting Raiden to several rants about botany and previous Metal Gear games. Pentazemin is a helluva drug.

‘Super Mario Galaxy 2’

Daniel Varghese: You encounter your first launch star during the introduction of Super Mario Galaxy 2. Bowser has just kidnapped Peach, again, and some adorable star-shaped creatures called Lumas have offered to help you rescue her. A yellow one in front of you begins to spin, then jumps and transforms into an orange star. It gyrates invitingly. “Come here!” it says, via a speech bubble. As you walk up to it, it spins again, preparing for something. You jump inside, shake your controller, and are shot into the sky.

This moment is perfect microcosm of the entire game. Unlike its predecessor, Galaxy 2 does not have much of a story. Peach is in danger, and you have to save her with the help of some new friends. Where those friends came from is not important. By streamlining its narrative experience, Galaxy 2 is able to focus on building on the best part of Super Mario Galaxy: its magical gameplay. The attention to detail which carried that first game is still present here, it’s just applied to more mechanics.

Now, each time you climb into a launch star, one of the game’s most ubiquitous events, you experience the same unbelievable joy you felt before, but this time free from the worries that come from a story with seemingly real stakes. The same feeling arises when you consume a Cloud Flower, pick up a Spin Drill, or hop onto Yoshi’s back — you’re simply having fun.

For me, this has always been the appeal of Mario’s adventures. While my friends in high school played war games like Halo 3 on their Xbox 360s and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 on their PlayStation 3s, I sat in my basement with Mario and Luigi. As a game with no resonance with realworld issues, a game that asked me no moral or ethical questions, Super Mario Galaxy 2 allowed me to slip out of reality and get completed immersed in a new, beautiful world.

‘Halo: Combat Evolved’

Ben Lindbergh: The way each of us cherishes one game above the others has less to do with its incomparable quality than the circumstances under which we played. It’s a feeling that stems half from remembering a truly great game and half from fondness for what life was like at the time.

For me, Grand Theft Auto III comes close to taking that personal title, less because of its revolutionary, sandbox-style gameplay (although that helps), more because playing it required what (for 15-year-old me) qualified as a GTA-style disobedience spree. I’d been temporarily banned from buying a PlayStation 2, and, despite some groveling, my mom had held firm. But GTA III arrived at that frightening-but-magical moment when, as all teenagers eventually must, I earned my first taste of financial freedom and stopped being dependent on getting games as gifts.

In the summer of 2002, I got my first job. I didn’t make much money, but I did net enough to afford a used PS2. With some trepidation, I bought one and, knowing I couldn’t keep it at home, stashed it at my grandma’s house in Brooklyn. By that time, I had stable relationships with an Xbox and a GameCube in my Manhattan apartment, but the PS2 was thrilling and illicit — a console no one knew about stashed on the other side of the city, like a lover I’d put up in a pied-à-terre. I looked about 10 at the time, and I needed someone over 17 to be with me when I got Grand Theft Auto, so I asked my grandma to go with me to GameStop. (I wasn’t worried that a violent video game would ruin my morals, which I’d already forfeited for the forbidden PS2 purchase.)

Eventually I got greedy and tried to smuggle the PS2 into my apartment for full-time GTA access, which led to my being busted and enduring a forced PlayStation separation. (It turned out my mom did know what PlayStations looked like.) But for that one glorious summer — during which I spent what must have seemed like a surprising amount of time at my grandma’s house — I felt freer than ever before, rewarded for rule-breaking both in my actual city and in the virtual city it inspired.

For all that freedom, though, GTA III was ultimately a solitary activity, something I enjoyed in secrecy and silence. Which is why I’m giving the title to Halo: Combat Evolved, a game I enjoyed not only without going to grandma’s, but with friends and fellow players who immeasurably enriched a satisfying single-player experience.

Halo was a hugely influential launch title for Xbox, the game that perfected FPS console controls and raised the bars both for immersive AI and for weapon and vehicle variety, parceling out set pieces across an array of brilliantly laid-out levels. Even the sci-fi story mostly made sense (at least relative to later installments). But best of all, Halo also permitted cooperative play and multiplayer battles of up to 16 participants, provided you could link consoles and find people to play them.

Halo’s multiplayer possibilities made me a master of logistics, focused on only one question: How I could get the most consoles, controllers, and copies of Halo in one house at one time? As each weekend approached, I’d canvass my class of 30-some kids to find out who was free and what they could contribute to the setup. Then we’d convene at the appointed place and time, uncoiling cords and disgorging the 8.5-pound, green-and-black bricks we’d crammed into our backpacks. A few times, we almost managed to fill up four TVs, spending entire, delirious days swallowed up by “Blood Gulch” and “Hang ’Em High,” by screen peeking and smack talking, by cries erupting from other rooms after endlessly re-described kills, and by breaks for pizza followed by fights for the least-sticky joystick.

I’ve probably had superior single-player experiences: Skies of Arcadia, The Orange Box, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Shadow of the Colossus. Even Halo has been improved upon; Halo 2 may have been a better game, just as GTA: Vice City may have been better (if a little less groundbreaking) than GTA III. By the time I bought those sequels, gaming had become more convenient. I could find Halo opponents or play GTA without leaving my living room or lugging consoles across town. Nostalgia notwithstanding, I wouldn’t want to go back to a time when LAN parties were the only way to play with more than four people, or when begging a relative, an upperclassman, or a lax cashier was the only way to acquire an M-rated release. But the more effort it took to plant myself in front of the screen, the more memorable my time there.

‘BioShock’

Ryan Wright: I was 13 when the original BioShock came out. I remember reading Game Informer, seeing screenshots, and thinking to myself, “I must play this game.” At that point in my life, my mother wouldn’t let me play M-rated games — but I knew I had a find a way to play it. A few months after its release, I was fortunate enough to have a friend let me borrow it over the weekend. Once I got home that Friday night, I spent all weekend playing the game to completion.

BioShock was my first mature gaming experience, especially from a storytelling aspect. It should absolutely be in the conversation as one of the greatest games of all time. Everything from the world of Rapture, to splicers, plasmids, and the moral conundrum with “little sisters” create one of the most fascinating experiences in gaming history.

A few months ago, I purchased Bioshock: The Collection and played through the original for the first time in ages and it captured me in the same way it did nearly 10 years ago.

‘Shadow of the Colossus’

Micah Peters: What made Shadow of the Colossus so great, aside from a backdrop constructed with painstaking detail — the (slippery) moss-covered ruins, the soft winds shifting reeds — is that it’s just you and your horse for the most part. You and your somewhat unresponsive and unwieldy horse, whom you occasionally whistle at beneath the gargantuan, lumbering foot of one of the game’s colossi on accident. The forced solitude teaches you to love this stupid animal and flattens you before the sizable task of killing 16 colossi to bring your dead girlfriend back to life.

That’s it, by the way. That’s the whole game. Creator Fumito Ueda staked the entirety of Colossus on leading Agro (that’s the horse) from one colossus to the next, with nothing but the sound of hooves dashing against rocks and the wind in your ears to keep you company. The wager worked because each boss battle was such a massive payoff: I like to remember them as bookish chess matches, but really it was just hour-long sessions of breathlessly mashing the triangle and square buttons to swelling don’t you hear the footsteps music. All the same, it was riveting.

Of course, Ueda didn’t allow the center to bake completely through. But tight or obfuscating camera angles and a horse that occasionally forgets its own name are a small price of admission for such an experience. It wasn’t a video game, it was an adventure, man.

‘The Last of Us’

Riley McAtee: The Last of Us is the only game I’ve ever bought for a console I didn’t own. I was in college, and my roommate had a PlayStation 3 that didn’t get used much. But I’d seen the trailers, I’d read the reviews, I’d succumbed to the hype — I had to have this game. So I shelled out $60 knowing full well that once my roommate and I parted ways, I’d have nothing more than a useless disc. It was so worth it.

I think I played through the game three times in one summer, beating it on even the hardest difficulty. The Last of Us is my go-to example to show that video games can have stories that are just as deep and engaging as anything on TV or movie theater screens. Games are art! Joel begins the game as a hardened, selfish smuggler that you get to watch slowly come to terms — in both healthy and unhealthy ways — with his tragic and complicated past. Meanwhile, Ellie’s can-do attitude and penchant for corny jokes lighten up a game that is technically about a depressing, post-apocalyptic, zombie-filled reality. The different chapters in The Last of Us make it feel like an HBO miniseries in video game form. And that ending…I’m not crying, I promise.

‘Metroid Prime’

Rob Harvilla: Not to get all emo on you immediately, but what I’ve always loved about the best Metroid games is the overpowering sensation of loneliness. Sure, the extravagant weaponry, the grotesque beauty of your enemies, the labyrinthine enormousness of the planets you’re exploring — that’s all cool, too. The morph ball alone (plus the fact that in the original NES Metroid, you had to start the game by going left, not right, to find it) is the sort of simple, ingenious touch that makes a game immediately beloved.

All of that is gloriously present in Metroid Prime, the franchise’s fifth installment, released for the GameCube in 2002. (The easiest and best way to play it now is via the Metroid Prime Trilogy for Wii, which includes the game’s two very fine sequels, plus an intuitive and semi-futuristic Wiimote control scheme.) But it’s the total isolation that really unnerves you, and also, somehow, thrills you. It’s a galactic sandbox with nobody else in it, or at least, you can blast the hell out of everyone else in it and nobody opens their mouth(s) to complain.

Prime is also the first 3-D Metroid, and its universe was, at least for its time, massive to the point of overwhelming. You double back, you search for hidden passages, you blast haplessly at doors that you won’t be able to open for hours (of gameplay), if not weeks (of real life). The first-person-shooter action is fast, fluid, frantic. But there are also long, almost meditative stretches of exploration, poring over the rad 3-D map, blasting at walls until one unexpectedly crumbles. And at its best, you do it alone — no dialogue, no character development, no townspeople to interrogate. It’s just you and a huge, beautiful, treacherous, constantly shifting landscape. The transition from the hellish Magmoor Caverns to the snowy, serene Phendrana Drifts alone is one of the most jarring and affecting landscape shifts in video games, a perfectly executed sigh of relief. Trust me. You had to be there. And you had to do it alone.

Honorable Mentions

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Fallout 3
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
Half-Life 2
Halo 2
Halo 3
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
Mass Effect 2
Portal
Portal 2
Red Dead Redemption