Games to play before you die

As somewhat of a followup to my earlier “are you a gamer” post, I’ve been thinking about the “50 games to play before you die” sort of idea. This isn’t 50 (I haven’t bothered to count, and I may add more) but here are my first thoughts about a gaming canon. I’m including the systems the games are on – in some cases they may be available on multiple systems, in which case I’m presenting what I think is the canonical or best system to play it on.

Action Games

  • Ms. Pac-Man (arcade) – ironic that the first on the list should be a sequel, but Ms. Pac-Man is the original “sequel done better than the first game”. And AFAIK it still holds the sales record for an arcade cabinet in North America. Despite its age, it’s still a damn good game.
  • Tetris (Gameboy) – the best part of this game is that as you play it, you discover more strategies. And as is sometimes the way, strategy becomes dominant in an action game at high levels.
  • New Super Mario Bros. (DS) – I decided to bring this one up to date and list a game that you can actually buy without difficulty today. Some may nostalgically claim that the original NES (or SNES) versions were better; I say New SMB is just as great.
  • Radiant Silvergun (Saturn) – Hot on the heels of one you can easily buy, this is one you’ll be very lucky to get, unless you really want to pay a lot on eBay. But it’s simply one of the best shoot-em-ups ever.
  • Blast Corps (N64) – Pure arcade fun is what this game’s all about. And it also rewards experience. One of the N64’s early titles in Europe, it’s seldom been equalled for sheer playability. Who needs a plot when you’ve got a title like “Unstoppable Megalomaniac”?

Adventure Games

  • Adventure (Atari 2600) – fun, with good replay value, despite the limitations of the hardware. Those dragons really put up a good fight! This was also the first game with an Easter Egg. If you can’t get a 2600, it’s now available on PC under the title Indenture.
  • Planetfall (PC) – one of the best text adventures ever, featuring one of the best NPCs in any game. This is one to get involved in, intellectually and emotionally.
  • Photopia (PC) – talking of emotions, this winner of the 1998 Interactive Fiction contest is way up there. To some, it stretches the definition of a game, but spend a half hour with this one, and you’ll see why it’s on the list.
  • Grim Fandango (PC) – the pinnacle of graphical adventures (a genre I really miss from the mainstream). Inventive plot, fantastic characters, and a must for any film noir fan.
  • Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (N64) – this variant of Zelda just wins out over the others, for me. But I wouldn’t overly chastise you for playing Twilight Princess or A Link to the Past instead. Zelda games win by having a rock-solid universe, an epic storyline, and emotionally engaging gameplay.
  • Ico (Playstation) – the scale, the lighting, the animation! This game took our breath away with its artistic vision and emotional connection.


  • Eye of the Beholder 1 & 2 (PC) – again, I can’t separate these two, mostly because the first one will leave you hungry for more, which the second delivers in spades. Steer clear of number 3 though.
  • Final Fantasy VII (Playstation) – and I know some will sneer at me for not citing FF6, but FF7 undeniably had more impact and laid the foundation for Japanese RPGs to come to the West.
  • World of Warcraft (PC) – I picked this one as representative and best (currently) of all MMOs. It’s really had a huge effect on the games market as a whole. What WoW really gets right, ironically, is its single player gameplay: this is questing and casual play done right.
  • Nethack (any that supports graphical tileset) – yes, I prefer the graphical tileset to the ASCII character mode. It’s cute. Especially when you get down to a level that makes you feel “strangely nostalgic” or whatever it is, and reverts to ASCII mode! Nethack wins for its sheer depth of gameplay. But it is hard. A word of advice: don’t drink from the fountains.
  • Diablo 2 (PC) – great hack-and-slash gameplay married with a procedural-random approach to map and items. Play it through on normal difficulty, then the real game begins as the harder difficulties start to give you better gear. Great fun.
  • Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (Playstation) – the first of the “Metroid-style” Castlevanias and a great game. I’ve played it through about six times now. And that’s not even counting the later GBA and DS Castlevania games of the same style. The Xbox Live Arcade version contains a couple of glitches, and the Xbox 360 pad leaves a lot to be desired when casting some of the spells, but it’s better than nothing if you don’t have access to a Playstation.


  • Doom (PC) – it created a genre (yes, I know it’s arguable, don’t argue), and it showed us what PCs could really do.
  • Quake (PC) – best played multiplayer, either original Quake/Quakeworld or Quake 3 Arena. This is some of the fastest, most viscerally satisfying multiplayer gameplay around. I gave up playing it at lunchtime because it wasn’t actually making me feel like I had had a break…
  • Half-Life (PC) – proved that FPS could have a story. And how!
  • Goldeneye 007 (N64) – the original console shooter, the decade-long standard for console multiplayer gaming. And the single player mode was a fine game too!


  • Populous (Amiga) – invented the “god game” and what became the RTS. Procedurally-generated levels with 10,000 possibilities. And it was just a lot of fun to see your enemy’s people falling into swamps, or having their houses set alight by your knight.
  • Command and Conquer (PC) – this game is important both for the completeness of the experience (production quality) and the quality of the game. From the moment the disc autoruns, you’re in the future dystopian world of Tiberium. This, and the fact that it was a great strategy game, took the gaming world by storm.
  • Starcraft (PC) – widely held to be the best RTS ever made. Millions and millions of people still play it in Korea!
  • Final Fantasy Tactics (Playstation) – a brilliant turn-based strategy game. For the Playstation, the graphics were amazingly crisp – a big change from most of the muddy-textured grainy 3D titles of the time. This one had hundreds of hours of gameplay.
  • Minesweeper (PC) – before you start to complain, let me defend this one. Minesweeper is a game that truly rewards experience. It is one of those intellectual games that continually reveals a new strategy. Many’s the time I’ve been watched playing Minesweeper, and the person watching has said to me “Oh, you were lucky to get that one.” It’s not luck. It’s pure logic. Even when you, person watching, think it’s luck, it’s not. There are always new logical techniques to be learned and extended. It’s just that “sufficiently advanced” techniques look, to you, like luck. And that is why Minesweeper is on this list. I like the multiplayer misere version too.

Driving & Flight

  • Gran Turismo (Playstation) – a real driving simulator, and it has RPG elements too. How can you go wrong?
  • Micro Machines v3 (Playstation) – fantastic multiplayer game. Easy to pick up and play. Has provoked discussions on male-vs-female abilities regarding relative and absolute control schemes.
  • TIE Fighter (PC) – another sequel of sorts that outshines the original. TIE fighter put together action flight-simmy-ness and tactical missions in just the right way, and it’s easily the best game to have graced the Star Wars universe. It would have been a great game if it were not Star Wars-related; with the Star Wars tie in, it’s outstandingly great.
  • Elite (BBC Micro) – “the space trading combat simulator”. Amazing procedural technology; arcade flight shooteyness; RPG elements of trading up your ship’s armaments; and it was all topped off with a coherent game universe framed with a pseudoscience manual and a novella! It would have been nice if the missions were a bit more forthcoming, though. Still, nothing beats blasting a pack of space pirates into alloy and scooping up remnants to sell – naturally including the escape pod (slaves). Just watch out for hyperdrive failures landing you in witch-space…


  • Parappa the Rapper (Playstation) – invented the beat game genre! Short and sweet, with great music and quirky graphics.
  • Dance Dance Revolution (any) – video gamers don’t have to be couch potatoes, you know.
  • Guitar Hero 1 & 2 (PS2) – the mainstream beat game that finally broke the US market in a big way. Mostly because GH includes songs that people actually know and like, rather than club hits and J-Pop they haven’t heard of. Nothing wrong with club hits and J-Pop, mind, but rocking out to your school-disco hits is better.
  • Metal Gear Solid (Playstation) – part adventure, part action, part stealth game; and it broke the fourth wall in ways no game had before.
  • Street Fighter Alpha (Saturn) – Alpha was always my favourite incarnation of the iconic Street Fighter series, and the Saturn had the 6-button pad and sprite-moving ability to do it justice. 2-player games don’t get much better than this.
  • Super Mario 64 (N64) – when this game came out, it was so innovative and so new and so amazing that I really can’t put it into words. It’s since been surpassed in graphics, but it still boasts solid level design, and it’s a major part of gaming history.
  • Animal Crossing (Gamecube) – this game takes over your life. Other games had used the real-time clock before (e.g. Metropolis Street Racer) but Animal Crossing used the calendar! It’s great for kids and a great collect-em-up, too, with a really innovative “online” gameplay style that isn’t really online at all.
  • Mario Golf (GBC) – there are many golf games, even a few Mario golf games. This is the best. The odd thing about golf is that it’s deathly boring to watch or play in real life. But golf videogames are always kind of compelling. Mario Golf on the Gameboy Color combined perfect controls with just the right RPG elements and difficulty curve. A truly great game.
  • Brain Age (DS) – is it really a game? I say so. One thing’s for sure – it’s symptomatic of the kind of innovation Nintendo is still bringing to the gaming world. My parents play it, so that tells me it should be in the canon.
  • Bomberman (Saturn) – again, there are many variants of Bomberman. The Saturn version offered 10-player mayhem par excellence.
  • Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 (Playstation) – another example of the sequel being the better game, THPS 2 shone with outstanding level design, progression, and replayability. Multiplayer was fun too.
  • Super Mario Kart (SNES) – more fantastic multiplayer action. Make sure you can perfect those mini-boosts, and watch out for the Princess.
  • Wii Sports (Wii) – OK, so it’s basically just something that grew out of a proof-of-concept, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the most groundbreaking game of the last few years. I’m rolling the whole “making a Mii” experience into this one too. Personally I like the bowling best.

3 Responses to “Games to play before you die”

  1. greatbiggary says:

    I'm never going to get through all of these tonight.


  2. _skye_ says:

    Wait until you see Paper Mario – the NEW things the designers thought up (no mean feet for a Mario game!) and the graphics/environment and the use of the wiimote – UNBELIEVABLE.

    Speaking of Ico, what about Okami?


  3. elbeno says:

    Okami might be good, but it's no Ico. And neither is Shadow of the Colossus, for that matter.

    You'll appreciate that I tried to pare this list down to a minimum; there are bound to be other good games out there.


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