Due to 2021 not being a particularly great year in gaming and things having changed quite a bit since the last time I talked about my all-time favorite video games on Middle of the Row, I decided to forgo my usual year-end list and take another crack at my most treasured virtual adventures. In the past four years I revisited some of my most beloved titles and realized that they have a flaw or two I had forgotten about, and others rose up even higher than before. Then there was 2020, which saw the releases of multiple instant classics that set new bars for their respective genres. Speaking of genres, that’s how I organized this write-up. That way, only the best of the best in each category shows up here.
So, without further ado, here are my favorite video games of all time:
The Honorable Mention/The Remake: Final Fantasy VII Remake
Final Fantasy VII Remake takes a game I love dearly (more on that later) and does more than just throw a new coat of paint on it; it revitalizes an iconic, a nearly quarter century-old game by changing the gameplay and mechanics just enough to feel familiar to old-school players while appealing to newer generations of gamers. It also uses nostalgia to evoke emotions from longtime fans like myself, but never leans so far that first-time players feel like they’re missing something. If that isn’t the perfect example of a video game remake, I don’t know what is, and if the following chapters are as good as the initial one, FVIIR will probably surpass the vast majority of the other titles on this list.
Runner-up(s): Resident Evil 2, Shadow of the Colossus
The Racer: Mario Kart: Double Dash!!
Most racing games barely register as a blip on my gaming radar, with the only real exceptions being the Mario Kart series. I’ve played each entry in the franchise since Mario Kart 64, which some people claim is the best of the bunch. However, my leader of the pack is unquestionably Mario Kart: Double Dash!!, which introduced character-specific power-ups and allowed you to mix and match them thanks to each cart carrying two riders instead of the franchise norm of just one. Bowser shells, fireballs, and chain chomps, oh my! Why that gameplay gimmick hasn’t even returned as an optional mode in later installments is beyond me. The dual drivers/powers allow for an extra layer of strategy, and helped create all kinds of hilarious chaos on the game’s many amazing racetracks. I’ll never forget the day a friend of mine saved himself from falling off of Rainbow Road with a chain chomp, and then used it to mow down the three people who were about to pass him. Absolutely crazy!
Runner-up(s): Mario Kart 64, SSX Tricky
The Platformer: Super Mario Odyssey
Surprising no one (hopefully) my all-time favorite game in the genre defined by Mario for generations stars the overall-clad, mushroom-eating jumpman. Nintendo’s plumber mascot is the king of platforming and the most recognizable video game character of all time for a reason, afterall. His main games are almost always among the best of their respective generation, and his 2017 outing is his most extraordinary adventure yet. Great controls that feel familiar despite introducing new elements? Check. Distinct levels and worlds that change up the gameplay while staying true to the core mechanics? Yup. Secrets and collectibles that are usually a joy to track down, therefore creating hours and hours of replay value? Oh man, there are a ton. A musical number that honors the franchise’s decades of trailblazing and is catchy as Hell? Not a necessity, but it was undoubtedly one of the most memorable sequences in Mario’s gaming catalogue. All in all, Super Mario Odyssey is an absolute delight from start to finish, and the gold standard of platforming.
Runner-up(s): Donkey Kong 64, Super Mario 64, Super Mario Galaxy, Yoshi’s Story, Mega Man X4
The Interactive Drama: Until Dawn
This frightening interactive drama (basically a playable movie where your choices affect the story) from Supermassive Games puts you in the shoes of a group of teens/young adults who reunite on a snowy mountain one year after a tragedy befell two of them at the same locale, and now find themselves being hunted by a masked murderer with seemingly no way of escaping. The creative minds behind Until Dawn are acutely aware of the tropes and cliches found in slasher flicks, and use that knowledge to great effect, both by leaning into them – such as making most of the playable characters fit into slasher victim archetypes – and by letting you turn those same tropes on their head when you’re controlling a character. There’s also particular shift in the story that is done so well I found myself genuinely terrified (yet again), and ended up being quite impressed with the foreshadowing and clues that only make sense in retrospect. The game also has multiple endings which allow each character to survive or meet a grisly demise, therefore ensuring that subsequent runs are still intense, even if you already know the story’s biggest twist and turns.
Runner-up(s): Heavy Rain, Detroit: Become Human, Guardians of the Galaxy: The Telltale Series, Tales from The Borderlands
The Hack n’ Slash: God of War III
While it has been overshadowed as of late by the series’ action adventure sequelboot, God of War III is still the best game in the hack n’ slash genre. The end of the eponymous demigods’ quest for revenge in ancient Greece is jaw-droppingly epic, even when considering the scope of other all-time great hack n’ slashers. The first boss in God of War III is crazy enough to outdo many, many final bosses from lesser series, and it only gets crazier from there. literal Gods and Titans alike fall before you, and seeing Kratos finally enact his gory vengeance on those who wronged him so greatly is often as gratifying as it is gruesome. The original God of War trilogy – and the awesome PSP games – are known for their over the top fantasy violence, and that story all crescendos with enough blood to drown even those sitting at the top of Mount Olympus. With that in mind, it definitely isn’t a game for everyone, but those who like a little bit of gaming ultraviolence will almost certainly enjoy God of War III.
Runner-up(s): God of War II, Dante’s Inferno
The Dungeon Crawler: Gauntlet Dark Legacy
There are very few games that I’ve sunk more time into than the arcade-to-console fantasy title, Gauntlet Dark Legacy. I spent dozens, if not hundreds of hours leveling up all the playable characters (the Jester and Archer were the best, FYI), plowing through the game’s enemy-packed, memorable words, and engaging in its outstanding boss battles again and again and again. Despite lacking gear to earn and skill trees, I was completely enveloped in the ultra-addictive gameplay loop of this dungeon crawling masterpiece. My love for Dark Legacy even got to the point that whenever I had friends over their choice of game to play eventually became “anything but Gauntlet.” I played it on my gamecube until the console itself burned out, and that was after spending God knows how long on the Playstation 2 version! I have been waiting for years to play a new game that could fill the Gauntlet Dark Legacy-shaped hole in my heart, but have yet to find one. In fact, the main reason I had considered buying an Xbox Series X was the possibility of playing Dark Legacy via backwards compatibility.
Runner-up(s): Diablo III
The Open World/Sandbox: Horizon Zero Dawn
I’m exceptionally picky with open world games because I rarely feel invested enough in them to make it through their often lengthy playtimes, but the rare exceptions tend to be great. The only ones that I have really, truly gotten lost in are Far Cry 3, Batman: Arkham City (more on that later), Ghost of Tsushima, and Horizon Zero Dawn. The latter wins the top spot in this category, as its post-apocalyptic setting is as beautiful as it is expansive, and is packed with awe-inspiring, often intimidating wildlife. Calling most of the non-human denizens of HZD‘s world “wildlife” wouldn’t be really accurate though, as the most prominent creatures are mechanical beasts of varying size and disposition. From robotic bison-like striders to the monstrous Thunderjaws (basically giant, mechanical t-rexes with guns) each artificial animal is genuinely impressive. Throw them in a game with terrific combat, a strong, likable protagonist, an intriguing mystery of how the world became the destroyed beauty it is, and you’ve got my all-time favorite open world experience.
Runner-up(s): Ghost of Tsushima, inFAMOUS 2, inFAMOUS Second Son, Far Cry 3
The Superhero: Batman: Arkham City
Batman: Arkham City tells one of the caped crusader’s best stories while putting you into his batshoes, allowing you to strike fear into the hearts of Gotham’s criminals before brutally beating them down. The iconic vocal duo of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill return from Arkham Asylum – and the animated series – to portray Batman and Joker, delivering two of the best vocal performances of their careers. Arkham Asylum’s combat was perfected in Arkham City as well, and has been imitated dozens of times by other developers since. And as amazing as it was to explore the legendary hospital for the criminally insane, Arkham City tops it. Instead of one creepy-ass building, you get a huge chunk of Gotham to glide around while discovering a mind-breakingly large amount of hidden secrets, Easter eggs, and (shudders) Riddler Trophies to collect? Lastly, it features multiple memorable boss battles against a wide range of heavy hitters from the best rogues gallery in comic book history. I don’t know what else anyone could want from a Batman game.
Runner-up(s): Marvel’s Spider-Man, inFAMOUS 2, inFAMOUS Second Son, Batman: Arkham Asylum Batman: Arkham Knight
The Indie: To the Moon
I feel like this outstanding indie title would serve as a great (and actually superior) companion piece to Pixar’s Soul, as they both explore themes regarding how even the smallest experiences and events can drastically change a person’s life. To the Moon follows a pair of memory specialists tasked with using a machine to revisit and alter the memories of a dying man. The goal of the operation is giving him the illusion that he succeeded in his dream of making it to… Well, the moon. The scientists end up searching for the integral memories that made the man who is, and in a sense, getting to know him while only barely speaking to him. It’s a powerful tale with a heartwarming love story, soul-crushing losses, lots of laughter, tons of tears, and it all stuck with me long after the credits rolled. The characters and world of To the Moon are equal parts quirky, likable, and most fittingly, memorable.
Runner-up(s): Castle Crashers, Undertale, Rocket League
The DLC: Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon
I wasn’t going to place DLC games in a category for my list initially, but how could I not when one surpasses its already awesome main game that was almost on my list? Blood Dragon is a mini Far Cry set in a world that pays homage to and makes fun of 80’s action/sci-fi flicks. Released in 2013 and taking place in the distant future of 2007, Blood Dragon puts you in the shoes of Rex “Power” Colt, a cyber commando voiced by Terminator/Aliens fan-favorite actor Michael Biehn. As Rex, you explore a new map filled with tons of neon lighting, a killer synth soundtrack, hilarious dialogue, and wonderfully nerdy references to 80’s entertainment and pop culture. Whatever muse Ubisoft Montreal had when they came up with Blood Dragon, and they should stick with whatever it was because it ended up producing my favorite Far Cry to date. The lack of Blood Dragon in the remastered Far Cry 3 was easily one of the biggest missed opportunities of the previous console generation.
Runner-up(s): Borderlands 2: Mr. Torgue’s Campaign of Carnage, Borderlands 2: Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep, Destiny: The Taken King, The Last of Us: Left Behind, Destiny 2: Forsaken
The Online Multiplayer (Competitive): Killzone 2
Similar to open world games, competitive multiplayer titles have to clear a pretty high bar in order to win me over, yet Killzone 2’s online mode cleared that bar and then some, even overshadowing its spectacular campaign in the process. The different classes, including ones like a sniper who could temporarily turn invisible and a saboteur with the ability to feign the appearance of a member of the opposite team, are all fun to play initially, yet require dedication to master. The guns and movement all feel appropriately weighty, giving the game a more grounded feel than most shooters, despite it being set in a world with futuristic space nazis. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fast-paced though, as quick reflexes are a must if you want your team to be victorious. While I burn out on the average competitive multiplayer in about an hour or two, Killzone 2 kept me hooked for dozens, if not more, and I have yet to find another experience that has grabbed me in the same way.
Runner-up(s): Overwatch, Titanfall 2
The Online Multiplayer (Cooperative): Gears of War 2
Unlike competitive multiplayer games, it doesn’t take much for cooperative match types to catch my attention, so it was pretty difficult to pick just one to put above the rest. Well, it was until I remembered the gruesome, chaotic, co-op perfection that is Gears of War 2’s Horde Mode. Gears of War 2 not only has the best campaign in the series (which can also be played in co-op) but it also introduced the groundbreaking online survival mode that made me love online gaming. While each mainline Gears game since Gears of War 2 has featured some form of Horde, the initial iteration is easily my favorite. The goal is plain and simple, you and your fireteam must survive increasingly difficult waves of enemies, but it’s much, much easier said than done. It starts slow, with just a few grunts, but eventually the map is flooded with bullet-spongey monsters, forcing you and your team to memorize the map layout, ammo/weapon spawn locations, escape routes, and possible chokepoints. Seriously, this game mode was so popular that even Bungie aped it. If the developer behind one of the most popular multiplayer franchises ever is copying your work, you know you did something right, and Epic Games most certainly did something right with Gears of War 2.
Runner-up(s): Gears of War 3, Resistance 2, Halo: Reach
The Live Service Game: Destiny 2
The Destiny franchise has only improved with time thanks to developer Bungie constantly making changes and improvements according to fan feedback. This back and forth between creators and fanbase has created what is, in my opinion, the most polished and enjoyable live-service game to date. Destiny 2 offers up a wide variety of PVE (player vs environment) and PVP (player vs player) activities that allow you to earn all kinds of weapons, gear, and cosmetics. If you’re looking for something fairly casual, you and your friends can complete bounties in any of the game’s sci-fi locales or tackle cooperative strike missions. If you want to test your mettle against fellow Destiny players, you can go head to head against other Guardians in the many Crucible game types or the “who can kill enemies faster?” PVE/PVP hybrid mode, Gambit. If a true challenge is what you seek though, you can gather a squad of three or six to engage in a dungeon or raid, each of which requires teamwork, communication, and dedication to solve elaborate puzzles and defeat powerful allies of the Darkness. It’s a virtual cornucopia of content!
The Shooter: DOOM Eternal
I’ve already said that the second outing of the Doom Slayer’s rebooted franchise features more satisfying gunplay than any game I’ve experienced so far, so it was an all too easy decision to declare it as the winner of this category. Like its predecessor, DOOM Eternal is light on story, but that’s exactly how it should be. There’s lore to be found, sure, but why would you ever want to take a break to read or listen to it in between firefights that are this insanely fun (and brutal)? The combination of moving around the map with breakneck speed by using your shotgun’s grappling hook and slaughtering the worst monsters that Hell has to offer with a wide arrange of weapons while listening to an equally hardcore score is sublime. DOOM Eternal is the ultimate power fantasy, putting you in the shoes of someone so formidable that even the armies of the underworld tremble before your terrifying might.
Runner-up(s): DOOM (2016), Resistance 2, Bioshock Infinite, Halo: Reach, Killzone 2, Gears of War 2
The Fighter: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
Most fighting games aren’t really my thing, but I will probably love the Smash Bros. series for the rest of my life. They’re fighters with intuitive yet deep mechanics, but also party games you can play to have a laugh with friends, and a celebration of gaming as a whole. The latest iteration, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, exemplifies the latter quality particularly well. With tons of music, instantly recognizable levels, and a stupefying roster of over 80 brawlers, it’s an astonishing ode to the history, diversity, and fun of video games. You’ve got Nintendo mainstays like Mario and his crew, newer friends/opponents in the vein of the squid kids from Splatoon, and third party heroes such as Sonic the Hedgehog, Metal Gear Solid’s Solid Snake, Cloud Strife from Final Fantasy VII, and most of them play quite differently from everyone else. The main reason I watched Nintendo expos live for the past few years wasn’t to hear about new games, but in the hope of finding out whoever was jumping into the fray next via DLC.
Runner-up(s): Super Smash Bros., Super Smash Bros. Melee, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Super Smash Bros. Wii U
The RPG/JRPG: Pokémon Gold & Silver
I’ve been a pretty big fan of Pokémon since the very first games (and the pocket monsters therein) debuted over twenty years ago, but I believe that the series was almost perfected in 2000 with the second generation. Gold and Silver added 100 new pokémon – more than a handful of them being among of my favorites to this day – and introduced a few of the most memorable and game-changing (pun intended) mechanics that the franchise has seen. I still remember the jubilation I felt when I learned about the move deleter who could make your pokémon forget “permanent” skills that were no longer useful, and using the day/night cycle in order to catch or evolve unique pokémon blew my mind back in the day. In addition to new features and quality of life improvements, Gold and Silver also had one of the better stories among the mainline games, only being slightly surpassed by Ruby/Sapphire and X/Y. With all said and done Pokémon Gold and Silver were – and still are – the very best.
Runner-up(s): Pokémon Red & Blue, Final Fantasy VII, Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII
The Wild Card: Borderlands 3
The first Borderlands started the looter shooter genre craze that’s still raging today, and Borderlands 3 stands above all others as of now. The amount of guns, grenades, energy shields, and gear you can find throughout the multiple, varied planets in Borderlands 3 is staggering, and testing them out on the enemies or monsters around you is just a total blast. There’s a sniper rifle that creates volcanoes from your enemies’ corpses, a pistol that shoots fireballs that move and sound like Mario’s, an SMG that uses your money as ammunition (actually, don’t use that one) and oodles more! Borderlands 3 also retains the humor and most of the endearing, goofball characters that drew the fanbase in originally while introducing tons of new ones, including the best and most divergent vault hunters (player characters) so far. The game has also received DLC that has added even more loot to find, planets to explore, and there’s been some shockingly great free content spread throughout the past couple of years as well.
Runner-up(s): Shadow of the Colossus (2018), Twisted Metal 2
The Survival Horror: Dead Space 2
Survival horror games are extremely hard to balance; give me too many options to defend myself, and I stop feeling frightened, but me them too little and I get annoyed or frustrated while playing hide and seek. Dead Space 2 is one of the only exceptions to this rule, as there are times when playing through it that I was armed (and armored) to the teeth, yet still scared out of my mind. I credit that to the game’s setting: a space station that’s falling apart around you, filled with horrific imagery, haunting sound bytes, and has enough creepy atmosphere to probably sustain life on another planet. Credit is also due to that space station’s newest inhabitants, the necromorphs. They are entities spawned from an alien virus that turns anything organic into horrific abominations of flesh and bone, and are the stuff nightmares are made of. Some Necromorphs announce their presence with unsettling noises as they lumber towards you, and others will jump at you from vents or grates, which the previously mentioned locale is chock full of. Even though I’d say the original Dead Space is the scariest game of all time, the sequel improves upon the movement and combat just enough to be a better experience overall.
Runner-up(s): Dead Space, Resident Evil 7, Until Dawn, Bioshock
The Action Adventure: The Last of Us Part II
If you read my favorite games of 2020 list, my co-review with Lauren, or listened to MotR’s podcast episode on The Last of Us Part II, then you already know what I think about it: It’s my favorite game of the last console generation, and one of the most important games in the history of, well, gaming. Naughty Dog’s post-apocalyptic sequel has moments of awe-inspiring beauty, and sequences of downright terrifying brutality that make you question the actions “you” take throughout its narrative. It’s a tale of revenge, but also a meditation and exploration of how pointless and unhealthy that is. It’s a story about love, and how someone can love another person so much that they feel compelled to do terrible, unforgivable things on their behalf. It’s an assault on your emotions, and one of the most impactful experiences I’ve had from any form of art or storytelling medium. It’s a challenging, enervating, yet outstanding experience that I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone who can handle it. The fact that some people gave up on it so quickly in anger due to the directions it takes story-wise hammers home its message even more, making it that much more memorable in my opinion.
The G.O.A.T: Final Fantasy VII
While reading through the previous entries on this list, you may have noticed that I only included a few titles older than the last two console generations. That’s because I believe that as the technology behind them improves, video games are only getting better, and beloved classics – although still great – tend to feel less impressive as a result. Not many games from my childhood have truly passed the test of time. However, my favorite game on this list is the oldest of all. Final Fantasy VII is the video game that made me realize the potential of the medium. The huge world, epic story, numerous flawed-yet-lovable characters, and the greatest musical score I’ve ever heard were all burned into my brain at a young age while I watched my brother play FFVII, and I grew even more fond of them when I went through it myself. It balances superpowered, turn-based action with deep and poignant storytelling, yet is far, far more than the sum of its parts. While the gameplay and storytelling hold up over twenty years later (for the most part) fans like myself had still been praying that Square Enix would develop a remake of FFVII for more than a decade. That widespread hope, and the fact that we’re actually getting a remake so huge that it’s being released in installments, are testaments to the effect the original has had on the gaming community, both players and creators. As I said earlier, Part 1 of Final Fantasy VII Remake is a breathtakingly strong start, but it still has a ways to go before it can dethrone the masterpiece that preceded it.
And there you have it, my favorite video games of all time. If you liked what you read you can follow me on Twitter and Letterboxd. Until next time, remember: the best seats are in the Middle of the Row!