It’s often said that there are no perfect games, but that’s not entirely true. Sure, most games are beset by some combination of glitches, load screens, excessive cinematics, bad writing, lackluster voice acting, balancing issues, questionable gameplay mechanics, and other dodgy attributes, but not all of them. At least once in a generation there’s a game that is so well made that it will stand as a cultural beacon for generations to come with a timeless combination of fun accessible gameplay, memorable characters, a worthwhile challenge, and the kind of creativity that inspires the gamers of its day to go out and create their own art in hopes of some day reaching that pinnacle.
Are these games truly perfect? Pretty much, yes. Or at least as close as anything ever comes to being perfect. Some of them are irresistibly addictive in their simplicity and spawn decades of offspring, some of them are perfectly-crafted works of art, some represent the crystallization of the best attributes of their genre, and some are simply definitive gaming experiences that anybody with even a casual interest in the medium simply has to experience. Whichever form they take, these are the games that we will take with us to our graves. Here are five examples, from classic to modern, of games that are so well made they will never stop being fun.
One of the most deceptively simple video games out there and yet so full of depth. This is the game that launched Nintendo on their world-conquering voyage to restore the game industry after Atari collapsed it. Super Mario Bros. was and is unquestionably the definitive game of the 8-bit era. It came packaged with the Nintendo Entertainment System and there were no gamers in the ‘80s that didn’t know it by heart. None.
In 2016, Nintendo still leans heavily on this franchise to keep itself afloat and when you pop in a New Super Mario Bros. game after all these years, it’s striking how little has changed. Plenty of new doo-dads and mechanics have been added along the way, but the core gameplay elements have changed so little it’s kind of amazing. Super Mario Bros. 3 may be the most impressive NES game, but all it did was build a little on the perfection that was already there.
The secret to the franchise’s success has always been its accessibility. Literally anybody can pick up a controller for the first time and have fun stomping goombas, breaking bricks, and kicking turtle shells around in minutes. But the definitive platforming series has always maintained a steep challenge to keep even the hardiest of gamers engaged and honing their skills. It all started here, and after nearly three and a half decades, Super Mario Bros.’ core experience is still intact.
Mere months after the Super Nintendo launched with Super Mario World (another worthy candidate for this list) dominating the gaming landscape, the second major bomb was dropped. The Legend of Zelda series is every bit as iconic as Super Mario Bros., but after the original game and its major departure of a sequel, it never made its way back into our NES’ like Mario did with the third game. This made A Link to the Past feel absolutely earth-shattering when it released. The jump from 8-bit to 16-bit was a huge one and no game benefitted more than this one did. Like Super Mario Bros. nearly a decade previous, this was the definitive console gaming experience of its era.
Although the original has a good argument for being here as well, the third felt so much more refined and added such a huge amount of depth and features that remain hallmarks of the series to this day that it deserves to be in a different category. The implementation of an alternate reality mirroring the primary in-game world was revolutionary at the time and the soundtrack is one of the most iconic in gaming.
When A Link to the Past came out it became that rare game that not only met the extreme expectations gamers placed on it, it blew them out of the water. Nothing could have prepared us for how incredible this game was in 1992. It’s a game that’s going to be rereleased over and over again down the line and it’s always going to be a blast to play.
Around the time A Link to the Past redefined what a console adventure game could be, Capcom revolutionized the arcade scene with Street Fighter II. The impact this game has had on gaming culture is immeasurable and continues to resonate in the hardcore gaming community to this day. It was the first bonafide e-sport.
While the first Street Fighter game kind of blended in with the rest of the fledgling fighting genre in the ‘80s, the sequel perfected the formula by adding a diverse roster of playable characters -each with a massive number of possible attack- and became the standard by which all fighting games going forward have been measured by.
In addition to being arguably the most important arcade game of all time, Street Fighter II also became one of the first console ports to truly capture its arcade counterpart. Prior to this, console versions were nearly always mere shadows of their former cabineted glory, but while the SNES graphics may not have been as good, the brilliant gameplay that had gamers lining up after converting all available currency to quarter form while waiting their turn in malls across the world could be fully enjoyed at home. It’s astonishing how little has really changed in the twenty-five years between this game and Street Fighter V. Like Super Mario Bros., some things are so good that all you can do is tweak the formula, improve the graphics, and just give people more of the same.
The strategic role-playing genre has always been a niche genre, and it’s only become nichier as most RPGs migrate towards real time combat and streamlined character building. Nonetheless, Final Fantasy Tactics is a game that has been and will likely be ported forward endlessly to stand as a shining symbol of its generation. 1997 was a great time to be a gamer with the rise of the PlayStation pushing gaming to new storytelling heights while Nintendo ushered in the 3D age with the N64. Personally, I spent a few years replaying my favorite SNES games in college and occasionally glomming onto my friends’ newer consoles, but one game in particular eventually forced me to get my own.
Any chances of me staying in the Nintendo camp were obliterated the first time I laid hands on Final Fantasy Tactics. It was the very first game I got when I got my PlayStation and it remained my most played game; that rare title I started over and over and over again because of the endless possibilities presented by each and every character. If there’s ever been SRPG of comparable quality, I have not played it.
A lot of smaller franchises have tried to recapture the magic of this game, but they’ve all failed. Even the portable FFT sequels have not lived up to the sheer perfection that was presented in this almost twenty year old game. It was the flawless combination of a well-executed story, simple but effective visuals, detail-oriented strategic challenges, and most of all the unparalleled depth and options afforded to the player that other SRPGs have failed to capture ever since. While the previous entries have spawned massive franchises and genres in their wake, this game sadly remains one of a kind.
Ironically, as video games have become more advanced, it seems harder and harder to capture the elegant perfection of those old school classics. Too many factors at play in-game, too much emphasis on graphics, corporate interests rushing games out before they’re ready; it’s hard to find a game without flaws these days. Even the mighty Half Life 2 has aged less than gracefully with its loading times and dodgy collision physics. But its humble 2007 spin-off, Portal? That one will be as fun two decades from now as it was the day it came out.
Portal was placed in Valve’s Orange Box collection as an incentive for gamers buying the collection of the Half Life 2 saga and Team Fortress 2, games that already sell themselves as perhaps the most fan-beloved single and multi-player shooters of all time, respectively. I don’t think anybody thought that it would end up stealing the show and setting the standard for efficient video game storytelling for the next decade, but it did.
As a puzzle game, as a story of adversity and perseverance, as a charming satire, and as a work of art, Portal and its sequel were simply the games to play last gen. The combination of silky smooth gameplay, mind-bending physics puzzles, and hilarious dialogue set in the Half Life universe made for one of the most memorable and quotable games of all time. It’s a small game, and maybe that’s part of what made it so special; a limited scope lends itself better to a more balanced, personal, and dense experience. Where other games tie your time up with endless grinding, wandering, fetch quests, and cutscenes, every puzzle and every sequence in Portal feels important and relevant, making it a perfect slice of gaming heaven that will go down as an all-time classic.