Top 20 Video Games: Part 1 – Burnin’ Rubber and the Best of the Rest

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Burnin’ Rubber. Those were the days. Look at those individual blades of grass accurately swaying in the dynamically generated wind.

My history with video games dates back to early 1996 where I had the dubious experience of being handed down an Amstrad GX4000, with a built in copy of Burnin’ Rubber, one of only 15,000 GX4000s ever sold in the UK. The GX4000 was Amstrad’s one and only entry into the console market and was quickly blown out of the water by the Sega Megadrive and SNES, games being few and far between as the console flopped. It had been dead for years when I was handed mine in a tatty white cardboard box which had probably been stored under a bed since Christmas 1990, the previous owner relieved to get rid of some space to store the box for their new 3DO, the console of the future.

Aged 7 and generally more interested in outdoor activities than gaming, unusually for my generation, the GX4000 never captured my attention in a way future consoles would, the lack of games being a big impediment as my letters to various publishers about their future games went unanswered (this was the pre-internet era where unless you read specialist publications, information was few and far between). The GX4000 quickly became a second thought as I moved onto more interesting things such as watching England lose to Germany at EURO96, beginning the long process of the English football team brutalising my childhood, while my parents played the console more than me. Despite this in many ways both the GX4000 and EURO96 were the beginning of  interests that continue to develop as I got older.

Later that year building upon my brief foray into gaming with that useless box of white plastic, my mother bought me a Sega Mega Drive II (I long wondered what the Mega Drive I was before Wikipedia, the reality being significantly less interesting that I had dreamed about) along with a copy of Sonic the Hedgehog 2. This was when my love for computer games really began to develop. Sonic was like nothing else I’d played until that moment, although when the competition was Burnin’ Rubber and the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers Game Boy game it’s not saying much. I’m still not sure what the mid 90s aversion to ending their words in G was about.

Many hours were sunk into Sonic although I never managed to complete the game until 2008 when I picked it up on PS2 for a nostalgia trip and finally got beyond Metropolis Zone Act II, my previous nemesis all those years ago. Tails was as he still is now, a complete and utter bastard but the rest of the game was a multicoloured frenetic experience from the now iconic Emerald Hill zone and it’s theme tune to the bloody annoying oil slicks on Oil Ocean Zone. That game was what hooked me on gaming and from Sonic I went onto other classic Mega Drive games such as Micro Machines 2, Ecco the Dolphin, Comix Zone (fairly certain I was too young for this), the original FIFA and some ancient Avengers game that I had promptly forgotten all about until the recent avalanche of Marvel movies re-ignited that particular dormant memory. I always played as Captain America because of his ability to throw his shield being great for clearing out screens of enemies without having to go too close. Now I think Captain America is by far the most boring of the Avengers. How things change.

By the end of my particular Megadrive era, trailing a few years behind the actual Megadrive era, I had well and truly become a gamer. Following the Megadrive, I owned a Playstation, Game Boy Colour, Dreamcast, Playstation 2, Game Boy Advance SP and three gaming PCs. Roughly around the time of the Playstation 3 era, as a result of leaving school and later heading to university I dropped out of the console scene but have been an avid PC gamer ever since, playing most of the major multi-platform releases. Aside from my long hoped for PC port of Red Dead Redemption I’ve never felt like I’ve missed out. I’ve seen the industry evolve from it’s mid 90s days when it was still overtly kid dominated, console mascots roamed wild in the field and licensed Disney games were amongst the best-selling games, through to its maturation in the PS1 era as gaming became more cool and mainstream, through to its mainstream acceptance in the PS2 era and then the recent mobile and digital download revolutions. The industry has changed for the better in many ways and for the worse in many other (bad DLC practices, micro-transactions, F2P abuses etc) but I still try and find a few hours in each week to play some kind of game.

As a celebration of 21 years gaming, this is my list of the Top 20 games I’ve ever played. This is not a list of the top 20 games ever, indeed you’ll notice a significant lack of Nintendo games given my lack of Nintendo consoles and dislike of the same games slightly tweaked every generation, but instead the 20 games that gave me the greatest enjoyment and memories over these years. I intend on writing this as three separate posts, firstly those games that just missed out and two later posts dealing with games 20-11 and 10-1. Let’s do this.

Best of the Rest

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All the cool kids had an Amstrad GX4000.

Burnin’ Rubber – I don’t really remember too much about this game aside from the fact it functioned along the same lines of a modern endless running mobile game like Temple Run but with more freeform moving between lanes. It claimed to be a racing game but it’s not something that modern racers would recognise, instead it’s something much more along the lines of 90s arcade racers with you driving on an long road, the background changing as you progressed and more obstacles being thrown in your path to increase the difficulty. You accelerated and dodged other cars on the track and obstacles and if you went off on the grass for too long your car blew up, probably due to being constructed in France or something. The graphics were pretty cack  from what I remember but this is where it all started, god bless you Amstrad and your 90s Xtreme attitude towards naming games, without you I might have actually done something productive with much of my childhood.

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Usually the result of me accidentally dropping a grenade rather than the shot of the century.

Worms Armageddon – I can’t count the amount of hours I devoted to playing Worms games in the late 90s and early 00s. Strangely enough having to play the games on a PS1 and having few friends that had even heard of the games, the majority of my time was spent playing the AI. It was only later in my life that I discovered the ‘revolutionary’ feature which was online play. Nevertheless what started as a minor obsession with the original Worms game exploded into a full on obsession with Armageddon. The sheer amount of extra weapons, scenario types, customisable rules and obscure accents with which to equip your Worms kept me interested for at least a hundred hours even playing the AI. I became a genius with the ninja rope and able to fling a banana bomb from half way across the map as second nature, or at least I considered myself so, had I actually played online I imagine I’d have been quickly humbled as I have been with almost every online multiplayer game I’ve played.

Since then the series has never lived up to this high for me. I played Worms 3D and at its best it felt uncomfortable, the series never feeling right in a third dimension and losing some of what made it Worms. When I heard about Reloaded coming out on the PC, I was overjoyed, finally a chance to play the game on it’s best format and against actual human players but Reloaded was an utter failure with half the modes and weapons stripped out, limited number of Worms, crap online matchmatching and a general lack of content. In sum it lacked all the customisability and variety that made Armageddon so good. Revolution which came along a while after and was slightly better but fell victim of the modern day DLC profiteering while failing to fix many of Reloaded’s issues. Since then I’ve largely ignored the almost annual rehash of basically the same game that Team 17 puts out, having long since lost the faith that they might produce a version of the game that the modern MP era deserves but for a few years Armageddon ruled my world. Especially those rare moments when I actually managed to get a real human to play again and schooled them with my ninja rope abilities and darksiding to the point of frustration.

dark chronicle
It’s more interesting that this screenshot makes it look.

Dark Chronicle (Dark Cloud 2)– A unique JRPG fusion of RPGing and city building with a gorgeous art style and absolutely jam packed with content. I can’t remember how I came across this game but I’m glad I did, from dungeon crawling for extra items to help me rebuild settlements via the Georama system, teleporting into the future to see them in a whole different light, to spending a ridiculous amount of time on the fish breeding and fighting minigame, it was a blast from start to finish.

The dungeon crawling was difficult at times but never felt too grindy or unfair, lacking much of the annoying random encounters and large periods between save points that other JRPGs, especially the Final Fantasy series, fall foul of. The story wasn’t the best part of it but this was more than made up for the sheer variety in environments, Veniccio being my favourite, and things to do. It remains the only JRPG I have played other than Final Fantasy and makes me feel as though I should give them more time in the future, Xenoblade Chronicles looks interesting but is unfortunately is only available on the Wii U.

Level 5 have long moved on from this series to being more interested in collaborating with Studio Ghibli but I harbour a secret hope that they might one day return and give us a modern take on the series. This was another game that I didn’t manage to complete when I first played it and although it recently came to the PSN, I’ve long held the frankly crazy hope for the game to be ported to PC at some time, just to be able to play it through to completion. Along with Red Dead Redemption I remain waiting…

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Dynasty Warriors 4.

Dynasty Warriors 4 – Probably the ‘worst’ game on this list in terms of mechanics and variety, nevertheless Dynasty Warriors has exerted a strange hold on me ever since first stumbling across the Dynasty Warriors 2 demo on an Official Playstation Magazine demo disc. The huge scope of the game, the frankly ridiculous Musou attacks and the sheer power you feel from playing as a superpowered hero ploughing through thousands of conscripted peasants who just want to be at home tending their fields are unique to this game. As a history graduate I really appreciate the admittedly simplified take on Ancient Chinese history it provides, an area of the world that British schools totally ignore and which can be hard to find the right place to start with. Plus nothing can compare to the first time I came across an elephant on the battlefield, promptly saddled it up and proceeded to stomp across dozens of regiments of fleeing men. I called him Stompy.

I missed Dynasty Warriors 3 but returned to the series with 4, which perfected the formula by adding unlockable weapons, stats building and a more meaty story mode. Since 4 the series has been whirring it’s wheels, largely producing the game every iteration or throwing in something random like Zelda or Gundam Robots, taking one step backward for every one and a half forward. The potential for a truly great game remains lurking, ready to be developed if Koei really made an effort to develop the RPG systems and add more depth and subtlety to the combat but I doubt it’ll ever happen, the current model works too well for them.

Dynasty Warriors 8 was recently added to Steam and despite little changing since the last time I played a Warriors title I was severely tempted to pick it up. That was before I saw the price tag and the avalanche of DLC coming in it’s wake, oh Koei nice to see you haven’t changed since the XL, Empires, super whizz bang nonsense I was used to.

Despite the series’ problems little can match the sheer excitement of ploughing your way through thousands of peasant soldiers before running away from Lu Bu like the base yellow coward you are…except perhaps the next game in this list. Dynasty Warriors you are truly my guilty pleasure. One day we will return to each other.

arkham city
Usually I’d put a screenshot here but I absolutely adore ArkhamCity’s threetone concept art.

Batman: Arkham City – Batman finally done right, after years of awful movie tie-in games. I’ll lay my bias in the open here and state that I adore the Nolan movies and consider the Nolanverse the definitive Batman. When internet nerds rant about how the Nolanverse takes liberties with the depictions of characters I can’t help but roll my eyes. I’ve find comic books a hard medium to get into and a medium that I do not enjoy reading due to the way they are structured, so aside from Knightfall which my father strangely bought for me one summer despite the fact I’d never shown any interest in comic books, my experience with the comic book universe was limited to the animated series’ particular take upon them. Rocksteady took the comic book universe, in a time when most people were far more interest in the Nolanverse, put their own artistic spin on it (still my favourite renditions of Harley Quinn, Talia Al Ghul and The Riddler)  and created one of the best games of the PS3/Xbox360 era.

Asylum was a great restrained start to the series, one which I spent far too much time playing during my first year of uni, but City took everything that Asylum did and expanded it out to the full canvas that it needed. The fighting system, the only one that’s ever given me the same sense of power as Dynasty Warriors and copied by seemingly every game since, was given more depth and challenge, there are far more side missions and quests and although sprawling and unfocused at times, the storyline is much more grand. At times it can almost become a victim of it’s own size, many of the Riddler trophies becoming a little tedious and verging on the edge of Assassin Creed’s collect-a-thons but on the whole it’s a brilliant game.

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This was a looker once upon a time.

Age of Empires – The epitome of this series in many people’s opinion was the sequel Age of Empires II: Age of Kings but I’ve instead picked the original. Back when I was a poor 11 year old I picked it up for about £10 from a local Staples (strangest place I’ve bought a game) and was engrossed in a game that had all the appeal of Command and Conquer but with historical flavour as well. One of the best things about this game was the gorgeous thick instruction manual that came with it, packed full with historical details about each of the game’s factions. I read through that manual almost as much as I played the game. I miss the days when publishers made beautiful detailed instruction manuals for their games rather than just a one sheet piece of paper with a link to an online .pdf. One of the things that the games industry has got worse at as the years have passed.

The game itself felt like a slower historical spin on Command and Conquer (more on that series later) but with a far greater choice of factions and more along the lines of my interests, with my sci-fi interest not developing until much later. I would spend many an afternoon crushing the AI, much like with Worms, and messing around with the map editor to create ridiculous maps and scenarios with huge amounts of resources and elephants stampeding around the place. Looking back at it, I seem to have had a thing for  elephants, weird.

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Tomb Raider (Reboot) – As Three Lions was playing in seemingly every pub, restaurant and shop in the country and I spent my weekends watching Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain, I was possibly the only PS1 owner that wasn’t interested in Tomb Raider. My one attempt to play a Tomb Raider game, well after the craze had died down, was Tomb Raider III and I found it slow and finicky with an awful control system, overly reliant upon pin point platforming and with not enough action to interest me. It was with this in mind that I first heard about the Tomb Raider reboot, the focus on survivalism, more action and the artistic style piqued my interest but it wasn’t until the game was on Steam sale that I picked it up and I’m glad that I did.

While borrowing a lot from Uncharted, the game seems genuinely fresh as a Tomb Raider game. The story while hardly original drives things on with a certain gusto and the development of Lara is well done, if you ignore the oft noted sudden switch from being scared to kill one man to mowing down enemies in their dozens. The game even attempts to deal with some issues that video games often shy away from, dealing with said issues in a much better way than the media uproar before the game suggested. The tombs included within the game are at just the right level for someone that never really enjoyed the puzzle aspect of the original games and the liberal sprinkling of Japanese culture and history is interesting without becoming too overbearing. The platforming elements are far less annoying than in the original series and I genuinely enjoyed scaling up cliff faces and getting higher and higher, revealing new nooks and crannies and various routes across the large environment. The graphics are also gorgeously and ridiculously well optimised, looking brilliant and running mostly smoothly when I played it using an Intel HD3000(!).

I’m now eagerly awaiting getting a chance to play Rise of the Tomb Raider but as my laptop is older than sin and I’m just as poor, I doubt I’ll get the chance to play it any time soon but as is usual with my experience with games, a couple years down the line I’ll finally get the chance to play it and I can’t wait for that.

Other games that came close to getting a nomination for best of the rest but were just short were Smash Court Pro Tournament 2 – I’m not usually one for sports games but this has the best career mode I’ve seen in a tennis game and the perfect balance between simulation and arcade gameplay and Dragon Age: Origins which was a perfect throwback to old 90s RPGs while having all the polish and graphical finesse of modern games. Shame they screwed up the rest of the series.

Next time around we reach the actual top 20 with numbers 20-11 being listed. Until then I’m off to find another game where I can wreck elephantine destruction on my enemies.

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Top 20 Video Games: Part 1 – Burnin’ Rubber and the Best of the Rest