Eight years. Eight long years of video games, from the Xbox 360's 2005 release to today, the dawn of the next generation. A lot of games came out in eight years.
Looking back to 2005, it's difficult to believe how much has changed. Not just in video games, of course, but in the world and the ways we interact with it. We were so much younger then, our games so much simpler. Facebook was in its infancy, YouTube had only just been created. Netflix was still known only for delivering DVDs by mail. The iPhone wouldn't come out for another two years.
The world of gaming changed so much over that time, and some games drove that change more than others. There were a handful that defined the generation, both for good and occasionally for ill. To close out our Last-Gen Heroes series, I polled our entire staff and we collected those games here.
Most games are on this list for positive reasons; they became definitive purely through their high quality. A few are here for negative reasons. With a few, it's more complicated. But all of these games are, or were, undeniable for their time.
Ready? Here we go. In no particular order, the games that defined the last generation of console gaming:
The Mass Effect series was easily one of the most influential and iconic of the last generation. Of the three games, it was perhaps Mass Effect 2 that made the biggest impression. The rough edges and janky combat of the first game were replaced by punchy, functioning third-person combat. The overarching story may have been the weakest of the trilogy, but the individual loyalty missions were some of the most enjoyable parts of Mass Effect as a whole. Hell, we've already done an entire week dedicated to Mass Effect, so I needn't really say more. While there are some who prefer the first game in some ways (I'm one of them), the fact remains that Mass Effect 2 was the moment the series broke through.
Jonathan Blow's phenomenally successful puzzle platformer set a couple of new standards for video games. It was one of if not the first mainstream "art" games, a thoughtful piece of work as concerned with introspection as it was with on-screen action. It had something to say and, crucially, said it through actual gameplay: Braid's time-rewinding mechanics were reflected in the story of Tim and his quest to rewind time and repair a broken relationship. For better or for worse, it heralded the age of the "arty 2D platformer," which on the whole provided a relatively easy-to-use canvas for creative independent developers to try new ideas. And of course, Braid introduced the world to Mr. Blow, who remains one of the sharpest, most outspoken game creators around.
Hideo Kojima's sprawling (and some would say overstuffed) opus Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots felt like it rang in the moment the PlayStation 3 "arrived." Here was a game, exclusive to Sony's console, that finally showed off what that extra horsepower, hard-drive space and blu-ray player were capable of. The game remains (and will remain) in the library of many a PS3 owner, and while other console-defining games would follow it, MGS4 remains one of the first major steps in the PS3's eventual comeback.
Speaking of the PS3…
The first Uncharted game, Drake's Fortune, got some people talking about the PS3. (I remember a former student of mine talking about how Drake's shirt only got partially wet when he only partially went underwater). But it wasn't until Uncharted 2 that people started saying, "Okay, you have to see this game." Uncharted 2 was the game that finally got me to buy a PS3. I'm guessing I wasn't the only one. Those vistas, those setpieces, that amazing train level… Naughty Dog would go on to make The Last of Us, one of the great action games of the generation, but Uncharted 2 remains their defining game. (It was also less well-remembered for its early stab at social media integration: The game initially included annoying Twitter functionality that its developers eventually turned off.) Uncharted 2's many smart ideas—no loading screens, semi-interactive setpieces, upside-down shooting, and on and on—have and will continue, to echo.
The Wii was banking on a single gamble: That people wanted to play simple games using natural motions, rather than complicated button combinations. Any concept like that needs a game to sell it, and Wii Sports did just that. Without the Wii, Wii Sports would have been a regular old combination of sports minigames. Without Wii Sports, the Wii would have been an odd Nintendo console with no proof-of-concept games. Together, Wii Sports and the Wii managed to dominate the last generation of console gaming. And… yeah, you can also thank Wii Sports for the millions of mini-game collections that followed it, not one of them half as good.
It started as a collection of murmurs—people talking about this game, this new game, and boy wasn't it hard? But man it was good, but WOW it was hard, and it really took them back to what games used to be like, when we were young, only it was better and oh man did I mention how hard it was? I spent a long while terrified of From Software's Demon's Souls, but when I finally played and embraced it, I found a game that wasn't so much hard as it was… well, brilliant. Demon's Souls paved the way for its follow-up Dark Souls, which fleshed out its predecessor's core concepts while adding some new ideas and more or less perfecting an already-great recipe. There's a reason that so many upcoming games are described as "It's like Dark Souls meets [other game]". The Souls games may be the purest gaming experiences of the last generation, and demonstrated that there are some who still want mystery and true challenge in their games. From the unexpected, seamless multiplayer to the extreme but fair challenge to the oddly affecting, asynchronous note-leaving, Demon's Souls and Dark Souls were easily two of the most influential—and well-made—games of the last generation.
"The cake is a lie." Is there any one phrase from the last generation of gaming as tired, overused but nonetheless iconic as that? Probably not. Portal came out of nowhere, a short, bundled game included in Valve's The Orange Box along with Half Life 2: Episode 2 and Team Fortress 2. Even among such heady company, Portal stood out. GLaDOS immediately sailed past SHODAN to the top of every "best villains" list on the internet, and the portal gun was immediately recognized as one of the most brilliant mechanical concepts of the last eight years. It's no coincidence it's been mimicked and outright copied in scores of games since. Portal was perhaps the best thing in the smallest package of the last generation.
Where to even begin with the impact of Modern Warfare? It's probably the most influential game on this list. The multiplayer suite added persistent RPG elements to keep players addicted… and now just about every other multiplayer shooter does the same thing. The single-player contained scenes that have been mimicked, copied and stolen by every other military shooter since, sometimes even by other Call of Duty games. Everything about Modern Warfare has been replicated so many times over that it's become a blight on modern gaming; Call of Duty is so popular as to be ubiquitous. Its sequels have, arguably, lost their creative mojo. But for its moment in time, the originator—Modern Warfare—was pretty damned good.
GTA V may have sold more copies in its first week of release, but GTA IV was the first game to demonstrate what a powerhouse like Rockstar was capable of on more powerful gaming hardware. I spent my first hours with this game in a state of constant awe, wondering just how much was possible. Of course, the answer turned out to be "not as much as you thought," but man, that illusion… it was something.
Of course Skyrim had to be on this list. Its predecessor, Oblivion, was actually the reason I got an Xbox 360 and got back into video games. But Skyrim was the game that blew open the entire notion of an open-world fantasy game. It went on to become a meme: Skyrim with guns, Skyrim with cars, Skyrim with even more dragons… and it remains one of the most ambitious and flat-out massive games of the generation. And yeah, we can also thank this game for the "arrow in the knee" meme. Thanks a lot, Skyrim.
Journey was perhaps the first art game to become a system-seller. There had been gorgeous games before it, but Journey was so astonishingly lovely that people would tell their friends: You have to see this. Austin Wintory's score remains one of the most beautiful and evocative of the generation, and the game's peaceful embrace of Demon's Souls' seamless multiplayer was inspired. Journey was, and will remain, unforgettable.
What Metal Gear Solid 4 did for the PS3, Gears of War did for the Xbox 360. It was the console's graphical showcase, and marked the moment the Unreal Engine began its steamroller-like takeover of the last console generation. But really, graphics weren't even Gears' most notable aspect. Gears may have borrowed its cover-focused shooting from Kill Switch, but Gears was the game that popularized the approach. Who'd have thought that making a shooting game focused on taking cover would make things so much more exciting and interesting? Or that an "active reload" mechanic, which asked players to do more than simply press a button to reload their gun, would be so supremely satisfying and widely copied? Gears of War also introduced seamless two-player cooperative play in its campaign, which went on to become a standard for many subsequent unrelated games. Gears 2 then introduced wave-based cooperative "horde mode" multiplayer, a logical extrapolation of the first game's single-player co-op. It was also notable for offering players informative pop-ups to keep them appraised of their achievement progress. With most of the Epic Games creative team scattered to the wind, we may never get another Gears game. But the series' design innovations will continue to ring out for many years to come.
Oh, the Xbox Kinect. Microsoft seemed so certain that their motion-control camera would bring about great new ways to play games. But for all the people who bought a camera for their Xbox, we got so very few Kinect games that were even halfway decent. Though there was one… one that, uh, stood apart. Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor took a series known for its incredibly overblown physical controller and attempted to make it work with Kinect. And failed miserably. It seemed so interesting in previews, and looked so promising in demonstration videos, that it remains a lesson in not trusting a game until you really play it. Or, attempt to play it, as the finished game was essentially unplayable. Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor was possibly the greatest example of—with the exception of a few fun games like Dance Central and Gunstringer—the overall failure of the Kinect and motion control in general to work as a hardcore gaming accessory.
How many game pitches over the last few years have begun, "It's like BioShock, but…" Ken Levine's underwater opus remains a high-water mark for single-player narrative games even this many years after its 2007 release. Few video-game creations have remained as iconic as the Splicers, Big Daddies and Little Sisters of Rapture, and while a replay of the game reveals several combat mechanics that haven't aged all that well, the game itself is as audacious a performance now as it was then. Plus, it gave us both "Would you kindly?" and the term Ludonarrative Dissonance.
How best to value weirdness? Is it possible to love an ugly game? How about a "bad" one? Several years after its unceremonious, budget-priced release on Xbox 360, Deadly Premonition has earned a rare distinction: It is a true camp video game. The vision of one man—Japanese developer Hidetaka "SWERY" Suehiro—defines the entire game. Equal parts Twin Peaks homage and bizarre Resident Evil remix, the game contains so many strange, unforgettable moments that it's impossible to even begin to list them. The graphics looked like a launch game on the original Xbox. Its enigmatic, pop-culture obsessed protagonist Francis "York" Morgan remains one of the coolest characters of the last generation. The controls were so terrible that certain sections feel like a dark joke. Its soundtrack is incredible; immediately iconic, strange, beautiful. It was extremely difficult to understand or play without first reading a fan-written guide.
Beneath the strange exterior and overblown cinematics lies a fascinating bit of open-world game design, balancing upon one of the most immersive and fully-realized virtual towns ever created. It laughed in the face of the entire concept of the review score, receiving a 2/10 from one major publication and a 10/10 from another, while a third outlet dedicated an entire series to naming it game of the year. Deadly Premonition made it possible for us to love a "bad" game, but that was perhaps its craftiest trick. It wasn't a bad game at all. It was very, very good.
Geometry Wars was a proof-of-concept for mid-sized downloadable console games. Up until the last few years, it had been widely held that big, graphics-intensive games came on discs, while downloadable games were smaller, bite-sized things. Pac-Man revamps and the like. Geometry Wars proved that it was possible to release a mid-sized game digitally, and opened the door for the flood of downloadable console games that followed. (It was also a hell of a lot of fun to play.)
Owen Good writes: Madden NFL makes this list but not for honorable reasons. No series defined this console generation of sports video games more than Madden, which in 2005 ushered in the era of exclusive agreements with professional leagues who license video games. For the lifespan of this console generation, sports fans not only had fewer choices, in terms of direct competitors to games like Madden NFL or MLB 2K, they saw fewer and fewer of the arcade-style titles that had added so much variety before 2005; zero were published with league license in 2013.
Madden may not have been the only sports simulation to blunder its way through the Xbox 360 launch—others like NBA Live, NHL 2K and MLB 2K also stumbled and never recovered. But it was the most visible, and it wandered for most of the era developing features that made for great-sounding back-of-the-box copy one year only to be abandoned in the next. There will be no Major League Baseball game on the Xbox One come March, and it is wholly because of the era Madden ushered in and continues to represent, the era of the exclusive license.
Luke Plunkett writes: Where Madden epitomized everything wrong with EA Sports during the past generation, FIFA was an example of the publisher at its best. Overhauling the superior Pro Evo series was no small feat, but the effort EA put into advancing FIFA's gameplay on the pitch - while shoring up its presentation off it - means it's now deservedly the biggest sports series on the planet.
The era of the plastic-instrument music game may have drawn to a close, but many fond memories remain. For a few shining years, we were all rock stars. Harmonix's Rock Band 2 represents, to me, the peak of the era. It wasn't the first game in the genre: That honor goes to Harmonix's plenty revolutionary Guitar Hero. And it wasn't the game with the best instruments, nor was it the most comprehensive—those honors go to Rock Band 3. It was, however, the music game that arrived at the peak of the genre's popularity, and for a party game like Rock Band, popularity is everything. The drum set was better. The setlist was amazing. And everybody wanted to play. I have more fond memories of playing this game with friends than any other game from the past generation. Long live Bratney Spaers! Long live the 9th Avenue Sluts! For those about to rock, etc.!
Easily one of the most hyped Final Fantasy games of all time, XIII represented what looked like a turning point for the series. How would Final Fantasy make its (at the time) next-gen debut? What place did a JRPG have in the more and more action-focused gaming landscape? FFXIII was not without its merits, and has attracted more than a few loyal fans, including our own Mike Fahey. But in general, the game is held as an overly linear disappointment that took far too long to get going. It wound up a strange albatross for publisher Square Enix, who doubled down on the series and released a sequel few people wanted, which sold dismally, and who has yet another sequel coming this winter. Furthermore, the series' strange digression may have turned people—fans and developers alike—off from console JRPGs this generation. Square Enix has spent more than enough time tracking the saga of Lightning and her friends, and it's time to move on.
Joyous to play and exploding with creativity, Mario Galaxy not only reinvigorated the Mario brand, it introduced a number of fascinating new mechanics, several of which were lifted by other games. In particular, it popularized the notion of a less essential co-op player with"Co-Star Mode," in which one player took on a helper role while the primary player controlled Mario. A classic by any measure, Mario Galaxy was one of the Wii's best games.
Wii Fit was another unlikely hit for the Nintendo Wii—it went on to become one of the best-selling games of all time, and an easy justification for the Wii Balance Board peripheral. It demonstrated that people want to use their consoles for more than just "regular" video games, and that fitness and physical activity could be greatly enhanced by smart game design. The impact of its success will likely be felt for generations to come, as game developers get more and more creative with how they get us out of our chairs and into shape.
While the fighting game genre will never truly disappear, it did see a slump during the early parts of the last generation. Who better to pull it out than Street Fighter, returning with a wallop and getting millions of people playing once more as Blanka, Ken, Ryu and the rest of the gang. Well-balanced, well-designed and gorgeous looking, Street Fighter got up off the mat and dominated the fighting game genre.
Wait wait wait, two games are on this list… together? Yep. So why are they here? Well. As the last generation progressed, we began to see game developers wrestling with the fact that the games they made were horribly, ridiculously violent. And their games, exemplified by Far Cry 2 and Spec Ops: The Line, began to reflect that struggle. Far Cry 2 remains one of my favorite games of the last generation, largely because creative director Clint Hocking's design philosophy was so clear-eyed: He wanted to create a world on fire, a hostile place that aggressively provoked chaos. Your character wasn't a hero, he was a piece of human garbage, a loveless mercenary picking over the remains of a war-torn African nation. Your "buddies" weren't your friends, they were assholes just like you. This place was on fire, and you were here to watch it burn. Far Cry 2 was, in the words of onetime "permadeath" player Ben Abraham, a game about entropy. It was also a difficult, darkly seductive game that derived pleasure from its deadly unpredictability. I rarely felt good while playing it, but I never wanted to stop.
On the other side of the gun-barrel sits Spec Ops: The Line, an incredibly violent third-person military shooter that, when it came down to it, hated itself and its own violence. Lead writer Walt Williams is an interesting guy and his intent with the game was clear. The finished product is a muddle, but it makes its point far more directly than anyone was expecting, including me. Both games raised similar questions: Is it possible for a violent game to condemn violence? If we take a video game protagonist's acts of mass-murder seriously, must we indict the player along with him? Will there ever be a successful anti-war shooting game? Is that even possible? Neither game provided entirely satisfactory answers, but it remains noteworthy that they asked at all. As those questions linger, it's only a matter of time before more games attempt to provide answers.
Plenty of last-gen racing games chased realism and simulation. But one game—Criterion's Burnout Paradise—said to hell with that, let's have fun. Years later, no pure racing game (or open-world driving game) has managed to capture the sheer thrill of Paradise, though Criterion's follow up Need for Speed: Most Wanted did come close. Hopefully we'll get another Burnout game in the next generation of consoles. The world is ready.
Rockstar's Manhunt 2 was arguably the most notorious game of the last generation. When talking about this article, my boss Stephen Totilo described Manhunt 2 as "the media-scare game of this gen." That a virtual snuff-film simulator was released on the seemingly family-friendly Wii caused even more scandal—motion controlled beatdowns! It was one of the few games to receive an AO rating, which left Rockstar scrambling to change content and get it into stores.
The first Assassin's Creed was, at the time, one of the games that most called out "next-gen!" It looked unbelievable in demonstrations, offering freedom and fidelity the likes of which we had never seen. But the game itself… well, it could be tough to love. Assassin's Creed II, however… it's been said before, but Assassin's Creed II made the first game feel like a mere tech demo by comparison. Not only did it refine the first game's design and give us much more to do (and with more variety!), it introduced us to Ezio Auditore da Firenze, star of two subsequent games and still the most widely beloved character in the series.
Sure, Minecraft began on the PC. But its migration to the Xbox 360 wound up making the game one of the most in-retrospect unsurprising console successes of the last generation. It sold incredible numbers, yes, but it also brought the magic of Minecraft into living rooms in a whole new way: It allowed for split-screen, local co-op. It seems so obvious now, but moving Minecraft from the PC into the living room gave a new angle on the series and let millions of newcomers fall in love with most enjoyable set of digital LEGOs around.
So there you have it. That's our list but… ah, of course! We left off your favorite game. How could we have been so blind? Please feel free to write about that game in the comments, following this format:
[Image, pref. at least 640 width]
Game: The name of the game.
Platform: The game platform it was on.
Why: Why it defined the generation.
I'm looking forward to seeing what games defined each of your generations.
That'll about do it for Last-Gen Heroes. Thanks so much to everyone for reading, and to all the lovely people at TAY for contributing with so much enthusiasm. We can only hope that the next generation of gaming will offer as much joy, as much drama, and as many great games as the last one did.
I have a feeling it will.
Last-Gen Heroes has been Kotaku's look back at the seventh generation of console gaming. In the weeks leading up to the launch of the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One, we've been celebrating the Heroes—and the Zeroes—of the last eight years of console video gaming. More details can be found here; catch up on the rest of the series here.