The Shadow’s Sixty Countdown – The Top Six

This has been a long time coming. When I started brainstorming for this list at the beginning of the year, I never would’ve imagined how difficult it would’ve been to try to recall and rank every game I’ve ever played. I spent weeks brainstorming the list, and my original first draft had around 110 games overall. I spent an agonizing month gradually narrowing the list down from those 110 to the 60 here – I used every trick I could think of to rule some of them out. Some games I went back and played again, watched footage of them, tried to see how much I could actually remember about them, and if I could write a convincing argument for why they were awesome. Afterall, if I couldn’t convince myself, then maybe they weren’t as good as nostalgia painted them, right?

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These final 6 games were always on the list. While the rest of the Shadow’s Sixty changed dramatically from draft to draft, very little about the Top 6 has changed from the start. These games are the best I’ve ever played, and there was very little question in my mind about which games belonged up top. And that is why I am so pleased to reveal this list to you – the final entries in this, my Shadow’s Sixty. So let’s get to it and unveil gaming’s greatest, as I see it.

6. The Last of Us

I expect this will surprise many of you, but I consider the Last of Us to be the greatest narrative gaming has ever seen. Few games ever manage to even come close to the level of depth its cast had, nor the level of nuance its story had. I have never been impacted emotionally by another game in the way The Last of Us did. No game has ever hit me so hard that I had to put it down for a night, not because I was bored but because my brain needed time to process the events in order to avoid becoming numb to it.

I think one of the greatest testimonials to a game’s quality of writing is when players feel as though their lack of control of a character’s actions made them unhappy. I’ve never seen a game’s ending cause people to be so conflicted, feel so powerless and out of control. But really, it was how Joel would have acted. People hated it because it’s not how they would’ve acted and it made them feel awful to do that… but that just tells me that the scene was even more right.

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I also appreciated the fact that the shooting mechanics were janky. Sure it made the game harder, but it made sense. Joel is not a hardened vet with years of training and decades of practice, he’s just a dude who happens to have spent some time with guns in his past. He’s not a terrible shot, but he shouldn’t be a perfect shot. And the mechanics reflected that well. I loved this game’s commitment to being authentic. It stayed true to itself at every moment of the way, and used ‘does it fit the story’ as the final bar for whether a mechanic, concept, or scene belonged in the game – not ‘will it make people happy’. And for that, I respect this game and its creators.

5. Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel

I thought, for over a decade, that Xenogears would forever be the greatest JRPG I’d ever play. Boy, was I wrong. Cutting it in just before the deadline to make the cut for this list, Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel’s first entry stormed itself so far ahead of the pack that I cannot imagine playing a better JRPG. Each character was developed to such a degree that I cannot claim that the game has a ‘bad’ character – even the characters I hate are still amazingly well-written. Even the side characters are amazing.

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There are entire character stories that run throughout the entire game, gradually building up alongside its main story, that are 100% optional. You could completely miss that character’s entire arc, and it wouldn’t take away from your core story… but if you talk to everyone and really engage in this world, you’ll get so many rich interactions. Trails in the Sky did much the same thing, but it did it on too large a scale for you to feasibly experience the everything the game had to offer for you. In Cold Steel, the scale is much more personal, which allows you to get involved with the characters without sacrificing the grand story being told. XSeed truly understands how to localize a game.

Additionally, Falcom has found just the right balance for a turn based game. It doesn’t get in the way of you having the time to think about your decisions and make sure you’re playing it right, but at the same time it never feels too slow to be fun. This is one of only a handful of games I’ve ever played where I want to grind. I want to spend time fighting the same packs of trash mobs simply for the joy of the combat and the glory of loot. It’s as if the developers recognized how addictive it was, because they limit how far you can get ahead by having the experience drop off sharply if you outlevel the enemies, ensuring that no matter how much you grind, you can’t completely trivialize the content simply via farming too much.

4. Catherine

Most of you are not surprised to see this game on the list here, I’m sure. There’s a reason I’ve played this game for literally hundreds of hours on stream, there’s a reason it is just about the only staple game during my monthly Selubrations, and there’s a reason I’ve completed its story so many times. That reason is simple: it really does nearly everything you could ask of a puzzle game.

Catherine’s characters are the most believable, realistic, and relatable characters I’ve ever seen. What makes them so special is that most of them aren’t ‘good’ people. But the reasons why they are the way they are make sense. It’s an amazing journey of discovery if you really take the time to get to know the characters here. The story is so intricate you’ll find yourself noticing little hints and references throughout the game that take on a whole new light given the knowledge you have after completing the game. Even after as many playthroughs as I’ve done, there are still sometimes things I notice that I’d never seen before.

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But a great story is nowhere near enough for this high on the list. Most of the games up here have one. What truly makes Catherine special is the almost addictive challenge it offers. During your first playthrough, the game will be perpetually just barely at the upper limits of what you’re capable of. You’ll always feel like it’s pushing you, but never quite feel like it’s out of reach thanks to a variety of safety nets to ensure you can learn through your failures. But once you’ve played it through once, the game’s hard difficulty and Babel mode offer an incredibly challenging way to push your limits by removing the game’s safety nets, giving you less time overall and making the puzzles vastly harder.

The difficulty curve is utterly perfect. You get addicted to the feeling of success as you complete the earlier stages and just keep pushing through the failure to reach for that. And every time you achieve it, it gives that same sense of immense, complete satisfaction. This is how you design a difficulty curve for a challenging game. You build that pattern of success and failure around a set of forgiving mechanics that just get you hooked.

3. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

The original Playstation had so many of gaming’s greatest classics. We’ve covered so many of them in this list: Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy 9, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Resident Evil. But the greatest game of the PS1 era was Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Playing as Dracula’s son Alucard, you discover that your father’s castle has returned only a short time after it was banished. Entering into it, you discover that something strange is going on, as you are quickly stripped of your best gear and you run into a member of the famous Belmont clan of vampire hunters claiming to be the Lord of the castle. This genre has never been known for amazing storytelling, but even despite that, it is still an interesting premise.

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But what really makes Symphony of the Night so special is the distinct combination of so many fun elements. They took the classic combat and platforming that Castlevania was previously known for and added more intricate movement abilities, a full equipment and loot system, and even a bunch of hidden game modes… and as a result created not only a game, but a genre. There were so many fun abilities to play around with such as the wolf and bat transformations, the various special attacks, and my favourite: the high jump. Over time, you’ll gradually get stronger, learn new spells, and unlock new forms of traversal that open up more of the castle to you, giving you access to vast new regions, and over time more of the game’s story and gameplay. It is this cycle of backtracking, exploration, and discovery that is this game’s greatest asset.

The other thing that really made this game so fun was the loot system. There are so many amazing pieces of equipment that can be used in so many different ways. Many of the weapons even have special abilities that are incredibly varied. I particularly enjoyed using weapons that had really esoteric abilities like the Sword of Dawn which summons a swarm of undead minions for a time. But the loot led to a constant string of interest throughout the game because some of the strangest enemies dropped amazing stuff. When you take all of these interesting components and mix them all together such that each element amplifies the others… you get a game that is just an incredible experience from start to finish.

2. Journey

A lot of games on this list have been pretty, but I’ve never played another game with the raw beauty of Journey. The distinct art style, the amazing desert landscapes, and the lightning effects work together to create visuals that are quite literally breathtaking. While playing this game, you will find moments where you won’t be able to help yourself – you’ll simply have to sit and stare. But when I say ‘raw beauty’, we’re not just talking visually – Journey’s soundtrack is among the best gaming has ever seen. Amazing orchestral tracks accompany the game’s scenes, augmenting what makes Journey so distinct and special… its emotional impact.

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You see, Journey is a strange game. It doesn’t try to tell you what to feel, it simply creates an experience that combines ambiguity with beauty to become a reflection of your own emotional state. It ends up giving you whatever you need at the time you play it, somehow. I’ve played it several times, and each time has been completely distinct in the impact its had on me. I’ve had Journeys that left me elated and joyous, ones that left me contemplative, and even ones that left me in tears. And each time, I was left with something that I had needed at the time whether I knew it or not.

The other really fascinating and incredible thing about Journey is its take on multiplayer. Journey’s multiplayer is essentially anonymous, completely random, and composed in such a way that it is completely impossible to ‘hurt’ the player you get paired with – you don’t even know who they are until the credits. You can’t talk to the person, you can’t hinder them, and the only way to communicate is an undefined ‘shout’ – it fits so well into this game, and allows you to really share an experience in an emotional way with a complete stranger. I still recall the Journey I had where at the end of it I wrote a message thanking the person I was paired with at the end because I really felt that we’d shared something special. I wish I could say more about this game, but it’s so hard to describe. It’s just incredible.

1. Super Metroid

Super Metroid is my favourite game of all time. It always has been, and I suspect it always will be. It’s rare that I use the term ‘perfect’ for a game, since it really isn’t possible for one to be truly perfect, but Super Metroid comes the closest to that that I’ve seen. The game was so well designed that it doesn’t feel as though it was held back by the limitations of the era it was designed it. The graphics were clean and defined, the music builds ambience without being overbearing, and – despite having almost no text – the game manages to build a subtle progression of events that brings you right into it. I recall the first time I showed my wife the game, she cried when the baby Metroid died.(sorry for spoiling a 20~ year old game, but I hope you can all forgive me)

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I think what makes Super Metroid so incredible to me is how well every aspect of it works together. Much like Symphony of the Night, all of its elements work in harmony to make the game feel like such a complete, contained experience. Once I start playing the game, I am engulfed for a good 4-6 hours until I finish. And I can’t help but explore every nook, cranny, and crevice – even though I know what’s waiting for me, the sense of discovery and tension sucks me in.

Super Metroid, along with Symphony of the Night, created the genre of games that to this day bear their combined name: Metroidvania. In addition to being the first of these games it was also the greatest example of what these games are meant to be. If you’ve watched someone who knows the game, it will probably look easy, but if you can recall your first time with the game, or if you’ve ever watched someone play it completely blind… it was a hard game, one that taught you by experience – not tutorials – and asked so much exploration of you that progress came coupled not only with awesome new abilities, but also with an immense sense of satisfaction.

 

I hope you guys have enjoyed reading this list as much as I’ve enjoyed creating it. It’s been an amazing journey, and it’s reminded me how many great games there truly are out there. I sincerely hope that I’ve introduced you to at least one incredible experience you didn’t previously know about, and I hope I’ve helped you to understand what I value in a game more. Also, if anyone has been following along, please feel free to share how close you were in your predictions of these final six in the comments below, or to share your own top 6 games of all time! I’d love to hear more about the fond memories you guys have made with gaming over your lives.

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