By: Chris Hodges, editor-in-chief
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A few days ago, Time magazine’s website posted their list of the “Best Video Games of All Time.” As these things tend to go, the gaming community has been tearing that list apart ever since. While cynicism and negativity always go along with such lists, in this case, much of the complaining has been completely justified. Time‘s list makes so many of the same mistakes that are always made on video game countdown lists, especially ones that are done by non-gaming publications. So it seemed like a good time to address the five faux pas typically made by the compilers of these lists. We’ll be referring to the Time list specifically for much of this as its the most recent big-name example, but as you’ll probably agree, this countdown can be applied to countless others that have been done over the years.
1 – Not being clear about the type of list it actually is
Simply calling a list a “best of” is a vague proposition. For one thing, it doesn’t specify whether it’s a list of how good the games were for their respective eras, or how good they still are. And it gets murky when you don’t stick to one approach or the other. Time included games like The Oregon Trail that aren’t exactly the epitome of timeless gaming experiences, and that’s fine. For its time it was great. But then it gets tough because they obviously don’t stick to that, as the sole sports game on this list–ESPN NFL 2K5–can’t possibly be considered better for its time than any number of other classic sports games were for theirs (various 90s installments of NBA Live, NHL, and Madden might have something to say about that). So in that case, they clearly skewed for a relatively modern sports game that people might still be able to play. It makes the whole list feel inconsistent and jarring. There’s also the matter of distinguishing whether “best” is meant in terms of pure quality, or its overall role in gaming history. It’s hard to diminish the impact that Angry Birds has had on the gaming industry and what it did to help draw people into the now-booming mobile gaming world. But how many people out there would truly call Angry Birds one of the 50 best video games of all time? Having that on a list alongside Resident Evil 4 makes you wonder just what kind of list it actually is.
2 – Defaulting to (inferior) first installments to represent franchises
Video game lists have been doing this for a long time, even ones from respected gaming publications. And it’s absolutely maddening. If you’re going to put a Castlevania game on the list, you go with Symphony of the Night, or Castlevania III, or even one of the …of Sorrow games. You do not go with the original Castlevania. Ditto for Mortal Kombat, Super Mario Kart, Guitar Hero, Grand Theft Auto III (not the first but the first of the era that mattered), and Super Mario Bros. SMB1, are you kidding me? Over Super Mario Bros. 3 and/or Super Mario World, neither of which are on the list? And it wouldn’t be so frustrating if they were at least consistent with that, where you’d see all these part ones and take them to be stand-ins for those entire franchises. But then they go and randomly include sequels like StarCraft II, King’s Quest III, Civilization IV, and…Rise of the Tomb Raider!? We need to go deeper on that one with the next item on this list. The point is, it just smacks of a cop out when some franchises get to be represented by their best installment–RE4, check; Gran Turismo 3, check–while others just get a lazy “Eh, here’s the original game. Just assume it stands on for the whole series.”
3 – Including games that are too recent for “all time best” consideration
There are definitely games we play that we know are one of the best games we’ve ever played the moment we’re done with it. Sometimes even two hours into it. But there still needs to be some time and space given to a newer experience before it can be included in the pantheon of the greatest of all time. There is a reason why hall of fames typically have requirements that you force you to have been around for a set length of time before you can be considered. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame makes you wait until 25 years after your debut album; the National Baseball Hall of Fame says you had to have been retired for at least five years in order to be eligible, and that’s after having played in 10 seasons of Major League play. Rules like this are put into place to give the honor some gravity, and to keep whatever the hot new star is from prematurely being given the honor before proving they have staying power and are true hall of famers. The same should go for lists of all-time best anything. Including something that’s only a year or two old just feels disingenuous to the process. Part of being an all-time great game is either than you remain great for a long, long time (like, say, Ms Pac-Man) or you at least continue to be fondly remembered for a long period of time. A year is way too soon to know whether or not history will remember Rise of the Tomb Raider, so it shouldn’t be eligible for such a list.
4 – Having obvious biases and gaps in your familiarity with all of gaming history
Almost every list like this ends up leaning heavily toward a few specific genres/platforms/companys/eras, and the Time list is no exception. For one thing, there isn’t one single Sega game on the entire list, and save for a few legacy arcade games that were ported to the Genesis and Saturn and a million other systems, not one single game from a Sega platform at all. It’s hard not to assume that the list was compiled by people who grew up as Nintendo kids and PC kids and Sega just wasn’t on their radar, and that doesn’t make for a fair, balanced list. To say that the Genesis, Saturn, and the Dreamcast weren’t home to any games that are worthy of being one of the 50 best is hard to swallow, especially on a list that somehow found room for Doom, Quake, and Wolfenstein 3D. There’s also the matter of, as far as the list is concerned, with the exception of Final Fantasy VII the only 5th-generation console was the N64. I wouldn’t say that the four N64 games that made the list don’t deserve it necessarily, but not in place of the entire Saturn library and all but one PS1 game. A far more egregious lapse in important gaming history is the 16-bit era, generally considered one of the best and most beloved eras in gaming history. Again, other than a few arcade games that were ported to the SNES and Genesis, the entire 16-bit console generation is represented on the list by only two games: Final Fantasy III (US) and Super Mario Kart. So not only are there zero Genesis games, there are only two SNES games. I repeat: there are only two 16-bit console games on this entire list of the 50 best games of all-time.
5 – Glaring, unforgivable omissions
Every list has its omissions. Nobody is perfect. Anyone who has ever put a list like this together knows the feeling of toiling over it for hours, days, even weeks, finally getting the list exactly how you want it, publishing it, and then noticing you forgot the most obvious game in the world. Plus, lists like this are ultimately subjective, and at the end of the day, there really are no “right” and “wrong” answers. Except…there kind of are. To have a list of the 50 best video games of all time and not have Street Fighter II–especially when you have Mortal Kombat–isn’t just a matter of differing opinions. That is a mistake. As is having a list of 50 games and leaving off entire classic franchises like Mega Man and Metroid. Not to pick on Angry Birds again, but if you’re going to put a game like that on your list, you’d better be extra careful what you leave off. As it is, Time magazine is saying that Angry Birds is a better game than Street Fighter II, Mega Man 2, Super Metroid, Chrono Trigger, Phantasy Star IV, Panzer Dragoon Saga, Beyond Good & Evil, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, God of War, Metal Gear Solid, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Soul Calibur, Mass Effect 2, Uncharted 2, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Day of the Tentacle, Secret of Mana, Rock Band, Shadow of the Colossus, Punch-Out!!, Deus Ex, Silent Hill 2…