Top 100 Games of All-Time: #36

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

Release Date: February 14, 2014

Platform Played On: Wii U

2018 Placement: #19 (-17)

What It Is:

It’s fucking Donkey Kong.

Okay, so when this game was announced, it was turned into somewhat of a meme at the website I was a part of because somebody made a full post stating how upset they were that Retro Studios was working on another “fucking Donkey Kong” game. And I’ll never forget that description and reaction of this game because it was pure dismissal of a game simply because it was a platformer that was slightly cartoonish instead of Metroid Prime 4 or whatever they wanted.

Anyway, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is Retro Studio’s second attempt at the DKC platformer franchise and it’s hands-down the best of the entire series. From David Wise returning to compose songs, to the level design that allows for Diddy, Dixie, and Cranky Kong all to be useful partners, to creative new enemies and bosses, to the tight platforming feeling every character has, everything about this game excels. It’s a masterpiece of a platformer.

Why It’s Important To Me:

Look, the Wii U wasn’t a very successful console. But I bought it because I had to play Tropical Freeze. No joke, this game was the Wii U system seller for me. (Now if I’d known it would be rereleased for the superior Switch later I’d probably have passed on the console entirely, but you live you learn.) It lived up to my expectations as well. I wanted the Kremlings and K. Rool to return, but the Snowmads actually had just as much personality as the Kremlings. The level design was also fantastic, from mine cart levels like  Sawmill Thrill to the cool backgrounds and mechanics of Scorch ‘n’ Torch.

And of course, David Wise’s stellar soundtrack. Another fantastic collection of songs that were both completely new and remixes of older works. High Tide Ride is probably my favorite track of the entire game, possibly because I love the mine cart levels and this one is a great track that escalates once the cart ride starts. Then there’s Irate Eight (FOUR VERSIONS OF IT) which is a remix of the incredible Lockjaw’s Saga from DKC2. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t include Punch Bowl, which is a fucking banger of a boss theme. This is a game that knocked the soundtrack out of the park and proved David Wise has still got it.

My Strongest Memory:

Funny enough, the thing I remember the most is getting hyped for the game due to the release of the Big Top Bop theme. I was like “okay, David Wise is composing so this game’s gonna have good themes, the boss tracks will probably be pretty awesome.” And then the thread of its release was just everyone being blown away by a fucking shredding electric guitar in Donkey Kong Country music. I think that was honestly the moment that this game was going to be something special for me – that first time listening to Big Top Bop.

Of course, then there was also the mine cart levels – both Sawmill Thrill and High Tide Ride were highlights of the game for me as I was grinning like a little kid when the carts and music kicked in for both of those levels. I don’t know why the little part of my brain shoots out the happy chemical when I’m riding in a mine cart as DK, but it does and I would neverchange it.

Why It’s #36:

I think this may be the best platformer of the modern era. The controls are tight, the music is tight, the art design is tight, everything is tight. There’s even a Funky Mode on the Switch version that makes it easier for new players to get into. This game just rocks, even if it is just fucking Donkey Kong.

Top 100 Games of All-Time: #38

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Release Date: March 20, 2020

Platform Played On: Switch

2018 Placement: Unranked

What It Is:

The Switch version of the wildly popular simulation game that started back on the Gamecube. The game is all about going into crippling debt to a capitalist raccoon while maintaining your house and island and being friendly with all your neighbors, except for when you want a cooler neighbor so you kick out the people you don’t actually like.

Okay so that’s the cynical version of the game, but this is one of those games where the goals are what you make of it. There’s no dating, no skill trees, no combat (except vs. tarantulas). It’s just a slice of life simulator where all your neighbors are anthropomorphized animals. There is a “credits” sequence once you reach the goal of having the famous K.K. Slider perform at your island. But then the game continues because it’s not about “finishing” it, it’s about relaxing and having a good time with your buds.

Why It’s Important To Me:

It’s kind of fitting that I’m writing this the day I got my second COVID vaccine shot, as Animal Crossing was the game that made the first half of this pandemic bearable. I’d never played a game in this series before because I never really “got” simulation games. But after lockdown suddenly happened to everyone, I downloaded this game as a distraction and to try it out. And let me tell you, it’s been worth every penny. It’s a game that hits the perfect spot of relaxation when I don’t want to play something competitively.

Every morning I would wake up and check on my villagers, do a little weeding and island beautifying, and work towards my goals of making my perfect house. I became best friends with Sherb, who is far away my favorite villager and will always be my best bud. Marshal and O’Hare are my bros, Nana, Bunbun, and Sprinkle are my gals, and Monty is the crotchety old monkey who lives in the corner but we all love him anyway. I’ve gotten to the point where I wouldn’t trade any of my 10 villagers away for anybody else, even the elusive Raymond, because they’re like an extended video game NPC family to me. Even when I don’t play the game for a while, they’re always excited to see me come back to the island and visit for a day or two.

My Strongest Memory:

The crazed turnip rush of the first few months was a highlight of the entire experience. Comparing stalk market prices, sharing friend codes, visiting other people’s islands and marveling at how nice they were, and of course making those bells off turnips so I could improve my island. It was a refreshing community to be a part of when in-person communities had been shut down indefinitely. There was never any bad blood in the sharing of islands and it was just a nice, wholesome time to spend with other people.

There is also the fact that not a single character in Animal Crossing judges you for your appearance. When I changed up my look, I cried because Sherb and Monty and Rowan and Nana all greeted me the exact same way and complimented me. It was weirdly affirming to see these companions of mine so readily accept me for who I was, no matter how I looked or what I wore. It sucks that I can’t change my name (please fix that Nintendo, please) but otherwise the denizens of AC are such a supportive crew and these little pixelated friendly creatures mean so much to me.

Why It’s #38:

When I think of COVID and the year spent in lockdown, Animal Crossing is always going to be the first game that comes to mind. It was an escape to a community when we were all divided from them. It was relaxing when the world was stressful. It was the perfect game released for the perfect moment, even if that moment lasted a year and sucked for everyone. Sometimes a game is worth more than just what’s done when you play it, it’s the memories made and the feelings it gives you. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to replicate the experience New Horizons gave me, and I’m not sure I’d ever want to.

Top 100 Games of All-Time: #41

Midnight Club II

Release Date: April 9, 2003

Platform Played On: PS2

2018 Placement: #34 (-7)

What It Is:

A straightforward arcade racer from back in the day when Rockstar made games that weren’t GTAV or RDR2. I never played the original Midnight Club, but its sequel is an absolute delight of a racing game. It is a street racing game and gives you unobstructed streets to drive through for each race. You find your opponents and challenge them in the city, and while there are checkpoints you have to go through, it’s up to you to find the best way to hit all of them as you drive through each of the three cities.

This game is a little more grounded in its arcade racing aspect: the later editions of the game added car-based superpowers which made the game a little more game-y. This focuses more on the typical skills you find in racing games: slipstream and the like. And it is missing the customization that is available in more modern games. But working your way through opponents to finally race each city’s champion still feels good and the actual gameplay of the racing makes this one my favorite of the series.

Why It’s Important To Me:

I’ve never been a huge realistic racing game fan – games like Gran Turismo I could just never get into. And more arcade-style games like Burnout 3 and Spilt/Second I do enjoy playing, but the feel of the racing tends to come second to the excitement of smashy-crashy. Midnight Club II finds the right balance of what I love about in-game video driving without going too balls-to-the-wall.

It also has an absolutely stellar licensed soundtrack, which is unfortunately why it’s not available digitally since Rockstar didn’t want to continue to pay for a lot of the songs’ use. I somewhat credit this game for unlocking my interest in techno and trance music as it has several songs that I would listen to over and over as I cruised through the cities. From Rococco by Kansai to Stealth by Art of Trance, the trance music in this game was legendary.

My Strongest Memory:

I beat every racer but the very last champion in the entire game. While I definitely enjoyed Midnight Club 3 and Los Angeles, both of them, much like other racing games, got harder and harder as you progressed in the game to the point where to succeed against the AI you had to be near perfect. And this was before you got to the fun cars. At least in Midnight Club II, the near perfect race was only required for the final boss of the game. And yeah some of the later races were difficult but it felt manageable.

It was really frustrating to see my completion percentage on my save file be that close to 100% and not being able to beat the last race, but it’s the closest I’ve ever come to completing a full racing game. And that’s another reason why I love this game – it felt manageable in a way a lot of other games didn’t due to how racing AI tends to work.

Why It’s #41:

I love driving to techno/trance music. It’s one of the best ways for me to relax, even if it’s in a high-tension racing scenario. Just navigating the cities to Rococco was a great way for me to find my zen place, so I’ll always rank this particular racer highly.

Top 100 Games of All-Time: #44

Persona 4

Release Date: July 10, 2008

Platform Played On: PS2

2018 Placement: #29 (-15)

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What It Is:

The fourth entry in the Shin Megami Tensei spinoff series Persona, and the one that could be argued that really put the game into the mainstream. If you’re not aware, the Persona games are JRPGs that fuse dungeon crawling with daily life sim/time management, where by day you’re a high schooler just trying to make it through the school year while at night you face weird demon shit and eventually kill God. You up your power by hanging out with your friends (boosting Social Links) or eating/exercising/studying (boosting your stats) and making sure you fit everything you want in is one of the main challenges of the game.

Persona 4 adds a level of mystery to the plot – the overall story involves a serial killer using something called the Midnight Channel to murder people. The “Investigation Team” aka the main characters led by your mute protagonist investigate at night by jumping into a television and exploring this weird foggy demon world where the victims get trapped. Each victim gets a personalized dungeon that is randomly generated every time you enter, adding layers to the strategy of exploration. The mystery investigation vibe really adds to the overall feel of the game and makes it a very solid plot from start to finish.

Why It’s Important To Me:

This game made me rediscover my love for JRPGs. I’d been a huge fan of the JRPG genre in my high school and early college years, from SNES to PS1. But in the PS2 era I sort of fell off of them if they didn’t include Final Fantasy in the title. I tried Persona 3 FES and while I enjoyed it when I played it, I thought it was just “fine” and not really memorable. Then at the end of the PS2 era Persona 4 came storming onto the scene and I absolutely fell in love.

When I completed this game I was living, breathing, and eating Persona 4 for a long while.  Persona 4’s cast of characters are much more memorable (in my opinion) and the overall mystery plot is much more up my alley. While there are a lot of very questionable decisions regarding LGBTQ+ themes (specifically Kanji and Naoto) that date the game very quickly and make me wish it had taken a firmer stance, the overall game itself and the interactions between all the Investigation Team members make it well worth the 80-hour playthrough.

My Strongest Memory:

There’s a lot. Of course I’m going to talk about the music first. All of the dungeon themes are fire. When I first set foot into Yukiko’s Castle and this bop started playing I knew I would instantly love this game. Rise’s dungeon theme is also one of my favorites and has a very electronica feel to it. And then of course the boss music is legendary. And it’s not just the dungeon theme – all of the background music in Persona 4 sets the mood and tone of whatever is happening on your screen.

But then of course there’s the twists to the story that I can’t go into here. There’s several “OH SHIT” moments in the game that kept me absolutely riveted to my screen as every time I thought I had it all figured out, something else suddenly came to light. I’m not too proud to say that I knew there was a “true” ending before I got to the point of no return so I made sure I didn’t get a “bad” end, but man the mystery plot was probably one of the best framings of a JRPG plot, especially since it allowed most of the focus of the story to be on this one small town in the middle of nowhere.

Why It’s #44:

This used to be my go-to Persona recommendation and really high up there as a good “starter” RPG because it brought a lot to the table. I went back and finally played the Golden version for the first time when it was released on Steam last year, but unfortunately there are a lot of quality-of-life improvements from Persona 4 to Persona 5 that actually detract from the experience once you’ve played the latter. It’s still a great game, don’t get me wrong, and it deserves to be played. But some of the gameplay now is a little more frustrating than it was when it was fresh a decade ago. But it’s still absolutely worth your time if you’ve never played it.

Top 100 Games of All-Time: #46

Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Release Date: July 26, 2019

Platform Played On: Switch

2018 Placement: Unranked

What It Is:

Fire Emblem at its core is a turn-based strategy tactics game series where you move units around a battlefield and take out enemies. Each unit has its own skills and weaponry and placing your units in the right place can pretty much determine whether a battle is won or lost. But each unit in FE games is a specific character, and over time you get attached to said characters. For the majority of the series the units also have had permadeath – meaning if you lose a unit they’re gone for good – but newer entries including Three Houses gives you an option to not have that on.

Three Houses adds a second layer to the strategy battlefield: in between the main chapter fights you’re a teacher at a school, and your units are your students. You can level up their skills by what they teach you, form social bonds by talking to them between classes, have lunch to boost their stats in the next fight, and so on. It adds a delightful Persona-esque day-to-day pursuit to the game and gives you a chance to fall even more in love with your characters that you’re sending out to die on the battlefield later. On top of that, as the title suggests there are three separate Houses to choose from at the beginning of the game, and while you can recruit some students if you want, each House has its own story so the game has a lot of replayability.

Why It’s Important To Me:

Three Houses is the perfect evolution of the franchise for me. While I have enjoyed all the FE games I’ve played, the fusion of the actual tactical battles with the social sections in the academy make this the top tier entry in my opinion. It also moves slightly away from the romance angles of both Awakening and Fates where you were pairing up every character to get their kids. There is still pairing up of characters here and you get to see a lot of fun interactions, but the actual romance is mostly saved for your specific player character and whoever you choose to pursue. All the characters are delightful, either in a love-to-love them or a love-to-hate them way.

The battle system itself is the most fun it’s been in any Fire Emblem as well. The addition of the “Divine Pulse” gives you a set amount of time rewinds that allow you to fix mistakes in battle. Instead of having to restart the entire fight like in previous FEs, you only need to go back a turn and choose a different tactic. Getting to choose how each character levels up between battles makes it more personal as well. There are just so many quality-of-life updates to the series that make it harder to go back to the more “hardcore” Fire Emblems.

My Strongest Memory:

I think part of why I love this game so much is how it got HarveyZ back into gaming. The true turning the corner of the Make Me A Gamer podcast was when Harvey bought a Switch just to play this game, and then ended up just as obsessed with it as I did. It was fun arguing over whether the Blue Lions or Black Eagles were better (I still insist the Blue Lions are underrated and I loved their entire story) and comparing notes on how the story was progressing for both of us.

It’s also a testament to how strong this game is that as soon as I finished it I booted up a second run-through of the Golden Deer. I didn’t make it all the way to the end with it (in fact I didn’t even get halfway) but I was so enamored with the characters and gameplay that I dove right back in after rolling credits – something I hardly ever do with any game. Also Dorothea is the best girl and I will fight anyone who says otherwise.

Why It’s #46:

In 2018 the only Fire Emblem on this list was Awakening, because at the time it was my favorite FE and really breathed new life into the series. Three Houses then came out and blew Awakening out of the water so hard it disappeared from the list and now Three Houses is the only entry. This is a must-have game if you like the strategy/tactics genre even a little: it’s also the best Fire Emblem to start with if you’ve never played the franchise. Play it!

Top 100 Games of All-Time: #47

Minecraft

Release Date: November 18, 2011

Platform Played On: XBox 360, PC

2018 Placement: Unranked

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What It Is:

It’s Minecraft. Have you been living under a rock for the last decade? Do I really need to explain this to you? Ugh, okay fine. Minecraft is an open world survival game set in a pixelated, blocky world that has been updated constantly with content over the last decade. The main goal of the game is to survive and build things, but there is a final “boss” called the Ender Dragon that is considered the finale of the game. But a player can spend years in the game without even trying to fight the Dragon and still have a good time.

The premise is simple: you collect resources (wood, stone, gold, iron, coal, etc.) to build tools for yourself which make it easier to make things like weapons and armor, which in turn make it easier to collect more resources until you’ve built yourself a nice little pixelated home. Every new world is randomly generated so you can find some wonderful vistas created by the generator as you explore. And there’s a peaceful AND creative mode for people who are more interested in the building than the survival aspect.

Why It’s Important To Me:

Minecraft has gone through many iterations in my life. I’ve been a part of several servers on both the 360 and the PC (and I think I even own it on PS4 too although I never really got into a specific world on that one). Early on me and a few online friends tried to recreate Achievement Hunter Let’s Play contests in Minecraft – that’s how I got into the game in the first place. Later I joined another server with some real life friends and we all created our own different settlements – HarveyZ made a supervillain lair while I built a house with a glass floor over a ravine, and then put a giant smiley face on top of it.

The most recent Minecraft explosion for me was at the beginning of the 2020 pandemic last year: me and my girlfriend joined a new server with friends, my roommate was talked into joining as well, and it basically became the game of the pandemic for all of us. We’ve spent a ton of time building farms and castles and exploring woodland mansions and caverns while screaming at Creepers. It’s the first game my girlfriend truly got into as a co-op experience and playing it with her has made this game very important to me. (The picture is a photo of our collection of Minecraft dogs, because we always need more dogs.)

My Strongest Memory:

Oh there’s a lot. When we were first starting in the current server, I was building a house on a mountaintop and there was a massive cavern underneath the mountain that me and a few others tried to explore. Needless to say we found a gigantic cave that enemies just poured out of, I ended up dying because the one high level person shot me with an arrow and killed me in the confusion, and then half my stuff was lost because a person that picked it up fell into lava. (They then built a giant “SORRY” at the base of the mountain so I could see it from my mountaintop chateau.) It was a fun clown fiesta of an introduction to the server.

Then there was the time me and my roommate tried to further explore said cave, got ambushed in a mine and my roommate died, so we spent a good half hour lost in the caverns trying to get him back to his stuff because he’d only been playing for a few days and didn’t have as good a grasp on exploration yet. Or the time me and my roommate were in the middle of nowhere looking for a woodland mansion, I left my PC for ten seconds to check on a noise outside our apartment door, and when I came back I had somehow drowned despite not leaving my character in water. So I had to trek all the way back across the world just to get my stuff back (the first time I tried going through the nether and failed about twenty feet from the objective – I could see it but couldn’t cross the lava pool due to mobs and ended up dying and having to start over).

There’s also the time I made a special, secret area for my girlfriend for her birthday and gave her some neat items in-game. And then there’s the time she turned the tables on me and gave me a special, secret area for Valentine’s Day and gave me some netherite. Or all the time we’ve spent together building farms and taking care of dogs and goofing around in game. It allowed us to build something constructive together while we were stuck inside for a year. Minecraft has a ton of memories now. It’s special.

Why It’s #47:

Like I said at the beginning, it’s Minecraft. If you think this isn’t one of the greatest games of all-time, you’re living in a bubble. The game is whatever you want it to be, and to me it’s an escape and a fun time to spend with friends.

Top 100 Games of All-Time: #89

Toejam & Earl

Release Date: March 12, 1991

Platform Played On: Wii (Virtual Console)

2018 Placement: Unranked

toejam-and-earl-03

What It Is:

Toejam & Earl is a very unique game that’s hard to describe. The title characters are from Funkatron and crash their ship on Earth, so they have to navigate past hazardous Earthlings while recovering their spaceship’s parts that have been scattered to the wind. It’s kind of like a co-op roguelike in some ways, because one mode involves going through randomized levels of Earth trying to find the ship parts. It’s not super action-heavy though; as a player you rely on presents that can be good or bad to spice up the gameplay and make it past everything trying to kill you. And if you play with a partner, sometimes they’re trying to kill you too which makes the adventure even more hazardous.

The music is funky (since Funkatron is the planet Toejam and Earl hang from) and the humor is wacky (you identify presents through a Carrot Man and can sneak up on Santa Claus to get more presents to use). Boogeymen sneak up on you and shout “Boogie boogie boogie” as they take away your health. You’ve gotta watch out for lawn mowers, scientists, and more as you reveal map tiles through exploration, trying to find the exit to the next level along with your ultimate goal of rebuilding your spaceship.

Why It’s Important To Me:

Sometimes a game becomes a favorite simply through osmosis. My podcast partner-in-crime HarveyZ lists this as one of his favorite games of all-time, and therefore I’ve played it many times with him (and also watched him play it with others as well). And if you play a game enough and spend enough time with people who love the game, you start to love it yourself.

While this wasn’t a game I grew up with – I was a Nintendo kid and never had any Sega system – it was a game my friends did. So when it showed up on the Wii’s Virtual Console, I ended up buying it to partake in the joy and have learned to respect why it captured their hearts. It’s a light-hearted, fun, shooting-the-shit game where you can grief your partner but also high-five them. And I appreciate that.

My Strongest Memory:

Back when I was recording Let’s Plays for YouTube, me and HarveyZ sat down and did a full playthrough of Toejam & Earl together. I still think it was one of the best (if not the best) thing to come out of the year’s worth of videos I did for the channel and was one of the first rumblings that eventually led me to start a podcast with him later. If you want to watch it, you can start here (it’s divided into six parts  – please ignore the bad audio, I’ve learned a lot podcasting and did not do any audio editing for YouTube in ignorance).

Anyway, this playthrough had a lot of the fun, ridiculous moments that playing video games with friends result in. And in this case all of those moments were caught on camera to relive over and over! It’s the camaraderie that comes along while play this game (and games like it) that endeared Toejam and Earl to me. I even ended up buying a special edition of the new Toejam & Earl just because of how much I bonded with my pal over the original and it’s earned a special place in my heart.

Why It’s #89:

I have a feeling this would have ended up a lot higher on my list if I had the same nostalgia for it as I do other games I played in my childhood. I still love it, but it’s a different kind of love that misses the high emotions of it being a game that was formative to my opinion of video games in general. As it is, though, it’s still a timeless classic that can be enjoyed just as much nowadays – it doesn’t lose anything with age.