A few years back during something like a job interview (sort of) I was asked about my top ten favorite games. I was unprepared, and I explained poorly. More recently I’ve wanted to write articles about my favorite games, assessing why they’re good. Yet my thoughts are still too unstructured to complete these would-be articles. As a temporary substitute, here’s an unordered list of several favorite games, and my condensed reasons why.
Banjo Kazooie: Much of my love for this game, I admit, is nostalgia. Yet when I replay it, the level design still surprises me. Levels for 3d platformers can be simple obstacle courses and still be fun for it (see Mario 64), but they can be more. Often the levels in Banjo Kazooie follow the imaginative themes of childhood adventures: a pirate island in Treasure Trove Cove, a jungle in Mumbo’s Mountain, or Egyptian ruins in Gobi’s Valley. The same adventurous themes are typical of Calvin and Hobbes comics, and my lego constructions as a kid. Other levels represent more abstract ideas. Freezeezy Peak captures winter and holiday joy, as does Mad Monster Mansion with Halloween. The best level, however, is Click Clock Woods, which embodies time through seasons, and (by extension) life. I think there is something inherent to platforming mechanics that suggests an arrow of time; collectibles can’t be undone (Mario can’t walk backwards). Before I realize it, I’ve completed the game, I’ve “grown up,” and there’s no going back.
Psychonauts: The reason for my love for Psychonauts overlaps with my reasons for Banjo Kazooie. The game is a powerful coming of age story, with glimpses of a deeper hero’s journey, and the last level is a wonderfully Freudian conflict. The gradual isolation in the hub level that sets in with nightfall is almost as effective for me as Banjo Kazooie’s Click Clock Woods. I don’t want to spoil the experience here, so let me focus on level design instead. Levels can be expressionistic creations and biased narrators, but instead our industry is obsessed with realism. Levels can be characters, and this is where Psychonauts succeeds. The Milkman Conspiracy explains a character through level design alone, and the result is more powerful and more subtle than possible through text or voiceover. This took a remarkable amount of trust. Another level, Black Velvetopia, is a self contained narrative overflowing with symbolism. Even though the design in Psychonauts is sometimes sloppy, the narrative, emotional, and stylistic power is seldom matched.
Super Mario All Stars: I specifically mean the snes version of Super Mario Bros because I can’t speak for the original. There’s not much nostalgic bias here. I first played the game when I was young, but I was never very skilled, and I don’t think I ever made it past world 4 (even with the first warp zone). This year I finally completed the game, and in the many times I’ve replayed it since, I continue to discover. At the moment—and I expect this will change—I think the best way to understand Mario is to compare it to music, especially Bach. The individual voices/mechanics are simple, but the complex interaction and variation on themes creates a powerful whole. Level 5-3, for example, is identical to 1-3, except for the addition of bullets, but the design changes completely. There are patterns to the levels in Mario, but repetition always says something new, which can’t be said of the repetitive gameplay loop in most games. To me, Mario is the exemplary of elegant game design.
I hope my thoughts encourage you to play these great games.