Why Creating a ‘Greatest Video Games of All Time’ List Is Impossible
Everybody loves to make “best ever” lists–best movies ever, best novels ever, best dish detergents ever, etc. And when it comes to video games, the Internet is bloated with articles trying to tell you which ones are the best. In fact, in my review of Axiom Verge, I casually began by calling Super Metroid maybe “the most perfect video game ever created.” But upon further scrutiny, I realize now that such distinctions are not really possible for video games. Here’s the simple reason why.
Let’s Play: Super Citizen Kane X3
When it comes to picking out the greatest cinema classics, there are some perennial favorites, like Citizen Kane and The Godfather. The same can be said of novels like To Kill a Mockingbird and Ram Van Bamf and the Doomsday Conspiracy. All kidding aside, there are usually good reasons why certain works are hailed as classics. They might introduce a new style into an art form, or flawlessly execute lofty themes or ideas, or just leave a legacy that forever alters the landscape in their wake. This is absolutely true of video games as well.
Virtually any discussion of video games with the greatest impacts on the industry will include games like Super Mario Bros., Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VII, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Grand Theft Auto III, Halo, and dare I say The Last of Us. But you know what’s strange about most of these games compared to their film and literature counterparts? These games get sequels–and not just one or two sequels like The Godfather, but rather a potentially limitless number. And incidentally, several of these sequels are significantly better than the classics that inspired them.
Super Mario Bros. from 1985 had arguably the greatest single impact on the video game industry of any game ever, and yet by today’s standards, the game is fundamentally basic. Even 1990’s Super Mario World is an enormous leap forward in every facet of game design, to say nothing of 2013’s Super Mario 3D World. This is true of most video game sequels. The aforementioned Ocarina of Time from 1998 has one of the highest average review scores ever, but arguably all of the elements for which the game was praised have since been improved upon in subsequent sequels, especially the enemy-targeting system. The only thing that separates Ocarina of Time from its sequels is that OoT was first to the race. In other words, OoT was more novel at the time of its release than the sequels that tried to improve upon the formula.
Compare this to cinema. The greatest example of a sequel done right is The Godfather Part II, whom some consider to be a better movie than The Godfather. But nobody considers The Godfather Part III to be a better movie than its predecessors. There is an infinitesimal track record for franchises where the sequels are consistently better than the original films that spawn them. On that same note, compare Super Mario Bros. to its relative film equivalent (in terms of both impact to the industry, and being of an elderly age), 1941’s Citizen Kane. In the modern day, there are esteemed critics who continue to hold Citizen Kane as the greatest film of all time, but virtually no valid argument can be made for Super Mario Bros. being a superior game to even most of its sequels, let alone every other subsequent video game in existence.
Let’s Play: Star Battles: The Empire Attacks Again
Another aspect unique to the video game medium is how extremely simple it is for one game to directly copy the formula of another game without it even being a sequel. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night from 1997 mimics the formula of Super Metroid from 1994 almost completely, with the only major differences being a shift from a sci-fi setting to a Gothic setting and some RPG elements being sprinkled into it. Incidentally, Symphony of the Night turned out to be a really good game too. Formula borrowing is rarely this blatant of course, but it goes to show how easy it is to do.
Granted, it would be an egregious oversight to say that copying does not occur in other industries. There is an ocean of straight-to-DVD-or-Netflix films aping popular movies, from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Twilight. The difference is that even when films (or literature) copy, they have to build their imitations from the ground up. Often, and in fact almost always, the number of changes made in order to avoid being sued for copyright infringement (in addition to concessions due to budget restraints, in the case of films) result in a final product that is inferior to the thing being copied. There is never an inherently clear path where an imitation piece of art can surpass the original product; indeed, there is not even a clear path for a sequel to surpass the original product.
But in video games, a clear path to improvement over an old product is almost always present, at least in a few areas. All you have to do is improve the graphics or the sound quality, or give the hero new powers, or give the villains new abilities and improve their A.I., or get more clever about the level design. Most of these elements are literally things that can be measured via basic, quantifiable metrics. “Bigger and better” is actually genuinely easy to achieve in video games, as long as the technology and the time avail themselves.
Thus, how am I to say a game like Super Metroid is the most perfect game ever, when games like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Axiom Verge are going to try their hardest to improve upon that formula for years to come?
Criteria for Classics
The only things that separate agreed upon “classic” video games from other similar games are the intangibles, the things that cannot be quantified neatly by metrics. Novelty, aka the ability to bring a genuinely new gameplay mechanic to the table, is one of those factors. This is of course seen in Super Mario Bros. The ability to repackage a bunch of existing ideas in a complete and satisfying new package is another factor, as seen in Chrono Trigger. (It should be noted that novelty and repackaging are not entirely at odds with each other; Final Fantasy VII is basically Final Fantasy VI with a strikingly new cinematic presentation.) And then the final factor (where applicable) consists of execution of basic artistic fundamentals–plot, writing, level design, art direction, and music quality (not to be confused with sound quality). The Last of Us would probably be a nice example of those elements.
Out of the three factors of novelty, artful repackaging, and mastery of artistic fundamentals, the first two are restricted by time. Novelty and artful repackaging are directly measured (albeit qualitatively) according to the context of the time in which they release. Only the artistic fundamentals shine through at any age. You can look to Chrono Trigger as evidence; the first thing I (and others I know) immediately praise is the masterful soundtrack, followed by the fun characters. Mention of the (then) innovative feature of removing random battles only gets mentioned later.
A great story or strong level design will always stand the test of time, but game mechanics do not. Grand Theft Auto 3 is arguably a revolutionary game, but Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is better by virtually every technical measure (world size, graphics, radio selection, character customization, etc.). And Grand Theft Auto V is better than San Andreas by virtually every technical measure. The only way one could objectively prefer GTA3 over GTAV is if one prefers the artistry of the former over the latter. This logic applies to other time-tested franchises that seldom change genre as well, such as Mega Man and Dragon Quest.
Yes, you could argue that evolving technical accomplishments in games are no different than evolving special effects in films. And yes, there is irony in the fact that the quality of artistic fundamentals is itself often graded according to novelty and artful repackaging. But here comes the bottom line about video games.
It Doesn’t Pay to Be Revolutionary in Games
In most artistic mediums, not only can a revolutionary product smash the door down with its innovation, but it can also continue to be mentioned casually in “best of all time” lists. If you are tired of hearing about Citizen Kane as an example, then I can just as easily point you to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (or any number of other places). But in the video game medium, it is absolutely assumed that any technically innovative video game will soon be improved upon in a sequel or by a competitor. Doom surpassed Wolfenstein 3D. Final Fantasy improved upon Dragon Quest. Rock Band dwarfed Guitar Hero. One could argue Mega Man 9 finally triumphed over the likes of Mega Man 2, 3, and 4, albeit incrementally. Even something like Portal, if we are speaking at least in terms of technical accomplishments, is completely eclipsed by the variety present in Portal 2.
And that is why it is so hard to make an objective “greatest games of all time” list, because the variety in video games within genres is always deliberately increasing. Novelty and the value of artful repackaging both have extremely short life spans, leaving us to cling desperately to mastery of artistic fundamentals in order to decide the best games. But since mastery of artistic fundamentals is a subjective measure, what often happens is that we just end up picking our favorite games as the best games of all time. And even more problematically, the games we deem our favorites are often skewed by nostalgia that stems from novelty and artful repackaging! It is a vicious, hapless cycle, but since we can already be assured that every game on the market right now will eventually be surpassed on every objective level, there is nothing we can do about it.
There is no Sgt. Pepper or Citizen Kane in video games, only an endless supply of Mega Man 2. And well, frankly, it is not the most horrible problem to have.