I'm looking for help compiling a top 20 "must play" list of essential videogames.
January 8, 2008 10:10 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for help compiling a top 20 "must play" list of essential videogames.

I have a friend (female, if it matters) who wants to actively get into gaming (has no previous experience with the medium short of the original Sonic/Mario games and Guitar Hero) and has asked me to pick out some games that would "catch them up", so to speak. The idea around the games on the list is that they will be representative of their particular genre and will be indispensable experiences for any self-respecting gaming nerd. I'm asking for help on this because my list, I think, has a bit too much bias (lots of Blizzard, Nintendo, and indie games) for such a concise list.

The games on the list can include anything from early consoles, to PCs, to portable, to even flash and everything in between (Although I would like to avoid pinball/arcade cabinets, unless you feel they are extremely necessary). Please list the platform along with the software. Offer as many suggestions as you like, but please consider them carefully.
posted by monkeyagent to Technology (66 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Half Life 2
posted by fire&wings at 10:13 AM on January 8, 2008

Gridrunner by Jeff Minter - Commodore VIC 20

There is a C64 version, but the VIC one is better.
posted by rfs at 10:14 AM on January 8, 2008

X-Com: UFO Defense (there's a free released version that runs in XP if you turn off graphics acceleration [in XP] and run something like MoSlo or Turbo)

Planescape: Torment

Grim Fandango (or any of the LucasArts adventure games; Grim will run on modern systems)
posted by porpoise at 10:19 AM on January 8, 2008

It's not going to quite have the same impact as it did for those of us who played them "back in the day," since she's in an entirely different zeitgeist than we were at the time. That said, here are a few:
  • Castle Wolfenstein for the Apple ][
  • Zork for the PC
  • Grand Theft Auto I for the PC
  • Any of the Ultima games
  • Goldeneye for the N64

posted by Doofus Magoo at 10:20 AM on January 8, 2008

Katamari Damacy - Innovative gameplay and graphic style set it apart immediately.
posted by beaucoupkevin at 10:22 AM on January 8, 2008

One of the Total War series.

posted by fearfulsymmetry at 10:25 AM on January 8, 2008

Baldur's Gate. PC.
posted by MaHaGoN at 10:25 AM on January 8, 2008

Well, heck, everyone's got a bias. Mine is towards older Nintendo/Super Nintendo games. That said, my suggestions:

Final Fantasy VI (previously released in the US as III) is a must-play and my pick of the FF series. Originally released on SNES, but there have been rereleases on PSX and GBA, I think.

Legend of Zelda, NES.

Super Metroid, SNES, because the metroid baby makes me cry.

Portal, because the Weighted Companion Cube makes me cry.

Katamari Damacy/We Love Katamari, PS2, because they're awesome.

Street Fighter II, any version. It hasn't really aged well, but everyone in the entire universe above the age of 18 has played it so it's a good experience.
posted by Metroid Baby at 10:27 AM on January 8, 2008

Classics (can be played through emulation and are very necessary):

Super Mario Brothers (2 perhaps)
King's Quest (whichever version you like)
Star Wars (wireframe game)
Dragon's Lair
Mortal Kombat
Space Invaders
Ms. PacMan
Pole Position (or perhaps Spy Hunter)
Mike Tyson's Punch Out
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:30 AM on January 8, 2008

try to get a sampling of each "era" of gaming. I'd start with PacMan or MsPacman and build from there.

1. PacMan or MsPacman (use MAME, not some crappy version like the atari)
2. Atari "adventure"
3. Nintendo: Super Mario Brothers and Legend of Zelda
4. Super Nintendo: One of the Final Fantasy games. (III was quite good) and Street Fighter II
5. Early PC: Doom, Secret of Monkey Island, Myst
6. PS/Dreamcast era: Tony Hawk Pro Skater,
7. Xbox/PS2 era: Halo, Guitar Hero
8. Middle PC period: Half Life, Medal of Honor, Grim Fandango
9. Late PC: Portal, Far Cry, Supreme Commander
10. Wii/Ps3/XBox360: Halo3, Wii Sports, Need for Speed Most Wanted

This list is subject to my own biases. I'm a big PC gamer, and didn't use consoles much after the first nintendo.
posted by cosmicbandito at 10:31 AM on January 8, 2008

Fallout 2 and baldur's gate 2 for the PC - probably the best games of the PC RPG genre (and best games, period) although maybe too time consuming and methodically paced compared to mario and guitar hero?

Also, I highly recommend the original Privateer for the PC. Probably still the best free roaming space action/trading game, and nothing has really come out to match it since.
posted by I like to eat meat at 10:31 AM on January 8, 2008

The original Super Mario Bros. for NES.

Oregon Trail for Apple IIE.
posted by mynameisluka at 10:31 AM on January 8, 2008

Thanks for the reminder, MaHaGoN -- can't forget Wizardry (Apple ][) and Bard's Tale (lots).
posted by Doofus Magoo at 10:32 AM on January 8, 2008


A RTS: Perhaps Dune 2000 or Command and Conquer
A online military game: Battlefield 2
An MMO (if she has time, and who does?)
Classic RPG: Zelda or something by squaresoft
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:32 AM on January 8, 2008

I don't think there's anything wrong with having lots of Blizzard, Nintendo and Indie games on your list. Those are the companies that make the kind of quality games that rope casual players in and turn them into hardcore gamers.

I want to suggest all of these games that really made an impression on me, but I don't know if they would work now, since they all have pretty pathetic graphics. I'd suggest things like:

For the N64, if you have one, or a good emulator:
- Ocarina of Time
- Diddy Kong Racing
- Super Mario 64

For the PS2:
- Seconding Katamari Damacy
- Beyond Good & Evil
- Monster Rancher (4 is pretty good)
- Burnout: Revenge
- God of War

For the PC:
- Diablo II
- WoW or EQ2, WoW is obvi your better bet, obvi.

Classics on several platforms (doesn't really matter what platform you go with):

- Soul Calibur
- Tekken (2 is my personal favorite)
- SSX: Tricky

As far as Next Gen goes, I'd suggest the following:

- Oblivion (360)
- Twilight Princess (Wii -- probably a better bet than the N64 Ocarina of time)
- Dead Rising (360)
posted by pazazygeek at 10:33 AM on January 8, 2008

Fallout (Mac/PC), Civilization 3 (Mac/PC), Wing Commander (PC), Final Fantasy 7 (PS/PC), Prince of Persia (recent version) (Xbox/Gamecube/PS), Metal Slug (NeoGeo), The Dig (Mac/PC), Space Quest (Mac/PC), Starcraft (Mac/PC).
posted by Brocktoon at 10:35 AM on January 8, 2008

Ms. Pacman, Zork, Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow
posted by sneakin at 10:37 AM on January 8, 2008

In the RTS world, Starcraft and Homeworld have always stood out to me. Homeworld was the first RTS to really nail combat in 3D, and it was stunning in terms of scale and appearance.

My main recommendation, though, is Simcity 2000. I'm amazed I got to it first. That game consumed untold hours of my childhood.
posted by invitapriore at 10:37 AM on January 8, 2008

My list:

super maro kart, SNES (action-racing)
super metroid, SNES (action)
half-life 2, PC (first person shooter, fps)
Starcraft, PC (real-time strategy rts)
Baldur's Gate 2, PC (role playing)
Grand Theft Auto 3 (any platform) (action)
Final Fantasy VII, PS2 (role playing)
Castlevania: Symphony of the night, PS2 (action)
Shadow of the Collosus, PS2 (action)
posted by escher at 10:39 AM on January 8, 2008

Tetris (the DS version is quite good)
posted by Gary at 10:40 AM on January 8, 2008

This is a very daunting task, as everyone's going to write down games that were important to them personally. One may as well ask what are the top 20 television shows that should be watched, or top 20 books that should be read. Still, if her intent is to get a basic grasp on some of the more recognizable cultural touchstones of gaming from major genres, here's what I'd recommend. I'm almost certainly leaving some important ones out.

Puzzle - Tetris, Bejeweled
Role Playing (PC) - Ultima Series
Role-Playing (Console, JRPG)- Final Fantasy 6 or 7
FPS (Classic Action) - Doom 2
FPS (Multiplayer) - Counterstrike
FPS (Modern) - Half Life 2
FPS (Console) - Halo
3PS (Classic) - Contra
3PS (Modern) - Gears of War
Vs. Fighter (Arcade) - Street Fighter 2
Vs. Fighter (Modern) - Tekken Series, Soul Calibur 2
RTS - Warcraft 2, Starcraft
Racing (Sim) - Ridge Racer, Gran Turismo
Racing (Arcade) - Burnout Series, Flatout
Shoot 'em Up (Classic) - Gradius Series, 1942
Shoot 'em Up (Modern, Bullet Curtain) - Giga Wing, Strikers Series
Platforming (Classic)- Super Mario Series
Platforming (Modern) - Jak and Daxter
Party - Wario Ware, Martio Party Series
Adventure (Classic) - Any of Sierra of Lucasarts "Quest" games
Adventure (Modern) - Phoenix Wright Series, Beyond Good & Evil
Rhythm - Parappa the Rapper
posted by Durhey at 10:41 AM on January 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Pitfall (or other Atari 2600 example, but I chose this as a game which was, AFAIK, original to the Atari 2600, as opposed to an arcade game ported to the 2600)
Myst (esp. as an early example of a "point-and-click" game which is a common genre in Flash games now)
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:42 AM on January 8, 2008

I'm going to have to say that "videogames" is way, way too broad a category. You need to narrow it down to have any kind of meaningful list.

I mean, how far back are you intending to go? Pong? It obviously belongs on any such list but at that point you're forced to include Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, etc. So you end up having to eliminate "arcade" games or your list becomes unwieldy. Zork? Suspended? Planetfall? Wizardy? Bard's Tale? Ultima III? Ultima IV? Ultima VII? Wasteland?

You get the idea.

I just don't think it is possible to come up with a meaningful list of "top 20 must play videogames".
posted by Justinian at 10:49 AM on January 8, 2008

So, if I understand right, the goal is not so much to give an impression of gaming's history and development, but rather to give an overview of some of the high-water marks among the more popular genres?
posted by box at 10:52 AM on January 8, 2008

Response by poster: I do realize that in many ways, this will seem an impossible task to many. What I plan to do is compile a list based on *everyone's* input. So while most of these games won't make it, the ones which most people have a bias toward will. I think this is the most resonable approach as it will more likely allow my friend to communicate within the gaming community and have the core games to compare to before she moves on to exploring the more particular games of wherever her tastes take her.

That having been said, thank you all - I will continue to tally these up for some as yet undetermined time and let you know what the final list turns out to be.
posted by monkeyagent at 10:53 AM on January 8, 2008

Descent 2 and a decent joystick.
posted by Max Power at 10:56 AM on January 8, 2008

How old is your friend? I would really recommend non-FPS games to start off with as the market is oversaturated with them...stuff like:

Newer PC games:
-The Longest Journey
-The Myst Series
-Neverwinter Nights 2 (or anything made by bioware)
-Elder Scrolls
-Indigo Prophecy (a tad more in the resident evil direction, so prescreen this one a bit)
-Peggle (kinda like plinko and pool rolled into one...highly addictive!)
-The Grand Theft Auto Series (if only to experience a freeform action game)
- Maybe a few MMOs like WoW, LOTRO, Eve-O

Older PC games (if they'll run):
- Any of the old Sierra adventure games...these were fantastic
- The Ultima series
- The Police Quest series
- Gabriel Knight I
- Scorched Earth
- Sim City
- Lemmings
- Commander Keen
- Crusader
- Privateer
- Raiden
- Falcon 4.0 ( 3.0, Janes, or MS flightsims)
- Battlechess
- Warcraft (or other RTS games like Command and Conquer, Age of Empires, etc)

Console games
-Shenmue II (Shenmue I is only for dreamcast unfortunately)
-Zelda (all of em, especially twilight princess for the wii)
-Resident Evil(s)
-Final Fantasy 7
-Final Fantasy Tactics
-Various Mario games
-Intelligence Cubed
-Ninja Gaiden 2

Ancient console games
-Defender, Centipede, Space Invaders, Crystal Maze, Combat, Tempest, Pole Position, etc etc...

Lastly, the FPS' (I'll try to stick with the trendsetters)
- Wolfenstein 3D
- Doom/2
- Hexen
- Quake 2
- Unreal Tournament
- Decent/2
- Terminal Velocity
- Halo/2/3
- list goes on and on... :)
posted by samsara at 10:56 AM on January 8, 2008

One of the greatest, purest video games ever made is ICO, a Playstation2 game something like six or seven years old. Its more-or-less sequel, SHADOW OF THE COLOSSUS, is too (for lack of a better word) avant-garde to belong on the list, though it's nearly its predecessor's equal. ICO treats the gamer's intuition and video-game knowledge seriously - it's a good platformer, even for experienced players - but it's as fun and lovely to explore as to play, one of the most fully-thought-out atmospheres in any game on any system. Watching someone play is like watching a great silent film with a gargantuan budget (there's no English-language dialogue, as I recall).

Navigating full 3-d spaces remains a tough problem; ICO is not perfect. It's close. (And leave aside its technical and art-direction accomplishments, it's one of the most emotionally engaging games yet made: the video game equivalent of the comic book BONE by Jeff Smith.)

posted by waxbanks at 10:57 AM on January 8, 2008 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: So to reiterate: I'm looking for games that will allow her to "catch up" with the gaming community (as best can reasonably be expected from 20 games, anyway) so that she can get an idea of what she enjoys and work off that on her own.

So while a diverse set of genres might be helpful, I'm *NOT* so much looking for a historical/academic representation of gaming.
posted by monkeyagent at 10:58 AM on January 8, 2008

Response by poster: My friend is about 24 years old.
posted by monkeyagent at 10:59 AM on January 8, 2008

My 20: Ultima IV (RPG, PC-DOS); Dungeon Master (RPG, PC-DOS); Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (Platformer, PSX); Katamari Damacy (Action/experimental, PS2); Half-Life (FPS, PC-Win); The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind (RPG, PC-Win); Gish (Platformer, PC-Win); Baldur's Gate (RPG, PC-Win); Dungeon Keeper (RTS, PC-Win); Portal (FPS/experimental, PC-Win); Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast (FPS, PC-Win); Psychonauts (Action/Platformer, PC-Win); Star Wars: Tie Fighter (SpaceSim, PC-DOS/Win); Fate: The Game (RPG/Diablo-clone, PC-Win); System Shock 2 (FPS, PC-Win); Thief: The Dark Project (FPSn, PC-Win); Thief: The Metal Age (FPSn, PC-Win); Tekken 2 (Fighter, PSX); Out of This World (Action, PC-DOS); Diablo (RPG, PC-Win); Rogue Squadron (FlightSim; N64).

Some of the above have multiple platforms, I'm just mentioning the ones I played them on. The list is a little RPG and action-heavy, but that's what I like (lack of skill notwithstanding). If I had to limit it to five it would be Dungeon Master; Castlevania: Symphony of the Night; Thief: The Dark Project; Baldur's Gate; Portal.
posted by cog_nate at 10:59 AM on January 8, 2008


HALO is to my the best pure shooter ever made, and its control scheme justly praised; if you have access to an X-Box it's heartily recommended. HALO 2 is as good and has an involving story, but represents no great leap forward. The first is worth playing for its awesome momentum but the second is an ideal sequel. I haven't played HALO 3 because I'm no longer a damn grad student. :)

For PC shooters: yes, DESCENT and its sequel (and the newly rejuvenated FREESPACE, which is riveting if you've got the hardware) demand and reward joysticks; playing DESCENT nearly destroyed my mind a decade ago.
posted by waxbanks at 11:04 AM on January 8, 2008

Inspired by Durhey and Justinian, I've got an idea--I'm thinking five broad meta-genres, with four examples in each. I think it'll give a fuller picture. These are just off the top of my head, but maybe, if this kind of lineup makes sense to people, it'll be a talking point.

Driving: Pole Position (arcade/multiplatform), Super Mario Kart (SNES), Gran Turismo series (PSX/PS2/PS3), Burnout Paradise (360/multiplatform)
Maze: Ms. Pac-Man (multiplatform), Adventure (arcade/2600/etc.), Doom (PC/multiplatform), Halo 2 (Xbox)
Sports: Basketball (2600), Super Tecmo Bowl (NES/multiplatform), Table Tennis (360)
Fighting: Karate Champ (arcade), Super Street Fighter II Turbo (multiplatform), Fight Night Round Three (multiplatform), Virtua Fighter 5 (360/PS3/arcade)
Other: Tetris, The Sims, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Wii Sports (all but the last multiplatform)

With twenty slots, plenty of things must be left out (RPGs, shmups, dance-pads, light-guns, text adventures... jeez, it's been a hell of a ride, huh?). But it's a place to start.
posted by box at 11:07 AM on January 8, 2008

RBI Baseball
Tecmo Bowl
posted by tiburon at 11:10 AM on January 8, 2008

Similar to introducing someone to a more diverse filmography, it's hard to pick truly definitive titles as that's a lot of accounting that needs to be done for taste and preferences. If someone doesn't like war epics, even something as quintessential as Saving Private Ryan or Apocalypse Now isn't going to seem that impressive.

I'd suggesting picking one or two truly hallmark titles from each genre and then providing further suggestions toward the genres your friend really finds engaging. A lot of the suggestion so far are quite good, except Team Fortress 2 is notably absent. It's way more accessible (and fun, IMHO) than Counter-strike or CS: Source. Beyond that, it's really noteworthy in terms of all the design decisions made, both from a gameplay standpoint and an art direction standpoint.

Two other must-play games I'd suggest are seconding The Longest Journey and adding Bioshock. Bioshock is an FPS, but it's much deeper than that. In terms of presenting an engaging, unique setting that's not cliché, it's second to none. It's also a game that never stops engaging the player. There are no cutscenes or ephemeral voice-overs; the player is centre-stage the entire time. To accomplish this so well makes Bioshock a must-play.
posted by Nelsormensch at 11:12 AM on January 8, 2008

I'm not enthusiastic about the last few years in gaming, and it shows here. In loose genre groupings:

Baldur's Gate II - PC (The greatest CRPG of all time.)
Fallout - PC
Hero's Quest - PC
Final Fantasy - NES
Paper Mario - N64

Sim City - PC
Warcraft II - PC
Starcraft - PC

Legend of Zelda - NES
Super Metroid - SNES
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night - PSX

Samurai Shodown 4 - Neo Geo
Street Fighter II - Arcade or SNES

Quake - PC

Super Mario Bros. 2 - NES
Super Mario Galaxy - Wii
Super Paper Mario - Wii

Wario Ware - Wii
Wii Sports - Wii

That should give her a pretty good overview. Heh, that is a lot of Mario. In different kinds of games, though!
posted by ignignokt at 11:13 AM on January 8, 2008

There is only one RPG that is a must play, Chrono Trigger.
posted by munchingzombie at 11:14 AM on January 8, 2008

I'd include Ico and/or Shadow of the Colossus on the PS2, both of them are very post-modern takes on the platforming genre, and both often figure into "games as art" type debates.
posted by Oktober at 11:16 AM on January 8, 2008

So to reiterate: I'm looking for games that will allow her to "catch up" with the gaming community (as best can reasonably be expected from 20 games, anyway) so that she can get an idea of what she enjoys and work off that on her own.

Well then I think you should stick to what is current, and maybe select a game from each genre and see what she likes. I play a lot of PC FPS games, and the popularity tends to ebb and flow. For a year or two one game will really dominate, and then another takes over. I think gamespot has weekly rankings based on number of active players ( it's blocked for me where I am posting from).

Get her playing Total Fortress 2 and play the MeFi server! Info here.
posted by Big_B at 11:36 AM on January 8, 2008

Wow, so many to choose from, it’s hard to know where to start.

Here are some suggestions of games that are easy to find and not too time consuming:
Tetris (puzzle)
Grand Theft Auto 3 (action)
Civilization II (turn based strategy)
SimCity 3000 (strategy simulation)
Super Mario Bros. (action, platform)
Final Fantasy I or III (rpg)
Masters of Orion 2 (turn based strategy)
Warcraft II or Starcraft (real time strategy)
Diablo 2 (action, rpg)
Grim Fandago (puzzle, mystery)
posted by Vindaloo at 11:37 AM on January 8, 2008

I'll pick my five favorite games ever:
  1. Monkey Island Series
  2. Suikoden I and II
  3. Half Life 2
  4. Shadow of the Colossus
  5. The Longest Journey
Said box:
With twenty slots, plenty of things must be left out (RPGs, shmups, dance-pads, light-guns, text adventures... jeez, it's been a hell of a ride, huh?). But it's a place to start.
You decide to leave out RPGs and shooters, but include maze? Blasphemy!
posted by theiconoclast31 at 11:41 AM on January 8, 2008

For a good history lesson to help your friend catch up check out The Rise of the Video Game, which is a short discovery channel mini series.

It is available on your favorite tv torrent site.
posted by utsutsu at 11:55 AM on January 8, 2008

I think I agree with teiconoclast131. RPGs built computer gaming, I don't think you can leave 'em out. For a while, RPGs pretty much were gaming. That was a long... long... long time ago though.
posted by Justinian at 11:55 AM on January 8, 2008

Civilization II

Half-Life, the original! This is a must-play

Commander Keen (4 is a good one)


Either Wolf3d or Doom

Oregon Trail

Hugo's House of Horrors

Legend of Zelda (NES)


Team Fortress 2

Half-Life 2

Any or all of the old apogee/id-software shareware games
posted by lohmannn at 12:10 PM on January 8, 2008

Is your friend playing these games by herself or with a gaming group? Solo, I would stick to RPG, action, puzzle games, but that will give a skewed view as multiplayer gaming (MMORPGs, multiplayer FPSs) is also extremely popular. I would also agree that older games, while historically important, are not going to help with painting a picture of modern gaming.


RPG: FFXII or FFX, for graphics & gameplay style, mainly. But if she likes these... you have to show her Chrono Trigger and FFVII.

Action: No one (I know) who's played Katamari Damacy was able to not like it. I personally prefer the sequel, We <3 Katamari, as its controls are better and it's considerably more challenging.

Puzzle: Puzzle Quest. It's crack, for the DS.

Rhythm: Any incarnation of Dance Dance Revolution. Also, consider Guitar Hero. (More fun if multiplayer, though)

....and pick any Wii game just so you can wave the controller around. :D


I have never loved any game more than Diablo 2. And I never will.

Warcraft III. In particular: Defense of the Ancients

MMORPG: World of Warcraft. I personally didn't like it that much, but millions of people around the world can't be wrong.
posted by reebear at 12:35 PM on January 8, 2008

Agreed that you can't just build a "great books of western civilization" program for videogames. As has been noted, most of the entries would be challenging to either find or run today. Another thing to consider is what platform your friend has or wants. Perhaps I've missed it. Have you specified that somewhere?

I'll assume she's got a PC. If she also wants to dip her toe in console gaming, my advice would be to get a PlayStation II. Not because I'm an obsessed Sony fanboy or anything but:

It's available very cheaply these days. Like $120 or the cost of 2 games. And it's STILL outselling the PS3 (it edged out the PS3 by about 100K units in North America during the latest holiday shopping season). But the main reason is that it has a massive back library of games including a lot of the ones that really created the gaming scene over the last several years. It will cover the sweet spot in terms of being able to play the greatest number of games without having to collect a bunch of different bits of hardware and fragment her growing game library.

It's also more or less backward compatible with PS1 games if she really does want to track down Final Fantasy VII or the Resident Evil series (Which BTW, are precisely the kind of defining games you're talking about). Actually I can't speak to the newer cheaper models. Early units had almost perfect backward compatibility may have been quietly dropped in the newer cheaper slimlines. Check to be sure, but even if it has, the advice still stands.

A few PS2 games for the list:

Beyond Good & Evil (yep, me too - a criminally ignored masterpiece and, at the risk of rousing anti-stereotype ire, perhaps a good introductory choice for a female not-yet-hardcore gamer)

Final Fantasy X - any of the FF games really, but this may be my favorite. While I admit it's almost fascist in its linearity (You vill go HERE, und fight ZIS.) The tradeoff for that is the ability to tell a very deep and engaging story. For my money this one is the most emotionally moving of the series, perhaps of any videogame I've played. (Counter with Elder Scrolls Oblivion on the PC if you want to go anywhere and do anything.)

Prince of Persia: Sands of Time - action adventure with a bit of a puzzle element as you try to figure out how to use your cool acrobatic abilities to get across complicated environments.

A Grand Theft Auto - just because you have to pretty much.

The Onimusha series - kind of like Resident Evil with Samurai.

Ah, I could go on all day. Have fun.
posted by Naberius at 1:40 PM on January 8, 2008

So while a diverse set of genres might be helpful, I'm *NOT* so much looking for a historical/academic representation of gaming.

Portal (PC) (if she likes that, then try Half Life 2)
Mario Galaxy (Wii) or Ratchet & Clank (PS3) depending on console availability
World of Warcraft (PC)
Tetris DS
Mario Kart (DS)
Puzzle Quest (DS)
Final Fantasy X (PS2 - Japanese RPG)
Knights of the Old Republic (XBox - American RPG)
Diablo 2 (PC - it's old, but I think it still stands as best of genre)
Katamari Damacy (PS2)
posted by Gary at 1:53 PM on January 8, 2008

I think if your friend wants to 'catch-up' on her game playing history, she probably wants to play games that a person her age would have played had she been playing games all her life. However, she may just want to play games that she likes. Maybe she figures out she hates certain genres. I think the best idea would be to just pick a couple genre games and after she plays them, ask her what she likes about them or doesn't like. Then you can figure out what games she would like to play next. The other problem is that different games in the same genre can be pretty different in terms of gameplay. For example, I like the Age of Empires series, but I'm not a big fan of Starcraft, even though many people would pick Starcraft as one of the prime examples of the RTS genre. Final Fantasy 7 is probably most people's pick for the most representative Japanese RPG, although I liked Final Fantasy 6 better.
posted by demiurge at 1:58 PM on January 8, 2008

I've been primarily an Xbox gamer, but Gary's suggestion of a PS2 is great, given the enormous library of games to explore and the comparative cost of entry into something that (let's be honest) she may not actually enjoy that much. If she really gets into it and starts to learn what she likes, she can graduate to a PS3 or a 360, or get herself a hopped-up super-PC.
posted by Pantengliopoli at 2:04 PM on January 8, 2008

Here are some of top games I hear talked about all the time that I've never played:

Smash Brothers Melee.
Half Life 2
Shadow of the Colossus
Grand Theft Auto series
Halo 2
Resident Evil 4 (I own it, but sucked too much)
Final Fantasy (probably one for the ps2)

Top old skool games I have played:
Oregon Trail
ET for the Atari (you gotta play it for historical value if only briefly)
Super Metroid
Link to the Past
Super Mario World

Top games this year you can't avoid:
Call of Duty 4

Top recent flash games:
Tower Defense (Desktop gets all the praise, but I'm fond of Flash Element)
Line Rider
Dice Wars

Also would recommend Zack and Wiki. Great point and click adventure, and while new, is a throw back to the old p&c games.
posted by yeti at 2:28 PM on January 8, 2008

Probably skewed towards RPG/Adventure stuff (those tended to provide the deep experiences I really connected with), but here's my picks:

Bionic Commando, Bioshock, Chrono Trigger, Civilization, Contra, Earthbound, Gabriel Knight, Geometry Wars, Ico, Katamari Damacy, Lemmings, Monkey Island 2, Oblivion, Silent Hill 2, Super Mario 3, Super Metroid, Tetris, Ultima VI, Zelda: Twilight Princess, Zork
posted by naju at 2:37 PM on January 8, 2008

Age of Empires...You can get it for like 10$.
posted by Sgt.Grumbless at 3:43 PM on January 8, 2008

King's Quest VI was the first computer game I ever played and probably my favorite. Those early Sierra adventure games kicked ass. (Laura Bow, Quest for Glory, Police Quest, etc.) I also used to play Civ II and Oregon Trail on PC, and Super Mario 64 on Nintendo.

My little sisters are more into video games than I am and are obsessed with Halo, Guitar Hero, and The Sims.
posted by brittanyq at 4:01 PM on January 8, 2008

Deus Ex, by a long shot. End of story. Plus, it's available on steam for like $10.
posted by fvox13 at 5:01 PM on January 8, 2008

I teach an Intro to Game Design class. The textbook mentions these games as classic examples of their genres:

The Sims
Grand Theft Auto

The students in my class would probably add World of Warcraft, Halo, Diablo and Gears of War to the list, but they are all young guys (and one young gal).

I would add: anything on the Wii and Guitar Hero.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:12 PM on January 8, 2008

Here's my biased list, I can't believe I left out Zelda and Metroid games, WTF!

Starcraft (PC) [RTS]
Civ 4 (PC) [Strategy]
Simcity 2000 (PC) [Simulation] (Simcity 4 will do as well)
Tetris (DS, many others) [Puzzle] (Am I the only one who hates the music on the DS version?)
Team Fortress 2 (PC, PS3, XBOX360) [FPS: Multiplayer]
Bioshock (PC, XBOX360) [FPS: Singleplayer]
Final Fantasy III US (SNES) [jRPG]
Super Mario World (SNES) [Platform]
Super Mario Galaxy (Wii) [Platform]
Metal Gear Solid (PS) [Action: Stealth] (MGS:3 got rave reviews, but I haven't played it)
Resident Evil 4 (GC, PS2) [Action: Horror]
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (PS or Xbox Live Arcade) [Adventure]
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (PS2, PC, Xbox) [Adventure]
Some Sierra-like game, can't decide [Graphical Adventure]
Guilty Gear XX Accent Core (PS2) [Fighting - VS.] (Single player is no good here, you need a buddy.)
Ikaruga (GC, DC) [Shooter]
Rez (DC) [Music Hybrid]
Any DDR w/ decent pads (Many) [Music]
Mario Kart DS (DS) [Arcade Driving]
Onslaught Tower Defense (Flash on Interwebs) [Casual]
posted by reishus at 5:47 PM on January 8, 2008

Ahh, yeah. Deus Ex for sure.
posted by lohmannn at 6:02 PM on January 8, 2008

This is a great question. Here are mine below - I think most of these still play well today. I still crack them out every now and then, actually.

I've definitely got to recommend Grim Fandango - it's the only serious PC game my girlfriend has ever enjoyed, and it's one of my all-time favorites. In a similar vein, the King's Quest games (especially 6) and the Monkey Island games rock.

Myst is essential, but I can't explain why. It was a really formative experience, though.

All RTSs fall in the shadow of Starcraft. Sid Meier's Civilization series owns the turn-based world - any of them from 2 on should work nicely.

She's got to try one of the Grand Theft Auto games, but one will be enough. Vice City or San Andreas, probably.

For consoles, you want to maximize retro-compatibility. The PS2 is great for that, but the Nintendo Wii gets you games from the OG Nintendo, SNES, N64, the Genesis, Turbografx-16 (Bomberman!), and the freaking Neo Geo (each old-school game is a $5 download). After looking at this list on Wikipedia, I'm about ready to go out and buy one of the damn things myself. That's all your Zelda, Mario, and Sonic on one machine. The Halo series is almost reason enough to buy an Xbox, but I'd have her test some other FPS games first.

Speaking of shooters, the big ones right now are Half-Life 2 and BioShock. But you may want to introduce her to their predecessors, the original Half-Life and System Shock 2.

There is no such thing as a classic Flash game.

I'm 24 myself, and if I met a girl who had played Grim Fandango and System Shock 2, I would think she was hot shit. Sexist but true.
posted by McBearclaw at 9:58 PM on January 8, 2008

For old-school arcade games she could use MAME to play Pac-Man, Defender, Centipede, and Tempest.

On the NES, Super Mario Brothers and Mike Tyson's Punchout.

On the PC, Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast, Half Life 2, Doom II, Starflight, King's Quest IV, MDK, Command & Conquer.

On the N64, Goldeneye, Zelda Ocarina, Perfect Dark.

On the Dreamcast, Soul Calibur and Tennis 2K2.

On the PS2, Tony Hawk 3, Grand Theft Auto 3.

On the Wii, Metroid and Super Mario Galaxy.

On the 360, Halo 3, Bioshock, Guitar Hero II.
posted by aerotive at 6:34 AM on January 9, 2008

the platform available really is key here -- n64 games or dreamcast games don't help you if you don't have a way to play them -- what platforms are you interested in playing games on? Guitar hero is on all the modern platforms, and the PS2.

Also, if you're friend has only played guitar hero recently, thats a total genre of it's own, seperate from most other games by it's controller alone. Introducing someone to gaming after guitar hero by giving them nethack, or counterstrike is a terrible, terrible idea. It'd be a big turnoff to gaming.

If you instead want examples of games to help introduce her to other areas that are new person friendly, and assuming a PS2 is available, then Katamari Damacy is an odd, but friendly sort of game. Ratchet and Clank introduces you to the game gradually so you can figure out what your doing with less pressure, and has a forgiving respawn rule.
posted by garlic at 9:36 AM on January 9, 2008

Response by poster: It's not perfect, and I'm certainly not trying to suggest anything about which games are “the best”, but for my purposes, this is what I've come up with:

The number in parenthesis indicates the number of "votes" the game received up until today. If there is no number, then the game received only one mention. There was a certain amount of interpretation involved with this process, so I typically erred on the side of caution when a mention was ambiguous (ex. would count "Mario" or "Sierra adventure game" as 1 for each in the series). Also, I excluded a few games from the list because we've already covered some of them. These include: Guitar Hero, Mario Party, Wii sports, Bejeweled, DDR, and Mortal Kombat.

Okay, so here is the raw top 20 votes list:

(10) Half-Life 2 - PC/PS3/XBOX360
(10) Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas - PS2, XBOX, PC
(09) Tetris/Tetris DS - Pretty much every platform
(09) Starcraft – PC, N64
(09) Katamari Damacy/We Love Katamari Damacy – PS2
(08) King's Quest series - PC & ports
(08) Civilization series Mac/PC
(07) Super Mario Bros. series - NES and others
(07) Final Fantasy VI (released in the US on SNES as III) - SNES/PSX/GBA
(07) Doom 1&2 - PC & ports to everything that runs on electricity
(06) Super Metroid - SNES
(06) Portal - PC/PS3/XBOX360
(06) The Legend of Zelda - NES
(06) Halo - Xbox/PC
(06) Final Fantasy 7 - PSX/PC
(06) Diablo 2 - PC
(06) Bioshock - PC/XBOX360
(05) Street Fighter II - Pretty much every platform
(05) Shadow of the Colossus – PS2
(05) Elder Scrolls: Oblivion - PC/PS3/XBOX360
(05) Baldur's Gate 1&2 – Mac/PC

You'll notice I combined the votes of game sequels within the same series. I did this because I felt many games were iconic as a series as much as individual titles. The only time I didn't do this was when I felt the mechanics or concept of a particular game within a series diverged drastically from their original incarnations (ex. Mario, Zelda, Metroid, Final Fantasy)

I also created another category for the games which could be picked up and enjoyed within a relatively short period of time as well as games that didn't have a traditional "end". Because the nature of this category is that anyone can "experience" the particular game in question fairly quickly, I moved a few games from the main list to this one (Tetris, Portal, Doom 1&2, Street Fighter). My reasoning for this is that these are relevant games that people can conceivably blow through in a couple of days and then go back and play more extensively, the ones that resonated with them most:

With four more spaces open, I would've simply moved up the next 4 games on the overall list, but more than 4 games had the same rating:

(04) Zork (PC)
(04) World of Warcraft
(04) Warcraft II – PC
(04) Super Mario Galaxy – Wii
(04) Monkey Island Series
(04) Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess – Wii
(04) Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
(04) Half-Life
(04) Grim Fandango
(04) Final Fantasy – NES
(04) Chrono Trigger
(04) Castlevania: Symphony of the Night – PSX

So I chose the four games from these which I felt would best maintain diversity on the list:
The Zork series (an unrepresented genre on the list, as opposed to Chrono Trigger and Castlevania)
Super Mario Galaxy (This maintains a lot of the spirit of Mario 64 and is a good example of where the series has gone since 8-bit)
Legend of Zelda: Orcarina of Time or Twilight Princess (An either/or situation. Playing both initially is unnecessary for new gamers)
Grim Fandango (her little brother plays Monkey Island, so she'll get exposed to it eventually. Until then, I figure Fandango is a bit smaller and more manageable of a LucasArts bite)

So that leaves my final list at:

(10) Half-Life 2 - PC/PS3/XBOX360
(10) Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas - PS2, XBOX, PC
(09) Starcraft – PC, N64
(09) Katamari Damacy/We Love Katamari Damacy – PS2
(08) King's Quest series - PC & ports
(08) Civilization series Mac/PC
(07) Super Mario Bros. series - NES and others
(07) Final Fantasy VI (released in the US on SNES as III) - SNES/PSX/GBA
(06) Super Metroid - SNES
(06) The Legend of Zelda - NES
(06) Halo - Xbox/PC
(06) Final Fantasy 7 - PSX/PC
(06) Diablo 2 - PC
(06) Bioshock - PC/XBOX360
(05) Shadow of the Colossus – PS2
(05) Elder Scrolls: Oblivion - PC/PS3/XBOX360
(05) Baldur's Gate 1&2 – Mac/PC
(04) Grim Fandango - PC
(04) Super Mario Galaxy – Wii
(04) The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess – Wii OR The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time - N64
(04) Zork - PC

I feel pretty satisfied by the list, and based on your comments, have a pretty good idea what to suggest next if any particular games stand out to my friend. I have all these games (except for Civilization, FF7, and Baldur's Gate) so it's really an ideal start. I'll also mention that I do have every major console (and even a few obscure ones) of the last 30 years (damn, has it been that long already?) available to me, so most of the suggestions were not an issue.

Finally, just for fun, a list of games that didn't make it that were on my original list (yeah, I'm a [non-rabid] Nintendo fanboy):

(02) Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past – SNES (This is still my favorite of the series)
(02) Super Mario Kart DS – DS (I think this is possibly the best of the series and it contains content from all previous Mario Kart games.
Earthbound – SNES (This game shows that RPGs *are* capable of not taking themselves too seriously)
Pokemon – Gameboy (The original game did a lot of new things with RPGs that have now become standard. There's a reason it caught on despite what it has now become)
Super Smash Brothers Melee. - Gamecube (A great way to get familiarized with Nintendo's characters. Also it's an easy-to-learn and fun fighter - perfect for new gamers)

Once again, I'd like to thank you all for you help and advice. If you would still like to make recommendations, please feel free as I will be sharing this thread with my friend (and definately others) for future reference.
posted by monkeyagent at 3:29 PM on January 9, 2008 [3 favorites]

Both of your "top 20" lists have 21 entries?
posted by Gary at 4:15 PM on January 9, 2008

Response by poster: Erp! My bad. Top 21 list then! Who needs round numbers anyway?
posted by monkeyagent at 4:32 PM on January 9, 2008

So to reiterate: I'm looking for games that will allow her to "catch up" with the gaming community (as best can reasonably be expected from 20 games, anyway) so that she can get an idea of what she enjoys and work off that on her own.

Certainly then it's important that the various genres be represented. Any such list that omitted either Starcraft or Warcraft II as representative of the RTS genre would be horribly remiss. IMHO, of course.
posted by Shiva88 at 9:03 PM on January 9, 2008

Probably too late, but... Conker's Bad Fur Day (N64) - just try it and see
posted by Vindaloo at 6:46 AM on January 15, 2008

My list of essential games would be unusual, but I'm prepared to stand quite firmly behind them. This is not a complete list, but it's what comes to mind at the moment:

MULE (Atari 800, C64) is an amazing economic simulation, and one of the best multiplayer games ever made. Should only be played on an Atari 800 or Commodore 64, and then it must be an accurate emulation.

ToeJam & Earl (Genesis) is an excellent game of discovery that's randomly scrambled every play, has a great sense of humor, an amazing two-player co-op mode, and is a good challenge to boot.

Starflight (DOS, Genesis) is best described as a Star Trek simulator. The player explores an amazingly vast galaxy, mining minerals on planets, interacting with alien cultures, and discovering, at the end, what may be the coolest mystery in gaming.

Rampart (arcade and many home ports, SNES best among them) is a brilliant mix of Tetris and Missile Command, but the true core of the design is part of neither game. The most elegant design of any game. Also has a great three-player mode in the arcade version (which is available emulated on several collections).

Bubble Bobble (arcade version is best) is light and breezy, but hugely deep and contains secrets that can keep one occupied for years in finding.

Rogue and Nethack (many computer ports) are still the best roguelikes in my mind. Rogue in particular is overlooked these days.

Wii Sports is cheap as a system pack-in, but we still play it regularly now, a year after we got it. There is a kind of magic there.

The (not Heroes of) Might & Magic RPGs (versions for many 8-bit and 16 bit computers, with ports mostly for two or three consoles) are the foremost revision of the classic Wizardry style of play. These are very chaotic games; plots and quests are thrown in as a jumble, and a cohesive story is difficult to make out of any of them. Still, most of them include enough quests and awesome details to amaze any gamer even today.

Robotron:2084 (arcade) is still the greatest action game ever made. If you can't find it in an arcade or on a compilation, then Geometry Wars is the same general kind of thing. Xbox Live Arcade has downloadable versions of both Robotron and Geometry Wars.

Dwarf Fortress (Windows) is a great up-and-comer that tends to make players boggle when they learn what's possible in it.

Zanac (NES version is best) is the best shmup, it doesn't come down as much to memorization as many games of its ilk. It is an excellent game for mastering basic bullet dodging, and with practice many people can pull off amazing escapes in it. It introduced the Compile powerup system, which is standard in many shmups even today.

Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES) isn't an unusual choice by any means, but that doesn't mean it's not great. Arguably the height of the 2D Mario style.

Mario 64 (N64) is also far from controversial, the best 3D platformer. I think its longevity may come from the fact that the developers could take nothing for granted and couldn't waste space with meaningless areas, so they packed it tight with wonders.

The original Legend of Zelda is a somewhat unexpected choice now, for its difficulty is quite high. But it should be included for being the first game to really make searching for secret passages into a bona fide play mechanic. There are so many of them that a good search is rewarded more often than not.

That's 16 right there....
posted by JHarris at 6:58 PM on February 3, 2008

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