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Is there a “Citizen Kane” of games?

Citizen Kane is not only the classic choice for Greatest Film Ever Made, it’s become shorthand for the greatest of everything. There are other potential picks for this title of course, like The Godfather or Seven Samurai or about a third of Alfred Hitchcock’s body of work, but none of those are so routinely associated with the peak of an artistic medium. But is there an equivalent in video games? Is there a game whose greatness is so admired that it could reach this status? It’s easy to fill out a list of the 100 Greatest Games Ever Made, but is there just one that stands out? One that you immediately think of? Let’s have a look at some possibilities.

Might as well start with Mario, right? However, there isn’t necessarily a unanimous choice for the greatest Mario game. The original, Super  Mario Bros, is a key moment in gaming history…but it didn’t take long for it to become dated. The NES installment that holds up best is actually Super Mario Bros. 3, the highly-innovative platforming masterpiece that’s still really fun to pick up and play today. Not far behind it is Super Mario World, the SNES sequel that added even more variety to the experience and holds up just as well. Yet another contender is Super Mario 64, the first 3-D entry that kicked off the Nintendo 64 era. Like the original, however, this one has become more dated as 3-D platforming evolved.

Then there’s Zelda and when it comes to Zelda, the debate shrinks to two games. A Link to the Past would be my personal pick. It took the best elements from the original and even some from its maligned sequel (i.e. the magic meter) and turned it into a game that I probably play at least once a year just because it’s always so fun! However, the fanbase at large seems to have chosen Ocarina of Time. I’m a big fan of this game as well, although I think it doesn’t match its predecessor in terms of gameplay. What I find even more exceptional is the presentation of its world and story. Ocarina has some of the best-directed video game cutscenes I’ve ever seen and the sense of drama you get from playing it was downright enthralling. There are some other SNES games worthy of consideration, like Super Metroid or Mega Man X, but there is one more in particular that merits a bit of discussion.

Every so often I see a thread on game-making forums that asks the users which games inspired them to try and create their own. People list a wide variety of inspirations, but one game that shows up constantly is Chrono Trigger. This game has resonated strongly with people for 20 years and still enjoys near-universal acclaim. The stars really did align on this one and aside from having some of the best visuals and music of its era, the game’s story is a fascinating balancing act. On the one hand, it’s as accessible as the best Saturday morning cartoons but on the other hand, there is enough symbolism and subtext to support years worth of articles about its Christ imagery or its depiction of class hierarchy or whatever else someone sees in it.

For a few years around the turn of the century, Final Fantasy VII had a pretty formidable reputation and might have eventually grabbed this “Citizen Kane” title. However, overexposure in recent years has made it a less palatable choice. Squaresoft realized at one point just how enduring its popularity was and shoveled out various prequels, spin-offs and the like, culminating with the recently announced remake that’s inevitably going to disappoint the fans (you heard it here first). It’s become tiresome, which is a shame because this game was a serious landmark in the medium’s capacity for storytelling. While sometimes muddled, the storyline was amazingly intricate and loaded with social/political commentary that was totally unheard of at the time. Its closest rival within the series is its predecessor, Final Fantasy VIWhile not as allegorical as its sequel, the story of FFVI was powerful enough to stay with fans for many years.

Another Playstation classic was Metal Gear Solid, which further upped the ante on how involving a video game story could be. David Hayter’s work as Solid Snake may have been the first great video game voice-over work and the twisty, action-packed storyline put many contemporary action movies to shame. MGS also mastered the stealth-based gameplay style after some not-quite-successful attempts on NES and interacted with the player in interesting ways, such as when Pyscho Mantis looked into your memory card. It’s aged well, even if having to look on the back of your game box to find the right radio frequency is hilariously dated now.

Haven’t gone into first-person-shooters yet, but there are many choices. You could cite Doom, Goldeneye 007, or Gears of War, but one that seems to carry even more weight is Half-Life 2.  It’s mixture of the usual gunplay combined with creative puzzles has given it a soft spot in players’ hearts that has weathered the never-ending flow of new FPS games. It was also influential in a whole different way, with mods that allowed players to use the engine in all sorts of personalized ways.

Another shooter that comes to mind is Bioshock, which created one of the medium’s most memorable worlds in the sunken city of Rapture. The art-deco visuals and recorded monologues from key characters (everyone rips this off now) loaded the game with atmosphere. The story itself had some truly shocking twists and engaged with complex themes in a way that is still rare for games. It didn’t just comment on real-world philosophies like Objectivism, it commented on the very nature of playing video games. Do you have free will while playing a game if you’re just doing what the game tells you to do in order to advance? I still haven’t seen another game with such strong academic credentials.

Another game that left players questioning their actions was Shadow of the Colossus. Interesting trivia about this one – when the late Roger Ebert foolishly declared that “video games can never be art,” he said that this game was the one most cited as an example of video game art in the feedback he got. He never did play it; there were too many movies to watch (and he probably should have kept his criticism to topics he knew something about). Those readers were on to something. This game continues to have a sterling reputation for its exciting gameplay and also the tragic undercurrent that begins to emerge. Not all the monsters are aggressive and yet the player is still told to kill every last one of them. In a medium where violence is often celebrated, leaving the player with an ambivalent attitude about their mission was very ambitious.

Before we wrap this up, I’d like to submit a game for consideration – This War of Mine. I’ve written about this powerful survivor simulation before and my admiration for it has only grown since then. By immersing the players into the daily grind of survival in a war zone – gathering resources, finding food and exploring dangerous areas – this enthralling game makes a powerful statement about the inhumanity of war in a way that no other medium could manage. It’s not a game that is great for evoking effective techniques of film or television, it is precisely the “game” aspect that makes it great. It’s a smaller game than the other stuff we’ve talked about here, but I hope this game becomes more widely known in the years to come.

So back to our original question…is there a Citizen Kane for video games? Right now, I would say no. We may never have one. That doesn’t mean more great games won’t come out, I’m confident they will, but I’m not sure it’s possible to have that sense of broad consensus in today’s culture. Film critics anointed Citizen Kane during the late 50s and early 60s, a time when it wasn’t as easy to be a film buff.  Home-viewing technology wasn’t even widely available until the early 1980s and by that time, Citizen Kane had been entrenched for decades. Critics essentially decided this question for the culture at large during an era where that was possible. But for games? We all know gamers don’t have a great deal of reverence for critics. It’s hard to imagine the majority would go along with any game that was suddenly given a label of “the best.” The “Top 100” format is probably better in the end.

But then again, maybe some masterpiece will come along and earn this crown. Only time will tell. Until then, let us know what you think! Is there one game that stands above the rest? Are there games I missed in this rundown?  Tell us in the comments!

2 comments… add one

  • Tommy Scott October 21, 2015, 11:15 pm

    For me, Super Mario 64 is the best of the best and was far ahead of its time. I certainly haven’t played all the games listed in this article, but a fair portion of them. No matter what, I always look back at my time first playing through the entire Super Mario 64 and can’t think of a more rewarding experience in gaming ever.

  • PypeBros October 31, 2015, 1:17 pm

    You certainly picked very interesting games, but the attempt to define the best video game ever is very difficult. Unlike pieces of art, video games are experienced. Asking for the best video game would be like asking for the best sport terrain, whatever the sport, imho. But what makes a place great for water-polo is definitely not necessarily enjoyable for baskett-ball, etc.

    Many highly-polished games of the NES/SNES era you mentioned (not a single item from micro-computers or SEGA console nominated ?) lack the dimension of carrying a shaking message to their audience. When I see a game like Fez, I believe that we may have gems of gameplay behind us, but that there are many more ways to involve the player into an interactive story that we may not have seen the pinnacle of video games.

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