kirk's bestof series

I've found that we sometimes outgrow our hobbies and yet because we feel attachment to them we try to find things that are not there.
Nana Komatsu
As I get older, I don't enjoy the same things I once enjoyed.
But I enjoy new and different things!

I just don't enjoy them as much as I used to enjoy the things I no longer enjoy.
Arlo, of "Arlo and Janis"
Now, I don't rate my opinon as a gamer that highly, but on most of the forums I'm on, everyone once in a while someone will ask "what's the best game for [INSERT SYSTEM HERE]" so I thought I'd finally gather my thoughts and make answers that are canonical (and cut-and-pasteable!) for me, along with some background info on why these games are so important for me...

Games for each system are listed in roughly descending order of coolness.

2020 Update: I wrote this page, like, 20 years ago (NES, SNES, N64, GameCube) and it has an intense "MY POKEMANS LET ME SHOW YOU THEM" energy. But now, mostly I'm writing for me. I'm now middle aged, and rethinking my need to keep old game consoles and controllers and software around, and it's serving a valuable nostalgia function for me. I don't play games nearly as much as I used to; in particular I hardly ever get folks around for "couch gaming" anymore, and when I do it's "Jackbox" games. But I kind of want to remember the time I enjoyed playing these things: I really do think video games are some of the most amazing bits of technology humans have produced, these microcosms of interactive possibility. So the original had NES, SNES, N64 and GameCube. Now I'll add Atari 2600/7800, Playstation, Dreamcast, PS2, Xbox, Xbox 360, Wii, PS4, and Switch.

It's sort of amazing how much time and money these all represent!

It's funny, some systems (like the Xbox 360) really stand out, other ones like the PS2 never really caught me, even though they did some interesting things (I will always hold a grudge against the PS2 for not copying the N64 and having a full 4 controller ports... it set multiplayer gaming way back.) Or the Wii - a lot of games, but nothing essential. (Sometimes it's the system, sometimes it's where I am in life, or who I have to play with...)

I guess if you like this check out my best games 2000-2010 and best games 2010-2020

Atari 2600

This was the system I grew up with- my family nabbed a ton of games when a retailer was liquidating them, so I had a larger collection than most that I kept long after others had moved on to NES and Genesis. And in 2004 I made my own game for the system, JoustPong...

(Update: I recreated the set of Atari Games I grew up with and then told the stories of why so many remain significant to me...)
Battlezone
I was blown away by the way this gorgeous game modeled a 3D space - if you heard an offscreen bullet you could slam it into reverse and watch it soar harmlessly ahead. I begged my cousin John to nab me a copy.
Moon Patrol
Just an ok game, but I stole its excellent boppy soundtrack and rebranded it as "Space Cadet", and played it with nearly every HONK band I've been with
Frogger
My first game, with the "Columbia Home Arcade" and its game of the month package. A solid port. (Memories of a little game of standing up to add fart-noise percussion between the verses of its merry little melody, with my friend Robert...)
Tron: Deadly Discs
I love games that have computer opponents that feel like they're playing the same game as the humman player.
Armor Ambush
Like the Tank version of Combat, but each player has two tanks to swap between, and a lot of terrain to mix things up.
Gyruss
Decent game, but oh that soundtrack - an amped up Bach's Tocatta and Fugue from that weird little sound chip...
River Raid
Fun game to fly up the dangerous river and learn the patterns and see if you could do better and better- that knife edge of speed for safety vs running out of fuel...
Pole Position
Solid 3D effect for the time, and a good racer.
Reactor
Loved the physics of the little particles bouncing around - very influential on my later toy and game programming - and that clangy soundtrack.
Warlords
I didn't get to play this with all 4 players as human all that often, but set the standard for more-than-2-player fun, even if the lower right player had a weird advantage in geometry.
Ice Hockey (Activision)
Years later in college, this game was the centerpiece of the "Tufts University Geek Club", a 3 person squad in Hodgdon's "Mental Ward".

Atari 8-bit

My first home computer was an Atari 800XL, I remember my folks unveiling it to me and me going "Mom...it's a computer... IT'S A COMPUTER!"
Dreadnought Factor
An obscure gem, you in something like an X-wing taking multiple bobmbing/strafing runs against huge Star Destroyer-like ships, each bigger than the screen...
Encounter
This game took what I liked about Atari 2600 Battlezone and sped it up a notch, and had a less bare playfield.
Realm of Impossibility
I love the tiny isometric dungeons of this game - not much to it but sprinting past monsters but it did it well.
Action Biker
Another isometric game, wandering around on motorbike in an abandoned field - on the hunt for English-ified bike parts like "Petrol Gauge" and "Go-Faster Stripes"
Ninja
I pulled my first all-nighter taking turns trying to beat this punch punch kick kick game with my friend Beau...
Honorable Mention:
Necromancer. Also, it wasn't a game but man did I have fun with Atari Logo, an excellent port of thie "kid's" drawing/programming language Logo... this version had 4 turtles that actually looked liked turtles not the usual triangles, and I'd make up little aquarium programs... (Atari BASIC was fun as well. Also typing in games from "Antic" magazine...

Commodore 64

I clamored for a C=64 even though the Atari was a better machine for programming - the Commodore just had such a more vibrant games and piracy scene. (I'm not proud of having played so many pirated games, but it was part of life as a kid at the time.) My uncle graced me with his old Commodore amd a huge pile of "COMPUTE!'s Gazette" magazine-on-disks.
Crossroads + Crossroads II
This magazine type-in game (and its solid sequel) led me to, years later, make a blog playing every COMPUTE!'S Gazette game These perfect little dungeons crawling with dozens and dozens and dozens of monsters - many of which were more interested in fighting each other instead of just hunting you, making you just another monster in the maze, the fast actions, the lovely pixel explosions... just such a winner of a game.
Archon
A well-known classic... I played it on several systems but mostly here. A simplified chess-like game where taking a piece involved a arena fight, pitting very different fighter types (melee vs ranged vs area effects etc) in one-on-one battles... I was also impressed at the computer combat AI, kind of rare back then to have a computer to be able to take over the other role in a complex 2-player game.
Skate or Die
Very impressive graphics - I loved the 360 rotation of the little skater... plus the loading screen had my favorite music on a system that was known for great sound tracks.
Elite
Admittedly I never really got great at this game, but having a 3D space combat simulation was amazing.
Honorable Mentions:
Raid on Bungeling Bay, Mail Order Monsters

NES

Mega Man Series
Oh man...this game just resonated for me, one of my first big exposures to Japanese cute robot design. Beating bosses in cool one on one battles and taking their weapons was excellent.
Bionic Commando
Another terrific 2D platformer, swinging with the bionic grip thing was a great dynamic, and would could be better than putting a bazooka in Hitler's ugly mug? Plus had a cool "let me tell you a story" framing device before and after the actual game.
Blaster Master
Created great sci-fi worlds, great visual design. The tank upgrades were great, especially the way the wheels rotated down to hover ala Back to the Future. Hampered by its "big head guy running around" 2D sections, and an incredible spike in difficulty on the final level.
Metroid
This game is why I got an NES rather than living with my superior-in-many-ways C=64...when I saw it in the black-covered "Player's Guide" I just had to have it. Of course that's the same guide that probably turned me into the walk-through using wuss I am today.
SMB2
Except for some Gameboy games, the only 2D Mario I ever beat. I really liked the ending, it was just one of those "oh it was just a dream" but it was well done.
Zelda 2
Again, the only 2D Zelda I've beaten, and again a game where that "Player's Guide" was a huge help. The sword combat was really well done.
Contra
Just classic 2D co-op action. Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right B A Start!
Lifeforce
Sentimental favorite (one of the first games I got) but with some nice co-operative action.
Solar Jetman
Too difficult but with a nice kinetic feel.
Micro Machines
Cool overhead racer...I think it actually had kooky 4-players-using-2-controllers support.
Honorable Mentions:
Smash TV / Archon / SMB3

Gameboy Arguably the finest example of Nintendo's "Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology". I also liked how many of the games were relatively easy to finish.
Gargoyle’s Quest
Superb little... either platformer with RPG elements or the other way around. I loved that cute little gargoyle ("Firebrand") and recreated him in Visual Basic.
Donkey Kong
Satisfying puzzle and platform game, and a brilliant evolution of the arcade original. (I remember prior to this, wondering why Donkey Kong didn't make a cameo in any of the Mario games...)
Super Mario Land
It was so quirky and off-brand feeling, but just so cool to be able to carry around...
Super Mario Land 2
The graphics were truly impressive, it felt like an NES game.
Bionic Commando
Really solid port of one of my favorite games on NES, and even cleaned up a few parts of it.

Arcade

Star Wars
The controls totally make this game... maybe my first deep dive into my beloved "pretend you're in a spaceship" genre.
Time Pilot '84
Loved the sci-fi vibe of this game, the 360 controls, the player's missiles with lock-on...
Alien Syndrome
Another game I adored for the sci-fi vibe, the creepy worm things especially.

PC

Near the end of high school, my C=64 was pretty long in the tooth. And I read about "Wing Commander" in a magazine. I would have preferred an Amiga to play it, but my mom was right that a PC was a better bet to get ready for college.
Wing Commander (1+2+3)
Being put inside a starfighter was always one of my favorite genres, and no-one did it as well as this series. The big chunky graphics, the WW2-styled drama... later even the actors who played Luke from Star Wars and Biff from Back to the Future!
Star Control 1 + 2
From the same folks who did Archon - they really do a good job balancing the different fighters. Never would have gotten through the RPG of 2 without cheats, but it was such a lovely and funny homage to such big swaths of scifi...
DOOM
The sense of kinetic motion and rock and roll shoot-shoot in this groundbreaking FPS... so many of just mastered the first set of levels you could get free, you could just zip through, almost with your eyes closed.
Death Rally
A fun overhead racing game with weapons. It had a lot of cool "flavor text" setting the scene. We'd play it multiplayer in the office of my first job - and fun fact, those games are where my usual online handle "Kirkjerk" came from, it fit the mood of the game.
SimTunes
Less of a game, more of a paint/music set, this was a super-charming poor man's music sequencer.

Atari 7800

I got an Atari 7800 in college, as a bit of a retro thing.
Food Fight
An underappreciated gem. There is something special about a game where the enemies feel like they're playing by about the same rules as the player (and can kill each other as well) and the mechanic of scurrying from ammo pile to ammo pile (well, it's all food) was a brilliant mix of offense and defense.
One on One: Dr. J vs. Larry Bird
I enjoyed playing this against my hallmate.
Joust
A solid version of the game that really made me love video game physics (not to mention heling to inspire my 2600 homebrew JoustPong....)
Robotron
I was impressed that a home system of the era could play this.
Hat Trick
I remember the arcade game was in my high school's rec area, and this was a pretty solid port, and fun for one on one.
Ballblazer
Such music...

Vectrex

I found a Vectrex in a thrift store in NYC... can't believe I sold it (and the multicart I had bought for it, and the extra controller) at Philly Classic.
Armor Attack
There is just something delightful about the way your little jeep squirts around the big brooding tanks.
Rip Off
Really like how this game explored indirection; you're not defending yourself except in the line of preserving the fuel the bandits are after.
Spike
Didn't really love this game, but the voice samples: "EEK! HELP! SPIKE! OH NO! MOLLY!" will stick with me forever.

SNES

Tetris Attack
The best head to head "puzzle" game I've ever played. Lots of games let you send garbage blocks over on the other player, but few make those garbage blocks the key to turning the tables and getting sweet, sweet revenge. Nintendo not bringing its GameCue Puzzle Collection (including a 4-player version of this game) to the USA is a misdemeanor against humanity.
Donkey Kong Country
People who dismiss this game as shallow eye candy probably haven't had the plasure of walking a newbie gamer through all its well-designed levels and boss fights.
Super Metroid
One of the pinnacles of 2D gaming, a great feeling of exploring an alien world.
MicroMachines
Fun 4 player 2D racing with amusing board design, taking toy cars around real world environments.
StarFox
Stunning (for the time) polygon graphics and solid rail gameplay, but I think hampered by the crosspad.
Yoshi's Island
A terrific platformer. The grab Mario before he gets carried off makes for a wonderfully forgiving mechanic, the bosses as magically overgrown regular enemies is nifty, and the monkeys darting around make for a lovely game.
Super Mario Kart
I want to like this game more than I actually do...like StarFox, I really played more of the N64 version first and like it better, but I have to give this game its props.
Super Punch-Out
Great big wonderful cartoony graphics...a worthy followup to everyone trying to beat up Mike Tyson on the NES.
Smash TV
Excellent port of Robotron's spiritual descendent
Rampart
A decent head to head game, with elements of Tetris and those Artillery Duel games...lacking of the arcade's 3 player support hurts it.
Honorable Mentions:
F-Zero / Super Mario World / Pilotwings / Super Mario All-Stars

N64

Super Smash Brothers
It's like someone nabbed our middle school gaming daydreams..."wouldn't it be cool if you could, like, fight Samus from Metroid vs Mario vs Link vs Kirby, all at the same time, and they had their weapons and powers and stuff?"
Mario Party 1 2 3
They started to run this series into the ground (what are they up to, like 6? But the old ones still maintain their high prices) but the concept is brilliant...bring Classic Style gaming into a modern setting. Only the first one gets the board game thing right (the stadium, as minimal as possible) but the minigames are still maximally fun.
Mario Kart 64
This game was the first showcase for the N64's fantastic 4-player abilities, and is still a boat load of fun.
Diddy Kong Racing
Others disagree, but I thought this stood head and shoulders above Mario Kart 64...the Kart engine wasn't quite as good, but it included hovercraft and planes, and battlemodes that were actually fun to play. Plus it had a one player and cooperative "adventure" mode that was terrific...boss battles in a Kart racer, whodathunkit?
Battle Tanx / Battle Tanx: Global Assault
Sadly, there are no "tank" games better than these on any console since the N64...the PS2's "ThunderTanks" (by the same company) completely dropped the ball, but these games have great 4 player deathmatch and single or co-op adventure modes.
Rogue Squadron
Wow. There is something about flying an X-wing that will always have a direct plug into my inner child. More approachable than the PC's X-wing games, largely ground-based missions, but Oh So Cool.
StarFox 64
This is the game that sold me on the system...the first time system I owned while it was still current since the NES. Just the beauty of the start of the first level, you and your wingmen skimming over the water's surface...
Pokemon Puzzle League
It's just Tetris Attack with fewer animations and more sounds, but Tetris Attack's seesawing-"turn the tables" gameplay makes it the best head to head puzzle game in the history of mankind, so....
Space Station Silicon Valley
Quirky but clever puzzle solving game where you had to work and gain control over a wide variety of robocritters.
Blast Corps
Another puzzle solver, this time controlling a variety of unique robots to clear a path for the nuclear warhead carrying truck.
Honorable Mentions:
Super Mario 64 / Zelda: Ocarina of Time / Mario Tennis / Blitz 2000


PlayStation

I got a PS very very late to look for cheap games. While I love that it was such a vibrant platform for experimentation, I never got into it.
Dance Dance Revolution(s)
Pretty Legit Exercise.
The Unholy War
Just showing off. Interesting unheralded successor to Archon...

Dreamcast

A great transitional and experimental system - so glad it continued the tradition of 4 controller ports that the N64 had earlier revived.
Bangai-O
My most successful FAQ on GameFaqs was about this game - a fun exploration of "what can this system do if we give use to show bajillions of tiny sprites instead of polygons", with a great mechanic that encouraged risk taking and a classicaly bizarre anime aesthetic.
PowerStone / PowerStone 2
A delightfully frantic fighter game for 2 (the original) or 4 players (the sequel) - extreme use of the playfield environment.
Jet Grind Radio
The coolest game I've played, in terms of visuals and sound track - points for innovation but the Xbox port fixed it's sluggishness. But just really made Cel-shading happen in an unforgettable way.
Crazy Taxi
This game was a bit limited, but again, so fun.
Loony Tunes Space Race
Largely unknown gem - mostly a solid kart racer but putting all the space themed Loony Tunes in one place with a loving 50s/60s aesthetic was brilliant.
Quake III
Such a fun, kinetic death match, marred only by how fiddly it was to do all the player entry to start a new match.
Worms World Party
Another fantastic party game.
Honorable Mentions: Soul Calibur, Chu Chu Rocket, Samba de Amigo

PS2

I never really loved this system... I think I will always resent how, even after the N64 showed how fun having support 4 controller ports could be, they cheaped out and just had 2. It was such a popular system, that if a game maker could just support 4 players without requiring a multitap, a lot more 4-player games would have been made...
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
This remains my favorite of the old-style GTAs- the 80s Miami Vice feel was exquisite, and opening up the world with helicopters- such fun.
Katamari Damacy
Oh, such a charming game, full of such perfect weirdness. My only gripe was that I would love that unlocking "free play" time for the final board was too hard to unlock - would have loved to let my non-gamer family try it out in a lesiurely way.
Magic Pengel
A terrificly creative game - you could sketch a monster, and it would literally come to 3D life. I write about it here on my devblog. Unfortunately, the actual game was "meh", it was a Pokemon-ripoff Rock Paper Scissors turn based battle game.
Seek and Destroy
Quirky small RPG, where you and everyone else in the world is an army tank.

GBA

WarioWare, Inc.: Mega Microgames!
I love these tiny bite size bits of Gameplay...
WarioWare: Twisted!
An innovative control (a hardware rotation sensor in the cart) made this even better... I especially loved "Apple Assault" one of the unlockable minigames - took the old Apple II Game "Saboteur" with its endless wave of suicide bombers, turned it on its side, and added some complexity...

GameCube

Rogue Squadron: Rogue Leader
Wow. As great as Rogue Squadron was for the N64, this game just took it to a whole new level. The battle over Endor was jawdropping.
Super Monkey Ball 1+2
Can't stand the one player mode but one of the finest multiplayer options for the system...the racing, hang-gliding/target, and punch were all nifty in the first game and much improved in the second.
The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction
This late release almost got away from this list, but what a game! Really captured the visceral feel of being a giant green ball of strength, slamming and throwing and leaping and running up the sides of buildings. (Not sure if Hulk usually does that but it felt great in context)
Super Smash Bros Melee
A lot more frenetic than its N64 ancestor...too bad you have so much you have to unlock in one player mode!
Mario Kart Double Dash
Another worthy sequel.
Mario Power Tennis
Another minor improvement over the N64 version, but solid 4-player fun.
Pac-Man Vs
Great fun for dedicated gamers and the non-hardcore alike, using the GBA as a small screen for Pac Man while everyone plays the ghosts.
Luigi's Mansion
A nice short story of a game, with nice show-off-the-system graphics.
WarioWare, Inc
Hee! Short Attention Span Theater for gamers. Could stand more simultaneous minigames, though.
Time Splitters 2
A quality FPS by the same team that brought us Goldeneye on the N64...nice co-op mode.
Metroid Prime
I mostly watched my friend chug through this, but it really captured the mood of the original and made the transition to 3D fairly smoothly.
Honorable Mentions:
StarFox: Armada / Zelda: The Wind Waker / Super Mario Sunshine

Xbox

I never loved this system so well as the GameCube, but it had a few worthwhile exclusives.
Crimson Skies
I love flying games, and this alternate reality of pre-WW2 planes with all kinds of hight tech gear had a bit of camp and a lot of fun... an early example of "dieselpunk", crying out for a sequel.
Jet Set Radio Future
Dreamcast set this out, but JSRF added much needed speed, and some difficulty tweaks.
Mercenaries
I also love violent, wide open sandbox games with lots of physics, and if you can drive a tank, that's a huge plus. Overshadowed by its sequel.
Halo
Probably the system seller for me - such a good sense of place in this space marine shooter set on a ringworld, and driving the Warthog jeep was so much physics fun.
Honorable Mentions:
Fuzion Frenzy, Big Bumpin'

Nintendo Wii

Looking back over the games, I realize I didn't love this system as much as I thought I did... I love its innovation with controls, and it's whole small on the shelf energy.
WarioWare Smoooth Moves
This is one of the few games I've come back to, especially to play with non-gamers- the minigame format works really well to introduce people to the goofiness the Wiimote can provide, and the Jack Handy "Deep Thoughts" vibe is delightful.
Wii Sports
Ah, the game that got seniors virtually bowling all across the world! That and the tennis were really a great way to get moving.
Boom Blox / Boom Blox Bash Party
Simple physics - 3D Angry Birds before Angry Birds, except with the visceral pleasure of semi-literally hurling a ball.
Mad World
Here just for the aesthetic - it really had a look that I haven't seen elsewhere, save for the "Sin City" comics they probably stole it from...not as much on the game side though.
Rayman Raving Rabbids
An important launch game, and I think Rabbids are better than minions...
Excite Truck
Another title I played the heck out of launch, 1 on 1 with EB.
Super Mario Galaxy
Love the concept + space of this
The Legend of Zelda Twilight Princess
The dreamworld energy of this game stands out.

Xbox 360

Wow, this system. Looking back, I have two favorite meta-genres: 3-4 player "couch" games, and wide-open sandboxes. (the meta-meta-genre is "anything with a lot of physics and new options for player movement".) This system really landed the latter, and so represents my favorite chunk of single player fun in the modern era.
Banjo Kazooie Nuts + Bolts
This game is maligned for not beign a true BK sequel, but I think it did something better - an incredibly powerful Lego box (well, Capsela) to build vehicles where the physics mattered (in a cartoony way) - to beat and then master challengers in a Mario 64-like set of charming subworlds. Also answers the question, what if we had that bright N64 aesthetic in the modern era, vs all that browngray grimdark stuff?
Grand Theft Auto 4 + 5
These cities felt like cities.
Saints Row 3 + 4 (+ Gat out of Hell)
What if GTA took itself even less seriously? Sterling design work. Also, 4 and Gat Out of Hell come up with excuses to give you Matrix-like powers - the sense of leaping and flying and blasting are superb.
Just Cause 2
The hookshot + parachute + general movement and mayhem would be improved in the sequel, but this game was an eye-opener. And the island, so beautiful... moments like the moon on the water on the shore, or climbing the central mountain (well more likely air-dropping onto), seeing the characters breath while looking at the twinkly city blocks in the far distance.
Portal/Portal 2
The writing + humor in these games - legendary, and combined with cool physics is enough to let me put aside my dislike of puzzles. The "directors commentary" features make it even better.
Earth Defense Force 2017
A true B-movie game, giant monsters stomping through japanese cities, and your rocket launcher doing more damage than the monsters. Too much grinding, but a fun team-up.
Mercenaries 2
A wide open sandbox with plenty of tanks and planes... yes please! What Just Cause later became.
Crackdown
Probably sold the system to me - I'm usually not a big fan of games that are about character improvement, but this made it redeemable.
Gears of War
Big lugging marines, cool world, a bit heavy on the grim-dark but the other split-screen co-op
Honorable Mention: there were a few Transformers tie-in games I liked, but not so much that I remember which one was which.

Nintendo DS

Again, another system that was probably good but didn't hit me at the right time.
Electroplankton
More an art toy than a game, I just love that this exists... from the same artist as SimTunes....
WarioWare DIY
Wish I had made more with this. The idea of a tool to get people to make games is lovely.
Advanced Wars:Dual Strike
Cool little war game.

PS4

I had an Xbox One for a hot minute (Sunset Overdrive was not the game I had hoped for...the Rare Collection was kind of fun though) but settled on this one for my "modern" system.
Just Cause 3
Honestly worth the price of admission. The sense of motion, with the trademark grappling hook + parachutes supplemented with a squirrel suit and later even a jet pack? (Check out the expansion pack where you basically become Iron Man attacking the Hellicarrier, but with Wolverine healing instead of armor...) Plus, so many explosions... this game really is why I like AAA video games.
Just Cause 4
The sequel was a bit rushed, and didn't add THAT much new to the scene, but still pretty satisfying.
Star Wars Battlefron (X-wing VR Mission)
I kind of bought the VR rig just for this. Maybe not worth it, but still, satisfying to really be in an X-wing.

Nintendo Switch

Maybe I'm just getting old, without enough time to have friends over for games... as usual for Nintendo, the first party games are worth the price of admission, but I don't think I've seen much beyond that will stick with me...
Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Took a second try for me to get past the frustration with weapon breakage and anxiety about having to master the cooking crafting system. Worth it though... such a sense of place.
Super Mario Odyssey
The possession gimmick where you get to play as any creature you can throw your hat on really lets this game explore some fun physics and control systems.
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe
Hard to argue with this one.
Blaster Master Zero
Man, I loved this game on NES, and this was a treat.