My Top Five Games: Old School

I’ve long been tempted to do a post about my all-time favourite video games on this blog. Given how much I talk about gaming, it seems strange I haven’t.

A pyramid of skulls built by the Myrkridia in the Myth gamesOne of the main stumbling blocks has been decided how to rate older games against newer ones. Many recent games are objectively better than their older equivalents in many key ways, but a lot of that is due to the march of technology. Is it right to hold that against older games?

I’ve decided to side-step the issue by simply not comparing apples to oranges. I’m going to do two separate lists ranking my favourite older and new games, with the period in my teens where I temporarily quit gaming serving as the divider between the two eras.

We start at the beginning, with the old school greats.

5: Dungeon Siege

There are a couple games I could mention here — Age of Kings is also a strong contender — but I chose Dungeon Siege because it marks an important turning point where my view of the RPG genre began to change.

By modern standards — and to some extent even by the standards of the time — Dungeon Siege was an excessively simplistic game, but I was just so refreshed by the idea of an RPG that got out of its own way and tried to simply be a fun adventure, rather than the clunky grindfests most of its competitors were at the time.

A party of adventurers approaches Wesrin Cross in Dungeon SiegeIts focus was on the action, not the character sheet, and the developers worked hard to make the gameplay as smooth and free of annoyances as possible. Auto-loot alone felt like a revolution at the time.

It also offered gorgeous graphics (for the time, and even today the environments hold up well), an excellent soundtrack, and some very interesting backstory and world-building.

Also, pack mules.

4: Myth II: Soulblighter

There are people out there who are very cynical about the current state of the gaming industry. They’ll swear up and down that today’s games can’t hold a candle to those of yesteryear.

I vehemently disagree with this perspective, but there are still a handful of older games that haven’t been equaled, even today. The Myth franchise is one example of this.

Myth was something very unique. It was an RTS, but there was no economic management. You were given a set number of units and an objective and simply set loose in the wilderness to survive as best you could — usually against almost impossible odds.

A screenshot from the mission Stair of Grief in Myth II: SoulblighterIt also featured a hyper-realistic combat engine unlike anything I’ve ever seen in gaming. The wind blew arrows off course, rain caused grenade fuses to fizzle, body parts rolled downhill. This ruthless commitment to realism was one of the main contributors to Myth’s intense, frankly excessive difficulty, but often failure was so spectacular it became part of the games’ charm.

The story and lore were also wildly unique, with an incredibly inventive take on high fantasy. Traditional elements like Dwarves and sorcerers co-existed with entirely new creations like the horrific Myrkridia, the immortal Trow, and the alien Fetch. Inspiration was drawn from unusual sources, like Gaelic and Mesoamerican cultures. The Mayan-samurai Heron Guard remain my all-time favourite interpretation of the paladin archetype.

And there was such depth. One common sin of video game story-telling is that developers only create enough lore for whatever story they want to tell, but Myth created a vast and detailed world whose history and geography we saw only a fraction of during the games.

The Fallen Lords was excellent, but its sequel, Soulblighter, was even better. Deeper gameplay, an even more intense story, and a grander adventure all around.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: You just have to respect a man who ripped out his own heart and cut off his own face “in a ritual too dark to name.”

3: StarCraft

A screenshot from the original StarCraft's Terran campaignThe 90s and early 2000s were the golden age of the RTS genre, and Blizzard was its master. StarCraft, in particular, was a revolution in strategy gaming.

There had been RTS games with differing factions before, of course. Dune II beat StarCraft to the punch on the idea of three playable factions. But its factions were nearly identical, with only a handful of unique units.

In StarCraft, each race is entirely unique from the ground up. Different units, mechanics, and strategies, and yet Blizzard was able to deliver a balanced game where each race could compete despite their wild differences.

StarCraft’s influence on gaming is undeniable. It was a major force in the rise of eSports, and it has forever changed the gaming lexicon. Even outside of Blizzard games, everyone understands the concept of a Zerg rush (kekeke).

But for me my memories are still of rushing home from school to play the campaign, giggling with my friends over the dragoon’s spam click quotes. It was a pillar of my childhood.

The opening cinematic for StarCraft: Brood WarI don’t hold up the original StarCraft’s campaign as the masterpiece of sci-fi intrigue some like to paint it as, but it was on the whole a good story, and StarCraft has cemented itself as one of my all time favourite sci-fi franchises.

StarCraft is also notable for being the first game where I can remember really enjoying the soundtrack. The music may have been a little cheesy, but that didn’t make it any less fun.

Duh-na-na-na, duh-da-da-na, duh-na-na-na na-na-na…

2: No One Lives Forever: The Operative

Like the Myth games, No One Lives Forever was one of those rare games that even today hasn’t quite been surpassed. I’ve heard it said that NOLF was so ambitious and creative it simply never would have been made today, and I think there might be some truth to that. That or it would be some sprawling open world grindfest, a mile wide and an inch deep, rather than the vast but lovingly intricate game it was.

A delightfully campy homage to the spy craze of the 1960s, NOLF put players in the role of feminist super spy Cate Archer as she battled the twin threats of gender inequality and the terrorists of H.A.R.M. with a wide arsenal of guns, gadgets, and acerbic wit.

Cate Archer in No One Lives ForeverIt featured some of the most wildly creative level design in gaming history. The most oft-cited example is the mission where you fall out of an exploding plane without a parachute, engage in a mid-air gun fight with H.A.R.M. paratroopers, and have to wrestle a parachute off one of the enemy goons before you leave a small crater.

But NOLF’s massive campaign also took players to Switzerland, Morocco, east Berlin, the bottom of the North Sea, and outer space, among others.

NOLF was ahead of its time in a lot of ways. It was the first game I played with dialogue choices, as well as the first I played with something resembling a new game plus mode, which gave it huge replay value.

The stealth missions were irritating, but even so it stands as one of the finest games ever made.

1: Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos

The word “epic” has been abused a fair bit by the gaming community, but if you want a game that truly personifies what “epic” truly means, Warcraft III is that game.

A mission from the Night Elf campaign in Warcraft III: Reign of ChaosHow good was the story in Reign of Chaos? Well, let’s put it this way. After seeing one cinematic, my mother — who has no interest in gaming or much of anything outside her own narrow field — insisted that I keep her posted on further developments, to the point of calling her down to watch the cinematics if she wasn’t busy.

Prior to Warcraft III, the Warcraft universe had been tremendously simple. Fun, but simple. Reign of Chaos blew up everything we thought we’d known about Warcraft and created a vastly deeper, more complex world. It turned the Orcs into real people with a rich culture and intense inner conflict. It showed the once perfect Alliance crumbling from the rot within. It defied our expectations, it shocked, it inspired, and it ended with a powerful message of hope that would have been at home in the finest Star Trek episode.

And it was so damn epic. It truly felt like the war to end all wars, with the fate of everything on the line. The villains were terrifying. The heroes awe-inspiring.

Nor was the story its only virtue. As a video game, it also excelled. It all but created its own genre by hybridizing the very best aspects of both real time stategy and role-playing games. It was exciting, but not stressful. Challenging, but not unforgiving.

It took the focus away from tedious economic management and put it squarely on the action. Nothing in gaming can beat the satisfaction of casting exactly the right spell at exactly the right moment in Warcraft III.

The Thrall's Vision cinematic in Warcraft III: Reign of ChaosIt was about as close to perfect as any game will ever be.

Honourable mentions:

There weren’t as many excellent games back in the day as there are now, but there are still a few others worthy of recognition. As mentioned above, the Age of ___ games were fantastic, another pillar of the golden age of the RTS genre, and Age of Kings, in particular, stole a lot of my childhood.

Later Age of Mythology sparked a lifelong interest in ancient mythology so intense I now have idols of deities from three separate pantheons watching over me from my headboard as I sleep.

Also on the subject of old RTS greats, the first two Warcraft games were also quite strong, even if Reign of Chaos ultimately eclipsed them. In a roundabout way they’re responsible for my becoming a writer, actually. The Elven archers ignited my love of Elves, which led them to be the focus of the make believe games I played with my friends, which evolved into an entire universe and mythology of my own creation, which led me to learn how to write so I could share these stories.

Also, while I think the franchise has long since lost its way, I do think the original Call of Duty was something of a masterpiece. It certainly gave me a deeper appreciation for the sacrifices of veterans than I’d ever had before.

Pointless Nostalgia: Gaming

We now continue with my series of self-indulgent nostalgia posts discussing the sci-fi and fantasy I loved as a child, which turned me into the proud nerd I am today.

A screenshot from the mission Stair of Grief in Myth II: SoulblighterThis time, I’ll be discussing video games. Note that I am limiting this to sci-fi or fantasy games that had a significant impact on my views of those genres, so there are some games that I truly loved that will not be discussed in this post. The Age of Empires franchise, for instance.

Some of these are also games that I’ve discussed before, so my thoughts on them may be a little truncated to avoid repeating myself too much.

Warcraft:

Of course, Warcraft is always the first game franchise that comes to mind on this topic. Warcraft: Orcs and Humans wasn’t the first game I ever played, but I did start on it very early in my life, and it’s probably the first one to have had a major impact on my tastes going forward. I would go on to spend an enormous amount of time playing it and its sequel, Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness.

In retrospect, the early Warcraft games weren’t particularly special by modern standards. They were fantastic given the limitations of the era, but looked at through modern eyes, they were fairly thin experiences that shamelessly ripped off Warhammer and Lord of the Rings.

Still, I loved them at the time, and Warcraft II is noteworthy for kickstarting my lifelong love affair with Elves. With their coolly confident voices, lethal ranged attacks, badass capes, and epic hair, my seven year-old self thought the Elven archer units were just the most amazing thing ever.

A screenshot from Warcraft: Orcs and HumansWarcraft III, however, was something special. It vastly expanded the universe and added an incredibly amount of depth and complexity to what was previously a very simple story.

Timing also played a role in my love for Warcraft III. It came around just as I was getting old enough to understand that the world isn’t entirely black and white. I think it had a profound impact on my sensibilities as a writer, and as a person. It helped to waken me to the idea that there is more than one perspective on everything, that one person’s villain is another’s hero.

The expansion, The Frozen Throne, was less impressive, but it did take my Elf obsession to new heights by reinventing the Elves as the Blood Elves, who remain my favourite interpretation of the archetype from any source.

Again, timing plays a role. To my teenage brain, the edgy, sexy, misunderstood Blood Elves seemed irresistibly cool.

StarCraft:

Blizzard’s other great RTS franchise also deserves a mention, but truthfully, I’m not sure it really had that big an impact on me.

A screenshot from the original StarCraft's Terran campaignNow, don’t get me wrong. I loved StarCraft, and still do. It was a great game with a strong if somewhat imperfect story, and from a gameplay perspective, it was a quantum leap forward for the genre.

I’m just having trouble drawing any direct lines between my love of StarCraft and my current sensibilities. I had already developed a certain degree of interest in sci-fi thanks to things like Star Trek and Beast Wars.

Mostly all I can say is that Jim Raynor was and remains my all-time favourite video game character, a rare example of a character who is presented as an everyman forced into the role of hero and actually feels authentic as both.

One nice thing is that StarCraft 1 is the only entry on this list that can be readily played today, without dealing with technical issues or outdated graphics and game mechanics.

Drakan: Order of the Flame

Here’s a game that’s definitely not remembered as one of the great classics. Still, it was special in its way, and I remember enjoying it a lot — despite some glaring problems.

A screenshot from Drakan: Order of the FlameDrakan was a fairly generic fantasy story — Evil McBadPerson is coming back from the dead to destroy the world, unlikely hero must stop him — centered on a young woman named Rynn, who bore a remarkable resemblance to Lara Croft. Rynn stumbles across a dragon named Arokh and winds up soul-bound with him.

So the gameplay split between content played as Rynn and aerial sequences atop Arokh.

Arokh is what made the game worth playing. His wry humour and cynicism gave him infinitely more personality than Rynn, but the gameplay of playing as a dragon-rider is what made Drakan really special.

Few things in my gaming career have equaled the sheer thrill of soaring through the air atop a fire-breathing dragon, and Drakan made it every bit as amazing as you would expect. The controls were simple and intuitive, the maps were expansive and full of potential for exploration, and Arokh’s power was awesome in the truest sense of the term. Enemies that would be challenging or nearly unbeatable as Rynn could be effortlessly incinerated by Arokh.

Despite its generic story, Drakan impressed upon me the sense of awe and wonder that the fantasy genre is capable of, and I still have many fond memories of soaring across the Eastern Archipelago, raining fire on my enemies.

A screenshot from Drakan: Order of the FlameDrakan is also noteworthy for beginning my lifelong hatred of jumping puzzles and platforming mechanics. I truly believe the gaming industry has evolved beyond the need for such things; I wish they’d just go away altogether.

Myth:

I am not given to looking back with rose-coloured glasses. I am not someone who grumpily declares that games were so much better back in the day and the current crop of games just can’t compare.

But the Myth franchise was something so unique and special that even today I’ve never quite seen a game equal it.

For whatever reason, Myth: The Fallen Lords and Myth II: Soulblighter* did not become elevated to the pantheon of all-time great RTS games like Age of Empires and StarCraft, but they deserved to be. They ought not to languish in forgotten obscurity as they do.

*(We don’t talk about Myth III. It didn’t happen.)

Art for Myth II: SoulblighterMyth wasn’t like other strategy games. There was no base-building, no economy. Only very rarely would you ever receive reinforcements during a mission, and you virtually never had any control over when you got them. It was just you and a small group of soldiers fighting against impossible odds.

And things did often feel all but impossible. These were brutally difficult games, which is my one complaint about them. You were invariably outnumbered, often outgunned, and there were a million little things that could go wrong.

Which brings me to another unique thing about Myth, which was how incredibly realistic the combat was. It’s hard to imagine, but these janky old games from the 90s managed a level of realism that is unheard of even today. Wind could blow your archers’ arrows off course. Rain could cause your Dwarves’ grenades to fizzle out. Body parts rolled downhill. Explosions sent deadly chunks of shrapnel wheeling across the battlefield, cutting apart friend and foe alike.

This immense realism and the complexity it created were a big contributor to Myth’s difficulty. One wrong move could send a grenade flying into your own Dwarves, causing a chain reaction as the grenade set off their satchel charges. This would turn your army into a conflagration of flame and severed limbs, at which point the supremely deadpan narrator would calmly declare, “Casualties.”

And then I’d laugh my ass off even as ghols tore apart what was left of my army.

But the genius of Myth was not confined to its gameplay. It also had a brilliantly different story.

A screenshot from Myth II: SoulblighterMyth was a bizarre mashup of some of the best elements of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings, and The Black Company. It was high fantasy in the truest sense of the term, full of magic and fantastical beasts, but yet it also felt incredibly gritty and real.

The interesting thing is that they didn’t give you a birds’ eye view of events as most such stories would. Everything was told from the perspective of ordinary soldiers on the frontlines, who often didn’t fully understand the plans of their superiors. Normally I’m not a fan of ambiguity in story-telling, but in this case, having only incomplete glimpses of the world and its history made it feel so much more real.

Much like the how the gameplay could be unrelentingly difficult, the story of Myth was often ruthlessly bleak, depicting a world bereft of hope in the face of all-consuming darkness, but that only made the characters feel more heroic, the struggle more meaningful.

I’ll also say that despite that almost complete lack of any character development or personality, I still think Soulblighter is one of the all-time greatest video game villains. You’ve just got to respect a guy who cut off his own face and tore out his own heart “in a ritual too dark to name.”

And I haven’t yet touched on my great love for the Heron Guard (Best. Paladins. Ever.), or how hilarious the Dwarves were, or the utter badassery of the Trow, or the sheer terror of the Myrkridia…

Myth bannerOr I could talk about they seamlessly blended traditional high fantasy elements with more obscure concepts out of Irish and Mayan culture and their own unique fiction…

Damn, I miss Myth.