There is no perfect game, right? There are elements to many games that feel perfect, but it's rare that one single game does everything well. In a perfect world, you would be able to take the best parts of a game and put them all together to create one perfect, super-game.
The next best thing would be to revisit some of the all-time classics and see what parts made them so great, with the ultimate goal of learning something new from something old.
With this in mind, we put together a list of 10 classic games (pre-2004) that you as a game designer should have played – or should go and play if you haven't already!
10. Super Mario 64 (1996) (N64)
Super Mario 64 was groundbreaking when it was released in 1996. It was the first time we'd ever seen the Mario in a 3D environment. This change brought 3D graphics to a mainstream audience for the first time.
Super Mario 64 wasn't the first 3D game to market, but a big part of the reason it was so impactful was because it made a 3D space genuinely fun to play around in, intuitive to control, and taught players as they went along – all while retaining a real sense of adventure.
Here's a great video on how level design helped shape player experience early on in the game:
9. SimCity (1989) (PC)
SimCity (1989) was designed by Will Wright, who is also of The Sims and Spore fame. You're probably familiar with the concept: You build a city with almost Godlike control and watch from high above as your creation comes to life.
Check out this short talk from Will Wright about the origins of SimCity – which began as a war game! (he also talks Spore towards the end, for any Spore fans out there):
8. Final Fantasy VII (1997) (PS1)
Before beginning this section, I attempted to recap on the story of Final Fantasy VII, as it's been a good nineteen years or so since I played this game – that was a mistake.
Long story short: nobody knows.
Final Fantasy VII is the most instantly recognizable of the Final Fantasy series. Part of the reason it's on this list is because of how recognizable it is. The characters, including the main character, Cloud Strife (and his giant sword), are archetypal of the Final Fantasy aesthetic.
It was also the first 3D Final Fantasy title, the first on Sony's Playstation console, and one of the first RPG games outside of a medieval setting.
Check out this video from Gameranx for more background on what makes Final Fantasy VII so great:
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7. Grim Fandango (1998) (PC)
Tim Schafer is a big name in game design. He was the project lead for Grim Fandango (1998) during its development at LucasArts, and game designer of other noteworthy titles such as Psychonauts, Brütal Legend, and more recently, Broken Age.
This classic adventure game was first released for PC in 1998 and can be compared to modern titles from Telltale Games, such as The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us.
Grim Fandango is still considered to be the pinnacle of this point-and-click type of adventure game, and due to a remastered version that has been released for just about every platform – including iOS and Android, the game is once again available to explore for all those who haven't.
This video review from IGN goes more in-depth, and talks about some of the biggest differences between games that were designed in the 90's to games that are designed nowadays:
6. StarCraft (1998) (PC)
StarCraft arrived on the PC in 1998 and changed the real-time strategy (RTS) genre forever. The writing and the use of multiple factions (Zerg, Protoss, and Terran) were elements of the game that let it stand out.
Originally conceived as an RTS about space vampires, StarCraft was built in the Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness (1995) game engine and was met with ambivalence at E3 in 1996 due to a perception that it was "orcs in space."
Blizzard reworked the formula, and StarCraft went on to become one of the first e-Sports titles to captivate gamers across the world. At one point in South Korea, StarCraft had three cable channels dedicated to presenting online StarCraft matches live. (Back in pre-Twitch times, of course).
A lot has changed since the origin release of StarCraft and its expansion Brood War. Below is an excellent video discussing some of the design choices that should be considered when games are remastered, with the focus on the upcoming StarCraft remaster:
5. Doom (1993) (PC)
The original Doom (1993) was the spiritual successor to Wolfenstein 3D (1992), the game that revolutionized the nascent FPS genre over 25 years ago. It's also a game that has stood the test of time in the eyes of many through its uncomplicated story, solid and fun game mechanics, as well as the dedicated community that sprung up around it.
Patrick Lindsey of Paste Magazine describes in an article celebrating the 20th anniversary of Doom how design played a crucial role in creating the mood:
This was as much a design achievement as it was a technical one, enhancing the game’s mood through its unusual and surreal architecture. The sharp corners and awkward angles become a part of the characterization of the levels themselves. Doom is a narratively lightweight game, with no cut-scenes or dialogue to establish things like tone or character motivation. Instead, it uses its level design to make players feel unsettled more directly. Its levels are labyrinths of jagged angles, blackout lighting, secret passages and disorienting trips through teleporters. The bizarre alien architecture is meant to be unfamiliar and unwelcoming, a constant reminder of the danger around every sharp-angled corner.
Below is a wonderful and concise video on Doom's design from Mark Brown of Game Maker's Toolkit:
4. The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time (1998) (N64)
To summarize games on this list is no easy task. Some are a little simpler than others, but The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time (1998) isn't one of them. It's a sprawling game, with a beautiful soundtrack, and it opened people's eyes as to what was possible for RPG's within the 3D space.
It's been rereleased three times and discussed with endless affection ever since its original 1998 release on the Nintendo 64 system.
Here's another great video from Mark Brown, who offers deep analysis of the dungeon level design in The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time:
3. Deus Ex (2000) (PC)
The dawn of the new millennium was also a new dawn for the depths of game design. Deus Ex (2000) is an action role-playing game, which pioneered player choice and the ability to embark on multiple different narrative paths.
Deus Ex allowed you to play the game how you saw fit, to play how you wanted to in the cyberpunk themed future of 2052. It was okay if you wanted to be a stealthy pacifist, and it was equally fine if you wanted to be a crazy killing machine. Player choice and freedom were the driving forces behind this multiple-award-winning game.
Digital Foundry made a nice retro review of the game, which delves into the design and what made it so special:
2. Half-Life 2 (2004) (PC)
We've reached the last shooter on the list, and also the newest game to make the top 10: Half-Life 2 (2004). It's a game that needs no introduction – the franchise is virtually synonymous with PC first-person shooters.
Half-Life 2 is built on the Source engine which subsequent Valve titles like Portal (2007), Team Fortress 2 (2007), and Left 4 Dead 2 (2009) were also built on. What made the Source engine so impressive was its physics engine, which changed the way gamers thought about in-game physics capabilities. Many of the puzzles you had to solve were based on this impressive new physics technology, offering a truly unique experience.
Half-Life 2 redefined what players expected from the FPS genre.
Digital Foundry made an excellent DF Retro video about this historic title:
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1. Super Mario Bros. (1985) (NES)
So here we are: The number one spot. The classic game that all game designers should have played. Super Mario Bros. (1985) for the NES is a game that everyone – even your grandma – knows about, and it's also one of the most brilliantly designed games of all time.
To say it changed the video games landscape would be to just scratch the surface of what made this game so incredible.
This video explains what makes this game so important in less that three (totally worth it) minutes: