Eight years. Eight long years of video games, from the Xbox 360’s 2005 release to today, the dawn of the next generation. A lot of games came out in eight years.
Looking back to 2005, it’s difficult to believe how much has changed. Not just in video games, of course, but in the world and the ways we interact with it. We were so much younger then, our games so much simpler. Facebook was in its infancy, YouTube had only just been created. Netflix was still known only for delivering DVDs by mail. The iPhone wouldn’t come out for another two years.
The world of gaming changed so much over that time, and some games drove that change more than others. There were a handful that defined the generation, both for good and occasionally for ill. To close out our Last-Gen Heroes series, I polled our entire staff and we collected those games here.
Most games are on this list for positive reasons; they became definitive purely through their high quality. A few are here for negative reasons. With a few, it’s more complicated. But all of these games are, or were, undeniable for their time.
Ready? Here we go. In no particular order, the games that defined the last generation of console gaming:
Mass Effect 2
The Mass Effect series was easily one of the most influential and iconic of the last generation. Of the three games, it was perhaps Mass Effect 2 that made the biggest impression. The rough edges and janky combat of the first game were replaced by punchy, functioning third-person combat. The overarching story may have been the weakest of the trilogy, but the individual loyalty missions were some of the most enjoyable parts of Mass Effect as a whole. Hell, we’ve already done an entire week dedicated to Mass Effect, so I needn’t really say more. While there are some who prefer the first game in some ways (I’m one of them), the fact remains that Mass Effect 2 was the moment the series broke through.
Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
Hideo Kojima’s sprawling (and some would say overstuffed) opus Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots felt like it rang in the moment the PlayStation 3 “arrived.” Here was a game, exclusive to Sony’s console, that finally showed off what that extra horsepower, hard-drive space and blu-ray player were capable of. The game remains (and will remain) in the library of many a PS3 owner, and while other console-defining games would follow it, MGS4 remains one of the first major steps in the PS3’s eventual comeback.
Speaking of the PS3…
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
The first Uncharted game, Drake’s Fortune, got some people talking about the PS3. (I remember a former student of mine talking about how Drake’s shirt only got partially wet when he only partially went underwater). But it wasn’t until Uncharted 2 that people started saying, “OK, you have to see this game.” Uncharted 2 was the game that finally got me to buy a PS3. I’m guessing I wasn’t the only one. Those vistas, those setpieces, that amazing train level… Naughty Dog would go on to make The Last of Us, one of the great action games of the generation, but Uncharted 2 remains their defining game. (It was also less well-remembered for its early stab at social media integration: The game initially included annoying Twitter functionality that its developers eventually turned off.) Uncharted 2‘s many smart ideas — no loading screens, semi-interactive setpieces, upside-down shooting, and on and on — have and will continue, to echo.
Wii SportsWii SportsWii SportsWii SportsWii Sports
betterDemon’s SoulshardbrilliantDemon’s SoulsDark SoulsDark SoulsSoulsDemon’s SoulsDark Souls
PortalThe Orange BoxHalf Life 2: Episode 2Team Fortress 2PortalPortal
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Modern Warfare?persistent RPG elementsCall of DutyModern WarfareCall of DutyModern Warfare —
Grand Theft Auto IV
GTA V,GTA IV
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Gears of War
Metal Gear Solid 4Gears of WarGears’GearsKill SwitchGearsGears of WarGears 2Gears
Steel Battalion: Heavy Armour
Steel Battalion: Heavy Armourthe finished game was essentially unplayableSteel Battalion: Heavy ArmourDance CentralGunstringer —overall failure of the Kinect and motion control in general
Deadly PremonitioncampTwin PeaksResident EvilIts soundtrack is incrediblefan-written guide
Beneath the strange exterior and overblown cinematics lies a fascinating bit of open-world game design, balancing upon one of the most immersive and fully-realised virtual towns ever created. It laughed in the face of the entire concept of the review score, receiving a 2/10 from one major publication and a 10/10 from another, while a third outlet dedicated an entire series to naming it game of the year. Deadly Premonition made it possible for us to love a “bad” game, but that was perhaps its craftiest trick. It wasn’t a bad game at all. It was very, very good.
Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved
Geometry WarsPac-ManGeometry Wars
Owen Good writes:Madden NFLMaddenMadden NFL
Madden may not have been the only sports simulation to blunder its way through the Xbox 360 launch — others like NBA Live, NHL 2K and MLB 2K also stumbled and never recovered. But it was the most visible, and it wandered for most of the era developing features that made for great-sounding back-of-the-box copy one year only to be abandoned in the next. There will be no Major League Baseball game on the Xbox One come March, and it is wholly because of the era Madden ushered in and continues to represent, the era of the exclusive licence.
Luke Plunkett writes: Where Madden epitomized everything wrong with EA Sports during the past generation, FIFA was an example of the publisher at its best. Overhauling the superior Pro Evo series was no small feat, but the effort EA put into advancing FIFA‘s gameplay on the pitch – while shoring up its presentation off it – means it’s now deservedly the biggest sports series on the planet.
Rock Band 2
The era of the plastic-instrument music game may have drawn to a close, but many fond memories remain. For a few shining years, we were all rock stars. Harmonix’s Rock Band 2 represents, to me, the peak of the era. It wasn’t the first game in the genre: That honour goes to Harmonix’s plenty revolutionary Guitar Hero. And it wasn’t the game with the best instruments, nor was it the most comprehensive — those honours go to Rock Band 3. It was, however, the music game that arrived at the peak of the genre’s popularity, and for a party game like Rock Band, popularity is everything. The drum set was better. The setlist was amazing. And everybody wanted to play. I have more fond memories of playing this game with friends than any other game from the past generation. Long live Bratney Spaers! Long live the 9th Avenue Sluts! For those about to rock, etc.!
Final Fantasy XIII
Easily one of the most hyped Final Fantasy games of all time, XIII represented what looked like a turning point for the series. How would Final Fantasy make its (at the time) next-gen debut? What place did a JRPG have in the more and more action-focused gaming landscape? FFXIII was not without its merits, and has attracted more than a few loyal fans, including our own Mike Fahey. But in general, the game is held as an overly linear disappointment that took far too long to get going. It wound up a strange albatross for publisher Square Enix, who doubled down on the series and released a sequel few people wanted, which sold dismally, and who has yet another sequel coming this winter. Furthermore, the series’ strange digression may have turned people — fans and developers alike — off from console JRPGs this generation. Square Enix has spent more than enough time tracking the saga of Lightning and her friends, and it’s time to move on.
Super Mario Galaxy
Joyous to play and exploding with creativity, Mario Galaxy not only reinvigorated the Mario brand, it introduced a number of fascinating new mechanics, several of which were lifted by other games. In particular, it popularised the notion of a less essential co-op player with”Co-Star Mode,” in which one player took on a helper role while the primary player controlled Mario. A classic by any measure, Mario Galaxy was one of the Wii’s best games.
Wii Fit was another unlikely hit for the Nintendo Wii — it went on to become one of the best-selling games of all time, and an easy justification for the Wii Balance Board peripheral. It demonstrated that people want to use their consoles for more than just “regular” video games, and that fitness and physical activity could be greatly enhanced by smart game design. The impact of its success will likely be felt for generations to come, as game developers get more and more creative with how they get us out of our chairs and into shape.
Street Fighter IV
While the fighting game genre will never truly disappear, it did see a slump during the early parts of the last generation. Who better to pull it out than Street Fighter, returning with a wallop and getting millions of people playing once more as Blanka, Ken, Ryu and the rest of the gang. Well-balanced, well-designed and gorgeous looking, Street Fighter got up off the mat and dominated the fighting game genre.
Far Cry 2 and Spec Ops: The Line
Wait wait wait, two games are on this list… together? Yep. So why are they here? Well. As the last generation progressed, we began to see game developers wrestling with the fact that the games they made were horribly, ridiculously violent. And their games, exemplified by Far Cry 2 and Spec Ops: The Line, began to reflect that struggle. Far Cry 2 remains one of my favourite games of the last generation, largely because creative director Clint Hocking’s design philosophy was so clear-eyed: He wanted to create a world on fire, a hostile place that aggressively provoked chaos. Your character wasn’t a hero, he was a piece of human garbage, a loveless mercenary picking over the remains of a war-torn African nation. Your “buddies” weren’t your friends, they were arseholes just like you. This place was on fire, and you were here to watch it burn. Far Cry 2 was, in the words of onetime “permadeath” player Ben Abraham, a game about entropy. It was also a difficult, darkly seductive game that derived pleasure from its deadly unpredictability. I rarely felt good while playing it, but I never wanted to stop.
On the other side of the gun-barrel sits Spec Ops: The Line, an incredibly violent third-person military shooter that, when it came down to it, hated itself and its own violence. Lead writer Walt Williams is an interesting guy and his intent with the game was clear. The finished product is a muddle, but it makes its point far more directly than anyone was expecting, including me. Both games raised similar questions: Is it possible for a violent game to condemn violence? If we take a video game protagonist’s acts of mass-murder seriously, must we indict the player along with him? Will there ever be a successful anti-war shooting game? Is that even possible? Neither game provided entirely satisfactory answers, but it remains noteworthy that they asked at all. As those questions linger, it’s only a matter of time before more games attempt to provide answers.
Plenty of last-gen racing games chased realism and simulation. But one game — Criterion’s Burnout Paradise — said to hell with that, let’s have fun. Years later, no pure racing game (or open-world driving game) has managed to capture the sheer thrill of Paradise, though Criterion’s follow up Need for Speed: Most Wanted did come close. Hopefully we’ll get another Burnout game in the next generation of consoles. The world is ready.
Rockstar’s Manhunt 2 was arguably the most notorious game of the last generation. When talking about this article, my boss Stephen Totilo described Manhunt 2 as “the media-scare game of this gen.” That a virtual snuff-film simulator was released on the seemingly family-friendly Wii caused even more scandal — motion controlled beatdowns! It was one of the few games to receive an AO rating, which left Rockstar scrambling to change content and get it into stores.
Assassin’s Creed II
The first Assassin’s Creed was, at the time, one of the games that most called out “next-gen!” It looked unbelievable in demonstrations, offering freedom and fidelity the likes of which we had never seen. But the game itself… well, it could be tough to love. Assassin’s Creed II, however… it’s been said before, but Assassin’s Creed II made the first game feel like a mere tech demo by comparison. Not only did it refine the first game’s design and give us much more to do (and with more variety!), it introduced us to Ezio Auditore da Firenze, star of two subsequent games and still the most widely beloved character in the series.
Sure, Minecraft began on the PC. But its migration to the Xbox 360 wound up making the game one of the most in-retrospect unsurprising console successes of the last generation. It sold incredible numbers, yes, but it also brought the magic of Minecraft into living rooms in a whole new way: It allowed for split-screen, local co-op. It seems so obvious now, but moving Minecraft from the PC into the living room gave a new angle on the series and let millions of newcomers fall in love with most enjoyable set of digital LEGOs around.
So there you have it. That’s our list but… ah, of course! We left off your favourite game. How could we have been so blind? Please feel free to write about that game in the comments, following this format:
[Image, pref. at least 640 width]
Game: The name of the game.
Platform: The game platform it was on.
Why: Why it defined the generation.
I’m looking forward to seeing what games defined each of your generations.
Last-Gen Heroes is Kotaku’s look back at the seventh generation of console gaming. In the weeks leading up to the launch of the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One, we’ll be celebrating the Heroes — and the Zeroes — of the last eight years of console video gaming.