10: Mega Man 9
One of the biggest criticisms of the Mega Man series is over how little they’ve changed over the years. Capcom decided to show everybody how this is hardly a bad thing by going all the way back to the basics, stripping out everything that they have changed since Mega Man 2 and creating a new game using that game as a foundation. What we get is surprisingly one of the best games in the series. For the same reasons that New Super Mario Bros Wii is also on the list, Capcom took everything that was great about the NES games, and improved upon them, rather than trying to throw in new mechanics to complicate things. Gamers that grew up on the NES, will feel like kids again after playing this. I know I did.
9: Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker
I’ll be honest, I was on the nay-sayers side when Toon-Link was revealed to the world. Like so many others, I was captivated by the short SpaceWorld demo promising an evolution to the OoT-styled Adult Link. Instead, we got a toon-shaded super-deformed hero. It’s a shame that I and so many other people initially avoided Wind Waker due to the more light-hearted design, because it’s one of the most inspired entries in the series. The deformed cartoony style really brought in a level of emotion that Link and so many other characters in the Zelda universe had lacked in the past. Even though he still has no real lines (other than yelling “C’mere!”), the Link of Wind Waker (and, later, Phantom Hour Glass and his great/grandson in Spirit Tracks) actually feel the most responsive to everything going on around them. The sense of exploration that makes the series so great is probably at its best here. Even series villain Ganondorf has his best moments in this game.
8: Mega Man Zero 2
Mega Man Zero was a fun game, but it had its issues. The level structure was really linear, throwing out the open ended level selection of pretty much every other Mega Man game. It was unfairly difficult at times, and it went out of its way to punish you for actually making use of some of the game’s mechanics (the cyberelves, mosty). MMZ2 came along and pretty much fixed every single problem that the first game had. It brought back the classic level selection, was difficult without being frustrating, and didn’t punish you for using the elves mechanic. Further more, it brought in a number of new mechanics. Similarly to an achievement system, doing certain things within game will earn you different forms, which change Zero’s attributes and moves. Giving purpose to the ranking system, keeping a high rank will net you boss attacks. Finally, the chain-whip weapon gives you new ways to move around level. The game also has a killer opening sequence.
7: Breath of Fire IV
Seldom do RPGs actually get it all right. At the very least, one area of the game will be lacking behind the rest of a game’s attributes. So often do some RPGs feature pretty graphics and fun gameplay, but kind of have a weak plot. Or incredible plots will be brought down by weaker gameplay and music. Breath of Fire IV, on the other hand, was probably one of the few RPGs released this decade that got it all perfectly balanced, even if the game isn’t perfect as a whole. The visual style is still impressive to this day. The split plot, following around two characters who are different halves of the same being, is something that still stands out as excellent writing. The combat is simple enough to where battles blaze along, yet it is deep enough to allow you to to pull off some awesome things if you put the effort into them. An improved Master system from BoFIII brings in some significant character customization, and the dragon system is much less convoluted than BoFIII (yeah, I don’t get the love people have for that game’s gene system). The soundtrack is also only second to Hitoshi Sakimoto’s work for BoFV.
6: Shadow Hearts: Covenant
Quite possibly one of the few times that a game continues from the bad ending of its prequel, Shadow Hearts 2 reveals that Yuri actually failed to save Alice from dying at the end of the first game. On top of that, he himself is cursed at the outset to an eventual death that he knows will take him by the adventure’s end. The adventure, by the way, takes place during some of the bleakest times of the first World War. The game doesn’t take itself too seriously, especially once you meet the homosexual shopkeepers who trade you equipment for gay porn or when the flamboyant vampire wrestler who moonlights as a masked superhero joins your team, but it manages to tell a compelling war-time fantasy that will keep you playing along. Also, much like BoFIV, this is one of the few RPGs of the decade to actually strike a fine balance of all of its parts, and it does it even better. The game is also such a significant improvement over its predecessor that it should probably win the decade’s award for most improved.
5: Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne
Atlus tried several times before to get their Megami Tensei games recognition in the west, but it wasn’t until Nocturne hit that people started to really take notice over here. Perhaps it was the improved demon mechanics, where your demonic minions leveled up as you do, as well as being one of the first games in the series to give you a serious level of customization over said minions. Maybe it was the introduction of the Press-Turn Combat system which has graced every MegaTen game in some form or another since, excluding the action-based Raidou games. It could very much also be the striking difficulty, being one of the first legitimately difficult RPGs in a decent while. The game also looked very pretty and had a really wicked soundtrack. Chances are, it was all of the above that finally got the series going in the west.
4: New Super Mario Bros Wii
Quite possibly my game of 2009, I had nothing but a smile throughout the entirety of this gem. Granted, very little of the game blazes new territory, yet it’s ability to mix the best elements from the best games in the series makes NSMBWii one of the strongest entries in the entire Mario catalog. Mix in fun stage design, great boss battles (in which the Koopalings make their triumphant return), and the game’s zany co-op make it a must-buy for the Wii.
3: Final Fantasy IX
You know that opera sequence near the middle of FFVI that, for so long , was considered one of the classiest scenes to ever grace a Final Fantasy? Final Fantasy IX tops that in its opening, and just keeps running with it throughout the rest of the game. After two games starring moping mercenaries that were all “serious business”, IX’s lead, Zidane, was a surprising breath of fresh air. Here, we had a charming rogue who is a part of a band of thieves that masquerade as a travelling Shakespearian theater troup, and the introduction to the character is right at the beginning of a heist to kidnap the princess of a major military power while distracting the entire populace with one of the biggest play productions yet. Several games later, and SquareEnix has yet to feature an opening with nearly as much class or charm. Zidane aside, much of the game’s cast are some of the most inspired characters in Final Fantasy history. Coupled with some of the best writing, one of Uematsu’s strongest soundtracks, lively setting, and fun gameplay, we not only have the best Final Fantasy of the decade, but we’ve got a strong contender against Final Fantasy VI for best in the series.
2: Neverwinter Nights
In the past decade, there isn’t a single game I’ve put more hour into than Neverwinter Nights. Ever since I picked it up the day after Christmas 2002, the only time NWN has not been readily installed on my computer has been whenever I’m either in the middle of giving it a fresh install or are switching to a new computer. Sure, the game has its issues. The main campaigns are kind of dull. Also, the version of D&D it’s based on is vanilla 3rd Edition, which was so bad that they actually had to relaunch an improved version (the less bad 3.5) only a couple years later. Still, in spite of its flaws, the shear amount of adventure you can have through the campaigns and the user-made adventures, as well as all of the multiplayer possibilities, Neverwinter Nights probably remains my favorite PC release of the decade.
1: Persona 4.
Most people who are going to put a Persona game on lists like this are going to put down Persona 3, largely because it came first and thus it was the innovator. I’m going with Persona 4, however, because it’s a rennovator. Persona 3 was a great game, but it had a lot of niggling issues that Persona 4 came right in and fixed right up. It’s quite telling when one of the most common comments on Persona 3 was that it was nearly impossible to go back to after playing Persona 4. There was barely two years between the development of the two, and P4 still managed to make P3 feel utterly archaic in comparison. Beyond that, the cast is significantly more down to earth and believable. The plot, though lacking 3’s impact, was a lot more involving and personal. I also vastly prefer the soundtrack.
Why is it the number 1 game on my list? Out of the tons of RPGs I’ve played and loved, I never really could go back to them until a significant amount of time passed. Even with other genres, I typically have to shelve for a good after completing them before I could go back tot hem, unless they are meant to be short and replayable.
Persona 4? I started a new file the second the credits stopped rolling and began working my way back through it all over again. This is a game that I had just put in over 90 hours, and I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to experience it all over again. That’s a damned good game.