After computer gaming pundits from Entertainment Weekly and G4, the cable TV games channel, recently named Nintendo’s “Zelda” series as the best video game ever, MSNBC.com took the vote to the readers.
TO KICK START the vote, we listed the top five games as chosen by the Entertainment Weekly poll: “Zelda,” “Doom,” “Tetris,” “Grand Theft Auto (III and Vice City),” and “Madden NFL 2003.” While “Zelda” captured the reader vote with 40 percent, a whopping 20 percent opted to write-in their own nominees.
“‘Halo’ for the Xbox by a long shot,” one wrote, “Next time do your homework. You should have at least put it in your rankings.”
Well, to be fair to Entertainment Weekly, we only listed the magazine’s Top 5 picks. “Halo” did make the Top 100 list, though I suspect fans of the game, one of console gaming’s greatest shooters, would dispute its No. 16 ranking.
Which raises a point. Official attempts at ranking can be an exercise in futility; no one can ever agree. Nevertheless, these media polls prompt discussions among the gaming community that border on the existential.
“It’s like comparing apples and oranges. Every genre has its pluses and minuses,” wrote Bryan Johnson. After pondering this philosophical quandary, Johnson cast his vote for the fighting game “Tekken” (No. 32 on the EW list).
So what makes a game great? Historical legacy? Technical advances? An ability to create a world that’s experiential in scope? Where does pure and simple nostalgia play a role in the vote?
AND THE WINNER IS ... Write-in votes for Nintendo’s Mario series (No. 8 in the EW poll) highlighted its historical significance. Mario made his first appearance (as Jumpman) in 1981’s “Donkey Kong.” Since then, the plumber with the bottle-bunch moustache has appeared in over a dozen games across a variety of Nintendo platforms
Here’s a typical response from one fan: “Come on now. Saying Mario ain’t in the top five is just out right WRONG. Put Mario up there and you’d have a better poll for sure.”
While Mario received a large number of votes, SquareSoft’s “Final Fantasy” was the clear winner of the write-in vote. (EW ranked it at No. 12.)
Jack Thomas on the allure of “Final Fantasy:” “This series has been an extremely popular game for nearly a decade, distributing over 10 unforgettable games, each one taking you to a new world, introducing to a new colorful group of characters and unique storylines in each one. Not to mention, this game has displayed high-quality graphics that have raised the bar to all graphics in video games.”
Again and again, fans cited the experiential quality of gameplay. Shane Hockin wrote, “The ‘Final Fantasy’ series gave ‘Zelda’-type games depth, personality, and actual plot and character development. RPGs are more events, and less games because of this series.”
The best-game-as-an-experience argument extended beyond “Final Fantasy.”
Harry Boyd promoted “EverQuest,” the “Dungeons & Dragons”-inspired role playing game that came in on the magazine list at No. 21.
“Hands down, it has to be ‘EverQuest,’ the game that has destroyed marriages and engagements, stalled careers and spawned obsessive countless hours of online gameplay,” wrote Boyd. “I have played since original release and have finally reached a balance in my hours online, but came dangerously close to total ‘EverQuest’ hermitage.”
Sean K. Neal cited the experiential qualities of “Half-Life.”
“No one remembers Gordie Freeman and the wonderful experience of the Black Mesa Facility? It was late November of 1998 when I had my ‘first experience’, and here it is in 2003, and I still enjoy a trip back every so often. I never looked at video games the same after that, and oh how my expectations for new releases changed so much. No more do I just look to be entertained, but NOW, thanks to Gordie and company, I expect and demand an experience.”
“Half-Life” earned a number of write-in votes and, indeed, only narrowly missed the Top 5 in the magazine poll, coming in at No. 6.
Other reader favorites included “Baldur’s Gate” (No. 59), “Diablo” (No. 31), “Civilization” (No. 15) and the “Myst” series. There was one vote for the southern fried shooter, “Redneck Rampage” — a joke (I hope).
But who am I to judge? A Top-10 list doesn’t slip off my tongue like one of those record store employees in “High Fidelity.” I trip up on memories of nostalgia and adrenaline.
So with nostalgia as my guide, I tentatively place my vote within the high-church of computer gaming; a church populated by 15-year-old first-person-shooter fundamentalists and 60-year-old elf mystics. My vote: “Quake. (No. 42).
During the late 1990s, I was among a group of individuals producing the first full-scale Web site for game developers and artists. It was a time of late nights and the occasional ego-clash. I’d like to think that the daily (or hourly) “Deathmatch” sessions somehow saw us through.
And nostalgia is as good enough reason as any to reach to the past for the greatest game. Or, as Dan Houck wrote. “How can you have possibly left “Zork” off your voting list? You must be trapped in a maze of twisty passages, all alike, you... you... you whipper-snapper you!”
When not babbling about computer games or prowling the corridors of E3, Tom Loftus produces interactives for MSNBC.com