Written by Colin Burns, Joe Ahart, Drew Beyer and Andrew Busch // Uploaded and Edited by Andrew Busch // Character Artwork by Andrew Busch

Over the weekend our writers took some time to talk about their favorite games of all-time. It was a difficult task of deliberation, debate, justification, and decision. The process was grueling… I’m completely kidding. We had a lot of fun with this. Below you will find four opinions from four very different people. How do our favorites stack up with yours?

1. ANDREW BUSCH: LEFT FOR DEAD 2

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Choosing my favorite game from the overflowing shelves of plastic cases in my parents’ basement is something I have never had to do before. For the most part the green, Xbox cases of some of the most memorable stories and characters I have ever encountered now collect dust. They only move from time to time as one of my little brothers fearlessly carries on the torch of gaming deep into the night and through the final years of his middle-school experience.

On my recent visit home, I was rummaging through this same shelf and I started to pull out a few games so that I could finally make this decision. Deciding my favorite game of all time is a tough question for a guy that has to deliberate for a few minutes every morning before picking what cereal to eat. So naturally, it came down to wire. I almost ended up picking Deadspace 2 because its gruesome and grotesque sci-fi horror has always been hands-down my favorite experience with a single player game. But for me, gaming has always been so much more this singular and isolated experience that we are making it out to be as we slowly shift away from the age of splitscreen. It has always been about sharing the triumphs, the frustrations and the laughs of a game with friends and family. That is why I had to pick Left for Dead 2 as my favorite game of all time.

Even though this game does not look like much by today’s standards the simple premise of four characters versus hoards of infected provides hours of intense fight-for-your-life gameplay that is unmatched by any other zombie game to date. Sure, it doesn’t have the impeccably written story and character arks of The Last of Us, but Left for Dead 2’s characters will always be worth remembering because the moments that a joke from Coach or Ellis is able to lighten the mood of a kill-or-be-killed situation are little shimmers of glory worth remembering. This game also never needed magnificent storytelling to keep me playing. The sheer satisfaction I got from it was being able to slice and blast through thick waves of zombies while standing back to back with my little brothers.

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The fast-paced, four-player cooperative gameplay in Left for Dead 2 was always one of the main highlights of the game. (Image courtesy of Valve)

Even though each of us has probably played three hundred hours of Borderlands 2, the reason why Left for Dead 2 is so special to me is because it was one of the first games that we genuinely loved playing together. On countless Friday nights after school the game transported us from a small suburb in Illinois to Valve’s dystopic, half-dead representation of the Deep South. A place of chaos and struggle, where everything from Burbon Street to the mansions nestled deep within the bayou were crawling with undead. Left for Dead 2 created a space where we could become bonafide bad asses without losing touch with our limitations and what made us entirely human. You can only take on so many zombies before you need a helping hand and we were always covering each other’s backs.

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The dystopic Deep South in Left for Dead 2 was never focused on looks, but the creative gameplay moments within these maps always made up for potentially lacking visuals. (Image courtesy of Valve)

Eight years later, I am still thanking Valve for creating a game that has been the cornerstone of a relationship between my brothers and I as we continue to grow up. Even though you will probably find us playing different games now, our love of Left for Dead remains alive after all this time. In fact, we might even be one of the last remaining bastions of hope for another sequel in the series. But the fact that Left for Dead 3 remains elusive does not change what was once great. That is why when I retrieved my old copy from the wooden shelf in my parents’ basement I knew I had made a decision. Left for Dead 2 is my favorite game and will always remain essential to my relationship with gaming and my writing about games.

2. JOE AHART: HALO (series)

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Usually when people ask me ‘what’s your favorite ___’ I usually answer with some vague response to avoid having to settle on anything in particular. Games are no exception, and coming up with a favorite was difficult to even narrow down after having played so many in my life. After thinking over it for a while, there was a game (or game series rather) that has been with me since I first began gaming, and felt worthy of being noted as my favorite. The Halo Saga ultimately wins the title, encompassing just about everything I love about video games into one, incredible series. Gameplay, story, multiplayer, creativity, and just amazing fun are all present in every Halo game to date, and having played them all more than a few times, it is no surprise to me why they are regarded as some of the most popular games of all time.

Halo 2 was the first ever M rated game I played in my youth. I distinctly remember going to my cousin’s house and seeing Halo 2 sitting on his couch. Without mother’s permission (please don’t tell her), my older brother and I popped in the game and started going to town on the Covenant forces. Immediately I was encompassed by the world Halo is able to establish through its art, music, sound, and gameplay. Both my brother and I fell in love, and soon my brother was able to convince my mom to buy us the first game. Then eventually the second. And the third. And so forth.

Since that fateful day on my cousin’s couch, I have kept up with every Halo game’s development and release, up to the recently launched Halo Wars 2. Seeing the progression of such a huge franchise has not only peaked my interest in the games themselves, but has also opened me up to many communities, friends, and gamers that share my passion for the series. Every Halo game has its strengths, and each game also has its weaknesses. Although my own memories and nostalgia tend to drive those issues out of my mind once I get lost in the campaign or multiplayer.

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Halo’s multiplayer is always on point. (Image from Halo 3 courtesy of Bungie)

The campaigns in Halo hold a special place in my heart, and as I have grown with the series, so has my perspective on them. When I was younger, I was fixated on the visuals, music, sound, and environments that the story showed and took me to. Growing older, I began actually paying attention to the story, and found it to be an incredible narrative on many levels. Taking on the story through the Master Chief sets you in the place of humanity, but the human perspective of the plot is not the only one, and you as the player are able to see beyond to other ways the story can be perceived. Playing as Arbiter in Halo 2 sets you in the shoes (or hoof-like things, in this case) of the galactic empire known as the Covenant, a literally alien perspective in order to generate the idea of a story much larger than only a human one. Especially with recent games, the story is only growing bigger and more fascinating. The deep Forerunner lore also has both perplexed as well as mesmerized my imagination, and goes deeper than I thought Halo could have ever gone. Each character, playable or not, feeds this story of essentially a giant space race to control the galaxy. While each campaign may not share the same narrative quality, they all contribute equally valuable pieces to the story as a whole.

The Halo series has the ability to consistently deliver stunning campaign moments that make you feel like a genuine destroyer of worlds. For example, the mission “Delta Halo” from Halo 2 where you get shot from orbit down to the new ring with an elite squad of ODST Marines. Here is a clip from the remastered version of the game to get a better idea of how we saw it as kids. (Video credit to KreativeKill)

Along with the amazing story, I cannot even begin to count the hours I have spent on the multiplayer either with friends or going lone wolf. Matchmaking, custom games, and forge provide a playground which is constantly full of other players ready for action. Playing casual or competitive, alone or in a group, Halo’s groundbreaking multiplayer has served not only as a foundation for countless other games, but also has introduced players, such as myself, into a world where sheer fun drives the world of the game.

The Halo Saga continues to grow, with even Halo 5 still receiving major updates monthly, and with it the fans grow as well. Halo has had its glories as well as its downers, but no matter what I will never say no to sitting down and donning my Mjolnir armor and kicking some ass.

3. COLIN BURNS: FINAL FANTASY IX

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Why do you play video games? To let off steam after a long week of work? To lose yourself in a fantastic world full of nooks and crannies for you to explore? To grind for experience and high scores? For myself, I play games to embark on grand quests accompanied by a quirky band of heroes, be dazzled by inventive sound and visuals, get reminded of what it’s like to be a kid again and that is why my favorite video game of all time is Final Fantasy IX.

The Final Fantasy series is often lauded as the pinnacle of the JRPG genre (perhaps less so now) but the titles most frequently referenced, Final Fantasy VI, VII and X, pale in comparison to the quaint understatement and simple perfection that is Final Fantasy IX. Series Director, Hironobu Sakaguchi, was on his way out so he made FF IX the Final Fantasy he had always hoped to create. The steampunk sheen and cringe-worthy teenage angst of Final Fantasy VII and VIII had run its course and FF IX brought the series back to its fantasy roots.

The story of Zidane and Garnet plays out like a children’s book. It’s a simple story of good versus evil with universal themes of love, friendship and identity. It never gets bogged down in the melodrama of some other entries in the series; it manages to stay light even when dealing with some heavy subject matter like say an entire tree city of rat-people being destroyed! Zidane is played just like a standard video game everyman but with a goofy side and Garnet fills the cliché of princess-gone-rogue. The supporting cast is fleshed out with folks like the adorable Black Mage, Vivi, the hardheaded knight, Steiner, and the creepy frog-chef-thing, Quina, just to name a few. Your party members have their own story arcs like Vivi learning to accept the fact that his whole life has been a lie but if you pay attention while the credits role, you’ll see Vivi gets over it, gets married and has kids!

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FF IX‘s cast of characters are brilliantly developed and it’s so satisfying to see them fulfill their story arks. (Image courtesy of Square)

The developers at Squaresoft plant their feet firmly on the well-trodden ground but manage to create an interesting and endearing story through witty dialogue, fun little character skits and some awesome set pieces. Certain scenes are burned into my memory: the first encounter with Black Waltz, meeting Quina for the first time, getting to play as Beatrix and seeing Alexander fight Bahamut. If you’ve ever played Final Fantasy IX, you may have trouble remembering little details from these events but the broad strokes stay with you much like vague memories of favorite books from your youth.

Final Fantasy IX is the quintessential JRPG. There are random encounters. There are hundreds of abilities and spells to be learned. There are dudes with spiky hair. It wears its JRPG heart on its sleeve. The battle system is built around the series’ staple Active Time Battle (ATB) formula and falling into a groove with it feels like wearing a favorite pair of jeans. For some people, the turn based nature is too slow. Other people feel too much pressure and can’t decide what action to take. For me, it all flows perfectly with a mix of speed and planning. ATB is my favorite battle system and it’s a shame that most games have abandoned it to the 90’s.

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The ATB system might be a thing of the past but it’s still remarkably fun to return to. (Image courtesy of Square)

On the other end of the spectrum from the mechanics, the art and music of Final Fantasy IX are top tier with series character designer Yoshitaka Amano and composer Nobuo Uematsu firing on all cylinders. Everything from the no-name NPCs to the cities and towns you visit feels designed, crafted and personalized which gives the game a human aura that is impossible to replicate. This beautiful game presents itself to you exactly the way it wants to be seen. Exploring the colorful world is made all the better by Uematsu’s score. Each town is paired with an appropriate theme to fit the mood and hearing a few seconds of anyone of those songs will instantly transport you back into the game. The main battle theme is a particular highlight as it makes calls back to the music from the original Final Fantasy games. The ending boss battle music may be one of my favorite songs of all time. Trust me, there is nothing better than riding your bike at night, listening to the soundtrack from Final Fantasy IX.

I’ve bored you enough and you either already knew all this stuff, you stopped reading after the first paragraph or you are tracking down a copy of FF IX right now. Final Fantasy IX is my favorite game from my favorite game series and it deserves all the praise it gets. If modern JRPGs have soured your opinion of the genre, dig out your old PlayStation and try some from the golden era of the 90’s and early 00’s. Final Fantasy IX is the perfect entry point and you’ll soon find yourself lost in its world and story, hoping it will never end.

4. DREW BEYER: THE LEGEND OF ZELDA MAJORA’S MASK

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When it comes to picking my all-time favorite game, it comes down to one of three options. It’s either Monster Hunter Freedom Unite, Banjo-Kazooie, or Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Those three games form what I consider the triforce of gaming; Unite represents gameplay, being complex and responsive, difficult but fair, and possessing a high skill ceiling for mastery. Banjo-Kazooie represents the social aspect of my favorite hobby, being a game that my mom and I share even to this day. Majora’s Mask represents storytelling and immersion, as I consider Termina the most well-realized game world I’ve ever explored. While I’ve invested hours upon hours into all three of these games, ultimately Majora’s Mask edges out the other two because I find storytelling the most compelling part of this trinity.

I play games to immerse myself in other worlds, which is why I value atmosphere and interaction so highly. Majora’s Mask shows what other games tell. You’re not simply told the world is in peril; once the three day countdown ends, the moon collides with Clock Town and razes Termina into nothing. While this cataclysm translates into a non-standard game over, it’s a real and persistent threat that never stops looming over your head. You have the ability to restart the cycle at will, but not to escape it. Saving Termina means ending the cycle, and you can only end the cycle from inside. This time limit remains one of the most creative integrations of story and gameplay- you’re never punished for running out of time, but you do suffer a penalty.

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Keep your eye on the three day countdown. (Image courtesy of VentureBeat)

Majora’s Mask epitomizes what I love most about my favorite hobby and what sets it apart from other forms of art and entertainment. The story of Link, the Skull Kid, and Termina couldn’t be told in a non-interactive medium, because it revolves around atmosphere. What resonates with me about the world of Termina is the feeling of helplessness and doom that pervades Link’s entire quest, and the immense satisfaction that comes from beating the nigh-impossible odds. The reward for saving the virtual world feels so much more earned when you have to crawl your way through cycle after cycle of bleak, crushing failure in order to do it.

Games have told deeper, more emotionally honest stories, but very few come close to weaving such a good game-story and none have done it better. Much like the beloved Silent Hill games, Majora’s Mask thrives on making the player feel like they’re weak, isolated, and alone. This Link isn’t the destined hero, awaited by the townsfolk to save the day, he’s a kid in over his head, trying his best. It’s the small moments that differentiate this game-story from stories that happen to be told through games- take too long on a puzzle, and the moon draws closer. There’s no pre-rendered punishment, no NPC berating you for taking too long, just a grinning harbinger of death drawing ever closer because you’re too slow. You’re the only one who knows or cares that you’re restarting the cycle, and that’s really all that matters.

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Dodongos explode when killed, because no victory in Majora’s Mask is easy. (image courtesy of Guide2Games)

Perhaps what’s most incredible about Majora’s Mask is how well it disguises the maturity and depth of its own story. No character ever spouts this grand philosophy about futility and perseverance; it’s hard coded into the mechanics and experience of playing the game. The themes reveal themselves through the medium, which is awesome. It’s entirely possible to play the game without paying attention to any of this, and I love that. Majora’s Mask respects the player and the sanctity of their individual experience- you take what you want from the story rather than having it forced upon you. And that’s the best kind of game story- it’s full of depth and complexity while also being completely ignorable.

Taken solely as a game, Majora’s Mask struggles without the rose tint offered by nostalgia blindness, relying on some very obtuse hints and a bit too much backtracking for modern sensibilities, but I couldn’t care less. It’s an incredibly satisfying and frequently bewildering game. For instance, there’s an entire side mission dedicated to preventing aliens from stealing cows. It’s much darker and much weirder than most other Nintendo games, and while I’m always hoping they’re be a spiritual successor down the road, I’m grateful that they’ve never tried to force the lightning into another bottle. They captured it once, and that one time is good enough for me.

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