The Greatest Game: Final Fantasy VII (1997)
It’s not necessarily the “best” game the PSone ever saw (and internet flame wars still rage to this day over whether it was ever any good at all), but when Final Fantasy VII was released in 1997, it was nothing less than a revolution in console-game storytelling. For many, FFVII was the first role-playing game they ever played, and it was the first to really prove that the genre could not only tell epic stories, but dazzlingly pretty ones as well. Almost single-handedly, it turned RPGs – long the numbers-heavy domain of the ultra-hardcore – into a mainstream phenomenon.
FFVII also remains one of the great shared experiences from the PlayStation years. Who doesn’t remember Aerith’s death, Sephiroth’s transformation or Cloud’s backslide into insanity after discovering the truth behind his own identity? Who didn’t trawl underwater canyons in search of the Emerald Weapon, or spend hours breeding Chocobos so they could eventually find the devastating Knights of the Round materia?
Sure, Final Fantasy VIII and IX improved on its formula, but when you think “PlayStation,” do you think of Squall or Zidane? Or do you think of the game that spawned a miniature empire of spinoffs, sequels, toys and animation, and still endures today as a franchise unto itself? No other PSone game had the impact FFVII did – not even…
The second greatest: Metal Gear Solid (1998)
With high production values - sound design, cutscenes and voice acting – Metal Gear Solid revolutionized storytelling and gameplay in the 3D era. Not only did this first entry in the franchise reinvent the modern action game using stealth, but it also challenged players through adult themes like the effect of war on soldiers, the dangers of cloning, the threat of nuclear weaponry and environmental concerns.
The Greatest Game: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004)
No game series better defined the PS2 era than Grand Theft Auto, and no GTA was as impressive in scale or scope as San Andreas. Spanning a state-sized landmass that included three full-sized cities, a few small towns and wilderness areas that ranged from pine forests to vast deserts, SA was, and still is, one of the biggest adventures ever pulled off on a console.
It’s also one of the best; for all its grand scale, SA still managed to have the tight gameplay, involving plot and wry sense of humor that GTA is known for. Carl “CJ” Johnson turned out to be one of the series’ most sympathetic and identifiable protagonists the series, and it was easy to get sucked into his convoluted story of gang warfare, corrupt cops, government conspiracies and high-stakes robbery. It was even easier to get sucked into the state itself, which offered up endless avenues of exploration and cool things to do.
Perhaps most significantly, GTA: San Andreas showed us that the PS2 was capable of beautiful, amazing things, something we could stand to remember now that it’s been relegated mostly to third-rate titles that publishers claim are only crappy because of the limitations of the system.
The second greatest: Okami (2006)
More than just Sony’s cel-shaded Zelda-killer, Okami is a triumph of graphics and design... one of the few games that prove this hobby can be an art. After traversing the epic adventure and healing the captivating lands you encounter, we challenge you not to weep during the emotional ending.
The Greatest Game (so far): Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (2008)
We know, it’s a little premature to be calling out the “greatest” game on a platform that’s not even three years old, but there’s no denying that Metal Gear Solid 4 is an incredible achievement In storytelling, visuals and gameplay (unless of course you haven’t played it, in which case you’re probably denying it right now). Ignore the fact that its hero is a mustachioed old fart, or that its cartoonish villains contrast sharply with its more serious, realistic battlefields; MGS4 redefines what a “stealth action” game can be.
It’s linear, but it never quite feels that way, and you’ll almost always have the option of slipping through its high-tech active warzones undetected, killing everything that stands in your way with a staggering array of firepower, or just about every conceivable strategy in between. It’s also the most accessible installment of MGS since the first one, putting aside the series’ tirades about nuclear proliferation in favor of a relatively tight plot that wraps up the story in a surprisingly satisfying way. And then there’s the endless online play, which certainly doesn’t hurt.
Say what you will about its stupidly long interactive cutscenes, but no other game exclusive to the PS3 is quite as moving, interesting or adept at showing off what the console can do as MGS4.
The second greatest: LittleBigPlanet (2008)
LittleBigPlanet is one of the prettiest, most addictively adorable games we’ve ever seen, and using it to create new levels is actually more fun than hopping through them as a casual player. If you own a PS3 and possess even a shred of creativity, you owe it to yourself to at least try this.
The Greatest Game: Halo 2 (2004)
The original Halo was a groundbreaking and hype-worthy shooter, one that single-handedly sold gamers on the potential and promise of Microsoft’s foray into consoles. The sequel could have easily settled. Gamers would have been happy with a “slightly better” Halo, a “marginally improved” Halo or a Halo with two to three bullet points of “additional features.”
Instead, they witnessed a revolution. Yes, the action was improved, with dual weapon wielding, anytime vehicle jacking and access to the iconic energy sword. Yes, the plot was superior, with the revelation of a Covenant protagonist and a morally ambiguous, less black-and-white universe. Of course the graphics were enhanced, to the point that many people had trouble telling Halo 2 and Halo 3 apart at first glance.
What cemented the Xbox’s reputation and changed the direction of the industry as a whole, however, was this successor’s incredibly expanded multiplayer. Taking the already popular 16-player matches out of the system-linked college dorms and unleashing them upon the entire community over Xbox Live is what defined the console... and possibly gaming as we know it today.
The second greatest: Knights of the Old Republic (2003)
Master Chief had the deathmatch demographic all sewn up, but how do you convince everyone else to give the Bill Gates box a try? Exclusivity on the best RPG in years, and the greatest Star Wars story written since The Empire Strikes Back, certainly couldn’t hurt.
The Greatest Game (so far): Gears of War (2006)
What gaming trends have you noticed over the past few years? Overall, graphics have grown grittier, sacrificing color for realism. Stories have become bleaker, trading cartoon fantasy and whimsy for seriousness and weight. Multiplayer matches are less forgiving while cooperative teamwork is more encouraged. And perhaps most obviously, the blood, gore and violence has been amplified to unbelievable extremes.
Think about it. Ignoring the Wii and its unique contribution of wand-waving baby adventures, the source of this generation’s nearly every trend can be traced back to one game: Gears of War. Would you joke about “next-gen brown” if the planet of Sera was not so ravaged by war? Would the dark narratives of BioShock and Fallout 3 have been so well received without a depressing primer from Marcus Fenix? Would our Best Co-op of 2008 feature have had any serious challengers if not for this shooter’s original breakthrough? Would Dead Space even exist if Gears of War hadn’t added that flesh-chewing, gut-spewing chainsaw?
The sequel was an improvement in many ways, but nothing tops the impact and influence of this first entry. And although you may tire of the above trends’ appearances in other games, you must admit that they merged most harmoniously – and masterfully – right here.
The second greatest: Rock Band (2007)
Next up: A Sega smorgasbord. The victors on Genesis, Dreamcast, Saturn, and yes, Game Gear...
We tried to avoid multi-platform releases as best we could for this feature, but Rock Band and the Xbox 360 just go too damn well together. The microphone and drums helped transform Microsoft’s online hub from a simple shooting gallery into a true social gathering. Competition was finally joined by creative camaraderie and cooperation.