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We’ve already named Soul Calibur the best Dreamcast game of all time, so that automatically guarantees it a place on this list. After years of blurry textures (on N64) and lethally sharp, jaggy polygons (on PS1), seeing these silky smooth fighters prance across the screen was like rubbing a decade’s worth of dirt out of our eyes. For the first time in years, it felt like we had a truly enviable console on our hands.
Soul Calibur represented more than a more powerful piece of gaming tech. It suggested Sega was on track to recover from the Saturn, and that the Dreamcast could restore the company’s Genesis-era popularity. With a game this clean, this ridiculously fun to play (and to watch) on day one, surely the next five years would be filled with even greater works. As you likely know, five years later Sega was out of the hardware business entirely, so Soul Calibur wasn’t strong enough to carry an entire machine (nor atone for Sega’s myriad mistakes), but it did move a boatload of consoles in that crucial holiday season and make us feel, even if just for a few months, that Sega had found its new golden goose.
Originally meant for both PC and Mac, Halo ended up as the single most important release for the original Xbox, ushering in a new age of copycat shooters and, most importantly, a newfound industry emphasis on multiplayer. Even though Xbox Live wasn’t around for the ’01 launch, the innumerable LAN parties that erupted – from console gamers, not hardcore PC techies – changed the gaming landscape forever.
Above: Plus it was full of fun ways to dick around
Halo offered a fresh yet familiar take on the well-tread FPS genre, throwing in a great mix of tunnel shooting, vehicular combat and wide-open areas with the titular halo floating in the sky, plus the entire campaign available in co-op years before that became a major selling point. Cut to today, where Halo is a franchise so huge it has a near-constant stream of merchandise and routinely debuts at the top of the charts. If there had been no Halo, there’s a very good chance the Xbox would have floundered, making it an indispensable part of the system’s launch lineup.
Halo’s also partly responsible for the rise of machinima, specifically the hugely successful Red vs Blue series. Sure, people had used in-game graphics to make mini-movies prior to Halo, but Red vs Blue escalated and popularized the craft into totally watchable vignettes. In short, Halo sold five million copies, kickstarted console multiplayer and brought a new medium to the mainstream. Any one of those is an important milestone. All three makes it one of the most important games of all time, launch or not.
When the N64 launched, it was one of the most feverishly sought-after products that holiday season (supposedly bested only by Tickle Me Elmo). With a launch consisting of just two (yes TWO) games, they had to be pretty damn good to justify all that hype. And if you were around for said hype, you know that Super Mario 64 lived up to 100% of the hyperbole (Pilotwings 64, not as much).
Nintendo more or less invented and perfected the 3D platformer as we know it, and did so in just one try. It dragged Mario out of his 2D prison and set him loose in (at the time) breathtakingly realized worlds that stretched out in all directions. From sunken pirate ships to erupting volcanoes to a 10-story grandfather clock, each world you visited felt like creativity incarnate. The appeal of this 3D reinvention was so strong it carried the entire system through its labored existence, remaining its best game from the moment it launched until the depressing, empty funeral in 2001.
Why no Super Mario World? As good as it was (which is damn good, btw), it was neither the game-changer of our number two entry, nor was it the mind-blowing recreation that was Mario 64. Plus, do you really want three out of seven entries on this list to be Mario games?