...And yet more gaming.

Well, I've been a busy boy this past month! I've fully embraced modern gaming, it would seem. Either that or I've been lucky enough to pop my head in at a time when a bunch of great games have turned up.

I finished Mass Effect, which pleasingly lived up to all my expectations and hopes. The climactic few hours are just stunning. I've left off getting stuck into a clear game playthrough for the moment, because I've got enough else on my plate - and I don't want to overdose on one game. Completely unexpectedly I've become engrossed in Tomb Raider Anniversary on the 360. I've never liked the Tomb Raider games before, mainly due to the awful control scheme. I tried the first one on the Playstation and just couldn't get on with it at all. As each successive one came out and I heard that they hadn't altered the controls I never bothered. With Legend a couple of years ago they finally entered the modern age and gave Lara Croft a control scheme to fit a 3D action game, but I was too prejudiced against the series by then to care.

Fast forward to my current love-in with the 360 and I off-handedly decided to try Anniversary (essentially a remake/remix of the original game). It's excellent! Very much focused on large-scale puzzle solving rather than combat, and it has a great sense of exploration and ancient mystery. I'm quite fascinated by archaeology and ancient cultures to start with, so it's especially a treat to play a game immersed in that ideal. It's also very satisfying to be presented with puzzles, think them through a bit then solve them without either getting hopelessly stuck or frustrated. There's a nice natural progression to the solutions.

Anniversary is really just an upscaled last-gen game though. It's nice looking, but I find myself genuinely excited about the next Tomb Raider game - the first made specifically for the new generation of machines. It took a while, Ms. Croft, but you've won me over.

On a somewhat similar note, I picked up a PS3 and Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. I suppose it could be put in the same broad category as Tomb Raider... exploration, ancient treasure hunting, combat... but it's much more focused towards the combat. In fact, what little puzzling there has been so far is so rudimentary as to not really count. This is not a bad thing though, as the action is incredibly fun. It takes the now standard over-the-shoulder perspective for the action, complete with matching cover system. It's utterly gorgeous, and even the acting and characterizations are spot-on. It really is like playing an action adventure film.

To round off this entry there's the Wii and Super Mario Galaxy. This is the only game I wanted for the Wii, and it's easily worth the price of the machine. It's absolutely stunning in every way. Within moments the controls are second nature and you're completely immersed in this beautiful, imaginative world. The game throws an amazing amount of good stuff at you, but it doesn't linger on anything. Another developer would take some of the ideas present in Galaxy and string them out over a whole game. Not here - and it works to ensure that you're constantly delighted and surprised. Visually it's leaps and bounds over anything else I've seen on the system, and that's down to a particularly vibrant and appealing style that plays to the strengths of the machine perfectly. This is without a doubt the finest platform game since Super Mario 64, over 10 years ago.

Mass Effect

This is what I've been doing with my spare time over the past week. I've held off writing about it until I finished the game, which I did last night.

I'd lost track and mostly lost interest in Mass Effect during the middle of the year. This time last year it was a definite highlight in the 360s upcoming games for me, but as I once again drifted from new stuff I took on the opinion that I probably wouldn't be bothered enough to play it. However, as I posted recently I've got a second wind on the 360 thanks to Virtua Fighter 5 and Sega Rally among others, and the approach of release for Mass Effect got me excited again (as well as embarking on a replay of a previous Bioware RPG - Knights of the Old Republic).

Right off the bat I'll say that it's the best RPG / adventure I've played since KotOR. The game plays like a hybrid of KotOR and Gears of War - plenty of dialogue, sidequests and moral complexity fused with a very immediate real-time combat system. Simply put, getting into a fight in Mass Effect is enormous fun. You take direct control of your character, leaving your two squad mates to the devices of the AI and a simple action type you've given them. They'll act independently of you but you can take control of their psychic - Biotic, as the game has it - powers for specific tasks. As it is the feeling of being in a functioning team is very strong, and rarely will the AI do something silly.

The main portion of the game takes place over a handful of beautifully realised worlds, while the extra assignments take you to a number of barren landscapes that are fairly identikit but just diverse enough to remain fun. Just driving the Mako land vehicle around is a blast in itself, and some of the environmental effects on show are breathtaking. Scattered around these worlds are various discoveries, minerals and items, all of which add to your wallet and XP, as well as furthering the exposition on the galaxy as a whole. Generally the sidequests involve travelling somewhere and confronting an enemy force, leading to a firefight or a diplomatic solution. Which one often depends on your own handling of the situation.

Once you get command of a ship early on in the game you have free run of the galaxy. The majority of planets can't be landed on, but many can be scanned for information and resources. The background detail revealed through the writing is vast and intricate. Exploring the planets reminded me very much of Star Control 2, though there isn't the means to exploit what you find in the same way. Add a dash of resource gathering, a simple trade system and more in the way of settlements, fauna and maybe even a little ship-to-ship combat and this would edge close to a perfect game in my eyes.

Writing and voice acting is top-notch, as expected from Bioware. It's easy to forget, in the midst of Japanese RPGs, that games written for the west by western developers have long been providing high quality stories and dialogue. Really, it's so far removed from the adolescent fantasizing of the vast majority of JRPG output it's barely worth a comparison. Mass Effect provides a quite serious, hard sci-fi tale populated with totally believable characters, each with their own stories, motivations and arcs. There's even a well-handled romantic subplot. I wish they'd done more with that actually, as the idea of a romantic relationship with a teammate that can be affected by your behaviour throughout the game would be a natural progression. Imagine being dumped because your lover disagreed with your actions so much. Further plays will reveal how your allies' attitude towards you varies according to your actions, and the different paths that open up because of it.

There are a few technical issues with framerate and texture pop-in, but nothing remotely game-breaking. However, the inventory and character management interface is a nightmare. Horribly designed and ill though-out. You can't check the stats of a team member that isn't actually in your squad of three, nor can you check their equipment if you're away from your ship. Also, the inventories themselves are cumbersome - everything in one master list that you can't quickly cycle through or organize by custom fields. Equipping and upgrading is very odd indeed, and the details of it aren't covered in the manual at all (indeed the manual is pretty much useless). I pray for a patch to correct all this.

Enough gripes though. The last four hours or so of the game played exclusively on the main quest provide some of the most thrilling and satisfying gaming I've ever experienced. I don't finish games very often at all (in fact I'm pretty sure the last new release game of any significant size I played this enthusiastically and finished was KotOR). It took me just over 27 hours, and I loved every last second. I'm going to squeeze a whole lot out of repeated plays with different character types and different choices at the crucial moments. Bioware have crafted a compelling and beautiful story, and I can't wait for the next chapter.

Puzzle Quest: Addiction > Fun

Why am I still playing Puzzle Quest? I don't enjoy it, it has no particularly riveting gameplay features or a compelling story. It's completely unsatisfying to play, yet... I load it up almost every night. I used to accuse it of cheating, but I've realised there's something even worse at work here: It's so utterly random that it negates any attempts at strategic play, yet it sells itself as a game that requires such an approach. As a result it's a completely hollow experience. A game that demonstrates more strongly than most a sense of futility and pointlessness. Nothing more than a time waster.

You can't plan ahead at all, because with every turn the situation changes. Winning a match is very rarely about playing well - it's almost exclusively about being lucky. In fact, I would argue that it is 100% about being lucky. This being the case, it's simply not satisfying in any way other than the basic thrill you get out of watching matched-up pieces disappear - sometimes explode - and a new bunch dropping down. Victories aren't to be celebrated because each match could go either way. It's not an achievement.

I don't have an answer to that opening question, by the way. This is what frustrates me more than anything. I'll probably keep playing it until I've cleared it, but I can't think of any other occasion where I've stumbled so blindly through a game with such a minimal amount of enjoyment.

Virtua Fighter 5

I'm shaken. My steadfast belief that gaming is fast degenerating into an mire of creative bankruptcy is in peril. Even Halo 3 didn't have this effect on me. Some games just get better and better the more technology you throw at them, and Virtua Fighter 5 is a prime example.

I've dabbled in the VF series since its home debut on the Saturn, but I was always a fan of the faster-paced action of Street Fighter 2 or the easy returns of Tekken, and for a glorious while the undeniable visual splendour of Soul Calibur. Virtua Fighter passed me by. Too technical, too demanding. Not flashy enough.

The latest in the series has just arrived on Xbox 360 and I'm absolutely blown away by it. It's so solid, so well made, well constructed that it demands respect. That alone isn't enough for greatness of course, but the fact is that it's also a genuine pleasure to play. The wealth of options, game modes and customization possibilities could keep me going for months. I'm reminded of Soul Caliburs quest mode, the compulsion to play and play in order to unlock every last extra mode, every last gallery picture. Virtua Fighter 5 takes this to incredible lengths. Hairstyles, jewelry, outfits, accessories... dozens of each can be won or bought. It's a collect 'em up fans dream ticket.

In the end that's all superfluous though - what you're left with is the meat and bones of the finest, most intricate one-on-one combat game ever made, and that alone is enough to warrant months and years of playing.

It's a first impression - I've only spent one short evening with the game so far - but I can only see myself becoming more enamoured of it. The best game on the 360 yet.

Castlemania - Castlevania (NES)

Defeated Death using the holy water trick last night. A hollow victory considering the method I had to resort to. Bit cheesed off with this at the moment so it's going on the backburner.

Castlemania - Castlevania (NES)

losing the will to continue with this game now, after losing track of the number of attempts I've made at beating Death. On several tries I had him down to one health point before one of those effing scythes found its way to me. It's been a very long time since I've been so physically wound up by a game.

Castlemania - Castlevania (NES)

Stage 15 - Medusa heads coming from both directions + axe-throwing knights. Lovely. Timing your jumps to avoid the heads while timing your hits on the knights to avoid the axes makes for a pleasant experience. I made it to Death, but the pitiful amount of health I had left ensured I lasted approximately 3 seconds.

That ain't friendly.

Castlemania - Castlevania (NES)

Stage 13... I start off grinning ear to ear as yet another classic tune starts up (Heart of Fire). The grin turns upside-down pretty quickly when I'm faced with skeleton bone-lobbers and hunchback jumpy guys all at once. At one point a skeleton leaves the screen completely then jumps back on, killing me. It's the standard platformer practise of throwing several different obstacles at you - all of which have to be avoided in different ways, which usually means avoiding one puts you in danger from the other.

Thought I'd have a quick bash on Mega Man and was quickly reminded why I didn't choose to tackle that particular series.



Castlemania - Castlevania (NES)

That was a pain in the arse.

The stage 12 boss proved to be a bit annoying... it's a combination of Frankenstein's Monster and one of the little jumping guys - who also fires shots at you. Again, the stopwatch doesn't work, so I can assume it's not going to from now on (unless it only freezes life, and the last two bosses have been undead?). Anyway, much, much restarting was done until I got into to the mindset of being patient. Usually I'd just go in and try to thrash the boss before it did the same to me. The problem with that is... going toe-to-toe with a boss doesn't work out too well does it? The Big Guy himself doesn't actually pose much of a threat, he just shuffles back and forth, but it's him you need to hit. The little guys jumps all over the screen and does quite a bit of damage by both hitting you physically and with his slow-moving shots. I found that if you hit the little guy he freezes for a couple of seconds, and in that time you can get a few hits in on Frankie. Still, it was a close thing with a great deal of luck involved.

There were a lot of unnecessary deaths throughout this stage thanks to iffy collision detection and a couple of unfair moments. Only the boss had me chewing the pad and swearing though. It can only get worse I expect!

Castlemania - Castlevania (NES)


Second crack at Castlevania. The Medusa heads are still the most annoying things in the game, but those little guys that jump around you come a close second. Got to the beginning of stage 4 where I suffered some unfortunate jumping problems (jumping over water while trying to avoid flying enemies). Progress is swift though, considering this was my second ever go on the game. I've found that the way to beat bosses is to simply make sure you have the stopwatch and just freeze them and thrash. I wonder if that will work all the way through...?

Startropics

I didn't really want to go to bed this morning, so around 4am I decided to start playing random NES stuff. I settled on Startropics and was immediately charmed. It's really simple and linear and holds you hand tightly, but it's also a lot of fun. There's overworld exploration and conversations with NPCs, then you're handed a quest and you venture into some dungeon or similar to carry it out. There it zooms in a bit and you have a very Zelda-esque series of rooms you need to progress through. There are monsters, switch puzzles (albeit very basic) and boss encounters.

It's got a bit of the stiffness of the 8-bit era, but on the whole it plays well. I think I'm going to stick with it.

Back to basics

I don't do anywhere near enough drawing (in fact, I barely do any). I don't really enjoy it and always have to break through a boredom / disinterest threshold soon after I've started. However, I am making a concerted effort to start drawing stuff and keep at it - it's pretty important after all!

Castlemania - Castlevania (NES)

Ouch.

Just had my first proper crack at this one. Apart from some glitches it actually plays pretty well (I fell clean through a moving platform at one point). Lost my first life to the first boss before coming back and spamming magic axes at it, then I succumbed a couple of times to the spiky presses on level 2 - which have a very unforgiving detection and timing. Also got my first NES taste of those damned Medusa heads, which have wound me up in every version I've played. Still, lessons learned!

Castlemania - The Mission

OK... so I had an idea today. Probably one of my more stupid ideas, but at the moment I'm quite excited and up for it. I was thinking about how I tend to sample a lot of games but stick with very few - even when I'm very much enjoying the ones I move away from. This got me thinking about the many classics I've missed out on over the years. Games I've played, sure, but not ones I've finished or even put any decent effort into.

So, seeing as exciting new games are thin on the ground and I'm a grumpy old retrohead anyway I've decided on a mission. I'm going to take a classic game series and play through it from the debut title to the most recent - to completion. No abandoning because I'm having trouble with a boss, no drifting away because some new RPG comes out that I want to play 10 hours of then forget about. Nope, I'm going to go back to the old days in both respects: old games and the old attitude I used to have about them - that I would beat the damn things.

Choosing the series came pretty easily, though I whittled it down from a shortlist. I settled on Castlevania - a series I've dabbled in to various degrees and been thrilled and frustrated by, but one that I've not really put a lot of effort into (the closest I've come to finishing one was 95% or so on Circle of the Moon, but gave up on being unable to defeat Dracula). It's remained resolutely 2D for the most part, and even the entries that have gone into 3D have only done so in a limited manner - unlike Metroids move into the first-person realm (the one reason that series was discarded). I like the style of game it's developed into but in the past I've had issues with frustrating bosses. I gave in too easily! The earlier games make a refreshing return to simpler A-Z platforming, too, and to my shame I can admit I've barely touched any of the NES entires before.

So, without further ado here's the list, in the order I'll be playing them. Each will be completed before I move onto the next. One caveat I have is that I only need to see a victory screen - it doesn't have to be a 100% effort (in the case of those titles where exploration and item collection are factored into the completion rating).

Castlevania - NES
Castlevania II: Simon's Quest - NES
The Castlevania Adventure - Game Boy
Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse - NES
Super Castlevania IV - SNES
Castlevania II: Belmot's Revenge - Game Boy Color
Akumajo Dracula X: Rondo of Blood - PC Engine
Demon Castle Dracula X68000 - Sharp X68000
Castlevania Bloodlines - Megadrive
Castlevania Dracula X - SNES
Castlevania Symphony of the Night - Playstation
Castlevania Legends - Game Boy
Castlevania 64 - N64
Castlevania Legacy of Darkness - N64
Castlevania Circle of the Moon - Game Boy Advance
Castlevania Harmony of Dissonance - Game Boy Advance
Castlevania Aria of Sorrow - Game Boy Advance
Castlevania Lament of Innocence - Playstation 2
Castlevania Dawn of Sorrow - Nintendo DS
Castlevania Curse of Darkness - Playstation 2
Castlevania Portrait of Ruin - Nintendo DS
Castlevania Dracula X Chronicles - Playstation Portable

There was an MSX game that came out prior to the NES one, but as far as I can tell it's the same thing...

Well. I can say no more other than: updates will be forthcoming!

Halo 3

Well it's finally here, and it's really, really good. Best of all I seem to be able to play it without motion-sickness problems, which is a huge relief. I still get a little bit queasy when the action takes place in cramped areas with a lot of movement, but even then it's almost insignificant - certainly not enough to stop me playing. I don't know what it is about the movement of Halo that makes it different to any other FPS in that regard, but I am extremely thankful for it.

As for the game itself... it's Halo, but it's Halo polished and refined to perfection. It won't convert anyone who didn't like the first two but for those of us that do it builds and expands on what's great already and offers up plenty of new elements. At the moment I'm playing through the solo campaign mode on Heroic difficulty. I haven't touched the online stuff yet, but it's obvious from the reaction across the media and the net that online Halo 3 will be played for years. Endlessly customizable multiplayer maps added to Bungie's own added content will see to that. There's so much in there it's staggering.

My favourite thing of all though is the Theatre Mode. Evey time you play a session it records the game to the hard drive, and you can play it back from any viewpoint, edit clips and take screenshots. It's an awesome tool for revising strategies, coming up with dramatic scenes or just reliving the action. It also brilliantly shows off the artistry in the visuals.

So yes - the wait was worth it. The game completely lives up to my expectations so far, and it's justified in getting all the praise it is.


Persona 3 and RPGs

I've come to a conclusion on the seemingly random nature of my affinity for RPG videogames. I'm known as something of an RPG nut, but it's really an erroneous label. The truth is I try a lot of RPGs - but there are very, very few that I stick with and enjoy. I always seem to be on the hunt for an epic game that's going to engross me the way Phantasy Star, Final Fantasy VII or Vagrant Story did (and do).

So why, after trying and casting aside literally dozens of popular RPGs over the past few years has Person 3 stuck with me so emphatically? The answer, I think, is that it's significantly different to the traditional Japanese RPG, or at least my experience of it. There seems to be a reason to play it other than the compulsion to level up... it's fun to actually play.

I start playing most JRPGs full of enthusiasm and good intentions, but those quickly drain out of me as the inevitable 'RPG guilt' takes over. This is the overwhelming feeling that embarking on what typically amounts to 50+ hours of save-the-world, level-grinding gameplay is an inexcusable waste of time. An almost self-loathing feeling that comes over me after spending several hours playing a game that I'm not really enjoying all that much, but am for some reason compelled to attempt.

Persona 3 is different. It boasts over 70 hours of game time on the case, and it mainly consists of fighting repetitive battles to boost stats, with the ultimate goal of taking down a succession of boss monsters. If this were all there was to it, and if it played similarly to any other JRPG I wouldn't give it a second thought. Thankfully though, it's quite unlike any JRPG I've ever played. The easiest way to describe it is a cross between Tokimeki Memorial and Rogue. Not the most obvious match-up! By day the focus is on attending school, doing well in studies, and cultivating social networks. All these things constitute part of the stat levelling system in the game. Sing at the karaoke bar and your courage will rise... answer questions in class correctly and your charm and academics benefit. All these behind-the-scenes elements factor into your battle abilities, but it's all nicely hidden and to be honest it's refreshing to not be assaulted with the minutiae of character growth sometimes.

The Roguelike aspect comes in the form of a demonic tower named Tartarus that has to be scaled as the game progresses, each floor layout randomly generated, and offering up opportunities for more straightforward levelling up, items and boss battles every few floors.

The entire gameworld consists of the high school, a few locations in the city, and Tartarus. Major events in the plot are determined by the calendar (for example some kind of large-scale demon activity on each full moon), and day-to-day life is chopped up into sections where sometimes you get to pick an activity or social event to influence your growth. At midnight every night you have the choice of whether to venture into Tartarus or not (sometimes individuals will be too tired or sick to go adventuring, and need nights off).

Getting back to my original point, obviously this represents a substantially different structure to the standard fare. Yes, different RPGs have their different combat systems and different skill systems, but when it comes right down to it the structure and essential gameplay of them remains very conservative. Personified completely by Dragon Quest VIII, which is to all intents and purposes exactly the same game as Dragon Quest I. The graphical finery and vocal work and the substantial charms they bring aren't enough to keep me playing, because I've done all this before. It's not offering anything new to play. I admire Nippon Ichi SRPGs, but whenever I tinker with them I always come to the same conclusion: Why don't I just play Disgaea and be done with the rest?

Persona 3s fresh approach has me playing for sessions of several hours without the faintest hint of RPG guilt. I realised this was the same with Valkyrie Profile, and why it became the first RPG in over 5 years (since Vagrant Story debuted) that I avidly played through to completion. This is why I adore Final Fantasy XII, because regardless of my admiration for the team that created it, if it had simply been another in the long line of traditional Final Fantasies I would not have bothered to play it for more than a couple of hours, out of curiosity. As it is it's so radically different to its predecessors that it really does feel like a completely different game and a new experience.

It's not enough for me to be obsessed with stats and leveling up, or even to be gripped by a good story anymore. There has to be something in the very core of the game mechanic that I haven't experienced before, and that presents a fun challenge in addition to those other things.

I've happily come to terms with the notion of getting a great, fresh, compelling RPG every few years. If nothing else, it at least gives me enough free time to actually play other genres.

1 - Dungeon Master (Amiga / Atari ST / PC)

And so we have it. My all-time favourite game. It's held onto the top spot for just under 20 years now, and weathered powerful attacks on its position from some of the other games in this list. Whenever I come back to it though I find it as compelling, fresh and addictive as ever. I've lost count of the number of times I've completed it yet I still relish every new start. It's a masterpiece of design, presentation and interface. It's smart and scary. It's amazing.

A friend of mine lent this to me - it must have been in early 1988 - along with some other games for the Atari ST. He didn't think much of it but thought I might like it. I watched my brother struggle with it for a bit, get killed by the first creature and dismiss it, but there was something there that fascinated me and I found myself loading it up whenever I could get onto the ST. Soon I was raving about it to my friend, who then gave it another shot and fell as much in love with it as I did.

I hadn't played anything like this before. A realtime environment, cunningly designed and filled with monsters, puzzles and riches. A freeform character levelling system and a seamless interface that had you interacting directly with the environment via the disembodied hand-cursor. That interface lent a strong sense of connection to the game along with the clean visuals, with every option no more that a couple of clicks away.

The magic system was rooted in a common-sense reality, made up of runes representing different forms, elements, alignments, etc. The specific spells were drip-fed to you as you progressed deeper, but a bit of savvy thinking and experimentation would unlock their power much sooner - if you had the resources to handle them. Characters progressed and became more proficient in the actions they practised. You could concentrate one characters' efforts towards destructive magic, another towards mélee combat, or have them Jack-of-all-trades. You could take one, two, three or four champions with you.

The design of the dungeon itself was a work of genius. After a fairly linear first half, the deeper levels opened up in all kinds of ways, and interconnected via a series of hidden stairways. The feeling of immersion in the place was absolute. I remember the first time I journeyed down to the deepest levels, and having the overwhelming sense that the entrance was a distant, unreachable memory. Each new descent brought a new creature or two to the roster, and a new challenge in dealing with them. The most ferocious and deadly of all reserved for the 14th, deepest level.

I remember level 12, keeping my starving party alive on stamina and health potions potions while battling against Chaos Knights. I remember jumping out of my chair on hearing a Magenta Worm attack me from the side. I remember the weird calm in the centre that is level 7, the epic battle against a room packed full of giant rats on level 9, which provided me with an almost endless supply of food. Most of all though I remember the final confrontation with Lord Chaos - a desperate, nerve-wracking test of dexterity that had my heart pounding as hard as any arcade game.

Dungeon Master lives on thanks to a couple of remake projects - the original games included in their entirety but with the capacity for total customization. The groundwork laid down by the interface has been put to amazing use by some talented individuals, keeping both the original game alive and expanding its potential. It's the kind of game that encourages that level of dedication and following, and I for one am grateful to be part of it.

2 - Phantasy Star Online (Dreamcast / Gamecube)

I can barely put into words my feelings about Phantasy Star Online. Along with many people it was my first real online gaming experience, and the early days of the Dreamcast version were a gaming Utopia filled with friendly and helpful people. The universal chat interface brought players together in a beautiful way, and spending nights dropping into random games with complete strangers was a joy. The camaraderie was amazing, uplifting. High-level players would happily escort new people through a tough area. Gifts were given freely. The nature of the game engendered a community spirit unlike anything else.

After the hackers started in on things we marshalled ourselves together in more tightly-knit groups, locking games and giving out passwords only to trusted players. This only served to strengthen and solidify friendships though, and allowed for the more focused and demanding aspects of the game to be taken on. Challenge Mode demanded a solid unit, and we took up the challenge and met it. The intense co-operative team play of Challenge Mode PSO remains my pinnacle of gaming experiences.

All this is without talking about the game itself, though. PSO was unique in its aesthetics - everything from the visual style to the music was fresh and new, and so intrinsically linked to fond memories that simply thinking about the opening bars of the Forest theme triggers a wave of emotion. The gameplay was simple - Gauntlet in space, Diablo in space... but it was direct and immediate. An online RPG where arcade game skills mattered. The interface was clean and necessarily fast, with shortcuts configured to vital items and techniques.

Then there was the RPG aspect of it. Level-building, the collection of better equipment. In the pre-hack days we used to marvel at a player unveiling some mythical rare weapon. The Spread Needle, the Crazy Tune, the Twin Brand. Owning these things became an obsessive, almost quixotic quest. Beyond that there was the Mag raising. Your little robotic buddy, always at your side could be carefully manipulated into a variety of forms, and players became obsessed with raising particular types, or better yet finding a super-rare Mag Cell that would instantly transform it into one of eight special forms.

The game comprised only four main levels, split into two or three areas each, yet we played them over and over again for literally years. And happily, too. Just being in the game was cosy, it was so inviting. Everything just felt so right.

For a few years Sonic Team gave us a dose of pure gaming paradise, the likes of which I doubt I'll ever see or experience again.

3 - Star Control 2 (PC)

I was introduced to Star Control 2 by way of the Ur-Quan Masters - a free remake made possible when the original creators released the source code into the open-source community.

It's an epic space adventure / strategy / arcade game. Hard to define, in fact, because it does so many things so well. It's completely open-ended, presenting the player with a galaxy to explore and exploit, technologies to acquire and use, alien races to contact and communicate with (sometimes with hilarious results - the script for SC2 is among the best I've ever seen in a game), forge allegiances, make war, engage in ship-to-ship combat... there's so much to do it's mind-boggling.

Being a space game it doesn't have to do much to appeal to me visually, and while it's quite basic compared to modern efforts it still has a very attractive, bright and colourful VGA style. The atmosphere is helped no end by some excellent music and ambience.

The short end of it is that Star Control 2 is comprised of several types and facets of gaming that I am a complete sucker for. There are trading games, combat games, exploration games, strategy games, even diplomacy games that I've enjoyed, but this one takes all those things and mixes them together in one glorious package. Some games you play for a quick fix, and others you settle down with for years. Star Control 2 is firmly and permanently in the latter camp.

4 - Chaos (Spectrum)

I bought Chaos for 50p. I probably bought it because it was 50p. I mean, how could you go wrong for that? Not very, as it turned out. On the Spectrum I probably played Chaos only slightly less than Elite, and I'm still playing it today.

On the surface Chaos is deceptively simple, and seems almost throwaway. The graphics are modest even by Spectrum standards, the sound effects rudimentary, and the overall presentation of the game is very basic. None of that matters though, because bubbling under that surface is a strategy masterpiece that still outclasses its brethren in the genre.

Up to 8 wizards do battle in an arena with a variety of spells that their disposal. Creatures can be summoned, enhancements cast on the wizards themselves, fires started, magical woods created, lightning bolts fired... there's a large range of magics available to each player, each with its own chance of success. For example - keep casting chaotic spells and the chaos-alignment increases, making subsequent chaos spells easier to cast. Each turn the players get to choose and attempt to cast a spell, then move themselves and whatever allies they have. Directly attacking an enemy is simply a case of trying to move into its spot, either by land or air. Distance attacks and offensive spells have to be executed within range. Victory goes to the last wizard standing.

This simple premise soon blooms into a very tactical game. After a few rounds the boards is teeming with creatures and obstacles, all out for one thing: the destruction of their enemies. Players can hide inside citadels or forests for a few turns, they can mount their own ridable creatures or arm up and go into direct combat themselves. Different creatures affect each other in different ways.

Something I always liked about Chaos is the fact that it never lets on how well your wizard and creatures are doing... whether they're fit as a fiddle or at deaths door. Every attack on your wizard is a painfully tense moment. Will they survive or be wiped out? The death of a wizard is always a fun moment, as he explodes in 8 directions, taking all his creations with him.

With such a range of options, numbers of players and spell choices no two games of Chaos are ever remotely the same, which is why over 20 years on it's still my strategy game of choice.

5 - Typhoon 2001 (PC)

I absolutely adore the game design of Tempest, and while the original still looks nice and plays a decent game, the idea really shone when Jeff Minter took it and gave it a total makeover for the Jaguar. Since then it's gone through many incarnations on many platforms, but it's retained that manic eye-melting formula. Typhoon 2001 - a freeware, homebrewed tribute - is the finest version I've played yet.

It's the kind of game that only makes sense to the person playing it (and even then only some of the time). It's completely exhilarating, and sometimes overwhelmingly frantic. Typhoon 2001 throws down the highscore gauntlet and dares you to blink. It's arcade gaming mainlined into your brain, forcing your hands to play catch-up. It's my absolute favourite dose-of-adrenaline game. The surest way into The Zone.

6 - Dungeon Crawl (PC)

My favourite Roguelike, Dungeon Crawl (specifically the tiles version) jettisons so much baggage that it makes even other Roguelikes look flabby. The premise is as simple as they come: Descend into a dungeon and kill things while searching for the Orb of Zot. There isn't even so much as a town, or any shops along the way, and it makes no concessions to sidequests.

One of the many things I love about Crawl is the persistent levels. Everywhere you've been remains intact when you return, so heading back upwards for a breather isn't a proposition filled with uncertainty. There's a great religion system at work in the game, and after a few levels the player gets to choose which deity to follow. Performing certain actions while praying can incur the wrath or favour of these deities, and each one offers a number of abilities and bonuses - if you keep them sweet.

It's also famously difficult, in fact it's fair to say that the game takes a great deal of pleasure in sending your characters into the afterlife as often and brutally as possible. But you still come back for more. I get wildly excited if a character of mine gets down to double-digit levels in the dungeon.

The tiles version benefits from (obviously) the nice graphical tileset and even mouse control - though it's best to save the mouse for inventory management.

Dungeon Crawl is really a case of wearing the name that fits. It doesn't have any pretention, it just does what it does perfectly. I find it more engrossing and fun than almost any RPG I've played.

7 - Freelancer (PC)

Despite a number of flaws I consider Freelancer to be the very best space trading and combat game I've played.

The mouse flight control feels wonderful, and after years of getting to grips with rotation, pitch, yaw and a dozen other commands, the handling of the spacecraft is actually the most fun part of the game. Gliding carefully through a debris field or circling round a huge battleship really brings home the intuitive nature of the control scheme, and simply clicking a mouse button gives access to all the menus in the game while still in flight.

Unfortunately, the combat suffers from this scheme in that it's simply a case of FPS strafe-and-shoot, most encounters coming down to who has the most powerful guns and the best shields. Still, there's no denying the excitement and dynamism of the battles, especially when there are allies involved.

The main feature of Freelancer that appeals so much to me is the sense of place it creates. Each solar system feels genuinely busy and realistic. With various ships going to and fro, radio chatter crackling all the time, police and military going about their business taking out pirates and insurgents. When I'm just sitting in space watching things go by it feels so solid and so believable.

It's aged a little in the graphics department, but that only means that I'm able to run it at full whack on my PC - and despite that I still think it has a special beauty of its own. Just the range of colours across the skies is captivating.

Freelancer has a lot to offer, and for a fan of the genre it's almost infinitely playable. It's simple enough to pick up and play without worrying about every little detail, but vast enough to have a grand adventure in.

8 - Super Mario World (Super Nintendo)

Nintendo's greatest achievement and the greatest platform game ever made. Super Mario World is an absolute masterpiece of game design that has yet to be bettered almost 20 years on. I can't decide whether that's a cause for celebration or sadness.

Nintendo took the leaps forward that had been made with Super Mario Bros. 3, polished them up a bit, expanded them and let the Super Nintendo work its magic. For a start the look is timeless. Super Mario World will look just as great in 100 years as it does today - its crisp, clean style invincible against the march of technology. It handles so well. It's a given with Nintendo that its games - especially its Mario games - would be playtested to perfection, but it's most obvious here. The entire thing is flawless.

All the greatest tricks of the genre seem to have been put to work here. Hidden exits leading to hidden levels or even entirely new areas of the map, a dash of puzzling here and there and a range of new tricks and abilities opening up new possibilities. And this was a launch game.

Amazingly, the quality and inventiveness was maintained through nearly 100 levels. Never along the way are you just fed up of playing the game. It's possible to shortcut to the end, but why would you? You want to play through all those areas because it's such damn good fun.

And yep, I found all the exits, did the star road, collected the 'Super Player' coins.

In the case of Super Mario World it would be rude not to.

9 - Vagrant Story (Playstation)

Vagrant Story is, to me, the Playstations crowning achievement. It pushed the machine to its limits technically and served up a magnificently dark, epic, intelligent adventure with incredible depth and replayability.

The unfortunate downside of its complexity is that it's reluctant to show its qualities to a casual player, and many who tried simply gave up, bewildered by its arcane combat system and seemingly impossible boss battles.

With a modicum of effort and research though that initial spike can be overcome, and the greatest RPG to grace the Playstation is the reward. It seems to me that Vagrant Story is a true labour of love for everyone involved. Coming off the success of Final Fantasy Tactics, director Yasumi Matsuno and his team from Quest got a chance to craft a game of their own, and Matsuno brought his full genius to bear on it. His brand of convoluted political intrigue served as a background for a story of one mans journey of self-discovery and redemption. Every character is full of hidden motivations and shifting allegiances, and by the time the game approaches its climax many assumptions are undermined.

The story of Vagrant Story is by far the most intriguing and compelling I've ever come across in a videogame. Lucky then, that the western localization was carried out by a tremendously talented team who relished and respected the task. It's undoubtedly among the finest translation jobs ever performed on a game.

At its heart, Vagrant Story is a dungeon-crawler. The player takes direct control of the main character and journeys through the derelict city of Lea Monde, both above and below. Along the way he is confronted with all manner of creatures from bats to dragons, beasts and supernatural beings. Combat is very much the core of the gameplay, and its here where Vagrant Story truly shines.

The player can create his own weapons and armour by combining found items of the same. By experimenting, two weapons can be used to create a new, more powerful one. Likewise with armour. Underneath the surface of this is a complex system that determines what the outcome of any combination will be, and it's the exploitation of this system that makes for one of the most compulsive aspects of the game. You will very rarely find an item as good as one you can make. It goes without saying that - for someone who tends to get addicted to the minutiae of a game - this is an irresistible draw. I once spent five hours entering and leaving one room on the off chance of the creature inside dropping a particular item I wanted. By the time I'd finished it had dropped it three times.

The combat itself has a kind of rhythm-action vibe to it, with timed button presses keeping a combo of hits going. Everything is scored, too. From your highest combo to the number of enemies you've killed with each type of weapon. It's a stat-hounds dream come true.

There's a clear game option after you complete the adventure, which allows you to start over with your stats, abilities and items intact. In fact this is the only way to complete the game 100%, as certain areas are inaccessible on the first play. I've played Vagrant Story six times over on the same file.

Last but not least goes a mention to the music. Hitoshi Sakimoto's finest hour, the score here ranges from pure ambience to grandiose battle themes. The soundscape meshing perfectly with the theme and visuals of the game.

10 - Oids (Atari ST)

Taking the top spot in my gravity games list comes Oids for the Atari ST. It's got a touch more substance than most, and even something of an emotional core, concerning itself as it does with rescuing little androids (Oids) under the oppression of nasty aliens.

You have to firstly destroy the buildings they're held in to free them, then land and let them board. Accidentally frying the Oids themselves is a traumatic experience, and is best avoided. Alien spacecraft will take exception to all this and attack you, and there are other things dotted around the landscape that affect you, such as towers that repel or attract your ship.

In gameplay terms that's all there is to it, essentially. It is, however, completely addicitve, fun and satisfying to play. What's more, there's a comprehensive level editor included for you to design your own fiendish worlds to challenge yourself or others with. The graphics are simple - minimal, even, and the sound is barely existent. Which only goes to show how great the game is regardless.

11 - Exile (Amiga)

This is a little unusual in the list, because it's a game I only discovered very recently. Sure, I was aware of its existence but I hadn't played it and never thought twice about it. I ended up trying it by default when playing around with a BBC emulator recently. I mean, when you've got a BBC emulator what do you play? Repton, Elite... and Exile.

After smacking myself 'upside the head' for a while for being ignorant of this amazing game all these years, I settled down to play it intensely and ended up favouring the Amiga version for its clarity of visuals (I spent an awfully long time stuck at the very beginning of the BBC version because I couldn't tell what anything was supposed to be). However, it remains a classic in all guises, and a genuinely amazing feat of programming and execution on the BBC.

Marrying the gravity gameplay to a sprawling, puzzle-based adventure game, Exile casts the player as an astronaut sent to a remote world to stop an insane genius from unleashing his deadly experiments on the galaxy and Earth. Arriving without equipment and low on power, you have to search for items and weapons to aid you, while fighting off the creations of the exiled madman.

The behaviour of the astronaut with regard to gravity, weather and physical interaction with other objects is so satisfying. The delicate controls beautifully responsive. It's an immense pleasure to just move around in the game, but there's a job to do. Exile can be a real head-scratcher, with some serious lateral thinking required, but it's also very accommodating to the player. You can't die in the game - you just return to your last 'remembered' position when you take too much damage (you can hold one position in memory at a time and teleport to it at will - a vital component of several puzzles).

Exile is a game that not only provides a compelling challenge and an attractive gameworld, but also has a particularly attractive feel to it. Something unique to videogames.

12 - Laser Squad (Amiga)

After many years of trying all kinds of squad-based strategy games I always come back to Laser Squad. To me it's simply never been beaten for immediacy, ease of interface and replayability. I actually have fun playing it, something that often seems lacking in other entries in the genre. There seems to be a line of complexity over which I lose interest, but Laser Squad hits it just right. I want to choose what equipment to take, and that's it. Straight into the action.

Even though there are only 6 missions they vary generously in objectives and environments, and as with any good strategy game they really come alive in multiplayer. Having said that, I never, ever tire of blowing apart the home of Sterner Regnix, or making my way cautiously through the Moonbase. Even against the computer Laser Squad is very entertaining and rewarding.

Julian Gollop has expanded his series in various directions, and Laser Squad is still going strong today, albeit in a substantially different arena. None of them have managed to top the purity of this classic.

13 - Final Fantasy VII (Playstation)

A short while after the launch of the Playstation I sold my machine, having wrung all the entertainment I was ever going to get out of Tekken and Ridge Racer and having given up on anything appealing turning up anytime soon. I dropped out of gaming completely for a year or so until Final Fantasy VII turned up.

I don't even know what compelled me to buy another machine for it. I wasn't familiar with the series, I hadn't been reading game magazines so hadn't been exposed to the preview hype, but for some reason when it hit I just had to have it. Maybe Square put something in the water.

It seems I was ready to dive back into gaming, as I spent the next few months utterly obsessed and engrossed in the game. It remains one of only two 'traditional' Final Fantasies that I can happily go back and play (the other being in this list already). Whatever magic formula Square hit upon here, it worked. Technical limitations aside the story, characters, magic system, visuals and soundtrack were as perfect as could possibly be. The game had buckets of depth: time spent idling at the Gold Saucer, the convoluted and obsessional quest for a Gold Chocobo, defeating the optional Weapons, mastering Materia, and last but not least levelling your party above and way beyond the call of duty. I've still got a save file with characters that can win the game just by counterattacking.

I love the world of Final Fantasy VII. I used to play it every night then go to work the next day and tell a friend everything I'd done and the new places I'd seen. The game is so dear to me that even the random encounters don't bother me in the slightest. I think that first play through took me somewhere around 70 hours - much, much more than any game I'd previously played.

And that death? I didn't cry, but I was very surprised and impressed, and found a whole new level of respect for the game - that it would be willing to do that. I know SEGA had done it years before in Phantasy Star 2, but I never felt it as strongly as I did here. I had spent a significant amount of time levelling the character and following her story. I should have been angry at what might have felt like wasted time, but Square pitched that moment and its aftermath so surely that it became essential to the game, and I remember feeling nothing afterwards other than an intense desire to see it through to the end.

And the first thing I did after completing it? I started over again.

14 - Radiant Silvergun (Saturn)

Forget the business about the value or otherwise of the game. Radiant Silvergun is a stone-cold classic of design and gameplay.

Taking advantage of every trick the Saturn has to offer, and pulling out a few that people thought it never could, Treasure crafted a masterpiece in the shoot 'em up genre. I didn't buy this blindly on the hype - even I'm not that daft, I downloaded a rip of it and tried it out on a modded PAL Saturn. A few hours with that slow, bordered version was enough to convince me I had to get hold of a genuine copy and a Japanese machine to play it on.

To me, Silvergun is like taking part in a big, dramatic story. It's peppered with dialogue and cutscenes - something that you tend not to see in shmups, and that lends it a quality of immersion seldom experienced. I'm not talking about The Zone here, I mean that particular feeling that what's going on in the game is actually happening. Hard to explain but there it is.

It's incredibly tough, but it's entirely possible given the effort. As with most shmups it mainly comes down to learning the patterns and best strategies to take on the bosses. And the bosses are glorious beasts - the game is essentially a boss rush with the business inbetween all about levelling your weapons and chaining for highscores. The music is essential to the experience, and the game wouldn't be half as thrilling without it.

Radiant Silvergun is one of those rare games that's almost as entertaining to watch as it is to play, because of that great sense of the dramatic. To play it though is a dream, whatever the cost.

15 - Resident Evil 2 (Playstation)

I still think Capcom got their survival horror series bang-on with this installment. It's perfectly paced, atmospheric and genuinely scary. It offers great replay value and has a great schlocky plot.

I love this game so much I pretty much forced it on a friend who isn't a fan of scary movies or games, because I was so convinced the sheer quality of the game would compel him to play and love it too, and I was right. I had played Resident Evil but it never quite clicked with me the way 2 or 3 did. I found it a little too clumsy, a little too difficult and unforgiving. When the second one came out I bought it because of the hype and, well... it's placing here speaks for itself.

The visuals have a grimy roughness necessary to the limits of the platform but also perfect for the visual style of the game. I think it still looks tremendous. The music and effects totally draw you into the world. The constant wind blowing through the streets contrasted with the eerie silence of the police station, punctuated by that classic piano piece. The voice acting is a little on the stiff side, but it's leaps and bounds over the terrible effort on the first game. It's cheesy but fits perfectly with the B-movie atmosphere.

I used to be able to ace this game, I unlocked everything and was pretty much always able to get through the whole thing without using more than a couple of health herbs. That's how much I played it. I loved the fact that it's possible to learn it in that way. There's no randomness to trip you up and frustrate you.

The thing I like most about it is the pacing. It's spot-on. The early parts of the game are pretty quiet, punctuated with action moments but on the whole it's more of a sedate puzzler. Once you get out of the police station things ramp up a little, until the finale at the lab where you're toting all kinds of firepower and running against a clock. The whole A and B scenario is a valiant idea, but it's not quite executed perfectly (some things overlap inconsistently). Still, it adds a nice twist to the game and gives at least another reason to play though it again.

16 - Sundog (Atari ST)

Ostensibly a space trading and combat game, but one with insane amounts of detail. Sundog is a game that's been bizarrely lost to the collective memory, but is every bit as classic as the finest entries in the genre.

The 'Zoomaction' system was a brilliant way of presenting the potentially complex facets of the game to the player. You never had to use anything other than the mouse. Clicking the mouse buttons took you down or up levels in the menus, and literally inside whatever vehicle or building you were in. You could walk around your ship for example and personally check on the engines or shields while in flight or even combat (racing to replace damaged shield batteries and engine parts during combat was hair-raising stuff).

There's also a pretty large RPG element. Your stats are determined at the start of the game by spending from a pool of points. Strength, Intelligence, Charisma etc. will affect your abilities in various areas in the game. You could be attacked on the street while walking to the bank, or have to persuade a character to give up some vital information. Yes, in this game you can not only land on planets, you can get out of your ship and into a car, and out of that and walk around. Be careful where you park though, or you may get a ticket! You even had to feed yourself and make sure you got enough sleep.

There is a strong storyline that develops during the course of the game, and following it will lead to an end screen (which is unusual in itself for such an open-ended genre). I never saw it though, because I always enjoyed bashing around the galaxy too much.

17 - Metal Gear Solid (Playstation)

Metal Gear Solid thrilled me like nothing before when it first came out, and I still think it's the best one in the series. Subsequent games have added complexity in both gameplay and plot, but for me they've never recaptured the drama and excitement of this entry.

One of the rare occasions where I was genuinely eager to find out what would happen next in a game story, MGS had me playing solidly (no pun intended) until the finale, and not for a single moment was I bored or frustrated or disinterested. It's a greatest hits of action gaming, every area offering a new challenge. It's plainly obvious that Hideo Kojima and his team threw everything they had at the game. They had plenty of fun breaking the fourth wall, too, leading to some very inventive and memorable moments. The variety in the boss battles was great, from hand-to-hand combat to taking out a helicopter with missiles. Though it usually comes under criticism for its aspirations to a movie-like experience people tend to forget that it's packed full of gameplay of all kinds. I never felt short-changed at all.

The sense of place is outstanding, each environment packed with details. The whole thing hangs together beautifully as a consistent setting. Even the much-derided Codec conversations don't bother me here as they did in the immediate sequel because I was so invested in the story and characters, and they helped to make it feel like I was really a part of this adventure. Alongside the Resident Evil games it has one of the best ambient soundtracks I've heard as well. From a technical standpoint it still holds up remarkably well, and I do believe that it's particular style means that it will never look bad.

Reliance on the radar system can lessen the experience, and after a couple of plays I ditched that and moved onto the harder difficulties. It becomes almost a completely new game, and a much more satisfying one.

Cinematic in the very best sense, Metal Gear Solid remains a benchmark for action gaming that its sequels have so far struggled to equal.

18 - Wonderboy III: The Dragon's Trap (Master System)

SEGA's masterpiece on the Master System, Dragon's Trap is a near-perfect platform adventure that mixes in light RPG elements as the icing on the cake.

I had greatly enjoyed Wonderboy in Monster Land, but was always frustrated by its timer and hurried nature (understandable, given its arcade origins). Dragon's Trap got rid of the linear format and laid open a world to be explored at leisure. Here were a variety of wildly different environments, challenging the player in different ways and containing plenty of secrets. The stuff of great adventures.

But the real stroke of genius was in the decision to have Wonderboy cursed and transformed into various forms throughout the game. Each form having unique abilities that allowed the player to access the level specifically designed for it, for example Mouse Man being able to stick like a spider to a particular type of block, or Lion-Man being able to slash downwards with his sword, breaking blocks below him. This Metroid-like mixture of abilities gave the game a superb freshness throughout with new challenges, and offered plenty of scope for exploration as a new form gave access to previously inaccessible rooms or areas. These would usually hold some kind of item or cash reward for players savvy enough to find them.

Like Super Mario Bros. 3 on the NES, Dragon's Trap really proved what could be done with the Master System in capable hands. It's bright and detailed, the enemies and different forms of Wonderboy superbly designed and full of character, and the areas are complemented by a range of great tunes, my favourite being the island music Side-Crawler's Dance.

It's an eternal source of sadness to me that SEGA didn't keep up the Wonderboy series and build on the promise of this classic. A couple more installments appeared on the Megadrive, but the character and even the style of game faded away. With the continued success and obvious popularity Metroid and Castlevania I can't help but think that SEGA let a really good thing go to waste.

19 - Gravitron (PC)

A homebrewed hybrid of Gravitar, Oids and Thrust, Gravitron uses a similar glowing-vector style to Thrust Xtreme for its visuals, but is more varied in its environments and elements. In addition to tight caverns to navigate there are spacemen to rescue, reactors to destroy, boulders to clear out, enemy ships, forcefields and a variety of gun emplacements to tackle. It can get pretty intense, and luckily there's a password system that allows you to start over from any level you've previously reached.

Suffice to say I'm won over by the nature of the game itself and the visuals. This is like a game created with the sole intention of appealing to me, and it's a no-brainer for inclusion in my 100 favourites.

20 - Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved (360/PC)

People tend to think I'm joking when I tell that I think Geometry Wars is the best game on the Xbox 360, but I'm completely serious. It's the game I bought a 360 to play, and it's one of the best pure highscore arcade games ever made.

Another rung on the evolutionary ladder from Robotron via Smash TV, Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved is a pure and simple arena shooter that gets progressively more manic until the player is overwhelmed. It's just a case of using skill and luck to last as long as possible.

Taking the most basic visual style - vector graphics - and putting the grunt of a machine like the 360 behind them naturally means that you can have some mindblowing effects without any loss of performance. GW is eye-candy at its most glorious, and it's always tempting to let the screen fill up with as much as possible just because it all looks so tasty.

The sound is a vital aspect, too. Every spawning enemy has a unique sound, and it's imperative that the player learns every one in order to immediately face whatever's coming next. Enemy behaviours, too, because things get pretty frantic with several types onscreen at once. Some coming directly for you, some avoiding your shots and moving away, some travelling in predetermined patterns. Threading your way through the tiniest space with dozens of enemies on your tail is heart-pounding stuff, and the game cleverly discourages the use of your limited smart bombs until it's absolutely necessary.

It's true that I love few things more than a good old highscore game, and I'm just glad that there are still a few people out there happy to make them.

21 - Ys I&II Complete (PC)

Ys came along at a time when I was really at a low in gaming, and it pretty much single-handedly revitalised my passion for the old days - or at least it made me realise I was looking for my gaming fix in the wrong places.

My only previous experience with the series was a few hours with the Master System version when it first came out. Since then Falcom has done its level best to avoid releasing or promoting the series in Europe (at least in the US they got a few more installments). Being a fan of videogame music, it was that which brought me to the games themselves.

No strangers to reinventing and remaking their classics, Falcom have released Ys I and II on many formats, but their primary concern in Japan is the PC market (console versions are normally handed out to other developers). Ys I & II Complete is obviously a remake of the first two games in the series, and things are actually very similar to the original incarnations. They went with the overhead 2D look, and the structure and control of the game remains intact. That said, the visuals have naturally undergone a transformation, making the game one of the most visually attractive RPGs out there. I don't mean in terms of graphical extravagance though - this is very much in traditional bitmaps and sprites territory - I mean that there's a charm here that the vast majority of games lack.

The attention to little details is wonderful, from grass and trees blowing in the wind to the animations of characters and animals. The large-scale character portraits used in conversation are done in a classic Anime style and are very accomplished. This being an Ys game again the music is unequalled. Perhaps not as exhilarating as the score for Oath in Felghana, but it has a different, gentler style that fits the simpler gameplay.

And the gameplay is quite simple. There is no attack action - combat is carried out by simply bumping into opponents. There's a bit of skill involved in attacking from the side or back (in which case Adol takes no damage in return), but on the whole it's more about being well equipped enough to take on whatever is around. You'll swiftly find out if you've strayed too far from the path you're supposed to be on at any given point.

It's this combination of simple gameplay, lovingly-drawn graphics and wonderful music that sold me on Ys. I find the game infinitely replayable because it's so relaxed and fun to play (that's not to say it doesn't hold a challenge - boss battles are usually quite difficult and there are a number of difficulty modes to play on). It took me back to more enjoyable time and type of game, unburdened by complicated controls, time investment and the demands of modern systems.

22 - Ultima VII (PC)

Ultima VII is the very definition of deep. There's literally hundreds of hours of game in there, and beyond that a staggering number of pointless little things to waste time doing. It has a definite plot and an overarching quest, but there's no rush to complete it or move it along. It has the sensibilities of an online game almost, in its capacity for just being in the world and tinkering about.

There's a lot going on beneath the surface, too. The relationships between you and your companions, and they with each other. Your reputation and standing with the NPCs - Ultima VII was pioneering things that are still seen as revolutionary in contemporary games. I spoke earlier of Angband and its discarding of the extraneous content of RPGs. Ultima VII is where that content is exploited fully, and its welcome here. It's a game to truly lose yourself in, and so much fun can be had with it that it's always an enticing prospect.

This may all sound a bit heavy, but in fact Ultima VII is full of humour, in the conversations and interactions with other characters and the possibilities for mischief that the player freedom allows. Just thinking up new ways to be a nuisance can be fun. Alcohol is always a good source of entertainment, for starters.

When you're done with messing about though, Ultima VII provides a top-notch story and a massive quest that will take you far and wide. As an example of an epic, western-style RPG it's probably unbeatable.

23 - Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge (PC)

Lucasarts' finest hour, and in my opinion the finest hour of the point and click adventure genre, period. Monkey Island 2 took everything that was great about the original and expanded it in all directions. Hand-painted locations scanned in and presented in gorgeous 256-colour VGA, the iMuse system providing an evocative, dynamic soundtrack, and of course all the favourite characters returning for another daft tale of pirates, romance and voodoo.

As in the first game, the main bulk of Monkey Island 2 set the player on a multi-threaded quest that could be completed in any order. This time locating and acquiring the four pieces of a map revealing the location of the fabled 'Big Whoop' treasure. A side order of kidnapping and another run-in with the fearsome pirate LeChuck was thrown in to round out Guybrush's woes.

Monkey Island 2 was the game that made me suddenly very aware of how attractive PC games were becoming. I remember reading the review in ACE magazine and comparing it later to the screenshots of the Amiga version. While still very nice, the 32 colours of the Amiga couldn't really compare to the lush palette of the PC. It would be years before I could actually play it on the PC however, and I contented myself with the 11-disc extravaganza on an A500 with a single disc drive.

So many great moments! Striking a match in the dark to find yourself in a room full of dynamite, then dropping the match... finding a telephone in the jungle and calling the Lucasarts game hint hotline... contaminating a bowl of soup with a live rat, then ordering the soup, seeing the chef fired and taking his job on the spot (then leaving the kitchen via the window, salary advance in hand). There's barely a duff moment or flat punchline in the whole game, and as a result it's relentlessly entertaining from opening to end credits.

24 - Final Fantasy Tactics (Playstation)

I owned Final Fantasy Tactics for years before playing it properly. I just never seemed in the mood for it, and the slow pace of the opening always turned me off at a time when I was down on anything requiring more than twenty minutes to finish.

One day a couple of years ago I decided to sit down and give it a shot, and a love affair with strategy RPGs began. This is stat-obsession taken to new levels. The story and actual battles are almost secondary to the compulsion to max out a particular job or gain a specific combination of abilities. Indeed, I spent so much time in mid-game playing the same map over and over to learn Ninja skills that by the time I was finished I pretty much cakewalked the rest of the game.

That's short-changing the game a little though, because the battles are excellent and the story - while mangled somewhat by a truly awful translation - is compelling and surprising. I had some tremendously satisfying moments taking strategic gambles against the enemy and having them pay off in do-or-die situations. Despite the fairly cute visual style the story is pretty dark and sombre, and certainly more involving than the usual Final Fantasy fare (though to be fair FF Tactics is really a Tactics Ogre game dressed up in FF clothes - Square saw a potential for success in the genre and gobbled up Quest, the team that developed the Ogre Battle series).

It also has superb replay value by nature of its character roster and profession options. Playing through with nothing but Chemists is a popular challenge.

Absorbing Quest and its regular contributors meant that FF Tactics benefited from a score by Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata. Their heavy orchestral style added immeasurably to the game's atmosphere, especially in the stunning battle themes.

25 - Granada X (Megadrive)

A free-roaming shoot 'em up with great graphics, effects and music. Meaty explosions, varied levels, impressive bosses and great controls. What more could you want? I love Granada X to bits.

I bought this sight-unseen on import when it came out. Feeling a bit starved of quality new Megadrive games I'd usually take a chance on something out of the blue. I didn't have the luxury of checking opinion on the internet, magazines were often behind the times somewhat (and not guaranteed to cover everything anyway), and of course the backs of the boxes didn't help much when the text was in Japanese. The cover looked exciting though.

(I've just realised that this is probably how I ended up with Herzog Zwei as well...)

Anyways... the gamble paid off in spades. Granada X is my favourite Megadrive game by a long shot. You take control of a tank in an overhead-viewed level that scrolls freely in all directions. You have a standard rapid-fire cannon and a single powerful shot that forces you back with recoil. Along the way extra weapons can be picked up such as rockets and a curious metal cube that orbits you erratically and reflects your shots. A cool feature of it is that shooting it with the big shot causes it to spray bullets out in all directions for a few seconds.

Each level has a number of objectives to take out before moving to a particular area to confront the boss. On level one it's enemy tank bases, on level two it's the engines of a huge aircraft (be careful with the recoil here!), etc. The levels are varied and there are multiple paths, providing plenty of scope for hit-and-run tactics, and a generous timer gives you plenty of freedom to work your way around.

The music is especially excellent, being composed by Motoi Sakuraba - now one of the foremost VGM composers in Japan.

26 - Batty (Spectrum)

I always liked Batty more than Arkanoid. maybe because it was such a superb use of the Spectrum, maybe because it was free. All that matters is that it's my favourite 'bat and ball' game, and while I can't say I've exactly followed the genre closely in the intervening years, I can honestly say I've never felt the need to. Batty does everything I want out of an Arkanoid clone perfectly.

The controls are tight, the ball movement smooth and realistic. I tend to expect anything arcade-like on the Speccy to age terribly (and most of them have, to be fair), but not Batty. It even manages to be colourful in an attractive way - not an easy task for the machine.

There's really not much depth to go into in the realm of bat and ball games, suffice to say it's an addictive arcade staple that will probably never go out of style.

27 - Escape Velocity Nova (PC)

Elite in 2D is a facile way to describe the Escape Velocity series, but that doesn't do justice to the essential differences the perspective provides. The basic template of trading, combat, upgrading and mission-running is there, but the gameplay has a much more immediate, arcade-like feel to it. Space flight and combat are more akin to Asteroids, but there's more than enough depth here to satisfy any space game fan.

Despite the comparatively tiny graphics, EV Nova is quite beautiful. Each ship is modelled in 3D and fully lightsourced, and lasers, bullets, missiles and explosions are painstakingly drawn and animated. The player is free to just bash about on their own, but a strong plotline is provided that will lead to greater riches and dangers. There's even an option to play in 'Ironman' mode - meaning permanent death for a lost character. I don't think I could bear that in a game so demanding of time investment, but it's certainly an exciting prospect.

One thing I find about 3D space games is that the combat is often fudged. Taking the whole thing into 2D negates that problem while still providing the meat of a classic space trading / combat game. This was a hotly contested spot in the 100 - I had considered both Space Rangers 2 and Flatspace 2 for it, but EV Nova wins out over both. It's a little gem.

28 - Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES)

I remember buying Super Mario Bros. 3 specifically. The excitement of the time made it one of those crystal-clear memories. £40 for that yellow box, a fortune to me but worth every penny. I played it all night every night until I completed it, to the exclusion of doing anything else.

SMB3 is such a perfectly crafted platform game, an art that's been all but lost in the rush and domination of 3D. Going back to it is a joy every time. The joy of perfect jumps, of precise and finely-honed controls, of pixellated characters full of charm and humour. It's a technical marvel for the NES, solidly outperforming pretty much anything else on the system, and it hasn't aged a single day (there are a couple of instances of flicker, but that's as bad as it gets).

The world maps, suits offering different abilities, and mini-games added another great dimension to the series, but in the end the greatness came down to the levels themselves. Designed to perfection and brimming with secrets. Gaming at it's most appealing.

29 - Damocles (Amiga)

Perhaps the greatest of all the grand 3D 16-bit adventures, Damocles has a particular atmosphere that has stuck with me years after I first played it. There's something about the solitude of it... a last man on Earth vibe that's incredibly eerie and appealing at the same time. The completely deserted yet fully-functioning solar system is vast and invites exploration, however, a ticking clock is there to constantly remind the player that this place is doomed without their timely help.

It's design dictates that Damocles is a very open-ended game. Almost from the start you're able to go pretty much anywhere you want, so it's a case of thinking the puzzle through and assembling the means to avert disaster - and the game offers five different solutions, each with their own consequences and rewards. The ideal solution is to change the course of the comet Damocles, so as to save the planet Eris and leave the comet intact for study, but there are other options. There is even a rudimentary trading system in place, which has to be exploited for the player to gain access to some of the more vital items.

Damocles is no action game. There are no enemies and you don't even carry a weapon. Looked at in the most basic terms it's an inventory puzzle on a massive scale, but it's that sense of a solid, consistent, but ghostly environment that sticks in the mind and makes it a classic.

30 - World of Warcraft (PC)

I have so many great memories of WoW that it's hard to know where to start, so rather than ramble on endlessly I'll just try to give an overall impression of why I love it so much.

One of my favourite aspects of any big game is the capacity for exploration. WoW is so rich, detailed and varied that it's a genuine pleasure to just... travel. Aside from the occasions where you change location dramatically (airships, teleportations, deaths, etc.) you never see a load screen. Each location blends seamlessly into the next, giving a solid feeling of a vast, living world. In my early days with the game I'd spend a great deal of time simply walking about, seeing where the road led. Oftentimes it led to a swift and painful death at the claws of something I had no right to be anywhere near, but on the flipside there's a sense of satisfaction from sneaking your way around a high-level area that's unmatched in terms of tension and excitement.

The realtime day/night cycle is essential to the immersion. I tend to play overnight, and I have particularly fond memories of one of my characters, questing solo through the small hours of the morning, occasionally glimpsing another night-owl player in the distance, and seeing the sun rise gradually ingame as it did outside my window. The ambient music and sound effects only add to the sense of place, and I can confidently say that no game has ever evoked such a feeling of being in another world entirely. The online aspect is of course a huge contributor to that - arriving in a town or city and seeing it teeming with activity.

I haven't even spoken of the gameplay itself yet. WoW tends to get a lot of unfair criticism for being little more than an online chatroom. I really don't see where this is coming from. It's among the most demanding, dynamic action games I've ever played. It's most emphatically not a simple case of standing in one spot and pressing attack. I never got too involved in the instances, but from what little I sampled I could see that there is a intense level of teamwork and strategic planning. Even on the overworld you have to be constantly aware of your position and surroundings.

Even the downtime stuff is fun. One of my favourite gaming things to do is to fish and cook in WoW. The relaxing nature of it is so appealing, and I'd often log in, wander to a lake or shore and simply fish for hours while chatting to other players.

On top of all this I have to mention that's it's a tremendously beautiful game. The artistic style is such that a lot can be wrung out of a very modestly-specced machine, and the use of colour in particular is excellent. Blizzard seem to have a gift for pinpointing exactly what appeals to the senses. It's a testament to the beauty and charm of the world that I sometimes renew my subscription just to wander around and see the sights again.