If you want to understand G4’s Top 100, its intro makes its focus fairly clear. First, Halo’s Master Chief appears. Then God Of War’s Kratos, then a recent depiction of Mortal Kombat, then Commander Shepard from Mass Effect. All the visuals are from the most recent generation of gaming, all are from gritty, masculine, violent games. Of course, this is generally the public portrayal of the video game industry and where it wants to spend its marketing money, as demonstrated by industry events like E3. G4’s list is based around this idea of gaming: what’s new, what’s shiny, and what’s violent gets prioritized.
The presentation should be familiar to anyone who’s watched a list show on, say, VH1. A game is introduced (by narrator Nolan North, perhaps gaming’s greatest male voice actor), clips of the action are shown, then a series of talking heads talk about what the game means to them. Then North wraps it by talking about what it meant to the industry, and moves right along. It’s slick, entertaining, and compulsively watchable, and with 100 games, it can touch on a variety of different games.
G4’s Top 100 Games isn’t deep, though. I wouldn’t expect it to be deep, but it seems to go out of its way to avoid being anything but A List Of Cool Games. There’s no discussion of methodology at all in the episodes that air, the list is simply presented as fact. Questions of who decided on the list or how it was built are totally ignored. Now, I’ve built a similar sort of list myself, but I thought the methodology was the most important thing. I wanted to create a deliberately idiosyncratic list that wouldn’t simply show a lot of games, but also show a brief history of the medium. I don’t think you can get that with a list built by multiple people like this one: democracy will trend towards more popular, and newer games.
As a game historian, I can quibble with, or straight-up argue with, many of the games on the list. And we’ll get to that at the end. But as a gamer, I think it’s also worthwhile to express my appreciation for the diverse depictions of players. G4 seems to have gone out of its way to find people who aren’t just young white males. There’s AV Club favorite Aisha Tyler, featured prominently in the introduction, and also a range of actors, rock stars, athletes, and game designers. And Soulja Boy. Whole lotta Soulja Boy. It also relies heavily on G4 personalities, particularly X-Play’s Morgan Webb and Blair Herter. I recently watched the documentary Indie Game: The Movie (look for my review soon!) and was struck by the dominance of white male voices in that film. Top 100 Games is downright refreshing after that.
Most of the time, the interviewees just talk about how cool the game was/is when they play it, sometimes delving into entertaining recreations of sounds or speech—Community’s Danny Pudi gets really into shouting “Boom Shaka-laka!” from NBA JAM. There not very much analysis, either of historical importance or gameplay itself, so it’s exciting when it does happen. (Part of the reason for that may be that game critics are decidedly unrepresented, with only Game Informer’s Andy McNamara representing non-G4 journalists.) Usually it comes from the game designers, like Will Wright, although when one of the celebrities does it, it’s a pleasant surprise. Dee Snyder of Twisted Sister describing how Guitar Hero broke down what makes songs great for its non-musician players may be the best moment of the first episode.
G4’s Top 100 Games is watchable and entertaining and does a good job of showing diversity of gamers and reaction to games. I wouldn’t recommend it as anything incredible, but for sitting back and learning about games or starting arguments? This is good stuff.
But is it accurate stuff? As a game critic and historian, it’s all too easy for me to sit down and quibble with the list. So let’s do that!
Of course, the whole thing is a fool’s errand anyway. If you want to count down the top songs of all time, you’re probably dealing with similarly structured, 2-10 minute pieces of discrete pop music. Video gaming involves a wide range of much different experiences. There are arcade games designed to chew up quarters after being played for just a few minutes, like Spy Hunter. There are short cinematic experiences, like Prince Of Persia. There are epic turn-based strategy games like Civilization II. There are multi-part 40-hour role-playing games like Mass Effect. There are multiplayer arena battles like Unreal Tournament. And there are free-form never-ending games like Minecraft. How can these even be compared? Someone would quibble or argue regardless. And hey, lists are a great way to get attention, right? So Top 100 Games succeeds on some terms. But—I still gotta argue.
My chief problem: PC games are severely underrepresented. Civilization II shows up on the list at a measly #62, which is quite low for a game that many claim to be the greatest of all time. While that’s to be expected given the source, the show doesn’t even try to discuss it well. In fact, it’s the only game to be presented in negative terms, with the narrator describing talking incredulously about how slow it is, and Blair Herter calling a game known for its accessibility given its scope “too smart for me.” On the other hand, there’s Gears Of War III, which shows up at #80, but has two of its developers talking about it, multiple celebrities describing all its different game modes, and then an entire sequence dedicated to a single character’s death? Guys, I’m pretty sure you could have found someone to talk about Civilization II, even still.
Strategy games in general are underappreciated. Civilization II and Starcraft are the only titles in the list. But that’s not as bad as tactics games, which put a full zero games in this Top 100—sorry, genre of X-COM, Final Fantasy Tactics, Jagged Alliance II, and Disgaea, you don’t even count!
As a role-playing game expert, I was rolling my eyes throughout. On the western side, the only RPG from prior to 2000 was Ultima Online, an aberration of the form. Ultima is the most influential game series of all time, arguably the best, and only gets a single spin-off. To add insult to injury, one of the talking heads describes Knights Of The Old Republic (#29) as having “basically created the RPG genre.” Diablo II and World Of Warcraft make the top 20, but the top Japanese RPG is…Panzer Dragoon Saga? This is a cult classic, a fascinating experiment, a collector’s item, and nowhere near deserving of that ranking. Final Fantasy VII, Chrono Trigger, and Kingdom Hearts fill out the rest of the list for JRPGs—not even a Dragon Quest. Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night shows up, but its RPG components and twist from successful exploration—the things that made it special—aren’t mentioned.
There are also notable inaccuracies throughout—or at least oversimplifications which, without context, give the wrong idea. Braid appears in the first episode, where people delight in discussing its time-rewinding mechanic as something new and innovative, without Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time getting mentioned at all. Deus Ex is heralded as being the game which “introduced choice” into gaming, with no mention of Fallout, its clear model, or any number of other role-playing games it drew from. Fallout doesn’t even make the list, though Fallout III does. Yet it’s presented as a “frenetic” action game, ignoring those of us who played slowly, using the mostly turn-based VATS system.
How the list treats game series is another problem. In many cases they appear to have only chosen one game to represent each game series, which might be fine for, say, a Gears Of War that has three very similar games over a single console generation. Yet for a Final Fantasy that’s been one of the best and most talked-about game series for most of gaming history, it’s an odd decision. Mario, of course, gets multiple entries. Both Halo and Grand Theft Auto have two entries, apparently splitting their votes, so no-brainer top 10 games end up with two games in the 20s and 30s. And then it all rushes to a Nintedo-filled climax, with five Mario/Zelda games in the top 11 (roughly akin to those Top 100 Albums lists that have five Beatles albums in the top 11.)
The Top 20, if you want to argue as well:
- #20 – COD: Modern Warfare
- #19 – Diablo II
- #18 – Ms. Pac-Man
- #17 – Starcraft
- #16 – Half-Life
- #15 – Donkey Kong
- #14 – Uncharted 2
- #13 – Portal
- #12 – Doom II
- #11 – Zelda OOT
- #10 – World Of Warcraft
- #9 – Shadow Of The Colossus
- #8 – Goldeneye
- #7 – Super Mario Bros 3
- #6 – Legend of Zelda
- #5 – Tetris
- #4 – Asteroids
- #3 – BioShock
- #2 – Link To The Past
- #1 – Super Mario Bros.
Rowan’s List Of Slightly More Than 20 Games That Didn’t Make The Top 100 But Can Stand Against Those:
Gabriel Knight, Quest For Glory IV, Warcraft III, Suikoden II, Ultima 6, Master Of Orion II, Bejeweled, Katamari Damacy, Dynasty Warriors III, Jagged Alliance II, X-COM, Far Cry 2, Bastion, Jedi Knight, Rome: Total War, Gunstar Heroes, Dragon Warrior, Jet Grind Radio, Dance Dance Revolution, M.U.L.E., Panzer General, SimCity 2000, Championship Manager, NHL 94, Team Fortress 2, Planescape Torment, Phantasy Star IV, Shining Force II, No One Lives Forever, Metroid Prime, Soul Calibur
- Starting with Pong at #100 is interesting, following it up with Words With Friends is awkward and painful.
- Soulja Boy thinks Braid one of the best video games because it's one of the most innovative. In case you were wondering.
- Mass Effect 2 only shows clips of BroShep, so no wonder it was ranked so low (#82).
- Samuel Page of Mad Men is one of the most common interviewees. Did they have so many video games in the 1960s?
- Wing Commander II made the list. Props for that, at least. But if you know about Origin games, Ultima! GOD DAMMIT ULTIMA!!!!
- “Kratos must be a real bummer at parties.”
- Pretty much every game on the list “changed the way people played games forever!” Whole lotta forever changes.
- Recent games seem to trump older games in series at most every opportunity. Arkham City over Asylum, Gears Of War III instead of previous, Halo III higher on the list than the original.
- Counterstrike is described as a “hack” for Half-Life. Sigh.
- I don't get Goldeneye as the eighth best video game of all time. My anti-N64 bias, I guess.
- Kinda wish Bastion had made the list just to see the series of celebs doing their Ruck impressions. Come on, Aisha Tyler's "The kid woke up…"