The fourth console generation is drawing to a close, and Nintendo has once again reaffirmed its dominance with its Super Nintendo console. As the generation begins to wind down, the foundations are laid for the next console generation, and there's no real reason to believe Nintendo's going to relinquish its control of the industry any time soon. Up until now, they've been flawless -- perfect consoles, attractive licensing to ensure the best third-party games, and great technical specifications. They have the greatest developer of the most popular game genre developing exclusively for them, and they've just partnered with an old friend to enter the CD age: Sony. But then, the you-know-what hits the fan. Nintendo, after reviewing their contract with Sony, backs out of the agreement -- a more-than-justifiable decision at the time, but one that would directly lead to the rise of their greatest competitor, and, were it not for three little letters 10 years later, their demise. Sony, rather than abandoning their work, took a "what the heck?" approach and developed their own console -- at the time, mostly to salvage the project rather than to aim for a significant market share. Nintendo would partner with Phillips and stick with cartridges for one more generation -- one generation too long. There were three major developments in the fifth generation of gaming: the advent of true 3D gaming, Sony's entrance into the market, and the conversion to CD-based games. The latter two of these would be devastating for Nintendo, and result in Sony's PlayStation not only winning the console war (outselling the Nintendo 64 3 to 1 worldwide, 2 to 1 in the United States), but also becoming the best-selling video game console of all time, outselling the previous best-selling console (the NES) by 40 million. Despite this, though, the fifth console war was by far the closest yet, with both consoles releasing games that would become all-time classics. The two most popular games of all time would come in this fifth generation, and overall, it's not a stretch to consider the fifth generation to be the greatest generation of all time (though as we'll soon see, that title might be better bestowed on the sixth).

What's very interesting about this already-intriguing console generation is the incredible dominance by two different game developers: eight of these top ten games (and eleven of the top thirteen, were it stretched that far back) are developed by two developers: Nintendo, for its own console, and Square. Square was partially responsible for Nintendo's fourth-generation dominance, pioneering the RPG genre to great new heights. But with the PlayStation's substantially higher data storage capabilities, Square jumped ship in the fifth generation and began developing exclusively for Sony -- one of the biggest blows of all time to Nintendo's dominance. For the most part, Sony stuck with RPGs, but for the #10 game on our list they altered their course and capitalized on the wildly-successful PlayStation moniker with Final Fantasy Tactics, a strategy game. Final Fantasy Tactics did a truly masterful job of retaining a lot of the appeal of previous Final Fantasy games (intriguing, deep plotline, great characters) while completely altering the battle system and game structure. Final Fantasy Tactics gets plenty of Top-10 list love -- 60 lists total, good for #37 overall -- praising it for its music ("Game Soundtracks", "Relaxing Pieces Of Music Featured In A Video Game", "Square Musicks"), characters ("Badass RPG Characters", "Supporting Casts"), and plot ("Best Video Game Stories"), as well as being one of its genre's best ("Tactical RPGs", "Innovative Tactical RPGs").

Not only are eight of the top ten games on this list by only two developers, but those same eight games are all sequels, comprising four franchises. Two of these are from the legendary Legend of Zelda series, and the lower of the two ranks here at #9: Majora's Mask. Following Ocarina of Time is an unenviable task: that game would go on to become one of the two greatest games of all time, giving Majora's Mask a huge name to live up to. But despite never quite reaching Ocarina of Time's level of popularity, Majora's Mask was actually popularly rated as the better of the two games, and one of the best the Nintendo 64 had to offer. The game operates on largely the same engine as Ocarina of Time, but introduces several truly revolutionary new concepts to differentiate between the two, such as a completely different time structure, a much darker environment, and much-improved graphics (largely due to its use of the Nintendo 64 expansion pack). But it is the plot that is most noted for being substantially darker and deeper than the other, lighter Legend of Zelda titles, landing it on lists of "Most Surprisingly In-Depth Games", "Best Storylines In Video Games", "Deepest Story Involved Characters", and "Most Existential Games". Majora's Mask receives a lot of its Top 10 list attention from those that note how underrated it was compared to its predecessors and the other games of its generation -- it appears on lists of the top "Underrated Sequels Of Successful Games/Franchises", "Underrated Video Games", "Overlooked Games On A Nintendo Console", and "Underrated Games That Unfairly Get A Bad Rap". But fortunately, while the game might be overrated by the general public, our noble Top 10 list authors recognize its greatness a bit more, placing it on lists of the top games for its console ("Nintendo 64 Games", "Games for the Nintendo 64", "N64 Exclusive Games"), its genre ("Most Original Role-Playing Games"), and even some of all time ("Greatest Nintendo Games Of All Time", "Classical Games"). Overall, though, it would appear that Majora's Mask might remain quite underrated, considering that despite its wildly positive reviews, it still appears on "only" 62 lists, 33rd of all time.

It may be a bit surprising that Chrono Cross ranks this highly on this list, especially above the previous two entries. In this way, Chrono Cross is an interesting case study of how hype and expectations can lead to disappointment even in a great game. Chrono Cross was rated extremely highly upon its release for the game itself, but immediately disappointed its audience: while pegged as a sequel to the wildly popular Chrono Trigger, it itself did not resemble its predecessor in the least. The cast of characters was completely different, the plot completely unrelated, and the battle and equipment systems completely recreated -- it was, in no uncertain terms, a completely new Square RPG. Why this was a surprise to its audience it a mystery: after all, Square's flagship series Final Fantasy was famous for not only lacking plot continuity between installments, but completely shirking it altogether. But to be fair, why release Chrono Cross as a 'Chrono' game instead of a 'Final Fantasy' game if, as observed, it had nothing in common? So perhaps the criticism that landed the game on lists like "Blockbuster Games That Split Opinions" is justified. But moving past the expectations, Chrono Cross was popularly rated as one of the greatest RPGs at the time of its release. Its music was especially notable, with mentions on lists such as "Best And Most Original Video Game Soundtracks", "Games With The Best Music", "Best Video Game Soundtracks", and "Game Soundtracks". It remains one of the highest-regarded RPGs and PlayStation games from those that give it a shot, making lists of "Greatest PSX Games", "Best RPGs For The Playstation", "Role-Playing Games Of All Time", and "Games Developed By Square", but for many, it will never move past the disappointment of missing out on another game of Crono, Lucca and Marle. Overall, Chrono Cross makes appearances on 69 top ten lists, tying it for 27th all time with...

After the masterpiece that went on to become one of the two most popular games of all time, Square suffered a pair of setbacks. It's never been completely clear exactly why the 8th and 9th entries in the series were so much less-regarded than their predecessor, but nonetheless, we find Final Fantasy IX regarded as the worst of the three main PlayStation games. But frankly, this speaks far more to the quality of the series as a whole than any particular fault within the game: Final Fantasy IX received ridiculously high reviews, but those two simple words at the beginning of its title impressed upon it an unenviable standard of comparison. That all said, Final Fantasy IX is still regarded as one of the better games of all time, and receives Top 10 list attention for several aspects. Its musical theme is particularly memorable (I've heard it played on the flute outside several classroom buildings at my university several times), landing it on lists of "Video Game Themes", "Pieces Of Music In Video Games" and "Pieces Of Video Game Music". Like most Final Fantasy games, it also receives credit for a wide variety of other elements, and does receive some recognition as one of the greatest games of its genre ("RPG's Of All Time", "RPG's In The Last 10 Years"), console ("Greatest PSX Games", "PSX Games") and all time ("Games Ever Made"). But Final Fantasy IX's most recognizable feature of all is how underrated and overlooked it was, landing on lists of the top "Most Underrated Games of All Time", "Overshadowed Games Of All Time", "Greatest Underlooked PS / PS2 Games", "Underrated Sequels Of Successful Games/Franchises", "Underrated Games" and "Overlooked Games Since 2000". Ironic, though, that it's largely because the game was overlooked that it lands on this list at all. Overall, Final Fantasy IX makes 69 top ten lists as well, tying it for 27th overall.

This list may be dominated by Final Fantasy games (every fifth-generation Final Fantasy game makes an appearance here, save for the Final Fantasy VI re-release), but only one lands in the top five as Final Fantasy VIII appears in the sixth spot. Like Majora's Mask and Final Fantasy IX (and probably moreso), Final Fantasy VIII was burdened with the enormous expectations that come with following one of the two greatest games of all time. Final Fantasy VIII should be remembered as a great and successful game, receiving extremely high ratings, great sales figures and a mid-20s ranking on most 'best game ever' lists. However, it is likely more remembered as a respectable entry in the series that did not quite measure up to its predecessor. That's not to say that Final Fantasy VIII receives an unfairly bad rap -- there were significant faults in the game -- but its flaws were largely exacerbated by the quality of its predecessor. Analyzing the game only for itself, though, reveals one of the better games ever created, and has led to its appearance on top 10 lists several minor elements that it performed to perfection, like its cornerstone relationship ("Relationships/Couples In Video Games", "Love Stories In Gaming", "Video Game Relationships"), its opening sequences and FMVs ("Opening Sequences", "Best Intros", "Intro Movies", "Video Game Intros", "Coolest Openings"), its weapons and items ("Swords, Ever", "Video Game Weapons", "Best Unique/Rare RPG Weapons", "Weapon Innovations"), its cover ("Greatest Video Game Covers of All Time", "Most Artistically Successful Game Covers") and its minigames ("RPG Minigames", "Uses Of Cards In Video Games"). Like nearly every Final Fantasy, it's recognized as one of the best games of its genre ("Best RPGs For The Playstation", "Most Entertaining RPGs I've Ever Played", "RPG's Of All Time", "Best RPGs Of All Time"), but it still may be considered underrated considering the enormous shadow it exists in ("Most Underrated Games Of All Time", "Underrated Sequels Of Successful Games/Franchises"). Overall, Final Fantasy VIII edges its sequel with fifteen more lists (84 total), good for 21st all time.

The top five of this list is quite simple: a series starter, an installment in each of history's top three series, and a great stand-alone game. In fifth is the last among these: Goldeneye 007 (which had its "sequels", but didn't quite start a series like the others). Released in 1997, Goldeneye 007 ('007' distinguishing it from the move of the same name) was to first-person shooters what Final Fantasy, The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros. were to RPGs, action/adventure and platformers. While the age of revolutionary game concepts had mostly passed (moving on to revolutionary game implementations), Goldeneye 007 completely transformed or introduced several game concepts for a new audience. Popularly rated as one of the most outright addictive games of all time ("Most Addicting Games Ever", "Addicting Games That May Have Ruined Your Social Life (or lack there-of)", "Games You Could Play Forever", "Games From Last Century You Might Still Be Playing"), Goldeneye 007 also capitalized on the Nintendo 64's great multiplayer framework to provide one of the best multiplayer experiences ever ("Best Multiplayer Games Ever", "4-Player Games", "Same-Room Multi-player Experiences", "Games That Temporarily Turn Best Friends Into Arch-Enemies", "Best Multiplayer Games For The N64"). But Goldeneye 007's true praise comes not from being one of the best games on its console ("N64 Games", "Games for the Nintendo 64", "N64 Games To Play With Your Buddies", "Nintendo 64 Games") -- it comes from how it completely revolutionized and redefined its genre. Goldeneye 007 took the first-person shooter genre, initially a small, niche market, and made it accessible and entertaining to the broader gaming audience. It singlehandedly laid the groundwork for future blockbusters like Halo, Half-Life and Call of Duty. For this incredible impact, Goldeneye 007 is recognized on an incredibly wide variety of lists, such as "Games that Redefined the Gaming Market", "Most Revolutionary Games Of The 90s", "Games That Exploded Their Genre", "Gaming Innovations", and "Most Revolutionary Games". Overall, Goldeneye 007 comes in a remarkable 11th place all time with 106 total top ten list mentions.

Mario's first foray into the fifth generation lands him in fourth place on this list -- his lowest finish thusfar, though that speaks more to the quality of his competition. Super Mario 64, like other games on this list (which, again, include several of the most popular video games for any generation), is popularly considered one of the greatest games of all time. Surprise surprise, right? It also takes us to the top ten most-listed games of all time, which features four games from the fifth generation. Super Mario 64 was executed largely to perfection -- its high overall ranking comes from being great in many aspects. It retains one of the most recognizable soundtracks in gaming history ("Game Soundtracks", "Best Boss Fight Themes", "Most Memorable Nintendo Songs"), and introduced a host of gameplay innovations ("Gaming Innovations", "Transitions from 2D to 3D", "Most Creative Health and Death Systems") and one of the most atmospheric, immersive game worlds ever seen ("Most Impressive Console Worlds Traversed", "Most Immersive Games", "Islands", "Most Captivating Settings"). But more than anything, Super Mario 64 answered a popular question. The transition to 3D was handled seamlessly by some genres -- RPGs, for one, had no trouble with the new graphical technology, as it did not significantly alter the genre's core. 3D gameplay also gave birth to entire new genres -- first-person shooters would not have been feasible in early generations. But where would platformers fit? Platformers, up until this point, had relied on exploiting 2D gameplay to its fullest. 3D gameplay could've made them obsolete, but instead, Super Mario 64 introduced a new era of 3D platformers. Several years later, Mario singlehandedly rescued the entire gaming industry -- for an encore, he rescued his genre. For this, Super Mario 64 is recognized as one of the top "Games that Redefined the Gaming Market", "Most Influential Games of All Time", "Most Revolutionary Games of the 90s", "Genre-Defining Games" and "Most Important Games in the History of the Gaming Industry". Overall, while Super Mario 64 ranks "only" fourth on this list, it comes in #10 all time with 118 mentions.

The age for series starters was largely the third generation. The three undoubtedly most popular video game series of time all had their origins in the third generation: The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy and Mario, not to mention Metroid and Mega Man. The two subsequent generations largely saw these franchises expanded and enhanced, while other single-installment games made their marks without inspiring many new sequels. But Metal Gear Solid changed that. Released in 1998, Metal Gear Solid introduced a new age of series-starters which would be keenly felt in the sixth generation (although it must be noted that Metal Gear Solid was technically a sequel, this installment so singlehandedly changed the gameplay and series popularity that it can be considered the first installment, similar to how Super Mario Bros. is considered the first Mario game despite its Mario Bros. predecessor -- but I digress). Metal Gear Solid followed a special operative named Solid Snake through a stealth infiltration mission. With vibrant characters, a rich, complex plot and a very unique environment and gameplay system (stealth strongly contrasted with most run-and-gun games), Metal Gear Solid quickly skyrocketed to popularity. At the time of its release, Metal Gear Solid was by far the most cinematic game ever released -- many times, the game felt more like a movie than a game, landing it on lists of "Video Games That Need Movies", "Original Game Series Inspired By Hollywood", and "Most Cinematic Games Of All Time". Metal Gear Solid is also recognized several other very specific features, from its excellent villains ("Villains You Have To Respect", "Villains That Aren't From RPGs", "PS1/2 Badass Villains") and its boss fights ("Recurring Boss Fights", "Bosses That Put The Fear Of God Into You") to its quotes ("Most Quotable Games", "Most Memorable Lines In A Video Game"). The game is also recognized as inspiring its genre and changing the way games in general are made, resulting in its recognition as one of the top "Memorable Genre-Defying Games", "Most Influential Games of All Time", and "Games That Were Ahead Of Their Time". Like we witnessed the previous generation, Metal Gear Solid, as the first major installment in its franchise, receives recognition for the series as a whole as well, including lists of the top "Immersive Game Universes", "Video Game Franchises", "Original Game Series Inspired By Hollywood", "Series' For Boss Fights", and "Coolest PSX Playable Characters" among others. With 130 total top ten list mentions, Metal Gear Solid ranks #3 on this list and #7 overall -- beaten out by the two biggest names in video game history.

Moving on, we get to the big kahunas. The headliners. The games that need no introduction. The Muhammed Ali, Michael Jordan, Lance Armstrong and Michael Phelps of video games. Inarguably, the two most popular games of all time. The games that, despite being over ten years old, are consistently ranked the top two games of all time. In second place, it's Ocarina of Time, the #2 most-listed game of all time as well as the #2 most-listed game of its generation. What's amazing about the top two games on this list is not how good they were overall: it's how incredible they were in the little details. Ocarina of Time possesses a ridiculous attention to detail unseen by in any game that preceded it -- the developers understood that a game could be more than a game; it could be an entire experience, as music, graphics, plot, characters and progression, especially with the new graphical developments, can unite to create a cohesive, immersive atmosphere. It's pretty astounding how many different aspects Ocarina of Time receives recognition for -- a game can dream to be top ten all-time in any one of these respects, but when a game is top ten in so many things, it has to be considered (and obviously is) one of the greatest games ever. These include its vibrant, varied, archetypal characters ("Nintendo Characters", "Most Badass Characters", "Coolest Characters"), its villains ("Bad Guys", "Video Game Villains", "Nintendo Villains"), its epic boss fights ("Most Memorable Boss Fights", "Epic Boss Battles", "Best Final Boss Fights"), its incredible, memorable music ("Best Video Game Soundtracks", "Game Soundtracks", "Nintendo Jingles", "Musical Themes In Gaming", "RPG Musical Pieces"), its innovative, flexible weapons and battle system ("RPG Battle Systems", "Best Weapons In Game", "Video Game Weapons"), and its immersive world ("Most Atmospheric Games", "Best Interactive Worlds", "Most Impressive Console Worlds Traversed", "Most Immersive Games"). Like many games on this list, it's recognized on many general 'best game ever' lists -- but what sets it apart here is that it's rated as #1 on several of these lists, including the #1 "Perfect Game" and "Game According to the Poll of the Day Board", as well as a host (if not the majority) of lists of the greatest games on any Nintendo console. There's no doubt that Ocarina of Time is one of of the two most popular games of all time, and has an appeal that stretches far beyond nostalgia (as thoroughly explained in my own review of the same game) -- but in this list, with 212 mentions (three of them in my own lists), it finishes in second to its nemesis...

No surprises whatsoever here. The top-listed game of all time is also the top-listed game of its generation. Final Fantasy VII appears on 246 lists, one out of every eight lists ever written. It, like Ocarina of Time, is widely recognized as having the most ridiculously excellent attention to detail of any game ever at the time of its release. Final Fantasy VII, to me, has always been notable not for what it did to revolutionize the industry, but for what it did that it did not have to do. Final Fantasy VII was the first big-budget RPG of the 3D era, and as such, likely would have been considered great pretty much no matter what it did. That's the most common criticism Final Fantasy 7 gets -- that it was not a great game, only a great release date. That could not be further from the truth -- Final Fantasy 7's innovations for the genre stretch far beyond simply saying "hey, RPGs can be in 3D!". Several new features went above and beyond what the game truly 'needed' to do, most notably the roaming battle camera, the incredible complexity and frequency of its sidequests, and the incredible plotline. It played with the standard plot structure while calling on classical appeal; it introduced an incredibly memorable and complex cast of characters; and it provided a strong battle and level-up system with extremely deep customization opportunity. I try to remain unbiased in these lists, but in my opinion, the clearest way to compare Final Fantasy 7 to other games (most notably, Ocarina of Time) is to look at every aspect, and there is virtually no aspect of Final Fantasy 7 that any other game had done as well as it did when it was released. It was not just musically, graphically and atmospherically excellent -- it was, simply, the best ever at everything it did at the time of its release. It's this reason that the game is ranked in so many top ten lists -- it finds itself on too many lists to name, for nearly every theme and aspect, from its recognition as one of the greatest games of its developer, console and genre to recognition for its characters, plot, graphics, and battles. There's no doubt that Final Fantasy 7 revolutionized the industry, but what must be noted is that it is considered so great because of all the extra things it did well. Its impact is felt throughout the gaming industry, leading to its mention on many such-themed lists ("Games that Redefined the Gaming Market", "Most Influential Games of All Time", "Most Revolutionary Games Of The 90s", "Most Influential RPGs. Ever.", "Gaming Innovations", "Video Game Firsts", "Defining Moments In Video Game History And The Games That Best Represent Them", "Transitions From 2D To 3D"). Final Fantasy VII's historical impact is even greater -- it marked the defection of the then-#1 game developer, Square, from Nintendo to PlayStation, laying the groundwork for PlayStation to become its generation's winning console. But more than anything, Final Fantasy VII was not only one of the greatest games of all time -- it is popularly considered the greatest game, not only making such lists, but topping them: it ranks #1 on lists of the top "Greatest Video Games", "Best Games Ever Made", "Greatest Games Of All-Time", and "Games Of All Time".

The fifth generation has come to a close, and while it might not be fully realized for years later, video games have just experienced what might be considered their greatest age. During this time, gaming was a largely gender-neutral, universally-practiced hobby among teenagers, and the fifth generation was largely the last time we saw games that were 'standard' across the entire audience. At this time, one could invite a new friend over to play Goldeneye without really asking if they'd played it before -- who hadn't? Nowadays with most games, the people you play games with are the people you met by playing that game. Not only did this generation see such a widespread proliferation of single popular games, but, largely augmented by the transition to 3D, several of the most popular games of all time would find their home here, including easily the top two. But the generation wasn't great news for everyone: Nintendo entered the generation with a strangehold on the industry, the top genre's top developer was squarely in their corner, and their closest competition, Sega, was a distant second -- by the end of the fifth generation, Nintendo was second place, Square had defected to Sony, and Sega was all but dead. The foundations of the sixth generation were laid at this time, and Sony and Nintendo were poised for another knock-down drag-out battle: but little did either know that the biggest development in the gaming industry over the sixth generation would not come from either of them, but from a software company out of Seattle...

List by DDJ (08/03/2009)

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