Over the years there have been countless games that have come and gone. We’ve played them, enjoyed them and then forgotten about them. Yet every once in a while a game arrives with a lasting impact. This series is dedicated to those games and their impact. It’s in no particular order, these are all gold.
1. Mario Bros
Is there a better place to open a love letter to gaming than with the most iconic creation of Shigeru Miyamoto: Mario? The most put-upon plumber to ever have to jump over barrels thrown by a gorilla. Mario is the Godfather of the platform genre. The moustachioed maestro of the well-timed jump. He is the star of the best-selling videogame franchise of all time.
It wasn’t always that simple for Mario, though. For starters, he began life as ‘Jumpman’ in 1981’s seminal Donkey Kong. The trouble started when he mistreats his pet ape and then loses ‘the Lady’. She would go on to be known as Princess Pea- actually no, not yet. In this era she was renamed to ‘Pauline’. Jumpman was popular enough to star in another game when he got his name changed to Mario but had to wait until 1985 for his first solo turn. He would then go on to feature in more than 100 further titles.
Mario’s appeal was a winning combination of advanced technology and family friendly content. When Nintendo consoles first launched, Mario was the poster boy and kids were the target market. There is a whole generation that has grown up with Mario. Not only that, but Mario was also a graphically striking title. I remember being amazed that Mario could eat a flower and grow to twice his previous size. He was this giant sprite in an arcade of comparative midgets. He was the man.
Mario has maintained this technical edge since, with Super Mario 64 being the prime example. That was a seamless shift for the Nintendo mascot from 2D to 3D and it worked perfectly. Sonic, Mario’s one-time and long-term rival, never had quite such a smooth transition. Sonic’s blazing 2D speed had no real 3D equivalent whereas Mario – who had never been in a hurry – could make it all look easy.
Now Mario is everywhere and remains the Big Daddy at Nintendo even over the likes of Pokemon, Zelda and other huge franchises. Now he’s the star of a mobile title and it all looks too easy. Mario reigns supreme.
2. Tomb Raider
If Mario is the evergreen family friendly mascot who has always been top of the pile, Lara Croft is the troubled child star whose career has veered wildly between outstanding success and the gaming equivalent of rehab. Born from the minds of a team making an action-adventure for the new, 3D focused PlayStation, Lara’s birth was not exactly a tale of female empowerment. The team building the game preferred to look at the rear profile of a woman than a man, thus Lara rather than Leon Croft.
Tomb Raider was the first game to star Lara and there have been many since. The series had a wonderful focus in its best entries: obscure locations lifted straight from Raiders of the Lost Ark with a slow-burn mix of silent puzzle solving before the occasional scraps with mythical monsters. Tomb Raider games oozed atmosphere and style. Lara was cool, you were Lara, therefore you were cool.
I always preferred the early games where there was a checkpoint system in place and this was a feature that the team returned to in 2014’s Tomb Raider. Before, you knew that you had to either solve a tricky puzzle or beat a gauntlet of enemies before the next save point hit, and the effort to reward ratio was just perfect.
The very first game also gave me one of my best moments in gaming when, on the level called St Francis’ Folly, I dipped the camera down to see where I was going to have to go and the building that I was perched on top of descended down into the murky darkness. It was a real ‘whoa’ moment as I realised that I was going to have to find a way down to that tiny tiger I could see prowling miles below me. Yes, this moment was indeed brought to you by the PlayStation’s inability to render large draw distances, but that’s the beauty of good game design: make your limitations seem like features. I was blown away.
It was not all perfect, though. With Tomb Raider’s success and fake interviews with her in The Sun and The Face (it was a nineties thing), the game’s became more and more like shovelware as Lara was forever plunged into ‘her biggest adventure yet’ with more cut scenes, more bombast, more guns and therefore less appeal. The magic faded away and it is nice to see the rebooted games are both popular and – one senses – at least trying to recapture that Tomb Raider magic, even if the body count still remains far too high.
3. Advance Wars
There will be two types of person reading this: the type who has played Advance Wars and will go “yup, great call. Advance Wars is brilliant” and those who have never heard of it. If you are one of the ones who has never heard of it, I envy you. I envy you because you will have the chance to go out right now, get hold of a copy of Advance Wars and play it for the first time. You are sickeningly fortunate. This game is perfect.
The TLDR for Advance Wars is turn-based, grid-based combat using a bit of a Rock, Paper, Scissors model to determine which troop will win. You have a force and the enemy has a somewhat superior force. Can you play well enough to win the battle and drive the story on? It’s like chess on steroids with an almost infinite amount of possible moves to make.
What spices up Advance Wars are the powers that your commanders can bring, and the powers the AI brings to bear against you. One might have a critical strike bonus whereas another can make it snow, badly slowing several of your units. These powers have a real impact on gameplay and can make an easy win into a complex struggle that you really have to try to plan around to succeed.
Advance Wars debuted for the GameBoy Advance and its graphics and sound are nothing special. There is a charm there, for sure, but this game is one for the purists in that it succeeds through the incredible satisfaction of the gameplay. I would rate Advance Wars as the very best game you could have to play on a long journey. It flies the flag for the endangered species that is the turn-based game and it flies it higher and prouder than anyone else. Outstanding.