Whenever I finish playing a video game, I give it a rating in my head from 1-10.

Very few games end up in the 1-4 range. To end up below 5, a game pretty much has to be unplayable for one reason or another. Game-breaking bugs, serious control issues, and crashes are the sort of thing that would put a game in the 1-4 range.

If I give a game a 5, that means that the game works, but is just no fun at all. It might suffer from frequent minor bugs, it might be boring, it might just be a frustrating slog all the way through. I probably won’t have played the game to its conclusion, and I probably will have forgotten about the game almost immediately. A 5 indicates that I’ve made a serious error in my choice of game to play, and that doesn’t happen very often.

A 6 indicates that a game is mildly disappointing. It will have been fun in parts, and there might be a memorable character or a catchy tune in there somewhere, but overall it will have left me feeling a little empty by the end. Games that get a 6 are typically forgettable, and don’t merit much future reflection.

A 7 for me is a satisfying game. Generally enjoyable throughout, a good soundtrack, a good cast of characters, etc. There will be disappointing bits, but nonetheless I’ll arrive at the end of the game feeling as if my time and money were well spent. 7 is sort of the default score – when I pick up any game, I go in expecting a 7 unless there’s some reason for my expectations to be higher or lower. The majority of games I’ve played in my life have been 7s, and whenever I look back at them I recall them with fondness.

8 is where we start to get into rarefied air. To get an 8, a game not only has to be exceptional, it also has to change the way I look at video games in one way or another. Perhaps by introducing me to a new genre, perhaps by introducing a new gameplay element, or perhaps by throwing a new challenge at me that I’ve never seen before. As you can imagine, this doesn’t happen all that often; once per year, perhaps. These are the games that I will not put down until I’ve uncovered each and every secret, completed every optional sidequest, and seen absolutely everything there is to be seen. And then once I’m done, I will go onto Wikipedia to see what details I may have missed about certain characters, I’ll listen to the soundtrack on Youtube, I’ll read interviews with the designers; anything to milk a little more from the game. If someone asks about one of these games, my response will simply be “It’s one of the best games I’ve played in the last ___ years”.

And then there are the 9s. These games change not only the way I look at video games, but at life itself. They are, simply, the best games I’ve ever played. If asked about one of these, the person who asked will quickly come to regret asking as I will gush nonstop for hours if allowed to.

There are only three of them: Pokemon Blue, which I first played in 1998. Golden Sun, which I first played between 2001 and 2002, and Chrono Trigger, which I first played around 2007 even though it came out in 1995.

Pokemon Blue was the first video game I owned. I’d played other games before, but this game was the first one I could say was mine. And owning that game changed everything for me. It gave me a world that I could escape to, with the goal of becoming the very best (like no one ever was). It gave me a way to compete with (and dominate) my friends. I played it for hundreds of hours, until the game cartridge itself wore out. And by the time I was done, I was a gamer.

Golden Sun informed one of my most integral traits: the way I try to see things from both perspectives. In this game, your goal is to stop the antagonists from lighting the four lighthouses around the world, lest a great evil be unleashed. And for the entire first act, which takes a solid 25-30 hours to get through, you chase the villains halfway around the world to prevent them from unleashing said evil. You succeed in slaying them, but not before they’ve lit two of the four lighthouses. And then the game shifts perspective. It places you, the player, into the boots of the secondary antagonist. For the next 40 hours, your goal is now to light the two remaining lighthouses, while the protagonists (or are they now antagonists?) chase you around. Over time, you come to realize that lighting the lighthouses is indeed the correct course of action, and that you’d spent the first 25-30 hours of the game carrying out actions that would have doomed the world if successful. This twist blew my 10 year old mind, and made me realize the importance of trying to understand the other person’s point of view, no matter how crazy their actions may seem to you. It’s a lesson that I’ve carried with me ever since.

Chrono Trigger is just a masterpiece in storytelling. It’s a game about trying to prevent a seemingly inevitable apocalypse through time travel. I don’t want to say too much about it here as I’ve got plans to write more about this game in the near future, but for now it suffices to say that this game completely changed the way I feel about things like “destiny”, and “fate”.

A 9 isn’t something that you can ascribe to  a game immediately after playing it. It takes a few years before it’s possible to tell whether a game has had any life-changing impact on me. The one game that may well be upgraded from an 8 to a 9 in a few years is Clannad, which I played this past June. There is no question that it is the most emotionally evocative game I’ve ever played. I’ve never played a game that succeeded in making me laugh as hard – or cry as much – as Clannad. There is also no question that the soundtrack is one of the most memorable I’ve ever heard. The characters were all wonderfully developed, and you couldn’t help but root for them – even the ones I initially found unlikable grew on me by the end of the 75 hour game. As for the impact on my life, this is the game that got me back into studying Japanese. Whether I stick with it remains to be seen, but if I do, there’s a very good chance that Clannad will be the fourth game to get a 9 from me, and the first in nearly a decade.

What about a 10 then?

So far, I haven’t played a game that I would consider a 10. To get a 10, a game would have to be flawless, and I’ve yet to encounter such a game in 20 years of searching for one. Even the games I hold above all others have flaws. Pokemon Blue had tedious cave sections. Golden Sun suffers from some pacing issues in the second act, and also has a tedious cave section. Chrono Trigger leaves something to be desired in the area of character development. Clannad’s ending was somewhat confusing, which took away some of the emotional impact of the previous 75 hours.

Whenever I start a new game, I expect a 7, but a small part of me always hopes for a 10. As much as I treasure the four games I’ve just mentioned, I would love nothing more than to play a game that could surpass them all. A game that I could look back at 10, 20, 30 years later and say “That is the best game I have ever played”.

Realistically, it will probably never happen. 20 hours is a short game relative to what I usually play. I don’t know if it’s possible to maintain perfection for that long, much less the 50-100 hour beasts I usually tackle.

But, as with everything else in life, I live in hope.

 

 

And Barry, if you’re listening, I still love you.

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