happyponyland.net / Games I've played

Here is a list of games I've played, with mini-reviews and various anecdotes. I don't play a lot of games anymore and I don't consider myself a "gamer", but I occasionally enjoy it. My top 3 games ever have been:

These are quite diverse in style, but all very ambitious projects with a high degree of interactivity and player freedom (as a consequence, at least the first two are known to be somewhat technologically flawed). They offer massive worlds, thick with atmosphere, to explore and get perpetually sidetracked in. The worldbuilding often tells more of a story than the actions of the characters do; the worlds have a purpose for being there other than as a dumb backdrop. Each of these games permanently changed my expectations of gaming.

(These criteria also apply to other games I like, such as Avernum, Ultima Underworld and Super Metroid. Maybe I just like games that take place underground, given that I grew up in a mining town? Hmm.)

Defining moments

Ultima 7: The Black Gate (PC): I used to call this the best game ever, but I would like to rephrase it as the most engaging gaming experience I've ever had. It is actually quite difficult to assess Ultima 7 as a game.

Hype about "baking bread" aside, it has an immersive world with lots of things to do. It was a technological marvel for 1992. You can move and interact with hundreds of items. There is a day and night cycle, weather and lightning effects. Townspeople have schedules and don't simply stand around waiting for you, they're up and about in their daily lives. There are no generic "I know nothing" NPCs and no quests where you must "assassinate the High Jarl of Njorsbaen" or other megalomaniacal objectives; most of the game is spent talking to characters that actually seem like real people with real problems (even if some feel a bit dated today, having been written by Gen X-ers) and working out their social relations. You're actually a good guy and your party members old friends and genuine allies wanting to see you do good in the world, not some morally ambiguous enemy-of-my-enemy types you need to placate and keep from killing each other (as is often the case in modern grimdark RPGs).

The problem with Ultima 7 is that while it got a lot of things right - in a lightning-in-a-bottle sense that few games before, or after, have - it is quite lacking in all aspects that actually make it a game. We can't even gauge its difficulty, since there aren't really any game elements where player skill matters very much! You solve almost every quest by talking to people you meet and simply exhausting the dialogue trees they offer - there are no story-altering choices, beyond simple yes/no prompts where one or the other is obviously the correct to pick. You initiate combat by pressing C and the outcome resolves by itself. Character statistics are meaningless and there are no options for character development. Even selecting equipment is just busywork as there are no synergies to be discovered - just collect plate mail for everyone and you're set. There are a few "levers and teleporters" death mazes you need to navigate, but these are very abstract and devoid of any internal logic.

Mechanically, Ultima 7 is not so much an RPG as it is an point-and-click adventure. You never get better at solving the problems the game presents, you just mess around until something works. The only return is really how you get to explore and experience the world at your leisure - it feels like you're actually there, and at some point you realize you have spent two hours shipping planks and furniture to a remote island to build a beach house (somehow the main save-the-world quest doesn't seem all that urgent).

There are also many technical problems and systems that ended up as missed opportunities or just plain blunders: the combat is chaotic, magic is useless (as a plot device it far outweighs its tactical usefulness), the interface is remarkably detailed yet clunky, the Olde English font gets painful to read after a while, and so on. Given that most of the value lies in its exploration and dialogue, it doesn't really hold up to many replays. Would I enjoy it as much today as I did in 1997? Probably not. But it left an extremely long-lasting impact for what games can be.

Ultima 7 ultimately (heh) faded into obscurity for many years as it was very difficult getting it to run on semi-modern machine (i.e. anything from Windows 95 to the introduction of Exult/U7RUN/DOSBox in the mid-2000s) - and by that time Ultima 9 had ruined the Ultima brand forever. Oh well.

Deus Ex (PC): I loved this when it first came out and played through it several times. I like the high degree of world interactivity and the cyberpunk aesthetic. The story and characters, even if somewhat outlandish, are engaging. Like many late 90s games, it hasn't aged very well; the graphics are terrifying by modern standars and the voice acting is infamously cheesy. There are many systems and mechanics that are disjoint or suboptimally balanced, and it's not really as non-linear as it might have wanted, many times only giving you an illusion of choice. I still find it a masterpiece, considering how much ambition went into it and how much that actually ended up in the final game.

Hollow Knight (PC): This game is superb in almost every aspect: design, visuals, soundtrack. It is set in a fallen kingdom of bugs (of all things) - this is original, to the point that I'm not aware of it ever having been done before. Fortunately, most of the bugs are more of the cute variety than scary and disgusting. There is an enormous subterranean maze offering non-linear exploration, equally gorgeous and fascinating as it is foreboding and oppressive. There is character progression, where locating artifacts provide new abilies and aids to overcome obstacles. The story unfolds gradually, not with dramatic twists and turns, but through subtle details you piece together as you explore new areas and get to know the many oddball characters. There is an underlying theme of loss and sacrifice and some of the later game is thematically very dark. One area in particular was so steeped in melancholy and regret that it simply overwhelmed me and I had to quit playing. This is not a bad thing - there are few works of fiction that have found so emotionally moving - but I felt I could not process the crushing inevitability at the time without going to a very dark place myself. I owe it to this game to do another playthrough at some time I'm in a better frame of mind.

I think I finished about 80%; I never got the completionist secret ending. Unfortunately my initial experience was somewhat marred by having a slow computer, making many battles unnecessarily frustrating due to choppy framerate (20 hours in, I found that I could play in a shrunk window to make it a lot more responsive - in this fashion, the balance is nearly perfect). As this is the only modern game on my top 3, it is also the most accessible today. If you haven't played Hollow Knight, my recommendation is to curl up in a darkened room and make sure you are undisturbed for a week or so.

The others

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (NES): The first game I ever played (and I still enjoy it today). I was about 4 years old and my brother was sitting next to me, yelling "you need to press up to enter the houses!". I like the freeform exploration, the side-scrolling action sequences and the experience system. I also discovered the fairy glitch on my own (casting the FAIRY spell while outside the screen would transport you to a bizarre town and then drop you in the middle of the ocean, requiring a reset).

The Legend of Zelda (NES): I once deleted my cousins savefile by mistake; she was not happy when she found out.

The Legend of Zelda III: A Link to the Past (SNES): I got this a couple of days before christmas (1992, probably?). It was meant to wait for christmas, but my parents had bought a used copy and forgot to remove the cartridge from the machine after testing it - which I of course found when I came home from school. By New Years Eve I had made it to the first encounter with Agahnim. The Light World/Dark World mechanic was a lot of fun and the music is great. Simply a masterpiece that still holds up today.

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (GC): I didn't pay much attention to the series when it made the transition to 3D, so this was the first I tried after III. I liked the darker tone but I believe it could have been taken further, it all resolves in a somewhat unsatisfactory way. The controls are great though; it felt like this was the game the GC controller was designed for.

The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap (GBA): Pretty good, but the collecting elements required to complete some parts of it are a bit dull.

Ice Hockey (NES): I've never been a hockey fan, but this game is far enough removed from the real thing to be enjoyable. For some reason I really liked the zambonis, so when my brother and his buddies were playing they called my name every time they came on screen.

Super Castlevania IV (SNES): I really like this game. The graphics remain superb even today and the music is among the best videogame soundtracks ever made. For being a Castlevania it's rather simple but I don't mind. It was one of my first for the SNES; I got a used copy and the previous owner had scribbled a lot of stuff on the instruction booklet. The shop had tried crossing this over, but you could still make out a bunch of racial slurs and death threats. WTF?

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon (GBA): My first game for the GBA. The magic system (you combine different cards to create different effects) is interesting but doesn't live up to its full potential. I played this before Symphony of the Night; if it had been the other way around I probably would have been disappointed.

Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance (GBA): I had a really hard time with this game. I found it confusing and frustrating and I don't think I ever actually completed it. It's also tangled with a pretty rough time in my life and some bad memories I would rather not revisit.

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow (GBA): Felt rather short and kind of lacking; it's one of those japanese games where you need to do very specific things to unlock parts of the game (IIRC you need to find and equip certain items to access the final boss at all). This game also reminds me of bad times.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (PSX)

Ikaruga (GC): Beautiful game, beautiful music, interesting switching mechanic but very difficult. I've made it to the third boss without losing any lives, but keeping the chains together is just insane.

Baldurs Gate (PC): Played this when it was new, in 1999 or so. I stopped playing about 10 minutes before the final battle, mostly because my characters were too low level and everything was getting really frustrating. When I returned to it 10+ years later I breezed through most of it. I also played Baldurs Gate II and especially enjoyed the parts set in the Underdark. Both games are enjoyable, but they don't quite live up to the hype.

Planescape: Torment (PC)

Icewind Dale (PC): Good game; not very original, but it's supposed to be generic.

Icewind Dale II (PC): I enjoyed this a lot, but I've never finished it. I prefer the freeform multiclassing over the traditional classes in the earlier Bioware titles.

Morrowind (PC): Oh, what a yawnfest. I really don't understand why people like The Elder Scrolls (I've also tried Daggerfall and Skyrim and they are also terrible). It's ironic how the series has seen such mainstream success as it seems to embody the worst aspects of both high fantasy and RPGs in general. The pace is ridiculously slow. The maps manage to feel both desolate and cramped at the same time. There's always an epic plot involving politics and ancient prophecies, but it's bogged down by uninteresting lore, unlikable NPCs, generic dialogue, names that are hard to pronounce, obtuse character statistics and arbitrary combat encounters. None of this makes me care in the slightest.

Final Fantasy 4 (SNES): Classic game, but sometimes a bit frustrating and tedious. You lose several key characters along the way, so time invested in leveling up is often wasted.

Final Fantasy 5 (SNES): Underappreciated, as it wasn't translated into english for a long time (I originally played the fan-made ROM translation, and I still prefer it over the official GBA version). The story is a bit weak but I liked the job system; you keep the same characters through the whole game (well, almost) so you can tailor them the way you want.

Final Fantasy 6 (SNES): Played through it at least twice. Definitely a high point of the series, but no one would disagree with that. Many of the characters are a bit gimmicky, though; try making a party of Umaro, Gogo, Gau and... Relm?

Final Fantasy 7 (PC): I found this quite slow and the story very hard to follow. Played it to the end, but I've never returned to it afterwards. Over-hyped.

Secret of Mana (SNES): The last SNES game I bought (1998). It has some memorable moments and the combat isn't quite as tedious as in Final Fantasy.

Seiken Densetsu III (SNES): Another JRPG that didn't receive an official translation. The controls and mechanics are good. I liked the concept of overlapping storylines, but I found the individual arcs pretty weak.

Ultima 4 (PC)

Worlds of Ultima: Savage Empire (PC): One of the Ultima 6 spinoffs. I thought it was really good. I enjoyed the interactive environment and crafting elements (skinning animals, making torches, digging for clay at the riverbed, baking the clay into a pots, mixing gunpowder, making grenades from pots and gunpowder, etc). One of the most interesting encounters was the Fabozz statue. We were just learning about the properties of magnesium in school and I figured out that lighting one of the magnesium strips would solve the problem. The setting has plenty of colonial overtones that I might have been less comfortable with today, but it works if I just consider it a pulp parody.

Ultima 7: Serpent Isle (PC): For various reasons, this never really struck well with me. It's very linear (compared to the nearly complete freedom of movement in the original U7), progress is slow and I never felt involved in the story.

Ultima Underworld (PC): Really, really good, and a technical marvel for its time. Very open-ended gameplay. Somewhat dark and claustrophobic. Excellent musical score, great graphics. Good skill system (I particularly liked that you could learn to repair your own equipment). Interesting bartering system that takes the focus away from gold coins (you can find those as well, but many NPCs will prefer other goods to trade). I don't think I've ever completed it myself; I've seen the ending in playthoughs though, so there's not much point in going back to it now.

Ultima Underworld II (PC): The "dimension travel" setting allows some interesting variety and it has a few technical improvements over the previous game, but it's a lot more linear and the story fails to captivate.

Ultima 8 (PC): I tried it, but its reputation of being terrible is well deserved. It does have an amazing soundtrack though.

Ultima 9 (PC): Oh, wow, I'm not even going there.

Ultima Online (PC): Got a promotional copy from my ISP, but I never got hooked. Playing it on dialup was too slow and by the time I tried it (2002, I think) all the early sense of adventure was long gone and every blank spot in the wilderness was covered with player houses. I ran into a character called . o O ( Exploding Bob ) O o . or something equally silly.

Shadowcaster (PC): Pretty good FPS/lite-RPG. You switch between seven forms which each let you solve different encounters. Being a really old game the interface is a bit clunky, but the setting is different enough to be interesting and the graphics are nicely detailed. My 486 originally only had 4 MB RAM and this game required 8 MB, so it would crash during the title screen; only after I upgraded I could experience the actual game (I'm writing this on a machine with 8 GB - how times have changed).

Septerra Core (PC): Really good and underappreciated RPG, even if I didn't like the art style. Never finished it, though. I found it hilarious when some of the character had nordic names: "Gunnar... can I trust you?"

Quake (PC): So many hours spent playing this in computer labs at school, but I've never been very good at deathmatch. I have also played through the single player game several times. I appreciate the hybrid scifi/dark fantasy setting; Romero and McGee disagreeing over the design was probably the best thing that could happen. I recommend Katatonia - Discouraged Ones as soundtrack, it goes really well with the game. Quake II isn't nearly as good.

Deadlock (PC): Interesting and original turn-based sci-fi strategy, although with a couple of frustrating flaws.

Megaman (NES/SNES): Megaman II was one of my favourite games as a kid, and it ties with Megaman X as my favourite in the series. I also had Megaman III, but it's just not as good. I never had the original Megaman, but I tried it at some friends house and have later re-discovered it through emulation. It's an ok game, but I can also see why the sequels almost never happened.

Batman (NES): One of the best NES games; excellent graphics, memorable music. Some interesting mechanics (wall climbing) and brutal difficulty that requires nearly perfect control. My cartridge stopped working after a friend borrowed it (hrrrrm), but luckily there is emulation. I remember having a fever the day I got it; my brother had gone out and bought it a whim.

Diablo (PC): I prefer the original over Diablo II. It's fun, but I haven't played it excessively.

Half-Life (PC): Pretty fun when it was new, but feels rather dated today. For some reason I listened to the Lufia soundtrack while playing it.

Super Metroid (SNES): Gorgeous and eerie; possibly the best title for the system.

Metroid Fusion (GBA): Good game but a bit short (I finished it in a single day) and the linear story really brings it down.

Parappa the Rapper (PSX): Utterly bizarre and lovely, yet difficult. I have a good sense of rhythm but I still had a hard time with the controls.

Sim City (SNES)

Ceasar II (PC)

Caesar III (PC)

Civilization II (PC)

Urban Terror (PC): I've played quite a few hours of this. It's a distraction, but nothing really amazing.

Ninja Gaiden (NES)

Space Megaforce (SNES)

Lemmings (SNES)

Bubsy (SNES): I only remember renting this for a weekend and it being very frustrating.

Seven Cities of Gold (PC)

Layer Section (Saturn)

Zombies Ate My Neighbors (SNES)

Chrono Trigger (SNES)

The Addams Family (SNES)

Kick Off (NES)


Probotector (NES): European release of Contra. Never had it myself, but I used to play it with a friend. We never got very far. We were really into Turtles at the time and he had both TMNT games, which we also played.

Hexen 2 (PC)

Heroes of Might & Magic 2 (PC): I really, really like this game and still return to it once in a while. I found it to be so perfect I've never bothered to try any of the later games in the series. I'm still not good at it, though.

Betrayal at Krondor (PC): Well-written RPG, even if Raymond E. Feist apparently wasn't very deeply involved. The novelization Krondor: The Betrayal is actually worth reading as well.

Tetris (PC)

Warcraft II (PC)

Age of Empires (PC)

Cheops Pyramid (PC): Educational maths game in swedish. I played the original DOS version, which seems almost impossible to get hold of today!?

Broken Sword 2 (PC)

Chuck Yeager's Air Combat (PC)

Super Mario World (SNES)

Super Mario 64 (N64): I didn't like the transition to 3D.

Lords of The Realm II (PC): Good strategy game. It takes a couple of tries to get your priorities figured out, but once you're past the first level it provides a lot of gameplay.

Lords of Magic (PC): Interesting concept, but very unpolished and buggy. It's a game I enjoyed a lot, but not necessarily a good game.

Deus Ex: Human Revolutions (PC): It was ok. Not particularly thrilling, but given the hype it had to live up to it was bound to disappoint somehow.

Dishonored (PC): I knew from the moment I first saw it that I would like this game. The pacing was a bit slow and some of the mechanics (shops, collecting charms) felt a bit out of place. I actually enjoyed the DLCs more than the main game.

Far Cry 3 (PC): The free-form guerilla warfare and general mayhem was great, the scripted missions were shit. The storyline and the recurring Vaas encounters felt forced, and they really went overboard with the pirate stereotypes and "generic white guy finally Gets It On with hot ethnic chick". But then of course...

Far Cry 4 (PC): ... making it about an ethnic protagonist in a slightly different setting didn't really help. I found this to be more a 3.5 than a real sequel.

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon (PC): Enjoyable in it's 80s action parody glory, but even though it's meant to be a short game it felt a bit inconclusive.

GTA V (PC): Fun sandbox and excellent writing. I was thoroughly spoiled since I had already watched a complete playthrough. It has some of the sharpest satire seen in gaming and in mainstream media overall, bordering on excessive cynicism and self-loathing. The ending felt a bit rushed and unmotivated.

Hatred (PC): Played most of it but lost interest near the end. It has some weak attempts at dark humor that neither takes the edge off the extreme content nor drives it home deeper, it just feels out of place. It's exactly what you expect it to be; mildly entertaining for the taboo theme, but mostly mediocre.

CircleMUD: I tried a couple of MUDs in the late 90s. In 2000 I was introduced by a classmate to a CircleMUD server he frequented; some other people joined as well and we played for a couple of months. One of the guys developed something of an addiction; he maxed out his character, became an immortal and ran his own guild. I didn't really have the patience (or 24/7 net connection) for it myself.