Welcome to part 2 of a brand new mega list for CelJaded’s Top 100 Best Video Games. This second post features entries #90 to #81.
Be sure to read the introduction that I put together beforehand too as it gives a more detailed introduction on what I’m trying to achieve here as well as a few other random musings that you may find insightful.
If you’re looking for another post in this same series then consider visiting the associated index which includes a readout of all published entries and the posts in which they appear.
“Welcome back to the stage of history.”
#90 – Panzer Dragoon Saga
Principal Platforms: Saturn | Developer: Team Andromeda | Publisher: Sega | Genre: RPG | Year: 1998
Considered by many to be the Sega Saturn‘s swan song; Panzer Dragoon Saga is a name that is immediately recognizable to anyone with experience of the secondhand video game market on eBay.
Due to the fact that the title frequently fetches triple digit prices at auction and is also made for a console that is remarkably resistant to emulation, it’s fair to say that Panzer Dragoon Saga was never destined to reach the wider audience it deserved.
So is the full game worthy of the immense praise it receives from the lucky bunch who have actually played it through to the end?
Honestly, I would probably say it isn’t, but that’s not to suggest that the game is a disappointment as much as it is a target of hyperbole.
In a departure from the preceding titles in the series, Saga is an RPG instead of an on-rails shoot ’em up.
The FMV, atmosphere and pseudo post-apocalyptic fantasy world are all quite captivating and immersive and whilst the overall plot is rather segmented for the “saga” moniker (the Japanese release is actually called Azel: Panzer Dragoon RPG), the story itself is still unusually told and makes for something a bit different for those who have grown tired of the typical good vs. evil setup of similar efforts in the genre.
You play as Edge, a young miner who survives an Empire-perpetrated massacre following the discovery of a strange girl encased in a stone tomb. Edge is saved by a powerful dragon with whom he quickly establishes a bond and together they head out to unravel the reasons behind the Empire’s attack and the mysterious exhumed girl called Azel.
Saga distinguishes itself from the norm with some inspired dialogue and fresh takes on established character tropes. Edge makes a nice enough transition from confused soldier to saviour and his relationship with Azel is pretty bleak albeit quite intriguing at the same time. Villain Crayman becomes more of an anti-hero by the end and there are a host of wonderfully fleshed out supporting characters including the absent minded mechanic and an overly corrupt councilman.
Every good RPG worth its salt needs an equally good battle system and in this regard Saga does not disappoint. All fighting is done from atop your dragon with various enemies positioned in the center of a radar on your HUD. You can circle around the enemy in an effort to find a weak spot and sometimes to avoid certain power attacks aimed in your direction. There are many twists that can change up a battle progress including walls that block movement, swarms of ablative enemies protecting their leader and weak spots that are located right near an enemy’s most powerful facing weapon.
You have access to two main attacks including Edge’s standard firearm (great for sniping weak spots) and the dragon’s own powerful laser beams which cause heavy damage to multiple targets at once. The powerful “berserk” powers act as special skills or magic that can only be used once the relevant gauge has been filled. These techniques grant you an advantage in combat by either raising your stats or unleashing widespread devastation upon an unsuspecting foe.
Later in the game you discover the ability to manipulate the dragon’s attribute points and even give it a name with any modifications changing the appearance and operational ability of the dragon significantly. It’s a great element of customization; if you fancy having a purely attack focused dragon for example (with equally lowered defence in that case) then you’re free to do it if you wish.
Whilst the environments are varied and pleasing to look at, it has to be said that the graphics in Saga are hard to tolerate by today’s standards of 3D. The game is enormously impressive for a Sega Saturn title (a console with infamously weak 3D capabilities compared to the PlayStation) but it still looks quite blocky and flat in some areas. The music composed by Saori Kobayashi and Mariko Namba is very nice though with plenty of epic and rousing tunes in store to complement the wondrous world that Team Andromeda has created.
The dragon itself can be slow to control at times and the on foot sections are not very exciting either. Although the game comes on four discs, it’s still considered to be somewhat short by genre standards and there are several dragon-less sections in there which really do outstay their welcome. The challenge also fades away during the latter stages of the game too with encounters becoming incredibly easy to beat once the dragon has been powered up. And all of this leads to a rather anti-climactic ending which chooses to leave everything open for interpretation rather than wrap things up for the necessary closure.
None of this overly detracts from what is a fantastic RPG in general though. The time spent on the dragon is invigorating, the battle system is very enjoyable and the 3D world as a whole is both unique and fascinating considering it has been created with 32-bit hardware.
Is it worth succumbing to the over-inflated prices of eBay to play Panzer Dragoon Saga? No, probably not. But it’s my guess that those faithful who did shell out are not regretting their decision any time soon.
#89 – Shining Force II
Principal Platforms: Mega Drive | Developer: Sonic! Software Planning | Publisher: Sega | Genre: Tactical RPG | Year: 1993
The Mega Drive isn’t known for its stable of quality RPGs with even the excellent Shining Force II being very close to a pure strategy game at times.
Even so, this title is a truly grand adventure in its own right and one that sees your mute swordsman travel the land as he builds an army strong enough to confront the evil demon known as Zeon.
Where there are no points for originality in its plot, Shining Force II presents sumptuous 16-bit visuals, hours of tactical gameplay and a massive cast of thirty playable characters that can sometimes level-up in more than one direction.
The game is a typical and mostly lighthearted fairytale sword and sorcery RPG, featuring the usual slew of elves, dwarves, goblins and dragons. Despite the lack of originality in its premise however, there are enough interesting twists and alliances to form over the course of the game that it never feels dull.
One memorable battle for instance takes place on an actual Chess board where your enemies take the form of pawns and bishops etc. that each have a power level of what you would expect from a traditional game of Chess. Of course knocking out the king in this encounter results in instant victory, which is nice too.
The battle system from the first title is mostly intact but has been expanded to be more interesting. Apart from critical hits and evasions, you now have new spells, easier movement and the potential chance of making double attacks, which means there’s a lot more to consider now when planning your strategy from one battle to the next.
Perhaps the biggest strength in this game though is the difficulty balance. No matter how bizarrely powerful your allies become over the course of the adventure, every encounter feels as dangerous as the next. Boss enemies in particular are absurdly strong and always need to be approached with the utmost care if victory is to be achieved.
Shining Force II is a great sequel. It’s a bigger and better version of the first game in all aspects except for maybe the plot. The majority of changes though, especially in the gameplay, are for the better and it all culminates in what is perhaps the best strategy RPG available for the Sega Mega Drive.
#88 – Soulcalibur
Principal Platforms: Arcade, Dreamcast | Developer: Project Soul | Publisher: Namco | Genre: 3D Beat ‘Em Up | Year: 1998
Say it quickly with no pause, all one word: “Soulcalibur“.
You got it.
Still holding the record for highest critically rated console launch title ever, the Dreamcast version of Soulcalibur is a masterpiece in fighting game excellence.
Although it has since been surpassed by technically superior sequels (hence its relatively low place on this list), Soulcalibur still remains one of the genre’s absolute best efforts and made the Dreamcast look like a real contender during its early days on the market.
Although the arcade version is well regarded too, the Dreamcast version of Soulcalibur is notable for being considerably better; something that was extremely uncommon for the time. The home port features enhanced graphics, tighter gameplay, team battle and survival modes, new costumes, and former series villain Cervantes de Leon as a playable character.
As good as Soulcalibur is as a 2 player game, I’ve always found it notable for its robust single player content, namely the missions mode where a player travels a world map to complete various challenges that reward points which can then be spent on extra features including developer artwork and new character costumes. The game’s Japanese text adventure for the Dreamcast VMU was sadly never translated into English, but I suppose you can’t have everything.
Soulcalibur is set in fantasy medieval times and the tale begins when a young knight, Siegfried, discovers the evil weapon of destruction known as Soul Edge and is transformed into the hideous azure blue warrior known as Nightmare. Fast forward a few years and all hell has broken loose with a malevolent entity called Inferno bringing ruin to the world. Many warriors have now come to either end Soul Edge’s reign of devastation or take the power for themselves.
Although the character endings are quite lacklustre (static screens with a few strings of text) there is an impressive amount of backstory in the game if players go looking for it. I find it nice also that not every ending is a case of “you saved the world”, as certain characters have entirely selfish reasons for undertaking their quest. The role of the Soul Calibur itself (two separate words, with a pause) is also (no, I don’t know why…) curiously underplayed, with the weapon only appearing in a very specific circumstance in-game.
Soulcalibur‘s brand of 3D battling is exceptional with its revolutionary “8-Way Run” system and a strong commitment towards weapon based combat. Another reason why the series has endured in my affections so much over the years is because of its relative lack of projectile attacks; an overwhelmingly common feature of 2D fighting games such as Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat especially. It’s much harder to sit still and “spam” attacks in Soulcalibur as you need to truly get up into your opponent’s face if you entertain any hope of winning.
The character roster is also greatly varied with many swashbuckling heroes that brandish everything from quarterstaves and swords to nunchaku and giant axes. There is less of a reliance on combo strings as attacks seem to flow rather seamlessly into each other and there’s still no spectacle quite like executing a brutal ‘throw’ on an opponent and watching their health dwindle from the assault.
Soulcalibur is still a treat to both play and behold even today. The gameplay, the graphics and extensive mission mode all complement each other so well that I still get the urge to play this one regularly.
The soul still burns.
#87 – The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
Principal Platforms: PC, Xbox | Developer: Bethesda | Publisher: Bethesda, Ubisoft | Genre: RPG | Year: 2002
Morrowind has to be one of the most immensely popular PC games ever created and it’s strange to think when you also consider how outright flawed this title is in so many ways.
As a custom created agent of Tamriel’s emperor, players enter the vast fantasy world of Morrowind to battle an ancient evil threatening the land. When I put it like that, it sounds like a pretty standard setup for a game. To Morrowind‘s credit though, there is a very rich and detailed history behind its story if you’re willing to put in the hours to discover it amongst the game’s many ancient texts and local tales.
The game is renowned for its immersion factor with a completely open quest structure that you gives you the “freedom” to approach your adventure in any way you choose.
As far as roleplaying goes, Morrowind is a much ballsier title than its two sequels. There are no HUD markers to tell you where to go (merely vague directions such as “south of Vivec”), no difficulty scaling features and nothing except a warning message should you accidentally kill an NPC that is vital to the game’s plot. Whilst constituting a rougher edge gameplay wise, Morrowind is undoubtedly a more developed roleplay experience as a result.
But if there’s one endlessly impressive thing about Morrowind, it has to be the sheer scope of it all. The world Betheseda has crafted here is gigantic, truly gigantic. To complete every quest and meet every one of the well over 1000 NPCs would take hundreds of hours and it’s quite possible to discover new sights and frontiers even on your third of fourth playthrough.
Sometimes you get the feeling it’s a case of quantity over quality as NPCs act as mere terminals for information more than actual people and the script is often very lifeless and boring. Trained wizards haven’t yet learned the art of opening doors and if I see another one of those squawking Cliff Racers then I may actually smash my computer screen.
Once that main theme song starts playing though, it’s hard not to be sucked in by the spectacle. For a game now over a decade old, Morrowind is a fantastic achievement in world design even if, like so many cult classics, it’s a bit of a love-or-hate it kind of deal.
Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, this is a tale featuring many polar opposites. Morrowind can be a slow and boring experience whilst at the same time being utterly engrossing and addictive. There are plenty of typical fetch-quests and two dimensional characters amidst more inspired stories and whimsically written gods. It’s a strange duality but for whatever bizarre reason, Bethesda makes it work surprisingly well.
Whilst I’ve now sworn off The Elder Scrolls series entirely, I can’t for a second deny the sheer amount of time I’ve spent and have enjoyed in the land of Morrowind and I would be extremely surprised if a remake wasn’t being carefully considered by its creators sometime in the future.
#86 – Faselei!
Principal Platforms: Neo Geo Pocket Colour | Develper: Sacnoth | Publisher: SNK | Genre: Strategy | Year: 1999
An expensive rarity for a discontinued console, Faselei! is a ‘programmable strategy’ title in the same vein as Richard Garfield’s Robo Rally board game. Whilst I’ve never played Robo Rally for myself, I’ve had the concept explained to me enough times to instantly think “Oh, like Faselei! then!”
This is a turn-based strategy game with RPG elements where you queue up actions for your giant mecha to perform over the course a single turn. The various chips you have installed in your robotic soldier determines its overall ability to move, fire weapons and use items, and it’s up to you to program the best routine in each battle against computer controlled enemies that are doing the exact same thing.
Successfully completing missions will reward experience points and cash to spend on various upgrades and new models of mecha and it’s not long before this becomes an addictive experience in its own right.
What sets Faselei! apart from similar titles is the rather incredible production value for a title on such a diminutive console. There’s a full intro cinematic complete with heavily compressed vocals (fitting that on the cartridge must have been a feat in itself!), multiple cutscenes and some very impressive character designs.
This is to say nothing of how downright entertaining the battle system can be, with early missions offering enough challenge to keep you engrossed longer than most portable titles would normally do. The storyline isn’t terrible either and keeps you invested in the motivations of each character throughout.
Sadly the challenge drops off sharply once your mecha reaches a certain power level and you’ll soon discover at this point that the game is cripplingly short. A two player mode is included to offer more replay value but the idea of two people owning the relatively unpopular Neo Geo Pocket console and a copy of this rare and expensive game is laughable really.
Nevertheless, Faselei! stands as one of the plucky handheld’s absolute best offerings and one of my favourites at that.
#85 – Etherlords II
Principal Platforms: PC | Developer: Nival | Publisher: Strategy First, DreamCatcher | Genre: Card Battle/Strategy | Year: 2003
I covered Etherlords II in its own dedicated article a few months back so I’ll keep its entry here brief.
As I stated before though, Etherlords II is a meaty card battling adventure game with five lengthy campaigns to play through, each featuring its own unique mix of cards to collect and enemies to fight.
Decks are kept at a very lean twenty cards which means each battle will likely require a different approach depending on the spells your current enemy employs against you.
It’s uncommon to find a one-size-fits-all solution for your deck, even towards the end of a campaign, so the challenge remains healthy all the way throughout.
This is perhaps the biggest positive for diehard card game fans; Etherlords II is a tough game to beat and will require you to leverage every advantage you can in order to win. For those that are not so comfortable with excessive terminology and tactics however, the easy mode still makes for a fun experience.
Whereas the first Etherlords was an interesting proof of concept only, Etherlords II is the inevitable expansion of that idea and one that works a whole lot better.
It’s a solid game, one saved by a remarkably diverse battle system and a dizzying array of fun strategies and deckbuilding potential. For hardcore fans of Magic: The Gathering or similar card games, Etherlords II is a must-play as there are decidedly few original games like it ten years on from its initial release.
#84 – Fallout 3
Principal Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 | Developer: Bethesda | Publisher: Bethesda | Genre: RPG | Year: 2008
Bethesda carved out a real niche for itself with Fallout 3; the sequel that almost never was.
Running on a brand new 3D engine combined with gameplay similar to The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, this open ended “RPG with guns” struck a chord with gamers everywhere due to its compulsive post apocalyptic environment, slow motion gun-play and hilarious ultra violence.
Fallout 3 is very much a love letter to the original games in the series and features many interesting quests, stories and battles to be had in a retro-futuristic rendition of the United States.
The look and feel of the game is nailed down pretty well. The world of Fallout 3 is just as vast and gritty as it ever was and sometimes all you’ll want to do is explore this irradiated wasteland and see what wondrous/horrendous sights you can find. The game may not be as massive as Betheseda‘s other games, but there are still plenty of memorable side quests to uncover and bizarre settlements to visit.
In a departure from the uninspiring combat of Oblivion though, Fallout 3 features a ridiculously entertaining Vault Assisted Targeting System (V.A.T.S.) which allows you to pause the gameplay and target specific parts of an enemy’s body. You could try and play the game as a straight first person shooter, but nobody in their right mind is going to want to pass up the glorious fun that VATS unleashes upon the world. Decapitating your enemies via a few well aimed shots to the head rarely gets old and it adds just enough nuance to the regular button-clicking combat to never get boring.
Character creation is enjoyable too with a wealth of different perks appearing upon level up that can make your character more of a warrior, smooth talker or cannibal than ever before.
Ultimately, Fallout 3‘s greatest success comes from its immersion factor- it’s just so easy to get lost in the sheer ambiance of the Capital Wasteland. Between this gripping atmosphere, the adrenaline-fueled combat and enticing blend of exploration and retro Fifties songs, Fallout 3 is a fun game that’s built to last.
#83 – Super Mario 64
Principal Platforms: Nintendo 64 | Developer: Nintendo | Publisher: Nintendo | Genre: 3D Platformer | Year: 1996
It’s not every day you get to sit down and type out a mini review for a game as well loved and respected as Super Mario 64.
What can I really say to do such a lauded title enough justice? Well, calling it the father of modern 3D games would be a start I guess but on a simpler note, this esteemed Nintendo 64 launch title is a supremely playable platformer that still has the ability to amaze nearly twenty years on.
Even though the graphics are very dated by today’s standards, Mario and his cast of supporting characters all have a pleasing rounded look to them and don’t seem nearly as blocky as similar games from the time period.
Even though the Nintendo 64 often struggled when it came to rendering draw distance, you won’t find much “fog” in this title compared to say Turok: Dinosaur Hunter. Every level and every character is just full of colour too and I imagine it does a good job of evoking the Mario titles of yore.
The game isn’t overly taxing to play either which is a good job considering what a bear the Nintendo 64 controller is to use in general. Mario only has need of a few commands during gameplay with buttons for jumping, ducking and moving the camera all mapped to convenient locations. Speaking of which, I don’t think the camera is as perfect as some like to claim, but it certainly isn’t a deal-breaker either.
It’s also nice that there are not too many collectibles that need to be gathered in each stage. Aside from the common ‘collect 100 coins’ task and the all important stars themselves, Mario’s adventure is pretty straightforward to get into and won’t burden you with objectives.
I just wish that each stage didn’t reset so often when collecting the stars, as it often spoils the momentum of a game in progress. It’s a shame that there’s no real story to latch onto either and once the game is complete, there’s little reason to return outside of a few hidden secrets here and there.
As I said before though, these niggles are hardly deal-breakers and overall Super Mario 64 is a fun and immensely important game that ranks as one of the finest launch titles ever to grace a home console.
#82 – Wetrix
Principal Platforms: Nintendo 64, Dreamcast | Developer: Zed Two | Publisher: Ocean, Take 2 Interactive | Genre: Puzzle | Year: 1998
“Tetris but underwater”, is likely how the pitch for this game started.
Indeed, it’s quite the obvious comparison to make, but it’s surprising how well the combination works in practice.
The action in this puzzle title starts on a 3D plane where the familiar Tetris blocks (apart from the annoying ‘Z’ shaped one) appear at the top of the screen for you to arrange.
Your objective is to quickly create a suitable container for the bubbles of water that will soon follow; landing down with a satisfying splash and moving in a way that you would expect from a liquid.
When a fireball appears, that’s your chance to evaporate the water you have contained and score some major points. The physics are quite impressive and the stress soon mounts as the various bombs, ice cubes and other hurdles crop up to punch holes in your master plan.
The classic mode of Wetrix is a simple survival scenario where you must keep your storm drain from filling up from water, but there are also more advanced play options if you’re after a challenge and even a two player mode too.
The two player mode is where Wetrix really shines. In this split-screen affair, each player has their own action bar that increases in strength every time they evaporate a body of water. At any time a player can “cash in” the power on his action bar to launch an attack on the opposing player’s screen. These include water drops, paralyzing ice cubes, earthquakes and the deadly airstrike; each one being able to ruin a opponent’s survival chances should they be deployed at the right moment.
Whether you’re playing against a friend or just for high scores though, Wetrix is a great game that’s fast, tense and a whole lot of wet puzzling fun.
#81 – Sega Rally Championship
Principal Platforms: Arcade, Sega Saturn | Developer: AM5, AM3 | Publisher: Sega | Genre: Racing | Year: 1994
What shock this game must have been for the gaming public of 1995!
After the dismal Sega Saturn conversion that was Daytona USA (a title that would struggle to even maintain 25 frames-per-second), there must have been little hope that the arcade phenomenon Sega Rally Championship would fare any better.
Luckily Sega were determined to have a least one success with their struggling 32-bit console and so Sega Rally appeared with its ultra smooth 30 frames-per-second gameplay well and truly on lockdown.
For a console that so few programmers could truly harness the potential of, Sega Rally‘s visual splendour is a sight to behold. Looking extremely accurate to the original coin-op, the Saturn version of Sega Rally is as downright dirty and exhilarating as the real sport and is a treat for driving game fanatics.
In a departure from games of this ilk, there are only three playable cars and four tracks; but it’s definitely a case of quality over quantity here. Both vehicles handle in a very specific way and it takes time and patience to be able to finish each track in good time.
As a driving game at least, this is the key to Sega Rally‘s success. In similar titles your objective is to merely learn the tracks and overtake the other vehicles to achieve first place, but here there is a much bigger emphasis on cornering techniques and the mastery of such is key to improving your overall lap times. It’s more about precision than it is the triumph of coming in first and it makes for a good game concept.
There are some pretty in-depth features for an arcade racer too, including a car settings mode that allows you to modify the existing motors by changing their front and rear suspension, tyres, brakes and so on.
The real stand-out success as far as I’m concerned though is the quality of the audio. The tantalizing sounds of the engines and collisions are retained in all their glory and the Saturn exclusive soundtrack featuring rocking guitar riffs from mega-star musician Joe Satriani is simply out of this world.
When Games Master magazine did a top 100 of their own many years ago, Sega Rally would be the only Sega Saturn title featured on the list (4th or 5th from the top if I recall) and really, it’s not hard to see why.
Sega Rally is quite simply the best racing experience available for the Sega Saturn, and also one of the finest 32-bit racing games ever made. Although I’m certainly one of its more casual fans (the excellent two player mode is usually good enough for me), the sheer quality of this title has always shone through and impressed me.
Also features the best game over screen in existence!