Happy Birthday to Me! My Favorite Games from Each Year I’ve Been Alive

super mario odyssey

Last Tuesday, I turned 28. While many people resent getting older, I embrace it. What’s to dislike about growing another year wiser and living to play a slew of new games? When you think about it that way, it’s not so bad, right?

A few months ago, it was my girlfriend’s mother’s 60th birthday. As a music lover, she asked those closest to her to share a list of their favorite songs and explain how they make them feel. I thought it was a great idea, but I wanted to tie it back to her birthday somehow. So instead of just sharing a list of songs, I picked out my favorite song from each year she’s been alive.

As a gift to myself, I did the same, but with video games instead. It was a ton of fun to reflect on all of the amazing games I’ve played in my short life and think about what exactly makes them so special. I’ll admit this is a little self-serving, but I hope it helps you learn a little more about me and what I think makes a great game.

Read on to see which games I selected and why!

1990: Super Mario World

smwA staple of my childhood, Super Mario World is one of the reasons I grew up to be an avid gamer. While it was a step forward for the series in every way imaginable, I was mainly drawn to it because of the ability to ride Yoshi. Every time I found a Yoshi egg and hatched it, I nearly jumped out of my skin with joy. Riding on your trusty dinosaur companion’s back while it chewed up enemies and spat them out was, and still is, an absolute treat.

1991: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

I didn’t play A Link to the Past until I was in college, and that was probably a good thing. A younger me wouldn’t have had the patience to deal with the high level of difficulty. A bevy of great design decisions, such as reverting back to an overhead perspective and making the combat and character movement more fluid, makes this my favorite pre-Ocarina of Time Zelda game. I also love the parallel world concept it introduced to the series, giving you the ability to travel between the Light World and the Dark World.

1992: Mortal Kombat

One of my earliest memories is crawling out of my crib to play my older brother’s copy of Mortal Kombat. Now I can’t tell you whether it actually occurred or not because I truly don’t know. It was likely just a dream, but it’s more fun to believe it happened. Regardless, Mortal Kombat was my first introduction to fighting games and is a big reason why I dearly love the genre. I was enamored with the characters, particularly Liu Kang and Scorpion. I even dressed as Scorpion for Halloween one year.

1993: NBA Jam

BOOMSHAKALAKA! This list is starting to heat up! With all of its razzle and dazzle, NBA Jam stole my heart as a child. Even today, it’s hard for me to find something more exhilarating than elevating to the ceiling of the United Center as Scottie Pippen and abusing the rim with an earth-shattering dunk. From five-pass alley-oops to full-court three-point shots, this game is full of amusing absurdity.

1994: Earthbound

moonside earthboundPossibly one of the most creative and psychedelic games in existence, Earthbound is my favorite Super Nintendo title. With its hilarious commentary on American culture, creepy sci-fi elements, and deep themes about the struggles of growing up, it offers a unique RPG experience that few other games of its time can match. Almost 25 years later, it still holds up as one of the greatest games of all time.

1995: Beavis and Butt-Head in Virtual Stupidity

I bet you’re pretty surprised to see this one on the list, but I assure you that it deserves to be on it. I spent many hours of my childhood gallivanting through Highland, Texas as the two famous animated bozos. As a point-and-click adventure game, there isn’t much appeal in terms of gameplay. However, the writing is as hilarious as you would expect if you’re a Beavis and Butt-Head fan.

1996: Resident Evil

Survival horror is my favorite genre in gaming, and that’s mainly due to Resident Evil. I remember receiving the Director’s Cut as a Christmas gift and instantly falling in love. As my first survival horror experience, I loved the feeling of helplessness it gave me when I was low on health and ammo. I greatly enjoyed the exploration and puzzle solving aspects of it, and how it forced me to make decisions on whether I should stand my ground and fight or save my resources for a more formidable foe.

1997: Oddworld: Abe’s Odyssee

Weird, wacky, and unabashedly creative, this tale of a lowly janitor rising up and liberating his fellow Mudokons is one of my favorite side-scrollers of all time. With its intriguing, Claymation-like art direction, engaging puzzles, and innovative platforming gameplay, it’s a breath of fresh air. I especially like how enemies have personalities and respond to different stimuli. There are no movement patterns, making their actions less predictable. There still aren’t many other games quite like it.

1998: Half-Life

While it is critically acclaimed, Half-Life is often overlooked because of its superior successor, which is a shame because it is a fantastic gaming experience. For its time, it boasts some sharp visuals and enjoyable shooting-based gameplay. However, where it really shines is its narrative. It was the first game I played where the story was told through scripted sequences and not cutscenes, so I was never taken out of my immersion. A version with updated visuals called Black Mesa was released a few years ago. It’s still unfinished, but I highly suggest you play it if you haven’t.

1999: System Shock 2

shodan system shock 2

Without question, System Shock 2 is one of the greatest sci-fi games in existence. Even today, it still holds up. I revisited a few years ago with visual mods and found it to be just as spooky and captivating as the first time. Combining survival horror and RPG elements, its focus on skill building, weapon modification, inventory management, and exploration puts it in a league of its own. It’s highly regarded as one of the best games ever made, and for good reason.

2000: Counter-Strike

There are very few multiplayer games that I’ve played more than Counter-Strike. It’s the pinnacle of online shooters, requiring more skill than any other game I’ve played. Its realistic shooting mechanics and objective-based game modes make for a simple, yet effective, formula that will suck you in for hours upon end. I spent so much time in high school playing Counter-Strike that it’s kind of embarrassing that I’m not very good at it.

2001: Conker’s Bad Fur Day

A friend of mine recently was upset with me after I told him that Conker’s Bad Fur Day is my favorite game on N64. He couldn’t fathom that I would choose it over Ocarina of Time, Super Mario 64, or Majora’s Mask. Because of its hilarious writing, fun platforming gameplay, and addicting multiplayer, I’ll take it over any of those games any day.

2002: Hitman 2: Silent Assassin

My favorite game in the Hitman series by a longshot. Dropping you into sandbox-styled environments, Hitman 2 gives you a choice in how you want to complete contracts. It’s not simply a choice between stealthy and loud. With each mission, you have several ways you can assassinate your target – from dressing up as someone they trust to get in close for the kill to poisoning their beverage. This gives it almost infinite replay value because you can approach each mission in so many different ways.

2003: Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne

This dark, gritty noir-styled game left a lasting impression on me. I remember playing it when I was home from school one week with the flu. My illness-induced haze coupled with the game’s bleak atmosphere was the perfect recipe for a chilling experience that I vividly remember to this day. The combat is absolutely sublime, thanks to a physics engine that makes bodies realistic react to gunshots and bullet-time mechanics that allow you to shoot at enemies while diving in slow motion.

2004: Half-Life 2

supercharged gravity gunMy first playthrough of Half-Life 2 was the catalyst that sparked my love for gaming. I adore this game so much that I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve played it and its two episodes. It’s chock full of memorable moments, like trudging through the headcrab-infested tunnels of Ravenholm, slaying the Antlion guard at Nova Prospekt, and disintegrating Combine soldiers with the Supercharged Gravity Gun. I don’t blame Valve for not releasing a follow up yet. How can you possibly follow this classic?

2005: Shadow of the Colossus

Here’s another game that I’ve replayed several times. Although there haven’t been any variation in myreplays, climbing on Colossi, finding their weak spots, and bringing them crashing to the ground just never gets old. It marries a unique concept and gameplay with stunning art direction and visuals to create a distinct and memorable gaming experience.

2006: The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

It’s better than Skyrim; I don’t care what anyone says. I even like it more than Morrowind, but I’m more open to entertaining counter argument for that one. Oblivion progressed the series in so many ways, refining the combat system to make it more bearable, improving A.I. to enable NPCs to engage with you and the environment in more complex ways, and upgrading the visuals to make the world actually look beautiful. Oh, it also had the best DLC of any Elder Scrolls game, and that is not up for debate.

2007: Bioshock

Creepy, psychedelic, and a hell of a lot of fun, Bioshock is a mind-bending thrill ride that hooked me with its unique concept and 50s-themed art direction. On my first play through, my Xbox 360 caught the red rings of death before I could finish. With most other games, I would’ve waited to receive a replacement console to carry on. Not with this one; I was too hooked. So I took my hard drive over to a friend’s house and played every day after school until I finished.

2008: Fallout 3

Bloody brilliant and by far the best installment in the series. Fallout 3 is an absolute masterpiece that has it all: Great writing, exhilarating combat, and a beautifully designed world that’s actually worth exploring. I’ll never forget leaving Vault 101 for the first time and being blown away by the beauty of the radiation-soaked, barren Capital Wasteland. So many great memories; so many great quests. My personal favorite is Tenpenny Tower because of the various ways you can choose to complete it. Obviously, I chose to unleash a swarm of feral ghouls on the tower’s bourgeois inhabitants my first time around.

2009: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

Such an improvement on Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. Don’t take that the wrong way; I adore that game. However, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves improved on it in every way imaginable and solidified the series as a one of gaming’s best. The combat and stealth mechanics could be more polished, but incredible writing, gorgeous visuals, and heart-pumping, fully interactive cinematic sequences help compensate for that.

2010: Red Dead Redemption

red dead

Can I get a “Yeehaw!”? Red Dead Redemption takes the cake as my favorite game of 2010. And how could it not? As always, Rockstar raised the bar with this instant classic, dropping you into a gigantic, dynamic Wild West environment full of interesting characters, well-written missions, and compelling side activities. I got a lot of mileage out of this game, and I imagine I’ll get even more out of its sequel.

2011: Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Deus Ex: Human Revolution gives me strong Bladerunner vibes, which makes sense why I like it so much because that’s one of my all-time favorite films. My adoration for this game goes beyond its atmosphere and art direction, however. While Adam Jensen is a pretty dull character, the story is actually pretty darn good. What truly makes it a standout is the amount of choice it presents you. There are dialogue options that actually matter, you can choose to take a loud or stealthy approach in all missions, and you can decide to lethally or non-lethally dispose of your enemies. The game is what you make it.

2012: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

I was fairly surprised with how much I loved XCOM: Enemy Unknown. I was always interested in the game, but didn’t play it until I scored it for $7.50 during a Steam sale. What a bargain that was because I ended up sinking over 150 hours into it. I love its strategic, chessboard-styled combat that forces you to plan moves several turns in advance. I also love the character customization and development features. I made the mistake of getting too attached to my soldiers and giving them names, making it all the more agonizing when they perished in battle.

2013: The Last of Us

Gaming perfection. From its ultra-tense encounters to its heart-wrenching narrative, The Last of Us is a shining example of why people should take video games seriously as an art. The bond forged between Joel and Ellie amidst the bleak, brutal, ugly journey they face together is as beautiful as the masterfully crafted environments you explore through the course of the campaign. While its single player is why The Last of Us is widely regarded as the best PS3 game, its multiplayer is also fantastic, and I still have random fits where I will become addicted to it and drop everything else I’m playing.

2014: Super Smash Bros for Wii U

The best Smash Bros. game since Melee, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U boasted the largest character roster and arena selection in the series to date. It also introduced a much-improved online experience with less connectivity issues and the ability to choose between ranked and unranked matches. I’m also a big fan of the 8-Player Smash game mode. While it’s not a true test of skill, it’s chaotic fun, especially when you can get seven other people to play in the same room.

2015: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

A game so expansive that I sank almost 200 hours into it. There’s so much to do and see in Witcher 3 that my brain has a hard time processing it all. The combat is as exciting as it gets, boasting some of the best swordplay I’ve seen in a game. I love being attacked by multiple enemies at once so I can dance around them and swiftly take them out with masterful swordsmanship. While I do enjoy the combat, apparently much more than other people do, where Witcher 3 truly sets itself apart is its writing. The main storyline and side quests are incredibly well-written, and many present you with choices that lead to rewards or consequences.

2016: Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

My favorite installment in the series, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End combines riveting gameplay with powerful storytelling to end the Nathan Drake saga with a bang. Fun fact about me: I love pirates. So you can only imagine my joy when I discovered that Uncharted 4’s story involves finding the lost treasure of infamous pirate Henry Avery. I also appreciate how the narrative gives more insight into Nathan’s upbringing and relationship with his brother Sam. It all leads up to a satisfying conclusion that provides die-hard fans like me with closure.

2017: Super Mario Odyssey

mario odysseyVibrant, whimsical, and charming, Super Mario Odyssey captured my heart with its lighthearted, creative gameplay and colorful worlds. Each area is densely packed with Power Moons, Easter eggs, and characters and inanimate objects you can possess with the toss of your hat. With 999 Power Moons to obtain, Super Mario Odyssey is so chock full of content that it almost seems like it’s never ending. It’s amazing that, after all of these years, Nintendo keeps finding ways to make Mario fresh and exciting.

2018: Red Dead Redemption II

Can I get another “Yeehaw!”? Five days is all I needed with this game to know that it’s my favorite of this year. It may even surpass The Last of Us as my favorite game of all time, but that’s yet to be confirmed. If there has ever been a game more expansive and detailed than Red Dead Redemption II, then I haven’t played it. You actually need to clean your gun to keep it functional. You actually peel the hide of animals when skinning them. You actually need to brush and feed your horses to keep them happy and healthy. An unfathomable amount of detail has been put in this game, and I don’t even want to know the absurd amount of development hours that went into refining each detail. It’s a groundbreaking masterpiece that will push the industry forward. Thanks again Rockstar Games for raising the bar.

What do you think about the games I chose? Are there any that you love or hate? Are there any games that you’re surprised did or didn’t make the cut? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


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