Call in sick, ignore phone calls, and don’t change out of your pajamas. These video game series beg you to play them back-to-back-to-back.
In this Top 5, Jim and I discuss our favorite video game franchises. Most video game franchises are at least three games long, so shorter franchises may not be on this list. Casual games weren’t included in this list as it’s difficult to rate them against triple A titles and deserve their own list.
Without further ado, here are our top five video game franchises.
Jim’s Top 5
5) The Elder Scrolls
A lot is made of Bethesda and the glitchiness of their games, but they get a pass from me. The sheer enormity of their titles makes some bugs all but inevitable, and in my experiences, the game-breaking glitches have been pretty few. The Elder Scrolls franchise brings an immersive world that I’ve sunk hundreds of hours into, and the longevity of their titles speaks for itself. Mind you, Skyrim is five years old and going strong. A lot of that is the modding community keeping things fresh, but The Elder Scrolls has strong replay value, and that’s a huge factor for me in dropping sixty bucks on any game.
I may be called a Bethesda fanboy, but the Fallout series makes my list too. It hits for all the reasons The Elder Scrolls does, but with the added appeal of what I consider stronger storytelling. This is especially true in more modern releases like Fallout 4 and New Vegas before it, but the post-apocalyptic setting of Fallout pushes a lot of difficult, morally gray decisions on the player. Trying to decide which faction to align with in Fallout 4 is tough. Even the widely accepted “evil” factions have their points to make, and the “good guys” get their hands plenty dirty. Fallout also earns extra credit for cutting its dark settings and content with some pretty solid satirical humor.
3) Batman (The Arkham-verse)
I’m the comics geek, so you had to know this one would make it, right? These games make you feel like you’re Batman. Everything, from the fighting mechanics to the stealth, bleeds Batman in Gotham City. The series’ final installment, Arkham Knight, lost its way in very disappointing fashion, but the rest of the series is gold. I’ll even take the unpopular stance of adding Arkham Origins to that list. It’s the only title not produced by Rocksteady, so many don’t count it, but I have never understood or agreed with much of the criticism. Origins offers one of the most compelling stories in the franchise, and tons of fan service for long-time followers of the characters.
This isn’t going to be a popular decision because too many fans are still angry with Peter Molyneux. It’s true, he promised a lot more with each installment of Fable than he ever delivered. The thing is, I still really loved what he delivered. The world of Albion is gorgeous when it wants to be and terrifying when it should be. There’s a real heart to its story, and its bolstered by a wealth of humor, plenty of which is my kind of low-brow.
1) Mass Effect
I’ll come right out and say it. I hated the ending to Mass Effect 3. I’ve blogged about it plenty, and I’ve called the trilogy hundreds of hours of the best gaming I’ve ever done insulted in the last twenty minutes. That should show you however, just how good everything before the letdown is. The world of Mass Effect is visually stunning, intellectually stimulating, and deeply immersive. The Mass Effect universe offers political intrigue, ethical dilemmas, and characters you will come to care very much about. I have no idea what Andromeda will bring, but as upset as I still am about the ending to Mass Effect’s first trilogy, it is a testament to the power of the franchise that I’m still on the hook for the start of the next trilogy.
Kyle’s Top 5
I love the Mass Effect universe—it’ll be on my list later—but Rapture is one of the most unique video game locales. What happens when a fictional Howard Hughes who read too many Ayn Rand novels builds an underwater paradise? Nothing good. The original Bioshock was video game gold, the second installment was solid but didn’t quite live up to the first, and Bioshock Infinite leaned too heavily on time-travel, but the series has great characters and the world is one I’ve lost myself in for hours. It also doesn’t hurt that the first time you see Rapture, even though you’re expecting it, is jaw-dropping.
4) Elder Scrolls
I’ll admit it. I’m a Bethesda fanboy. I would’ve had Fallout on my list too but I disqualified it because there weren’t enough entries by Bethesda (2.5) or Interplay (2.5). Fallout: New Vegas was Interplay’s Fallout 3, retrofitted for inclusion in the Bethesda series, that’s why the world feels different. Elder Scrolls was always Bethesda’s baby and it’s a pillar of modern video gaming.
I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent in Tamriel. I’d go with hundreds if not thousands. With each Elder Scrolls installment, there are more time sinks: quests big and small, building/decorating your house or houses, collecting all the world’s books, organizing your library, cooking, crafting, brewing, and so on. Some of those activities may only be available through mods. I’m stopping with that short list because I don’t want Bethesda to know more things it can put in the next Elder Scrolls that’ll eat up my waking hours.
Yes. There can be plenty of bugs, but like Jim said, Tamriel’s a huge place so some bugs in an Elder Scrolls game should be expected. I enjoy the Elder Scrolls. I enjoy them so much that I play The Elder Scrolls Online and I don’t usually like MMOs.
3) Mass Effect
I’ll repeat what Jim said about Mass Effect: great characters, ethical dilemmas, political intrigue, stunning graphics, deeply immersive. I’ll add an interesting origin of intelligent life as we know it to the mix.
Mass Effect uses a common video game writing technique. Wrex says “Shepard” to a lot of dialogue choices. In fact, most of the characters will say the same thing no matter what you choose. Even when your choices (dialogue and actions) cause the script to splinter, the story goes back to a common thread shared by all choices. It’s what the industry calls beads on a string storytelling.
There are right and wrong ways to do this. Mass Effect is the best at small, tight beads on a string storytelling (the excellent Witcher series, which I haven’t played enough of, uses large, loose beads on a string), but multiple plays reveal that you never did have a lot of choices, even if you omit Mass Effect’s final minutes. Still, it’s unavoidable for this game type and Mass Effect has one of the best stories and great characters. I had a blast playing Mass Effect the first play through and look forward to the next trilogy. Bring on Andromeda.
2) Super Mario Bros.
I’m not just the game geek, I’ve copy edited and designed games. When I look for flawless game design, I examine Super Mario Bros. World 1-1. You don’t have to read the instructions or know anything about Mario—this was the series’ first installment after all—to be able to play this introductory level.
Mario starts on the screen’s far left. The game’s showing the player that Mario must go right. Mario can only move and jump. A question mark box flashes ahead, begging to be pressed. When pressed, a mushroom emerges. New players won’t know if the mushroom’s good or bad but the game’s design makes it almost impossible to miss it. The mushroom turns out to be a powerup. The rest of the level continues in a similar fashion, non-verbally teaching the game. When gamers say, they want intuitive game design or controls, they want something like Super Mario Bros. World 1-1. It’s game design perfection.
The rest of the series has plenty of gems. Some of these gems revolutionized video gaming. Super Mario 64 showed how camera angles should work in a 3D game, even though some modern games forget. Mario Galaxy made great use of motion controls, something other platformers haven’t done enough of or well enough. Very few game series can boast as many awards, perfect ratings from critics, or say their main character is as recognizable as Mickey Mouse. I don’t know how many Nintendo systems were and are sold for the promise of a new Super Mario Brothers.
Mario didn’t just rescue the princess, he rescued video games. The market imploded in 1983 and it took Mario’s strength to make video games the past time they are today. Super Mario Bros. may be an obvious choice but there’s a reason for that. Come to think of it, how is it not number one?
1) Legend of Zelda
Yep. The only video game series that can say it has more perfect ratings from critics, recognizable and beloved characters, plenty of awards, and sells as many systems as Mario is The Legend of Zelda.
Unlike Super Mario Bros. showing me what to do, the first time I played the Legend of Zelda I bypassed the nearest dungeon and went to one farther down the road. I had skipped a low-level dungeon, ended up in a mid-level dungeon, and got my butt kicked. Fast-forward over a decade into the future and I did the same thing in Elder Scrolls: Morrowind. You’d think twenty-something Kyle would’ve learned a lesson from ten-year-old Kyle. What I did learn is that the original Legend of Zelda was the first open-world RPG. The freedom to go anywhere in the world was exhilarating.
Elder Scrolls, Fallout, and Fable (all open-world RPGs) wouldn’t exist without Legend of Zelda. The characters are iconic, but some may not care for the story. I can overlook the story’s repetition. Each Zelda game’s story may be the same, or similar, but there’s a reason for that. The Zelda franchise tells a legend. Each game shows a different person’s interpretation of that legend. On a meta-writing level, Legend of Zelda may have every other game beat.
Then consider Zelda’s other contributions to gaming. You couldn’t save games before the original Zelda. Folks take game saves for granted but without them, Elder Scrolls, Fallout, Fable, and Mass Effect would be unplayable. The same can be said for any game that can’t be played in one sitting.
Stories didn’t sprawl before Zelda. Part of that comes from save games but most of it comes from the game’s storytelling. Zelda made games legendary with its colorful characters. Even the silent protagonist—a video game trope, I know—contributes to the game’s immersion. When people hear Shepard’s voice (male or female), they latch onto that actor’s interpretation. Link could be anyone. He could even be the player. Some of the best cross-players at conventions are women dressed as Link. When players discover a secret, hear that familiar chime, they believe they—not Link—accomplished something.
I could go on but let’s just say the Legend of Zelda has shaped role playing and action/adventure games. It’s worthy of the top spot.
Did we get our lists right? I’m sure we missed games like Minecraft, Dark Souls, Pokemon, Metal Gear, and Starcraft. Those just missed my list. Does Ico and Shadow of the Colossus count as a series? Man, there are a lot of great video game series. I probably picked the wrong ones. Let us know your favorites and which Top Five we should do next.
Thanks for reading.