Video games are experiences where players can interact with story and gameplay at the same time, making them unique amongst other entertainment mediums, and the best video games are prime examples of this interactivity. Some of the all-time best in the industry, however, forgot to hold up the story section of the play experience. Despite innovative design and memorable gameplay moments, these titles have gotten a pass through the years for their lack of a cohesive narrative. There is a slight risk of spoilers in the list below, even if these stories do not measure up.
The first entry is a three-way between some of the earliest arcade and handheld favorites in gaming: Pac-Man, Tetris and Galaga. Granted, the original iterations of these three titles came very early in the process of refining stories, but so did the original Donkey Kong and Legend of Zelda, both of which had some story attached. Tetris is among the first puzzle games ever conceived and offers no motivation for these stacking blocks beyond a ticking score meter. Galaga, a space shooting adventure, gives nothing in the way of set-up for blasting alien races either. Pac-Man was the closest to having a story with small vignettes between some levels, but with none of them being connected beyond the inclusion of Pac-Man himself and the various ghosts.
Fast-forwarding to one of the all-time best (and first) three-dimensional video games, Super Mario 64 makes the list by doing a bit too much. Mario has told stories over the years and was one of the first “save the princess” tales ever, but the minimal story content here gets in the way of jumping and wahoo-ing through levels. Beyond the opening letter from Peach, there is no need to build up Bowser or Peach’s peril. The challenge stages, past the Bowser doors, could have ended with the baddie just shaking his fist and running away, and that would have delivered enough story content that did not momentarily interrupt the game flow. There is no need to give Bowser the most personality in the game by having him whine in defeat every time Mario throws him into a bomb.
Next on the list is Guitar Hero III, which came with the guitar peripheral and a tacked-on story for players to strum through. Instead of following the Guitar Hero II path, the third entry has you in a boss fight against Lou the Devil at the end of the single-player mode, where you battle in a song that cannot be played in any other part of the game. Beating him unlocks other content, so numerous players went through with the act, but story should probably never be a part of a guitar video game.
The best video games of all time are varied within their own ways. Some have story that makes the gameplay look meek by comparison, and those are just as much candidates for the best as the ones above. Super Mario 64, Guitar Hero III and the rest are some of the best video games ever by sticking to their strong suits and minimizing the rest. Games like The Last of Us or Bioshock would probably not be in the conversation for “best ever” without their story content, graphics and environmental accuracy. Just as Super Mario 64 probably would not be considered if Mario did not have the ability to jump, these games all have separate claims as one of the best video games of all time, which is part of what makes the medium pretty amazing to experience.
Opinion by Myles Gann