Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Silly season: the 10 greatest video games of all time.

I was desperately trying to hang on until August, but I just couldn’t manage it. As you will be aware, that is the month when  – because ordinary people go on stupid “holidays” — newspapers get desperate and begin commissioning …

Wed, Jul 25, 2012, 17:13


I was desperately trying to hang on until August, but I just couldn’t manage it. As you will be aware, that is the month when  – because ordinary people go on stupid “holidays” — newspapers get desperate and begin commissioning articles about sun-hats, ice cream flavours and your favourite Westlife b-sides. Unless I am making this up, an entry from Samuel Pepys’s diary for August 1666 dealt entirely with the way the plague had altered Londoners’ attitudes to biscuits. It is also the month when Screenwriter becomes more than usually obsessed with lists and other trivia. Being a fat-headed man from a useless generation, I would, if allowed, write nothing else.

So, here is an absurdly subjective list of the greatest video games of all time. I have stretched the definition to include all formats: console, arcade, PC, phone, tablet. Some might object to the description of, say, PC strategy diversions as video games. But the alternative — “computer games” — sounds like the term that elderly relatives use when they’re buying the wrong gift at HMV (whatever “HMV” is).

Interestingly, entirely by accident, I seem to have stretched across almost all  genres. I didn’t think I liked beat-em-ups, but then I remembered the game that mucked up my finals at the University. I was sure I didn’t care for racing games, but then thoughts of noisy electro-driven nights in the mid 1990s resurfaced. If I ever write that homage to Proust it will begin with memories of the jingle-jangle that confirmed your coin had been accepted by the Hyper Olympics machine.

10. STICK CRICKET (2005; Flash, iPhone, iPad)

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By the middle of the last decade, it was looking as if video games were about to become more complicated and more beautiful than real life. But there remained a demand for games that were only marginally more sophisticated than noughts and crosses. We would, as long ago as the late 1980s, have laughed at the crudity of this sports game. Then we’d have played it for the rest of the evening on our phones from the future. The recent Super Sixes version for the iPad or iPhone is the one to go for.


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Hey, I met the voice star of this earlier this year. We talked more about Ingmar Bergman than video games, but Max Von Sydow seemed to enjoy  his time behind the microphone. Look, I know the problem. If a film featured a plot as annoying as one of these RPG fantasy things, I’d kick nine levels (and a bonus level) of crap out of it. Pfft! I ignore the story and just seek out things to kill. See also: the life-engulfing Final Fantasy series.

8. KUNG FU MASTER (1984; arcade)

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Oh yeah. That was the tune! Among the greatest days of my life was the one during which I mastered the move that involved upwards left stick and rightwards right stick. If I recall correctly, this resulted in a very satisfactory kick to the head. I did this instead of reading Middlemarch.

7. PORTAL 2 (2011; X-Box)

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Another relatively recent classic, Portal 2 is, essentially, a puzzle game mounted as a lavish and surprisingly funny science fiction adventure. The voice performance by Stephen Merchant is an absolute riot. If it has a downside it’s that it’s a little bit too easy. And I speak as somebody who waits five minutes before looking up cheats on the internet.

6. EA FIFA FOOTBALL (1993, various consoles)

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I don’t much like football, but I do enjoy the video games. It’s impossible to select a particular version. The early ones — with their crude teddy-bear men — were utterly charming. The later versions are scarily realistic. Don’t listen to bores who, despite the crude graphics and complex game-play, tell you that Pro Evolution Soccer is better. These are the same people who regretted the demise of DOS.


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Don’t go anywhere near this, kids. I dipped into the massively multiplayer online role-playing game as an experiment and didn’t fully emerge for another year. I’m all right now. I’m working on new material and have been entirely clean for about two years. And, no, I didn’t “chat” to any of the other real-life players. I just hit them over the head with my battle axe.

4. WIPEOUT (1995, Sony PlayStation)

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Now, this was the racing game for people who don’t like racing games. The electronic music was cool. The environments were, for the time, extraordinarily advanced. But I particularly liked the way that, if you swerved hard enough, you could cause your vehicle to pass through the surface of the track. I suppose the geniuses have since corrected that bug. As Joni Mitchell said, give me spots on my apples.

3. SPACE INVADERS (1978, arcade)

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Ah, the Jelly Roll Morton of the genre. Yes, Galaxian and Defender were also excellent early games. But nothing ever beat the delightful purity of this alien invasion adventure. I perfected a technique whereby I interposed every laser blast with a zip behind the nearest shelter. Right-blast-left, right-blast-left… And so on. It didn’t work all that well. But I enjoyed the discipline.

2. GRAND THEFT AUTO IV (2008, X-Box)

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Now, I am not one to indulge in moral panics. But I do admit that, from time to time, I feel slightly guilty while playing the ultimate psycho-in-a-sandbox game. It can’t be right that it profits the player to use prostitutes and then murder them. Can it? That just can’t be a good thing. Oh well. You can’t argue the with the scope, freedom and sheer visual panache. Besides, if you wish, you san spend your time quietly playing virtual darts in a virtual pub.

1. CIVILIZATION (1991, PC/Mac)

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No contest. I haven’t specified a version because, over the past 20 years, I have yet to encounter an iteration of the strategy game that I haven’t enjoyed. There are lessons here about human nature. Sid Meier’s masterpiece — like an interactive version of Kenneth Clark’s famous TV series of the same title — purports to take us through the various stages of human social development: literature, science and politics are all part of the story. One can win by carefully applying democracy and nurturing high culture. But let’s face it. Almost nobody ever does that. What you want to do is annihilate every other civilization on the planet. In one version, having destroyed everybody but the French, I surrounded Paris and began subjecting it to the most appalling regime of terror. Every few years, I’d drop an atomic bomb on the place and watch delighted as the citizens began wailing and rioting in the streets (plus ca change, eh?). Once they’d got themselves together again, I’d fire off another nuclear device. Ah, those were the days.

I’ve wasted my life.