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Creating Top x Games Lists Is Hard

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tags icon games lists axe of the blood god

I love lists. I’m a real lists kind of person. I’m a big sucker for Top 20 Games Of All Time lists—that kind of click bait always works here, however good or bad the list itself. It kick-starts an internal discussion: what would my own top list look like? Can I compare list 1 with list 2? What is their criteria like? How did they compose the list? Is it updated frequently? What about game x or y? And so forth.

After encountering the Axe of the Blood God podcast’s top 25 RPGs of all time and Retro Gamer’s top 100 Nintendo games to play before you die, I thought it would be great fun to get my own ideas of a list or two on paper. That shouldn’t be too hard, considering I had a few lists with more than a few entries in my head.

Attempt 1

Should I start categorizing by platform or by genre? Or both and make a cross-section, to arrive at my personal “top x games of all time” list? I decided to simply start by platform because it makes it easier for me to remember which games I played and like on certain platforms. Let’s take the GameCube as a first example. To start at the top or the bottom? The top is rather easy:

  1. The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker
  2. Paper Mario 2: Thousand Year Door
  3. Smash Bros. Melee
  4. Resident Evil 4
  5. Metroid Prime

The first draft was modified a few times, but I kept being annoyed with the above list, mainly because it’s ordered. The problem with that is that sometimes I think Paper Mario 2 should be at the top, and sometimes I think Metroid Prime should be there. Furthermore, should we stop at number 10, 20, or 25? Or should I try to list everything I’ve ever played on the ‘Cube?

My current solution is to revert to unordered lists but to split it into four different sections: A, B, C, D. Section A contains the best of the best, section B the awesome, section C the really really good and section D the very good. Within a section, I’d leave the order up to the whims of the person trying to interpret my list. The result for the GameCube would be:

Section A

  • The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker
  • Paper Mario 2: Thousand Year Door
  • Smash Bros. Melee
  • Resident Evil 4
  • Metroid Prime

Section B

  • Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance
  • Viewtiful Joe
  • Tales of Symphonia
  • Luigi’s Mansion
  • Pikmin 2

Section C

  • Animal Crossing
  • Super Mario Sunshine
  • Killer 7
  • Monkey Ball 2
  • Baten Kaitos

Section D

  • Alien Hominid

Attempt 2

My initial plan was to have five games in each section. Some entries could be pushed to the next or previous sections depending on the mood; for instance if you’re more of a Baten Kaitos than Tales of Symphonia fan, sure, go ahead and swap both, but a C game can’t end up in section A—otherwise I didn’t think things through well enough.

Here’s my attempt at the Nintendo Wii:

Section A

  • Okami
  • Super Mario Galaxy 2
  • The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
  • Kirby’s Epic Yarn
  • Super Smash Bros. Brawl

Section B

  • Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn
  • Super Paper Mario

Section C

  • New Super Mario Bros. Wii

Section D

  • ??

I couldn’t even come up with more than 8 great games that in my opinion should be in a top games list, even though I played more than enough Wii games! The opposite is true while thinking of Nintendo DS games, where I struggled greatly to keep the list down to 25 items:

Section A

  • Animal Crossing Wild World
  • Mario Kart DS
  • Tetris DS
  • Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow
  • Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story

Section B

  • Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes
  • Kirby’s Canvas Curse
  • Etrian Odyssey (any)
  • Professor Layton (any)
  • Advance Wars Dual Strike

Section C

  • Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon
  • Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin
  • Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia
  • Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime
  • Brain Training

Section D

  • New Super Mario Bros.
  • GTA Chinatown Wars
  • Sonic Rush
  • Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time
  • Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 2

Which Advance Wars to pick? Which Professor Layton? Is Partners in Time really that much worse than Bowser’s Inside Story, but still worth it to appear on the list? At this point, I’m struggling to move forward.

Attempt 3

The Nintendo DS list exposes another problem: subjectivity. Of course top lists are subjective lists, but many reporters “try” to be objective by including games that are generally seen as excellent, or by reaching a consensus with their colleagues. The DS versions of The Legend of Zelda are missing in my list. I did play them but didn’t like them, so they’re simply not there. Whether that’s blasphemy or not is up to you to decide. I also let nostalgia decide the rank of the game: the more fond memories I have of it, the higher it’ll end up. Sometimes while replaying those games, you’ll notice they weren’t that great.

Another problem is the other way around—games I didn’t play are not on the list. I can’t make an informed decision about a game that I didn’t play, even though I’ve read reviews of it and seen videos of it. Half-life is such a game that is without a doubt one of the best games ever made, although I honestly wouldn’t know. Others do include it in their top list, even if they didn’t play it. I’m not too fond of that strategy, as I wouldn’t know in which section to put it: to follow the popular opinions or not? Here’s a very slim (ha!) and highly opiniated PSP/PS1 list:

Section A

  • Final Fantasy Tactics
  • Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together
  • Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
  • Loco Roco
  • Patapon

Section B

  • Castlevania: Dracula X Chronicles
  • Lumines

I didn’t play many games on Sony’s platforms, and I’m a turn-based tactics fan. If I would have played Jeanne D’Arc, I’m sure it would have ended up in section A or B, but I didn’t, so it’s not there.

Attempt 4

By the time I managed to get to the Windows 95/98 era, I had scribbled countless video game titles on a piece of paper that needed arrangement or scratching off, and I completely lost all motivation to finish the list. I knew I would have to leave out Quake and Half-Life. What a stupid list without those two!

The thought of having to do this again but by genre almost made me go insane. Should you really mix different generations? Will DOOM (the ‘93 one) still be in section A even if there are so many other shooters coming after it? Should I put up a category “shooters”/FPS, or should I split that up to:

  • Tactical shooters (SWAT, Tom Clancy stuff, …);
  • Boomstick shooters (DOOM, Ion Storm, …);
  • Online team-based shooters (Counter Strike, Tactical Ops, …);
  • … ?

The same question for RPGs. I hate seeing lists like “Top 10 RPG games”, they’re usually full of jRPG crap that I don’t care about and completely ignore cRPG games. But if we split it like that, what about more tactical RPGs, or more story-based RPGs? Do table-top inspired clones count? Where to put the strategy RPGs—together with Age of Empires II-esque strategy games, or in a separate category?


Thinking about lists and rankings made me appreciate others’ efforts even more. Kat, Nadia, and Eric of Axe of the Blood God talked for more than 2.5 hours about their top 25 RPG list, came prepared with their own list, and even recorded a postmortem episode discussing why they made certain decisions—fanboys get upset easily.

It would be interesting to see top lists begin with a short ruleset that provides context on how the list was constructed and under which conditions. For instance, “games we didn’t play are excluded” or “multiplatform games appear on the platform we played it on” or “a consensus was reached with three editors”. That’ll make the contents of the list much easier to digest in case one of your favorite games is missing.

I’m still not sure what to do with my own attempts. I love thinking about lists, but this has left me exhausted. Creating Top x Game Lists is Hard!

I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

If you found this article amusing and/or helpful, you can buy me a coffee - although I'm more of a tea fan myself. I also like to hear your feedback via Mastodon or e-mail. Thanks!

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