A quick aside:
As I've said before, I missed most of the NES and SNES eras as a child, and while I've gone back and played many of them, their conspicuous absence on this list is most likely due to that. However, I do believe I am able to look at that era without the weight of blind nostalgia, which I think in a way helps. I personally believe that gaming peaked in the Sixth Generation, and while I love Super Mario Bros. 3 as much as the rest of the world, I would argue the Mario I tout on this list was more of a game-changer.
On to the list proper...
I know I just kinda shat on nostalgia there a minute ago, but this is my childhood, people. Released just before the best year ever, AKA 1994, I don't think I've ever been more wholly transfixed by a game in my entire life. I think my affinity for the point-and-click adventure game stems directly from what this title did to my formative years. The story was endlessly intriguing, the worlds full of wonder, the soundtrack sweeping & whimsical, and the puzzles ingenious. My solving of the rocketship puzzle was a very early indication that I may have a knack for this whole music thing. To this day if I lock my door and turn the speakers up, I can still get lost in it. A totally enthralling experience from start to finish.
My childhood, Part II. The sequel to the granddaddy of them all, which it improved on in every way. More levels, better enemies, better challenge, smart design. This was back when the FPS genre was actually fun to play, the kind of game where you could throw hours into without even realizing as you slip deeper into a brain melting trance. Beating Icon of Sin was terrifying and a badge of honor when I finally did it sans cheats. Story? You're a soldier in hell, kill things. Text crawls have never been so snarky. I still pop it in every now and then, ironically to calm myself down. There's something very zen about the instant gratification of graphic violence. Ah, the therapeutic vagary of sliding around those levels as if on a hoverboard, punctuating the surroundings with double barreled shotgun blasts. Reminds me of the finer things in life, like chainsaws and BFG9000s.
This one might be the hardest to defend, given how recent it was. I played it only last year, and I worried I didn't give it enough time to gestate in my mind before granting it a spot on this list. After much deliberation... yeah, it really is that good. The story will never get points for originality, and yes it could be argued that Nathan Drake is basically a homicidal sociopath, but none of that ever crosses my mind when I'm playing it. What really makes this game work so brilliantly is the seamless integration of its parts, and the flawless execution of each individual part. This game defined the modern cinematic set piece, refined its combat controls, had flawless pacing, gorgeous environments, stellar voice acting, and they all made sure it served the story (something Drake's Deception very much forgot to do). This game is an experience -- an adventure of the highest order, and in my opinion, anyone who tells you otherwise is nitpicking.
After taking the time to show us the universe and introduce the overarching narrative, Mass Effect 2 brought it all back down to earth and focused on what really mattered: the characters. As huge as it is, ME2 is a very personal story, and it is so artfully done that I believe it forever separates it from the installments which bookend it. I don't think I've ever, in any game, cared more deeply about the fate of a cast of characters than I did in this game, and this galaxy was one where I legitimately felt as if I belonged there. The connection you experience when playing this game is palpable, and the refined mechanics only serve to help in the immersion. The shift to an action RPG helped streamline the experience in the best kind of way, eliminating ancillary elements which only hurt the pacing. I still submit, that the climax/final mission of this game is the single greatest and most fist-poundingly cathartic mission I have ever played. After the crushing disappointment that was Mass Effect 3, I've learned to appreciate this game as the solitary work of art that it truly is. Pure bliss from start to finish.
Super Mario Bros. was an important milestone in gaming, and Super Mario Bros. 3 was a perfect sequel and the zenith of the 2D sidescroller, but it was this maverick masterwork that I believe holds the title of best Mario game ever. It defined the 3D platformer, and influenced everything that came after it. Not only did it usher in 3D gameplay, but it seemed to perfect it before any other developer could get out of the gate. "Ahead-of-its-time" would be an understatement. You remove this game out of existence and the whole landscape of gaming development changes. That's how important it was. That's why I got an N64 and not a Playstation. That's why Shigeru Miyamoto is the most vital voice in gaming history. That is why SM64 is a bona fide classic.
Honestly, what can I say about this game that hasn't already been said? It's the Lord of the Rings for gamers. The lynchpin of the hero's journey, which created a a design template still utilized to this day. Much of what was said about SM64s influence is applicable here. One of the most important and universe-altering games in history. Forget the original, forget A Link to the Past, this is the definitive Zelda experience.
My hardest decision when compiling this list was whether to stick Resident Evil 2 into this slot or Resident Evil 4. They're both such amazing titles very dear to my heart, and normally I'd pull what I did earlier with the Prince of Persia series, but the two titles are so fundamentally different that it wouldn't work, and since only one game in a series can represent on this list, I went with the one I felt was more important to gaming as a whole. RE2 was a spectacular experience and perfect sequel, but RE4 changed the game. I don't think I've ever played a game with more lasting appeal than this. I must've beaten its 25 hour campaign at least ten times. The level of innovation present in this game is staggering, and it smashed you over the head with one memorable moment after the next. The intensity and panic never subsided, and though it was so different from everything that came before, it didn't forget the smart puzzles and moments of subdued horror (regenerators, anyone?) that made the series great in the first place. For all its rampant experimentation, it is arguably the most focused game in the series, using its newfound creative freedom and established universe to create beautifully realized characters and immersive environments with a story that, while certainly won't be winning any oscars, felt fresh and intriguing. For what seemed like the first time, RE4 reveled in its "so-bad-it's-good" B movie sensibilities, instead of trying to apologize for it. It was everything a campy story should be. Grossly fun entertainment. Resident Evil 4 is the total package.
I am a die hardboiled film noir fan. I am so because of this game, not the other way around. That should give you an indication of how phenomenal this game is. It breaks my heart when I see this title conspicuously omitted from best of lists, and the fact that the series managed to erase its memory from the collective consciousness for nine goddamned years is just beyond me. This game was Remedy's passion project, and magnum opus. It's great story, flawless pacing, witty and whip-sharp writing, memorable characters, stellar narration, brooding noir atmosphere, tight mechanics, endlessly fun hardboiled shootouts; It all comes together in a harmonious blend to provide an unforgettable experience. This is one of those games that proves that replay value can come solely from an engrossing single player campaign and nothing else, and sometimes the game is better for it.