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The 15 best videogames of the ’00s

We keep coming back to videogames for the same reasons we always have. Or do we? Games in 2009 look considerably different now than they did in 2000, and not just because the graphics have improved. What was once a lonely pursuit has gotten social, whether by way of a party-friendly round of Rock Band or a late-night online session of Modern Warfare. The thrills have gotten more complicated, too. Even the shoot-’em-ups aren’t just about shooting ’em up anymore. (Or at least not shooting ’em up without some careful planning.) As the ’00s close, The A.V. Club offers our picks for the 15 games that pushed things forward.

15. SSX 3 (EA Sports BIG, 2003)
After the first two games in the SSX snowboarding series spread their action across a disparate bunch of wacky, gimmick-heavy tracks, it seemed like an unwise departure for SSX 3 to condense its competitions onto a single mountain. But SSX had always been about maintaining your flow—whether racing at top speed or executing elaborate mid-air tricks—and SSX 3 extended that sensation of flow to the entire experience. Instead of hopping between individual competitions, SSX 3 instills the sense of a single journey through a gorgeous, tactile landscape. With only two lackluster follow-ups since 2003, the series appears to be in cold storage, a baffling case of neglect given that SSX 3 holds up better than any other sports game of its generation.

14. The Sims (Electronic Arts, 2000)
More than anything else, The Sims is about breaking the simulation-game genre down to its most basic components. By keeping the focus on a single household, the game allows for a previously unimagined amount of detail in your characters’ personalities, looks, and life paths. It doubles as an exercise in architectural design, as the engine for building and furnishing homes gave players free rein in building the home where they spend all their time with their characters. While some condemned The Sims as simply a virtual dollhouse, the ability to build people from the ground up to watch them grow, build families, and achieve their goals—or capriciously ruin their lives—provides nearly endless hours of play to satisfy control freaks. 

13. Ninja Gaiden (Tecmo, 2004)
No other form of media values doing cool shit over logic and common sense to the extreme that videogames do. The quintessential example of style over substance is 2004’s reboot of the arcade and NES-era classic Ninja Gaiden. The head-scratching story of ninja Ryu Hayabusa appears to pride itself in making as little sense as possible. The game also prides itself on its brutal difficulty. Only the most dedicated gamers ever saw it through to its final, nonsensical battle, but those who did were treated to a unforgettable dose of the nutty, old-school challenges that have become painfully rare in the games of recent years.

12. Braid (Microsoft Game Studios, 2008)
Few game designers can speak so lucidly or argue so forcefully about games as Jonathan Blow. His lectures and interviews would be valuable enough if he hadn’t brought his talent to bear on Braid. The game’s signature success is that it conveys a set of ideas that Blow could only explain through the game itself. Players are introduced to new ways of moving through time and space, which they come to understand by mastering Blow’s puzzles. It’s a short game, as Blow never wastes time with redundant content. And it’s difficult, but Blow implores you not to look up the answers. As the only true indie on this list, Braid epitomizes some of the scene’s clichés: the text, the music, and David Hellman’s illustrations are lovely but precious, and the auteur behind the game is demanding. But Braid also demonstrates how successfully a tiny team can marry intellectual rigor to addictive, intuitive gameplay.

11. Advance Wars (Nintendo, 2001)
Advance Wars hit store shelves on the inopportune street date of September 11. And at first blush, its candy-colored, carefree approach to warfare seemed horribly out of sync. But in the months to come, the game’s streamlined, turn-based battles—the perfect gateway drug for the tactically curious—provided a kind of Zen escape, allowing players to control the simple, ordered machinations of military units from a safe, Ender-like distance. You didn’t just play, you were consumed—compelled to conquer every challenge, earn every S-rank, unlock every extra map. Advance Wars may be a naïve bit of paramilitary escapism, but it remains one of the best. When it comes to digesting the real horrors of war, that’s just how we Americans roll.

10. Left 4 Dead (Valve, 2008)
After years of educational and “serious” games claiming they teach social values or life lessons, Left 4 Dead has finally done it. Total strangers on the Internet learn to work together, share their knowledge, and even give up their health packs, because the game’s demands are so clear: Work with your teammates, or you’ll die. In creating desperate situations that drive people together, Left 4 Dead gets everything right. Good aim helps, but not as much as patience and attentiveness. The seemingly random onslaughts dictated by the AI keep players constantly on edge, and while each campaign has a thin framework, their stories never get in the way of the one you create on the fly. Lifelong friendships are tested by the final scene, as you witness which of your friends will come back to free you from a mob and haul you to safety—and which ones turn tail and run.

9. Final Fantasy XII (Square Enix, 2006)
It would have been enough had Final Fantasy XII eliminated random encounters. The tedious cycle of “walk three steps, fight a battle, return to step one” had dominated console role-playing games for an unacceptably long time, so Final Fantasy XII ditched it, then went further. Borrowing the best ideas from the MMO sphere, the game not only brought the bad guys out in the open where you could see (and avoid) them, it also cut way back on tedious menu navigation with the Gambit system, freeing players to make larger strategic decisions. By removing the separation between exploration and combat, Final Fantasy XII created a seamless world whose various locales rewarded repeat visits. Vibrant art direction and a straightforward story about the temptations of power complemented the huge improvements to battle, making Final Fantasy XII the most enjoyable Japanese RPG since Chrono Trigger.

8. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (Rockstar Games, 2002)
The Grand Theft Auto series is known for masking clever satires of American culture with gleeful violence, and Vice City, a parody of 1980s Miami, makes the ideal setting for the decadence the series simultaneously idealizes and lampoons. Mafioso in Hawaiian shirts, polyester-clad cocaine lords, and petty moguls form the cast of caricatures the series does so well, populating a world where the excesses of its crime-spree gameplay feel appropriate. GTA’s intelligence is often lost in the hullabaloo over its violence, but Vice City simply asks players to be as absurd as the characters around them, creating a plausible, neon-soaked fiction that’s as funny as it is canny. Rockstar burdened San Andreas with too many disparate activities and rendered GTA IV with inappropriate gravitas, making Vice City the best whole-package showcase of the series’ brilliance.

7. Ico (Sony, 2001)
Ico is a clever-enough hybrid of action game and brain-teaser, but its story of a nameless horned boy rescuing Yorda, a spectral girl, captured gamers’ imaginations with its subtlety. In a world of lonesome cathedrals and threatening shadows, the two must cross a language barrier to cooperate, expressing ideas on platonic love and universal language by poignantly—and now iconically—holding hands. It was an introduction to the minimalist directorial vision of Fumito Ueda; cemented in the later Shadow Of The Colossus and in 2010’s highly anticipated The Last Guardian, his worlds are rich with the suggestion of narrative, but they leave players to fill in the blanks. With Ico, Ueda became one of the earliest designers to introduce the idea that games can be art, and the title must be considered an essential milestone in the medium’s emotional maturation.

6. World Of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 2004)
Blizzard has faced plenty of competition since it all but conquered the MMORPG market with World Of Warcraft. But while Age Of Conan, The Lord Of The Rings Online, Warhammer Online, and a handful of other titles have tried to assault the game’s loyal subscriber base, none have been able to offer the consistent quality that has kept millions of players logging into WOW year after year. Even after two expansions, the game has stayed true to the goal of having something for everyone, with content to satisfy both casual players who explore solo and the more dedicated legions who thrive on joining dozens of other players for battles that require intense focus and precise coordination. The addictive quality comes from the fact that there’s always something more to do, whether it’s another quest to complete, a piece of gear to search for, or more players to kill.

5. Portal (Valve, 2007)
The legend of Portal starts with a fledgling team of still-in-school gamemakers who pitched a concept to Valve’s Gabe Newell, walked away with a deal, and eventually delivered a masterpiece. Their brilliant portal mechanic and the extensive playtesting that perfected the puzzles made this an excellent game. But credit also goes to Valve for what they brought to the table: a writing team that stitched the levels together with hilarious but meaningful dialogue; one of the decade’s best villains, the complex, conflicted GLaDOS; the subtle integration into the wider Half-Life universe; and the fact that GLaDOS not only eludes you at the end, but comes back and sings you a farewell, penned by geek troubadour Jonathan Coulton. Who thinks of something like that? Valve, that’s who. With Portal, the company proved itself as adept at spotting talent and creating pop culture as it is at shipping great games.

4. Rock Band (MTV Games/Electronic Arts, 2007)
Rhythm games have frequently courted non-gamers—what better hook to reel in newbies than catchy tunes?—but none dominates a party like Rock Band. The four-player experience accommodates precise, determined players and drunken fools all in the same session. What other party game can satisfy all of the people all of the time? It was made by musicians for everyone; its devotion to music is evident in song selections that skirt the mainstream and animations that replicate onstage performance as lovingly as Madden seeks to mirror football. Where prior music games were limited by static disc-based releases, a constant supply of optional downloadable content makes Rock Band the only music game that persistently thinks beyond the boundaries of physical releases. That keeps it fresh and, not coincidentally, makes the title a bright light in the increasingly shadowy music biz.

3. Fallout 3 (Bethesda Softworks, 2008)
Some games have great storylines; some have great worlds. Bethesda Softworks’ update of the Fallout series is a world-building triumph. The Capital Wasteland is more than a massive chunk of irradiated real estate; it’s home to characters of every conceivable stripe, odd relics of a bygone civilization, and mutated new inhabitants that suggest evolution isn’t a process to be rushed. Fallout 3’s crowning achievement is structuring the Wasteland as a framework in which players can pick and choose how they’ll combine those ingredients to tell their own story. Is the Wasteland the basis for a traditional Western, a cautionary Mad Max tale, or a balls-out action saga? It can be all of the above, and much more. The measure of a game should never be a bottom-line summation of playable time, but the fact that Fallout 3 offers easily a hundred hours of post-apocalyptic storytelling can’t be overlooked.

2. Katamari Damacy (Namco, 2004)
Indie games existed long before 2004, but there’s a good argument for pegging Katamari Damacy as the catalyst that helped usher in the new wave of low-fi, handmade games. Of course, Keita Takahashi’s quirky game wasn’t independently made. He tricked his bosses at Japanese publisher Namco into letting him make an oddball game about rolling all the detritus of consumer culture into a huge ball, then launching it into space. And in doing so, he cemented all the themes that would define the independent spirit of gaming: a quirky tone, experimental mechanics, twee art, and cooler-than-thou music. Which together make Katamari Damacy a pure delight—a surrealistic, totally original confection with a nihilistic subtext.

1. BioShock (2K Games, 2007)
A three-word pleasantry—“Would you kindly?”—set up the most stunning plot twist in gaming history and made BioShock a lasting icon. Many games have stolen its moral-choice device—witness the recent glut of “Press A to kill, B to rescue” situations—but the copycats miss the real insight of the “Would you kindly?” moment, which showed players that the notion of choice in a game is just an illusion anyway. It’s all in how you execute the illusion, and BioShock uses every tool of the medium to tell its story of extreme libertarianism gone awry: richly characterized dialogue, the gloom of a crumbling Atlantis, the limitations of the first-person viewpoint. It was a visionary effort, one that set the bar high for games that would follow—especially the upcoming BioShock 2.