A couple of years ago, I picked up a copy of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. At the time I was in an MFA program and had to do a lot of reading, but I was allowed to choose the books myself as long as they were of a certain level of quality. I spent a couple days going through the entire 1001 book catalog, skimming and sometimes reading all of the small, three to five paragraph analyses of each book. I came up with a list of about 75 novels that really sounded exciting to me and had generally great results. I read things that I’d never heard of and learned the basics about a whole lot of books that I’ll probably never read. Now that I’m blogging about video games all the time, this seemed like the perfect companion piece for me. What other classic games besides Final Fantasy VII (I know!) have I never played? Let’s find out.
As it turns out, most of them. Like the 1001 Books book, 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die is arranged chronologically by release date, which I think is absolutley the right choice. It lets the book serve as a fascinating history of the industry, showing how games have developed and improved over the last four decades. At 39, I’ve been playing games for pretty much the entire period covered in the book, and I was surprised how many of those early games that I’d played. In the end, though, I only played 468 out of the 1001 on display here. The kind of scary thing was that (unlike with the books) I’d mostly heard of all these games, even if I’d never played them. Flipping through them is a wondrous trip down memory lane, and as the book proceeds, so too does the vividness of the memories. Part of that is because so many of the 1001 potential reminiscences aren’t really that old at all.
Over 500 of the book’s weighty 960 are given over to games that have come out since 2000. That makes a certain kind of sense of course—between two console generations, the rise of indie games on PC, and the ever growing industry as a whole, the last decade was pretty breathtaking. But beyond that basic trend, any list like this gets skewed the closer that you get to the time that it was written. I remember years ago when A&E (back when they did things like this) did a list of the Top 100 Most Influential people of the world. It had a lot of good choices, but also some stunningly myopic ones, like Princess Diana but not Louis XIV. One of them ruled France for over six decades and helped shape the modern world. The other was nice and all, but come on . . . I feel the same way about 1001 Video Games. I would submit, for example, that you’d be hard pressed to find anyone next year telling you that playing Army of Two: The 40th Day is something that you must do before you die, or even at all. The book’s own write up says that, “If you’re in a video store and find yourself considering renting Tango & Cash again, put down the movie and pick this up.” Certainly sounds like a must-play to me.
But that’s quibbling, I admit. Most of the choices seem great to me, and I like that the authors include a lot of smaller, experimental games and some flawed but important titles as well. From that point of view, it works well as a companion to its cousin volume on books: a reader can page through it, looking for something to do before they die. That of course does bring up the big problem—with a few exceptions, I can have almost all 1001 books delivered to my iPad or my doorstep. Playing many of these games requires specific hardware or some sort of emulator. The options for playing games get better every day, but there are still big gaps in my gaming life from say the Dreamcast/Playstation 1 era that I don’t see myself filling anytime soon, even if I wanted to.
1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die works best as a way to stimulate dusty neurons and remind us of those heady gaming days of yore. I’d totally forgotten about 1992’s Flashback, which I played in 1993 when I was supposed to be working on my Master’s degree in Ancient History. I distinctly remember hiding in my dorm, heater turned to max against my first Ohio winter (it got down to -22!) and just getting lost in Flashback‘s strange gameplay and fascinating story. Until I saw it on page 221, I couldn’t even remember its name. I don’t know that I’ll be creating a lot of new memories based on the write ups in this book, but for me, there’s a lot of pleasure to be derived from reliving the old ones.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.