My Top Games: 6. Civilization IV

Just as it’s difficult and perhaps wrong to choose a favorite child, it’s also tough and potentially immoral to choose a favorite from among the Sid Meier’s Civilization franchise. But I’m gonna do it anyway. It’s also a challenge choosing my favorite Canadian-born Swiss-American game designer, but that honor would have to go to Sid Meier. Anyway, the reason I’m placing Civilization IV so high on my list of gaming favorites is because it’s a child in its own right. And it’s not just any old child of Meier’s—I’m sure he had his own favorites from among his Alpha Centauri, Pirates!, Railroad Tycoon and other franchises—Civilization IV is the chosen one, the promised child of Civilization II and Civilization III that takes the best from both of those foundations and creates a turn-based strategy game that can stand on its own like that ancient statue of Ramses in the desert—for all time.

Put It on the Classy Shelf!

Civ 4 begins, appropriately, in 4000 B.C., and all you’ve got is one settler to your name and all the hopes of your future civilization resting upon his small shoulders. So, you’d better think twice about starting a capital city just anywhere. Better not found your civilization too far from arable fields, natural resources, lucrative coastlines, life-giving rivers, or wide-open plains to expand. Meanwhile, dodge impassable mountains (your roadbuilders will thank you), sickening swamps (your physicians will be grateful), and icebergs (if you live at a pole, there had better be oil). And you gotta move fast because you can already smell the barbarian camp just over the next hill. Time to train an archer and build some walls and then send a warrior out to find some room for your second city.

While you’re doing that, you can enjoy the soundtrack. It’s a beautiful orchestral landscape that begins in the languorous lands of Mesopotamian granaries and temples and eventually guides you into the modern age, where you don’t sell grain to your neighbors anymore but horror films. The title music ain’t bad, either: strains of Christopher Tin’s “Baba Yetu” (“Our Father” in Swahili) will swell your soul, and they even managed to win a Grammy, for goodness sake. How often does a video game song manage that? I had to fire it up just now for another listen: it’s a grand, universal, unifying composition, embracing the hopefulness of survival, which is what Civilization is all about.

Another point for Civ IV: Spock talks. That’s right, every time your magi or scientists complete their research and discover some new technology, Leonard Nimoy himself narrates a quote or verse about that research with the gravitas of a Vulcan and the humor of an Earthman. It really makes you want to become a science officer.

From Civ III, Civ IV took the reality that religion is both a unifying and a dividing force in nations and made from it a whole new dimension of gameplay. From Civ II, Civ IV took just about everything else (except the throne room, sadly!). Underneath Civilization IV rest the bones of its ancestors: that eternal cycle of deciding whether to sell peace or war, to conscript or set free, to grow or to raze, to crush or convert, to research or languish, to hunt or fish, to murder and create (alongside Prufrock). There are almost as many ways to play this game as there are ways to grow a real civilization, and every game feels different. Even if some of my military and economic tactics would repeat in many of my games, it always felt like a completely new world I inhabited, full of infinite possibilities.

Civ IV also managed to unload some of the past limits of the franchise; it took the good from Civ III but dumped some of its clumsiness; it took the best of Civ II (except the throne room ☹) and dropped its endless computer player loops that made for aggravatingly long turns. It also loosened the timelines so you could play just one more term a little longer…

Programming loops aside, Civ IV teaches you, alongside the rest the series, that time isn’t a line but a loop. You end up playing through these loops of time yourself: eternally raising railroads to mobilize your tanks, marines, and mechanized infantry; besieging enemy fortresses with submarines, paratroopers, and bombers; deciding whether bronze work will forge statues or spears; debating whether we’ll base our civilization on high hieroglyphs and papyrus poems, or on charging chariots and bent bows. Loops and loops and loops within loops, civilizations that circle on and on to infinity. And the whole way down it’s a whole lot of fun.

Computer in Red; Stephen in Blue

So many loops, in fact, of turn after turn after turn of cajoling, invading, monetizing, and converting friends and foes that my first computer burned out on Civilization long before I did. That’s right, Civ IV took one more enemy down in its endless march toward the future: the first computer I bought for myself. But hey, all’s fair in love and war and Civilization IV.


For the pedants out there, we might also call this one Dragon Quest 3, as that was its original name when it was published in Japan in 1988 for the Nintendo Famicom system (and later the NES in America). But the 2001 Game Boy Color version stuck to the American naming system (I guess in the U-S-of-A “Warriors” are way cooler than “Quests”) and was released as Dragon Warrior III. It could just as easily have been published as The Greatest JRPG Ever.

Only $19.99 at Fred Meyer

Now, it’s important to make big claims like that to bait the clicks, but now we can walk that statement back a bit. There are probably better JRPGs out there, or better examples of the genre, anyway, but I don’t care—this one is the one I played endlessly and so it’s my favorite. A JRPG (Japanese Role-Playing Game) is an awful lot like a regular old RPG (even a cousin to an ARPG or Action Role-Playing Game like Diablo II), a game with characters occupying classes who have innate talents and further build skills in order to fight in turn-based or tactical battles (not live, actiony ones) and follow some (elaborate) story.

They Kept Changing the Title with Every Release

I was a little late to the RPG/JRPG party in general, and I didn’t play this game until 2001 or 2002 when it appeared for the GBC and I had picked up a Game Boy Advance. There were myriad reasons for why I’d missed out on Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger and the like, but the biggest reason was the general moratorium in my childhood on anything magical—if you wanted magic or related dark arts you either had to play the game in secret (a la on the Game Boy, not on the family TV) or you had to read about it in some innocuous-looking library book or magazine.

Just Look at those Evil Mages!

But wow, this one was worth the wait. I played this game through again and again over the years, and that’s saying something because JRPGs are notoriously long. And this one just kept going—every time I thought we made it to the end of the story and my little band of heroes could finally rest, there was another twist and another chapter and another maze and another boss to defeat. And to make these adventures that much longer, you could spend as long as you needed (or wanted) grinding like mad to turn yourself into the dragon warrior you were fated to become to avenge your father’s death. Somebody could probably speedrun this game in some ridiculously short time, but every playthrough for me totaled over a hundred hours. There was so much to do, so much to fight—and that was even before you made it to the dark world.

Night Time Opens New Secrets in the Towns

The game is beautiful, by both 1988 and 2001 standards. Akira Toriyama (of Dragon Ball fame) was the lead artist, and the manga quality of the game’s art still shines through today. Koichi Sugiyama’s memorable musical suite added polish and delight to the massive task of walking through every grassland, forest, mountain range, and valley through the world. I usually shut off game music after an hour or two, but I always loved this soundtrack. Both the art and music remind you that adventure is hidden within the sights and sounds of the everyday.

Many More Roads to Travel

And then there was further fun stuff they’d added that didn’t appear in the original incarnation of the game, like the Pachisi board games. Something lovely inhabited those minigames; at various stops in your treacherous journey, you could pause to walk a life-size board game and find rare items and hidden trapdoors for your trouble. Something so bright and cheery imbued what might have been a very dark Enix game. The designers had the spirit perfectly figure out of a game that was about hacking and slashing your way through serious foes, but was just as much about laughing at grinning slimes and cheering your crew through another round of Pachisi on the way to fight the Orichi.

1 Hero + 3 Jokes = 1 Great Team

Modern RPGs often try hard to force the tone to be serious; they want to make you feel death behind every dark door. But DW3 has no fear of running through the sunlight from town to town, joyously scouring the land of silly beasts and bosses. The crazed king who offers you his kingdom for as long as you want is a hilarious touch, the sneezy pepper plotline illustrates a lighter era of gaming, and the underpowered Jester (or Gadabout or Goof-Off) class that eventually turns conqueror, all represent the deep joy and fun of this Quest. Jesters, in particular, were a deft touch: game designer Yuji Horii and his team seemed to want always to reward players for joining in the fun of their funny medieval world, and one way they did that was by creating a wildcard class distinct from the game’s other classes—and they even gave players a reason to put up with all of its chaos.

3 Solid Classes

This game introduced the experience of changing classes and party-construction for me. I spent almost as many hours on trying to figure out the best way to build my teams and tame their abilities as I did actually leading them through Alefgard. Beyond the legendary, multitalented, sacrificial Hero (your main character), you could opt to add to you team a magically-aggressive Mage/Wizard, a tanking, beastly Warrior/Soldier to soak up the hits, a Cleric/Priest/Pilgrim (how in the world were there so many versions of this game with different titles?) who could buff the party and block the enemy. Or, you could take your chances with the little-armored Fighters/Martial Artists who would practically battle naked but would take down enemies with one critical hit after another, the Thief (added in the second generation of the game’s release) who could find hidden Mini Medals. You could even venture forth with a Dealer/Merchant who could, uh, make you more money (and help with that surprisingly meaningful side-quest of founding a new town!).

3 of the More “Niche” Classes

The great trick that Yuji Horii came up with, though, was to make the worst class in the game the one you needed the most. The Jester/Gadabout/Goof-Off who refused to take orders and would literally do whatever he or she wanted in battle (every character could be male or female) while you simply hoped that fielding three functional teammates out of four would be enough to defeat any monsters. But once you reached level 20 you could manage a trick to convert those terrible, self-defeating, freeloading, obnoxious, hilarious clowns into the most powerful class in the game: the Sage. In DW3, upon reaching level 20 you could reset a character and give them a new class, which meant you could cycle through multiple classes with a character and add new spells from each new class (characters never lost spells they learned, even from another class).

“You Were the Chosen One!”

With rare exception, only Jesters could become Sages—effectively a mage, cleric, and warrior all rolled into one. They could cast insane spells and hold their own in a physical fight. “The losers now will be later to win,” I think Bob Dylan once said. Or, “the last shall be first,”—maybe Jesus said it first. If you can put up with bad jokes for 20 levels of grinding, you could shape the greatest champion of a generation. I like a game like that, one that believes you don’t have to peak in high school—a game that agrees that there’s always more to learn, and there’s always a reason to bring a joker along on your Quest. Here’s to all the fun, friends, and frivolity of Dragon Warrior III!

The Road Goes Ever On!

My Top Games: 4. MADDEN 2004 (GC)

I’ve owned five Madden NFL football games: Madden 99 was my first, for the N64, then came Madden 2002 for the GameCube, and then one Christmas I got Madden 2004 also for the GC. Later, I picked up Madden 15 and Madden 19 for the Xbox One. Madden 99 was great fun and introduced me to the world of football as seen by John Madden (RIP), pro football strategy more broadly, and the wild world of club management. Next, Madden 2002 was a graphical and gameplay upgrade. But Madden 2004, with Michael Vick running all over that cover, is still my favorite entry in the Madden football franchise. I played this game for well over 50 in-game seasons, at which point you had to start your franchise all over again. And I did start all over again because it was just that fun.

The Final Boss

Being a football player is fun, for sure—and being all the players on the field was fun, too. Being the coach calling plays was all right. Being the owner was sort of cool. But being the general manager—that was where it was at.

Singleback 4 Life

Every time each NFL season ended, you transformed from full-time player into full-time football exec. My teams always had low draft picks because we always won the championship, or almost always. You got used to picking 30th or 32nd in every round of the draft, at first. Then you realize at some point how easy it is to dump your near-retirement players on some stupid AI-controlled GM and make that contract somebody else’s problem, while returning some high 2nd– or 3rd-round picks (1st-rounders were harder to steal).

And the Kickoff!

That was part of the whole management strategy: the way I would play it (with my erstwhile St. Louis Rams) was to draft a mediocre college quarterback in maybe the third or fourth round and find a rookie wide receiver or two somewhere between the second and fifth rounds and I would turn this practice-squad fodder into the league MVP and the Offensive Player of the Year within a couple of seasons. We used one screen pass play about 50% of the time, and the first down rates on this play had to have been near 75%. Our touchdown rate on that single play was probably 10-20%, too. For some reason it was so fun to humiliate computer opponents with the same five plays, over and over.

Faulk with the TD!

Playing the games on field was great, and trying to boost the stats of low-drafted nobodies and turn them into gridiron giants was satisfying—as was the whole pre-season routine of practicing the punts that we’d never actually punt in season (on fourth down you always went for it, like in NFL Blitz) and playing defense in the trenches that we’d never bother with in an actual game, and all that. It felt like we were really gearing up for a new season of glory no matter how we looked.

In this practice game I was 3/3 going for it on 4th Down

Yet somehow it always came back to being a general manager simulator. That was the really fun part. You always signed everybody to seven-year contracts—that was the max the game would allow, or else I would have signed them to 50-year deals. Because you know they’ll never make it to seven years. All those contracts were hugely backloaded: in practice, it meant I promised to pay you a million or two for a few years and then by year seven you’re slated to make five times that. Except you’ll never make it past year four on that contract. Either you’d get put out to pasture, retire on your own, get dumped for draft capital, or maybe even get re-signed to a seven-year extension if you were so unbelievably good I couldn’t live without you (but, again, you’d never see the latter years of that deal). Nobody was ever paid the full contract they signed. I should have been voted Executive of the Decade.

Yes, I Negotiate All Our Rookie Contracts Myself

But my players didn’t mind the financial abuse—after all, I put those meatheads in the Hall of Fame. Which is where this game belongs, too. Madden 2004 did everything right: you could rename and relocate your franchise to Mexico City, overcharge for hot dogs, draft the next Brady, or the next dump truck.

Hot Dogs are Cash Cows

That was one of the most fun little side quests I always had. After every season ended, I’d use the draft to fill in some new bodies for some of the guys we’d had to cut, or whose contracts we’d traded, or those we’d forced into early retirement. But with the last few late-round picks you knew you weren’t going to find anybody good enough to move the needle, probably not even to crack the third string. So, instead, you’d start drafting for other qualities. You’d take whoever had the fastest 40-yard dash time (despite hands made of concrete) or you’d find a kicker who could propel the pigskin 60 yards (straight into the press booth).

Six-Foot-Eight is Great! 381 Pounds Is Perfect! Pretty Good Awareness, too; maybe he has a coaching career in his future!

Or, my personal favorite, I would scope out the draft (in the middle rounds, or even earlier) for the biggest, heaviest, tallest guy in the draft. Every few years you would find these Goliaths out there, trudging through the draft while every other GM looked for speed, good hands, quickness, technique, whatever. And these gentle giants would be ignored or dismissed, again and again. And I said that’s not what football is all about, and I’d discover these guys and add them to my squad. I’d find a place for them—a behemoth Offensive Guard or a yeti-like Nose Tackle—or if I were feeling really brave, I’d put them in at Middle Linebacker or Fullback. They weren’t on my team to be deft and delicate, to pull the passed ball out of the air or punt it into a coffin corner. They were there to intimidate the other side, to stare down from their seven-foot height and throw their 400-pound weight into the trenches and scare the living daylights out of my enemies. I would take these hulks and make footballers out of them, and in the end their lumbering footsteps would force more fumbles, their awesome arms would deflect more passes, than they had any right to do.

Touchdown, Warner to Bruce!!!

And of course, they were cheap—on those lovely, infinite, seven-year contracts.

My Top Games: 3. SUPER MARIO 64

Super Mario 64 was not the first true 3-D graphical game I ever played, but it was the first to use that environment to its potential. Instead of Mario 64, it should have been called Mario 3D, because 64-bit graphics didn’t even mean anything anymore after this one—gaming was no longer about seeing the world but living in it.  

Can you hear this screen?

This was not the first Nintendo 64 game my brothers and I owned but it was one of the first. Even the process of buying it was new: none of us wanted to fully front even the on-sale price of $40, so we all went in together and bought shares of it. Whose was it? Well, everyone’s, supposedly. But it was mostly mine—I put in about half the money, and my brothers split the rest. I didn’t care; I just wanted to play it.

Timeless beauty

I didn’t even play at first, though—somehow that honor always goes to the firstborn. We powered the system up and started pushing buttons. The opening of the game, set outside Peach’s Castle in the idyllic Mushroom Kingdom, looked good at first, but the graphics weren’t all that incredible and I wondered immediately if I’d made a mistake tossing my $20 into the hat. The game initially seemed obsessed with introducing the role of the omnipresent cameraman Lakitu and I wondered when camera explanations would vanish and we could jump into jumping Koopas. I didn’t understand it at the time, but this marked just how innovative the game was—Nintendo felt they had to explain to the players exactly how they could even see Mario’s new 3D realm. At first, I scoffed: outside and inside the Mushroom Castle was cool and all, but it felt small and closed, so the 3-D graphics didn’t really matter.

Did they ever have that picnic?

Then we jumped through a painting of Bob-ombs and Lakitu’s view suddenly blew my mind. For the first five or ten minutes of watching gameplay, I couldn’t even understand what I was looking at. It had an out-of-body experience where my eyes inhabited a dynamic, polygonal world and my brain refused to process it properly and instead spit out question marks. You could go here—or there—or over there. It was overwhelming; how were we supposed to know where to go? I don’t get motion sickness playing video games, ever, but this one initially tossed me something analogous. It was almost terrifying that there seemed to be no restrictions: you could go up, down, around; kick off walls, ride on shells, stomp baddies, collect coins, shove a boss off a hill, fly through the sky. It was only years later I realized how small these levels really were, but they were cleverly created to encompass an entire mental world. Anywhere you went was acceptable: X and Y had found Z. The world was alive, and my character, for the first time, unlimited.

It’s funny in retrospect, but I literally could not comprehend what I was looking at here in the beginning

Super Mario 64 had much more than looks. It was fun, too: its gameplay was phenomenal. I remember after we bought the game we steeled ourselves for the long ride home. The best way to pass that kind of time was always to open the box of whatever toy or game you’d gotten at Toys R Us or Walmart, so you could read the manual on the way home. In reading this thing, I kept turning the page and marveling at the number of moves Mario had acquired in his time off after leaving Super Mario World. Clearly, he’d been working out and could now punch, kick, triple jump, flip, wall jump, pound the ground, or swim like a dolphin. Not only that but his new hats held new moves and new magic. Mario had kept his platforming roots while transforming into one of the greatest emblems of the adventure genre before our eyes.

Just play this stage for the music

Confession: before this one, I had never been a huge fan of the true Mario platformers. There was a reason Super Mario 64 wasn’t our first Nintendo 64 game. We’d never purchased Super Mario World, or Super Mario Bros. 1 or 3 (in fairness, we didn’t grow up with a household NES). I mean, Super Mario Land 2 was fun (if short), Wario Land was kind of great, and Super Mario World wasn’t bad at all. But Super Marios 1, 2, and 3 had never really done for me what they’d seemed to do for everybody else, and the arcade Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. games flat-out sucked. But Mario in Super Mario 64 had moved from a side-scrolling 2-D hopping mannequin into a full-fledged human hero. The sheer variety of maneuvers, for a game from 1996, was unparalleled. Just how fun it was to slide down a mountain holding half a snowman for an impromptu family reunion—well, they got all the gameplay right in this one.

At home in the snow

The snowy slides were fun, and so were the bright sunny fields, the lava lands, the sandy deserts, the innards of the giant grandfather clock, the rainbow voyage through the skies, and everywhere in between. Every world was visually, aurally, and stylistically so unique: that was a thing in adventure gaming both before (Super Mario 3, Sonic the Hedgehog…) and after this game (Donkey Kong 64, Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Super Mario Galaxy…), but I believe no other game before lit the world up as brightly as this one, with every world an entire dimension removed from its neighboring land. Like the single-colored rooms of the palace in Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” Mario’s new worlds were distinct, memorable, and deadly—nothing vague or fuzzy there at all.

The Big Bad

Just as memorable as the visuals was the soundtrack. My kid and I have hopped and pranced around to this music many times, and I still think the “Dire Dire Docks/Jolly Roger Bay” track represents some of the best video game music ever composed. The heights Shigeru Miyamoto managed for the game production were equaled by Koji Kondo’s unforgettable aural landscapes.


Here’s to Super Mario 64, my very favorite game for the better part of almost 30 years. It could have been number one on this list, but like anything on the Nintendo 64, it’s slightly creaky with age. Still, if you play it now, even with that original (read: horrific) N64 controller, you’ll see the same magic that reorganized my gray matter when we first popped it into the console.

My Top 10 Games: 2. STARCRAFT II

That’s right, StarCraft II is number 2! Now, I know what you’re thinking—you’re thinking this guy hasn’t played anything but Blizzard games, and for whatever reason I’m obsessed with the number 2, or with sequels. You might be on to something with both of those observations—my brothers and I grew up in a largely Macintosh-based computing environment and Blizzard was one of the rare, cherished publishers that produced games for the Mac OS almost as often as they did for Windows or DOS. And as far as my love of the number 2 goes, well, I am the middle child.

Three Heroes

But really, I’m just a fan of a really, really good game, and that’s what StarCraft II is. I’m also a fan of competition and professional sports—and the fascinating players that populate them—and the drama of wins and losses and that was what StarCraft II was, too. If the original StarCraft helped create esports, then StarCraft II was its chosen successor, and its rise in America and Korea as a competitive gaming platform seemed to mirror its predecessor’s achievements for a time. In many ways, SC2 was built to be a competitive gaming vehicle, meant to bring in not just the players but the viewers, those who would spend full weekends watching nerds from Brussels to Busan battle for gold and glory.

Two Cannon Rushes? Is That Legal?

And it worked! From the start, I was sucked into this world of pro competition—I could never play at that level myself, but I wanted to watch the best of the best butt heads, all while hearing the stories and jokes of the tourney hosts and shoutcasters who colored in all the lines of strategy for viewers like me. No video or computer game before this or after has sucked me into the pro scene the way SC2 did; it was not a game but an entirely unique culture.

Diamonds Are a Protoss’s Best Friend

Part of my fascination with the broader scene was my own interest in the game: StarCraft II was a real-time strategy game that arrived in stores only after RTS games had been killed off as a genre. People had moved on: competitive gaming was either stuck in the stone age of StarCraft (in Korea) or Smash Bros. (elsewhere), or it was focused on the more-popular Massively-Multiplayer Online, First-Person Shooter, or Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (and, soon, Survival) games that had overtaken the landscape of modern gaming. But Blizzard didn’t care: a great RTS was spawning, and it would Zergling rush its way into our hearts, whether we knew it or not, in July 2010.

Behind Enemy Lines

I wasn’t even going to buy SC2 at first. I’d played the original and StarCraft 64 plenty. They were fun, but I was done—I’d moved on. And yet that summer, SC2 appeared and with it came this whole new world of video game stardom, and I ate it all up. I loved the game; I lived the game. Guys like Husky and Day[9] and InControl (RIP) taught me so much about not just the game, but about strategy and planning and goals far away from it—all while making me laugh and yell through the wildest games.

The Silence of the SCVs

And it was the pro players, too, from the enigmatic Idra to the aloof Naniwa, to the hilarious Rotterdam, to Euro-champ Stephano, to Scarlett and Snute, to the grinning Polt, the OG MC, to MarineKing and his crew, and to the unbelievable MVP and everyone in between. I knew them all, loved them all. They were a brotherhood. When I couldn’t rest during the worst year of my life, it was MrBitter and Frodan and the gang who sang me to sleep with the best of North American SC2. I never would have picked up the game (RTS was dead to me, too, and grad school was very much alive) except my two best brothers jumped on that ship with me, too, hooked me up with a new rig (thanks, Joe), and played with me long into the late nights for years (thanks, Andy). That’s what I really, really loved about StarCraft II: I was number 2, but I always had my 1 and 3 fighting right beside me.