GIA staff favorites for 2001

   If you trace this site's year-end features back through the one posted in January 1999, it shows better and better years for gaming. This year, however, hosted so many astonishing and delightful games that for the first time we've expanded our individual lists from three titles from each staffer to five--otherwise, we'd all go mad trying to pick just three.

   As might have been expected, the most often cited game was the stellar Final Fantasy X with eight nods--though it's worth noting that Paper Mario edged it out in terms of staffers who ranked it at the top. Other general favorites were ICO with six mentions, Konami's dynamic duo of Silent Hill 2 and Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty with five apiece, and two nominations for Advance Wars, Pikmin, Dance Dance Revolution, and the Zelda: Oracles games.

   The following choices are not meant to represent the site as a whole or be taken as all-encompassing "awards," but give an idea of what each staffer most enjoyed over the past year.

Ray Barnholt

  1. Paper Mario
    • Few RPGs in 2001 left me with an exalted sense of satisfaction than did Paper Mario. It's not the deepest game ever, but it's a fresh enough take on the Mario universe that it doesn't have to be. The battles are fun, and the characters have character. (Rarely will you experience something as memorable as the fruity writings in Luigi's diary.) Bet you'd never expect that in a "kiddy" game. I love it.
  2. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
    • Sure, the game has an involving plot, great gameplay and stunning graphics. I love it for all those reasons. But if one can look past all that, they will--like me--discover that MGS2 is clearly the year's best comedy. From Otacon's failed attempts at emulating Mei Ling to sniping seagulls to the complete circus that is the game's next-to-last hour, let's just say I enjoyed MGS2 on a more than a couple of levels. Your mileage may vary, however.
  3. The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons/Ages
    • In the beginning I thought that outsourcing the Zelda legacy to another company was blasphemous. However, Nintendo kept a close eye on Capcom and Flagship and the end results were two titles that are more than worthy of the name Zelda. It's a winning combination: two great games that can make one outstanding quest, AND it's affordable. You can't go wrong, and I know I didn't.
  4. Advance Wars
    • I thrive on all things turn-based, so naturally I had anticipated Advance Wars to the highest degree. Having played a few titles in Nintendo's "Wars" series for some fleeting moments, I thought I had a good idea of what I was getting into. Cripes, was I shocked. Intelligent Systems fully upgraded this series for the next generation, and succeeded. Its cute environments and characters are devious covers for the relentless AI and intricate map-making mode, making a game that some may scoff at but others will embrace. Just as I have. Now where's my English Tactics Ogre, Nintendo?
  5. Dragon Warrior III
    • At the end of the day, nothing feels better than bundling yourself up on the sofa and diving into a timeless classic. And what better classic than Enix's Game Boy port of its Super Famicom remake of Dragon Warrior III? Since DWIII is my favorite in the series, I had a lot of fun with this new version. Better graphics, the addition of mini-games and the revised class system make this game worth playing again...for the first time.

Drew Cosner

  1. Paper Mario
    • I'm generally a stickler for enthralling plots in my RPGs, but Nintendo has always had a knack for building engaging titles around the most skeletal of concepts. Paper Mario is no exception. Once again the Princess is in need of rescuing, and the Only Capable Man in Mushroom Kingdom is there to save the day. But forget the unique presentation, the slick battle system, and the lack of loading times, because I can sum up my favorite part of this game in three words: no random encounters. As far as I'm concerned, Mario could've been an ex-soldier off on a quest to destroy the Empire he once worked for after the fake chancellor destroyed his hometown, and it still would've been a refreshingly innovative game.
  2. Final Fantasy X
    • There's a vindictive part of me that wanted to neglect nominating this game just because of the random encounters. But, hey, I temporarily ignored my games-with-random-encounters boycott since it was a Final Fantasy title, so I may as well be a complete hypocrite instead of a half-assed one. If you read this site, you probably know the full story: the graphics are phenomenal, the plot is as good as it gets, and the characters are likable and well-developed. (Except, of course, for Lulu, who takes over for Quistis as the girl that is substantially more attractive than the game's love interest, yet gets ignored by the story line and the lead protagonist.) Were it not for the random encounters, this would probably be my favorite game of the year; once again my stubborness deprives me of an enjoyable experience, it would seem.
  3. Harvest Moon: Save the Homeland
    • My yearly Harvest Moon nomination. While I can point to the addictive nature of the gameplay, the likable cast of characters, or, in a complete change of pace, the graphics, it's hard to pinpoint exactly why this game is so much fun. I'm convinced that if the developers at Victor decided to add a toilet-bowl-scrubbing mini-game to the next Harvest Moon, they'd find a way to make that enjoyable.
  4. Super Monkey Ball
    • Between the blistering speed and vertigo-inducing camera, this game feels like I'd always hoped a 3D Sonic game would. Of course, it does have the copious checkerboard textures and bright pallate, so I suppose I could just pretend it's a Sonic game. Especially since you get to play as Sonic about the same amount of time as you do in Sonic Adventure 2. And thanks to oodles of nifty multiplayer games, Super Monkey Ball is also about the most fun you can have with a group of friends and a console. Next to Smash Brothers Melee, of course.
  5. Castlevania: Circle of the Moon
    • Even a frothing innovation proponent like myself has a place in his heart for a good 2D game. And with spot-on control, moody environments, and plenty to do and explore, Circle of the Moon was definitely a good 2D game. For once I'm glad for hardware limitations; there's no telling what we would've ended up with had the GBA been capable of reasonable polygon-pushing. Then again, I suppose my judgment is partially clouded, since this was essentially my only form of entertainment on the 20 hour flight to Japan. It sure beat watching the Wedding Planner for the third time.

Alex Fraioli

  1. Final Fantasy X
    • Sweet, just like candy. Interesting characters, a unique and surprisingly effective method of advancing your party members, and an incredible graphical prowess propel FFX straight to the top of my list. Whereas some games try and fail to change the style of play in an enjoyable way (i.e. Shadow Hearts), FFX's twists on the genre are pulled off without a hitch. And I mean, come on, Lulu.
  2. Phantasy Star Online
    • Having been broken into the world of RPG's by the original Phantasy Star, I felt I owed it to Sega to give their online venture a try. And try it I did! In fact, I ended up trying it for months, spending a couple hundred more hours on it than I had expected. The charm lies strictly in the game's simplistic nature of hack'n'slash'n'collect, with a generous helping of teamwork on the side. The multitudes of rare weapons and items appeal to my poké side, demanding that I go through the Ruins just one more time in order to find 'em all. There's something about going Darth Maul on a hapless monster after finding your very first double saber that can't be reproduced.
  3. Silent Hill 2
    • I often admit to being a Resident Evil whore, though I actually prefer Konami's more subtle take on survival horror over rocket launchers and zombie dogs. It's not too often that a game will prevent me from leaving the confines of the immediate gaming area out of fear, effectively ensnaring me in its macabre web of terror for hours. You can't fetch a snack because you know you'll find a refrigerator full of blood. You don't want to take a bathroom break because you know you'll return to find a corpse playing the game in your stead. And you don't dare go to sleep, because that's when they get you. It's fun!
  4. Devil May Cry
    • There's a side of me that wants nothing more than to tear through a castle armed to the teeth with all manner of high end weaponry, casually wiping out wave after wave of abominations. Fortunately, Devil May Cry lets me do this without having to go through the trouble of purchasing boatloads of firearms and renting a manor somewhere in Europe. And with moves right out of John Woo's playbook, Dante himself secures a spot on my list of the year's top bad-asses, next to the likes of Auron and Solid Snake. Shame about his voice, though.
  5. Pikmin
    • And on the opposite end of the gaming spectrum we have what appeals to my inner botanist. After slicing and shooting the day away in Mundus's castle, nothing beats a nice, relaxing romp through the world of Pikmin. Pikmin does a great job of feeding my voracious appetite for exploration and discovery, constantly driving me forward in anticipation of the next tricky puzzle or epic battle. I normally don't take very well to these types of games, but Miyamoto has crafted such a charming and engaging world that I can't help but sit and stare at the ripples in the water or watch in awe as a spider gobbles down my troops like so much popcorn chicken.

Fritz Fraundorf

  1. Paper Mario
    • In its dying breath, the Nintendo 64 yielded what was one of the most memorable RPGs of the concluding generation. Paper Mario's precisely-tuned combat calculations and interactive attacks replace luck with skill in combat, and its terrific sense of humor and numerous sidequests contributed to that magical "always something more to do, can't stop playing" feeling. This game also finally brought Nintendo's Intelligent Systems division to glory in the eyes of the North American gaming public.
  2. Dance Dance Revolution
    • It's not just a fun game, it's also good exercise! While it may not offer the same kind of experience as most games, don't be surprised if you've actually logged more hours on DDR than any other title. The BeMani elite may grumble about the U.S. tracklisting - and, yes, it could be better - but DDR is still immensely fun.
  3. Final Fantasy X
    • Like Paper Mario, FF X rebuilds the standard RPG battle and ability systems from the ground up, throwing out the chaff and making each piece of the system count. Features such as the Trigger Commands, status changes that actually matter, and the new CTB system add a great deal of strategy and variety to battles, and the presentation goes from great to outstanding. The relentlessly morbid story means I'll probably not remember FF X as fondly as FF VIII, but this is still one amazingly well executed game.
  4. ICO
    • Defying franchises and sequels is no easy task, but Sony's puzzle-adventure managed to make quite a name for itself, and with good reason. Its quiet charm and intuitive premise - no manuals or text boxes are necessary - make this a human experience that few other games can claim to present. This is the future of gaming, and from an objective standpoint, it's really the best game of 2001.
  5. Zelda: Oracle of Ages and Zelda: Oracle of Seasons
    • No, they're not the best Zelda games ever, (nor the worst), but both Oracles titles delivered plenty of classic Zelda gameplay, which still makes them better than a lot of other games. While both Oracles games are lacking in secrets and truly memorable puzzles, their dungeons are still incredibly addictive -- and Seasons has a heavy dose of terrific platforming as well.

Chris Jones

  1. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
    • Let's take it for granted, for the moment, that MGS2's plot is an abomination, an unholy sin against narrative that breaks up the game's flow and leaves the reader bored, angry, or utterly confused.

      Doesn't matter.

      You've still got the single most exhilarating gaming experience I've had this year, or maybe ever. Case in point: a few hours into hard mode, I have to take out an open room with 5 guards. I have no silencer, no tranquilizers, and less than 10 bullets. I toss in a chaff grenade to disable radio communication, cartwheel into the first guard to knock him down, then switch into first person mode, taking out the rest of the guards with head shots in less than 5 seconds. Room clear, I begin the rest of my mission... only to discover that I've got less than a minute before reinforcements arrive.

      'Nuff said.

  2. Final Fantasy X
    • Truth be told, I haven't had a chance to play half as much of this as I'd like. Still, it's managed to rack up some big, big points with me in a very short time: it's gorgeous, it sounds wonderful, it plays even better than it sounds, and the plot is neither too grandiose nor to skeletal for me to enjoy. It's perhaps the most mature FF I've ever played, both in terms of story and of the game itself; much like FF8, it feels like something Square's been building towards for a long time, and I count myself lucky to be a gamer right now, enjoying the benefits of their experience. Simply excellent.
  3. Silent Hill 2
    • Sequels are really hard to pull off. While at times a sequel can be pulled off by reinventing the whole game world, a la Final Fantasy, more often than not, sequels manage to be a "been there, done that slightly differently before" feel. Having played enough survival horror sequels, most of them abyssimal, I was afraid that would be the case with Silent Hill 2. A bad sequel had the potential to ruin one of my favorite scary fictional towns. Instead, KCET decided to redo the town from scratch, and keep only the essential ingredient that made the original fun: the fear that at any minute, something deeply disturbing will jump out of that fog and kill you. Using all they learned on the PS2 with Shadow of Destiny, they delivered a truly immersive game. I was scared out of my wits just hearing the creak of my own steps on the sand on the way into town, surronded with thick, impenetrable fog... and it only got scarier when things did start to jump out of the shadows.. The story and characters are morbid and dark, and while the development is a lot more straightforward, this one too will lead you to scratch your head and go "What the hell?". It's definitely heads above its predecessor.
  4. ICO
    • It's probably a strong sign of how innovative this year's been that ICO, a game just short of perfect, only gets ranked in my 4th spot. Gameplay, graphics, music and story are all tremendously evocative, and I think it's safe to say that ICO's probably the most subtle, charming, polished game published all year. Still, when all's said and done, ICO's not much more than an update of adventure games like Out Of This World... which is fine, but not really what I'm looking for as far as earthshaking titles. Good stuff though.
  5. Advance Wars
    • On the other side of the spectrum, Advance Wars has no pretensions to be anything other than an extremely enjoyable, very well put together tactics game. It's the perfect on-the-go game, since battles are short with simple objectives, yet it's also great for playing hours on end. The battle system's clear and concise, providing lots of tactical intricacy without resorting to 5 layers of menus per turn. I wouldn't have believed it last year, but this is by far the best thing I've played on GBA.

J.T. Kauffman

  1. Silent Hill 2
    • In all reality, Silent Hill 2 was the only game this year that truly grabbed ahold of me. Everything, from the storyline to the to the voice acting to the extremely detailed textures, was superb. Even the unique way that the multiple endings were determined was well-done and very appreciated. In all, Silent Hill 2 was everything that a good book or movie should be; it was gripping, realistic, and emotional. With more games such as Silent Hill 2, along with Ico and last year's Vagrant Story, games may finally graduate from where they currently stand to a fully recognized and appreciated media.
  2. Pikmin
    • Pikmin was a title that I didn't expect to enjoy as much as I did. I've never been a huge fan of Lemmings, or similar titles, and the screenshots and advance info simply didn't do much for me. However, upon getting a chance to actually play the game, I found myself extremely pleasantly surprised. Miyamoto has once again shown his ability to craft a game that is simple at heart, but has the ability to attract players, from hardcore gamers and people who typically don't play games in the least.
  3. Final Fantasy X
    • It's practically a rule that any new Final Fantasy title needs to reside in any games-of-the-year list, isn't it?
  4. ICO
    • While ICO ended up as a late-year release for me (and my Japanese PlayStation 2), and I have yet to play more than the first quarter of the game because of this fact, Ico has made as large of an impression on me as it has many other gamers. The graphical artistry of the game is incredible, and the care that has gone into the design of the castle cannot be ignored. I have the strong suspicion that the game would rank higher in my list if I had the time to play more than I have, but as it stands, it easily stands as one of my favorite titles of the year.
  5. Dance Dance Revolution
    • While I've been playing the Japanese releases for almost three years now, I can't say how happy I was to see DDR finally come to North America. In fact, if this would have been the first (instead of the fifth) DDR disc in my gaming library, it probably would have snagged the top slot for me. My only real beef with the title was the simple fact that the song set could have been a bit more current, but overall, DDR remains one of the greatest games/game series ever made, no matter what songs are contained.

Nich Maragos

  1. Final Fantasy X
    • Since fate and release delays have prevented me from putting Gitaroo-Man in my #1 slot, I'll have to give the nod to my favorite game in my favorite RPG series. I wasn't allowed to say something like this in a purportedly objective review, but I'm honestly not sure I've ever played a better RPG. The characters have all of the warmth and humanity of VIII's but where that game's narrative broke down considerably over the last two discs, X complements its pitch-perfect cast with a coherent, understated, and moving storyline. And all this without sacrificing the deep customization and engaging gameplay--especially welcome was the ability to effectively use the entire party at once in battle. Add to this sidequests galore, stunning graphics, and possibly the series' best soundtrack since VI, and Square has made a Final Fantasy so good it's made even the series' biggest detractors acknowledge its quality.
  2. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
    • However questionable the storyline's presentation eventually went, it can't be denied that nobody pulls off jaw-dropping individual story beats like Hideo Kojima. And you must respect the man for daring to take such big risks with possibly the most anticipated PS2 game ever. However, the real reason this game is here is due to the tight play mechanics. Kojima has said in interviews that the initial idea for the Metal Gear series was based around hide-and-seek, and that's never been more apparent than in MGS2, with its plethora of places to hide and more advanced AI intent on tracking you down. Just about every weapon and item from previous games saw a new use here, from using a simple M9 to take out surveillance cameras to the wonderful extended sniping sequence; and then there were the new toys to play with like the tranquilizer darts, coolant, and directional microphone. As much as I enjoyed the game, in a way what I really want is another VR Missions companion.
  3. ICO
    • I've never been very good at puzzle games or straight-up adventure, and for a long time I thought the problem was just with me. After playing ICO, it was clear in a blinding flash that the problem was the ludicrous and poorly designed puzzles, and not my ability to solve them. This is because ICO's puzzles are so skillfully integrated into the environment that the problem is never figuring out what to do, it's only a matter of how to do it. Even more impressive is how much mileage they got from only a few basic maneuvers and a very limited inventory. Brilliant aesthetics made this game what it was; it's a great feeling to be able to finally make your way to a more elevated part of the castle and be able to see the parts you've already conquered below. All this is not to mention the two main characters who depend on each other and manage to speak volumes without an intelligible word, completing the game's tour de force of quiet brilliance.
  4. Silent Hill 2
    • Speaking of silly puzzles ...

      Though not unsolvable, Silent Hill 2's were often inane. And the "battle" engine was fairly dull. But despite these flaws, it stands as a terrific argument for the power and potential of videogames. Scarier than any horror movie released in the last five years, Silent Hill 2 works because you are the protagonist ... and yet, you aren't. Gamers can fully identify with the protagonist to the point where, like James, they're fearful of what new rooms and buildings hold--and simultaneously at enough of a remove to where it's clear to them that not everything is right with James' mind. The method in which the five different endings are achieved by effectively "role-playing" James' situation is one of the most interesting effects of a game's nature upon its story yet seen, and when creators learn to marry this kind of approach with more interesting gameplay (possibly in Silent Hill 3?) it'll be something to behold.

  5. Mega Man Battle Network
    • High production values in a Game Boy Advance RPG--at this point there are a number of titles I could be referring to. But if I mention that it has the best battle system seen this year in an RPG, there's little doubt which game I mean. How Capcom was able to just toss off a battle engine that strikes such a perfect balance between RPG conventions and the tried-and-true Megaman feeling is a mystery, especially when it could have gone wrong so easily, but they pulled it off masterfully. The colorful graphics and playful references to past games kept the story as fun as the gameplay, just barely landing it in my number five slot this year.

Zak McClendon

  1. ICO
    • Simply put, in a year of blockbuster titles, no game had the graphic, aesthetic, or emotional impact that ICO did. And say what you will about its length, ICO managed to pack more gameplay in 6-8 hours than most adventure games do in double or triple that time. ICOís tricky, yet altogether organic puzzle design had me looking at other games and wondering why they didnít quite measure up. Meanwhile, the sheer cohesiveness and quality of ICOís art design, characters, and story had me wondering if any ever could. It may sound like an overstatement, but, in my mind, ICO instantly propels Fumito Ueda (Designer / Director / Lead Animator on the game) into the ranks of gaming auteurs like Kojima, Matsuno, and Mizuguchi.
  2. Final Fantasy X
    • Once again, thereís not much to add on this one. FFX took everything Square has learned about gameplay, graphics, characterization, and storytelling, threw out some things we thought we needed in a Final Fantasy (like the ATB and a real worldmap), added some things we didnít know we really needed (like near-total voiceovers and some fresh talent for the soundtrack) and the result is a game that ups the ante for genre almost as much as Final Fantasy VII did.
  3. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
    • Saying positive things about MGS2 at this point is carrying coals to Newcastle, but itís worth noting a few more subtle things about the game. First off, Kojimaís airtight lockdown on information about what will forever be know around the GIA as The Spoiler is one of the most impressive bits of PR spin the gaming world has ever seen. In essence, it meant that playerís were participating in the plotís head fakes all the way back to E3 2000. And, now that the catís out of the bag, it means that no one who plays the game after the fact (which includes the whole of Japan, where The Spoiler was made public knowledge before the game was released) will ever get to have that big surprise that we all got to experience. Something to think about.
  4. Shadow of Destiny
    • While SoD obviously isnít the biggest or most impressive game to come from Konami this year (see above), it was one of the most surprisingly unique. Iím a big sucker for time travel and SoD managed to meld its era-spanning gameplay with one of the best uses of multiple endings ever seen in a game. Replaying it felt a lot more like finishing one complete tale, and those who stuck with it were treated to a clever and immensely satisfying ďEX modeĒ that twisted the entire story in on itself in a way simply wouldnít be possible in any medium other than videogames. And, in a time when good storytelling in games is still relying on the shortcuts of cinema, that is a rare accomplishment in itself.
  5. Dragon Warrior VII
    • For better or for worse, Dragon Warrior VII look, played, and felt like a overgrown 16-bit relic lumbering across a good chuck of my free time this year. A year ago I wouldnít have called myself much of a Dragon Warrior fan, but the gameís simple charm and sheer playability won me over. Itís a toss up between this and the altogether excellent GBC remake of DWIII, but VIIís deeper gameplay and huge quest give it the edge. The story was often bunk and the graphics were emotionally scarring, but any game that can look like that yet keep me playing for 120 hours without wanting to die is obviously doing something right.

Andrew Vestal

  1. ICO
    • Simply a masterwork. With a handful of characters, a bare minimum of narrative sequences, simplistic gameplay, and almost no interface, ICO created an emotional gamescape more involving than almost any 50-hour RPGs; it brought subtlety, grace, and realistic emotions to a medium where excess, bombast, and faux pathos are still the standard. ICO is a landmark title that strips the essence of videogaming to its bare core and discovers something ethereally beautiful hidden beneath. It is a wonderful thing.
  2. Final Fantasy X
    • Square's first RPG on a new platform is often a bit shaky; the great leaps forward in narrative, presentation, and gameplay are almost always a bit rough around the edges, finding their true, polished form in later games for the hardware. So what happened with Final Fantasy X? After years of speculation and surprisingly little pre-release hype, Square dropped a nearly flawless bombshell on the RPG world. The graphics (both real-time and FMV) are better than ever, the soundtrack has had new life breathed into it, the voice acting is far better than any first attempt should be, the battle system is fantastic, the Sphere Board system is a blast. But most of all, the story and characters are stronger than anything we've seen before in a traditional RPG. Unlike the majority of videogames, Final Fantasy X is willing to show instead of tell; imply instead of state. In a genre known for epic, lengthy bombast, its brevity is welcome. As the spiritual successor to Final Fantasy VIII, FFX builds on that games' many strengths while correcting its most glaring flaws. In the world of traditional RPGs, it simply doesn't get any better than this.
  3. Silent Hill 2
    • Shinji Mikami, superstar producer of the zombie-filled Resident Evil franchise, has it entirely wrong. Zombies, tyrants, undead creatures of the night - these things aren't scary, not really. More terrifying is a far darker and more horrible beast: a person. Great psychological horror has always known this, and Akihiro Imamura's Silent Hill 2 is psychological horror of the highest degree. Though the gameplay was sometimes too dependent on survival horror puzzle tropes, the harrowing, intelligent narrative was well-executed from start to any of its creatively-derived finishes.
  4. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
    • This game. It's hard to talk about MGS2 without dragging up a number of conflicting emotions; unlike most games, which can be loved or hated unconditionally, MGS2 demands a relationship. But for all my issues with the narrative's presentation - complex, difficult-to-resolve issues that threaten to end in expensive psychotherapy - I know that MGS2 is a game I'll still pull out five years from now, eager to get my fix of its silky-smooth, unfathomably good gameplay.
  5. Paper Mario
    • My fifth choice ended in a near coin-toss between Paper Mario and the GBA's Mega Man Battle Network. These two games taught me a very important lesson in 2001: narrative isn't important in an RPG, if other parts are done well enough. Both games managed to combine elements from their traditional franchises with RPG elements to create unique, enjoyable gameplay experiences. Ultimately, however, Paper Mario's creative art design, sweet localization, and more involving field map exploration pushed it over the top.

Feature by Staff, GIA.
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