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Games of the Decade (part one)

The great and the good

The easiest way to determine what qualifies a videogame as being 'great' is to simply pay an online visit to review aggregation services such as Metacritic or Game Rankings. However, the definition of greatness exists well beyond the realms of simian critics drooling mindlessly over 'Game X' as opposed to 'Game Y'.

The same applies to a game's reception and appraisal by cash-carrying videogame consumers. Heaven knows, for every groundbreaking and innovative title worthy of its fleeting place atop the retail chart, there are a multitude of unimpressive and derivative releases that sell by the bucket load while revelling in their underserved glory.

Therefore, when amassing a 'Greatest Games of the Decade' feature, our thoughts were drawn, not just to the 'best-selling' or 'most critically acclaimed' releases since 2000, but also to those games that left an indelible mark upon the industry, those that made a definite difference, and those that remain important despite the passing of time.

Title: Resident Evil 4
Platform: GameCube
Publisher: Capcom
Developer: Production Studio 4
Release Date: January 2005

By the time we'd ploughed through Capcom's five other helpings of blood and gore to reach Resident Evil 4 (the series' sixth instalment), it's fair to say stagnancy was setting in. Much like any other long-running videogame franchise that centres on a single core mechanic, there are only so many bulbous zombie heads you can pop before the experience starts to wear a little thin.

However, arriving as something of a swan song for Nintendo's hopelessly under appreciated GameCube, Resident Evil 4 successfully brought the series back to its original survival-horror roots and breathed fresh life into an otherwise ailing genre. We won't pause long enough to dwell on Capcom's subsequent and most recent shortfall with Resident Evil 5. Moving on...

Packed to the rafters with shock moments galore and genuinely unnerving boss battles that set the heart pounding, Resident Evil 4 worked its nerve-jangling magic by juxtaposing a mixture of claustrophobic camera work and static close-quarter action, against moments of grand scale and narrative gusto that repeatedly shook the player breathless. This winning formula was revisited - and perhaps bettered - by the even more direct and tactile scares laced throughout the Wii Edition of Resident Evil 4.

Of course, Resident Evil 4 wasn't without its flaws, not least its somewhat grimy graphics, the shoehorned character performances typical of Japanese games dragged ass-backwards through the localisation process, and the introduction of damned context sensitive button prompts. But, ultimately, such failings amounted to a mere cosmetic scratch upon a gleaming trophy of a game that had prospective gamers emptying their bank accounts and filling their pants in equal measure.

Boasting quicker and smarter zombies than previous games, an improved variety of weaponry, and a cloying oppressive atmosphere not replicated since 1996's original adventure in Racoon City, Resident Evil 4 ably showed that every once-mighty franchise can be saved from the jaws of doom if it's hauled back to what made it great in the first place.

Title: Guitar Hero
Platform: PlayStation 2
Publisher: RedOctane
Developer: Harmonix
Release Date: November 2005

Every now and again a game comes along with grand ambitions to carve a place for itself in the history books; a game that, on paper, should fall flat on its face because it's a ridiculous concept with ridiculous gameplay and equally ridiculous controls.

But then, every now and again, such a game successfully needles an untapped consumer vein and creates a whole new genre, the world gets flipped upside down and inside out, and videogame historians suddenly find themselves powerless to prevent inclusion.

Case in point, pressing coloured note buttons on the neck of a cheap plastic Gibson Les Paul guitar replica, while rhythmically 'strumming' a hinged bar across non-existent strings, really should have seen Guitar Hero sink without trace amid echoing peels of raucous consumer laughter.

Yet the application of such gloriously idiotic gameplay, coupled with a deep selection of wail-worthy covers of iconic songs from the likes of Metallica, Nirvana, Deep Purple and David Bowie meant Guitar Hero enabled gamers everywhere to realise their repressed dreams of headlining a massive stadium venue before an adoring audience. How could it be anything other than a rip-roaring success?

Of course, initial unit sales of around 1.5 million (approximately 45 million USD), meant Guitar Hero would not be a strictly one-time experience for either budding rockers or alcohol-fuelled party gamers, and the inevitable sequel followed soon thereafter - which went on to sell a further 1.3 million copies.

Factor in a series presently spread across 12 home console and portable offerings, fresh spin-offs in Band Hero and DJ Hero, and the spread of downloadable music packs through online services Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network, and what ought to have been a shallow gimmick has now become a hulking videogame behemoth.

Title: World of Warcraft
Platform: Games for Windows
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Release Date: November 2004

In five short years, Blizzard's massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft has steamrollered the persistent online gaming sector, spawned a multitude of wildly popular expansions, and redefined the meaning of 'geek' in the process.

With 2007's Wrath of the Lich King, and 2008's The Burning Crusade supporting the initial 2004 release and extending World of Warcraft's reach, the seemingly unending sprawl associated with WoW's cartoon fantasy world has seen it amass well in excess of 11 million registered subscribers globally and a dominant market share of some 62 percent.

While there are plenty of other persistent RPG adventures offering similar access to vast online exploration, dungeon crawling, NPC interaction, core questing, and interesting side missions, World of Warcraft rises above most due to its sheer scale, polished battle system, forgiving respawn mechanics, and... in no small point... its attraction as a community-based social platform that predates the Facebooks and MySpaces of the world.

Beyond hosting marriages that see real people - sometimes on different continents - tying the knot through their in-game World of Warcraft avatars, Blizzard's MMORPG has also entered popular culture through spin-off board games, a comic book series published by DC's Wildstorm, and even the Emmy Award-winning 'Make Love, Not Warcraft' episode of animated show South Park.

Title: Wii Sports
Platform: Nintendo Wii
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Nintendo
Release Date: November 2006

Nintendo's Wii Sports, while certainly boasting a weighty status within the industry, cannot claim to do so because of glowing reviews or ravenous hardcore consumers. Moreover, Wii Sports was only moderately well received by reviewers and shifted millions of units at retail largely because it came bundled as standard with the Nintendo Wii hardware.

That being said, Nintendo's rather stripped down 'look what I can do' teaser package, which, upon reflection, was little more than a fleshed out tech demonstration, served as a simple but wonderfully effective introduction to the Wii platform and its potentially intimidating Wii Remote and Nunchuk motion controllers.

And so, with an audience install speed that frightened all but the most unshakeable of opportunistic, profit-whoring eBay merchants, the cutesy appeal and instant accessibility of Wii Sports bridged the yawning demographic chasm that had for so very long separated the modern videogame world from the ardent non-gaming community.

That Wii Sports has thus far shifted in excess of 50 million units since its November 2006 arrival is, quite simply, staggering - and a testament to Nintendo's belief in a supposedly underpowered hardware product most were quick to dismiss as either a worthless gimmick or a GameCube-in-waiting.

Granted, after three years on store shelves, the Wii itself might now be losing some of its unprecedented momentum, but with mums and dads and grannies and granddads all around the world long-since familiar with the system via enjoyable multiplayer sessions with Wii Sports, Nintendo's work for this generation is well and truly done.

And, be honest here for a moment, Wii Sports is always the first title you reach for whenever someone with absolutely no affinity for videogames nods inquisitively in the direction of Nintendo's little box of wonderment and chimes: "Oh, you have a Wii thingy!"

Title: Halo: Combat Evolved
Platform: Xbox
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Bungie
Release Date: November 2001

There were plenty of cracking first-person shooters prior to Halo: Combat Evolved, and there have been more than a few since. However, Bungie's barnstorming videogame debut in 2001 stands head and shoulders above series extensions and genre peers alike to rightfully claim its place on our 'Greatest Games' list.

Importantly, Halo helped cement Microsoft as a genuine videogame contender by launching one of the industry's most successful entertainment franchises. And, in its iconic Master Chief, it birthed perhaps the decade's most recognisable central character - the gruff all-action Spartan warrior is still responsible for sparking a multitude of fanboy flame wars.

Arriving as a launch title on the original Xbox, Halo offered an unrivalled blend of gorgeous design, stunning battlegrounds, a seamless flow of near flawless action, and a compelling storyline that culminated in a package that was never bettered during the last console generation.

Beyond the record-breaking sales attributed to the overall series, Halo remains a defining moment in gaming history because, above all else, its gameplay and graphics have aged so damn well. To this very day, Halo remains one of the best all-round shooters on the market.

Whether you love it or hate it, and despite a spreading grey hue about the temples, Halo can still effortlessly outperform many of the supposedly 'next-gen' offerings that are presently available on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii... and that, kids, is longevity personified.

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