The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (GameCube)
Few games have spent more time in my 'Cube (and now Wii) than Wind Waker. It is an epic seafaring tale, and is the most nonlinear of all the Zelda games. Link sails across a gigantic ocean meeting crazy characters, battling storms and sea swells, exchanging cannon fire with pirates, following treature maps, and battling Ganondorf's evil minions at every turn. Secrets are a dime a dozen in this game, as every uncharted island begs to be explored. Traditional dungeon crawling and fetch-questing, staples of the Zelda series, are here as well, but thankfully lack the inane complexity of previous games. What's so amazing about Wind Waker is that it feels like one big persistent world. The sun rises and sets, distant cyclones tear across the sea, the stars sparkle above, and seagulls flock around your sail. The art style is unquestionably simplistic, but it works because this game embraces the form. Video game consoles nowadays strive for photorealism in the vein of Gears of War or Halo 3, but I prefer styles that remind us that gaming is an artificial medium, and it's so fun to go in the direction of the abstract. Wind Waker is a beautiful game, and very engaging.
And then you take things even farther towards the abstract and you get eyeball armies fighting giant shadow-puppet dinosaurs! Patapon is, at its core, a rhythm game. You tap the PSP face buttons to an omnipresent beat to make your ever-growing eyeball army fighting, defending, and retreating. Before going out on missions, though, you can spawn new troops, equip better weaponry, and play funky minigames to improve your resources. There is surprising depth to Patapon, but it's just beautiful to see and hear. Your army chants a song along with the beat, and their excitement grows as the battle goes on! Some of the missions are ridiculously difficult, requiring you to maintain a constant, never-faultering beat, and others are virtually impossible without proper equipment. Once you get the beat down, though, it's difficult to put Patapon down! It's so beautiful, and there's a real sense of pride when you guide your eyeball army to victory against a gigantic sand worm or the general of a rival army.
Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal (PS2)
While I single out Arsenal, the entire Ratchet & Clank series is excellent (except Deadlocked). The games just get better as the series continues, culminating in the recent Tools of Destruction for the PS3. There's even an awesome PSP game, Size Matters, which has just been ported over to the PS2. What makes the series so great is the variety within, and the hilarious writing. It's a platformer, a run 'n' gunner, and an RPG all in one. The worlds that Insomniac (of Spyro the Dragon fame) has created are breathtakingly beautiful. I am especially struck by the awesomeness of the cloud city in Going Commando. What sets Up Your Arsenal apart is its attention to detail, the kickass 2D Captain Quark segments, the knee-slappingly funny villain, and the awesome online mode--which might not be too popular anymore, as the game is a few years old. If you like one R&C game, you'll like them all, and aside from the original, they're not that hard to find.
Metroid Prime (GameCube)
This game set the bar so damn high that Retro Studios was unable to recreate the magic in Metroid Prime 2: Echoes or Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. Not that either of those are bad games--they're incredibly good--but Metroid Prime was just so fresh and enthusiastic, filled with awesome concepts and original creature designs, it keeps dragging me back. At the time, Metroid Prime made gamers nervous with its unique first-person platformer perspective (akin to the original Turok), as the series had always been 2D up to that point. The control scheme may seem a little forced to console FPS vets, but it quickly becomes second nature. Metroid Prime is beautiful, throwing jaw-dropping vistas your way every few minutes. The creature design is wonderful, and the game's signature Scan Visor gives you the chance to be a naturalist, collecting information on every inhabitant of the planet. The bosses (like Thardus, above) are enormous and difficult, but the feeling you get upon defeating them is second to none. If you haven't played Metroid Prime, you are really missing out.
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (PS2)
Darn it if this game doesn't make me cry like a baby. MGS: Twin Snakes (GC), MGS: Sons of Liberty (PS2), MGS: Snake Eater (PS2), and MGS: Portable Ops (PSP) make up the Metal Gear Solid canon, and they are soon to be joined by MGS: Guns of the Patriots. Playing these games is like watching a movie--they are some of the most cinematic video games ever made. You have choices, but not really, as they essentially boil down to "how do I get through this area without being spotted?" Your actions generally do not affect the storyline in any meaningful way. The storyline is why you play these games--it's not for the gameplay, which is awkward and (at times) frustrating. Still, the story is very emotional and character-centric, and I can't recommend it highly enough. Twin Snakes really sets the tone, Sons of Liberty throws you a bunch of curveballs, Snake Eater delves into the history of the main character, and Portable Ops continues the Snake Eater story. Guns of the Patriots is supposed to be the final episode in what's been a long and thought-provoking series, and I can't wait to play it (June 14th, baby!).
God of War (PS2)
That screenshot? That's the intro level. You know, the level where you learn how to play. You have to fight a gigantic three-headed hydra. If you like Greek mythology, this will be the best game you'll ever play. Sony Computer Entertainment America made it, and it's their masterpiece. You play as Kratos, vicious Spartan in the service of the gods, and he's on a mission to free himself from his master, Aries. Along the way, you'll battle your way through a lost desert, the Temple of Pandora, and Hades itself. The combat engine is precise and brutal, effectively giving you a fighting game's options in a platformer. Every enemy encounter, from minor undead knights to mean old minotaurs and gigantic cyclopses, requires strategy and cunning. This is a beautiful, story-driven game that will have your jaw dropping with every new scene or challenge. SCEA's God of War 2, while just as polished and fun as the first game, lacks the "I've never done this before" excitement of the original. But if you enjoy God of War, you'll also love God of War 2.
Super Mario 64 (Nintendo 64, Nintendo DS, Virtual Console)
Gotta love this game. Back in 1996, when it was originally released, Super Mario 64 was the best game ever made! It was the first real-time 3D platformer, and it formed the basis for virtually every other 3D platformer for the future. Look at the novalties introduced in Super Mario 64: Hub world linking several other levels, analog control, a user-controlled camera, a mission structure which occassionally changed the layout of the level, and upgrades or items obtained in the hub world which transfer over to the individual levels. Each level, or "course," has six Power Stars to collect, and your route through the course changes depending on which star you're going after. In the process, you must navigate complex 3D spaces (Tick-Tock Clock and Rainbow Ride in particular were difficult), avoid enemies, and collect coins to earn extra lives. And it's one of the few N64/PlayStation-era games that still looks good today. The musical score alone is worth a listen. The DS launch title (Super Mario 64 DS) introduced other playable characters and more Power Stars, but lacks the analog control that the original was, you know, built around.
Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES, SNES, GBA, Virtual Console)
Without a doubt my favorite game of all time, Super Mario Bros. 3 is packed to the brim with unique ideas and action-packed level design. The overhead map, inventory, minigames and bonus stages, branching paths, sheer variety of items and suits (Hammer Bros. suit FTW!), and good old fashioned charm were and continue to be extremely compelling. The game appeared in graphically updated form on the SNES in Super Mario All-Stars, on the Game Boy Advance as Super Mario Advance 4: Super Mario Bros. 3, and most recently on the Wii's Virtual Console in its original form. I can't really describe, in words, why Super Mario Bros. 3 is so damn fun. It's a game everybody needs to play, though.