My Favourite Games of the 8th Generation: 10-8

I'm writing a retrospective series about the end of the 8th Generation , which includes a Top Twenty Countdown of my favourite games.

The Countdown Rules.

10. Fire Emblem Awakening
9. Monster Hunter: World
8. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

Fire Emblem Awakening (2013) was my little treat during an extended stretch of restless nights. I'd be woken by my daughter, crying as only newborns will. I'd flop out of bed, retrieve her from her cot, get that nappy changed, and hand her over to her mum for what she really wanted. This would happen every hour or so throughout the night for those first, fractious few months. The whole process became automatic, and I barely needed to open my eyes. A nappy changing, baby-soothing machine; tired as a motherfucker.

Sometimes I'd crash immediately after. Other times, I was slightly more with it when I returned to bed. That's when I'd get that rush of excitement, as I realised I'd just opened up a new timeslot for gaming. I'd fumble for my 3DS and play Fire Emblem until I was required for more daddy-duties or I'd dropped the 3DS XL onto my face as I slipped back into a sleep-starved coma. Whichever came first.

My little treat; the soldiers with no feet.

Awakening is the closest I've come to matching my SRPG love for Final Fantasy Tactics, and to a lesser extent Tactics Ogre. Awakening offers that same mix of gameplay and narrative depth, interesting characters and themes, nuanced combat and irresistible momentum. I've enjoyed other Fire Emblems since, with Three Houses being a particular favourite, but none of them quite matched the magic of Awakening. It's rare for a portable game to grip me in that way. There's something about playing handheld that doesn't quite do it for me, and it's not just the hand cramps. However, I was as invested in Awakening as I was almost any big-TV, controller-in-my-hand experience over the last generation.

Awakening is challenging but it remains very approachable. Certainly in comparison to the games that came before it, or so I'm told. I opted to play with permadeath on, as I am a video game expert with extremely dexterous fingers and a large brain for thinking. That choice drastically shaped how I played Awakening. More cautious, measured, even though I knew that I was only a restart away from preserving the lives of my beloved soldiers. The stakes felt higher and each move more meaningful. In retrospect, it probably wasn't the best game to play at 3:00 AM while barely conscious, but it certainly left an impression.

Monster Hunter: World (2018) forced me out of my anti-social, gaming shell. I've always preferred  to play video games alone, but last gen I really doubled down on singleplayer gaming. I'd shrug off party requests and be as non-committal as possible whenever friends wanted to arrange some online multiplayer. With the exception of a brief flirtation with a CoD and Uncharted 4 co-op, Monster Hunter World was the sole multiplayer-driven experience I had over that entire stretch. 

Monster Hunter: World is fun on your own, sure, but it's so much better with friends. It lends itself to teamwork, to a group of skilled hunters kitted out with different weapon types, each suited to exploit a different weakness. That dragon has a hard head, so hit it with your hammer. She also has a massive tail, which you should slice with your longsword. She has legs - shoot her until she is fully dead! Me and my 3-man wrecking crew cut a bloody swathe through Astera, and we looked fine doing it in our resplendent Monster-scale armour.

Each monster has its own personality, and you feel like you come to know them. You recognize their reads and tells; you understand when to pile on and when to back off. These monsters are so recognizable, so full of personality, and their behaviour thoroughly believable and animal-like. However, the core mechanics are so enjoyable that you don't mind carving them up for skin flaps. We fought the Zinogre so many times that we got to know that arsehole on a personal level. Though given all the murdering and whatnot, perhaps we were the arseholes? Regardless, his bones looked great on me.

Iceborne was an expansive addition to the base game. However, it took too long to come out, and relearning the mechanics after eighteen months put a dampener on the experience. I played most of it on my own, as we just couldn't consistently get the old gang back together. Even still, it felt good getting back to the churn. By rendering much of your end-game equipment useless, and forcing you to rebuild your wardrobe, Iceborne pulled me straight back into the grind and reminded me that, at it's core, Monster Hunter is all about fashion. A hunter's get-up tells the story of their battles. Their history is written not through words or cutscenes, but through the scales that adorn their cuirass or the razor teeth that line the edge of their blade. Environmental storytelling at its finest.

World is the new blueprint for my enjoyment in the Monster Hunter universe. It's how I want to hunt, and I eagerly await the next installment.

I wasn't sure what to make of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (2015) at the time. The most ambitious entry in one of my most beloved series, it managed to both delight and disappoint. My feelings towards it were further complicated by its finality. We knew it was likely the last chapter, at least as far as Kojima's involvement was concerned, and we needed it to end with a bang.

I went into MGSV with impossibly high expectations. In some areas they were matched or even exceeded. In others it fell well short. However, when judged apart from those expectations, it's clear that The Phantom Pain is one of the best games of the last generation. 

Like every MGS before it, Phantom Pain is full of weird and wonderful characters, and storylines so nonsensical that you can't help but be entertained. It riffs on similar themes to its predecessors, and weaves fantastical stories and characters around real-world conflicts and issues. Thematically, it grounds itself just enough for you to suspend your disbelief and accept that, just maybe, this kind of secretive, horrific warfare was being waged in some unfortunate corner of the globe. You just need to ignore Skullface and the woman who has to wear a bikini to stay alive. Venom Snake inherits the role of the ordinary man, albeit supremely gifted in the art of war, who is able to best supernatural forces. Just like previous iterations of Big Boss, he is the human element that grounds this world in reality. Just about, anyway.

The story, while at times poorly delivered, is still fascinating, as are the returning characters. In particular, Ocelot stands out. As a man whose loyalty to Big Boss knows no bounds. he lacks a moral compass, but he's not the villain we came to know in previous games. We discover so much about him, Kaz and even Liquid that retroactively enrichens other Metal Gears. And I very much appreciated the reappearance of other familiar freaks, such as Psycho Mantis and Volgin. Being a fan of the series, knowing who these characters are and how they fit within the universe, makes it all the more irresistible. As I write this, I'm in the process of disappearing down a MGS Wiki rabbit hole.

As for the gameplay, it is so much more refined than what came before, and the freedom it offers is unparalleled. From the order in which you tackle many of the missions, to what you do and how you do it once you arrive at your location, you are encouraged to experiment at every opportunity. The myriad of loadout options before each mission can overwhelm at first, but you quickly find favourites and start to understand which tools are best suited to which job. For example, some missions call for a tank, whereas others benefit from the inclusion of your adorable, throat-ripping, eye-patch-wearing pooch, D-Dog. Once you infiltrate the field of operations, the game opens up before you. Every outpost, every soldier, has a purpose and you have the tools to exploit it. Hold-up a straggler in the far reaches of the map, and he'll likely spit out intel that will benefit the mission or your burgeoning off-shore haven, Mother Base.

Upon extraction, Mother Base is where you return. It is an actual place, somewhere to be explored and cared for, not some empty hub or dry menu. This is the growth of your army and your reputation realized. Your men salute you as pass by, puppy D-Dog lavishes you with snuffles, and you can see the people, animals and resources that you fulton-extracted when out in the field. A lesser game would have relegated Mother Base to a merely cosmetic existence, a selection of menus and empty stats. Not Phantom Pain though. Not here. 

I should also mention Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes (2014), a standalone prologue that you can finish in a single sitting. Who the fuck does that? Kojima, that's who. And I'm glad he did, because it whet my appetite for the full game and was a welcome and very entertaining tease for what was to come.  

Of all the games on this list, Phantom Pain is the one that is most overdue a replay. Years removed from all the hype and expectations, I have a feeling I'd enjoy it even more. Please look forward to my amended countdown in 2022!


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