10 Games for a Year in Isolation

If you were going to be placed in isolation for an entire year, without any human contact, no television, no radio, no Internet access, etc., and you could have any 10 video games to play (along with any needed hardware), which games would you pick?

This was a question I posed to myself while writing an e-mail to a friend, and I gave it some serious thought. After a couple of days, some notes scribbled on scrap paper, and a harrowing process of whittling the list down to 10, I came up with my answers. I later revised that list and posted it here, in connection with the launch of my main video games page. Here are the latest answers, in no particular order, as of 21 February 2007. (The console I've listed next to each game's name is the one I associate most with the game, although several are available on multiple machines. The year I've listed is the copyright or release date for each game on the listed console.)

Quiz & Variety Sukusuku Inufuku (arcade, 1998) is a Japanese arcade game which combines trivia-based quizzes and mini-games in the context of raising a pet hamster for a year. Yes, this is a game about raising a hamster. There's also a complex story with multiple branches each month where you meet and befriend various people (mostly cute girls), most of whom also have hamsters. You pick food for your pet (hamster kibble, bananas, spaghetti, you name it), participate in competitions with other people's hamsters (combat, races, even a tail-wiggling competition), and watch as your hamster grows up... will it become a ninja, a chibi, or just a big fat blob?
Money Puzzle Exchanger (arcade, 1997) is the US version of the Japanese game Money Idol Exchanger. (I haven't played the original, so I can't compare the two.) The gameplay is similar to Magical Drop or, to a lesser extent, Puzzle Bobble, in that your goal is to make groups of identical objects, which then disappear. In this game, however, instead of disappearing, the coins combine to form the next higher denomination of coin. Five or more 1-yen coins transform into a single 5-yen coin, two or more 5-yen coins transform into a single 10-yen coin, and so on; making multiple 500-yen coins touch makes them disappear. The real delight in this game is that some coins must be arranged in groups of five, and others in groups of two, making different strategies for different denominations of coins. OK, the real delight is setting off massive combos. ^_^
Over Top (arcade, 1996) may be the strangest entry on this list, not because the game is unusual – it's a relatively straightforward top-down arcade racer – but because it's so ordinary. You're not racing vehicles that transform into demons; the course doesn't have loop-de-loops or giant pendulums; there are no powerups that make your car turn into a helicopter or drop land mines. It's a simple road rally with four vehicles out of a selection of eight, through a variety of terrains. There are three things that make this game so captivating to me: (1) different vehicles have different handling capabilities on various terrain; the motorcycle is great on pavement but lousy on snow, while the jeep is mediocre on most surfaces but can drive through water; (2) the course is full of half-hidden shortcuts, giving you an edge against the CPU – if you navigate them properly; and (3) there's just something bizarrely fun about a top-down racing game with little cars; it's like playing with Hot Wheels.
Quiz Nanairo Dreams (arcade, 1996) is another Japanese quiz arcade game; I might have thrown in a couple more if this list went to 20. This game seems like it should be part of a bigger franchise, but the little information I've found suggests it's just a stand-alone game. (However, it's also available for the PlayStation, which I have, and the Saturn.) There's a story of good vs. evil, but the game's tagline sums it up well: "To regain the power of the crystal, you must connect the hearts of these seven girls." Or more truthfully, if you want to see a good ending, you must win the heart of one of the girls. How? By spinning a spinner and moving along a gameboard-like path, then answering trivia questions to win love points. It's the closest thing to a dating sim I've seen in the realm of quiz games, although the only choices you make are by trying to stop the spinner on certain numbers to land on specific spaces.
Age of Empires II (PC, 1999), along with its predecessor, are the only real-time strategy games I own (OK, I do see Caesar II in my collection, but I never did get into that), and AoE II is the only RTS I've ever needed. This game, more than any other, is the one game that can make me forget about the passage of time until I finish the game, look up and realize five hours have passed. I never bothered with the single-player campaigns or multi-player; I go straight to the scenario editor, whip up a custom scenario, and play against the CPU. I play on Easy because I don't like to lose, and I'm more interested in building up a thriving society than I am in developing a strong military... but I still love the trebuchet, as long as I'm not on the receiving end.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (PS2, 2004) barely made the list, since I've played it for several hundred hours already, but it makes the list for one very specific reason: the almost incomprehensibly huge gameworld and the vast number of things you can do within it. I liked GTA: Vice City's atmosphere and setting a bit more, but the sheer amount of "doability" in GTA:SA gives it more long-term playability. Aside from all the crime and gangs and guns and conspiracies, there's so much to do. You can be a taxi driver or a vigilante, but you can also be a bike courier or a train engineer. You can take part in street races and hunt for hidden items, but you can also drive a tractor trailer for money and engage in a rudimentary dating system. You can do drive-bys, go through drive-throughs (at least in a scripted mission), or just drive... on hundreds of miles of roads, with hundreds of different vehicles, many of them customizable. So far, this is the only game I've ever played where you can paint a taxi Pepto-Bismol pink. That has to be worth something.
Tokimeki Memorial (PS1, 1995) gets the single dating-sim spot on this list, even though there may be better games within the series, because it has one trait no other dating sim has: I have completed a full game. The language barrier is the biggest obstacle to me enjoying these games, because so much of their meaning is hidden behind the kanji and kana. Nevertheless, with sheer konjou (perseverance) and the help of multiple guidebooks, I managed to work my way to the good ending with Saki (shown in the screenshot). Why do I like dating sims? I have no idea. But Tokimeki Memorial was the first game to make me truly interested in Japanese-only games, and it's the first link in a long chain of events that has led to me deciding to study Japanese.
Persona (PS1, 1996) was my introduction to the Shin Megami Tensei series of games, but I didn't know that when I bought it. I purchased Persona because it was one of the few early role-playing games for the PlayStation, and because it simply looked cool. I certainly wasn't expecting an immersive and complex gameworld, a combat system that was subtle and multifaceted, or a story that was both epic and humorous. I have since played its sequel, as well as several other games in the SMT series, but I still love this game the most. As frustrating as it could be at times, I'd gladly play it again. Even as I play newer games in the series, with better graphics and full 3-D environments, they still strike me as simply being very much like how Persona was rendered in my imagination. It also holds the bizarre honor of having the best casino environment of any game I've ever played.
Super Swing Golf (Wii, 2006) is the newest game on this list, but I'd played it years before it came out for the Wii, in its online-based incarnation PangYa, back when it was playable only in Japanese or Korean. (The screenshot actually comes from the English version of PangYa, called Albatross 18.) I've been playing golf sims for at least a decade, and I've played a number of golf sims with cute anime-style characters... but PangYa wins for its sheer beauty and fantasy. The game was ported to the Wii, and you swing the controller like a golf club to make your character swing in the game. The controls are a little awkward, but it's very immersive, especially when played on a 90-inch projector screen. One other benefit Super Swing Golf has over its online counterparts is that everything is purchasable using the in-game currency of Pang; you'll never need to spend real-world money to get your character a cool outfit or caddy.
Kanji Sonomama DS (Nintendo DS, 2006) isn't strictly a game; it's a Japanese/English dictionary on the DS. It does have games built into it, including four Game & Watch LCD games and various quizzes. The real reason I need to include it in my list is that I'll need it for the three Japanese-language games above. ^_^ Unfortunately, this was designed for people who read Japanese, so it's challenging to use, but it does translate Japanese to English. There are a number of input modes, including tapping out the word in kana or romaji, but the most enjoyable way is to use the DS's stylus to scribble the characters on the touchscreen. Miraculously, the system can actually read my dreadful handwriting; it actually struggles more with the words I write in English than it does with those I enter in hiragana.


Notable omissions:

Clubhouse Games (Nintendo DS) – This got bumped off the list when I added Super Swing Golf. It's a collection of more than 40 card, board and variety games, with mostly competent CPU opponents. I would have taken it for the sheer variety and the longevity that would come along with that... except that I've pretty much stopped playing it on anything resembling a regular basis.

Guitar Hero/Guitar Hero II (PlayStation 2) – This is a great series of games, but there's one serious flaw that prevents them from making the list: a limited number of songs. This may seem like a strange criticism, since I've included Over Top, a racing game with a single course... but I know that if I had to play a Guitar Hero game for 500 hours, I'd be really, really bored with every single song.

Any amateur games – I've played a number of games by people who don't have real funding or large staffs, and I've enjoyed some of them. Unfortunately, none of them have the kind of replayability that make them worth playing for an entire month.


Seven of the 10 games originated in Japan, and an eighth (Super Swing Golf) started its life as a Korean online game called PangYa. And since GTA: San Andreas was developed in Scotland, there's only one wholly US game on the list: Age of Empires II.

The screenshots I've chosen have two blue-haired females (Saki from Tokimeki Memorial and Kooh from Super Swing Golf), two pink-haired females (Mayumi from Quiz Nanairo Dreams and Mary from Persona), and one each with hair of purple (Debtmiser from Money Puzzle Exchanger) and white (Brie from Super Swing Golf), as well as the comparatively ordinary colors of black (Aoshima from Quiz & Variety Sukusuku Inufuku) and red (Eldylabor from Money Puzzle Exchanger).


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