Showing posts from October, 2022

The best open-world 3D platform/adventure games of all time (2022 edition)

At the middle of 2022 I'm looking back (hindsight, all that) at the best open world platformers I've played since I started video gaming. This list represents the "efforts" of many years, but is also incredibly dated since my newest console is a Wii. I do try to take a more modern perspective on these older games rather than just letting nostalgia guide me.

I'm a big fan of Zelda, Mario, and Ratchet & Clank. Though each are very different, they all share a heavy emphasis on exploration, world building, and puzzle solving. Combat plays an important role, but not the primary role, unlike a beat-em-up. If that description is too nebulous, just look at the list below. I'm not trying to stake a philosophical claim that category exists, just to help folks find games they may not have played and would enjoy. I will acknowledge that nostalgia plays a role in some selections, I try to rank these according to modern sensibilities, at least in terms of gameplay (the graphics of older games is of minimal concern to me as long as it doesn't hamper gameplay).

These are ranked from all-time-favorite to still-worth-playing but-only-if-you-really-like-these-kind-of-games, plus a quick list of avoidables at the end.

Legend of Zelda, Ocarina of time (N64)

Nostalgia plays a role here, but this game is still amazing. The world is huge and exploring it feels like a real adventure where you get to decide where to go next. The slow evolution of your character's abilities, though trite today, makes it feel like you are growing with the game. Combat is only moderately challenging, but never devolves into a button masher. The dungeons are full of puzzles, and are at least moderately varied. The controls are perfect. Graphically, this game is extremely dated, but the game play is not. And the graphics are not so bad as to get in the way of the game, though it probably helps that I first played this when it was relatively new. There are many remakes on recent Nintendo platforms, or you can easily play with a free emulator on a PC. Though the N64 controller was pretty different from the dualshock design that's pretty much swept the console/pc world, so it can be hard to find a elegant control scheme. 

Ratchet & Clank (PS2)

This is a great series, but the first game is arguably the best.  It's a "puzzle shooter", in that there are a huge number of weapons that each behave in distinct ways. Half the challenge is deciding which would be best for the current situation. It's also a first-class platformer with lots of running, jumping, and exploring. Each level typically has several paths to explore, though to finish the game you will have to play them all. While not as open as a zelda game, their design does a good job of hiding any linearity. Much like zelda your character gets more and more powerful, meaning that you can go back to earlier levels to complete challenges that were impossible before. There is a tiny bit of hidden stuff, but for the most part there are no secrets. Just blast your way through the levels and when everything is dead you win. Graphically, the game still shines with a cartoon sci fi aesthetic. The game play is also up to modern standards, though you will find yourself repeating parts of levels more than you might like because you didn't get far enough to reach the continue point.

Mario 64 (N64)

Nostalgia may also play a role in this pick, given its age. Certainty, as the first open-world 3D platformer, it deserves to be on this list for historical reasons. And frankly, it's hard to imagine that you haven't played it, so maybe I shouldn't belabor the point much. But part of the reason to go into so much detail on the first few games is to help define what this list is about so I will spill at least a few characters. Mario 64 succeeds for several reasons. Unlike the earlier Mario games, each level has a series of challenges to complete, keeping gameplay more varied; there's a level select stage, so it's ease to jump (heh) around to different levels when you get stuck; most of the levels are fairly open and exploration oriented, rather than linear. Keeping with the Mario tradition, there's lots of secrets to discover and all kinds of tricky jumps to execute, and combat plays very little role except for bosses. It really sets the standard for pretty much all mario games that have followed. I find the controls just slightly less smooth than in later games, but perhaps that's because I played on an emulator, using a dual-shock style controller. The graphics are very crude by any standard, but don't hold the game back much. If you haven't played it, at least give it a once over for historical interest - you'll be shocked how much of the mario style was established so long ago.

The rest...

Having established the pattern of what I'm going for here, I'll try to be more short and sweet from here on; as always google for further details.

Jak and Daxter: the precursor legacy (PS2)

A really pretty "gather the magic orbs" kind of game, ala Spyro. Lots of platforming, and good level design. Amazing that this was an early PS2 game; visually it looks nearly as good as Jak 3, the final game in the series released near the end of the PS2 lifecycle. 

Mario Sunshine (GameCube)

What if Mario was a FPS? Would he have a gun, OR a power-washer backpack that is as good at cleaning away black sludge as it is giving short hover assists on tricky jumps? Of course you know it's the latter, but I do think the FPS craze influenced the game design. That sounds like a weird mashup, but the game is actually quite fun. There aren't that many open worlds to explore; instead each "overworld" also has a bunch of fairly linear "challenge" levels which are kind of like 3D versions of NES mario. I feel like it was kind of short.

Zelda: The Windwaker (GameCube)

Ever felt like Zelda was too epic and didn't feature enough watersports? This one is for you. I've heard that it's only got about 10 hours of traditional zelda gaming, but I haven't played it recently so that might be an exaggeration. I do recall a lot of sailing between islands that was only fun the first 200 times. The islands themselves are traditional zelda overworlds with traditional dungeons. Since there aren't that many zelda's it's still worth playing but the bang for your buck is pitiful. 

Sly 2: Band of Thieves (PS2)

This sequel far exceeds the original (which is barely mentioned, way down below). It has 8 large worlds(levels) to progress through with various missions that require a wide range of tasks, usually relating to stealth and collecting things, but also platforming and some mild combat. There are upgrades to the three playable character obtained by carefully exploring each level. A great combination of collect all the thingies and structured missions, and it looks amazing (in general, but specifically by PS2 standards). Surprisingly fun story for a "kids" game, too.

Grow Home (PC, 2015)

A really fantastic game + physics simulation. At its heart it's a collect the gems game, but also a grow (and stear!) giant vines into the sky, rock climbing, paragliding, and puzzle out how to achieve your goals (and what those goals even are) by experimentation and observation game. I love it. Unfortunately it is kind of short, maybe 10 hours. Lots to explore and see for those 10 hours though. Very open ended other than the final goal of getting from ground level up into the clouds (I'm not giving anything away there).

Mario Galaxy 2 (Wii)

Subtitled: Some More Levels for Mario Galaxy. Seriously, this game feels like an expansion pack for the original. Except, I'm starting to think I actually enjoyed this one more than the original - there's some neat new powerups, but mostly I think the level design is just better.  The gravity gimmick (described below) plays a much smaller roll here. 

Mario Galaxy (Wii)

The gimmick here is that some levels are tiny planets that you can circumnavigate in a minute or two. It's large, it's fairly open ended, and it's the mario you know and love from 64. For some strange reason I have fonder memories of the shooter mario (aka sunshine), though. But it's very solid.

Spyro the dragon (PS1)

I'm not sure of the history of the "collect all the thingies" genre, but this is one of the best early examples. Every level has 400 gems. There are weak monsters wandering around that make it slightly harder to get all the gems, but mostly this game is about exploration, tricky jumps, and figuring out the path to platforms that cannot be reached directly. It makes the most of a few very simple gameplay mechanics. I found it surprisingly sublime, and was tempted to put it higher on the list, but it is such a basic looking game with such repetitive gameplay that it found its way down here. It looks much better on a PS2 with texture smoothing on.

Human Fall Flat (PC, 2016+)

How much fun can you have with a good physics simulation? Quite a bit, actually. This a 3D platformer puzzle game where you can grab objects with your two arms and wave them around wildly using your gamepad. Simple things like rowing a boat turn into a full-on puzzle when you have to control the paddles individually by grabbing them and manipulating them with your in-game arms. About half the puzzles consist of this kind of problem, eg: given the game's flexible controls, how do you do something like load and fire a catapult. Many of the puzzles also allow alternate solutions, some of which are probably not intended by the designers. The graphics are simple but it still takes a decent computer, probably to run the physics engine.

Ratchet & Clank Going Commando (PS2)

More Ratchet & Clank. Slightly heavier emphasis on the run and gun 3rd-person shooter aspect of the game, and less on the platforming and exploration, but not really enough to change the flavor of the game. A great looking game and a solid choice if you liked the original.

Tak and the power of the JuJu (PS2)

A collect all the thingies game, but with more interesting puzzles than most, and pretty good graphics. Sort of a Jak and Daxter + Spyro + something with puzzles + "humor".  Sometimes frustrating. Combat has a very strange place in this game - it can be hard, but you come back to life after dying without losing any progress at all. I think they could have skipped combat altogether or made it easier, but given death some actual consequences. Sometimes I get lost in the levels because they are a bit visually repetitive. The occasional clever puzzle really saves this game from being lower on the list.

Jak II (PS2)

Jak and Daxter made over to be a lot more like Ratchet and Clank. The guns are much fewer and less interesting than R&C. The collect the thingies bit from the first game is almost entirely gone; instead you just have to get to the end of each level (many of which are rather linear, but well disguised) . Way, way, too hard for its own good, with lots and lots of replaying each level because you died.  I'm sure I died over 100 times on some levels. I would rate this one much higher if it didn't have that going on. It looks fantastic, and is a lot of fun until the difficulty level gets ramped up. I don't care too much about plot line typically, but man this one is hard to follow and there's a lot of it. Playing Jak and Daxter first helps, but I kind of think they meant for it to be confusing.

Zelda Twilight princess (GameCube/wii)

Felt pretty linear for a Zelda. Otherwise sold, typical zelda style game that cribs a lot from Ocarina
of time, but somehow less magical for all that (is this nostalgia?).

Spyro: Legend of the Dragon (PS1)

This game is third in the series, and looks so much better than the first Spyro. Some of the levels approach PS2 level complexity, though certainly not ps2 level graphics. It might be worth seeing just as a testament to what a well-programed PS1 can do; I think it's easily one of the best looking 3D games for the system, esp. with PS2 texture smoothing turned on. Sadly, the sublime simplicity of "collect all the thingies" has been somewhat diminished here, though not as badly as in #2 (Ripto's Rage, below). Though there are still secrets and tricky to reach areas, they are much less significant than in #1. While the boring challenges of #2 have been dropped, in their place are sub-levels with different playable characters, such as a monkey with raygun, or a kangaroo that can triple jump. None are as smooth playing or as well-thought out as spyro, but they are moderately fun to play.

Ratchet & Clank up your arsenal (PS2)

The continued evolution of R&C away from its platforming roots and towards being a 3rd person shooter. Still has a ton of interestingly different weapons, and still has plenty of platforming, so I still recommend it, but not as much as the 1st or even the 2nd of the series.

Jak 3 (PS2)

This game looks fantastic - a solid upgrade on Jak II's engine which was already near best in system. And the gameplay, while similar to Jak II, is somewhat better because it's not so freakin hard that you have to restart all the time. There's a lot of driving/racing in the game, which is pretty well done but certainly outside the normal genre definition. The platforming is pretty linear, but so pretty I don't mind (much). But the highly linear nature of the platforming and the large amount of driving in the game is why I put it down here. Jak II was more fun, or would have been if it wasn't insanely hard. Meanwhile the storyline less impossible to follow than jak 2 - though it's still not a strong-point.

Muppet Monster Adventure (PS1)

This game is a very sincere attempt to copy everything about Sypro, but change things up just enough that it doesn't play as well. For a tie-in game it's actually amazingly good, and really fills the bill when you are jonesing for a Spyro 4. An excellent soundtrack and reasonably good sense of humor elevates it over Spyro 2, though Spyro 2 probably plays better. The level design tends to be a bit too linear and the controls just aren't as smooth. And it adds absolutely nothing to the gameplay that spyro didn't have already. Still, they don't make them like spyro anymore (remakes excluded, obviously) so this is a game that now fills a hole that we didn't know was going to exist when it was first released.

Sly cooper: honor among thieves (PS2)

 The 3rd game in the series use the same engine as #2, but takes it in a decidedly less fun direction. It feels a little like GTA in that you get a bunch of varied assignments played out over about 8 large levels. But the assignments are not that much fun and there's no incentive to explore (no collectables, no treasure), and they pretty much hand feed you how to do each assignment, nothing to figure out.  Plus they added a bunch of minigames that are just not that fun. The storyline is strong, however, and it's nice to see how the PS2 series comes to an end. Don't get me wrong, it's a fun game, but it's a different genre from #2.

Starfox Adventure (GameCube)

Much more Zelda than Starfox. An odd game that got it's Starfox branding late in life. Somewhat linear, and a too much emphasis on combat, but still a fun Zelda-alike.

Legend of Kay (PS2+)

Legend of Zelda with Cats (and Rats, frogs, etc). Starts out very very linear, but after about 8 hours it opens up, though there's a flip side to that: it's surprisingly easy to get lost. Even though the levels become more open, you still visit them in sequence, no "living world" like zelda. It looks great, but plays just ok. It just doesn't feel as clever as OoT, and the puzzles are not really much to speak of. Plus there's fairly frequent racing bits that you have to complete to progress in the story and they just aren't that fun. Interestingly, for a game starting a little-puddy-cat the dialog suggests it is more intended for teens/adults; there's nothing cute about the storyline.  I got stuck 2/3rds of the way thru due to a bug that prevented further progress and I wasn't tempted to figure out how to fix it.

Spyro: Ripto's Rage (PS1)

#2 in the series, uses the same engine as #3 reviewed above. Gameplay is disappointing though.  The sublime simplicity of "collect all the thingies" has been traded in for a bunch of varied challenges like animal herding or killing all the monsters. Though challenging they don't tend to be fun. Reminds me of how Mario 64 introduced reusing each level 8 times, but requiring different tasks each time you return. The tasks here are less fun but at least there are only 3-4 per level. You can still collect all the gems, but there is no real in-game motivation plus they are not hidden very cleverly.

Ty the Tasmanian Tiger (ps2)

I've seen better looking PS1 games (not to mention more fun). This is a collect the thingies platform game and some of the levels are quite wide open, but are exceedingly dull and monotonous. It's hard to pin down exactly what's so lacking about this game as it checks a lot of boxes. But it's just not fun most of the time. Only intermittent reward drove me to finish this.

Games I haven't played but should probably be on this list

For being written in 2020 this list is horribly dated. Even I know of many games that should be on this list (and even own some of them), but haven't played them personally yet. Some are listed below. I'd be eager for suggestions for more in the comments section.

Zelda Skyward Sword
Zelda Majora's mask

Games not really worth playing

Monsters Inc Scream team (PS1) open nonlinear collect all the things, with platforming elements. This would be a reasonable game but the levels are just uninspired, and the the game engine is just average for a PS1 game.

Shrek treasure hunt (PS1) Open, nonlinear collect all the things. Overly simplistic, all you can do is jump and run to avoid the randomly moving farm animals and other creatures. The camera is almost top down, probably to hide the laughably short draw distance, and cannot be adjusted at all.

Spyro: Enter the Dragonfly (ps2) A sad end for such a find series of collectathon games. Feels like bad fanfic - it has all the aspects of the original games but without any idea of what actually made those design choices fun. It is an open world game with lots to "collect", but it turns out that randomly strewn items in slap-dash levels makes for a very dull game. Plus it looks like crap. Seriously, the PS1 games looked better than this. I mean, ok there are more polys in the PS2 version, but oh such poorly chosen ones, plus an atrocious frame rate. 

Adventure/platform games that are overly linear to be on this list

Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus (ps2) A fun platformer with heavy emphasis on timing and stealth. But OMG it's so linear. Even when you can double back on your path through a level it's only by progressing forward along the predefined path. Good graphics and style give it a bump, but only check out if you like being led by the nose.

Tak 2 staff of dreams (ps2).  Looks a lot like the first game but is very linear and has nothing clever, humorous (or even "humorous") going for it. The combat is overly hard and in the end I gave up 2/3rds thru, wishing I had just skipped it all together, though the first 3rd of the game was perhaps "fun".

All crash bandicoot games (PS1 and PS2) Actually, I haven't tried them all, but the 3 I loaded up were tiresome and very linear. almost "2.5D" games.

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