Well, it certainly has been awhile since I’ve written in this series. The funny thing about this article is that the concept behind it was originally completely different from what I’ll be writing about today: in fact, the original concept was going to be the third article in this series, but eventually, I just ended up discussing the bulk of the content in other articles. There was still some facet of the earlier iteration that I hadn’t explored, so I decided to change my approach to this whole concept and workshopped it into an entirely new direction. Unfortunately, my brain waits for no idea – I was originally going to write this up back in November but came up with an entirely new topic instead – so it just ended up sitting in my drafts folder, as I was working on other projects up until now. I just hope it was worth the wait.
It’s still difficult to articulate my thought process here, but I’ll try to summarize. Put simply, this article’s topic is about how my favorite games in a particular series generally aren’t the ones I would consider the best. I think the most prominent example I have of this is the comparison between the second and third MegaMan games. For years, I’ve had difficulty explaining my exact feelings on the subject: the most accurate take I’d been able to articulate is that “while MM2 was a better NES game, MM3 was a better ‘MegaMan’ game”. A bold, ham-fisted statement, yes, but still the best I could do until recently. These days, I’ve got a much better handle on my thought process – my favorite game in a series and the “best” game are two distinct concepts that have been intertwined for far too long, so it’s just better to handle both of these indicators separately.
I’m not sure exactly when it started, but as far back as I can remember, I’ve always held preferences that aren’t particularly mainstream. When asked if I wanted Coke or Pepsi, I asked for Sprite – or more accurately, Lemon-Lime Slice. When it came to pizza toppings, I generally shied away from the standards of cheese, pepperoni and sausage. I’m not sure if it stemmed from a need to be different, rebel against the status quo or what have you, but I’d always pick things I enjoyed – even if it wasn’t on the menu. The thing is, this wasn’t just limited to food choices: I felt the same way about media. If there was ever anything resembling a consensus about the best entry in any fictional series I enjoy, chances are I’ll end up disagreeing. I never liked the seventh Friday the 13th film; my take on The Simpsons’ “dark age” is totally out-of-whack with the general consensus and I think Sonic Lost World may have been the best 3D Sonic since the first Sonic Adventure. At the same time, I’ve always acknowledged any widespread agreement on any such topic, albeit with varying levels of contempt. If I’m going to be honest, agreeing with it has always been something of an uncomfortable realization – even when default opinions shift with time – to this day, I feel strange whenever my personal favorite ends up being “the best”.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate this distinction is by defining both terms I’ve been using so far. Let’s start with the simpler of the two: “favorite”. It’s the pinnacle of subjectivity: my personal choice for what I like the most. Given the fact that what I personally consider best can vary based on anything from my mood to seemingly random criteria at any moment – if you could see how many drafts any top ten list I’ve written has gone through, your head would spin – in my case, the concept’s far more nebulous than subjective most of the time. As such, “favorite” lives and dies by personal preference. It’s strictly a personal opinion, one that varies from person to person, one that shouldn’t need to be defended or even explained (but this world is far from perfect). In the end, it’s useless with regards to objectivity – but that’s not the point.
Conversely, the concept of being the “best game” is much harder to define. It’s safe to say that it’s a much more objective concept than being a mere favorite, but that’s a gross oversimplification. In my eyes, the title of best game doesn’t depend on things like personal preference or any sort of quality that can be concretely proven. Instead, it relies on a general consensus – and one that is outright agreed upon by those familiar with the series at large. Going beyond that, this opinion must be stated out loud, repeatedly to the extent that it essentially becomes a “meme” – of course, I’m referring to the original definition (a cultural item transmitted repeated, similar to the biological transmission of one’s genetic code) as opposed to the more commonly-known one (running jokes on the internet). For all I know, there could be a widespread silent minority that considered the second Devil May Cry, Final Fantasy VIII or even (God forbid) MegaMan X6 to be the most beloved games in their respective series, but the deafening silence surrounding such opinions disqualifies them from being considered the “best game” of their franchises.
Of course, I personally disagree with this concept, but this is my gut reaction when describing a “best game”. However, this isn’t the only way to characterize this idea. In fact, there is a much more simplistic way to look at things that doesn’t revolve around the mob mentality of my original definition, but in most cases would lead to the same results, if not choices that are much more representative of each intellectual property in question. At this point in time, the most accurate definition I have for describing the “best game” in a series would the one that you would recommend to a complete newcomer that would give them the best representation of the series as a whole. But more specifically, they serve as the best example of what you – or I or anyone, for that matter – like about the games in question regarding their core concepts. Once again, this isn’t a perfect answer to the question at hand, but it’s the best that I’ve been able to come up with when properly defining the concept at large. At this point, that’s good enough for me.
Of course, the best way to define this entire concept is by, as usual, going through various examples from my own questions. When it comes to the Ys series, the fanbase generally recognizes three distinct “flavors” – Classic (the games that use the bump mechanic, along with black sheep Wanderers from Ys); the “3D” games (utilizing the hack-and-slash Napishtim engine with pre-rendered sprites on fully 3D backgrounds) and “modern” (which utilize a party system – switching between up to 3 characters on the fly – and incorporate 3D models into the game’s themselves). While there’s a recurring joke about “every Ys game being the best game of the series”, the most vocal segments of the fanbase swear by those Napishtim engine games, specifically the second game: The Oath in Felghana, a remake of the third game. Personally? I prefer Ys Origin, a far-flung prequel to the first two games and the last game to make use of the engine. That being said, due to the sheer amount of references to the first two games in Origin, I’d generally recommend Felghana to people interested in finding out about the series. There are other cases that just boil down to preference. For example, while it’s safe to argue that both Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World are among the best representations for 2D Mario games as a whole, I always find myself gravitating more towards SMB2 (or Super Mario USA, as the Japanese know it). The unique game mechanics just make it that much more enjoyable for me, but it’s probably the worst representation of the Mario series as a whole. This also manages to skew my views on even the most niche titles. Of the Darkstalkers games, I will always prefer playing Night Warriors over its more-lauded sequel, Vampire Savior – even while acknowledging that the latter has some much more interesting game mechanics.
The weird thing about this entire concept is just how much it ends up helping me understand some of my own opinions and biases. Separating my personal favorites from a much more objective ranking of things has been pretty helpful in the long run, keeping me from twisting myself into intellectual knots in order to just why I’d acknowledge other things as being better than my personal favorites. Having struggled with articulating the concept for well over a decade, it’s honestly relaxing to be done with the mental gymnastics I’d often associated with trying to justify why I liked certain games more than ones that were often considered “the best”, but the added benefits of being able to apply this to other opinions I’ve had that are out of the ordinary is a significant bonus. Thanks to this new perspective – that personal preference and widespread consensus can exist separately and simultaneously – I’ve honestly become a bit less defensive about my own opinions. Who knows, maybe the same could be true of anyone who shares this perspective. If this article causes anyone to reconsider these two concepts as being separate rather than identical, then I think it was worth the wait.