2. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (GSC Game World)
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. provides a great example of what happens when video games meet science. Since we all know what happened when a nuclear meltdown devastated the city of Chernobyl, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. development studio GSC Game World figured it would ask what happens when a second nuclear catastrophe happens. The result is, of course, ghosts and the complete snap of physics laws. Obviously.
With a non-linear story and huge maps, as well as some of the hardest challenges in recent memory, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is one badass game. It won't hold your hand or help you through your mistakes. Instead, it'll beat you over the head with radiation poisoning, hunger, and blood loss. All for the vague promise of some great, hidden treasure. It's basically Fallout 3 without any camp or happiness. No jokes, no quirky mechanics: just a straight-faced portrayal of a post-apocalypse shithole. And who said video games were for kids? The only kids that could enjoy this are probably wearing straightjackets.
Created by Ukranian developer GSC Game World, the most powerful and influential Ukranian studio you've probably never heard of, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was the studio's biggest franchise, but not the one with the most titles. That title goes to the Cossacks series, RTS games that focused on 18th century European combat. This was back in the days when Age of Empires was still a thing, so while the company was doing just fine in their hey-day, the semi-educational quality of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Cossacks quickly became overshadowed by the hulking monstrosity that is Call of Duty and its ilk.
Turns out people would rather shoot other people in the face than rummage through post-apocalypse Chernobyl and learn world history. Who knew?
1. Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved (Bizarre Creations)
Conceived of as a mini-game for Bizarre Creations' most well-known franchise (Project Gotham Racing), this addictive little game has grown to be quite the monster. Still holding the record for most-downloaded game on XBLA, Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved is a splash of classic video game design, splashed with modern graphics, tight controls, and just a teeeeeensy bit of seizure-inducing color blasts.
Other than the Project Gotham Racing games, you might remember Bizarre Creations thanks to Fur Fighters or The Club, some middle-shelf titles that while entertaining, never really found their sales amongst the heavy-hitters. Bizarre Creations themselves were acquired by Activision, where they completed Blur and were subsequently thanked by being sold. Sold to no one. Nope, no one wanted to buy the poor little pumpkin, and so instead the studio simply shut down.
There are few games in all of time and existence as simple yet addictive as Retro Evolved, and to think that it came from a mini-game of a now-forgotten racing series by a now-closed studio is bittersweet. So to close on a somewhat sobering note: If you see a game that interests you, even if years from now you know no one will be playing it, pick it up. Support your favorite developers. Because it'd be nice if you didn't have to say "they don't make 'em like that anymore."