16 Video Games That Make Me Who I Am
In spite of this being my own personal website, I usually am very careful not to talk too much about myself, because I don’t think people actually come here to learn about me. People stumble upon my website through Google searches for video games or sometimes for weird philosophy, so those are the two chief subjects I think I should be delivering.
But I realize that the only way I can expect to grow a more dedicated audience of readers is if I pull back the curtain and start letting you know a little more about me… which is why I’m writing another article about video games.
Video games make me who I am. And yes, I know how extraordinarily nerdy that is, but I don’t care. Video games are to me what books are to people who love reading. (Because in spite of having graduated summa cum laude with an English degree, and in spite of fiction writing being my major passion, the only fiction books I read are Star Wars.) I love video games, and I don’t regret having spent a ridiculous percentage of my childhood playing them at the expense of other opportunities.
So what follows below is–if I’m being honest–just another “favorite video games” list, one of the thousands available online. But I’m going to use it as a rare opportunity to put my actual personality out there, for those who might be curious. So let’s get started!
*Very Minor Spoilers Ahead*
#1. Illusion of Gaia
Super Nintendo, 1994
Why I Love It: If I may be so bold, my examination of Illusion of Gaia is probably the foremost analysis of the game ever written, and it definitely receives the most traffic on this site. So if you really want to know why I love that game, go ahead and click the link. Otherwise, the short-story version is that Illusion of Gaia was deceptively deep with its themes in an era where such things were not commonplace; heck, such things are not commonplace in the medium even now. I don’t think any other game on this list has themes as developed as this 23-year-old Super Nintendo game!
Beyond that, I also just really, really love stories about kids going on adventures (which might be why Stranger Things skyrocketed up my list to become my new favorite TV show). Will himself may not be a very exciting protagonist, but the situations he throws himself into are extremely exciting–ghost ships, sky fortresses, newly unearthed continents, etc. Combined with an outstanding soundtrack and attractive earth-tone graphics, Illusion of Gaia is a powerfully unique experience that will probably never be replicated.
There’s Nothing Else Like It: Like many games up to and including the PlayStation 1 era, I first rented Illusion of Gaia at a defunct rental store called Video Update. They had rent-2-for-the-price-of-1 on Tuesdays, which made that the best day of the week, and it was how I discovered at least one other game on this list. Although I got through most of the game in one rental, I subsequently bought it anyway at KB Toys. (R.I.P. KB–you were so overpriced, but your deals on games you were trying to get rid of were so good.) When I beat the game, I was satisfied with it and just moved on.
But periodically over the years I would return to it, and beat it again from start to finish. Being a very short game, it is perfect for repeated playthroughs like that. The thing is though–I almost never replay games once I’ve beaten them. It’s extremely rare, no matter how much I love them (unless it’s very short, like a Mega Man). Yet I continue coming back to this game, when time allows. Why? I’m not sure. It’s just a really fun, concise game, and I believe passionately in its ideals. I suppose I could say this game speaks to me on an intellectual level, whereas almost every other game on this speaks to me on a nostalgic, more emotional level.
Speaking of which, no games connect with my nostalgia and emotions more than these next two on the list…
#2. Chrono Trigger
Super Nintendo, 1995
Why I Love It: Chrono Trigger is a masterpiece. It is the masterpiece. Its soundtrack is the greatest video game soundtrack of all time. I regularly listen to the soundtrack to this day. Every molecule of this game is wildly, outstandingly fun. It’s not even really possible for me to speak objectively about this game, because my love for it has hit such a critical mass that I wouldn’t know how to identify flaws in it anymore.
Although I can’t say precisely why, Chrono Trigger has (to me) the most inviting, adventurous, attractive world of any video game I have ever played. Robo is awesome. Frog is awesome. Magus is awesome. Ayla is awesome! It doesn’t even matter that it makes no sense that Crono somehow has the strength to defeat Lavos. It also doesn’t matter that Robo is overpowered and defeats the purpose of ever using Marle for literally anything at all. The game just achieves an impossible level of cohesion where I can never not be having fun with every aspect of its design.
The X-Factor: Chrono Trigger had an inimitable “X-factor,” much like the original Star Wars trilogy, where the final product is vastly more than the sum of its parts. In my fiction writing, I’m always wondering if what I’m writing will eventually add up to an X-factor moment like that. I hope I can achieve that sensation someday. I can die content if I know I wrote my own Chrono Trigger or Star Wars.
#3. Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete
PlayStation, 1999 (Remake of Lunar: The Silver Star, Sega CD, 1993)
Why I Love It & How It Makes Me Me: Illusion of Gaia speaks to me intellectually, and Chrono Trigger is “the perfect video game.” Lunar, however, is the game that defines me as a person–the Sega CD and PlayStation 1 versions both. This is another youth-on-an-adventure story, but to me, it is the youth-on-an-adventure story. Alex has the biggest of all dreams–to become a Dragonmaster, and he sets off with his best friend Ramus and unrequited love Luna to achieve that dream. And that’s how it starts! There is no scary or destructive inciting incident to spark the adventure. It’s just a group of friends having fun traveling together.
A game that begins like that is rolling the dice hard, because any story that does not quickly establish high stakes runs the risk of losing its audience. But in Lunar, it just works, because the game world alone is enough to draw you (or at least me) in. The towns feel truly lived in, the characters are delightfully charming with fun voice acting, and Noriyuki Iwadare’s songs beg to be hummed. If I had to choose an RPG world to live inside, it might be this one.
One of my personal favorite parts of the game is that it subverts a critical trope/cliche of adventure stories: Not only are Alex’s parents alive and well throughout the whole game, but they are also completely regular people who aren’t tied to “destiny” or shadowy pasts. They’re just a couple of good people who raised an honest, capable child! This decision helps to make the game world feel even more relaxed and safe.
That being said, it’s pretty easy to say that Lunar‘s plot is otherwise a big collection of time-tested RPG tropes, but they are presented in the best and most fun possible ways. The Magic Emperor makes for a truly imposing villain (with a wonderfully twisted voice actor), and he does things that make him feel like a way scarier threat than the major villains of most video games. When Alex and his party finally overcome him, it feels like a massive accomplishment. And what Alex must do after that in order to complete his adventure is my favorite climax of any story I’ve ever seen, and it always will be.
Any adventure story I ever write will probably owe something to Lunar. That game is near and dear to my heart in a way that no other game is, and I want to challenge myself to write stories with characters who are equally likeable and scenarios that are equally memorable. Lunar will always be my first and favorite youth-on-an-adventure story. It is quintessential wish fulfillment for me.
#4. Final Fantasy VI
Super Nintendo, 1994 (as “Final Fantasy III“)
Why I Love It: Final Fantasy VI has one of the best and most well-conceived stories of any video game I ever played. It manages to create a huge cast of extremely interesting characters and makes time to give satisfying character arcs to nearly all of them. And there isn’t even a main character! Since I don’t watch Game of Thrones, this game has the only compelling narrative I’ve ever encountered where there is no clear major protagonist. Even better, Nobuo Uematsu’s rich, emotional soundtrack is there to punctuate and enhance every moment of the gameplay. Simply put, Final Fantasy VI is art.
I Like Stories: You’ve probably noticed by now that I’m talking a lot more about stories, narratives, and characters than I am about actual gameplay. That’s because my favorite video games are often my favorites specifically because of their worlds and their narratives. I’ve always treated the stories of video games with the same seriousness I would grant novels, films, or any other medium, because I believe firmly that every medium has its own unique storytelling strengths. Final Fantasy VI particularly is one of the most powerful examples of video game storytelling to me, and it’s another game that inspires my fiction writing.
#5. Final Fantasy IV
Super Nintendo, 1991 (as “Final Fantasy II“)
Why I Love It: When I think about RPGs, the default game that comes to my mind is Final Fantasy IV. It pressurizes all the fundamentals of RPGs into a sparkling little diamond. My whole concept of RPGs stems from this game, (I was born in ’89.) so like with Chrono Trigger, it becomes a case where my sense of nostalgia masks any flaws the game might have. All I can talk about is what the game does exceedingly well.
Among other things, Cecil and Kain are awesome characters by 16-bit standards, decked out in dark armor yet both full of self-doubt. Their love triangle with Rosa is primitive yet pretty compelling for that time. Additionally, Golbez is the best darn Darth Vader ripoff ever. He just looks so cool, in his official art and even in his sprites.
And again, Uematsu’s soundtrack shines–but differently than in VI. I often describe IV‘s soundtrack to myself as both “audio candy” and “soulless.” I feel it’s soulless because I think a lot of the songs could be swapped out without changing the feeling much, but I think it’s also audio candy because it has most of the catchiest songs I’ve ever heard. It’s insane how hummable this game is!
Finally, one thing I love about Final Fantasy IV that others may not is that there is no customization. Your party is always set in stone, in addition to their abilities, so basically every dungeon and boss fight becomes a puzzle of how to best use the party that the story has handed you. I love the dynamism of not having the same party all the time! Confronting Golbez’s minions with Cecil, Yang, Cid, and Tellah has a completely different feeling than fighting with Cecil, Palom, and Porom–and rightfully so! Most RPGs today are so afraid to let characters leave your party, because players invest so much time in developing and customizing them. But I think that’s really too bad, because so much excitement can be gained from forcing new circumstances on the player.
I Like JRPGs: You’ve also probably noticed by now that this list is filled with JRPGs. Why is that? I guess they just feature the sorts of stories I enjoy. I prefer highly structured stories in my video games, and I don’t care if I personally get any say in the story’s development. Think about novels: A great novel in written in such a way that all actions and descriptions relate back to strong central themes. In a game that gives the player too much freedom to dictate the narrative, it because exponentially more difficult for all other elements of the game to stay on-message with themes. When narrative is tightly controlled, it is easier to create a more artful experience.
That being said, I would be deranged if I said RPGs that do offer terrific freedom of choice (like Planescape: Torment or Dragon Age: Origins) are a waste of time. Video games are special in that they are the best medium for allowing the viewer to directly affect the development of the narrative, so it is critical that game developers keep emphasizing this unique element of video games. But I would like open-ended RPGs and tightly-focused RPGs to coexist moving forward; I think it would be a grave and sad mistake for either one to disappear.
#6. Super Metroid
Super Nintendo, 1994
Why I Love It: Yep, that’s right, I do in fact play games that aren’t RPGs occasionally. And Super Metroid, like Chrono Trigger, is a masterpiece. It has the most atmospheric soundtrack of any game I’ve ever played, and paired with its excellently exotic graphics, it pulls the player completely into its alien world. You as the player controlling Samus basically tell the story of the game all by yourself with your actions.
This is especially true because the game never holds your hand. It just dumps you on a planet and makes you figure out the rest. By maximizing exploration and minimizing interruptions, Super Metroid exemplifies a “pure” video game experience. Everyone with the most passing interest in video games should play this game.
Metroid Prime Rocked Too: I, like many, was so skeptical of Metroid Prime being announced as a first-person shooter. I was subsequently shocked to discover that it was a perfect translation of the franchise into 3D. Metroid Prime smashed expectations in the best possible way.
#7. Persona 4 Golden
PlayStation Vita, 2012
Why I Love It: After spending approximately 109 hours with Persona 4 Golden, I was legitimately sad to see it end, because all of its fictional characters felt like real friends to whom I was saying goodbye. That’s not something I’ve ever said about another video game, and it goes to show how fun and relatable its cast was. Who knew solving a murder mystery in a TV world could be so much fun?
Beyond that, this game really made me rethink how I approach my relationships with other people–whether casual or intimate. The concept of the social links in this game really drives home the fact that everyone is connected, and we can all play a part in making each other’s lives better, even by an act as simple as lending an ear. Granted, I’d already played Persona 3 Portable before this–and that game had social links too–so I guess 4 had a stronger emotional resonance with me than 3.
Anyway, aside from Chrono Trigger, this game has the best and catchiest soundtrack I’ve ever heard. Regardless of whether it is an energetic song or a somber, ominous song, it will all get stuck in your head. It is mind-boggling how good tracks like “Reach Out to the Truth,” “Your Affection,” and “Kioku” are. Persona 3 and Persona 5 really can’t touch this.
Oh, and since you’re inevitably wondering, I picked Rise. No contest.
Soundtracks Are Important: I don’t think it’s at all coincidental that most of my favorite video games also contain my favorite soundtracks. Music sets the tone and fleshes out the world, and a rich world is important to me. Games like Persona 4 Golden and Chrono Trigger ensure with their music that there is no place I would rather be than in their worlds.
#8. Dragon Age: Origins
PlayStation 3, 2009
Why I Love It: It is so hard to convince myself to replay a long RPG, because that time might better be spent playing other video games. But Dragon Age: Origins was a game I did two playthroughs of simultaneously! And it’s all thanks to the incredible amount of choice that the game offers: To this day, I can’t think of a video game of this size that allows you to go down so many distinct storytelling paths with real consequences! And all of the different character origins add even more flavor. I love it! This is one of the extremely rare games that I wish I could find the time to play through a third time (as a high-born human rogue, this time!).
In some ways, this game is the anti-Final Fantasy IV, but in a really good way.
Bioware Was Great: Okay, yes, Bioware is still kicking, but my greatest enthusiasm is for KOTOR, Origins, and the first two Mass Effect games. Those were all great experiences. I hope Bioware can learn to recapture their old magic with their games currently in development. (A rumor says that KOTOR3 is finally coming!)
#9. Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals
Super Nintendo, 1996
Why I Love It: Puzzles. That’s your answer. Puzzles. RPGs have their fair share of puzzles, but not especially memorable ones. Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals changes all that. Every dungeon in the game makes use of really fun and imaginative puzzles that ward off any feelings of monotony. This game is a textbook in how to design good dungeons. Everyone who designs RPGs should take note.
Beyond that, the Lufia games had a great sense of humor, and II is no exception. All of the characters engage in enjoyably silly banter, which helps to elevate an otherwise under-developed game world. The Sinistrals also make for great, intimidating bosses, flying around in their floating fortress. It culminates in a shocker of a conclusion, and in general, the whole final area of that game ranks among my favorite gaming memories.
Video Update: This is the other game I know for sure that I first played from renting at Video Update. I didn’t finally get my hands on the game to own until last year, and it’s still sitting in the cartridge slot of my Super Nintendo at this moment. And yes, the Super Nintendo is hooked up to my TV, even though I never find time to play it.
Super Nintendo, 1995
Why I Love It: Earthbound is the quintessential “cult classic” of the video game industry. I don’t even really want to spend much time talking about this game, because the rest of the Internet already has. There’s even an incredible book that dissects every element of its localization.
The game transcends its very basic gameplay by simply being quirky, goofy, and brilliantly written. The indie scene has in recent years given rise to many games aiming to recapture the magic of Earthbound, but frankly, none of them have come even close to succeeding. And I’m not surprised. Earthbound is a deceptively hard act to follow.
On the Subject of Super Smash Bros.: Ness 4 lyfe.
#11. Phantasy Star IV
Sega Genesis, 1995
Why I Love It: Remember everything I praised above about the virtue of having no customization options in Final Fantasy IV? I grant that exact same praise to Phantasy Star IV–so I’m generally quite a fan of the game’s combat. Additionally, the story in this game is just darn cool. Sci-fi settings are in my opinion a challenge to make work effectively, and I think the Phantasy Star games make some of the best use of this setting that I have seen. Using vehicles to roam the landscape and confronting nightmare monsters inside of otherwise sleek cybernetic fortresses are fun, somewhat-fresh ideas even today.
The comic book/manga panel-styled storytelling is also a very nice touch. It helps to convey the feelings of the diverse party members who–though not spectacularly three-dimensional–are all memorable and visually distinct. If you are an RPG enthusiast and have never played Phantasy Star IV–change that!
The Scourge of Fan Fiction: From elementary school on, I used to write so much (bad) fan fiction. I started writing Phantasy Star V fan fiction, but it eventually lost its focus and I had to quit on it. I did complete a full Chrono Trigger 2 story, which had something to do with reality itself falling apart. Crono and the old party united with some new people (I remember I introduced a killer android that I thought was totally rad at the time.) to save reality; strangely, I don’t even remember who the villain was.
I also wrote Advance Wars fan fiction, but only using the format of in-battle text seen in the games. (Get on my level, nerds.)
And lastly, I wrote buckets of Mega Man fan fiction, especially Mega Man X fan fiction. I was into the third part of writing a tetralogy of Mega Man X multi-chapter stories when I finally “grew out” of writing them. As an adult, I can see those stories were nothing but endless fight scenes, and they even bore me to read. But I have to assume they were helpful stepping stones. All writers have to start somewhere! (And mercifully, I never shared those stories with other people.)
#12. Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance
Why I Love It: Aside from a few minutes with the original game, Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance on Xbox was my first real experience with the series. And it blew my middle-school-aged mind. The idea of controlling information in order to reshape people’s perceptions and reality was just a giant Keanu Reeves whoa moment for me. That game was very much a drank-the-Kool-Aid experience for me. I was completely engrossed in Metal Gear for many years after that. Heck, I even loved Raiden, and I saved my game constantly so I could listen to his relationship with Rose develop.
Oh, and the game was extremely fun to actually play, too, in those rare moments that you weren’t watching it. The sneaking was fun, and the boss battles were crazy fun. (I mean “crazy” in the literal sense this time–you fight a fat man who gets around on roller skates! And his name is Fatman!) I tried to replay the game a few years back to find it had aged very badly; I couldn’t readjust to the controls at all. That’s really too bad. But it doesn’t change how much fun I had with it when I first played it.
I took the time to get every dog tag on every difficulty setting–time well spent.
The Scourge of Fan Fiction, Part 2: I never wrote any Metal Gear fan fiction. I did however write a long series of parody Yu-Gi-Oh! fan fiction where Yugi and friends started a violent, psychopathic gang. Somewhere in the middle of that is when I played Substance, which inspired me to have Yugi’s evil gang battle another evil gang via “espionage dueling” or something. Basically, they sneaked around in Metal Gear-style fights, followed by having actual card duels. The sad thing is that that is far from the worst idea I ever had in my fan fiction days.
Why I Love It: I could be wrong, but I can’t think of any single video game ever created that had as much lore written for it as Xenogears. This game’s mythology is extremely dense and takes place over multiple centuries, of which extensive plot details were written for all of them. Xenogears‘s story is so large and impenetrable that it’s honestly even impractical. The proof lies in the fact that Squaresoft ran out of time and had to just cut out large swaths of content in Disc 2. Even worse, had they actually kept in all of the intended content, the game would have ballooned to well over 100 hours long, which just would have been too much to follow. As it is, the game is nearly impossible to fully understand in one playthrough without assistance from additional online resources.
So why do I love Xenogears? Precisely because of that insane, impractical level of ambition! When it comes to biting off more than you can chew, there is a full Thanksgiving turkey dangling from Squaresoft’s mouth with this game, and I actually applaud their daring to experiment. There is much that can be learned from this game, and many visuals and themes from which to draw inspiration. It is a far cry from Square Enix’s current offerings, like *sigh* Final Fantasy XV.
Let’s Not Forget Xenosaga: The Xenosaga trilogy has maybe the most believable sci-fi setting I’ve seen in a story. The technology is ultra-powerful, and nanobots basically do everything–from devastating explosions to organ regeneration. People border on being techno-gods at times, which is frankly the only “future” scenario that makes sense to me. If you have the technology to travel around the galaxy, then you should probably also have nanobots doing all sorts of godlike things for you.
But anyway, I love the Xenosaga games too, a lot. I especially love the second one, which most people think is the most disappointing. I think we can at least agree that Albedo is awesome, and a worthy successor to Kefka.
#14. Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE
Wii U, 2016
Why I Love It: Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE is a celebration of Japanese culture, not just J-pop, and I enjoyed my romp through the idol industry, tokusatsu, TV dramas, and all that other zaniness. But what I really love about the game is its innocence. It presents an extremely bright, idealized version of the world, much like Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers and the original anime version of Sailor Moon. I love cheesy, almost-carefree worlds like those. No, they’re not realistic to how the world really is, but they show what could be possible if people were more eager to cooperate and talk through their problems. Playing this game made me feel like a kid again, and as I noted in my review, I think this would be a good “starter RPG” to get actual kids into RPGs.
Big Ol’ Whoops: If you scroll back up to the header at the top of this article, you’ll see 15 thumbnails, with this game being absent. Why? Well… I somehow forgot about this game when I first wrote the article. Whoops. But it’s crazy that I did, considering how much I enjoyed it! I hope the team that made this game puts together something with the same tone in the future.
#15. Until Dawn
PlayStation 4, 2015
Why I Love It: I wrote a game review on this one, so there isn’t much more to add here. Until Dawn is a horror movie that you can control, and it’s okay if everybody gets killed. I’d never played anything like it, so it charmed the pants off of me (figuratively) with its novelty. I really hope they make a sequel because this was so well done. I also hope they arbitrarily include Brett Dalton again, because I have a huge man crush on that dude thanks to Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
The Future of Horror: I haven’t played Resident Evil 7 yet because I only want to experience it on VR, and I’ve been too stingy to buy PlayStation VR for one game. But I still look forward to playing it someday. I’m really not a fan of horror movies, but I find the prospect of horror VR very, very exciting.
#16. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Nintendo Switch, 2017
Why I Love It: Again, I already wrote at length about this one. But basically, most of what I said about Super Metroid applies again here. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a pure video game experience that never holds your hand and allows you to write the story with your own exploration. Oh, and Breath of the Wild also happens to be a total revolution of game design. So there’s that too.
Mega Man Is Missing: Although he doesn’t appear above at all, I want to state that I emphatically love Mega Man in all his incarnations. Although no particular title resonates extremely strongly with me, the series as a whole is a favorite of mine. Mega Man X and old Final Fantasy (the first 10) are my two favorite video game series. And playing as Zero in Mega Man X4 was so freaking cool!
Honorable Mentions (Alphabetized)
- Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising
- Bayonetta 2
- Final Fantasy Tactics
- Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
- The Last of Us
- The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
- Lost Odyssey
- Lunar 2: Eternal Blue Complete
- Mega Man 4
- Mega Man X
- Mega Man X4
- Persona 5
- Resident Evil 4
- The Simpsons: Road Rage
- Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy
- Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
- Super Mario RPG
- Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together
- Xenosaga trilogy
So… Many… Games…
This has been a list of my current favorite video games. Do we share any favorites in common? Let me know. And especially let me know if we share any of the same reasons in common!