I believe there’s a distinctive difference between what games you view to be the best and what games are the most influential to you. Sure, there might be some overlap like with my list here, but a lot of these games I put on here are on this list because of how they defined me not just as a gamer, a writer and as someone who works in the industry, but as a person as well.
These games are in no specific order.
Super Mario RPG: Legend Of The Seven Stars (SNES)
Super Mario RPG: Legend Of The Seven Stars was the first time I really felt connected to characters in a video game. It also happened to be my first time with an RPG. Growing up playing other games in the Mario franchise such as Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World, I just couldn’t get enough. They were addicting and masterpieces in my eyes, so when I heard there was a new Mario game coming out, I ran right out to my local Toys “R” Us and nabbed it.
And then came the unsettling realization, this was not a Mario game. At least not in the traditional sense. It wasn’t a part of my comfort zone. What were with all these different button choices? Why was everything 3D and isometric? WHY WASN’T I JUMPING ON THINGS?! Naturally, I didn’t handle this change very well and begged to be brought back to the store so I could return it. Now this was way before video game trade-ins or proper return policies and so as I soon found out, I was stuck with it. This weird mutated Mario adventure. But I had nothing else to play for the system, so I gave it a second chance. I’m glad I did because I became enamored. It’s not an understatement to say that for the first time in my life I became emotionally invested in a video game and its characters. Everything in the game was designed to drag out some sort of emotional response.
My first time fighting Belome and watching one of my characters get licked and swallowed up by this strange bloated dog-like creature game me more than enough reason to be a little uncomfortable. The music in Booster’s castle, with its off-kilter and often uncomfortable nature, made for a perfect place to explore the depths of an insane man. Then there were the characters. To this day, I truly believe this is the most accurate depiction of Mario. A mute who pantomimes everything and comes off as heroic, dorky and sincere. Since then, I really just think that he’s become an ass. Geno, the fan favorite, was the cool character we all wanted to be. This mysterious force from the stars who could take over a doll’s body and turn it into a brutal fighting machine equipped with his own gun hidden in his arm that shoots stars at his enemies. He was, quite simply, the coolest video game character around.
But the game was so much more than just coolness. It was about depth and emotion, the destruction of people’s wishes and dreams. The realization that some people look up to you and want to be you even though you might not even realize it. The game excelled at creating a universe that felt both uniquely different from Mario and completely similar to early Mario entries and I think that’s no easy feat.
City Of Heroes (PC MMORPG)
Who hasn’t dreamed of being a super hero as a child? The notion of being able to run through a city taking down bad guys and saving the world. It’s a thrilling thought. And even though City Of Heroes gave me that outlet, it ended up giving me a lot more than I could have expected. The two things that always drew me back to the game were system’s the character creation mode feature and the fabulous social atmosphere the game had cultivated. Being able to create any sort of hero, such as an average Joe who used a sword and a shield to cut through the baddies to a flying werewolf who controlled plants and minds, and then forming your own Justice League-esque super group was enthralling.
City Of Heroes gave me my social life when I was uncomfortable and weird at school and reclusive at home. Being able to form bonds between strangers from all over the globe while destroying bases of crazy cyborg creatures together was just what I needed at the time. I remember signing in for the last day of the game, hours before the servers were shut down. Everyone was emotional. People were telling their favorite stories of old adventures and weeping on each other’s virtual shoulders. This game was a home and an escape for so many people. A haven that no one will ever get to experience again, but one I will never forget.
Black was a shooter that did storytelling and, most importantly, shooting right. It didn’t focus on any multiplayer, it didn’t unnecessarily put you through tutorials on how to use each gun; it just threw you right into the water and hoped you would sometime be able to make your way to the shoreline. One of the most memorable aspects of this game for me was the use of live action video in its cut scenes. It was the first time I’d ever seen it done and even since then it has been the only time I’ve even seen it done well. At the time, it added this sense of realism to the game. It let me believe that I was actually reliving a failed mission and uncovering the pieces to my character’s past, not just simply being told what had happened. When you take that kind of storytelling and then add the number of destructible environments they had included in the game, it was a shooter unlike any other at the time.
When I look back and think hard about what makes the game hold up by today’s standards, I’d have to say the level design. Each level felt special. They weren’t just reworked and reskinned levels that they knew had succeeded in similar games. They had personality to them. The opening level remains to be one of my favorite levels in any video game. The moment you find the RPG and take down some of the buildings, it’s magical. The shooting mechanics and AI were pretty solid as well. Unlike some shooters over the past five to ten years where they can’t decide how many bullets an enemy should be able to take or whether the player is smart enough to challenge an AI with a shotgun, everything in Black felt smooth and polished. I knew that I had to be careful sometimes and other times I knew I had the upper hand. Every few years I pull Black out just to remind me what really got me into shooters and for the hopes of a true sequel. Not some “spiritual successor” bullshit like Bodycount. But that’s a different story.
Hotel Dusk: Room 215 (DS)
Visual novels are a little sweet spot for me. They tend to give me just enough of a challenge and creativity in gameplay while producing a juicy enough story to keep me motivated and entertained all the way throughout the experience. Hotel Dusk: Room 215 was the first visual novel that I played that really changed this up for me. I had played a few before on PC or DS, but this one oozed with style and gripped my mind with its simplistic, yet deep and richly woven story. The first thing you might notice while playing the game is that you hold the DS or the 3DS as if you were holding a book. You don’t use the buttons at all. It’s simply you, the screens and the stylus. You solve all your puzzles and make all your movements by simple actions on the touch screen and watch the story’s protagonist and his reactions on the left.
In a story about an ex-cop who chases things that wish not to be found, you get the opportunity to uncover a plethora of selfish and malice filled secrets. It wasn’t the secrets themselves that grasped my attention, it was the execution. The little puzzles, the witty banter between the characters, the tension that rises when people suspect you’re more than just a regular hotel patron. It was just a game full of charm. And I games like that will always stay with me.
Persona 4: Golden (Vita)
If you’ve ever wanted to expertly experience the highs and of a high school youth in a world bound to the magical and mysterious, Persona 4: Golden is what you are looking for. Persona 4: Golden might just be the closest game to perfection in my eyes. I have a rule where I won’t ever call a game, anime or movie perfect because I don’t think anything can be perfect, but my God, does this game come close.
You get the chance to make friends that feel as deep and true as anyone you might run into in real life. You must balance your school life, your part time jobs, your romances, and your friendships all while trying to solve a case about a rash of murders in a small town in the countryside of Japan. And how do you go about solving those murders? By going into a mysterious world that can only be accessed by climbing through the TV exactly at midnight while it’s raining of course! And on top of that, in this TV world, you have these insanely powerful creatures called Personas that manifest themselves from accepting different aspects of yourself. Could anything be more Japanese? But more importantly, could anything be any cooler? Who wouldn’t want to go on dates during the day and slaughter shadow creatures at night?
When I first heard about Persona 4, I was skeptical. It sounded so bizarre. It sounded like something that could never appeal to someone like me. It seemed like it was too far-fetched and jumbled together. I’m glad that I was proven wrong. I don’t think I could imagine what my gaming life would be like without knowing there are characters like Chie, Naoto and Kanji.
In fact, I don’t think I would have played a lot of other JRPGs if I never gave this game a shot. I would have missed out on a whole genre filled with brilliant entries. I’m very grateful that Atlus decided to be weird, that they decided to be bold, but most importantly, decided to be dedicated to their vision because they gave me a once in a game so intrinsically beautiful, I don’t think I’ll ever experience something like it again.
Written by G. S. Martin