The lights are on
Veteran Member - Level 12
A few weeks ago, my fellow featured blogger Doctor Apozem wrote a blog about games that have defined his gaming experience so far. I loved the blog, and the idea, so I commented asking for permission to do the same. Several exams, a handful of false starts due to site bugs, and half a day of messing around in Paint.NET later I'm ready to share my version of Apozem's great blog. These are the 10 games that have defined my gaming experience thus far, in roughly the order that I encountered them.
(Just a little side note, the headers for the GameBoy games will look better with the site's "lights" on because they have clear backgrounds. I did my best to clean up all the cropped edges for the black background they'll have in the site's lights off mode without ruining the images, but the drop shadows don't show in that setting. I know, I know, I should have made them a shade of grey and not black but it's too late for that now.)
The Gameboy Color wasn't the first video game system I was given as a kid. My father had an Atari 2600 that I got to play a few times as a kid, and the family Christmas present in 1997 was a Nintendo 64. The Atomic Purple Gameboy Color that followed me all the way into middle school was the first video game system that belonged solely to me though. Perhaps by being a more attentive parent than most people today, my mother managed to snag both a Gameboy Color and a copy of Pokemon: Red Version for me as they launched - red has always been my favorite color, and clearly my mother knows how amazing Charizard is, so that was a win-win situation.
Pokemon was the first game that felt like it belonged to me, and it quickly ate up hours of my time. I somehow managed to play it even at my persnickety private school, despite attempts from an uptight parent-teacher association to impose a school-wide ban on anything Pokemon or video game related. Part of me wishes that the ban on video games, undoubtedly for the purpose of not having to actually deal with thieving children, hadn't relegated me to only experiencing games through a neighborhood friend's PlayStation before 1998, but I couldn't have picked a better place to dig in if I wanted to. I haven't played a Pokemon game since Pokemon: Sapphire, but the series will always hold a place of honor as my introduction to video games.
Roughly a year later I was given a copy of Super Smash Bros. for my birthday. Aside from a copy of Beetle Adventure Racing, SSB was the only game I owned for my Nintendo 64. Everything else was rented for a weekend, which meant that when I got super terrified of the skeletons on the plains of Hyrule, Ocarina of Time went back to Blockbuster unfinished... and that happened every time. Super Smash Bros. would eventually become the game that I've poured more hours into than any other, and in the most ironic of places to boot.
Due to the high number of faculty that had children as students, because private schools don't have districts, my school had to have a large after-school program. When I hit 5th grade they finally started moving older kids from the crowded house that served as the elementary school's program center, and into a loft-like area that had been a library in one of the original school buildings. Thankfully, the people running the middle school version of the program weren't as stuck up, and one of them had even donated their own Nintendo 64 to be used on the abandoned library TV carts that no one wanted to drag down two flights of stairs.
When I arrived, the only thing game around was Blitz. Needless to say I couldn't have that, so I dragged in a fourth controller and my copy of Super Smash Bros., and as far as I know it remains there to this day - though I doubt those controllers have survived well enough to make the game enjoyable. I played that game with a crowd of people after school every day for four years, sometimes for up to three hours after class let out if my mother had extra work to do around campus. If I manage to put that amount of time into a game again, I hope someone checks me into a mental institution.
Capcom-developed The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons and its sister game Oracle of Ages were my first proper introduction to The Legend of Zelda, though some might argue the games don't really count. To this day, they also stand as the only adventures staring Link that I've actually finished. I still think they are the best looking Gameboy games ever created, and I adore them to no end. I was heartbroken when I lost my copy of Oracle of Ages, even years after I'd lost my Gameboy Color - let's be honest, the Gameboy was probably stolen by one of those thieving kids at school. Examining them from my perspective now, even if I was a Zelda fan I'd probably still like these games more than their counterparts. Their mechanics are unique even within one of gaming's most inventive worlds, and they're packed full of items and themes that don't show up anywhere else in the series.
Like many other games on this list, Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy was the first game I got for its system. It stands out as the first game that I actually purchased with my own money too. After mowing the grass for a couple months, and squirreling away my money, I wandered in the EB Games at my local mall and strolled out with a copy of this game in hand. I loved everything about Jak and Daxter, but it was just a small taste of classic design philosophy in an expanding market. I loved the series' use of color and the crazy designs of just about everything in its world, and even though I enjoyed the following games none of them will warrant the same amount of nostalgia from me. Jak and Daxter was one of the last pure platformers made by a company other than Nintendo, and it will always be the game that defines that genre for me.
I have never played more of a game that I didn't understand than Final Fantasy X. The story is nearly indecipherable, with multiple timelines weaving back and forth over top of one another, but something about the game hooked me. Maybe it was the great looking cutscenes, or the wealth of different environments that Tidus and company travel through. Perhaps the well balanced battle system drew me in without my knowledge. Looking back now, I sort of see the game as an ugly duckling, made just slightly before technology had caught up enough to make its world as good as it should have been. It wasn't properly synced to it's dubs, Blitz Ball was practically broken due to how terrible your players were during the only section the game allows it to be played, and man was that sphere grid ever a... thing. All of that aside, Final Fantasy X was the culmination of years of watching anime and helped fuel my passion for JRPGs during the PS2 era.
I didn't even know what Kingdom Hearts was until a friend shoved his copy into my hand and told me to play it. What I found was easily my favorite PlayStation 2 game of all time. Though not much better at explaining its backstory than Final Fantasy X, there was at least a coherent thread to grab onto in Kingdom Hearts and that was all I needed. There's so much going on in the series' worlds that, even if following the story thread through them becomes overwhelming, there's enough visual spectacle and variety to carry the experience. To be honest, it surprises me to see the industry has become so enamored with explosions as set pieces when Kingdom Hearts, and to a lesser extent the PS2's Final Fantasy games, showed how effective framing of events can make them seems just as large and awe inspiring. Kingdom Hearts turned an interest into a passion, and no matter how many problems people point out with the series I will always love it.
Final Fantasy XII was a game that came along at the wrong time. Buried under a mountain of next generation launch news, it also took an abrupt turn from JRPG traditions at a time when people were more interested in seeing the Final Fantasy they loved on a new generation of consoles than a game that toyed with the series' well tested formula. Final Fantasy XII is the series' lost entry, acclaimed but largely forgotten. Critics loved the game, but a vocal minority of fans pushed back against a combat system that was heavily inspired by western games like Baldur's Gate. They also fairly criticized some high level boss fights like Elder Wrym for being nearly broken and the main characters, Vaan and Ashe, for being a bit too similar to the previous entry's famous duo.
Final Fantasy XII turned the series on its ear though, and for the better in my opinion. It was the first of the games I came across that featured airships, and it's mishmash of fantasy and steampunk elements captivated me. It was easily the best looking game on the PlayStation 2 as well. I still remember being awestruck by watching sand from the Sand Sea run through Vaan's hands during a cutscene. Though many fans of the series called the game's story boring, I simply saw it as something that actually made sense.
The game plays host to fairly heavy political and social motifs that, while largely passing over my head at the time, stood in stark contrast to the the brooding, angsty, fairytale elements that began to characterize the series in it's transition to the polygonal realm. It felt more like a properly developed world, and I can't find fault in a lack of elements that felt special simply because what surrounded them was nonsense. I'll take that over what came before and after it any day. The Judges are some of the best designed and presented enemies that Final Fantasy has ever seen; Fran and Balthier are undoubtedly some of the entire series' best characters. The big, open areas with no startling and annoying random battles felt fresh and new to a younger me who had been trudging down narrow paths for the past half decade, and the game's hunting and summoning systems were a joy to use.
For the life of me, I will never understand why those few people got so angry, and I'll never forgive them for how that anger affected the Final Fantasy series. When paired with a slightly less successful showing due to the time it was released, that anger resulted in changes. Upset over the story saw the return of a confusing and convoluted narrative for Final Fantasy XIII. Outrage at the changes to the world structure brought back an even more strictly defined path, and although Final Fantasy XIII's battle system wasn't bad it was still disruptively implemented. Baring an extremely strong showing in the future, Final Fantasy XII will stand as my favorite entry in the series. Seeing the whole of JRPG design recoil at shrink back into familiar, worn out mechanics after playing such a significant departure from that formula crushed the passion I had for the genre at the time.
Luckily for my disenfranchised RPG loving self, a new series was just on the horizon that would take the place of Final Fantasy for most of the next half decade. My mother, being the responsible parent that she is, rightly limited my access to M rated games in a way that most of my friends' parents didn't. I'm glad she did that, and even more thankful that Mass Effect was one of the few games she allowed me to buy before I was actually old enough to do so on my own. I'd had an Xbox 360 for a while by the time I got around to playing Mass Effect, but nothing on the system had impressed me.
Madden's new tech looked silly, and the game was boring. Forza was fun, but I've never been a huge fan of racing games. The rest of my time was spent playing through Halo 2, a game that came with my Xbox 360 when my father, who had moved away from my family by that point, decided he wasn't going to get much use from the system. Mass Effect though, it hit home in the same way that Kingdom Hearts had all those years earlier. If Kingdom Hearts launched my passion for video games, then Mass Effect launched my passion for the video game industry and the culture surrounding it. It drove me to seek people outside of my group of friends to discuss the medium I love, and is a big reason why I'm a Featured Blogger on this site. A generation later and I've completed the first two games seven times a piece, and the third three times.
It might be odd to see a game as old as Shadow of the Colossus this late on the list, and I certainly encountered it before Mass Effect was even a twinkle in BioWare's eye. I didn't finish it the first time I played it though. That wouldn't happen until the game was released for PS3 as part of an HD bundle. I had forgotten so much about it, that coming back might as well have been the first time I ever touched it. I don't have any long winded defense of why the game is important to me, or anecdotal story to go along with it. The game simply changed how I examine what I play. I'll never look at the structure of a game, or how it presents its story, the same way again.
Persona 4 Golden is odd in the exact opposite way that Shadow of the Colossus is. They're both remasters of PlayStation 2 games, but the similarities end there. Persona 4 Golden renewed my faith in a genre of games that I grew up adoring, and an industry that has become more and more defined by a muted color pallet. It's bright, colorful and lighthearted, but also capable of being dark and serious when it needs to be. It's an exploration of characters and culture that few other games mange so spectacularly. In it I see a place for JRPGs to thrive despite their refusal to adapt. The Vita and its Suspended Play feature turned out to be the perfect fit for a turn based RPG, and Persona 4 Golden filled the time between my college classes with something more substantial than a free iOS game or a YouTube video over the last two semesters. I'd love to see more turn based RPGs on that system, the ability to stop at will and not lose progress or have to reload is the best possible way to experience that style of game. Whether or not they choose to take advantage of that remains to be seen, but at the very least Persona 4 Golden has reintroduced me to something that I had all but written off.