If there’s one thing I do more than anything else, it would be play video games.
A hobby passed to me from my father, nothing has ever captured my attention as much as this eternal time sink. Growing up, I would read a lot, dabble in writing, but all of it came back to games. I would read because a game inspired me to read about stuff relating to it. I would write because a game would inspire me to try and retell it in a novel (with varying levels of success). Basically, it was all about those stupid games.
Friends? TV? School even? All second fiddle to games. Be they Super Nintendo, PS2 or DS and 3DS, upon my return from school or later on jobs, it would be games. I am a nerd.
I have played over 500 games in my lifetime. Not all of them to completion, but always enough to know if the game is to my liking. Some day I’ll write articles on bad games. But today, it’s for happier things.
5. Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth
I’ve often found it difficult to explain to people unaware of Persona just what the games are like or about. Especially people who don’t play games. That frustration is compounded when I try to describe Persona Q, a game that is essentially a different series in disguise that would offer nothing to non-fans of Persona 3 and Persona 4. And even then fans of both might find Persona Q difficult to sit through.
Persona Q is actually an Etrian Odyssey title. It plays like one, it acts like one, and dressing it up in cute Persona visuals does little to detract from the radically different game that it is from Persona 3 and Persona 4. This isn’t a bad thing in my case, since Etrian Odyssey is one of my two favorite series in existence (you can tell because anywhere I go I describe myself as a “DQ & SQ Fanatic”, where SQ refers to the Japanese name of Etrian Odyssey, Sekaiju no Meikyuu).
Persona Q follows the cast of both Persona 3 and Persona 4, ripped from their own games to partake in a new adventure featuring a pair of new characters in a strange warped version of Yasogami High. The whole game maintains this sense of mystery yet whimsy, as the cast doesn’t seem all that fazed by what put them in the situation in the first place. Which works to the narrative’s benefit, as the entire thing feels like almost like a fan project that got substantial funding. This isn’t a bad thing, either; the plot might take its sweet time to build steam, but once it gets going, it hits all the high notes Persona is known for.
It might be hard for players to crawl through the labyrinths separating fun story bits, but the reward of yet another fully voiced cutscene always makes the hassle worthwhile. The game allows you tackle the story from either perspective (that of Persona 3‘s cast or Persona 4‘s), giving you subtly different plots as you go along. Persona 4‘s side is more light-hearted, while Persona 3‘s takes advantage of the additional game time to flesh out its own cast a lot more than they ever were in their original game.
Persona Q is very much a fan love letter. The choice of Etrian Odyssey as the base game is odd and may detract from the experience for some, but it’s different enough to give even diehard fans a new experience that isn’t just another dungeon crawler. Persona Q earns its spot on my Top 5 because I consider it to be not only the best Persona game, but also the best Etrian Odyssey game. Quite an achievement for what amounts to a fun little side-project. But I guess that’s why these fun diversions exist in the first place.
HONORABLE MENTION. Metroid Prime
If you expected this to be my Number 4, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Though easily Metroid Prime could have topped my list if I simply let the other games step aside.
Metroid Prime exemplifies quality game design. It’s atmospheric, intuitive, just the right length, and to this day hasn’t been topped. I routinely replay it to bask in its perfection, and easily recommend it to anyone, gamer or not.
4. Xenoblade Chronicles
Back in 2012, a little game called Xenoblade Chronicles was released for the aging Wii hardware.
I’d had a terrible experience with both its predecessors, and was honestly not looking forward to this game. At the time, it was one of three RPGs in localization limbo, and of the three was the one I had the least interest in. But it was also the first one released, and feeling a need to show my support for a movement to have them brought to the West, I bought the game at launch.
I was blown away.
Where Xenogears and Xenosaga failed to capture me even after dozens of hours of play, Xenoblade Chronicles had me invested within the first hour. The combat was fast and fresh, the characters charming thanks in large part to a dub track from the UK, and the impetus for setting off on this journey delivered with just the right amount of drama to hook me, line and sinker. Even as the adventure went on for more than 60 hours, I never once felt bored by the experience.
Xenoblade Chronicles was the breath of life RPGs on consoles needed at the time. While so many were beginning to stagnate as they focused on better and better visual fidelity, Xenoblade Chronicles sacrificed high end graphics to give us a sprawling open world filled with secrets to uncover and monsters to overcome. The cast grew at a steady clip, each one bringing with them more charming interactions and actual worth to the gameplay. So easy is it for RPGs to have characters that you just don’t want to use because they suck. Xenoblade Chronicles doesn’t have that; every character is useful in almost every scenario and with virtually any party combination. Your biggest concern will be why you aren’t allowed to use all seven of them at once.
The characters themselves don’t break new ground for the medium. They stick to tried and true tropes for the most part, but its how they play off each other that keeps the game from devolving into pandering nonsense. Fan-service is completely absent here; the characters win you over with their personality, not because we have the all-too-typical scene from Japanese media (hot springs or sleep overs, that kind of thing).
And really that feels like Xenoblade‘s greatest strength. It takes itself seriously, and keeps that seriousness in mind from start to finish. However, it never dips into brooding territory, and is never too serious to indulge in humor now and again. But at the end of the day there’s a quest to finish, so even after you spend a dozen hours combing through yet another massive world map for every secret you can find, you can always count on the game pushing forward.
HONORABLE MENTION. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening
Zelda games and I don’t usually get along. For the most part they’re fun diversions, and I can easily enjoy the experience from start to finish. But never do they stick so much that I’d deign to call them a favorite game of all time.
Link’s Awakening is another such example. If it weren’t for the multitude of other outstanding games, it might eke its way into my Number 5 spot. Part of this is when I played the game the first time, as a young school kid who was hungrily reading tons of books where ever he could. Link’s Awakening told a fun little tale of a boy trapped on an island, and eventually of how he could escape. And how in so doing, he’d have to sacrifice the very existence of a girl he liked.
This isn’t exactly canon, mind you. Link and Marin might be my first ever ship, and that’s why Link’s Awakening resonates so strongly with me. I imagined myself as Link, and a girl I was crushing on at the time to be my Marin. And I wished so desperately that the game mirrored real life. Well, without the sacrificial bit. Point is it opened my young mind to young love, and it will forevermore hold a special place in my heart because of it.
3. Chrono Cross
Have you ever played a game that, despite so many flaws, just felt like a masterpiece to you? Somehow close to perfection despite your rational brain telling you the game couldn’t possibly hope to be perfect?
Chrono Cross is that game for me. A game that since I first played it, has remained steadfast in my Top 5 games where so many others have come and gone.
Chrono Cross is the story of Serge, a young man who finds himself sucked into an alternate reality where everything is slightly off. And everything is slightly off because in this reality, the core difference is that he himself died ten years prior. What follows is a journey to solve the riddle of his demise in this world and how he can get back to his peaceful life in his Home World.
RPGs offering freedom of choice in how to tackle the story are few and far between. This is because unlike the organic storytelling present in a pen and paper experience, video games need a set beginning and a set end on account of technical and budget restraints. But Chrono Cross dared to offer players a taste of that freedom, with multiple branching story paths as you went along. While these paths always ended back on the predetermined path, it can be argued that it was all justified because the core antagonist of the tale is Fate itself. Chrono Cross asks the question: Can you truly defy Fate?
Hearing it from me might have you thinking this is a true pinnacle of gaming and storytelling. But it isn’t. As I said before, the game has a multitude of flaws, right down to the very story it’s telling. In fact, most of what I’ve said can only really be gleaned after multiple playthroughs, or at the very least reading a digest on the plot and themes of the narrative. Chrono Cross can easily be described as obtuse, but never really unintuitive as a video game.
While its predecessor might always be more fondly remembered as a titan of the RPG genre, for me, Chrono Cross will be that titan. The game that dared me to question just how much of my very existence is predetermined, and how much of it is my own doing.
HONORABLE MENTION. Okami
The debate about whether video games are art, or can ever be art, is one I don’t give two shits about.
But I look at a game like Okami and cannot help but be left speechless as video game developers use the medium to make a canvas come to life before my very eyes.
Okami is a Zelda-like game through and through. Only replacing an elf boy with a wolf and drawing heavily from Japanese myths, folklore and fables. But the entire thing looks like a moving piece of art that words cannot describe with any real impact. It has to be seen to be believed. The game was jaw-dropping back on PS2, but its transition to PS3 with HD visuals took the whole thing to the next level.
If you’ve never played Okami, do so. If you can’t, watch HD footage of someone playing it. You’re in for a real treat.
2. Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King
Next to Mario, Dragon Quest has been the one series to remain steadfast at my side throughout my life. From the first ever game which my dad owned a copy of and I played nonstop as a toddler. I didn’t even truly grasp what I was doing in that game, but I wanted to play it. I wanted to hunt Slimes.
And hunt Slimes I did. And keep hunting Slimes, playing Dragon Quest on and off most of my life. It was also the only Dragon Quest game I owned until my teenage years, when Dragon Quest VIII came along for PS2.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that it was love at first sight. That I knew this would be a game changer for me. No, Dragon Quest VIII and I got off to a rocky start. In fact, I hated the game at first. And it took half a decade for me to get over that hatred and give Dragon Quest VIII the fair chance it deserved. The chance I neglected it during a period in my life when Final Fantasy could do no wrong in my eyes.
But Final Fantasy fell from grace, and Dragon Quest was there to remind me that no matter how many years pass, they will stay just as good.
Dragon Quest VIII for me is RPG distilled to its purest, most enjoyable form. It’s simple to pick up, challenging enough to entice, and forgiving enough that you don’t let the game kicking your butt get to you. In fact, this applies to virtually all Dragon Quest games. But it was VIII that I fell in love with the most. It wasn’t the one I played the most (that honor goes to IX), but no matter the day I can go back to the adventures of the Trodain guardsman out to rid his king of a foul curse.
For King and Country!
HONORABLE MENTION. Illusion of Gaia
Illusion of Gaia was my gateway drug to the world of RPGs.
I may have played Dragon Quest first, but it was Illusion of Gaia that convinced my young self to learn to read so that I could follow the story of Will and his friends as he explored a warped world where real life locations acted as video game dungeons. It wasn’t a great game by any means, but it taught me about (mostly) real world locations that I immediately asked my teachers about in school. It kindled in me a love for history and myth that remains to this day. In a way, it may even have birthed my love of writing as well.
This was my first ever favorite game of all time. It has since dropped from my Top 5. But it will forevermore be an important game to my very existence.
1. Final Fantasy IX
Final Fantasy IX is not really a GOOD game.
It’s slow-paced. Its combat is overly simple and mindless. The plot isn’t really gripping. And overall, the adventure feels just too short to have been a follow-up to then big-hitters VII and VIII.
And yet, for all these flaws, it does the most important things right.
The characters are rich and complex, dealing with internal struggles amidst an otherwise bland narrative. The world around them is fantastical and varied, from locations to monster designs. Each character gets just enough time in the spotlight to make them memorable. And while the game felt short, the characters’ journeys felt full.
Final Fantasy IX is this odd little contradiction into itself for me. It’s easy for me to forgive all its faults and love it unequivocally. And yet it’s just as easy for me to dismiss it for the very same faults and never think about it again. Or as is usually the case, just trash it online for the sake of discussion.
But no matter what side I take, I cannot deny that Final Fantasy IX happened to me in very important part of my life. That it taught me that no matter the person, everyone has stuff they’re constantly struggling with beneath the surface. It also taught me a valuable lesson in writing multiple characters, something that had always been a challenge for me.
It’s possible that some day, Final Fantasy IX will be topped as my favorite game of all time. Maybe even by Dragon Quest VIII. But for now, as it has been for more than a decade, it remains my favorite game of all time.