[Slayn Bacon asks: What are your top three favorite games and why are they your favorite? What elements so they have that make them stand out both to you and to video games in general?]
I originally thought this would be the easiest of the three questions poised to me to answer, but the more I thought about it the more difficult this task became… What were my top three games? Why were they my favorite, and how were they different? Where many of my top games merely a result of nostalgia, or were they something more?
Well, I think I finally have the answer. Let’s get into it, shall we? These three games aren’t in any order–I just wrote about them in the order I saw fit.
DRAGON QUEST V: HAND OF THE HEAVENLY BRIDE
Dragon Quest V is a special game. I’ve always had an affinity to the Dragon Warrior/Quest series… it is the series that ultimately got me into my favorite genre. Also, until recently the series was never changing: While Final Fantasy and other series would go out on a limb and try new things, Dragon Quest would always have the same gameplay, the same general plot, and so on… it was like a safety net. You booted up a Dragon Quest game and you knew exactly what you were in for.
One thing the Dragon Quest series was not known for, however, was its engaging plot and characters. The series had its moments–the multiple characters’ plots in IV, that one heart-wrenching moment in III, the post game of VIII–but it was nothing compared to, say, the epic plot of Final Fantasy IV, or even the vibrant characters of FFV (when we got a proper translation, at least). Dragon Quest V is different.
How does V manage to pull off what the other titles, even the newer ones, could not? A lot of it comes from how they introduced generational party members into the mix–i.e., having your kids fight alongside you, or take up your mantle after your death. Back when DQV was first created, this kind of plot device was almost unheard of… I could think of only two other 16-bit titles that attempt this, one coming out before V and the other after. Those two, however, had the kids fighting a war left behind by the parents, and has a broader sense of time. DQV, however, has you actually fighting alongside your (young) kids, and in the intro has you as a child fighting with your father.
What does this small difference give you, exactly? Well, it gives you empathy for the protagonist. You aren’t just the main character… you live his life, and work through all the ups and downs with him. The main character does not speak, as per DQ tradition, but the feelings throughout the game are palpable. As a child, you watch your father killed before your eyes, his final words being “Your mother is still alive” before you are carted off to ten years of grueling slave labor. Later, having to choose between the duty you were left with by your father and love, with Bianca depressingly telling you “It’s okay, I understand… I’ve been alone all my life anyway”. That time when you were turned to a statue, and were forced to watch a little boy grow up and be kidnapped by monsters, all the while being unable to do anything and wondering if your own children are alright. The moment you finally find the Zenithian hero, to discover that you and your father could never find him because he wasn’t even born yet.
It’s marvelous, but I feel this couldn’t have been well relayed in the original version of Dragon Quest V, but then again it was never released over here: The West never got the game until the DS remake. Hand of the Heavenly Bride is wonderfully written–the story and the characters come off extremely well in the localization, and the Party Chat gives them a new dimension you would not have seen otherwise. The third marriage option actually ruins that particular scene slightly (like really, Debora? Really?), but everything else is masterfully handled, and the design and writing help drive the narrative home.
I guess the long story short is that it has a fantastic plot, and great characters to back it up.
SUPER MARIO WORLD
Super Mario World is the game of my childhood. It’s the one game that I’d play over and over, pretty much anywhere I went, because even after all the times I’ve moved some family or another always managed to have the game. It was kind of like a safety net for me in the realm of gaming, even before I considered myself a true gamer. If I was bored or trying to get out of doing chores, well, there was Super Mario World. When I grew older, I bought the Game Boy Advance release of the classic, and played it endlessly. Even after getting 95 lives (which a friend managed to whittle down to two in an half-hour’s time once) and finding all the exits, I still played that wonderful Mario title over and over… and yes, to me this is the greatest game of all time.
So obviously Super Mario World has a fair bit of nostalgic and even sentimental value to me, but what is it that even kept me coming back in the first place, as opposed to other games (or even other Mario titles)? Well, for starters it has an expansive world map to explore. Sure, Super Mario Bros. 3 had a world map of sorts as well, but it wasn’t really used in any manner other than a siphon to get you from one area to the next, with maybe a quick stop-off at a Toad House or to beat up some unfortunate Hammer Bros. In Super Mario World, however, you can find different exits and new levels to explore… and you don’t even have to go about looking going through all of the levels if you don’t want to. You can either go through the game a straight as possible, going through the different levels and scenery without all the extra bits, explore every nook and cranny and find all the exits and secrets, or any place in between the two.
Speaking of scenery, everything in Super Mario World was so colorful and detailed looking, it was hard not to fall in love with. When Nintendo took Mario into the 16-bit world, they made sure to do it right, and it really shows in the graphics and sound. Everything looks great, and goes with each area’s food theme… well, at least vaguely. The caves especially looked great, with how expansive or restrictive the background made the caverns looks and the little details in the design. Of course, it’s all very colorful too, with Mario and the baddies popping out and making everything easy to see. No cheap deaths until you get to the Special Zone here (and even then, it’s more skill based than anything)!
Finally, there’s the wonderful level design. Super Mario World is never really difficult, and most of the time it actually is, it’s because of the great level design. Almost all of the levels are very well designed, and complete with many paths to get through the stage, no matter what power-ups you do or don’t have. I also love how the game makes great use of the cape power-up, allowing you to soar the skies and find hidden paths and out of the way areas… but the game also makes sure you can’t just soar through every level with cleverly placed pipes and other obstacles to stop you. The Ghost Houses can sort of grind your gears with the secret exits, but everything else design-wise is wonderfully crafted, and gives you an incentive to explore.
It’s basically like Nintendo gave everyone a Super Nintendo and Super Mario World, and said “this is how you make a 16-bit game”. It’s one of the titles you can look back on and say that it’s the embodiment of what a 16-bit platformer was: Great, updated graphics, a bigger world than any of its 8-bit brethren, and tight and fun gameplay…. and even the fact that it’s still completely playable and not outdated today says much for Super Mario World.
SOUL NOMAD AND THE WORLD EATERS
This third game, for me, kind of came out of the blue. I rarely consider it for most ‘top’ lists I make, but Soul Nomad is really a fantastic game. Almost everything about the game comes together to make an engaging and fun game, and as a Nippon Ichi game, it has plenty of hours of extra content to work through.
The thing that really makes Soul Nomad stand out in my mind, above all else, is a part of the post-game content. After you beat the game normally, you get an option at the beginning of New Game+ that’s a bit unusual. This option would normally give you a Bad End, but on a second playthrough, this option opens up an entirely new plot and story, and is aptly dubbed the Demon Campaign.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself–a little background information first. Soul Nomad is about your avatar being ‘possessed’ of sorts by a soul named Gig, who is seen as a pretty evil dude. However, over the course of the game and from Gig’s interactions with the main character and the world in itself, he softens up a bit (he’s still pretty bad, but he’s not flat out evil). This is a very gross generalization of the entire main plot of the game, but it’s enough to get my point across.
Anyway, on a second cycle, you have two options at the beginning of the game: Accept Gig while retaining your normal self (which is, again, the normal plot), and accepting Gig… well, in a slightly more homicidal fashion. Instead of being a normal main character, you more or less turn into the devil incarnate, and your first battle is in which you and Gig murder the members of your home village.
This is the beginning of the evil path, something that I personally was shocked in seeing. Soul Nomad’s plot shows signs of the world’s cruelty and desperation, but for the most part its a bit toned down in light of focusing on the secondary characters. This path takes all of that and puts it under a magnifying glass. For example, there’s a plot thread in which the character comes across a wealthy lord and a group of bandits that are terrorizing his land. At first these bandits seem uncouth, but once the leader Shauna explains her motives and past with this lord (which is very dark, but only implied in the normal story), before certain events happen and she sacrifices herself to save Tricia’s life.
But, what does the evil path do? You never save Tricia from her adopted father, nor do you help save the land from a bad ruler. You later come across Tricia, although in the evil path she is far different from her optimistic, cheery demeanor. Since in this evil path you never really save Tricia from what was about to happen, the shock of the sudden physical and sexual abuse from her adopted father drove her to insanity–while Shauna was able to endure the trauma and escape, and eventually rescue Tricia, she is too late, and the mentally broken character spouts off nonsense before eventually passes away some time later.
This new plot thread, and the handling of the death itself (“Oh, what happened to Tricia?” “She died.” “Oh” *everything moves on*) is really quite shocking. I’ve rarely seen a game handle such rather cruel points with the finesse it does, and it really makes the player feel evil in just playing it… I mean, after all everything that goes on in the evil path is pretty terrible, and not ‘evil’ in the way that feels mocking or as a joke.
Soul Nomad is a good game in itself in its right, but it’s the Demon Campaign that really excels the title into greatness in my eyes. It’s just so… different. Like Drakengard different, but with a terribly hopeless plot wrapped around good gameplay mechanics.
That about sums it up… yeah, that’s a lot of word about three games. These games certainly have a special place in my heart, and not a place ruled by nostalgia (like where Golden Sun and Dragon Warrior III sit). There’s little else to really say now that it’s all done, so I hope you enjoyed.