As cliched as it sounds, I would readily admit that I am a lifetime gamer. The number of titles that I’ve possessed over the years exceeds 400, and though that figure would be dwarfed by the more fanatical in the community, it’s a solid enough indicator that I have dabbled rather thoroughly in the medium.
There are dozens of games that I would declare to be my favourites, and yet it recently occurred to me how rare it is for a game to evoke a feeling of inexplicable joy in me: the kind that makes me look back on the experience with a sense of mirth.
As such, I thought I’d list them here in reverse chronological order for your (read: my) edification. The items present may not exactly be concrete, as I’d wager there are a few more entries that warrant inclusion. That being said, if they didn’t qualify in the first passing glance, could they really be so reverential?
That’s deep, baby, so let’s dive in.
Resident Evil (GameCube, 2002)
Ironically, the most recent addition to these echelons is actually the eldest game, overall. I just like to keep you on your toes, you dashing partaker of content.
I’ve waxed lyrical on my newfound obsession with Resident Evil previously, even going so far as to write an article approaching actual journalism to honour its twentieth anniversary, and yet, I still haven’t quite been able to translate its merits in words.
Deride its archaic controls and/or camera angles as much as you like, once you’ve adjusted to these peculiarities you’ll find it somehow enhances the claustrophobic feelings of horror further.
New players such as myself may get lost in the sprawling Spencer Mansion rather frequently, or end up confounded by puzzles that range from abstruse to downright bizarre. It rarely grows infuriating, however, and once you reach that ‘ah-ha’ moment of realisation, the brief gratification quickly shifts to terror from the next looming threat.
I passed over the original PlayStation trilogy in my youth, as its themes didn’t quite intersect with my impressionable innocence. Now, merely one year after first setting off on my journey into the Arklay Mountains, I am obsessed, gobbling up four games so far and already eager for the next.
Viewers would tell you I’m not a good Resident Evil player, or even a passably competent one. I still wear that Jill Valentine beret with pride, another addition to a legion of fans as numerous as the ravenous zombies we must fend off.
Super Mario Odyssey (Switch, 2017)
It may startle readers for me to already shift so far back as five years to locate a game for this list, particularly considering my self-professed infatuation with retro-styled throwbacks a la Streets of Rage 4 or Shredder’s Revenge.
Fine, fine games they may be, this is simply the lofty bar that has been set in my mind, and only someone with Mario’s vaunted jumping ability can cross it so easily.
I grew up in the era where platformers were the tentpole franchises of a console. From the early days of your Marios and your Sonics, to claim relevance, you had to have that mascot character and their tightly crafted gameplay.
The fifth console generation took the genre to the 3rd dimension, introducing new experiences we could only dream of previously. Then, tastes changed, first-person shooters emerged as the new darling, and platformers tapered off into what the Cookie Monster would describe as a ‘sometimes snack’.
Even Mario himself, the champion of the genre, mixed up his ideals a little to stay in the loop. The Wii’s Super Mario Galaxy titles are crowning examples of bold design philosophy, but their scope is intentionally scaled back to present a series of challenges more so than a sprawling world to explore.
Super Mario Odyssey was the return to fundamentals we thought we’d never receive, and playing it for the first time elicited countless ‘yes, that’s very good’ reactions from deep within me. It was like the playgrounds of yesteryear, inviting us to proceed in whatever direction we liked and offering delight after delight.
It is relentlessly bouncy and jolly, capably disguising some of its more brutal challenges lying under the surface. It just feels right, and I recognised quickly that this return to form would be fleeting. It wasn’t until Kirby POYO’d into his first foray in 3D platforming that the world would again take notice, and incidentally, I’m still yet to explore the titular forgotten land that has captured the attention of so many.
Perhaps a new addition to this list, waiting in the wings? Stay tuned.
Fire Emblem Awakening (3DS, 2013)
Unlike many others, this was not my first Fire Emblem rodeo. I had gotten involved just a few years prior, still fashionably late to a party that had been struggling to make its mark in western markets for almost a decade, and I was hyped for this one the moment it was first announced in the early days of the 3DS’ lifespan.
Though I wasn’t entirely convinced after completing the demo, once I got my hands on the final version, I was hooked. I kept squeezing out every last drop of battery power from the 3DS, recharging it, and then jumping right back into the fray. More ruffians, I demanded… Feed me more ruffians!!
It amplified all of the elements that made Fire Emblem so popular amongst strategy aficionados, and mercifully, it brought the franchise into the limelight as one of Nintendo’s finest. I adore almost every little thing about it, from its characters to its narrative to its mechanics.
There are a few little wrinkles here and there that would be smoothed out in subsequent entries, including a pair up system that is lucrative to the point of becoming broken and a scantily clad dragon child that you must never Google for fear of imprisonment. But most of my critiques are nitpicky more than anything else.
It’s no coincidence that this game was my most played on the portable system, currently sitting at over 340 hours. It also just so happens to be my favourite game of all time. Straight up, ever, elbowing Super Mario 64 from a peak it may have otherwise never left.
If people ever ask me about where to start with Fire Emblem, I eagerly point them in this direction. It does all of the things I want it to do, and if they were to ever release a remaster somewhere down the track, you’d best believe I’ll be the first to pack my bags and return to the Halidom of Ylisse.
Of course I would, my waifus are waiting for me.
Fire Emblem Sacred Stones (GBA, 2004)
Again, the release date is something of a misnomer here. As I alluded to, I was a late Fire Emblem adopter, only dipping my toes into the water in 2011 as part of the 3DS’ ambassador program. This game’s impact was based not only on its own strengths, but circumstance as well.
Long story short, I was working night shifts in the city while trying to save up money. With no way to get back home, I’d have to pull an all-nighter at woeful Southern Cross railway station before catching the first train in the morning. Following a few evenings of my usual handheld lineup, I trialled this unfamiliar little title for the first time, and quickly fell in love with it.
The adventures of Eirika and Ephraim may not rank among the all-time greats for most Fire Emblem pundits, however it was my very first and therefore proved the benchmark that all others would be measured against. It could be unforgiving at times, even unfair, with just one misjudged turn making the difference between rollicking success and soft reset.
The branching storyline paths allow you to experience a fresh perspective on a second playthroughs. The post-game challenges brought a level of tension that I’ve not since matched in the series, throwing you into a series of dungeons that you must clear simultaneously. And the unit lineup contains some of my favourites to this day: I’m yet to encounter a wyvern rider that oozes quite as much stoic badassery as my man Cormag.
I cannot in good conscience count myself among the true elite of Fire Emblem fandom; those who suffered through years of anonymity prior to the ‘modern era’ ushered in by Awakening. What I can see, is how the soldiers of Renais are overlooked, and gain at least a cursory understanding of their embittered ‘we were here before it was cool’ mindset.
As a Lucina apologist, I’m still catered to anyway, so I really shouldn’t complain.
Animal Crossing (GameCube, 2001)
Tempted as I was to end this list with Sacred Stones — the last truly significant game of my adulthood — I continued thumbing through my collection until I happened upon another game that really tickled me.
I received Animal Crossing for my birthday in 2004, not entirely sure of what to expect. Ever since its days as Animal Forest on the N64, I had my eye on this bizarre little title. I was an avid reader of gaming magazines at the time, and it kept popping up, adorned with cutesy little animals spouting cryptic phrases in some ancient tongue (Japanese).
It looked kind of simplistic, but I kept tabs on it all the same. It threatened to be another Doshin the Giant; some curio that never left the shores of Nihon dubbed ‘too niche’ for western sensibilities. Then, it landed in my hands: complete with its own memory card (it demanded an entire card all to itself) and a slash in the packaging where some daft K-Mart employee had ignored their box cutter training.
After a brief discussion with a nosey cat named after a dog, I arrived in Überg and immediately found myself in debt (a series of events that would closely mirror my journey to Sydney in a fallacious attempt to launch my journalism career). I cautiously wandered into the adjacent lot, where I encountered a surly mouse with a deep voice and five-day stubble.
Needless to say, I was ecstatic.
The very notion of this living, breathing little world inside my GameCube, that would continue throughout the day without me, had me coming back for more. I invested countless hours into dutifully scrambling about the town on fetch quests, desperate for the approval of the therian townspeople.
Eventually, my chums from school would create their own characters, eking out their own lives and asserting themselves as rivals for neighbourhood fancy.
“Look at this letter from Wikie me,” bragged Amelia the condor, proudly brandishing the note where my friend had called her a ho. “This is what I call distinguished.”
I would continue to purchase every Animal Crossing game that followed, only for my interest to flame out after a few exhaustive months. I would rarely return to them afterwards, with Überg remaining the only one that meant just that little bit more. I should probably check in on them soon, actually, as I left Alfonso the alligator in charge and he seemed a bit overwhelmed by the idea.
With that, we’ve reached past the halfway point of my life and plucked out the elite in my gaming pantheon. Writing this was actually more rewarding than I expected, even strangely therapeutic in a way.
Perhaps someday I’ll explore further, though it will probably be murkier to recall what commanded my commitment as a child, considering my threshold was as mundane as something being the best because it was the colour red.
…Just like Mario’s cap, or Gregor’s fiery mane, or the spewing blood from the mortal wound of a zombie victim. I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same.