I first played a video game way back when I got a PlayStation for my 5th birthday. It was a hand-me-down from my uncle since he bought a PlayStation 2, but it was still quite the introduction. I only really used it to play a couple of licensed games though. And while I would later get a Gameboy Advance (GBA) and a Nintendo DS, it was the Wii that would really cement me as a gamer.
The Wii introduced me to a bunch of my favorite gaming franchises and my fondness for Nintendo. That fondness soon got me to expand out to other consoles and genres that I had only seen on gaming news outlets and the internet. Video games have since become a significant part of my life. Not only are they fun, but have incredible potential for telling stories. I enjoy how they can weave character and narrative into their levels to create a more emotional experience. Here are but a few I played in my early days that shaped a lot of my taste in gaming. They’re not necessarily my favorites anymore, but I’ll never regret popping them in the console and hitting start.
Pokémon Fire Red and Leaf Green (dev. Game Freak, 2004, GBA)
Pokémon is really the first video game franchise I ever became a fan of, although I didn’t start with the games. As early as four, I was watching the anime and feverously collecting the trading cards. It was only later on when I got a GBA for my birthday and a copy of Pokemon Fire Red, a remake of the original first generation games, that I could see all the Pokémon I knew from when I was younger in action.
I played it non-stop. After years of watching Ash on TV, it was enthralling meandering through Kanto collecting and battling with my favorite monsters. Pokémon’s battle system is easy to understand but with enough nuance to keep you on your toes. Building the perfect team to take on the gyms and make sure you can balance all the type advantages is the reason I come back to Pokémon to this day. And there is nothing more satisfying than completing the Pokédex. I still remember struggling through the Pokémon Tower or spending hours in the Safari Zone trying to catch a Scyther (my favorite Pokémon).
The world of Pokémon is also just fun to be in. The plot is kind of throwaway in these older games, but there is more than enough wonder and character to keep you engaged. Even years after playing I can still vaguely remember each city and the locations of the different mons. It’s just a charmingly light-hearted adventure.
I know this is a deeply unpopular opinion, but I don’t mind Kanto getting remade so much. I always enjoy going back there every now and then.
Super Smash Bros Brawl (dev. Sora Ltd, 2008, Wii)
Even after Pokémon, I still didn’t know a lot about video games. My friend would get frustrated with me not knowing what Halo or The Legend of Zelda was.
This changed when I got a Wii and Super Smash Bros Brawl. I was in awe of all the strange and interesting characters in the game. At the time I only knew Pokémon, Mario, and Sonic but after playing Brawl, I wanted to know them all. I wanted to try out Kirby, Fire Emblem, Zelda, Pikmin, Metal Gear, and more. And I did. Brawl was truly the game that got me into video games.
I know it’s not as popular as Super Smash Bros Melee or Ultimate, but Brawl has its own merits. It has the best single-player content in the series with that enormous story mode and its cutscenes really did a fantastic job at introducing me to each character and showing a bit of their personality. It made me want to know more about their original games even more.
Smash’s gameplay is a great example of easy to learn, hard to master with its simple move input but more difficult techniques. Brawl gets a lot of flak for slowing the battles down compared to Melee and adding tripping (which we all know should never have been a thing) but as a casual gamer, I owe a lot to Brawl and am glad it introduced me to so many great games.
Earthbound (dev. Ape Inc and HAL Laboratory, 1994, SNES)
Speaking of which, this is one such game I learned of through Brawl.
Earthbound is a well-known cult classic nowadays, but back in the late 2000s it was still relatively unknown outside of its extremely devoted fan community. These fans made entire films, animations, music, and much more for this game. It was the first time I really got involved with a fandom and it showed me what fans are willing to do for the things they love.
And Earthbound is a very easy game to love. What may seem like a simple RPG about stopping an evil alien is really a subtle, layered coming-of-age story with highly emotional ideas and a heartwarming soundtrack.
Even as a child Earthbound always gave me a feeling of nostalgia. It’s a game about the wonders of being a kid and keeping that wonder even when entering the adult world. This game gets surprisingly dark with depictions of cults, police brutality, alcohol, and random adults attacking you on the street. All topped off with one of the creepiest final bosses in all of the RPGs, a physical embodiment of malice and trauma. Yet for all this darkness you also meet many quirky, funny, and kind characters willing to lend a hand just because they can (and as many have said before, the dialogue is amazing).
These are ideas that I take with me as an adult. Earthbound is the game that demonstrated to me that video games have artistic merit and can tell emotional atmospheric stories in their own unique way.
Bioshock (dev. Irrational Games, 2007, PS3)
I’ve never been the biggest fan of first-person shooters. Military dudes out in some grey-brown no man’s lands just aren’t that appealing to me. Of course, they’re not all like that, and I am forever glad I was introduced to Bioshock to break that spell.
If Earthbound showed me how a game can use gameplay to present tone and atmosphere, Bioshock showed me how a modern triple-A title can tell a thorough story through gameplay in combination with brilliant world-building, writing, and music.
Bioshock’s 1940s inspired sunken city of Rapture, always felt alive, dangerous, and intriguing. It is perfectly crafted to give the player a true sense of fear, but the masochistic curiosity to keep going forward. And if you know of the twist that happens later in the game, I believe that was fully intentional. I appreciate the fact that it feels like people have lived in this world. My favorite aspect of world-building is collecting tape recordings from important Rapture figures. You get an idea of how they lived their lives only to later find their decaying corpse posed accordingly to their often gruesome deaths.
This plays into the combat as well. The mixture of guns, plasmids, and hacking gives the player a versatile approach to combat. You can approach fights in your own way and even just finding these weapons just adds to your engagement into Bioshock’s demented world.
Shin Megami Tensei IV (dev. Atlus, 2013, 3DS)
The Shin Megami Tensei series is one of my favorite video games franchises and SMT IV was the first mainline game I played. It was one of the first JRPGs I played that wasn’t Pokémon. In many ways, it was my gateway to the more complex concepts of the genre. Large novel-like plots, well-crafted characters, and creative use of mythology and philosophy.
I’ve always been a fan of different mythical creatures and deities. It’s part of the reason I got into Pokémon, and SMT takes that to a whole new level. Actual demons and gods from a variety of myths interwoven into an urban apocalyptic setting.
Much like Pokémon, collecting the various demons is incredibly fun. However, while Pokémon was nice for its simplicity, SMT adds an element of depth that I began to feel Pokémon lacked as I got older. The press turns battle system where you gain a turn for hitting an enemy’s weakness is an understandable but challenging combat system that keeps you on your toes with how both you and the enemy can exploit it.
The story likewise is fascinating. While the character is a little on the flat side, the themes are thought-provoking. When I first started playing, I asked around which of its multiple endings was the ‘good’ ending, however, I soon came to realize that there wasn’t one. Each has you follow a different ideology: law, chaos, or neutral. None of them are wholly good, each has pros and cons. It’s up to you to decide what you’re willing to sacrifice and what kind of world you want to shape. It showed how games can approach morally grey narratives through the use of multiple-choice options.
With SMT V coming out soon, I can’t wait to see how the series will evolve in the future.
Words By Alex Daud Briggs