Kirby’s Dream Land 2 released during a time when a sequel to a game that I loved wasn’t an expected or familiar occurrence to me, so when I learned that there was a second Kirby’s Dream Land? Hoo boy! Dream Land 2 is just as important to me as the original, if not more so. This sequel is basically an expanded, much more robust version of the first Dream Land and it remains one of the most important games of my childhood. I loved all the varied worlds, seeking out the mysterious Rainbow Drops, and finally reaching the true finale. One of the big reasons why I really connected with Dream Land 2 was the new animal friends that Kirby could team up with. Not only am I someone who has always had an affinity with animals, but there’s a real sense of adventure and friendship here, and there’s an epic feeling as the game draws to a close. Besides the new animal buddies, Dream Land 2 also featured copy abilities, unlike the first game, and since the only other Kirby game I had played was that first game (and not Kirby’s Adventure, where copy powers were introduced), I actually played all the way up to the penultimate world without having any idea this was an aspect of the game. After getting stuck and having to consult the manual, my whole world changed when I learned of Kirby’s then relatively new ability and it only made this game that much more incredible to me. Dream Land 2 is also notable for introducing my favorite villain in the Kirby series, the enigmatic Dark Matter, and kicking off a three-game saga that would continue in Kirby’s Dream Land 3 and conclude in Kirby 64. I was so fascinated by this strange new villainous force that I basically included a rip-off of it in a short story that I wrote in the third grade. Finally reaching the true final boss of Dream Land 2 felt triumphant on its own, but it would be years before I finally succeeded and saw the true ending of this extremely special game.
From Kirby to Mario, it should be clear if you’ve been following this list just how special the Game Boy and its games are to me, and how formative and crucial they were in my video game history. Game Boy was my go-to game device as a kid and I perhaps have more fond childhood memories with it and its games than any of the consoles. Super Mario Land 2 is emblematic of this time in my life. This game is my childhood in a tiny gray cartridge, and while I’ve been saying that I have three earliest gaming memories that were very formative for me (one more still to come), I probably should have said four, as this game is definitely mixed up in that time period. I feel like I must have played Six Golden Coins for several years and I brought it with me everywhere: in the car, on vacations, to the beach, to friends’ houses, etc. It influenced my imagination in countless ways, prompting me to dream up my own “zones” in the same spirit as those in the game and draw out maps on napkins. It’s more than just nostalgia though. I described my admiration for the Game Boy era of Nintendo eccentricity when talking about Wario Land II and Wario Land and Super Mario Land 2 is one of the quintessential examples of this imaginative spirit. There is no Mushroom Kingdom. There is no Bowser. There is no pandering nostalgia-bait. There is no goddamn desert land. There is Mario’s messed-up bizarro twin, Wario in his debut appearance, there is a carrot that grants Mario bunny ears, and one of the worlds is a gigantic mechanical statue of Mario where you fight the three little pigs in Lego land (this statement is 100% accurate, I assure you). One of my favorite things about this game is these creative worlds and the great sense of progression and detail that each one presents. Another world is Tree Zone, where Mario explores a gigantic tree starting at the roots, ventures into its sap-filled interior, and climbs up into its branches to explore a giant beehive and bird’s nest. It’s all a far-cry from the bland regurgitated environments Mario so frequently tromps through today and I can’t think of a better reminder of the wonderful creativity and variety that Mario once displayed in each and every new special adventure of his than Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins. Also, just to set the record straight: Mario in space? This game did it first. Sorry, Galaxy.
Metroid Prime 2 definitely seems to be the underdog of the Prime trilogy, and that’s a shame because it’s an exceptional experience. Prime 2 is probably one of the creepiest titles in the Metroid series and also one of the most creative in my eyes. It has this very oppressive, harrowing atmosphere, and it really feels like, as Samus, you’re stranded on a twisted, hostile alien world. As I’ve discussed before, the whole “light and dark world” motif has been done to death when it comes to Nintendo games, but Echoes’ take on the concept at least feels inspired. I love how the very air of Dark Aether is corrosive as it really adds a great deal of tension to this eerie other world, and makes it really feel like a place you don’t want to be in. Dark Samus was also introduced in this one, and she (or it) is one of my favorite takes on the whole “dark doppelganger” cliché; she’s creepy, powerful, and she wants you dead (and she also has a badass theme). What chiefly comes to my mind about Echoes though is its richly-realized locales, which all stand out sharply in my memory, such as the rain-soaked Torvus Bog with its subterranean secrets and the beautiful, Tron-esque Sanctuary Fortress, which is definitely one of the most stand-out locations in the series. Retro Studios’ knack for creating believable, immersive alien worlds really shines in Echoes, and I felt completely absorbed in the flora, fauna, and terrain of Aether. As I may or may not talk about next time, the original Metroid Prime was initially a bit of a mixed experience for me, so in a way Echoes feels like my Metroid game; I was familiar with the Prime formula at this point, and it allowed me to get immediately sucked into this game and to quickly fall in love with it.
Oh Sunshine, you underappreciated, underplayed gem. I was so excited for this game and remember pouring over every new screenshot and detail that would emerge in the latest issue of EGM. When it finally released in the US in late August of 2002, I spent every remaining minute of my summer vacation playing it and continued doing so as I entered my freshman year of high school. Like the Game Boy, the GameCube was a special time of experimentation and unbridled creativity from Nintendo; a time when they focused on doing interesting things with the games themselves rather than with the controller you use to interact with them. Super Mario Sunshine is one of many examples of this creativity. It’s not the revolution that Super Mario 64 was or the grand crowd-pleaser that the Galaxy games are, but it’s sort of like the “Majora’s Mask” of the Super Mario series; a bold, creative follow-up to an immensely well-regarded and important game that feels more low-key and intimate in its own way. It won’t appeal to everyone, but those who recognize its magic will surely fall in love with it. One of the things that makes Sunshine so special is the connected, detailed world of Isle Delfino. Being able to gaze into the distance and see other locations and how everything connects lends a sense of cohesion to the experience that I really love, and this great sense of place is strengthened by a potent atmosphere that takes the theme of a tropical vacation and fleshes it out to its limits with a variety of memorable locations, including a peaceful village resting in the hills, an offshore amusement park, and an eerie haunted hotel on a beautiful twilit beach. There are less “levels” than in other 3D Super Mario games, but Sunshine focuses more on building a world than linear challenges, and there is a great emphasis on quality over quantity as each area is densely packed with little details, including the central hub of Delfino Plaza. The result is a Super Mario game that feels less like a series of levels and more like a Mario RPG in 3D platformer form. There’s a great sense of context in Sunshine and this applies to its much-maligned narrative as well. While the game’s voice acting may be a source of great derision today (and largely for good reason), I still appreciate the effort put into framing an adventure that was more than just “Bowser kidnaps Peach” and back in 2002 I was just amazed that a Super Mario game had voice acting and such a relatively fleshed-out storyline.
There is just something so joyous and lively and “feel-good” about Super Mario Sunshine. I could go on about the incredibly fluid mechanics, which are probably the best of all the 3D Super Mario games, the jubilant sound design and soundtrack, the bright and luscious visuals, and those amazing water effects, but simply put Super Mario Sunshine truly is unique in this series and easily one of my Mario favorites.
Similar to Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic and Knuckles, Golden Sun and Golden Sun: The Lost Age are merely two halves of the same big adventure, originally intended to be one large game but split up due to hardware limitations and developer ambitions. Funnily enough, Golden Sun was recommended to me by a random stranger I was chatting with in a random chat room at the dawn of the internet age, and it then became my first Game Boy Advance game along with Sonic Advance. I thank that person (whoever they are and wherever they are now) because they were right: Golden Sun is fantastic. It is pretty much my ideal RPG: a traditional battle system with a large, explorable, interesting world, with unique psychic powers called “Psynergy” that are used in puzzle-solving and combat mixed in for good measure. The gorgeous sprite-based visuals also have to be seen to be believed and these are easily some of the prettiest GBA games around, featuring visually-stunning and over-the-top summons and magic attacks. The “Golden Sun” portion of this two-part journey is certainly great, but in a way it sort of feels like a prologue to The Lost Age, which is where the experience really takes off, opening up the great world of Weyard and featuring multiple continents, islands, intricately-detailed villages, complex dungeons, and a vast ocean to explore. The Golden Sun saga also takes a different tone from most JRPGs and features a refreshingly easy-to-follow and not overly complicated narrative, but the narrative structure is nonetheless very interesting. There are basically two central groups that set off on a journey at the start of the first game, each with opposing goals, and in Golden Sun you play as one side and in The Lost Age you switch perspectives and play as the other. The situation in the game then is not a straightforward “good vs. evil” tale as in many RPGs, but that’s all I’ll say about it. In addition, if you play both games (which you obviously should), you can transfer your characters from Golden Sun into The Lost Age, an element that comes into play as The Lost Age goes on. Of course, it wouldn’t be one of my favorite games of all time if the soundtrack wasn’t amazing, and the Golden Sun/The Lost Age OST is really something quite different. The music has a very signature sound and a certain style that I find very unique, and it ranges from peaceful and relaxing with many of the town themes to downright inspirational when it comes to the world map and traveling themes.
Only twenty games left? Yup! #20-16 is next!