Wednesday, October 26, 2016

My Three Favorite Video Games (My Top 115 Favorite Video Games Finale)

Welcome to the final post of The Stock Pot Inn! From the very first post all the way to the one-hundredth today, writing here has allowed me to immerse myself in my favorite hobby, practice reviewing and talking about games, and analyze my strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Maybe it comes across as a little silly to officially end a blog, but my decision to do so is just part of me making some changes in my life. I’ll reiterate that I’m not deleting this blog and it will hopefully always be here for anyone to go back to and look over (most likely chiefly by myself). I also don’t plan on quitting writing about video games and will continue to do so in a capacity that is unknown to me at this time. With all that said, I want to now say thank-you to anyone and everyone who has taken the time to read anything I’ve written here over the years, including this final entry. I truly appreciate it when anyone reads something I write, so I sincerely thank you.

Now let’s get to what you’re here for, as this isn’t just this blog’s final post, it’s also the finale of My Top 115 Favorite Video Games. To head all the way back to the very beginning and start from number 115, click here to be taken to the introductory post. For the rest of you, here we are, the top three. And surprise! It’s a three-way tie! Or perhaps I should say it’s a “Tieforce”. Yep, it would be dishonest of me to claim anything other than that the three of these titles are tied for my favorite video game of all. I’ve said this list is mainly a way for me to reminisce about and reflect on my history with games and that the numbering isn’t too important (the numbering in this final post is merely a formality by the way), but this “Triforce” truly contains the three games that currently stand out among all of my gaming experiences. All three of these games are monumentally important works of art to me and I’m delighted to share some of my feelings on them with you. I began this blog to celebrate my love of video games and I hope that in this final posting you’ll see that passion more clearly than ever before.

With great joy, I now present to you my three favorite video games:

3. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker/The Wind Waker HD (GameCube/Wii U)

When I first saw the initial trailer for “Celda”, I admit I was a little turned off. I wasn’t an obsessive fan of the Zelda series yet so I wasn’t exactly one of the people tossing my green tunic in the trash and sending hate mail to Nintendo, but the trailer’s cartoonish and slapstick vibe didn’t appeal to me much all the same. I sort of just shrugged the game off and moved on with my life. In time something changed, however, as what had initially been a game I was quite apathetic to soon became something I was feverishly anticipating. While I can’t remember the exact details that led to this transition, I do remember pouring over a detailed cover story in Nintendo Power filled with screenshots of a beautiful-looking adventure unlike anything I’d ever seen before. I began to recall fond memories with the few Zelda games that I had played previously and upon pre-ordering The Wind Waker, I finally got my chance to properly play through the entirety of the legendary N64 classic, Ocarina of Time. With that crucial missing Zelda experience under my belt, I was prepared.

I began my journey in The Wind Waker on a school night and was immediately endeared to the colorful island of Outset and its inhabitants while far-off silhouettes across the ocean made my imagination stir. I made it through the Forsaken Fortress and stopped playing just as I got to Windfall Island that night, and all I could think about the next day at school was discovering what awaited me in that bustling island village. Diving back into The Wind Waker that afternoon and getting lost in the dense town of Windfall as I conversed with villagers, completed little sidequests, and began to take my first true steps in the great quest that lay before me is one of my fondest gaming memories to this day. The first time I set out to sea and realized as I came ashore the grassy Pawprint Isle that the whole world was seamless, a vast canvas for exploration and discovery, my heart beat with a kind of excitement that no video game had ever given me. Those early moments set this game up to be one of the greatest experiences I’d ever have with interactive entertainment, and thirteen years and many playthroughs later, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker continues to deliver.

They say that everyone who admires the Zelda series has a different idea of what makes a Zelda game good; that one person’s ideal Zelda may differ greatly from another’s. Consider The Wind Waker my personal Zelda ideal then. For better or for worse, it basically became the model by which I judged all future games in the series, or at the very least the 3D ones; though it’s worth noting that The Wind Waker is also by my estimation the most faithful realization of a classic 2D Zelda experience in full 3D to date. Similar to games like A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening, The Wind Waker places a huge emphasis on experimentation and just “playing around”. Link can be a downright mischievous little brat in this game and I love it. The wide range of available actions he has at his disposal, such as crawling and sidling, coupled with his lively expressions and the freedom to perform these actions just about anywhere one likes allow for the Zelda game in which it is the most fun to just goof around. Items with a diverse range of utility such the Deku Leaf, minor quirky items like pears that allow the player to control seagulls, and the camera known as the Picto Box all compound this sense of playfulness. The increased functionality of the Picto Box in The Wind Waker HD, including the ability to take selfies, only adds to this sense of whimsy. The sidequests also occasionally play into the mischief, such as an extended one where Link plays paparazzo and has to sneak around taking candid photos of villagers in an elaborate scavenger hunt. The sidequests as a whole have a lot of effort put into them and Windfall Island in particular is host to a number of compelling vignettes if one takes the time to get to know the locals.

All of this ties into an overarching sense of freedom present in The Wind Waker, which is of course no more obviously apparent than in the unparalleled joy of sailing across the boundless Great Sea, where new discoveries constantly await. Sharing more than a few things in common with Skies of Arcadia (which I amazingly actually played right before The Wind Waker the same year), The Wind Waker exudes a feeling of adventure and discovery in every island charted, treasure plundered, and tale shared at the Café Bar on Windfall Island. It’s difficult to describe the giddy anticipation that comes from sailing towards an unknown shape on the horizon or leaping down into a newly-discovered cavern or entering a lonely submarine rolling about on the waves. Countless mysteries await on the Great Sea, including an eerie traveling Ghost Ship and terrifying beasts lying in wait beneath the sea to swallow the player up. Like Skies of Arcadia, there is a true sense of peril and possibility in The Wind Waker’s world, and the drive to see everything there is to see is intoxicating. The overworld theme music, likewise, sets the scene marvelously.

Sailing in The Wind Waker is one of the most expert uses of “downtime” I’ve seen in a game, and the shifting weather, setting sun, and rising moon all place a sharp focus on atmosphere. This atmosphere prevails throughout every corner of the beautiful world and each individual moment is a gem: letting my sail down and gazing at the stars in the middle of the sea, descending into a subterranean cavern alight with fireflies and overgrown with vegetation, getting swept up in a roiling thunderstorm and taking shelter on an island where some new little adventure awaits. As the sky clears and I sail at a brisk clip through the cool night air towards the spinning lighthouse of Windfall Island, it feels like a homecoming as I make port and put my feet up in the cozy warmth of the Café Bar, where sailors swap stories of fantastic sights I might someday see or may have already come across. This all establishes a world that feels vast but intimately-connected, and these relaxing moments in places like the café juxtaposed with adventures out on the high seas form the heart of The Wind Waker’s wonderful sense of adventure. Whoa, I haven’t even gotten to the art design, have I?

What at first seemed like a trivial and silly game worthy of derision turned out to not only be the most artistically sophisticated game in the whole Zelda series, but one of the most narratively sophisticated as well. The art design of the original Wind Waker is truly an animated cartoon come to life and it makes for a compelling fairy tale quality that is contrasted with the game’s decidedly mature and weighty storytelling. There is a theme of “legend vs. reality” prevalent all throughout The Wind Waker and while I am not going to dissect or spoil its narrative, I will tell you that it is unequivocally one of the strongest in the series and is not only an enchanting tale in its own right with some of the most chill-inducing and emotional moments in the series, but it also provides a smart commentary of sorts on the nature of the Zelda series as a whole. I would highly recommend that you play Ocarina of Time prior to The Wind Waker as well if you want to receive the full impact of the narrative. In fact, playing Ocarina fully for the first time myself right before I first played The Wind Waker was a serendipitous turn of events that may be part of the reason I was so immensely endeared to the Zelda series as a whole back then. The visuals serve the story as well and they were ultimately a daring and genius move for the series that ended up being incredibly fitting. While I find the visuals of the original version to be more cohesive than the HD remaster’s, that newer version is still undeniably a very, very beautiful game that also makes some smart tweaks beyond the visuals and is currently what I consider to be the best Zelda remaster/remake Nintendo has done (well, along with Link's Awakening DX that is).

I could go on indefinitely about The Wind Waker, I really could; I’ve only barely scratched the surface. How have I not mentioned that it contains one of my favorite soundtracks in the series? Or how its combat and fluid mechanics follow suit? Or discussed the dungeons? But like I said, The Wind Waker is my Zelda ideal, so just assume it does just about everything exceptionally in my opinion. The Legend of Zelda, for me, is a fairy tale about a kid on a magical quest; Link has never been “badass” and this is not “gritty” and “edgy” fantasy. That also does not mean that it’s not mature and sophisticated though, and The Wind Waker is the perfect melding of these two principles that largely define Zelda for me. The Wind Waker is the game that made me fall in love with the Zelda series and it altered my expectations for just how utterly enchanting a video game can be. Taking some of the best aspects of both Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask while also taking the series back to its classic roots in many ways, this wonderful, magical game wound up being a video game experience that has yet to be topped for me, and there is no describing the amount of joy and happiness that just hearing one of its sound effects brings me.

**WARNING: The following write-up about Link’s Awakening contains Major Spoilers so read at your own risk!**

Have you ever felt a strange connection to dreams? Like have you ever had a dream that felt so real, so tangible, that waking up felt wrong? Where a person in your dream that you conversed with, got to know, even loved felt so real that you mourned their loss when you awoke? I have, and it is one of many, many reasons why The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening occupies a special place in my heart shared by no other.

“This is Zelda”, my brother said to wide-eyed young me as I stared down at a black and white screen and watched him fight Moblins in the Mysterious Forest (It’s a little bit mysterious). This is to the best of my memory my first exposure to The Legend of Zelda beyond just occasionally hearing the name, and Link’s Awakening DX, the Game Boy Color remaster and my preferred version of that original black and white title my brother was playing, was my first Zelda game. Well, to be honest, just between you and me it’s possible that my brief little journey through a rented Ocarina of Time that I talked about last time predated all this or fell somewhere in the middle, but at the very least Awakening DX, which released in 1998 just a month after Ocarina of Time, was the first Zelda game I played extensively and finished. I said that Ocarina kind of frightened me when I first played it and I also had a somewhat similar reaction to Link’s Awakening as well, except even stronger and coupled with other feelings that are something else entirely.

Link’s Awakening imbued in me a sense of both wonder and existential dread that I cannot adequately articulate. I might describe the experience as eerie in some ways, uncanny, just “not right” in that way that’s tough to lay a finger on. Needless to say, nothing else has ever made me feel quite this way, and no other work of art has ever quite left the same impression. In the simplest terms, Link’s Awakening has a notably mysterious nature where just about every character, enemy, piece of dialogue, and section of the map has some sort of puzzling element to it, and it’s the kind of thing that made me simultaneously intrigued and repulsed. That was my initial reaction to Zelda: fascination and aversion.

But when I got deep into Link’s Awakening, I couldn’t stop playing.

I was stuck for around a year (or maybe it was just a few months) on a single puzzle in only the game’s second dungeon, Bottle Grotto (even uttering this place’s sing-songy name has a great significance for me). I might not care about the Zelda series at all today if I hadn’t eventually returned to the game and solved that riddle, at which point the entire game seemed to unlock and a feeling of immense excitement overcame me. Much of the experience that followed is tied to memories of me being home sick from school for about a week with strep throat, and during that time I left this world and absconded into a confusing and wondrous subconscious land.

You see, Link’s Awakening doesn’t feel like just an external work of art to me, or like just a really good video game; it feels deeply personal. I’ve described other games on this list as feeling like they are "a part of me", but with Link’s Awakening it goes even beyond that. It’s like…it’s like the game is a dream that I had a long time ago. In fact, that’s exactly what it feels like.

And that is, of course, exactly what Link’s Awakening literally is. A dream. It’s a dream that feels so real and so tangible that waking up feels wrong. That the actions I do as Link feel wrong, evil even. And the person in that dream that I get to know and that I love? Her name is Marin and I mourn her and the entire world that I destroy every time I play Link’s Awakening. It’s just a video game, I tell myself, but I still feel personally responsible. I am wracked with guilt, sadness, and confusion when I turn the Game Boy off.

Maybe it’s all just a powerful, potent nostalgia, but you know what? That’s ok. There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia. It’s what ties our emotions to the past and resurrects the past today, so that we may remember and vicariously re-experience happiness, sadness, love, loss; memories of all kinds. Link’s Awakening can fit into a lot of categories I have been laying out throughout this list: it was an extremely formative game for me, it is another prime example of Game Boy eccentricity and creativity, it has a lonely feeling that draws me to it like Silent Hill 2 and Shadow of the Colossus but different, and it also shares quite a lot in common with the final game on this list. But it is also completely unique. It disturbed and enchanted me deeply as a child, and today this unique feeling of fear and awe that it inspired in me (and continues to) is perhaps what I admire and love about the experience most of all.

Dreams are where I escape, explore, fear, imagine, love, hate, and even live.

Eventually, I have to wake up, and it is always sad.

Of course it all comes down to Majora’s Mask. I called The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask alone my favorite game of all time for a long time, but the more I’ve thought about and replayed The Wind Waker and Link’s Awakening, the more I’ve realized just how much love I have for all three of these games and how picking one over the others just feels wrong. That said, obviously there’s a reason why I’m ending with Majora’s Mask, and it’s right in the title of this blog.

So let’s talk about the Stock Pot Inn. No, not the blog, the actual inn located is East Clock Town run by the modest Anju. I’ve used the word “cozy” to describe aspects of both Ocarina of Time and The Wind Waker, and this quality, in a larger sense, is one of the primary reasons why I love the entire Legend of Zelda series so much. The Stock Pot Inn is an embodiment of this “signature coziness”, but it’s also only one of several similar locations throughout the series, such as the aforementioned Café Bar from The Wind Waker and Romani Ranch also from Majora’s Mask. Actually, if there’s a theme song for this cozy feeling, it’s the traditional “house theme” first established in Ocarina of Time, which in a way is the true main theme of Zelda for me, as funny as that might seem. The “coziness factor” is actually a quality that endears me to many video games, but the Zelda series and perhaps especially Majora’s Mask are simply the pinnacle of this feeling.

I love it when a game invites me into in its world and asks me to explore, discover, and eventually settle in and make a home for myself. It’s returning to my spaceship in Pikmin 3 after a busy in-game day to unwind and recuperate, it’s hanging out with the Nopon in the delightful Frontier Village in Xenoblade Chronicles, it’s going for a stroll in Animal Crossing or Shenmue just to see what’s new around town, it’s getting intimate with the geography of Isle Delfino in Super Mario Sunshine and conversing with its residents, it’s…well it can be a lot of things. The Stock Pot Inn, Clock Town, Majora’s Mask as a whole doesn’t just embody this feeling of coziness, it’s basically the primary goal of the entire experience. Whenever I play Majora’s Mask, it feels like coming home.

There’s a moment in the opening cinematic of the game that takes us inside the lobby of the Stock Pot Inn, where we see one of the Rosa Sisters walk down the stairs and pause for a moment as she considers something, then begin walking again, pause once more, and then resume walking yet again as the scene cuts away. When I think of Majora’s Mask, this moment is often one of the first to pop into my head for some reason. Perhaps it’s because, in a way, this small, seemingly trivial little snapshot captures the essence of Majora’s Mask.

Majora’s Mask stalls and lingers, it focuses on the little details, the little moments that other games pass by in their rush to the next big action set-piece or boss fight. It invites the player to live in its dense, detailed world, which at first seems confusing and imposing, but soon begins to feel intimately familiar. The world of Majora’s Mask is often painted as abrasive and uncomfortable by people, and while elements of it certainly are, it’s largely the game’s overall apocalyptic scenario that is so threatening while the world itself is actually a place that I simply love spending time in.

It’s interesting then that when I first began Majora’s Mask on a rental over fifteen years ago, I didn’t really know what to make of it. I initially wasn’t too fond of being stuck as Deku Link in the early moments and still wasn’t sure if this Zelda thing was really for me at that point. The experience changed when I regained Link’s human shape though and by the time I had reached Woodfall, I knew I had to own the game. I was beginning to learn that “this Zelda thing” was indeed very, very much for me. I received the game and its strategy guide on my thirteenth birthday and my first proper adventure with a 3D Zelda began. The only game in the series that I had fully played prior was Link’s Awakening, which ended up being quite appropriate considering that Majora’s Mask is the spiritual successor to that game in every way. Both games are in large part the brainchildren of Yoshiaki Koizumi, a talented storyteller and designer at Nintendo who is responsible for the unique scenario and narrative of Link’s Awakening as well as largely responsible for the overall scenario and many of the serious narrative elements of Majora’s Mask. He also co-directed Majora’s Mask along with Eiji Aonuma, who of course also deserves plenty of credit, for without Aonuma’s creative entrepreneurism, Majora’s Mask probably wouldn’t have existed in the first place. Majora’s Mask carries on the surreal and offbeat spirit of Link’s Awakening, and like that game there is also a deep sense of loneliness present.

Taking place over the course of countless “three day cycles” in a scenario where the player must continuously rewind time lest a grimacing moon crash into the city of Clock Town and bring about the apocalypse, Majora’s Mask places a large emphasis not on one big, linear storyline, but on getting to know the various citizens of the land of Termina and healing their sorrows in the three days leading up to the end of days. The feeling of loneliness comes from intimately getting to know these people over the course of a cycle, only to rewind everything to the point where they have no idea who the player is because from their perspective we've never actually met. In Majora’s Mask, you are constantly making and subsequently erasing friendships, and it can be downright heartbreaking.

There’s another side though. The more you learn about the innkeeper whose fiance mysteriously ran off days before their wedding, the depressed leader of the carnival troupe whose performance was canceled, and the sisters at the ranch who are beset with both supernatural and mundane terrors, the less Termina begins to feel like a curse and the more it begins to feel like a home; the less its people feel like uncanny strangers and the more they feel like family. The flipside of loneliness is togetherness, and just as I grow immensely attached to the denizens of Koholint Island in Link’s Awakening by the end and feel a sense of community there that is punctuated by my own lonely reality in that game, so too do I discover quite a similar experience in Majora’s Mask.

Because the unique three day system allows for characters to follow detailed schedules in a constantly-changing world, Termina, despite so many fantastical and nonsensical elements, feels more real than any other place in video games for me (and for a game that released in the US sixteen years ago on this very day, it certainly was way ahead of its time and is even still remarkably unique today). Like many of my other favorite games, Majora’s Mask understands the importance of “downtime” and for a game with such a notorious reputation for “rushing” the player, it is ironic just how much it actually takes the time to slow down and allow one to immerse themselves in the day to day lives of its characters. Watching Anju struggle to feed her stubborn grandmother lunch, visiting the Romani Sisters at dinnertime, and indeed listening to the troubles of the Rosa Sisters as they pace around the Stock Pot Inn connects one to the world and makes that world truly feel like one worth saving. The larger narrative scenes certainly stand out, but some of the most poignant moments in Majora’s Mask come from completely optional little conversations or discoveries if one takes the time to check up on certain characters at certain times throughout the three days. In the end, I want to save Termina because I deeply care about it, not just because “it’s a video game and it’s what you do” or because there’s likely to be an epic boss fight at the end. It’s a cozy world that is just as fragile and endearing as any loving home.

If there is one aspect that is most key to the feeling of coziness so embodied by Majora’s Mask, it’s atmosphere. I have droned on and on all throughout this list about atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere. I don’t like to boil video games down to one central most important element, but figuratively speaking atmosphere is everything to me. The atmosphere of Majora’s Mask is incredible. It’s difficult to describe because it’s not just one thing, but something that changes quite frequently across the entire experience, yet still remains remarkably consistent. It’s like a range of moods that all ultimately arrive at the same destination. From the warm coziness of the Stock Pot Inn to the melancholic wonder of the Astral Observatory to the eerie mystery of Great Bay, much of this potent atmosphere is owed to the often bizarre art design and much is owed to the phenomenal soundtrack, which never ceases to amaze me and move me to tears. Because of the accompanying score, the snowy mountains truly feel distant and chilling, caverns feel secretive and ominous, and the Stone Tower Temple feels like a fascinating enigma enwrapped in mystery. And the simultaneously sad and hopeful "Song of Healing" might be my favorite composition in the entire Legend of Zelda series. Once the drill of constantly rewinding time becomes mundane and the world becomes more and more known, it becomes enjoyable just to hang out in Termina, to watch the rain fall at Romani Ranch or a fireplace crackle at the Inn.

Majora’s Mask is often described as a “dark”, “depressing”, and “frightening” game, and while those elements are definitely there, people only looking for darkness often fail to see the other side of the experience, which is just as prominent. This game reflects both the sorrow and joy of life and can be just as uplifting and full of hope as it can be crushing and full of despair. There is a central theme of healing throughout the game, and as the experience largely deals with how different people deal with their own impending mortality, we see some people quake in fear at the end while others stand resolutely in the face of it, content that they are with loved ones or that they feel fulfilled with their life (often because of a little help from the player). There is a huge emphasis on the strength and the love present in the human spirit and Majora’s Mask is an experience that fills me with sadness and happiness both. It accurately imitates life while also providing a uniquely imaginative fantasy escape into a world that I deeply love, that I find so much pleasure in just cuddling up in on a cold winter night. It’s strange, but one of my favorite experiences in any game is simply spending a night at the Stock Pot Inn.

It’s difficult to adequately describe how I feel about Majora’s Mask. It’s been difficult to adequately describe how I feel about any of these games. Video games are feelings, they’re emotions; they’re amorphous, confusing, contradictory, strange things. To be honest, I’ve been thinking about the role video games have played and currently play in my life, and questioning how much value they have for me and how much they have brought to my life. Through making this list though and reflecting on all of these experiences, oftentimes with joy, sometimes with wistfulness, and occasionally with tears in my eyes, I’ve reaffirmed just how important and crucial video games are for me. In some way, in some form I will continue to experience them and I will continue to cheer for them. The Wind Waker, Link’s Awakening, and Majora’s Mask are emblematic of this love and passion and I’m happy that I got to share some of that love with you today and over the course of the past two months, and indeed throughout the last four plus years. If you’re willing, I would love to hear about your own favorite games of all time, your own cherished experiences and memories with games, perhaps even your own “Triforce”.


I love video games. One of my favorite aspects of video games is the memorable worlds that they showcase. The Stock Pot Inn is a cozy retreat located in East Clock Town, the central city in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. The Inn has always been one of my favorite locations in any video game and it represents a warm mix of nostalgia, fond memories, and a place that will always hold my heart captive.

I therefore found it appropriate to name this place after the Inn, for it is here that I have collected memories, musings, and many thoughts on my favorite hobby, video games. I love video games and it has been a pleasure to share that love with you.

The Stock Pot Inn will now be locking the door. Thank-you for staying the night.

It seems the veranda door of the town's Stock Pot Inn has carelessly been left unlocked...

Friday, October 7, 2016

My Top 115 Favorite Video Games (10-4)

The top ten begins today in the penultimate post of both this countdown and this blog. Click here to head all the way back to the introduction of this project and see where it all began before heading into the conclusion. It's a bit of a lengthier post today as this is the top ten after all and I wanted to take extra care to accurately describe just how much each of these immensely special games means to me. I hope you enjoy reading, and as always, reminiscing about some of your own memories you might have with these titles!

Without further ado, here are my current top ten favorite video games:

10. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (N64)

In some nearly forgotten, lost pocket of time existing somewhere between 1998 and 1999, I briefly spent a few hours being confused and frightened by The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I did not understand it, I could not pronounce “Hyrule”, the Stalchildren that appeared at night freaked me out, the Peahats that appeared during the day freaked me out. Hyrule Field felt vast and threatening, so I took shelter in villages where I felt safe…until I encountered a giant golden spider scuffling on a wall and found my way into the Royal Family’s Tomb, where I encountered this. I did not yet “get” this Zelda thing, but even so there was something mystical about my brief sojourn wandering around Hyrule as child Link; it was exciting when I found a secret passage connecting the Lost Woods and Death Mountain, bizarre elements like “Happy Masks” intrigued me, and I longed to see what lay on the other side of the map in the distant lands of Lake Hylia and Gerudo Valley. I can’t fully explain to you why I did not take the plunge and buy the game to further explore these mysteries, but I think it comes back to me being intimated and frightened by it all. Whatever the reason, I returned the game to where I’d rented it from (or borrowed it from?) and wouldn’t revisit Ocarina of Time until 2003, on the eve of the release of The Wind Waker.

When I finally did sit down to properly play Ocarina of Time via the GameCube version released as a pre-order bonus for The Wind Waker, I was older and wiser, I had experience with Link’s Awakening, Majora’s Mask, and A Link to the Past and was now eagerly anticipating the upcoming and beautiful-looking The Wind Waker, and I went into the N64 classic knowing full well its reputation and how foolish I was for passing it up several years prior. I was immediately taken aback by the title screen, the tranquil scene of link riding Epona through Hyrule Field at dawn with a contemplative piece of music playing. There was something unexpectedly subtle about the opening that caught me off guard and already a powerful emotion overcame me. It’s like they knew, I thought at the time. Knew what?

That Ocarina of Time was one of the greatest video games ever created.

It took me roughly two weeks to see the whole adventure through that first playthrough (I’ve lost count of subsequent playthroughs) and the experience lived up to it all. Ocarina of Time is just an amazing and special game. There are few games, or perhaps none, that feel as confident in their execution and that unwind as elegantly as Ocarina, where everything locks into place just so, in such perfect strokes. Ocarina of Time is a beautifully-spun metaphor about growing up. The game does this magic thing where when you’re child Link, you feel like a child: the world is brighter and livelier, and everything seems bigger. You’re just a kid playing games, going on adventures, and making friends. Then the transition to adulthood happens, and while I still want to stray away from spoilers, suffice it to say the world suddenly seems smaller, bleaker; your friends are suddenly more important than ever, and now your adventure is no longer a game but a crucially important quest, one with burden and responsibility. This theme is poetically and artfully worked throughout the entire experience, and it’s one of the reasons why I feel Ocarina of Time still has some of the best storytelling in the whole Zelda series. There’s so much more I’d like to tell you about Ocarina of Time: how I love its dense and cozy world, how magical its music is, how its finale is my favorite in all of video games, how perfect its ending scene is, what it felt like to enter the Forest Temple for the first time, what it felt like to finally reach Gerudo Valley and hear that music for the first time, how I’m tearing up just thinking of it all right now…but I’ve gone on long enough, and this is only number 10.

Chrono Trigger is unlike any other RPG or adventure game I have ever played. It just has this vibe…this inexplicable vibe that is difficult to grasp. The game is undoubtedly incredibly charming, for starters, featuring perhaps my favorite cast of central characters in any game, a colorful line-up of personalities that include technological genius, Lucca, chivalrous frog knight, Frog, and prehistoric matriarch, Ayla. The central time travel theme and the concept of visiting a planet’s life throughout several different stages of its history in order to learn how it became doomed and what must be done to save it was and still is original and largely unexplored territory in interactive entertainment and just a brilliant concept besides. The total surface area of the world in Chrono Trigger is actually pretty small compared to most other RPGs, but the excitement comes from exploring “vertically” and seeing how the planet changes throughout history as opposed to exploring “horizontally” across a wide area of land. The whole adventure is excellently-paced, the battle system is innovative and never feels like it bogs down the experience (partly thanks to the game dispersing with random battles), and the art and spritework is colorful and lively. Chrono Trigger is overall a journey that constantly surprises, delights, and engages around every corner.

But you know what my favorite part of Chrono Trigger is? You know what I think is perhaps the most important factor that determines that special “vibe” I mentioned? Music. I’ve brought up music a lot throughout this list, whether in regards to how important a specific game’s soundtrack is to the overall experience for me or how large a role music plays in my enjoyment of video games in general. While it might be dishonest of me to make such a definitive assertion, Chrono Trigger’s musical score has long been what I consider to be my favorite video game soundtrack of all. The game’s characters are partly so endearing because each one has their own musical motif, each time period comes alive with its own unique sound, and there are so many moments, so many perfect, beautiful moments that are so perfect and beautiful because a perfectly-suited piece of music kicks in at just the right time. The ending credits theme, “To Far Away Times”, might be my favorite single composition in video game history. Yasunori Mitsuda, the brilliant composer behind Chrono Trigger and later Chrono Cross (among other titles), poured everything he had into this soundtrack and damn does it show. Chrono Trigger is an experience that has largely stuck with me so much because of its music, and it’s a score that has basically become the soundtrack to my own life as I constantly go back to listen to it in the car, on walks, when I’m writing, when I’m drawing, when I’m in lying in bed, when I’m cleaning, when I’m dreaming, and of course right now as I write this. Chrono Trigger is a wonderful game in every respect, but its music especially is a part of my soul.

Silent Hill 2 has the best storytelling of any video game I’ve ever played. It is one of very few games that I know of where narrative seems to not only have been an extremely important focus in development, but indeed the primary focus. This isn’t a case where there’s a few hours of compelling story delivered through cutscenes intermixed with divorced gameplay sections, but rather the rare video game where almost everything serves the story. There are still cutscenes in Silent Hill 2, but the storytelling does not end when control returns to the player; every location, every monster, every moment has significance, and if something doesn’t directly influence the central narrative, than it fleshes out the universe in some way, which in turn also enhances the central story. Nothing is random and Silent Hill 2 is drenched in symbolism in an artistic way that no other video game I’ve encountered can parallel.

Disconnecting itself completely from the first Silent Hill’s narrative, SH2 follows James Sunderland, a man wrecked by grief who receives a letter from his late wife, Mary, who died three years prior to a deadly disease (it’s never named, but I assume cancer). The letter beckons James to the couple’s “special place”, the lakeside resort town of Silent Hill, and as we journey with James into the fog-enshrouded, seemingly abandoned town, we meet a variety of other troubled characters and spend a lot of alone time with our protagonist as he tries to come to grips with what appears to be reality breaking down around him. As James delves deeper and deeper into horrors that begin to slowly feel less and less external, I feel myself getting pulled down with him; as sweat beads on my forehead at 2AM as I huddle in a dark corner of a grimy hospital or walk down a dark flight of stairs that seems impossibly long, I feel a player-protagonist connection unlike any other. This is my journey just as much as it is James’s, and as this focused experience winds towards its conclusion, I feel a closeness and an empathy for James and his tormented friends few other games have ever matched for me. As the credits role, there are always tears in my eyes.

Silent Hill 2 also has a very unique atmosphere among its brethren. For one thing, largely unlike its predecessors, SH2 doesn’t feel like it’s “horror all the time” but rather contains several “relaxed” moments that while still fitting the horror theme, just feel…different somehow. Whereas the previous two games feel “black”, Silent Hill 2 feels “gray”. There’s a feeling of deep loneliness and stagnation to the game, and some have even likened the experience as a whole to depression, which I feel is an incredibly appropriate reading. This atmosphere is of course heavily supported by the bleak and dreary art design and the unforgettable soundtrack, which probably unsurprisingly is one of my favorites in anything ever. All of this too serves the narrative, but I also think this “feeling” that Silent Hill 2 has is one of the main reasons this entry in the Silent Hill series in particular has left such a strong impression on so many people; I can at least say that this is largely the case for myself.

As a thoughtful human story, one that deals with taboo subjects in a mature way rarely seen in this medium, Silent Hill 2 was not only way ahead of its time, but is still ahead of the curve today compared to most other games. As an atmospheric feeling, it is uniquely dreary and affecting. And as a piece of horror fiction, as my favorite piece of horror fiction in fact, it has left a scar on me. I watched my older brother play almost the entirety of the original Silent Hill when it first came out, but I couldn’t even stand to watch him journey that deep into the early apartment building area in Silent Hill 2. There was something about this game that kept me up at night even just knowing it was being played in the other room. I avoided Silent Hill 2 for years until it finally called me back to it when I was a sophomore in college. I said before that I probably consider the first Silent Hill to be the “scariest” in the series, and Silent Hill 3 is probably the most viscerally unnerving, but Silent Hill 2 is the most lingering. I used to see an advertisement for the game in Electronic Gaming Monthly around the time it released that I would actively try to avoid looking at. “Wounds will heal…” it read, “…but your mind will be scarred forever.” To this day I still catch myself every so often having a bizarre nightmare of being trapped in a hellish hospital as unfathomable creatures, including a hulking Pyramid-headed one, stalk me in the dark.

As I clutched onto the back of a gargantuan bird soaring over a vast lake, the wind pummeling me and the creature ferociously beating its great wings and spinning upside down in an attempt to shake me off, I knew I was experiencing a historic moment in video games. I knew Shadow of the Colossus would go on to be regarded as one of the greatest works in the medium. The sixteen colossus battles are varied, intelligently-designed, and easily some of the most emotionally epic encounters in any video game I’ve ever played (and are backed by an outstanding soundtrack), but when I think of Shadow of the Colossus, I just as readily think of the space between these stunning conflicts. Quiet, lonesome moments spent journeying across sprawling plains and vapid deserts with my only companion, my horse, Agro, who I found myself more attached to than any other companion-type character in video games. Discovering forgotten ruins on a mountain ridge, knocking apples off of a solemn tree on a seaside cliff, or simply marveling at the breadth and the wonder of it all…it’s these moments I cherish. In a somewhat similar way to Silent Hill 2, it is this lonely atmosphere that calls to me and connects me with Shadow of the Colossus, that creates a powerful kinship with the game in me, but the feeling present in both of these experiences is very different; Silent Hill 2 feels akin to depression, whereas Shadow of the Colossus feels more like contemplative isolation. Also like Silent Hill 2, except to an even greater degree, the minimalism and starkness of Shadow of the Colossus demonstrates the greatly untapped emotional potential of video games beyond film-like cutscenes, wordy scripts, and a neatly divided gameplay/story philosophy; Shadow of the Colossus lets you live its narrative, feel the pain of its protagonist, and feel the pain of every beast you slay. It is a marvelous experience that nothing has ever rivaled for me.

Adventure and discovery. Skies of Arcadia embodies adventure and discovery. Despite all the Dreamcast love on this list, I strangely did not actually play Skies of Arcadia on its debut console and instead played the 2003 GameCube Legends port, which is essentially the same game with a few tweaks here and there and a few extra sidequests. Skies of Arcadia is my favorite RPG; it’s everything I love about the genre contained in a single experience. I received Skies of Arcadia as a birthday gift in 2003 and was pulled into a world of adventure that didn’t let me go until very late that night, at which point I was already emotionally attached to the characters and the world. And what a world it is. I often criticize the lazy perpetuation of traditional video game environment clichés these days (forest, desert, ocean, etc.), but I’m not inherently against them, and if you want to see a game where these tropes are richly explored and used in an imaginative, effective way, look no further than Skies of Arcadia. The culturally and environmentally distinct lands of Arcadia make for an unforgettable world where the possibilities seem to be endless. It’s a world of floating continents and airships, air pirates and evil empires, of flying monsters and ancient weapons, lost civilizations and countless unsolved mysteries, of daring rogues and fierce friendships. It’s like some dream mixture of Star Wars, the works of Jules Verne, and the films of Hayao Miyazaki. Skies of Arcadia contains a fair bit of the usual JRPG clichés, but it also eschews many of them, particularly in regards to its overall positive and upbeat vibe and easy-to-follow but unpredictable narrative. The cast of upbeat characters is also simply darling, and in particular the three central characters of Vyse, Aika, and Fina are a group of tightly-bound friends who I grew to immensely love.

The beating heart of Skies of Arcadia undoubtedly lies in its sense of adventure, facilitated through a focus on exploration and discovery that is prevalent throughout almost every aspect of the game. The world of Arcadia is full of mysteries to ponder and discoveries to be made, hidden areas and nooks to uncover, dangerous bounties to hunt, and all myriad of secrets stowed in far-off corners of the world where who knows what lies in wait. My favorite sidequest in the game involves chronicling Discoveries made (each one providing a bit of lore and intrigue) and selling information about them. Eventually, you are able to recruit your own rogues’ gallery, build a base, and customize your own airship. Skies is simply one of the best times I’ve had exploring and discovering in a video game, and that’s really saying something for me. This central tenet of adventurous discovery is clearly manifested throughout Skies of Arcadia's wonderful soundtrack, and no more clearly than in the game's final traveling theme, which is my favorite in any game. The appeal of Skies of Arcadia largely lies in its traditional, swashbuckling atmosphere of adventure and discovery, but also in how it takes this familiar theme and builds a fantastic world beyond imagination around it, surprising and enamoring the player at every turn.

5. Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Knuckles (Genesis)

When I think about what makes a great platformer for me, i.e. creative and memorable levels filled with secrets, a sense of connection and level-to-level progression, a non-intrusive but effective narrative, a moderate but non-frustrating challenge, and great art design and music, Sonic 3 and Knuckles, a.k.a. the true Sonic the Hedgehog 3 born when combining Sonic 3 with Sonic and Knuckles, immediately comes to mind. Picking up right where Sonic 2 left off both design and narrative-wise, Sonic 3 is a platforming legend that amazingly seems to often go overlooked in favor of Sonic 2 (probably in large part because of its weird double-game nature and relatively late release). The level design of Sonic 3 balances a satisfying sense of speed and momentum with more traditional platforming challenges more elegantly than ever before, the art design builds on the previous titles’ uniquely surreal but also realistic look culminating in what is one of my favorite retro aesthetics, the music is the height of classic Sega Genesis tunes, and I am still making new discoveries in this game’s massive and intricate stages to this day. I’ve always admired the creativity present in the Sonic series’ zones from a thematic perspective and Sonic 3 is the pinnacle of this imagination as Sonic and friends race through a vast sunken city, a vibrant amusement park metropolis, a dense season-changing forest, and an immense flying battleship, among so much more. Sonic 3 is also one gigantic, interconnected adventure as the end of each level seamlessly blends into the next area, creating a sense of cohesion and progress. The two individual Acts of each Zone also often differ from each other in dramatic ways and environments sometimes change in real time, like when Dr. Robotnik’s machines turn the jungles of Angel Island Zone into an inferno or when the bad doctor uses a giant drill to cause earthquakes that shift and alter the landscape of Marble Garden Zone. Even though the levels are more gigantic than ever before, nothing ever becomes stale because of this constant variety. The story of Sonic 3 is also subtly told not only through brief little “cutscenes” usually involving Knuckles messing with Sonic and Tails in some way, but also in the level themes themselves, such as Launch Base Zone, an inventive location where we can see Robotnik’s gigantic doomsday weapon, the Death Egg, being repaired in the background…before of course going back there in the second Act to try to stop it from launching. 

Indeed, much of the stuff I love about the brilliant Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, my favorite modern platformer, was present in Sonic 3 and Knuckles years prior. There is such a wonderful attention to detail in Sonic 3 and the result is a platformer that doesn’t just feel like a bunch of disconnected levels you hop and bop through to get to the goal, but rather an epic journey that feels incredibly satisfying when all is said and done. Besides all this, Sonic 3 and Knuckles seems to be a treasure trove of secrets waiting to be uncovered, and there was a real sense of mystery surrounding Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic and Knuckles when I was a kid. This partly stems from the fact that there are puzzling elements in the stand-alone Sonic 3 that betray its incomplete nature, such as mysterious unreachable paths that wouldn’t become fully explained until one could return to them with a playable Knuckles. Along with a Tails who could actually fly this time around, there are actually three playable characters who all feature a unified gameplay style but each have their own unique skills that allow them to reach new level sections; Knuckles’ story in particular, which takes place after the main events of the game, diverges dramatically from the route Sonic and Tails take. The series’ patented “Special Stages” are also finally not extremely difficult garbage and this is still the only Sonic game to date where I’m able to acquire every single Emerald and obtain all of the characters’ super forms the legitimate way…and I also enjoying doing so to boot! As an added bonus on top of everything else, Sonic 3 and Knuckles even has an interesting connection to Castle in the Sky, one of my favorite Hayao Miyazaki-directed films! I have no hesitation in saying that Sonic 3 and Knuckles is the absolute pinnacle of this series, a timeless platforming masterpiece, and also my personal favorite platformer of all time tied with the next game on this list, which is of course…

Super Mario Bros. 3 is my favorite Mario game, my favorite NES game, and my favorite platformer of all time tied with Sonic 3 and Knuckles. I have a nostalgic attachment to this game unlike any other and just beholding its yellow and blue boxart makes me melt, nevermind listening to any of its music or sound effects. It had a tremendous influence on my imagination as a child, and it continues to do so today. The game even initially released in Japan the year I was born and it came to the states on my second birthday; it was meant to be. It’s easy to retroactively look back at Super Mario Bros. 3 as basically the standard Super Mario title. After all, airships, the Koopalings, the familiar world themes, the raccoon tail, it’s all here, and it all started here. But that’s the key element: all of this was new in Mario 3, and back in 1988 this game was a powerhouse of invention that aside from bringing back Super Mushrooms, Goombas, and traditional platforming gameplay, was just as creative and weird and distinct as Super Mario Bros. 2 before it. While I heavily criticize just how much the Mario series constantly and nauseatingly recycles elements from Mario 3  today to the point where the whole Mario franchise has largely become stale and quite boring compared to what it once was, I don’t let that current reality sour this original masterpiece, which in addition to introducing all that stuff also does dozens of other wonderful little things that newer Super Mario titles don’t emulate and that make this game still far and beyond them all.

The creative genius of Super Mario Bros. 3 is in the details. Did you know the entire game is themed around a stage-play? That’s the context for those big blocks with screws in them; they’re stage props. A world map was introduced here, but it’s more than just a level select screen; it’s full of little secrets of its own and contains all sorts of neat interactive moments like being able to guide a rowboat out to some bonus islands in the water land. Then there’s the fifth world, which at first glance seems like just a small landmass with a mysterious spiraling tower at the far end of it. Climb that tower though and…. Yes, there’s a desert land and a water land that come second and third respectively, but besides this being the game that established that formula in the first place, it uses these themes with style and still manages to branch outside of them with some really imaginative ideas for the time, like a world where all the sprites are mega-sized. The narrative also isn’t just Bowser kidnapping the princess, which doesn’t actually happen until the very end of the game in this one, but instead sees the plumber brothers venturing outside the Mushroom Kingdom proper to the larger Mushroom World, where the various kings of different lands have been transformed into dogs and seals and spiders and all manner of other creatures by the nasty magic wand-wielding Koopalings. Another element that I admire about Mario 3, and actually something I admire about all three NES Super Mario games (four counting The Lost Levels), is atmosphere. I described the original Super Mario Bros. as having a uniquely stark and weighty atmosphere and a similar kind of feeling extends to its NES successors as well. The castles and airships feel truly foreboding in Mario 3, there’s a sense of mystique surrounding certain areas like the ice land (which is embodied in its theme music), and the world as a whole just seems to feel more immersive in a way.  I actually just played through most of Super Mario Bros. 3 this past weekend and it always amazes me not only how varied and memorable each level is considering the limited tech at the time, but also how, similar to Sonic 3, I’m still finding new secrets in this game to this day. Like the original Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3 is a game that I can return to and play through at any time and always immensely enjoy, and each experience also always seems to bring new discoveries.

Super Mario Bros. 3 was, to put it plainly, the game that I wanted to play throughout my childhood. Like, all the time, over anything else. I owned it myself for a brief period of time, but I mostly remember relying on outside sources. If someone had Mario 3, I wanted to visit them and play it, and if I went somewhere and someone had Mario 3, I had to play it. Before the days of the Virtual Console and re-releases, there was a long period of time where I dreamed of someday having ready access to this game. Nowadays I own Mario 3 in just about every way one can and I feel like I take such an unbelievably wonderful thing for granted. I didn’t actually fully complete the whole game until the Game Boy Advance port (which is based on the SNES Super Mario All-Stars remake), and while I love every version of this game, I definitely prefer the original NES one, which I find leaves a lot more to the imagination in regards to its visuals and atmosphere. Also nostalgia. Warm, fuzzy, lovely nostalgia. When it comes to my favorite entries in several of my other favorite video game series, I have to put some thought into it and often wind up with a lot of ties or no clear winner at all, but throughout my life Super Mario Bros. 3 has always been my favorite Mario game. There’s never really been any question; I just love this game with all my being.


Phew! I thank you if you took the time to read all that, or even if you read any of it! Clearly, these seven games are incredibly important to me, but there are still three more yet.... Next time, please join me for the big finale as I close the doors of The Stock Pot Inn with a grand celebration of my three favorite games of all time. 

Yes, please join me for the Carnival of Time.