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...

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