Some games change us. They help inform what we like and dislike. They help us understand ourselves. More broadly, some games can inspire us. In some instances, they can even change our lives. Many people, if they looked back on the games that affected them the most, could point out several. Some will have a list longer than mine, because there are many games important to them, and they may have decades more experience than I do. Others might have a shorter list, because their gaming journey started much later, or their perception of games changes less often.
Here, I’ve created a list of ten. These are not my favorite games, and some of them aren’t even good. But I can point to all of them and say they did something to change me over time. Whether it’s introducing me to a whole new group of people, redefining what I thought video games were, or just giving me a huge shot of confidence, they all meant something to me. They still do.
If you have a list like this, I’d love to hear from you. I think most people’s lists will be very different, because a game can take us off guard in the most unexpected ways. They can come out of left field, make us pay attention for a while, and then leave. Like those friends we had in junior high who stopped talking to us in high school. Please comment below, or contact me at the links at the end of the article to share your list!
1. Putt-Putt Saves the Zoo (PC) (1995)
Laugh if you want, but this is the first game I ever played, period. I don’t think I ever owned it – I just played it one afternoon when I was about four and at a friend’s house for the afternoon. I remember playing for hours, finding the point-and-click interface easy and kid-friendly so I could progress through the game without a problem. I also remember returning home that night and being disappointed we didn’t have any games like Putt-Putt. That soon changed, and I found myself playing a lot of the games made for kids by Humongous Entertainment. Pajama Sam, Spy Fox, Backyard Baseball – I played them all as long as I could, even after getting into console games.
You’d think with an introduction to gaming like that, I’d be a PC gamer for life. It was never to be though, because by the time my parents upgraded from Windows 98, I’d all but given up on getting new games, and instead focused on consoles. By the time we upgraded again to Windows Vista, I tried getting Steam, but that desktop could barely run Portal. At that point I’d just moved on and started going to the local internet cafes to play with friends. When those closed down, well – let’s just say I still have my Gamecube from 2002, and all it’s ever needed is a good cleaning out to keep it running smoothly.
2. Pokémon Stadium (Nintendo 64) (1999)
I got my first console, a Nintendo 64, in April of 2000. I was five, and my parents felt that I’d be better off with that system because it used cartridges instead of discs that could scratch easily (which, given the PC games I was playing, doesn’t really make sense). Going to Toys “R” Us and using all of the money in my piggy bank, plus a considerable donation from my parents, to get the Pokémon Stadium bundle was extremely exciting. It came with a game! We bought another one anyway, but that’s two games I’d be getting instead of just one! It’s just as well too – once my parents saw how mature Jet Force Gemini was, I was banned from playing it until I was much older, and smart enough to figure out where my parents had stashed it.
Pokémon Stadium was my first foray into Pokémon games, despite the fact that I already watched the anime and collected the cards. I knew who a lot of these creatures already, and got to memorize all of them (151 at the time) within a short period. I played the game so much, I was being taught words like “technique” and “paralysis” meaning, to me, it was just as good as school. When I got the Game Boy Pokémon games, it was even better because both Stadium games let you play those RPGs on the big screen. It felt like cheating in a way, because it was so much easier to see everything and understand it. I always wondered why Nintendo didn’t just make it so all Game Boy Games could be played on the 64 – but that was before I knew about the Super Game Boy.
3. Sonic Adventure 2: Battle (Gamecube) (2002)
Oh sure, I had finished games before, but Sonic Adventure 2 was the first game I felt invested in finishing. I was so into that story as an eight year old that even now when I recognize how dumb it really is, I still get a flush of nostalgia just thinking about that game. Some of the plot points still astound me – Dr. Eggman gaining literal “weapons of mass destruction” to blow up the moon? He actually succeeds?? Everyone’s going to space now??? There was little more I could ask for as a kid. The story seemed to be going everywhere, and this made me hyped to check out the other games in the series.
Boy, that was kind of a mistake. Sonic Adventure DX was out by this point as well, and while I knew it was some version of the first Sonic Adventure (from some nebulous system called the Dreamcast), I was shocked by how much worse everything seemed. The presentation, the levels, the fights, the graphics, the music, the voice acting – everything , even the tone made the two games feel wildly different. Then came Sonic Heroes and that was okay. Shadow was back – somehow. But, ugh, then came Shadow the Hedgehog, and that just obliterated everything I liked about the series, going so far as to retell the events of Sonic Adventure 2 with new, terrible plot threads tacked on, and the kind of twist that upset me even then. After that game, no one was cool. Not even Shadow. Thank god I didn’t know about what came after that. I might have actually died.
4. Fire Emblem (Game Boy Advance) (2003)
I remember Fire Emblem being this game I just played. Constantly just played and played and played, never seeming to beat it, having the campaign go on for what felt like forever, but still trucking through. It was the perfect game when I was nine – difficult enough to keep me going, but not too difficult that I ever got overwhelmed. I loved the strategy of it, and I thought the characters were just so cool. The story hooked me with its incredibly twisty threads, and kept me pushing forward, internalizing each downfall in the game as my own, and not backing down when I screwed up myself. When I finally beat the game – I thought I felt relief. Then, I saw the option to play an alternate route and, well, there I was, just playing Fire Emblem again.
Strangely enough, my love for this Fire Emblem never translated into a focused interest in the other Fire Emblem games. I certainly tried to get into them, but never could until recently. Entries like The Sacred Stones and Radiant Dawn just felt too different. I was more focused on waiting for the sequel that this Fire Emblem sets up so well to come out. I didn’t know until much later that the game had been out for a while in Japan, and this game was a prequel. That it never got localized, despite featuring Roy, better known now for Smash Bros., has always confused me.
5. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney (DS) (2005)
Around the time I got into Ace Attorney, I felt like I was at an odd spot when it came to video games. This being late 2007, I had already gotten a Wii, and hadn’t enjoyed it much. I also had a DS since 2004 and, aside from some Mario and Nintendogs, I hadn’t found anything on there that appealed to me. Ace Attorney presented itself as a new experience, only somewhat similar to the point-and-click adventures I played when I was younger. I loved it. The reading, the humor, the art style, the music – everything about it just hit me perfectly at once. I played the first game over the course of a Thanksgiving weekend and got the sequels as quickly as I could. After that, I still wasn’t satisfied, so I went online and started joining forums dedicated to the series, and have met quite a few people I still call my friends today.
Not everything about my relationship with this franchise has been rosy, though. It has the distinction of being one of the few games my dad wanted to buy for me because he thought I’d like it so much, so that’s cool. But, once the series outlived the DS, things changed. It was partially Ace Attorney, it was partially myself. Capcom stopped localizing the titles like they used to, ignoring the spin-offs, and only putting the mainline sequels on the 3DS eshop. As for me, I grew tired of all of it. I just got Ace Attorney-ed out. That’s the danger of fandom – it allows you to indulge as much as you like with something you love, but if you’re not careful, you’ll overdo it. Once you reach the saturation point, whatever you’re in to will never feel the same again.
6. Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht (Playstation 2) (2002)
My parents thought I was too young for a game like Metal Gear Solid, but that was okay, because when I was twelve, I ended up discovering Xenosaga instead. Featuring cutscenes that could be over an hour long, I was introduced to a new sci-fi world that just went for it. The characters felt unique and interesting, the voice acting was good for the most part, and the plot had just enough dark and disturbing parts to appeal to the part of me that wanted all things edgy and extreme.
Xenosaga was that franchise I went through my awkward teen phase with. I looked up countless videos on Youtube, studied everything I could about the series, as well as its developer, Monolith Soft. I wrote papers on the franchise – in high school, I even gave a speech about how awesome I thought the series was. Even though it was the most nerdiest thing possible, and no one had any idea of what I was talking about. I kind of cringe when I think about that – but I also get excited, because all of the research I did just comes flooding back and it makes learning about the history of video games so exciting. Do you know how many cool stories about game development are hidden away, because they’re about games that never made it to the mainstream? So many. Like, more than the stories you probably already know. They’re all worth being told.
7. 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (DS) (2009)
If I was down in the rabbit hole researching everything I could about Xenosaga, I guess it makes sense that the next big game in my life would be the one that made me want to write about video games. 999, aka the first Zero Escape entry, is that game. By this point, I was already following companies like Atlus and NIS America, so this seemed right in my wheelhouse. A visual novel game with escape room puzzles and a Saw-like plot from Aksys Games? Totally down. I saw a copy in the wild a couple weeks after it came out and snagged it.
I came away, at the end, believing I had played the best game on DS. Even better than Ace Attorney. I couldn’t understand though – why weren’t more people talking about it? Game Informer, the gaming site I followed most, hadn’t written a review or anything for it. It sounds naive now, but I thought, well, if Game Informer won’t write a review for the game, why don’t I just do it for them? I typed something up, posted it on my user blog, and it was interesting – I wanted to do it again. And again. And again, so that I was starting to put out articles and opinions regularly. I kept going, even helping to found a website start-up with other reviewers, where I got to post pretty much whatever I wanted. Not a bad gig for someone who was still sixteen – but I got overwhelmed. The writing, plus high school and impending college was just too much. I crashed and burned, abandoned my duties, and figured well, if I was still interested, I could always come back after I got a degree. Well – funny enough, here I am. Down the line, I’ll know if the degree was worth it.
8. OverBlood (Playstation 1) (1996)
OverBlood is a unique entry here. It’s helped me connect with more people than any other game on this list, and it’s encouraged me to expand my horizons with what media I consume. It’s a bad game – of that there can be no doubt. The voice acting is over-dramatic, and the graphics are far out of date. Yet, when I initially discovered the game, through Game Informer’s Super Replay of it, I fell in love. “So bad, it’s good” movies are talked about a lot, especially with the popularity of The Room. When it comes to games though, there is a lot of potential. Many “so bad, it’s good” games exist out there, but they’re often not recognized until much later when interest has died down, or when interest has picked up, but the game is rare or on a system that’s hard to get. RIght now, some bad games get out there and charm their audience, but it’s usually very specific, and there’s usually more to it than just a bad game.
Case in point: through the Super Replay, I was able to connect with a fun bunch of people that liked what the GI team does, and formed a fanclub of sorts for it called I Watched the Entire OverBlood Super Replay. It’s a Facebook group with members in the thousands, and it’s been steady for over seven years now. The Game Informer editors even pop in from time to time to say hello. Still, I wonder what it might be about OverBlood that inspired such a reaction from people? From me? Part of it, I think, is that some parts of the game are secretly interesting, maybe even good. We’re all just too afraid to admit it, because we’ll be mocked forever if we do.
9. Demon’s Souls (Playstation 3) (2009)
I probably sound like a lot of other Souls fans for saying this, but for a long time I just thought that Demon’s Souls, and really the whole series, was just too hard for me. I’d never get it. For some reason, this didn’t stop me from trying every now and then until, six years after starting my first playthrough, the game finally clicked with me. I made progress. It didn’t seem so impossible now. Every new obstacle never felt as big as that first one in Boletarian Palace. When I beat the game, after 80 hours plus however much I spent in deleted playthroughs, I felt a sense of accomplishment like never before. Like I had actually done something amazing. It made me want to play through the game again. I decided not to, and now that I’ve come back to it, I regret that a little bit. With the online servers shut off, everything is just that much harder, which means I’m back where I started. But I’ll persevere – probably. I’ll certainly never give up. I might max out the clock though.
It’s crazy to think we almost didn’t get this game – Sony passed on localizing it, so Atlus got the job instead. Its popularity lead to Namco Bandai creating Dark Souls with the From Software team, and that’s when the trend really took off. If you were like me and thought it was impossible – I promise you, it’s not. There is a way for you to get through a Souls game. You just need to keep trying until you figure it out for yourself. It may seem like a long road, but that feeling of satisfaction at the end is always worth it. Just try, once more.
10. Nier (Playstation 3) (2010)
Nier got me back into writing about games. I initially tried to write something about Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, but that piece never came together. I didn’t have the confidence, nor the drive to really say anything about the game. I just wanted to write. Not even a month later, it was Nier that gave me something to say. It utilized my urge to write about games in a real way. I drew upon what I wrote about Nier as a kid, and realized there was much more to the game, much more that only hits me now. I needed to revisit it.
What I eventually posted is detailed here. But once that got published, I found it easier to come back week after week to write about something, because I had things to say now. No more abandoning my duties. Nier has put me on the path to doing something I’ve wanted to do since I was young – one that I hope will lead to bigger and brighter places. I feel like all of that is just around the corner, but whether it happens a year from now, or only a few months, I’ll have Nier to thank for it.
Want to send me your own list? You can do so on Twitter. If you’d like to, you can also email me at dcichocki(at)tiltingwindmillstudios.com as well.
A version of this article is also posted here.