I’ve played video games for as long as I can remember, so I have had quite a few favourite games over the years. To celebrate MonsterVine’s 10th anniversary, here’s my list of my ten favourite games of all time.
(Since this is my list, I’ll be keeping all the u’s I normally remove to stay consistent with the site’s American spelling. The freedom to be fully Canadian is almost overwhelming.)
Honorable Mentions: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, Dead Rising, Danganronpa, Crash 2, Xenoblade Chronicles, Sonic Adventure, Resident Evil 2, Mega Man X, Viewtiful Joe.
Final Fantasy VII
Final Fantasy VII is my favourite game of all time. Everything else on this list is presented in no particular order, but ever since the first time I played it as a young lad, Final Fantasy VII has been my absolute favourite game. It probably will be until I die due to nostalgia mixing with the game’s quality, and I’m okay with that. The journey of Cloud Strife and his ragtag party of incredible characters is one that will never be topped for me, and I accept that.
The story (especially after being translated) can be rough around the edges, but the general narrative of Final Fantasy VII always held great appeal to me. Though Cloud starts as a mercenary who fights for himself, numerous party members and moments throughout the game help Cloud find himself and create his own identity. A once careless and mentally broken man becomes a strong and caring warrior who saves the world not for himself, but for the people around him. Maybe I was the perfect age for Cloud to appeal to me, but playing as a spiky-haired loner with a big sword and flippant attitude was the peak of “cool” to me at the time. So as cliché as it is, Cloud Strife is my favourite game character because of his development and design.
And the party members? Peerless. Everyone from Yuffie to Cait Sith stood out to me as characters worth caring about. Every side-story, from Barret, Marlene, and Dyne’s relationship to Cid’s failed dreams of going to space, made me care about my party. I found myself using characters who were objectively weaker purely because I liked having them around. I actually enjoyed grinding for their Ultimate Weapons just because I liked the characters, which is a feat in and of itself.
The soundtrack is one of gaming’s best, the wonky translation provided us with some top-tier dialogue (the classic “this guy are sick” is tough to beat), and even the sound effects of all things have engrained themselves into my brain. I’ll never have an experience like Final Fantasy VII again, and that’s fine with me.
The reason I’m not technically including Mother 3 is because, as a member of the gaming industry, I would never download a rom unofficially. But if I did, I would talk about how Mother 3’s relentlessly emotional story, gripping characters, unique beat-based combat mechanics, and stunning sprite work make it one of the best games ever made. But that would only be if I had played it somehow.
Earthbound, on the other hand, is legally available to play, and it’s endlessly charming. The Mother series is known for its odd sense of humour, but Earthbound is probably the best of the three at being just…weird. As a young boy who recently got psychic powers from a fly from the future, you and your eclectic friends and do all sorts of strange things on your journey to save the world.
You fight a pile of barf (more than once), you teach a cave-dwelling species of small creatures how to overcome their shyness, and you befriend a race of tiny nose-aliens who speak in children’s scribbles and give you coffee. It’s a wild ride from start to finish, but the quirkiness never feels forced or out of place (which is a huge feat to me).
The gameplay isn’t anything revolutionary (though the roll-down health is a novel idea), but it’s completely competent, and that’s all it really needs to be. Earthbound is all about the characters, world, and soundtrack, which all succeed with flying colours. Maybe it’s the excellent sprite work combined with the varied music, but Earthbound is the kind of game that feels “welcoming”, for lack of a better word. Playing it and experiencing its atmosphere are very comfortable experiences, making it a game that I come back to every year or so just to get my fill of that feeling. If you’ve never played Earthbound, you have got to get on it, because you’ll never have an experience quite like it.
If Pokémon counts as a traditional JRPG, then Pokémon Gold is the first RPG I ever played by myself. I may not have owned Red or Blue (I played them soon after Gold), but on one fateful day, my brother gave me his copy of Pokémon Gold. It took some figuring out, but soon enough I was playing it non-stop. Before school, after school, on car trips, when I should have been asleep: there was nary a time that I wasn’t playing Pokémon Gold. I’d talk about it at school, at home, and anywhere else I went, whether the people there cared or not.
Over and over, I dominated Johto and Kanto with my Totodile, Tentacruel, Ampharos, Slowking, and a variety of other rad monsters, and even though I had beaten it many times before, I never hesitated to just start over. I even learned how to read certain words through the game, since I got it when I was only 5 years old. It’s a game that, while objectively fantastic and filled with content, holds an endless amount of personal value to me. And that soundtrack? It’s the stuff that dreams are made of. Modern Pokémon games are certainly robust and great in their own ways, but nothing will ever bear Pokémon Gold as my favourite in the series.
Dragon Quest VIII
For quite some time, I’ve maintained the belief that Dragon Quest VIII is as close as mankind will ever get to a perfect RPG. Though this year’s Dragon Quest XI was a strong counter-argument, I still think Dragon Quest VIII is simply a near-perfect JRPG. While I have a weak-spot for Akira Toriyama’s artstyle, it’s at its peak in Dragon Quest VIII. Every monster and character is so fun to look at, with many monsters having perfectly suited pun-names to make their designs even better.
The main cast of Dragon Quest VIII is simply one of the best in JRPGs. The oafish national treasure Yangus, the cool but not intolerable ladies man Angelo, the explosive but tender Jessica; there’s no weak link in the cast. The main story is robust enough to care about but simple enough to follow without too much effort, and the gameplay is possibly the pinnacle of traditional turn-based combat. And good lord, the soundtrack is practically evidence that there’s a God. I can’t recommend playing Dragon Quest VIII enough, which is why it’s one of my favourite games of all time.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
My love for Symphony of the Night is a combination of many things. The addictive “Metroidvania/Igavania/whatever you want to call it” gameplay is so meticulously well-made that you’re willing to basically replay the entire game with an upside-down castle. The voice acting and scripting are comparable to Shenmue (I mean this in the best way possible), and the music is godly. I would play Symphony of the Night over and over in my teenage years just to see how fast I could go, or how overpowered I could become, because the castle is just that fun to explore time and time again.
Playing as Alucard, Dracula’s son who disagrees with his “anti-human” views, is a refreshing change from the tried-and-true Belmont family, especially as you gain more and more powers throughout the game’s runtime. Throw in the ability to do it all again as Richter Belmont, aka the Best Belmont, upon beating the game, and you have a classic whose reputation is as eternal as Alucard’s life.
I said it in my review of the Shenmue collection and I’ll admit it again here: Shenmue hasn’t aged very well. But that has no effect on my immense love for the hammy classic that defined cinematic video games. Perhaps there’s some bias present due to my status as a Sega Kid, but I have so much love for Shenmue in all its goofy glory that I couldn’t possibly make this list without including it.
Though the main story of Shenmue is all about finding the man who killed your father, it’s the characters and side-events surrounding the story that really make the game so good. The ridiculous voice-acting and fairly literal translation make for a town of incredibly blunt and charming people, all of whom go about their day with or without your interaction. Collecting gashapon toys, playing Space Harrier, practicing martial arts, or moving crates with a forklift; all of these strange and seemingly irrelevant activities make Shenmue feel full and lively, in a way that’s difficult to describe to someone who’s never played it. It’s weird and dated, but without a doubt worth experiencing.
Persona 4 Golden
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 on the PS2 was one of my first experiences with an “M” rated game. After hearing about it on what is now an ancient Final Fantasy podcast, I sought the game out during a family trip to the United States. Though I was about 13 years old, I felt like an incredibly mature adult as I started what would be one of my most memorable gaming experiences; an experience that was technically made better when I played Persona 4 Golden five years later. My blurb here will be about my experience with both, though the gameplay/story bits will refer to Golden.
Though it takes place in rural Japan, I found its characters and setting to be incredibly relatable, even as a thirteen year-old denizen of the Greater Toronto Area. The teenagers that make up the main group in the game all struggle with issues I could understand and empathize with, because I was experiencing a lot of these feelings myself. Not fitting in, being expected to fill certain roles that just don’t fit, feeling lesser than your peers, and struggling with sexuality; It was remarkable just how real these anime teens and their problems felt, so it wasn’t hard to get invested in their stories (Kanji, in particular, will always be one of my favourite characters in gaming for this reason). Solving a series of murders was almost a side-objective for me, as I just wanted to learn more about these characters and their lives.
As for the “game” part of this game I’m talking about, it’s an absolute blast with more depth than I could handle at the time. Balancing a social calendar and maxing out friendships is rewarding in a narrative-sense, but the fact that these bonds between characters also give you new Personas and abilities to use in combat ties the “RPG” and “visual novel” aspects of Persona 4/Golden together perfectly.
Golden even added new social links and new characters, both of which lead to an all-new dungeon and plenty of new (canon) storylines to further flesh out Inaba and its inhabitants. And being able to bond with Adachi? Icing on the cake. Throw in an outstanding soundtrack and a ton of extra content and you have one of my favourite games of all-time, both for what it does as a game, and what it did for me as a story.
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
As you can probably tell from my list thus far, shooters and somewhat grounded games aren’t really my go-to games. Maybe it’s because it isn’t really a shooter, and because its “grounded” story goes off the rails incredibly fast, but either way, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater snuck its way onto this list above countless other games, including the rest of the Metal Gear Solid titles.
Taking place in the Cold War, Snake Eater is the first of many stories about Naked Snake/Big Boss, the man who would be cloned to create the iconic Solid Snake. Though he starts as a talented and somewhat naive government operative, Naked Snake’s conspiracy-filled journey makes him into a battle-hardened, jaded, broken soldier. It isn’t entirely as serious as it sounds though, as this journey features a lightning-man, weird crotch-grabbing, a bee-controlling WW2 veteran, and a revolver-twirling man who “meows” to summon his private military squad. Yet even with all this goofiness, Snake Eater’s story has one of the most genuinely emotional endings of any video game; a feat that few games could pull off.
Also Snake Eater is both consistently challenging and incredibly fun to play. Sneaking around and knocking out/hiding enemies is as tense as it is rewarding, as is constantly changing your camo to better suit the environment to avoid detection. Fixing your wounds and eating to replenish stamina definitely sounds cumbersome, but it feels natural in Snake Eater. Chowing down on Calorie Mates, alligator meat, and snakes (as the title suggests) really sells the idea of surviving in the wilderness, as does having to apply splints to bone fractures or bandages to open wounds. Snake Eater succeeds at so many wildly different things that it would be a crime not to include it on my list.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
I had a hard time picking between Uncharted 2 and Uncharted 4, but I had to go with Uncharted 2 because I consider it to be the most pure Uncharted experience in the series. Nathan Drake, the eternally charming treasure hunter, is betrayed during the first of many “last heists”. One thing leads to another, and eventually Nate is climbing a derailed train up a cliff and fighting Yeti-men who are linked to Marco Polo. It’s hammy and shlocky in the best way possible, as it feels like an Indiana Jones story that we never got. Nathan and his friends are endearing and fun to follow, if only for their expertly-crafted banter.
Though cover shooters were all the rage around this time, Uncharted 2 stands out because of how well-made and simply fun it is. Alongside its more scripted cinematic moments, there’s a lot of fun to be had from just exchanging gunfire with various armed goons while trying to scale walls and cliffsides. Uncharted 2 nails the feeling of “adventure” that old radio serials and action movies once defined, and I love it for that. It’s an easy game to come back to time and time again, as I’m sure I’ll continue to do for years to come.
Kingdom Hearts II
Alright let’s get ahead of this: Kingdom Hearts II is silly, melodramatic, borderline incomprehensible, and filled with moments that are incredibly easy to laugh at. I get all that, and I agree completely. But I still absolutely love the game. I won’t try to describe the plot in-detail, because that’s just a poor idea and maybe not possible, but the basic synopsis is as follows: A young boy named Sora, who wields the Keyblade, travels to a number Disney movie-based worlds alongside Donald Duck and Goofy. In these worlds, Sora battles the villainous Organization XIII; a group of literally heartless “Nobodies” dressed in black robes who want to shoot a laser at the heart-shaped moon so that they can feel emotions again, even though they sort of already could. Mickey Mouse, who is also dressed in a black robe, occasionally appears to fight monsters with his own Keyblade. It’s the fever dream of a madman, but it’s a blast to (try to) follow.
Goofy’s five-second death is hilarious in retrospect, and a weird amount of conversations in the game just end awkwardly with a long silence, but those things make Kingdom Hearts II even more endearing to me. The game is just so sincere in its melodramatic lunacy that I can’t help but love it. The sheer absurdity of a realistic-looking Jack Sparrow casually talking to an anthropomorphic dog about pirate curses with the utmost sincerity is something that just cannot be replicated. At the same time, seeing Cloud Strife and Squall Leonhart fighting together is one of the most hype-inducing moments of my late childhood/early teenage years, so there’s a real storm of contrasting emotions going on with the story of Kingdom Hearts II.
As for the game itself, the soundtrack and gameplay of Kingdom Hearts II are genuinely enjoyable. The fast and free-flowing combo-based combat of KHII blasts the original game’s clunkier combat out of the water, and though the cinematic “Reaction Command” attacks are a bit overdone, the ridiculous anime-level attack sequences that are triggered by Reaction Commands are a nice reward at the end of a fight. Mowing down hordes of Heartless or chipping away at enormous bosses like the Hydra from Hercules is incredibly satisfying, especially as you get more and more visually-pleasing special attacks as the game goes on. Also, Kingdom Hearts II has some incredibly fun and challenging secret bosses, especially for a Disney game.
And really, there’s a lot of nostalgia attached to many of the represented Disney franchises. My inner kid can’t help but get excited over exploring the Underworld of Hercules with Final Fantasy X’s Auron, or traversing The Nightmare Before Christmas’s twinkling Christmas Town with Jack Skellington. So in summary, my love for Kingdom Hearts II is a strange mix of nostalgia, irony, and genuine excitement/enjoyment. It’s an odd game, but a favourite of mine nonetheless.
And those are my favourite games. It was a tough list to narrow down (as you can tell from the enormous “honourable mentions”. Feel free to comment with your list of favourite games below!