Some of these entries will account for an individual game. Some of them will account for an entire series. Fight me about it.
5. The One Who Wasn't a Thing: Mega Man X (Series)
She's sweet, cute, and very single. For some reason, you can't quite find it in yourself to change that. And yet, here you are, acting like her partner anyway. Maybe you hold hands. Maybe you call each other "babe." Maybe you spend the night at her place every once in a while. It doesn't matter to you if others get it. You guys get it, and your system works.
This in a way relates to what I like about the Mega Man X series. It, for the most part, knows what it aims to do and does it with a consistent, solid premise, tight controls, and a high but fair and attainable skill cap. The series ranges in quality, with titles like Mega Man X, X3, and X4 being series standouts and titles like X6 and X7 being hard and horrible, respectively. However, the core of the X series is what drew me in when I got X5 for my birthday as a child.
I love the reliability of 8 different animal-themed mavericks per game, and the reliable final boss of Sigma at the end of it all. The fast-paced and incredibly intuitive traversal system makes each stage a joy to navigate through and conquer. The boss battles are tense, and a great test of skill to end every level. Most of all the X series knows what it does and stays in that wheelhouse. It's a reliable series that works for me, even if it doesn't work for everyone.
4. The Nerd Girl: Kingdom Hearts (Series)
Sure she's a bit of a nerd, but that's part of what you love about her. It doesn't matter if it's music, anime, gaming, or something else entirely--her passion for it endears her to you and you want to know more just to listen to her talk about it. Maybe you might even give it a try, just to share that thing with her. Sure you might screw it up, and not know what you're doing at first, but you'll get it eventually, and you'll grow all the closer to it.
Yeah, I know. Call me a nerd if you want. Kingdom Hearts has always been a guilty pleasure of mine. It started when I was a kid, and a friend of mine introduced me to the game. I had never played an RPG before and so I was bewildered when he explained to me that the “first level” was actually a “first world” and could take an hour to complete. I tried to play it from time to time, intrigued by the secrets and hidden goodies each world held, but unable to sink enough time into the game to obtain them.
Nowadays, I am a bona fide KH aficionado. Cheesy humor aside, I enjoy the lore (convoluted as it is), the concepts, the villains, and the touch of dire melodrama. The series has run the gamut from disappointing (Dream Drop Distance) to absolutely sublime (Birth By Sleep), but I love it all. I've been eagerly awaiting the release of Kingdom hearts 3 and will be pre-ordering the best version of the game I can.
What really sets the series apart from others for me is the combat. I realize that the action-based RPG isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but when you work within the rules of the game (excluding the horrendous camera control), it can actually be quite satisfying. I enjoy wailing on bosses with twelve bars of health. That’s not a joke.
I also particularly enjoy the atmosphere. The music in the series is one of the better soundtracks I’ve heard, and I have the series mainstays on my music list. Between all the blathering about hearts and darkness, the music really helps the series nail its sense of gravity when important battles come along.
3. The Surprise Gem: Fire Emblem (Series)
You never thought you'd end up together. Maybe it was a blind date, maybe it was someone you've known all your life but never considered. And then on a whim, you gave it a shot, and WOW. You would never have pictured the two of you together, but it works so well.
I first played Fire Emblem when I rented Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn from my local Hollywood video. Within five minutes of booting it up, I couldn't put it down. Fire Emblem is pure tactical strategy RPG at its best and brightest. Each mission is a puzzle to solve: complete your objective and get everybody out alive
Permadeath is one of the first features that drew me to the series. The idea behind Fire Emblem is that each of the members of your army (units) is a unique individual. They all have distinct looks and personalities, not to mention dozens of classes that govern how they fight and how useful they can be in certain situations. Nearly every character in Fire Emblem is expendable: if they die in battle, they are treated as dead by the game world (unless they are a critical character, in which case the player fails the mission or the character “retreats” and only appears in cutscenes thereafter).
Each mission has special weight because you are trying to evenly distribute experience to your army, recruiting new units, accomplishing your objectives, and trying to make sure nobody dies—and if they do, is it worth resetting and trying the mission again? Or should you soldier on without them? This level of strategy is addicting if I’ve ever seen it.
2. The Funny One: Borderlands 2
If you're looking for a long-term partner in any sense of the phrase, you'll quickly find out that personality matters. In fact, in this writer's opinion, personality is far and away the most important quality to search for in a partner. Maybe that's too broad of a statement for me to make here, but I'm running with it. She's quirky, unusual, downright weird at times. Maybe it's the way she dresses, the way she wears her hair or a quirk of speech. Whatever it is, it all fits together under one perfect roof in her, and you love it.
One day I wandered into a Gamestop looking for a game to buy. I settled on either Borderlands 2, which I had heard was quite good and yet I was skeptical that it wouldn’t be fun without friends, or Just Cause 2, which I had played and enjoyed at a friend’s house. With no disrespect to JC2, I ended up going with Borderlands and unwittingly stumbled upon one of the best individual titles I would ever play.
Let’s get one thing out of the way right now: Borderlands 2 is fun to play. There are four (six, if you count downloadable content) distinct classes to play as, each of which offers their own unique personality and playstyle. The three skill trees provided to each class allow players to customize their playstyle even further—and in meaningful ways; there aren’t just universal buffs that make you stronger, give you more health, make you reload faster, etc. There are skills that give you bonuses like a chance to chain bullets between enemies, or a huge boost to melee damage but at the expense of a chance to melee yourself instead. The endless stream of loot and ways to make yourself stronger is only matched by the smoothness of the gunplay and combat.
Let’s get another thing out of the way: Borderlands 2 is funny as hell. Seriously. There are countless moments throughout the game that made me laugh until it hurt. And really, there isn’t even a close second for me in terms of a game this funny. The writing is hilarious, the characters vibrant, and the situations absolutely ridiculous. The total irreverence and gleeful dark humor spread throughout is an absolute joy. Mix that in with some atmospheric western-style music and a cool cel-shaded look, and you’ve got a winner right here.
Close but not quite. The Summer Fling: Bioshock Infinite
One afternoon in my freshman year of college, I downloaded Bioshock Infinite as the free Xbox “Games with Gold” title for the month. I hadn’t played anything in the series, but it was free so why not? I sat down to play and didn’t break to sleep or go to class until I had beaten it. It was a sublime gaming experience that fully engrossed me and left me reeling when it was done.
The setting was supremely creepy and backwards, the game mechanics interesting, and the story engrossing. My only criticism of the game is that the shooting is just a little stiff compared to some other titles I’ve played.
The reason that Infinite doesn’t quite make the list is the temporary nature of my experience with it. Like a summer fling, we went hard and fast. We were passionate for one another. But ultimately, we quickly ran our course and that was that. It just doesn’t have the staying power for me that these other series do.
1. The One: Mass Effect (Series)
How do you describe to someone else the greatest thing you’ve ever experienced in a particular avenue of your life? How do you go about relating to someone the sheer joy and unmatched excellence that a particular experience gave you? How do you explain that it was so great, it took something you once feared and turned it into something you now love? How do you explain that it’s had such a powerful effect on your life that you seek out similar experiences and explain to your friends what a “Mass Effect” feeling is? I am not well versed in the way of true love. I’ve not found the one. I’m not certain that the one exists. But if ever there was a way of explaining just how profound an impact Mass Effect has had on my life, it would be the idea of “the one.”
To try to break the series down into its game components, and explain why I enjoyed the mechanics of the series--and please do so outside of this article, I'd be happy to explain--would be a disservice to just how profoundly titles 1 through 3 have impacted me. Mass Effect creates the most powerful and convincing future world I have ever seen, video game or otherwise. It is the kind of future I want to be a part of.
Over this winter break, I pulled the trilogy out and booted it up again. X complete runs through, X hours logged, 4 years later, and knowing the trilogy by heart front-to-back I was still overwhelmed with nostalgia and positive memories of my time spent with the games. Playing takes me back to a better time in my life and reminds me of why the games will forever be a defining moment in my life—my one.