This November, Game Informer Magazine released a cover story for their 212th issue that resulted in both positive and negative reception. It was a story that took 30 video game characters created over the last decade, and declared them as the ones who defined the video game community with the leaps and bounds we have made to reach what is now a whole new era of interactive story telling.
For those of you who have yet to see it, here is everyone on the list.
Now for the most part, I whole-heartedly agree that a good portion of the characters on this list do disserve to be there. A few of them I don’t really know well enough to give my say. And then there is a small portion of characters that I think are on the list less because they are compelling or original characters, or have interesting personalities, but more because their games are so freaking popular that they are popular as a result, i.e. they aren’t the reason their game was popular.
To be fair, I understand this list was just as much about how “iconic” the characters are as it is about how developed they are. For that reason, there were tons of video game characters this decade that, while being fun, creative, and memorable in their own right, weren’t necessarily iconic. These are what I call underdogs, and I would like to recognize some of them now.
10. Waluigi (Mario Tennis, 2000)
Sometimes, a character is defined by the amount of unconditional hate he receives, simply on the crime of existing. For the perfect example of this, look no further than the abomination child of Nintendo, Waluigi. Here’s a guy who only shows up in video games when it’s convenient for him (Mario Sports, Parties, and Kart Racers) despite the fact that no one plays as him anyway (Pranger’s Note: I ALWAYS play as Waluigi. ALWAYS). Now, if I could just make one request: let’s all stop our hating for two minutes, imagine we’ve never heard of the character before in our lives, and just take a good look a him. His picture is right up there. I’ll wait…
See? He doesn’t seem too bad. He’s colorful, expressive, has a fun lanky body, and rocks a mustache that just screams “wicked.” You can tell this guy is looking to do some evil in the most sneaky way imaginable. For a character that has all the making of what could be a great new Mario villain, what happened? Well, it’s been 11 freaking years since his debut in Mario Tennis, and the most evil thing Waluigi has done in all that time is steal the music notes in DDR Mario Mix. Really? Let this be a lesson to you, Nintendo. If you want us to like a character, you got to work for it. Step up your game. Break out the… upside-down inverted L-word.
9. Kameo (Kameo: Elements of Power, 2005)
In an irresistible pun, Kameo made her cameo in the current generation of consoles as part of the launch line-up for the Xbox 360. And, still to this day, she is one of the few exclusive characters licensed to Microsoft that I actually kind of like. She has the ability to morph into a unique variety of elementally based creatures (like Pummel Weed: a plant with boxing gloves). Her mission is to save her family from her big sister Kalus who is jealous of her powers. That’s right. The big words her mission included were ‘family,’ ‘big sister,’ and ‘jealous.’ Those are very primal and classic situations we all could see ourselves in. Kameo comes to us from the work of Banjo creator, Rare Software (whom you can read all about right here), and while Elements of Power could stand to have a few improvements, it was an overall well-appreciated game with lots of variety, and Kameo, just like her powers, was a fun and unique character. If there were more characters like Kameo and less like Master Chief-wannabes on the 360, I might already own one.
8. Stranger (Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath, 2005)
Oh! So the XBox did actually have another interesting character, like Kameo, from five years back… whom they also proceeded to ignore. (WTF Microsoft!) Anyway, Stranger is the result of the team behind the obscure yet well-loved Oddworld franchise. He’s a bounty hunter with a crossbow who uses small fictional versions of animals as ammo (like wasps and boombats). He needs to collect bounties on wanted criminals so that he can save enough money pay for a vital operation that his life depends on (of which the details remain unspoken). There’s also another plot involving Stranger being the last of his kind, a race called Steefs, and a Demon named Sekto who wants nothing more than to see him extinct. It’s also worth mentioning that Stranger has no proper name. In fact, this is one of those “Choose your own alias at the beginning” games, like the Zelda titles. It actually works really well because it entails you to place yourself in the game as the “Stranger,” and trust me, once you start venturing through this Odd world, you will feel like just that. A stranger.
7. Amaterasu (Okami, 2006)
It wouldn’t be right to do a list of the top underdogs of the decade without including the Sun Goddess-turned-Snow Wolf herself. Okami Amaterasu is easily Capcom’s most groundbreaking and innovative character in years. This character has one of those epic 100-year-old fairytale backstories involving locked away demons, ancient allies, and the ancestors repeating the past, and I do indeed tend to fancy those kind of tall tales. To Game Informer’s defense, they did reference Amaterasu in their article by placing her in a ‘Style over Substance’ list, stating that while she has an amazing visual aesthetic, she’s not compelling. To that I say, “She’s a freaking DOG, and she manages to inspire people, make companions, and develop as a hero as much as Link does in any of his adventures.” Not compelling my butt.
6. Travis Touchdown (No More Heroes, 2008)
A 27-year-old, unemployed, Caucasian, male, anime and wrestling nerd whose weapon of choice is reminiscent to that of the Knights of the Old Republic. You know what I think? I’m willing to bet that Suda 51 theoretically put the entire gaming populace of America in a blender, and Travis Touchdown was the outcome. That’s how ominously relatable No More Heroes’ main man feels to me. Touchdown, like Amaterasu, was also on Game Informer’s ‘Style over Substance’ list, stating that “If it weren’t for his saber, Travis would just be some nerd…” blah blah blah, well, that’s what we like about him, Game Informer. He’s supposed to represent the angry nerd in all of us. His simplicity is what makes him so endearing. I especially love how believable his vulnerability towards women feels and how he’s forced to grow out of his refusal to kill female assassins because he’s told that moral ambiguity will get him killed, yet it ironically becomes his saving grace during his final battle.
5. Sly Cooper (Sly Cooper and the Thevius Raccoonous, 2003)
Sly Cooper was like video game’s version of Robin Hood with a little scoop of Jack Sparrow mixed in. Someone who was suave, mysterious, witty, and despite being an expert in theft and con-artistry, an all-around likeable guy who was a gentleman and a loyal friend to the bitter end.
Despite how he looks, his back-story isn’t exactly what some would call kid friendly. When he was 8-years-old, he watched from inside a closet as his parents were murdered by a band of thieves known as the Ferocious Five. When he was sent to the orphanage, he met his two friends Bently and Murray. From there, they grew up to become a triforce of strength, skill, and smarts that would show big time crime lords and their meathead bosses how real heists were pulled, all the while dodging a foxy detective who very much wanted to spend some quality time with the suave Raccoon… in her interrogation cell.
There’s no doubt Sucker Punch has crafted a character like no other, and his clever dialogue is something that romantic novelists can only dream of. Sly has given us three of the best platformers in history, and with the Sly Collection now available, hopefully he may someday quit playing under the radar and reach the gaming masses.
4. Jak (Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, 2001)
Jak is the missing link between Crash Bandicoot and Nathan Drake. You see, Naughty Dog first created Crash back when the PS1 first came out, quickly garnering fame as Sony’s mascot at the time. Fast forward to this generation: Naughty Dog’s latest protagonist, Nathan Drake, has received numerous praise since the success of Uncharted 2 Among Thieves (he’s character #3 in Game Informer’s top 30 list). But what of Jak, Naughty Dog’s middle protagonist on the PS2? Nowhere near as popular as either of them. Sucks being the middle child, doesn’t it?
But in all seriousness, Jak was legit. I’ll admit right now, none of Naughty Dog’s heroes reinvented the wheel, nor their games, but Jak was unique in the sense that he felt like a different character in each part of his trilogy. In Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, he’s your everyday silent protagonist in a very fantasy-like setting. In Jak II, a phenomenal amount of events happen to him in the first two minutes, including being warped to the future in a more sci-fi setting, getting arrested, and being pumped with Dark Eco in experiments done on him while he’s in prison for two whole years. Needless to say, he’s not the same happy-go-lucky hero when he finally escapes. In fact, the very first words uttered out of this previously silent character mouth are a death threat against his captor. That’s nearly unheard of in games, especially since when you consider that it’s in complete continuity with who he was in the first game. As we get to Jak 3, it’s more or less a redemption from his overtly dark and brooding second half, yet his story still had plenty of twists that kept him compelling.
So that’s Jak for you, one of my personal favorites. He may suffer from “annoying sidekick syndrome,” but I’ve heard plenty worse. Besides, no one rocks a goatee like Jak. Just look at it. So edgy.
3 & 2. Ratchet and Clank (Ratchet and Clank, 2002)
He was a nerdy third-class mechanic who aspired to be like famous super heroes.
He was an assembly line destructo-bot who developed a malfunction known as curiosity.
He is now the jockey gadget savvy hero of the Solana galaxy and the last of the fabled Lombax race.
He is now the sentient heir of Orvus and the destined caretaker of the Great Clock at the exact center of the universe… give or take 50 feet.
Together, their adventures spawned 9 almost flawless games in 8 years, yet nearly half the gaming community isn’t even aware of them. Seriously, these guys have it all. Platforming? The best this side of Mario. Guns? The most creative weapon system in all of gaming. Puzzles? You’d think Valve made them. Graphics? Pixar Quality Animation. Voice Acting? Best in the business. Writing? Hilarious. Story? Doesn’t come much better. But the absolute best thing about these games is easily Ratchet and Clank themselves: two characters that are both perfectly capable of holding their own franchise, but together become an anomaly. Their buddy cop relationship and sarcastic banter back and forth feels so personal, and for a game that’s usually so lighthearted and funny, the later installments on the PS3 become surprisingly bittersweet. And yet it was still believable though. It never made me want to cringe or make stupid gay jokes. I dare you to watch the final moments of R&C: A Crack in Time and tell me that’s not genuine. Thank you Insomniac.
1. Midna (Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, 2006)
As much as we all love Zelda games, we have to face the fact that they are not character-driven games. They are driven by story and locations. Characters not named either Zelda, Ganondorf, or whatever the hell you end up naming Link, have barely been little more than cardboard cutout exposition dumpers that help you get from point A to point B. Yeah, sure, there would occasionally be a few minor characters with some actual depth like the Skull Kid and the Red Lion, but they are still considered lucky if they make it in two games before disappearing into the world of obscurity.
Then the gates of Twilight opened up, and everything changed.
Midna is more than just a foil to Navi from Ocarina of Time. She is the most original and refreshing thing to grace the series to date. A secondary character, not a part of the Triforce, that becomes the main focus of the story (she’s in the freaking title) and is far beyond 3 dimensional. Her dark sense of humor and sadistic dialogue in the early stages of the game was a welcomed treat, not to mention she was the first and only Zelda character with a handful of actually voiced dialogue. Granted, she spoke Twilight, a language we couldn’t understand, but still it helped flesh out her personality, like when we hear her yawn when she’s board. She’s hardly even a likeable character at first. In fact, if it weren’t for Zelda’s approval, Link probably wouldn’t trust her for an instant. But after a gruesome attack by Zant, Link subsequently saves Midna’s life, from which point she cuts down on the theatrics and slowly warms up to him, confessing what really happened to her in the Twilight Realm. Forget Zelda, Midna was there right by your side, aiding you and struggling with you the entire time. She’s the Twilight Princess, and this was HER story. Not only that, she ended up being more likeable and sympathetic than all the other Nintendo plus Disney Princesses combined, and she did it while looking like some Tim Burton/Tim Shafer inspired Imp thing instead of some typical super hot royalty chick. (Although, I guess she does have a fantastically hot human form too.)
From the way things stand now, Midna is slowly fading into that world of obscurity I mentioned earlier, and much like Skull Kid and the King of Red Lions before her, she may very easily become a one-hit-wonder of the Zelda verse. If that is so, than perhaps that’s what she wanted, and maybe it is for the best. Still, it hurts.
Wow. This has been one crazy decade for games, hasn’t it? Just look at all these guys. We’ve come so far, and these are the ones that were “under the radar.” There are still so many colorful characters out there I have yet to mention. I can’t wait to see what happens to Sackboy and Cole McGrath in the years to come. Wasn’t Max Payne supposed to have a new game soon? Do you think Tingle might show up in Skyward Sword? And who knows? Maybe someday, the blue moon will come and we will finally see Waluigi in a game that’s actually worth something.
Complements to Vermin Star, for the wonderful composition of Midna.
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