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Listmas 2013: Ethan’s 14 Most Influential Games, Part I (Special Guest Post)

Today and tomorrow, I’m running two lists from a close friend and loyal reader. Please show your love in the comments!

This isn’t necessarily a list of recommendations, nor is it necessarily a list of favorites. It could be a little bit of each, or it could be an instruction manual on what games to give to your child while they are still impressionable. Something it most definitely is, though, is a list of the games that have had such a profound impact on me during my twenty-six years of life that they are recorded in my soul-crystals and can never be replaced.

    Super Mario World (SNES)



This was the first platformer, maybe the first videogame, that baby-me was given. It taught me how to jump without moving anything but my thumb, though for many years I would be physically jumping through intense moments in any game. It has a great balance of difficulty, a steady learning-curve, a colorful and imaginative world, tons of secrets and alternate paths including difficult hidden stages for people who are into that, memorable music… everything. It’s not the standard against which all other platformers are judged. Why would we do that? It’s not in any contest with any other game. There are platformers, and there is Super Mario World. There is every other Mario game, and there is Super Mario World. Forever, in my head, saying “Mario” will be a pointer only to this game.

    Final Fantasy IV, VI (SNES)


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I can’t pick one–I’ve been trying for years. If Mario taught me how to press buttons, these two taught me how to read. Final Fantasy VI (or III in Nintendo’s renumbering) is theoretically and artistically an amazing triumph and, I’ll always argue, the greatest Final Fantasy. It accomplishes its lofty ambitions so fluidly that it never seems out of place (For examples, having no main character, or having sidequests that are so integral that they are pursued without feeling “secret” or “optional.”) The memories of this game are mixed with Yoshitaka Amano’s beautiful and unique illustrations with which the now-tattered but still-treasured player’s guide was laden. And, of course, every note from the soundtrack to either game can be recalled effortlessly.

Final Fantasy VI was dark and tragic, but IV was lush and vibrant. Final Fantasy IV (or II, Nintendo…) is the triumphant fantasy that we all want told to us over and over–which is pretty much my approach to playing that game, as it was when I was young. Knights! Dwarves! Magic! Crystals! Regret! Rebirth! The future is from the past! Going to the moon in a giant whale/spaceship! So many crystals! There is everything to love, even if it is, artistically, pretty standard. It’s been ported with new content and remade with new mechanics and had sequels forced upon it, but none of that is canon with my childhood, so who cares.

    Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES)



I don’t know what to say. I bought a used cartridge from FuncoLand just because I liked the title-sticker. It didn’t communicate anything to me other than “this game has a sword in it,” but that was enough. This game was a new format that allowed a different kind of exploration. The world is open, but obstacles that can’t be passed without certain items make the experience linear. The whole time, you’re taunted with visible secrets and treasures that are just out of your reach, feeding your need to explore. I’ve played every Zelda game since finding this one. More, please?

    Wanderers from Ys III (SNES)


This game feels different from any other in the strangest ways. It feels like it was heavily influenced by text-based games, but it’s a side-scrolling sword-slasher that’s light on the dialogue. There’s a menu element is used just rarely enough to always feel like a special opportunity, unlike Zelda which has you flipping between items in every room. Success is based on experience points, new armor, and magic rings more than it is on skill, due to many misplaced hit-boxes on enemies and Adol, your swordsman, having such a short reach that it’s difficult to avoid damage if you want to deal any. It also has a… story? I never took much notice of it when I was young. It’s far from perfect, but I played it so much when there were so few other games at hand that its battles and music will be echoing through my head forever.



    Megaman X (SNES)



Another legendary game that fell into my hands through magic, this was a gift from my Aunt who had no children and didn’t speak English. This is a side-scrolling platformer with gun-based combat and a massive emphasis on mobility. Wall-clinging and dash-jumping were added from the original Megaman games, giving you the ability to practically fly through stages and dodge anything where you were previously glued to the ground and had to deal with every enemy that didn’t have the courtesy to jump over you. Playing these games just makes you feel awesome, until X5, that is.

    Super Smash Brothers (N64)



This game proved that you could have a fast, technical fighting game without having to memorize button combos. You have two attack buttons and each can combined with a directional button for a different attack. The controls are the same with every character, but they all play differently. It’s amazing. It’s also worth note that games like this, along with MarioKart 64, Mario Party, and Goldeneye pretty much redefined gaming as something (or the very best thing) that could be done casually with a group of friends instead of something for the isolated.

    Guitar Hero 2 (PS2)



I didn’t even like music until I got this game. Seriously. Most of all that I’d ever heard was classic rock, and only while being driven to school. The heavier rock and metal to which this game exposed me was life-changing. It was rewarding to watch my skill-growth over the years that this game would stay close at hand. Listening to the songs while finding the perfect times to hit notes also taught me about beat, note-quartering, and time signatures. It lit a new fire in me. It took a while, but now musician and composer are in my list of skills.

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Welcome to the Mushroom Kingdom

What defines the canon of a series?  Is it only the material produced by the original creators, or can it extend beyond such a narrow scope?  Video games and comics are both extremely murky waters to travel when it comes to canon.  Batman has seen so many alternate dimensions and series reboots over the course of his career that it has become difficult to tell just who is under the cowl anymore.  The Mario Brothers have a particularly bulky catalog of material as well; spanning video games, television series, comics, and a particularly awful movie.  Across these various appearances, Mario and Luigi have transformed numerous times to suit the context of the medium.  The overall tale of these plucky plumbers has grown into a massive media empire that has some difficulty in tying each entry together.

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When Super Mario World debuted back in 1990, the main story of the video game has the brothers going on vacation with Princess Toadstool to a place called Dinosaur Land.  Sure enough, Bowser and his brood follow the trio to this new land and proceed to cause all sorts of the usual trouble (kidnap the princess, try to stop the brothers, etc).  Shortly after the game’s release, the Super Mario World television show premiered.  A Saturday morning cartoon, this program featured a similar scenario to the video game, but built a more prehistoric world out of the Dinosaur Land setting.  While the cartoon took some creative liberties with the game world and premise (why are there so many cavemen?), it featured plenty of material straight from the original source.  Around the same time, a monthly comic was  being published in Nintendo Power that didn’t even set foot in the Dinosaur Land of the video game.

EPSON MFP imageSuper Mario Adventures made its first appearance back in January 1992 in Volume 32 of Nintendo Power.  The story was written by Kentaro Takekuma (co-author of “Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga”) and the art was handled by Charlie Nozawa (pen name Tamakichi Sakura), who has worked in comics and video games (“Shiawase No Katachi” and “Tower Dream” respectively).  The main story arc ran for twelve issues, followed by a bonus comic which was based on Super Mario Land 2 for the Game Boy.  Neither of the plots for these comics follow the storyline of any particular game, but both of them feature key elements from the popular Mario titles at that time.

EPSON MFP imageThe main story of the comics begins with the Mario Brothers, plumbers extraordinaire who have been called to the Mushroom Kingdom to repair the palace pipes.  After getting most of the plumbing complete, Mario notices an outlying green pipe that seems to have no match.  One familiar green pipe sprouts several others, as Bowser and his forces wage an attack on the palace.  The King of Koopas issues an ultimatum: Princess Toadstool must marry him or he will turn the entire kingdom to stone.  Unlike the fair damsel of the video games, Toadstool is a woman of action who takes a troop of soldiers to meet Bowser head-on.  After a week spent turning Mario back from stone, the brothers set out to find the Princess and help her deal with Bowser.

From this point on, the story features plenty of interesting twists on familiar elements.  Princess Toadstool outwits the Koopalings and makes a daring escape, Mario has to be saved by the Princess and Luigi, and a horde of Yoshis end up being the saviors of the entire gang.  There is even a scene where Mario plays therapist to a Big Boo and finds out exactly why the ghosts are so shy when faced by people (childhood bullying that led to anthrophobia).  The comic is full of fun moments like these that help ground these fantastic characters and show them in a new light.

EPSON MFP imageThe artwork suits the lighthearted nature of the story quite nicely.  Plenty of cartoon flourishes show up throughout the work, such as quick gags and goofy violence.  The character proportions are kept similar to that of Super Mario Brothers 2, with Mario being shorter than the Princess and his younger brother.  The facial expressions of every character are full of emotion, using various eye and mouth shapes to convey their mood.  Backgrounds are handled with varying levels of detail; sometimes little more than a splash of color, other times there are plenty of flora and fauna that flesh out a scene perfectly.  Bright colors are used for the entire comic, resulting in a wonderful world inhabited by interesting characters.

Super Mario Adventures takes the familiar story of “Mario saves the Princess” and turns it into a work that is wholly unique from other entries of that time.  Instead of Mario solely making his way through Dinosaur Land to save the pitiful Princess once again, every character has a moment in the spotlight and the chance to be a hero.  I personally prefer this tale to the schlocky Super Mario World television show, and maybe even to the story in the video game.  With all of this material to consider, just which story is canon to the Mario Universe?  Instead of getting so hung up on just which plot is the “correct” version, Shigeru Miyamoto (creator of Mario and other beloved video game characters) has this to say:

“If you’re familiar with things like Popeye and some of the old comic characters, you would oftentimes see this cast of characters that takes on different roles depending on the comic or cartoon. They might be businessman in one [cartoon] or a pirate in another. Depending on the story that was being told, they would change roles. So, to a certain degree, I look at our characters in a similar way and feel that they can take on different roles in different games. It’s more like they’re one big family, or maybe a troupe of actors.”

Just like the Link to the Past series, all of these comics can be read over at Old Game Magazines.  Please be sure to check it out and follow them for other great pieces from video game magazines of yesteryear!