My books while I was growing up were plastic grey cartridges and moving text on a TV screen. While most would agree that video games are a complete waste of time, some of the most compelling stories and tense sequences I’ve ever known came from 8 and 16-bit graphics.
I cannot say these are the “greatest” video game moments — mostly because my library is limited to anything before 1996, but also because I haven’t played every video game ever — but these moments all had a particular impact on me. Perhaps it was my malleability at an impressionable age, but I cannot dismiss the significance of what I read and saw.
Here are the top 15 video game moments that changed my life.
15) Dragon Warrior 4 – Santeem: the ghost town
After escaping her overprotective father, the king of Santeem, Alena traverses through a series of adventures and proves her strength by entering a tournament. After wiping out all of her competitors, a soldier from home races up to her and urgently asks her to return home, immediately vanishing thereafter.
Upon arriving (which requires walking back, undoubtedly to build tension), she discovers the entire castle is abandoned with the exception of a panicking cat. The music is removed, and the player is forced to reckon with an eerie and mysterious exploration sequence in silence. The player never discovers the fate of Santeem’s inhabitants, generating a pretty good chill before the next chapter of the game begins.
14) Maniac Mansion – Any Nurse Edna scene
Influenced by a mysterious meteor that landed in their backyard 20 years prior, the Edisons are going quite nuts. All of them have turned green, and daddy is doing experiments on humans, one of which is potentially our protagonist’s girlfriend. In this game, it’s your job to rescue her, doing so through winning the favor of the residents after breaking in and doing a few tasks. Nurse Edna is one of the residents, and she roams around a little more than the other two, making quite startling appearances in rooms you might happen to be standing in. And that, my friend, can cause a young man to pee in his pants.
13) Final Fantasy 3 – Rachel’s story
If Final Fantasy III (U.S.) were a movie first, it might have been nominated for Oscars. Instead, it became quite possibly the greatest video game of all time, unquestionably for its incredible storyline.
One of the characters, Locke, is troubled and highly protective of women, but we don’t discover exactly why until a good turn through the game. The story is as follows (taken from http://finalfantasy.wikia.com/wiki/Rachel)
The player is introduced to Rachel as Locke’s girlfriend from Kohlingen. One day, Locke took Rachel to Mt. Kolts, supposedly looking for what would become her engagement ring. Upon crossing a rickety bridge, it began to collapse with Locke on it, before Rachel pushed him out of the way just in time. In doing so Rachel took the fall for him. Locke saved her and brought her back to Kohlingen, but due to the fall, she had lost her memory. Her father blamed it on Locke, and he kicked him out of their house.
Rachel agreed to her father’s decision because she had no memory of Locke, and only saw him as someone who was upsetting her parents. The residents of Kohlingen were also angry at him, leading him to leave the town. Rachel was killed one year later in a raid by the Empire, but her memory was also restored right before her death. Her last words were: “If a man called Locke should ever return, please tell him that I love him”.
Locke eventually heard about the attack, and came back to Kohlingen only to find he was too late. Determined to do something for her, he took her to an herbologist living in Kohlingen, who preserved her body in its youthful state using herbs. After that, Locke searched for a way to bring her back to life. His feelings of guilt continued to haunt him, causing him to try to protect every woman he came across in need. He searched far and wide for a way, but he does not find it until the world is destroyed. He hears of the legendary esper, Phoenix, that can revive the dead.
He immediately goes searching for it, and finds it right when the player party shows up. When he gets to Kohlingen, he uses the Phoenix esper on Rachel, but the cracked magicite shard could only revive her for a few moments. She helps Locke overcome his guilt, tells him to “give his love to the one who now dwells in his heart” and dies again but not before her spirit merges with the Phoenix magicite and restores the magicite to its original splendor, thus allowing Locke to finally make peace with his torrid past.
12) Pilotwings – Skydiving
Second only to making the female instructor get all googly-eyed for impressing her with incredible aviation talents is skydiving in Pilotwings — and not successfully doing so.
Nintendo released Pilotwings with some Super Nintendo packages back in the day, and my buddy and I played this game more often than the Mario title. Keeping things at PG meant Nintendo not letting your pilot in training “die” despite devastating accidents, and skydiving was by far the most amusing way to “die”. This guy gives the scenario a decent treatment.
11) Super Mario Bros. 3 – Beating it
You were a cool kid in 1990 if you owned Super Mario Bros. 3. You were something awesome if you beat it. At least, until all your other friends owned and “beat the game” too.
I was among elite gamers at 9 years old, and I frustrated my parents to the point of disbelief when they dished out $65 for a game I finished off in a matter of three weeks. But it felt good. Did you know raccoons can fly?
10) Final Fantasy 3 – The destruction of the world
A frustrating development in FF3, after hours of play and narrowing eluding death numerous times, is the ever-resilient and nasty Kefka, who insists on acquiring so much power that the whole planet becomes unstable. The following sequence of events is catastrophic and highly memorable to the impressionable adolescent mind.
9) Dragon Warrior 4 – The death of Orin
When you acquire Orin in chapter 4 of Dragon Warrior IV, you feel invincible — mostly because the characters you’ve been stuck with are incredibly weak. Orin’s act of selflessness accompanying the sisters peaks when he gives up his life to make sure the ladies escape. An utmost act of chivalry, and a painful realization of the world’s cruelty to a youngling.
8) Final Fantasy 2 – the sacrifice of Palom and Porom
As if an adult self-sacrifice wasn’t painful enough, watching a couple of kids do it is by far more tragic. After accompanying Cecil to the top of a mountain to get a grip on himself, among other adventures, the twins Palom and Porom end up fighting alongside the hero to take out a corrupt former comrade of Cecil’s. Jubilant, the party exits the throne room, but soon finds themselves trapped in an increasingly shrinking hallway. In order to preserve the rest of the group, Palom and Porom petrify themselves to keep the walls from collapsing on everyone. Final Fantasy II is full of twists and drama, but this scene particularly stuck out for me.
7) Secret of Mana – the hero is banished
Yet another high quality story-driven game, Secret of Mana begins with a boy who mischievously pulls a sacred sword, unleashing a torrent of devastating consequences, starting out with his own parents telling him, in fact, that they aren’t his parents at all. The village compounds the kid’s troubles by telling him he’s no longer welcome at his home.
The thought of being disowned by the people who raised you, and then getting kicked out of your digs, is a reality no kid wants to face, even if it’s a fake one.
The music is no slouch either.
6) Tecmo Super Bowl – Bo Jackson
Tecmo Super Bowl introduced me to the video game headache. It also introduced me to one of the most unbelievable 8-bit superstars known to the gaming world: Bo Jackson. The real-life NFL player wasn’t too shabby either, but when Bo got the ball in Tecmo, unless the defense sniffed out the play beforehand, he was going to run awhile. And if he was in “Excellent” condition, it got even more ridiculous.
I began running miles at school picturing myself in “Excellent” condition. It worked.
5) Earthbound – Gigyas
The final battle sequence of Earthbound wasn’t as frightening as it was intriguing. Say you have a form of evil in your mind — consider it the “archetype” of evil, as Plato would put it — and imagine that some force makes this evil entity manifest before you. This force is what the protagonist battles at the end of Earthbound. Interestingly, the boss is primarily defeated through the power of prayer. Heavy stuff for a young teen, but it’s nonetheless one of those awesome cases of video games actually making you smarter.
If you’re curious, the video below how it all goes down. The “music” is quite eerie, but the battle itself is intense in its own right. Certainly unforgettable stuff.
4) Blaster Master – The opening
A kid loses his pet frog and chases it down a hole, only to discover it’s been mutated into a behemoth creature. Your goal is to destroy the source of its mutation, along with the frog itself a couple of times. Dramatic stuff. The opening sequence actually made me cry.
Once again, I’ll let another video take care of this for you:
The first level of the game features some of the most memorable video game music ever, if that’s your bag.
3) Castlevania – Medusa
Toward the end of the second stage involving navigating a clearly haunted dungeon, our hero traverses through a long hallway featuring floating medusa heads, little creatures of no consequence who have terrorized him through most of the level up to now. As you reach the end of this hallway, the medusa heads suddenly stop appearing, and your character faces a strange statue. The music fades, and you’re left to wonder what’s going to happen next when suddenly…
Ahhhhhhhhh! Goodbye, sleeping with the lights off.
This got my 7 year old psyche all messed up for a while, until I saw “The Ring”. That was another story. Who comes up with this stuff?
2) Soulblazer – the hero’s return
The game developer Enix was on fire in the 90s before Square officially dethroned them (starting with a merger) later in the decade. Soulblazer certainly encapsulated the magic of Square’s Final Fantasy series with the incredible storywriting of Enix. This game has a special place in my heart: the music, gameplay, and plot are all top notch.
The hero of this game, an angel of a sort (clearly borrowed from the Bible as a Jesus figure) is sent to earth to free its inhabitants’ souls from the grips of the evil Deathtoll, one by one. He builds several relationships with the creatures, living and non-living, but none of them are as special as Lisa. His fondness grows for Lisa as the story progresses, and his love for her is undeniable by the time he goes at it with the final boss.
After Deathtoll’s demise is complete, the angel is sent back to heaven while Lisa is left wondering where the man who freed her went. Gripped by his adoration for Lisa, he convinces the Master to let him return to earth permanently as a human, but with one devastating stipulation: his memory would be completely erased.
His encounter with Lisa is a tear-jerker, and the music is highly memorable. Watch the video below if you’re curious. You’ll have to endure some credits in part two, but I believe it’s worth it. Skip to about 6:15 in the first part to get the Lisa story.
1) Dragon Warrior 4 – The chosen one
There is no better story told in 8 bits than that of Dragon Warrior IV. The pinnacle sample of quality storytelling, and the most memorable moment in video games for me, is that of the hero’s beginning.
Set in a small, remote village, the story begins with the naive hero living a quiet, normal life. Mom is preparing lunch, and dad is out fishing — nothing out of the ordinary. The player makes his way around the village and encounters a few friends, particularly one named Celia. She wants to be friends forever.
As fate would have it, monsters discover the village, intent on killing the hero before he has a chance to get any stronger. A guard leads the hero into a cellar for his own safety, and along the way, his “father” suddenly reveals that he is in fact not so (apparently a recurring theme in video games), and once the hero reaches the cellar, we’re left with cheap sound effects indicating a vicious battle is taking place outside.
Suddenly, Celia arrives to say goodbye, subsequently doing the tragic and noble thing: using magic, she transforms into the likeness of the hero, exits the cellar and sacrifices herself. The enemies are satisfied and leave, and the player leaves the cellar only to behold a completely demolished village.
The story circles at the very end of the game: after making rounds to each of the characters’ homes, the hero returns to the village and searches about where Celia once lay. Magically, she reappears — whether it’s an illusion or not is up for interpretation — and they embrace to close it out.
Are there any video game moments that have left an impression on you likewise? Please share them below.