Mirror’s Edge (2008)
It’s the type of first-person nonstop action game I’d normally be apprehensive about, but unlike the average shoot-em-up, Mirror’s Edge wants us to thrill less in gunning down bad guys and more in parkour, parkour! Managing to outmaneuver the guys who are shooting at us feels more rewarding than stopping to either knock them unconscious or take their guns, not that the game doesn’t back us into corners. While its story, which takes place in a dystopia where everybody’s complacent and comfortable except for the parkour-trained Runners who aim for greatness, is so convoluted that it took me three playthroughs to understand it, the first-person perspective makes the stylized action set pieces exhilaratingly immersive.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2003)
This is the most conflicting entry on this list. On one hand, Sands of Time is a refreshing morality tale about the consequences of pride, featuring parkour platforming, puzzle-solving, a sword-based combat system pumped up by a Middle-Eastern/rock-and-roll soundtrack, brilliantly written chemistry between its leads… On the other hand, it features consistently unnecessarily skimpy female attire typical of video games. It’s not as tasteless as its sequels, which is why I haven’t played them sans a censored Wii version of The Two Thrones, but without that element, the game would be a male fantasy that actually subverts some wish-fulfillment elements of male fantasies. The indignities unfortunately undermine the subversiveness, though they don’t entirely ruin it for me. If they did, then Sands of Time would be on a “Memorable video games I won’t play again” list.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003)
Although the best Star Wars game falls maddeningly short of being the ideal Star Wars game, which I wrote about previously here, it’s still a pretty good game. Both the characters and the worlds we visit are brilliantly realized. The pause-and-select combat system is easier on my patience than a turn-based combat system ala old-school RPGs. Not to mention, what it gets right about the spirit of Star Wars delights my inner child.
Of course, beyond the Original Trilogy, it would be hard to replicate that simple good-versus-evil spirit without straight-up copying the Originals, which I wrote about here, especially since there are hints at the Jedis’ flawed philosophy there. But not only are those flaws present in KOTOR, but they’re naively celebrated here whereas the Originals disprove them. Still, as far as RPG gameplay goes, it’s more suited for me than any other.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (2011)
Of course I like more than one Zelda game. While Skyward Sword may not be the most mythic 3D Zelda game (Ocarina still has that place as far as I know), and it’s so far the most streamlined 3D Zelda game (perhaps obnoxiously so), it’s nonetheless charming in its own way.
While Ocarina explains Hyrule’s and Ganon’s origins, Skyward Sword goes even further back, telling the origins of the Master Sword and Zelda herself. Although it borrows many mechanics from previous games, it implements them in fresh ways. The colorful art style feels like a playable painting. For once, Link and Zelda are in an adorable will they/won’t they relationship, and the introduction of Groose, a bully to Link head-over-heels for Zelda, makes for the most involving character dynamics in the post-SNES era.
It does, however, feature more explicitly religious themes than any other Zelda game, and the biggest problem with that is that, as implied only in relation to later entries, this religion is no longer necessary to practice in Hyrule by the time Ocarina roles around. While it would probably be too much for Zelda newcomers, its characters and overall design, including my two favorite boss battles in the franchise, make it an absolute treat for me.
Team Ico makes games that are much more involving for the players than they are for the friends watching. As I said in the previous volume, their debut title’s, Ico‘s, artsy minimalism that’s carried over to Shadow of the Colossus was innovative for its time, and it’s ironically what made Ico stand out in a year that saw the release of blockbuster titles like Halo: Combat Evolved and Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty.
By stripping the platformer and combat mechanics down to a minimum—no health bar, only one carriable weapon at a time…—, the story emphasizes the emotional bond between the titular Ico and Yorda, the otherworldly princess Ico’s guiding through a castle to prevent both of them from being sacrificed in a mysterious ritual, which means we’re the ones doing the hand-holding in a video game, and quite literally. Putting sacrifice-avoiding children at the center of the story, alas, opens up a major thematic caveat: the villainization of adult authority, even parental, though all under fantastical circumstances, especially the latter.
Despite its unsettling subject matter and more questionable messages, the bond between Ico and Yorda is so endearingly innocent and chivalrous that I can’t help but fall in love with it. Plus, the way the in-game camera, which we have partial control over even in cutscenes, presents the action in wide shots evokes a sense of wonder that video games are ideal for.