Dai Gyakuten Saiban
I wrote a big long essay on this one too. The condensed version? This is the best mystery game I've ever played and the best Sherlock Holmes adaptation I've ever experienced.
The soundtrack is phenomenal. The art direction is incredible. The setting is explored in so much more nuance than I ever anticipated. Dai Gyakuten Saiban 1 discusses things the main series has never touched on before, and the sequel (or second half, rather) weaves all of its plot threads into an emotional and incredible climax.
I didn't touch Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 for years because I was so afraid it would be a letdown. (It also hadn't been translated yet.) Well! It was not a letdown. The full story of Dai Gyakuten Saiban is perfect in a way I didn't dare to dream of. This is Apollo Justice's vision fully realized, with Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney's creative team bringing it to life, and it utterly outshines anything else like it. The pacing is masterful, trusting the player to guess part of what is going on but never ever letting them down with the true way things play out. It does not have One Singular Reveal that changes everything, but constantly unveils new truths that are continuously changing the lens through which you perceive what is happening.
It's incredible. It is incredible. Do I even need to play another Ace Attorney game after this? (...yes, there is always room for more fun mystery games.) This game reminded me that a story standing on its own legs is so much more free than a long-established series. The irony is that I love it so much that I want more... never again will an interpretation of the character Sherlock Holmes be this incredible... but I know that I don't truly want more, because it is perfect as it is, absolutely perfect. The best thing now would be to next experience another, new story, one that will touch my heart in entirely different ways.
I wrote more, a lot more, entirely without spoilers here: https://www.vgfamily.com/post/dai-gyakuten-saiban-the-greatest-ace-attorney
I don't know that I can actually articulate why Earthbound is higher than Mother 3, other than a gut feeling that tells me it's right. Both games fundamentally altered the scale on which I judge other games. The way this series interacts with the player and comments on their active role in experiencing the game is nothing short of brilliant. And it's so damn funny too? There are several games I have played that do extremely clever things with the unique role of a player in their writing, but this one came out a good 20 years before those, and presents its commentary with 100% pure concentrated sass. It's so funny.
I love its battle system. Being able to tank mortal damage if you win or heal fast enough makes it more real-time than turn-based and keeps you on your toes, and the backgrounds and animations are so distinctive and iconic. They are used brilliantly in one of the most memorable and intense final boss fights ever. Ugh... so good.
On the subject of the final boss fight. I'm thinking of a particular quote from the How to Train Your Dragon book series by Cressida Cowell. I don't remember exactly which book, or I'd pull it off of my shelf and quote directly, but it is something like: "This story is not just the making of a Hero... but also the making of a Villain." That quote was at the forefront of my mind during the final confrontation with Pokey, thinking back to where he came from, and where he's at now, too. The BGM for that fight also contains possibly the most iconic and hilarious musical plot twist of all time, but I will not be linking it here because everyone deserves the opportunity to experience it for the first time unawares.
Earthbound is clever and funny. It is also surprisingly poignant and meditative at points, too. The coffee scenes in particular are jarring and bizarre, in that they actively encourage the player to think back about their experiences and... just chill, for a moment. There are so many pieces of imagery that aren't fully explained but the game provides just enough context for you to interpret your own meaning for them. I firmly believe that Earthbound is a game almost everyone finishes with a slightly different relationship to it, but the core identity and simple, heartwarming story of a group of 4 friends is the same for everyone.
A shared experience, but also a unique one. That's what Earthbound is.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D
Ocarina of Time was my first Zelda game and the one that defined Zelda for me as a kid. I put it down for a long time, and came back to it recently in the form of its 3D remake - and formed an entirely new relationship to it. There is nothing quite like coming back to something you loved as a child and reacting with "yes, yes, this is every bit as magical as I remember it," while also having new take-aways from an adult perspective.
I wrote a lot more words on this elsewhere, so instead of repeating myself here, I'll just link that: https://www.vgfamily.com/post/returning-home-with-ocarina-of-time-3d-the-culmination-of-my-hero-s-journey
This game is beautiful, and magical, and legendary. My first Zelda was my most formative, and after all this time, is once again my very favorite.
Persona 3: FES
This game is everything.
It's sad. It's edgy. It's cool. It's funny. It was deeply impactful to me as a teenager and every time I think I've "outgrown" it I listen to a song in its soundtrack and am overcome by such strong feelings of awe and nostalgia. I think of the events that transpire and about the extremely cool visuals and music with which they're presented. I think of how every singular aspect of Persona 3:FES's gameplay, narrative, and visuals so perfectly and cohesively serve its themes. I think of how hard I cried the first time I got to October 4, and how sad it still makes me all these years later.
This video game takes the journey of the Fool through Death in the major arcana of Tarot and forges one of the most impactful experiences in media from that inspiration. Tartarus looms, and at its very peak awaits a scene that - forgive the mid 2000's terminology - can really only ever be described as epic.
You don't have direct commands because your teammates are individual people, with their own lives to live. You don't have social links with most of your teammates because you forge bonds with other, normal people instead, and your teammates do the same with others. The game ends with your death, you're the protagonist after all, but you can't control other people. You can only work alongside them, and hope to overcome the impossible, or accept the inevitable.
And you will raise the sun with the pride of the living.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (GameCube)
...I'm just kidding.
Tales of Symphonia
Can I ever fully describe, in words, what this game is to me? I doubt it. I've had a different relationship to it throughout every major phase of my life since I played it for the very first time, but it has always always been my favorite game.
It's thanks to my sister that I experienced Tales of Symphonia. I was her 2P while she played through it. Her husbando was Kratos, and I respect it. I immediately fell in love with the game, and played it two times - consecutively - on my own right after that.
It did not end there. I (or rather, my parents) bought Tales of Symphonia for 2 different friends. I needed to talk to people about it, so I made people play it. I literally could not function without friends who I could talk to about how much I loved this game and its story and its characters, friends I could play co-op with despite the horrible camera and just have fun, friends I could create lifelong memories with from the shared experience of this game. This game specifically.
Three years ago I spent New Year's at a friend's house. I was full-force in love with this game again, having finished my 14th playthrough. ...I'd been keeping count.
At this New Year's, I somehow convinced everyone to play the final boss of the game for fun. When it was finished, we started a NG+ file then and there. It became a joke, "let's ~speedrun~ this" and by "speedrun" we just meant "it's New Year's, let's pull an all-nighter and see how far we get."
By PBJayz's power of sheer gamer will as 1P, my direction as 2P, and 3P/4P pitching in, we got through the entire game in one sitting. We then immediately celebrated by going to iHop, loading ourselves with pancakes, and then going home and sleeping for about 20 straight hours. Our "run" was, if I recall, 14 hours long. We had no idea what we were doing.
It is a memory I treasure.
It was also the spark I needed to dive into speedrunning the game myself, seriously. I'd been watching speedruns of other games for years, but the most I'd done myself was a Sonic Forces IL. I did have the entire story of Symphonia memorized at this point, but could I ever actually sit down long enough to do a full run of it? PB helped me answer that question. Yes, I could! We already had!
I love this game's mechanics - it is so fun to play. Its battle system is extremely fun and has a rewarding, high skill ceiling, and I have been forced in the past 3 years to become better and better and better at this game I'd been playing my whole life, and learn the route properly. I've even contributed to it! Found a set-up for an old clip, and discovered a brand new sequence break that saves about a minute. I'd never considered running such a long game before, but now that I've been doing it for a while, nothing could be more perfect for me.
I now have 2nd place in GC NG+, but that's nothing. I want sub 6:20. I see Jay's time on the leaderboard, and I want to get on that level.
So I'll keep practicing. I have a goal, and I've set my sights on it, and I'll get there.
But! Is that all this game is to me at this point? A sport or a challenge? Every time I reach the climax and listen to "Last Battle ~Decision~" as I go to confront a 4,000-year-old disco sh*tlord, I am reminded: no, I'm not doing this for a time. I want a particular time, of course, but the time isn't my motivation. I'm doing this because this game is the most important video game to me, and it always will be, and I will always play it and always come back to it and never ever be finished with it.