Welcome to Gameological Q&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. It’s extremely similar to The A.V. Club’s AVQ&A feature. You might even say it’s exactly the same. If you have a brilliant question that would make a fun Q&A, send it to brilliantquestions at gameological dot com.
Today’s question pertains to games that warrant repeat visits:
For many of us, a childhood love of video games meant saving up allowance, mowing lawns, and begging your parents until that next cherished piece of plastic entered our lives. The time between new games was filled with revisits to the ones already in your possession. The added responsibilities of adulthood and the length of many modern games make repeated journeys more difficult, but surely there are a few that you still tackle again and again. What game have you played from start to finish more than any other and why?
Anthony John Agnello
Replaying games is the best. I sometimes savor the second time through even more than the first, doing everything a little differently or perfecting earlier maneuvers. Chrono Trigger, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and a few other medium-sized games have become tri-annual staples, things I dive back into habitually to reconnect with. But when I look back at the things I’ve replayed the most, they’re always Capcom action games, like Mega Man 2 and Bionic Commando. The king of them all, though, was my very first Super Nintendo game, the arcade game Magic Sword. As a kid, it was my go to. On a phone call with a girlfriend? Play some Magic Sword. Got half an hour before dinner and the homework’s done? Time to find Lizard Man and put the kibosh on Lord Drokmar. I’ve been playing that stupid game over and over for 20 years now, and the act has become mesmeric, yet I keep doing it. Magic Sword never holds your attention too closely, but it also doesn’t coddle you. Capcom is incapable of making a game so pure and unassuming these days.
Because it can be done in literally five minutes, beating the original Super Mario Bros. a number of times is hardly an achievement. It’s funny. I’ve completed Mario’s first journey through the Mushroom Kingdom so often, but I’ve never actually owned a copy of the game. I think my lifelong contrarianism began in grade school when I thumbed my nose at the NES in favor of the much-maligned Sega Master System. As a result, I had to play Super Mario Bros. at a babysitter’s house that I was stuck in for three straight summers. And I played at a local Qik-N-EZ gas station down the street that had a Nintendo Play Choice 10 arcade machine to go along with a Pinbot and delicious 10-cent chocolate swirl ice cream cones. The only thing nagging at me is that 90 percent of my Mario playthroughs involved heavy use of the Warp Pipes, which is like a Cliffs Notes version of the game. I have a similar conundrum with movies. I’ve watched The Goonies more than every other movie—but only the sanitized edited-for-TV version copied onto a blank VHS tape. I feel like a fraud.
Since I had a limited budget for NES cartridges as a kid, there were plenty of games that were in heavy rotation out of necessity, so I had to think for a while to figure out my answer for this one. There were a lot of possible candidates. But as it turns out, I think the cartridge that ended up getting the most wear is not a gem from the NES years but rather one from the next generation: Super Castlevania IV on the Super NES. The ghoul-whipping, Dracula-killing game has few differences to offer the second time you play it (or the third, or the fourth). I think I kept coming back to it, though, because it’s such a pleasant way to spend a lazy afternoon. It’s pretty, the music’s good, and it’s so kinetically smooth that every move seems to flow into the next. Just as important, Super Castlevania IV is on the easier side as cartridge-era Castlevania games go—your whip is unusually flexible and powerful. And sometimes you don’t want to deal with the frustration of a more taxing game. On the whole, it’s not the best example of Castlevania design (don’t get me wrong—it’s still really good), but as satisfying, semi-mindless fare to fill a couple of hours, it’s tough to beat.
I’m not quite sure when Dragon Age: Origins snared me. I somehow got on EA’s list, and they sent me an unsolicited copy. I knew nothing about it. I started it up, played about 20 minutes worth, and turned the machine off, profoundly unimpressed. Maybe a month later, bored, I started it up again, this time with a different character. Since then, I’ve probably played through half a dozen times. I would have a really hard time explaining just what it is about the Grey Warden’s adventure that kept me coming back for so long. I don’t think it’s even that good of a game. Maybe it’s the same reason that I have gone back and read Robert Jordan’s Wheel Of Time books (which are not just derivative and unoriginal, but also 800-page doorstops)—there’s something about the familiarity of Dragon Age’s world and my mastery of it that was comforting. Hanging around the camp with doofy Alistair, drunken Oghren, and Shale, the snooty, sarcastic golem, never got old. Eventually, on my last playthrough a couple of years ago, I opted to sacrifice myself to stop the Arch Demon, rather than my usual choice to miraculously survive. It symbolically ended my time in Ferelden. Still, I can’t promise I won’t one day go back and whip the darkspawn again in preparation for Dragon Age: Inquisition.
My preference for longer story-driven games means that these days I only play through anything once. But there was no space in my mind for that sort of thing during my Pop Rock-fueled childhood, so instead I played through Contra over and over again. That ‘80s classic of shooting and shirtlessness is considered pretty difficult today, but it was actually one of the easier home games of the time. With the code for a ton of extra lives in hand, my cousin and I could tear through the game’s alien menace effortlessly. It eventually just became something we did with our hands while we discussed more thoughtful issues, like what parts of the playground we were going to try to eat today. I guess a lot of my tastes have evolved since then.
I prefer sprawling and open-ended games so, like Joe, I have to go back to my youth to find something I played over and over again. I spent a lot of time in the car as a kid, whether it was going on family trips or visiting grandparents or just having to tag along for a bunch of errands or my brother’s T-ball practice. My parents discovered the Game Boy’s magical power to keep me from annoying behaviors—like reading every road sign I saw aloud or singing “This is the song that never ends”—so they were happy to let me spend the rides playing games. I logged countless hours in Tetris, Super Mario Land, and Wario Land, but the game I played through the most was Kirby’s Dream Land. The first entry in the Kirby series was easy enough for my 8-year-old self to master and so short that I could reliably beat it before I got where I was going. And when I was in for a longer trip, the cutesy game served as a relaxing way for me to ease into a nap in the backseat. My exhausted parents may have loved Kirby as much as I did.
The childhood games are pretty well covered, so I’ll skip ahead to my 20s, a time when I played an unreasonable amount of the first Halo. I’m not sure how many times I played through the campaign, but it’s somewhere between five and a lot more than five. I’ve lost count. I know for sure that I played through it twice, back-to-back, in my first 10 days with the game, then played it through at least twice more with a couple of friends along for the ride. I’ve played it on every difficulty setting but easy—and that includes Legendary, the hardest setting, which took me literally months to complete. I even played through it once more for old times’ sake when I first got my Xbox 360 and didn’t have anything new and exciting to play on it for the first few months. If you throw in the untold hours playing multiplayer—I hosted a LAN party every Friday night for close to 18 months—I probably spent roughly as much time with that damn game as with most of my girlfriends.
Cory stole my answer. I’ve been through the halls and canyons of Halo: Combat Evolved more times than I can remember. It and Super Smash Bros. Melee dominated the social gatherings of my early teenage years, where their frantic competitive matches were king. But Halo’s story mode is full of enough secrets and allows for enough randomness in each firefight that it was always my go to when only one other buddy was around. Its best action sequences take place in big open areas and its variety of guns and vehicles mean you could take a new approach every time you go through. I was never able to finish Halo on the hardest difficulty like Cory did, but that’s probably because my friends and I were too busy seeing how high we could launch our invincible jeeps with the glitchy explosive force of a few grenades.
I love replaying games, but I hardly ever have time anymore; even if I get the itch to pick something back up again, it’s with the full knowledge that I’ll most likely play for a few hours and then get distracted and never go back. So the games I’ve been through the most are the ones I’ve known the longest. I was in college before I bought an N64 and picked up The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time, but I think I’ve probably played through the whole game at least three times, maybe four. Which doesn’t sound like a lot, but still makes it unique among my favorite games. I recently picked up a 3DS in no small part because I wanted to try a handheld version of my favorite Zelda. While the results were mixed (I got up to the hover boot dungeon, but just haven’t felt the same spark), it’s still the game I always think of whenever someone asks me to pick a favorite. It’s just the right balance of open world and guided storytelling, and I think I’ll be hearing Navi say “Listen!” in my ear for the rest of my life.
The game I most often return to is Pokémon Red on the Game Boy. It’s a funny game—forgoing the fast-paced action and competition of most Game Boy offerings, it’s a long, slow slog toward the Indigo Plateau and the final rivals you must defeat. It has lengthy mazes, capricious restrictions, and little in the way of clever dialogue or exciting graphics to break things up. There are sizeable stretches during your journey that are plain boring—trekking through the labyrinthine Rock Tunnel or zigzagging through endless tall grass to eke out a few more experience points for your bench of monsters. Yet I was swept up in the first wave of Pokémania along with seemingly every other preteen in America, and I first beat the game weeks after getting it for Christmas. Since then, I’ve returned to it again and again. There’s something about that very plodding, inch-by-inch nature of the game that gives a real sense of accomplishment as you build your team and conquer increasingly challenging foes. And who can deny the inherent appeal of adorable monsters?
With the exception of puzzle games like Tetris Attack and Picross, I don’t tend to replay whole games very often. Usually I’ll move on to something else about halfway through a replay or just jump to particular scenes or levels I liked. Something about de Blob, though, just won’t let go of me. Since the game’s release in 2008, I’ve played the entire campaign from beginning to end five times, roughly once a year. Sometimes it’s to see how quickly I can get through it. Sometimes it’s to explore every nook and cranny to finish with 100-percent completion. More often than not, though, I just find the game incredibly gratifying. The way the horizon slowly colors itself like watercolors bleeding across wet paper, the way the music steadily evolves along with your progress, and the delightful gesticulations of your over-excited co-conspirators in the Colour Underground, it all just makes me happy. It’s a game that makes me feel warm and welcome and safe, even when under enemy fire, and I’m never more than a couple months from popping the disc back in for another visit.