By Marshall Garvey
10. Otacon – Metal Gear Solid series
“Snake? SNAKE? SNNNNNNAAAAAKKKKKEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!” In the annals of gaming sidekicks, no one is as loyal, intelligent, eloquent, heartfelt and hilarious as Hal Emmerich, aka Otacon. Found hiding in a locker in the original 1998 game, he soon becomes Solid Snake’s trusty assistant upon learning that the Metal Gear project he’s working on has dangerous nuclear capabilities. From thereon he dedicates himself to eliminating the threat of Metal Gear, providing critical help to Snake throughout each mission. Whether meticulously dissecting complex global politics or sharing a barely relevant Chinese proverb, his presence is crucial but also highly entertaining. His finest moment is arguably his pixelated photo tutorial in Sons of Liberty, in which a memorably bad picture taken by the player will send him into fits of laughter.
9. Heather Mason – Silent Hill 3
With no disrespect to James Sunderland, Heather Mason may be the single greatest protagonist in the Silent Hill series. The adopted daughter of Harry Mason, the lead in the first game from 1999, she seems like an ordinary, albeit notably intelligent, teenage girl. Indeed, her story in the third game begins with her running errands at a shopping mall. But upon returning home to find her father murdered and a hellish cult leader on her trail, she’s catapulted into a horrifying sojourn that would break the will of even the hardiest souls. But even as the story becomes increasingly surreal and horrifying, she only grows stronger at each turn. In addition to leading the scariest installment of the franchise, Heather also stands out in the field of gaming heroines, with an understated beauty far removed from the voluptuous pinup design of the likes of Lara Croft. But it’s her courage in the face of an authentic vulnerability that distinguishes her most, and helps make Silent Hill 3 a gaming horror masterwork.
8. Scarecrow – Batman: Arkham Asylum
One of Batman’s premier villains, Jonathan Crane (aka Scarecrow) has seen his stock rise tremendously in recent years. Cillian Murphy’s portrayal of him helped Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins reboot the franchise on the big screen in 2005, followed by cameos in the next two films. Yet, it’s the Master of Fear’s appearance in Arkham Asylum that left an even bigger mark, and helped solidify it as the first truly outstanding superhero game. The game’s basic premise involves Batman having to survive a night trapped in Gotham’s notorious insane asylum, which has been taken over by a host of his most dangerous villains. Scarecrow joins in with a healthy dose of his fear toxin, but he does more than just make Batman see frightful visions of his dead parents in the asylum’s morgue. He manages to trap the Caped Crusader in a series of very real nightmares, in which he looms over disjointed levels and can take out the world’s greatest detective with one swipe of his Freddy Krueger claws. These moments are not only challenging, but also genuinely frightening, and show what an intimidating foe Scarecrow truly is. And even though he doesn’t appear in Arkham City, Batman still comes across an encoded message from him that serves as a reminder that as long as Jonathan Crane runs free, Gotham is always in serious danger.
7. James Sunderland – Silent Hill 2
A key to the success of any Silent Hill game is how the lead character’s inner turmoil translates into pathos for the player. Simply put, if you can’t feel what they’re struggling with, then the rest of the game’s complex psychology and symbolism won’t be effective. To say James Sunderland makes for an effective and relatable lead is an understatement. From the opening scene, where he despondently looks in a mirror in a rundown bathroom on the edge of Silent Hill, he presents a broken yet determined personality that draws one to his story right away. He’s received a mysterious letter from his deceased wife Mary, begging him to meet in a “special place” in the infamous haunted town. Even though he observes this strange occurrence with a hilarious dud line (“Dead people can’t write letters!”), his despair is still palpable. From there, you’ll only become more immersed in Sunderland’s shocking tale of regret and loss, perhaps the finest story in the whole series.
6. Craig Boone – Fallout: New Vegas
Of the many critical elements New Vegas improved from Fallout 3, one of the most notable is the companion system. Aside from being more efficient and varied, the lineup is simply better in terms of each character’s usefulness and personality. The best is easily Craig Boone, a former NCR soldier now working as a sniper guard in the dead end town of Novac. Haunted by his war experiences and his wife’s tragic sale into slavery, he nonetheless carries himself in a stoic manner. He speaks in a cool, authoritative tone, although he’ll sometimes cut off a conversation if it gets too personal. His shooting skills, however, speak loudly and unabashedly. Before you even know an enemy is approaching you, Boone will likely have blown it to pieces with his sniper. In a terrain populated with giant scorpions, escaped convicts, and the ever-lethal Deathclaws, you’ll be glad to have such help.
5. Fei Long – Street Fighter series
In a cast of characters that’s perhaps the most original in all of fighting games, Fei Long is hardly among the more creative members. With his black martial arts pants, whooping cry and backstory as a movie star, he’s obviously a faithful homage to Bruce Lee. But that doesn’t change the fact that he’s an excellent homage at that, and one that still adds a distinct punch to any Street Fighter lineup. The Seattle Times labelled him “the deadliest” of all the new characters in Super Street Fighter II, and he’s appeared in other franchise media such as the acclaimed anime film Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie. Plus, his stage music alone will make you want to grab a pair of nun-chucks and let out your best Bruce Lee battle cry.
4. Luigi – Super Mario Bros. series
Sure he’s lived in his brother’s shadow for the past three decades. Indeed, when Shigeru Miyamoto commemorated 2013 as the “Year of Luigi,” it felt not only overdue in recognizing the plumber in green, but also unprecedented compared to Mario’s constant star power. And yes, even if you’re a devoted fan of Luigi’s Mansion, it’s still impossible to deny that his first true solo outing was the horribly misguided Mario is Missing. But when all is said and done, there is no Mario universe without him. He’s every bit as nimble and multitalented as his portly brother, if not as outright fearless. Plus, he’s often more even-tempered than Mario, and even as the Year of Luigi unfolds many still believe he hasn’t received nearly enough starring roles. With only three to date, celebrating the lankiest Mario brother may have to extend well past this year.
3. Conker the Squirrel – Conker’s Bad Fur Day
After originally appearing in the kid-friendly Diddy Kong Racing in 1997, Conker the Squirrel seemed slated to be the next Rareware childhood favorite after Banjoe Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64. But when his first (and to date only) game hit shelves in 2001, he was anything but fun for the kids. Crass, alcoholic, dishonest and smarmy, Conker became an instant favorite for mature gamers. But this doesn’t make him any less instantly loveable, and in spite of his physical shortcomings he’s one of the most entertaining lead characters in gaming history. With plenty of sharp quips on his surreal journey, an unwavering willingness to get piss drunk, and an occasional breaking of the fourth wall, he’s the key to the game’s enduring status as a cult classic.
2. The Merchant – Resident Evil 4
RE4 set sky-high standards for action and survival horror upon its release in 2005, creating a challenging but fluid style of gameplay unmatched since then (even by its immediate sequel, Resident Evil 5). Aside from the tedious companionship of Ashley later on and occasional assistance from others, you mostly have to brave the Plagas-induced monstrosities on your own. But no matter how far you’ve wandered through the game’s intense story, there is one person you can always rely on: The Merchant. Cloaked in a large black trenchcoat and a mask that reveals only his eyes, this portly salesman shows up frequently throughout the game’s many levels. He offers a mind-boggling plethora of weapons, supplies and upgrades, and buys whatever you want to dispose of as well. Better yet, he bellows all of his salesman slogans (“Ah! I’ll buy it at a HIGH price!”) in a creepy, growling voice that makes him a joy to imitate. Indeed, I was introduced the Merchant (and the game in turn) by a popular Mega 64 skit where an actor dressed up and recited his lines to passersby in front of a Costco. Not surprisingly, customers were frightened to the point of calling the cops.
1. Sheogorath – The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
Only accessible through the Shivering Isles expansion pack, this eccentric Daedric god easily makes the detour away from the game’s main story worth every second. With cat-like yellow eyes, a bellicose Scottish accent, and a garish purple tunic, this prince of madness (his official title even) rules an exotic land that literally reflects his split personality. The Shivering Isles are divided between sunny, carefree Mania and the dark, paranoid Dementia. Indeed, Sheogorath alters between these extremes even within a single conversation, praising your actions one moment before joking about dismembering you the next. (One of his conversation enders: “Tah! Come visit again, or I’ll pluck out your eyes!”) But as insane as he may be, he’s also unfailingly brilliant and charismatic, and regardless of the moral compass of your customized character it’s hard not to want to carry out his tasks in protecting the land. Plus, upon completion of a particularly strenuous quest, he exclaims perhaps the greatest congratulatory line ever: “Time for a celebration! CHEEESSSEEEE, FOR EVERYONE!!!!”
About Marshall Garvey
Marshall Garvey is a graduate of UC Davis in history, and a gamer since third grade. He has many favorite games, among them “Batman: Arkham City,” “Zelda: Majora’s Mask,” “Resident Evil 4,” “All-Star Baseball 2001,” “Banjo Kazooie,” “Silent Hill 2,” “The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion,” and “Fallout: New Vegas,” among many others. His other interests include baseball, football, boxing, politics, music, movies, jogging, playing trombone, and writing, and he is a devoted fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Sacramento Kings, Minnesota Twins, and Oakland Athletics. He recently finished two tenures at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, CA, the first being as an intern at the National Archives wing and the second as a staff writer for the Nixon Foundation. Right now, he’s working on two books for the Sacramento Historical Society, one about the history of baseball in the city and the other about the Governor’s Mansion. He is also the creator of his own trading cards franchise, the United States Presidents Baseball Club, which can be visited at: www.presidentsbaseball.com. You can also see his writing about baseball at: www.brushbackpitch.com