SPOILER WARNING: Several of the memories shared here may spoil small or large moments of their respective games, so read beyond the titles at your own risk.
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening – Lost in a Dream
By Noah Leiter
My six-year-old nephew is a baller at video games. He can beat Donkey Kong Country solo. He understands how to play Pokémon games — he even keeps a full party with different types. He just beat Insomniac’s Spider-Man on his own. Honestly, he’s kinda brilliant.
In contrast, I was not a brilliant six-year-old. I restarted Donkey Kong Country every morning because I didn’t know you could save at Funky Kong’s shack. It took me over 40 hours of my first Pokémon Blue playthrough to figure out how to use a drink to get into Saffron City (with only a level 60 Golem — I still have no idea where my starter Pokémon went). Worst of all, though, I played dozens of hours of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX on my Game Boy Color without entering the first dungeon.
To my credit, this was 1999. Google and its contemporaries were still a curiosity on the level of AI tools like Chat GPT right now. I didn’t know how to get past the raccoon to get the Tail Key — look it up; it’s like ten steps!
Despite all this, I played Link’s Awakening to death. It was my favorite game. I figured it to be a masterpiece before I entered its first dungeon. I was so engrossed with its world and its comforting, dreamlike aesthetic that I was happy to simply role-play in it for like a hundred hours without actually progressing its story.
In fact, I played it so long and so hard that I was not only able to find a speedrun strat to jank over the hole beside the Tail Key, but I also unlocked the Damage Sprite tunic, a tunic you can only earn via a glitch after killing 90 overworld enemies without entering any houses/caves or leaving a zone.
My obsession with steeping myself in RPG worlds continues today. I love just hanging out in games, defeating monsters, and pretending to live in their worlds — and maybe unwittingly being the first person to discover a glitch that only obsession could lead one to find.
Mass Effect 3 – Garrusmance
By Caitlin Argyros
Mass Effect 3 is not my favorite game in the series, but it does have some of my favorite moments. Almost all of those moments are centered around romancing Garrus, the turian sharpshooter who always has Shepard’s back. There are a lot of interludes between the pair throughout the game — part of what makes the relationship so special — but if I had to choose a few to showcase, it would probably be their two dates on the Citadel and their goodbyes on Earth.
The first Citadel date (the one that’s part of the main game) is still, to this day, one of my clearest memories from the entire series. A sniper contest on the Presidium that marries the thrill of breaking the rules with a romantic proposal? Yes, please. The second date (in the Citadel DLC) sees the two roleplaying a first meeting at a bar that turns into a True Lies-style tango sequence. And really, referencing True Lies is all you need to make the scene unforgettable, but the whole thing is just really sweet and funny too.
Going in the opposite direction, the conversations Shepard and Garrus have on Earth are deadly serious and heartbreaking. Their chat before the final push has the iconic line, “There’s no Shepard without Vakarian,” which hits me right in the feels every time I hear it. Then there’s the talk about meeting each other at a bar in heaven if things go poorly, which just hurts to even think about, especially with the way Shepard’s voice breaks at the end. And last but not least, there’s the desperate “I love you” exchange added by the Extended Cut DLC. This may seem like an odd thing to mention since Shepard does this with all love interests, but it felt particularly earned with Garrus. The relationship was so well established and integrated into the game that the words didn’t come off as rote or cliche. On the contrary, they felt natural and real. They felt perfect.
Monster Rancher 2 – First Monster Passing Away
By Tin Manuel
I can’t recall what year I first started playing Monster Rancher 2 on PlayStation 1, only that my eldest brother was addicted to it. I watched bits of his yellow Suezo’s vigorous training and tournaments, from becoming a champion to freezing it for retirement. Back then, my siblings and I never really shared tips with one another about the games we played, as none of us wanted to get spoiled. So obviously, I had no idea what else this game would offer. But when summer vacation arrived, I found myself engrossed with the entire concept and knew it was time to experience Monster Rancher 2 for myself.
My first monster pick was an adorable pink jelly Mocchi, which I named Chu. I trained her with the drills that rewarded her with the most bonus stats in intelligence, skill, and speed. I fed her what I could only afford and spoiled her with something better after earning money from winning tournaments. I was strict and determined that she would bring home badges as I’d gotten the hang of the gameplay, and that she would become my cutest champion alive. Because of this, I looked forward to playing every single day. It felt like I was doing things right.
One night, a shooting star was sighted, and the background music suddenly turned melancholic. I watched my baby Chu slowly pant and collapse to the ground. Her soul gradually flew away from her body on the floor, the screen turned black, and the cutscene ended. I couldn’t believe it, despite the subtle hints in the dialogue. I sobbed uncontrollably as my heart started to sink.
As someone who has never lost a loved one or a pet at that age, I didn’t know a game I picked up over school break would be the first one to introduce to me what death is, along with the distressed feelings of grief right after. It was indeed a summer to remember…
Mother 3 – Delivering Happy Boxes
By Gio Castillo
A ton of moments from Mother 3 live in my head rent-free. More than a decade after my first playthrough, my recollection of scenes like [redacted]’s death, encountering the Ultimate Chimera, the sunflower field scene, and the final battle remains vivid as ever, and a lot of the reason why is that I played it with tears in my eyes and siblings by my side.
Full disclosure: my experience with Mother 3 was on an emulator. Since this seems to be the one game that Nintendo won’t or hasn’t sicced their ninjas at people for playing, I feel relatively safe admitting that in public. And besides, I own an actual copy (don’t ask me how much I paid for it).
Anyhoo, I played the entire game with my little sister and brother. I’m sure they each have their favorite moments, but I think the three of us would agree that Chapter 3, where you play as Samba the monkey, is awesome. And I’m fairly certain the sequence where you deliver so-called Happy Boxes to the poor villagers is our collective favorite scene in the game.
There wasn’t anything particularly sad about this moment. If anything, we were just seething that poor Samba was being enslaved by that jerk Fassad and forced to Death Stranding some harmful packages around town. This section of Chapter 3 stands out to me because it was basically just us empathizing with a cute lil’ creature, vibing to “Monkey’s Delivery Service,” and wondering what would happen next. To this day, the three of us are nostalgic about this scene, which means a lot to me.
Paper Mario – Exploring Mt. Lavalava on a Stranger’s Save File
By Mario Garcia
The original Paper Mario on Nintendo 64 holds a special place in my heart as one of my first RPG experiences. Fans of the game may recall exploring Mt. Lavalava, the scorching-hot volcano dungeon near the tropical Yoshi’s Village in Chapter 5. I remember this mid-game dungeon vividly because, despite it taking place later in the story, it served as my introduction to the game in many ways.
You see, Paper Mario was one of those titles as a kid that I rented and never actually owned. When I first rented it, I started a new save file and got stuck in early-game Toad Town—probably a result of me mashing my way through dialogue and not knowing how to get the disguised Koopa Bros. out of the way to continue my journey. So, I took a less-than-intended route: I saw another save file on the rented cartridge that seemed further along than I was and decided to hop in (apologies to the original owner of that file).
Suddenly, I was in the middle of a volcano with a motley crew of partners, not knowing who any of them were and what I should be doing. But maybe it was this charming party and the cool dungeon theming—placing pools of lava everywhere always works as a dungeon aesthetic for me—that ultimately got me so excited to explore the game and all it had to offer. Maybe it was the dope-looking lava piranha plant boss and the escape sequence afterward. I played through the rest of the game on that save file, and my RPG fandom was ignited.
Persona 4 – The Real Killer
By Lucy Gray
Five years after it was released, a friend handed me a copy of Persona 4, telling me it seemed like a game I’d enjoy. Hilariously described to me as “romance sim meets dungeon crawler,” I quickly learned it was much more. The protagonist slowly went from a silent observer of this tiny town to the personal avatar where I embraced my snark (before resetting to my previous save because sass wasn’t always the answer). I built up social links, explored the TV world, and this small-town murder mystery started to feel more dangerous than I initially thought. My Souji became increasingly aware that someone was pulling the strings behind Namatame, and I knew him well: Tohru Adachi. His dungeon was creepier 40 hours in. How could someone spend that much time in Inaba and see it as trash?
I was ready to take him on as I made it to the end of Magatsu Mandala, glad to finally be at the end…only for the screen to go black and an ominous yellow light to appear on my PS3.
That’s right. I’d managed to get the Yellow Light of Death right as I faced Adachi, unable to taste the sweet victory of punching in his misogynistic, smug face.
My local shop consoled me as they learned my plight, and I left with a half-off refurbished PS2 Slim and a renewed determination to smack Adachi into next week.
In some ways, I’m glad I got to replay the game again before tackling the fog-laced streets of Inaba. Party members got more equal rotation, hospitals were conquered, and I hung out with hot cop dad more. I clawed my way back to confront Adachi in all his yellow-eyed unhinged glory, then groaned as he turned into a giant floating eyeball. After that victory lap, I felt teary-eyed as I said my goodbyes… only to deal with the one who started this mess,
Nanako, Izanami… then replay it again as Persona 4 Golden.
Phantasy Star Online – Fighting the Dragon for the First Time
By Des Miller
Winter, 2002. My best friend introduced me to another friend of his who also loved RPGs. He suggested we have a sleepover and try out a new game he just bought: Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II. We spent over an hour deciding who would play what class, what our characters would look like, and the hardest part: choosing names. I took up the cane as a FOmarl (basically a human mage), and my friends were a HUnewearl (elf hunter, technically), and a RAcast (robot gunner). We set forth onto the planet of Ragol, and within minutes, I was hooked.
Before I knew it, we were slaying beasts, gathering loot, and pushing deeper into the forest. Enemies fell and levels went up as we grew confident, if not cocky. With my fire technique Foie and ice technique Rabarta doing the heavy work, we cleared our path through the forest in no time. Being introduced to the series with two friends who loved RPGs as much as I did was an absolute blast. Yet, what cements this moment in my memory is the time we finally reached the boss at the end of the forest: the dreaded dragon. The fight was tough; we barely scraped by. Despite running low on items and nearly dying a dozen times, we overcame that vicious foe.
Yet, as the dragon fell, it quite literally fell. Right atop me, the mage, who should be furthest from the foe at all times. I died immediately. My friends were at a safe distance, so they received EXP and leveled. Meanwhile, I was just a corpse with nothing to show for my hard work. After seconds of silence, we all started laughing as we’d never seen anything like it. It was a harsh, if not hilarious, lesson learned, and while I didn’t get to level, my friends were more than happy to help me get my revenge. Given my Rabarta spam, it was definitely served cold.
Shadow Hearts – The (Bad) Canon Ending
By Ben Love
This is a recent one for me, as I played Shadow Hearts for the first time last October. The game starts with Yuri on a train as a mysterious man in a top hat kills a bunch of soldiers in an attempt to kidnap a young woman named Alice. Like any good hero, Yuri intervenes, rescuing Alice and starting their globe-trotting adventure.
The pair starts off at odds with one another, Alice concerned by Yuri’s brash and roguish attitude, and Yuri initially put off by her prim appearance and demeanor. As the journey progresses, they become close, Alice reigning Yuri in when needed and Yuri pulling Alice along when she’s hesitant. The way their relationship develops is incredibly believable, from standoffishness to begrudging respect, then into genuine friendship and eventually love. Many games struggle to portray romance accurately, but never once did I doubt the budding affection between the two.
At the game’s midpoint, Yuri gives into his demon-fusing powers to stop an evil sorcerer from destroying Shanghai and goes missing at the culmination of that battle. Alice devotes herself to finding Yuri, knowing in her heart that he is still lost and alone out there despite their companions’ doubts. This faith and trust leads them back to one another, and she brings him from the brink of darkness to regain his humanity. To do so, she makes a pact with the dark presence inside of him, bargaining her own life in exchange for his. At the end of the game (if the player hasn’t completed a series of esoteric tasks and difficult optional boss fights), then she relents to the presence in exchange for preserving Yuri’s life.
The final scene ends where the game began, with Alice and Yuri on a train. Alice leans on Yuri’s shoulder as he has his arm around her. As the credits scroll and the music plays, Yuri slowly wakes up and holds her close, shaking her a bit to wake her. Her head tilts to the side, lifeless, as her soul has already been taken. Yuri begins to cry, and his narration picks up as the train passes through the mountains, vowing to fight in the name of his love for her.
Few endings in games made the emotional impact this one did on me. It’s a simple yet incredibly effective scene of Yuri and Alice, together in a well-earned moment of contentment and respite after having saved the world. Then, that peace is immediately shattered as Yuri realizes he’s lost the only person he truly cared about. It is heartbreaking, and even more so knowing this “bad” ending is the canon ending. Even if you go through all the trials to keep Alice alive and save her soul, when you get to Shadow Hearts: Covenant she will still be gone, and Yuri will still be mourning her. It’s bittersweet, somber, and speaks to the bravery and conviction of the developers following through with such a tragic turn for a couple I became so invested in.
Stoned on Expel OR Why I Can Never Play Star Ocean Again
by Mike Salbato
I have not had the best luck with Star Ocean games. I started where most Western gamers did, with Star Ocean: The Second Story, and played the heck out it, as I was all over the idea of a sci-fi RPG. While I’m fuzzy on the game’s plot today (it’s been 24 years), I recall completing a considerable stretch of events and cutscenes, remaining riveted. I reached a new area, excited at what was to come. I found myself in a random battle — as one does — with enemies that can petrify. In SO2, petrification does not wear off and counts as a KO. That’s a problem! I needed to heal my stoned party members quickly. Certainly the game would not allow these things to petrify my entire party in such quick succession that I would see the Game Over screen before I knew what hit me. Until that exact thing happened.
Considering how engrossed I was, guess how long had passed since I saved? Let’s just say you wouldn’t answer in “minutes.” Conquering one challenge after another for hours only to be defeated in seconds by a random battle was an insult only made worse by my negligence.
And that’s the last time I played Star Ocean: The Second Story.
Five years later, I picked the series up again because Star Ocean: Till the End of Time looked awesome. The game’s optional characters have sometimes-obscure recruitment requirements (obscurity in a tri-Ace game!?), so you may not even know about some of them without a guide! I wanted the cool swordsman Albel in my party, since I missed my chance to recruit him earlier. For now, adorable Peppita, yes, join my party, though I can’t wait to get my cool sword boi. But danger is coming, and I have learned my lesson from my time on Expel, so I save frequently.
Oh, I can’t get Albel, OR Nel, OR Roger because I let Peppita join me? A choice whose ramifications were not even hinted at? And because I saved my game immediately, I could never rectify this? Why? WHY, TRI-ACE?
And that’s the last time I played Star Ocean: Till the End of Time.