Support characters are a very important element in any game that features them. Whether they are extra party members, shopkeepers, or random people on the street who seem to dispense just the information you need to progress, there is no doubting the pricelessness of whatever support you can get. But the support characters whom I wish to show my appreciation to today are the ones that help players get places. Literally.
We owe a lot to these beasts, even though they may just not know any better than to happily oblige to the tugs we make on their reins. Read on as I pay respects to some of my favorite rideable brave and/or stupid animals.
Yoshi -- First rode during Super Mario World (1991)
When the subject of the greatest videogame rides come to mind, most will likely first think of the famous green dinosaur that Mario first took a spin on in Super Mario World. Yoshi and the others of his kind have been indispensable during their careers as mounts. With their elongated tongues and stomachs made of steel, Yoshis will eat everything in harm's way, and then some. The Spinies and Fireballs that once taunted Mario with their invincibility can be taken care of in a single gulp when a Yoshi is around.
The Yoshi's legacy as a rideable creature is a great one. Not only did one help Mario speed across Dinosaur Land in World and guide the player through the Super Scope classic Yoshi's Safari, but they have also carried the infant versions of some of Nintendo's most beloved characters into their loving care in Yoshi's Island DS). Several different Yoshis gave Baby Mario, Peach, Donkey Kong and Wario a lift to safety before they could even walk. If it were not for them, I suppose that none of these characters would be around to make us happy today, even though the Yoshi's Island games took place after the world was introduced to the adults.
Riding Yoshi is as simple as it gets, but it somehow makes the games they are in a bit more fun. Is it the "clip-clop" he adds to the game soundtrack? Is it bonking him on the head to make him roll out his tongue? The way his cheeks puff out when he's holding a shell in his mouth? Whatever it is, it has catapulted him into saddled animal stardom.
Poochy -- First rode during Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island (1995)
Even the world's most famous pixelized pack mule needs help getting around every now and again. That is what makes Poochy the Dog such a special character. His ability to cross deadly surfaces such as lava and spikes helps the different colored Yoshis out on a few occasions throughout Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island. The game even has one secret level called "Poochy Ain't Stupid," where Yoshi must ride on the dog's back through a string of dangerous obstacles.
He acts more like a rideable platform than anything else, as he cannot be controlled directly by the player. You have to hop on his back, face the direction you want him to go, and hope for the best.
Poochy may not have much as far as brains go, but he has a great deal of loyalty and eagerness on his side. He is also apparently made of a indestructible, non flammable material not yet known to mankind that enables him to swim through a lava pit like it was a swimming pool. Once discovered, it ought to be called Poochium.
Chocobo -- First rode during Final Fantasy II (1988)
Along with the Yoshi, the other videogame creature almost instantly recognizable as a form of transportation is the Chocobo. These famous gigantic birds have aided travelers in getting where they need to go in nearly every Final Fantasy game, and are sometimes even good to make a buck or two off of in races. Their unmistakable call of "WARK!" is never met with a grimace.
Of course, there are other ways to travel in the Final Fantasy universe. Airships and other purely mechanical forms of transportation can take the players to any spot in the world at a much quicker rate, as they can beat the flightless Chocobo at getting off the ground. But machines cannot top the thrill of watching a big yellow bird scramble from one area to the next on the world map while the bird's theme music plays. It's fairly safe to say there isn't a person around who doesn't adore Chocobos.
Pokemon with Fly -- First rode during Pokemon Blue/Green (1996)
The various regions that the Pokemon games take place in are vast and annoying to traverse the majority of the time. When you just want to get to the next town without any interruptions, there is tall grass all over the place and caves where you will run into a Pidgey or a Geodude every two seconds. Fortunately, there is eventually a way to bypass these intrusions that does not involve using a Repel potion that only works half of the time. In this universe, the creatures who have the knowledge of certain HM moves are a traveling trainer's saving grace.
Any Pokemon capable of using Fly falls victim to having one of their moves permanently replaced with the HM. It can take a player from one side of the continent to another and anywhere in between in just a matter of a few seconds, but takes up space that could have been used up by a more powerful move for battle. That is why the Flyers deserve a hand -- they sacrifice a bit of their usefulness in fights just to help you get around. The highest honor goes to all of the HM Trash Bins out there. These are the creatures that are kept in a team only because they can hold Fly and several other HMs all at the same time. You just have to be careful not to have it in your team when your rival unexpectedly shows up.
Rambi the Rhinoceros -- First rode during Donkey Kong Country (1994)
The Donkey Kong Country series boasts one of the greatest amounts of rideable animal buddies that gaming has to offer. All of them are useful in one way or another and deserve recognition for what they do. There are even some levels that cannot be completed without one of the boxed critters in tow. For example, could you imagine getting through Donkey Kong Country 2's Bramble Scramble without Squawks the Parrot?
I always liked the levels with Winky the Frog, and lamented his loss after the first game. Squitter the Spider's ability to create platforms out of web and stylish hi-top sneakers made him another personal favorite. But it is Rambi the Rhinoceros who stands out above the rest as the animal that deserves the most praise for his work. He is the only one who can plow ahead, destroy everything in his path, and get the Kongs to the other side of the level in no time flat. There is no enemy he cannot bonk to death with his horn. Rambi's horn and weight also allow for ease in finding hidden bonus rooms and items, particularly in the first game. Why they took him out and replaced him with Ellie the Elephant in DKC 3, I'll never know.
Polar/Pura -- First rode during Crash Bandicoot 2/Crash Bandicoot 3 (1997/1998)
There are two rideable animals within the Crash Bandicoot universe that are great examples of purely fun rides in gaming. One is Polar, the tiny polar bear cub that was first introduced in the second game. Pura the tiger is the second animal, whom Crash Bandicoot 3's Great Wall of China run levels were founded upon. Unlike most animal mounts, who take one hit for their riders and disappear, both of these animals takes his rider down with him when hit by an enemy or an obstacle.
As far as these two are concerned, it's more about the experience than the animals themselves. Polar and Pura have no special moves to offer the player, nor are they very speedy (they have a set pace). But what they can give is a good time. The fast paced, reflex-dependent stages that these two are featured in make up some of my favorite levels in any game ever. It's just a shame that their levels are featured so sparingly.
Louie -- First rode during Super Bomberman 3 (1995)
One creature used for transport that I feel does not get a lot of attention is the Rui, which may be better known to Westerners as Louies. They are the kangaroo-looking guys that show up to help bombers get around a little better and avoid fiery deaths. Louies appear on the map as eggs that hatch into full-grown creatures when touched. I like them simply because they're incredibly useful.
There are five different colored Louies, each with their own special ability. The green Louie is able to dash from one end of the arena to the other, if there are no destructible blocks in the way. The pink one is rather useful, as it can jump over any bombs or single blocks that happen to be in the way. Blue Louies have the ability to kick bombs away, while ones that are yellow can kick single destructible blocks. Lastly, there is the brown Louie, who enables the bomber riding it to lay several bombs in a line, regardless of whether or not he has picked up extra bombs.
These bouncy rides can still be seen from time to time in recent titles in the franchise. There was even a Bomberman racing game made at the peak of the kart/unrealistic racing genre's popularity called Bomberman Fantasy Race, in which the races are run upon the backs of Louies.
Wheelie -- First rode during Kirby Super Star (1995)
The Kirby series is another known for its many helpful partners, some that give the titular character a lift, shove, or toss in the right direction. Kirby's Dream Land 2 and 3 feature rideable animals such as Rick the Hamster, Kine the Sunfish, and Coo the Owl. Coo is actually my favorite of the animals, as he is a bird and has the coolest theme song.
Other Kirby games are mostly lacking in helpers of this sort. There is really only one such helper in the games modeled after Super Star, which is Wheelie. Yes, there is a Wheel ability that helps Kirby to do most of the things that riding Wheelie does: go faster, and plow down enemies. But somehow, Wheelie Rider is much more fun than the Wheel power itself.
I don't quite understand why this is so. As silly as it may sound, the reasons may just be purely visual in nature. There is just something inherently cooler about Wheelie Rider. The last portion of Revenge of Metaknight, where Kirby as Wheelie Rider escapes the Halberd via a giant ramp, is most likely to blame. That last level, which makes up one of my favorite endings in videogame history, would not have been the same without Wheelie, and for that, I adore him.
King of Red Lions -- First rode during The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker (2002)
While Epona the horse has been the ride of many different Links throughout time, it is the King of Red Lions that I feel is the more useful and fun form of living transportation. Even though he is not a live animal per se, this wooden boat contains the spirit of the King of Hyrule, who has long since been trapped in his sunken kingdom. He is an animate, talkative, rideable character that gives the player the fresh experience of sailing vast oceans, rather than traveling over land.
Although many people think back on the endless sailing of Wind Waker as dull, something about the way that the waves run alongside the King and the whipping of the sails make taking him out for a spin very pleasurable to me. Alongside of his ability to take you anywhere you wish to go across the ocean (once you buy a sail for him, anyway), he also dispenses guidance and wisdom on a regular basis. Riding Epona just cannot compare to being out on the open sea on the King.
Agro -- First rode during Shadow of the Colossus (2005)
Besides, there is only room for one horse on this list.
Horses are one of the real world's most used animals for transportation purposes. It is for this reason that I find most videogame horses dull to ride -- I play games to try and remove myself from reality. I want to see fantastical creatures in the games I play. Those that are more true to life tend to bore me.
That is, except for Agro. I think that most gamers who have played Shadow of the Colossus can agree that Agro gives no ordinary horseback ride. He is Wander's only companion throughout his mission to take down all of the colossi, and thoroughly loyal to boot, though he does scare quite easily. Even so, he does his best and is at Wander's beck and call when no other living creature seems to be on his side.
The time spent on the back of Agro is more about atmosphere than fun. There is only the sound of his hooves clopping and the blunt kicks used to make him go faster. Even though it still takes an extremely long time to get to where each colossus lies with him, it's infinitely better to have a ride and trusted friend like Agro than to go facing giants alone.
Flammie -- First rode during Secret of Mana (1993)
The greatest living form of transportation to have ever been in a videogame, in my opinion, can be found in the Super Nintendo classic Secret of Mana. The player has to go through a good bit of the game by either walking all the way to their destination or using the Cannon Travel Services. Eventually, you will find a young creature near the mushroom-inhabited town of Mantango, and even further down the road, the King of Mantango reveals that he had taken the little guy in as his own. He will then entrust the baby he calls Flammie into your care, and will give you his favorite toy drum.
The first time that you use the Flammie Drum and have him take you up into the air, the feeling is magical. Flammie's travel system was not the first use of Mode 7 in a SNES game by any means, but it was the first instance of the technology that really took my breath away. The way in which the earth moves beneath the flying beast, combined with the flight theme (which changes twice, but to songs that are still epic and appropriate) make it to where I often call Flammie just to look at the world from high above.
I like the experience so much that I try to replicate it in real life. I have a white Chevy Malibu that I affectionately call Flammie and I like to play a CD of the flight theme as I ride down the highway to work each day. It can't fly yet, but that's only a minor setback.
Every rideable creature in gaming has their own special something that makes them a joy to use. Some may be more helpful than others, but they all deserve a bit of recognition that they often do not get. Please do not take all that they do for you for granted. The next time you happen to hop on something's back to ride across a level, whether it be a Chicken-leg or an epic ground mount, be sure to at least give it a pat on the head. Give it its favorite toy or enemy to snack on. They deserve it.
What rideable characters are your favorites?