Those video game moments that made us say, “Wait, what?”
The internet ruins a lot of thing. People, relationships, children’s’ entertainment shows, governments; all have fallen victim to the scourge that is the world wide web. But worse than all that, the internet has also ruined storytelling, or at the very least, the ability to easily enjoy a story without it being completely spoiled for you. Because there is more entertainment than time available, there’s an entire industry of videos on YouTube where stories and plot twists are spoiled for all within hours of their debut.
That’s why Sakurai cut the story out of Smash 4 and why I can no longer follow GameXplain on YouTube. It’s also why I have about 9,000 muted words on Twitter. Too many crucial story elements have been ruined for me, but it wasn’t always like that. Before the prevalence of the social media, plot twists in games were absolutely still able to take me by surprise. Finding out Samus is a woman or that Super Mario Bros. 2 is all a dream blew my mind back in the day. Even finding out the princess is in another castle captivated a pre-school CJ (you mean this game is longer than 4 levels?!?!?!?!) But there was no more of an earth-shattering revelation than the one found at the end of Double Dragon.
We didn’t own Double Dragon growing up. If we had, I would have more than likely read the manual where all of this is spoiled. But we didn’t own it, we rented it on our NES and played it a few times in co-op on the arcade cabinet. Over the years, while this secret was already out in the open, I was kept out of the loop of the game’s true final boss until we got the Game Genie. Will unlimited lives, I was finally able to make it to the final boss in the NES version, and I couldn’t believe it when I saw the final boss was me. I say it was me because, as the younger brother, I was always the second player in co-op. So I was always Jimmy, and in this game, I was the villain. Mind…blown.
You’ve likely heard all manner of praise for Konami’s Silent Hill 2 at this point. I didn’t actually play it until this past year and I was pretty blown away. The number of forward-thinking design choices put into the game makes it highly approachable for a modern audience. It also is just plain well executed, with some truly incredible atmosphere and intriguing puzzles.
What really works, though, is its storyline. Maybe the acting is stiff and I think the horror elements haven’t aged all that well, but the psychological terror of protagonist James Sunderland can be felt all over the place. There are subtle hints to the big twist strewn about the town of Silent Hill, but coming to the actual revelation is utterly devastating.
That James is actually the one who killed his wife, though more out of a desire to see her suffering end, is painful as hell. What makes it more effective is that his own personal trauma then becomes Silent Hill and puts him through the ultimate hell to show him he isn’t to blame. Or maybe he is to blame, depending on your choices. Also, dogs might be running the entire town.
Humor aside, the twist of Silent Hill 2 is one of the most depressing things I’ve ever seen in a game. It frames the journey in a completely different light and makes for a title that I’d happily return to yearly if Konami could just release the game on modern platforms without screwing it up.
Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door might never have flipped my understanding of its own plot on its head, but it constantly challenged my understanding of where Mario games were willing to go if they stray out of their comfort zones. And I don’t think any plot twist nailed that as strongly as the Shadow Queen possessing Peach’s body for the final boss fight.
Technically, this is one of the most vanilla twists here. Big ominous evil spirit takes over an ally’s body, not a big surprise, especially considering that the X-Nauts needed Peach specifically to resurrect her. But let’s take a step back from our current over-familiarity of plot cliches and look at this from the perspective of a naive 8-year old Nintendo fanboy who hadn’t seen this trope so often.
You’ve saved Peach several times, you’re used to her damsel-in-distress schtick, you saw her actually do cool stuff this time, and the Internet hasn’t even thought about turning Bowser into her yet. She might be Mario’s girlfriend. And she is taken over by an ultimate evil. Then, she gives you a choice. Either betray your heroic ideals and join her or fight against Peach’s body. And the choice to join her is legit — an automatic bad-end game over with nothing but a few text boxes, but still, one you can make.
The sheer notion of one of the most innocent characters in mainstream gaming being warped into a puppet for a barely known evil sent a chill through my spine. Even more, the fact that you must willingly decide to hurt her body, rather than wait for Mario to do it himself. Bear in mind that kids can be dumb and have no real life experience exorcising demons by pummeling the bodies of their loved ones, they don’t want to do any permanent harm! This single act is really the only thing the Shadow Queen does outside of being a generic ancient evil, but it subverted my expectations hard enough to turn this moment into one of the most memorable set pieces out of all of Mario’s RPGs.
Plot twists and I have traditionally never gotten along. Mostly because, due to the requirement of putting in clues, signs, and portents to build it up, I am able to see most twists from three miles away through a keyhole. This often had a negative effect on the game for me as I had to endure to the utter stupidity of the characters as they blindly walk around, oblivious to the obvious (to me) answer staring them in the face all the time!
Think FFX and the fate of the summoner, or the identity of the mecha pilots harassing you in the earlier parts of the game in Xenoblade Chronicles (though the later plot was done very well) or the clearly evil guy in your team who will eventually betray you (too many games to note) and you see where I’m coming from.
But there was one game in recent memory which completely flummoxed me. And you can tell from the pic above which one it was. Would you kindly?
It wasn’t the act in itself which got me, it was the fact that the game wrenched control from you and forced you to watch your avatar do the deed. It was a no-brainer that regardless of what you wanted to do, Andrew Ryan was going to die, but I expected Atlas to appear from nowhere, kill him and leave you for dead, allowing you to recover and then take revenge. That’s how 99% of these things work! But to see your character kill Andrew Ryan regardless of your intentions as the player AND showing that those little things you felt were a little off before were actual hints of things to come (I’m sure many of us kept wondering why Atlas kept saying those 3 words in the conversations but just thought it was a character quirk, like a catchphrase) made the reveal hit that much harder. The clues were right there, hidden in plain sight!
It was a masterful piece of writing and a twist which completely bowled me over. I doubt it will be equaled for a very long time still.
I know I’ve written about this at least once before at some point or another, probably on a list of best last bosses or last levels or something. But I don’t care. The last stage of Mega Man 2 is so good that I could write about it again and again and again with no shame or fear of losing inspiration. I’ve been thinking about it for almost 30 years now and it still hasn’t gotten old.
It’s probably hard for most of you kids out there to imagine a world where there are only two Mega Man games in existence, but that’s where we were back in 1988. There were also only two Legend of Zelda games, and two properly numbered Super Mario games as well. In fact, the whole concept of a big name video game sequel was still in its infancy. Fleshing out the ongoing motivations of game protagonists and their arch-enemies was still largely uncharted territory.
Why did Gannon want to destroy the world? I dunno, because he is bad I guess. Why did Wart infest the world of Sub Con with evil? I’m not sure. Actually, wait a minute, did Wart even do anything wrong in Super Mario Bros. 2, or did you and your three friends just race across his kingdom, invade his castle, then force feed him vegetables until he died? While the game’s instruction booklet may have a more detailed explanation of the game’s story than that, the description I just provided for you is much more accurate in describing the actual events contained on the cartridge itself.
Yes indeed, the motives of video game characters in the 1980’s were largely an anything-goes affair, where anything was possible and nothing exactly made sense. We all assumed that Dr. Wily wanted to use his evil robots to prove he is the one who deserves to rule the world, as that’s what most mad scientists want to do. The last stage of Mega Man 2 showed us that we assumed wrong. First, it’s revealed that Wily’s UFO wasn’t just a style choice. He was an alien all along. That’s one mind-blower right there.
Then, in a second shocking turn of events, it’s revealed that Wily just wanted to trick you into thinking he is an alien for the fuck of it. If his goal was to take over the planet, he would have just shot our blue hero in the back while he was distracted by his virtual reality extraterrestrial life form. But that’s not what he did. Instead, he just sat back and watched them battle. He likes to watch.
That makes Wily more like Heath Ledger’s Joker, or a jerk who spends weeks creating fake E3 leaks just to set everyone up for disappointment in the long run, than your average Bond villain or would-be world dictator. There is no end goal for Wily other than the process of putting Mega Man through a stressful series of near-fatal obstacle courses. It’s the journey, not the destination, that he lives for. The fact that it’s been 30 years since this all started and he still hasn’t quit, despite consistent defeat, is further proof that he’s got a fetish for fruitless conflict. For a 12-year-old kid like me, who was just beginning to understand how some people are evil-for-evil’s-sake, that was quite a shocker.
There were many excellent character moments throughout the Batman: Arkham Trilogy. But one of the very best reveals of Rocksteady’s magnum opus comes right before the final boss fight of the second title, Arkham City. And it’s one of the best switcheroos pulled in a video game narrative.
With both Batman and The Joker dying from TITAN, a virus caused by infected blood, The Dark Knight battles through Arkham City to get his hands on an antidote developed by Mr. Freeze, only to have Harley Quinn steal it out for her puddin’ from right under Bats’ cowl. A newly-cured Mr. J. – looking sharp and back in top form – then mocks Batman repeatedly throughout the final third of the game. Arriving at the finale, held in the Monarch Theatre, an abducted Talia Al Ghul turns the tables on The Joker and kills him, running him through with her sword. It’s here, too late in the day, that The World’s Greatest Detective puts the pieces together.
The Joker was never actually cured. The antidote had been intercepted from Quinn by Talia and thus never made it to the Clown Prince of Crime. The “healthy” Joker is revealed to be none other than Clayface, who has been portraying the renewed Joker all-along This was in order to “keep up appearances”, providing strong leadership and morale for Harley and the Joker’s other goons to take over Arkham City. Talia is then shot by the real (now at death’s door) Joker and Batman battles Clayface, eventually freezing the thespian and chopping him to ribbons. Finally in possession of the antidote, Batman cures himself of TITAN. Suddenly stabbed by Joker, Bats drops and spills the remainder of the cure, which he had been saving for his nemesis. Joker, now beyond help, finds a final gasp of humour in the irony of the situation, before succumbing to the disease, dying a grisly death in front of his life-long rival.
As a swift one-two punch, this grim conclusion works well. The reveal of the fake Joker is an initial great twist (if a bit nonsensical) but to then follow this up with the legitimate on-screen death of The Joker, basically history’s most recognisable comic book villain, drops the jaw. A lot of the time, piling shock upon shock results in overkill, but Arkham City gets the balance just right, giving players one of video gaming’s darkest and most memorable finales.