Last Updated on November 18, 2023
The question of what makes a good game character remains as elusive creation as pinning down the winning aspects of them thereafter. Some characters are winners because they simply look the part and fit, however distinctively, to the world around them.
Off the top of my head I could be thinking of someone like Squall from Final Fantasy VII. Although rendered with only sparse polygons for the most part in game, we all know his look; effeminate features containing impossibly tough abilities. He fits into the world even as he stands apart from it. But he is not a particularly enjoyable to control as the world that he has to fit into is an RPG and RPGs are by design not a twitch of gameplay mechanics.
Someone who does come alive as a character through their manipulation would be Halo’s Master Chief. A spectacular character to control but a literal shell of design and linearity during cut scenes.
I like both these characters very much, but to me neither is a truly great character in terms of design and execution of gameplay; a back and forth fullness in moment-to-moment button pressing and on screen flair.
I can think of a Top Five who did though.
5. Kyo Kusanagi, King of Fighters ‘98
Right off the bat with some SNK from me. No one did pop culture like the Japanese in the nineties and SNK captured it better than most of them. If you are waiting for a mention of Ryu then let me disappoint you early. Not going to happen.
SNK were a little brighter and punkier about their designs, and if you are into King of Fighters, the early years, and would personally go with Iori instead, that is fine with me. I have gone over it myself, but in the end Iori just looks too mental too often. He’s got the hair and crazy apparel, but the grin and manic flailing animations feel more Akira than King of Fighters. Somehow I mean that as a compliment, but my guy was Kyo.
Like Iroi there is a hot-headedness to Kyo, but his attire is just that little bit more middle class. His hair is just that little bit more tailored. And he controls just like he looks; shifty on his feet with frequent fiery lunges. Always on my popular roster, and Capcom did an absolute service to him when they took him into Capcom vs SNK.
Of course in recent years SNK have gone mental with his tailoring and I do not vouch for any of that, nor the art style of the modern games. What a disgrace… but moving on.
4. Solid Snake, Metal Gear Solid
That opening… that first hour. Solid Snake did not so much make an invitation for classic status as just take it based on merit. He might have existed before PlayStation, but his presence arrived on the machine fully formed; forget rookie cop Leon up to his eyeballs in the undead or Squall having a bad hair day, Snake on any day was butcher then the balls on a Camel cigarette. A walking eighties moustache in the context of a nineties techno action thriller.
High intensity, high tech telephone calls, frequent throttling and boss battling in context heavy scenarios; this guy looked the part in the free hand style promotional art and the attitude played over into the gameplay. Quick on his feet and logical to control, Snake scores high on the pleasure ranking of press a button, something cool happens, and that is the definition of why I play games.
I feel like the road to fidelity left Snake after this, or at least failed to grow with the technology he ran on. But in 1998 when my brother and I played through the game on U.S. import, Snake was the absolute boss of mature PlayStation action.
And now for something a little less mature.
3. Earthworm Jim, Earthworm Jim 1 and 2
I was already a fan of Shiny Entertainment before they launched this mid-nineties mega brand and most of that enjoyment came from a love of animation. Good animation holds both an almost transcendent ability in its creation and offers joy to the eyes. When Shiny animated something they knew both of these things and didn’t appear to give much of a hoot for the technical limitations of the machine. Aladdin on the Mega Drive for instance. Or Earthworm Jim, which played ever better.
Jim was a piece of smart design. Bizarre but utterly confident, and perhaps at the Anglo-end of the U.S. developers sensibilities; certainly there are some broadly brushed Monty Python strokes of tone going on here with Jim’s big puff power suit keeping the worm himself upright. And they rinsed every frame out of the presentation. This was unquestionably the best moving thing on the Megadrive. And somehow he controlled just as good he looked.
A correct sense of weight and a snappy sense of ability around the screen, Earthworm Jim was full of that attack mentality which is both a joy out of control and in lock step with his appearance entirely.
Now let’s go out fighting.
2. Axel Stone, Streets of Rage 2
Stone wash blue jeans, white collar tee shirt, unrecognisable screams of violence. The Mega Drive’s best sequel was the one with the coolest character. And he was a much bigger sprite this time around; moving bigger too, the streets his runway and a reverse moonwalk his style of getting from goon to goon. And it worked; in a modern gaming world still filled with the square pegs of control jammed into the round hole of 3-D, the tightly curated actions of Axel lead to perfectly weighted jumps with ice white trainers to another goons face.
Axel has all the abilities off the bat (no pun) to clear everyone in his way but doing that will require pixel timing. Streets of Rage 2 is tough, just as tough as its lead hero, and the two go to town on each other in a back street battle royal of one hour gameplay. Axel vs The City, each complimenting the other over and over until your credits are up, or you win, or Axel comes to some realisation that without these streets he is nothing. He might be the bare knuckle, bar hall king, and almost the coolest character to come from Sega, but without his setting he is just another piece of violence.
Actually it seems that without correct art direction in tow, he is also nothing. Streets of Rage 4, I’m looking at you.
But enough of that because I am also looking at Number One…
1. Bahn, Fighting Vipers
As the saying sort of goes, there is nothing best that comes without strangeness to its bestness. Just look at Sega. They might have been the best, but my goodness they were strange. NiGHTS himself will appear in a later Top Five Mascots listing, but in the meantime I am handing top honours to the beguilingly nineties pop-punk attitude of their very own Bahn. Or Genghis Bahn to those that mastered the 1995 arcade fist-em-up.
Not that Bahn cares. He’s not really presented as some kind of appalling nihilist, but certainly as some kid that is so above the rest that his participation is almost less then per-functionary. A sort of Ronnie O’Sullivan approach to character.
He certainly turned out some appearance though. Shoulder pads from Judge Dredd, cape, cap and fetish cowboy boots from some lucid U.S.-Japan hybrid coffee high, with pantaloons decked out in shin pads. Bahn had lot going on, even without mentioning the stick of whatever that was hanging from his mouth.
But then you play as him and the facade comes into contact with the most badass fighting game character that you ever got the chance to get to grips with. There are more extravagant fighters, there are most defensive ones, but none moved and controlled like their attitude as much as this guy. In step with himself and every exactingly animated lunge and counter. Every Tekken character was wooden compared to Bahn.
That’s my boy.
Not that he’d care…
John is a writer and gardener. He comes with various 90’s Sega attachments and is the author of The Meifod Claw and other works. His favorite tree is a copper beech and he would like his coffee black without sugar, thank you.