There's a special someone in everyone's life...even for video game characters. Take heart this Valentine's Day with GameSpot's Great Loves feature story.
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Some people might argue that the closer you get to video games, the farther you get from having a normal love life. But that's only because those people don't know that some pretty powerful romantic relationships have been portrayed in video games over the years. OK, so watching two people get all lovey-dovey in-game is no substitute for the real thing, but that doesn't mean the love of two game characters can't teach you valuable lessons about what to do, and in many cases, what not to do, and perhaps most importantly, whether or not you should totally beat up your twin brother.
Without an equivalent to the "romantic comedy" movie in the video game world, love stories have popped up in a number of different genres, and sometimes in the most unlikely places. Most notably found in adventure games and RPGs, love can also be found in brawler, action adventure, and platforming games. And, like the love stories told in movies and books, game characters must endure some of the most fantastic situations.
So take heart this Valentine's Day. You won't have to rewind time to make your love forget you, and you won't have to face fire-breathing dragons only to find out the object of your affection is in another castle. And hopefully your love is more of the happily-ever-after variety than the she-gets-shot-at-the-beginning-of-the-sequel type. So snuggle up with our Great Loves for Valentine's Day, and if your favorite video game lovers are missing from the pack, head on over to GameSpot's feature story forum to wax poetic about them.
As a gentle warning, there will be spoilers to the plot of all of the related video games, so please, if you still don't know what happens at the end of Super Mario Bros., don't keep reading and then write a nasty letter. I mean, haven't you people ever heard of a statute of limitations? Sheesh.
Rinoa and Squall (Final Fantasy VIII)
As RPGs go, Final Fantasy VIII is the one game guaranteed to make any list of the medium's great love stories. Look at the facts: Final Fantasy VIII was the first game in the series to establish the tradition of the sappy, lovey-dovey pop single; the logo depicts romantic leads Squall and Rinoa locked in a tender embrace; heck, the game's creators even went on record months before its release to announce the story's theme would be one of "love." How could Final Fantasy VIII not be on here?
Well, forget all those facts, because there really is a subtle, touching, masterfully told love story at the core of the game. Forget Final Fantasy VII's middle-school love triangle; FFVIII's sweeping narrative deals as much in tragedy and loss as it does in the slow-building romance of tortured Squall and kindhearted Rinoa. Through flashbacks and in parallel to the core storyline, the game tells the tale of Laguna Loire, a soldier embroiled in the bloody conflict that provides the historical context for the present events of the story. On the eve of war, Laguna falls for a beautiful singer named Julia, but duty calls him to the front lines before the two can cement their relationship, and through tragic circumstances and his responsibility to the people, he never sees her again. Though Laguna and Julia go on to find love elsewhere after the war, he never quite stops pining for her.
Throughout the game, Squall has no idea why he's glimpsing these specific flashbacks from Laguna's life. The most fulfilling aspect of Final Fantasy VIII, then, is that you don't get all the facts of the story until the game's lavishly produced ending movie rolls. We know that Rinoa is the offspring of Julia and one General Carraway. Hints are dropped throughout the game as to Squall's parentage, but only during the ending itself do we learn without a doubt that Laguna is Squall's father. Thus, the game becomes the story of two pairs of lovers, one ripped apart by war, the other bonded through trials and duress. In the end, the children fulfill the love that fate denied their parents. It's enough to make you all blubbery, isn't it?
Manny Calavera and Mercedes "Meche" Colomar (Grim Fandango)
Of all the undead travel agencies, in all the towns, in all the world, the deceased soul of saintly nun Mercedes "Meche" Colomar had to walk into Manny Calavera's. Actually, that's not quite accurate--the debonair-but-down-on-his-luck Manny poached Meche's soul (and travel package) from his manipulative rival, Domino Hurley, and set into action a chain of events that led to one of the most endearing stories ever told in a game. The game was Grim Fandango, which fused the pastel colors of traditional Mexican papier-mâché artwork with the sensibilities of a classic film noir motion picture.
And like in any good film noir romance, Manny and Meche's relationship is fraught with tragedy, guilt, heartache, false leads, and dramatic irony. In their first conversation, the perplexed Manny desperately tries to find some dirt on the virtuous Meche--only because her virtuous soul should mean a big, fat commission for him. The scene in which Manny has that first interview with Meche--asking such polite and tasteful questions like whether or not she's ever killed anyone, followed by "Come on, not even a little killing?" followed by Meche's genuinely sorrowful apology to an absent Manny--sets the tone for their bittersweet but memorable relationship.
The Prince and Farah (Prince of Persia: Sands of Time trilogy)
In a lot of ways, the on-again, off-again romance between the Prince of Persia and Farah over the course of the Sands of Time trilogy mimics the love between Joel and Clementine in the Jim Carrey motion picture Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In both the game and the film, you've got two seemingly mismatched pairs who somehow fall in love with each other. Farah quite literally forgets about the Prince at the end of the Sands of Time when he rewound time to foil the evil vizier. Clementine and Joel both forgot about one another when they had their memories of each other expunged from their heads. By chance, each couple meets again. For the Prince and Farah, this fateful reunification happens in the middle of The Two Thrones, when Farah escapes from imprisonment by the vizier's army, and the two meet up while trying to fight through the city of Babylon. Over time, each couple regains the fondness for one another that they once had.
Over the course of The Two Thrones game, the Prince even fights inwardly with his evil half over the feelings he's having for Farah that he can no longer repress. But despite his desire for blind revenge against the vizier, and the mocking ridicule from his other personality, the Prince's love for Farah wins out in the end as she shows him what it means to be a more-compassionate leader to his people. Instead of blindly charging toward the final battle against the vizier, the Prince, with the help of Farah, eventually overcomes his base half and takes time in his journey to directly help the people in Babylon who have been under siege from the armies of the vizier.
It's not your typical love story, but the fact that the Prince and Farah could overcome such an odd separation and fall for each other all over again demonstrates a trueness to their love. If it could happen twice under independent circumstances, it can't be a fluke, right?
Billy Lee, Jimmy Lee, and Marian (Double Dragon)
Love hurts: The 1987 arcade classic Double Dragon features one of the most memorable, most affecting expository sequences in gaming. Back in those days, games didn't waste your time with long, drawn-out, noninteractive cutscenes--especially arcade games, which needed to grab your attention quickly, and then quickly kill you off so you'd dump more quarters into the machine. And, Double Dragon totally nailed this particular art of getting you hooked.
The game begins as a woman is violently kidnapped by a pack of thugs. She's just minding her own business, and wham! She takes a sucker punch to the stomach and is promptly and unflatteringly slung over the shoulder of some thick-necked jerk. Just as he and his cohorts exit stage left, a nearby garage door opens and out comes determined-looking Billy Lee--and his twin brother Jimmy, if you were playing with a friend. The brothers Lee waste no time at all as a thug approaches. There's no "try to reason with him" button, only punch, kick, and jump. You know what needs to be done.
Double Dragon is a rescue mission, but it feels like a revenge tale. Though no words are exchanged at any point in the game, you get the impression that Billy and Jimmy are so pissed off about the whole thing that they're going to thrash every last thug they can find to teach him a lesson. You get that impression because, despite how Marian's captors are just a few steps ahead of the Lee brothers, Billy and Jimmy walk at a somewhat leisurely pace, and you can't make progress until every last thug onscreen has flickered away, defeated, if not dead.
At the end, once you finally free Marian from the clutches of some crazy assault rifle-carrying idiot in the heart of some unholy temple, Marian is released from her bonds and plants a big old kiss on our hero. There's a little heart that floats up and away and everything. Of course, the sequence of events is a little different if two players have fought their way up to this point. With no one left to fight, Billy and Jimmy turn their fists on each other, presumably since there's only one Marian. Subsequent versions of Double Dragon tried to spin it like Jimmy was a traitor the whole time. But in the original arcade game, there's nothing but cruel, cruel love that turns brother against brother.
When the dust finally settles, the game proclaims, "may you live happily forever." It's a touching conclusion to a brutal game, but it's made a little ironic in hindsight of 1998's Double Dragon II: The Revenge. This game's intro sequence is similar to the original's, only this time, Machine Gun Willy goes full-auto on the poor girl, who blinks away once, twice, three times like all those bastards you thrashed in the first game. The message? Love is fleeting, so enjoy it while it lasts. Also, Double Dragon II totally sucked.
Alexander and Cassima (King's Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow)
Sure, he's a prince and she's a princess, and they're both the highest quality specimens that VGA-256 could possibly provide, but the love between Alexander and Cassima is darkened by the plots of a sinister vizier who stands between the star-crossed lovers, between Cassima and her crown, and between the entire royal family and their lives in King's Quest VI.
It begins at the end of King's Quest V, the last adventure of Daventry's King Graham, who must free his family and the princess from a distant land, Cassima, from the clutches of an evil wizard. Cassima isn't home for long when she's imprisoned again, in her own castle, this time by the court vizier. (As a side note to all future kings and queens, you might want to consider getting rid of all the wizards and viziers, since they're generally nothing but trouble.) Alexander, who is been visibly aggrieved by his separation from the raven-haired beauty, taps into her pain spiritually by way of a magic mirror, and is off to find, rescue, and yes, eventually marry Cassima.
The lengths Alexander goes to are a little extreme, from scaling the cliffs of the Winged Ones and defeating the Minotaur in the catacombs (a puzzle, which is about as complicated and perilous as you would imagine the catacombs to be) to exploring the depths of Hell in order to bring her murdered parents back to life. In the game's alternate ending, Alexander can dress up like a serving woman in order to sneak into the castle. But it's even better told the long way, in which Alexander conjures spells, befriends the court jester, and eventually stops the vizier's sham wedding to Cassima.
Along the way you're treated to heartwarming moments, like Alexander sending love notes and flowers to the imprisoned maiden by way of her pet mockingbird, and a tender conversation in which he addresses her through a hole in her bedroom wall. Only in a love story like this could he come across as a romantic and not a Peeping Tom. Of course, in the end, all nefarious plots are foiled, and Alexander and Cassima are able to be together once again. The story between these two couldn't end any other way than happily ever after...unless you never figure out how to get past Death, in which case the game might hit a little too close to reality.
Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man (Ms. Pac-Man)
They were the first high-profile couple in video games, with a story that managed to be touching without getting too mushy. Pac-Man and the missus first met way back in 1981 and shared their first kiss in front of millions of glowing faces in darkened arcades around the world.
The love story unfolded in three simple but effective sequences between levels in the Ms. Pac-Man game. First, they met. While both running from ghosts, the two yellow pellet-munchers crossed paths and a spark was ignited (signified by a little red heart). The next interlude showed the chase, in which the two lovers took turns playing hard to get. In the final chapter of their story, the two were happily blessed with a visit from a stork, who dropped off a little yellow bundle of joy named Junior.
The proud parents went on to appear in countless video games and launched a massive line of merchandise, selling everything from coloring books to breakfast cereal. And while they've lead a relatively quiet family life for the past 20 years or so, they still manage to make public appearances outside of video games every once in awhile.
In 2000, Ms. Pac-Man used her celebrity status to spread knowledge of the fight against breast cancer as the spokesperson for the National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organizations. And recently on The Simpsons we got the chance to see footage of the love balls' wedding during a Super Bowl halftime show where they got down to the tune of Olivia Newton-John's "Physical." Not only was it a great way to pay homage to the first couple in video games, but it was also one of the funniest Simpsons moments in recent history.
So, what's next for the Pac-Man family? Mom and Dad are old enough to be grandparents now, but you can bet they won't be retiring anytime soon. The arcades might be closed, but the story of Mr. and Ms. Pac-Man still stands as one of the greatest love stories in the history of video games.
Guybrush Threepwood and Elaine Marley (Monkey Island series)
Lovable and cuddly are generally good traits to have if you're a guy wanting to attract the girls. But if you're a wannabe pirate like Guybrush Threepwood, the hero of LucasArts' classic Monkey Island adventure games, lovable and cuddly can be something of a detriment. After all, how are you supposed to become the most notorious pirate in the Caribbean if no one can even say your name with a straight face? Yet the fact that Guybrush shrugs off the horrible mangling of his name ("Gibberish Driftwood"), while also saving the day multiple times against the evil undead pirate LeChuck, just to win the heart of the beautiful Elaine Marley, is proof of his good-natured intent.
At first, it doesn't look like a natural match. Guybrush is a hapless, bright-eyed youth who would make the least likely pirate, mainly because there's not a mean bone in his body. Meanwhile, the beautiful Elaine is the governor of the Tri-Island area and has no shortage of suitors, including LeChuck. (Rumor has it that Elaine once told the living LeChuck to "drop dead," and so he did. Unfortunately, he didn't stay dead.) Yet the two immediately fall in love after Guybrush tries and fails to rob Elaine as part of his pirate trials. Guybrush and Elaine's relationship blossoms in what becomes one of the greatest love stories of our time, even though Elaine has to keep bailing Guybrush out of his "rescue attempts" to save her from the many perils that go with living so close to the infamous Monkey Island. By the end of the fourth and final game in the series, fittingly titled Escape from Monkey Island, Guybrush and Elaine go sailing off together in search of adventure and romance. And we, dear friends, find ourselves longing for them to come back someday.
Hana and Rain (Fear Effect 2: Retro Helix)
Anyone who had played 2000's unique action game Fear Effect would have thought, upon introduction to the beautiful protagonist Hana Tsu-Vachel, that no man, even an archetypal video game man, would be able to cool her hot temper. And those people would have been right. It was not a man, but a woman in Fear Effect 2: Retro Helix (which was, in fact, a prequel to the original game) that brought out the softer side in Hana. Maybe that explains why she never seemed that interested in her male cohorts...?
Orphaned at a young age, Hana wasn't particularly close with other people. But upon finding Rain lying unconscious in the gardens of the Jing Sum Temple, she is inspired to take her home and nurse her back to health. Sure, Hana wants Rain's superior intellect at her disposal, but if you've ever seen just one of the scenes in which the two of them are shown together, the innuendo, even if it's only that, reveals that there's more to their relationship.
OK, so it's true that the majority of the Hana/Rain appeal came from the great Eidos hype machine surrounding the game's release (and the dead-in-the-water Fear Effect 3), and from their relationship being portrayed not in an academic art-film way, but in more of a "hey dude, it's hot lesbians making out!" way. But despite all that, Hana and Rain are still a tender couple, and all the panty scenes in this game can't take that away from them.
Lesbian characters before Fear Effect 2 were few and far between, casually referenced in games like Gabriel Knight 3 and The Longest Journey. So Hana and Rain's relationship, while at times gratuitous, was nonetheless quite interesting. The game may not have treated the subject matter with the maturity that it requires, but it did give a depth to a kind of video game love that had previously only been hinted at.
Tidus and Yuna (Final Fantasy X)
Many games (and movies, books, and television shows, for that matter) use romance as a cheap hook to draw players into the plot. The kidnapped princess, the girlfriend that's been abducted by the gang leader, the brilliant-but-sexy nuclear scientist that you have to escort out of the research facility that's been overrun by zombie lepers from the Galapagos...you get the idea. If you've been playing games for an appreciable amount of time, you've probably seen these trite scenarios repeated quite a few times.
So when a game comes along that treats its romantic plot with some semblance of maturity, it's always something that piques our interest. One of the best (and ultimately saddest) examples of this comes along courtesy of Final Fantasy X, which offers up a moving love story between Tidus and Yuna, the two heroes responsible for saving the world of Spira from the devastation caused by the huge monster Sin. Although the two are part of a larger group, they're drawn together by more than just attraction--they're both orphans struggling to deal with the legacies left to them by their fathers. Yuna, in particular, seems like she'd a bad choice for a romantic fixation, as she's intent on fighting Sin and sacrificing herself so that the monster will vanish for a decade or so, and so that the people of Spira will experience at least some semblance of peace.
One of the most satisfying aspects of this romance is its rather stately progression. RPGs, by virtue of their length, can take their time advancing plots, and indeed you'll sit through many hours of gameplay before Tidus and Yuna even admit how they feel about each other. Along the way, there's a political marriage to be disrupted, a romantic interlude by a shimmering lake, and a lot of annoyingly whiny voice work by Tidus in the English-language version of the game. (This is one game where an almost-mute lead character, a la Squall from Final Fantasy VIII, would've been an improvement.)
Still, the core story here is one of the most interesting and tender stories that you're going to come across in any game, especially since Square eschewed the traditional "they-all-lived-happily-ever-after" ending in favor of a decidedly bittersweet tearjerker (and that takes guts to try when you're creating one of the most highly-anticipated, biggest-budget games ever made!). In the end, Tidus is so intent on finding a way to save Yuna from her self-sacrificing destiny that he winds up ending his own life. (Hey, we warned you about spoilers at the beginning.) And if you didn't shed a few tears during their goodbye scene, then you might want to double-check your status as a member of the human race.
Mario and Princess Peach (Mario series)
The strength of the love between a man and a woman can be measured by two distinct things: the passion of said love, and the willingness of those two people to put up with a never-ending assault of drama. In the case of Nintendo's Mario and Princess Peach, the passion might not have always been apparent, but the resilience of these two to an onslaught of constant kidnappings, creepy dinosaur stalkers, ruined vacations, third-wheel brothers, handheld infidelities, exploding voice boxes, wacky dream sequences, and lovesick supercomputers is simply unmatched. Not even the Honeymooners could have survived this many trials and tribulations.
It all started back in the 1980s, a perilous time for any relationship, what with the near-constant threat of lady-snatching gorillas weighing on everyone's mind. A pudgy yet plucky plumber by the name of Mario had already had his own encounters with such unpleasantness, rescuing his then-girlfriend Pauline from the king of the barrel-tossing apes, Donkey Kong. But in 1985, Mario ditched that old saddlebag the moment he laid eyes on Princess Peach. The ruler and fairest of fair ladies in all of the Mushroom Kingdom, Peach had been lady-snatched by the vile Bowser. Never one to pass up a hot babe and a well-worn plot device, Mario set out to rescue the Princess by stomping all over Bowser's minions and finally besting the beast and getting the girl. It was clearly love at first rescue. As Mario and Peach's eyes met, they sort of stared blankly, and Peach uttered the words every boy craves to hear just once in his life: "Thank you Mario! Your quest is over. We present you a new quest. Press Button B to select a world."
OK, so maybe that doesn't exactly count as sweet nothings, but you'd have to be in love to put up with the kind of craziness that these two have experienced over the years. Certainly, much of it is Bowser's fault. Why this guy isn't in jail by now is beyond comprehension. But through the years, Mario has been forced to rescue his special lady time and time again from the clutches of this deranged stalker. So much so that it apparently wore him down and required him to take a "break" in 1989's Super Mario Land for the Game Boy. Mario traveled to Sarasaland and rescued another lady in waiting, Princess Daisy. This shocking infidelity would have toppled most any other high-profile relationship, but Peach, always the one to put a good face on any situation, sucked it up and kept things together. Now she and Daisy are practically the best of friends, even teaming up in Mario Kart: Double Dash!! Whether it's a case of strong resolve or pure denial, we may never know, but it's not like Peach didn't have her own opportunity for out-stepping when the TEC-XX supercomputer came a-knockin' in Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door.
The two can never get a moment of peace, especially with the constant threat of Bowser coming back time and time again to stalk and kidnap Peach. Even when they do manage to find time to take a vacation in Super Mario Sunshine, they're forced yet again to bring those cursed mushroom retainers (or "toads") along with them, effectively killing the romance (not that they would've had time for romantic interludes anyway, what with the tropical island's denizens blaming Mario for a recent increase in pollution and yet another Bowser appearance). And if it's not those toads hanging around, it's that perpetual third-wheel, Luigi, always there to muck things up. Isn't it about time he went and got his own friends? His own job? His own girlfriend? Come on.
It was Sandra Bullock in Speed that said relationships that start under intense circumstances never last. Clearly Miss Congeniality never met Mario and Peach. After years of constant duress, Mario and Peach remain together, seemingly committed to one another to the bitter end. Some might argue that theirs is merely a relationship of routine and convenience--sort of like your grandparent's marriage. And much the way your parents lie to you and say that your grandfather's not drunk and your grandmother's not insane, and that they're really happily married but just show it by screaming at one another instead of with actual affection, Nintendo may just be hiding the circumstances behind Mario and Peach's relationship...covering up what is ultimately a loveless affair. But to those people we put this question: what kind of masochistic man would suffer through this many ridiculous adventures just for one woman if he didn't truly and honestly love her? And why would a woman of such pedigree settle for a short, portly plumber with a moustache that Sam Elliott wishes he could pull off, unless she really felt something for the little goomba? Maybe it isn't the kind of love that burns with the passion of a thousand suns, but that kind of love doesn't really exist anyway--that's the stuff of Hollywood and bad role-playing games. This is real love if there ever was such a thing.
And on that note, we here at GameSpot would like to wish all of you a happy and fulfilling Valentine's Day.