1. Paper Mario (Nintendo 64)
This game holds a deeply tender place in my heart. It was one of the first video games that I ever found myself truly immersed in. Just looking through screenshots of it takes me back to some of my best early memories of sharing a room with my awesome older brother and taking turns playing together for hours on end. The graphics are simple, vibrant, and incredibly charming. Each chapter of the story takes Mario somewhere magical - whether it's inside a toy box full of shy guys or a snowy wonderland surrounded by penguins - and after beating each boss you get to play as Princess Peach sneaking around Bowser's castle for her own mini-chapters. The game play is engaging enough to stay interesting without feeling difficult or frustrating (thanks to a combination of puzzles and turn-based combat), and throughout the whole story it maintains a laid-back and cozy vibe. Paper Mario 64 just brings me a lot of joy, and I can't recall any aspect of the game that doesn't hold up. I can play it over and over again without getting bored. It's always there for me to come home to. 10/10
2. Harvest Moon (Gamecube, Gameboy Advance, DS)
Harvest Moon is the ultimate farming simulation series, and it was the first (and only) game that I was excited enough about as a kid to create my own detailed walk-through notes on. I still have a folder somewhere with print-outs of online guides and cheats, and I remember journaling about how I would spend my days in the game and what goals I was working toward. The concept of caring for animals, making friends, and choosing a bachelor in-game to date was enough to make my 7-year-old heart flutter. When I first began playing Another Wonderful Life I had no sense of how the game worked-- I remember my cows constantly being sick and barely keeping them alive on medicine (later I learned that you have to, I don't know, feed them occasionally!). But I caught on quickly, and I was over-the-moon when my animals began thriving and my cow had its first baby. For as cute as the game is the tone of Another Wonderful Life is surprisingly somber/melancholy: the story starts with your character losing their father and leaving their life in the city to settle down in a small town and take over the deceased father's farm. The mood conveyed by Another Wonderful Life is unique from any other game I've played, and speaks to many of the complicated feelings I've experienced throughout young adulthood regarding major life transitions. I think I might owe credit to this game for planting the seed (lol) for my dream of someday owning my own little ranch-- a dream built strong in my childhood that I have only recently revisited. Each game that I've played in the series balances the peace of a life of quiet solitude with the excitement and connection of a small-town community where everyone knows one another. While there are more games in this series than I can keep track of (and more than a few spin-offs too) these are the three that my friends and I loved dearly and built our childhood identities around: Another Wonderful Life, More Friends of Mineral Town, and Harvest Moon DS. While I've chosen to focus on Another Wonderful Life in this article I should mention that all three of them vary in style, tone, and complexity, with each one bringing something new to the table.
3. Mario Sunshine (Gamecube)
Like Paper Mario, Mario Sunshine just has a really excellent, upbeat vibe and playing it makes me feel really happy. The story centers around pollution and darkness spreading over a beautiful tropical island where it is your job to clean it up by washing away all the sludge and defeating the enemies responsible for the mess. As the game progresses and the pollution subsides the atmosphere itself becomes brighter-- a simple but powerful visual that leaves me feeling optimistic and accomplished. The solid basic mechanics established in Mario 64 (another favorite that didn't make the list), combined with F.L.U.D.D. the water nozzle, make for a really fun and unique Mario platformer. The music is energetic and memorable, and the stages are creative and varied. Some of my favorite areas include a playground-like harbor, an amusement park, and a quaint little bay with historic ruins. Mario Sunshine will make your dreams of jetpacking around a stunning tropical island surrounded by clear, blue water a (virtual) reality.