Unlikely Heroes: Offbeat Game Heroes Prove You Don’t Need Muscle to Have Moxie

What would video games be without heroes? They’d be Pong, that’s what they’d be. Each and every video game would be Pong – and we’d all be playing it with our butts sweatily stuck to our naugahyde couches in corduroy bell-bottom pants while listening to Hotel California, swilling RC Cola and watching Sanford and Son! It’d be an ugly world, I assure you.

Luckily, we don’t have to face such a reality; video games have evolved a lot since the advent of Pong and video game heroes have evolved right along with them. Good thing too, because heroes allow escapist shut-ins like me to become someone else, someone more capable, more courageous, more attractive than ourselves. Perhaps it’s obvious what defines a hero but it wouldn’t hurt to refresh our memories:

The first definition of the word “hero” might be:

1) a large sandwich, usually consisting of a small loaf of bread or long roll cut in half lengthwise and containing a variety of ingredients, as meat, cheese, lettuce, and tomatoes.

Another definition of the word “hero” might be:

2) a person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal.

As appetizing as the former might be, the latter works best for our purposes.

Who comes to mind first when thinking of video game heroes? For most of us, it’d be guys like Sam Fisher, Solid Snake or Master Chief. They epitomize every man’s (and some women’s) desire to achieve mysterious, musclebound macho-hood. But come on – is there room in this puissant paradigm for the loveable schmoe, the empathetic Everyman, the hero who (like Festivus) is designed for the “rest of us”?

Some might think not. Fortunately for us all, throughout gaming history, along with the unstoppable commandoes, bulletproof cops and ruthless demigods, there have been more than a few 90-lb weaklings who decided they’d had sand kicked in their faces one too many times. Perhaps you know some of them…

Manny Calavera–Spooky Hero:

How often has Death been made into a game hero? Not often I’ll wager. Let’s face it–death in general isn’t something we much want to identify with. In 1998 though, a game came along with a hero whose distinct personality, investigative prowess and clever quips did a lot to rehab Death’s image. LucasArts’ Grim Fandango gave many of us our first taste of Film Noir, Art Deco and the Mexican Day of the Dead and Manny Calavera, its travel agent-slash-gumshoe protagonist, won that year’s competition phalanges-down for Most Charismatic, Best Dressed, and Most Likely to Talk Like Edward James Olmos.

At the start Manny’s not a hero type by any stretch. Turns out, this be-suited Reaper’s an unsuccessful salesman whose unglamorous daily grind consists of selling afterlife travel packages to the dearly departed. It’s a rube’s job with few surprises until Manny lands a client–a hot tomato named Meche–and uncovers through her a conspiracy to cheat the virtuous dead out of their Great Reward. Bringing down Hector LeMans, the crime head – er…skull behind the conspiracy means Manny’s gotta morph overnight from smalltime salesman to the afterlife’s equivalent of Sam Spade.

Fortunately for the recently dead, he’s up to the task and does it without even wrinkling his suit. Set on righting the wrongs, he and his hotroddin’ demonic aide-de-camp, Glottis zoom around dishing out the comeuppance like no one this side of Oblivion. It just goes to show – you don’t have to have muscles to be a hero. Heck, it goes to show you don’t even have to have skin.

Sora–Girly-boy Hero:

You could argue that Sora, the main character in both Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2 is not all that unusual a hero – at least not in the ‘metro’ world of Anime games. In that context, he’s a fairly typical teenager with all the common attributes: the spiky hair, the pointy chin, the watery, effeminate eyes, the nearly-nonexistent nose… While these might make him seem at first blush like many another of those dime-a-dozen Japanese protagonists, Sora’s different from those pretty boys. After all, how many of them have big, yellow Mickey Mouse feet and can claim Goofy and Donald Duck as sidekicks?

Sora, like most unlikely heroes, is made such by circumstances beyond his control. He’s just a regular kid living it up Three’s Company style with his friends Kairi and Riku in the lush Destiny Islands (a Logan’s Run sort of a place where apparently no one older than 18 is allowed to live) until Evil invades the islands. When that happens, Sora is unexpectedly swept away from his idyll and into a maelstrom of apocalyptic drama and intrigue cooked up by the game’s villain–the unfortunately named Xehanort.

Xehanort’s more or less an overgrown emo-kid who whenever he’s not maintaining his mega-mullet, is trying to destroy the universe with the darkness found in human hearts. His project nearly succeeds and for a while there it’s touch and go considering the only thing standing between the universe and total annihilation is a 14 year old kid and a couple of Disney characters with speech impediments.

Sora’s got a secret weapon though – not only does he have a bigger than usual heart, he’s spunky and sincere, and I’m pretty sure it’s an unwritten rule that no matter what they’re up against, all big-hearted kids who are spunky and sincere come out on top. (Or is it big-footed characters who are stinky and insured who always win the day? I can never keep that straight. Hrm. Anyway…) Sora does his Anime origins proud by saving one Disney-themed world after another, defeating Xehanort and once again making the world safe for Disnocracy.

Old schoolers might like their heroes more strapping than sincere but in Square Enix and Disney’s world, heart counts for more than height and that’s pretty cool. Isn’t it comforting to know a skinny, pre-adolescent kid can kick even more ass than those guys whose voices have already changed? Take THAT, muscleheads — Yosh!

Abe–Frog/Monkeyman Hero:

Abe shuffled onto the scene in 1997 in Oddworld Inhabitant’s Abe’s Oddysee, adding a decidedly amphibious element to the corpus of hero-dom. Before ascending to the level of hero, Abe’s your average Mudokon working stiff; just one of the thousands of troglodytic slaves at Rupture Farms meat processing plant.

Abe’s meteoric rise from custodial engineer to Oddworld Messiah is brought on by the revelation that his employers plan to keep the factory going by turning employees like him into entrees. Unwilling to march smilingly into the meat grinder, he makes the fateful choice to defy the Man (or…whatever those Glukkon creatures are) and affect his own — and consequently, everyone else’s — liberation. He succeeds in winning his freedom and in the subsequent Munch’s Oddysee, Abe once again takes on the role of Great Emancipator for a race of aquatic kleenex-box-shaped creatures called Gabbits, bringing down the evil Vykker’s Labs in much the same fashion he took out Rupture Farms.

Whether in 2D or in 3D, Abe’s a singular figure. Poor posture, a big head, bulging eyes and a sewn-shut mouth usually preclude a guy from achieving the protagonist’s ideal. The upside of that awkwardness is that while Abe’s physical flaws might prevent him from becoming the cover model for Superheroes Quarterly, they also make him exponentially more sympathetic. He’s like Ralph Macchio in the Karate Kid. I mean, who watches the Karate Kid and roots for that jerkoff Johnny? We all want Daniel to treat that creep to a dirt nap, don’t we?

Hey, in honor of Abe and Ralph Macchio, let’s make up a whole new title for the scrawny, sympathetic hero. How about…”Spirited Slouch”? No good. “Ballsy Mama’s Boy”? No poetry to that. “Plucky Pantywaist?” This is harder than I thought. I better sleep on it.

Honorary title or no, Abe sets an example and levels the playing field, giving hope to green, skinny, googly-eyed guys everywhere.

Raz–Carnie Hero:

No list of heroes is complete without a circus-born, ten year old, goggle-wearing psychic and Razputin or “Raz” from DoubleFine’s 2005 Psychonauts helps wrap up this one. Raz is a psychically-attuned kid who runs away from his acrobatic circus family and crashes the party at Whispering Rock summer camp in hopes of becoming a psychic agent or “psychonaut”. He quickly realizes something at the camp smells and it’s not the latrines. Someone has woven a bizarre plot to kidnap campers’ brains so Raz and his girlfriend Lili Zanotto, (“she’s NOT my girlfriend!”) cleverly combine their formidable psychic abilities to unravel it.

Raz tracks the perpetrator by jumping in and out of various characters’ psyches. It’s no joke following the villain’s topsy-turvy trail through the delusions of paranoid milkmen, the myriad regrets of has-been actresses and the jealousies of lovelorn artists. These mental gymnastics are no hindrance to a determined psychonaut however, and Raz has training, raw talent, acrobatic skill and a cute girlfriend (she’s NOT my girlrfriend!”) on his side. Using nothing but mindpower, Raz defeats the corrupt Coach Oleander and the Evil (domo arigato?) Dr. Loboto, rescues the kidnapped camp instructors and restores all the stolen brains to their rightful owners. At the final count, it’s Raz – one, Bad Guys – zero. Who says being cerebral isn’t cool?

…to be continued.

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