Some of these characters just barely missed the cut. One of them actually lost a tiebreaker to be on the list. This is serious business. To make it into the 50-26 range, you needed either one very high vote from an individual or multiple good votes from more than one person. There were no exceptions and no handshake deals.
Tomorrow, the list gets started for real — #25 on our journey to the best male character of all-time.
26) Kaiden Alenko (Mass Effect) – 1 vote
Shaun: At number 26, we have a testament to the “heartthrob factor” in our list. JK EVERYONE WINKY FACE! I mean, Kaidan’s story is kind of cool, especially how he was cruelly experimented on as a boy and overcame the odds to assist your team in their quest to save the galaxy. I especially like the part where he killed his jackass instructor. And if it wasn’t for his smug, stupid face, I might have actually put him in my party. When I’m forced to choose between killing an annoying, racist a-hole in Ashley or Kaidan, and I choose Kaidan, that’s a bad sign. I don’t know, maybe Chris will have kinder words…
Chris: If I were you, I wouldn’t hold my breath. Hey, kids, gather ‘round for story time! When I was playing the first Mass Effect, I got through the initial stuff on the Citadel and finally got my hands on the Normandy. I started traveling around the deepest reaches of space and exploring as much as the game would let me. Faced with a huge gap since my last save, I trolled around the surface of a planet in my little space jeep. A thresher maw appeared, and even though I was completely unprepared, I managed to take its health bar down to zero. Unfortunately, the game glitched and he DIDN’T DIE, so I spent the next 10 minutes futilely trying to survive before being killed and losing all my progress.
This is a long-winded way of saying I never finished the first game because of its clunky mechanics. I picked back up at Mass Effect 2 and made my choices in the Genesis comic. So Kaiden died quickly, in a simple menu choice. I never missed him.
27) Darth Revan (Knights of the Old Republic) – 2 votes
Chris: Since KOTOR exists in an era where the internet wasn’t quite widespread yet and guides were even more uncommon, I can safely say that I didn’t see Revan’s twist coming. You know why you’re so powerful? Because you’re a former Sith Lord who had his memory wiped, that’s why! The best part about Revan is that after discovering that you’re a Jedi-turned Sith-turned Jedi, you have the option of deciding which side to continue with. Go dark and you corrupt Bastila into being your new apprentice. Go light and you can romance her (which is canon) and overwhelm the traitorous Malak with balance or justice or whatever. Win-win.
Shaun: Like Chris, I honestly did not see the Revan twist coming, and it literally blew my mind. When I say literally, there was actually chunks of brain coming out of my nose. Because all of a sudden, my hero’s insistence on the path of light, and everyone’s doubts about me and if I would turn to the dark side, had this additional, amazing layer of context that put everything in a new perspective. As an (attempted) storyteller myself, I love the idea of the role that memories play, and what effect that can have on a person. Is evil taught, or learned? Are some people just inherently good? With the light-side Revan, we have a great answer to those questions, and the game elevates because of it.
28) Master Chief (Halo) – 2 votes
Shaun: For the iconic level alone, Master Chief deserves to be on our list. And while he’s not quite as deserving of the “best of all time” status that some gamers put him as, his actions during the first three Halos really are pretty incredible. The guy is really just an augmented human, yet he accomplishes so much and single handedly saves humanity from extinction so many times that the fearsome alien forces refer to him as a demon. That, my friends, is awesome. Then, you have Halo 4, where his character is actually explored. You know, that thing that good writers do that took Halo three games to eventually include? But still, what’s there is pretty great, and his relationship with Cortana is the emotional backbone of the most interesting plot in this franchise. Hopefully, 4 was just the prelude to the character development we’ll get from the Chief in 5.
Chris: I’m going to be biased against this selection because I haven’t played the fourth game. Up until that point, Master Chief speaks in truncated sentences and does virtually nothing interesting (as a character, that is — his ridiculous triumphs against the Flood and the Covenant are second to none). It’s also not Master Chief’s fault that his series features an awful cliffhanger ending in the second game or one of the worst final boss fights of all-time in the third game. I’m hoping that when I finally get a chance to go through Halo 4, I’ll see what the fuss is all about.
29) Axel (Kingdom Hearts) – 2 votes
Chris: I can at least get behind Axel more than Roxas, because he ruins everyone’s day in Chain of Memories and his catchphrase (GOT IT MEMORIZED?) went from annoying to endearing somehow. Unfortunately, by the time you get through KH2, Axel and Roxas are pretty much inseparable. If Michelle were here, she would be telling me about how the two of them are best friends forever. I’ll just defer to folks who enjoy this part of KH more than I do, while admitting that the duel between dual-wielding Roxas and ring-of-fire Axel is awfully enjoyable.
Shaun: On the surface, Axel is a comic relief character with the same voice as Raiden from Metal Gear Solid. So…bad start. Then, you figure out that he’s a quadruple agent who’s really only out for himself and his very best friends, and he gets better. Flash-forward to Dream Drop Distance, and all of a sudden, he’s a Keyblade wielder and one of forces of good’s most important allies. Axel continues to get more and more fascinating with every installment, and I’m looking forward to Kingdom Hearts 3.7, when Axel becomes God and fights with an effeminate Satan for the existence of the universe.
30) Ryu (Street FIghter) – 3 votes
Shaun: I like to think that Ryu is just sick of everyone’s s***. Here is a guy that just wants to train and be left alone. Instead, he keeps getting pulled into ridiculous fighting tournaments with every strange sort of villain on the planet, and has to Hadouken his way to victory every time. I don’t how many times Ryu has canonically won Street Fighter, but I have to imagine it’s 700. Like…how many times does this guy have to shoot a laser beam from his hands before the world gets its act together?
Chris: In theory, Ryu hasn’t won any of the tournaments, but that’s almost the point. His journey requires that he continually seek out new ways to test his strength. Along the way, he discovers the dark influence of the Satsui no Hado lurking inside of him, the same power that fuels Akuma’s murderous rage. As the Street Fighter series has progressed, we’ve retconned the Satsui no Hado into being one of the major driving forces behind everything Ryu does, including the cheap-shot Shoryuken that leaves Sagat with a massive scar on his chest. Ryu might have a singular focus, but it has grown more interesting as the canon has expanded.
31) Chrom (Fire Emblem Awakening) – 5 votes
Chris: Not many characters received more votes than Chrom, which probably has something to do with how awesome Fire Emblem Awakening was. For me, having my female protagonist marry this beefcake seemed like an easy choice, and had the added benefit of making me the mother of Lucina. Chrom might not have any flaws — he steadfastly protects everyone under his purview and never wavers from the path of good. Shame he couldn’t catch his sister when she jumped off that cliff, though.
Shaun: Like some of the other characters on this list, Chrom is great because of his inability to lose hope. While he may not be the most powerful member of your party, his adherence to the forces of good and unwavering belief in your team and ability to change the future brings the party hope when there is none and keeps them going. Despite being faced with heartbreaking circumstances, Chrom refuses to give in to despair, and this insistence makes him one of the more memorable characters in years.
32) N (Pokemon Black/White) – 3 votes
Shaun: A pokemon character who’s interesting, and actually demonstrates some sort of growth throughout the course of the games? No way. That must be false. JK, it’s not false, and N’s existence as an interesting character is probably the best part of Pokemon Black and White. I’m getting tired of the same old mechanics in every Pokemon entry, complete with one dimensional characters and non-existent protagonists, so N was a much needed breath of fresh air who I hope makes a return to the franchise at some point.
Chris: I’m sure some folks will be surprised to see N this high on the list, but I agree with most of what Shaun said. Stumbling upon a character with different ideals in the Pokemon series was interesting. We’ve seen villainous organizations with crazy takes before, but what about a guy who was essentially raised by Pokemon and unwaveringly believes that they should not be forced to live under a trainer’s control? Every time you see N, he has a different team with Pokemon that he’s befriended in the area, which fits his story perfectly. Even a somewhat creepy ferris wheel ride with him manages to be interesting.
33) Roxas (Kingdom Hearts) – 2 votes
Chris: Ah, Roxas. The tragic story that no one cares about, because his existence was shoehorned in sometime during the 47-year gap between Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts 3. Okay, that’s a bit harsh — some people (like Shaun) enjoy the beginning of KH2 and love the idea of eating sea salt ice cream 173 times in a prologue. To me, getting Roxas’ nonsense out of the way was arduous, and there’s a reason that you don’t see the title card for Kingdom Hearts 2 until when Sora’s about to pop out of his pod. Not a bad character by any means, just unnecessary in my book.
Shaun: If there’s a more polarizing character for Chris and I, I don’t know who it is. I absolutely adored the beginning of KH2, and found Roxas tragic story to be truly heart-wrenching, perfectly setting the tone for a better, more complex storyline. Roxas is tied closely to the most emotionally resonant events of the series, and you just want so badly for this poor kid to get his happy ending. He’s already lost one of his best friends, his chance at revenge, AND his own existence, so you really hope it works out for the guy. There’s a reason the line “I guess my summer vacation is over” brings a tear to my eye every time, and that reason is Roxas.
34) Nico Bellic (Grand Theft Auto IV) – 2 votes
Shaun: I always found Nico interesting because rather than rehashing the previous GTA games’ tales of “Rags to riches,” Nico finds himself at the center of “rags to slightly nicer rags.” The guy is just trying to make his American dream happen, but his shady new friends, his frustratingly annoying cousin, and most importantly, his past, just make it impossible. You find yourself feeling bad for the guy because no matter what he does, he can’t rise through that dirty glass ceiling found in the gutter of the GTA world.
Chris: You also feel bad for the guy because no matter what he does (or you do as a player), you have to choose between two terrible endings. But I digress. Nico has a clear vision of what he wants to accomplish in his new country, yet he always seems to come up just short. Someone beats him to the punch, or Roman nags at him to play darts when he’d rather be increasing his capital. Nico is a sad allegory for us all, because no matter how hard you try or how much you want something, it may not matter in the end.
35) Frank West (Dead Rising) – 2 votes
Chris: Frank West has covered wars, you know? At first, I thought this awful phrase was going to define Frank as a character. Instead, as he fights off droves of zombies in a shopping mall and leads helpless people by the hand to safety, you realize that Frank’s got a heart of gold. His later appearances flesh out his character even further — he snaps pictures of virtually every female he encounters (which earn him Erotica bonus points) and pals around with Darkstalkers’ Hsien-Ko to solve mysteries.
Shaun: Like Chris, the depth of Frank’s characters throughout the Dead Rising series actually surprised me. I was expecting a shallow douchebag only out for the “big scoop,” and instead I got a legit hero who cares about saving the world and stopping the zombie invasion, one Psycho Survivor at a time. By the third game, Frank is still saving lives as an inspirational speaker, relaying his zombie tales to bring hope to the rest of the world. Atta boy, Frank.
36) Luke fon Fabre (Tales of the Abyss) – 2 votes
Shaun: Want to know something funny? At the point that I had to stop playing my run of Tales of the Abyss, I had not yet reached the point where Luke was anything but a grating, annoying, please-make-him-stop-talking character. So the fact that two panelists voted him this high honestly makes me really intrigued to get through the game now and find out how Luke redeems himself. I’m a sucker for great arches, and I don’t need a character to start out being awesome if they end up reaching a great point later on. It’s what we call “character development,” and I’m all for it.
Chris: Luke goes through both a literal and figurative transformation over the course of Abyss, and the fact that he’s such an annoying and terrible person in the beginning of the game only serves to illustrate that development. Hell, by the time you reach the end, there are a couple aspects of that early character you actually miss, like Luke’s willingness to stand up to and trade barbs with Jade. With the help of some typically great voice work by Yuri Lowenthal, Luke manages to be the second-most interesting protagonist in the series.
37) James (Fallout 3) – 1 vote
Chris: A vote for James is essentially a vote for Liam Neeson. After all, as you being Fallout 3 as the tiniest of tiny babies, his is the voice that comforts you while you stumble through the controls tutorial. Later, you burst out of the vault on a desperate quest to find your father, because he has a particular set of skills and he will find you and he will kill you. Rub your chest; your arms will take care of themselves. I’m sorry, I forgot what we were talking about.
Shaun: Look, when one of the greatest actors of your generation, and a god damn action hero icon, voices a character in your game, that character makes our list. Liam Neeson could have voiced a stack of pencils, and you better believe that stack of pencils would have made this list.
38) Reaver (Fable) – 1 vote
Shaun: What I like about Reaver is that you never really know what side he’s on — sure, he’s a selfish jackass who tries to kill you on numerous occasions, but as the game illustrates, some difficult decisions needed to be made, and Reaver has no qualms making them. As your advisor when you finally achieve the throne in Fable 3, Reaver advocates for the darker options, but acquiesces when you choose otherwise. Is he really agreeing with you, or does he just want to solidify his position of power? Like all the best gray characters, you have no real way of knowing.
Chris: Considering who I am, I pretty much have to be a fan of Reaver because of his Wheel of Misfortune. Spin a wheel and decide your fate! Now, I could ask some questions about Reaver like “where do his true loyalties lie?” or “why does he look like a rejected Johnny Depp character in Fable 3?”, but I’d rather not go down that road. Instead, I’ll just say that Reaver is a fantastic agent of chaos who always manages to keep your hero on his or her toes.
39) Solaire of Astora (Dark Souls) – 1 vote
Chris: I haven’t had the chance to dive into a game in the Dark Souls series yet, but I know about Solaire of Astora — and how important it is to praise the sun. I also know that the games are almost comedically difficult, and that getting help from any source is always appreciated. After all, being dead sucks. So the idea of this guy helping you out with boss fights seems solid to me.
Shaun: Solaire of Astora makes me believe in things like “Stockholm Syndrome” — he’s a character from a painfully difficult game, so the fact that he’s willing to give you assistance automatically receives unhealthy, borderline obsessive amounts of love and adoration from the player.
40) The Covetous Shen (Diablo III) – 1 vote
Shaun: In every one of our lists, we seem to have an outlier that makes us scratch our heads as to how they made the cut. I don’t know if we’re quite there yet, but The Covetous Shen makes a case for it, right? At the very least, he seems amusing, and the mysteries surrounding his true nature sound pretty compelling.
Chris: While I was searching for information about The Covetous Shen (because I’ve only played through part of Diablo III once), my favorite result was “Did The Covetous Shen sleep with me?” After all, Shen has had several wives over his extremely long life, including more than one at once. I don’t know what he’s doing at #40, but he’s useful in the game and has a great voice actor, so…okay?
41) Cave Johnson (Portal 2) – 2 votes
Chris: I’m not the least bit surprised that Cave Johnson ended up being one of the most popular parts of Portal 2. You’re essentially combining the stellar work of J.K. Simmons with the extraordinary writing that gave us GLaDOS. The result is a sarcastic, aloof character who almost always has something funny to say, the perfect background as you traverse Aperture Science with a silent protagonist.
Shaun: Like Handsome Jack, Cave Johnson is a “villain” that you love to listen to, but he’s fascinating in the way that he’s almost oblivious to how inhuman he is and how terrible (and hilarious) the experiments are that he’s conducting. I’ll avoid talking about what an interesting parallel about “humanity” this makes with GLADOS and Wheatley, and just say Cave kept me laughing through Portal 2’s lengthy and sharply written campaign.
42) Nathan Drake (Uncharted) – 2 votes
Shaun: Other than his ridiculous feats of acrobatics, Nathan Drake is one of gaming’s most successful attempts at writing a “regular guy” who’s thrown into some pretty intense circumstances. He’s our industry’s equivalent to Indiana Jones, both in wit and escapades, and his character and writing alone make the Uncharted series one worth playing.
Chris: Yeah, exactly. I find the Uncharted series to be a solid but vastly overrated gaming experience, but I still put Nathan on my list because I didn’t want to punish him for that. Nathan gets to search for ancient treasures and juggle an interesting love triangle (a square, really, if you want to include Sully) while tossing out smarmy one-liners and bringing scruffy back into style. Hopefully Uncharted 4 will give him more to work with.
43) Leon S. Kennedy (Resident Evil) – 2 votes
Chris: Leon saves one president’s daughter and kills another president who has been infected. Yep, that’s the opening sentence for his biography. While Leon suffers from some inconsistent voice acting in the Resident Evil series (although who doesn’t? SHEVA! SHEVA! OVER HERE! LOOK!), he slowly develops into one of the most dependable characters in the franchise. His interactions with Ada Wong are always entertaining, and it’s a shame he gets passed over for games like Marvel vs. Capcom 3 or Project X Zone.
Shaun: In my opinion, Leon and Jill are the co-faces of the Resident Evil franchise. Leon’s evolution from “scared rookie cop” in RE 2 to “laser jumping special agent badass” in RE 4 is particularly awesome. In fact, many players cite Leon’s impressive combat abilities as one of the reasons RE 4 was actually slightly less scary than it could have been. When you’re so badass you’re trivializing what’s happening around you, that’s a good sign. Even when he’s killing hundreds of infected villagers and karate kicking chainsaw-wielding lunatics, Leon’s sense of humor and bravado keep him relatable, and he’s just about the only part of RE 6 that’s at all salvageable. If RE 7 plans to right a series that has gone off course, Leon probably needs to be factored in.
44) Miles “Tails” Prower (Sonic the Hedgehog) – 2 votes
Shaun: From a character standpoint, Tails has decided to use his impressive mutant genetics as a fox with two tails to join Sonic in a fight to save the world and free his animal brethren from being turned into robots. From a gameplay standpoint, Tails allows you to fly through the level and traverse obstacles with ease. That’s what you call a “win-win,” ladies and gentleman.
Chris: When Tails was 8 years old, he was already able to pilot a plane, fix other mechanical problems, and fly himself (and Sonic) through the air with his tails. When I was 8 years old, I burst into tears when I made the final out in a game of wiffleball. Needless to say, I think Tails comes out on top in overall development.
45) Guy Cecil (Tales of the Abyss) – 2 votes
Chris: I briefly considered Guy on my own list, but he didn’t make the cut. Guy’s the protective best friend type who’s harboring a deep secret that manifests itself into a complete phobia of women. Let’s just say his childhood wasn’t the best, what with him being left to die buried in a pile of bodies, including his sister. Still, some fun exchanges with the party and some typically great voice work by Johnny Yong Bosch go a long way.
Shaun: Guy was my favorite part of my first attempt to play the first half of Tales of the Abyss, and he’s the only reason I’d ever consider giving the title a second shot. There’s something that really resonates with me about a character whose main goals involve protecting someone important to them. Which reminds me of Kingdom Hearts’ Riku, but we’ll get to that later…
46) Mega Man (Mega Man) – 1 vote
Shaun: I don’t think Mega Man gets enough credit for the life he has to live. Mega Man just wants to live peacefully as a lab assistant — instead, he’s upgraded into a machine of death sent to bounty hunt and kill his fellow robot brothers, settling a feud between one scientist and another, more evil scientist. And yet he never complains or loses his way, even when he’s literally ripping weapons from the dead corpses of his foes to then use against other foes. Mega Man just puts his head down and does what needs to be done.
Chris: Not the most exciting character on our list (although getting his own theme song about being a SUPER FIGHTING ROBOT sure sounds fun), but Mega Man puts in work. He’s just a silent protagonist in his earliest appearances and he doesn’t have the “WHAT AM I FIGHTING FORRRRRRR?” dilemmas that Zero faces. What he does have is a steadfast dedication to saving humankind, even at the expense of every single robot that Dr. Wily and Sigma have ever corrupted.
47) Locke (Final Fantasy VI) – 1 vote
Chris: I’m not as big a fan of Locke as a lot of FFVI fans, but I will recognize that his story is pretty cool. He gets to be a treasure hunter (not a thief, or he’ll rip your lungs out) who travels around being dashing and debonair. He ends up with a romance plot with Celes to help him move past Rachel, whose theme is one of the saddest in video games. He gets to steal clothes from his enemies as disguises. What’s not to like?
Shaun: Locke is one of the few characters in FFVI, in my opinion, who could make a real case for “main character.” He’s a Robin Hood-esque character who can’t help but help those in need, and each new layer you discover about him makes him more and more interesting. If they ever converted VI into a movie, Locke’s casting would be the one I’d be most interested in. I would have voted him higher if he wasn’t so damn useless from a gameplay perspective in the end game.
48) Albert Wesker (Resident Evil) – 1 vote
Shaun: Albert Wesker can be perfectly summed up by his portrayal in Resident Evil 5 – at one point, he’s teleporting around the room, talking trash and kicking our main character’s asses. The next, he’s throwing god damn missiles and sputtering ridiculous dialog that sounds like it was written by a five year old kid. Equal parts badass and baffoon, Wesker has cemented his place among one of gaming’s most iconic franchises…for better or worse.
Chris: To take down Wesker, you have to run through a series of perfect button presses in a quick time event (one mistake is death), then unload damage into him, then knock him into a volcano, then shoot him with rocket launchers. Even though the series’ creators have said that all of this finally managed to kill Wesker, I’m not so sure. I suspect we’ll be seeing his trenchcoat and sunglasses in a future installment.
49) Mario (Mario) – 5 votes
Chris: Mario ended up being a puzzling case in our list. Five votes is almost half the panel, yet he’s buried down at 49? That’s because four of those five votes put him in the 21-25 range. I suppose it’s fitting, though; after all, Mario’s an enduring symbol of the video game industry, but let’s just say his character development isn’t the most intricate ever.
Shaun: If our list only included gaming icons, Mario would be a lock for top 5. As it is, “Princess Peach’s doormat” and “douchebag brother,” and “Yoshi genocidist” weren’t defining-enough characteristics to elevate him in our list.
50) Wei Shen (Sleeping Dogs) – 2 votes
Shaun: Wei Shen is what happens when you combine complex character motivations and solid writing with 1980’s action-movie gusto. You care about Wei Shen and his plight, which makes you that much more invested when he’s smashing thugs faces into the ground and leaping out of the window of his car into the window of the oncoming vehicle.
Chris: There was nothing exceptional or ground-breaking about Sleeping Dogs, but it was still a solid experience, and Wei Shen is a large part of the reason why. He gets to hang out with Emma Stone, beat up everyone in his way, and…um…watch Dogeyes be forced to eat another person and then get murdered slowly with a meat cleaver? Yep, that’s the life.