In a time where superheroes are more popular than they have ever been, I felt it was time to take a look at the unsung heroes of gaming that lurk in the shadows. These under-appreciated characters usually play a supporting role in the story being told, and the one thing they all have in common is that they take a backseat to someone else.
Some of them are classy, some of them are annoying, but all of them are memorable. Without these reliable second-bananas, most of gaming’s most legendary heroes wouldn’t have inferior foils to make them look better, and let’s be totally honest, would Batman look anywhere near as awesome if he didn’t have an idiot number two in green boy-shorts following him around and opening doors? (He probably still would.)
The criteria is simple. With one exception, all the entries on this list are NPCs, or non-playable characters. Secondly, none of the entries selected outshine the stars because that's not how a good supporting character rolls.
So, with that said, pull out a cold one and join me in toasting gaming’s greatest number twos.
8. Tails - Sonic the Hedgehog
What else can be said about Tails that hasn’t been said already? He’s Sonic the Hedgehog’s faithful sidekick, forever doomed to die. And die. And die.
In all seriousness, Miles “Tails” Prower is one of the most iconic supporting characters in video game history. Like Mario and Luigi, the sight of Sonic the Hedgehog and his buddy Tails together is just gaming bread and butter. You don’t typically see one without the other.
Perhaps the most memorable thing about Tails is that he faithfully follows Sonic, with complete disregard for anything that happens to him. Tails can be left behind, often runs right into pitfalls, can drown, can be blown sky high and can even be exploited to deal extra damage to the Dr. Egghead.
Unfortunately, aside from copying Sonic’s jump attack and occasionally air-lifting him to an unreachable platform, Tails really doesn’t bring much else to the table, which is both why he’s on the list and why he’s not any higher.
7. Slippy Toad - Star Fox 64
It’s hard to have any sort of discussion about the greatness of Star Fox 64 without prefacing it with “Slippy is annoying.”
The chattery toad with the girly voice shares the common issue, alongside Peppy Hare and Falco Lombardi, of being absolutely useless in a firefight. Slippy spends most of the game flying around Fox and chasing enemies that he can’t hit, which he’ll frequently regret mere seconds later when he begins screaming at the player to save him. While Slippy’s voice and constant penchant for getting shot by enemies will grate your nerves throughout the course of the game, there’s one thing that sets him apart from the rest of the team.
Slippy is in charge of displaying the boss characters’ health meters. That means if you allow him to get shot down (or if you shoot him down on purpose), you have to fight the boss blind.
While that may not be an issue for veteran Star Fox players who can breeze right through the game, imagine playing through the game for the first time and gleefully letting Slippy go down, only to realize that you now had to fight the boss without seeing his health.
Despite Slippy’s otherwise general uselessness, his control over enemy health displays made him an essential team member when facing off against the game’s numerous bosses.
6. Navi - The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Yes, Navi is extremely annoying.
Despite best being known for her constant repeating of the words “hey”, “look”, and “listen”, Navi was important in ways gamers still don’t appreciate to this very day. The chatty fairy is Link’s faithful companion for the entire game and it is because of Navi that the Z-targeting system exists in the first place.
Still, the usefulness of this feature isn’t truly felt until right towards the end of the game. After finally reaching the top of Ganon’s Tower and encountering Ganondorf, Navi is initially weakened by dark magic and unable to help Link Z-target. That means that players have to target him manually, using the N64’s notoriously clunky joystick.
So yes, while Navi might make you want to wash your ears with sandpaper, without the Z-targeting system helping Zelda make the jump to 3D, games like Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword wouldn’t even have been possible.
So cheers to you Navi, you infuriating pain in the Zora.
5. Rush - Mega Man
The second dog to make an appearance on this list, Rush the robo-dog was kicking serious enemy tail long before Barbas was even a blip on the gaming radar.
As Mega Man’s faithful companion, Rush fills whatever role is required of him. He could be a moving platform, a submarine, and even a spring coil to perform those otherwise impossible jumps. While Mega Man gets all the glory for dominating Dr. Wiley’s nefarious robot masters, Rush sits faithfully in the background, waiting to become whatever his buddy needs in order to achieve victory.
As the franchise changed and evolved, so did Rush’s abilities. By the time Mega Man 8 rolled out, Rush could turn into a motorcycle, had healing powers and could search out items for the player.
Still, Rush’s best feature came in Mega Man 7. Upon combining the Rush Power Adapter and the Rush Jet Adapter, Rush can use the Super Adapter to join with his master to become Super Mega Man, replacing the buster cannon with a flying fist attack and adding a double-jump powered by built-in rockets.
Any sidekick that can add the prefix “Super” to a hero whose first name is “Mega” is definitely worth his salt.
4. Cortana - Halo
When you’re an emotionally disconnected super soldier fighting a race of nigh-unstoppable aliens bent on the domination and complete obliteration of the human race, it’s hard to make friends. While Master Chief can always rely on his teammates to help him get the job done, it was the companionship of his faithful AI partner Cortana that truly humanized him.
When the world is crashing down in flames around the feet of Master Chief, Cortana is always there to provide a useful tip or encouraging dialogue. While her sanity depleted with every game and her personality became more erratic, her constant companionship is a boon to the gameplay, emotionally connecting players to the story in ways that the bloody war between humanity and the Covenant simply can’t.
In a sea of games featuring AI companions and sidekicks, Cortana stands the test of the time as one of the most famous and well respected of them all.
3. Otacon - Metal Gear Solid
Hal Emmerich, better known as Otacon, comes very close to being the ultimate sidekick. Upon meeting him in the first Metal Gear Solid game, one of the first things he does is…pee his pants.
Despite his less-than-manly introduction to players, Otacon would go on to become one of Metal Gear’s most enduring and beloved characters as Snake’s only true friend and faithful support.
In addition to his helpful dialogue, Otacon also provides Snake with a variety of useful equipment throughout the games, including Metal Gear's now signature Stealth Camouflage. While he can prove to be a bit whiny and irritating at times, his helpfulness far outweighs his oversensitivity. For added fun, there are numerous secret easter egg conversations players can trigger with Otacon, just for laughs.
Still, as good as the eccentric doctor is, there are two who are better.
2. Alyx Vance - Half Life 2
Alyx Vance is to Half-Life 2, what Otacon is to Metal Gear Solid. She is the ultimate supporting character.
Not only does Alyx provide emotional and mental support to game protagonist Gordon Freeman, she also fights alongside him and acts as his voice of reason. While most supporting NPCs are functional and have decent dialogue, Alyx is intelligent and does far more than simply repeat the same few lines of dialogue.
As the game progresses, Alyx reacts to situations uniquely, even shielding her eyes if the player shines the flashlight in her face. In addition to her intelligence, she proves equally useful in combat, coming to the player’s aid repeatedly throughout the course of the game.
Considering the fact that Half-Life 2’s hero does not speak once throughout the entire game, Alyx also acts as his voice, putting spoken words behind Dr. Freeman’s actions as he takes the fight to the Combine and their human puppets.
While Alyx may prove to be the greatest AI controlled supporting character, there’s just one name that trumps all the rest.
1. Tidus - Final Fantasy X
Surprised? So were fans of the Final Fantasy series when this game released.
When thinking back on the legacy of Final Fantasy games, there’s one protagonist who stands head-and-shoulders above the rest. The measuring stick against which all future RPG heroes would be compared; Cloud Strife.
So, if there is any one character that does not epitomize the manly nature of Cloud, it’s Tidus. As the game progresses and the storyline develops, so does the game’s protagonist. Initially a whiny and overly sensitive young man, Tidus slowly grows alongside the other characters, and ultimately the gamers themselves, into a strong-willed and brave hero.
Heck, the guy’s voice even matures as the game progresses. Still, there’s an Aeon sized elephant in the room that needs to be addressed. How can the poster boy/hero of Final Fantasy X end up on a list of sidekicks?
Simple. Because he’s not the star of the game.
Indeed, the bulk of the game’s amazing and long-revered story centers around the Summoner Yuna and her pilgrimage to defeat and vanquish Sin from the world of Spira. As Tidus and the other guardians protect her on her journey, the player is shown an incredible love story that unfolds between Tidus and Yuna, ultimately discovering that Tidus is but a dream, doomed to fade away once Sin is defeated once and for all.
Despite the fact that Tidus is the primary protagonist, does all of the work, drives all of the dialogue and even narrates the game, he still takes a backseat to Yuna and plays a defining supportive role.
And if the main character of a game can manage to live in his girlfriend’s shadow and get none of the credit for saving the world, I have to call him the ultimate sidekick.