This post originally appeared on Matt Weise's blog Outside Your Heaven.
There is a theory in psychology that we go through life looking for surrogates of our parents. Similarly, one can imagine that many of the games we encounter early in our lives are the standards by which we consciously or unconsciously judge games afterward. We perhaps look for the games which shaped our tastes in every new game we play... and are usually disappointed when we don't find what we want.
Looking at the games which shaped us helps us understand why we like certain games and dislike others, or, to be more specific, why we see certain games as inferior versions of other games. I don't think this is anything to be ashamed of, as long as one doesn't pretend there's any objectivity to be hand in this process. We like what we like for complex reasons that were formed reflexively and unconsciously, by our natural gravitation towards certain works of art. Discovering why we gravitate towards some things and not others is a process of self-discovery, and one that is arguably required to intelligent criticism.
The first game I remember playing for any significant amount of time. I have no idea how it shaped by gaming tastes other than being the first time I became genuinely obsessed with a game. I never did finish it.
The fist game I can remember that pulled me into a fictional world. I remember going to Chucky Cheese with my parents and dropping endless quarters on a Play Choice 10 just to play the first level of Super Mario Bros. I don't know why I found it so captivating, but I distinctly remember reality dropping away and be being only aware of what was happening inside the arcade cabinet. It was like reading a book or being underwater.
My first RPG and, interestingly, a twice-translated port of a port. Ultima: Exodus for the NES was a surprisingly faithful re-creation of Richard Garriott's pioneering original. All the Japanese developer (Pony Canyon) did was make it cuter. I didn't think much about it at the time, but my experience with the NES Ultima: Exodus--which was, ironically, my first exposure to "Western"-style open-world RPGs--may have profoundly altered the course of my taste development as I got older. I probably wouldn't have gotten into PC gaming if I hadn't first experienced a taste of it on the NES. I wouldn't have known what Ultima was, so I wouldn't have gone crazy when I saw the Ultima VII box in a PC store a few years later. (VII?! Holy shit! It was like getting a game from THE FUTURE!) To this day I am one of the few people I know who loves both Japanese and Western game design aesthetics about equally, who gets just as excited about Final Fantasy as Ultima, who doesn't regard one as an inferior version of the other. I think this has a lot to do with the fact that my first "Western" game was filtered through Japanese sensibilities.
Bionic Commando was the first game with a story and characters I really loved. They weren't complex at all, but for some reasons the game's presentation--with game design logic being totally dictated by dramatic logic (and not, as is usually the case, vice versa)--enthralled my friends and I to no end when we were 11. This game is still the reason I never mind an irregular difficulty curve as long as it makes sense story-wise. If the last boss is flesh and blood and I have a bazooka... well... he shouldn't take more than one hit, should he? Certainly not if he's Hitler.