Protagonists in video games are rarely ever truly alone. Be it a superior keeping in radio contact throughout a mission or an acquaintance popping up regularly as you travel through the different levels of a game, there is almost always another presence besides the player character in any gaming world. While interactions between such characters happen in practically every game in existence and allow growth through banter, nothing quite compares to having a single, constant presence at your side.
It’s true that partners can be an eternal annoyance, bland, or detracting from gameplay if done wrong, but they can just as easily become an essential piece of the whole. A good partner allows for constant development and interactions for both characters involved in addition to a feeling for the player that there will always be someone there no matter what obstacles arise. To celebrate these constant companions, I’m listing my top 10 favorite partner characters here. Keep in mind that there may be spoilers for what happens to some of these partners talked about here.
It’s very rare to see a discussion about partners in gaming without Tails being mentioned in some capacity due to his position as a “classic” Player 2. However, more often than not, Tails is talked about far more in a bad light than a good one these days, and it’s easy to see why. Tails’ characterization has been screwed with by the more recent games in the series, excluding Colors and Generations, as he has turned into a useless kid who is just along for the ride. While I dislike this as much as the next person, I still have my fondness for who Tails used to be, specifically in Sonic the Hedgehog 3, and who he seems to be returning to if the most recent games are any indication. The Tails I like was still a tagalong kid, but he had a purpose in the grand scheme of things and was always proving his worth and helping Sonic when he could.
Despite not being as fast as Sonic, his ability to fly was incredibly useful and, even without a second player, he proved helpful to Sonic on more than one occasion, best demonstrated in the boss for Marble Garden Zone. Due to the Drill Mobile being an aerial foe on screens with no ground, Sonic can’t get up to him through normal means. As such, Tails comes in and carries Sonic throughout the fight by the hands, with Sonic jumping off to attack and having Tails catch him again. It’s a little detail, but clearly shows that Tails was always ready to help in any way he could and could actually come through. However, even when all that is put aside, it was still simply nice to have a companion for Sonic to play off of. We didn’t get much characterization early on due to how the Sonic games were designed, but what we did see showed that these two were a tightly-knit duo and I was always happy to see that no matter where I took Sonic, Tails always had his back.
Agro is a very different kind of partner compared to everybody else on this list. Whereas all the others have personalities that make me fond of them in some way, Agro is simply the horse of main character Wander. However, I quickly grew just as strong an attachment to him as any other partner on this list due to the nature of the game’s design. Shadow of the Colossus is a game that feels lonely in almost all ways. Wander is practically alone in a forbidden land tasked by Dormin, an entity of great power, with killing 16 colossi roaming the region in exchange for returning life to Wander’s dead girlfriend. As you roam the vast plains looking for these creatures, you will have absolutely no interaction with anyone except Agro, and that’s why there is a bond. No matter where you go and what you fight, Agro is always there by your side, even in situations where you would expect a horse to run away as fast as possible, such as when you actually do face down the gigantic beasts.
Agro is a constant and, although I didn’t realize it at first, I quickly grew to feel as though the game was incomplete without his presence. This was especially noticeable when, at the beginning of the final colossus battle, a piece of the cliff you’re standing on breaks off and Agro falls with it, seemingly and suddenly dead. It really gives a sense that this was the end of the line as Shadow of the Colossus simply couldn’t continue without your trusty steed. It’s rare to feel that sort of connection and, regardless of his non-human status, he was someone I always wanted nearby.
I, alongside many players, was not the fondest of Navi, our little fairy companion from Ocarina of Time. I don’t have a seething hatred for her like the majority of others who dislike her seem to, but she had practically no character, wasn’t really interesting, and, even though the game often tried to act otherwise, was simply a gameplay mechanic who didn’t contribute anything truly important to the story. Most of all though, I was disappointed in her wasted potential, as a character in her position could’ve been a great companion for Link; a fact proved by her spiritual successor from Majora’s Mask, Tatl. While, on the surface, Tatl seems like a stand-in for Navi because she served the exact same function, there is far more to her than her appearances lead to believe. Tatl has a spunky, almost anti-Link personality and isn’t afraid to remind you of it constantly through both dialogue in cutscenes and the descriptions you can call up on nearly all enemies. Whereas Navi would simply give you a name and description when you asked for info about enemies, Tatl would give information in an almost condescending way that was surprisingly entertaining, such as her information for the very basic Deku Baba being prefaced with a comment about how you should really know about them already.
Tatl also had a bearing on the story, as she, along with her brother Tael (TatlTael, get it?), were the best friends of the main enemy of the game, Skull Kid, and she initially goes along with you because she has no other option after the Skull Kid leaves her behind. You can see Tatl develop along the course of the game from being someone who barely cares about anything but reuniting with her brother to realizing that the Skull Kid simply has to be stopped. She also serves as a great voice and counterpoint for Link, as she is talkative and abrasive to Link being silent and helpful, which is the role I felt Navi was truly lacking to make her more than just a C-up button press.
7.) Maya Fey
It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I have a huge liking for the Ace Attorney series, from the very first to the more recent Ace Attorney Investigations. While there are numerous reasons for this, the chief aspect that draws me to the games is the large cast of memorable and likable characters, an essential for a visual novel style game. Over the course of the series, the main character, be it Phoenix or otherwise, always has a partner by his side to provide helpful hints when the player is stuck. My favorite of that bunch has been and is likely to always be Maya Fey, the very first. You actually meet Maya in the second case of the first game, where you must defend her after she is accused of killing Mia Fey, her sister and your mentor, and from that point onward, she sticks with you as an assistant. Like many other great partners, Maya is a perfect counterpoint to our lead Phoenix, as she is relatively childish and silly to Phoenix’s relative seriousness and attempts to be a normal guy in a crazy world. The old adage about opposites attracting really works well for showcasing character personalities and seeing these two constantly play off each other serves the main purpose of a partner character by giving us a good sense of both characters through their interactions.
Maya is also helpful in many different ways, from giving you a hint about what to do next to channeling Mia’s spirit during trials to help you out when Phoenix is in dire straits. However, while all these things are important, what truly makes Maya stand out to me is how much the games made me care about her. She constantly gets in trouble through various means and the lack of her cheerful personality being there is very noticeable and something you want to fix. I wanted to make sure Maya was safe and sound at the end and, at this point, if Phoenix comes back as the main character in any Ace Attorney game that comes out, I believe it just wouldn’t be the same without Maya being there at his side.
Max, of the titular detectives Sam and Max, is quite different from the partners I’ve mentioned on the list so far through his personality. Every other character I’ve mentioned so far I mainly like due to their interactions with the main character and I don’t think they would be very effective characters without the protagonist. However, Max doesn’t carry that distinction, at least in my mind. That isn’t to say that his interactions with Sam aren’t entertaining and good for developing the characters, but Max can stand up on his own and be extremely entertaining the entire time. He is a slightly insane sociopath and nearly every single thing that comes out of his mouth is biting commentary or a snarky remark that I can’t help but be entertained by.
The main draw for me is his shockingly funny personality, as my eye is almost always drawn to him, be it a funny background event he causes as I point-and-click around a screen or the regular comments he makes at the different people you meet. Also, due to Sam having a sarcastic streak all his own, the two don’t play off each other’s differences so much as constantly provide two different parts of a whole commentary on whatever situation is thrown their way. They work really well as a comedy duo and so much of the personality of the series would be lost without Max’s overt insults to compliment Sam’s slower, slightly-hidden humor. This idea of a snarky partner who, while still helpful, is more focused on comedy than anything else is a popular one in gaming and, while it doesn’t always work, Max is proof that, when done right, it can make a game that much more memorable.