It's their time to shine
There's a line in the movie Swingers that's delivered beautifully by a yet-to-be-typecast Vince Vaughn: "This is the guy behind the guy behind the guy." In other words, the person you're looking at is so peripheral, you barely notice that they're even there... but once you actually give them a shot, they're full of potential. These kinds of incidental side-characters exist in any story, games included. And on very rare occasions, even the most minor character gets a chance to bask in the limelight.
Now, I'm not talking about trusty sidekicks or antagonistic villains that got their own spin-offs; those folks are still very crucial to their respective stories, even if you don't play as them. Rather, these are the characters who existed purely as comic relief or backstory footnotes in their first appearance, then went on to become not just playable, but the headliner star of their very own adventure. Join me as I celebrate these extras turned heroes, won't you?
Vincent Brooks in... Catherine
Before he starred in the psychological horror/puzzle game Catherine, lovable loser Vincent Brooks was just known as 'Man Drinking Alone'. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 was first released way back in 2006, then got ported to PSP with additional content in 2009 as Persona 3 Portable. And the clever folks at Atlus decided that this was the perfect opportunity to tease the then-unannounced Catherine with a cool little cameo.
Apparently this was a time before Vincent became a loyal customer at the Stray Sheep bar, because you can find him lounging around Club Escapade in P3P. Chatting with him only leads to cryptic conversations about nightmares, infidelity, and the concept of dying in a dream. This is all foreshadowing to the terrifying madness that Vincent faces in his own personal drama, unsure whether to pledge his heart to Catherine or Katherine (a love triangle that induces fever dreams full of block-climbing puzzles and anthropomorphic sheep). And the Atlus cameos go both ways: you can spot Persona 4's Teddie in plushie form at Vincent's favorite bar.
Jackson 'Jax' Briggs in... Mortal Kombat: Special Forces
Without those big metal arms, Major Jackson Briggs is basically just some guy. Sure, being a top agent of the U.S. Special Forces is impressive, but all that combat training seems kind of underwhelming when you're up against an undead ninja demon from Hell or a shrieking god of thunder. Those cybernetic implants from the shoulders down help make Jax feel like more of a contender, but his most iconic trait also makes for a hilarious bit of timeline tomfoolery.
Jax and his full metal biceps are front and center in Mortal Kombat: Special Forces, a regrettable beat-'em-up spin-off for PS1 that ranks among the worst games of all time. People wouldn't recognize Jax without his two metallic haymakers, so of course he's packing them here, but Special Forces' story actually takes place before any of the MK games. According to official canon, Jax bulked up his muscular arms with bionics, chased Kano and the Black Dragon gang through their bland hideouts, removed the implants for his debut in Mortal Kombat 2, then went back to titanium limbs for MK3. That's not a surgery I'd care to undergo three times.
Prinny in... Prinny: Can I Really Be the Hero?
As the Koopas of the underworld and the de facto mascots for the Disgaea series, Prinnies have it pretty rough. Living a sinful life in this plane of existence dooms your eternal soul to be sewn into one of these dinky, winged penguins, forced into slavery under a demonic diva named Etna. The idea is that you'll slowly redeem your soul by performing good deeds, but what's more likely is that your life of servitude will end in an explosive death for comedic effect, because the Prinnies' bodies are, for whatever reason, incredibly volatile.
But no matter how cowardly or incompetent, the sheer numbers of the Prinny squad make anything possible. Prinny: Can I Really Be the Hero? on PSP gives you the lives of 1,000 poor Prinnies, then asks you to conquer a marathon of maddeningly difficult 2D platforming. Every time you fail, you actually die: that particular Prinny goes up in a puff of smoke, and another poor penguin takes his place wearing the same red scarf. Etna's demands for the perfect dessert order are totally inhumane, dood!
Firebrand in... Gargoyle's Quest
Whether you know him as Firebrand or Red Arremer, anyone who's played a game in the Ghosts 'n Goblins series has a personal vendetta against this particular demon. Firebrand is one of those devilishly difficult AIs that can seemingly read your mind; no matter which way you try to move, he's probably going to slam into you with his clawed feet, stripping you down to your boxers and ruining your day in the process. Anyone who's taken a long walk in Sir Arthur's shoes knows to fear Firebrand on sight. But when you get to know him, he's a pretty ok guy.
In a positively bizarre move, Capcom decided to give Firebrand his own adventure on the Game Boy, one year before Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts would introduce his infuriating attack patterns to the mainstream. Gargoyle's Quest is just as punishingly challenging as its predecessors, but this platformer lets you do such gargoyle-y things as clinging to walls and hovering through the air. As an aside, whoever did the US box art had seemingly never seen Firebrand's original sprite, as they drew the so-called 'Red Blaze' bright green. That Hulk-like shade was thankfully corrected for the box art on the NES and SNES sequels.
Barney in... Half-Life: Blue Shift
Not to be confused with your favorite purple dinosaur, Barney Calhoun is seemingly one of the least important people in the entire Black Mesa facility. When you're a security guard employed by a research facility full of the greatest minds in science, you really don't have to worry about breaking up fistfights or flagging down shoplifters. In the original Half-Life, it seemed like Barney's primary contribution to the plot was opening doors. No, wait... that was just one of his many lookalikes, because your interaction with the canonical true Barney is limited to a fleeting glimpse during your first fateful tram ride.
But then BAM, it turns out Barney's a total badass, as demonstrated by the Half-Life: Blue Shift standalone expansion. With little more than a pistol in his hands and the shirt on his back, Barney takes on the same Xen invaders that gave Gordon Freedom so much trouble, and that poindexter had a damage-absorbing HEV suit to boot. Clearly, Barney's starring role in Blue Shift let him become the hero he was meant to be; fast forward to Half-Life 2, and Calhoun's suddenly the chief freedom fighter for the entire human Resistance.
Captain Toad in... Captain Toad's Treasure Tracker
This adventurous Toad's main shortcoming - the fact that he can't jump - is also his defining trait. In Super Mario 3D World, guiding this dinky, sluggish explorer through miniature single-screen stages offers a reprieve from all the manic running and jumping that fills the regular levels' runtimes. Because of his inability to lift both feet off the ground simultaneously, Captain Toad takes ten minutes to collect a bundle of stars that Mario could snag in roughly four seconds flat.
But you know what? Not everything has to revolve around that portly, mustachioed plumber. Captain Toad's Treasure Tracker lets the mushroom-headed trailblazer do a little heroic rescuing of his own, in his quest to save lady-friend Toadette from giant-crow-related peril. Even if he can't muster a pace faster than a brisk walk, Captain Toad's no slouch at finding stars or gems in this unbearably cute puzzle platformer (minus any precision jumping). It's unclear what El Capitan actually needs the stars for, though, and I sincerely hope that this entire expedition isn't just one big chore done for Mario's benefit.
Minions in... Overlord: Minions
One year before Despicable Me made minions more important than main characters, there was another crew of cronies that got a chance in the limelight. In the original Overlord, you give orders to legions of multi-colored Minions, who blend the mindless loyalty of Pikmin with the impish cruelty of The Darkness' Darklings. When they're not gleefully clubbing baby seals, they enjoy lugging around big items for the Overlord and dogpiling enemies, cackling all the while. Beyond a few advising NPC minions, the troops in your personal gremlin army weren't worthy of individual personalities to match their color-coded abilities.
That is until this Nintendo DS spin-off rolled around. With names that rival the Battletoads in terms of sheer goofiness, Stench, Blaze, Zap, and Giblet are four minions sent off on their very own mission full of environmental puzzles and top-down combat. The slower, stylus-driven gameplay probably didn't gel too well with the existing Overlord fanbase, but you have to give props to Codemasters for getting out of its comfort zone and trying to craft a companion game that felt right on a portable platform.
Tingle in... Freshly-Picked Tingle's Rosy Rupeeland
Let's just take a moment and appreciate how incredible it is that a game called Freshly-Picked Tingle's Rosy Rupeeland not only exists, but actually made it to market. Though Hyrule is full of quirky NPCs and eccentric character designs, Tingle stands above the rest of the Legend of Zelda's supporting cast (figuratively speaking) as the most bizarre person Link has ever encountered. This peculiar little fella made his debut in Majora's Mask, and even if his delusions of fairy ancestry are pretty creepy for a 35-year-old man, the maps he draws up during his many balloon flights are quite helpful.
Nintendo decided to give a little Nintendo DS treat to those who just can't get enough of Tingle's ridiculous mannerisms and delightful "Kooloo-Limpah!" catchphrase. This spin-off is a basically just a simple top-down dungeon crawler, but Tingle's sense of part-charming, part-mortifying style makes it all worthwhile. It's hard not to adore his endlessly expressive animations, from the laborious look on his face when he's pushing objects chest-first, to the way he wiggles his little green butt when cashing in treasure. Rosy Rupeeland never made it to the US, but anyone looking to see Link's munchkin friend take center stage needs to seek out the English-translated European version stat.
Rebecca Chambers in... Resident Evil Zero
Were it not for Rebecca Chambers, Jill Valentine and Chris Redfield might've never gotten the chance to become the iconic bioterror-quashing heroes they are today. As the only memorable member of the S.T.A.R.S. Bravo team, Rebecca (spoilers) ends up being the sole surviving member of her squad after the original Resident Evil's mansion debacle. Or maybe not, because it's possible to let her die if you screw up during a crucial scene. So how does a potentially dead character end up getting her own game?
Enter Resident Evil Zero, a GameCube prequel that shows just how much shit Chambers had to go through mere hours before we got to know her. Back when she was still just a rookie, Chambers was unceremoniously thrust into the middle of an Umbrella conspiracy aboard the Ecliptic Express train. Alongside ex-con Billy Coen, she fought back against hordes of mutated animals, only to wind up wandering into infamous Raccoon City mansion. Because Chambers' fate is in the player's hands, she hasn't made a canonical appearance since. But seeing as Barry Burton (who could also live or die depending on your actions) shows up in Resident Evil: Revelations 2, there's no reason Rebecca can't make a comeback.
[Insert series name here] Gaiden
Fun fact: 'Gaiden' is the Japanese word for 'side story', and I think all of these games would qualify. Did you know about these spin-offs, or are they news to you (which you now need to play to experience them for yourself)? Plan on impressing your pals with this newfound knowledge? Sound off in the comments below!
And if you're looking for more, check out 7 characters you're totally not interested in saving and 16 random minor characters that deserve an explanation.