Just as in life, sometimes there are more interesting things to do in gaming than the actual goal you have been tasked with. Sure, Sephiroth is about to destroy the entire planet with a meteor from the heavens… but the Golden Saucer is lots of fun, and there are fabulous prizes to be won!
The choice is academic: side quests are where it’s at in gaming, and as titles have become more robust and open-ended, the wealth of opportunities to shirk your responsibilities has simply boomed. With that, we took on the daunting task of narrowing down some of the best ones. Needless to say, the selection is absolutely huge, and we’ve had to omit a few of our favorites. Hopefully someday we’ll be able to honor them all, perhaps in a side quest of our own.
Miracle on Tenkaichi Street (Yakuza 0)
It isn’t easy being a criminal in a spiffy white suit that stays miraculously clean as you sprint through the streets of Japan, but there are moments of levity to be found now and then. In one particularly hilarious side quest, the protagonist Kiryu finds himself tasked with assisting in a music video for a famous American pop star. It’s sure to be Miracle Johnson’s biggest hit, as he fights off hordes of zombies in what promises to be an absolute Thriller. But he’s worried that if the extras go easy on him, it’ll look Bad. So you’ll have to protect him from legitimate harm in an atmosphere that is truly Dangerous. Basically, if you see a zombie, you know what to do: Beat It! …I swear that’s the last one.
The oddball nature of this quest makes it memorable, especially considering the quirky characters you meet in the process. The director, Mr. Spining, with his blockbuster hits A.T. and Indian Jeans, Louis, his enthusiastic personal assistant echoing his every sentiment, and of course, Miracle Johnson himself. Watching him moonwalk down the alleyway with the walking dead bearing down on him is one of the more surreal moments in gaming, and needless to say, breaking the hapless extras’ faces is a ton of fun. We just hope zombies have good insurance.
Oasis (Fallout 3)
Ah, moral quandaries. Sometimes there are instances in gaming that allow you to show your true colors – weighing up personal gain against the good of society – and depending on the decisions you make, you can be left with dire consequences that will plague you for the rest of the game. On the plus side, it can also lead to the acquisition of some sweet loot, so it’s not all bad, now is it?
In this particular side quest, you are introduced to Harold, an unfortunate fellow who has a peculiar ailment that has morphed him into a tree. Such a sight can certainly make an impression, so he is surrounded by a cult known as the Treeminders, who worship him as a god and cannot agree on what should be done with him. One of them wants you to apply a sap that will stop Harold from growing bigger, in order to keep him safe. Another wants to spread his influence on the world, giving you a liniment that will cause him to flourish. As for Harold himself? Well, he just wants to die, quite frankly, and you can choose to side with him by destroying his heart and putting him out of his misery.
If none of these concepts strike your fancy, you can just burn Harold to the ground with fire, violently killing him and making everyone in the Oasis unhappy with you, Harold most of all. No matter what you choose, you’re bound to feel some kind of twinge of guilt, second-guessing yourself and wondering whether you really did the right thing. Unless you chose to light the poor guy up like the 4th of July, of course. Not really a lot of moral wiggle room there.
Whodunit? (The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion)
Speaking of morality, sometimes there just isn’t any to be found in a side quest. You’re merely a contract killer, and there’s a job to be done. Such is the case in this curious mission, which finds you locked in a mansion with five party guests who are hunting for a treasure chest. Your goal is to murder all of them without being discovered along the way. In order to do so, you’ll have to garner enough information from each of them to discover their motives, and coerce them to wander into empty rooms under false pretenses.
Once you’ve got them isolated, stab away! Their party favor is a grim death, and you’re one step closer to collecting that coveted bonus. Afterwards, the remaining guests will begin to ruminate on the identity of the killer, confiding in you and continuing to follow your advice, despite the fact that you seem to be the only one casually brandishing a weapon around the mansion. As you begin to thin out the numbers more and more, their paranoia will get the better of them, taking matters into their own hands and openly assaulting each other.
It’s up to you which order you want to commit the crimes in, and part of the fun is seeing how each guest reacts to each demise. Depending on how they felt about that particular house guest, they might be horrified, vexed, or in the case of the greedy old crone Matilde, rather delighted. She may be callous, but you’ve got to appreciate her ambition.
Culex (Super Mario RPG)
Throughout Super Mario RPG, you may be asked to collect a series of items for various characters milling about the towns. This is what’s affectionately dubbed as a ‘fetch quest,’ and it finally comes to an end when you trade for a Shiny Stone from a young girl in Moleville. Putting aside the troubling fact that you acquire this stone by giving a small child fireworks, you’ve now received your key to the hardest boss in the entire game.
There is a locked door in Monstro Town that responds to a touch of the Shiny Stone, and inside lurks the interdimensional warlord, Culex. He challenges you to a friendly fight, though things soon turn sinister when he declares that he probably intends to eat you, and will kill you where you stand. Surrounded by elemental crystals that dish out additional damage and status debuffs, Culex is an imposing figure, particularly aesthetically, as his hideous visage is something quite foreign to the Mario universe.
Once bested, Culex will reward you with the Quartz Charm, a fantastic accessory that boosts your offense and defense, and increases the damage output of certain items. You can cherish this precious gift forevermore, or sell it for a whopping three coins. Either way, you can now declare yourself the most powerful knight in the Mushroom Kingdom, and that looks fantastic on a resume.
I Know You (Red Dead Redemption)
A violent, gritty western with heart. Red Dead Redemption knows how to weave a good tale, and this is particularly evident in some of the side quests you partake in. Whether it’s collecting flowers for the wife of a man who is later revealed to have dementia – a wife who has been dead for years – or assisting an ambitious inventor complete his flying machine, only to watch him immediately plummet to his death, there are genuinely touching and heart wrenching moments of storytelling to be found in the American frontier.
In one particularly fascinating quest that people continue to analyze to this day, the protagonist John Marston comes across a strange man in a jaunty top hat, who seems to know a great deal about his past. The man sends him on a series of missions that test his scruples (can the common man really fend off the temptations of the flesh, and rob a nun for a laugh?) before leading him to an unassuming area out in the desert. He makes note of how beautiful the area is, then begins to opine about being an accountant, not knowing his own name, and the apparent fact that he’s not particularly popular. John gets sick of his ramblings, and solves this the old-fashioned way; by pulling out his pistol and firing a few bullets directly at him.
None of them have an effect, and the strange man walks away. There’s either something very spooky going on, or he’s a lot more evasive than we gave him credit for. In the game’s final act, poor John is done in, and you can visit his grave site as his son, Jack. Where do you think that resting place happens to be? Exactly where the strange man leads you in the side quest. It’s a rather eerie realization that brings the dapper gent’s true identity into question.
Out of this Dimension (Star Fox)
This side quest is unique from the others on this list, in the sense that it requires a serious level of commitment that potentially jeopardizes the lives of everyone in the Lylat galaxy. To access it, players will have to pelt a particularly large asteroid with laser fire until a gigantic bird emerges from it. Crashing your ship into this bird will warp you directly to Out of this Dimension, which sounds a lot like a space-themed Pizza Hut promotion.
Here, you will be taken to Fox McCloud’s worst fever dream: a bizarre expanse of space with paper airplanes and asteroids brandishing perverted grins. The wicked boss of this cursed land is a giant slot machine, and it is defeated when it yields three 7s. Your victory will be celebrated with a shower of useless coins, and the credits will begin to roll. From there, you can shoot the jumbled letters onscreen until they spell out THE END, and… that’s it. That’s the fate of the Star Fox team.
The fact that you can only free yourself from this endless torment is by turning off the console, plus General Pepper’s final desperate message – “Come in, Arwings!! Fox, where are you?!! We need you to protect Corneria!!” – make this a harrowing alternate ending. Nobody left to stop the tyrannical advances of the Venom army, and an eternity spent in a vacuum of space with Slippy Toad. Tragic.
Risk Assessment (Grand Theft Auto V)
In case you couldn’t tell by now, often the bizarre side quests are the most fun. This particular one sees Franklin approached by a dog that barks a distress message to him. Franklin is inexplicably able to understand everything the pooch is telling him, and follows after to assist a man who is stuck in a tree. The two will have an amusing conversation en route before arriving at the scene: where a parachutist named Dom has gotten tangled during his landing. Franklin praises the dog (who has mysteriously disappeared in a fashion not dissimilar to the strange man from Red Dead Redemption) and frees the adrenaline junkie from the branches.
Dom goads Franklin into trying it out for himself, and before you know it, you’re plummeting from an airplane towards the earth. If you manage to successfully arrive at the landing zone with all limbs intact, you’ll then have to jump on a bike and race Dom down the mountain. It’s obviously not your conventional GTA mission, and when you’re finished, you’ll be praising the safety of the ground. The best way to celebrate is probably by going to a strip club and killing some hookers. In-game, of course.
A Towerful of Mice (The Witcher 3)
The lore in The Witcher’s side quests sometimes surpasses that of other games’ main storylines, and this is particularly apparent in A Towerful of Mice from the third entry in the series. Assigned with a mission to rid a cursed tower of its ghouls, Geralt learns of the dreadful fate that had befallen its denizens. Evidently it was once the opulent abode of Lord Vserad, and his life of excess angered the gods. A plague of mice swarmed the building, devouring everything and everyone within it. Obviously nobody’s favorite way to go, and as a result, tormented ghosts now roam the halls.
Among them is Anabelle, Lord Vserad’s daughter, who wishes to be reunited with her lover, a fisherman named Graham. Geralt is an old softie at heart, and decides to bring the two together in an effort to lift the curse once and for all. To do this, you can either take Graham to her directly – her ghastly true form as a plague maiden not deterring him from giving her one last smooch, killing him and ending her suffering – or take her remains off the island for a proper burial. Alas, option two is a definite no no, as it leads to her freely spreading death across the lands. You’d probably want a mulligan on that one.
Bombers’ Notebook (The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask)
Alright, we’re cheating a little on this one. The Bombers’ Notebook in fact encapsulates a wide range of quests in Majora’s Mask, some of which yield crucial items and must be completed in order to progress. However, for the most part, it’s your little log of the daily activities for the people of Termina. There is something neat about having learned the whole story of a certain character, going back in time to right their issues, and being rewarded with the little stamp that declares their problems solved. In the same way, it’s rather melancholic, because you’re well aware that once you reset the three-day time limit again, you’re going right back to the start, only a heart piece richer for your efforts.
If you want something more specific, the Anju and Kafei lover’s quest is one of the most robust in the Zelda franchise, which is saying something considering the games’ storied history. In it, the innkeeper’s fiancé has gone missing, and you must follow a series of letters from a mysterious youth to work out what’s going on. It requires a lot of trial and error (or an online guide, if you’re a filthy casual), and if you miss just one event, the whole quest is failed, and you’ll have to start over again from day one.
The NPCs in Majora’s Mask felt more alive than in other games – ironic when you juxtapose it against the impending doom that threatens to destroy them all.
Ruby/Emerald Weapon (Final Fantasy VII)
There’s a whole eco struggle going on in Final Fantasy VII between the greedy Shinra corporation and the very planet, and poor old Cloud and his chums find themselves embroiled right in the middle of it. In order to fend off destruction, the Weapons are dispatched, a collection of horrifying monsters that have no desire whatsoever to be your friend. You’ll go toe to toe with many of them, and none of them are a cakewalk by any means, but Squaresoft also decided to chuck in a couple of bonus beasties for the international releases of the game.
The Ruby Weapon can be found playing in the sand of the Corel Desert, while the Emerald Weapon lurks somewhere at the bottom of the sea. Needless to say, bothering them before you’re completely ready is bound to end in tears. The Ruby Weapon has long tentacles that it uses to stab its targets in the bottom, as well as a tendency to knock your allies out of the battle. Meanwhile, the Emerald Weapon has to be taken out in twenty minutes before you drown, which is a very short time to destroy a superboss, but also a rather impressive period of time in which to hold one’s breath.
Loaded with HP and capable of wiping out the entire party in one fell swoop, both of these fearsome creatures will prove to be the ultimate test of skill, patience and endurance. Those who successfully defeat them will no doubt feel a great deal of pride, for they have successfully slaughtered the planet’s only natural defense system. …Dilly dilly!