With each passing year, the video game protagonists that we embody on a daily basis become more and more varied. 2017 alone has given us Nier Automata‘s 2B, an alluring android from the future that wields swords, Arms‘ Master Mummy, a bandage-covered Egyptian with spring-like arms that competes in sporting events, and Snakepass‘ Noodle, a snake. But no matter how much our video game characters continue to evolve and diversify, almost all of them remain tied together by an underlying trait: their love of collecting money. Whether it be coins, gold, gil or gems, video game characters are, and will always be (bar an unexpected takeover by North Korea) just as addicted to making a buck as we are.
But not all video game currencies are created equal. While most games force us to collect the same green felt that we thoughtlessly hand away to buy the latest chalupa, some games go beyond the confines of our wrinkly rectangles, and offering far greater currencies. Currencies that not just money, but something between art and wealth, something that would enable any manic-depressive economist to instantly achieve enlightenment if he could reach out and touch them.
And so, let’s take a moment to honor the best video game currencies conceived within the digital medium, the ones that celibate gamers living in their mothers’ basements should be proud to draw erotic fan-art of.
Munny (from the Kingdom Hearts series)
Right off the bat, the Kingdom Hearts series’ currency is cute. Even without ever interacting with it, its clever misspelling of “money” (a reference to Winnie the Pooh’s treasured “hunny”) conjures an image of a currency that isn’t afraid to have a bit of fun. And boy, does it ever: upon being touched, munny swirls in a fantastical whirlwind, gradually fading into the player as it is collected. Through various upgrades acquired throughout the game, the player can even increase the range at which they collect munny, allowing them to vacuum up cash without so much as touching it! While the Kingdom Hearts series is perhaps most well known for its complex, histrionic plot-lines and melodramatic dialogue between chirpy Disney characters and angsty Final Fantasy characters, munny successfully taps into the carefree whimsy found in both franchises.
Hearts (From the Castlevania series)
Castlevania is not the only video game series to use hearts as a currency, but it is the sole one whose dark atmosphere matches said hearts’ macabre nature. Because the hearts collected in Castlevania aren’t benign little cardboard cutouts – they’re real, beating human hearts, represented by the more child-friendly ideograph since the series’ NES days so as to avoid blowback from Nintendo and their then puritanical approach to content curation on their consoles1.
But the hearts’ grossness is not merely superficial. Every time a descendant of the Belmont family acquires a new heart to fuel their weapons or recover their health, they rashly hold within their hand the bleeding muscle that once kept a fellow human alive. Rather than sugar-coat its depiction of currency, Castlevania instead reminds us of how the wealth our society lives on today was built out of the very literal blood of the generations before us – and how we thoughtlessly go about our lives without giving this fact so much as a second thought.
It’s also very Metal.
1I know this because my uncle worked at Nintendo.
Beanbean Coins (From Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga)
Everybody is familiar with the coins the Mario brothers endlessly collect in their titular games – but what about Beanbean coins? In Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga for the GameBoy Advance, Mario and Luigi leave the Mushroom kingdom for the wayward Beanbean kingdom in search of Crackletta, a malicious sorceress bent on world domination. Upon arriving there, however, they discover something even more powerful than their magical adversary: the value of Beanbean kingdom coins versus Mushroom kingdom coins. Ever-fluctuating, but always far greater than their native currency, Mario and Luigi find themselves stupefied time and time again at the economic prowess of the Beanbean kingdom. In one scene, the brothers gleefully accept 99,999,999,999,999 mushroom kingdom coins from the kingdom’s prince – only to discover that their haul is worth a mere 99 Beanbean coins. That’s an exchange rate of 1,010,101,010,101:1!
As it would happen, the Mario Brothers are set to find themselves in the Beanbean kingdom once again, in this year’s Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser’s Minions, an enhanced remake of the original game for the 3DS. They’d be wise to stock up on as many Beanbean coins while they’re there.
Souls (From the Dark Souls series)
The lone traveler walked, slowly, cautiously, towards the bonfire. The tepidness of his footsteps spoke of a hundred enemy encounters gone awry, a thousand parries that missed, a million instances in which the souls that he had so preciously harvested after hours upon hours of work were sentenced to oblivion after meeting the blunt edge of some foul monstrosity’s club.
But this time was different. After innumerable battles, the traveler had overcome all his adversaries on the path to the next bonfire, the promised spot in which he would finally be able to invest his hard-earned points into boosting his attributes. You know, the traveled reflected, as laborious as this journey has been thus far, I feel as if I have a true appreciation for the currency of this world now. Truly, these souls are not just a means to acquiring new powers and items, but the very lifeblood of this dying world, the driving force that has kept me and the rest of the undead from ceasing to exist. If the heart is what keeps humans alive, then it is the soul that keeps them moving – even after death.
Suddenly, the traveler found himself frozen in place. He barely had a moment to panic before an almost entirely naked warrior wearing a ludicrous hat smashed his back once, twice, instantaneously draining the traveler of his vitality. The traveler crumpled to the floor, as the deprived individual that killed him did a humorous (and admittedly, rather idiosyncratic) gesture over his dissolving body.
Cookies (From Cookie Clicker)
The cookies in Cookie Clicker are, put simply, the ultimate realization of video game currency. Whereas Dark Souls and Mario are are content with making their respective currencies an integral, yet not all-encompassing aspect of their experiences, the cookies in Cookie Clicker are Cookie Clicker. What is the goal of the game? To make cookies. How do you do so? You click on a cookie, or purchase buildings to make cookies for you. What do you do when you don’t need a certain building anymore? You sell it for cookies. You can also buy upgrades that allow you to acquire more cookies, have seasons that you can switch to that allow you to produce more cookies. And milk, which you earn by completing various cookie-related achievements, and allows you to get even more cookies.
Everything that you do in cookie clicker feeds into making more cookies, whether directly or indirectly. Even if you choose to give up all the cookies you’ve earned and start fresh, you can use the amount of cookies you baked during your previous playthrough to earn cookies more quickly on subsequent ones. Cookie Clicker envisions a universe in which currency is not an intermediary between work and reward, but is both work and reward. A world in which everything exists in perfect harmony, in worship of the cookie.
Now if you’ll excuse, I’m off to try and LARP Cookie Clicker in real life. I only have one grandma, a small corner in my backyard where I could theoretically grow cookie seeds, and a bank account – but if Cookie Clicker has taught me anything, it’s that I’ll be able to dominate the world if just wait and sit long enough.