Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories (the GBA version). A lot of people instantly wrote it off as a portable tie-in/side story which it kinda sorta was except that it wasn’t. Ignoring how actually vital it was to understanding the plot/direction the series was taking (which a lot of people understandably weren’t a fan of (if they were even fans of the series to begin with hahaha)), I always felt it had hands down the most interesting gameplay of the entire series.
Sure, an active time card battle system sounds insane on paper, but in practice it… was still kind of insane, yet there was a method to the madness. Instead of just mashing the attack button while occasionally dodging and/or casting some magic, you had to put a lot of thought into how you approached each battle, especially the boss fights later in the game (to clarify, I love character action, Wonderful 101 is probably one of my favorite games of all time, I just like when there’s a bit more style and panache behind the input/output (though I also fully support those games having easier/auto combat modes cause to each their own and also accessibility (which makes it really weird when you think about the type of person who tends to rag on that kind of thing often also championing PlatinumGames when PlatinumGames seems almost obsessively dedicated to making sure their titles have numerous accessibility settings. Sorry that was a long tangent))).
Combat was this really interesting mix of twitchy dodging and placement (think side scrolling 2D beat-em up but in a closed room) on top of resource management. In Chain of Memories all actions during combat that weren’t movement based (running, jumping, dodging) were performed by using a card from your deck. Cards came in three types, red for attacks, blue for magic, green for items, with each card having a value from 0-9 (1 being the weakest, 0 the highest). In the menu you selected and arranged your decks with your limited point budget that you could increase over time when you leveled up, stronger cards costing more points etc. Arrangement was key to your strategy and playstyle. In combat using a card temporarily burns it until you recharge your deck like a DBZ character going Super Saiyan (except for items which were one time use per encounter if I remember correctly). If two cards are played at the same time (enemies are limited to using cards to perform actions as well) the higher number wins, countering the lower numbered card while burning both. On top of all this you could combine 3 cards to create a much higher value combo/special attack, the catch being that the highest numbered card in said combo is permanently burned for the rest of the encounter.
Now I know all of that sounds mind numbing when written down and probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea in execution either, but it was such a uniquely left field approach to combat, even beyond the sheer novelty of how weird it was. Figuring out the best deck order, the risk/reward of permaburning my best cards to stop a fullscreen attack because I was one hit away from death, having to stop moving so I could recharge my deck cause I had burned all my cards, I’d never felt a tension like that before. It was so much more than just hitting the attack button.
And the story (spoilers imminent). I was probably just 10 years old and it was the first time a game had just straight up lied to me, but along with the disconnect offered by the GBA visuals compared to the PS2 game that preceded it, it had this very surreal dream like quality to it’s storytelling as it quite literally attempts to rewrite your memories of the first game. I legitimately started to question what I remembered of my time with Kingdom Hearts 1. Naminé’s character self-inserting into the canon of the previous entry of what was then the worlds highest budget crossover fanfic at a time in my life when I myself had been coming up with stories where I would self-insert along characters I wish I had been able to go on adventures with instead of being alone in a room left to my own (or I guess more appropriately, someone else’s) imagination… It was an experience to say the least.