3. Mario (Mario 64)
Mario wasn't always the space-traveling acrobat we know today. His first appearance in Donkey Kong was less than stellar: he couldn't survive a fall from one platform to the one directly below. By the NES and SNES eras, he was given special items that allowed him to utilize a number of new skills. But like a bloated athlete on steroids, Mario was pretty unimpressive without his power-ups.
Enter Mario 64, and everyone's favorite plumber is flipping around like an Olympic athlete (actually BECOMING an Olympic athlete would happen a few years later). The simple hops that had saved Mario from falling into pits were now complicated double backflips and wall kicks. A dozen sports games and a water jetpack later, Mario can now literally fly through space. Remember that time he had a raccoon tail? Good times.
2. Solid Snake (Metal Gear Solid: Twin Snakes)
Considering how great a spy Solid Snake is, his martial arts abilities leave a lot to be desired. Snake fights like he trained under a Tae-Bo video. His one strategy is to repeat the same "punch, punch, kick" combo over and over again until someone wanders into his deadly cardio-zone, or until the guards decide to abandon their posts and join him in a new life full of confidence-boosting workouts.
So when Snake runs into a cybernetic ninja partway through the game, and the two commit to a one-on-one martial arts duel, our expectations aren't too high. Sure enough, it's just the same punch, punch, kick combo repeated ad nauseum, only this time a bondage-suited ninjabot occasionally cartwheels into one of Snake's fists. But the second we switch over to a cutscene, suddenly Snake discovers his inner tiger spirit and becomes a hate-powered karate engine on a mission to destroy all spines. He tosses the bad ninja man around like a rag doll, proving once and for all that games only get better once you take players out of the equation.
1. Zack Fair (Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII) (Warning: Spoilers)
Late in Final Fantasy VII, it was revealed that Cloud had fabricated his entire back story based on the adventures of actual SOLDIER first class, Zack Fair. Though he's essential to the storyline, we see very little of Zack in-game. The most you get is a short cutscene of his death, where it's revealed that he was killed by two generic Shinra soldiers. The same soldiers you were killing by the dozen as a level 7 weakling. Pathetic!
But the fans demanded a prequel to their beloved FFVII and Square was going to have to re-write history. After all, they didn't want to make a game starring a protagonist that couldn't fight off the equivalent of two Stormtroopers. And they went a bit overboard. Those two regular soldiers that took him out the first time? They were replaced by the ENTIRE Shinra Army and were still barely able to take him down. Even after Zack finally loses, he's still got enough strength to give Cloud an inspiring speech. That's right, Zack was shot hundreds of times and was so tough that he put death on hold while he said his goodbyes. What.