The first hero on our list is also the oldest one. He's also arguably the character to receive the most dramatic overhaul not just in this article, but in games period. That's because he's William "B.J." Blazkowicz -- the hero of Wolfenstein 3D, and its many sequels.
Anyone that's played Wolfenstein 3D will know that B.J. isn't really a character at all. At least he wasn't back then. In the tradition of other 2D/3D shooter heroes from the early 90s, B.J. was a glorified health bar. Like his more famous cousin, "Doomguy," young William's bloody face would tell you how many bullets, or supernatural projectiles he'd eaten in the course of a level.
Except in Will's case, the damage was inflicted by Nazis instead of demons. It's a minor distinction, but a notable one. Despite B.J. fighting fictionalized, mystical armies of the Third Reich, he was still fighting a force out of actual history. That hasn't been lost on the character's stewards, either.
As games and their writers have grown up, so has B.J., as strange as that might sound. In recent years they've leaned heavier, and heavier into Blazkowicz's struggle. His original creators have even gone back and given him a back story -- one which reveals his Jewish ancestry, and shines a different light on the long tradition of Nazi blastin' in video games.
It wasn't until very recently, however, that B.J. got his most serious overhaul. 2014's Wolfenstein: The New Order shunted B.J. several decades into the future. A piece of shrapnel in his head took him out of commission for most of World War II, during which his pulpy nemeses took over the world. He's literally powerless to do anything about it, even as he has to watch from his catatonic perch.
Despite sporting robot dogs, and moon bases, The New Order takes its setup pretty seriously. The worldwide Nazi regime is treated with terrible gravity. Meanwhile, B.J. is forced to cope with the world that he wasn't around to change. Rather than taking it in stride, like your average video game hero, he develops relationships with those similarly damaged by the war of hate. All of which culminates in his supposed self-sacrifice to save a person he comes to love by the end of the game.
It says a lot about Augustus Cole that he's best-known for a couple of memes. It's not entirely his fault. Nobody has ever accused the Gears of War games of having the best writing in video games. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who'd accuse those games of having finished scripts.
Yet there's something about The Cole Train (he who runs on "whole grain") that's more endearing than Gears of Wars' other meathead protagonists. It's likely because, while the rest of the cast is perpetually pretending that they exist inside a more serious game, Cole just kind of rolls with it. Like... A train rolls on... Tracks? Never mind.
Dom is as dour as it gets, with his melodramatic arc existing to lend an air of tragedy to the series. Marcus just seems completely oblivious to his family's obvious connections to the world. Baird... Baird is just a snarky jerk. Cole, on the other hand, enjoys himself throughout the first three Gears games.
He shouts, yells, screams, hoots, and hollers his way through enemy encounters that are ostensibly supposed to be fun for the player. When faced with the leader of the inhuman menace that threatens his world, he makes jokes at their expense. He's having as much fun as the people playing him are supposed to be.
What's more, it kind of fits with his character. In the very first Gears of War we already know that Augustus was a famous Thrashball (i.e. space football) player. In Gears of War 3, and some side material, we learn that he and his fellow players were forced to play as "moral support." In the early days of the war he would eventually fight in, Cole's job was literally to pump people up.
He enjoyed it, too. Or at the very least he was doing something that he already loved. Gears 3 gives us an actual peek into Cole's psyche. He has a nostalgic flashback to playing Thrashball... Which manifests as an hallucination of him rolling down the field, juking the opposing team -- when he's in fact killing subterranean lizard men.
Still, it shows that he misses the life of fame, and testing his own skill that's been taken away by the otherwise underdeveloped conflict in his world.