The first time I saw, or at least remembered, a dog being integral to the game I was playing was in the American-made Square RPG Secret of Evermore. At the time, it got grief for not being exactly like Secret of Mana, but now has a cult-like status among people my age.
As a kid who looked forward to her Nintendo Power and definitely doesn't have them sitting in a box 12 feet from her as of writing, seeing this shapeshifting dog, which is only called "The Dog," was enough to ask my parents to let me rent the game. Secret of Evermore's nameless Dog is your more than just your cute companion partner and has to do some heavy lifting beyond being just a sprite that follows you around. His appearance changes as he is able to shapeshift depending on what part of Evermore you're in.
While he is a secondary playable character in combat, and he is limited with what you can equip and cannot use a weapon, he is faster overall; since the game employs the use of alchemy when used by him, you can destroy bosses since he does eight times the amount of damage than his owner. Control of him is limited outside of battle and preset reactions to advance the story but you can do a lot with Dog if you think outside the box and control him in ways that trigger reactions, like limiting his area to wander for better targeting. One common theme in games that use dogs as playable characters is to play off the dog's powerful sense of smell, and in this case, it can be used to sniff out alchemy ingredients. This is a game that has mostly been lost to time, but is worth checking out knowing it was made by Square's western office and was never released in Japan.
Pre-dating Secret of Evermore is Illusion of Gaia (an RPG made by Enix, prior to the Square-Enix merger), featuring our beloved friend Turbo. Turbo has already been featured in no less than four games (three games in the Soul Blazer trilogy) as a nod from Quintet (the development team).
Turbo exists in Soul Blazer as Dr. Leo's dog, Terranigma as a dog you follow around in the ruins of Louran, and Robotrek (the least known game set in the Soul Blazer universe, and not considered to be in the trilogy itself) as a name given to an NPC's dog. This homages exemplify a fun development team who play with their own creations. I should also mention that this team is the same one behind ActRaiser, which itself received a multi-platform release in the form of ActRaiser Renaissance in September 2021. Here's hoping the Soul Blazer trilogy receives the same treatment eventually.
And how could we forget Pascal? Our demon dog is featured in the first three Shin Megami Tensei games and is arguably the key protagonist. His name is derived from the "Pascal" programming language that originated in the early '70s (which itself is a homage to the French scientist Blaise Pascal).
Pascal starts life as a cute, domesticated pet pup whose origin story of going full demon mode begins after his owner's mother is slain. Pascal is then able to join your party and use the ability to fuse with other demons to become a much more powerful version of himself, known as Cerberus, an obvious nod to Greek mythology. Pascal plays a varied role in the SMT games. He has an effect on the storyline itself, and, as mentioned above, can participate in the fusion mechanic. His appearance and stats are actually different based on the platform you're playing. And while I've only seen footage of it, the Sega CD version arguably looks better than the others (and, in general, has a more interesting art design).
Then there's Boney from Mother 3 (known as EarthBound in the west, although Mother 3 has never officially been translated into English). Boney has some limitations in terms of what he can actually do (much like Dog from Evermore), but he is faster and much like Dog and Pascal, is first to strike in battle. The developers also gave him a "sniff" ability to gauge enemy weaknesses rather than for typical tracking purposes. Boney plays a central role in the story as depicted in the introduction. He also makes a cameo appearance with Lucas in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate as part of Lucas' Final Smash move.
Let's veer away from SNES-era RPG territory for a moment and take a look at Rush from Mega Man. Rush debuts in the series' third instalment as Mega Man's companion, where he is capable of 'fusing' with Mega Man and also searching for items. He has been a franchise staple for some 32 years, which speaks to his loyalty and his status as a fan favorite.
Rush also makes an appearance in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U as a move assist (and, in general, he seems quite happy to follow his master around from game-to-game). There's even an in-joke between him and fellow canine hero Fox McCloud, which is pretty cute.
Finally, we come to Amaterasu from Ōkami (she's technically a wolf, but as a canine she's still dog-adjacent). Unlike the other examples here, Amaterasu is the main playable protagonist. She's also a Shinto goddess in canine form, inspired by Japanese mythology. A great deal of care and thought went into her design, which is evident as you play through the game. She is beautifully depicted using cel-shaded animation that looks remarkably similar to Japanese water color paintings and traditional calligraphy. If I were to write about everything Amaterasu can do in the game, I'd be writing an entire guide for Ōkami itself (suffice it to say that she moves fluidly, and possesses a wide range of abilities).
The topic of dogs in video games is a huge one; I've only scratched the surface here. I've always appreciated the way developers include dogs in games, especially with the examples here, where the dogs are more than just typical NPCs or lazy companions. Of course, games like Star Fox and PaRappa the Rapper feature dogs as the playable main character (like Ōkami).
Why the fascination with dogs? My primary profession is working with them. My very first dog, Dante, was named in homage to the main protagonist in Devil May Cry, a game I loved. My Dante is not physically here anymore; hopefully he's kicking it in the cosmos with these fictional dogs and his equally nerdily-named brother Sagan. If I somehow ended up in game dev country, I'd want him memorialized as a trusty in-game companion.
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