[Game Developer magazine editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield looks at the titles in 2011 that didn't get the critical or commercial success they warranted.]
Every year, a few games slip through the cracks. Well, more than a few, let's be honest - but a few of them really didn't deserve it. Whether they didn't meet sales expectations, came out at the wrong time, or the critics didn't particularly care for them (or both), these games got the short shrift in spite of some major positive factors.
While there are assuredly more games out there from 2011 that deserve a second look, this is my list of games I very much hope will eventually reach the audience they deserve. (Note that this list is different from the top cult games, which will come later in the week.)
Tom Clancy fans were disappointed to learn it wasn't a shooter. Strategy game fans were disappointed to learn it wasn't extremely hardcore. But X-COM creator Julian Gollop has created something lovely in Shadow Wars. The game successfully takes the thrill of a video game gunfight and molds it into a strategic, turn-based battle.
Any turn-based fan would find something to love here, even if the story is trite, and visual uninspiring. The core of the game, which encourages cooperation and clever tactics in your virtual squad, while also allowing for RPG-like skill progression is solid enough that several of us at Gamasutra called this game our favorite of the 3DS U.S. launch. But therein lied the problem -- the game came out too early, before U.S. consumers were sold on the idea of a new Nintendo handheld.
The game wound up performing below sales and critical expectations, but its clever tactics scenarios, hours of unlockable gameplay, and good old fashioned PC-style tactics make it worth a shot for any fan of the genre.
4. BloodyCheckers (Microsoft XBLIG - Killroyfx)
BloodyCheckers is a first-person dungeon (well, castle) crawler, with creepy ambient music, harsh mechanics, and a complicated, cavernous environment. And in order to gain experience, money, and keys to different parts of the castle, players must fight against portraits of dead castle residents -- in checkers of course. As you're playing, your lobby can fill up with real opponents to play against over the network. Place traps along the checkerboard to gain money, lob axes and spears at your enemies, and when you defeat them, smash your glasses against the screen.
In a way, BloodyCheckers is a posterchild for everything that's good and bad about the Xbox Live Indie Games marketplace. On the plus side, XBLIG allows people to create games that -- frankly -- are coming very far out from left field, and release them on console. On the negative, in spite of the positive press the game has gotten, very few people still know about it, since the XBLIG discovery experience is so poor.
Developer Killroyfx continues to update the game with free content, adding new twists and turns to this already full game experience that only costs 80 Microsoft points. There's no reason this game shouldn't be a success.
3. Bejeweled 3 (Multiplatform - Popcap)
You may think this an odd choice, but hear me out. Sure Bejeweled 3 is a big game, with a big budget. And people bought it, to be sure. But I think this game deserves another look from critics and fans. Many, if not most reviews of the game said it was nothing more than "just" another decent version of Bejeweled. But there is so much love in this game, and you can feel the history of the PC game industry pulsing through its veins. Listen to some of the music, for example. Listen to the crazy Mortal Kombat-style voices.
This video shows not only the odd voice choices but how very hardcore the game can be in terms of pace of play, and tactics. Meanwhile, the effects and explosions should please the most hardcore of fans. All this is wrapped up in a "casual" package that anyone's mom or dad could play with ease. Several new modes take the "match three" concept and put them in interesting new scenarios, all of which makes for a game that is much more than the sum of its parts. The game is just so generous -- it keeps giving to those who want to look. As an example, demoscener, Secret Exit programmer, and Stair Dismount creator Jetro Lauha told me he extracted the music from Bejeweled 3, only to find that it was saved as an 0.8 MB .mo3 file - a throwback to the demoscene days, which extracts to 80 MB of 160kbps mp3s.
(Note: Bejeweled 3 on PC came out in December 2010, after our lists last year were finished. The grand majority of Bejeweled 3 versions came out in 2011.)
2. Monster Tale (Nintendo DS - Dreamrift, Majesco)
For me, Monster Tale was my biggest surprise of 2011. I just bought it because it had nice pixel art, truth be told -- but once I actually played the thing, I realized it was extremely clever. It's an action-based platformer/brawler on the top screen, and a monster companion raising sim on the bottom. It's truly the first game in which I've really cared about what was happening on both the top and bottom screens at the same time, especially without being frustrated. As you raise your monster, it evolves into new forms, which can help you in battle, and complete certain puzzles for you.
Monster Tale has its issues, but the deep skill tree for your monster friend, the combo-heavy combat, and the charming visuals pull you through. Plus there's that lovely score from Ian Stocker. Here's hoping Dreamrift can refine this system even further in a future title. This one slipped under most people's radars, but is certainly worth a look.
Rayman Origins is a game I never thought would exist. It's a huge, robust, gorgeous high res 2D platformer, with as much love put into the animation as any Disney classic. Playing the game co-op had two grown men literally giggling, constantly, between cries of "jesus christ!" regarding how one amazing technique or another was being used. The game is pure 2D joy, and looks and plays the way we remember the 16 bit era in our childhood minds. It's simply gorgeous, and so full of a creator's love.
That designer Michel Ancel managed to push this through development is a testament to his importance in the company, and Ubisoft's willingness to make a game for the art of it. With its budget, and insane amount of content and assets, there's no way it would be anything but a $60 retail title. But that was also the title's undoing. In an era where every 2D game is downloadable, the game couldn't manage to move more than 50,000 units in its first month on the NPD charts. But this gorgeous tribute to 2D games is likely the last we're getting of this level of polish, so is absolutely worth your time.