[Continuing Gamasutra's 2009 retrospective, Brandon Sheffield examines our top 10 Overlooked Games of 2009. Previously: Top 5 Biz Trends, Top 5 iPhone Games, Top 5 Controversies, Top 5 PC Games, Top 5 Handheld Games Of 2009, and Top 5 Major Industry Events.]
This was a tough one. Usually I'd come up with a list like this with a snap of my fingers, but the changing face of journalism, coupled with better PR and more avenues of release meant that most games that deserved recognition got it.
Who would imagine that I’d be living in a world where Demon’s Souls
was one of the most talked-about games of the year, at least in games journalism? With sales to boot?
But not everything decent made it through the cracks. Here, we present 10 titles that deserved more recognition than they got (I avoided indies, as choosing just a few to add to a list of 10 would’ve been completely unfair to all the rest).
These include some titles from larger publishers that should’ve known better – and niche publishers that should’ve known better to boot. Special thanks to Chris Remo, Kris Graft, and Leigh Alexander for suggestions:
(Javaground - iPhone)
is a hex-based strategy game for iPhone that didn’t get nearly enough play. While Hudson was providing inferior ports of Military Madness
to XBLA (and a decent port to Android), UniWar
took the tried-and-true formula to the next state, with simple tweaks and clever unit pairings.
This was one of my favorite iPhone games of the year – it wasn’t amazing, but it provided a solid tactics experience in a year where that was really difficult to find on a handheld. Unfortunately it didn’t really get picked up by the masses.
9. House of the Dead: Overkill
(Headstrong Games/Sega - Wii)
With more swearing than an American porno, HotD: Overkill
rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. Its over-the-top exploitation film love, married with the classic light gun gameplay was too much for some people. But it was not too much for Gamasutra’s Kris Graft, who loved this game to pieces and put this on our list.
I do welcome the return of the light gun genre, and Headstrong did an excellent job of recognizing what was good about the genre from a gameplay perspective. Shame the “hardcore” Wii userbase doesn’t really seem to dig the old lightgun thing.
8. Raiden Fighters Aces (Seibu Kaihatsu/Gulti/Valcon – Xbox 360)
This was one of my personal surprises of the year. With Raiden
, you pretty much figure you know what you’re getting, and to some extent I did. But there was so much more there under the surface. Raiden Fighters Aces
got me to fall in love with scores again, through its perfect implementation of arcade fun. Big explosions, chunky pixely graphics, and ridiculously responsive controls, it’s the best I could hope from a shooter, in this day and age, or any previous.
I found myself going back to attempt single credit playthroughs, because the game essentially teaches you itself. Far from the bullet-hell shooters of the current era, RFA
winds up being more accessible and more inclusive than even modern indie shooting games. Well worth a spin, especially given the value price in the West.
7. Alive4Ever (Meridian - iPhone)
Chinese developer Meridian hit it out of the park with Alive4Ever
, but it was understandably somewhat glossed over. It’s one of many twinstick Smash TV
-style shooting games on the iPhone, so is easily dismissed. But the responsive controls, and more importantly the different missions - from rescuing survivors, to defeating enemies in specific ways, to harvesting gold - kept the missions fresh.
The game is plain fun, and when you layer on a level system with various upgradable weapons, accessories, and attributes, you’ve got a game that really caters to the “just one more” voice in all of us.
6. The King of Fighters 98 Ultimate Match (SNK Playmore – Xbox Live Arcade)
This is another one that I totally understand people skipping over. The fighting genre is niche to begin with, and SNK releases so many KOF
variants and ports that nobody but the hardest of the hardcore can keep up. But KOF 98 UM
is a rebalanced version of the most popular KOF
ever, with new characters to boot.
The game feels more kinetic and more explosive than ever, and the balances really help make the game work much better in versus mode. But in the shadow of the arguably regressive KOF 12
, 98 UM
really didn’t get the chance to shine. If you like fighting games and have ever wondered what KOF
was all about, this is the game to start with. It showcases almost everything that is good about the series.
5. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (Climax/Konami – Wii)
The Silent Hill
series has taken some serious knocks, after the third. Most recently development shifted to the West, and for better or for worse, it seems here to stay. Double Helix
dropped the ball on Homecoming
, and Climax’s Origins
didn’t fare much better – but the latter developer got a second chance with Shattered Memories
, a reimagining of the original, and it works quite well. Though it doesn’t have the scares of the PSX game, it does have thoughtful puzzling and a very well developed UI.
I’ve argued about this with the developers in person, but the blue iced environments just don’t have the scare factor of the original rust-colored chainlinked worlds of Silent Hill
for PlayStation – but the newest entry is the best Silent Hill
in years, and it seems most have written off the series entirely at this point.
is worth a shot for fans of the adventure genre more than the survival horror genre. Fans and critics alike will discount the game based on the downturn in the legacy - but if you can get past the arguable lack of horror, you’ll have a nice game experience on your hands.
4. Kenka Bancho: Badass Rumble (Spike/Atlus – PSP)
Here’s a protip if you want to get on the overlooked list – release a good, but very niche handheld game for $40. That will assure almost nobody will play it in spite of its quality, as is the case with Kenka Bancho: Badass Rumble
, the third in Spike’s awesomely irreverent look at the world of highschool delinquents, released for $10 too much by Atlus in the U.S. (and not at all in Europe, so far).
This third person action game has you starring as an ambitious young gangster (bancho) who lacks street cred. As you progress, you use your eye beams to stare down other gangsters, (unfortunately staring at peoples’ butts and crotches has been severely de-emphasized in this, the third entry in the series. It was rather hilarious.)
Crouch on the ground like a hooligan to regain your power, and engage in smack talking battles to raise in ranks and achieve dominance without fighting (of course, you do wind up fighting an awful lot). The ridiculous humor, fun action, and B-level nature of this game would have you singing this game’s praises to your pals – if only it weren’t priced out of most people’s “sure, I’ll try that” range.
3. Little King’s Story (Cing/Marvelous/XSEED – Wii)
There have been many theories as to why this game didn’t get the popular reception it should have, in spite of overwhelming critical approval. Marvelous blames its own lack of brand appeal. The development lead, producer Yoshiro Kimura worries
that the game might appear too kiddy for more sophisticated audiences. But the fact is, this bizarre Pikmin
-like game had way more to offer than most people realized.
It came from the mind of the creator of Chulip
(Kimura), a game in which you must kiss people of all genders in order to make the world a happier place. In Little King’s Story
, you play as an unintentional king who must unite the land, in an increasingly bizarre adventure full of game and culture references, both obvious and obscure, which charmed the pants off of journalists, but they got it for free.
Those who had to pay kept their pants firmly affixed to their belts, and didn’t shell out for the title. Which is a shame, because if any third party Wii game was trying to make something to fit the core audience while pleasing the casual, this was it.
2. The Saboteur (Pandemic/EA – 360/PS3/PC)
It sure feels odd to put an EA game on the overlooked list, but here I go. This is the final release from a whole Pandemic Studios, and in my opinion, their best game. I’ll admit to not being a huge fan of the studio’s last work, but this one hits the right chords. It’s a GTA
-like in which you throw Nazis to their doom (that’s fun), while liberating Paris (well, Paris is awesome), and driving sports cars and running around on rooftops (I’ll admit, I have a mild videogame rooftop fetish).
, and Assassin’s Creed
before it, The Saboteur
features parkour as a main method of getting around (it’s admittedly the worst of the bunch at it – still fun though), and uses the player’s abilities to get into some interesting situations. One of my favorite aspects is sneaking, in which you can sucker punch, garrote, or otherwise stealthily disable a Nazi and then steal their clothes to blend in and engage in subterfuge. Throwing a Nazi off a building, stealing his clothes, then blowing up his sniper roost has a certain kind of satisfaction associated with it.
The icing on the cake though, is the Will to Fight mechanic. The world of The Saboteur
is black and white when controlled by the Nazi, and in color in areas where the French resistance is strong. This works surprisingly well – in the black and white areas, the main color you can see is the red of Nazi insignia – on armbands, on buildings, and on every Nazi target you can blow up with dynamite (you do a lot of this).
This not only shows you an easy list of targets, it actually feels oppressive. There are enemies everywhere, and in fact they’re the most visible thing in the environment. The environment changes back to color in real time as you destroy more Nazi installations – it’s subtle, but for me the mechanic really works.
If only the tone of the game had been more serious they could’ve really had something there. But still, the game is good, I’m still playing at 12 hours in, and it got neither the recognition nor the marketing budget it deserved. It’s not perfect by any stretch, and it does have some dastardly design choices at times, but it’s most definitely overlooked for its quality. And a fitting final effort from a studio that exists now in name only.
1. Cryostasis (Action Forms Ltd./Aspyr/505 Games/Zoo Corp. – PC)
Ukrainian developer Action Forms Ltd. has released good games before - Chasm
was well received, and the company’s other games have done rather alright. But Cryostasis
, an FPS survival horror game, of a sort, is Action Forms' magnum opus. I have absolutely no doubt that if the game were released on home consoles, this would be one of the more talked-about games of the year, but the curious shape of game journalism means most of us tend to ignore PC games in favor of the dedicated console experience. As it stands, this game hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves.
What’s so special about Cryostasis
? A few things. First, it gets across the idea of cold (and for that matter warmth) incredibly well. Cold is your enemy, and also very tied to your health. The game takes place on a huge ship that’s been wrecked in the North Pole – and the prior inhabitants have come back to life as horrific shadows of their former selves. You have to battle the cold, as well as the actual enemies, in order to stay alive.
In this game each encounter matters, in true oldschool survival horror style, avoiding huge waves of enemies in favor of important dedicated battles. The main “gimmick” of this game is the ability to dive into the memories of dead crew members you find, during which time you can attempt to avert the deaths of these characters. If you’re not convinced, try on one of the more unusual brain dives for size. Mild spoilers included, but none that are really tied to the main story.
You come upon a meat locker. There, you have the ability to dive into the memory of a slab of beef. You become a cow in a field – there’s really not much you can do, other than die. But later, you have the ability to play as the ship’s butcher. You can choose not to kill the cow – by not killing the cow, not only is that particular slab of beef no longer present in the meat locker, the butcher lives, because he was crushed to death by that very beef slab.
You don’t want to play this game? Sure you do.