Games can be ignored and forgotten about no matter how good they are. This is just a fact about the world. Sometimes, however, because of things like HD rereleases, PSN and Xbox Live downloads, cult followings and stupid little lists like this one, we are able to dig through the deep, dark, depths of our memories and once again feel the amazement that we experienced once before with these long-forgotten gems. And while other collections of so-called “underrated” games will focus exclusively on ratings and Metacritic standings, I think there are some substantive similarities between great games that, for whatever reason, received lukewarm receptions either by critics, or fans, or both. Sometimes the world just isn’t ready for greatness, and this list is here to bring us back to a place where all of our electronic children can be given equal praise and pats on the heads. Away we go.
Beyond: Two Souls
In one sense the “meh”-ness felt by critics and fans alike about Beyond is somewhat understandable. Take a developer that created the critical darling Heavy Rain , introduce top tier actors in Ellen Page and Willem Defoe to play the leads in the s tory, and promise the world that the PS3 is about to showcase a technological masterpiece the likes of which haven’t been seen since, well, Heavy Rain , and how could a game that is anything less than perfect not fail?
The truth is, while Beyond: Two Souls certainly is not without its flaws (probably less user control than Heavy Rain , which itself wasn’t exactly flush in that department, a story that took itself too seriously at times, and the expectation that players would be so wowed by the facial recognition of the protagonists that things like plot movement (or lack thereof) and story energy wouldn’t really matter. Obviously, that wasn’t the case, and is the main reason why it currently sits at a very pedestrian 70/100 score on Metacritic.com.
However, consider what Quantic Dream promised with both titles prior to their releases. These games were not being offered up as open world adventures; they were demonstrating the visual and audio power of the PlayStation 3 by setting it to the theme of a choose your own adventure tale. Yes, to a certain extent both games felt a bit on rails, but who says rail games can’t be excellent as well? Beyond is the perfect example of a game that gave players exactly what they asked for, and then was penalized for not providing things that weren’t in the plan to begin with.
Shadow of the Colossus
Along with its now packaged and HD-ified companion ICO, Shadow of the Colossus was a PS2 closer that to this day remains a critical masterpiece in spite of its ho-hum reception. To date, worldwide sales of the original version of the game barely exceeded 1 million copies, which compared to more “name brand” titles like, for example, those in the Grand Theft Auto series, really aren’t anything to write home about. But regardless of its low sales figures, Shadow is a brilliantly executed boss-beater adventure that allowed players to enter into a gaming experience that few thought possible on the PlayStation 2 at that time, especially with the expectation that all development energy was being placed into the console successor PlayStation 3. Sitting at a 91/100 score on Metacritic, reviewers fawned over the title for its understated but nonetheless beautiful visuals, gripping story, and artistic direction. Simply a can’t miss game that, for reasons that remain unclear, missed out in a lot of households.
Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker
Here is another title that I likely will get some flak for, if only because of its recent HD release on the Wii U. It is difficult to find major flaws in the vast majority of Zelda titles, especially now that they have managed to achieve the rare combination of critical, sales, and cult statuses at the same time. But regardless of its place in Link’s lexicon today, there was a time where Windwaker received a very mixed bag of comments and reviews from fans who were confused and annoyed that the Nintendo darling had been tinkered with in such different ways.
You see, this iteration of LoZ offered a stylized, almost cartoony presentation of the folks of Hyrule, and dared to remove Hyrule from the game in the process. And while gamers were already used to seeing Link and his ilk in three dimensional format, due to the previously released critical and sales masterpiece Ocarina of Time for the Nintendo 64, there was something about this version of the game that rubbed people the wrong way. Critics certainly latched onto the true brilliance of the title, as it remains one of the highest reviewed games in Zelda history, but many fans were nonetheless concerned that the classic Zelda formula of success had been changed too much with this water-based tale of pirates and kidnapping. Even the mannerisms had been modified, with Zelda herself sporting a snarkier attitude than ever before, which upset traditionalists even more. I guess this just goes to show that no matter how great a game plays, you just can’t please them all.
Prior to playing Eternal Sonata , if you had told me that a game would be released focusing on the final dream of a dying Chopin, and that the contents of the dream (along with the music of Chopin’s portfolio) would make up the environment and structure of a turn-based RPG, I would have said you were crazy. And apparently, even with the announcement of Eternal Sonata ’s release, the majority of fans felt the same way I did. After the first year of its release, the game had sold a paltry 120,000 copies worldwide, and the numbers only went down from there.
From a critical standpoint, Eternal Sonata received pretty solid scores across the board (about an 8/10 average in most conglomerate game ranking sites), and it isn’t too difficult to see why. While it should be obvious that the score to the game would be beautiful, given the composer about whom the story was focused, Eternal Sonata actually received equally high praise both for its original music and its absolutely gorgeous visuals. Lush, bright colors make the dream world that much more vivid as players are taken through eight chapters of Chopin’s life, and the intriguing battle system involving both the usual turn-based setup along with a time-based action gauge, demonstrates how complete Eternal Sonata is in spite of its lackluster sales. The game has been released on the PSN and Xbox Live since its initial run, so it is possible the game pops into greater popular consciousness, but until then, this entry on our list marks one of the most musically beautiful games never to make a major splash on the market.
I want to use a personal story to introduce this entry on our list. During my freshman year of college at Syracuse University (go Orange!), my girlfriend and I woke up one morning following a pretty lively party in my dorm feeling, shall we say, under the weather. I’ll put it this way—the shades were drawn until the sun went down again. One of the perks of feeling crumby with a girl you really like and want to impress, however, is that you have time and motivation to do things like show her the wonders of video game emulation. Before long, I had an NES emulator up on my computer screen and asked what game she wanted to play. Without hesitation she answered, with excitement, “Can you get me Maniac Mansion ?!? And some Ben & Jerry’s to go with it…?” and I knew I had found a keeper. It is fourteen years later now and we’re married, so my instincts were on!
Anyway, I had played Maniac Mansion as a kid a few times while fighting for NES dominance with my younger brother, but I must admit it hadn’t really made an impression on me until that fateful day in winter, 2000 AD. After watching my then girlfriend, now wife take the goofy but interesting characters around this obviously B movie-inspired house of horrors, it took less than ten or so minutes before I politely asked if I could play (actually I just put ice cream in front of her and took over after she jumped for it). The point and click style of this LucasArts adventure game was so unique to me, I couldn’t believe it was initially an NES game. But sure enough, it was, along with some other PC-centric consoles like the Commodore 64.
Like many of our other entries, critics responded well to Maniac Mansion and gave it over an 8/10 average on the various ranking sites, but also like our other entries, sales were less than spectacular. The game received a number of subsequent ports and sequels, but the game itself faded out without too much fiscal attention. A shame, though, since it was really a truly a unique and genuinely fun experience at the time. As a side note, it is also one of the harder to obtain titles in the retro gaming stores around me. Just a further consequence of its lack of publicity I suppose.
ESPN NFL 2K5
This is a slightly different sort of selection for this list because in reality, the reviews and sales for it were solid at the time. So one could argue that it doesn’t really meet the criteria of “underrated” or “undersold.” But I felt obligated to put it in the list if only because of the seemingly miraculous way it pulled itself into public consciousness, fought the good fight against the juggernaut that is Madden football (which itself had a great iteration that year, in all fairness), and then—due to contract issues and an exclusivity agreement between EA and the NFL, faded away never to be thought of or seen from again.
But let’s spend a minute to recall what made 2K5 such a truly special game. First and foremost, the level of involvement of ESPN in the game was mind-blowing at the time. While many could have thought that the sports television juggernaut would just slap its name on the box art and call it a day, ESPN went the full distance by including interviews with players, in game updates of other games (which, unlike today, was very new and different at the time), and my personal favorite, offering a Chris Berman-hosted edition of SportsCenter during halftime of each game! Add to that the fact that the game mechanics and graphics were top notch, the depth of franchise and game modes were beyond satisfying, and—probably the most incredible part—the game retailed for just $19.99 (!!!), it makes sense why this game would hold up against any sort of competitor. Until, of course, that competitor was able to yank the rug out from under it and grab the entire National Football League…
999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors
The game that could have started a new Western phenomenon of interactive storytelling within video games unfortunately really only caught on over in Japan. And while its highly acclaimed sequel, Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward , has done better at the bank because of its inclusion on updated portable consoles like the 3DS and PS Vita, 999 is in many ways a jaw dropping title from the standpoint of story depth and player involvement.
The basic storyline involves nine (get it?) characters waking up on an old, empty, but modified (play the game to see how) Titanic-resembling ship with no memory of how they got there, and only the information that if they do not find a way out of their makeshift prison in—you guessed it—nine hours, they will all perish. With fantastic puzzle-based scenarios along the way and a potential killer on the loose, players are forced to make decisions that will have drastic impacts on their ability to continue and, in some cases, even finish the game. And while some who actually managed to play the game have contended that the sequel is the superior title because of its inclusion of a “rewind” function, 999 nonetheless stands out as a game that could have defined a new Western genre of gaming…if it ever managed to define a new Western genre of gaming. Oh well.
Even with moderate success in Japan, an eventual price cut, and very good reviews from critics, Valkyria Chronicles couldn’t seem to find any traction in the American market, and because of this, it barely managed to hit a million copies sold worldwide. That said, people who have played the game agree that it is a truly unique experience to behold, at least from the standpoint of its inclusion of both RPG strategy and third person action/shooter tactics, labeled BLiTZ (Battle of Live Tactical Zones) along the way. Combine this with the fact that the subject matter in question is essentially a What If? version of World War II, and you have an inventive and visually beautiful experience to say the least.
Though the gameplay is very clearly an example of strategy RPG, the inclusion of not only third person shooting maneuvers, but those resembling WRPG Fallout 3 (because of the player’s ability to choose which body part to focus on once in shooting mode) is really an intriguing trait. It is in these ways that players are forced to use their minds in planning successful attacks and defensive barricades against enemy forces throughout the game. The faux-historical perspective of the protagonists still manages to provide many emotional moments as its weaves in and out of similarities with early World War II on the German front, and the end result is an endearing experience that would do well to be experienced by a variety of gamers. Despite a number of ports, including a recent release on iOS, and a PSP-exclusive sequel, Valkyria Chronicles still remains one of those hidden gems that continues to surprise the odd player when he or she stumbles across it. I’m certainly glad I did.
Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem
The Nintendo Gamecube is a bit of an anomaly as a console because while it is generally viewed as a commercial failure—at least compared to many of the other Nintendo monsters—it also has in its library some of the most wonderful gaming experiences one could ever hope to receive. One of the more unsung masterpieces in this collection is Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem , the first title ever published directly by Nintendo to receive an “M: Mature” rating.
Eternal Darkness stars Alexandra (Alex) Roivas, a college student who is investigating the murder of her grandfather. The story leads her through a number of insanity-inducing experiences, including reliving segments of lives of people who have made contact with an ancient Roman Commander, Pious, who himself is playable as well at the outset of the story. The game includes a “sanity meter” that continuously measures Alex’s level of mental faculties, and the changing of the meter affects parallel changes in the visual environment around Alex—from her perspective, anyway. Once the bar is depleted Alex is able to incur physical damage, and players are faced with a variety of hazards and enemies throughout the story that can provide all sorts of obstacles to Alex’s sanity and her life.
Concluding our list is a title that might be the ultimate “woulda, shoulda, coulda” in the annals of video game history. And its ultimate mediocre sales have absolutely nothing to do with the developer’s willingness to spend in order to receive. Sega invested almost $50 million dollars—a record at the time—in director/producer Yu Suzuki’s vision for an action-adventure game unlike any other ever created. To be played (initially) exclusively on the Sega Dreamcast, itself a brilliant and underrated/undersold console, Shenmue in many ways pulled off the dream without too many flaws. Players are granted the opportunity to take protagonist Ryo on a truly open world trip around sections of Japan and eventually Hong Kong in search of the people who killed his father. In spite of some slightly clunky controls and camera work, the gameplay is solid and the vastness of the overall atmosphere and environments are stellar.
Martial arts plays a major role in the storyline, and the game utilized quick time events (QTE) for the majority of Ryo’s combat experiences. For those unaware, QTE involves a time-sensitive presentation of a specific button for a player to press before the time has expired, the success of which allows the character to perform whatever battle move is in play. This is a technique used by such games as the God of War series, where Kratos famously can only kill certain major bosses with a combination of QTE elements at the end of certain battles.
Critically, Shenmue received largely positive reviews, with detractions focusing primarily on Suzuki’s inability to carry out his vision in totality. Much of this, however, was blamed on the technology itself, as many agreed that the game, for better or worse, was unquestionably forward-minded. But because of the vast sums of money paid for the development of the title, Shenmue still managed to be a financial disappointment in spite of selling over six million copies. It was stated that in order to make up the investment, every single owner of the Dreamcast would have to purchase a copy of the game, and that was obviously not a realistic possibility. The game spawned a port to the Microsoft Xbox and an eventual sequel, and while the 4th best-selling game in Dreamcast history might still be viewed as a commercial disappointment, what does work in Shenmue is enough to make it the number one game on our list.