Collecting More Than Their Fair Share of Dust…Underrated and Forgotten Games

Forgotten Games

It’s 2011…time to take down the holiday lights and pack up the decorations for another year.  Time for New Year’s Resolutions to be made (only to be broken shortly thereafter).  It’s also time for every video game publication, website, and blogspace to send out their own version of a “Top 10” list of games for the year – each one sure to be in some way similar to the next due to a, by definition, limited pool of games to pick from.I myself will be joining the crowd in participating in this hallowed custom, as passing judgment on another’s hard work is at least entertaining as hearing about who got in a fight on last week’s Jersey Shore or writing out overdue Thank-You cards for all your reindeer sweaters you got for Christmas.  This, however, is NOT that post.  In lieu of publishing a list you’ve already read somewhere else, I decided to remember games for a much different reason.  As boxes filled with seasonal decorations are returned to basements, attics, lofts, closets, garages, and storage spaces, take a look at another box that’s been there for years, unopened and coated with a layer of dust: I’m talking about some forgotten or overlooked games from the recent and not-so-recent past.  This is my list of the most underrated games from current and past generations, across all platforms, in no particular order.  I hope it inspires you to take another long-overdue look through that box of old games and rescue one or two masterpieces that deserve a revisit!

Note:  The games contained in this list are some of the most underappreciated games.  This is not based on anything other than my opinion.  Now, at no point can I ever claim to have played or experienced EVERY game on EVERY platform – this list must be limited to my own knowledge due to the simple fact that my resources cannot allow me the same access to titles as major publications have.  So if I don’t include some titles you feel I should have mentioned, it’s probably because I didn’t get to experience them; or perhaps I simply didn’t care for them.  An opinion-based list like this can probably never be truly “complete”.  I hope to point out some forgotten gems to you, and maybe get your old-school gaming juices flowing again; by the same token it would be nice if you readers point out and submit to me some games omitted from the list!  Well, here goes!

Gabriel Knight series (PC, 1993-1999)

Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers

This series is, for the most part, a must-play for anyone who followed the point-and-click adventure game genre in the 90s, and which has lately enjoyed a bit of a rebirth.  Published by Sierra On-Line between 1993 and 1999, the Gabriel Knight series contains three games: Sins of the Fathers, The Beast Within, and Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned.  All three games were written by Jane Jensen, and the first two games in the series were even published as novelizations later on.  Each of the games deals with a different occult theme as its main antagonistic force.  Sins of the Fathers sees Gabriel take on a native voodoo cult in dark and mysterious New Orleans, Beast Within has him on the trail of a murderous werewolf in the forests of Bavarian Germany, and Blood of the Sacred takes him to France investigating a kidnapping and becoming entangled with vampires.  While standard adventure-game puzzles are certainly present, the games are put story-telling in the forefront, and relationships between the cast of characters play a big part; from forbidden love a la Romeo and Juliet, to friendship, loyalty, and betrayal, and even solving the mystery of your own heritage, the interpersonal (and sometimes intrapersonal!) tribulations of these characters frequently encourage the player to become emotionally involved and always keeps the story fresh and exciting.  (As an example, I was so intrigued by the tale of Beast Within that, over a decade later, I visited King Ludwig’s Castle Neuschwanstein in the Bavarian Alps for myself!)

Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers

Gabriel and Grace in his bookstore in “Sins of the Fathers”; above the point-and-click command and inventory pane

Each of the three titles utilizes a different approach for telling it’s narrative.  Sins is a more traditional animated adventure, with rendered backgrounds and hand-drawn cel-animation.  Of note is the voice cast assembled, including Tim Curry and Mark Hamill as protagonist Gabriel and his Detective pal Mosely, as well as Leah Remini as Gabriel’s assistant Grace.  The voice talents draw you into the story, and continue to add much depth throughout the adventure, as you can hear the emotion inherent to the events of the game.  Beast Within took a different turn, and ditched animated characters for photographic backgrounds against which the live-action video characters play.  This resulted in completely new casting choices for returning Gabriel and Grace, and a complete absence of Mosely from the game.  For those who didn’t let that put them off, however, waited a tale that masterfully reached into history to connect a dark werewolf tale to elements like Richard Wagner, classical opera, and even King Ludwig II of Bavaria.  The game was also incredibly ambitious for its time, being so large it had to ship on six CD-ROMs!  The final installment of the series, and also the final adventure game Sierra On-Line put out, Blood of the Sacred was another departure into new ground for the franchise: this time the tale was represented in 3D.  However, with the removal of live-video actors, Tim Curry returned for voice work, and Mosely’s return reunited the trifecta of the original game’s main characters.  The game itself, however, did not live up to the high expectations set by its two predecessors, and now seems more of an afterthought to the franchise.

Xenosaga series (PS2, 2003-2006)

Xenosaga should probably not be recommended as a simple, casual foray into a relaxing RPG!  With this trilogy, Monolith Soft has created a series of detailed and intricate behemoths of storytelling, and you’ll be doing quite a bit of flexing of your brain muscles to keep up with everything it has to offer.  These science fiction games take place in a far distant future, where Earth has apparently ceased to exist.  You’ll follow the adventures of Shion Uzuki, chief engineer at Vector Industries, and a growing band of cohorts, as they get embroiled in a series of events revolving around a mysterious artifact known as the Zohar, which several interested and powerful parties want to lay their hands on.  Along the way you’ll deal with several of your group members’ personal demons as you explore their past in flashbacks, as well as become entangled in civil uprisings between Man and androids called Realians.  Some highlights of the games include a large and constantly growing cast of main and recurring characters, with extremely well-developed backstories.  The game does require patience, however, as you frequently have more questions about your own characters motives and ambitions than answers.  Some characters in your party are rather hesitant to reveal their past to the others.  However, the fictional universe of the games as a whole is significantly fleshed out, and the developers have really conveyed the sense that this is an actual place in time and space.  Secondly, the game offers up much of its narrative through the use of lengthy and numerous cutscenes – you’ll spend a great deal of time putting the controller down and enjoying exposition and action!  The cutscenes are rendered using the actual game engine rather than CGI, and the animation is crisp and clear, with a very polished and glossy look that accentuates the sterile feeling of the technologically futuristic environments.  The games also feature a very large amount of voice over, and the voice acting is commendable across the board.  Even some of the stereotypical anime-style characters don’t annoy.


KOS-MOS getting ready to unleash some serious android power on an unwitting enemy!

So far, so good.  But it’s not quite all roses, either.  As mentioned earlier, these games are much more than a casual gamer’s escape.  The learning curve, particularly on the first title, to master the combat and customization systems, feels almost restrictively steep!  There are some tutorials included in-game, but much more depth would have been necessary to provide a clear overview of the intricate system put in place by the developers.  This is alleviated some with each successive release, and by the third installment it is a much more novice-friendly game.  By the third game the developers have also seen the wisdom in including an in-game database of people, places, and terms you have and will come across, as well as an expansive synopsis of the previous chapters.  But even then the third game cannot be tackled as a stand-alone title; the story relies too much on the titles being played in succession.

Blue Dragon (Xbox 360, 2007)

Blue Dragon

This one I might catch some flak for putting on this list!  Many a gamer turned their nose up at Blue Dragon for it’s decidedly bright and cheerful, cartoon-like visuals, immediately dismissing the game as children’s fare.  I feel that this game shouldn’t be ostracized so quickly.  Blue Dragon was developed by Mistwalker, the company started by Hironobu Sakaguchi, famous as being the creator of the Final Fantasy franchise – arguably one of the holy grails for RPG fanatics out there!  As such, expectations were high when Blue Dragon was announced.  Now I’m not one to claim this game has no faults…far from it!  First and foremost, there are some sound and music-related issues to address.  The battle theme becomes old very quickly, as it’s the same no matter where you are or what adversary you’re fighting.  Topping this is the boss-fight theme – by the time I got to the second boss, I wanted to drive a rusted screwdriver into the nervous center of my brain just to keep it from having to register the Hair Metal-esque rendition of what was presumably supposed to be a rousing, blood-pounding battle anthem!  Bad Mistwalker, bad!  Not to mention the choice on the voice acting for the tiny Marumaro…  That aside, Sakaguchi’s influence is very apparent in the battle system, which takes many popular aspects of early Final Fantasy games, such as a switchable job/class system, this time assigned to the Shadows rather than the characters, as they do the majority of the fighting.  Also returning is a turn-based battle setup, reminiscent of Final Fantasy X.  The battle system is not going to win any awards, as nothing about it is new or revolutionary, but I’m thankful for a throwback to battle systems of old!  The story is present, but you can take it or leave it.

So, what then is it about this game that makes it worth a second look??  The RPG genre has become very specialized, and as advancements in-game design build upon each other, there’s a crowd of gamers being left behind in the dust:  us, the gamers who like their RPGs more intuitive and friendly to novices and experts alike.  I was not a fan of recent battle systems, such as Final Fantasy XII’s Active Dimension Battle system, or assigning situation-specific actions ahead of time a la Dragon Age: Origins.  With the advent of more powerful gaming hardware, many aspects of games have redesigned from the ground up, and I hunger for a gaming experiences I remember from the days of SNES; Blue Dragon is on this list because it provides a worthwhile trip down memory lane in many respects.  Ultimately, that is worth a lot of points to our crowd of gamers who have long feared the games we grew up with were all but extinct.

Doom3 (Xbox, 2004)

Doom 3

Doom 3 is an example of my favorite kind of first-person shooter:  one with an engaging story!  Doom 3 is not an actual sequel to the first two Doom games, but is a stand-alone entry in the franchise.  There are several things which id Software should be lauded for when developing this game.  One improvement this game undeniably has over its predecessors is a palpable sense of danger that oozes from every pore just as the dark halls and confined spaces of this game pulse with barely restrained menace.  Far from a run-and-gun experience, Doom 3 forces you to take your time as you risk life and limb just walking through the game’s space station on Mars.  The biggest boost to this threatening atmosphere is the interplay between light and darkness, and usually more of the latter than the former.  Areas are often times poorly lit, or lit by lights blinking on and off and making it all but impossible to spot an oncoming enemy in time to make an effective stand against it.  Worse yet, you may use a flashlight to give you better visibility in the dark, but this comes at the expense of not having a weapon at the ready should an enemy make a lunge at you.  To make matters worse, early in the story the ambient sounds all around you and the radio transmissions over your headset become just as unnerving as the sparse lighting.  A nameless marine just arrived at a Mars research base, you are immediately sent on a mission to recover a missing scientist.  Upon completing this innocuous task, you learn that experiments conducted at the base have had unforseen side effects.  As you are still processing the information, something goes horribly awry, and a portal is ripped into the fabric of reality before your very eyes, connecting your world with Hell.  As demons pour through the dimensional rifts and the other inhabitants of the station are turned into mindless zombie minions, your nightmare starts.  Suddenly you will randomly hear screams of agony and sounds of suffering all around you, and as you make your way back through hallways that moments before were perfectly safe and unremarkable, you start to notice flitting shadows around corners, and a boding sense of fear begins to spread in your belly.  From here the fight for survival is on!  In addition to the already mentioned elements that keep you on edge for the duration of your play experience, the developers have scattered PDAs belonging to your fellow humans, now lost in the madness, for you to find.  These PDAs contain personal data such as emails, audio or video logs, which may contain useful information, such as door codes, or plot details that further punctuate the unsettling events through personal accounts and observations of their one-time owners.  Between the PDAs and your encounters with other surviving NPCs, it is evident that the development team has put story-telling high on its list this time around.  All of these facets combine to make Doom 3 far superior over its precursors, and cement it as a true horror FPS!  There is much atmospheric story here for those who wish to experience it!

 The Thing (PS2, 2002)

The follow-up to John Carpenter’s iconic B-movie horror masterpiece, Computer Artworks’ game was a tough sell for this list!  Let’s be honest:  the graphics on the character models are generic at best, and the controls aren’t going to do anyone any favors either.  I’m still not sure why I don’t use my trigger button to fire my gun, and it’s pretty unforgivable anymore in a 3-D game to not let the player control the camera…the right thumbstick just lies dormant!  Yes, you can enter aiming mode and freely move your gun reticule, but why should I have to stop moving in order to manipulate my camera?!?  For some – for many – these glaring errors are enough to close the coffin lid on this title and nail it shut.  And perhaps they would be right.  But there is one redeeming quality this game does have, and it reminded me why I absolutely loved the movie it’s based on in the first place: a constantly unsettling feeling of paranoia.  The movie has it in spades, paranoia and claustrophobia.  And in this area the game delivers.  You are in charge of a squad throughout the game, and the number of squad members you have will go up or down depending on your actions during the game and your skill at keeping you squad alive.  But in this game, it’s not enough to simply have breathing bodies in your squad.  Unbeknownst to you, you may have picked up a new squad member who was actually a Thing.  Enter the Fear/Trust system.  Depending on how skilled you are at sniffing out impostor Things in your party and eradicating them, your squad will learn to trust you more or less, leading them to behave towards you in altered ways.  Similarly, if a squad member gets too fearful and freaked out, he may do something drastic and could become a danger to himself or those around him.  There’s nothing like being unsure at all time if you can trust the men in your squad when your back is turned, so be prepared to keep a watchful eye over your shoulder at all times! (Damn, it’s hard to watch your back with that fixed camera angle!!)  Fanboys will be pleased with the fact that you do, in fact, get to visit several iconic sites from the movie, and even make the acquaintance of a familiar face or two…

The Thing

 Fatal Frame series (PS2, 2001-2005)

Fatal Frame

The aptly named Rope Hallway is sure to be the first place you’ll learn to dread! Here Miku first finds the Camera Obscura lying on the ground.

Gamers have a lot to be thankful for with the mainstream interest in Japanese horror, or J-Horror, over the last decade.  The survival horror game genre in specific has received some much-needed variety and fresh ideas, like the Silent Hill and Fatal Frame series.  Undoubtedly some gamers will immediately cry foul, that Fatal Frame is not true survival horror, as there is no traditional combat to speak of, and weapons are not used.  Instead, a special photographic camera, the Camera Obscura, makes up your arsenal through the whole of Tecmo’s unique series of games.  If you aim to stay alive, you must become adept at aiming your camera at onrushing malevolent spirits and hitting the shutter at the appropriate moment.  To some, this will sound too much akin to a round of Pokemon Snap, but I assure you that the emphasis of these titles lies not on “survival” as much as on actual “horror”!  The consistently dark, creepy, and abandoned surroundings in which the characters find themselves in the various installments of the series bring their own brand of scary with them.  Ambient sounds are used to great effect, and the soundtracks abound with elements largely foreign to our westernized ears: screeching chimes, solitary slow drum beats, rattles, and others converge into an unnerving brew that’s guaranteed to put you far out of your comfort zone and crawl out of your skin!  At every moment you will be straining your perception to see if there is a faint shape appearing in an unlit portion of the background or if perhaps a paper streamer hanging from a room ceiling isn’t rippling just the tiniest bit in a nonexistent breeze.  The developers have perfected the art form of making you feel truly anxious because of what you anticipate to happen.  Tecmo didn’t rely on cheap scares, choosing instead to let the mood and atmosphere of their settings steeped in ritualistic violence put you at unease.  Simply put, if you’ve not played a Fatal Frame game at night with all lights off yet, then you’re not worth your salt as a survival-horror gamer!  The first three games were released on the PS2, while a fourth installment came out in 2008 for the Wii.

Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain series (PS/PS2, 1996-2003)

Legacy of Kain

It takes two, baby

In an interesting twist, the same aspect of the Legacy of Kain series that makes it so memorable and not-to-be-missed is also it’s most maddeningly confusing at times:  it twists and turns with a plot that’s nothing short of epic!  The series, comprising five games in total, follows the tales of Kain, a vampire lord who is attempting to manipulate time and fate to set right a terrible mistake he once made, and Raziel, Kain’s one-time vampire lieutenant now turned soul-devouring wraith after being brutally betrayed and killed by Kain.  Silicon Knights developed the original game, but the reins for all subsequent games were handed to Crystal Dynamics.  The first game is a 2-D top-down action game, and is probably the only game in the series that can claim to stand alone.  In itself, the story of Blood Omen could serve as a complete tale.  In this way it’s not unlike Star Wars: A New Hope, which tells a story from beginning to (apparent end).  It’s not until subsequent episodes put the narrative into a greater perspective that it functions as part of a larger chronicle.  The same is true in the case of Blood Omen, which is expanded and put into a new light as subsequent games flesh out the intricacies and deceits behind the original events.  The expansive story is told through loads of spoken dialog, and the voice acting remains top-notch throughout.  Sadly, the same cannot be said for the graphics and gameplay.  Although in some cases lauded upon release for gameplay mechanics, it’s easy to see how quickly both the control scheme and the character models became outdated.  The music is hit or miss, and in some cases, like Blood Omen 2, these three mediocre elements combine to make for some monotonous moments.  But these humdrum sections can be tolerated for the greater good of being able to puzzle through the chronological mysteries of Kain and Raziel’s time-traveling jaunts.

Fear Effect & Fear Effect 2: Retro Helix(PS, 2000-2001)

Part survival horror, part spy movie, part cinematic adventure, the Fear Effect games were standouts during their release in large part due to their unconventional graphical style.  Cel-shaded characters appeared in environments made up of full-motion video.  The contrast between these two visual methods gives the games a distinct and deliberate rough edge – it’s not that it looks unfinished, but gritty enough to match the tone set by the rest of the game.  Once the game has been unwrapped of its graphics, there remain many conventions of early survival horror games: set camera angles, tank controls, auto-aiming.  The difference being that these games aren’t really about horror at all, substituting smart espionage/kidnapping plots with more of a sci-fi feel to the enemies, who may be humans or machines.  Tank controls aren’t exactly popular, and the general button-mapping (X for shooting?  O and Square for inventory??) takes a bit of getting used to, but this is a different take on a genre literally overrun with zombies, and it doesn’t hurt to have an added bit of controversy about the suggestive adult themes and violence, and these games are worth the price of admission.

Fear Effect

Fear Effect uses cel-shaded characters in full-motion video environments

 Shadow of the Colossus (PS2, 2005)

OK, an action-adventure game in which a young man’s quest is to resurrect the young woman he loves.  To this extent, Shadow of the Colossus seems standard fare.  But that is as far as the similarities go.  In Shadow, you have a game with next to no characters, next to no dialog, no usable items, no special moves or abilities, no weapon selection other than your starting arsenal of a bow and a sword, and no enemies to use them on anyway other than sixteen giant boss-like creatures.  And yet, Shadow is the game which has been compared to a piece of art more than any other interactive video game.  Maybe it’s the simple, pick-up-and-play approach that lets you face your first “boss” about five minutes after beginning the game.  Maybe it’s the wonder at traversing a land so absolutely desolate and decayed?  Maybe it’s the unprecedented level of freedom for interpretation Team Ico has bestowed upon the player with their creation: You’re given no back story on either yourself or the girl you’re trying to save, the world you’re in, or the foes you’ll be going up against.  The colossi themselves appear as gentle giants, each one completely unique and one-of-a-kind, and upon discovering each one’s location it is completely up to you to discover each one’s weak spot and exploit it to your advantage to best it in combat.  This includes dealing with a few that take to the skies or are submerged below the waters of a lake.  Maybe it’s just the sense of pride and honor you get from bringing down your prodigious adversaries; the epic battles are as fair and one-on-one as you can get!  But in my opinion the one thing that tops this distinguished list is the fact that, not long into the adventure, you begin questioning the integrity behind your own actions.  What gives you the right to eradicate these creatures who’ve done you no harm?  You’re reminded at every turn that once you’ve emerged victorious against a colossus, that colossus is now no more, nor are there any others like him.  Why are your motives righteous enough to allow this type of extermination?  Is bringing back one life worth the many you’ve sacrificed for it?  And what price must you ultimately pay for the judgement you’ve visited on the colossi?  To my knowledge, moral dilemmas like this don’t just happen to come up in your typical gaming experience, and it enhances the emotional impact of the game immensely.  Even though you can’t help but feel that your ultimate victory is a hollow one and you end up feeling disconsolate and slightly ashamed, the game experience itself is still like no other and not to be missed!

Shadow of the Colossus

Believe it or not, this is actually one of the smaller colossi you will face!

 Still Life (Xbox, 2005)

One of several point-and-click adventure titles ported from the PC to the Xbox, Still Life nonetheless manages to stand out from the crowd.  While other games like Syberia became known for puzzle design and it’s unique mechanical inventions, Microids-developed Still Life boasted a dark and gritty murder mystery, set in modern-day Chicago and 1920’s Prague.  The adult-oriented story takes place in S & M clubs and back alleys where prostitutes practice the world’s oldest profession.

Still Life

You’ll be hot on the trail of one of London’s most notorious criminals

The player takes control of two main protagonists through the course of the investigation: FBI Special Agent Victoria McPherson and her grandfather, private eye Gus McPherson.  Each, in his or her respective time and place, is tracking down a killer who appears to be one and the same person – and thus a link across time is forged, connecting these two storylines into one seamless narrative.  The killer, and the killings themselves, mirror the Jack the Ripper killings in London in the late 1800s.  An assailant garbed with cape and top hat targets ladies of the night and kills them.  Many players of this game, when it was initially released, had a bone to pick with the game ambiguous and open ending, as the game was always intended to have a direct sequel and therefore many plotlines are intentionally left unfinished.  For years, it seemed the story would never be resolved, but we can now play the sequel released (for the PC) in 2009.  The game’s prequel, which follows Gus on another murder case, is also available for the PC.  Interestingly, the middle piece of the trilogy, Still Life, is the only one of the three titles ever released on gaming consoles!

 LEGO “insert franchise title here” (PS2/Xbox 360, 2005-2010)

Yes, I know these games probably appeal very much to the younger crowd, but that doesn’t mean we should all make the mistake to dismiss them outright!  I’m talking specifically of the “big” LEGO releases of the last few years: LEGO Star Wars, LEGO Indiana Jones, LEGO Batman, and LEGO Harry Potter.  These games appeal to youngsters in part due to their licensed content, which mirrors many of the big book and film franchises of contemporary pop culture, and in part due to their simple game mechanics.  Kids and adults alike can master these games in a matter of moments, and the control mechanics carry over from one game to the next for the most part.  But the real draw of these games is that they are full of carefree moments and delightful humor.  LEGO characters aren’t susceptible to injury or death, so it is often worth a laugh to see how these little guys handle their “big movie-moments”: for example a LEGO Battle of Endor, or a LEGO Temple of Doom…and they often have to find inventive ways to communicate essential plot, since there is no dialog at all.  But still there is a crowd for which a “cute” game just won’t cut it.  For the more hardcore gamer in you, I submit this:  LEGO games also contain collectables and unlockables galore!  Whether you’re collecting LEGO studs (the official currency of the LEGOverse, it seems) to achieve 100% collection in each level, or you’re working on finding all hidden parcels and unlocking any characters and bonus content you can get your hands on, you will find something beyond the initial story-mode playthrough of the games.  So put that violent FPS away until the kids are in bed, and spend some time playing coop as Batman and Robin pursuing the Joker, or as Jar Jar and Darth Vader facing off against Darth Maul – and possibly even enjoying it!

Lego Star Wars

“Set blasters to stun!”

Faxanadu (NES, 1989)

Hudson Soft developed this game, which, at first brush, appears to be a platform adventure game, but actually has more in common with the RPG genre.  This interesting amalgam of action-adventure gaming with RPG story-elements and game mechanics, such as finding or buying and equipping different weapons and armor, gaining experience and levels, and speaking to townspeople as a source of information and to progress the story along, is actually one of the first games I can honestly credit with sparking my interest in the RPG genre as a whole.  You play the role of a nameless Elven wanderer, who is tasked by his king to slay an entity known as The Evil One to bring peace to the land and restore the alliance between Elves and Dwarves, the latter of which have been twisted by The Evil One’s influence.  The game operates on a password system, and does not feature an overworld map or stages, as such.  Instead, you advance your avatar through a series of screens, either up, down, or right or left.  As the game advances there are several quests that other characters may set you on, such as using a mattock to open the blocked path forward, or restoring a trio of dried-up fountains to unlock the way to the next area.  Occasionally, you will find yourself stumbling upon other towns or settlements,  which are unavoidable – after the motto:  “Exit this screen to the right and you’re in town.  Walk through town and exit on the other side to get back to the world.”  Some of the features that make this game stand out in my mind are the otherworldly and surreal feel of it, enhanced by the ethereal soundtrack and quite unusual character design (let’s just say that these aren’t like any other dwarves you’ve ever seen!).  Also, when you equip a new weapon or piece of armor, it is cosmetically shown on your character, to the point that, by game’s end, you can walk around covered from head to toe in a kick-ass suit of armor, and upgrade your measly dagger from the game’s start to a formidable long sword capable of holding the most daunting foes at bay.


Restoring this fountain clears your path to the next area

The Battle of Olympus (NES, 1990)

The Battle of Olympus

Before God of War, actually WAY before, The Battle of Olympus let fanboys live out their G(r)eek mythology fantasies on the NES.  This action-adventure game is, at its core, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice – a youth loses his love who died and is now in Hades, so he sets out to enter the Underworld to save her.  While so far this actually corresponds to a Greek myth, the developers threw scores of other myths and stories, including elements from Heracles’ and Perseus’ tales, into a giant Olympus-sized blender and hit “Pulverize”.  The result is a fine mixture that is packed with monsters, gods, and events from all across the Greek mythological landscape.  Basically, if you’ve heard it in a myth, it’ll probably make an appearance in this game.  As Orpheus, you must gain the favor and support of the major Olympian gods (save Hades, of course!).  Along the way, you will face off against the Hydra, Cyclops, Gaea the mother of the Earth, the Minotaur, Sirens, and the Nemean Lion, to name a few.  You will visit the Isle of Crete, learn the gift of fire from Prometheus, fly Pegasus, and search for ambrosia.  You will receive help in the form of divine gifts such as the shield of Athena and Hermes’ winged boots.  The pacing of moving from one memorable moment to the next is relentless throughout much of the adventure, really only broken by one annoying maze-like forest zone and one or two grinding spots, at which you’ll need to collect a certain amount of orbs – the game’s currency – or salamander skins to create a necessary item.

Although the game is essentially linear (areas are accessible and events can be completed in a set order for the most part), you have the freedom to roam and go where you please.  Once you acquire Pegasus’ harp and the Ocarina you have even more freedom, but sadly there is little to nothing in the way of hidden content, just more grinding, to be found.  A fair amount of backtracking is required just to go from area to area, and the are occasional areas that are only accessible once you’ve acquired a certain item or ability.  The one thing that let me down about this title is the final boss fight – I’d expected a little more from an Olympian god of the Underworld!  This game comes with a password feature, and can be quite a lengthy quest to embark on, but well worth the time if you haven’t experienced it yet, and haven’t had your fill guiding Kratos and Dante through their respective versions of Olympian mythology!

Conker’s Bad Fur Day (N64, 2001)

Conker's Bad Fur Day

Ain’t he adorable?

It was Rare’s final game for the N64, and it would sadly be treated like an unwelcome stepchild by Nintendo for a long time to come.  Conker’s Bad Fur-Day, to sum it up in just a few words, is a free-roaming platformer with bright, cartoony graphics.  That being said, the preceding statement is a gross oversimplification!  It was my luck to pick this title up for a 2-night rental (remember when people were still renting games from stores for a weekend?!?) and I happened to be the appropriate age to appreciate the off-kilter humor it is absolutely packed with!  Conker may look like a kiddie platformer at first brush with its bright colors, vibrant environments, and silly cast of characters made up of squirrels, bumblebees, and other furry critters.  But those opening levels hide a much more twisted, adult-oriented experience. Your first clue that this isn’t Little Billy’s platformer comes in the first few moments of gameplay.  Conker has just spent a night drinking in one seedy establishment or another, and wakes up the next morning, lost and with a wicked hangover.  Your first task in the game is to provide Conker some much-needed relief in the form of a few Alka-Seltzer tablets, so that he can walk and respond accordingly.  Conker’s mission, then, is to make his way home to his girlfriend so he can get some tail.  Simple and straightforward – until you learn of the evil Panther King, who decides he wants Conker to be the missing leg of his side table.  The game will take you on a journey riddled with parodies of major movie moments, such as the invasion of Normandy Beach from Saving Private Ryan to The Matrix’s slow-motion bank shoot-out scene, all done in beautifully graphic detail.  By the time you reach the climax of the game, disaster has had its way with poor Conker, and the game delivers one final unexpected twist before the credits roll.  The happy-go-lucky beginnings certainly belie a woeful ending for our hero.  Throughout the game, the developers lampoon (or perhaps pay homage to) classics of movie pop culture, including Dracula, A Clockwork Orange, and Alien.  All the while, Conker crosses paths with some of the most outlandish characters featured in any game, like Professor Von Kriplesac, a legless mad scientist, and the Great Mighty Poo, the only giant opera-singing pile of dung you’re likely to ever encounter anywhere!  It is this mix of toilet humor likely to appeal to the teenage boy in all of us, and graphic violence enacted upon cartoons that makes Conker such a unique title that’s not likely to be repeated anytime soon.

Beyond Good & Evil (Xbox, 2003)

Ubisoft’s Beyond Good & Evil is a proof positive that, at the end of the day, video games are big business, and be made or broken by corporate decisions such as marketing support and publicity.  With this game, Michel Ancel, the game’s designer, broke the mold of what could appeal to gamers, and created a sort of “anti-formula” game.  The protagonist, Jade, is a very typical citizen of the mining planet Hillys.  She doesn’t have any special abilities, she doesn’t hold a place of importance in her community, and her only goal at the outset of the game is to raise enough money to keep the orphanage she runs going by making some extra money with a side-job as a museum photographer.  Admittedly, Jade does get involved in more significant events before long, as she inadvertently uncovers evidence of a conspiracy involving human trafficking and planetwide disappearances.  From these humble beginnings as an impartial observer from the outside looking in, Jade more or less falls into her adventure along with her friend and mentor Pey’j and Double H, whom she’s rescued from torture.  By the time the game reaches closer to its conclusion, though, it becomes a bit more “by the numbers”, with revelations of Jade’s true identity and higher purpose, which had remained secret even from herself.  Beyond Good & Evil stays true to its ambiguous ways by offering the player many different dishes to satisfy their gaming hunger on: there are elements of racing sequences and other mini games, some combat, exploration, stealth, puzzles, platforming, and even segments where you must guide and direct your companions to progress the game.  Commercially, the game was considered a failure, but that hasn’t stopped ranks of its supporters to clamor for more, as the game was originally intended to be the first part of a trilogy.  Pleas went unheard for many moons, but in 2008 Ubisoft announced that there would indeed be a sequel developed.

Beyond Good and Evil

Jade, and Pey’j in the background – not your usual protagonist duo!


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