The Top-Ten Most Under-Appreciated Games of All Time (part I)
Author: Mike Zeller
It's a sad truth of the gaming community, but for every Halo, Madden, and Final Fantasy that gets showered with media attention and critical praise, dozens of other quality titles fall through the cracks, ignored and spurned by the very same gamers whose lives they could be enriching. Perhaps these games didn't have good publicity campaigns, perhaps a super-popular title got released around the same time, or perhaps they simply didn't pander directly to gamers' sick, sordid desires. Regardless, these games now sit in the shadows, trying in vain to shield themselves from the cold and the rain and the mud kicked up when Lamborghinis full of women, driven by the likes of Cloud Strife or the Master Chief, tear by on their way to fancy parties for game characters whose titles have Greatest Hits status. Well I won't stand for it anymore! It's high time these wonderful games were given their proper dues, and I'm going to make sure it gets done right. I've searched high and low, combing the libraries of every console (and some PCs) for the ten games whose lack of popularity ranks among humanity's most callous crimes. So read on, my friend, and partake of the long-needed celebration that is our compilation of TOP-TEN MOST UNDER-APPRECIATED GAMES OF ALL TIME!!! Well, of all time that I can still remember more or less lucidly, anyway :)
10) Zombies Ate My Neighbors (SNES and Genesis, 1993):
While popular when it first came out, a few months later this game essentially disappeared, as forgotten as a potato left in a dorm microwave set on high for half an hour. Which, as with all games on this list, is a real shame, because Zombies had a lot going for it. Viewing the action from a three-quarters overhead perspective, the player controlled one of two youngsters (or, in the words of the immortalized Vincent Gambini, 'two yutes') intent on saving the hapless residents of their neighborhood from the rampaging undead. This might sound like a stock-setup for a typical Resident Evil-style horror game, but Zombies Ate My Neighbors was developed by LucasArts (back before all LucasArts did was scream, "Star Wars!" at the top of its lungs and hurl plastic light sabers at passersbys), which brought the same wonderful humor sensibilities seen in other LucasAarts classics like Day of the Tentacle and Monkey Island. Sure, you did just run around blasting ever-regenerating monsters in a style similar to the recent Hunter games, but rather than use a shotgon (or some other garden variety way-overpopularized firearm), you used pretty much whatever was handy. Your primary weapon was an uzi-shaped squirt gun (presumably filled with Holy Water). Shaken soda cans made handy grenades. Tomatoes, dishes, and footballs also found their way into your arsenal. Not only that, but when trying to decide how best to put your various acquired junk to use, all that stuff you learned from B-horror movies finally came in handy! Need to kill some werewolves? Use the SILVERware. Gelatinous blobs giving you trouble? Freeze 'em with those popsicles you're carrying. Each of the game's cadre of creatures (including, but not limited to, killer dolls, fish men, giant babies, aliens, chainsaw maniacs, vampires, and the expected zombies) had its own style of attack and particular weakness. It was the dozens of little touches like this that gave the game its heaps of personality.
And let us not forget the actual neighbors in all of this (go ahead and do that double-take on the title, I'll wait). While the you were required to obliterate hundreds of assorted ghouls during your quest, the actual objective was always to rescue the unfortunate outdoor-grillers, pet dogs, tourists, and cheerleaders (the game employs a slighly loose definition of the term 'neighbors') who were caught up in the midst of things. While all you had to do was touch a neighbor to rescue him, getting to him was often the tricky part. If you didn't make it in time you'd hear a very unpleasant scream and there would be one less neighbor to rescue in the next level. Lose all your neighbors and it was game over.
While the game did have its flaws, including an awkward inventory system and the occasional neighbor who was pretty much impossible to reach before he got killed (some people are just way too skilled at getting themselves into trouble), rescuing wide-eyed suburbanites while zapping zombies with a friend in the two-player co-op mode was an absolute blast. A next-gen, cel-shaded sequel to this could be absolutely amazing, but considering how many other great properties Lucasarts has pretty much abandoned lately, it seems kind of unlikely. Which is all the more reason for you to develop some well-deserved appreciation for the original.
9) Metal Storm (NES, 1991):
"Aw shucks! That damn doomsday weapon on Pluto is pointing at the Earth again! Somebody should really go fix it..." And with little more fanfare, the unnamed hero of Metal Storm was off! The computer that controlled the planet-destroying cannon on Pluto had apparently gone haywire (we shall reserve our comments on whether it was running Windows), and you, the player, needed to pilot your robotic suite out there and turn it off or destroy it before it finished in undue time what man has essentially been doing to the planet for the past several thousand years. Along the way you had to dodge or blast all sorts of other doodads programmed to attack those trying to tamper with the ol' giant cannon. The action was reminiscent of pretty much every other run-and-gun game for the NES at the time (especially Mega Man). What made Metal Storm different, though (apart from the fact that it was all really good), was that the player also had the ability to reverse gravity. With a mere button press you could send yourself and some varieties of enemies hurtling up to the ceiling. And rather than just a gimmick, this was a thoroughly (and cleverly) integrated gameplay mechanic. In later levels, precise mid-air gravity reversals (and occasionally multiple reversals) were required to avoid spikes and other hazards, open blocked paths, or just look totally awesome. It added an entire dimension of gameplay beyond every other platformer of the time.
And all of the shooting, jumping, and airborne tomfoolery looked great too. Sure, some of the color choices may not have been the most appealing, but the animations for the player and various enemies were even smoother than some of the stuff from the 16-bit generation. Add in the massive, elaborate boss battles against hulking robots and transforming spaceships guaranteed to wow onlookers right in the face and this game seemed destined for greatness. Too bad nobody remembers it.
8) Skyblazer (SNES, 1994):
More so than any other game on this list, I have heard absolutely nothing about Skyblazer in the years since its release, proving once again that most gamers are only slightly less than incredibly stupid (ah what? ah duh?) and more than a little ugly. Skyblazer was a tight platformer with a Middle-Eastern flavor and tons of martial arts battling that easily holds up against the likes of other great SNES platformers like Actraiser or Mega Man X. You played as a hero out to rescue a kidnapped princess (perhaps not the most original Prince of Persia knockoff, but it got the job done) and along the way you explored ancient palaces and battled tons of monsters in order to recover magical powers you would need to kill Ashura (the dude who kidnapped the princess). Graphically, the game was a dynamo, featuring tons of large, well-animated sprites, and a number of really impressive graphical effects. One boss was a rotating face on a wall that forced players to jump through the gaps in it as it spun. Sure, that might not exactly sound too exciting, but neither does that spinning hallway in Super Castlevania IV, yet they're both still totally bitchin'!
In all honesty, it's kind of hard to put into words just what was so great about Skyblazer; you ran around, you jumped over pits, and you punched monsters till they died. But the way it all came together was pure magic. After all, could you tell me what was so great about flying around with the blue Yoshi in Super Mario World? Could you make a clear, coherent argument about what made whipping in eight directions so awesome in Super Castlevania IV? I thought not. Just trust me, Skyblazer was one of those games that was much more than the sum of its rather unassuming parts. The only good thing about it being a relative unknown is that, if you need proof that it should be ranked among the best platformers on the console, you can still find a really cheap copy on e-Bay.
7) Otogi (Xbox, 2004):
Otogi was one of the most tragic casualties of the recent console generation. A simple, elegant action-adventure game, Otogi was brutally overshadowed by louder, more hyped smash-'em-up games like Devil May Cry. Otogi had far too much personality to be dismissed as a Devil May Cry clone, however. You played as Raikoh, the silent, perhaps undead servant of the mysterious Princess. The game played out as a series of missions, most of which involved Raikoh seeking out and killing the various demons whose actions threatened to upset the delicate balance of the spiritual and the physical in medieval Japan (essentially serving the same function as Japan's Minister of State does today). While this premise may not sound particularly unique, its execution was sweet, sweet love incarnate. Each mission dropped Raikoh into a mythic Japanese landscape, peppered with paper lanterns, tiny shrines, and billowing charms. Each of the levels was gorgeous and distinct (well, a few of the later levels did reuse earlier environments, but we'll let it slide); one was a crystalline valley with a giant tower at its center, another was a ship adrift in a dead sea, and a third was a golden palace piled high with riches. As Raikoh progressed towards his intended target the only sounds to be heard were the soft, lilting wood flute and sporadic drum of traditional Japanese music. All together, this made Otogi one of the most wonderfully atmospheric games ever created.
The combat was relatively simple, but the types of enemies Raikoh faced and the variety of weapons at his disposal helped keep it from going stale. As Raikoh leapt about, hewing his foes and floating through the air like a dandelion seed, walls would crumble, rocks would shatter, and trees would crack clean in half. Of all the games I've ever played, Otogi had, hands down, the most destructible environments. Practically everything in a level could be, and likely would be, destroyed in the course of battle as Raikoh and his foes were hurled about. Many of the levels ended in epic, sometimes grueling boss battles. From the clash with a giant, flying centipede in a hovering graveyard to the duel against a crimson-haired demon in a snow-covered bamboo forest at twilight (see my Top Ten Bosses article to learn more!), all of these fights were the stuff of video-game legends.
Despite its utter obscurity, Otogi did manage to generate a sequel (most likely from its Japanese sales) that added more characters (including a tree that fought with a ship's wheel!), more levels, more weapons, and more quiet, melancholy-laden destruction. Even still, no American gave two craps, so I doubt we'll ever hear from poor Raikoh again. (Some developing news: since writing this I've noticed a character identical to Raikoh appearing in some of the screenshots from the Xbox 360 RPG, Enchanted Arms, so perhaps he lives on after all!)
6) Incredible Crisis (Playstation, 2000):
If ever a game had an appropriate title, this was it. Playing out with similar style to shrieking, chaotic Japanese game shows (we recommend 'Most Extreme Elimination Challenge' if you have somehow managed to ramain unadulterated by the Japanese game show phenomenon), Incredible Crisis followed the exploits of four family members as they struggled with the trials and tribulations of the most insane day ever in an effort to return home in time for Grandma's birthday. And when I say, "most insane day ever," I don't mean your alarm didn't go off, you got a flat tire, and the dork at McDonald's poured hot coffee on your nads. I'm talking about a day that involves shrink rays, abduction by bank robbers dressed as wolves, elaborate dance numbers, aliens, and many, many explosions (although, now that I think about it, none of those are quite as bad as the nads-scalding).
Although definitely not everyone's cup of tea (you basically had to be loose-minded enough to dig the whole Japanese insanity-hilarity thing), this game was pure, undiluted mania, liquefied and hooked up to the player intravenously. As the player attempted to figure out just what the hell was going on with this poor family, he experienced the day from the perspective of each family member (Taneo, the meek, bespeckled Japanese businessman, Etsuko, the dutiful housewife, Tsyuyoshi, the pudgy, curious schoolboy, and Ririka, the cute, bubbly high school student) via a series of mini-games, almost all of which boiled down to either timed or rapid button presses. Taken in with plenty of time on their own, these mini-games would likely evoke little more than confused, raised eyebrows, but coming at the player in the rapid-fire manner that they do, they are capable of reducing even the biggest sourpuss to peals of tearful laughter. The first chapter began with Taneo partaking in daily dance aerobics at his office. Though he wowed his co-workers with his crazy moves, his victory was short lived, as a giant stone globe came crashing through the wall, forcing him to flee down a long, debris-strewn hallway. Upon reaching an elevator and apparent safety, he looked up only to see the deadly sphere descending at him. One unexplainable explosion later, he was desperately clinging to a flagpole on the side of the building and had to slowly inch his way to the windowsill before the pole snapped, sending him plummeting to his doom. And all this was accompanied by the rocking ska riffs of the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra. Some later minigames involved bailing out a rapidly sinking boat, escaping a boring class run by a crazed, sweet-suit-clad teacher, and giving a very, VERY erotic-sounding back massage to a lady on a Ferris wheel. Of course, I guess the moaning and groaning sound effects made more sense in the Japanese version, where it wasn't a back massage but oral sex. And it probably wasn't a lady. How the hell did this game make it to the U.S. anyway, I'll never know. I thought we were all Puritans here. Oh wait, I forgot, our girls are sluts. That explains it.
On to the top 5! >>