Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Stuff of Systems Past

          So it's Monday night, I've just finished slingin' brews for eight hours, and all I want is to cozy up on my couch wrapped in a blanket cocoon next to a warm fire and play me some old fashioned vidya games. There are, however, a few hurdles to that end: my SNES is packed away in a box somewhere in the back of my closet, in moving around so frequently I've liquidated most of my systems and game collections, aaaand my Xbox 360 exploded out the back (literally, some kind of faulty power supply issue). It would seem that I'll be hard pressed to make that desire a reality. As such, I've decided to compile a list of my favorite games that nobody has ever heard of (or, in some cases, nobody respects enough). For the record, this list is not in any particular order other than the order in which they come to mind, nor is it comprehensive. I'm sure there are plenty of noteworthy bizarre games out there that I am forgetting.

1. The Neverhood (PC):

          Perhaps one of the more influential gaming experiences of my formative years, this one still stands as one of my all-time favorites. While the idea of a point-and-click game seems to be pretty simplistic conceptually, the genre boasts some pretty heavy hitters from the days of gaming past: Myst, The Monkey Island series, Sam & Max Hit the Road. The Neverhood is, by far and large, my favorite of the lot. Between the brilliantly imaginative and colorful universe in which the game takes place, the clever and ingenious puzzles from start to finish, completely off-the-wall soundtrack (thanks to the space-cadet mind of a Mr. Terry S. Taylor), and the tremendous detail (there's a hallway in the game upon which is etched the entire readable genesis story of the world), there's not a thing about this game that isn't totally endearing.

          While the puzzles can sometimes be tedious (a downfall of the point-and-click genre I've yet to bypass), and the narrative doesn't really kick into gear until after the halfway point, the Neverhood stands as one of the greater games to come out of the mid 90s. A point of interest: the game was produced by Dreamworks Interactive (the studio that went on to become EA Los Angeles and start the Medal of Honor francise) and created by Doug TenNapel (the creator of Earthworm Jim).

2. Shadow of the Colossus (PS2)

          Probably the most well-known of the games on this list, Shadow of the Colossus (from the studio that created Ico and the forthcoming The Last Guardian) is a game that has not garnered near the amount of attention or respect that it deserves. While the story is somewhat minimal (an unnamed hero traverses a perilous landscape to save a girl that he, presumably, loves), the subtle narrative and environmental metaphors paired with the beautiful sprawling environments and an especially tenacious horse (I can't help but think it the inspiration behind the iteration of Link's horse, Epona, from Twilight Princess) draw in the player and create an emotional link to the characters without drowning the tale in melodrama.

          The funny thing is, Shadow of the Colossus is a puzzle game at its core. The gameplay revolves around the player traveling to a number different locales throughout the world to kill a series of colossi, each one requiring the player to follow a unique path to that end. Some of the beasts are hulking monsters that the player must carefully ascend, whereas others are smaller, more agile creatures which require more environmental interaction. In any case, each puzzle requires the player to think on their feet and keep their wits about them. While the ending relies on a somewhat cheap and unsatisfying twist, the beauty and genius of the rest of the game is really what makes Shadow of the Colossus shine.

3. Spawn: In The Demon's Hand (Dreamcast):

          A vast departure from the previous entrant, Spawn: In the Demon's Hand is not elegant nor moving in any way. It is, however, a delightfully playful romp through a dystopian world in which demons and angels alike wage war upon the battlefield that is Earth with little to no regard to their surroundings nor the beings which inhabit them (these beings being the very humans whose souls they battle for). I wouldn't expect any less from the Demon General turned Anti-hero/Savior that is Spawn.
          Spawn: In the Demon's Hand is an arena fighting game in the same vein as Star Wars Jedi Power Battles (another game of which people haven't heard), except it didn't suck nearly as much (read: wasn't nearly as terrible). I'd give you a comparative list of reasons as to why Spawn was awesome and Jedi Power Battles made me want to vomit up my intestines and hang myself with them, but since you've never heard of either, I'll save us both time and you can just take my word for it. Anyway, Spawn: Yadda Yadda follows a very simple arcade-style type of gameplay (handy since it was actually released in arcades as well) in which 1-4 players duke it out Thunderdome style in fully 3D rendered semi-interactive environments, kind of like Super Smash Bros. (which came out the same year), but with more dimensions and less coinage to backing it.

          Unfortunately, much like the system for which it was developed, the game was an underdog from the start. Pair that with some wonky camera programming and some clunky AI and you get an all but forgetful package for everyone in the world... except for the few die-hards who realized that the true joy in this game is in getting to send some of your closest friends to hell (both proverbially and in-game literally). Also you get to go to hell and destroy Malebolgia, one of the demons in charge and the reason Spawn is Spawn, and that's pretty damn cool.

4. Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee (Xbox)

          Hooray! Another puzzle game has made the list! The Oddworld franchise is, well...odd, to say the least. That did not, however, divert me from falling in love with its weirdness. Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee is, in my pseudo-humble opinion, the best of the franchise. The third in the series and the first to enter the world of 3D gaming, it follows the exploits of Munch, a one-legged merman-esque critter, as he tries to track down the remainder of his species (a sad lot fished to the brink of extinction) and save them, and himself, from being eaten. Also, some other stuff happens that's important to the future of Oddworld or whatever.

          This game sits somewhere between the gaming styles of The Neverhood and Shadow of the Colossus; it isn't quite a point-and-click, but it doesn't have the same free-roaming play style of Shadow [etc.], relying mostly on self-contained puzzle rooms for the bulk of the game. Like so many of the obscure games I appreciate, this game's bright points revolve around its story, uniqueness, and character. Far stranger, wittier, and cleverer than your standard lot of games, Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee (really the whole Oddworld francise) glows an unnatural green in a world of taupes.

5. War of the Monsters (PS2)

          This game, more than any of the others on this list, I have a pretty serious attachment to. I can't tell you the number of hours I spent playing this game with my little brother, nor can I properly express you you the joy therein. For a couple of poor boys who grew up watching Godzilla movies by candlelight in our tiny cabin on our parent's struggling farm in the middle of the Great Depression (I may be misrepresenting our plight) and having nothing but garbage in the way of giant-monster games to play, this game...oh, boy...this game was a godsend. Finally someone got it right. No, I don't want to bumble slowly around the city, destroying just a few buildings and/or fellow monsters before the round is over. No, I'm not interested in poorly executed 3D environments represented on a 2D plane. What I do want is the ability to completely devastate entire communities while bashing the pants off of my fellow beasts in fully rendered 3D environments. Thank you, War of the Monsters, for making my tremendously destructive and somewhat genocidal dreams come true. Honestly, I can't conjure up a single thing about this game that I would change. For its time and execution, this game is pretty damn close to perfect. For good measure, here's another picture:

          I was going to keep truckin' with this list, but that seems like a pretty solid note on which to end. So, instead of continuing down the road I'm just going to do a short list of some honorable mentions sans images. In any case, all the games on this list are noteworthy and maybe sometime in the future I'll come back and properly finish this list.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Jill of the Jungle (PC): honestly, the first platformer I can remember playing, the story follows a lady who traverses the jungle and can transform into both a frog and a phoenix in order to kill baddies. God bless whoever came up with this one (turns it was Epic Games, the brainchildren behind the Unreal and Gears of War franchises, who figured?).
  • Vagrant Story (PS): As far as I know, the most innovative action-rpg of its time. It used a clever non-turn-based system revolving around cool-downs and platformer-style action in which the game would pause to show the player the potential range of attack. Also the entire story revolves around dungeon exploring, cults, murder plots, and dragon slaying. Metal.
  • Crimson Sea (Xbox): By far and large the worst game on this list (be that in regards to visual quality, gameplay, story, or otherwise), but I'll be damned if I didn't have a ton of fun with it. Sure, the controls and camera are wonky, some of the levels are ugly and ill-conceived, the lore is melodramatic and weird, and the final boss battle is probably the single most frustratingly unbalanced bout since Mike Tyson pushed his mother down the stairs...I don't really remember where I was going with this one. Still, I stand by Crimson Sea for whatever reason.

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