Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Lost Gems of Gaming: Hidden Treasures we all Forgot

Well hello there, Internet! Stay a while and listen! I've never actually played that game but I figure if I make enough references, people will find me funny! Narf!

This week I get to do something I now wish I'd done forever ago; share part of my game collection with you guys as we talk about great, good, or otherwise interesting games that might have slipped under your radar. If you don't like games then I'm sorry; between this article and the Super Special Saturday Bonus Post this weekend about Geekdom and Misogyny, it's just not your week.

Ooh, did I mention that? I'm doing a Super Special Saturday Bonus Post this week! Tell your friends! Get excited! Maybe do a little dance! Then come back this Saturday to read all about it. I think this is also the first time I've announced the topic of a SSSBP before actually posting it, so that's fun. You're welcome. Sneak peaks all around!

Under Review asks you to always sneak peeks responsibly.
Lost Gems of Gaming
Hidden Treasures We All Forgot

One of the earliest gaming memories I have is playing a game called "Rocket: Robot on Wheels." I can remember having a very good time with it and while this was still at the point in my life where I was too scared to go past the first level or so, I still spent a good length exploring the large hub area, doing made-up jumping challenges, and trying to puzzle out what all the hidden things were, even if I wasn't going to get the items needed to un-hide them. Years later I looked it up again and it was a very well-recieved game; it got good reviews accross the board, everyone who talks about it says nice things, and it was even named Nintendo Power's 24th best N64 game of all time, an impressive feat considering the amount of Mario's, Zelda's and other Nintendo first-party titles it had to hack its way through and that's all very nice except I've yet to meet one person who's ever or, at the very least, ever remembers playing it.

This might seem to go contrary to how we think game culture should focus itself; the devs make a game and if that game is good it becomes popular. Once a game is popular, everyone talks about it and it carves out a section of the culture for itself, becoming emblazoned on the nerd identity and that seems to be exactly what didn't happen with Rocket. No one remembers him, you don't see him in fan art or on T-shirts with ironic sunglasses above the words "Just keep rollin'" or some nonsense like that; he's all but disappeared like how you slink away after you tell a good joke that nobody got. 

Bad jokes are actually a secret Ninja technique for quickly turning invisible. This is why Michelangelo is clearly the best turtle.
Unfortunate as it is to see quality material get ignored, it's hardly unusual, especially as gaming becomes a wider and more varied beast. As we become bigger, so do the cracks into which so many unsung gems fall and they can fall in for any number of reasons; poor marketing, unfortunate release date, rough around the edges, standout similarities to another title, among a litany of other pratfalls. One or more of these at the wrong time is enough to stop a game dead in its tracks no matter how good it actually is and yes, it happens all the time

There really isn't a more perfect example of how this happens than Psychonauts to the point where it's almost impossible to do one of these articles without at least mentioning it. Since it's release, bomb, and ultimate cult uprising, it's become a sort of very quiet poster child for underrated games everywhere and rightfully so; Psychonauts is a triple-A title with a bizarrely creative concept, fantastically implemented mechanics, a sense of style all its own, and most of all; lots of love. By all rights, it should have been a major success and critics and devs alike were nearly appalled when it just...wasn't. No one bought it. I bought it and none of my friends did. I didn't meet another person who'd played it for years. It just completely and randomly flopped and for the longest time, no one knew why.

Looking back, if I had to say what went wrong with the release, I'd probably just be better off trying to list what went right which was not a whole lot. Marketing for the game was...not there. At all. It doesn't help that it's already a hard game to explain in ten words or less ("Jump into people's minds, look awesome, and laugh darkly" is about the best I could come up with and even that's not great) but Doublefine, the developer, hardly had enough cash on hand to throw it at some advertising people and publishers Majesco and THQ were exactly confident in such a weird title to do it themselves. Also at the time there was something of a PC recession, PC being where the game was best received. You could buy it for the Xbox but at the time it was all about Halo and Fable and no one really noticed something that didn't involve shooting, slashing, or a combination therof. Because consoles were exploding so brightly and so many (admittedly very good) titles coming out for them, a lot of gamers migrated from the desk to the couch, putting PC gaming back in the nerd niche until we discovered indie development again. 

In related news, we are fast approaching a world where indie games are becoming too mainstream. Think about what you've done. 
So Psychonauts, already starting from behind, was left to speak for itself and try to generate some word of mouth. And it did. Over the next seven or so years, practically a lifetime in gaming. As previously mentioned, it's a very competent game. It knows all the right chords to hit and manages to strike the median between silly and dark at a near constant rate. There's a new, interesting mechanic introduced in almost every level and while every one of them might not stay, nearly all of them are pitch-perfect for what and where they are. Psychonauts started from behind but no one had anticipated the staying power of it all. Nearly everyone who played it added it to their permanent library and started jabbering to their friends about it. I know because I was one of the jabberers. To date, nearly all of my friends have played it now, at my insistence, and they all loved it and it all sort of spread through the internet like a latent viral infection until whispers of a sequel eeked out from the ether and the internet exploded because, without realizing it, more people had played Psychonauts than anyone had ever realized. 

So where am I going with this? As easy as it's become to slip through unnoticed by the gaming world these days, Cinderella stories like Psychonauts' are also happening more and more often; games being rediscovered over the internet because a community of fans was finally able to find each other and consolidate into a more impermeable form, games finding more niche's large enough to plant themselves in and grow, and finally, games discovering long-elusive limelight by becoming repurposed in a way the designers hadn't looked into. 

At the moment, Internet, we're living in a window where our past is close enough to touch and wide enough to lose. There's literal mountains of content to mine for rare gems and now's the time to get digging before they erode. Steam and Good Old Games are great for this, offering large varieties of games, old and new, at more than reasonable prices. Don't want to or can't invest in your history? Can't find the kind of games you want to explore? There are literal online libraries of PC emulators for every console featuring nearly every discontinued game ever made. I'd say it's probably pretty unethical (and definitely illegal) to go this route for games that are still being made and sold, but for the older, especially the more obscure ones, you may well be doing them a service by revisiting someone's hard work. We at Under Review don't condone piracy in any way and that's very bad but...

We get it Tom; move on.
So let's say you're interested in dipping your toes into some games to see what the undercurrent has to offer; where do you start? Well, it's inadvisable for me to link you to any such emulator sites to search for ROM's but you seem like a pretty smart kid, so I'm sure you can figure that out on your own. To that end though, here's five games I feel could use a bit more attention than maybe they've gotten so far.

Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee/Abe's Exoddus
Oddworld tends to be one of those universes that you either love or know absolutely nothing about. Much like Psychonauts, it's a puzzle/platformer that absolutely drips style. The first two games, as listed, center around the titular Abe, an endearing, if simple-minded and confusingly rhyming, slave of Rupture farms who tries to escape with his other slave bretheren after discovering that they're the next food product the farm's to start producing. If I had to cite a failing, it'd probably be that the game had a pretty steep learning curve, flat-out refusing to explain mechanics at one point, in addition to being just another one of those weird games no one wanted to take a chance on. The learning curve can be fixed with the Internet though and I'm here now, telling you to take a chance on it, so...there. Also in the series is Munch's Oddysee, which I have never played, and Stranger's Wrath which is a very nice and suitably odd, first person/third person hybrid.

Plus, I mean, how can you turn down that face?
One final note on the first two; the controls do take some getting used to. They're not bad, but if you've ever played the original Prince of Persia, you'll feel right at home. You can't alter your jump trajectory or direction in any way; they're canned animations, so really, just make sure you've got a good idea of where you'll land.

Jade Empire
It's almost not fair putting this one down because it was actually really popular when it came out. It's a Bioware game, today's progenitors of Mass Effect and The Old Republic, and really a pretty top-notch roleplaying game all around. Taking place in an ancient China where all the myths and legends are actually true, martial arts and magic are the same thing, and steampunk was made of bamboo, not brass. 

What, you thought that was a joke?
As a game, there really wasn't anything wrong with it; the graphics hold up pretty okay even today with animations straight out of a martial arts film and the gameplay being classic Bioware Role Playing. What ultimately made it fade was what came before and after it; Star Wars and Mass Effect. Before Jade Empire, Bioware worked with Lucasarts to put out Knights of the Old Republic which is one of those games people still install to replay occasionally. After Jade Empire, Bioware put out Mass Effect which pretty much made everyone forget that Bioware had made any other game ever. One of the criticisms levied against Jade Empire was that it was very similar to KotOR, even going so far as to have identifiable archetypes shared between either titled (Every game they make still has a "Carth;" a vanilla, all-around character that you'll never use in your party). It's still definitely worth checking out though if Star Wars isn't your thing, you want to play something prettier than KotOR, or even really just for the story and setting.

Plus, you know, cool fights, tons of fun. The normal stuff.

Killer 7
I can't play Killer 7. I mean this both in the sense that I do not have the skill to play it and also that I can't play it because it wigs me the fuck out. Neither could I really properly describe the story to you other than you are the Killer 7, an assassin with 7 distinct personalities and physical appearances (and, at least once, gender because Japan) a la Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and their five other friends. The gameplay is...also sort of difficult to describe, actually. It's an on-rails shooter where you must use the (very very tight) first person controls to shoot some giggling suicide bombers in very specific and very tiny weak points before they get to you and do damage. Did I mention they're invisible at first and you have to scan for them before you can even shoot at them? Yeah. This game doesn't pull any punches. 

Also this guy happens. Frequently. And inexplicably.
Despite my disability, I hold no ill will against it and I've had many people tell me they love it. For what it is, it's a game of pure style. Suda51 is all about messing with your sense of aesthetics and who knows; maybe if I spent the proper time required to muscle through the learning curve, I'd find there was a good reason for it being there. He pulls crap like that all the time. 

Amplitude is the grandaddy of a large chunk of the rhythm game genre, being made by Harmonix, the company who would go on to pioneer the fine art of selling you the same plastic guitar four times running. Looking through it now, there's a lot of evidence of foundation where Guitar Hero and Rock Band were built  from. The game is played by hitting notes streaming down towards you on a track; hit the notes and the music plays, giving you a score bonus. Where Amplitude diverges is that you're not on a stage, you're in a spaceship, flying down these tracks and these same tracks also have different lanes, representing the different parts of the song; vocals, percussion, synth, and bass, respectively. Even cooler? It had a multiplayer mode where you and a friend could remix a song by placing notes wherever you liked in the percussion, synth, and bass tracks. 

On the downside? Keytars. Keytars are definitely what killed this game.
The game is ultimately massively overshadowed by the near cancerous growth of Guitar Hero but that's to be expected; despite it getting a pretty good mess of licensed tracks into the game, it was a pretty low-budget title that didn't do very well, commercially. It wasn't until Harmonix added the pseudo-performance element to the mix that the formula took off and pinkies everywhere stretched for that stupid orange button.  

Rygar is actually the only game on this list that I didn't grow up with at some point. I found it a few months ago in a game shop that sold original cartridges and found it among the racks with the rest of the mostly-forgottens. I picked it out of a vague memory of someone once saying it was good in my general vicinity and decided that was enough excuse to blow six dollars. What I got was surprisingly good for a game that had diminished to hardly a whisper and while it shows its age (the famous NES memory flicker and generally being a "Figure it out yourself" experience) it's also a pretty well-done sidescrolling adventure that I'm a little puzzled as to why it's not more widely remembered. 

While I couldn't tell you exactly why it vanished, my best guess would be lack of true remarkableness. It side-scrolls like Adventure of Link, explores like Metroid, and has a UI and HUD reminiscent of Castlevainia. All of these things work very well together, but it's hard to pick out any truly original concepts in it.

It's even got helpful old men, like Zelda. Though admittedly, Rygar's old men are also scary giants so that's something.
And that's all I've got. Game collecting is an expensive hobby and I am not a wealthy man. Fortunately, there are plenty of people with much better ideas of where to start. Previously mentioned Good Old Games has nearly every old PC game you could ever hope to find and it very rarely isn't worth dropping five or ten bucks on something new, as it's a collection of favorite but oft-forgotten classics (that come bundled with goodies, I might add). Meanwhile, the good folks over at Extra Credits have a series called "Games you Might Not Have Played" which highlights a handful of less popular games that deserve a bit of lovin'. There's like five of them, check it out.

For now though; I collapse. Thank you, goodnight. Sentry ahead.

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