This is part 2 of CelJaded’s top 20 overlooked games.

This list contains entries #10-#1 so be sure to read part 1 first if you’ve just blindly wandered in and are wondering what I’m even talking about.

Commence!


 

#10 – Ironclad Tactics

Ironclad Tactics

It seems I talk about card games a lot, but this particular strategy/deck building hybrid is one that breaks a few rules, to the delight of some and the displeasure of others.

I followed Ironclad Tactics after reading a small feature about it in a magazine and held off on buying it during release due to a string of mediocre reviews. After eventually purchasing it cheap in the Steam sales I immediately regretted my original decision to abstain as I found the game to be rather good.

Ironclad Tactics is set during a ‘weird’ version of the American civil war that sees foot troops fighting alongside gigantic iron automatons that command the battlefield with classically inspired weapons including cavalry sabres, cannons and even morale boosting trumpets, welded to their massive frames.

Once you’ve assembled a deck consisting of ironclads, soldiers and various weapons and actions, you need to gain a preset number of points in order to win the round. Points are usually gained by getting your ironclads through the opponent’s defences and off their side of the screen, but certain scenarios can also include the need to hold fortified positions or destroy certain boss enemies.

What makes Ironclad Tactics very different is its unique spin on realtime gameplay. Each card you play from your hand summons a particular unit to the battlefield and as the game ticks over in realtime, those units will then move, attack or perform some other unique action. At first the game can feel overwhelming as you have mere seconds after drawing a new card to decide whether to play it now or wait until your action points increase for the more expensive (not to mention powerful) alternatives already in your hand.

There is no room for “analysis paralysis” in this game as the difficult decisions come thick and they come fast. But unlike the majority of critics, I think the early levels in this game make great concessions for the more casual player as the selection of units is limited and the goal of each scenario is kept so straightforward.

Ironclad Tactics has a very satisfying tactile feel to it and the rate at which you earn new cards (usually by accomplishing bonus challenges during missions) is judged perfectly with plenty of new and exciting additions to make to your deck as the game goes on.

Where the game really shines is its cooperative mode. Whether online or over LAN, this game doesn’t present any confusing lobbies or account systems; just a very simple click of a button and you’re in and ready to play. It’s fast, clean and simple, and the game plays well with two players each taking their own personalized deck into an encounter.

The whole campaign and both of the DLC add-ons are fully balanced for cooperative play and it comes as a strong recommendation for those who enjoy such game modes.

Truth be told, the storyline isn’t anything to write home about and the visuals use that hastily drawn Penny Arcade style of artwork which I’m never a big fan of, but at least the setting behind the game itself is well realized.

Ironclad Tactics is also accused of being overly difficult but again, I fail to see how this is the case for the majority of the game. Personally I think it’s down to players not really grasping the concept of troubleshooting; there is no one-size-fits-all solution in a game like this- each encounter needs to be tested with different cards until you find the right combination that works for the situation at hand.

There’s no use going into a blitzkrieg scenario with expensive weapons and units that are going to take too long to deploy; this is where you’d utilize fast, cheap cards to overwhelm the opposition quickly and decisively.

This design does lead to early defeats in many encounters, as you start by taking in all the details, but this is all part of the strategy inherent in the game; “know thy enemy” and all that.

The one rather sharp exception with regards to difficulty of course is the final boss Dmitry, who redefines the concept of cheap on a turn by turn basis and is a real pain to finally put down.

All in all though, I really appreciate Ironclad Tactics and I hope that developer Zachtronics hasn’t been perturbed by a few tepid review scores because their effort here is worth a whole lot more than all that.

 

#9 – Blast Chamber

Blast Chamber (Sega Saturn)

“The 3-D Rotatable Deathmatch” says the NTSC-U box art…

Really, I don’t know why it’s always the American releases that have these silly slogans and taglines added to the cover; do they think people will not simply flip the box over to find out what the game is about? It’s one step above “Deathmatch Evolved” I guess…

Awkward subtitles not withstanding, Blast Chamber is a wholly original offering that anyone with even the slightest interest in local multiplayer games needs to play at least once.

Reviews of Blast Chamber for both Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation were pretty damning back in 1996 though. Whilst the core concept of the game was praised for being different, the graphics, the gameplay, the sound, and the single player mode, were all heavily criticized for being below par for a 32-bit release.

Okay, let’s address this right now: every one of those allegations is absolutely true.

Aside from some nice pre-rendered backgrounds, Blast Chamber looks fairly putrid, the sound effects hurt your ears, gameplay can often devolve into button mashing, and the single player mode has some very awkward camera angles going on. But if you can get past the game’s poor presentation you’ll find a very unique multiplayer game that’s hard to compare to anything on the market today.

Here’s how the game works:

Each player is thrust into a fairly large cube shaped room with a bomb strapped to their chest. Think The Running Man crossed with Fortress and you’ll not be far off.

Each player has their own ticking kill-clock that corresponds to the time they have left before they explode. Collecting an item known as the Crystal (which immediately spawns in each room) freezes your kill-clock until someone manages to pry it from you.

Each room is designed in a perfect symmetrical layout with any obstacles such as ledges, walls, spikes and other traps appearing in a similarly symmetrical pattern all around the room. There are also green arrows on the side of each wall that physically rotate the room by ninety degrees as well as an occasional floor panel that spins it for a full one-eighty.

The player who rotated the room continues on their way whilst anyone now standing on a wall immediately falls, is stunned, and loses the crystal if they also happen to be carrying it. Each room also has four translucent prism shaped objects called reactors that are colour coded to each player. If a player manages to put the crystal into their own reactor then precious time is added to their kill-clock. If they insert it into another player’s reactor then time is deducted from that player’s kill-clock; potentially detonating them in the process.

There are other fun things involved in each level including operable traps, power-ups and even a crystal bomb that suddenly makes owning the crystal a very deadly proposition. Players have limited methods of interaction outside of a wimpy shove attack, so it pays to be constantly on the move, grabbing the crystal and regularly rotating the room to stun the other players. Each game can played in two different formats (always with four players) but both of them lead to riotous fun with such palpable tension as you desperately try to be the last man standing.

Watching your final ten seconds tick away as you frantically try to secure the crystal is tense as all get out and soon builds to a crescendo when your little runner explodes in a cloud of coloured smoke, wailing a rather haunting scream as he goes.

The main element working against Blast Chamber is the digitized graphics which are so blurry at times that it can be a struggle to see what exactly is going on. Shoving your opponents is also extremely twitchy and can lead to frustration when you’re trying to keep the crystal out of someone’s grasp.

The soundtrack is excellent though and although the single player mode is a bit of a side attraction, it does offer something different in the form of timed puzzle-based gameplay over several different levels.

But the multiplayer free-for-all and elimination modes are where it’s truly at with this one and like I said before; if you can get past the game’s rather humble appearance, you’ll find some extremely silly fun in Blast Chamber.

 

#8 – Gladius

Gladius (Xbox)

In a previous list I predicted Gladius would be at the top somewhere here, but funny how that works out when you get involved in deep research.

Again I’ll keep this brief but here’s a bit of what I said about it before:

This criminally underrated tactics RPG combines simulation elements with gladiatorial turn based combat to create an overly satisfying adventure with hours of deep, rewarding gameplay.

Released for multiple platforms in 2003, Gladius presents a simple story with two long (but mostly similar) campaigns that can even be played cooperatively with up to four players; an almost unheard-of feature in games of this type. In fact, how many story-based tactical RPGs are there that support four people? There are certainly not that many good ones I can think of right now.

Gladius also packs in plenty of game styles with interactive swing meter combat to make sure things don’t get too pedestrian. There are the usual flanking and surround tactics and while these mechanisms seem simple, they add a lot to the game as a whole.

Spell casting and fantastical creatures are also featured and it’s not just centurions and amazon warriors that you can hire for your team- expect to see wolves, bears and all sorts of critters available for purchase in the game world’s many arenas.

Frequent loading screens and a dumb AI may threaten to spoil the proceedings from time to time but the game still remains challenging all the way to the end. Even with maxed out warriors you’ll still have to pay attention and consider each move in order to win.

After playing Gladius again recently though, I can kind of see why it never generated the sort of interest that perhaps it should have. This is a very long game that requires quite a significant investment of your time in order to finish.

Whilst the game is simple enough to pick up and play, Gladius features many battles over the course of its two slightly different campaigns and only the most dedicated of players will make it to the end.

With its excellent drop-in multiplayer that supports up to four players though, Gladius is one seriously overlooked game for RPG enthusiasts.

 

#7 – Mass Destruction

Mass Destruction (Sega Saturn)

Available for Sega Saturn, Sony PlayStation and also PCs, Mass Destruction is a 3D shoot ’em up that’s so easily labelled as “Desert Strike with tanks”.

Mass Destruction is one of the those games that does exactly what it says on the tin. Controlling your miniature looking tank, you blast helicopters out the sky with heatseeker missiles, incinerate jeeps with flamethrowers and crush wandering infantry under your polygonal treads.

Each mission has some rather vague mission objectives, but you’ll likely spend most of your time destroying anything that moves and the real strength in this title comes from the sheer spectacle of doing so. Although the graphics are of the 32-bit persuasion, the explosions in this game look nothing short of incredible with the flamethrower especially looking every shade of bad ass every time it’s activated.

Random obstacles and flat-shaded buildings are dotted around each map and you’ll find it pretty hard to find something that can’t be destroyed by shooting at it. Even the trees burst into flames when attacked!

It has to be stressed how good the graphics are in this game. The detail in each explosion is incredible and the little touches like infantry catching fire and reflections over water really add to this game’s visual appeal.

In a very strange twist (for a 3D game at least) the Sega Saturn version is actually a lot smoother and features what looks to be true 60FPS gameplay in comparison to the jittery PlayStation release (the PC version ran on MS-DOS and doesn’t compare to either).

Whilst the PlayStation version has a few plus points, such as transparency effects, the Sega Saturn version wins out with its tighter controls, faster loading times and speedy autosave feature.

Mass Destruction was regarded well enough during its initial release but it’s a title that’s faded away as the years have rolled on. It’s certainly not a very deep game and repetition will set in quickly if you don’t stick to short bursts of play.

If NMS Software had been able to squeeze a two player mode out of this game engine then there’s no doubt that Mass Destruction would have been a true classic. As it stands it’s still a good game, but admittedly this is one that would have achieved greatness if the experience could have been shared.

 

#6 – Gun Metal

Gun Metal

Originally released for Xbox and later PCs, Gun Metal is another shoot ’em up that received mixed reviews in spite of its hardcore mech transforming gameplay.

Gun Metal was developed by the late Rage Software during a time when the first person shooter genre was in the middle of its ascendency and although it failed to make much of an impact at retail, it certainly makes an impact on anyone picking up the controller.

The setup is simple; complete a string of single player campaign missions with your transforming battle suit whilst collecting an expanding array of more deadly weapons to employ against your foes.

What sets Gun Metal apart from similar games of the time is the way it harnesses the Xbox‘s graphical power. Your huge futuristic mech suit looks stunning and watching it transform from its standard bipedal mode to an insanely fast attack jet never gets old. Later battles that pit you against truly massive mother ships and carriers are awe inspiring and you’ll have to fully master your missile systems and barrel rolls to take them down successfully.

Unfortunately Gun Metal is a very shallow game. Its mission objectives especially, whilst diverse, don’t exactly mix things up all that much. This and its steep learning curve no doubt contributed to its limited appeal on release which is a shame because there is an explosive time to be had with it if you can overcome the initial challenge.

Although the title was ported to PC, it was designed primarily for an Xbox controller and so I doubt the reception on that platform fared any better either.

 

#5 – Phantom Crash

Phantom Crash (Xbox)

Another largely ignored Xbox game, Phantom Crash is part mech shooter (I do seem to like these), part simulation game as you take your own personally crafted Scoobie (mech) through a whole league’s worth of competing opponents.

Phantom Crash looks excellent on the Xbox hardware, with each battle rendered with gloriously crisp graphics. Although the number of levels are limited, each one offers a convincing glimpse of an apocalyptic Japan now turned into a tournament ground for competitive battles.

There’s a distinct Japanese flavour running throughout the game including some bizarre music and a completely worthless and nonsensical story that I’m not even going to try and explain it’s that pointless.

The game follows a non linear design and each day you choose what weapons and parts to purchase and which battles you want to take part in that week. Eventually you’ll collect enough credits to upgrade your Scoobie to higher and higher levels, making them faster, stronger and more adaptable on the battlefield.

Practically every mech comes installed with an invisibility cloak (that looks superb in-game) and it makes up an important part of the game’s rhythm as every encounter you’ll want to frequently fade from view in order to score more accurate hits against your opponents. There’s also a simple mutliplayer mode that allows players to import their own Scoobies from the campaign game to use in deathmatch.

Unfortunately that highlights what is perhaps the biggest downside of this game; the variety. There are only a few levels as it is and each one can only be played as a straightforward deathmatch; no king of the hill, capture the flag or anything interesting- it’s always just the standard kill-or-be-killed scenario and gets repetitive after a while. Boss fights are maddeningly difficult too and you’ll need to resort to some rather cheap tactics to win regardless of how strong you’ve specced your Scoobie to be.

Phantom Crash is still a good game though, one that was tragically ignored in spite of its unusual depth and addictive simulation aspects.

 

#4 – WWF Royal Rumble

WWF Royal Rumble (Sega Dreamcast)

I’ve seen my fair share of negativity in gaming over the years, but rarely in such a bewildering way as with WWF Royal Rumble for the Sega Dreamcast and its somewhat lesser well known arcade original.

If you want to see one of the biggest problems with wrestling games today, then look no further than the reception that this game often receives from wrestling fans and listen to the reasons why they dislike it:

No career mode. No commentary. Not enough moves. No entrances. No create-a-wrestler. Not enough wrestlers. Not enough cowbell.

And this is all completely dismissive of one very simple and yet very important fact: WWF Royal Rumble is a blast to play.

The important distinction that I’ve seen most detractors fail to acknowledge, or even comprehend for that matter, is that Royal Rumble is meant to be an arcade experience and not a wrestling simulation. The arcade original by Yukes runs on a modified version of the Smackdown engine which might be where people tend to get a bit confused but regardless, this game is intentionally built for instantaneous thrills.

The name of the game here is quick ‘insert coin’ style gameplay; something that allows players to jump in right away and have fun, without needing to set a hundred different parameters for what this guy’s underpants look like and without watching drawn-out entrance routines.

There’s no argument that Royal Rumble was also the best looking wrestling game on the console market when it first saw release. The Dreamcast version is arcade perfect as far as I can tell and features all of its huge character models, weapon details, lighting effects, and up to nine wrestlers in the ring at the same time with no slowdown whatsoever. This was unheard of for a 3D wrestling game at the time.

The controls are responsive, there are loads of fun double-team combos to try out and the finishing moves look incredible. It’s true that the roster is small (which leads to some unfortunate repeated characters during the titular game mode) and the lack of additional gameplay options and console exclusive content is a shame, granted. But considering the fun that up to 4 players can get out of the game itself, it’s a concession I have no trouble in making.

When I first showed this game to my high school friends at a gathering one night, the response was unanimously negative for all of the reasons I initially listed above. However, despite the rather hateful comments directed at the game for its shallowness, I kept getting asked to put it back on so everyone could have another go.

I feel that wrestling games have fallen into this trap ever since; trying to emulate the look of the sport in question too closely with not enough time being spent on the actual gameplay itself. It should be the game that comes first and the resulting player enjoyment that gets prioritized. Developers need to get back to the sort of quality gameplay seen in WWF No Mercy and Fire Pro Wrestling and not get so caught up in the exact position of Dwayne Johnson’s eyebrow during entrance 05, camera angle 11, filter 72, because really, IT DOESN’T MATTER!

 

#3 – Rocket: Robot On Wheels

Rocket: Robot on Wheels (Nintendo 64)

Rocket: Robot on Wheels (Nintendo 64)

It’s said that when Sucker Punch started development on Rocket: Robot On Wheels, the leading design focus was to make the game’s environments more of a main character than Rocket himself. It’s amazing that they accomplished this task in a way that never detracts from the gameplay and it still makes Rocket a very likeable character in his own regard.

As the plucky little one-wheeled wonder in question, you’ll travel across different worlds collecting tickets that have been scattered around an amusement park; opening up new areas filled with puzzles and ingenious set pieces.

The all-conquering physics engine in Rocket is truly marvellous for a Nintendo 64 game and it’s tough to do it justice with a paragraph or two here. Objects that you pick up, including keys, barrels and even sentient screws, each have a weight to them that feels realistic and still feels amazingly convincing even today.

Later you gain a grappling hook where you must balance your own weight and inertia to reach higher areas and a freeze ray that creates icy platforms in water for you to balance on. Even here your own weight comes into effect; you’ll easily capsize the iceberg should you put too much pressure on one side and so on.

The first level is the entrance to a wacky amusement park and the sheer array of activities for you to complete here makes for a brilliant gameplay experience all on its own. To complete the level fully you’ll need to play fairground games, avoid pesky robot clowns, speed across a beech in a roadster and even create your own roller coaster ride in a similar fashion to Bullfrog’s classic Theme Park. This first level is one of gaming’s best actually and it sets the tone for a really grand adventure where level design takes centre stage at all times.

Rocket: Robot On Wheels was never destined to stand alongside Super Mario 64 and Rayman 2 it seems, but it’s always be one that I’ll remember fondly for sure.

 

#2 – Deus Ex: Invisible War

Deus Ex: Invisible War (PC)

I had the unique perspective of playing Deus Ex: Invisible War before its prequel and my opinion has always been very different from some. Whilst I wouldn’t suggest that this game is better, I have certainly never held the impression that it’s an abject failure either.

A lot of the bad press for Invisible War seems to stem from its PC player base rather than the Xbox crowd which might be the result of the game feeling more console-y this time around. Many of the RPG elements have been dropped, ammunition is now a universal asset shared between weapons, and areas are much smaller.

In a more unique setup from most game stories though (where you play the hero and whatnot), here you’re more of a pawn. The various squabbling factions in the game are out to convince you that their ideology is better and everything hinges on an interesting ‘lesser of four evils’ decision to make at the end. There’s no grand victory, no celebration of an ultimate evil defeated; just a tough compromise that you’re forced to make for better or worse.

It’s a shame that the side you take throughout the game can be so easily changed though, as it makes it hard to appreciate the impact of your previous actions and the one you make at the end. In comparison to Deus Ex’s plot however, I find it much easier to understand what is actually going on, even if it is less atmospheric overall.

There are some bright spots to be found when playing Invisible War if you give it a chance though. The persistent side quests that detail the competition between two coffee franchises Queequeg’s and Pequod’s (both Moby Dick references for some reason) is actually rather funny and pays off wonderfully at its conclusion. There is still quite a lot of player freedom like the original too, so if you fancy initiating a slaughter on the streets of Seattle or Trier then you can certainly do it if the mood takes you.

Ultimately, I guess Invisible War is better as an Xbox game than a PC game though and it’s a shame that the compromises made here prevented so many diehard players from appreciating it. Now that technology has caught up though, I look at the third game in the franchise Deus Ex: Human Revolution and I see more similarities with Invisible War than I do the first Deus Ex.

I guess these things have a tendency to come full circle.

 

#1 – Mole Mania

Mole Mania (Nintendo Gameboy)

This is perhaps the most obscure of Shigeru Miyamoto’s western games; an action/puzzle hybrid just waiting to be rediscovered by enthusiastic gamers everywhere.

Mole Mania was first released in Europe in 1997 which was an awkward period for the Gameboy as the ageing Nintendo handheld system had yet to be revitalized by Pikachu’s thunderbolt. Dressed in the now eight year old monochrome graphics of its original platform, Mole Mania failed to stand out on release and died a quiet death on store shelves, practically disappearing from the gaming collective consciousness ever since.

The story for the game is the typical setup: you play as gallant hero Muddy Mole and must rescue his princess wife and family from the clutches of an evil farmer.

The game is played inside various grid-based mazes that feature a brick wall that must be destroyed by throwing a giant steel ball into it. Muddy must tackle this increasingly difficult challenge by lining up barrels and blocks in order to fling the ball directly into the wall without it getting blocked by another obstacle.

Things get a bit more interesting when you discover Muddy’s ability to burrow under the level. Underneath each room is a tunnel system which allows Muddy to circumvent impassable obstacles and avoid enemies. When underground, the two buttons on the Gameboy system allow you to peek through existing holes (to see a preview of the surface) and also to create new holes by burrowing upwards.

You’ll need to create holes in every level in order to find the proper leverage needed to toss the giant ball, but then creating too many can botch the ball’s ability to slide uninterrupted to the exit. As they often say in games like this: it’s easy to learn, but difficult to master!

And you best believe that this game is difficult. Very difficult. The first level will sucker you in with its unassuming sunny backdrop and fairly lax puzzling, but soon your brain will be reeling from the possibilities brought about by teleport pads, pipes, and spikes. You’ll need to dodge and overcome vicious enemies too whilst all the time keeping your cool over the current puzzle. The intense difficulty is certainly a barrier for gamers looking to enjoy Mole Mania today (I don’t recall ever finishing it myself) and the awful music doesn’t do the game any favours either.

And yet there is something undeniably charming about all of this. Whether it’s the simple yet addictive gameplay, the absurd challenge, or the bonkers 2-player mode that sees your partner trying to flatten your mole with a farmer’s shovel, Mole Mania is an original experience and a fun time that deserved to be a big hit.