“More lists” seems to be the requested order these days so I guess I might as well conclude this initial series of putting numbers next to box art with a top 20 list for overlooked video games; titles that perhaps sold poorly, received underwhelming critical reception, or just aren’t that widely known in spite of their stronger points.
I’ve been careful not to use the term underrated in this instance as some of the games on this list did receive positive reception at the time of their release and perhaps still do in some circles. I often find that these games possess pretty clear reasons if they never saw greater success. Whilst some cater for a very particular niche and others suffer from poor design in places though, these are games that I think deserve a bit more praise and recognition than they tend to get.
So put on your trench coat and fedora, down that glass of whiskey and let’s give these particular games an overdue second look.
#20 – Blazing Dragons
Obscure animated programs don’t get more obscure than Terry Jones’ Blazing Dragons; an old Canadian cartoon that sees the once villainous dragons of more typical fantasy settings turned into the heroes of altogether more zany stories.
The video game adaption of the same name was developed by the current custodians of the Tomb Raider franchise: Crystal Dynamics. Taking the form of a point-and-click adventure, Blazing Dragons was designed exclusively for 32-bit consoles during the mid Nineties.
With both the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation versions of the game receiving only mediocre reviews at best however, it’s safe to say that Blazing Dragons the game has become just as obscure as the cartoon it’s loosely based on.
Whilst the graphics are not overly impressive for the hardware, all of the oddball characters are well detailed and the silly humour still has a charm to it even a decade later. It’s aimed more at a younger audience mind you, so there’s the humour isn’t too subtle; just the usual bad puns and cheeky innuendos that betray the game’s Monty Python inspiration with every line. This is bolstered by an excellent new voice cast that includes the veteran tones of Terry Jones, Cheech Marin, Jim Cummings, Harry Shearer, Kath Soucie, Charlie Adler, and plenty more.
You take control of a young inventor named Flicker who must win the hand of his beloved Princess Flame by becoming a knight and saving the land of Camelhot from the machinations of the evil Sir George. Along the way you’ll encounter a collection of fairly standard puzzles that you would expect in a game like this and although many of them follow a bizarre logic not dissimilar from a Discworld adventure, they’re usually quite well signposted with helpful hints given throughout.
Less welcome though are the arcade mini games which never add much and just end up getting in the way. Being on a 32-bit console brings a few other unwelcome compromises including repetitive music and some remarkably irritating loading screens.
Before I go any further, I want to stress exactly how bad I am when it comes to point-and-click adventure games. Pretty much every LucasArts game I’ve played has seen me get utterly stuck somewhere along the line, unable to continue in the face of seemingly impossible (or implausible) puzzles. It should be no surprise then that Blazing Dragons’ rather entry-level difficulty perfectly suits my tastes but even then it took me well over a year to finish it. Where were internet FAQs when you needed them most?
I imagine the majority of point-and-click enthusiasts would likely balk at this game’s simple humour, simple difficulty, and cripplingly short length; after all, the critics certainly did. But in spite of these lesser points, I’ve always appreciated Crystal Dynamics attempt to bring a rapidly declining genre to a platform that would not see many similar games over the years.
Maybe I’m soft on this one because it’s the only point-and-click game I’ve ever completed without a strategy guide, but Blazing Dragons still manages to deliver a fun, puzzle-filled adventure that is mercifully shorter and a lot less frustrating than you might first expect.
#19 – Popcorn
Matt Dickie is a relatively unknown American games developer notable for creating independent games all on his lonesome.
All of his productions have a recognizable roughshod charm to them because of this, but it’s hard to deny the improvements each one makes when you look at each subsequent release.
In the gaming circles that do know his name (he’s generated a passionate following over the years), MDickie is most appreciated for his wrestling titles that feature fun gameplay, booking career modes, and a massive wealth of features and mod support. As good as the Wrestling MPire series is though, it’s always been Popcorn that I’ve liked the best.
Popcorn is a seldom talked about simulation game where you become a movie producer out to secure a number 1 hit movie. You start by hiring actors, renting sets, and negotiating contracts, before hitting the studio to edit together a film for general release.
The better the stats of your workers, the better the movie turns out and it’s up to you to balance your finances whilst trying to make the best overall production you can.
The actual movie making side of Popcorn is extremely lite and rather abstract; a “movie” is simply a collection of five sequential screenshots that tell a story of your own making. This is probably what turns most people off the game, but for me I quite relish the challenge behind telling a story with only five pictures.
Less enjoyable perhaps are the amount of random events, both positive and negative, that can alter the flow of your game in unpredictable ways. Popcorn doesn’t have a particular end goal either, except maybe for producing a number 1 film for each movie studio, but even then there will be a point where the game’s enjoyment factor drops off a bit.
Nevertheless, Popcorn remains my MDickie game of choice and now that he has made the move to mobile games he has rather generously released his entire back catalogue as free downloads from his website, so there’s no excuse now for not giving this overlooked gem a quick try.
#18 – Sid Meier’s Railroads
There are a lot of train games for PC but few are as lightweight and approachable as Sid Meier’s Railroads.
I’ve heard it said that everyone has a little fondness for trains and this game is sure to appeal to that little bit in a big way.
Contrary to Sid’s flagship Civilization series, ease of use seems to be the secret ingredient behind Railroads and its engrossing gameplay. Setting up your first station is pips and in no time at all you’ll have an entire network of trains delivering everything from passengers, coal, and food to the various towns and industries looking to reward you for your efforts.
The scalable difficulty in Railroads is a real winner too as it allows you to tailor how in-depth an experience you’re after. The easiest difficulty will allow trains to pass through each other without delay whereas a harder mode will demand you route trains carefully, punishing you with delays should you mangle your track layout.
Once the money starts rolling in though, things get surprisingly addictive as you sit back and watch your trains dutifully trundling back and forth between stations and annexes, generating you cash with a very satisfying “ka-ching!” sound effect in accompaniment.
For less ruthlessly minded players at least, the multiplayer component in Railroads is somewhat muted, with not a whole lot of interaction on offer, but the whole aspect of buying out other players on the stock market gives it some real teeth. I remember once hearing it described as a corporate deathmatch more than a train simulation; something that might not be too far away from the truth!
Railroads was well received on release and enjoys a small fan base to this day, but it’s a shame that the move to 64-bit computer systems has hampered this title’s ability to run effectively on some computers.
Even so, it’s still a great way to waste a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon that’s for sure.
#17 – Timestalkers
As far as the history books go, Time Stalkers (known as Climax Landers in Japan) will not be remembered as one of the Dreamcast’s great games. In fact, it probably won’t even be remembered as one of the system’s good RPGs either and it’s shame really because it’s nowhere nearly as bad as it’s sometimes made out to be.
Time Stalkers’ most unpopular feature by far has to do with a misunderstanding regarding its genre. Time Stalkers is not a traditional RPG, it’s a rougelike game and at the time of its release, this was not a particularly popular or even widely known sub genre.
One particularly sore point for critics at the time is how players lose all of their experience points upon completing a dungeon. This is part of the game’s design with players still eventually acquiring permanent abilities and skills that they can carry with them.
This is part of the game’s rhythm because you always start from the beginning (in a sense at least) upon starting a new quest and every battle fought during that quest is a fresh start. You can’t simply cast your most powerful AoE spell and kill critters wave after wave like the latter parts of some RPGs; every battle on the way to a new boss is crucial and with a limited inventory system, collecting new equipment is also relevant for longer.
Time Stalkers is brilliant for encouraging attentiveness in this regard and with a range of characters to play as, you’re always free to mix it up on subsequent playthroughs. Adding to this variety is a simple but fun monster raising component that allows you to catch colourful critters via a capsule system (think Pokémon) and then pit them against your enemies in future encounters. It’s not particularly deep, but then a range of mini games, cameos, and side quests certainly help add to the overall package value.
Where Time Stalkers falls down however is in the gameplay department. Although the battle system works well and the overall idea behind the game is sound (despite what the reviewers said), it is true that the game just isn’t that exciting.
Even for a first wave Dreamcast title, the graphics are bland and the audio doesn’t much impress either. There is no voice acting (probably a good thing considering what an asshole the main character is), a repellent air of zaniness at times and the dungeon battles lack spectacle. The game is short by RPG standards and the curiously undeveloped story leaves a lot to be desired too.
Is Time Stalkers worth revisiting? For most gamers, probably not. But it’s always irked me just how negative the opinions have been on this game, because as it stands; I’ve played a a lot worse.
#16 – Slave Zero
I keep wanting to call this game “Salve Zero” for some reason…
Um, anyway… Slave Zero made a startling return to market via Steam recently which is very nice to see considering how fun this noisy stompy robot shooter is.
One of the factors behind Slave Zero‘s rather patchy legacy is the stiflingly bad port it received for the Sega Dreamcast console. With blurry graphics, no soundtrack and an abysmal frame rate, Slave Zero‘s only console outing is a travesty I’m trying my best to forget.
It’s a shame because the Dreamcast undoubtedly had all the tools available to make a great version of Slave Zero but as it happens the PC is the only place to truly appreciate this relentless shoot ’em up.
Although the scale is pretty stupid in this game (how does a 60ft walking mech still get to do platforming sections?), the action certainly is not. Through every one of its fourteen missions you’ll blast your way through the forces of the evil emperor Sovereign Khan with an armoury of assault rifles, plasma pistols, and dark matter cannons.
Enemy variation is a little thin, but the light peppering of mission objectives and the occasional boss battle do their best to keep things from getting too routine. A multiplayer mode is included too, though it would have hardly been good enough in 1999 for players to consider abandoning Quake III: Arena or anything like that.
The PC version’s soundtrack is full of adrenaline-pumping beats and its presence is sorely missed in the maligned Dreamcast version (why this was omitted from the 1GB large disc is anyone’s guess), although it can be a little difficult to hear at times due to the sheer number of explosions and gunfire SFX that are continuously pumping through your speakers.
There are a few small flourishes like being able to pick up tiny vehicles on the ground and the ability to engage enemies in melee combat, but for the most part Slave Zero is a very simple shoot ’em up title that concentrates more on raw thrills than anything else.
#15 – Etherlords II
I covered Etherlords II in its own dedicated article so I’ll keep its entry here brief.
As I stated before though, Etherlords II is a meaty card battling adventure game with five lengthy campaigns to play through, each featuring its own unique mix of cards to collect and enemies to fight.
Decks are kept at a very lean twenty cards which means each battle will likely require a different approach depending on the spells your current enemy employs against you. It’s uncommon to find a one-size-fits-all solution for your deck, even towards the end of a campaign, so the challenge remains healthy all the way throughout.
This is perhaps the biggest positive for diehard card game fans; Etherlords II is a tough game to beat and will require you to leverage every advantage you can in order to win. For those that are not so comfortable with excessive terminology and tactics however, the easy mode still makes for a fun experience.
Whereas the first Etherlords was an interesting proof of concept only, Etherlords II is the inevitable expansion of that idea and one that works a whole lot better.
It’s a solid game, one saved by a remarkably diverse battle system and a dizzying array of fun strategies and deckbuilding potential. For hardcore fans of Magic: The Gathering or similar card games, Etherlords II is a must-play as there are decidedly few original games like it ten years on from its initial release.
#14 – Shelter
Here is another card game that doesn’t get enough love and this one is actually a game developed for mobile devices.
Now it’s no secret that I typically dislike mobile games rather heavily; something I’ll touch upon another time… But Shelter is a strange exception to the rule. I say “strange” because it also includes one of the most overused themes in card/board games at the moment; zombies.
Indeed, board and card games, cooperative or otherwise, are currently saturated with such releases and each month sees a new Kickstarter project rise and sometimes fall with the theme of a generic zombie apocalypse splashed all over it.
Despite the derivative background however, Shelter ultimately succeeds by offering a decently sized campaign of card collecting and card battling without resorting to micro transactions or any of those god-awful energy limiters that are so common in mobile games and “freemium” card games especially. In this case, once you’ve paid a very small one-time fee, Shelter is yours to enjoy and enjoy it you shall.
The game begins with a very typical setup; your survivor awakens to the zombie apocalypse and must journey through a city of undead collecting supplies and locating survivors to recruit as allies.
Your deck consists of weapons, actions, and support cards that alter your tactics in-game and you’ll have full control over what items to put into your deck from the in-game editor.
Shelter is a solitaire game where zombies (again represented by cards) approach in a line from the top of the screen. In between you and the horde are door cards that provide a temporary line of defence and it’s your job in each encounter to eliminate all threats before they can break through and chew through your health value.
You’ll likely start off by employing long range weaponry such as rifles and pistols before breaking out chainsaws, screwdrivers, and shotguns once the undead start to get close. Other cards provide interesting options, such as explosives that you can set on doors or barricades to provide temporary relief against the relentless assault.
The range of different zombies certainly adds variety too, with everything from zombie surgeons to symbiotes putting in an appearance if you manage to get far enough.
Originally Shelter was far too slow during gameplay to warrant recommending, but the developers at Survivalist Games listened to fan feedback and added in a much needed speed-up feature that makes the game ten times more playable than it was before. It’s elements like this that helps you see a real appreciation for board games in Shelter‘s design and it’s also apparent from the new physical version that has made its way to production recently.
The gameplay is a little random at times and it doesn’t really change all that much as the campaign goes on, but when considering the package as a whole, Shelter is a rare diamond in a sea of rough.
#13 – Factory Panic
It’s not often you’ll see a Sega Game Gear title on any of these lists as, good or bad, the batteries tend to run out before you can finish playing…
Factory Panic however stands as one of the console’s best games, despite the fact that very few people have heard of it. Such is the way of Sega‘s thirsty handheld, I guess.
It’s not hard to see why this title is relatively unknown though, as it presents what is perhaps the strangest concept for a video game that I’ve ever seen.
Players are cast a chibi version of Mikhail Gorbachev as he dashes through gloomy Soviet factories routing conveyor belts in order to deliver food into the eager arms of hungry Russian civilians. Seriously, whoever came up with that idea deserves… something… I’m not sure if it’s a medal…
But Factory Panic is a surprisingly good puzzler when you get into it. The starving Russians line up at the bottom of the screen at the end of conveyor belts and it’s your job to make sure they get the correct items that come along by standing on large floor switches to reroute the conveyor tracks.
Later the game gets quite challenging as you must avoid numerous guards (or stun them by shouting in their direction) and deliver different types of goods to different types of civilians. The little children ask for miniature Game Gear consoles!
The graphics are not overly detailed, but everything is depicted well enough to be quickly identified and the music consists of many classical tunes that are inoffensive enough for an 8-bit speaker.
A major gripe however comes from the game’s lack of a password system, so it’s a good candidate for emulation where you can use save states to continue later.
Factory Panic is an original game and considering the limitations of the console in question, it’s been executed pretty well. Like many good little games though, it’s a shame that the platform it called home was so short lived and unsuccessful, as it’s now been well and truly confined to obscurity.
#12 – Gain Ground
A bit of crossover here, Gain Ground made my list of top video game surprises last year but then I still get the temptation to play it even now.
Alongside the likes of other Sega arcade titles from the era, Gain Ground looks positively bland but it’s just one of those cases where there’s more than meets the eye. The Mega Drive version (pictured) isn’t half bad either.
Gain Ground is a very original game but it’s a fact that’s not evident at first glance, nor is it a fact that’s evident after an hour of play!
You and a friend take control of miniature heroes pulled from different time periods and wage war, up-the-screen stylee, whilst viewing from an overhead perspective. It all looks pretty samey but it’s in the pacing where things are very different from the norm.
You can interpret the game’s name quite directly as it happens; this is a game primarily about gaining ground in the face of stiff opposition. Charging up the screen with your spear-wielding barbarian might be a recipe for success in similar looking games but in Gain Ground it’s a first class ticket to getting your ass handed to you.
You can’t call it a shoot ’em up because of this (even though you often shoot little bullets, arrows or other projectiles) but then it’s not really a strategy game either as there are no real options that allow for overly strategic play.
The game follows this distinctive rhythm; what my driving instructor might call “creep and peep” as you slowly make your way up the screen, dodging a continuous spew of enemy projectiles and trying to down at least one of them before retreating and then coming right back up to do it again. Bit by bit and step by step you begin to make progress.
Sega call this one an “algorithm action game” and from what I can tell they do this without a hint of irony. This is mainly due to the necessity to study and ultimately exploit the attack and movement patterns of each individual enemy. At least I think that’s what they mean by that, who knows for sure!?
It’s tough to appreciate Gain Ground without devoting some time to it and getting firmly in the game’s rhythm (or algorithm?) which is why it’s not as well known as the more instantly appealing Afterburner or Outrun say, but if you ask me it’s one that’s still well worth playing even in 2015, especially when you have a buddy in tow.
#11 – Keio Flying Squadron 2
This Sega Saturn sequel to the even more obscure Keio Flying Squadron for the Sega Mega CD, expands on the dedicated shoot ’em up formula and mixes in a dose of 32-bit platforming for good measure.
Keio 2 is a real oddity of a game mainly because of its pure Japanese theme that hasn’t been toned down or altered in any way. The game isn’t anything special, but it looks great on Saturn and thus has an undeniable charm to it. The graphics are colourful and sharp and there are plenty of different enemy designs to encounter as you progress throughout the game.
The premise is simple: run, jump, collect golden rabbits; the usual. Whilst the majority of levels are done in this style, there are also shoot ’em up sections that resemble the first game and provide a nice break from the typical platforming shenanigans.
One notable feature is the points system. Points are gained by defeating enemies and overcoming small challenges with the game keeping a running tally during each playthrough. These points go into a pool and when you collect a certain amount, the game unlocks a piece of bonus material for viewing from the main menu. It’s a nice little touch that adds a bit of replay value to the game’s rather ageing structure and is something that we easily take for granted in games today.
Sadly, this release would not see a port outside of the Sega Saturn original. Combining that with the exaggerated seller prices of eBay, have cemented the game’s status as a very uncommon and expensive collectable that I was very fortunate to have owned back in the days where it was considered just another mediocre platformer.
Keio 2 is a ultimately an easy game that doesn’t really excel in any particular area, but it’s a fun one and I bet it would likely go down a storm with the flock of anime-fixated players out there.
I know they’re always watching…
Continue to Part 2 »