Following my previous list it was suggested by a couple of my readers that the “next one” should be an inverse; my top 20 video game surprises. A list of those twenty video games that exceeded my expectations instead of dashing them.

Well, despite the fact that I hadn’t planned on a sequel list (it’s a lot of work, I’ll have you know!) and seeing as those two readers could well make up over half of my entire reader base, I’ve decided that the idea does indeed have merit.

It’s funny because I think these lists are somewhat arbitrary creations. Looking at my top 20 video game disappointments I can see numerous changes and replacements that I would consider making even as I write this. People’s thoughts and evaluations are constantly changing after all and there’s no telling what these lists may look like in a few year’s or even day’s time.

But lists certainly are fun and much like video games; that’s all that really matters.

I find video game “surprises” as I’ll call them from now on to be a bit harder to accurately quantify though. I’ve heard it said that if you give a customer good service they’ll tell three people, whereas if you deliver them bad service, they’ll tell anyone who’ll listen. Similarly, a video game that fails to live up to the hype becomes a disappointment to be condemned whereas a game that does live up to expectations becomes just another good game as it were.

Looking at this list then I think it’s important to grasp what actually qualifies as a surprise video game. I’ve steered away from simply listing all good games, in fact, some of them might actually be quite average in truth.

Certain entries are games that I expected to be bad but turned out to be pretty good or perhaps even amazing. Others will be titles where, for some reason, I enjoyed myself in spite of the game’s lukewarm critical reception or “lesser” aspects.

Again, it’s important to discern why the game exceeded my expectations or in some cases, totally reversed them. Whether it is a particularly original feature, mechanic or perhaps just a unique premise, these games all have a suitable reason for why I wasn’t expecting the world but got my money’s worth regardless.

This isn’t a top twenty list of good games necessarily; that list would be rather different and a whole lot bigger. Instead this is a list of video games that for some reason just seem to work for me in a particular way that really caught me off-guard the first time around and perhaps even continue to do so today.

And hopefully this list is one sequel that you, the reader, won’t find disappointing…

On with the show.


 

#20 – Pokémon: White Version/Pokémon: Black Version

Pokémon Black and White Nintendo DS Box Art

Pokémon Black and White

These fifth generation titles in the main series of Pokémon games (both are the same game with minor content differences) were surprising not just because they were good games but also because of the advancements they made to the rapidly ageing formula that the Pokémon series has so staunchly stuck to all these years.

Black and White were a major shake up to the Pokémon franchise; one that I think it desperately needed. All the changes I can think of in these titles are changes that I eagerly welcomed.

Firstly, none of the previously introduced 493 Pokémon make an appearance in these games until the main story has been cleared, whereupon the full Pokédex becomes available and the old monsters are then reintroduced. What this does is force you to collect and train wholly new Pokémon from a set of 156 (more than any other new set in a Pokémon game to date), learning the strengths and weaknesses of each monster from scratch over the game’s initial 30+ hour journey.

To me, this gets back to the root of what made the original Pokémon game so good in the first place; that thrill of discovery that subsequent games became in danger of losing because of an over reliance on the established cast and established structure. This change also limited the repetition from seeing the same old Pidgey or Zubat constantly popping up in the game’s many caves and tunnels which got old in 1993 let alone 2007!

What’s more is that each Pokémon now possesses fully animated sprites which comes alongside a new dynamic camera that changes position to highlight certain portions of the battle. Aside from simply looking a lot better, this innovation goes a long way to bringing out each Pokémon’s own unique personality and the battles feel more alive as a result.

Other innovations include healing points dotted around the game map (instead of just in set Pokémon Centres), many game balance changes, plenty of post game content and even a less derivative story that sees an antagonist who begs the perplexing question of “do you think it’s right to keep Pokémon locked up in a ball?” For the first time I think, the concept of defeating all of the gym leaders and advancing to the final battle with the Elite Four was much more of a secondary concern to the actual main story. It made for a refreshing change of pace, at least for me.

The ‘multiplayer anywhere’ initiative went towards improving the game even further by ditching the clunky lobby system and opening up the game’s full wireless features wherever you were in the game world. I think this change alone made Pokémon Black and White the most accessible and instantly social games that the series had ever seen before the sixth generation came around. Truly impressive.

After three sequels and several so-so remakes, I had doubts that the Pokémon series would ever see a solid reinvention but Black and White made it a reality at last. It’s still not enough for me though- as I believe the series can be even better if it shrugs off even more of its rather antiquated features, but until then the fifth generation stands as a great effort and it all started with these two truly stand out titles.

 

#19 – Dark Souls

Dark Souls PC Box Art

Dark Souls

When industry pundits make reference to a “hardcore” game, this is the exactly the kind they’re talking about.

Dark Souls is the game that brings roguelikes bang up-to-date, and with what style it does so!

Touting a brutal learning curve and an equally chilly approach to player tutoring, Dark Souls is a ruthless RPG of peerless satisfaction once you master it’s deceptively graceful combat and giddy sense of exploration.

After the tedium of Bethesda’s most recent offering I found myself desperately searching for a setting that could excite me again. It turns out that this game was just the cure I needed as the things I disliked about Skyrim are nowhere to be found in the world of Lordran.

Every choice in Dark Souls is a meaningful one; the game is constantly updating your save so there’s no reloading if something goes wrong. If you lose all of your hard earned souls (the game’s currency) then you’re out of luck. If you kill an NPC by accident or fail to save another from death then that’s just too bad. In this game you must live with those mistakes and what a refreshing change it makes.

I instantly appreciated Dark Souls for its gritty feel, hard as nails gameplay and the simple fact that it made delving into crypts,  dungeons and even a sewer (!) fun again.

The magazine reviews that extolled a huge, connected world with foreboding areas, minimal loading times and a new ‘ambient’ style of multiplayer seemed too good to be true. To my surprise however; they were dead right on all counts.

To me Dark Souls is the game that has finally done difficulty (for established gamers at least) in the right way. Yes it’s hard as it can possibly be in the beginning; the game makes no concessions for your initial ignorance or pleas for clarity, but a lot of persistence and a little experimentation goes a long way in this cut-throat realm. All the tools you need to be great in this game are there- the transparent combat is intuitive, simple and easy to get to grips with if you have patience and the tenacity to stick with it and learn the little nuances that soon become second nature.

This is one of those rare titles where other games and other games’ systems are now being compared to it. “This is Dark Souls” or “it’s like Dark Souls” are things that I catch myself saying regularly, even about games much older than this one!

It’s all part of what makes the Dark Souls experience so surprisingly unique and identifiable.

It certainly helps to know what kind of challenge the game imposes if you’ve yet to sample its delights. Perhaps consider the recruitment line presented by the Royal Marines advert as a good starting point:

“99.9% need not apply”

 

#18 – Virtua Fighter 5

Virtua Fighter 5 (Xbox 360)

Another #18 entry, another Virtua Fighter game, but this time it’s the rather excellent Virtua Fighter 5!

My previous experience of Virtua Fighter games had been somewhat mixed following a play of the lacklustre original port for the Sega Saturn and the “looks horribly dated compared to Soul Calibur” offering that was Virtua Fighter 3tb for the Sega Dreamcast.

Starting life as a PlayStation 3 exclusive, this particular arcade port would take another 6 months to arrive on Xbox 360 whereupon I would finally have the chance to play it.

Having not played the fourth game in the series, the first thing that struck me about Virtua Fighter 5 was its commitment to providing an in-depth single player experience to accompany its surprisingly smooth online versus mode. This is something that previous instalments had always fell down on in my opinion.

The single-player quest mode presents you with a map filled with different arcades that you can visit and start fighting. You’ll earn cash for winning matches that is then used to unlock new clothing for your characters and get invited to tournaments. What really makes all of this great is the artificial intelligence of your opponents which is much more varied and unpredictable as a result of being based on real-life player data!

Hours of gameplay are needed to reach 100%  which makes for an incredibly addictive experience; the sort that modern console beat ’em ups are constantly neglecting to cater for.

Considering my preference for the Soul Calibur series over the years, I was really pleased to have enjoyed Virtua Fighter 5 as much as I did. The overall package offered enough gameplay hours to be worth the money this time around and it made it all the more satisfying when delving into the remarkably realistic fighting and appreciating the quality animation. Learning the detailed characters and their fluid move sets felt fresh and enjoyable with plenty of additional challenges and achievements to compliment the experience.

Flawless victory.

 

#17 – Lost Kingdoms

Lost Kingdoms (Nintendo Gamecube)

Much like many consoles getting a start in life, the Nintendo GameCube found itself in dire need of a good role-playing game during its early days.

Lost Kingdoms by From Software would be the first game to satisfy that demand and brought with it a few unique twists that divided some critics and delighted others. The game is a fast, real-time 3D action affair that’s light on traditional role-playing mechanics but heavy on tactical battling.

Lost Kingdoms’ twist is that your female protagonist doesn’t interact in the battles directly. Instead you’ll summon fantastical creatures through the use of collectible cards that contain everything from skeletons and genies to mind flayers and man-eating plants.

You’ll always have three cards in hand from a deck of thirty and collect mana crystals from the 3D battlefield in order to power your creatures that come in a variety of different flavours including the straight up offensive ‘independents’ that roam the screen looking for trouble to the powerful one-shot helpers that deliver a useful effect before disappearing.

The frame rate is good and the animation also fares pretty well but the game has its noticeable shortcomings. The graphics and sound are not particularly impressive and the overall campaign is pretty short. A 2 player versus mode is a nice distraction but it’s not balanced well enough to keep you entertained for long.

But in spite of this I find some of the more questionable omissions are things I approve of. You don’t gain unnecessary experience points, there are no boring town areas to traverse, no distracting fetch quests, minigames or equipment. All of the effort has gone into the gameplay and it’s undoubtedly the area where Lost Kingdoms shines the brightest.

The lack of the above features probably explains why this rather lite title was destined for obscurity, but like certain other From Software releases, I can’t help but find a certain charm to it and always look forward to seeing the creature cards evolve to their next stage of power – that steel skeleton that pops up later in the game is every shade of badass!

As a side note, I also find it interesting that the GameCube exclusive Phantasy Star Online: Episode 3 also followed the 3D card battling setup sometime after Lost Kingdoms, although the results with that particular title were less than stellar, sadly.

Because the combat system is so decent in Lost Kingdoms, the random encounters on the game map are actually something I look forward to.

And I can’t think of a more positive note to end on than that!

 

#16 – Hitman: Blood Money

Hitman: Blood Money (Xbox 360)

Despite not having played the original PC title, Hitman 2: Silent Assassin is a game that I was heavily anticipating when news of its console versions first came to light. After playing a magazine demo a few months prior to its Xbox release however, I realized that the game just wasn’t for me.

Hitman 2 looked incredible with realistic character models and ragdoll physics but just as equally the controls were awkward and the difficulty extremely high.

Fast forward some years later and I again found myself playing a Hitman demo but this time it was for the Xbox 360 version of Hitman: Blood Money. Once again I found the demo to be a graphical showcase that completely failed to click with me in the gameplay department.

After entertaining a few enthusiastic comments from co-workers who declared the demo level to be a lackluster tutorial mission that represented the game’s low point, I finally decided to take the plunge and purchase a copy.

Luckily, I would not be disappointed on this occasion.

The opening tutorial mission was indeed a turgid odd-one-out as the majority of levels were sharp and tightly designed. Your goal is simple; eliminate the target and get out.

Blood Money distills the entire focus of the game down to this very simple objective but the range of different approaches are staggering as there are so many ways in which a level can play out. Weapon upgrades between missions add a little bit of spice but it’s interesting that most of them are simply unnecessary. The highest scores are reserved for those who can complete each level without hurting anyone except the target whilst remaining undetected the whole time.

Your journey takes you to many interesting and vibrant locations including an opera hall, a cruise ship and eventually the White House itself (no points for guessing who your target is on that level!). The real jaw-dropping moment comes when seeing the Mardi Gras level which teams with a bustling crowd consisting of hundreds of different NPCs; the level of detail in this area is stunning and for me it ranks as one of the spectacles from that year in video gaming.

If I revisited my list of most disappointing games right now I can tell you for a fact that the more recent Hitman: Absolution would be on there without question (its omission is certainly an oversight on my part).

Following the modern trend of integrating a narrative where one is not needed, Hitman: Absolution outright destroys what made a game like Blood Money so great in the first place. The game’s story is a quagmire of cliches, the levels focus way too much on indiscriminate murder and the storyline constantly relies on racy characters, excessive profanity and sexist tropes. Also, the somehow even more over-the-top depictions of violence rather ironically go against the usual satisfaction of the whole “neat kill” that Hitman games are usually known for.

As you can probably tell by now, I think Hitman: Blood Money set the bar for this kind of game very high and to this day I still consider it the Hitman game to beat.

 

#15 – Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six

(Nintendo 64 Version)

Rainbow Six (Nintendo 64)

Rainbow Six (Nintendo 64)

The Tom Clancy video game franchise rode a massive high in the late Nineties and it all started with Rainbow Six. 

Billed as an incredibly realistic squad based shooter, Rainbow Six created a legion of copycats as a result of its quality ‘one shot, one kill’ gameplay that rewards very careful planning and execution over the typical all out shoot ’em up thrills of say DOOM.

Despite having not played the vastly bigger PC original, I found this Nintendo 64 port by Saffire to be an amazing piece of work for its time.

The usually complex planning phase is so easy to set up and control in spite of the bulky N64 controller and the game plays quite smoothly too.

Although there are not many levels included in this version, what levels are present tend to be tense and challenging scenarios that become incredibly addictive when you become adept at planning your action phases.

What really caps it all off for me though is an amazing 2 player cooperative mode that works wonders due to the game’s existing two-team structure. The constant interaction and teamwork required hammers home an immense sense of satisfaction when you complete a mission with minimal losses.

Rainbow Six can be a very intimidating game to the uninitiated, but nevertheless this N64 version is an inviting rendition that even outclasses its rather disappointing Dreamcast follow up!

Exceptional.

 

#14 – Warlords Battlecry II

Warlords Battlecry II (PC)

I remember the day I purchased Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic for the Xbox quite well as my brother also brought home a copy of Warlords Battlecry II.

Long after I had finished KOTOR‘s lengthy story I would still see my brother religiously toiling away at his PC on this real-time strategy title from Infinite Interactive.

I would soon grow rather tired of constantly seeing it on his screen and inquired when he was going to move onto something different. It seemed that he had no intention of stopping, whereupon I decided to install the game myself and find out what all the fuss was about.

It wouldn’t take me long to come around to this game’s charms and sheepishly admit that Battlecry II was indeed a very good game.

I think the key to this fantastic RTS series is its longevity. Filled with a ton of warring fantasy races, Battlecry II packs in oodles of replay value. You’ll start the game by creating your own hero to particptae in battle and when they gain experience you’ll discover a wealth of spells, classes and special abilities that can alter your tactics ingame.

Each race plays very differently too. The orcs for example prefer an early rush of cheap units, the fey focus on swarm tactics whereas the undead play the long game as they buildup an army of ever-strengthening knights and liches.

Each unit in the battle has plenty of fun sound files and animations that add such character to the game as a whole and alongside the expected mutliplayer support is an extensive campaign featuring plenty of different maps to keep you busy. Everything makes for such a grand and colourful skirmish that has more personality than a dozen similar titles I’ve played over the years.

Although this entry would be surpassed in many ways by its arguably superior sequel, I’m so pleased not to have written off Warlords Battlecry II all those years ago as it successfully introduced me to my favourite RTS series that there has ever been.

“May the book of ages record this day!”

 

#13 – Twisted Metal: World Tour

Twisted Metal: World Tour (PSX)

My hands-on introduction to the 32-bit era was not by virtue of the Sega Saturn as some may think, but instead from its rival console, the Sony PlayStation.

My childhood friend Mark was the first to get the console in our neighbourhood and he wasted no time in showing off both the machine and its impressive range of early 32-bit games.

I remember being instantly won over by titles such as Soul Blade and Mortal Kombat Trilogy, but surprisingly the game that left the biggest impression on me was Twisted Metal: World Tour (known as Twisted Metal 2 in the US).

The Twisted Metal series is notable for being the progenitor of the 3D car-combat subgenre of video games. Featuring an array of over-the-top levels and drivers, Twisted Metal combined high-octane thrills, mindless violence, and lots of fast cars.

If you tried playing this game today I’d wager you’d be horrified by the lo-res visuals and triangular polygons that make up the graphics. In 1996 though, this game looked great and it was good fun too.

What really awed me back then was the level of interactivity that the player has over the environment. Twisted Metal 2 has all sorts of features packed into its expansive stages including a working subway system, ramps, power ups, icebergs, and my personal favourite; a destructible Eiffel Tower! I can remember getting Mark to load up this game many times just so I could see the Tower fall on its side one more time; it was definitely one the most spectacular moments I had witnessed in gaming at the time.

Twisted Metal: World Tour features surprisingly deep gameplay too, supporting split-screen 2 player that can be played cooperatively as well as competitively.

I’ve since learned that the franchise possesses a loyal cult following in the video game community with Twisted Metal: World Tour considered by many to be the best entry in the series. Since 1996 this has been the only title in the franchise that I’ve ever played, but then I’m always pleased to think that I’ve sampled the best one of the lot!

 

#12 – Conker’s Bad Fur Day

Conker’s Bad Fur Day (N64)

There was a time when Rare Software’s company name was synonymous with only the highest quality games.

Following their highly successful 3D adventure Banjo Kazooie, their peerless console FPS Goldeneye 007 and the solid racing fare of Diddy Kong Racing, Rare had become one of the Nintendo 64’s biggest allies on the next-gen battleground and it wouldn’t be long before Microsoft would come along with a very tender offer for their exclusive services.

But before that piece of history would take place Rare still had a few more unique N64 titles to deliver to an eager public and one of those games would be Conkers’ Bad Fur Day.

Originally conceived as a kid-friendly adventure in the style of Super Mario 64, Conker’s first game took an interesting turn when the developer decided to scrap the generic theme in favour of a more racy adventure loaded with adult humour, excessive violence and a lot of swearing.

The story mode is certainly something a bit different thanks to this and it does make for a nice change from the number of Mario 64 knock-offs that were doing the rounds back in 1997. Matters are helped even more by some interesting set pieces and a total absence of the mindless item collecting that these kind of games typically include.

In retrospective though, the game’s toilet humour is more miss than hit; I guess it all depends on your mindset. The game’s highlight of “The Great Mighty Poo” boss is somewhat diminished by the wealth of offensive stereotypes and overall rather ‘random’ humour that permeates some areas of the narrative. The ending especially offers very little catharsis on the adventure as a whole.

But the thing that really, really surprised me about Conkers’ Bad Fur Day was its multiplayer mode, which is nothing short of absolutely fantastic. Conker’s multiplayer overflows with enough action, stupid humour and variety to keep you and three friends entertained for hours. AI bots are always available to fill in for any missing seats and the sheer wealth of different scenarios means everyone into the theme of the game will find something to enjoy.

The Beach scenario casts you either as a POW trying to escape across a dangerous landscape to freedom or as one of the evil Teddiz’ out to mow them down with machine gun turrets and missile launchers. Heist sees you trying to escape a bank job with the most amount of cash in your pockets and the awesome Raptor pits boneheaded cavemen against gigantic hungry dinosaurs. Raptor especially is so deliberately weighted in favour of the dinosaurs that it’s hilarious to watch the hapless cavemen either struggle and scream their way to a hard fought victory or be devoured for the seventh time by deadly raptor jaws! There’s a lot more than that besides and it all nicely compensates for the somewhat average single player story.

A reworked version of the game called Conkers’ Bad Fur Day: Live and Reloaded for Xbox would change this multiplayer mode to a more typical Team Fortress inspired affair with team vs. team combat set in the game’s War scenario with newly added weapons and vehicles, not to mention stunning graphics. Whilst a rip-roaring good time in its own right, this version of the multiplayer mode lacked the originality and variety of the first game and could only be fully appreciated if you owned an Xbox Live subscription which not as many people did back in mid 2005.

 

#11 – Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect 2 (Xbox 360)

Mass Effect was very lucky to avoid my previous list but I always harboured my doubts during the game’s production when it was clear they were shooting for a derivative Gears of War x KOTOR type of feel.

But I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised to see Mass Effect 2 improving on the original game to practically no end and there are so many refinements to the overall experience in this stellar sequel that it’s hard to know where to start.

The character import tool that carried over your decisions from the first game, the spectacular Hollywood-esque opening sequence, the crisper graphics and reworked combat system that meant you could use any weapon regardless of your skill points; all of it comes together to make Commander Shepherd’s second journey one worth taking this time.

Conversations are more animated, scenery is more interesting and the story is more engaging. This is in spite of an almost ruinous final act that only Mass Effect 3 manages to top in terms of sheer awfulness.

Nevertheless this game is more user friendly, easier to play and just a lot more interesting. Planet scanning is a bore but it’s probably a better alternative to the horrendous vehicle sections of the first game.

Also great are the new companion characters and the superbly simplified loyalty system that truly makes Mass Effect 2 one of Bioware’s best efforts.

There’s not much else to say about why Mass Effect 2 surprised me; I just couldn’t believe that the game improved so much on the lackluster original. Even the switch to an orange colour scheme was better!

Best in the series.

 


Continue to Part 2 »