Welcome to part 2 of this CelJaded list where we’re in the midst of discovering my top 20 video game surprises; titles which I never expected to be as good as they are.
This list contains entries #10-#1 so be sure to read part 1 first if you’re new to the party.
For everyone else; welcome back and let’s get to the final ten!
#10 – NHL Hitz 2002
As you may have gathered from my various posts on CelJaded up to now, I’m not much of a sports enthusiast. In fact I can tell you the last FIFA Football game I played to any reasonable length was FIFA 95 for the Sega Megadrive (I quite liked it though!).
But the NHL Hitz franchise has been an exception to that rule mainly due to its unique approach to the sport in question.
Developed by Black Box Games and published by the now defunct arcade specialist Midway, NHL Hitz 2002 is a relentlessly entertaining depiction of ice hockey that delivers an arcade experience with fewer rules and more in-your-face action.
The hard hitting body checks contained within this rather brutal version of the sport allows you to send players flying across the rink and even through the glass barriers of the front row! Borrowed directly from the arcade classic NBA Jam, a player that scores a hattrick will burst into flames (“he’s on fire!”) and become stronger, faster and more accurate with the puck for a short time.
Compared to its sequel, NHL Hitz 2002 makes it remarkably easy to score goals and so the action flows thick and fast with blaring sirens, crowd chants and music sounding off at regular intervals.
Everything is kept deliberately fast and furious; the game only supports 3v3 teams, there are no injuries, no penalty shots and frequent minigame punch-ups occur between two players that make contact too often.
NHL Hitz 2002 holds the unique distinction of being my most played demo version of any game. At the time of its release, Microsoft was desperately pushing third party companies to produce more exclusive games for the Xbox and it was during a quiet period of releases that I initially gave Hitz a chance despite knowing absolutely nothing about ice hockey.
I think this speaks volumes about the timeless appeal of arcade gameplay; everything is just so easy to get to grips with that it’s hard to imagine anyone not being able to instantly have some fun, regardless of their tastes.
NHL Hitz 2002 looks great, runs smoothly and is one of those rare games that works remarkably well in 3 player as a result of its 3v3 style of matches.
Even if it’s a bit low on the realism factor, there’s no way I could ever have expected to enjoy a sports title as much as I did this one.
#9 – Gain Ground
(Sega Mega Drive version)
I played a rather shitty Sega Master System port of the venerable arcade title Gain Ground when I was very young and somehow derived enjoyment from it despite not being able to ever get past the third or fourth level.
This obscure arcade release from Sega is certainly not one that springs to mind when talking about the usual classics and it was with great trepidation that I approached the Mega Drive version many years ago.
I expected very little from Gain Ground mainly due to both the below average review scores I had read in the past and just because the lack of anything that tends to be said about the title in general.
Fortunately however I found this game to be a remarkable title that was well worth a revisit despite its age. It was certainly streets ahead of the dodgy Master System version that is barely playable in comparison!
Gain Ground is essentially an arcade strategy game where you and a friend take control of miniature heroes who have stepped into an arcade machine (or some nonsense like that) whereupon they must work their way through five different eras to destroy the supercomputer that has enslaved humanity.
The action is far from the fast-paced trimmings of Robotron however, Gain Ground is a slow burn where you must gradually work your way up the screen dispatching enemies gradually before reaching the exit. If you can collect and lead any trapped heroes to the exit as well then you are granted the ability to play as them in the next area.
This variety is what powers the game as, interestingly for such an old arcade title, there’s not really a typical lives system. A single hit is enough to kill you but as long you have another hero in your bank then you can continue playing.
The ancient era heroes brandish simple arrows and spears whereas the futuristic heroes pack guns, flamethrowers and rocket launchers. Some are faster than others and some have the ability to shoot in multiple directions instead of just straight ahead of them. It’s your job to work out which of your currently selectable bunch is best for the scenario at hand as each level features a variety of different enemies and traps that will impede your progress if your hero is too slow or lacking in a specific attack.
The graphics and sound may be lacking and it’s a bit low on raw thrills but Gain Ground for the Mega Drive is a faithful adaption of its arcade counterpart. The great two player mode and satisfying, methodical gameplay is intact and that’s what matters most.
Whilst it’s not one of Sega’s more fondly remembered properties, Gain Ground is a great title to revisit for a bit of old school challenge and a fantastic cooperative experience even today.
Just watch a bit of this speed run and tell me that doesn’t look cool!
#8 – Duke Nukem 64
Duke Nukem 64 is one of the best console conversions of a PC I can remember playing.
I surely don’t need to say anything about how Duke Nukem 3D is a classic shoot ’em up so I’ll instead focus on what’s so surprisingly awesome about this version of the game for the N64.
A lot of effort has gone into not only porting the game, but also making it even better in the process with added features, expanded levels and an assortment of new weapons.
The fully featured multiplayer mode with split screen cooperative and deathmatch (or “dukematch”) runs smoothly and also includes bots! Consoles at the time were repeatedly getting the short end of the stick when it came to offering the joys of PC multiplayer but not so with Duke Nukem 64.
The textures might have looked slightly dated to a (then) more modern 3D shooter like Goldeneye 007 but Duke was still capable of delivering thrills. Whilst some of the excellent Sega Saturn port’s effects are missing (such as mirror reflections and lighting) Duke Nukem 64 still delivers its silky-smooth framerate and adds polygonal environments, meatier explosions and an impressive new 3D final boss.
In my opinion though, the single most surprising thing about this game concerns the issue of the adult content that has been censored. Due to Nintendo’s strict content guidelines, this is perhaps one of the most conservative Duke games out there.
The enslaved “babes” in each level have had their breasts covered up and can now be saved rather than shot at, there are no overt references to sex, drugs or alcohol, no profanity and a shortened ending sequence.
But the developers at Eurocom did not simply slash this content, they’ve always put in a substitute. Any changes to the levels have been worked around adequately with more bonus areas and secrets built into the existing framework; it’s an amazing job that they’ve done really.
After playing both censored and uncensored versions for years I’ve realized that the game doesn’t need adult content, any of it in fact, in order to be fun. Duke Nukem 3D is just that fun enough of a game already that the loss of any lewd humour or pixelated boobs is a silly concern at best.
Duke Nukem 64 is the best console version of Duke 3D that I’ve personally played and it does it all without a single “shake it baby”.
#7 – Greed Corp
For the lack of a better word, Greed Corp is good.
This is one of those games that I purchased for a song one Christmas as the sales period rolled around in force. What a surprise then to find that they were practically giving away a game of such quality!
Indeed I would have happily paid full price for this delightful turn based abstract strategy game had I known enough about it sooner.
Greed Corp has a somewhat board-gamey feel to it as four symmetrically playing factions vie for dominance in a pseudo steampunk universe of strategic warfare.
The goal is to be the last man standing on a field made up of hexes at different heights to one another. In order to produce walkers, that take over hexes when they land on them, you will need to build harvesters that destroy the hexes around them in order to generate credits which fund your war machine even further.
Every hex you control adds to your income and the game gets you thinking about moves way in advance with an easy to understand objective and control scheme. Later turns get decidedly chess-like as you strain to secure victory when most of the land around you has been destroyed in the name of progress.
Greed Corp is one of those early download titles that may be a bit hard to recommend in 2014 considering the raft of similar titles now cheaply available on Steam and Xbox Live etc. But a lot of good solid gameplay and strategic fundamentals elevate it beyond the status of any throw-away title that I thought it may have originally been.
I still think it’s a very nice game for fans of the genre and is well worth checking out if you are similarly inclined.
#6 – Halo Wars
Here is a major release that I think excels at everything it sets out to do.
Notable as the first spin-off title in the Halo franchise, Halo Wars is a real-time strategy game designed exclusively for the Xbox 360 console.
Games of this genre have struggled time and time again to make an impact on consoles due to the difficulty in replicating the precision offered by a keyboard and mouse setup. But if anyone could do it then it was surely the veterans at Ensemble Studios.
And despite my initial concerns I was so glad to find that they succeeded, as the controls in this game accommodate the weaknesses of the joypad very well. I never would have expected it from a spin-off but I think the game soon wins you over with its presentation of popular characters and units plucked straight from Bungie’s universe.
Ensemble realized how careful they had to be with this hugely popular franchise and everything from the music to the menu screens are handled with such care. The story is a bit lame but the CGI cutscenes are very nicely rendered and keep the campaign ticking away in between frantic multiplayer sessions.
I think simplicity is the key to Halo Wars‘ success as it presents intuitive rock-paper-scissors unit mechanics with very straight forward rules for building bases and researching special technologies. There is only one resource chain to keep track of and each unit’s strengths and weaknesses are made clear and concise.
There are still plenty of awesome moments to witness which is what really keeps Halo Wars competitive with similar titles. Massive liquid nitrogen airstrikes, roaming convoys of Warthog jeeps and of course the creation of your first Spartan solider are always satisfying to witness. This is very much a game made for the Halo community, with so much fan service packed into its core gameplay that I think it will be hard for any sympathizer not to be enamored.
It all just works so well and is very faithful to the property too. The cooperative campaign is just one more RTS innovation that elevates this surprisingly good title above similar console offerings and makes it an absolute essential co-op experience on Xbox 360.
What a shame that this would be Ensemble Studios final game before shutting down and despite that tease of an achievement, there won’t be a sequel!
#5 – Xena: Warrior Princess – The Talisman of Fate
I’ve got to be careful not to make this game sound like a classic because it’s very easy to get carried away when you think about the number of strikes against it before you’ve even plug in the cartridge!
For one, the N64 is a very poor system for beat ’em ups, there’s no arguments about this, it just is and that’s it, final, done, finished, FACT!
You need further proof? Consider that the N64 doesn’t have a single version of Capcom’s Street Fighter series to call its own. You know how many different versions there are of Street Fighter at this point!? It would take me years to list them all.
The truth is of course that the N64 controller just doesn’t lend itself well to certain games (or in my opinion, most games) and the beat ’em up genre just happens to be one of those casualties. Despite a few notable such titles there’s a dearth of top quality fighters on N64 as the likes of the execrable Clayfighter 63⅓ sadly attest…
Xena: The Talisman of Fate is a beat ’em up then, but as I said before there is more riding against this one from the off. It’s also a TV licensed game (we all know how they turn out) and published by Titus; veteran purveyors of video game crap such as Superman and Carmageddon 64.
By all logical reasoning, Talisman of Fate should be terrible. Somehow it isn’t.
The game is a 3D arena beat ’em up similar to Power Stone but with a lower level of interactivity and polish. The game comes alive in multiplayer which despite its rather rough and ready appearance, is actually kind of fun.
You take control of characters from the TV show and fight to the death in one of several simple 3D environments. Aside from the odd cool-looking wall jump there’s not really much to the areas you fight in but what works in the game’s favour is an effective targeting system and a very smooth framerate even with all four large characters taking up the screen.
Each fighter has a selection of special moves which are all over the top and amusing to watch but it’s a shame that the overall move pool is a bit shallow, mainly consisting of simple kicks and sword swipes that are all too easy to spam at your opponent.
Hands-down the best feature in the game is the roster mode, which allows up to four players to compete in an uninterrupted battle where each player cycles through the entire selection of playable characters when defeated until a single fighter is left standing and victorious. It may quickly devolve into manic button-bashing but the roster mode is just silly fun for its entire run time and really takes advantage of the N64’s additional controller ports.
Once again made again by Saffire; creators of the N64 version of Rainbow Six and the remarkably similar title Bio Freaks, Talisman of Fate is a game that helps patch a weakness in the N64’s library.
It’s certainly no classic but equally it’s a title that has no business being this half-decent!
#4 – Record of Lodoss War
This has to be one of the worst game cases I’ve ever come across.
Crap cover art on the front and indecipherable screenshots on the back give no clear idea of what kind of game this is, what it’s about or why you should consider playing it. Being based on an obscure manga with a somewhat poorly translated name certainly doesn’t help matters either.
But Record of Lodoss War actually turns out to be a console clone of Diablo and crucially, it works better than it sounds.
There are plenty of monsters to kill, spells to cast and items to collect in this somewhat generic, but pleasant fantasy adventure and it’s hard not to be absorbed by it all. An excellent opening chapter and intuitive tutorial really help settle you in to the game’s rhythm which is always nice for an RPG to do.
The graphics are pretty poor as is the music and there is an unfortunate amount of slowdown when the enemies begin to pile up. Luckily the variety in monster design helps make up for this deficiency as throughout your journey you’ll get to fight ogres, giant scorpions, golems and all manner of undead. The boss designs are always a highlight with everything from screen-hogging dragons, demons, dark wizards and gigantic sand worms waiting for you in the many tough challenge dungeons.
Upgrading your equipment becomes an addictive aspect in its own right. You’ll spend a good chunk of the game buried in the blacksmith’s book of enchantments, constantly tweaking and adding power to your weapons and armour bit by bit; it’s nothing you won’t have done before but it’s still fun all the same.
With its source material’s digital adaptions never before coming to the West until this game, who could have expected such a good effort? It’s even more welcome on the Dreamcast; a console that was forever on the lookout for another quality RPG to call its own.
If nothing else, Record of Lodoss War certainly created a new rule for me; never judge a game by its cover. Although I should have already learned that lesson from Strider.
I’m a bit slow sometimes.
#3 – Gladius
If there’s ever a CelJaded list of most underrated games then Gladius will be pretty high at the top if not the apex of that list.
This tactical 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.
The good points keep piling up in this game. Up to four players can compete in an exhibition mode, facial animations are amazing for their time (working eyeballs!) and the superior Xbox version offers more blood, sharper visuals and small details to make it the build of choice.
Gladius is not a game for everyone; it’s long and it’s very involved, which is why it probably failed to make an impression at retail despite excellent reviews.
This is one of those games that you can tell was just made with passion; Lucas Arts really outdid themselves on this one and I was blown away by how good this game turned out to be considering the rather dull looking magazine previews.
#2 – Under Defeat
When the Dreamcast was officially discontinued, a handful of developers announced that they would still be releasing games for the defunct machine.
This schedule of releases slowed to a trickle but even now, to this day, a few dedicated companies continue to program and release games for Sega’s final console.
The majority of these games are vertical/horizontal screen shoot ’em ups or “shmups” probably due to the ease of programming them for the NAOMI hardware and of course due to the overwhelming success of Treasure’s awesome and now legendary Dreamcast shmup Ikaruga.
But quite frankly I think the majority of the ones that I’ve played are pretty shit considering their premium price tags. A big deal is made about how the “dream” is being kept alive and all that tired nonsense, but in my opinion the dream is stone dead and these posthumous releases are often just feeding on residual fan interest to turn a profit with what I see as sub-standard games.
It’s a harsh viewpoint but based on what I’ve played, how else can I really see it?
Trizeal looked dreadful for a Dreamcast game and wasn’t really worth playing. Last Hope was in a word “hopeless” as it featured messy visuals where you couldn’t detect the damn bullets flying at your ship! This became such a problem they eventually released another version of the game (at full price of course) with pink bullets and several bug fixes. Test it next time!
DUX was another R-type clone with similar problems to Last Hope; looking more like a flash game than a Dreamcast title with sterile, boring environments and a lack of enjoyable gameplay.
Then you have the bore that was Radilgy, the nothing-special Trigger Heart Exelica and the waste of time that was Karous. All of the games above (except Trizeal) feature excessive difficulty regardless of settings and no 2 player support. There is simply no excuse I’m willing to accept for that.
But there has been one title from developer G-Rev that I did seriously enjoy and man did that come as shock considering the caliber of games I just mentioned.
This one is called Under Defeat.
Despite its admittedly silly “Engrish” name, Under Defeat steps in and shows these other pretenders how it’s done with tidy visuals, straightforward but rewarding gameplay and an awesome 2 player mode.
What’s even better is the nicely balanced level of difficulty which rarely frustrates over its beautifully crafted five levels filled with numerous American war machines begging to be destroyed. Yes, in a very strange twist you actually play as female German soldiers in a “weird war” setting that sees you fighting off allied soldiers in your attack helicopter.
The game plays so well as your vertically orientated chopper has the ability to turn at 45 degree angles (similar to Zero Gunner 2) thus opening up an entirely new dimension of control. Your craft can also collect one of three different ‘option’ units that attach to your weapon system and allow you to periodically deploy vulcan blasts, cannon shots or a powerful rocket propelled warhead at the enemy.
As good as the Dreamcast version is however, things would take an even more awesome turn when the game made its way to Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 as Under Defeat HD: Deluxe Edition. This high definition rendition takes things to a new level of quality by adding a full widescreen mode which, much like Rez HD before it, nukes the Dreamcast original from orbit it looks so good.
More gameplay modes are added into the package too, along with an alternative chopper, extra options, dual stick controls, achievements and a bonus soundtrack CD all at a low price point that adds up to an excellent new version of an already great game.
#1 – Rayman 2: The Great Escape
(Sega Dreamcast version)
#1 is a hit sequel that no industry expert could ever have predicted.
Rayman 2 has to be one of the most impressive sequels of all time as it effortlessly reworks the few good points of the mediocre original into a totally different game that feels fresh, exciting and magnificent in execution.
Rayman was a vivid but ultimately generic and frustrating platforming experience released for the 32-bit systems, garnering tepid reviews and accomplishing very little. Rayman 2 is the complete opposite.
Ditching the antiquated 2D view in favour of a full 3D platforming adventure, Rayman 2 comes loaded with personality, unique characters, unique sounds and a certain je ne sais quoi that only French developer Ubisoft (and perhaps Rare) could accomplish at the time.
The Nintendo 64 version was released first but I think it’s the Sega Dreamcast that can claim to have the definitive build. Judging by the demo alone, I could tell that Rayman’s new adventure was shaping up to be something very special indeed.
The slightly better camera angle gives you a better view of the picturesque game world and also included are a few hidden mini-games, one of which being a fun maze chase game that supports up to four simultaneous players!
In terms of graphics, Rayman 2 is simply incredible and raised the standards for its time. Several 2D sprites are replaced by 3D models, a widescreen mode is present (a rarity for a game released in 2000) and the whole show runs in glorious sixty frames per second. This is to say nothing of how the game takes advantage of the Dreamcast’s VGA hardware to produce crisp visuals that look incredible even on modern LCD televisions.
Whilst a dip in playability hits in its final quarter (the difficulty gets unreasonable towards the end) it fails to truly upset what is a spectacular adventure and easily the most unexpected video game surprise I’ve ever played.