Gamasutra's Best Of 2011: Top 5 Cult Games

2011 was a good year for cult games, and here, Game Developer magazine EIC Brandon Sheffield discusses the best games that were destined to avoid the mainstream.
[Game Developer magazine editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield picks out the top cult games of 2011, from visual feasts to flowing fighters and beyond.] What makes a cult game? I might define “cult” as a title that gains a dedicated audience in spite of low adoption outside a rabid few. Or a game that succeeds in spite of obvious flaws. Then again, perhaps it’s simply an experience you remember for months after it’s finished, even if you’re not quite sure why. For many of us at Gamasutra, and certainly for me, cult games are the highlights of the year. Finding these diamonds in the rough is a bright spot in a world of brown, and we applaud the developers of all these games for their efforts. These games are, for one reason or another, more than the sum of their parts. 5. The King of Fighters XIII (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 - SNK Playmore, Atlus) While I would love to simply call KOF XIII one of the proper best games of the year, the series just doesn’t get nearly the recognition or audience that Street Fighter does. But this is the best KOF in many years, and series fans know it. After the faltering KOF XII, XIII feels again like a proper alternative and complement to Street Fighter. It’s faster, but not too fast (ala Melty Blood), it flows better, and is more complex than ever before. KOF has always had a different “feel” to it, and that feeling is back, as are the layered fighting systems. But this time, they’re so fluid that you can stumble upon (and thus learn) them by accident, if you’ve got a little skill, which has big payoffs for both newer and veteran players. Plus it looks pretty fantastic, bizarre racial profiling backgrounds aside.
4. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP (iOS - Capy Games) What can be said about this game that hasn’t been said before? Sword & Sworcery is one of those rare games that was lauded by players and press alike, even in art and music circles. The gorgeously stylized visuals and perfectly paired music arguably made it more of an interactive art experience than a proper “game,” and the team at Capy was rewarded for that. Sworcery has gained a dedicated following, which extends to the company itself, as it works on new properties. That is, perhaps, the very definition of a “cult hit.”
3. Dead Island (Multiplatform - Techland, Deep Silver) It’s hard to imagine where Dead Island would be without its innovative and emotionally arresting trailer. The game was given a significant boost, which resulted in many more eyes on the property than you’d expect from a mid-budget title -- the game shipped over 3 million copies so far. The game itself is often described as “schlocky fun,” which fits under the “cult” umbrella nicely. The game tries to branch in so many directions that is a jack of all trades and master of none, mixing equal parts Left 4 Dead, Borderlands, and Oblivion. But the meeting of all these ideas gives it a grindhouse-y feel even in its flaws, and the co-op brings the game’s systems to life, adding up to make the FPS (or is it first-person melee?) cult surprise of 2011.
2. Shadows of the Damned (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 - Grasshopper Manufacture, EA) As I said in my recent interview with Grasshopper Manufacture’s Goichi Suda, I don’t really know why Shadows of the Damned didn’t sell better than it did. It’s got an odd premise, with a nearly illiterate hero (especially amusing when he’s reading in-game fairytales) and a wimpering demon gun chasing after a girl who is constantly dissected, murdered, and blown up. The demon realm in SotD feels like a living city, but one like you’ve never seen before. The push and pull of the game’s light/dark mechanic can make for very tense moments. The story is irreverent and ridiculous. This game screams cult, but could have been so much more, if only it had found the right audience.
1. El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 - Ignition Entertainment) I’ll admit that I don’t enjoy playing El Shaddai. It’s a totally competent third person brawler, but even the best of those just isn’t my sort of game. But the visuals, my god! Video games have a unique position in entertainment – they can take you inside of fantastical worlds that couldn’t possibly exist, and allow you to live in them. El Shaddai, then, is a perfect example of what video games can and should do. Moving from oil-slick mountains to living ukio-e prints to sparse neon technodromes, the game takes you into the impossible and out the other side. It is a visual feast the like of which may never be made again, at least not with this budget. So why did I say I don’t enjoy playing it? Because this game has so much care put into its presentation that I did play it. The presentation carried me through. If that’s not cult, I don’t know what is!
Honorable mentions: Yakuza 4 (Sega) – hostess clubs! From Dust (Ubisoft Montpellier) – you can make a skull mountain cry waterfalls. Corpse Party (Team GrisGris, XSEED) – 2D macabre adventure. Alice: Madness Returns (Spicy Horse, EA) – The madness, it returns! [Other 2011 retrospectives: Top 5 Major Industry Events; Top 5 Major Industry Trends; Top 5 Controversies; Top 5 Most Anticipated Games Of 2012; Top 10 Indie Games; Top 5 PC Games; Top 5 Overlooked Games; and Top 5 Social Games.]

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