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For the latest Question Of The Week, we asked the simple question: "What videogame or games do you think have been the most underrated in terms of providing innovation or pure enjoyment, and why?" This gave our audience of game professionals a chance to discuss those video games that perhaps didn't get the attention they deserved when they first debuted.

Quang Hong, Blogger

November 14, 2005

25 Min Read

For the latest Question Of The Week, we asked the simple question: "What videogame or games do you think have been the most underrated in terms of providing innovation or pure enjoyment, and why?" This gave our audience of game professionals a chance to discuss those video games that perhaps didn't get the attention they deserved when they first debuted.

Very few of the responses from industry professionals cited the same game, but by reading through the multitude of choices, it becomes pretty clear that quite a few otherwise great games i were swept under the rug. Some reasons cited by our respondents included poor release timing, lack of marketing support, and niche genres, but we're happy to present these replies to help our readers rediscover the titles.


Blade of Darkness

The Adventures of Cookie & Cream is the most underrated co-op experience. This game is about true cooperative game mechanics. Forget about other co-op games that allow the leading player to drag the other player along through checkpoints - this game requires both players to complete puzzles and challenges together, itherwise neither player can progress. It is presented in a clear and intuitive fashion so that I can play it with casual gamer friends. It is also challenging enough that my hardcore gamer friends enjoy it as well. I believe that it is underrated because it's too cute for its own good. The main characters are two bunnies in a cartoon world, and the graphics are only average, but they blend well with the artistic direction of the game. More importantly, the game pretty much requires two player co-op to enjoy it. There is a single player mode, but it is awkward. The average and hardcore gamer expects competitive multi-player games. There currently isn't a large enough gaming audience that desires a purely cooperative experience to afford this game its due accolades.
-Michael Cheng, SCEA

The game that came to mind first when reading this week's question was Io Interactive's Freedom Fighter. It received very good reviews but nonetheless went more or less completely unnoticed. The game was buried by titles like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time or Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes and got lost in the stampede of big titles released for Christmas (supported by the fact that EA seemed to release it quite quietly and with little - if any - marketing buzz). What lets this game shine is its innovative squad-based gameplay. While there're other games offering a similar experience, Freedom Fighter introduced an interesting concept that - based on a well-thought-through charisma system and how well you perform throughout the game - lets you recruit more and more members/allies into your squad. The squad-command controls are very simple yet highly effective and work flawlessly. I once read somewhere that Freedom Fighter has brought squad games "to the masses" because of the simplicity of its squad control mechanism and can only agree. Other game elements worth mentioning include the soundtrack by Jesper Kyd (not only the actual musical score but also its implementation and the way it is linked to the gameplay), the level design (encouraging exploration a lot which perfectly ties into the squad-gameplay) and the game's mission-structure (including the inter-dependency between missions and objectives).
-Markus Friedl, Ubisoft

Loom by Brian Moriarty (released by LucasArts), hands down. It is simply an education in fusing storytelling, games design and GUI into one single elegant and flawless entity. Can a game make you cry? Loom made me teary-eyed (real men don't cry of course!), and I have lost count of the number of times I have replayed it, just simply to experience it again. Every so often we have a perfect game (Super Mario Bros 3, Half Life 2, etc.), and Loom is one of the unsung ones. And for the hours you play it, the whole discussion of whether games are art, will be silenced.
-Marque Pierre Sondergaard, Heroes Team

My personal all-time favorite, Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen for the SNES, has received its fair share of blank stares when mentioned in conversations with fellow gamers. The game was a hybrid real time strategy/turn-based RPG that let you build up an army of up to 100 characters. The game constantly threw unique NPCs at the player, and half the fun was just setting up different combinations of units to see how they would react in gameplay and change the outcome of the game's 12 possible endings. I think the game fell short in popularity partly because of the length of levels (some battles could last an hour easily), and partly because of its small original retail release. If there was one game I could recommend to other developers to checkout as an example of near flawless game balancing and design, it would be Ogre Battle .
-Scott Brodie, Spartasoft

I would be inclined to say Little Big Adventure and its sequel - the strong yet simple gameplay, wonderful atmosphere and charm of these two games seem mostly forgotten today... In some ways, Michel Ancel's Beyond Good & Evil could be considered the spiritual successor to LBA ... a strange yet familiar world to explore, an eclectic mix of gameplay styles, characters with “character”, and an involving story of totalitarian despots, rebels and conspiracies, of strange creatures and stranger places. Much lauded by critics, BG&E was sadly ignored by the public at large.
-Christiaan Moleman, Streamline Studios

Silicon Knights' Eternal Darkness, and Ubisoft's Beyond Good And Evil and The Prince of Persia: Sands of Time - these are terrific games and yes, they all have their issues, but for the most part, at the time of their release, these games represented high quality and production values when most other games on the market were either re-hashes of other successful games or just plain awful. I am a very big Nintendo fan (although it is getting more and more difficult to continue being faithful) and have always found it strange that while some of my fellow Nintendo fanatics cry foul when the opposition gets "adult-themed" games, when Eternal Darkness was released, that it was not supported by better sales.
-Joseph L. Blackwell, Jr.

Outlaw Golf has to be one of the most underrated golfing games ever made. I bought it at Blockbuster used for $6.99, and it has been one of the most entertaining, time consuming games I've ever played. At first, I scoffed at the idea of buying this game. I don't play golf, I don't watch golf... Caddyshack is about as close as I get to any admiration for the game. Second, the box art gave the impression that the game was just a parody of golf. Why would I possibly want to play "putt the ball into the beer can? But, the price was right, and I was very surprised at the amount of depth the game has. It's a fun game! The graphics were decent, the animations were realistic, and the physics "felt right." The commentating is never annoying, and each time I play it I want to try to improve my score by one stroke, or hit the ball just a yard further. The “Outlaw” part of the game isn't really much of a factor in the gameplay. It might just be used as a mechanism to create a game brand, to set the franchise apart from other sport brands. It's a great alternative to EA's umpteenth sequels, and I wish the developers the best of luck.
-J Kelly, Sea Cow Games

Metal Gear Solid for the Game Boy Color (also known as Metal Gear: Ghost Babel) is my first pick for underrated game. Released in-between Metal Gear Solid on PSX and Metal Gear Solid 2 on the PS2, the GBC version offers great gameplay, a revealing story, impressive artwork and an amazing audio track. This is a must for every MGS fan.
Next up is a game that received much praise, but I still believe it is largely regarded as a lesser title compared to the rest of the series due to it being on a Game Boy / Game Boy Color game - The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening (DX). It was developed after the successful SNES title ( The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past), and as such, benefits from the team's experience and accomplishments with that title. Much in the same way that I believe the GBC version of MGS benefited from the team's previous development experience, I believe The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening also provides a very focused gameplay experience that builds upon the foundation of the SNES title.
And last, but not least, Ninja Five-0 for the Game Boy Advance is an underrated handheld title that slipped under the radar. Released in 2003, Ninja Five-0 received some favorable reviews, but, all in all, did not make much of an impact on most gamers. This may be due to its dated visual style, or perhaps the lack of a brand; the limited supply of retail copies, and non-existent marketing campaign didn't help much either. However, Ninja Five-0 provides a very enjoyable and challenging gameplay experience – probably more so than 90% of other titles on the shelf today, including the PS2 and Xbox shelves. Well worth a look, if you can find it!
Jools Watsham, KingsIsle Entertainment, Inc.

Before Guitar Hero, there was Gitaroo Man, a nice departure from the push-button/stomp-feet mechanics because it felt more like a fighting game rather than a rhythm game. It's probably this reason that the game sold less than it deserved. The path that you had to guide your cursor was like a rolling and twisting music sheet which makes it more challenging than most rhythm games that came before but at the same time makes it more of an involved experience because there was little or no downtime. The game has more personality than other titles in the same genre because they took the time to craft a really light-hearted story around a central character. Last but not least the game's soundtrack was (and still is) amazing. The acoustic ballad in Gitaroo Man deserves to be in the videogame music hall of fame.
-Carlo Delallana, Ubisoft

One of my all-time favorite games is Herzog Zwei on the Sega Genesis. Combining elements of real-time strategy and resource management into an arcade shooter was a brilliant and bold move. Unfortunately, the game never caught on in the main stream, probably due to a lack of marketing muscle. The gameplay has never been duplicated, to my knowledge. Game developers these days tend to stick to a single genre, rather than combining elements from several. That's what I loved about this game. I could stay near my base and build up a massive army, or I could spread out my forces for defense, or I could fly over to the enemy and blow him up myself (just for kicks - you can't win this way). As an added bonus, you get to transform into a giant robot. What a great game.

In my mind, without a doubt the most underrated game I've played is Severance: Blade of Darkness (just Blade of Darkness in the U.S.). Released in 2001, this game was ahead of its time in terms of lighting, atmosphere and AI. It is the only game where I have literally jumped at my own shadow. The computer opponents have interesting mannerisms and perform complex strategies in their attempts to chop off your head. I have still yet to play a game with as fun a combat system for melee weapons (although I have some hopes for Conan Online). The complex maneuvers, weapon styles, and class abilities made the combat an endless source of fun. In addition, the game came with a sophisticated scripting language that allowed the development of a number of interesting mods. The game is not without its flaws, but considering its almost total lack of commercial success and the enormous amount of enjoyment I received playing the game, I would say that underrated is an understatement for this game.
-Michael Low, IGT

MDK – a highly innovative game with hidden loading screens and an art style and quirkiness rarely seen in games but sadly the second title let the series down badly!
Operation Flashpoint - simply way ahead of its time - free roaming - FPS war sim with team control elements! Slightly ugly graphics, a bit clunky in places might have put a lot of people off.

Within the last year or two, I'd have to pick Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath, Psychonauts, Raze's Hell, Siren, and Breakdown. Each of these games offered something unique to those gamers willing to get past the usual pigeonholing made by consumers (and reviewers who should know better) and each didn't do all that well at retail despite being as good as or better than other games released around the same time.
Both Stranger's Wrath and Breakdown were innovative reworkings of the tired first-person genre and although Starbreeze's The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay was the overall better title from a technical and ease of control standpoints, Breakdown's more immersive sense of momentum and intentionally perplexing story structure made the overly tough gameplay well worth the investment.. The game works perfectly as is because you're experiencing everything lead character Derek is as it happens (even when you can see the plot twists coming a mile away with flashing lights and colored smoke).
Oddworld; Stranger's Wrath was just brilliant, with the series getting away from its puzzle roots yet keeping its sense of humor while adding some finely tuned FPS gameplay. The "live" ammo feature was a great touch, as was the ability to zip between viewpoints on the fly and bounty enemies alive or dead in any situation. The story also managed to fit in the usual Oddworld "message" in a few unique ways not expected. It's a fantastic game that didn't get the advertising it should have and one of the better first-person titles I've played that didn't need to fall back on slapped together multiplayer games to be a solid buy.
Psychonauts is hands down one of the best written games I've ever played, period. Deep and full of all sorts of psychobabble people pay thousands of dollars and years on the couch for, the game was like a fifty-dollar session that you could go back to again and again. Sure, the platforming was derivative, but Tim Schafer and Double Fine were paying attention when they were paying homage and the game is better for it. Oh, and the visual style is brillant, showing that Xbox games don't need graphic "realism" to feel realistic.
Raze's Hell was underrated by nearly every outlet that somehow failed to find amusing the thinly veiled (but spot-on hysterical) swipes at American "media outlets" pumping out jingoistic jargon at every opportunity, politicians who use military action for incorrect purposes and other timely issues that would have gotten a US-created game with human characters plenty of negative news coverage. The combination of cuper cute enemies, buckets of blood and gore, impressive AI and unique visual style made up for the occasional frame rate hitches.
Finally, Siren turned the creaky old survival horror genre on its head by actually being too damn scary to play at times. It's just remarkably unsettling and deadly serious right from the start. Even the bizarre UK dub grows on you after about an hour or two - it makes the experience all the more off-kilter. The amazing visual style was also part of the draw, as were the bleak atmosphere and unusually depressing fates of some of the characters. However, the sight-jacking feature, map and link navigator really sealed the deal for me. The game felt as if you were actually trapped in that doomed village with only your memory of what the shibito stalking you sees combined with your own careful creeping to guide you. From what I've seen of the sequel, it's even more disturbing and horrific and I truly hope SCEA is planning to localize this.
-Greg Wilcox, BonusStage.com/Digital Press

If I were to name an underrated game, I would have to say that it is Plok, without a doubt. This game published by Tradewest (notable for publishing Rare's BattleToads and Technos' Double Dragon) [and developed by Software Creations] was a solid platformer in every sense of the word. Plok had colorful backgrounds and foregrounds, some of the best music I ever heard on the SNES, a unique attack premise (throwing your arms and legs), wacky characters, and it performed very well all around. However, nobody seems to remember Plok or anything about this game unless they were fortunate to play or buy it back in the early SNES days. The game came out during the middle of the life of the SNES, so it did not suffer from "dead system" syndrome where a game is ignored primarily because the system has gradually become obsolete. Plok was colorful, catchy, solid, and did provide some reasonable difficulty. A save or password system may have made it a perfect game (in my opinion), but even without that, the game was fun and entertaining - definitely an underrated game.
-Stephen Broida, Rochester Institute of Technology

Severance: Blade of Darkness (PC, 2001) was the target of a great deal of criticism from respected and controversial publication Edge at the time of its release. A 3D dungeon-crawler from Codemasters and Rebel Act, it was awarded a PC Gamer "Game of Distinction" award, while famously receiving a withering 2/10 from Edge. Let's be honest from the start. It wasn't Half-Life. It didn't have a plot to rival Final Fantasy. The puzzles and level design were brutally linear, some of the level textures had more obvious seams than a patchwork quilt, the inventory system wasn't developed, and the third or fourth reprise of the "let's spend four hours picking away at the elemental boss's 10,000 hitpoints" sequence eventually grew infuriatingly repetitive and tiresome. Edge's 2/10, however, was an unwarranted abuse of editorial power.
In spite of its obvious flaws, Severance was still a highly playable and enjoyable game which featured a variety of weapons and satisfying, balletic combos, a combat targeting system, and well-scripted monsters which taunted you at first sight, dodged and parried your blows, and, for that "killer app" appeal, could even be bludgeoned to a bloody death with their own severed limbs! Its use of sound design (the perfect representation of hard-packed snow underfoot, the pleasant wooden resonance of a dropped torch on a castle floor, the eerie directional noises of far-off monsters or running water in dank dungeon passages) and lighting (fire reflecting on water, sun that captured a cold snowy day or a burning trek through the desert) was solid, effective, and memorable. In terms of its character animations, weapons, combos, and the way it immersed players in its many environments, Severance would be a useful reference model for an enhanced quest mode of Soul Calibur II.
Severance was a solid, if often predictable, game experience which allowed players to explore a lot of average but unique levels (with some lovely touches like stained-glass windows and very real sound), and taking on lovingly detailed enemies which, for the most part, took moderate skill to destroy and filled the player with a sense of fun and accomplishment. Severance is in the "cheeseburger and a beer" genre of videogames. Who wants to eat truffles, foie gras, and champagne all the time? Not me.
- Laura Peterson, America Online

Natural Selection by Unknown Worlds is an outstanding work combining FPS action and RTS strategy elements. NS has gained a great following, but it has been overshadowed by success of Counter-Strike. The game play of NS naturally draws players to work together. I have always found the teamwork in NS better than most other FPS network games. The variety of classes in Aliens and Marines provides a lot of depth of play to experience. The RTS elements in the game were beautifully put together. Unlike games such as Savage where all the construction decisions are giving to the single commander, the option for every Alien player to build proved an innovative and successful twist. The NS game design does a great job of balancing many different aspects of gameplay: FPS vs. RTS, hand combat vs. firearms, resource management for individuals and teams, assault vs. defense, class, and weapon balance. The NS environment is thrilling and well designed. It captures the imagination of anyone who enjoys sci-fi.

Music-based games are underrated. The reason for this may be that these types of games are not in fact videogames, but rather audio games. The genre is fascinating in that it does what no other "videogame" genres do: it centralizes the experience of sound in a videogame. This is a reversal of what we have come to expect as standard for videogames, wherein sound is usually nice and colorful these days, but not particularly necessary or vital to the gameplay. How many games can be played on mute, while you are listening to your favorite songs on some other media? Not music games, not unless one is willing to blind one's self to the true nature of a musical game experience.
Take Rez, for example. Completely underrated, if not by critics, than by at least gamer pockets when they did not buy many copies. Without sound, the game is still fantastic to look at and even playable, but it loses something essential. Unlike DDR, where music is sometimes lost by the wow feeling you get when watching someone move their feet in ways that would bring some tapdancers to their knees, Rez lives and breathes in its sound and music, representing a leap forward in gaming.
Speaking of watching games, music games are also notable for being the only genre that is comparable to fighting games for their watchability in arcades. In my experiences in North American gaming, the arcade scene was dominated for a lengthy period by fighting games, which were then overtaken by music games for at least a while in recent years. Music games are for hearing and seeing, and this really does show how developers have waned in creativity in some ways, since most just focus on the seeing part. Good technology is good technology, but potential should be pushed to its maximum. The long line of innovative music games, perhaps first with Parappa The Rappa (just as playable and unfun as Rez when muted), have served to remind us that games can be fun, deep, and quick to learn, and still show us something new. They may not draw us as far into another world as a good sit-down RPG, but for a moment they can certainly be as absorbing. Sound often takes a backseat to graphics in videogames, and while this is understandable given the advances made, and advances to come, I would just like to “see” great music games push things forward on the next-consoles as well as the this-gen consoles, and see it be popular instead of regarded as a side experience to more core games.
-Richard Marzo, Sony

Off the top of my head? Project IGI - I'm Going In for being one of the first games to use a flight simulation engine to create a FPS with massive map sizes. Although the game remained purely a FPS & didn't incorporate playable flight sim aspects of any kind, the fact that it was possible was very intriguing. To this day I have yet to see a game realistically incorporate FPS & flight/space sim characteristics in seamless massive maps large enough to satisfy the true flight/space simmers among us. The games that have melded the genres to some degree, such as the Battlefield series or Halo series, still have maps too small for a good flight sim feel, & feel as if you're being confined to the airspace over a postage stamp. We may be getting closer to the realization of these seamless environments with the newer games such as Battlefield II, Star Wars Battlefront II, and the potential of MMOs. It's too bad that IGI sucked in so many other areas to detract from its positive aspects, because otherwise the whole concept of massive maps may have caught on sooner & we'd be farther along now.
-Don Held, DME International

Startopia. Everytime I play the game I lose track of time. Even now more than 5 years later, the game is still as enjoyable, the voice acting is still as intellegent and funny, and the game still has incredible replay value. Even though the graphics have aged compared to modern day games, Startopia proves that gameplay is just as important as graphics. Startopia deserved better and to be honest so did its creator, Mucky Foot.
-Mark Saunders, Rebel Creative

In the infant days of Windows, there was one shareware game that seemed a bit more sophisticated than anything else. Titled Operation: Inner Space, the game had the player flying a tiny space ship around a customized galaxy based on the user's file directory, the idea being that you were navigating the insides of your computer. In each level you'd fly around shooting enemies, making friends or looting downed ships while trying to capture icons of programs that were actually located in the chosen directory. The game lasted as long as the number of folders in your system, creating a customized, personal game experience years before the rest of the industry caught on. Actual gameplay was sharp and versatile, with varied levels like races and duels in addition to icon-swiping expeditions, and the storyline did come to an end with an epic boss battle, if you felt like completing it. With fully procedural titles like Spore headed our way, it's important to recognize the lasting influence that Inner Space struck with gamers so many years ago.
-Ben Serviss, Creo Ludus Entertainment

Whenever people ask me which are my favorite games, I always try to mention Outcast, developed by Appeal back in 1999. I remember its acclaimed release but for some reason it was quickly forgotten. Outcast was one of the first games that took a bet and used voxels. However in my opinion the voxels wasn't really a very important part of its design. The thing I loved about Outcast was the way the player could socially interact with NPCs. If someone witnessed you doing wrongful things, your reputation would be tainted and people would confront you differently. Another neat thing was the way you tracked people down. You often had to search for key individuals knowing only their name. You would ask around amongst the locals and they would often have a general idea of where that individual was located. The information would get more and more specific the closer you got and eventually you got a satisfactory response saying "Oh, he is right over there. Ulukai," followed by the NPC pointing. Outcast is a game that had lots of innovating ideas like these, that unfortunately never really perpetuated into the rest of the industry.
-Erik Benerdal, Data Ductus

The Wheel of Time, by Legend Entertainment Company/GT Interactive. It was one of the first shooters to introduce a compelling story (which happened to be based in one of the richest fantasy worlds around), realistic fantasy fine-art environments (when other shooters were still making unbelievable floating platforms), and strategic combat that combined offense and defense into an incredibly addictive multiplayer experience. Add on the citadel multiplayer game that allowed players to customize their home base before being invaded by their enemies, and you have a game that was light years ahead of its time. Wheel of Time was lauded in the press (Gamespy's Action Game of the Year), but unfortunately, Unreal Tournament and Quake 3 came out at exactly the same time, UT being the only game GTI had the money to promote. You couldn't even find it on shelves.
-Glen Dahlgren, Perpetual Entertainment


[Please note that the opinions of individual employees responding to the Question Of The Week may not represent those of their company.]


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Quang Hong


Quang Hong is the Features Editor of Gamasutra.com.

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