This is a very large 3,000 word article on some of the less played PC games, in top 10 format. The games are: Lemmings 3D, Urban Chaos, Startopia, Ascendency, Vampire the Masquerade, ZZT, The Last Express, Outcast, LBA2 and Beyond Good and Evil.
Unfortunately the formatting on the blog isn't great, so I urge you to try and see if Resonance is functioning and read the article there before attempting to read it here.
In the game industry, things normally work out as they should, at least in the long run. Poor games get poor reviews and poor sales, and good games get acclaim and success. True classics get remembered and revered, and the many mediocre offerings that attempt to drown them simply get forgotten. Sometimes though, it doesn’t work out like that. Terrible games get great sales on the strength of a licence or huge marketing budget, and great games can simply be ignored for any number of reasons. In an attempt to be as positive as possible, it’s these hidden diamonds that this list focuses on.
The ten games here all share one thing in common. They are all A+ titles, but have never really enjoyed great success. Some got great reviews only to find their sales figures didn’t quite match the enthusiasm of the press, and some were near perfect games ruined at the time of release by major bugs and technical flaws that have since been fixed. Here, we pay homage to some amazing games of the last 15 years that just might have flown under your radar.
Lemmings 3D -
Lemmings 3D was released at a difficult time. It was the mid nineties, and the transition from 2D to 3D was in full swing. The Playstation had shown the world just how good games could look, and the PC was left in the dust. At the same time, many games that had been strictly 2D franchises in the past where jumping into the world of 3D head first - often without real consideration of the format - which usually resulted in very poor games. Lemmings 3D broke the mould in two ways.
Firstly, rather than detracting from the experience and diluting the gameplay, lemmings switchover to 3D actually gave the game back something it had been missing for years; a sense of freshness. It was also one of the first puzzle games to use 3D to its advantage rather than as something that was simply added on without much thought. The levels were bright and varied, and the attention to detail was impressive and not matched by many games at the time. Along a surprisingly easy to use interface, the game included an intuitive ‘replay’ feature that allowed you to watch as the game replayed your last set of moves, only to step in at the point before you made your last critical mistake. Purists will argue the controls were difficult to grasp, and the soundtrack doesn’t compare to those of the original games, but there are a select few that believe lemmings 3D to be the best version of lemmings available on any format, and it’s easy to see why.
Urban chaos was release around the end of the century on the Dreamcast, Playstation and PC. Both of the console iterations of the game were playable to an extent, but the poor graphics and technical problems of the Playstation port, which oddly enough received the most marketing, turned a lot of people off the game. Urban Chaos put you in the shoes of a female ‘rookie’ officer in a dystopian future. The game was ahead of its time in many respects. The city wasn’t totally open-ended but each level was huge and had plenty of hidden content, and it gave the game a non-linear, ‘big city’ feel that gamers wouldn’t experience again until GTA 3.
Urban Chaos’ gameplay was a refreshing mix of the older action arcade games like Streets of Rage or Final Fight, and more modern action/adventure gameplay. The fighting in the game was more tactical and varied than people expected from an arcade fighter, and the platforming sections were well designed and enjoyable; minus the occasional frustrating missed jump. The game received mixed reviews, the more negative pointing to games less than perfect driving sections and the hefty amount of system resources needed to run it. However, the driving sections contribute to only a small part of the game, and nobody should have any problems with the game hogging their systems now, so there’s little reason not to give Urban Chaos a spin.
Nearly every magazine and website around in the summer of 2001 gave Startopia an incredibly positive score, and the game even achieved over 90% in some publications. Almost everyone that had a chance to play it at launch recognised Startopia as a title of huge quality, so it’s such a shame that when people make lists of their favourite simulation games, Startopia is normally nowhere to be seen.
Developed by the same company as the previously mentioned Urban Chaos, Startopia was a mix of Dungeon Keeper and Theme Hospital, set in a rotating, donut shaped space station. The gameplay was instantly familiar, as the player spent their trying to keep the various alien species that visited the station happy and safe, while making enough money to continue to build and improve the station. It also included some limited ‘action’, where you would need to build up your security forces to take over new sections of the station, or keep rogue aliens from making a scene.
Each of the different parts of Startopia by themselves aren’t all that impressive, but when brought together, they’ve made more than the sum of their parts. On the surface, Startopia did nothing more than take two popular bullfrog games and throw them into space, but if you dig deeper you’ll find a game that’s original in its own right, and one that certainly deserves consideration right up there along with Rollercoaster Tycoon and Theme Park on your next top list.
Ascendency is one of the best examples ever of a game being ruined by technical problems. A 4X game in the same vein as Master of Orion, Ascendency in was in many ways superior to its infinitely more popular counterpart. Superior graphics, amazing balance and a high level of customisation all made Ascendency look great on paper. It even received quite a high amount of popular reviews. So what went wrong?
Ascendency had one major flaw; The AI was nearly nonexistent. In other games and other genres, or with an incredibly strong multiplayer option, it may have been possible to cover this huge oversight, but 4X games rely on AI perhaps even more than graphics or design. There was no way to excuse the enemy AIs seemingly totally random reactions to situations or its complete lack of ambition to actually bother to conquer anything. The game flopped, and bigger and better 4X games have come along and scavenged all of what was unique about it.
Thankfully, there is an AI patch available now that fixes most of the above problems, even if it is ten years too late for any retail success. Although it’s a little heavy on the micromanagement and nowhere near as solid as Galactic Civilisation, it is still an excellent game and quite worthy of replacing Master of Orion 2 (or 3) the next time you want to conquer the final frontier.
Bloodlines followed a fate similar to Startopia. It got some brilliant reviews in the press on its release, and had quite a nice run in terms of sales, but it was simply forgotten very quickly, and it never quite crossed over to becoming a ‘classic’ of the genre due to a lack of polish, a few rather glaring bugs and an arguably poor use of the source engine.
I remember friends of mine at the time of Bloodlines release had gotten really into the whole pen and paper RPG deal, and were incredibly excited about the game. One particular friend was very eager to talk endlessly about how good the game was, and watching him play, I had to agree. Here was a PC RPG that not only managed to tackle a modern setting with some degree of maturity, but where you could really feel the actions you choose and the paths you went down really made a difference to the gameplay, beyond the typical ‘dark side/light side’ options for which KOTOR received much acclaim for less than a year before.
It was only when I was considering firing up the game for the first time that my friend turned on it. He started to point out these incredibly frustrating bugs. He’d manage to put up with the myriad odd graphical glitches and the clunky combat, but after spending two hours running around trying to figure out exactly where he was meant to be going only to realise the game hadn’t set a certain trigger when it should have done and he would have to replay a save from nearly three hours back, he gave up. This scared me away as well, and it was nearly a year later before I properly played the game.
Bloodlines has now been patched up and everything major sorted out. Whether you’re into the world already or you just want a satisfyingly long and deep RPG to sink your teeth into (sorry), Bloodlines is a great option.
With its 17th birthday coming up, ZZT is the oldest game on this list. It’s no surprise then that it also has some of the poorest graphics and sound capabilities. ZZT – so called so the game would appear to bottom off BBS download lists - received some minor attention on release, but few were really blown away by the game. In fact, everything about ZZT is forgettable and by all rights, the game would have been ignored by almost everyone had it not been for a factor that even developer Epic MegaGames hadn’t counted on; a community.
ZZT is a real story of gaming love. Originally sold as a puzzle game, it was ZZTs simple but infinitely adaptable editor that gave it a new lease of life, and a new genre as a Game Creation System, along the same lines as Click and Play, or RPG maker. Soon enough, people where spending more time messing with the editor than playing the original games. Years later it was the community, not the developer that learned how to give the game an expanded colour set, greatly improving the display of the 2D graphics.
Since then thousands of games have been released for ZZT. While the system has obvious technical limitations and many superior methods for creating games have come along to steal it’s crown, none have quite captured ZZTs simplicity. Anyone can make a game in ZZT with minimal effort, and people have twisted the rules of the simple programming language to make adventure games, RPGs, action games and more. The real bonus is that graphical limitations of ZZT have meant many games created in the system have had much larger focus on story and plot. Z2 has a huge archive of ZZT games and can recommend some of the best to have a go with.
Despite many believing the whole genre underrated, point and click games enjoyed nearly a decade of success on the PC, starting with Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island, and continuing on towards the likes of Dreamfall and Fahrenheit. However, when graphics cards took over in the mid nineties, the market for adventure games dried up considerably. The Last Express was one of those few games that was released to late to enjoy that original golden age of the genre, and too early to be a part of the ‘new wave’ of adventure games. It got trapped in the middle of a gaming world just getting its head around 32 bit graphics and was ignored by almost everyone.
The game used a variety of different effects and animation styles that had never been used in a game before, and set the whole thing on the orient express in 1914. The game did everything it could to give players a unique experience, and it succeeded in absolutely every way. In doing this though, it alienated some adventure gamers with action sequences and some frustrating ‘timed’ sections. It ended up not being tame enough for adventure gamers but being far too dull for the action crowd to even think about playing it.
Once you’ve settled into the game though, it doesn’t take long to realise the Last Express has one of the best written and well crafted plots of any computer game ever written, far surpassing both The Longest Journey and Dreamfall in story, pacing and the logic of the puzzles. The game is long and has many different endings, so if you have the patience for a lengthy adventure, or are at all interested in the world famous train, track this one down (sorry, again!).
Outcast was released in 1999 to a public that paid little attention. By this time, nearly everyone had a 3D card of some sort, and were enjoying the impressive graphical abilities those cards could display. People that otherwise had only mediocre systems could run games like Half Life purely on the power of their graphics cards, and it seemed the future was pretty much settled. It was a bit of a shock to the system then, when Outcast was released. Using a ‘voxel’ system which didn’t rely on graphics cards at all, the game required a powerful computer to run. This was more than enough to turn off many people who would otherwise have rushed out and purchased Outcast.
Beyond the rather odd decision not to use 3D acceleration though, Outcast is quite unlike anything else ever created on the PC. The voxel graphics only ever used in a handful of games before and after, give the game a very distinct style. And despite not using 3D cards, they did look great; long viewing distances, sharp textures and great weather effects. Few games could really compete, even if a comparison could be made at all. An incredibly impressive musical score only gave the game an even great sense of immersion.
The game basically played as an action/adventure hybrid. There’s a fair amount of jumping and shooting, but it also involved plenty of dialogue and general exploring. It was the large, open ended environments that felt genuinely alive that made Outcast so special, and the games owes a lot to the very high standard of acting that is consistent and powerful throughout. Outcast achieves a perfect balance of combat and dialogue, and does it all in a world that is still unique today. Modern PCs should laugh at the specs of the ‘powerful’ computers Outcast need nearly a decade ago, so don’t be afraid to try this one.
Both of the Little Big Adventure games where absolutely amazing, but where the first outing got quite a lot of press and positive reviews (not to mention a rather nice looking Playstation port in the UK), people didn’t take to the sequel quite as well, even though it received a great reception from fans. The game may not be quite as magical or gripping as the original, but few games are, and LBA2 is stunning in its own right.
Set after the events of the original, LBA 2 follows the exact same formula. It’s played primarily as an adventure and has plenty of well written scenes and intelligent - if simple - puzzles, married with a healthy amount of action and platforming. It’s the platforming that’s the easily the most frustrating part of the game, with some rather disconcerting difficulty spikes and sometimes awkward, isometric controls. Its cartoon graphics and somewhat childish storyline also put off more serious gamers who weren’t willing to the game a chance.
But LBA is all about discovery and character. Few adventure games can boast quite as much variety and, much like Outcast and The Last Express, nothing like LBA has ever been attempted since. Playing it back now, the game has aged surprisingly well, and while it has been left behind graphically, it’s rarely used isometric perspective and big, bold sprites make the eleven year old game look like a modern indie attempt.
If you haven’t already played the first game, rush out and try it right now, as it’s one of the best games ever made. If you have, but you never gave the sequel a chance, now is the time. There’s one thing you can always guarantee when you’re talking about Little Big Adventure – whether you like or not, you’ll never see anything like it again.
beyond good and evil-
Beyond Good and Evil nearly didn’t make this list. It’s had an odd history. Released in 2003 on all major formats including the PC, it’s hard to find a single critical review of this stunning adventure. And yet, so few people actually ever got to play it. I stumbled upon this game myself after being told it was a ‘fun RPG’ by someone on the net, and I’d have to say it was the one of the best, if not one of the most misguided, recommendations I’ve ever had. It would appear that nobody was very interested in advertising or talking about the game, especially in Europe.
The reason for worrying about if it deserved to be on the list or not is actually the odd mini-revival the game has had in recent years. Although it wasn’t totally appreciated at the time, you’ll find no end of forum posts and chat rooms forcing the game down your throat. The thing is, Beyond Good and Evil totally should be forced down the throat of everyone who has even a remote respect for modern day adventures. If this list can help Beyond Good and Evil gain any more publicity on its way to becoming a cult classic, who am I to argue?
BGE was released on the XBOX, PS2 and GC and yet is rarely ever listed on the top games on those systems, which is a huge travesty, especially considering the (arguable, I know) lack of A+ games for the XBOX and GC. For once, we see a multi-format title that not only fits into the adventure genre, but evolves it into something modern, exciting and meaningful with diluting anything about what made the format so great to begin with. It throws you headfirst into a land of talking pigs, fascism, stealth and hovercraft, and it does so without any need to break you in gently or explain itself in the slightest.
It feels so unfair that BGE and the other games on this list have offered shining examples of exactly how gaming should be, and have either been forgotten or simply overlooked. In a market where so many people criticise the banality of gaming and how nobody tries to be unique anymore, it’s worth remembering those games that were offered to us on a silver platter that where to quickly pushed aside because a publisher made a mistake, or the next big thing seemed more important. This is our history, after all.