The problem with games is there are just far too many of them. Even if you locked yourself in a darkened room with an endless supply of Dr. Pepper and delicious Hostess™ Fruit Pies for the rest of your life, you’d still only play through a small fraction of the wide and weird gaming landscape (not least because said life would be significantly shortened by surviving solely on Dr. Pepper and Hostess™ Fruit Pies.)
Sometimes missing out on games is no bad thing. No tears should be shed if you didn’t get the chance to play the PC version of Spider-Man 2, for instance, and if anything you’ll probably sleep better at night without American McGee’s Bad Day L.A haunting your memories. But that’s not always the case. Join us as Phasemonkey takes you through the wonderful and frequently weird world of games you probably haven’t played, but really should….
Gitaroo Man (PS2 / PSP) - Gitaroo Man begins with you battling a nappy-wearing demon, and only gets weirder from there on out. There’s really nothing else quite like Gitaroo Man. It’s all about the music, but each stage plays out more like a fight. It’s a guitar game, but doesn’t rely on expensive peripherals. It’s stylistically Japanese, and yet many of the songs have a distinctive Western flavour.
It’s easy to understand why Gitaroo Man didn’t sell too well outside of its home country. When it hit the US and Europe in 2002, the West’s obsession with all things Nippon was starting to fade as titles like Halo and Grand Theft Auto 3 became overnight sensations. In such an environment, a title as undeniably Japanese and over-the-top quirky as Gitaroo Man failed to resonate with a new generation of gamers bent on getting their action fix. The excessively high difficulty level didn’t help either: even on normal difficulty Gitaroo Man posed a significant challenge, and Master’s Play was all but impossible to anyone born without seven thumbs.
Nonetheless, it remains a unique and charming title, with one of the best soundtracks ever put to a game disc – I still can’t hear the electric version of the Legendary Theme without getting shivers. Well worth a look, and not that expensive on eBay.
Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor (iOS) - Gameplay in Spider is a pretty straightforward affair. You are a spider, and you do whatever a spider does – namely, spin a web (any size!) which you then use to catch bugs to satiate your arachnid appetite. Once you’ve devoured the required number of bugs, a portal opens to the next level, where you’ll do the same thing again. The entire experience moves at a serene pace, rarely putting the player under any stress, and the short levels ensure that it’s playable in short bursts – perfect for on-the-go gaming.
But it’s not the gameplay that makes Spider stand out. Instead, its true strength lies in how it manages to tell an engaging and emotional tale without saying a single word. As you make your way through the deserted Bryce Manor, you uncover objects – a photograph here, a wedding ring there, some discarded letters and so on – which allow you to piece together the story of the mansion’s occupants. As a spider, you don’t react to this at all: you’re just trying to avoid predators and feed yourself. As a player, however, you find yourself powerfully drawn into the lives of the Bryce family. By the end you’re left heartbroken – not only by story itself, but also because by spinning webs between every available surface, you’ve further contributed to the decay of this once proud family home.
By the time the end credits roll, Bryce Manor is a dusty, cobwebbed ghost house. No wonder people hate spiders.
Alpha Protocol (PC / PS3 / Xbox 360) - Let’s get this out of the way up front: if you need your games to be polished, pretty and bug-free then Alpha Protocol is not for you. It’s rough around the edges, many gameplay mechanics are clunky, and the whole thing frequently feels like it’s only one wrong turn away from crashing. On the other hand, it’s also compelling, utterly unique and for my money one of the best RPGs released in recent years.
What sets Alpha Protocol apart is its sheer ambition. While many games profess to offer freedom by giving you two paths which soon converge again, Alpha Protocol largely allows you to draw your own path. Once you get out of the tutorial section, you’re given three leads in three separate countries, and allowed to tackle them in any order you wish, in whatever manner you choose – and the game reacts convincingly to these decisions. Characters talk about events which in another players’ game may not have happened yet, and may not occur at all. Peoples’ attitudes to you vary based on your actions, and their roles in the game change accordingly: mercenary nutjobSIEis a major character in some playthroughs, but for me was merely a bit part. The web of cause-and-effect is so tightly and thoroughly thought out that it ceases to feel designed, and begins to seem natural. It’s a game where you not only chose the path of your character, but of the very world he inhabits. Given how much Obsidian accomplished here, it’s easy to forgive a few bugs.
Shenmue II (Dreamcast / Xbox) - Choosing between the original and the sequel for this list was difficult: both are astonishingly pretty and engaging narrative-led games, and they each sold about 6 copies worldwide. OK, that’s an exaggeration – in fact, the original title was one of the top selling games on the Dreamcast. On the other hand, given the relative sales failure of the Dreamcast, that’s not saying a lot.
The reason I settled on the second game was simple: more than once, it made me laugh out loud. “What?” I hear you yell at your screen. “Andy, you handsome fool, Shenmue’s not a comedy game.” No, you’re quite right, it isn’t. What it is, however, is a game filled with rich, relatable characters who you get to know and care for. Wuying Ren, in particular, has stayed in my memory even though it’s been ten years since I first played the game. An open-shirted, smart-alec gang leader, Ren could easily have fallen into irritating cliché territory, but some smart writing and well scripted moments of slapstick comedy make him an endearing and entertaining counterpart for your adventure. I defy anyone to play through the section where you’re handcuffed to him without grinning from ear to ear the whole time.
Unfortunately, when you get to the final chapter Shenmue II hits a brick wall. You’ve left all your friends behind and arrived in a rural area, where you’ll spend the rest of the game meandering through forests and caves. Pretty, but also pretty dull – and then to make matters worse, the games ends on a cliffhanger which is unlikely to ever be resolved. But it’s not enough to tarnish the excellent experience up to that point, and so despite the mediocre finale, Shenmue II is still worth tracking down to this day.
War of the Monsters (PS2) - What could be better than rampaging through a city as a non-licensed Godzilla clone? How about if a non-licensed King Kong clone showed up to join the party?
War of the Monsters is a love letter to classic monster movies, with each of the 10 playable characters being a pastiche of one or more beloved beasts. Apes, dragons, aliens, lava creatures, giant robots and more all battle to….well, just for the sake of fighting, I suppose. They are giant monsters, after all. What else are they going to do? Plot may not be War of the Monsters’ strong point, but who needs plot when you can skewer giant ants with telephone poles?
Key to the game’s charm is the destruction engine, taken from Incognito’s previous title, Twisted Metal: Black, which allows you to raze entire cities to the ground. After a battle, the victorious monster will often be left standing in the middle of nothing more than a pile of rubble – exactly as you’d expect when two colossal creatures collide.
While the campaign mode is satisfying, and the character variety ensures high replay value, multiplayer is where War of the Monsters really shines. Up to four players can compete simultaneously for the title of “Most Destroyingest Monster” (title entirely made up: not present in game) and the easy to pick up controls and “almost recognisable” characters make it appealing even to non-gamers. When released in 2003, the result was an ideal party game: everyone wanted to get involved, and no-one wanted to stop playing. The dated graphics may limit the appeal now, but get a few drinks in and War of the Monsters can still give you a great time.
So there are a few of my underappreciated gems, and Mike will be talking about some of his favourite forgotten treasures in a future column. In the meantime, what are yours? Pop ‘em in the comments below, or on our forum.