Life has left this blog looking sparse as of late – life and far-flung technological issues that have turned me into a temporary luddite. Thankfully those issues look to be getting resolved, so I thought I would take a quick warm-up lap with a topic that’s been on my mind lately: my personal picks for underrated games.
This list is sure to expand with time as I find more sadly forgotten masterpieces, and should serve as a nice reference for what little-known or little-loved games I think everyone should try. And if I think they’re worth playing, you know they’ve gotta be good.
Fantasia Music Evolved
I talk about Fantasia: Music Evolved the way most Whedon fans talk about Firefly: often, and with a profound sense of injustice. Released on Xbox One to prop up the failing Kinect, it suffered mightily from ambivalence toward that tech, both from players and from the companies meant to support it.
That’s a damn shame, because it’s easily one of the best rhythm games ever made.
Focusing on basic movements rather than a set of complex dance steps (coupled with camera tech insufficient to consistently detect them), Fantasia is built around an instantly intuitive design that makes it easy to pick up, and removes many of the technical issues that have plagued the rhythm genre for years. It captures the spirit of the Fantasia films brilliantly, especially in allowing you to remix tracks as you play through them, putting you in touch with the music in a way that few other rhythm games manage.
Harmonix essentially made the perfect music game – one I’d argue is even better than Dance Central and Rock Band – only to have it shuffled onto the discount shelf when the technology it supported failed. What I wouldn’t give for a decent port that could keep it alive.
Prince of Persia (2008)
Ah, the Prince of Persia reboot – or as I like to call it, Assassin’s Creed Does The Last of Us. Years before Joel and Ellie started their cross-country hike, Prince of Persia broke impressive ground with player-controlled Prince and his AI partner Elika, building all of its gameplay and story around their relationship.
It does a fantastic job of making that bond work as its structural and emotional center. Combat based around their synchronized attacks feels smooth and effortless, puzzles that require them to work in harmony are thoughtful and fun, and (perhaps most impressively) its story uses that relationship to turn the typical hero-saves-the-day narrative on its head in a poignant and believable way (SPOILER ALERT: The Last of Us comparison holds). Gorgeous graphics and art direction plus solid performances by Nolan North and Kari Wahlgren round it out into a stylish, intriguing, and entertaining new take on the series.
It’s not a perfect game – combat can sometimes feel too easy and fights repetitive, and many complaints against the game revolve around the fact that the Prince can never die, removing the motivating threat of failure (though the animation showing Elika saving the Prince from certain doom is functionally the same thing). However, those ultimately feel like small complaints against an otherwise solid game – it doesn’t have to be exceptionally difficult to be fun, and as well as it’s executed, being the Flower or Journey of the Prince of Persia series doesn’t seem so horrible. Really it’s only crime was not being Sands of Time, and that proved to be its downfall.
Shadows of the Damned
Shadows of the Damned is an odd game, and not in the way you’d expect a Suda51 game to be. It doesn’t come close to the experience that was Killer7 in terms of sheer strangeness, but it’s road to existence was apparently a weird one indeed: it’s the opus of video game legends Shinji Mikami, Akira Yamaoka and Goichi Suda, but their influence is muted, and apparently neither Mikami nor Suda were pleased with how it came out. And yet it has this spark of genius and charm that makes it an – apparently – accidental gem of a game.
Maybe it’s the commitment it has for its material, building on its premise (professional demon hunter goes on a road trip to hell to save his girlfriend) with puzzles full of shrieking angelic goat heads, grotesque faerie tales, and evocative grim-dark locales. It could be the tongue-in-cheek way it portrays Garcia “Fucking” Hotspur’s special brand of hypermasculinity – there’s a gun called Big Boner involved. Maybe it’s the fact that it throws in a storybook-like scrolling 2D levels or references to horror classics like Evil Dead with equal frivolity, always keeping things interesting. Or perhaps it’s because, even absent much of Suda’s bizarre influence, Shadows of the Damned is so unabashedly weird that you can’t help but want to know what’s coming next.
Sadly, a small marketing budget kept it from getting the attention it deserved, with the only consolation being that word-of-mouth has helped it achieve cult status. It’s like the Wicker Man of video games, but with more dicks.