History is not always kind to great games. Titles once heralded as masterworks are often lost as console cycles turn. Alternatively, there are the offbeat outliers completely shunned during their own lifetimes, only to be quietly ransacked by later generations of designers.
Over the next three days, we’ll be remembering 30 brilliant, idiosyncratic, challenging or just plain weird titles that have been erased from the gaming annals, or at least criminally overlooked. Each one of these did something interesting with gaming, but not interesting enough to be endlessly recalled in misty-eyed retro articles or on Charlie Brooker-fronted TV shows (which are otherwise excellent and include really great interviewees).
Here then are the first ten. Come back for the others, and add your own favourites in the comments section.
3D Deathchase (Micromega, ZX Spectrum, 1983)
Written by lone coder Mervyn Estcourt (who also produced a PC remake almost 20 years later), this remarkably progressive 3D chase game gets the player to ride a futuristic motorbike through dense woodland, attempting to track down and shoot enemy riders. The first-person view and smooth sensation of movement were astonishing at the time (especially considering it ran on the older 16k Spectrum), and it no doubt prepared the way for future variations on the free-roaming driving game.
Aliens: The Computer Game (Software Studios/Electric Dreams Software, C64/Spectrum, 1986)
Activision developed a higher profile tie-in with the movie, but this version is far superior and has lasting significance in game design terms. It’s essentially a prototype first-person shooter, complete with moveable targeting reticule. Players have to guide six of the film’s characters through the colony base, toward the queen’s lair. Although movement is essentially limited to left and right (firing at doors lets you pass through them), the action is tense, and the importance of quick accurate aiming hints at the FPS genre to come. There’s also a brilliantly unsettling take on the movie’s motion tracker sound effect that ramps up the scare factor considerably. And when the face huggers leap at you it is TERRIFYING.
Alter Ego (Activision, C64/PC/Apple II, 1986)
Designed by psychologist Peter Favaro and released by Activision, this fascinating life simulation gave players control over either a male of female character as they progressed from childhood to grave. Designed around a series of key decision points, the mostly text-led experience was based on hundreds of interviews conducted by Favaro, and was hugely critically acclaimed at the time. Alongside David Crane’s Little Computer People it laid the groundwork for modern era ‘virtual soap opera’ The Sims. Alas, the sparse presentation and offbeat concept meant that the sim sold poorly and a proposed sequel, based around rearing a child, was scrapped. You can play the original game online.
Astal (Sega, Sega Saturn, 1995)
Golden Axe, Streets of Rage, Altered Beast… Plenty of Sega’s classic side-scrolling beat-’em-ups have gone on to become legends of the genre. But somehow this beautiful early Saturn release has been over-looked, perhaps thanks to the console’s untimely demise. Banished from Earth by an angry goddess, the eponymous hero must return to rescue the girl he loves. Okay, forget the horribly trite story and revel in the gorgeous hand-drawn artwork and interesting attacks, which allow Astal to blow his enemies over or wrench trees out of the ground to chuck at them. There’s also an innovative but tricky co-op mode which puts player two into the role of Astal’s bird sidekick. Watch this playthrough for a taste of the wonderful character and landscape designs.
Bioforge (EA/Origin, PC, 1995)
The ‘interactive movie’ genre of the mid-nineties brought us plenty of nightmarishly unplayable dross as game developers fell in love with the idea of using full-motion-video to create, ugh, ‘cinematic’ experiences. But there were some fascinating examples, too, like this cyberpunk adventure, set on a moon base governed by religious maniacs who believe man must evolve toward a machine hybrid state. The player awakens as a cyborg and must escape the lab, piecing together the plot from PDA diary entries and using security and computer equipment to hack defenses. Elements of Deus Ex, Bioshock and Dead Space all combined to create a tense and interesting adventure. It was so expensive to produce, however, that low sales ensured a planned sequel never arrived. Edge later published an excellent ‘Making of’ feature.
Bust A Groove (Enix/Metro Graphics, PlayStation, 1998)
This formative rhythm action game allowed players to pull ridiculous disco moves by following onscreen direction prompts, in a similar manner to Sony’s revered PaRappa The Rapper. The difference here was the head-to-head competitive dance fighting element, which allowed players to knock each other off the beat with special moves. featuring an excellent old school electronica soundtrack, bizarre characters and super-smooth animation, the title helped build the ‘post-pub gaming’ credentials of the PlayStation, and spawned a sequel. But then Konami’s all-conquering Dance Dance Revolution strutted in and kicked it from the dance floor.
ChuChu Rocket (Sega/Sonic Team, Dreamcast, 1999)
How this frenetic combination of Pac Man, Bomberman, Lemmings and Hungry Hippos failed to become a continually updated gaming staple is beyond us. Designed by Sonic co-creator Yuji Naka its a fast-paced maze puzzler in which players have to place arrows on the floor to direct a line of mice into rockets so they can escape the giant cats. In the four-player mode, participants can also use arrows to direct the feline enemies toward competitors, making for fraught, hugely tense encounters. Given away free to European Dreamcast owners, the game would later surface on GameBoy Advance and iPhone but should – if there were a whiff of justice in the universe – be on every single console released from 1999 to the end of time.
Devil Dice (Sony/Shift, PlayStation, 1998)
A modest success on its release and followed by two sequels, this ingenious puzzler was briefly revered, but has somehow slipped from wider memory. Players must navigate a grid by stepping on and turning dice cubes – when the numbers match between two adjacent cubes, they disappear. It’s sort of a numerical match-three puzzle, bringing in some of the deeper mathematical reasoning of Area/Code’s masterful iPhone title Drop 7. Originally created using Sony’s home programmable console, the Net Yaroze, it was one of the few ‘homebrew’ titles to see release on the PlayStation.
Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem (Nntendo/Silicon Knights, GameCube, 2002)
Resident Evil 4 wasn’t the only standout survival horror experience on Nintendo’s under-rated GameCube system. Developed by Canadian studio Silicon Knights and originally meant for the N64, Eternal Darkness is a fascinating Lovecraftian romp following student Alexandria Roivas as she investigates a book known as the Tome of Eternal Darkness. The powerful artifact provides a portal to a selection of previous lives, all of which must be experienced by the player in order to prevent an ancient evil from re-surfacing. The narrative and locations are creepy and unsettling, but the best part is the sanity meter which drops when you encounter enemies, causing visual disturbances and even tricking you into believing your TV has broken. Critically acclaimed, but with its mature rating, Nintendo fans weren’t quite sure what to make of it. A proposed sequel never materialised, despite Nintendo renewing the trademark as recently as 2012. Meanwhile, many of the original development team went on to form Precursor Games and planned a spiritual successor named Shadow of the Eternals which sadly failed to hit its crowdfunding target last year.
Freedom Fighters (EA/IO Interactive, GameCube/PS2/Xbox, 2003)
On a break from the highly successful Hitman series, Danish studio IO Interactive launched this innovative third-person squad-based shooter, getting to the whole America-invaded-by-Communists plotline years before Call of Duty. You play as a regular Joe running round New York taking on Russian troops – and the more you kill, the more your ‘Charisma rating’ goes up allowing you to recruit followers. That’s right, it’s Homefront meets Twitter. Great controls and smooth squad commands ensured a thrilling yet surprisingly tactical experience. Maddeningly, it seems a proposed sequel was put on indefinite hold so that the studio could work on… Kane & Lynch. Wha… why?!! Anyway, Eurogamer has a nice retrospective on the game right here.