2011 was a banner year for video games. It saw the release of Modern Warfare 3, Battlefield 3, and a dozen other indistinguishable shooters, all of them selling millions of copies.
And then there were these games. Their sales ranged from “okay” to “embarrassing,” but each took creative risks that paid off. For that, they deserve recognition.
10. El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron
Do you like action adventure games? Do you wish that more of them were based off of ancient Jewish religious texts? Then you’re one of the three people who played El Shaddai! The rest of you Gentiles are missing out.
El Shaddai features gorgeous visuals, satisfying combat and an incomprehensible story. You play as the Biblical figure of Enoch, who is on a quest to rescue fallen angels and save humanity. This being a Japanese video game, you accomplish this by fighting monsters with a ridiculous weapon while waving your pretty hair around. We don’t think that’s what the Book of Enoch is about, but we only skimmed it so we’re not positive.
Religious liberties aside, the game is a lot of fun. Too many artsy games sacrifice good gameplay for graphics, but El Shaddai managed to provide both. You may not have any idea what’s going on unless you’re well versed in Judaism, but you’ll be enjoying yourself too much to care.
Despite excellent reviews, El Shaddai sold poorly. Maybe gamers were turned off by the weird concept, especially since combining religion with video games is usually a recipe for disaster. Or maybe it’s because the trailer featured the quote “It’s as if Lady Gaga made a video game.” What, were they targeting the 13 year old girl demographic?
2011 was a great year for downloadable games—titles like Bastion earned critical acclaim and commercial success on par with major releases. Lost in the shuffle was Outland, an action-platformer featuring a system of light and dark energy. All enemies and obstacles come in one of the two forms, and switching your character between them is the key to victory.
Outland is a bit of a mishmash of other games. The light/dark polarity is rather generously borrowed from the cult-classic shooter Ikaruga, and the open ended platforming immediately brings to mind Metroid. But Outland is more than the sum of its stolen parts—stunning visuals, excellent level design and challenging but rewarding gameplay ensures that it stands out from its inspirations.
Outland fared better commercially than most of the games on this list, but it never quite got the respect it deserved. It had to compete with other good titles, the infamous PlayStation Network outage delayed its release, and it shares its name with a silly Sean Connery movie. It deserves better than that.
8. Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars
When the Nintendo 3DS hit the shelves the highest profile launch game was Pilotwings Resort, a hang-gliding simulator that provided incredible fun for all of 90 minutes. Once the raw thrills of popping balloons wore off, early adopters of the 3DS had nothing to do but complain about the lack of good games while their new handheld gathered dust. What they should have been doing instead was playing Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars.
It’s understandable why Shadow Wars was overlooked. Ghost Recon is a series about shooting terrorists in the face, so a handheld, turn-based strategy spinoff screamed “cheap cash in.” Hardcore fans of Ghost Recon were unhappy that they would have to think for once, and bland advertisements set to generic rock music didn’t help to sway casual gamers. Expectations weren’t high.
The fact that Shadow Wars turned out to be deep, lengthy and satisfying was a pleasant surprise, but not many people heard the news. Shadow Wars was forgotten as a launch game relic, but if you’re a 3DS owner looking to flex your brain a little it deserves a second chance.
Speaking of consoles that are short on games, when’s the last time the Wii got a decent title that wasn’t made by Nintendo? Sure, Mario, Zelda and all the other Nintendo classics are fun, but once you’re done with them you’re stuck with either Uninspired Mini-game Collection 87 or the terrifying prospect of going outside. What’s a Wii owner to do?
Well, one game alone can’t solve the problem, but Lost in Shadow at least made the pain go away for a little while.
Players control a shadow that’s trying to reunite itself with its body. The whole game is spent scaling a tower, but since you can only interact with other shadows that’s no easy feat. Solving puzzles in the shadow world moves objects in the physical world, which in turn creates new shadows for you to travel across. It’s an intriguing premise, and a difficult one too—especially when combat gets thrown into the mix.
It’s also a beautiful game, although it would look even better if it wasn’t on the underpowered Wii. But for a console that’s in desperate need of high quality games Lost in Shadow more than fits the bill, making it a shame that this clever platformer was overlooked.
Do you remember when Japanese RPGs weren’t terrible? Ever since innocent gamers were subjected to the cringe-worthy Final Fantasy XIII, those days feel like a long, long time ago. DS owners can harken back to the olden times with Radiant Historia, a modern JRPG that sets itself apart from its peers by not sucking.
The game’s grid based combat system is interesting, but it’s the time travel mechanism that really makes Radiant Historia stand out. Players are allowed to jump back and forth through the game’s timeline, alter events and then see how their decisions play out. And these are real decisions, not the “Say something nice before saving the world/save something rude before saving the world” choices most RPGs offer. Some of your decisions have a major effect on the story, making it fun to go back and see how things could have been.
It’s a premise that breathed new life into a genre desperately in need of innovation, making it one of the best JRPGs in recent history. It may have been too little too late, as Radiant Historia was a commercial dud—but for anyone who longs for the glory days of going on an adventure with a bunch of androgynous teenagers in silly outfits, this is the game to check out.
Of all the types of dolls that could have served as inspiration for a video game, matryoshka dolls seemed like a longshot. So imagine the shock the industry felt when Stacking was announced.
Players control Charlie Blackmore, the tiniest doll in his family. Using his ability to leap into larger dolls (who can in turn stack into even bigger dolls, hence the title), Charlie must use the unique talents the dolls of the world possess to solve puzzles and rescue his family from an evil industrialist. Or you can just stack into a big fat doll and waddle around farting in other dolls’ faces. The choice is yours!
The gameplay and puzzles are a bit simplistic, but Stacking oozes so much charm that you’ll barely notice. The industrial age setting, offbeat animations and witty writing are endearing, as are the silent film style cutscenes. The fact that Stacking can make you laugh about issues like forced child labor shows how lighthearted and goofy the game is. Most gamers weren’t interested in playing with dolls, but it’s worth your attention. Especially since we’ll never see that Russian folk puppetry themed sequel unless Stacking sells well enough.
4. Rayman Origins
You usually don’t tack “Origins” onto a title unless it’s a gritty reboot, but that was actually kind of what Ubisoft’s limbless mascot needed. The Rayman franchise has lost its way in recent years, its efforts focused not on the titular hero but the Rabbids, the intellectually challenged rabbits that soon wore out their welcome for anyone over the age of 12.
Rayman Origins was a return to Rayman’s platforming roots. It could have been a lazy one, a cheap way to grab some money from an old franchise—but Ubisoft went all out and gave us something fantastic instead.
Don’t let the cutesy graphics and “look how wacky we are!” vibe of the trailer throw you off—Rayman Origins is a challenging game. It’s also an incredibly fun game, thanks to varied level design that constantly throws new ideas at you, while encouraging you to keep pushing forward to see what the next whimsical stage is.
Platforming games are no longer in vogue, at least if they don’t have Mario in the title. Rayman Origins’ abysmal sales are proof of that (although coming out in the middle of the holiday season didn’t help). But if you’re a fan of the genre, you owe it to yourself to give it a try—Rayman Origins isn’t just a return to form for a 90s hero, it’s one of the best platforming games around.
3. Shadows of the Damned
In 2011, gamers witnessed something they thought they would never see: the release of Duke Nukem Forever. So when it turned out to be a subpar shooter full of dated “jokes” that would make a misogynist cringe, the disappointment was palpable. In fact, gamers were so busy talking about Duke Nukem’s monumental failure that Shadows of the Damned, released just a week later, slipped under everyone’s radar. Ironically, Shadows of the Damned was everything Duke Nukem Forever should have been: a ridiculous, over the top shooter with a great sense of humor.
Everything about Shadows of the Damned is pure camp: you play as demon hunter Garcia Hotspur, who fights through hell to rescue his girlfriend from the Lord of Demons. Your sidekick? A talking skull named Johnson, who can turn into a flashlight, several guns and a motorcycle.
If that’s sounds amazing, that’s because it is. Playing Shadows of the Damned is manlier than getting drunk and punching Hitler in the face. It’s so unapologetically stupid that you can’t help but love it—this is a game that wants you to have loud, crazy fun, and it will relentlessly assault your senses until you do. It’s a sharp contrast to Duke Nukem Forever, which lazily assumed nostalgia and feces jokes would make up for archaic gameplay. So why did Duke Nukem sell well while Shadows of the Damned was nothing short of a commercial disaster? We can only assume it’s because Shadows was too awesome for the world to handle.
Catherine is a half puzzle, half dating simulator horror game with box art featuring a girl taking her top off. The only thing surprising about its poor sales was that more 13 year old boys didn’t buy it and then return it in immense disappointment.
On the off chance that trailer somehow left things unclear, Catherine is about a guy named Vincent who’s trying to decide between committing to his long-time girlfriend, Katherine, or leaving her for Catherine, a mysterious new girl who’s only interested in sex. Oh, and when he goes to bed every night he has to navigate a hellish world of block puzzles where everyone and everything is trying to kill him. And if he dies in his dreams, he dies in real life. Man, who hasn’t gone through a phase like that in their love life?
Between the crazy story and the insane difficulty of the puzzles, Catherine naturally turned off a lot of gamers. But if you can get over those hurdles, you’ll find some interesting ideas. The other half of Catherine features Vincent hanging out with his friends at a bar, where what he says in conversation with them (and the two women) affects the outcome of the story. It’s a fresh take on the now common morality system, where answers to seemingly insignificant questions matter more than your reaction to major plot points. These conversations—and your choices—make Vincent a believable character, which is no small feat given Catherine’s premise. Plus, the game’s just so frigging weird it’s worth checking out for the novelty value alone.
1. Child of Eden
Child of Eden is the closest the game industry has come to making a simulation of dropping acid. And that’s just one of the reasons you should play it.
It’s hard to describe Child of Eden without sounding like a hippy, but here goes: it’s a rail shooter where players are tasked with “purifying” a virtual world, and no, that’s not some sort of awful euphemism for igniting a race war. Your opposition is ostensibly a computer virus, although the story is little more than an excuse to throw trippy sights at you. Purifying enemies contributes to the soundtrack, and pulling the trigger in beat with the music rewards you with bonus points. That encourages you to tap your feet to the rhythm, although you may find yourself doing that regardless.
The soundtrack is engaging, but what’s most memorable are the visuals—Child of Eden is absolutely gorgeous and, despite its brevity, well worth experiencing. It’s nice to see a shooter that’s full of color in a genre that seems committed to purging everything but grey from its pallet. Most importantly, it’s hard not to feel happy when playing Child of Eden, and isn’t that what all video games should set out to accomplish?