Five of the Best Critically Misunderstood Games

Relying on aggregate review scores to give you the what’s good on the best of the best video games is, and always will be, a mistake. Generally, sites like Metacritic and OpenCritic are only useful for those who aren’t particularly fussed with the details; gamers who want a general overview of whether a title is good or not without having to parse a ton of opinions. The key to finding out if a game will personally appeal to you (apart from playing it yourself, which is admittedly a monetary commitment) is to try and find three to five specific reviewers, or publications, that align with your tastes and use them as a benchmark. Aggregate sites are useful, however, for creating articles just like this — taking a generalised consensus and milking it for outrage-click content! The critics can get it wrong, hyping up games that end up being average at best and disparaging those ambitious little experiences that push the envelope but lack polish. Taking data from Neoseeker and the aforementioned Metacritic, here are five games that critically suffered, scoring well under what they should have. And no, despite how good it is, God Hand is not included, that joke has run its course.

5. Splatterhouse (2010) — 59 PS3 / 62 X360

The Splatterhouse remake is juvenile in an appealing way, a semi-self-conscious teenage boy fantasy that reeks of the emo side of the noughties — a Hot Topic shopper’s wet dream (or, since I’m British, a Blue Banana shopper’s wet dream). As much inspired by Brain Dead as it is Invader Zim, the game is a wry, gore-soaked romp that loosely reimagines the ‘kidnapped girlfriend’ plot of the original arcade game. Plagued by a truly difficult development (regarding which I would highly recommend reading this excellent Polygon article), Splatterhouse 2010 is pretty rough around the edges and suffers from technical hiccups, slow load times and a few truly buggy set-pieces. It excels, however, in its pulpy, violent ambition. Creature and character design is a powerful mix of Todd McFarlane and Guillermo del Toro, combining the burly, rip n’ tear musculature of the former with the creepy, surreal femininity of the latter. Of course, you can also systematically dismember and brutalise all these wonderfully surreal abominations via the game’s visceral beat ’em up gameplay. Our protagonist, Rick, dons the Terror Mask and transforms into a freakishly huge version of himself, capable of hacking, slashing and punching through anything in his way. Moment-to-moment action is chunky and satisfying, each hit feels like it truly connects, and the player is rewarded with comical heaps of blood upon landing every blow. Splatterhouse is ‘metal’ in the same way something like Metalocalypse is and if you can tune into that kind of puerile mental wavelength then you’re in for a good time — it has all the appeal of a Troma flick. The ultraviolence is complemented by some excellent voice acting and Jim Cummings truly excels as the Terror Mask, Rick’s constantly nihilistic, wise-cracking companion (and he never asks for honey once). Also, if you’re into music of the heavier variety (I’m not particularly, the hardest I’ll go is, I don’t know, Dinosaur Jr.?) you’ve got a licensed soundtrack full of band names that sound like warnings you’d get on the back of drain unblocker like Municipal Waste and Mutant SupremacySplatterhouse 2010 is often clunky and seldom subtle but has the variety and spirit of a cult horror classic. The number of unique locations, gimmicks and grotesequeries makes this one underrated in my book, and in my book ambition is king. Also, even if you don’t care for this Western revival, the game allows you to unlock the original Splatterhouse 1–3 by playing through it, which was (at the time) worth the price of admission alone.

4. Toy Story 2: Buzz Lightyear to the Rescue — 67 PS1 & N64

Is Toy Story 2: Buzz Lightyear to the Rescue a slightly above average 3D platformer in the vein of Banjo Kazooie and Super Mario 64? Yes. Is it, therefore, deserving of the entirely middle of the road aggregate review score it received? Well, maybe, but I think it’s at least worthy of something in the high seventies. You see, Toy Story 2, as a video game, taps into a very personal desire — the desire to be a funny little man who gets to run and jump his way through familiar everyday locations. As a child, I desperately wanted them to make a game in which you get to do exactly this, play as a toy, or some other small avatar, and platform your way around a house, slide down banisters and scale massive shelves. Maybe it was the fact I grew up in a house with lots of cluttered bookshelves and crowded mantles, but my infant mind was obsessed with this concept. They eventually made the perfect game for me, and that game’s name is Chibi Robo, but Toy Story 2 helped scratch that initial itch. There is something special, even now, about running around Andy’s house as Buzz Lightyear, collecting Pizza Planet tokens and completing tasks for your fellow toys (Mr. Potato Head, Slinky, et al.). The somewhat barebones platforming is enhanced by the concept of experiencing the day-to-day through a new, exciting perspective. Outside of the house rampant lawnmowers attempt to cut you down, washing lines become zip wires to aid traversal and a lone tree becomes a tricky platforming gauntlet that leads to a boss fight at the top. Much like the film it is based on, Toy Story 2 excels in recontextualising the familiar into the adventurous. The game has an atmosphere all to itself, unrestrained by the genre tropes of its contemporaries; gone are the fire level, the desert and water worlds, in are the penthouse suite, the toy shop, the construction site and the elevator shaft. While the moment-to-moment gameplay is little more than business as usual (jumping, double jumping, firing your projectile, swinging on ropes) it is more than satisfactory when combined with the intriguing, unique stage design and set pieces. There is a reason a certain subset of gamers fondly remember Toy Story 2’s video game adaptation and it’s not hard to see why.

3. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth — 76 PC / 77 XBOX

Is it obvious yet that my favourite kind of game is usually a whacked-out janky mess with a ton of love put into it? DCotE is an all-timer, an easy entry in my top ten favourite games list, which is why it’s appearing here despite receiving a warm critical reception. The game is, admittedly, very buggy and not in the fun kind of way titles like Oblivion and GTA can be. Expect frequent crashes on both console and PC, slow down and, in some circumstances, save file destroying hard locks. If you are planning to play this game today, you would be wise to download the Unofficial Patch and apply it to the PC version of the game. However, despite that forewarning, you should absolutely experience DCotE. As protagonist Jack Walters, expect to stealth, shoot and investigate your way through Lovecraft’s iconic seaside town of Innsmouth and beyond. The atmosphere is nothing less than sublime — gloomy, dirty and unfriendly in all the most compelling ways. The post-tutorial section of the game is a phenomenal slice of immersive storytelling, as you begin to piece together clues and uncover the mysteries of the dilapidated Innsmouth. Shadowy figures stalk you in the night, townsfolk oscillate between creepy and aggressive, and the atmosphere is as taut as a bowstring. The oppressive darkness will be familiar to anyone who enjoys Thief and the semi-open level design somewhat apes that of the original Deus Ex and Half-Life 2DCotE combines the best of its immersive sim influences with the rich lore of Lovecraft’s literature — a heady cocktail of violence, disease and unspeakable, cosmic horror. The culmination of the opening act is a thrilling, terrifying chase sequence that begins in Jack’s hotel room and has the player sprinting over rooftops and through the sewers, the crazed residents of Innsmouth in hot pursuit. I love the fact that the player is expected to lock doors behind them during the hunt, which adds to both the tension and realism of the scenario. DCotE is a game of small touches that coalesce into something greater, something which rises above the frustration and the moments of clunk. A lot of fans of the game will claim it all goes downhill after you acquire your first weapon, trading the subtle dread of the opening for something a little more bang bang shoot shoot. This isn’t necessarily true, the first few hours of the game are just so good that it casts a brief shadow over what follows, and later areas are home to some truly unique, disturbing survival horror moments. The game is great, easily the best to carry the Cthulhu name and highly underrated on all fronts.

2. Sonic Adventure — 50 PS3 / 48 X360

Allow me to make a contentious claim, one sure to anger the vast majority of readers: Sonic Adventure is the best Sonic game and no, not just the best 3D one, but the best overall. Critically, upon initial release, it seems a lot of people agreed with this sentiment and the Dreamcast original enjoys a Neoseeker aggregate of 83, which is on the higher end of the spectrum when it comes to scores for the series. It was not until the game was re-released digitally in 2010 that we witnessed a sheer drop-off in critical reception. Read any reviews for the digital version of Sonic Adventure and you’re bound to come across claims stating the game has ‘aged poorly’, has an ‘annoying camera’ and complaints regarding the controls. I could not disagree more with these sentiments and find myself wholly at odds with the current internet consensus. Sonic Adventure, to me, really holds up. The game is colourful, bombastic and has an enjoyable, bouncy momentum, all of which is complemented by several unique characters and gameplay stylings. While it’s true there is a certain slipperiness to the physics, it is quite easy to adapt to and settle into the intended groove. Movement is snappy and, on the occasions that the game asks you to be precise in your platforming, you totally can be. Scale and speed are Sonic Adventure’s bread and butter, with each level being absolutely chock full of impressive, visually stunning set pieces. Everyone remembers speeding away from the killer whale in Emerald Coast, but there’s at least a moment just as good in every single stage. My particular favourites will always be the traversable tornado in Windy Valley, or the insane, disorienting climb up a huge moving airship in Sky Deck. It’s very hard to be bored when playing the game, it delivers something fresh and impressive around every corner, constantly reinventing the series older tropes (like the casino zones and snowboarding sections) and simultaneously introducing completely new ideas (Knuckles’ treasure hunt stages and Gamma’s third-person shmup gameplay stylings immediately come to mind). In-between levels the player is treated to several atmospheric hub-areas that change over the course of the adventure, with new landmarks and explorable sections opening up regularly. These provide a nice break from the action and give the player a chance to take in the size of the game world. I’ll never forget the first time I jumped from the highest peak of the Mystic Ruins into the deep jungle below, accompanied by the incredible background track of the same name, which is a rich, evocative piece of music that incorporates mysterious vocal melodies. The whole soundtrack is perfect, easily one of the best that video games as a medium has to offer — every tune is an earworm, every tune is a standout. Now, in the interest of being a little more objective, I can understand that the digital re-release of Sonic Adventure may have suffered with reviewers due to it being a straight, no-frills port of the Dreamcast version. The game wasn’t even updated for widescreen and, if you wanted the extra content found in the DX version for GameCube, you had to spend more money to purchase this as downloadable content. Why anyone would want the DX ‘upgrade’ is a completely different kettle of fish, as this version actively makes the game uglier and introduces brand new glitches. Even taking these things into account, the overall score is still far, far too low for such a great 3D platformer. Saying that something has aged poorly is weak criticism to begin with; good games stay good, and Sonic Adventure is exactly that.

1. The Silver Case — 64 PS4

In all honesty, any game in SUDA51’s brilliant Kill the Past series belongs here and both The 25th Ward and Flower, Sun and Rain are equally as good. The Silver Case, however, is another all-time favourite of mine and, as far as visual novels go, remains my pick for numero uno in the genre. In retrospect, it is quite easy to why critics would collectively baulk at the game, with its purposely obtuse, vicious and occasionally anti-player presentation. Suda is well known for his oeuvre of auteur ‘we don’t play by the rules’ titles and his trio of text-heavy adventure games are perhaps the clearest example of his ‘punk’ design philosophy. His minor mainstream success with No More Heroes and Lollipop Chainsaw is no surprise, as both games feature elements that appealed to gamers at the time; action-heavy violence, pop culture reference, hot girls and zombies. Anybody who played those games and then moved onto the localised port of FSR (Kill the Past’s middle entry) for the Nintendo DS would be taken aback to say the least — anarchic bloodshed replaced with quirky dialogue and (even more) unabashedly bizarre plotting. The Silver Case, which is the first game in the trilogy, was initially a 1991 Japan-exclusive PlayStation 1 game and only received an international release when it was remade in 2016 (much to the delight of all the hardcore Suda-heads out there). The game is such a unique gem, confidently treading the line between comedy, tragedy, horror and everything in-between. It would be a disservice to try and explain the plot of The Silver Case and, while the moment-to-moment dialogue is intriguing, the nightmarish, ethereal dystopia of the game world is the true highlight. The Silver Case does not pull any punches, it is a true slice of nastiness. The mediations of violence found in Suda’s other work usually materialise through the slapstick — comical fountains of bright red blood created by wise-cracking anime pretty boys. The violence in The Silver Case can feel far more real and far closer to home, manifesting through serial killers, corrupt cops and other questionable individuals. Indeed, almost every character within the game is morally reprehensible in some way, endlessly crude (this might be the most cursing I’ve ever seen in a video game) and emotionally unavailable. There is a great miasmic evil seeping through every crevice of Suda’s VN and it builds into an inorganic compound of pure nightmare fuel — the video game equivalent of a panic attack. This may sound like too much in a lot of ways and, for a lot of people, I totally accept that it is. Not everyone wants to engage with media that actively fights you, content that is purposefully designed to push your buttons (Drakengard also exists in this small subcategory but is far less successful in my opinion). I get the same kick out of the Kill the Past games as I do the work of David Lynch, experiences that are shocking, intimidating and, most importantly, new. Suda builds such a unique atmosphere with The Silver Case, it is simultaneously unfriendly and intriguing, sinking its fangs into you and refusing to let go. Only the Japanese legend himself can insert a 100-question pop quiz into the middle of a crime scene investigation and make it work (a pop quiz which includes questions based on Crash Bandicoot, Twin Peaks and European football teams, no less). The juxtaposition of the bizarre and the sinister is intoxicating, like a generic police serial distorted through the lens of a Thomas Pynchon novel. I don’t even have space to talk about the game’s excellent b plot, which mostly revolves around a freelance journalist checking his emails and talking to his pet turtle. The Silver Case, as I’ve already made clear many times, is not a game for everyone, but those who vibe with it will find an unparalleled artistic achievement — one that, for 1999, really did push boundaries for the medium. Also, if you like it, the next two games in the series are just as good, if not better.

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In conclusion, I just want to reiterate that I used aggregate review scores as an excuse to write about some of my favourite games. The fact that all these titles are divisive should speak to their quality to begin with — the best games often score between 55–80 on these sites anyway. Anything that can inspire both hatred and love is usually something worth trying out, just in case you fall into the latter category. Games as a medium continue to grow and evolve over time, tastes mature and the hardcore consumer will seek to expand their horizons and genre intake. The more ambitious, flawed experiences we receive, the better. Video games are, whether people like it or not, art and art should strive to break beyond the bounds of the comfortable, allowed to flow wherever the creator (or team of creators) wants to take it. Since the medium is still in relative infancy, it is more important than ever that players and their expectations are challenged; in other words, play more ‘bad’ games, you might just be in for a shock.

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