You can usually tell the people who like unpopular games. They’re the ones posting badly spelled YouTube comments or drawing creepy fanart for a strangely underpopulated subreddit. But sometimes, very occasionally, they have a point. These are the games that for all their criticism at the time are still well worth a play.
Spyro: Enter the Dragonfly
Thanks to a rather unfortunate number of glitches, including one that allows access to the final boss after about 45 seconds of gameplay, this one wasn’t too popular at release. There was also a certain understandable level of disappointment at the cutting of several planned worlds before release. Compared to earlier Spyro games, Enter the Dragonfly is quite lacking in content, but it doesn’t mean that what is there is bad.
Presentationally the game is among the best the GameCube and PS2 had to offer, and the GameCube port did fix a lot of issues present on PlayStation. The controls were quite responsive and the new breath powers worked well for the most part. While there weren’t quite enough worlds, those which were included were generally quite open, imaginative and varied, with a number of fun and challenging minigames to keep players occupied. At the end of the day, if the worst thing you can say about a game is that there wasn’t enough of it, that’s not so bad a thing.
Super Mario Sunshine
Hands up on this one, most people accept that Super Mario Sunshine was a great game with a huge amount of creativity in level design and mechanics. But that didn’t stop plenty of people at the time moaning about what they saw as a betrayal of the fans.
To be fair to them, they sort of had a point. The gameplay, making use of the FLUDD water cannon to clear up slicks of goo, was a marked departure from the ‘pure’ platforming experience offered by the likes of Super Mario 64. The tropical island theme of the fairly open levels also raised some hackles, with some claiming a lack of variety and that a focus on exploration made the game slower than those old Mario levels with the emphasis strictly on progression.
But in the context of the time, this was only the second 3D Mario platformer. It wasn’t set in stone that they all had to follow the Super Mario 64 formula, and in its own right the FLUDD gameplay was well implemented and an inventive way to show off the analogue shoulder buttons of the GameCube. It also seems strange that this aspect received criticism, but Yoshi’s Island, a game about carrying a baby on your back and flinging eggs around, was left untouched.
The levels may have all taken place in a single coherent world, but they had a good amount of variety within them – a ghost infested hotel/casino, an inland area full of windmills, a busy industrial port and a sleepy, ancient bay, to name just a few. Their emphasis on exploration didn’t subtract excitement or speed if that’s how you wanted to play it, but gave extra interactivity and welcome easter eggs to eagle-eyed players.
If what you wanted was just the purist-style platforming, the FLUDD-less secret levels with tricky moving parts suspended over a void as an a capella rendition of the original game’s theme played in the background were pretty excellent. While they might have been unbelievably frustrating, they were quite replayable and not tiny in number.
It’s easy to make fun of David Cage – indeed, I did just that recently. The man seems to seek the goal of emotion without realising that emotion undirected is a worthless commodity. Emotion is something that arising from immersion and empathy, two things it’s very hard to create without a coherent story in a meaningful, recognisable (either explicitly or implicitly) setting. It’s something you can’t achieve without characters who feel real to the audience.
They’re requirements which Quantic Dream seldom meet. Their games are frequently full of plot holes, characters we have no reason to feel for, or settings which aren’t properly explained.
But Heavy Rain is probably the best of them. Its setting – modern-day Philadelphia – essentially keeps itself grounded, and the plot borrows heavily from noir fiction. This means there are established tropes into which it fits, and despite a few plot holes it’s basically fine.
The controls, using rather intricate strings of quick-time events for action scenes, were a little on the simple side and didn’t offer much player choice. But given the weird tank controls used for the free exploration sections, that might not be such a bad thing.
Where Heavy Rain deserves credit is for trying something new, and with its solid sales proving that there is a decent-sized market out there for a serious work of big-budget interactive fiction. It was the trailblazer that helped lead to the success of such hits as LA Noire, among others. And in its own right, it’s still a worthwhile experience the first time through if you can find it cheap.
Dear Esther has been a divisive game over the years. Not least, its lack of what we’d call traditional gameplay has led to the derisive description ‘walking simulator’, a term now applied rather liberally to anything with weapon modding and a deathmatch mode.
It’s true that Dear Esther is a short game, and one which is better suited to switching off in a medium where reflexes and skill are often highly prized. The voice acting isn’t top notch, and the story is rather predictable at points even on a first play through.
But it’s a damn pretty game, and that doesn’t count for nothing. The breathtaking sea views of rough-hewn Scottish islands are some of the few bits of natural landscape Britain has going for it, and they’re rendered here in lovely detail. The abandoned ship rusting on the coast is an eyesore, but a meaningful and well-placed one. It’s little touches like the abandoned camps left all over the island and the ruins of a now-gone community.
It isn’t a game you’ll play more than once or twice, or get engaged in for dozens of hours, but it doesn’t really pretend to be that. It’s clearly had a lot of effort put in and represents the kind of respect for storytelling and emotion that David Cage grasps for but can’t seem quite to reach.