by Ken Gagne
GameCube! Xbox! PlayStation 2!
These new video game systems cost hundreds of dollars and have relatively few games available for them, yet somehow have seen fit to dispose the software-laden previous generation of systems. That older consoles lack new games is no need for concern, though, as chances are you've not played all the old ones. You may think you've squeezed all the fun out of those older systems, but beyond the Zeldas and Bandicoots are a plethora of fantastic games you may have never heard of, much less played. For whatever reasons, these great games were probably missed the first time around, but deserve a gamer's attention.
The PlayStation had hundreds (if not thousands) of software titles to wade through. With such a vast library, it's likely you missed some of these gems.
Intelligent Qube is a unique puzzle game that imitates neither Tetris nor Columns, as dozens other clones do. I.Q. challenges players to guide their avatar across a field of ominously-advancing cubes while eliminating only the gray-colored ones. If any blocks slip past, or if they crush the player, a foreboding voice demands, "Again!" The spartan graphics are accompanied by a soundtrack that captures the spirits of Star Wars and Robin Hood, completing a package that will test anyone's I.Q.
Players must be just as mindful of their decisions in Civilization II. This game is a port from the superior computer version; if you have a Windows or Macintosh machine, I highly recommend Civ2. But if what you have is a PlayStation, this game will captivate you nonetheless. From 5,000 B.C. to A.D. 2,000, the fate of an entire civilization lies in your hands. Decide what advancements to pursue next, including pottery, gunpowder, and radio. Expand your territory, founding new cities across the world — but beware of other civilizations trying to do the same. Civ2 gives players plenty to consider, without bogging them down in micromanagement details. A single game can last more than six hours, so bring a memory card.
If you prefer to plot your moves in a more story-driven environment, try Echo Night. The tradition of Shadowgate lives on in this point-and-click adventure that sends you back in time to a passenger ship of lost souls. By solving puzzles and manipulating space and time to ease these ghosts' suffering, the mystery behind the boat's disappearance can be solved and the evil responsible vanquished. Echo Night is not a fantastic game, but it is a well-executed example of a genre rarely seen among today's games.
Step off the boat and into an all new world in Vandal Hearts II. This role-playing game (RPG) is tactical in nature: players have little control over story development, focusing instead on intensive battle. The plot is fantastic, spanning many years, nations, and factions — yet the fighting is what truly involves the player. The combat system is turn-based in which characters move across a grid-like battlefield, engaging enemies with melee and missile weapons and magic spells. Hundreds of unique weapons determine if a hero will be a fighter, archer, mage, or other combination of strengths and weaknesses. Few RPGs are worth the dedication Vandal Hearts II requires.
All these puzzles and strategies have you bogged down? Go for some "twitch" action in Einhander, a side-scrolling shooter. This nearly-forgotten genre is served well by a futuristic shooting game from the makers of Final Fantasy. As the screen moves through futuristic locales, enemy ships will attack the player in swarms. Only fast reflexes can dodge their assaults, snatch special weapons from fallen foes, and return fire quickly enough to make it out alive. A lack of two-player mode and very high difficulty level mar this game, yet keeps the solo gamer coming back for more.
Though I could conscientiously label the Sega Dreamcast "the best system you've never played", with similar titles for all its software, one game I feel was particularly missed was Vanishing Point. It's very easy to miss a racing game in an industry that gorges itself on this genre, but don't overlook this game. Vanishing Point combines the realistic car models and sleek graphics of Gran Turismo with a more lighthearted approach to racing. The stunt mode sends cars over jumps, popping balloons, and spinning fast 180's. Yet the racing mode is as fierce – and fun — as any other high-speed game.
It's not just the Dreamcast that has these diamonds in the rough; Sega games tend to be overlooked through no fault of their own. If you have the failed Sega Saturn system, then you've probably already played Panzer Dragoon Saga. If you don't, then this game is worth getting a Saturn for. Hours of spoken dialogue, in both Japanese and a fictional language, are only part of what makes this fantasy role-playing game so absorbing. Unique exploration and battle systems are two others. The absolute awesomeness of dragons — often mishandled and overdone in today's rampant fantasy — is one more. I recall Saga as one of the best RPGs I've ever played.
Like the Saturn, the Nintendo 64 was another minority player compared to the PlayStation. Its fewer number of games meant fewer hidden gems, but they do exist. Tetrisphere, for example, put a new spin (literally) on the Tetris puzzle series. Originally created as an Atari Jaguar game, Tetrisphere was one of the first puzzlers to have an absolutely rocking soundtrack. Other games' music may have amplified the tense atmosphere common to puzzlers, but Tetrisphere's tunes could stand on their own. Of course, the gameplay — uncovering a tetrad-laden sphere in a fashion similar to peeling an onion — is what ultimately made Tetrisphere worth playing, but the game is a unique combination of playability and presentation.
Another overlooked Nintendo 64 title is Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon. By today's standards, it may be a flawed 3D platformer, but following on the heels of Super Mario 64, it was pretty fun. The Goemon games, this one included, are known for a rich Japanese setting and quirky sense of humor. Caricature villains are a real threat to Japan's wellbeing, calling players to scale mountains, invade pagodas, and pilot giant robots in all-out fisticuffs, to the rhythm of Japanese lyrics and pop tunes. Like I said — quirky.
Metal Gear Solid may have been one of the PlayStation's defining titles, but the Nintendo 64 had WinBack — no competitor for MGS, but a fun game in its own right. Jean-Luc Cougar is a lone soldier in enemy territory as he fights to regain control of a government laser satellite. His machinations are less stealthy and ingenious than Solid Snake's, but no less difficult to execute. The plodding pace and constant target practice may disappoint some players.
If you bought a game system near the end of its shelf life for a good price, you're a perfect candidate to enjoy the above sleeper hits, having missed them when they first came out. Look around for a copy to breathe new life into those "dead" consoles; a used copy at a local retail store or on eBay is your best bet.
This article is copyright (c) 2001, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.
Original publication: Sentinel & Enterprise, 31-Dec-01