There are hundreds of excellent games that have been released over the last two decades that never quite got the attention and sales they deserved. Many times it is because of lousy marketing, but at least some of these games find an afterlife as a cult classic. While not all of these titles are “retro”, I hope that you consider taking a look at all of these games.
Update: If you want to read a more in-depth look at under-appreciated games, check out our Hidden Gems series
Jet Grind Radio/Jet Set Radio – Dreamcast
The combination of slick cell-shading graphics, energetic music, adrenaline-pumping action, and a very unique premise made Jet Grind Radio a title that no serious gamer should go without.
Unfortunately, JGR was left on a lot of store shelves as it suffered from very little marketing, a confusing title, and lousy cover art. Game shoppers just didn’t have any motivation to give it a chance. Many gamers that did give the game a try were quickly discouraged by the initially-tricky controls. But I can assure you that once you put a bit of time into the game, it will become second nature and you will be having a blast.
The game saw a sequel on the XBox in Jet Set Radio Future, but that game seemed to be watered down a bit in gameplay and didn’t bring anything new and exciting in return.
Panzer Dragoon Saga – Saturn
Touted by many Saturn fans as the greatest RPG ever, PD Saga is still a hot commodity on eBay. The graphics were great for it’s time, the gameplay was deep, and the total of 4-discs brought you to a new world that few games have rivaled.
Saga came out near the end of the Saturn’s short life and combined with a relatively short print run, not very many gamers got their hands on the game initially. It wasn’t until the Playstation, N64, and the Dreamcast made it onto the scene that the Saturn and its crown RPG got the recognition it deserved from hardcore, classic gamers.
Why Saga was never ported to another system, I will never know.
Pac-Man Vs. – Gamecube
Pac-Man vs. is possibly one of the best party games ever to grace a console. It doesn’t matter if your friends are gamers or not. If you have 3 controllers and a GBA w/ Link cable, you will have fun with this game. In Vs., up to three people control the ghosts on the screen. When a ghost eats Pacman, the two players switch roles. The beauty of it all is that the player controlling Pacman uses a GBA to see the entire map and the ghosts are limited to viewing a small area around themselves. So even though the rules of the game haven’t really changed, the experience is profoundly different than the original.
Shigeru Miyamoto, father of Mario and the brain behind Vs., originally planned on having this game as a release on its own, but instead came bundled with a couple of other existing Namco GameCube titles. Because of this, it was never really marketed and given much attention.
Guardian Heroes – Saturn
Developed by fan-favorite, Treasure, Guardian Heroes is another late-blooming Saturn title that many people still haven’t discovered. Guardian Heroes is a beatemup with strong RPG elements. Treasure combined great 2D animation, a unique control scheme, and killer gameplay with the ability to level up and focus the skills that you choose. If the game caught on as much as it should have, it could have brought new life to the beatemup genre.
A psedo-port/sequel showed up on the Gameboy Advance, but it lacking much of the excitement of the original. Also worth mentioning is Panzer Bandit , a Playstation game that is basically a Guardian Heroes-copycat that was enjoyable, but lacked much of the Treasure Charm and RPG elements.
Beyond Good And Evil – PS2, Gamecube, XBox
Possibly one the best games of 2004, Beyond Good and Evil featured a magical combination of action, animation, and storytelling that won it many high ratings. The game represented high quality and production values when most other games on the market were either re-hashes of other successful games or just plain awful.
Even though it did receive a decent amount of advertising from UbiSoft, shoppers just didn’t respond to this new title among a sea of big-name sequels that were released at the same time. While it receive many critical acclaims from both the press and the gamers that tried it, many BG&E cases were still sitting on stores’ clearance shelves.
Samba De Amigo – Dreamcast
If you enjoy rhythm games, monkeys, and need something different from Dance Dance Revolution, you really need to take a look at Samba De Amigo. Samba is another one of the ultimate party games and deserves another chance. It involves waving/shaking maracas in certain directions to match the upbeat music. Many people find it much easier for beginners to play as opposed to DDR, but it still is a challenge in higher levels and it can be a riot to watch your friends shake their maracas like there’s no tomorrow.
Hampered by the high price of Sega’s first party maracas, Samba didn’t sell very well. Now, cheaper third-party maraccas can be found online, but I find the game to be highly enjoyable even with traditional controllers.
Snatcher – Sega CD (plus a few others if you read Japanese)
Heavily inspired by Blade Runner, Snatcher is an RPG-like adventure game that is developed by Konami and the people behind the Metal Gear Solid series.
Originally made for the MSX and some other older platforms in Japan, Snatcher finally had an English port on the Sega CD. Unfortunately like many other terrific games on Sega’s platforms it came out on the tail end of a dying system. To this day it is still claiming a premium on eBay.
Snatcher was also released on the Saturn in Japan along with it’s 3-disc sequel Policenauts. Policenauts wasn’t quite as fortunate as Snatcher, as it never saw an English release (petition anyone?) Update: Could a DS Port Be On Its Way?
River City Ransom – NES, GBA
You could say that River City Ransom was a precusor to Guardian Heroes. It was the original beatemup on the NES that had entertaining RPG elements. The game has a unique style that is fun and still looks cool today in a cartoony sort of way. It’s personality is one that still is rarely matched today.
It’s simple controls and deep gameplay have taken it from it’s originally obscure status to a bit of a cult favorite. It also made its way to the Gameboy Advance, but yet again, it didn’t seem to sell well.
Phantasy Star 2 – Genesis
One of the greatest RPGs of of the 16-bit era, Phantasy Star 2 had rich storyline in a futuristic setting, several worlds to explore, and a cataclysmic epic with a truly satisfying conclusion.
While the the Final Fantasy installments and other Square RPGs may have gotten all the attention on the SNES, Phantasy Star 2 showed that RPG fans could have fun on the Genesis.
Rocket Knight Adventures – Genesis
In the avalanche of 2D platformers during the 16-bit era, it was easy for a game like Konami’s Rocket Night Adventures to get lost in the shuffle. Rocket Knight Adventures has more technique and plot than any other platform of the era. The slick effects and big bosses alone can carry the game. It may have its flaws — mainly with the replay value, but overall, this is one of the best bets for the Genesis, period.
Silhouette Mirage – Playstation, Saturn
Treasure once again, beautifully pushes the 2D envelope to the max on both the Saturn and PSX in addition to having a wonderful soundtrack and great sound effects.
Treasure is generally regarded among industry veterans to be one of the best developers of original 2D action games. Thanks to Treasure’s creativity, Silhouette Mirage has revolutionary play mechanics and an insane amount of depth. It features gameplay elements depending on changing colors — much like Treasure’s later shmup masterpiece, Ikaruga.
While Treasure has a great deal of quality titles, they are rarely promoted much and often have obscure names. Silhouette Mirage ended up in bargain bins and can still be found for a reasonable price on the Playstation.
Virtua Tennis – Dreamcast, Arcade
Having the essential quality of being easy to play and difficulty to master, Virtua Tennis was one of the sleeper hit of short-lived Sega Dreamcast. It is often overlooked as a killer party game — I have had many parties with both guys and girls of all gaming levels having a blast on a 4-player doubles tournament.
While other enjoyable tennis titles have come long since (Top Spin and Mario Power Tennis), Virtua Tennis still holds up as being possibly the best tennis game ever. Also worth mentioning is the sequel, Tennis 2K2 is also on the Dreamcast.
Full Review of Virtua Tennis
X-COM: UFO Defense – Playstation, PC
In this cult-favorite, players battle an alien invasion by building bases and handling inventory, attacking UFOs, managing a staff of researchers and engineers, and sending your squads of soldiers off to engage in one of the most intense, enjoyable turn-based tactical games ever.
Over the decade, X-COM has still not been topped in terms of strategy. Although it may be lacking eye-candy, the depth of gameplay, open-endedness and amazing atmosphere created by the audio simply makes this game amazing.
Chu Chu Rocket – Dreamcast, GBA
Chu Chu Rocket was extremely popular and recognized by most gamers who had actually played it and virtually unknown otherwise. The concept is simple: point mice into your rocket, keep cats away from your rocket. Put four players on the same board and the trash-talking quickly escalates. Reversals of fortune, spontaneous alliances and blistering speed and deep strategy easily make up for its rudimentary graphics.
I have to admit, this game would be hard to sell. If you picked this game off the shelf and took a look at the screenshots, it seems very confusing. But I can attest to the fact that if you give this game a chance, you’ll adore it.
Full Review of Chu Chu Rocket
The Adventures of Cookie & Cream – PS2
C&C is one of the most underrated co-op experiences. This game is about true cooperative game mechanics. Forget about other co-op games that allow the leading player to drag the other player along through checkpoints – this game requires both players to complete puzzles and challenges together, otherwise neither player can progress. It is presented in a clear and intuitive fashion so that I can play it with casual gamer friends.
It is also challenging enough that my hardcore gamer friends enjoy it as well. I’m sure it is often overlooked since it’s too cute for its own good. The main characters are two bunnies in a cartoon world, and the graphics are only average, but they blend well with the artistic direction of the game.
Puyo Pop Fever – Dreamcast, Gamecube, DS, PS2, PSP
Puzzle games are easily overlooked by game shoppers as they are usually not that flashy and don’t receive much promotion. In addition, most puzzle game sequels don’t bring much to the table other than unsuccessfully messing with a formula that is already working.
The Puyo Puyo franchise (some sequels went by other names in the US) has been around since the NES days and not much happened in the innovation department until the late Japanese release of Puyo Puyo Fever on the Dreamcast. While Fever offered the orignal gameplay that puzzle fans came to love, it also brought a Fever Mode that brought more strategy and combo-blitzing without adding too much chaos. Puzzle sequels like Bust-A-Move 4 promoted heavy combos, but in doing so, it made them a little too easy and made the game crazy and unpredictable. Puyo Pop Fever has the perfect balance of strategy and simplicity which makes it a title that both hardcore and casual gamers can enjoy.
Ogre Battle – SNES, Playstation, GBA
This game has received its fair share of blank stares when mentioned in conversations with fellow gamers. The game was a hybrid real time strategy/turn-based RPG that let you build up an army of up to 100 characters.
I think the game fell short in popularity partly because of the length of levels (some battles could last an hour easily), and partly because of its small original retail release. The game comes highly recommended because of the near flawless game balancing and design.
Herzog Zwei – Genesis
Combining elements of real-time strategy and resource management into a shmup, Herzog Zwei is possibly one of the best games on Sega’s 16-bit powerhouse.
Game developers these days tend to stick to a single genre, rather than combining elements from several. It’s a shame because hybrid games like this always get me excited.
Shadowrun – Super Nintendo, Genesis, Sega CD
Based on a pen and paper RPG, the console versions of Shadowrun are an RPG that is set in a dark future. The gameplay is more similar to Western PC RPGs as opposed to traditional Japanese console RPGs. Because of this, it seemed to stay under the radar of mainstream console gamers.
Instead of using experience points that you find in most RPGs, which allow you to move up levels, Shadowrun uses karma points, which you earn one at a time. These Karma points are used to make your character more powerful. And like Guardian Heroes, the game allows you to choose what aspects of your character you wish to improve.
Propeller Arena – Dreamcast
I am sure that nobody bought this game in stores — basically because it was never sold. Propeller Arena was slated to be a big release with great online capabilities. It’s solid arcade-style dogfighting action would have been great in an online community (much like Crimson Skies eventually was on XBox Live). However, the game kept getting delayed until it was getting close to the point where Sega ceased Dreamcast production. It used 9/11 as an excuse for canceling the game since one stage in the game allows you to fly your planes into sky-scrapers.
The game was finished by Sega and a limited number of final test copies were floating around. Finally, a couple years ago, one of those test copies was sold for a great deal of cash, ripped, and released on the Net. Now, all the members of the Dreamcast “scene” have a copy of the game. Yes, I have a copy myself, and the game is incredible. Sure, Crimson Skies can rival it, but if you are a Dreamcast owner, it’s definitely a thrill.
Full Review of Propeller Arena