[Continuing Gamasutra's 2010 round-up, Brandon Sheffield presents our top 5 cult hits of the year, a eclectic mix of games from the B-movie esoterica of Deadly Premonition, to the pressures of running a professional game dev sweatshop.
Previously in our end-of-year round-up: Top 5 Handheld Games, Top 5 PC Games, Top 10 Indie Games, Top 5 Developers, Top 5 Trends, Top 5 Major Industry Events, Top 5 Surprises, Top 5 Disappointments, Top 5 Controversies, and Most Anticipated Games Of 2011.]
What is a 'cult game' these days? The word is often used to describe 'niche' titles, but now that smaller JRPGs and scrolling shooters have found the right price point and a dedicated Western following, that description seems lacking.
Nowadays, I think wit's more appropriate to borrow from the movies, and define cult games in a similar way. The "B" games that have some very interesting ideas, don't necessarily sell like gangbusters, but which come up again and again in editors' "best-of" lists, and which academics and theorists talk about for years to come.
These are the games that tried something interesting, and perhaps because of it didn't find a huge mainstream audience. But they did find some dedicated fans, who are eager to see what will come next from these unique minds. It's the idea of an "auteur" game made within a traditional structure (indie games are nearly always this way now).
Here I present to you my picks for the five best cult games from 2010.
5. Castlevania: Harmony Of Despair (Konami, Xbox Live Arcade)
Castlevania's audience has been dwindling a bit over the years, as it suffered from the problem fighting games and arcade shooters in days of old. That is to say, it kept getting deeper and deeper into its own ideas, with item micromanagement, collection of souls, and OCD-style collection aplenty. But with each subsequent 2D release, Konami was just making a deeper "Metroidvania" for a smaller and smaller audience.
That changed when the company decided to make a serious go of a revamp, with Mercury Steam's Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. At the same time though, they made the 2D Castlevania HD, which was even more niche than ever before. A difficult, grinding-heavy 2D multiplayer action/jumping puzzle game with a time limit is not everyone's idea of accessible, and reviews were at times polarized, but more often simply confused.
Most levels require multiple singleplayer playthroughs or multiple friends in order to beat, and each character you can choose from levels up in a different way. This encourages different playstyles, but is also maddeningly underexplained. But thinking back to our youths, wasn't discovering "the secret" to these games rather exciting at the time? Castlevania HD replicates that feeling of discovery with its sometimes clever, sometimes obtuse, sometimes maddening jumping/flip the switch puzzles, and deserves a second look for those who love pixel-perfect 2D gameplay.
4. Cow Clicker (Ian Bogost, Facebook)
Ian Bogost's social game development experiment has been well-documented, but it's worth a brief recap. Bogost was amazed and amused by the proliferation of social games, but also alarmed by their lack of "game-ness" and interactivity. So to satirize both the content and typical themes of these games, he created a game where all you do is click a cow with a time-down on it until you can click again. Various in-came items can be purchased with "mooney" that you earn, mimicking the microtransaction system most social games carry.
Ironically, the game's satirical nature had serious uptake among game literati, critical thinkers, and just plain old social game enthusiasts, who wound up making Cow Clicker Bogost most-played and most recognized game to date. In his enthusiasm, he had accidentally made the game fun for a certain kind of person.
Being an academic, all sorts of lessons were learned about the nature of fun and the power of satire - but at the end of the day, you're still just clicking a cow. But really, who can blame you?
3. Nier (Cavia/Square Enix, Xbox 360 & PlayStation 3)
Nier is a bizarrely ambitious and messy amalgam of genres and ideas, alternately impressing you with its innovation and making you wonder what madman could have constructed such a game.
Take a 3D brawler, add mindless fetch quests, hunting and fishing, a post-apocalyptic/fantasy theme (the slash is quite important, as they're not quite merged), powerleveling, 3D bullet hell shooting, boar riding, a hideously scarred and aged protagonist, and a transgender female lead, alongside intriguing graphics, painful foul-mouthed voicework, and inexplicably nonsensical dungeons, and you've got Nier.
If anything adds up to a cult game, that's it. There's something to love or hate for everyone, but once you've learned about it, you can't simply ignore it. The game attracts and repels equally, making bold steps forward for games, while keeping the other foot squarely in the era of the PlayStation 2.
For those who haven't experienced it, give the first 20 minutes a whirl. The game has you leveling up insanely quickly, becoming superpowerful within moments, lending a triumphant feeling just as the story wants you to despair. Then it takes it all away and makes you hunt sheep, plant fields, and gather eggs before you can get back to the magic. The workings of a madman, indeed.
2. Game Dev Story (Kairosoft, iPhone/Android)
iOS/Android title Game Dev Story is a fresh take on the "management" genre, ala Diner Dash, in which you must hire, train, and guide a new team of developers to create great games (within the game). The mechanics are wonderfully addictive, and lend themselves well to that "well, just one more game" feeling - although in this case, you just want to make one more game within the context of the story.
Not so surprisingly, the game has been especially popular among game developers, which is part of why it warrants such a high spot on the Gamasutra list. This is Kairosoft's version of a Segagaga, presenting an alternate history of game consoles' past and future, even allowing you to eventually release your own game console. Game references abound, from fake consoles that have very obvious real-life counterparts, to game directors with names like "Shigeto Minamoto."
The game's very specific themes may have kept it from massive worldwide financial success, but it seems to have done well enough for the company, and has delayed the writing of this article several times today. What better praise can I give it than that? The question I want answered is how many of you out there entered your real company name, when you tried to make a go of it in Game Dev Story?. I know I did.
1. Deadly Premonition (Access Games/Ignition, Xbox 360 & PlayStation 3)
This will come as absolutely no surprise to readers of Game Developer magazine and Gamasutra. The team, especially the author of this article, has been enamored with Deadly Premonition since its Xbox 360-only North American budget release. The game is now available worldwide (PS3 is only in Japan at the moment), and delighting and horrifying audiences everywhere.
The game has clumsy combat, PS2-level graphics, and maddeningly long sequences of driving from nowhere to another, slightly differently textured nowhere. But lift the curtain a bit, and you see a living, bizarre game world, where people go about their daily business regardless of player interaction. You'll see a deeply bizarre story, with the main character (expertly voiced by Jeff Kramer) discussing necrophilia, drinking urine from skulls, and B-movie film errata in alternate breaths.
The game's dialog is so perfectly imperfectly written that it feels as though it belongs in a category all its own. It also has one of the most intelligent narrative framing devices, allowing the main character's multiple personality to take life in a way that other games have certainly attempted, but never succeeded (if I say more, I feel I may spoil something).
Once you get past the clunkiness of it, even the combat can become fun - but perhaps I have an odd perspective as someone who obtained every secret card, every weapon, and every automobile in the game. Subsequent fights through the game's "dungeons" turn into speed runs once you get some all-powerful weapons, that allow you to revisit frustrating areas and simply mow through enemies and pick up collectibles that are laid out for you as though they were on a racetrack.
Reviews were perhaps the most amusingly polarizing external aspect to the game. IGN provided the first review, rating the game a dismal 2.0. Destructoid followed suit with a perfect 10 review of their own, and 1up followed with a solid "B" rating. While IGN couldn't see past the clunky controls that they felt kicked them out of the experience, the others saw the ultimate cult classic of a game. The final laugh came when the game was released many months later in Europe - only to receive a 7.5 from IGN UK.
Deadly Premonition took 5 years and as many near-cancellations to put on shelves, and is the kind of game nobody makes anymore - and as the industry changes and shifts, who knows if they ever will again. For now though, the game has amassed a rabid following, so we can only cross our fingers and wait.
Deadliest Warrior (Pipeworks/Spike TV, XBLA/PSN) - a quite decent fighter that was held back in reviews by its association with a license. Fans have felt strongly about the title though, earning it a cult spot.
Splatterhouse (Bottle Rocket & Namco Bandai Games, Xbox 360/PlayStation 3) - rife with problems and lengthy quicktime events, but in keeping with the spirit of the original, whilst also having the voice of Darkwing Duck (the "mask" in the game) speak to you intermittently. Is there someone out there who doesn't want to Get Dangerous?
Infinite Line (Nude Maker & Platinum Games/Sega, DS) - part hard sci-fi, part animu angsty feelings, this game was almost the customizable space sim I was looking for. With a slightly more serious story from skilled scenario writer Hifumi Kouno of Nude Maker, this could've been a contender.
Protect Me Knight (Ancient, Xbox Live Indie Games) - famed musician Yuzo Koshiro took the tower defense genre and made it an action game - in an 8-bit world with awesome Engrish everywhere. That's a good combo.
Yukkuri Meikyuu (Xbox Live Indie Games) - this is an XBLIG title you either love or hate. Play as a schoolgirl punching different colored globes in a first-person maze as odd samples and bizarre music fill the air. It's tough, addictive, and obnoxious: the perfect mix for a cult game.