As you may have noticed since my 150th game review special, I ended up awarding passing grades far less often than middling or failing ones. It was to the point where I had gone at least two different months of this year without awarding a single one, causing me to promise to review at least one good game the following month. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure why things turned out that way, though reviewing long-running series that took a few installments to finally get good probably had something to do with it (the Bubsy series was responsible for three failing grades by itself). Either way, we’ve finally reached the games I can straight-up recommend, so if you haven’t played them, seek them out.
Because the associated grades are smack dab in the middle of my grading scale, yellow scores are probably the most diverse when it comes my stance on recommending them. While a 4/10 would be an unlikely recommendation at best, a 6/10 is effectively an honorable mention. Remember that, unlike what you may have experienced in school, 5/10 is average on my scale. Anyway, here are the games that, for all intents and purposes, neither passed nor failed.
Now I’ve done it. Less than a year after my piece on Super Mario 64, I managed to reach the 200-review mark in the form of my take on Persona 4 – exactly as I predicted. I am glad to have made it this far and I am truly appreciative of your support. As usual, now that I’ve reached this milestone, I now intend to talk about the games I’ve reviewed since then. Unlike last time, I didn’t revise any reviews, so there will only be fifty entries in this special. Like last time, this special will be divided into four parts. This part, which you’re reading right now, will detail all of the games that received failing grades. Part Two will showcase the ones that received middling grades. Part Three will have me talk about the games I recommend.
The finale will have me showcase the games I highly recommend. This time, I actually awarded a few 10/10s, so this will be the first time since my 100 review special that I’ll discuss every single tier on my grading scale. Once I’ve done that, I will reveal the master list so you can see where these games end up on them. Similar to my film review special, I have kept track of the scores I’ve awarded each game for a given decade. That way, you can see how frequently games from a given period pass, fail, or do neither. With the introduction out of the way, let’s dive right in.
By 1987, a game developer named Square was on the verge of bankruptcy. Knowing that their next project could potentially sink the company, they decided to take inspiration from Yuji Horii’s landmark Dragon Quest and create a turn-based role-playing game. In a bit of gallows humor, they named this game Final Fantasy. The name turned out to be highly ironic when it proved to be a resounding domestic success. This encouraged the company to try to have the game localized. To their surprise, the game sold even more copies in the West than it did in its native homeland. Because contemporary role-playing experiences were primarily found on personal computer platforms, Final Fantasy ended up being a gateway into the genre for those limited to home consoles. With at least two major RPG series proving to be successful, many other developers joined in, causing the genre to enter a golden age.
However, even with the success of Final Fantasy, console-based RPGs were still a niche market in North America by the early-1990s. It was ambiguous as to exactly why many of these games failed to find a large audience. North America already had a thriving role-playing scene by the time Dragon Quest was released there, making Mr. Horii’s effort, which greatly simplified the genre, seem redundant. It could also be chalked up to a difference in expectations regarding the medium. At the time, Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog were some of the most popular video game characters. Both originated from series that placed a greater emphasis on gameplay over story. Because of this, slow-paced, story-focused experiences didn’t fit what Western consumers expected out of console games. Square’s executives, on the other hand, came down to a different conclusion. They cited their games’ high difficulty as a reason why Westerners shied away from them. Among other things, this caused the difficulty of Final Fantasy IV to be lowered.
Nonetheless, the success of the original Final Fantasy proved that there did exist a fanbase for these kinds of games in the West. In an attempt to broaden their international market, Square greenlit a project specifically designed for Western gamers. The game was released under the name Final Fantasy Mystic Quest in Western regions – first in North America in 1992 and Europe in a year later. It would see a domestic release in September of 1993 with the slightly altered title Final Fantasy USA: Mystic Quest. Square would later reveal that the game sold 800,000 units, though roughly half of them were domestic sales. With neither side of the Pacific being especially enthusiastic about the game, it would appear to have been a resounding failure. Would it have been capable of selling newcomers on the genre?
Atlus’s long-running Shin Megami Tensei metaseries had always been popular in its native Japan. However, the first games were released on Nintendo’s Famicom and Super Famicom consoles. The developer’s North American branch had a strict policy that prohibited any religious symbolism. Because of the series’ frequent use of Christian symbolism, these games had no chance of making it past Nintendo of America’s censors. Fortunately, the series was able to travel overseas when Atlus, like many third-party companies, jumped ship to the PlayStation line of consoles. Even so, the series was still largely invisible in the West. This changed in 2004 when Atlus released a localized version of the main series’ third installment, Nocturne. Though not as successful as many popular, contemporary JPRG series such as Final Fantasy, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne found an audience, becoming a cult hit for the PlayStation 2 era.
The PlayStation era marked the beginning of a Shin Megami Tensei spinoff series named Persona. It was one of the first games in the metaseries to be localized, though it quickly fell into obscurity. Consequently, when its first sequel, Persona 2, was split into two separate releases, the second failed to debut overseas. However, with the momentum gained from the positive critical reception of Nocturne, Atlus wound up localizing Persona 3. Because most Western fans had never heard of the two games preceding it, Persona 3 ended up being a gateway entry for anyone seeking to delve into the metaseries along with Nocturne. Indeed, many Western critics praised Persona 3 for providing a unique take on the gameplay Nocturne pioneered.
With the series finding its way into Western markets and Persona 3 proving to be a domestic hit, a sequel was inevitable. Katsura Hashino, who had directed many installments in the metaseries, including Nocturne and Persona 3, found himself in charge of leading a new team. Many of the people who worked on Persona 3 returned for this project. A significant portion of the new personnel consisted of fans of Persona 3. With this new installment, Atlus sought to improve both the gameplay and the story so as to not retread old ground. Development began shortly after the release of Persona 3 in 2006, though ideas had been thrown around earlier according to Mr. Hashino. Development of this game, simply entitled Persona 4, took place over the course of two years. It saw its initial release on July 10, 2008 in Japan for the PlayStation 2 before debuting in North America the following December. The game saw the the light of day in Australia and Europe in March of 2009. Despite being released two years after the launch of the PlayStation 3, Persona 4 was even greater hit with the metaseries’ new fans than its predecessor. It is considered one of the greatest games of all time and an exemplary swansong effort for the then-aging PlayStation 2. Was Persona 4 able to give the greatest-selling home console at the time a worthy sendoff?
Prior to the launch of the Nintendo 64 in 1996, Nintendo announced the development of a magnetic drive peripheral for the console dubbed the 64DD. The 64 references the console to which it was intended to attach along with its sixty-four megabyte magnetic disks and DD stood for “disk drive” or dynamic drive”. The peripheral as was to have features such as the ability to connect to the internet, a real-time clock, and rewritable data storage. Nintendo themselves touted the machine as “the first writable bulk data storage device for a modern video game console”. Because even a peripheral console wouldn’t amount to much without a library of games, Nintendo turned to their various development teams to create original titles for the 64DD.
One such company up for the task was HAL Laboratory. Their proposed game was entitled Jack and the Beanstalk. It was named after the famous English fairy tale and inspired by the numerous beanstalks Mario could climb throughout his series. The development team itself was dubbed “Jack and Beans”. The project’s existence was revealed in 1995, but no screenshots or videos were publicly released. There was much speculation as to how the game would have played with some fans suspecting certain elements found their way to Earthbound 64 – another title intended for the 64DD. This is because in an interview with Benimaru Itoh, one of the art designers for Earthbound 64, he revealed players could plant seeds that grew in real time using the 64DD’s internal clock. However, the Jack and Beans team wouldn’t have to wait for long before a sudden development caused them to shift gears.
The year 1996 marked the debut of Game Freak’s Pocket Monsters franchise. Although released to a lukewarm response, it had little trouble finding a fanbase. With the Game Boy considered a passing fad by then, the millions of units sold revitalized interest in the aging, portable console. When the game was translated for Western fans under the name Pokémon, it became a hit overseas as well, causing it to become a worldwide phenomenon. This led a plethora of spinoff media, including an anime series, several manga stories, and a collectable card game. Once it was clear that the Jack and the Beanstalk project had made no significant progress, the team eventually proposed turning it into a Pokémon spinoff. From there, the Jack and Beans team had a definite direction, and in 1999, they at last completed the project. The game’s final title was Pokémon Snap. Because 64DD had been delayed countless times, they converted their game to the Nintendo 64 platform whereupon it sold 1.5 million copies. Exactly what kind of experience does this game, released during the height of the Pokémon franchise’s popularity, have to offer?
In the 2000s, J Allard of Microsoft proposed a summer internship with the express goal of focusing on game design. Three interns for Microsoft, Scott Brodie, Danny Dyer, and Matt Monson, in turn created a game during the summer of 2006. Their effort was a shoot ‘em game named Aegis Wing. Mr. Dyer and Mr. Monson had been members of the Texas Aggie Game Developers, which was a student organization at Texas A&M University established to nurture new talent. The three of them collaboratively did all of the groundwork, though outside sources provided art and audio support.
The team ran into a few difficulties due to having but three months to see this project through and XNA, a freeware toolkit commonly used for Microsoft products such as the Xbox 360, was not yet available at the time. Nonetheless, the three-person team soldiered on, completing their work by the end of the summer – though they had to cut out a few planned features along the way. They handed their work to Carbonated Games, an internal studio of Microsoft Game Studios to be published. The fruits of their labor were then released on the Xbox Live Arcade service as a freeware title in May of 2007. What was this small team able to accomplish in three months?
Although they didn’t move quite as many units as the preceding set of games, the Black and White versions of Pokémon were the basis of yet another success story for the juggernaut franchise. Their scenario was especially praised for its sophisticated story beats, with many considering it the spiritual successor to Shigesato Itoi’s lauded 2006 effort, Mother 3. Having sold millions of copies, that there would be a follow-up to these games was a foregone conclusion. Indeed, previous generations had a standalone version to complement the initial two games. With the versions being called Black and White, many fans anticipated that a “Grey” version was just around the corner. However, the development team felt such a choice clashed with the theme of contrasting opposites that ran throughout the original games. Therefore, in defiance of enthusiasts’ expectations, the successors to Black and White were to be direct sequels: Black 2 and White 2. With many considering the fifth generation the series’ shining moment, the idea of returning to Unova for a second adventure was highly appealing.
Feeling satisfied with how Black and White turned out, director Junichi Masuda handed the reins to Takao Unno for this project, though the former remained to help produce the games. Because these games were to heavily draw resources from the set directly preceding them, the development process went without incident. Black 2 and White 2 saw its domestic debut in June of 2012 before being released the following October in North America, Australia, and Europe. Although these games were well-received overall, the critical enthusiasm didn’t match that of their predecessors. This reflected in sales figures as well with a little under eight-million copies sold by March of 2013. Could there be something about these games not reflected by the numbers?
When Nintendo launched their handheld, dual-screened DS console in 2004, it quickly became a hot commodity. To showcase the machine’s technical capabilities, one of the system’s launch titles was a remake of Super Mario 64. Its debut in 1996 permanently changed the landscape of the medium, being the first successful, fully three-dimensional platforming game. However, there was the unspoken caveat that experiences like Super Mario 64 could only ever be experienced from the comfort of one’s home. The idea of being able to bring a game that advanced on vacation was thought of as rather ludicrous in 1996, yet just eight years later, such a reality came to pass. In fact, this remake, Super Mario 64 DS, looked better in many ways than the original version. Coupled with minigames that took full advantage of the system’s signature touch screen, and the DS was able to sell by the millions.
However, by the mid-2000s, the Mario franchise had a strange relationship with Nintendo’s handheld consoles. While mainline games had sparse releases on Nintendo’s home console, only having one entry per generation starting with Super Mario World, Super Mario Land: 6 Golden Coins would be the final installment of the 1990s to feature the side-scrolling gameplay that made the series famous in the first place. While the Game Boy Advance seemed like a prime opportunity to allow the Mario series to revisit its roots, its representation was limited to remakes and spinoffs. The Super Mario Advance series in particular was solely composed of ports. Discounting a few new extra stages being offered within these ports, it seemed as though the Mario franchise had truly moved on from its pioneering installments.
This changed shortly after the launch of the DS when Nintendo announced a new project by the name of New Super Mario Bros. As its title and teaser screenshots suggested, this game was to recapture the spirit of the series’ side-scrolling installments – albeit with a three-dimensional twist, using character models from Super Mario 64 DS. The game eventually saw its initial debut overseas in North America in May of 2006 before being released ten days later domestically. It then launched in Australia and Europe the following June. Just like the title it was named after, New Super Mario Bros. quickly became one of the best-selling games of all time, moving over thirty-million copies worldwide. Critics and fans alike had nothing but praise for the game, citing it as one of the console’s highlights. Did New Super Mario Bros. successfully recapture the aspects that allowed its predecessors to remain all-time classics?
David Crane’s Pitfall! ended up being one of the most popular games on the Atari 2600, selling over four-million copies when it debuted in 1982. Players assumed the role of an adventurer named Pitfall Harry, who sought to collect all of the treasures in a jungle. It broke the mold for gaming as a whole, codifying many conventions of the side-scrolling platformer genre. Pitfall! was also notable for having been one of the most successful products conceived by a third-party company: Activision. During the first and second console generations, companies didn’t think to credit developers for their work. Some crafty developers would circumvent this by placing Easter eggs in their games, but the behavior was discouraged. This is what caused a collection of developers, including Mr. Crane, to form Activision in the first place. Such was the game’s popularity that despite its sequel, Pitfall II: Lost Caverns, having been released in the wake of the North American industry’s crash, it still managed to become one of the Atari 2600’s most lauded titles.
One year later, the North American gaming industry would regain its footing with a little help from a Japanese company named Nintendo. Following a long, arduous campaign to convince retailers to stock their own gaming console, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), it proceeded to sell millions of units. Included with the purchase of these systems was a copy of Super Mario Bros. This game could be said to have perfected the side-scrolling platformer formula using the blueprints Pitfall! drafted. While Pitfall! itself was a beloved classic, Super Mario Bros. ascended to a level of fame that left a definable impact on pop culture after it became the greatest-selling game in history at the time.
With many famous games predating the crash such as Pac-Man and Galaga having well-received ports on the NES, it seemed only natural that the Pitfall! series would be represented on the console as well. For this installment, dubbed Super Pitfall, Activision outsourced the job to a Japanese developer named Mirconics. This company was primarily in charge of porting arcade games to the NES, including Elevator Action, Ikari Warriors, and 1942, so Super Pitfall would be their chance to make a good impression with an original work. Were they able to do so?