The 8 Ball 03.18.14: Top 8 Standalone Games
Posted by Marc Morrison on 03.18.2014
From Bully and Kid Chameleon to Vagrant Story, Silent Debuggers, and more, 411's Marc Morrison ranks his Top 8 Standalone Video Games!
Welcome all to another edition of The 8 Ball. This week the topic is on standalone games, which is pretty challenging as it turns out. By "standalone" games, I specifically mean games without either a prequel, or sequel tied to them. Uncharted 2 might be a superb game, but it's a sequel so it's off the list. Most well-received games do get a sequel down the road, if not a real sequel, at least a spiritual one. I tried to just pick original games that stand by themselves and haven't been franchised all to hell. Enjoy our lists:
8. The Unholy War
Not a lot of people played The Unholy War and that's a bit of a shame. It'd be rife for a HD or Arcade re-release on consoles these days. The game had two modes, Mayhem and Strategy. The Mayhem mode was a basic versus mode where you could take either the Arcane or Teknos faction against one another, or each other. You would whittle the characters down on the team while trying to keep yours healthy in the arena. The Strategy mode was basically an upgraded version of the old Archon game, where you could move units around like a strategy game and when they met an enemy, the game would shift into a fight. I don't think it sold very well, hence why no one except for me who cares about it now, but The Unholy War was a pretty fun game when it came out.
7. Kid Chameleon (Sega Genesis)
Kid Chameleon is still a crazy game, 22 years after it was released. As a 2D platformer it's relatively basic, but the way the new costumes change your abilities and movement is still a fresh idea. There were about 12 heads you could pick up that would change your character from the sunglasses wearing kid he was into a bee, a guy on a hoverboard, or a flying cyclone. While the platforming was basic, the levels were not, introducing some wild mechanics like weather, bouncing walls, and multiple secrets and end points that would let you see different levels. It remains a classic to this day.
6. Shadow Complex
You know all the fairly negative buzz and low sales figures the Xbox One has? What's the one thing that could turn it around? If they said tomorrow, "Yep, we're paying Epic and ChAIR a whole bunch of money, and Shadow Complex 2 is coming to Xbox One." I wouldn't immediately rush out and buy a Xbone, but I would then at least care about the system. Shadow Complex is still such an amazing game, the combat is fun, the upgrades actually matter, and there is a ton of fun to be had just breaking the game world with the foam gun. Unlike some other games on this list, it's not entirely self-contained, both the game itself and the ancillary media do set up routes for a sequel, or multiples of sequels, but no one seems to actually care about making them.
5. Silent Debuggers (TubroGrafx-16)
I'll wait while everyone Googles Silent Debuggers. I got the time. While Wolfenstein 3D is largely credited as the first "modern" FPS game, Silent Debuggers came a year earlier. It was a first person shooter that had your character running around a space station killing aliens that were attacking it. The game operated on a timer (you had to win in under a set time), with each different station room providing a vital system. The aliens could also destroy them, so if they knocked out the E room, for example, the lights would shut off, and you have to live with it. More than that, while you didn't have a graphical gun on screen, you did have a cursor with actual up and down movement, and headshots on the aliens did count for more damage. The fact that the TG-16 was only ever bought by 8 people means that they were likely the only ones to ever play this game, but to those that did (like me), we still enjoy it as essentially the Alien game that developers should have made all along.
4. Eternal Sonata
A lot of RPG's tend to leave a small opening for a sequel. Whether it be the characters themselves showing up in a sequel, or the world itself used later on with a new cast, this is pretty standard stuff. That's why I was really taken with how Eternal Sonata ended. The basis of the game is that in the real world, Frédéric Chopin is on his deathbed from his illness. He retreats into his mind where a fantasy adventure is happening, with certain characters taking on a metaphorical significance of his life. At the end of the game, Chopin realizes it's a dream world and you have to fight him as the final boss, for his soul to move on, wherein he eventually dies in the real world. That entire premise is one that is self-contained and can't really be expounded on easily. I applaud Tri-Crescendo for having a story of that nature in video games.
3. Psychonauts/Grim Fandango
I'm putting two Double Fine (more or less) games on here for a few reasons. While Grim Fandango was under the LucasArts banner, Tim Schafer directed it, and it's often seen as his "baby", hence the Double Fine association. I asked a few friends about this topic, and both suggested Grim Fandango. Me? I have no history with the game, I never played it, outside of 5 years ago, on a PC where it didn't run very well. But, people have a fondness or it, and I respect that. I also respect/have played/adore Psychonauts. It leaves itself open for a massive sequel that has yet to materialize. Still, the gameplay, humor, characters and powers are all remembered by people today (including Liana) for being part of an amazing package. While the possibility of a sequel to Psychonauts is always there, there is less hope of a sequel, or even a re-release of Grim Fandango, given that Disney owns the IP now.
Here's the sad thing: I actually had another game on in this spot, Red Dead Redemption. Then a friend reminded me that it's actually a sequel to Red Dead Revolver, so I had to cut it. Damn shame. Anyways, Bully does fit this topic quite nicely, book-ending a year of school that Jimmy complete. You end the game with a fairly cool girlfriend (if you want), king of the school, with the sociopathic Gary expelled and/or arrested. There has been endless speculation that Rockstar might do a Bully 2, but nothing confirmed yet. I think if they did, they'd have to do a 180 and make it from a girl's perspective. That would be an original take on the subject matter and wouldn't just draw Jimmy comparisons. Still, Bully exists as a fairly singular and unique experience.
1. Vagrant Story
While Vagrant Story isn't as self-contained as Eternal Sonata, it still is a much deeper and rewarding game. Trying to stop Guildenstern from getting evil powers and your revenge after he kidnaps and later kills your wife leaves you with a drive to get the job done and see him pay. The combat system had a great mix of real time action (chaining blocks and attacks together) as well as strategy in managing your fatigue level and health for each limb. The game did leave a small door open for more adventures with Ashley, but nothing came from it, other than some of the Final Fantasy games being set on the same world (Ivalice). Frankly, given Square's brain-drain and decreasing lack of quality, another Vagrant Story game now would tarnish this game's near-perfect reputation. I hope that aside from re-releases they leave it alone, and just let people experience the quality that what made Square a great developer, during that period.
The Better Half with Liana K
Top 8 Standalone Games... that I didn't mention last week
Standalone games are glorious. There's no cliffhanger at the end. There's no metaplot to keep track of. And most importantly, there are no "fans of the series will like it" reviews. But, of course, sequels are easier to market, so a good standalone game usually exists for bad reasons: it didn't get a fair chance in the market, or the developer was good at making games, but bad at running a company. Others are just flukes – yes, it does happen. But a great game is a great game, no matter how it's made.
Two of the games I mentioned last week – Heavenly Sword and Folklore, probably should have been on this list as well, but commenters complain about repetitive mentions of a given game, even when it's deserving, so I left them off this list. This is why we can't have nice things. Onward.
8: Disney Infinity
Disney should get some sort of humanitarian prize for finding an alternative to shovelware tie-in games for their movie and TV properties. Since Disney's forays into original games have been hit-and-miss for no really good reason, Disney Infinity was a great idea for multiple reasons. It also has a better chance of being profitable, with die-hard fans of a given character likely to buy the figures just for the toy, even if they don't play the game. Though parents complain about the price, in the long run it's cheaper and better value to buy individual figures or a $35 playset, as opposed to dropping 40 bucks on a game your kid will play for maybe three hours before determining it sucks. The lack of decent kids games is a crime.
I know this game has its problems, but I love it. It's funny, bombastic, has great voice acting, and the main character is Wolverine with Nightwing's name: Grayson Hunt? Whose dick is threatened to be killed? Grayson... dick... DICK GRAYSON! That didn't get by me, Bulletstorm! They should have just gone for broke and named all the characters things like "Seymour Butts", but I digress. The worst part of Bulletstorm only being one game is that developer People Can Fly apparently learned all the wrong lessons from the experience: the train wreck that was Gears of War Judgement tossed out all the humor, and kept all the loosey goosey game design and annoying "Kill With Skill" crap. Skill points are a good enough replay value concept, but I find that they get in the way of the first play-through. Why are characters who are fighting for survival worried about how stylishly they turn enemies into meatsacks? It seems so weird and artificial.
Another game with some design issues and loose controls, but oh man, the concept, character designs, and story execution were glorious. Double Fine borrowed from Tim Burton heavily with Psychonauts, but they did it well, and I forgive the lack of precision in the controls because the world is just so refreshingly original... assuming anything that looks like Tim Burton's stuff can be original. Double Fine seems to do best when approaching games from a childlike perspective: Psychonauts, Costume Quest, and even their Sesame Street game had more right with them than wrong. When they try to cross over into "grown up" games like Brutal Legend, their weaknesses on the design side start to become a problem. There's no shame in knowing what you're good at so you can make good things.
Speaking of games that are exactly what they're supposed to be, I present Guacamelee! Now, Guacamelee isn't for everyone, because it's a retro homage and more challenging than most games these days. But unlike the last two entries on this list, tight design is this game's strength. ... Okay, okay, you can't go wrong with Luchadors, chickens, and goats either. Also, female bosses. There aren't enough boss fights with female characters in video games!
4: Alan Wake
We won't know for some time if Alan Wake will get a sequel. Translation: we don't know if Microsoft will ever stop being friggin' stupid and fund a sequel! Holy crap, how frustrating does it have to be for Remedy that the game sold three million copies, but it didn't sell them fast enough, so Microsoft is twisting their balls. Yeah, okay, we got that spin off thing, Alan Wake's American Nightmare, but Remedy was clear that should not be considered a sequel. Is it wrong for me to resent Quantum Break because it will not be Alan Wake 2? Is it even more wrong to be prepared to forgive that if Barry and his flaming eye of Mordor are in Quantum Break? If that's wrong, I don't want to be right.
3: Papo & Yo
Papo & Yo's emotional arc leaves you feeling like the tale is told, as opposed to the game just not getting a sequel, because it was designed to be a one-off. Yes, it's a small game. It's an indie title. But it felt complete, and it felt different, and it had a reason for being what it was and saying what it did. I don't like using the term "important game", but Papo & Yo was a special game, and that, in many ways, is more powerful.
2: Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem
I've said a lot about this game in previous columns, so I don't think it needs to be repeated here. Even it was a fluke, it's one of the coolest ideas I've ever seen in a game. The cast of characters, the design of the Ancients, and the great voice acting all make the game worthy of a port of some kind. Unfortunately, the game would be as out of place on the Wii-U as it was on the Gamecube. There is a less-than-official PC port kicking around. Maybe I'll check that out!
1: Planescape: Torment
One of the best games ever made. Period. It's one of the few role-playing games with a fixed protagonist that actually lets you, you know, ROLEPLAY! Torment required you to think like the Nameless One to progress. If you didn't buy into the reality of the game world, some dungeons would be impossible to complete. It's also another game with great voice acting, wonderful character designs, and one of the best interactive stories EVER. Sometimes I think that it might be a good thing there was only one Planescape game: as much as I'm looking forward to Torment: Tides of Numenera, I like the fact that Planescape Torment will forever be allowed to stand alone as awesome, and not tarnished by a sequel that couldn't recapture the magic of the original.
With my above criteria, here was a small sampling of other games not on my main list. This isn't all inclusive or anything, but what I thought of, off the top of my head: Aggressive Inline, Future Cop: LAPD, Shadow of the Colossus, Vanquish, Psi-Ops, Majin and the Forsaken Kingdoms, Enslaved, Tiny & Big, Kentucky Route Zero, Mark of the Ninja, Bastion, Deadly Premonition, Indigo Prophecy, Alpha Protocol, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, LA Noire, Recettear, Sacrifice, Minecraft, and Remember Me.
The General Roundup
I think next week I'm going to change some of the nature of this section. I'm going to specifically quote some of the more intelligent and/or positive comments and respond to them specifically. Hopefully that will keep the trolling down slightly. Still, I'll address a few things now: I wouldn't quite call Fable 3 steampunk. There are some steampunk-y things (mostly involving Reaver), but on the whole, Albion is still a fantasy land. Guns can be fantasy sure, but you only ever really get rifles or pistols, not Uzi's or anything. I don't know anything about Final Fantasy 9 when I wrote that, so any scifi elements that creep in (later on) are somewhat lost on me. Just reading about the game though, it didn't sound like there were soldiers with assault rifles running around like recent FF games. I think Witcher 2 is definitely worth playing, but possibly not on the 360. That's your call, but the PC version of that game is damn nice looking