By: Chris Hodges, editor-in-chief
As a companion piece to our recent poll about which is the best of the worst platforms, here are the diamonds in the roughs of some of the roughest systems ever released.
5. Pathway to Glory, N-Gage (2004)
Though Nokia’s N-Gage was ahead of its time being a cell phone that put such a heavy emphasis on video games, it wasn’t a particularly great phone and also went up against the Game Boy Advance, which pretty much would’ve sealed its fate no matter what else it may have done right. While the system’s library was largely populated by lesser versions of big-name console franchises, its best games were actually its handful of Nokia-published exclusives. The impressive MMORPG Pocket Kingdom could’ve also taken this spot, but it’s obtuse menu-driven system and the fact that it never had the player base to fully realize its potential made it a harder sell. Indeed, the N-Gage’s true killer app was Pathway to Glory, a WWII-based RTS that was highly praised for its depth and presentation and is still considered something of a hidden gem by many RTS fans. Given that RTS games are among the most replayable games in any genre, and Pathway to Glory certainly didn’t disappoint in that respect, it made for the perfect game to pick up along with the platform. The old phrase of “If you only get one game for this system, make it this one” has possibly never been more true than it was for embattled N-Gage owners, who could’ve easily gotten their money’s worth for their entire N-Gage purchase just in terms of pure playtime with this overlooked cult classic.
4. Virtua Fighter, 32X (1995)
While the Sega CD is no sane person’s absolute favorite console, it had just enough great games that it wouldn’t be accurate to call it a truly bad platform. The 32X, however, has a harder time avoiding that distinction. Although advertised to deliver “32-bit graphics” to your Sega Genesis, most 32X games barely looked better than Genesis games, and certainly not better than SNES games. The only exception to this was its port of Virtua Fighter, which was the one title that pushed that hardware and showed what it was truly capable of – maybe not PlayStation quality, but certainly beyond 16-bit, pushing 3D and polygons that exceeded the reach of the SNES’ mighty Super FX chip. In fact, the 32X version of Virtua Fighter actually played better and had overall smoother animations than the disappointing version that came packaged with the Saturn, due in part to that system’s rushed launch. VF 32X also featured a few exclusive features, including a tournament mode with an accompanying 8 color palettes per character (so that each character could have a unique look if you played a tournament with 8 of the same fighters). Had the 32X hit just a year sooner (or the Saturn a much-needed year later) and had more time to build an audience and a library of games with the technical prowess of Virtua Fighter, the add-on really could’ve been something special and a true bridge between 16- and 32-bit gaming.
3. Virtual Boy Wario Land, Virtual Boy (1995)
While Nintendo has the overall best hardware resume in video game history by a considerable margin, they are also responsible for one of gaming’s all time biggest missteps: the Virtual Boy. While a truly 3D gaming system in 1995 was groundbreaking to be sure, Nintendo’s desire to keep the system affordable meant cutting a few significant corners. With a full-color display being far too costly given the tech of the time, Nintendo went with the cheapest LED color available: Red. And while a similar approach was one of the keys to the Game Boy’s monster success, pea soup green was a lot easier on the eyes than red lines on a black background, especially in 3D. Eye strain was a common complaint, as were neck aches caused by the awkward way you had to sit “in” the system to play it. The library was largely unimpressive anyway, with decent but unremarkable versions of tennis and the original Mario Bros. being among the highlights. However, the one true standout was Virtual Boy Wario Land, an installment to the fantastic and well-loved Game Boy Wario Land games. As with most of the best titles for a gimmick-based system, the game used the 3D sparingly, and only when it served a real purpose beyond being 3D just to be 3D. The game featured the same inventive hat-based power-up system as the other titles in the series, focusing more on deliberately-paced puzzle solving than twitch-based platforming. Had it been released as just another Game Boy sequel, it would’ve been able to sit proudly among the best entries in that series. As it stands, it’s one of the least-played and most-overlooked first-party Nintendo games ever made, a distinction it doesn’t deserve given its quality. If Nintendo wasn’t so ashamed of the Virtual Boy and so insistent on pretending it never existed, it could port the game to the 3DS so it could finally get the audience it deserves.
2. Alien Vs Predator, Jaguar (1994)
Among the Jaguar’s few positive contributions to the gaming world (prior to its active homebrew scene of more recent years) was the first person shooter Alien vs Predator, also a rare bright spot in that it is one of the few decent games released based on either of those franchises (especially given most of their treatment in the last 10 years or so). The game let you play as an Alien, a Predator, or a human, each with their own distinct play styles and strengths/weaknesses. Though it was released in a time when first person shooters were still composed of 2D sprites in flat plane environments, the game looked fantastic, especially for a non-PC FPS. The game had a great sense of ambiance and atmosphere and is one of the first games to be truly scary, at a time when FPSes like Doom were still “scary” in a very campy, cartoony sort of way. Although the game’s tone and gameplay have been used in many AvP games since, this particular game remains exclusive to the Jaguar, and the small but avid Jaguar fan collective still play it to this day, pointing to it and Tempest 2000 as reasons not to write off the Jaguar completely.
1. Star Control II, 3DO (1994)
Star Control II actually began life as a PC title, and although I tried to go easy on ports and non-exclusives for this list, this particular port is of what is regarded as one of the greatest PC games of all time, and by all accounts the 3DO version is the better version. Therefore, one could make the claim that one of the most derided game consoles ever made is home to one of the greatest games ever made. For those few rich (and foolish) souls who paid the 3DO’s astronomical asking price of $700 (and that’s in 1993 money, mind you), there wasn’t a whole lot to pick from, most of which would eventually be ported to the much cheaper PlayStation and Saturn anyway. But then there was Star Control II, a sort of adventure game/shmup hybrid that was already a beloved and award-winning game on the PC and used the 3DO’s horsepower to make the game look, sound, and play even better, in part due to the system’s CD capability at a time when PC games still largely came on floppy discs. Ah the 90’s, when a console game could look better than a PC game. Unlike the other games on this list, though, Star Control II‘s legacy is far more than just being a great game forever trapped on a bad platform. Thanks to original developer Toys for Bob releasing the 3DO version’s source code for open development in 2002, that same year the “Ur-Quan Masters” project began with the goal of bringing the game to modern hardware, with playable versions currently available for Windows, Linux, Android, PSP and Wii, among others, with more versions currently in development. So you can play Star Control II on a system you probably already own, rather than having to go online and overpay for a system you don’t (and wouldn’t want to). And you definitely should – it is deserving of all of its accolades.