Published Jul 24, 2009The goal of gaming is to advance, to level, to move from Mushroom A to Castle B. Fair play, but this fixation on forward momentum has unfortunately infected the entire industry. Gaming is now discussed in terms of technological generations and roman numerals, perpetual progress and design obsolescence.
Not to say that refinement and processing power don't matter. But in an era where games lose their resale value within weeks, too many are missing last-gen cult classics because they're old enough to go out-of-print, but not enough to be revived as retro.
GameCube titles are too big to download onto the Wii's hardly-a-hard-drive (though it is fully backwards-compatible if you can track down hard copies). But the motion-sensing Wii does motivate "new play control" re-releases.
Namco Bandai recently upgraded its cult PS1 platformer Klonoa and PS2 triumphs Bully and Okami have been Wii-made. Meanwhile, Nintendo has re-engineered its Pikmin series, Donkey Kong Jungle Beat and Mario Power Tennis with the first two Metroid Primes en route. Still, it just scratches the surface of an oft-overlooked console that boasted the likes of Viewtiful Joe and Killer7.
Microsoft has a limited selection of downloadable games - like hipster-kitsch Stubbs the Zombie and best-game-ever Psychonauts - on its Xbox Originals channel. But Sony's PS3 only offers original PlayStation downloads, ignoring the PS2's mind-boggling back catalogue.
The point is not to believe the progress hype. The Star Wars prequels offered fancier FX, more realistic robots and CGI cities teeming with digital life, but who'd argue they were more enjoyable or better made than the comparatively prehistoric originals?
Plus, in other industries, critically acclaimed commercial failures continue being sold so as to slowly grow a cult - think the Pixies, Firefly or Office Space. That long-tail thinking should apply to gaming, too, especially since digital distribution reduces risk by bypassing overcrowded retail shelves.
So go pre-order BioShock II, but do keep an eye on the remainder bins, eBay and download shops for these past-gen cult classics.
ICO/ Shadow of the Colossus (Team Ico / Sony; PS2, 2001, 2005) Set in a labyrinthine castle, ICO was a visual wonder even by today's standards, with its bleached colours, stylized art direction, "soft lighting" and wispy shadow monsters. But it was the emotion-based gameplay - via princess-in-distress Yorda, only safe when holding hands with your be-horned boy avatar - that made this moody platformer a watershed moment in modern gaming. Then creator Fumito Ueda outdid himself on Colossus. This spiritual sequel was a minimalist masterpiece where you ride an AI horse across a barren landscape in search of majestic giants so large that killing each one constitutes its own "level." Then, perhaps for the first time in gaming, Ueda makes you feel bad for winning boss battles. The lines between art and games were forever after blurred.
Psychonauts (Double-Fine / Majesco; PS2, Xbox, 2005) Tim Schafer is the Joss Whedon of gaming - the quantity of his sales doesn't match the quality of his projects, but damn his fans are fervent. This fall he's swinging for the fences with his heavy-metal opus Brutal Legend, but don't forget this previous bout of genius. Set in a psychic summer camp (and nearby insane asylum) most level in Psychonauts take place inside the subconscious of various camp counsellors - a paranoid schizophrenic's topsy-turvy mental suburbia is only outdone by the disco death dreams of a seemingly happy-go-lucky lady repressing a shocking memory. It's as surreal as you might imagine, and funnier than you'd expect, as you go around clearing mental cobwebs, collecting figments of imagination and dealing with the adults' emotional baggage.
Chibi-Robo! (Skip Ltd / Nintendo, GameCube, 2006) You play a three-inch tall helper robot in this brilliant, adorable game whose Katamari-like perspective was as beguiling as its domestic premise. An unemployed father is sleeping on the couch because his wife, weeping upstairs in their bedroom, is angry he bought you for his daughter, who won't speak because, well, she thinks she's a frog. Your goal is to make everyone happy by doing chores during the day and dealing with mysterious spider robots and nocturnal toys after dark. Since Skip's DS sequel Park Patrol bombed in North America, and their psychedelic Captain Rainbow never left Japan, Nintendo's inexplicably unloved should-be mascot may never make a comeback.
Beyond Good & Evil (Ubisoft; GameCube, PS2, Xbox, 2003) Fans hoped for a sequel announcement at E3 but though that never came to pass, a leak of fantastic-looking purported footage did hit the interweb. But a newer, prettier BG&E in the pipeline doesn't mean you should miss the revolutionary original. On a planet under siege by invaders and ruled by a repressive, fear-mongering government, photojournalist Jade and her talking-pig best pal work with insurgents to uncover a vast rightwing conspiracy. French developer Michel "Rayman" Ancel's whip-smart storyline, empathetic protagonists and multifaceted genre-blending have made this epic political thriller a must-play for any serious gamer.