the artistry and psychology of gaming


Authors’ Choice: Underrated Games

Authors’ Choice: Underrated Games

Authors’ Choice is a series of articles in which the staff of Gaming Symmetry voice their personal opinions on a variety of topics. Each writer will choose one game for each topic and will discuss it shortly, therefore the articles are entertaining and easy to read.

Confession time: it’s fun to watch a good bashing, whether it’s a movie, television program, or video game.  Even if they’re not terribly informed, they’re entertaining, and that’s why you see a lot of them.  The problem is that some people don’t know when not to take them seriously, and so things are often panned unfairly.  Well, we’re here to set the record straight on a few games that have been given this unjust treatment.

By the way, you can read the previous segment on overrated games here.

David “DDJ” Jerebko: Final Fantasy XIII


Needless to say, the word ‘underrated’ can take many forms. In the case of my selection for an underrated game, I’m choosing a game with a strong critical reception, mind-blowingly high sales, and two sequels already to its credit. How can that game be underrated? Despite all these things, this game takes a borderline absurd amount of criticism. From being too linear to basically playing itself to (supposedly) being completed just by pressing X over and over, the game gets a ridiculous amount of hate.

 As you might venture to guess from my choosing to write about the game in this article, though, I think a lot of that is undeserved. The knocks against Final Fantasy XIII do not amount to criticisms of the game itself, in my opinion, but rather to criticisms of it as a Final Fantasy game. Many of the criticisms in the game exist as parts of a trade-off that the developers intentionally made, and rather than acknowledging the trade-off and the strengths that come with it, most people (in my experience) focus only on the weakness. Take, for example, the criticism of the game’s battle system being overly automated. That’s a fair criticism, sure, but what is lost in that critique is that it’s automated for the purpose of preserving its decidedly cinematic tone. The battle system in Final Fantasy XIII is undoubtedly about the most visually mind-blowing in video game history, and part of that is because the game can take liberties with the camera and view because the player’s up-to-the-second input isn’t as critical as in many other games. There’s a strength that comes with the automated gameplay that must be considered as a counterweight when critiquing it.

 The linearity is another angle that needs to be discussed. One major criticism of the game is that it’s overly linear, but the fact of the matter is that nearly every game – RPG or otherwise – is comparably linear. The difference is not the linearity, but rather the absence of an illusion of non-linearity. In a game that gives you a world map, the game still does not progress until you go to the next waypoint: the only difference is that there is the illusion of free choice to be had. Final Fantasy XIII strips out the illusion of non-linearity in order to focus on visually spectacular environments. The loss isn’t something that most other games had in the first place, but rather just a visual illusion. I’m not saying there is no value in that illusion, but it was stripped out for a reason, and the reason is the visual spectacle of Final Fantasy XIII: there simply has never been another game this beautiful.

 To abstract and summarize: in my opinion, Final Fantasy XIII is a tragically underrated game because it’s judged according to its failure to fulfill a vision that it never held in the first place. It’s judged negatively for being overly linear, but that linearity serves to facilitate the gorgeous visual design of the landscapes and settings. It’s judged negatively for featuring an overly pre-scripted battle system, but that system serves to facilitate the mind-blowing cinematic nature of the active battles. To use a crude analogy, Final Fantasy XIII is a sports car judged for its inability to carry the kids’ hockey gear, tow a massive trailer, or save go 80 miles on a gallon of fuel. It’s a Corvette judged for not being a minivan, pick-up truck, or hybrid, instead of praised for being a damn good sports car.

David “BGH” Kempe: Prince of Persia: Warrior Within

While certainly not the lowest rated game on this list, Warrior Within maintains a rather poor reputation within the video game community with negative factors that I feel get blown out of proportion. Looking at aggregate review scores, the game rests approximately 10 points lower than its predecessor, the critically acclaimed Sands of Time. The game recieved heavy criticism for its more mature design and art direction, even from series creator Jordan Mechner, and has since become something of an unfortunate poster child for “corporate meddling” despite its frequency in the industry back then and even today. Perhaps the most egregious comments came from PC World when back in 2006, they listed the game among the Top 10 Worst Games of All Time, right in between Marky Mark’s Make My Video, and Elf Bowling 1 & 2.

Does Warrior Within have class? Of course not! Women wear next to nothing, the Prince’s side comments are generic and brooding, gallons of blood are spilt throughout the adventure, and every so often players are hit over the head with an instrumental track by Godsmack (though thankfully most of the game is filled with similar music to the first game, again being composed by Stuart Chatwood). But really, these are all just aesthetic choices surrounding the game. I find it unfortunate that in disagreeing so vocally with Ubisoft’s presentation decisions, many have neglected the areas in which Warrior Within maintained, rivaled, and even surpassed its beloved predecessor.

Combat was clearly improved with Warrior Within’s dual-wielding combo system (a commonly raised point), but enemies as well became more interesting, with greater variety, better integration into the flow of the overall gameplay, and featuring multiple boss fights. Platforming I felt was improved as well; the game’s non-linearity with hub areas and multiple routes coupled with the game’s past-present time mechanic provided an intriguing and clever setup for determining accessible areas and secrets along the way, including one that leads to the game’s alternate “canonical” ending. Ticking clock on-rails platforming segments (which Ubisoft has since mastered with the treasure chests in Rayman Origins) were also a welcome addition with the Dahaka chases, calling for snap decisions over terrain that would have otherwise been easy when given time to think. Finally, the game’s plot with its many twists and revelations offered both a fascinating look at the seemingly opposite concepts of time manipulation and destiny, as well as a brilliant way to tie the full trilogy together. Players who may have dismissed the game due to its overhyped shortcomings could do with a rewind of their own, as underneath all that grit and grime is a game that does 3D platformers proud.

Alice Kojiro: Deadly Towers

I watched the Angry Video Game Nerd’s review of this game, and even though I’d played it and enjoyed it quite a bit – and no, it’s not a game from my childhood; the nostalgia factor doesn’t apply here – I still found the video entertaining. It seems everyone agrees with it, though, and that’s a shame, though I completely understand why people hate this game: they didn’t take the time to learn how to play it. Tell me if this sounds familiar: this game sucks. You wander all over the game trying to figure out where to go and what to do. You know that you’re supposed to collect several objects from dungeons in order to open the path to the evil big-bad, but that’s all you’re given. The few in-game hints you get as to what you’re supposed to do next are either cryptic or outright lies, and your equipment sucks. Your sword can’t slash; it can only stab, so combat is awkward, especially against enemies that have projectiles. Some of the items you get are just plain worthless, and don’t even get me started on all of the moon logic puzzles! Do you know this game? That’s right, it’s the first Legend of Zelda.

Deadly Towers has a lot of the same unfair criticisms and similar flaws, but while Legend of Zelda is regarded as an absolute masterpiece, Deadly Towers is considered one of the worst games on the system. I’ll admit the game has its flaws, but first, I’d like you to admit that most of you have never even seen the titular towers. The sword moves very slowly when you start, but if you just grab fifty more ludder (the game’s currency), you can get the first glove, which allows it to fly faster than the swords you shoot in Zelda, and there are further upgrades to be found. Yes, the game is cryptic, and yes, the hidden dungeons have absolutely nightmarish layouts, but they’re all technically optional. Did you even make it to the first boss? Would you judge Super Mario Bros. without ever having gotten to Bowser? Beyond even that, would you judge a woman you’ve just met based only upon someone else you know just because they’re the same gender? It takes time to get to know and understand someone, and games are like that as well.

Enough complaining; I’d like to mention some of the game’s merits. While the game has a bit of a long grind in the beginning to bring Prince Myer to an adequate level to face the dangers of the world, it becomes very playable after that. The scenery – particularly in the towers themselves – is quite colorful and even pretty at times. The enemies are multifarious and imaginative. Yes, some of them were lifted wholesale from Marble Madness, but there are also evil knights that are tigers, dragons, and even vacant suits of armor. Once you learn where the hidden dungeons are and how to navigate them, you’ll find that exploration can be quite fun. In the Information Age, this shouldn’t be a problem, though you could always just draw your own, like we did back in the day. You can’t go comparing it to Zelda, because while it’s the same genre, Action-Adventure is a hybrid genre. This one focuses a lot less on Adventure and more on Action, so you won’t really encounter much in the way of puzzles, since the emphasis is on combat. To me, though, the Action-Adventure genre is about the exploration, and Deadly Towers certainly has plenty of it. So I propose this to you: take the time to get to know this game and form your own opinion about it.

Ali Nazifpour: Silent Hill 4: The Room

Now this is not about this game being poorly received. It received awards at the E3 show the year it was displayed and its ranking at Metacritic is 76 out of 100 for PS2 and Xbox and 67  for PC. The game, however, was treated as a mediocre game. The IGN reviewer Douglass C. Perry described the game as “neither brilliant nor terrible,” and this reflects the overall attitude towards the game. Fans tend to dislike this game because to them this is the beginning of a shift they did not like, as in more emphasis on combat and less puzzles. There are no radios and flashlights in the game. There aren’t even Zombie nurses. Some fans even think the game was not originally meant to be part of the series (they’re wrong). The other frequent complaint is Henry’s character, which is found poor writing by most. Eileen is considered a normal damsel in distress, and Walter just another villain. In short, the attitude to this game is “meh”.

Well, in every franchise, there comes a point which the experimentalism and artistic license is so radicalized that the fans are left behind. To MGS series this was MGS2, which took Kojima’s mad genius to the next level, and this SH4: The Room is that game for its franchise. It is the moment that the franchise stops caring for the fans and becomes self-sufficient, stops interacting with outside world and revels in its own ingenuity. It becomes an artistic masturbation. When this happens, it can be disaster (as in Phantom Menace) or a masterpiece (as in Kill Bill). But it is never “meh”, it’s never average, because it is the climax and the logical extreme. SH4: The Room is a masterpiece, one of the greatest games ever created, and it deserves to be considered as such.

Then why it is so much disliked? Simply, it is not understood. All of the game “flaws” are actually in the service of its overall theme, which is the theme of the whole series, but it is taken to the extreme. To me, ultimately, the theme of the series is this: normal life is horrifying, it’s a horror story. Normal people are creeps and perverts, sexuality is a torture, religion is devilish and not divine, family is dysfunctional and terrible. Silent Hill series depict a bleak amoral world, but it is our world, it is a normal world.

In SH4: The Room, they go after a safest and the most private place in the world, the room. No matter how jaded and paranoid you are, you feel safe in the privacy of your own room. And many games use your room as the place you replenish your health and are safe. Walk into your room and save the game! But this game invades this small haven of refuge and infects it with strangers. Eileen is not safe in her own room as well… you are the voyeur who eyes and invades her privacy. Epistemological philosophizing? You are trapped inside the head of a serial killer, and religion, family, all social structures are turned into nightmarish creatures. And the characters are not “weak”, they are just normal, excruciatingly normal, they have not murdered their wives or they have not given birth to gods- they are random people who happen to be in the wrong place. And this intensifies the theme. Is there no character development? Well that’s not bad writing, that’s the writers flipping their middle fingers to the gamers looking for a silver lining.

Such a space is not enough to deal with how great this game is. I might write a massive article on it one day. It’s just enough to say, that people just don’t get it, but if you sit down and actually analyze it you will see how each element falls into place.

Ethan Sheaffer: Zelda II: The Adventure of Link


One of the criticisms most commonly leveraged against the Zelda series (and Nintendo in general) nowadays is that the franchise is stagnating, releasing the same game over and over without trying anything new. That’s why it’s rather silly that the Zelda game that gets the most hate (aside from the legitimately godawful CD-i titles) is one of the ones that dared to innovate. Zelda II gets a lot of flak for not adhering strictly to the “Zelda formula” (inasmuch as a single title can establish a formula): there are random encounters on the overworld, the dungeons and action stages take place from a side-scrolling platformer perspective, and a bunch of RPG elements have been added. Of course, is the fact that Zelda II diverged from the original’s template really a negative thing? After all, as Alice already pointed out, the original Legend of Zelda is kind of a mess. In fact, the sequel actually fixes some of the problems present in the first game. Instead of dropping you into a gigantic overworld with no guidance and expecting you to stumble across all of the important locations, it only gives you access to a small section of the overworld at the beginning, and lets the world naturally open up as you gain more items and abilities. A lot of people also forget how many pieces of the precious “formula” originated in Zelda II. It was the first Zelda game to include towns with NPCs, a magic meter, the Hammer and Power Glove, the downward stab ability from Smash Bros. and the two Wii Zelda games, perennial favorite Dark Link, and even clever winks to previous games in the series (a scaled-down version of the first game’s overworld can be found in the southwest corner of Zelda II‘s overworld).

Of course, there’s also the fact that Zelda II is just an overall great game. The combat system, while simple, remains interesting throughout the experience – in fact, I’d say that Zelda II features the most engaging combat system of any of the 2D Zeldas. The RPG elements are also streamlined compared to many traditional RPGs, but of course a game should not be judged solely on how claustrophobically convoluted its RPG elements are, and those present in The Adventure of Link are sufficient to give the game some added depth. The fact that the combat and the RPG elements are somewhat simplified actually allows the two systems to work together beautifully, instead of having one or the other feel tacked on as in so many other hybrid games.

Throughout the franchise’s history, there has usually been opposition when a Zelda game has tried something new. Some people couldn’t get into Majora’s Mask because of the time loop mechanic, and Wind Waker received harsh pre-release criticism for its cel-shaded art style (despite it being an excellent 3D adaptation of A Link to the Past‘s art style). However, those games eventually became recognized for the masterpieces they are (although seriously, f*** that Triforce shard fetch quest in Wind Waker). Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, still regarded as the black sheep of the series, has not yet received the same level of retrospective praise, but I can only hope that will change in time.


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