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Top 10 Great Games with One Fatal Flaw

Top 10 Great Games with One Fatal Flaw

Creating the perfect game isn’t easy (DDJ says, in the most obvious opening to any Top 10 list ever written). You have to balance graphical quality, gameplay quality, an immersive plot, interesting dialogue, varied gameplay, genre expectations, and a wide variety of other concerns. Good games do well to excel in one or two major dimensions while remaining serviceable in the rest. Great games somehow manage to be notably good in nearly every dimension, leaving absolutely no weak point. Something frustrating occurs, however, when a game somehow manages to excel in nearly every respect, only to be done in by one major weakness. This would be the game’s Fatal Flaw: the one flaw that represents such a significant challenge to the game’s quality or reception that they can make a great game average or an average game terrible. Although the game itself may excel in every other respect, this one flaw keeps it out of conversations about some of the all-time greatest games.

This is a list of the Top 10 great games to be done in by their fatal flaw. This isn’t a bashing or negative list: in every single case, the game itself is still very good. However, in every case, one major flaw severely hampers how good the game actually is or how well it was received. The rankings and ordering of the list are done according to the impact of that fatal flaw: the higher-ranking games are the ones to whom their flaws did the most damage, whereas lower-ranking games either achieved decent success despite their flaws or lacked the potential for success beyond niche appeal in the first place. Flaws, in this sense, may take on many forms: they may come in the form of the expected gameplay or plot elements, but they may also have to do with the historical context and industry status at the time. The only main criteria is that every game has one, succinct, clear problem that severely hampers its quality or popularity.

#10: Harvest Moon: Animal Parade (WII) — The Frame Rate

For fans of the Harvest Moon series, Animal Parade was meant to represent the culmination of the series’ quality. It followed Tree of Tranquility, and like most Harvest Moon games, carried over the same cast of characters, rearranging their family relationships and placing them in a new village. The previous game was the best the series had seen since its days on the PlayStation and Nintendo 64, with an interesting cast, engrossing new gameplay elements, a dynamic, three-dimensional world, and the most authentic Harvest Moon experience in years. Animal Parade was expected to pick up where that left off, fixing some of the issues and expanding on its predecessor’s already high quality gameplay. In many ways, it succeeded: it gave us the most interesting Harvest Moon world to date, the same lovable cast of characters, and a well-varied gameplay experience that went beyond being just a simple farming simulator. Arguably, it is the best in the series.

The Flaw: Unfortunately, the devil’s in the details. Due to some pretty clear design oversights by the game’s designer, Natsume (who by now is quite famous for its oversights and errors, most notably misspelling their own company name during the intro screens the Harvest Moon 64), the frame rate while the player is interacting with their farm drops to under half its normal speed. What makes this particularly interesting, though, is that the company clearly had some understanding of this problem because it smooths out the animations during the segments so that it does not appear that the animation is significantly choppier. The problem is they didn’t apply that same fix to the in game clock, meaning the time crawls under half speed during significant portions of the game. Whereas it should take around 15 to 20 minutes to play through one the game day, instead it typically takes closer to 45 minutes or even an hour. For a game that requires the player to play around 360 in-game days to get the full experience, this presents an absolutely unacceptable time requirement that renders the game downright unplayable.

#9: Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII (PSP) — The Compilation

When Final Fantasy VII went on to become one of the most popular games of all time, one of its most iconic scenes became a flashback early in the game. This flashback represents the backbone of the entire Final Fantasy VII story. Fast-forward a decade, and with the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII, Square-Enix set out to create a game entirely based around the events of that flashback. The player plays as Zack, the main character and Cloud’s old close friend, replaying the events of those fateful days and extending the story to introduce new characters and to plot elements. The game was one of the most beautiful games released for the PSP early in its life span, and it did a masterful job of translating the mechanics and atmosphere of Final Fantasy VII into a fully fleshed-out 3D environment with a more active gameplay structure.

The Flaw: If you did not know better, you might never even realize that Crisis Core was based around the original Final Fantasy VII at all. The flashback that supposedly motivated the creation of the game in general is portrayed as such an out of place tangent that it hardly feels like it is a relevant portion of the game at all. Instead of delving further into the characters introduced by the original game, the game introduces us to an entirely new cast, featuring the original game’s characters only where absolutely necessary. It gives more screen time to Aerith, but reveals fairly little to enhance her character. Zack receives ample screentime, but outside the context of any of the events that Final Fantasy VII introduced. When Sephiroth (in one of his rare appearances, at least relative to his supposed role as a centerpiece of the game) announces that the flashback scene has arrived, it is almost as if he is directly addressing the player in announcing the event; after all, the plot events of the rest of the game do not lead to the flashback’s events at all, and the majority of additions made to the flashback scene are out-of-place, contrived, and downright bizarre. On top of everything, I’d argue that four of the game’s five main characters are not even present in the original game, further speaking to the writers’ focus on creating an all-new story rather than elaborating on the original. In short, it is borderline impossible to believe most of Crisis Core’s events could have happened without being at all referenced in the original game, and it is disappointing that so little attention was devoted to delving into the characters we already cared about. In the end, although the game is fun, it fails to fulfill the reason Final Fantasy VII fans wanted it in the first place.

#8: Phantasy Star Online (DC) — The Console

Phantasy Star Online is without a doubt one of the most innovative games of all time. Arriving at a point where MMOs and online games were just starting to gain major public traction and attention, it represented proof that the genre could be implemented on the console rather than just on a PC. It received outstanding ratings for nearly every criteria of its implementation. Graphically, it represented the best the Dreamcast had to offer. The simple structure for the online interactions also represented one of the game’s major selling points, capturing an appeal very similar to the classic Diablo and other forerunners of the genre. It received outstanding ratings and was praised for somehow managing to perfectly bridge the sensibilities of both PC gamers and console gamers, bringing the genre to a console audience while still possessing the same appeal as its PC predecessors. It is often cited as one of the most ahead-of-its-time games ever created.

The Flaw: Phantasy Star Online was released for the Sega Dreamcast, the most advanced console of the time and itself one of the most ahead-of-its-time creations in gaming history. Unfortunately, for a wide confluence of reasons, the Dreamcast itself was something of the flop. It sold only 10 million units (fewer than 5 million in the United States), compared to 20 million for the GameCube and 150 million for the PlayStation 2. With such a limited audience, Phantasy Star Online struggled to find the kind of recognition that would come so seemingly easily to the comparable titles on the GameCube and PlayStation 2. Exacerbating this issue was Phantasy Star Online’s reliance on it online functionality; for games like it, a community can only grow were a community already exists, so the lack of popularity of the Dreamcast prevented Phantasy Star Online from ever attaining arguably its rightful place in gaming history as one of the most innovative and influential games of all time. Rereleases and sequels on the GameCube heightened its profile a bit (explaining its low slot on this list), but the Dreamcast’s failure prevented Phantasy Star Online from the recognition it deserved.

#7: Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean (GC) — The Voice Acting

The Nintendo GameCube was released near the height of the popularity of the RPG genre, before first-person shooters took over as the industry’s dominant sales force. Part of the GameCube’s initial weakness, therefore, was the initial lack of a strong entry into the RPG arms race. Baten Kaitos was meant to change that. From the developers of some of the greatest RPGs of all time (most notably, Xenosaga), Baten Kaitos was a visual spectacle the likes of which the GameCube had never seen. It provided vibrant and engaging environments coupled with a unique and interesting game world built around the notion of floating continents above a savage underworld. One of the game’s most innovative contributions was its fun card-based battle system in which the player executed attacks by rapidly choosing cards from a deck. The system itself brought fun back into RPG battle systems that had increasingly become overly stale, plodding, and cerebral.

The Flaw: When I suggested this entry, someone asked if voice acting could really ruin a game. If you want the answer to that question, play Baten Kaitos: you’ll see that it most certainly can. The voice acting in Baten Kaitos is the perfect storm of flaws. The voices themselves are often shrill and grating; although the plot is interesting, there are times when you want the characters to just shut up so that you don’t have to listen to them anymore. On top of that, the actors overact to the point of comedy. Some of the scenes in Baten Kaitos could give that scene in Tough Guys Don’t Dance (“oh god, oh man, oh god, oh man”) an easy run for their money. But this isn’t just about venting about the poor voice acting; the voice acting actively detracts from the gameplay experience. Every line is delivered so over-emphatically and mechanically that the player almost can never take the plot of the game seriously. It comes across more like your grandfather describing a clearly embellished story from his youth, and the player is left constantly assuming that the events are not nearly as dire as the crazy characters are making them out to be. Somehow, the voice acting delivers an even worse experience than the classic NES-era plain text on black screen explaining the plot justification for certain actions. Baten Kaitos is a game whose plot, world, graphics, and gameplay all combined to greatly immerse the player, only for the voice acting to consistently shake the player back to reality.

#6: Kid Icarus: Uprising (3DS) — The Controls

Although it was one of the earliest announced games for Nintendo’s new 3DS system, Kid Icarus: Uprising arrived almost a year into the console’s lifespan. At this time, the system had already become somewhat maligned for low-quality rehashes and an overreliance on ports of classic games. Kid Icarus: Uprising changed that. Its graphical quality was by far the best the 3DS had ever seen, with complex and engrossing visuals that swept the player along a surprisingly unique and entertaining plot line. The variety of gameplay techniques played into the game’s appeal as well with certain portions of the game playing like an adequately updated version of classics like Star Fox 64, and other portions playing as fully-formed and engaging traditional hack-and-slash-esque gameplay. Praised by some as the best Nintendo creation since the Nintendo 64 era, Kid Icarus: Uprising appeared poised to become the console seller that the 3DS so desperately needed.

The Flaw: Kid Icarus: Uprising, due to its varied nature, relies on one of the most convoluted, uncomfortable, and opaque control systems released in recent years. Some have denounced those of us who criticize the controls as a small, insignificant, vocal minority, but in my opinion, when the developers of the game feel obligated to address the criticism, there almost inherently has to be some truth to it. Kid Icarus: Uprising commits a wide variety of fundamental errors in developing an effective control system. One of them is referred to as over-mapping controls, which occurs when the same action is mapped onto multiple gameplay results. This is especially dangerous when there is little indication of which action will take place at a given time. The touchscreen is used in the game to both move around the main character and to rotate the camera around the battlefield, but the two tasks are often so conflated that the player is left resorting to a slow and deliberate approach to gameplay that saps the fun out of the experience. On top of that, just physically holding the device in a position that permits adequate use of the directional stick, left shoulder button, and touchscreen is a task so difficult that it presents an enormous barrier to entry for enjoying the game. It even shipped with a stand intended to enable the player to play without holding up the console, apparently missing the 3DS’s target market of individuals who want to be able to play on the go.

#5: Mass Effect 3 (X360) — The Ending

BioWare’s Mass Effect burst on to the scene in 2007, giving gamers one of the most expansive and thoroughly detailed universes in gaming history. After soaring epics in Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2, the series appeared to be heading towards a final glorious conclusion in the final episode of the trilogy, Mass Effect 3. In most ways, this final entry succeeded with flying colors. It was released to widespread and critical acclaim, with nearly every facet praised. The plot shone as one of the most intricately detailed narratives in video game history, painstakingly balancing effective storytelling with player influence and interaction. For many, it represented a satisfying end to the sweeping story introduced by its two predecessors. Even aside from the excellent narrative and plot, the game’s gameplay, battle system, and graphics all shone as among the greatest creations that video games have ever seen. The game was fully set up to be one of the best of all time.

The Flaw: By now, if you’re familiar enough with video games to visit a site like this one, you’re familiar Mass Effect 3. I would venture to guess that without a doubt, when I say the name of the game, the first thing to come to mind for you is the ending. The ending is undeniably one of the most controversial not only in video game history, but also in the history of narratives. Nor is it controversial for the right reasons: this is no ending of the Sopranos, leaving ample portions of the plot up to viewer interpretation, nor is it the ending to Lost, which failed to answer many of the questions it had asked over its six seasons. Instead, the ending of Mass Effect 3 is the worst kind of controversial: an ending that directly flew in the face of everything the series had set up. A series that entirely drove itself by giving the player control over the story while still painting a compelling narrative managed to somehow boil down to effectively the same no matter what decisions were made. Regardless of your personal opinion on the ending, it has become impossible to have a conversation about Mass Effect 3 without immediately discussing the ending for the wrong reasons, and that has cast a dark shadow not only over the game, but also over the entire series that preceded it.

#4: Battletoads (NES) — The Glitches

Released at the height of the video game revival of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Battletoads was well-positioned for enormous success. First and foremost, it came as a platformer game at the pinnacle of the popularity of the platformer genre: Super Mario Bros., released only a few years earlier, had effectively established platformers as the industry’s foundation, but also left plenty of room for innovation and alteration of the now-classic formula. Battletoads was one such successful application. Boasting some of the most advanced graphics we ever saw on the NES and Game Boy, Battletoads complemented them with engaging gameplay and one of the industry’s earliest successful examples of co-op gameplay. Perhaps most notable about the game was the way it managed to vary play styles: I am a strong proponent of the need for varied gameplay in modern gaming, often commenting that singular gameplay was only sufficient in gaming’s earliest days. Battletoads is among the first examples of gaming’s transition into its modern maturity.

The Flaw: Battletoads also demonstrated the importance of another criteria that remains critical and relevant for gaming today: debugging. Battletoads is famous for the existence of two glitches that borderline broke the game. The first and more significant of these two glitches prevents the second player and co-op mode from continuing after level 11, forcing the primary player to beat a game mode intended for two by themselves. The second glitch arises on level 10, when a certain rare event can trap the player and completely prevent progression in the game. These glitches were enhanced by the lack of a permanent save function on the NES: these glitches did not just get in the player’s way, but could force the player to completely start over. Battletoads is fortunate that the first glitch has, over time, entered gaming lore as an example of the challenge the games used to present. Game-breaking glitches, however, continue to plague the industry. Most recently, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and Metroid: Other M both fell prey to glitches that would completely prevent certain players from beating the game. The nod for this entry goes to Battletoads for the fame that its glitch has developed over the years, but numerous other would-be great games similarly suffer from game-breaking glitches.

#3: Pokemon Colosseum (GC) — The Name

Released originally in Japan in 2003 (followed by a release in the US and Europe in 2004), Pokémon Colosseum represented Nintendo’s first foray into true 3-D entries for its iconic and a wildly popular Pokémon series. While Pokémon Stadium and Pokémon Stadium 2 preceded it, both were effectively graphically-enhanced battle systems for existing Pokémon games. Pokémon Colosseum, on the other hand, changes that. Featuring its own region (Orre), its own unique protagonist (Wes), and its own rival team (Team Snagem), Pokémon Colosseum was in every way its own standalone entry to the Pokémon franchise. The unique plot follows Wes’s attempt to free Shadow Pokémon from Team Snagem’s evil grip. Along his journey, Wes moves through various towns and dungeons, the likes of which you would expect in any full RPG. He collects other Pokémon, battles enemies in the standard Pokémon format and works up to a final boss to cap the sweeping plot line.

The Flaw: If you never played Pokémon Colosseum, everything I just said might come as a surprise to you. The game’s predecessors, Pokémon Stadium and Pokémon Stadium 2, were effectively graphically-enhanced battle simulators to complement the Game Boy Pokémon games of the first and second generation. Neither game, however, really stood on its own internal merits: both were somewhat lackluster if played without a team developed in a standalone Pokémon Game Boy game, featuring only very limited single player gameplay. Given the similarity in titles between Pokémon Stadium and Pokémon Colosseum (the latter representing the gaming industries typical process of escalation in game titles), many gamers assumed that Pokémon Colosseum was merely the next entry in the Pokémon Stadium spin-off franchise. Its single-player mode, without a doubt one of the most interesting plots in the Pokémon gaming franchise (although that isn’t exactly saying much), was largely overlooked, and few but the franchise’s most ardent fans approached the game with excitement. Other fans, familiar with the Pokémon Stadium games, didn’t even give the new entry a chance. Although the game received decent sales, it has largely been lost in the annals of Pokémon history, and the title plays a key role. Its direct sequel, Pokémon XD: Gale of Darkness, though selling fewer copies, has come to be regarded as the more commonly-cited example of a 3-D Pokémon game, largely (by my speculation, anyway) because its title more adequately reflects its nature as a full-scale RPG, rather than simply a console complement to a portable game.

#2: Disney Epic Mickey (WII) — The Camera

Disney’s console reinvention of its iconic character Mickey Mouse was met with widespread and adamant anticipation upon the game’s announcement in 2009. The game represented the character’s first title role since the early 2000s and arguably the first attempt by Disney to mold the character for a widespread audience since the SNES era. The game was built upon a unique and innovative gameplay mechanic, equipping the player with a magic paintbrush that they can use to bring life (or erasure) to the many environments and characters in the game world. One of the most intriguing elements of the game prior to its release was its focus on many of the more obscure or obsolete Disney characters, giving the player a unique trip through the company’s creative history. The game also represented an interesting attempt by Disney to rebrand its most famous character for a more modern audience while still remaining faithful to his origins: Mickey was born with a mischievous side, and here we see him return to it.

The Flaw: There have been several minor criticisms of the game, focusing on the game’s failure to deliver on the promise of a more adult-themed darker game world and the irrelevance of the game’s morality system. However, many who played the game still regarded it as a potential Game of the Year candidate if it had not been for one major flaw: the camera. In modern 3-D gaming, game worlds are created by physically and literally designing an entire world around the player character, and then placing a virtual camera in the game world to portray the world to the player through the screen. If you’ve ever watched a home video taken by a poor videographer, you understand just how problematic bad camera work can be. This is exactly the flaw with Epic Mickey. The camera in many places is so unusable, so misleading, and so frustrating that I would actually go so far as to say that the camera itself is the game’s main antagonist. If the role of the antagonist is to try and get in the way of the player and prevent them from accomplishing their goals, then none of the game’s stated antagonists come anywhere close to the camera in effectiveness.

#1: Blake Stone: Aliens of Gold (PC) — The Timing

Blake Stone: Aliens of Gold was a first-person shooter released in 1993 by Apogee Software and developed by JAM Productions. Apogee Software, you may remember, was the publisher of Wolfenstein 3D, the game widely credited with establishing the first-person shooter genre in the first place. Blake Stone: Aliens of Gold builds on an enhanced version of the same engine used in the earlier game while expanding on it in innovative and important ways. Focusing on a more futuristic setting, the game shifts from the historical context used in the past to a more science fiction-oriented environment focusing on aliens, mutants, and advanced technology. Although the level design retained the simplicity from Wolfenstein 3D, the improvements made to the graphics and the smoothness of the enhanced engine represented a worthy and effective step forward for the first-person shooter genre. Had things played out a bit differently, Blake Stone: Aliens of Gold would likely have joined Wolfenstein 3D as one of the cornerstones of the genre’s foundation.

The Flaw: Blake Stone: Aliens of Gold was released on December 3, 1993. Another game you may be familiar with was released seven days later, on December 10, 1993: Doom. To use an ironic metaphor (given Doom’s subject matter), Wolfenstein 3D was John the Baptist to Doom’s Jesus: while the earlier game established the genre as a relevant piece of the gaming industry and pioneered many of its early innovations, Doom was the genre’s chief moneymaker and favored child. It represented a significantly more advanced and innovative step forward for the genre than Blake Stone: Aliens of Gold, and as you likely know, has gone on to become one of the most praised, most decorated, and most historically-significant video games of all time. Blake Stone: Aliens of Gold, however, was innovative enough to be considered a contributor to the genre’s establishment and success, but the timing of the release of Doom completely overshadowed any traction or attention the game and may have received. Had Doom been released as little as six months later, Blake Stone: Aliens of Gold would likely be as recognized as either of these other two famous early first-person shooters. Instead, based solely on timing, it is relegated to an afterthought among modern game discussions.

Conclusion

The flaws mentioned in this list represent a wide variety of the different challenges a game can encounter on its path to recognition. Regardless of the game’s internal quality, there will always exist the potential that one major drawback could hold a significant and disproportionately large influence over the game’s eventual legacy. In many instances, this flaw may be something that the developer could and should knowingly avoid: Battletoads should have been more adequately debugged, someone with at least slight bit of game design experience should have been consulted on Epic Mickey’s camera, and Natsume should have hired a graphics developer to avoid lag in Harvest Moon: Animal Parade. game. In other instances, though, unexpected game features can have an enormous detrimental impact on the game’s reception: BioWare surely never anticipated that Mass Effect 3’s ending to fall so flat and to distract so much from its seminal series, the voice acting in Baten Kaitos surely sounded acceptable to at least most of its developers, and the play-testers for Kid Icarus: Uprising simply tragically underestimated the difficulty of the controls for the 3DS’s most hyped release. But even when game developers get everything right, even when they reach that perfect mix of gameplay and plot, graphics and experience, something can still get in the way. The Dreamcast’s own failures served to effectively doom the legacy Phantasy Star Online would receive, a simple title discussion represented one of the major hindrances to Pokémon Colosseum’s success, and Blake Stone: Aliens of Gold was doomed only by the success of a rival game. Any number of things can get in the way of a game’s ultimate success, and understanding the way so many games fall just short of achieving this popularity and critical acclaim only highlights how much praise those games that avoid these flaws deserve.

Thanks goes to several visitors of the Top 10 List board for their help in brainstorming items for this list. Special thanks go to BlueGunstarHero, wheresatari, and FreshFeeling, whose suggestions ended up in the final list above.

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