Any gamer worth his salt will have heard of all the franchises on this list. Mario? Pac-Man? Donkey Kong? Mega Man? These are major names in gaming. But many have also overlooked some of the finest games each of these series has to offer. This is a list of some of the most overlooked and underrated games in 10 famous franchises. You recognize the title, you know the characters, but have you played these excellent installments?

Mortal Kombat Mythologies was a bold experiment, an attempt to bring the series into the realm of the side-scrolling platform adventure. The controls were still completely true to the main series of fighting games, however - which definitely took some getting used to and turned a lot of players off. Put in as little as half an hour or just 45 minutes, though, and you can easily adjust to the gameplay. What you'll find beneath that is a shockingly well-designed, surprisingly deep adventure with beautiful levels, impressive bosses and a great leveling-up system. When interest in the series was waning, this proved to be the strongest Kombat experience in years. But many never gave the controls enough of a chance to realize it.

Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong, Jr. were both smash hits in the arcades. What would Shigery Miyamoto do for an encore? How about a Galaga-style shooter? This game plays nothing like the first two, and many dismissed it because it didn't feel like another platforming-based Donkey Kong. It proved to be a rare failure in Miyamoto's oeuvre, but those with a taste for '80s arcade shooters will find it every bit as addictive as its predecessors. Not only do you have to guide Stanley the Bugman across multiple platforms on the bottom of the screen so that you can spray Donkey Kong's butt until he leaves, you'll also find that the type and amount of insects that attack you vary as you advance through the levels. Good luck surviving to Level 20!

By 2002, the relatively young Tomb Raider brand had already been worn out by annual console installments that offered little in the way of improvement. The Game Boy Advance spinoff was a breath of fresh air - it took the franchise down to its most basic level and remains one of its best entries. You control Lara from a top-down perspective as you do the usual stuff Lara does: solve puzzles, combat foes and avoid traps. There's no need for elaborate flips and acrobatics here; the controls are refreshingly simple and easy to master, but discovering what each switch unlocks and where every passage leads is more addicting than it's been since the original.

Released late in the life of the NES - and even coming after Contra III was already out on the SNES - Contra Force is a major departure in which there are no aliens, only terrorists, and you can choose from four different heroes who each carry unique weapons. The gameplay is arguably easier than most titles in the series, but it's unmistakably classic side-scrolling Contra. The flipping jumps, the one-hit kills, the enemies attacking from all sides, the impressive bosses; this one has it all. Much like Super C, it also combines side-scroling stages with the occasional top-down level. The game's biggest flaw is that it's got so much going on and uses so much of the NES' power that you'll likely experience some slowdown, but that's a small price to pay for such polished design with an injection of new twists to a classic formula.

Easily the most poorly reviewed game on this Top 10, Shadow the Hedgehog is not without flaws. The graphics look like they could've been produced by the Dreamcast at its launch, and the vehicle segments are incredibly poorly done in both controls and camera. But those vehicle segments are easily bypassed, and the graphics are outshone by gameplay. Many were unhappy with the direction of the 3D games in the Sonic series after Sonic Adventure 2. Sonic Heroes disappointed, but Shadow was a return to form that feels like the true "Adventure 3" in every way. For fans who demanded a focus on Sonic-style speed and platforming, this game provides NOTHING but that - and the control of Shadow is flawless. Some were unhappy with the introduction of guns, but Shadow's guns automatically lock on to any enemy in range, making it so you barely even have to point in the right direction for the guns to function perfectly. Best of all is the branching gameplay, where you can make moral decisions to complete various challenges to push yourself further in the direction of good, evil or even neutral ambiguity. Most stages have three different missions to choose from, and you can easily change your mind on the fly with the press of a button. Did I mention that these decisions lead to different final bosses and no less than 11 different endings? Shadow the Hedgehog is so underrated, it's downright depressing.

When New Super Mario Bros. hit the DS, many reviewers were thrilled to play what they claimed was the first 2D Mario platformer since Super Mario World. How quickly we forget! The last new 2D Mario adventure prior to the DS entry was ACTUALLY this Game Boy classic. It takes its inspiration from Super Mario World, using a similar graphical style and even inserting the spin-jump manuver introduced in that SNES classic. There's no doubt that this is one of the best games on the original Game Boy. The unique levels will take you through a Halloween-themed zone, winding through a gigantic mechanical Mario, into an enormous home where Mario is the size of a bug, and even into outer space! Take a moment to listen to the music in the space stages, some of the best ever composed on the system. The game also introduced a new primary villian, someone who would become a Nintendo star in his own right: Wario. It's always nice to take a break from beating down Bowser now and then.

Pac-Man World on the original PlayStation was an intriguing but flawed attempt to bring one of the most famous names in gaming into the world of 3D platforming. Pac-Man World 2 was more polished, but its design was incredibly frustrating, with many stages that were insanely brutal in the precision leaps required... particular those blasted skating levels towards the end. How's Pac-Man World 3, then? Would you believe it's one of the best platformers of its generation? Being the third installment in a heretofore-mediocre series brought little attention to this glimmering diamond in the rough. But with the addition of new moves to make his attacks easier to handle, gorgeous stages and graphics, and a fine balance between fighting foes and making tough leaps, this one found the perfect balance in design to achieve absolute FUN. The ghosts and Pac-Man himself even speak for the first time, and their voices are, surprisingly, a perfect fit. There's no way to do justice to how all-around solid Pac-Man World 3 is with just words. You have to feel the gameplay for yourself. From the shine of the light off our hero's round back to the perfectly responsive controls, you can tell this was made with a ton of care.

Everyone remembers the NES series, and of course we all know about the modern remake of the franchise. It's a shame that few remember this Game Boy spinoff, a title that's just as good as the first two of its NES brethren. It's been claimed that this was once going to be a "Shadow of the Ninja" game that was snatched up by Tecmo and converted to suit Ryu Hayabusa. If that's true, they did an excellent job making the change. The gameplay is spot-on and feels just like the NES originals, albeit with the addition of a chain that lets Ryu snatch higher ledges from a distance. The biggest difference between this prequel and the NES series is the lack of cinema sequences that tell a story. Good thing the gameplay is so tight and the bosses so fun to battle that you'll barely notice the lack of narrative.

Castlevania's had a really hard time translating to 3D. While the 2D series remains one of the best gameplay experiences around, the 3D titles have stagnated and stumbled. To find the best, most fun 3D games in the series, you need to look back to the Nintendo 64. More and more people are realizing that the second N64 game in the series, Legacy of Darkness, was an immensely quality title. Although that game contains the same basic characters and storyline as this one (once you unlock them), the first Castlevania on the N64 offers superior designs of numerous levels that they share, such as the Tower of Execution and the Villa. The first two stages may feel like a tough and monotonous slog, but once you reach the Castle Villa, you will find an experience that is 100% true to the platforming routes of the series. This is the perfect translation of the NES, SNES and Genesis games, reborn in 3D with a pair of great characters hosting their own compelling stories. The music is excellent, the boss fights are epic, and you have multiple endings to enjoy along the way. It's worth your time to see them all via multiple playthroughs.

Mega Man 6 almost didn't see release in North America. Gamers had moved on to the SNES years ago, and Mega Man fans were already enjoying the X series on that platform. Those who missed out on Mega Man 6 sadly never experienced one of the best games in the series. Making leaps over both 4 and 5, Mega Man 6 introduced multiple paths to take to the bosses that could lead you to a "fake boss," as well as "Rush adapters" that allowed Mega Man's robotic dog to merge with the blue bomber to power him up like never before. These adapters never ran out of energy, expanding the controls available to you immensely. With a jetpack on his back that could let him fly for short bursts, you can imagine how platforming was completely different in this Mega Man adventure. The best music since Mega Man 2 and 3 was also produced here, with amazing tunes for robots like Flame Man, Yamato Man, Tomahawk Man and Blizzard Man. And yes, a new spate of culturally-themed robot masters provided stage designs that were new and exciting even for long-time players. Combine all this with a memorable machine from Dr. Wily and one of the most satisfying endings in the series (hint: Wily doesn't escape this time), and you've got an all-around winner. It all comes down to polish and level design, and in those regards, this was more than one of the best Mega Man adventures - it was one of the best games on the NES, period.

The next time you're in a used game store, keep an eye out. One of your favorite series may have an adventure that you've missed. Any game on this list would be a great way to revisit old friends and experience a title you might have passed by the first time around. Or, if you already own any of these games, consider giving them a second look. They deserve it, and will help expand your appreciation for what makes these franchises so great.

List by Cypher (10/31/2008)

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