Cutesy platformers starring animal mascots were all the rage back in the 90's, so you'd think a game like Klonoa would have been a hit. Its titular protagonist really was cute, it was released on the uber-popular PlayStation, and to top it off of it received absolutely glowing reviews from critics for its gorgeous visuals and masterful design. Sounds like a recipe for success, right?
Well, no. Despite all of its merits, Klonoa sold pretty terribly at retail due to being mistaken for shovelware by gamers whose standards were becoming steadily higher, leaving publisher Namco very disappointed. Despite this failure, a sequel came for the PlayStation 2 a few years later, which was even more wonderful than the first game and sold even more atrociously. After a remake of the first game for the Wii also failed to gain much clout, Namco finally threw up their hands and said "We give up!" And it's a real shame too, because goodness knows we could use more cute, well-designed platformers these days.
Ah, Psychonauts. Surely you've all heard of this one. Released back in 2005 for the Xbox and various others, it quickly became a favorite among critics thanks to its wealth of originality and deliciously twisted style. The psychic powers that formed the backbone of the gameplay were a ton of fun to use, and the colorful cast of characters that populated the game were written and acted astonishingly well. The sheer amount of talent, skill, and painstaking detail that went into this game made it a standout in its day and earned creator Tim Shaefer accolades.
So why did it bomb at retail? Lack of advertising, mainly. So much time and money was spent fine-tuning the game itself that hardly any though was put towards letting people know that it existed, and as a result it plopped onto store shelves almost completely unnoticed. Such was its financial failure that it almost bankrupted publisher Majesco and set the newly-formed Double Fine Productions back quite a bit. However, thanks to Microsoft releasing it as part of their Games On Demand service for Xbox 360 and a later digital PC release on Steam and GOG, it has finally found an audience outside of niche circles and gaming enthusiasts. 'Bout time.
Though Michael Ancel is most famed for creating Rayman, that's not the only feather he has in his cap. Beyond Good & Evil was a stealth-action game that placed a large emphasis on puzzle solving and deliberation, with the goal being to snap pictures of specific objects in order to get dirt on a shady corporation. While the gameplay received its fair share of praise, what really stood out was the presentation. The graphics were excellent across all platforms, the sound design was expert, the actors gave every character a great voice, and the character models and animation were far more detailed and elaborate than anything else at the time.
Unfortunately, all that effort didn't translate into financial success. The game was met with almost total indifference from the gaming public, despite that the few who did play it swore up and down that it was one of the best games of the year. Sales were so low across all platforms that Ubisoft started packaging free copies of the game with string cheese. No, really. Look it up.
Much like its cousin in flop-dom, Psychonauts, it was later vindicated by a digital rerelease on consoles and PC. If only all the games on this list could be so lucky.
Arriving late to the scene in 1995 for the SNES was EarthBound. Actually the second in a series (it was known as Mother 2 in Japan), it was a unique JRPG that told the story of a ragtag group of psychics who set out to save the Earth when an alien spacecraft crashed into a nearby mountain and releases an unspeakable horror. Unlike most other RPGs of the day, it eschewed random encounters in favor of having all foes visible on the overworld, and its combat system used a rolling damage counter that caused characters to take damage gradually instead of all at once, and could be stopped prematurely if you played your cards right. In the Nintendo tradition, it was very tightly designed, polished to a shine, and more accessible than most of its ilk, which earned it tons of praise from critics.
There was just one big problem: It was released on the SNES in 1995, right as the PlayStation was just around the corner and 2D games had suddenly become passe. It also didn't help that Nintendo's horrendously misguided advertising campain made the game look like a repository for disgusting toilet humor, despite that it actually contained almost none. By the time it was removed from store shelves to make way for the Nintendo 64, it had sold so few copies that it is now one of the holy grails of SNES collectors. A recent digital rerelease on Wii U, though certainly appreciated, is unlikely to expose it to a wider audience owing to poor sales of the console itself.
Ever since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare made the first-person shooter the hottest genre out there, the market has been flooded with grim and gritty military FPSs that seek to emulate the success Activision has had with their famed series. In response to this trend, 2K Games released Spec Ops: The Line, a modern military FPS that looks like another CoD clone on the surface but quickly reveals itself to be a brilliant deconstruction of the genre. All of the sensationalized violence and dudebro cliches that have marked FPSs for years are torn down and put to shame as we see what it would actually be like to live through the kinds of scenarios presented in those games. After years of seeing such tropes played straight, it felt like a breath of fresh air to see them get so delightfully subverted, and critics and gamers alike rewarded the game with rave reviews across the board.
The problem came, once again, in the marketing. Trailers for the game set it up as exactly the kind of cliched military FPS it was parodying, and 2K expected word of mouth from impressed fans and critics to really sell it. The problem was, people took the game completely at face value and passed it on thinking it really was just another CoD wannabe. To this day it remains only a niche classic. Irony is a cruel mistress, indeed.
#5: Vanquish (PS3)
PlatinumGames, developers of Bayonetta and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, are known for their sleek and stylish action games, and Vanquish fits right into their library. While a third-person shooter as opposed to a hack-n-slash, it's very much like Platinum's most famous works in terms of fast-paced action, ridiculous cutscenes, and just plain and simple craziness. Critics gave it top marks for being such a wicked awesome TPS and presenting a nice change of pace from all of the dark, mature dramas that had been hitting the market at the time.
Another thing PlatinumGames is known for is their self-destructive relationship with Sega, a publisher that has become infamous for their incompetence and unwillingness to promote anything not named "Sonic" or "Total War." Vanquish hit store shelves with absolutely no advertising beyond the obligatory listing on Sega's own website, and no amount of critical acclaim could rectify the fact that hardly anyone knew it existed.
Platinum would later work with Nintendo on The Wonderful 101, which was also released to stores with stunning lack of advertising. A long, disgruntled sigh seems in order.
As most recent game on this list, Rayman Legends is not even off store shelves yet. Originally slated as a Wii U exclusive, it was hastily ported to other platforms when Ubisoft got cold feet over the Wii U's lack of success. Like its predecessor, it was a 2D platformer with a major multiplayer focus that challenged players to clear stages as fast as possible while grabbing lots of lums and electoons along the way. Also like its predecessor, it was hailed on released as one of the most sublime platformers ever made, rivaling even Mario's latest installment for the best platformer of 2013. The tight controls and masterful level design made it a total blast to play whether alone or with friends, and the art design really put it in a league of its own.
The reason for its financial failure goes back to Ubisoft's decision to go multiplatform. Back when it was still exclusive, it was scheduled for a February release, a month that had virtually no competition. But then it was announced, barely a month before launch, that it was being delayed to November in order to facilitate a multiplatform release. Besides killing much of the hype for the game, this meant it would have to compete with Grand Theft Auto V, a game that was sure to steal all of gamers attentions. Sure enough, that's exactly what happened, and by the end of 2013 Rayman Legends had proven to be an absolute dud in a year where other games routinely sold in excess of three million copies.
Released right at the tail end of the Saturn's life, Panzer Dragoon Saga was an epic RPG that has been hailed as one of the greatest in its genre. The active time battle system it employed made combat feel more action-packed and fun than most any other RPG at the time, as it required players to move around a 3D battlefield and find vantage points to strike at opponents from instead of just clicking through menus. The story was also much praised, particularly for its devotion to world-building and complete lack of filler. As a swan song for the Saturn, it was very admirable, and the critical praise it got was definitely earned.
The reason for its failure isn't hard to find. It was released on the cursed-from-birth Saturn in a year when the platform had all but vanished from store shelves in the US and was just about to be replaced by the Dreamcast in Japan. There was no way this game was going to sell. Why Sega even bothered releasing it outside of Japan is a mystery. Naturally, it is now one of the rarest and most sought-after games there is, owing both to its rarity and its merits as a really excellent RPG.
If there's one thing the Wii lacked in, it was mature games, and No More Heroes was intended to fill that void. Pairing over-the-top hack-n-slash action with a macabre sense of humor, it tasked you to kill 10 assassins in order to work your way to the top of the assassin's list. The motion controls employed for melee attacks not only worked, but actually improved the game, which made it stand out from all of the others that just substituted waggling for simple button presses. Critics applauded it for being so daring and fun, and even named it one of the best games of 2008, which is no small praise considering what it was up against.
Sad to say, it was also one of the games that proved the Wii was not a console for mature gamers. Despite plenty of advertising and lots of love from critics, it sold dismally enough to make M-rated Wii games practically taboo. The equally poor performance of MadWorld just a few months later made M-rated Wii games definitely taboo. However, No More Heroes did gain enough of a cult following to receive a sequel years later, which Ubisoft decided to release on the PlayStation 3 as well as the Wii in the hopes that it would find a more receptive audience. It didn't.
LucasArts was the pioneer of the point-and-click adventure genre, once upon a time. With tried and true classics like The Secret Of Monkey Island and Sam And Max: Hit The Road under their belt, they pretty much owned the arena. Grim Fandango was yet another LucasArts classic, a dark adventure in the realm of the recently-dead that followed the adventures of a Department of Death agent who discovers that his employers aren't as benevolent as they seem. Critics raved about it on release for its superb presentation and seamlessly combining the usual puzzles with a tightly written narrative. The writing and acting were particularly applauded for exhibiting a level of skill and conviction that had rarely been seen in a video game before.
It also happened to be yet another Tim Shaefer game that achieved critical success and retail failure. Maybe if it had been released five years earlier than it was, it could have had a chance at the big time, but it hit store shelves in 1998 to much competition. Half-Life, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and Metal Gear Solid were all vying for gamers attentions at the time, and they were all in genres that had mainstream appeal while Grim Fandango was in a genre that was quickly becoming a dead horse. In fact, its failure was the event that signaled the death of point-and-click adventures, as the genre has since been effectively banished to the realm of indies and those TellTale people.
As you can see, most of these games were victims of shoddy advertising or being released in the wrong place at the wrong time. While they can all serve as great lessons in game design, they also serve as valuable lessons in what not to do when releasing your game to the public. Thankfully, publishers seem to have taken these lessons to heart, as you can also see that most of the games on this list are old. Let's hope it stays that way.
List by tgoldberg (01/31/2014)
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