Any experienced gamer will know the feeling. You’re excited to play a new game, which everyone says is amazing. But once you start to play it, you realize it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Sometimes, a game can still be enjoyable even after you decide it’s undeserving of the hype. But there are other times when the gap between what you’ve been told, and what you discover for yourself, will get deeper and deeper, until you end up wondering: is there something else going on?
Games or series being overrated isn’t problematic just because it irritates cantankerous old gamers like me. It’s significant because the historical reputation and cultural standing of games matters: not just for how it influences individual purchasing decisions, but in shaping the future development of entire franchises, and even genres. It affects the kinds of games we play, and how we play them. And some people can be put off games for years, or even for life, by playing overhyped games and thinking, is this all video games have to offer?
So, here is my attempt to debunk some of the most egregiously overrated video games of all time. It’s a long read, but if you stick with it until the end you’ll (hopefully) come to agree that this analysis reveals some clear trends.
In chronological order:
1. Sonic the Hedgehog (Mega Drive)
Released: 1991. Metacritic score: N/A.
Everyone knows that Sonic games have sucked for years, with well-reviewed games like the recent Sonic Mania being the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, ever since games moved into 3D in the mid-90s, the Sonic franchise has been the object of widespread derision, and complaints from fans that the series abandoned its roots. But on the contrary, what if crummy game design is just part of Sonic’s DNA?
Sonic games were enormously popular back in the early 90s. Sonic was the iconic franchise on Sega’s Mega Drive (called the Genesis in the USA), and he was one of Sega’s main weapons in the console war against Nintendo. In contrast to Nintendo’s mascot, a rotund, mustachioed Italian plumber named Mario, Sonic was presented as “edgy” and cool, a character focused on speed above all else. The gameplay reflected this, and the mechanics were designed to encourage you to traverse the levels top speed. The problem was, that doing so was often suicidal: enemies and hazards would appear out of nowhere, meaning you would get hit unless you proceeded through the game at a snail’s pace. The labyrinthine level structure also encouraged a methodical approach that was at odds with the way Sonic controlled.
In short, the early Sonic games were a slew of contradictions that made for an unsatisfying and frustrating experience. For a series that was initially sold to consumers as being about exhilarating experiences, and being edgy and cool, it’s ironic that these days it relies on nostalgia and rose-tinted classes.
2. EarthBound (Super Nintendo)
Released: 1994. Metacritic score: N/A.
EarthBound was actually the second game in the Japanese “Mother” series of RPGs, and the only one to be released by Nintendo in Europe and America. It didn’t do at all well in the West, its quirky, idiosyncratic tone a poor fit for the appetites of gamers and critics at the time. But it developed a cult following, which over the years ballooned out of all proportion to the original merits of the game; and the idea that the game was an underrated gem led, quite rapidly, to an absurdly overrated status in the West. Demands that Nintendo release its sequel, Mother 3, in the West, are now a mainstay of Nintendo-based communities online.
Do these guys look like heroes to you?
3. Chrono Trigger (Super Nintendo)
Released: 1995. Metacritic score: N/A.
Chrono Trigger was never released for the Super Nintendo in Europe, but is now widely available, including through a port for the Nintendo DS in 2008 (metacritic score: 92). It was the product of an all-star creative team at Square featuring senior staff from the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series. For the time, it had excellent graphics, with colourful, detailed sprites, and an exceptional soundtrack, which still sounds good today. Chrono Trigger also had an ambitious story, with multiple endings depending on what you did, and when, during its time-travelling structure. It was unusually sophisticated in 1995 and would prove to be an influential game in the history of the medium.
That said, on its own merits, played today Chrono Trigger remains a dated experience. Its presentation is solid, but the gameplay is flat and uninspired. In particular, combat is simplistic and boring, and the best thing that can be said about it is that it’s relatively straightforward and not too difficult. As much as the story had a novel structure, the actual writing was, for the most part, pretty flat. This should be an unexceptional comment – the game is, after all, over 20 years old, and Super Nintendo games weren’t renowned for their scripts – but Chrono Trigger is still held up a classic of videogame storytelling. But just because something is historically significant, that doesn’t mean it’s still good by contemporary standards.
While its in-game graphics were good, the person in charge of Chrono Trigger’s visual design was Akira Toriyama, also responsible for the Dragonball series. Toriyama’s style is divisive, and I personally find it to be offensively ugly. Here it’s completely out of sync with the tone of Chrono Trigger’s story: all his characters, including the heroes, look sadistically evil. It’s particularly obvious if you watch the cutscenes added to the later PlayStation port.
4. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (Nintendo 64)
Released: 2000. Metacritic score: 95.
It’s always going to be hard to follow one of the best games ever made, and so Nintendo wisely decide to make Majora’s Mask substantially different to it’s predecessor, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. While the game made use of many of Ocarina’s technical assets, and had the same basic gameplay, the similarities stopped there. Majora’s Mask made use of an original time-travelling mechanic, with Link having to repeatedly travel back in time in order to prevent the world’s imminent destruction.
The apocalyptic premise shaped the game’s tone, and Majora’s Mask is notable for having a particularly sombre and wistful feel. The story is concerned with subjects like friendship and loneliness, and can be quite affecting. Its atmosphere is often quite mysterious, with many aspects of the gameworld not being fully explained. The time-travelling mechanic also allows for some inventive puzzles – though you will often run out of time during the many sidequests, and have to go back to square one.
As much as the time limit is an interesting mechanic, there’s a reason we don’t see this used much in games, at least in RPGs. Knowing that a Game Over (and the end of the world) is just around the corner means exploration can be stressful, and the system is at odds with the engrained desire to explore and mess around which is such a big part of adventure games. It doesn’t help that Majora’s Mask can be pretty vague about where you’re supposed to go and what to do next. By the time you’ve figured it out, it’s more than likely time to reset the clock. Generally speaking, it’s no good starting a side quest after the first day, as you won’t have time to complete it. Moreover, the dungeon design was generally uninspired (certainly compared to Ocarina of Time), and some of the boss fights were pretty frustrating. It was a lot easier if you found all the hidden items, but the time limit made that a punishing chore. One way or the other, the game made you suffer.
In the end, Majora’s Mask was an interesting, but flawed game. Its limitations are understandable, particularly considering its short development period. It would require no further comment, but for the fact that its reputation has soared far out of proportion to its merits; and there is a cottage industry of theorycrafting devoted to various incidental aspects of the game’s design and lore. To be fair, it’s not the only overrated Zelda game. Both of the Wii Zeldas were laughably overhyped: Twilight Princess (2006, metacritic rating 95) was a boring and ugly collect-a-thon, while Skyward Sword (2011, metacritic rating 93) was one of the most forgettable and redundant Zeldas ever, and sold fewer than four million copies on the Wii’s install base of 100 million. But while they’re largely neglected now (with good reason), the hype around Majora’s Mask seems to go from strength to strength, and shows few signs of abating.
5. Final Fantasy X (PlayStation 2)
Released: 2001. Metacritic score: 92.
They say your favourite Final Fantasy game is whichever one you play first. That might explain the enduring popularity of Final Fantasy X, the first game in the franchise to be released for the PlayStation 2. The series was enormously successful at that point, probably the most famous and highly-regarded RPG franchise in the world apart from Zelda. The commercial success of FFX was therefore more or less guaranteed; but that doesn’t explain the enthusiastic critical reaction to this deeply flawed game, or its inflated reputation since.
FFX was undermined by several major problems. It had a convoluted and melodramatic story featuring a cast of characters who were asinine at best and, at worst, deeply and profoundly annoying. This was abetted by perhaps the worst voice acting ever featured in a video game. FFX was one of the first high-profile games to make extensive use of voice acting, and it shows. The quality of the voice acting ranged from mediocre to horrendous, and it was made worse by a laughable script and clueless direction that led to some truly infamous scenes.
Unlike most previous Final Fantasy games, the story in FFX took you along a largely linear path that meant the player couldn’t explore at all until they reached the endgame. It’s true that if you got that far, there was some interesting content in the form of optional quests to acquire powerful Guardian Forces. But the ludicrous puzzles (dodge 100 lighting bolts?) and frustrating boss fights, combined with the boring and predictable story and terrible writing, meant that whatever slim payoff you got was utterly inadequate. The game’s risible design extended to its minigames, particularly the atrocious, poorly conceived Blitzball mode.
One of FFX’s few saving graces was that the environments of Spira had a distinctive Pacific Island aesthetic; but its world was populated by ugly and badly designed characters who sucked any joy out of exploration. The combat system was functional, with an active and high-paced turn-based system that allowed you to swap characters in and out of your party. The grid-based character levelling system was original, and the characters in your party generally felt different enough from one another with their own strengths and weaknesses. But overall, it was a hugely disappointing game that feels like a turning point for the franchise. Although Final Fantasy XII was great, most of the games since X have fallen far short of expectations. And let’s not forget X’s direct sequel, Final Fantasy X-2, which somehow managed to be even worse. Much, much worse.
6. Tales of Symphonia (Nintendo Gamecube)
Released: 2004. Metacritic score: 86.
Tales of Symphonia was a great RPG when it was released. The first Tales game to reach a mainstream audience in the West, Symphonia featured colourful graphics; a rich, complex story that dealt with serious subjects in an intelligent way; a beautiful soundtrack; and an energetic and deep combat system which supported co-operative multiplayer. It rightly received a lot of praise and helped the Tales franchise reach much larger new markets. However, played today, Symphonia is (unsurprisingly) somewhat dated, and suffers from poor pacing.
There have been a number of great Tales games after Symphonia, but most of these are ignored or dismissed by large sections of the Tales fanbase. Their constant harping on about Symphonia, and to an extent Tales of Vesperia, is embarrassing. But the mindless, stultifying atmosphere of nostalgia which the community cultivates around the game is also damaging. Because it has little basis in reality, it provides an impossible yardstick against which to judge the merits of more recent entries, such as Graces and Berseria.
7. Super Mario Galaxy (Nintendo Wii)
Released: 2007. Metacritic score: 97.
Super Mario Galaxy was released for the Nintendo Wii to rave reviews and a great deal of hype. The Wii was well on its way to stratospheric commercial success, but in 2007 it was still light short on top-quality triple-A exclusives. People were excited by the motion controls and party games like Wii Sports, but serious gamers wanted evidence that the Wii could deliver “proper” gaming experiences as well. Galaxy was brought to market as proof that the Wii was a console for hardcore gamers too.
Ever since Mario 64 brought the platform genre into 3D, Mario games had a reputation for showcasing the controls of Nintendo consoles to their best effect. In a way Galaxy continued the trend, because it incorporated motion controls in a gimmicky and imprecise way; a trend that would continue throughout the Wii’s lifespan. Mario’s spin attack was there as if to make up for the difficulty of landing your jump attacks properly, which was a function of tricky depth perception on Galaxy’s spherical worlds, combined with an inadequate and frustrating camera.
Galaxy was not without charm, but it lacked the sense of scale and vision of Mario 64, instead feeling like a sequence of minigames or demo levels. For many, it served as a fun introduction to the Mario franchise, but it lacked the taut design of the classic 2D games, or the ambition of Mario 64. In the end, it felt like a massive disappointment considering the hype that surrounded its release.
With hindsight, it seems that people were too keen to believe the Wii’s potential as a “serious” console. Wii owners were desperate for evidence that it could feature games with a richness and depth to rival the best games that were coming out on Microsoft and Sony’s consoles. Unfortunately, the residual hype endures to this day, and Galaxy still has a ludicrously inflated reputation – as does its sequel, Super Mario Galaxy 2. Hopefully Super Mario Odyssey, due out later this year, can get the series back on track.
8. Metal Gear Solid 4 (PlayStation 3)
Released: 2008. Metacritic score: 94.
Metal Gear Solid 4 was released to near-universal critical acclaim, but a backlash began a few years later. It’s now widely abhorred by critics as a travesty of incoherent game design and bad taste. In fact, anyone aspiring to write about games would be well advised to play this game and then read some of the reviews it received. It would be a salutary lesson in the importance of thinking for yourself and judging a game on its merits, rather than on what other people are saying about it.
When Metal Gear Solid 4 was released, Sony’s PS3 was crying out for a system-selling exclusive. The console was eye-wateringly expensive, and Sony needed games that could deliver deep, immersive, cinematic experiences which justified the game’s price tag and powerful technology. MGS 4’s lengthy cutscenes and jaw-dropping graphics provided the raw material for impressive trailers and advertising. This all helped ensure that the game sold well, but if you have a copy of it now, good luck getting more than a few cents for it. It’s basically worthless, a reflection of how much fun it is to play.
The Metal Gear series has become a byword for incomprehensible storytelling and overlong cutscenes, and MGS4 was perhaps the most extreme version of this. Its po-faced exposition was combined with appallingly juvenile character interactions (like a character who repeatedly crapped his pants); while it assaulted the player with a host of different playstyles and frustrating boss battles (if you’re interested in reading more, here’s my review). It was basically a gigantic ego trip for producer Hideo Kojima. He was given one more turn at the wheel, in the form of Metal Gear Solid 5, before publisher Konami pulled the plug on the franchise. For all the criticism Konami gets these days – much of it deserved – euthanising this series earns them a thumbs-up from me.
9. Grand Theft Auto IV (multi-platform)
Released: 2008. Metacritic rating: 98.
Grand Theft Auto IV was widely heralded as one of the best games ever made when it was released. It was certainly ambitious, a big-budget open world game with an expansive story and a lot of content. The story was told from the standpoint of Niko Bellic, an East European immigrant newly arrived in Liberty City, the GTA series’ sleazy take on New York. As Niko looked to make his way in his new surroundings, he was sucked into various criminal shenanigans, encountering a wide array of colourful characters along the way.
GTA IV had an uneven tone, its hardbitten story at odds with the flair for brash and garish carnage with which the series made its name – and which this game’s sandbox structure provided plenty of opportunties to indulge in. While not without appeal, it was far from the awe-inspiring experience its reviews led audiences to believe. Attempting to complete the story could be very frustrating, as GTA IV’s combat was terrible, featuring imprecise and clumsy controls which couldn’t support the large-scale firefights the game threw at you during its second half. It featured a dreadful checkpoint system which meant that if you died, you usually had to start a mission from scratch. So not only did you have to re-start a long firefight from the beginning, you might have to spend several minutes driving across Liberty City before you even got there. And if you got impatient and drove too fast, you were more than likely to attract the attention of the city’s cops, resulting in a long and tiresome car chase before you even got to retry the section where you just died – and where, more than likely, you would die again due to the poor combat mechanics.
GTA IV wasn’t an outright bad game, but it was certainly overrated. On the plus side, Rockstar learned from some its weaknesses and ensured they weren’t reproduced in LA Noire and Red Dead Redemption; games that, for the most part, did live up to the hype.
10. The World Ends With You (Nintendo DS)
Released: 2008. Metacritic score: 88.
The DS was a hugely successful console, but like the Wii it was a bit lacking when it came to great games; particularly in comparison to its predecessor, the Game Boy Advance. At the time of release, Square’s The World Ends With You was regarded as one of the best games for the console. It was thought to be particularly important that a serious, third-party RPG would made use of features like the DS touchscreen.
The World Ends With You was set in the consumerist hub of Shibuya, Japan, and was a self-conscious appeal to a fashion-conscious teenage demographic. It featured its own system of brands and counterculture, and much of the game’s combat and customization revolved around selecting various “pins” for your character which had different effects. Most of these were pretty gimmicky, though, and the same went for the game’s combat. The World Ends With You tried to make use of the dual screens by making you control two characters at the same time, one on each screen, with predictably confusing results. Its combat is a good example of why complexity doesn’t necessarily equal depth.
But the chief problem was with the game’s story. The main character, Neku, was a surly introvert sucked into a sinister, high-stakes game in an alternate version of Shibuya. The story starts with an air of mystery and intrigue, but things soon fall apart. The World Ends With You introduces too many characters without developing them, and its structure meant that as soon as someone started to become interesting, they were likely to be removed from the picture. Its lore was abstruse, taking forever to untangle, and there was little payoff in the end. It all boiled down to a gimmicky game with an esoteric story. Although not a disaster, it should be approached now more as a historical curiosity than a good game; but it has maintained its dubious status as a DS “classic”.
11. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (PlayStation 3)
Released: 2009. Metacritic score: 96.
The first Uncharted game (metacritic 88) was released in late 2007, at a time when the PS3 sorely needed desirable exclusives. Added to some decent graphics, its spin on the Tomb Raider genre felt like a natural fit for a Playstation console, and it was fairly well-received at the time. Played today, however, it comes across as an objectively poor game let down by shoddy controls, repetitive and frustrating combat, and awkward platforming.
Uncharted 2 was undoubtedly an improvement, and is largely responsible for the monstrous hype that has surrounded the series ever since. Uncharted 2 had high production values and great graphics, and the gameplay was better than its predecessor, though still rather perfunctory. The experience was very linear, with uninspired design, and it felt neither original nor particularly memorable. A major part of the game’s appeal was its interpretation of the familiar and much-loved aesthetic of the Indiana Jones films, with the script adding an extra layer of knowing humour in a nod towards the Marvel style. But, as with the rest of the series, Uncharted 2’s story was hokey supernatural nonsense, with a penchant for Orientalist exoticism. Its tendency to conflate history with mysticism and fantasy was symptomatic of an irrational, postmodern culture disdainful of the very idea of truth, worshipful instead of spectacle and stupidity.
Moreover, Uncharted 2’s script doubled down on the nihilistic, individualist subtext that came to characterize the franchise. Uncharted’s protagonist, Nathan Drake, is a cynical and selfish lead, a thief obsessed with looting antiquities for his own enrichment, whose not above stealing from museums. He’s a fine example of the self-aware, insincere, wisecracking archetype featured so prominently in games and movies of the last decade. It’s unfortunate that Naughty Dog invested so much in this franchise, because 2013’s The Last of Us demonstrated they were capable of producing extraordinary games. But as things stand, the Uncharted trilogy has the dubious honour of being the most overhyped series on a platform replete with overrated exclusives.
12. Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey (Nintendo DS)
Released: 2010. Metacritic score: 80.
Atlus has a well-earned reputation for delivering some of the best JRPGs around, mainly in the Persona and Shin Megami Tensei series. They’ve also published some great spin-offs set in those universes, like the Devil Summoner tactical RPGs or Digital Devil Saga games. Strange Journey was released for Nintendo’s DS handheld in 2010, and for the most part had a strong critical reception, and garnered a cult following online.
On the face of it, Strange Journey had all the ingredients that make for a decent JRPG. Its story starts promisingly, with a setting reminiscent of John Carpenter’s classic horror movie The Thing. A scientific team is sent to Antarctica to investigate a spatial abnormality which, if it expands, threatens to destabilize or even engulf the planet. Once there, the team is scattered and the player is sucked into a dimension populated by demons. Most of the game consists of exploring these alternate dimensions.
Strange Journey is a first-person dungeon crawler, where you explore boring, monochrome labyrinths, triggering random battles and occasional boss fights along the way. Combat is both mind-numbingly tedious and extremely frustrating, as enemies can often cast high-level spells with abandon, while your party is dependent on triggering elemental combos to do significant damage. You don’t know what element a demon is weak to until after you’ve killed it, and the first time you fight something you can’t even see it: it’s just a mess of blue pixels. Your party consists of demons, who have to be recruited through a nightmarish trial-and-error interview system where you answer a series of questions to try and win them over. If you give the wrong answer, you’ll normally be attacked, but even if you somehow manage to get all the answers right, the demon might randomly decide not to join you.
Most Atlus games have a good script, but Strange Journey’s was exceptionally bland, perhaps due to a poor localization, while most of the characters ranged from uninteresting to downright annoying. The story had an unbearably preachy tone, with most of the dungeons inspired by some negative aspect of human culture (vice, war, consumerism, etc), in a shallow and sanctimonious attempt to invoke weighty subjects. If the gameplay was any good, this wouldn’t have been such a problem; but when your “reward” for successfully navigating an ugly, tedious labyrinth is a brutal boss fight, followed by some execrable dialogue, it’s really not worth the effort. After a while, I found that playing Strange Journey actually made me feel nauseous, and even now, remembering what it was like to play makes me feel vaguely unwell.
Unfortunately, Atlus decided to remake Strange Journey, and a new edition is coming out for the 3DS later this year. I admit it’s possible that they’ll fix what was wrong with the DS version; but considering that what was wrong with it was pretty much “everything”, I won’t hold my breath.
13. Heavy Rain (PlayStation 3)
Released: 2010. Metacritic score: 87.
Heavy Rain (metacritic 87) was released in 2010, another PS3 exclusive which boasted impressive graphics and showcased new hardware. In this instance, Heavy Rain was compatible with the PlayStation Move controller, Sony’s motion control answer to Microsoft’s Kinect, which was itself a reaction to the success of the Nintendo Wii. Motion control has not yet been accepted as an adequate method for playing traditional games, due to its lack of precision, and for now is consigned mainly to gimmick or novelty status. But in 2010, it was important that Sony was able to say its console featured motion control, like its rivals.
Heavy Rain was also supposed to show that the PS3 remained the premier console for delivering cinematic experiences. It had a noir-ish plot, and allowed the player to make decisions which affected the course of the narrative, ultimately determining who lived and who died. Heavy Rain’s visual presentation was striking, and its state of the art facial animation combined with photorealistic graphics was truly impressive. At the same time, it wasn’t perfect, and those moments when the facial animations weren’t quite right could be alternately hilarious and disturbing, with characters gurning maniacally. This, combined with the cheesy script, meant that Heavy Rain often descended into the depths of bathos (also known as Narm), and moments that were supposed to be significant or moving often ended up making you laugh due to inept scripting, or bad “acting” from one of the characters.
Heavy Rain was far from an unmitigated failure. Its story was not without heart, and its technical design and vision was ambitious: and when it succeeded, the results could be remarkable. But it was far from the visionary work it was presented as at the time, and its inflated reputation helps explain the underwhelming response to its successor, 2013’s Beyond: Two Souls, which was in most respects a superior experience.
14. The Walking Dead (multi-platform)
Released: 2012. Metacritic score: 92.
Telltale’s first season of The Walking Dead was terrific. It felt like a mature and sophisticated use of the source material, with a poignant and emotionally affecting story centred around one of the best representations of a parent-child dynamic ever seen in a video game. But the actual game supporting the story was quite creaky, and the sections between dialogue mainly consisted of a bit of walking and some simple puzzles. Moreover, it quickly became apparent that your freedom to control the direction of the story was largely illusory.
The Walking Dead received enormous accolades, regarded by many as one of the best games of 2012. But the stubborn refusal of publisher Telltale Games to update their creaking engine has meant that later games, including in big-ticket franchises like Game of Thrones and Batman, have been riddled with technical errors. Moreover, episodes of Telltale’s subsequent seasons kept getting shorter and shorter, the publisher dangerously close to being seen to take advantage of the good will of critics and consumers alike.
Five years after The Walking Dead’s breakout success, Telltale Games are glitchier than ever; as expensive as ever; lighter on content; and the limits imposed on player choice and control are increasingly transparent. It didn’t have to be this way. The widespread acceptance of this style of game has also led to the proliferation of interactive stories masquerading as games, in a weird fracturing of the medium.
15. Bioshock Infinite (multi-platform)
Released: 2013. Metacritic score: 94.
The first two Bioshock games were critically acclaimed, and they featured atmospheric and original environments with solid game mechanics and a sophisticated approach to storytelling. Even if the stories themselves were pretentious, bogged down in examinations of Ayn Rand’s banal individualist “philosophy” of Objectivism, this didn’t detract too much from the overall experience. The third game in the trilogy, Bioshock Infinite (metacritic rating 94), moved the action from the depths of the sea to the skies above. Featuring good graphics, and espousing the same “show, don’t tell” approach to narrative showcased in the first games, Bioshock Infinite was a highly cinematic and vivid first-person shooter. The gunplay was basic but satisfying, and it had a colourful system of “Vigors” (upgradeable spells) which were fun to play around with, even if most of them felt inessential in the context of the game’s simplistic combat.
While Infinite’s campaign played well enough, the game laboured towards the end under the weight of its tortured, metaphysical narrative, finally reaching a confusing and unsatisfying conclusion. Moreover, its story was characterized by the nihilistic outlook which shaped the series. The game’s setting, the sky city of Columbia, was a dystopian state run along the lines of a white-supremacist, fundamentalist Christian ideology, where the poor and ethnic minorities were kept under constant, brutal subjugation. A major part of the game’s early stages saw a revolution led by the multi-racial plebeian ‘Vox Populi’ movement, which soon degenerated into a lurid campaign of indiscriminate murder and bloodshed, the player forced to slaughter wave after wave of Vox Populi zealots.
Infinite’s story evinced a profound scepticism about people’s capacity to collectively organize in a positive way, in either a religious or secular guise. It was a cliched posture which, in a more mature medium such as film or literature, would have been understood to limit the work’s appeal. Moreover, the incorporation of extreme and graphic violence in this nihilistic context was a little troubling. These issues were barely explored in the initial literature around Bioshock Infinite, with most publications happy to promote the game quite uncritically. The mere fact that a functional shooter would invoke metaphysics was significant enough to earn it classic status.
16. Undertale (multi-platform)
Released: 2015. Metacritic score: 92.
Undertale was first released on PC in 2015, a bedroom project made by a single developer. It’s a simplistic RPG which depicts a human child seeking to escape from the underworld, and during his journey he encounters various monsters who he can kill or subdue. The game was heavily influenced by the cult favourite Mother series, as well as internet culture. It received praise for its sentimental story, use of cultural reference points, and mechanics, and garnered critical acclaim as well as adulation from gamers.
However, as this site’s review enumerated, Undertale was profoundly flawed:
“After the gentle introduction to the game the humor devolves into the ‘LOL RANDOM’ territory and remains firmly there for the next 5 hours of gameplay. The humor not only misses the mark wildly, it’s also injected into your experience at points that serve to massively frustrate (that is, if you don’t enjoy memery and senpai jokes). […] There is a massive bullet-hell component to the combat as well, where around 5 hits will end your life. You will spend half of the combat healing yourself – otherwise, you die. […] [T]here is literally no way to know how you’re meant to make some of the boss monsters stop fighting you. […] [A] game that subjects you to massively frustrating combat while feeding you memery and stupid inane jokes is almost intolerable.”
Much of the enthusiasm for Undertale came from Millennial gamers, and that’s understandable. As much as Undertale ultimately fails on both a functional and an artistic level, the desire of younger gamers to put forward new styles of game, distinct from the archetypes handed down from previous generations, is understandable; even if, in this case, it takes an infantile form. After all, that just reflects the juvenile internet culture which spawned it. What is unacceptable is the shameless manner in which the games writing industry lent credibility to the myth of Undertale’s exceptional quality. What started as an internet joke was turned into a kind of cultural fraud by the gaming media, and a victory for stupidity and cynicism.
Most overrated video games can be seen to fall into one of two main categories. The first category comprises platform exclusives designed to shift hardware. Hardware manufacturers want consumers to believe they have a great line-up of exclusive games, so they’ll buy a console. Gamers want to believe the exclusives on the console they own are great, to justify their decision to buy that console instead of another. If the exclusives really aren’t that good, this can just serve to make gamers more irrational and dogmatic in their defence. Such games are normally first-party software, like Sonic The Hedgehog and Super Mario Galaxy. The experience of the PlayStation 3 – one of the worst offenders when it comes to overrated exclusives – might suggest that the more expensive and ambitious the console is, the more likely it is to spawn such games. The PS3 is notable for featuring overrated games like Metal Gear Solid 4, Heavy Rain, as well as the entire Uncharted series (particularly Uncharted 2).
The second category which most overrated games tend to fall into comprises narrative-driven games (normally RPGs) whose plot features a sentimental, emotionally affecting story (which in some cases may be obviously manipulative). Back in the day, playing a game like Final Fantasy X could be quite affecting if you’d never encountered a “grown-up” story in a game before. But just because a game resonates with you personally doesn’t mean that, objectively speaking, it’s any good. This phenomenon seems to increase in proportion to which a game was critically or commercially overlooked at its time of release: we can see this with Majora’s Mask (released at the end of the N64’s cycle) and, particularly, EarthBound.
A variation within this second category is when a game is overrated not because of its emotional resonance but because it is intellectually pretentious. This can refer either to the game’s narrative, or to its mechanics or structure. Therefore a game like Bioshock Infinite is highly regarded because of its portentous subject matter, even if its references are invoked in a way that would discredit an undergraduate philosophy essay. Strange Journey combined pubescent moralizing with obtuse mechanics, and was accordingly feted as an “old-school” RPG. The World Ends With You speaks to this trope through its convoluted, turgid story, but also speaks to the first category because of how it made use of the gimmicky hardware featured on the Nintendo DS. Chrono Trigger featured both a sentimental storyline and a complicated structure; it was groundbreaking for its time, but was surpassed two decades ago.
The slew of independent “walking simulators” that followed in the wake of Telltale’s The Walking Dead show there is a burgeoning market for games that require little interaction. While such games can undoubtedly have narrative appeal, increasingly the performative act of consuming them seems to bestow status to the consumer due to connotations of cultural or intellectual sensibility. Undertale is an extreme example of this trope, a self-aware triumph of form over content. Perhaps this is where we end up when people stop prioritizing video games as functional entertainment, employing them instead in a vain attempt to provide external validation for the misguided notion that EarthBound was ever a good game.