The year just past saw many huge "Triple-A" releases, so many in fact that many fine games fell through the cracks. For every Halo 2, smaller titles such as Ribbit King and Bunjingai: The Lost City failed to reach the attention of the mainstream press. No doubt, this was a crushing year for smaller publishers who released solid titles that couldn't break through the clutter. However, we haven't forgotten the smaller games, so join us as The Laser reveals our list of the undiscovered gems of 2004.
Alien Hominid (PS2, Gamecube)
Most of us usually can't resist rooting for the little guy. In this case, players will find themselves pulling for either the tiny extraterrestrial protagonist or the small publisher, O-3 Entertainment who released the game, which evolved from a small web project into a fully loaded, thoroughly addictive title. With a classical 2D approach to gameplay, massive array of cool weapons and tons of mini-games, Alien Hominid reeks of the esoteric, artistic creativity that's been assumed lost in the industry for many years by hardcore players. With it's beautifully designed, hip characters, sleek animation and unique style, this is a 2D revival that doesn't feel retro. There's little doubt that artist Dan Paladin's hand-drawn graphics gave the game much of its unique personality and helped Alien Hominid hold its own against event the best multi-million dollar 3D engines. The gameplay's mixture of classic platforming and Contra-style shooting was incredibly smooth made it one of the most addictive and enjoyable games of the past year. Like Viewtiful Joe, this is one of those rare title that seems to have been made more for love than money, and it shows in the attention to detail throughout. This is easily the one of the best 'dark horse' games we've ever played and should be purchased immediately if you haven't already.
Bujingai: The Forsaken City (PS2)
Many mediocre titles get lost in the shuffle, but there are also loads of great titles that don't receive the attention they deserve. A good case in point is Taito's brilliant Bujingai: The Forsaken City for the PS2. Released stateside last summer by Bam Entertainment, this expertly designed action title offered solid gameplay that kept players hacking and slashing at an unrelenting army of demonic foes. Fans of Devil May Cry would probably love this game's stylish mix of combat and action. A uniquely attired rock star hero, tons of cool moves plus some interesting monsters and bosses to fight gave the game a unique atmosphere. The gameplay shined with tight controls that made it quite addictive. For all these reasons, Bujingai was one of the most original games of the year and far from being forsaken, deserves a second chance.
Tron 2.0 Killer App (Xbox)
The classic 1982 Disney CGI film was reborn as a modern Xbox FPS in this innovative, clever update. With beautifully designed, glowing environments and challenging puzzle elements thrown in, this was a smart cyber-sequel that updated some of the events and characters from the movies. However, the developers stayed true to the look and feel of the original title while adding new layers of modern cyber lore such as computer viruses and hacker attacks. The main game was exciting enough, but the Light Cycle racing sequences were brilliant and addictive, especially when competing with other players on Xbox Live. Despite a few glitches and graphical compromises, this is still an excellent conversion of the PC title that lives up to the promise of the source material.
Ribbit King (PS2, Gamecube)
This charming, almost innocent title offered players some fairly unique play modes that mixed traditional golf with frog jumping to create a unique sport called "Frolf." The game's humorous approach and surreal visuals made it stand out in a sea of mediocrity. It's physics engine was also pretty cool, with sophisticated AI that let the Frogs take an extra jump when they were close to a hole. Of course, half the fun was landing on obstacles to see the elaborate animations and multi-part Rube Goldberg-style sequences. With numerous holes and challenging courses, plus loads of secret items to unlock, Ribbit King had a surprising amount of depth. This was aimed more at the younger set, but older gamers who like off-beat titles such as Katamari Demacy will probably find Ribbit King's inherent weirdness and quirky design enjoyable as well.
Space Raiders (Gamecube)
This semi-sequel to the classic Space Invaders was a decent attempt to bring some of the classic elements from the seminal arcade game to a modern audience. With its waves of creatures, multiple weapons power-ups and interesting storyline, this was a fun game. The simplistic controls made it easy to mindlessly kill aliens with little effort. Space Raiders had a few problems such as a limited number of levels, lack of depth and repetitive gameplay that made this less than perfect. However, it's still a decent game and a pleasant throwback that should please fans of the classic game.
Gradius V (PS2)
After numerous delays, fans of classic-style sci-fi shooters finally got a chance to play Gradius V and it was definitely worth the wait. This was probably the high point of the year for the shooter genre, and developers Treasure once again proved their mastery of the genre with a title worthy of the legendary name. The fifth installment in Konami's venerable series featured some impressive new power-ups such as the ability to control your options, directive fire and co-operative play with two ships on screen simultaneously and some tough enemies and bosses to defeat. The sumptuous visuals stayed true to the series' 2D roots while adding a remarkable level of detail unseen in previous games. Its ingenious gameplay mechanics and challenging level designs made this one of the more difficult adventures in the Gradius series. However, it stayed true to the look and feel of previous games, making it an excellent sequel that brought the legend forward without losing what made it so enduring in the first place.
OutRun 2 (Xbox)
Fans of the classic 1980's arcade coin-op were pleasantly surprised by the release of this excellent update for the Xbox. Featuring drastically improved graphics, several brilliantly designed mini-games and extra gameplay modes, this was a far deeper and satisfying experience than anyone had a right to expect. The additional Heart-Attack mini-games were quite addictive in and of themselves, and the the controls with excellent drifting and tight steering made OutRun 2 a joy. However, the essence of the original game's appeal was still quite evident in this excellent remake.
Far Cry (PC)
Between the release of Half-Life 2 and Doom 4, it's little wonder that Ubisoft's excellent FPS Far Cry for the PC was overlooked in the year end awards. However, this title's superb graphics set new standards in computer gaming with excellent renders that brought the unique jungle setting to life. Add in an innovative sniper mode and brilliant level design and you have an engaging, interesting shooter that keeps the player on a heightened state of alert throughout. The game's immersive storyline and unpredictable plot made it one of the year's most under-rated releases, and set new standards in the FPS genre. Far Cry is definitely one to check out if you like shooters, but appreciate a few unique twists.