In the midst of all the industry hustle and bustle, it's easy to miss out on certain games. Titles that haven't been marketed well, smaller projects from unknown developers, timing issues that resulted in games being overshadowed by bigger, more recognizable series; regardless of the reason, great games slip under the radar all the time. Some of these releases end up being the ones that should have defined an era, but didn't. That's what this article is and a recounting of the top 20 console games of the 2000s that you may not have heard of or played. So without any further ado, let's get to it.
20. Contra: Shattered Soldier
(PlayStation 2, 2002 | Konami & KCET)
Contra: Shattered Soldier fell victim to simply being too much a reminder of a time in gaming that was no longer all that popular at the point of its release. Despite being one of the better games in the series, Shattered Soldier couldn't capture the hearts and minds of most outside of diehard Contra fans. Why Shattered Soldier worked, regardless of its criminal lack of fanfare, was its astute ability to recreate all the elements of a classic formula without ever feeling like being just a mere clone of the Contra games before it. Ultimately, Shattered Soldier was able to skillfully pull in all the aspects that made the franchise so popular in the first place, by giving players a tough-as-nails campaign, strong shooting mechanics and some truly over-the-top moments and boss battles.
Yes, it could incite tears of rage and mangled controllers from being thrown across rooms, thanks to its steep level of challenge, but it could also give players a genuine sense of accomplishment and unreserved satisfaction. Realistically, this game is one of attrition; blood, sweat and tears and the more produced, the more rewarding the experience. And make no mistake, this is an experience about learning the game inside and out, to the point that playing it blindfolded doesn't seem all that far-fetched. In fact, this has to happen if players ever expect to see the end credits.
By the by, Contra: Shattered Soldier is a game that shines for a multitude of reasons and some of which have been listed, and many others that can't be aptly put into words; every great game is defined by both.
(GameCube, 2003 | Capcom)
This is sure to be a controversial entry to the list, as P.N.03 was originally met with a noticably divisive reception upon its release back in 2003. Partly because of its awkward name, as well as its GameCube exclusivity, P.N.03, also known as Product Number 03, struggled to find a place amidst the blockbuster lineup of games that came out the year of its release. Brought to us by famed developer Capcom, P.N.03 was not what many expected it to be. At a time when studios were not as concerned with going backward to capture the nostalgia of earlier gaming bliss, the industry was looking forward to creating entertaining and visually-pleasing titles that propelled things forward into a new era. P.N.03 was somewhat the opposite of all that.
While P.N.03 had hints of being a beautiful, new-aged game, primarily in the department of animation, it was very much so a throwback to a bygone time in gaming. It was old-school in its design and execution, meaning it was a challening romp through a sci-fi laden landscape with limited, and somewhat unnecessarily rigid, mechanics to cap off the experience. Even with these sometimes obscure ideas in place, such as the inability to move and shoot at the same time, P.N.03 seems to be made with a clear vision in mind of how it should play and feel. Thus, these strange decisions somehow make sense when looking at the game in the context of how much of a throwback it really is.
What is never in question, however, is P.N.03's sense of style. The game's heroine, Vanessa Z. Schneider, moves to the beat of a constant flow of body-rolling music, as she gracefully traverses the battlefield, hips shaking. Her flashy attacks and acrobatic manuevers are made all the more alluring by her overt display of unyielding sexuality, which is well-depicted thanks to some ahead-of-its-time tech. Thus, if nothing else, P.N.03 is a delicious treat to take in visually. Fortunately, if one can understand the game given its obvious design goal, there's a fantastic adventure to be had, too. Perhaps if the game was marketed as such, and its audience more overtly saw what the game represented in terms of gameplay and overall concept, folks would have given it more of a chance.
As it stands, P.N.03 will probably be looked at as a missed opportunity, which is disappointing at the very least, seeing as what it has to offer; style, substance, nostalgia and even some forward-thinking ideas are all present here, they're just masked by misguided perceptions of what people thought the game was supposed to be, and not what it was.
18. Condemned: Criminal Origins
(Xbox 360, 2005 | Sega & Monolith Productions)
To this day, Condemned: Criminal Origins ranks among the most unnerving games ever created. After all the hours we spent with it, we ultimately walked with a new understanding of what it takes to create an authentically scary atmosphere and what it feels like to have a really sore back. We say a sore back because, for the entire playthrough, we were as tense as could possibly be. Our shoulders were up around our ears, we were hunched over stiffly and if we could've bitten our nails in frightful anticipation while still navigating the dark corridors riddled throughout the game's unsettling environments, we would have. Meaning to say, Condemned nails its tone without question, but it also crafts a combat system that is downright vicious.
Condemned's battling is every bit as vital to the game's experience as the moody setting. It's frenzied; it's disorderly; above all else, it's violent. For most of the game, players will trawl dank estates with makeshift weapons at the ready. Pipes, crowbars, it doesn't matter, if one can find it lying in a sewer, Criminal Origins considers it fair game. And players won't question whether or not the item in their hand can kill; they will just simply cherish having something to defend themselves from the monstrosities that will inevitably attack from all dark corners of the room.
In this regard, and in so many others, Condemned is an expert in giving players a haunting experience, one they won't soon forget. It's a storyteller of all things ambiance and disposition. If the enemies don't break you, the eerie, abandoned hallways will. Coupled with symphonies of dread and intensity, Condemned pushes players to their psychological limits, and is damn proud of it.
17. Freedom Fighters
(GameCube, PlayStation 2, Windows, Xbox, 2003 | Electronic Arts & IO Interactive)
IO Interactive's Freedom Fighters is the game you never knew you wanted. On the surface, it looks generic as all get out. From the name right down to its appearance, nothing about Freedom Fighters seems all that remarkable. Even the gameplay mechanics aren't very original. It's only when all of those seemingly standard factors come together, does one finally see Freedom Fighters' true potential. A game genuinely greater than the sum of its parts, Freedom Fighters is solid through and through.
Because everything the game offered was offered by countless other games before it, Ubisoft had a decent blueprint from which to work, and in turn, gave players something undeniably special. Some games don't need to reinvent the wheel to make an impact, they merely need to implement tried-and-true mechanics into one competent piece of work, more effectively than those before them. That's what Freedom Fighters did and it took everything you've ever known about third-person shooters, and made it all the more succinct, all the more well-made. In doing this, we have a formulaic game that does the formula with exactness, and sometimes, that's all it takes. Perfect the imperfect.
(Xbox, 2002 | Sega & Smilebit)
Originally slated for the Dreamcast, very few people actually know of this diamond in the rough. From the team over at Smilebit, Gunvalkyrie was released for Xbox in 2002 to very few trump blasts and a truth that pains me to write even today. This fast-paced shooter is a third-person action game with one of the steepest learning curves in the genre, thanks to an incredibly elaborate control scheme. Aside from the unique controls, though, Gunvalkyrie isn't mind-blowing in its gameplay concept; there are two characters to play, ten stages to tackle, a handful of boss to trounce, the slaughtering of lots of bad guys and some cutscenes that unfold between missions to deliver the finer narrative points. Pretty basic stuff, really.
But like he aforementioned Freedom Fighters, while those elements aren't all that inventive by themselves, the actual bulk of the game, the glorious combat, builds upon those fundamentals for an exceptional experience. Thanks to the brilliantly complex control setup, Gunvalkyrie is one of the rare games that make you feel like a total boss once you grasp all its intricacies. Clearing entire screens of enemies with the fluidness of a gymnast and one that just so happens to be donning a scientific battle suit of bad assery and is a distinct kind of feeling; one that sticks around long after the play session is over.
To this day, we can remember what it was like to fly through Gunvalkyrie's initial few stages for the first time, caught up in the wonderment and speed of it all â€” taking in the sights and sounds of a game that was so very Japanese. The fact those memories can be so vividly recalled after 11 years is something of a triumph on the game and developer's end. In the end, Gunvalkyrie may not be the most technically complete piece of multimedia out there, but it really doesn't need to be. What's there, regardless of soundness, is utterly heartfelt; a true labor of love on the part of Smilebit.
15. Fire Pro Wrestling Returns
(PlayStation 2, 2007 | Agetec & Spike)
Fire Pro Wrestling Returns is another one of those releases that was missed because of poor timing. While WWE continues to churn out shallow wrestling experience after shallow wrestling experience, Fire Pro has been one of most consistently well-received and intricate wrestling titles on the market. Known for its huge roster, expansive movelist and a whole host of match options, Fire Pro is the apex of its genre.
Now, purists might say that Fire Pro Wrestling Returns isn't the classic that Fire Pro Wrestling S was, but it's nonetheless the most complete and well-rounded entry in the series. Though there have been minor tweaks to the game's engine, 2D sprites still reign supreme in FPW, thus there's no 3D rendering to be seen. So instead of focusing on the superficial aspects, Fire Pro Returns solely concerns itself with delivering a nuanced gameplay experience, allowing for some of the most fluid and rewarding grapple-matches around. At the time of its 2007 release, the game retailed for a measly $20 exclusively on the PS2. Considering the breadth of the experience, most fans would've easily paid double, or even triple, that; the title is just that good. It's a shame that it was released long after the PlayStation 2 was relevant. Had it made an appearance just a few years prior to its actual launch, gamers may have gotten a true sequel and not that offensive thing they called Fire Pro Wrestling on XBLA.
If you consider yourself a wrestling fan, or have ever been a wrestling fan at any point in your life, or just like fighting games, you owe it to yourself to track down a copy of this game. Gamestop currently sells it used for six dollars and“- SIX DOLLARS! There's no reason not to own this game.
(Dreamcast, 2000 | Sega & Sega AM2)
Outtrigger is the Dreamcast equivalent of Quake or Unreal Tournament, except infinitely better in nearly every way. Fast, flashy gameplay chockfull of bunny-hopping, rocket-launching, machine-gunning and bullet-dodging goodness makes it a riot of an arena shooter. Better yet, Outtrigger is of the notion that the more chaotic things are, the better the end result. Therefore, guns are big, explosions are bigger and all the game's maps are claustrophobically small, making the action all the more frenetic and irresistibly exhilarating. At its very core, the game is designed to incite some of the most ridiculous, adrenaline-rushing showdowns around, and certainly accomplishes that mission with perfect accuracy.
What's most impressive about Outtrigger however, is its rigid adherence to 90s gaming norms, all the while maintaining a strong sense of relevance even by today's standards. If the Dreamcast library had more entries like OT, perhaps the system's fate would have been different. Although Outtrigger was an online-driven multiplayer experience, its fast-paced, shoot-till-you-drop mentality was bar-none. It didn't worry about including a contrived storyline or unnecessary extras, rather understood that it was, above all else, an arcade-shooter, meant to be played in short bursts. Yet, while Outtrigger is a game that can be played for five minutes, it's also the type of title that can be played for five hours. That's a rarity. It's even rarer to play a game these days that focuses on doing just one thing really well and most spread themselves thin, trying to be multiple types of games, but in the process lose their identities and provide sub-par experiences because of it. Not Outtrigger, though.
Ultimately, a game like this is begging for an HD remake. In this time of gaming, where it's commonplace to revitalize all but dead genres, Sega's Outtrigger would serve the industry in a big way, and re-open the doors to a category of games considered to be something of a relic in the year 2013.
(Xbox 360, 2010 | CAVE & Aksys Games)
SHMUPS are not the most mainstream or newb-friendly games around. In actuality, they are unapologetically merciless on their fans. They are some of the hardest games on the market, and will truly teach gamers a thing or two about patience. But even with their super limited appeal and audience, there are certain ones that come along just begging for well-deserved attention due to their combination of surprising accessibility and capacity to meaningfully advance their genre and a genre that has not evolved in over two decades. Thus, when Deathsmiles came along, it was important to take notice, not just because of what it did well, but also what it meant to its ancestry's future.
By the by, Deathsmiles is a brilliant shooter. It's a game about wits, good hand-eye coordination and a masochistic desire to die over and over again for the purpose of proving to friends and yourself that you have the patience and balls to take on a game that will eat you for breakfast and laugh while doing so without blinking. Even with its ruthless difficulty though, Deathsmiles is a resounding success for itself and all SHMUPS. It boots a delightful little story, wonderful music, and gameplay that is white-knuckled, pulse-pounding fun. Better still, it includes a slew of options to keep players coming back for more long after the main story has been completed.
Perhaps most significant, however, is that it genuinely encourages new players to give it a shot. Yes, its level of challenge may put off some, but there are various difficulty levels to choose from, of which the easiest is rather manageable. Introducing shoot'em ups to new players is hard because of the morale-crushing mechanics, extreme necessity for super-human levels of manual dexterity and the requirement of an ample supply of perseverance. Fortunately, for those willing to put in the time and effort, Deathsmiles rewards its players in big, wholly satisfying ways, should they stick it out. At the end of the day, CAVE's loli-toting shooter made a retail release on the most popular console of this generation and captured the hearts of those who played it, and that counts for something big.
12. Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders
(Xbox, 2004 | Microsoft Game Studios & Phantagram)
Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders is what happens when a developer infuses tactical elements into a traditional hack n' slash, Dynasty Warriors-inspired game. That being said, The Crusaders is the epitome of barbaric, face-punching action. Seriously, this game is as primal as primal comes. Bone-crunching melee attacks, inescapable arrow barrages and huge area of effect spells are just some of the elements that outline the very essence of Kingdom Under Fire. On the surface, this all may have that "been there, done that" feeling, but to entertain that thought is to think fallaciously. This is more than the everyday brawler. This is an amalgamation of issuing on-the-fly squad tactics and laying claim to incalculable number of enemy soldiers with steel and sorcery.
The Crusaders is more than its brutal, epic battlefield combat, though; it's also a great roleplaying game. There are bouts of exploration between battles, character histories to delve into and a deep plot to indulge. It should be noted, that it doesn't incorporate these RPG elements in a hamfisted way like so many cross-genre games we do today. No, the roleplaying elements felt natural and added to the experience, elevating it to a level not otherwise attained without them.
Really, Crusaders is the total package, one that was so successful that it spawned a few sequels and an MMORPG. But Kingdom Under Fire is not just a great action game, it's just an excellent game in general and one of those that made the Xbox a magical console full of boundless brilliance. Should Kingdom Under Fire receive a proper next-gen follow-up, you can bet your bottom dollar that we'll be there waiting, with bells on.
11. Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean
(GameCube, 2004 | Nintendo & tri-Crescendo + Monolith Soft)
There are quite a few RPGs on this list, but Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean feels particularly special. Perhaps its the clever use of familiar design with newfangled mechanics, or maybe it's the mouth-wateringly sweet visuals that have stood the test of time despite the GameCube's technical limitations. Nevertheless, Baten Kaitos feels like it belongs on the original PlayStation, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. It has everything that was great about the era that popularized the JRPG genre; in fact, despite coming out at a time when the JRPG craze was dying down, it still managed to outshine some of the biggest players in the game.
Unfortunately, the GameCube was never known for having a vast RPG library, or even a decently sized one. Because of this, not many turned to Nintendo's little box to get their roleplaying fill; that was left to the PlayStation 2. Thus, it makes sense that most gamers did not play Baten Kaitos. It also makes sense that most people couldn't even pronounce the game's title, which probably further pushed interested passersby away.
Regardless of the reason for not finding the kind of commercial success it rightfully merited, Baten Kaitos did go on to spawn a sequel and an inferior one, but a sequel all the same. Because of this, we're bound to believe that at least a good number of folks purchased the original game, which reignites our belief in gamers. It's just a shame that many who admire this genre rarely talk of this gem. It certainly deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with the Final Fantasy X's and Dragon Quest VIII's of the world.
10. Killer 7
(GameCube, PlayStation 2, 2005 | Capcom & Grasshopper Manufacture)
Killer 7 is that game that theoretically shouldn't have worked, or been good at all, but defied all convention and logic and was instead superb. From the demented mind of Suda-51, Killer 7 is a pseudo on-rails shooters with a heavy emphasis on vibrant, neo-noir aesthetics, grotesque violence and more weirdness that one would think humanly possible. Its graphical presentation is what the game is most known for, as it is one-hundred percent unique without ever feeling contrived or pretentious; a feat many games can't accomplish (here's looking at you, every-indie-game-pretty-much-ever).
What K7 should be heralded as and most remembered by though, is its excellent use camera work and intuitive controls that resulted in a highly rewarding experience for the player. This was made all the more powerful thanks to the title's effortless mixing of accessibility and complex design into one eloquent piece of art. While calling the game "art" is subject to one's opinion on the matter, what is clearly objective about Killer 7 is the provocative storyline that will make your head spin with delight and confusion all at once. In actuality, that phrase summates all of Killer 7, and is the very reason why it's on this list. Do note, the GameCube version is the definitive iteration. Therefore, if you can track down a copy, certainly attempt to find the GC release.
9. Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber
(Nintendo 64, 2000 | Atlus & Quest + Dual Corporation)
Often considered the forgotten game of the series, Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber is reminiscent of the very first Ogre Battle on the Super Nintendo. Blending the iconic elements of all Ogre games, Person of Lordly Caliber has everything it needs to tell a compelling tale of intrigue, romance, betrayal and of course, war. What is most striking about Ogre Battle 64, however, is its refusal to pull any punches. Though the Nintendo 64 is mostly thought of as a family-friendly console, Lordly Caliber does not cater to a young audience, at all. In never settles on giving the player a watered-down version of its tale, for it knows that all its plot twists must be delivered exactly as planned, in order to hammer home the game's heavy message.
Ogre Battle 64 went mostly unnoticed due to its time of release, which came at the end of the 64's lifespan. While folks were caught up in the hype of the GameCube, PlayStation 2, Xbox and even the Dreamcast, the N64 and what we would consider its swan song, was but a small rumbling inside a beast that had long since fell into slumber. Interestingly enough, games like Ogre Battle 64 ultimately earn the credit they deserve down the road, through the occasional retrospective or talking amongst gamers who lived through the time; but to this day, not many people talk about or even remember Quest's wonderful tactical-RPG.
Maybe that's the most heartbreaking part of Ogre Battle 64's story: it simply should be noticed, but isn't. It saddens me to think on just how many gamers will never know how unequivocally exceptional a game it is.
8. Fear Effect
(PlayStation, 2000 | Eidos Interactive & Kronos Digital Entertainment)
Aside from its overtly sexual implications, Fear Effect is more than just its well-endowed, vixen protagonist who exudes sexuality with every word that rolls from her exquisite lips. In fact, beyond those aspects, Fear Effect is a depiction of an entire generation of gaming. In one fell swoop it's managed to summarize the PlayStation One era with precision. Employing lush, pre-rendered backgrounds, hard-edged polygonal character models that sport an attractive slathering of cel-shaded goodness, static camera views, four game discs to carry the horde of full-motion video cutscenes and dynamic gun play married with environmental puzzle solving, this 2000 action-adventure title is every bit gritty noir thriller as it is the personification of Sony's brilliant grey box.
If nothing else, Fear Effect should be viewed as a game that pushed a console and its audience to their limitations. The game's narrative took on a number of sensitive subjects, while its gameplay managed to make the title more than just a product rooted in envelope-pushing social commentary. A game that has a message to deliver, as well as great gameplay, characters and world should be considered a timeless.
We should also take a moment to thank our lucky stars that the Uwe Bowl film adaptation of the game fell through. God only knows that we don't need another BloodRayne/House of the Dead/Alone in the Dark.
(PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, 2010 | Square Enix & Cavia)
It's disappointing, and borderline offensive, how little press coverage Nier received. Not only is it one of the most accomplished and lovingly crafted action-RPGs of the past decade, it's poignant on every discernible level. A story of a father going to the ends of the world to save his daughter, Nier's tale is pungent, utterly heartfelt and equally as wrenching; it's also one ripe with existential grandeur. Though, its merits do not hinge on its story exclusively.
Instead, Nier totes some heart-pounding combat and the best, I said the best, soundtrack of any roleplaying game, well, ever. Is that too big of a statement? If your answer was "yes", then you clearly haven't played the game. Although Nier will go down as a hidden gem that unknowingly crawled onto the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, those who have played it will forever remember it as the game that shook them to their very core. It's thematic meaning and visceral emotionality is a reminder to what it feels like to love, uncontrollably and with every ounce of our being. A game that can rock a player to their humanistic core should be considered a marvel and a powerhouse and an enduring success and a tribute to the reason why we play video games.
6. Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge
(Xbox, 2003 | Microsoft Game Studios & FASA Interactive)
Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge is an accomplished little game that clearly demonstrated how well online console multiplayer could work. Sure, there was a single player campaign to be played, and it was wonderful, but this 2003 arcade flight game was one of the primary reasons, if not the single reason, to subscribe to Xbox Live a decade ago. The online experience was without lag or technical hiccups, and provided intense dogfighting action for anyone to enjoy. Hardcore or casual, players' level of gaming devotion never detracted from the enjoyment and intensity Crimson Skies' online component had to offer. The game's deiselpunk setting made it all the more enticing, giving players a creative alternate history in which to play.
For those who have toyed around with the High Road to Revenge, they will be quick to recognize how precise the controls are, and how sound it is in construction and execution. It's presentation is top notch, its customization and play options are commendable and its level of pure, unadulterated fun is unrivaled. As video games grow larger and more complex, Crimson Skies stuck to the notion: keep it simple, keep it exciting, and you've got yourself a winner. Our hope is that Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge is recalled for its ability to unite gamers of all kinds under the flag of marvelous competition. Titles like this paved the way for the type of brilliant multiplayer we have today. Without it, we wonder if gamers would have as mechanically rich and as technically flawless multiplayer experiences as they do. It's imperative that we not forget the big impact a small game can make. Crimson Skies certainly proved that theory to be true.
5. Viewtiful Joe
(GameCube, PlayStation 2, 2003, 2004 | Capcom & Clover Studio)
Not "Beautiful Joe", it's "viewtiful", with a "v". Aside from the easily confused title, Viewtiful Joe is not a game easily confused with any others. This is the case because, while Viewtiful Joe is a side-scrolling beat 'em up at heart, its design is unlike anything out there. Verdant hues, comic-book inspired presentation marks and over-the-top everything; Viewtiful Joe is blistering with enough sensory stimuli to elicit involuntary convulsions. It's more than a pretty package, though; Viewtiful Joe is an adept brawler that sticks to the idea that harder is better.
Know up front, this is not a game for those who enjoy effortlessly trouncing their way through endless strings of bad guys in order to claim victory at the end without so much as a battle scar or blemish as a reminder of the obstacles overcome. No, instead this game will powerbomb, People's Elbow and piledrive players into submission. But it's this level of challenge that makes Viewtiful Joe so important. It's a game that never forgets where it came from, and does a damn fine job paying homage to the titles that paved the way for gaming as we know it today. It's important to do that from time to time; to not forget one's roots.
(PlayStation 3, 2007 | Sony Computer Entertainment & Game Republic)
If there is any game on this list that I wished would have succeeded from a sales standpoint, it's Folklore. This game is beautiful; awe-inspiring; a perfect combination of intriguing narration and wholly captivating gameplay. Folklore can best be described as a more awesome, macabre version of Pokemon, but with far better combat mechanics. At its core, the game is an action-RPG where players collect creatures to use in battle and level up to become all-encompassing bad asses. In this regard, it's like Pokemon because there's a certain addictive quality to capturing and maxing out all of the game's Folks.
And yet, Folklore is really a one-of-a-kind title. Its visuals and story alone are unique enough to warrant a playthrough, but the fact that it's one of the most polished games on any system of this generation solidifies it as one of the all-time greats. The production values are off the chart, treating players to a gorgeous, imaginative world that feels both dark and whimsical simultaneously. To cap it off, however, the game gives players the option of two playable characters to choose from, providing a doubly lengthy adventure with interconnecting tales that weave together wonderfully.
I play a lot of RPGs, so this next statement does not come without thought or weight: Folklore is one of the best action-RPGs of this generation. It should be played by anyone who enjoys artistry in all of its forms. From the masterful storytelling and plot pacing, to the robust battling, to the collecting of creatures to build an enormous cast of monsters to display in combat; Folklore is a game that simply must be experienced. If you can help it, find a copy. Play it. Love it. Cherish its mere existence because there's was nothing like it before, and there's been nothing like it since.
3. Panzer Dragoon Orta
(Xbox, 2003 | Sega & Smilebit)
The Panzer Dragoon series is one of those franchises that doesn't have a bad game in its bunch. Nope, every single installment is solid through and through. Because of this, many folks hold it in very high regard. Therefore, since each entry in its lineage seems to be better than the last, Panzer Dragoon Orta had some big shoes to fill and shoes, some thought, that simply couldn't be filled period. Thus, when the game launched in 2003 on Xbox, fanboys, critics and even casual gamers were taken aback by Orta's majestic beauty. A game truly crafted from the passion, dedication and vision of the same team that had won players over time and time again in the 90s, Orta was hands down a triumphant return to a kind of game that had been long since forgotten.
In all honesty, Orta isn't all that dissimilar from any of the previous PD games: it's on-rails, there are dragons, evil empires to topple and lots of flying on the back of a giant beast. In that respect, same old, same old. Where Orta carves out its own identity from the rest of the pack however, is in how much better it does everything those games before it did. It's the ultimate example of refinement perfected. There's a reason why so many have called it the best rail shooter of all time. It's hard to find a perfect game and that's mostly because they don't exist. That being said, Orta hits pretty damn close to the mark. It's the definitive Panzer Dragoon game, and one of the original Xbox's defining titles. Hell, we bought the system just to play it. And you know what? We don't regret that decision for a second.
2. Grandia II
(Dreamcast, PlayStation 2, Windows, 2000, 2002 | Ubisoft & Game Arts)
Grandia II is a game with heart. It's also one with an immeasurable amount of charm. Part of this is thanks to it having one of the strongest character medleys in any JRPG, but another portion is due to its thematic storyline, wonderful soundtrack, combat system that still stands head-and-shoulders above the crowd and a visual flair that feels like a feast for the eyes. In essence, Grandia II is the kind of game that made the Japanese roleplaying genre so damn prevalent in the early part of this century. Sure there were the big hitters, like Final Fantasy, Suikoden and Xenosaga, who hog most of the fame, but hidden treasures like Grandia II irrevocably played an integral part in forming the genre as we know it today.
Unfortunately, and like so many others on this list, Grandia II ultimately fell victim to being overshadowed. Due to some bad timing, and bad marketing, most gamers who owned a Dreamcast will recount their roleplaying days with another JRPG: Skies of Arcadia. Considering both games came out within mere weeks of one another at the end of the year 2000, Sega's heavily advertised Skies of Arcadia is the title most people played. While Skies is in a league of its own, it lacked certain qualities that Grandia most certainly had. Grandia II primarily goes unnoticed, though, because it didn't set out to redefine the genre. Instead, it built upon the principles established by the greats before it.
As a result, the title feels very traditional, which may have turned people away. We, however, embraced its conventional feel and after all, that familiar JRPG flavor wasn't all that familiar back then; it hadn't been beaten into the ground yet. Thus, we took the game for what it was, and appreciated the story it had to tell, for it was one of substantive importance, touching on topics of faith, morality and the bonds we share with those we consider family, regardless of our genetic ties. Its message was clear and swift, intentional and powerful, heart-warming and sympathetic.
1. Phantom Dust
(Xbox, 2005 | Microsoft Game Studios & Majesco)
And here we are: finally at number one. Phantom Dust may just be the most unique and best game to come out of the sixth generation. It truly had everything a title needs to shine and be considered a classic. From the guy that brought us Panzer Dragoon, Yukio Futatsugi, Phantom Dust is, from all angles, the personification of originality. From its interesting, and quite Japanese, take on post-apocalyptic living, to its equally as intriguing and flawlessly executed narrative, to the kinetic gameplay that left hands shaking with excitement and tension; this unknown gem is a hardcore gamer's dream.
What Phantom Dust should be remembered for most, however, is its addictive qualities that cleverly lie in wait for anyone who picks it up. Combining elements of a collectible card game with the fundamentals of an arena fighter, Phantom Dust's hook is its emphasis on collecting skills and then building customized decks of abilities to take into battle. Once a strategy has been sorted out, it's off to the actual combat, which plays out like a third-person brawler of sorts, except players can only attack with skills that are pulled from their deck and randomly implanted into the game environment. When an ability is picked up in battle, it's then mapped to whatever face button is pressed when the skill is picked up. From there, players are tasked to run around with the analog stick, all the while doing their best to dodge and kill their opponent with the assigned attacks.
Phantom Dust is so successful because it encourages players to find their place in its world; it wants folks to create their own strategies, and does this without ever putting parameters on how they should or shouldn't experience the game. Like to get up close and personal with the enemy; create a deck that focuses on short-ranged burst attacks. Enjoy sniping from a distance with a shedload of defensive skills to neutralize your foe's onslaught; well, there are skills for that kind of setup as well.
Phantom Dust doesn't hold players' hands, rather drops them into a beautifully ruined world with seemingly endless options at their finger tips. With top of the line production values and including some of the most authentic character designs ever, and a soundtrack that is breathtakingly gorgeous and solid gameplay mechanics, Phantom Dust should be played by anyone who has ever enjoyed video games. Although it goes criminally unnoticed by most, primarily due to it being released at the tail-end of the Xbox's lifespan, its contribution to the industry speaks volumes. More games need to bleed this kind of creativity. This is the lifeblood of our beloved form of media. We hope that developers never forget Phantom Dust, for doing so would be forgetting what makes video games, video games. And that would be perhaps the most saddening tale of all.
And so all we have left to say is simple: thank you, Phantom Dust, for all you've done, and for all you will do.
And there you have it, folks: the top 20 games of the 2000s you never played. It's been a long ride, and we appreciate you sticking with us through all four parts of this feature. Sound off in the comments section to let us know your stories with any of the 20 games; we'd love to hear them.