Whether it had to start somewhere, ran low on cash or had a crazy one-off idea, almost every big games studio has worked on some surprising games. A football JRPG, a Shrek tie-in, various kinds of licenses, these largely forgotten titles often reflect periods of uncertainty, when talented studios needed a project to keep the lights on and would work on whatever was going. Some of these games are, of course, terrible. Others, like Irrational's Tribes Vengeances, are cult classics that have come to be regarded as highpoints for their series. Whatever the story though, they're all surprising.
Wayne Gretzky Hockey — Bethesda
These days the idea of a sports game from Bethesda may seem ridiculous, but back in the late 80s it made perfect sense. After all Bethesda’s big break was Gridiron!, the world’s first physics-based sports simulation. The game landed Bethesda a gig helping Electronic Arts on the first Madden title ever made, but the partnership turned sour over EA’s shady practices — as a publisher of both the Gridiron! series and Madden, EA kept delaying the former and nicking the best ideas for the latter. So Bethesda started its own celebrity endorsed sports franchise: Wayne Gretzky Hockey. There’s not much to be said about a 1988 hockey game in 2018, but Wayne Gretzky Hockey is much more than a peculiar footnote in Bethesda’s history.
Along with its two sequels and a few other Bethesda sports games (NCAA Basketball: Road to the Final Four, Hockey League Simulator, PBA Bowling), it serves a reminder of how unpredictable the video games business really is. And how drastically a company’s fortunes in it may change. Bethesda went from being a sports games pioneer to building their very own niche with The Elder Scrolls and Fallout series and topping it off over the last decade with a supple, diverse publishing business. And Wayne Gretzky Hockey, as the studio’s first big franchise, marks the start of this transition.
World Fantasista— Squaresoft
Squaresoft is loved primarily for genre-defining JRPGs like the Final Fantasy series, Chrono Trigger and Vagrant Story, but it toyed with the idea of expanding into new markets long before the merger with Enix or the acquisition of Eidos.
The launch of PlayStation 2 in the early 2000s gave Squaresoft a chance to reinvent itself by betting big on diversification. Among the first few games released by Square on PS2 were The Bouncer (a beat’em up with Final Fantasy-esque motley crew of characters), Driving Emotion Type-S (a racing game taking advantage of Gran Turismo 3’s absence) and, arguably most off-kilter, World Fantasista.
World Fantasista was a football game meant to compete with the FIFA and ISS/PES series, but its biggest claim to fame was being made by Squaresoft. That is to say: it wasn’t great. Like The Bouncer and Driving Emotion Type-S before it, World Fantasista pushed the envelope in terms of graphics and not much else. It couldn’t compete with PES on the pitch, nor with FIFA when it came to the licensed content. Squaresoft managed to strike a licensing deal with only 35 national teams in the game, and World Fantasista was never released outside of Japan.
Auto Modellista — Capcom
Squaresoft wasn’t the only Japanese company trying new things on PS2.
Auto Modellista was a weird mixture: a fairly realistic racing simulator betrayed in its ambitions by cartoonish, cel-shaded graphics. But that dissonance wasn’t its fatal flaw. Auto Modellista simply wasn’t a very good racing game. Capcom put a lot of work into letting players tinker with their in-game cars before the race, but what happened on the track rarely resembled a simulation-esque driving experience. The widely-criticised handling dynamics ruined Auto Modellista’s chances at competing with Gran Turismo 3 and its peers. But Capcom didn’t give up that easily.
What in this day and age could be remedied with a timely patch, back in 2002 required more drastic measures. Capcom tweaked and repackaged the game into Auto Modellista: US Tuned for the North American release and later ported that version to Xbox and GameCube. With very little success. Only one racing game from Capcom followed suit. The Xbox-exclusive Group Challenge S managed to flop even harder than Auto Modellista and forever buried Capcom’s ambitions of becoming a racing powerhouse.
Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis
We’ve come to associate Rockstar with a certain type of game. Max Payne, Red Dead Redemption, Manhunt, Bully, and of course the Grand Theft Auto series suggest a certain template for a Rockstar — story-driven, violent, more often than not built around shooting.
Rockstar has strayed from this formula, but never in a manner as drastic as with Rockstar Games Present Table Tennis. Everything about the game seemed like an April Fool’s Day prank when it was announced. A table tennis simulator? Xbox 360 exclusive (later ported to Wii)? Developed by Rockstar?
But it was all true. And even more surprising, it was a great table tennis simulation. The best table tennis game ever made, one might venture, even if that isn't saying much.
Keef The Thief— Naughty Dog
Crash Bandicoot, Jak & Daxter and Uncharted were all essential to the rise of Naughty Dog as we know it. But perhaps, in a wicked way, none of them were as important to the studio’s fortunes as Keef The Thief.
It was the first game 17-year olds Andy Gavin and Jason Rubin released under the name Naughty Dog and their first release with a big publisher, Electronic Arts. It was also their first taste of the realities of the industry. What started out as a serious RPG, turned – under the pressure from EA - into a comedy RPG, that wasn’t all that funny. Upon its release and the realisation that the comedy angle didn’t work, EA blamed Naughty Dog for going with the wacky humour. Still, Keef The Thief sold 50 thousand copies and easily recouped the $48,000 budget. That was good enough for EA and the deal was struck to publish Naughty Dog’s next game: a more ambitious, if derivative of Tolkien’s works, RPG called Rings of Power.
And just like that, Naughty Dog was on the path to glory and creative control it boasts now. Not bad for a goofy RPG nobody remembers anymore.
Omega Boost, Polyphony Digital
Polyphony Digital is one of the rare video game studios that feels inextricably bound-up with a single series. Gran Turismo is Polyphony Digital and vice-versa. But it turns out that there’s a little more to the story.
Polyphony Digital (previously operating as Polys Entertainment) hit it big with Gran Turismo in 1997, marking one of the very first hits for Sony’s internal developers. The sequel was inevitable, but before Gran Turismo 2 came out and cemented the studio’s fate, Polyphony ventured in a different direction. Their next game, Omega Boost, was a shoot’ em up with mechs developed with the help of former developers from the Panzer Dragoon series. Now, that’s quite a departure from the tarmac.
Often cited as one of the prettiest games on the first PlayStation, Omega Boost remains the only non-racing game from Kazunori Yamauchi and his team over at Polyphony Digital. One can’t help but wonder what other interesting, out of character ideas had to be put aside in favour of Gran Turismo.
Shattered Steel, BioWare
Speaking of mech games made by unlikely teams, here’s a MechWarrior-esque battler from the RPG wizards at BioWare.
Shattered Steel was a big breakthrough for BioWare: the studio's first game and the beginning of a long-running partnership with Interplay Entertainment. And while it wasn’t much more than a decent shooter with a few fresh ideas (mechs stylised after animals and destructible environments), it certainly showed promise and gave Bioware the development time to create something else. Few looking at this would have predicted that, only two years later, the studio would produce Baldur’s Gate, the most influential cRPG of the 90s.
Shattered Steel not only served its purpose as a warm-up for Baldur's Gate, but may also be an unremarked influence on BioWare’s upcoming Anthem. It proves that an exoskeleton-driven shooter from the lovers of dialogue trees is not such an outlandish idea after all.
Stockholm-based DICE is, arguably, Electronic Arts’ most important asset. The Swedes created one of EA’s revenue pillars with the Battlefield series, worked on its biggest franchises like Need for Speed and Star Wars: Battlefront, and developed the Frostbite engine, the technology that powers most of the company’s games. And yet, before the EA acquisition in 2006, DICE had to work to keep the lights on.
A mere year before the studio’s first big break in the form of Battlefield 1942, DICE released such little gems as JumpStart Wildlife Safari, Diva Starz: Mall Mania and – last but not least – Shrek.
Shrek was a weird movie-to-game adaptation from the outset. It didn’t follow the concise, seemingly tailor-made for games plot of the movie, instead telling a much less riveting story of Shrek saving Fiona from an evil wizard named Merlin. Even worse, the game was released on Xbox and GameCube, skipping PlayStation 2, which by 2001 was already gaining traction and would eventually become the best-selling console of all times.
There is an explanation for Shrek skipping PlayStation 2. It’s just not a very good one. Shrek was, quite randomly, one of the very first games to utilise deferred shading. The new technology (in which, according to Wikipedia, “no shading is actually performed in the first pass of the vertex and pixel shaders: instead shading is 'deferred' until a second pass.”) made the game pretty but was simply too demanding for PS2. Nothing could have saved Shrek from being mediocre like all but a few of its licensed peers, but a PS2 version would at least have made it more profitable. Hey, if you're gonna do a cash grab, then grab the cash.
Tribes Vengeance, Irrational Games
After laying out the blueprint for a blend of first person shooter and RPG with System Shock 2, but before perfecting it with BioShock, Irrational Games needed the game studio equivalent of a weekend job that pays the bills. That meant working on instalments of long-running franchises for big publishers. Two games came out of that period: the renowned SWAT 4 and the less talked about Tribes: Vengeance.
Tribes is a reasonably well-known and successful series of fast-paced multiplayer shooters. By its fourth instalment, it went a bit stale and Irrational was tasked with reviving and putting its own spin on it. The multiplayer portion pretty much followed the proven formula of the series but, for the first time, it was supplemented by a single player campaign. The story was actually quite ambitious and followed five playable characters across two generations while fleshing out the beginning of the conflict in the world of Tribes. The end result was, according to some, the best game in the series.
As if that isn't ending on a happy enough note, you can find out whether that’s true right away. All the game in the Tribes series, including Vengeance, are available for free here.