And then there are the overrated video games. These are extremely hyped games that don’t necessarily deserve the amount of hype they get. They might be entertaining, but they’re not the pixelated miracles people have made them out to be. There are alternatives that exist that deserve more attention.
Grand Theft Auto Series
I completely respect the time and effort the developers put into the creation of the Grand Theft Auto games. There’s so much going on, especially the later entries, that attempting to comprehend the time, care, and attention it would take to make it work boggles the mind. This series is a testament to the power of gaming and each entry shows what massive strides are being taken in gaming’s complexity.
At the same time, the old fuddy-duddy in me doesn’t really see the point of the games. I remember playing these for the first time as an impressionable kid where the attraction was the unrestrained violence and total freedom from lasting consequences. They were fun but even with how young I was, I could see how so many parents came to the conclusion that gaming would exacerbate any latent violent tendencies in us. There wasn’t much in the way of story, at least not that I could tell, and I got more and more uncomfortable with Grand Theft Auto’s gratuitous indulgences in sex and violence. Put another way, I don’t ever really hear any Grand Theft Auto games talked about in the same breath as games like Bioshock, the God of War soft reboot, or any of the Telltale games, where the story and the meticulously detailed world justify the violence.
What to Play Instead of Grand Theft Auto
Red Dead Redemption 2 lets the player choose what kind of criminal they’re going to be and the game world and NPCs change to reflect how the player behaves. You have the kind of freedom to run amok, similar to what draws people to Grand Theft Auto, but there are consequences to your actions, giving everything a narrative backbone and deepening the experience overall. Red Dead also lives up to the ongoing glowing praise it receives.
The Just Cause series, especially the second one and on, leans fully into the cartoonish aspects of a sandbox game. If you’ve seen clips of people using grappling hooks to swing sports cars into passing jets, it was likely in Just Cause. Though, in this case, I will admit I don’t really see much of a difference between Grand Theft Auto Online and Just Cause. Both seem the same kind of unhinged.
Any Pixel Art Game
Why, in the name of all that anyone finds holy, do we continue to put up with low-res pixel art games? It’s slowed down a bit now, but for awhile a few years ago, indie gaming was inundated with games that were trying to drown us in nostalgia for the 8-, 16-, and 32-bit games of generations past. I’m picking on games like Undertale, Terraria, and Stardew Valley.
Again, these aren’t bad games. A lot of them are recognized as some of the best games ever released. Hell, even I loved Bastion from the moment I first booted it up. But the oversaturation is an especially disappointing state to be in at a time when a tiny team can can remake The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in Unreal Engine 5 to the point of near photo realism. Shoestring budgets have never looked this good and it’s only going to get better.
This pixel art oversaturation is also pushing an unintentionally disrespectful lie. The original pixel art style is the result of developers tailoring their games to CRT displays. When pixel art games are put through a CRT display, they don’t look like they’re made of tiny cutesy cubes. They utilize the pixels to blend and shade images to create the illusion of a much higher resolution than they really have. If you don’t believe me, go through the CRT Pixels account on Twitter. Most of the posts are side by side comparisons of games on LED and CRT monitors and the CRTs blow the modern stuff out of the water.
What to Play Instead
Contrary to what my last few paragraphs may have sounded like, I’ve been genuinely impressed with the visuals of indie games. I loved Inside, Limbo, and Braid the whole time I played them. Where the Water Tastes Like Wine wasn’t one of my favorite games to play but the art style was excellent. Return of the Obra Dinn is easily one of the best games ever made, in no small part due to the amazing soundtrack and totally unique visuals. Indie gaming and distinct art styles are not synonymous with low res nonsense.
There has to be some kind of chemical that makes people think it’s the pinnacle of creativity to shove two things together. Maybe it’s a common corruption in cognitive processing. Whatever it is, it’s causing a deluge of shitty pop culture mashups. Dumbledore should fight Gandalf. The Power Rangers team up with Batman. Star Wars retold in the Booberry universe. Put any of those in a tweet with even the vaguest formatting of a film’s logline and you’ll have a wave of agreement, most of which sounds like “This,” “That idea was just sitting there,” or “I didn’t know I needed this.”
Shovel Knight has to be one of the worst offenders. Every time we heard someone talk about this game, whether it was before, during, or after the release, all we heard about was how cool it was that this knight uses a shovel instead of a sword. There was no praise for gameplay, world-building, characters, or plot. It was about the goddamn shovel.
And it’s obvious that the game leans on that shovel heavily, because it’s mediocre otherwise. It’s just another low-res sidescroller in a market saturated with them. Everyone’s mom is teaching everyone else’s grandmother how to program low-res sidescrollers. But apparently because this one uses a shovel instead of a sword, its reception was the equivalent of finding an ancient Roman mosaic under a wigwam they buried in the ice next to non-fictional Captain America who was holding the cure for every cancer. How’s that for a mashup?
What to Play Instead
If you’re looking for a sidescrolling, fantasy inspired indie game, just pick up Hollow Knight. It avoids all the low-res stuff and doesn’t insult your intelligence with some meaningless weapon switch. It’s also a sidescroller with elements of open world exploration, which is an odd choice that works surprisingly well.
Call of Duty (After World at War)
If you look at the first half of the franchise, up until World at War, what you’ll find is a series of well-written, thoughtful, reasonably historically accurate war simulators. The series went out of its way to communicate the psychological stress of warfare as best it could while still adhering to a T-rating. You had to assault Stalingrad without a rifle, slowly beat back the Germans in North Africa, land on beaches bristling with enemy machine guns, and fight headstone to headstone in the bloodiest battle of the European theater. The dirty bombing in Modern Warfare shattered the illusion that the main characters in AAA games were safe as well as showed how scarily easy it is for more volatile forces to get proto-nuclear. In no way am I saying any of that measures up to real combat, but the franchise was at least trying to deal with its subject matter with respect and gravity.
But apparently when everyone talked about how epic the games were, Activision’s frat bro gland squirted extra hard and started pumping jingoistic messaging and explosions into the game. When they drop skyscrapers and avalanches and Russian invasions on you, they do it with all the care and respect of a cat on the edge of a table. It’s no longer about the human toll of war, it’s about how big thing go boom.
Look at Call of Duty: World War II, the game that was supposed to return the franchise to its roots. They had a train crash that would fit better in a Fast and Furious movie and a D-Day landing where someone asked what the big takeaway from the Normandy landings was and the development team answered, “violence?”
It’s a truly disappointing turn for what was once a solid, educational, respectable franchise. Especially at a time when everyone’s screaming about demographic representation in exactly these games, Call of Duty was one of the first to include extended storylines about African-American and Polish tankers and tribal resistance groups in North Africa.
What to Play Instead
There aren’t too many big names in thought-provoking explorations of war these days and definitely no real AAA contenders anymore.
Hell Let Loose has extremely faithful renderings of World War II battlefields and an absolutely punishing damage system that usually means you’re downed in one shot. It relies on tactics and communication in place of running and gunning, making for a slower paced but more rewarding fight.
Dan Carlin put together a VR experience called War Remains a few years ago that takes people through the trenches of the First World War. It’s had absolutely glowing reviews and is an indication of where VR could be headed in the future, particularly with respect to educational opportunities.
Weirdly, The Last of Us and its sequel are the best explorations of the effect violence can have on a person’s psychology, which is usually one of the things combat veterans talk about most.
Sadly, there’s nothing that comes to mind as a successor to the narration and research of the original Call of Duty (and Medal of Honor) titles. The first time I heard Eisenhower’s letter to the men invading Europe was in Medal of Honor: Frontline. I just don’t see that happening in any other game right now.
Assassin’s Creed (After Revelations)
Up to Revelations, the Assassin’s Creed franchise was a sci-fi/historical conspiracy mashup where you unraveled the game’s story as you pieced together clues from the past to understand the present’s conflict. It was intriguing, well-constructed, and kept me engaged.
Beyond story, the games played well. The fighting and free running had tight, responsive controls and did a good job conveying a sense of movement and agility. The settings felt alive, with people everywhere and crowds and guards reacting to your actions to at least the level the technology of the time would let them.
Then Assassin’s Creed III made everyone shrug off combat damage to the point where you had to shred an enemy like cheese hor d’oeuvres just to get him to take a step back and collect himself. I took a break after that and came back to Odyssey, where I was horrified to learn what was once a slower paced stealth game had turned into a hack and slash with damage counters. I’m back to ignoring the series, with the only exception being the cinematic trailers, which, counterintuitively, have retained the cool factor of the original few games.
What to Play Instead
The Tomb Raider reboot series feels pretty close to the original Assassin’s Creed, if not in stealthy gameplay, then at least in its premise. A young, fairly naive protagonist gets thrown into a conspiracy and has to navigate a new world of violence and espionage and, as the series progresses, that protagonist sheds her naivety and embraces the world she inhabits, committing herself to the cause and chasing the conspiracy to its roots. It’s not a one-for-one swap, but fans of one would likely enjoy the other.
A lot of people have made a lot of jokes about how the entire Pokemon economy is based on kids and young adults enslaving wild animals and forcing them into cross-species dogfights. The animals might not be dying, but they’re still hacking, slashing, burning, and drowning each other. I don’t know how everyone else actually feels about them, but for me, it’s a little more than just a few jokes. Granted, I’m also someone who has a hard time hunting animals in video games because I don’t want to contribute to a virtual extinction. Rationally, I know I’m being way too sensitive, but irrationally, I just can’t get beyond it.
What to Play Instead
Pokemon Snap is the only Pokemon game I’ve ever enjoyed, probably for the same reason I’d like to see a lion but don’t need its head on my wall. The game encouraged a more passive form of Pokemon enjoyment, where you observed and recorded unique animals rather than got them to stab each other. New Pokemon Snap and is considerably longer and more layered than its 1999 predecessor.
Kingdom Hearts flat out sucks and no one can tell me otherwise. You don’t get to advertise a game as a fun romp through the Disney animated universe, then force me to suffer through a four hour anime to get to it. Goofy, Donald Duck, Mulan, Gaston, or someone better be there from the beginning. Though, even if they had, the beginning was so goddamn boring I don’t think I would have made it. I can’t remember how long I played for, but I know it was longer than it deserved.
So many of my friends have talked about how formative the game was, with some talking about how it was the only game they ever played. It’s what made their Gamecube a worthwhile purchase or the one that they keep coming back to year after year. In fact, so many people disagree with me that I have to admit I’m probably the one who’s wrong here. The game’s probably amazing and I should have toughed it out to get to the best parts. But from this modern game player’s perspective, Kingdom Hearts is boring and doesn’t deliver on its exciting promise.
What to Play Instead
I don’t know. Play anything else. Just please don’t talk to me about Kingdom Hearts anymore. I’ve suffered enough.