We’re just two months away from the launch of the Wii U, and the internet is abuzz with hype (or anger) about the launch line-up for Nintendo’s next system. As cool as new hardware is to play with, consoles succeed or die by the strength of their software library, and every console ever released has tried to launch with at least one killer-app. Still, even with so much riding on their success, only a select few launch titles have actually been triple-A games, and I thought I’d highlight my favorites here.
Now, obviously, an amazing launch line-up isn’t necessary for success: the PS2, the original DS, the Wii, and the Xbox 360 all debuted with rather lackluster launch games and still went on to become very popular nonetheless. Hell, pretty much every Sony system has launched with a completely boring line-up but has still managed to achieve varying degrees of success (don’t crucify me for telling the truth, Sony fanboys. I own a PS3 and I love plenty of games on it, but strong launches aren’t Sony’s specialty) Likewise, a great launch line-up doesn’t guarantee popularity either: the Dreamcast launched with an awesome selection of great games, but we all know how that system panned out, at least in terms of financial success. But it never hurts to make a good impression, and some of the launch titles I’ve listed below are directly responsible for the success of their respective systems.
Having a great launch game is something everything company tries to offer with their new system, but very few have succeeded. It’s not surprising; developers need time to get acquainted with the new hardware, but at the same time, they need to build their game under a harsh time limit in order to get it out in time for the system’s launch day. A launch game can be a potentially lucrative endeavor for publishers, since consumers tend to be less picky about which games they buy for their shiny new console, but the need to have a game out store shelves on day one has led to a lot of half-assed ports or rush jobs. The Wii U’s launch line-up is definitely filled with more ports than people are comfortable with, but it’s not all that different from the launch of the Xbox 360, who’s first year was plagued with a lot of similarly rushed, barely improved PS2 ports. Making launch titles is a hard job, and a lot of publishers (even first parties like Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony) and developers take the easy way out.
That’s why I thought it’d be a good idea to hightlight the select few launch titles that did manage to be great games. Despite all the difficulties involved with releasing a game on time for a system’s debut, these games not only managed to convince people to buy some new hardware, but they are all genuinely great games that managed to stay fun long after the new system “honeymoon” period faded.
Alexi Pajintov’s simple puzzle game is one of the most popular and most iconic games of all time — I know plenty of people who don’t play games on a regular basis but still know how to play Tetris and still probably have the Tetris “theme” memorized. It’s a game that transcends gender, nationality, age, hardcore or casual — everyone has played Tetris. It’s also the launch game that sold most people on the original Game Boy, and helped Nintendo cement their place as kings of the handheld market.
Packing the game in with the original Game Boy proved to be a deal that was fruitful for both parties: Tetris ended up selling over 35 million copies, and the Game Boy went on to sell an amazing 118 million units worldwide, a record that wouldn’t be topped until the Nintendo DS came out over 15 years later. Tetris wasn’t just a launch title that convinced people to buy the Game Boy: it was a title that kept people playing, round after round, for years to come.
Sega had a lot to prove with the launch of the Dreamcast. After the failures of the Sega CD, the 32X, and the early death of the Saturn in America, there were more than a few burned gamers who were skeptical that Sega could ever deliver another successful console. I was one of them: despite Sega’s advertising blitz during the summer of 1999, I refused to buy a Dreamcast. I had placed my hopes (and money) with Sega before, and they had let me down time and again.
Then I saw SoulCalibur, and I fell in love.
There were a handful of other noteworthy titles in the Dreamcast launch line-up, like Capcom’s addictive Power Stone or the original Sonic Adventure (which I still think is a good game to this day,) but SoulCalibur was the title that convinced me that the Dreamcast was something special. The game moved with a fluidity that was never seen before; seeing the Dreamcast’s crisp textures and anti-aliased polygons for the first time was a revelation after spending years playing pixelated and blurry games on the PS1 and N64. The game wasn’t just pretty, either: its fighting system had depth and substance to match the game’s copious amounts of style.
There have been plenty of SoulCalibur sequels since then, but none of them have managed to grab me the way the original did: while the newer games have even more beautiful graphics and animation, and have added a slew of new characters and changes to the fighting system, they’ve never managed to impress me the way SC did when I first saw it move. SoulCalibur may seem dated by modern standards, but it was simply the right game at the right time, and it was exactly the game that the Dreamcast needed.
3. Super Mario 64
3D games were still pretty clumsy back in 1996: the Playstation and Saturn controllers still hadn’t been updated with analog sticks, and most 3D games featured stiff, robotic controls that made them more frustrating than fun. Developers were still trying to come to grips with designing a game in 3D, and most of them were failing miserably at it. Then Super Mario 64 came along, and Nintendo showed everybody else how a game in 3D was supposed to play.
A lot of kids who were born in the 80’s were immediately sold on the N64 the moment Mario popped onto the screen and uttered his now famous “It’s-a-me-ah, Mario!” line for the first time. While the Mario name may have been enough to convince people to line-up for hours to get an N64, it was Mario 64’s gameplay that ensured its place in history.
Like I said before, making launch titles is definitely a difficult job; developers need time to get used to programming for new hardware, and they have to work under a strict time limit. In addition to all these hurdles, Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto and his team also had to face a new problem that challenged everything they knew about game design: they weren’t just designing a game for new hardware, they were designing games for a new dimension. They had to toss out everything they knew about 2D game design and figure out from scratch what did and didn’t work in 3D… and they succeeded.
This is the game that introduced the analog stick to gamers, and it showed everyone how to make a game that controls intuitively and accurately in 3D. The level designs made proper use of the new depth that 3D graphics allowed, as every level was filled with all sorts of secrets, shortcuts, and clever challenges. The game had some kinks, sure — the camera was occasionally problematic, an issue that’s still a problem with 3D games today — but Super Mario 64 set the standard for all 3D games that came out after it. It showed us how a 3D game should look and feel, and it’s the reason why we all expect a controller to have an analog stick on it.
2. Halo: Combat Evolved
Now that Western developed games have eclipsed their Japanese counterparts in terms of general popularity, it’s easy to forget that the console market was once dominated by Japanese companies. After watching the Atari Jaguar and 3DO fail, most gamers approached the idea of a Western developed console with either disdain or humor. When Microsoft announced the original Xbox, it quickly became a punchline for jaded gamers to rip on during the early days of the internet. Nerds joked about it, the press ignored it, and nobody thought it would succeed.
I remember loitering at book store (remember those?) in 2001 while ditching high school one day and reading all of their game magazines (remember those, too? Man, I miss those days.) I flipped to the review section to check out the latest PS2 releases and see if the Gamecube launch had anything worthwhile, and I was surprised to see that every magazine was talking about an Xbox game. I was taken aback — surely these guys can’t be picking a game for that joke of a console over all these new Nintendo or Sony games, can they?
Turns out they were talking about an Xbox game, and they weren’t just idly talking about it either, they were singing its praises. Every magazine I flipped through had a perfect 10 review for some game called “Halo,” and once I got over my ingrained aversion to Western console games, I gave Halo a try for myself and immediately understood why everyone was buying an Xbox.
There were good console FPS’s before Halo — Goldeneye and Timesplitters spring to mind — but Halo wasn’t just good, it was nigh perfect; never before had FPS combat on a console felt so deep. Learning to find the right balance between your guns, grenades, and melee attacks (each of which had their own dedicated button, a first for a console FPS,) was essential for survival against the game’s at-the-time revolutionary AI. The game’s gigantic multiplayer maps and use of vehicles was unheard of on consoles at the time as well, and I can say without regret that my high school GPA probably dropped a few points because I spent too much time playing LAN matches with friends.
It’s trendy to hate on Halo nowadays, but its historical importance extends beyond it simply being a good game: FPS’s were on consoles before, sure, but it was Halo’s explosive popularity that made shooters the number one genre they are today. In addition to that, the game’s success cemented Microsoft’s place as a real contender in the games industry, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that the original Xbox would’ve flopped if Halo wasn’t there on day one… And of course, if the original Xbox bombed, the Xbox 360 wouldn’t be here today. More importantly though, Halo marked the rise of Western developed games on consoles: American developed games began to lose the stigma that console gamers had attached to them, and after seeing Bungie’s success on the Xbox, previously PC-only developers like Bioware and Valve began to take console development seriously.
1. Super Mario Bros.
Video games are so ingrained in our popular culture nowadays that its hard to think of them as anything but a permanent fixture of our entertainment industry, but back in the mid eighties video games were dead. Following a flood of me-too clone systems trying to cash in on the Atari craze and half-assed shovelware games that were barely worth the plastic they were made of, kids simply stopped buying games. The entire industry crashed in 1983, and the press declared that video games were a fad. Stores stopped selling games, distributors dumped thousands of unsold stock into landfills, and a lot of the game companies at the time either went out of business or shifted over to a different industry entirely. As far as the average American was concerned, the home console industry was dead and it was never coming back.
While home consoles were dead in the West, a relatively small company named Nintendo was making waves in Japan with their new Famicom console. The system was a bona-fide hit in its home country, and Nintendo was sure that it could make the system a success in America as well, despite skepticism from… well, pretty much everybody. After losing millions in the “great crash” of the video game industry years before, most retailers refused to stock another video game system. Nintendo had to resort to packaging their redesigned Famicom, now dubbed the Nintendo Entertainment System, with a toy robot in order to get pessimistic stores to stock the system.
Despite everyone’s assumptions that the video game “fad” was over, the NES eventually became a hit, and it wasn’t because of the toy robot that the launch systems were packed in with. Rather, it was because of simple side-scrolling platformer named “Super Mario Bros.”
The importance of Super Mario Bros. can never be overstated. While the game seems simple by modern standards, a lot of its features, like the thoughtful level design, the immense amount of hidden secrets, the tight controls and then revolutionary use of momentum and simple physics, and the iconic graphics and sound, were simply astounding back in 1985.
A good launch title gets people to buy a new system specifically for the purpose of playing that game. Super Mario Bros. did that for sure, but it also did something much greater: it sold people on the idea that games weren’t just another fad, but a permanent facet of our modern culture that was never going to go away. The success of the NES paved the way for the consoles that followed, and the NES’s initial success happened because of Mario Bros. Without Super Mario Bros., Nintendo definitely wouldn’t be the industry titan they are today, and its debatable whether the home console industry would have ever recovered from its great crash. It’s not hyperbole to state that Super Mario Bros. didn’t just help Nintendo succeed, but it helped the entire video game industry bounce back from one of its darkest periods.
Super Mario World – This list was already filled with Mario games (not my fault, Mario just has a habit of showing up with the right game at the right time,) so in the interest of variety, I left Super Mario World off the list. That’s not to say that it’s worse than Mario 64 or Super Mario Bros (it isn’t — it’d be pretty easy to argue that Mario World is the best Mario game,) but it doesn’t have quite as much historical significance or cultural influence as those two landmark titles.
Lumines – Q Entertainment’s addictive puzzler was the main reason to buy a PSP early on, but I had to give the edge to Tetris in the main list. With that said, Lumines is still a great game that every PSP owner should have: it’s just as addictive as Tetris, and it definitely has way more style and funk than that classic puzzler, too.
Power Stone – I personally love Power Stone, but let’s face it, most people were buying Dreamcasts for Soul Calibur, not Capcom’s arena fighter. Still, Power Stone is one of the most polished and addictive launch games ever made, and I’m still surprised that more games haven’t tried to copy its chaotic but fun formula today.
Castlevania: Circle of the Moon – This GBA launch title was quickly made obsolete by the further portable Castlevania’s that came after it, but at the time of its release, Circle of the Moon was a jaw dropping technical achievement. Console-quality handheld games are commonplace nowadays thanks to the Vita, but back when Circle of the Moon originally came out people were dumbfounded that Konami managed to fit this much content onto a tiny GBA cartridge. It wasn’t quite Symphony of the Night, but it (at least initially) seemed pretty damn close, and it marked the point when a lot of “hardcore” gamers began to treat handhelds seriously.
Panzer Dragoon – There weren’t many reasons to buy a Sega Saturn at the time of the system’s infamously misguided “surprise launch,” but I wouldn’t hold it against you if you were one of the people who paid $400 for Sega’s 32 bit powerhouse simply to play Panzer Dragoon. The game still retains a unique beauty to this day, and its challenging, 360-degree panoramic style of on-rails shooting has managed to age just as gracefully as its graphics.