I adore the weird, the wonderful, and the bizarre. Occasionally games bore me – I have a “Oh look, I’m a secret agent with a gun and I get to shoot people. How about that?” attitude. The nice thing about video games, however, is that unlike Hollywood, even the mainstream games can be absolutely off-the-wall. With the possible exception of sport and racing games anyway – and even some of those franchises slide into the surreal and the odd.
With this in mind, I’m going to bring you my top ten most stylish retro games. Some of them are weird, and some of them are wonderful. They are all interesting. Before we get started, a disclaimer: these are only games I have played, and is not an exhaustive list. There are some notable games missing, so I encourage you to drop me a comment with a recommendation for your own twisted and fantastical favorite.
1. Silent Hill 3
Silent Hill 3 has the most effed up monsters I have ever seen! Those dogs – and the ‘numb body’! I mean seriously, whoever designed these creatures was a genius. The atmosphere helps of course, and the soundtrack ranks as one of my faves. All of the Silent Hills’ have a bizarre element to them (no kidding?), but I think Silent Hill 3 remains at the top of my list.
2. Monkey Island 4
I loved all the Monkey Island’s, with their intricate and mind-bending puzzles. How can you not love a game that has zombie pirates and spitting contests? Monkey Island 4, however, was the best of the bunch for the art style. As soon as the opening cinematic began and I saw those seashell-like clouds I was in love. MI4 is proof that you don’t need to go down the realism route to make a decent game. The quirky art matches up brilliantly with the irreverant story.
3. Final Fantasy IX
I love all the Final Fantasy games too! My first was FF7, and I loved the dystopian city of Midgar. FF8 could have never matched my love of 7, but it was still beautifully designed. It was Final Fantasy 9, however, that really blew me away. The slightly more ‘cutesy’ style was right up my alley, but it was the airships and the cities that really made me happy. The design of the summons was equally good.
Final Fantasy X is also a good looking game, but by that time everything was just getting a bit too similar.
4. Bioshock 1
Bioshock deserves every inch of its success. Rapture is imaginatively realised, with the art deco styling, the graffiti, and that mix of luxury, decadence and ruin. The soundtrack is also up there, not quite beating out SH3, but pretty close. The Big Daddies, the Little Sisters, and even the Splicers are all just different enough to the usual zombie fare to make this game a definite contender.
5. Max Payne 1 & 2
Graphic Novels are vastly under appreciated. By choosing to mix up the film noir, graphic novel and classic FPS styles, Max Payne gained a unique look. I’m a sucker for box art, and the Max Payne box cover was what made me buy the game. I’m glad I did. I really like the approach they took to cut scenes and introducing that bullet time to the world… yummy!
6. Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee
A platformer-meets-puzzle game, Abe’s Oddysee casts you as a completely defenceless and rather ugly Mudokon slave in a very strangely designed meat packing plant. Distressingly tricky, especially if you decided to rescue all 100 of your fellow slaves, I loathed and loved this game in equal measures. It is one of the few that made me want to chew through the controller wires in frustration, but the feeling of sheer joy when you finally complete a section is better than drugs.
However, we’re talking style here, not gameplay. And Abe’s Oddysee has oodles of it. The alien creatures are weird and very scary, the environments are beautifully realised and atmospheric, and that meat packing plant still haunts my nightmares.
7. God of War
As previously mentioned, I hate button mashing games. God of War, however, somehow manages to escape my usual disgust, mostly through it’s awesome concept artwork, flashy and beautiful combat, and kick-ass mythological monsters. I die often, but I really don’t mind playing through different sections again and again since it’s not everyday you get to battle a hydra or a cyclops.
8. World of Warcraft
I couldn’t really leave this one off the list. I remember the first time I saw the screenshots of the Dwarf on a Gryphon, and how my immediate response was: I want this game!. I’ve always loved Blizzard’s cinematics, which were better directed than most films. The design of the races, the cities, the creatures … and yes, even that slightly cartoony style they have going on all contributes to make me love this game even more. I can live without the music, but riding into Stormwind always make me happy to be Alliance.
9. Kingdom Hearts 1 & 2
Like most people, when I heard the words “Disney” and “Final Fantasy” in the same sentence I almost died laughing. And, like most people, I was wrong. Kingdom Hearts kicks ass. The Disney and Squaresoft styles ended up complimenting each other, the character designs were great, it was cute, it was funny, and I became very attached to the game. The addition of characters such as Chip ‘n’ Dale appealed to the five year old I once was, whilst throwing Nightmare Before Christmas into the mix meant my grown-up self was equally pleased.
10. Grim Fandango
A mash-up of Mexican folklore and real-estate scandal – who could not love it? This game was, hands-down, the best LucasArts adventure game ever. The art reflects it, with sexy paper-doll like skeleton characters and film-noir environments. You get to be the Grim Reaper, and that alone is worth the price of the game. Which has been remastered recently(-ish) too!
So there you have it – a quick guide to some of the more interesting titles kicking around. Not all of them have massive budgets and thousands of polygons to work with, but they all managed to impress me in one way or another.