Sometimes, a game is pitched that – on paper – looks positively ridiculous. And odds are, it is positively ridiculous – but that isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes, a game’s development hits some bumps in the road, causing delays or restructuring – but that doesn’t always spell doom for a project.
Here are 25 games that, whether because of their nontraditional concepts or troubled development, many found themselves skeptical of – or even expected to be downright terrible – but they still won the hearts of players everywhere.
Great Games That Should Have Sucked
Click through the gallery above, or scroll down for the full list!
It may just be football with cars – the fever dream of a seven-year-old boy – but Rocket League continues to drain countless hours from even the most discerning of players. Blending hyper-competitiveness with streamlined gameplay, it’s also become the perfect fodder for eSports and YouTube channels alike. The original game, Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars, didn’t receive much acclaim when it launched on the PS3, but Rocket League learned from the shortcomings of its predecessor and included more elaborate mechanics and modes – such as the game-changing Mutators and Rumble mode – to become a staple multiplayer title in most gaming libraries.
Hypnospace Outlaw looked like a mix between a vaporwave music video and an archived Geocities page – and could have easily focused too much energy on it’s attractive a e s t h e t i c, and not enough on actual substance. In reality, it was a branching, compelling, endless romp through an alternate timeline – giving the player countless opportunities to abuse (or respect) their already unbalanced judicial power.
As a faceless moderator controlling the creative output of your in-game peers, actions mattered – and a decidedly seedy underbelly of early internet capitalism was waiting to be uncovered. A further narrative developed over on the developer’s Discord server, which can still be unearthed once the game is complete.
The original Pathologic was an impossibly obtuse, convoluted survival/horror RPG from Russia. It was the kind of game that, even if it didn’t suffer from low-quality graphics and poor English translation (which it did), would only really be finished by someone with something to prove. It’s why, when a remake was announced, skepticism filled the air — but Pathologic 2 was undoubtedly one of the underrated gems of 2019. Disarmingly ominous, this uncanny sequel-remake was painfully difficult and just as dark and uncompromising as the original – but infinitely more polished and accessible.
“So it’s a game, right, and in this game, you basically check immigration papers”
“No, no, that’s it.”
Infuriatingly difficult to explain, maybe, but Papers, Please turned out to be as evocative and complex as many of its big-budget contemporaries. Forcing players to choose between feeding their family and fighting corruption was just one of the moral quandaries thrown at us, and a healthy dose of frantic energy kept things afloat. All this, coupled with a uniquely dismal aesthetic, in both music and design, makes Papers Please more than just another Art House indie, rather a must-play example of why you don’t need a AAA budget to create an iconic, moving experience.
On its face, Fallen London – or Echo Bazaar, as it was initially titled – was a bit of a slog to get into. It was pretty, to be sure, and a little mysterious, but it kept its cards close to its chest. The precursor to the popular Sunless Seas and Sunless Skies was a sense of a master plan, a story buried deep under layers of obtuse scene-setting, but only after a decent time investment was the true nature of the game revealed. A choose-your-own-adventure book for adults (before we collectively jumped on board the TellTale train), Echo Bazaar let you wander streets and complete challenges in the form of a complex collectible card game — your personality, friends, debuffs, and possessions are all decided by card drops and choices as you explored further. It’s all worth the initial effort, though, as this gives way to a gorgeous tale in a fully-realized universe, steeped in lore and brimming with quirky details
Batman: Arkham Asylum
Licensed video games have a fairly notorious history, and not always for the best reasons. Batman: Arkham Asylum, however, refused to sidestep its source material in the name of accessibility, and scoured the depths of the series’ darkest elements to build an excellent action/adventure game.
Every IGN Batman Video Game Review
With its exceptional combat system (which, let’s face it, was so good it became the basis of so many brawlers that came after it), environmental design, and awesome Bat-story, Arkham Asylum gave the people what they wanted, and then some.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
In real life, lawyers aren’t super fun. But anime lawyers with super-powered sidekicks and a cast of bizarre misfits? Yes, please. Blasting through trials as the pointy-haired figurehead of justice is an empowering experience, and the game keeps up the pace alongside a range of hilarious, madcap, and unbelievable characters. There is more to do than simply assess your client for innocence, too — the Ace Attorney series sees its characters exploring locations, compiling evidence, cross-examining witnesses, and generally going above and beyond for their clients. Yet another unreasonable cultural standard perpetuated by video games.
On paper (before the raging success of the series), Kingdom Hearts just sounded… wrong. Mixing Final Fantasy with the Disney universe was a bizarre decision, not least due to their individual and very different successes, but, by God, it works. Undeniably interesting storylines and quests are drawn from an unexpectedly deep well of references, and the gameplay has enough variation to have kept it relevant for years… even if Goofy is still hideously annoying.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater
Anyone who skates will probably agree that the premise of reducing their pastime down to button presses and stick flicks sounds pretty laughable. Other sports sims are often more about tactics than skill – how to manage a team and best use their combined strengths against an opponent – but skateboarding is all about raw ability. Not to mention that it’s a community with a unique culture that exists across all cultural mediums which should have been impossible to cram into a disc. Fortunately, the Tony Hawk series managed to accurately encompass the music, art style, interpersonal interactions, brands, values, and vibe of the skate scene throughout the early 2000s. The success of THPS effectively made the underground culture mainstream, which (depending on who you ask) can be good or bad – but either way, there was no denying it was fun as hell.
Little Big Adventure 2
Did you play this game? Did anyone? Not really? Well, that’s a tragedy. Furnished with some truly hideous box art, Little Big Adventure 2 is a nugget of pure 90’s gold with a fascinating development story. The now-defunct Adeline Software made LBA2 with a team of just 21 people, some of whom had only worked on one previous game: the original Alone in the Dark. And like Alone in the Dark, the graphics have aged poorly, but the concept holds up. Switching from isometric indoor environments to a huge sprawling playground of free-roam area, it was a little more demanding than many home computers could manage, which might help explain its relative obscurity. With an undeniably wholesome and fantastical plot, LBA2 features surprisingly tough puzzles, complex themes, hilarious voice acting, and hours of ahead-of-its-time open-world fun. From a superficial angle, this should be bad, but it somehow just… isn’t.
Three-second quickdraw contests against (basically) stick figures may sound like something 1981 dreamt up, but Superhot is a tense and brilliant game that utilizes an extreme risk/extreme reward model exceptionally well. Not to mention, it’s a badass workout in VR – I’ll bet you’ve never felt cooler beating up stick figures.
Octodad: Dadliest Catch
On paper, Octodad is ludicrous. In practice, even more so. But he also has his merits – namely, squelching around trying to be the best darn father he can be. Cute cartoonish graphics and a silly story reminiscent of something Cartoon Network might have put out in the early 2000s make Octodad a truly special game.
The Craziest Game Mechanics Ever
We can’t really wrap our heads around where, exactly, this game came from, but it’s wacky controls, tough challenges, and propensity for hilarity make this game a surprising gem.
Creatures: Raised in Space
Another game with box art that is the stuff of nightmares, this was almost immediately a bargain bin game, but go online now and you’ll find countless communities dedicated to the plight of the Norns – from the uncomfortably wholesome to the downright horrifying. A uniquely complex gene-splicing and animal rearing game, Creatures exhibited disturbingly lifelike AI and experimented with the realities of ‘pain’ and ‘joy’ as electrical impulses administered to the Norns – leading to some pretty interesting debates around ‘alife’ ethics.
Why is it that a game marketed toward sports fans, designed to be played by sports fans… is a strategy game? And more importantly, why is it good? Football Manager is the Louis Theroux of video games: able to get you effortlessly engaged with something you never knew you cared about and for some reason makes me feel feelings I wouldn’t expect to have towards a man who looks like that. Football (not the American kind) may still be catching on in the US, but it would take only half as long if more American’s let themselves get swept up in this management sim series.
Peter Jackson’s King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie
How this physically painful excuse for a title (the literal title on the box, not the game itself) got past a professional marketing team is beyond me. Sure, Jackson’s big-screen remake of the classic Kaiju adventure wasn’t great, but the tie-in game put a surprising amount of effort into developing a decent campaign, and it paid off. The voice acting was similarly impressive, and – unlike most movie tie-ins, the action sequences are almost perfectly paced.
The only downside is its bizarre AI that occasionally went rogue and started running into walls or clipping through them, but that aside, Kong was a blast. For a game that could have just been an easy cash-grab to include multiplayer, multiple playable characters, and a complex weapons system, this movie tie-in was a welcome change of pace compared to it’s contemporaries.
Solve puzzles, don’t die. Also there might be cake. Portal had a lot working against it from the get-go given its relatively inexperienced team of student devs and early criticisms of its simplistic nature. It took its basic concept and ran so far with it that it became one of the best-loved games of all time. Setting out to prove you are one of Aperture Science’s finest has become a rite of passage these days, and it’s spartan level design and eerie narrative concepts have aged well. We’re pretty sure it taught a generation more about physics than formal education ever did.
Untitled Goose Game
Untitled Goose Game bought hours of anarchic joy to millions of players, but if you’d have told us two years ago a game where “you’re a goose and you steal things” would win DICE’s Game of the Year, we probably would have called you a liar. Thankfully, we’d have been wrong, because terrorizing the neighbors is always fun, and this feathered form offers endless possibilities for carnage. It’s a unique take on the stealth/puzzle genre, one that requires careful thought and planning, asking surprising depth from someone who signed up to roleplay as a rude goose.
Spec Ops: The Line
The marketing campaign for Spec Ops did all it could to seem like another shooty-shooty, America-is-the-good-guy, jingoistic power fantasy, and as such it sold moderately well but wasn’t received with much initial fanfare. These days we know better, however, as it’s infamous half-way point shift makes this simultaneously one of the best and one of the most realistic modern warfare games to date.
Faced with an inordinate amount of criticism before it was even released, Bully could easily have become a side note in Rockstar’s history. Taking place in a school full of teenagers, and with its simple yet provocative name, many called for it to be cancelled before the game was even available for judgment, with some stores (and countries) banning its sale. Those shopkeeps and governors missed out, however, since in reality Bully was a heartfelt, even occasionally wholesome take on schoolyard pettiness, with ridiculous (yet awesome) minigames and considerable open-world potential.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
Movie tie-in games have a (justifiably) bad rep, so it raised more than a few eyebrows when WB announced a game that was a prequel to a series that had left theaters more than a decade earlier. Shadow of Mordor eschewed these concerns, however, with a combination of solid (if borrowed) combat, an interesting take on Tolkein’s lore, and – most importantly – its infamous Nemesis system. Still a firm favorite of many open-world fans, Shadow of Mordor offered a fascinating narrative concept and one of the most unique systems-focused experiences of the generation.
“Your dad got drunk and deleted the universe” isn’t the pitch you’d expect from a game that became an instant classic, nor should rolling stuff around be this fun, but Katamari Damacy’s absurdity makes it a compelling and wildly enjoyable game for all ages. Plus, it’s got one of the catchiest – and infuriating – theme songs, which will now be stuck in your head. You’re welcome.
Making color theory fun is something we never knew we needed. If you need an internet rabbit-hole to fall down, the color science behind Splatoon is a good one. Beyond that, though, this simple paint shooter has captured the hearts of many. For something that looked so limited at its debut to inspire hundreds of hours of gameplay is no small feat, but utilising striking animations and vibrant musical flourishes has worked in Splatoon’s favour. Also, listen up marketing teams: you can label something a ‘kid’s game’ all you want, but us ancient relics are still going to play it to death.
West of Loathing
Initially a stick-figure flash game, this fully-fleshed out version is… well… still a stick-figure flash game. But it’s a stick-figure flash game with a quirky sense of humor and branching narrative system that offers a surprising amount of depth and longevity. Exploring the world around you armed with whatever bluntly-named item you happen to have acquired is always hilarious thanks to the constant (and disarmingly honest) meta commentary throughout the script, and the people you meet along the way will make you politely question the sanity of those who programmed this game – in the best way possible, of course.
Alan Wake faced assumptions of failure from the start, largely due to initial troubles spanning seven years of development, but thankfully managed to defy expectations. Widely regarded as a milestone in the thriller genre, Alan Wake expertly combined action and survival mechanics to create an awesomely tense gameplay loop, which meshed with a clever meta storyline that left us with more questions than it answered. Taking on an episodic format and introducing a range of shout-outs to popular horror tropes, it still holds up today as a masterclass in perfectly-pitched fear.
I’m actually genuinely kind of furious about this one. Complex stories and cutting-edge graphics are not usually associated with either of the franchises in Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, but for some reason this mismatched tactical strategy game possesses both. Even if it is a patently ridiculous mashup, M+R:KB is a genuinely tricky game with a range of intricate elements, and we’re still hoping to see Ubisoft and Nintendo cross paths for another bout.
Those are some of our favorite games that we were absolutely not expecting to be some of our favorite games! What are yours? Let us know if we missed any in the comments, and for more bizarre gaming flukes, why not check out the best (and worst) licensed games or the most bizarre marketing stunts gaming has ever seen!
Miri Teixeira is a strategy game, politics, and sci-fi writer from the UK, who specialises in Caring Too Much and murdering Sims. You can follow her on Twitter.