Celebrating Some of the Best Black Sheeps in Gaming

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By Josh Nichols on April 1st, 2021

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Setting Expectations

Successful and long-running franchises are fun. They keep stories and gameplay mechanics going for existing fans while also providing a hefty backlog for newcomers to explore after discovering a series. It’s great for developers when they create characters and a setting they’d like to continue exploring, too.

It can also cause franchise fatigue though. Developers need to find the right balance when creating new entries to keep them feeling new and worthwhile. Finding the balance between inserting new ideas and retaining what keeps the series special while catering to large fanbases can be difficult. If developers change too much then it can become a different series altogether but if they don’t change enough then it’s the same game everyone already played last year.

Sometimes this struggle leads to new franchises or games entirely, like Devil May Cry coming from the long and experimental development of Resident Evil 4. Other times it can lead to a series being lost and feeling aimless while it looks for its footing, like Resident Evil 6.

It can be fruitful for developers to try to find the right balance between iteration and retaining a franchise’s identity. It’s easier to sell a game with a name tied to an existing series. It can be nice for fans too because it keeps their games going longer and allows them to spend more time in worlds they love existing in. This relationship can sometimes be at odds though when great games oppose player expectations and fight against the safe sequel they may have been craving.

On occasion, all it takes is time for gamers to realize the developers actually developed something remarkable, even if it did fly in the face of what they wanted or were expecting. There are some genuinely spectacular games that differ considerably from the rest of the series and yet, they’re still worthwhile experiences whether fans liked them or not.

Doom 3

Doom and Doom II were very successful and critically acclaimed, and for good reason; the games helped popularize and transform the first-person shooter genre. Part of Doom’s success came from id Software supporting the games with additional content and from supporting its community, which resulted in an abundant amount of extra user-created content.

The genre continued to grow outside of Doom, with notable shooters such as Half-Life, Deus Ex, and Halo: Combat Evolved being released over the years after the first two Doom releases. Shooters had grown and changed so much and they all influenced each other. This created a lot of different kinds of stories and experiences in the genre, along with new kinds of gameplay mechanics. id Software’s legacy combined with the genre’s growth in the years since really added to hype and expectations when Doom 3 was announced at E3 2003.

Rip, tear, and … explore?

Doom 3 released in August 2004 on PC and then in April 2005 on Xbox. It received praise for its premise, setting, and how lived in the game felt, in terms of environmental storytelling, and the characters echoing realistic portrayals with dialogue as well. But the gameplay itself was considered repetitive by a lot of reviewers. There were complaints of predictability with enemy artificial intelligence. A lot of reviewers also took issue with the player’s character feeling flat.

Shooters had changed a lot since Doom’s first two games and there were new expectations in the genre id Software created and revolutionized.

Doom 3 certainly has its issues but its differences from the earlier entries became a big comparison point for many people. It’s so different from the previous games but it’s a really great experience in spite of that. It’s slow. It takes its time. There are sometimes long stretches without enemies but there are more horrifying things beyond the hellish monsters hiding around the corner and in closets.

Humans caused this to happen. It was a failure on several levels and we get to see it unfold. We’re on the space station before everything goes to hell. And the game is better for it. We see the potential. We see the promise. And we’re also witnesses to everything breaking down and becoming the setting we’ve explored already in previous games. Doom doesn’t need a story but Doom 3’s story was interesting and it added some extra weight and punch to everything.

The general big picture story is experienced through radio comm chatter and the occasional cut scene but there are layers of details that are completely optional, revealed in audio diaries. This is honestly perfect because if you don’t care and just want to dismember demons with a chainsaw, while surrounded by eerie shadows and horrifying ambient noise, you absolutely can most of the time. You’ll get the main story from the aforementioned radio comm chatter and some cut scenes and you can choose to skip most of the details by ignoring audio diaries. I don’t know why you would do that because they really add to the atmosphere and story, but you can. And that balance is great. There’s extra story for those that want it and those who don’t care can ignore it.

You still move around military facilities and hell itself, pumping bullets into the evil undead and demons the whole way through. Level design isn’t as streamlined and there’s more backtracking and light puzzle-solving but this helps with storytelling and mixes up the action. The sequences with less combat are infrequent than the blood-filled combat arenas so you’ll still have fun razing hell even if you don’t like looking for locker codes or alternate routes around debris.

Release the Xbox Cut

Doom 3 is only available in its original format on Xbox and PC but the BFG Edition is available on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. I would personally recommend the original version if possible. It’s $5 on Steam and only a few dollars on Xbox at most retro game shops. The newer edition may be superior in a lot of ways but the original version retains a key component that makes it the definitive version. The player has to constantly choose between visibility and safety.

You have to choose between holding your flashlight or a weapon. This really adds to the tension and the game is better for it. The BFG Edition addressed the complaints of fans and features a flashlight attached to the character’s armor, allowing you to have light virtually the entire time. There’s a cooldown period but it’s so small, it barely counts. Even if you prefer the change, the game was designed around that balance and features environments that work within those constraints. The game is still great however you choose to play it though and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the franchise or a good retro shooter.

Doom (2016) found the perfect balance between the early titles and Doom 3, wrapping atmosphere, story, and fast-paced demon-slaying action all into one. In a way this kind of makes Doom 3 feel even more special though, since it’s now kind of by itself as a unique story-driven version of the universe we all know and love. It seems like Doom Eternal took a page from Doom 3 in that respect but that’s another story for another time.

Resident Evil 4

Resident Evil 4 is probably the only game ported to more systems than Skyrim and for good reason. It’s one of the greatest, and most influential games ever made. It’s much different from the previous entries in the series and its troubled and long development even led to the creation of an entirely new franchise from Capcom: Devil May Cry.

Resident Evil 4 is essentially a perfect game. It has issues, sure, but it does an absurd amount of things so well that the issues barely even matter. It’s one of the best examples of the sum being greater than the parts as a whole. It’s so easy to ignore the things it does wrong because they’re infrequent and so inconsequential.

You play as Leon Kennedy, who has been sent by the president of the United States to locate and save his daughter, Ashley Graham. She’s been kidnapped and is somewhere near a village in South America.

Welcome … stranger

This is already quite the departure from the rest of the series. Most of the earlier games take place in a few remote places in and around Racoon City, outside of Code Veronica which features a little more globetrotting. This game features what feels like an endless amount of locations, which include everything from a remote village to a massive castle. There’s even a giant lake and a separate island where Leon finds evidence of horrifying scientific experiments.

The game starts off pretty small though. Leon gets dropped off at a local village by authorities and knocks on the door of the first house he sees to ask for information on Ashley Graham, daughter of the president oft he United States. He is attacked by the house’s occupant and then by the entire village.

Things escalate in such a satisfying ebb and flow throughout the game. It’s a fairly long game but the pacing almost tricks you into thinking it’s shorter than it really is. It flows so well.

Previous entries from the series featured tension from tight resource management, claustrophobic locations, and enemies the player was meant to evade and move around. You aren’t even really given enough resources to kill every enemy in the earlier games.

Whereas in Resident Evil 4, there’s ammo everywhere and you’re encouraged to kill every enemy you see to survive, collect the resources they drop, and then move onto the next area to do it all over again.

Resident Evil 4 still features some of the atmosphere from earlier games. The story is still canon and set within the universe. Leon is even a returning character from the second entry in the series. But newcomers can jump into this game without having played any of the other games and with no knowledge of what happened before this game’s events. There’s a little intro video that quickly covers some earlier details but it isn’t really necessary.

“What’re ya buyin?”

Leon is a capable survivor who escaped a citywide outbreak in Raccoon City. He was later hired by the federal government and now works for the president directly. He’s here to save Ashley. That’s really all you need to know.

Players familiar with the series will be rewarded by catching references to characters and previous events but these details aren’t essential so it doesn’t matter for anyone new to Resident Evil. It’s a perfect sequel for returning players and newcomers in that regard.

The game shares the series tropes with puzzles, involved and lengthy boss fights, and storytelling seeped in science-fiction, gore, and viruses. But the horror is more resource-based and is constantly reset with pickups and frequent save points. This actually allows for really good pacing because it’s much more difficult to end up stuck with no items or ways to survive but it still has really high tension in parts. The tension is segmented and spread out almost evenly.

You’ll go through an encounter with waves of enemies coming at you in varied environments that typically wind around in smart ways, providing you with good places to reload and catch your breath. These encounters can be intense but the game evokes a feeling of having just enough to get by. Obviously, skilled players will fare a little better but still, the game tries to provide you with only what you need. The sliding difficulty adjusts based on how well you’re doing so if you’re doing really well, the game will attempt to drain you of resources to cut down your ammo and health surplus.

“Is that all, stranger?”

This balance not only helped create one of the greatest action games of all time but also influenced several games. The effects of Resident Evil 4 have lasted longer than a virus in real life with games still possessing either direct or indirect influence over fifteen years since it first released.

The Resident Evil series has since found a balance closer to its origins with Resident Evil 7 but Capcom accidentally created one of the best action games of all time and Devil May Cry while developing Resident Evil 4.

Super Mario 3D Land

Mario has been around for decades and while Nintendo typically applies variations to established formulas, they do experiment from time to time. Traditionally mainline Mario games were structured around two basic ideas. Games were either 2D side scrollers, with the goal being to move Mario around enemies and obstacles to the flag pole at the end of the level, or 3D environments, with objectives to complete that provide Mario with collectibles needed for progression.

Nintendo changed Mario for his 3DS debut by creating a new fusion of gameplay for Super Mario 3D Land, which has Mario moving through smaller 3D environments with the gameplay leanings from the 2D entries.

Mario time

The game features classic Mario verbs, like jumping, running, wall jumping, and bouncing off of enemies and blocks but the levels consist of smaller and more lineear 3D areas. There are three ‘Star Medals’ to find and collect in levels but beyond that, the aim is still to reach the flagpole at the end of levels. This allowed for the 3D feeling of the 3D console entries on the handheld system but with the 2D aspects that prevented things from getting too complicated or in-depth. The 3DS could have pulled off a traditional 3D game without any trouble. After all, Super Mario 64 DS released on Nintendo’s previous handheld system a few years earlier! But this would have made the gameplay less portable. 3D Land’s levels are the perfect size to bite off for shorter sessions. And if you have more time, you can simply play another level or two.

The game looks better on 3DS due to its lower resolution

This mixture created a new kind of style for Mario while also allowing him to shine and feel new on Nintendo’s shiny new handheld system. It’s actually my favorite blend of Mario, too. I love controlling Mario in 3D environments but prefer focusing on maneuvering in more linear areas. I also like lighter exploration as opposed to the more involved 3D games, like Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine.

Put 3D Land on Switch

Fortunately I wasn’t the only one that loved this mashup remix of Mario gameplay because Nintendo revisited it for the Wii U entry, Super Mario 3D World. I’m hoping we see more games in this style, which seems likely since the Nintendo Switch port of 3D World has been selling very well so far.

Imagine a remake of this game in Super Mario 3D World’s graphics and resolution …

Taking Risks

Franchises usually stick to existing formulas but with name recognition and almost guaranteed sales from existing fans, companies sometimes use the bigger budgets to experiment and create different experiences. This can lead to interesting innovations and iterations on characters and mechanics audiences already know and love, like the games in this list and even games like Breath of the Wild and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, which probably wouldn’t have happened without being part of existing franchises.

Josh really likes video games. Horror is their favorite but they also like other stuff.

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