Of all our yearly features, our look back at games that were overshadowed is easily our favourite to compile. We often champion ‘hidden gems’ on Twitter, particularly when they’re discounted on the digital stores, but here we’re able to discuss them in full.
We’ve opted for six overlooked titles his year, all of which we’ve spent a considerable amount of time with. Honourable mentions meanwhile include the delightfully crass run ‘n gunner Rad Rodgers, frighteningly authentic 8-bit ‘demake’ Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon, story-driven detective drama The Council, and the addictive pop culture time capsule The VideoKid.
Also, the very literal Limbo-alike Missing The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories; literal because the protagonist is able to rip off their own limbs to assist in puzzle solving. It’s from Swery65, so you know you’re in for a mind-altering experience.
When I was much (much) younger, any action figure playset that housed an ‘action feature’ instantly made it to that year’s Christmas list. Things like Castle Grayskull’s “hidden” trapdoor, or Boulder Hill’s delightful combo of a tumbling plastic boulder and gun turret gas pumps made the toy in question beyond desirable.
As such, Strange Brigade – a third-person shooter set during the riveting 1920s – feels like it was tailormade especially for me, involving trap-filled tombs and ruins.
Like Rebellion’s own Sniper Elite series, it’s a one trick pony that pulls off that trick so spectacularly it’s able to carry the weight of the whole experience from start to finish. To wit: Strange Brigade’s combat focuses on destroying large waves of enemies in one fell swoop. Reanimated skeletons, mummies, and other mythological creatures mostly, thanks to the ancient Egypt setting.
Swarms of enemies can be vanquished in various ways. Firstly, there’s a neat side-line of loud and messy explosives including sticky grenades and packs of dynamite. Temporary heavy weapons are another option, limited in ammo but packing a punch. These vary from a blunderbuss shotgun with a widespread, to a flamethrower with an inescapable reach. Finally, each of the playable characters has an ancient amulet to charge by collecting souls, a la Soul Reaver. One character leaps in the air to perform a ground slam, like a 1920’s Tony Stark, while one of the females has a mighty right hook; an attack amusingly accompanied by the chime of a fairground ‘test your strength’ machine.
Visually, it’s a slick package and Xbox One X enhanced to boot. The overgrown environments are detailed, and the vistas spread far into the distance. It’s not uncommon to want to stop and take in the scenery. In fact, you’re actively encouraged to as optional puzzles and hidden collectables are rife.
While only a few puzzles – which mostly take the form of code-cracking mini-games – put your wits to the test, they still help provide a change of pace, as does a jaunt into an underground pirate cove.
To top it all off, the whole shebang is narrated by a charismatic fellow who makes on-the-spot observations, commenting on your shooting proficiency and general performance. It’s even possible to tick him off by standing around idly.
This is easily the most generous package Rebellion has put together, featuring an online co-op mode and a Gears of War-style Horde Mode with waves that come thick and fast.
Rebellion really gave Strange Brigade their all, which only made it all the more disheartening to see it leave the UK chart in a matter of weeks.
We often feel Llamasoft’s games are tailored to suit Jeff and Giles’ own finely-honed arcade skills, throwing new and inexperienced players into the thick of it too soon. Tempest 4000, however, offers an easier ride, regularly throwing a few valuable lifelines your way.
It isn’t until around stage 25, a quarter of the way through, that the difficulty ramps up. By this point, you should be well accustomed to escaping danger at the very last second. The super-zapper smart bomb is recharged between stages, instantly clearing whatever is on the grid, while the jump ability allows enemies congregating on the edge of the grid to be dealt with effortlessly. This score-chaser also has one other rather neat addition – an AI droid. Every time we gained this power-up we breathed a sigh of relief, as their presence almost guarantees a safe passage to the next stage.
It seems that Jeff Minter has dialled down the psychedelics here, too. Previous Llamasoft games are sometimes criticised for becoming too trippy for their own good, with the screen distorting effects obscuring the action. Tempest 4000 remains quite the trip, only now the backdrops and effects no longer distract, allowing you to focus on refining those arcade shooting skills.
We also like the use of vintage Atari slogans on the title screen. Seasoned gamers may notice a few other winks and nods to Atari of yore too, especially within the stage names.
Just to prove how addictive and compelling Tempest is, we booted it up just to grab a couple of screenshots and ended up spending the best part of an hour chasing high scores. It’s a more than welcome addition to the current gaming landscape – Tempest 3K was, lest you forget, released on one of the worst selling consoles of all-time.