We love ourselves a Game of the Year, a prize with such gravitas that it renders all other games obsolete. And we could argue for days whether a game deserves the accolade… *cough Dragon Age Inquisition cough* – but the games that win these top prizes are critical darlings, made by developers that are at the height of their creative powers.
But what of the forgotten treasures or the games that may have garnered acclaim and still missed out on the top prize due to their genre or themes or maybe they were just too ahead of their time. The games that did so much right but couldn’t quite elbow their way into the conversation. The games that didn’t quite shout loudly enough above the war cries of Kratos or the gun fire of Masterchief. Or the games that might have been beloved in their time but got lost or maybe there simply wasn’t a “Game of the Year” award when they released.
I’m taking a look back through the generations of gems that could have been Game of the Year, but just missed out.
10. Hellblade Senua’s Sacrfice (2017)
Hellblade is a game that has resonated with so many gamers due to it’s ground-breaking attempts at depicting mental illness, developer Ninja Theory enlisted specialists in the field and interviewed people who suffer from voice hearing so that they could accurately depict psychosis.
Despite only having a team of around 20 developers, Ninja Theory didn’t let that stand in the way of their ambitions, delivering a haunting and compelling narrative about a woman desperate to bring her lover back from the dead. Intertwining this with Celtic and Norse mythology, Hellblade conjures a world rarely seen in videogames.
The game received incredibly high praise upon release and even won some awards including Best British Game from the BAFTA’s as well as performer Melina Jüergens scooping every acting award going. Unfortunately, Hellblade was the victim of releasing in a year with incredibly tough competition, juggernauts like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey and Horizon Zero Dawn, which all took over the conversation. But no one can deny the power of the narrative this game had and it’s unfortunate Hellblade wasn’t nominated for the top prize at either The Game Awards or the DICE awards.
Looking ahead, Hellblade is set to receive a sequel called Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2. Not much is known about the game, but with the developer now a first party studio for Microsoft and a team over twice the size of the original, maybe the ambitions of the previous game will be achieved in the follow-up.
9. The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay (2004)
It is exceedingly rare for a videogame to be better than the film it’s based on, Chronicles of Riddick was one such game. A first-person stealth game set in Butcher Bay prison, a prison no one has escaped from. So of course, your main mission of the game is to escape. The game comprises of three increasingly secure areas, with the challenge growing in tandem.
Unlike other shooters of the era the HUD was massively stripped back, something modern shooters have emulated, but for the time this was a rare feature. Stealth gameplay like dragging bodies out of sight and using your bare hands to take down enemies are now standard in games like Hitman but started out life on games like Riddick.
The graphics were outstanding, bringing the game world to life, the Vin Diesel character model in particular looked uncanny, a rare feat for a game released 16 years ago. Small details like bullet holes glowing red upon first impact and darkening as they cool really helped to immerse the player in the environments.
Escape from Butcher Bay received critical acclaim and was nominated for many awards, even winning “action game of the year” from Computer Gaming World, but sadly the game is often overlooked, with World of Warcraft and Halo 2 releasing in the same year, it was hard for a game based on failed film franchise to stay in the status quo. Riddick’s lack of a multiplayer mode may have dented some enthusiasm for it as well, but even now the game is fantastic and well worth a play, the remake Assault on Dark Athena on PS3 and Xbox 360 is also worth a go if you don’t own an original Xbox.
8. South Park: Stick of Truth (2014)
One game genre that often struggles to work its way into the awards conversation whether it’s in film or in games is comedy. Every game nominated for Game of the Year at the Game Awards has been a serious game, only The Outer Worlds’ nomination in 2019 being an outlier, but is The Outer Worlds really a comedy game? 2014 saw the release of South Park: Stick of Truth, a truly exceptional RPG with an inspired combat system, beautifully designed open world, fantastic South Park Easter eggs for long time fans and the best script written for a game that year!
Stick of Truth is brilliant in the way it both pays homage to many games whilst using them for comedic leverage. A great example is the self-aware audio logs found on the spaceship “it’s like they’re filler… useless filler.” A sentiment shared by many gamers but used in South Park to great comedic effect.
Where Stick of Truth really shines is the loving recreation of the quiet Mountain Town and the ingenious use of the characters within the game. You start the game as the new kid aptly nicknamed “Douchebag”, your silent protagonist gets involved in an epic fantasy game of wizards and elves reminiscent of Lord of the Rings, with two sides vying to take control of the titular Stick of Truth. The game plays like a true RPG, with your character levelling up, learning new abilities and augmenting weapons with special attacks. The turn-based combat is simple to use but surprisingly deep, with each player taking it in turns to attack on a grid-based system – it’s fun and often challenging.
2014 is often thought to be a pretty-poor year for games with Dragon Age Inquisition getting most of the top prizes from most publications. I believe both Stick of Truth and the other comedic game released that year, Sunset Overdrive, were unfairly snubbed. Stick of Truth received favourable reviews and is still one of the best comedy games of all time and certainly deserved to be Game of the Year when it released.
7. Tomb Raider 2 (1997)
When Lara Croft debuted on the original PlayStation in 1996, she was an instant icon and is still one of the most recognisable faces in gaming. Tomb Raider 2 like some others on this list pre-dates many Game of the Year awards, this sequel actually released the same year that DICE gave their first ever Game of the Year (To Goldeneye if you’re interested).
But Tomb Raider 2 improved virtually everything from the legendary original and often doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. Massively improved graphics complete with moving ponytail, higher detailed environments, and less pointy breasts not to mention an improved storyline, fully controllable vehicles and who could forget locking your pesky groaning butler in freezer whilst exploring Lara Croft’s vast mansion.
Yes, the original game is still a ground-breaking masterpiece, but Tomb Raider 2 did everything better, so it’s a mystery why it is often overlooked when people think of the best games of all time. So many games owe a great debt to Tomb Raider 2 and in particular Uncharted 4’s jeep sections.
The game is very dated by today’s standards, the tank controls and confusing puzzles are a tough pill for the modern gamer to swallow. A Resident Evil 2/3 style remake of Tomb Raider 2 should be a no brainer, getting lost on the rivers of Venice, scaling the great wall of China, taking on sharks in 40 fathoms, whilst adding the improved combat of rebooted games… sign me up!
6. Twisted Metal 2 World Tour (1996)
The Twisted Metal franchise is still a one of a kind series, unlike enduring car sims such as Gran Turismo and Forza, Twisted metal used its cars to tell unique stories and create utter carnage. For anyone unfamiliar with Twisted Metal it’s a bit like Overwatch or Fortnite, but with cars. You select one 14 characters and work your way through a series of unique arenas, destroying all other competitors in your path. There are various weapon pick-ups, like ballistic missiles and napalm as well as each character getting their own special move, such as ice cream missile, tournedos, and fiery skulls.
What sets Twisted Metal apart is the stories and the characters, despite a dark and gothic premise, there’s a sense of humour to the characters, plus silly and incredibly fun cinematics for each completion of the game. Twisted Metal 2 World Tour is the best in the series, ironing out and expanding on the ideas set in motion in the first game. Even in its day it would never have been considered a good-looking game, but that’s not why you came. You came for the destruction and fun, and it delivered on that in spades – not to mention excellent split screen co-op to play with a friend.
Twisted Metal 2 received positive reviews when it released, though it was overshadowed by the similar game Destruction Derby 2, as well as the first Tomb Raider and platformers Crash Bandicoot and Super Mario 64. Twisted Metal is a game franchise that has fallen by the wayside, with the last console release being in 2012 on the PlayStation 3. The magic was unfortunately never quite captured again after this game, which is why I honestly believe Twisted Metal 2 World Tour to be the worthy Game of Year contender it never was.
5. Psi-ops Mindgate Conspiracy (2004)
Assassins Creed is now one of the biggest gaming franchises in the world, but who’d have thought that with the massively flawed first game the franchise would evolve to become what it is today. Psi-ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy is game in a similar vein to that, a flawed game with fantastic building blocks that could have, given time, become a premiere game franchise.
It’s a fairly typical third person shooter, but the game uses a slew of psychic powers to differentiate itself. Similar to 2019’s Control, you start off with telekinesis to pick up and throw various objects and enemies around with gay abandon. But other powers become available as the game progresses, the most fun being ‘mind control’, allowing you to enter the mind of an enemy to either commit suicide, kill other enemies, cause a distraction or just to flip a switch out of reach of the player, it’s genius!
Psi-op’s is an absolute blast to play and the powers offered new and inventive ways to tackle a fairly typical gameplay cycle. Sadly, the story is a touch rote, with poorly implemented characters and bad voice acting, though it still has a B-movie charm that should keep you going to the end. The developers set the game up for further instalments, even ending with a sequel baiting “To Be Continued” though it’s been 16 years so it’s probably time to let the dream die.
With Halflife 2 releasing the same year, Psi-ops never really entered the conversation, but the game received favourable reviews from critics and is often cited as one of the top games in need of a sequel. But even on its own Psi-ops is a fun game to play and did things other games have yet to perfect, for that it deserves more love and maybe a coveted Game of the Year nomination.
4. Dead Rising 3 (2013)
The first Dead Rising game is thought of very highly for good reason, it successfully evoked the feeling of being inside one of George A Romero’s zombie films with crowds of the undead that had never been seen on this sort of scale before. Taking a completely different approach to franchises like Resident Evil, its tongue firmly in its cheek, you fight your foes with a massive variety of weapons from the usual guns and chainsaws to the truly unusual like boomerangs, gumball machines and handbags.
The third entry in the series released as a launch game on the Xbox One turned everything up to 100. The hub worlds from previous games are turned into a fully open world with 0 load screens and the zombies on screen reaching jaw dropping levels. Weapons and vehicles can be customised like never before, with combo weapons and super combo weapons available, if you find the blueprints dotted around the world. Create items like Helmet bombs with Afro wigs and a stick of dynamite or of you really wanted to do some damage turn an ambulance into a “Shockdozer” and run and electrocute swarms of enemies in one go.
Though the story didn’t quite live up the originals, Dead Rising 3’s narrative was perfectly silly and still good enough to hold your attention to the end. For me it was the most fun of all the entries in the series, which was mostly let-down by some technical difficulties often experienced on launch titles. Dead Rising 3 had the unfortunate experience of releasing in one of the best years of gaming – The Last Us, Grand Theft Auto 5, Bioshock Infinite and the Tomb Raider Reboot were the names on everybody’s lips and unfortunately Dead Rising 3 never entered the conversation, but Dead Rising 3 could be the well have been the most fun game of 2013 – and it was certainly the best launch title for the new generation consoles. So maybe it deserves a bit more love than it got.
3. Zombies Ate My Neighbours (1993)
Many games from Super Nintendo and Sega Megadrive era still get lots of love and attention, Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario Bros, Donkey Kong Country, Super Bomberman but one game that rarely gets the recognition it so rightly deserves is LucasArts Zombies Ate My Neighbours (or just ‘Zombies’ in the UK). A towering homage to B-movie horror films, a 42 level epic where your goal is to save your neighbours from chainsaw wielding lumberjacks, werewolves, giant babies and of course the titular zombies.
If you’ve never played the game, Zombies is a top down run and gun with a huge variety of weapons. These include water pistols, exploding soda cans, silverware cutlery, rotten tomatoes – the game certainly doesn’t take itself seriously, going for bright colours and zany humour rather than gritty horror. The two protagonists Zeke and Julie can each be played from the beginning either in in solo or co-op, both experiences are worth trying but beware going at the game solo, it is an enormous test and even in co-op the game is still very difficult. Most games get labelled “Dark Souls of…” when they pose any kind of challenge, but Zombies without a modern save system, means the game needs to be completed in one sitting, maybe Dark Souls is the “Zombies Ate My Neighbours” of the modern era. Each level requires you to save 10 neighbours, if they die before you get to them they do not come back on the next level, with pretty large labyrinthine levels, various meandering paths and tons of enemies, this is not the game for the faint of heart.
Even with a high difficulty it’s still an absolute blast to play – how could the game be improved… I don’t think it can, it delivers on exactly what it tries to do, a modern save system and better inventory management would be welcome additions but for a game of the era it’s damn near perfect. It’s one of the best games of its generation and certainly deserves the title Game of the Year for 1993.
2. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (2002)
Most 90’s kids will remember the ass-kicking adventures of Sunnydale California resident Buffy Summers; the show still garners praise and conversation almost two decades after the show ended. Buffy spawned many different pieces of media during its run from novels and comics to an animated TV show. Many Forget that Buffy had 2 major console games, with the first being an absolute masterpiece.
The game came at a time when every big budget film and TV show would get a licenced Videogame and very few of them were particularly good, Buffy bucked this trend and received critical acclaim, earning 8’s and 9’s from most publications at the time of its release.
Developed by The Collective (later Double Helix) the game made use of the original Xbox’s hardware with incredibly detailed graphics, best-in-class motion capture, spot on hit detection and excellent voice acting from the majority of the TV cast (sans Sarah Michelle Gellar for some reason).
The game married a mixture of Tomb Raider style puzzle solving and platforming with a 3D fighting system never seen before, enemy AI was generally smart and aggressive giving the player a real challenge especially on the hardest difficulty. The option to pick up items such as shovels and mops was great addition plus a solid arsenal including; crossbows, flamethrowers, holy water vials and a reaper blade that could be thrown to decapitate foes from afar.
Despite stellar reviews, decent sales and high praise from fans the game was sadly snubbed in all major Game of the Year conversations, with games like Grand Theft Auto Vice City, Metroid Prime, Splinter Cell and Battlefield 1942 taking over the conversation. But if you have an original Xbox or if Microsoft finally make the game backwards compatible you may find the game still holds up incredibly well 18 years later, much more so than a lot of games from the time. It’s unlikely Buffy will make a comeback on our consoles, but I still stand by this Xbox exclusive being not only one of the best games of 2002, but one of the best games of the generation. (You can read the full review here)
NUMBER 1 : Jade Empire (2005)
It’s hard to remember a time when Bioware weren’t making games that everyone hated, Anthem and Mass Effect Andromeda haven’t resonated with players making Bioware’s current gen output rather disappointing to say the least. But back in the early 2000’s Bioware were busy creating games that would cement them as one of the best western RPG developers in the world.
Hot off the heels of the tremendously popular and still beloved Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic, Bioware decided to base their next game in ancient China. At a time when the films Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and The Matrix had reignited interest in martial arts, Jade Empire was well timed.
You take on the role as the Spirit Monk a master of multiple forms of martial arts, you could play the game how you wanted with whatever technique you preferred, as well as using Bioware’s signature morality and dialogue tree’s. Jade Empire played with morality more deftly than Knights of the Old Republic, making choices greyer so choosing one succinct moral path doesn’t always lead to the outcome the player may expect. The game boasts fantastic narrative that twists in unexpected directions, with Bioware’s signature loveable characters that range from a comedic slightly nuts inventor to your stoic potential lover.
Jade Empire certainly made an impact, the game was a critical darling, but low sales and releasing just before the Xbox 360 launched meant the game is now a forgotten gem. Games like the original God of War and Resident Evil 4 dominated the Game of the Year conversations, but Jade Empire was a truly remarkable game that not only deserved the spotlight back then, it should be remembered a lot more fondly now. Stand aside Resident Evil 4 and Shadow of the Colossus, 2005 belongs to Jade Empire.