In every medium there are bound to be revered classics that, in retrospect, actually aren’t very good. Occasionally, pieces of entertainment remain relevant over time not because they are necessarily great artworks, but entries in important series, or static reminders of the framework of their time. Video game history is interesting because unlike other major forms of entertainment like books, film, and television, video games have only been a part of entertainment culture for forty years. The definition of what constitutes as a “classic” is debatable within a field that has only recently learned how to walk on its own.
For the sake of argument, this list of fifteen classic games that actually aren’t very good covers games starting from the video game console that started the gaming revolution, NES, and spans to the infancy of the Playstation 2. Why? Because the natural halfway point between the release of Nintendo’s first home console and today is right at the turn of the millennium. While some may argue that games released past 2001 are modern classics, and others may argue that classics only cover the early days of arcade and action games of the mid-eighties and early-nineties, this list represents the progression of games from 1987 to 2001, a timespan in which games went through constant changes and evolutions to influence, and serve as a template for, what games are today in 2016. The entries here are sometimes fun experiences, but fun doesn't always equate to an overall good experience.
This 2001 puzzle-platformer has never been a commercial success, but it often appears on pretentious greatest of all time lists. It was unlike anything available on Playstation 2; different doesn’t always mean better. The platforming elements are aggravating and poorly designed. The companion system is more than a slight annoyance. The hero, Ico, is tasked with helping Yorda explore and escape the castle. She doesn’t make it easy on him, eroding the occasional sophistication of its sparse puzzles. The environments are all too similar and barren. The story is a minimalist showing, featuring a wretched Queen and her army of shadow creatures. The motivations are never fully explained and the emotional weight that is frequently credited here isn’t earned. Ico is best defined in modern terminology as a walking simulator, only without the gripping tale that makes modern takes on the genre so powerful. Team Ico did much of the same four years later in Shadow of the Colossus, but added engaging gameplay, interesting enemies and impressive environments - three traits that were amiss in their coming out party.
Many say that Chrono Trigger is the greatest role playing game of all time. It’s successor, Chrono Cross, isn’t held to the same esteem, but is nonetheless considered a Playstation classic. It adheres to the mantra of no random battle encounters set forth by its predecessor, and updates the graphics admirably. But what made Chrono Trigger stand out was its rich story. It’s removed in the Square’s successor, replaced by problematic narrative pacing and baffling plot points. It culminates in a ambiguous ending that begs the question: “What’s the point?” Character development is important in lengthy role playing games, and here it is spread too far and focused too thin with too many major characters that resemble minor characters at best, and cardboard cutouts at its worst.
This arcade fighter was ported to the Super Nintendo and Gameboy in 1995 to commercial success. Borrowing from Street Fighter in terms of combat aesthetics, Killer Instinct was never as tactilely strategic. Instead of memorizing strings of button presses to perform combos, they are automated to a single press of the switch or flick of the joystick, removing the very aspects that make fighting games satisfying. It also attempted to introduce finishing moves akin to the fatalities in Mortal Kombat, but failed to do so admirably or as devastatingly. To compound its shortcomings, Ultra Combos allowed players to perform twenty or more attacks in a row which made the gameplay unbalanced. Fighting games are supposed to reward skill and precision, and Killer Instinct didn’t highlight either of those distinctions. Its influence remains strong; Microsoft brought it back on Xbox One with new waves of content and characters released steadily.
The primary reason that Microsoft is still in the gaming business is because of this 2001 shooter and its successors. Halo: Combat Evolved is propped up as one of the greatest games of all time. Was it really that great, or was it an average game on a desolate console? Appearing at a time when graphical overhauls were the norm, Bungie’s Microsoft savior, was flashy and ahead of its time. Pretty doesn’t mean good, and for what has been said about the high concept story, at this stage in the franchise’s life, it’s clear that the foundation was problematic. The level designs are too much of a mix between large areas with no enemies and closed off boundaries riddled with an abundance of rinse and repeat flows of mostly grunts and elites. The squad-based shooter has awful computer allies that are as useless as they are in the way. Worst of all, a sizable portion of the game is traversed by vehicles with amateurish and unapologetic handling. The multiplayer maps adhere to camping mentalities over head-to-head combat. Halo 2 and Halo 3 are Bungie's masterpieces, and take what was poorly done in the original, and expound upon it with glorious precision.