What Games Did You Love That Bombed?

What Games Did You Love That Bombed?
Image: DotEmu

There’s plenty of games that enjoy huge commercial success, and many others that sell millions that don’t even get the recognition they deserve. But there are hundreds, if not thousands of games, that are just as quality but for whatever reason, never find their true audience.

I was thinking about this when digging through my calendar this week. There’s a string of quarterly investor calls over the next few days, including major companies like EA, Activision-Blizzard, and so on.

I was wondering about the impact of the last 12 months on gaming habits, what it’s done to certain franchises and even thinking about the enormous success of games like Cyberpunk 2077 despite all their launch troubles. And that triggered a further thought about all the really good games that don’t break through, either not at all or at least not in their initial form.

The Last Express is one of those games that commercially struggled when it was released. The story of how it was made is genuinely fascinating, with the game being shot on 16mm film with partial automation — a huge technological accomplishment for the mid-to-late ’90s.

It was structurally fascinating, too. Unlike most point-and-click or FMV adventures at the time, The Last Express played out completely in real-time. The player had three days, or around 8 to 10 hours, to resolve a murder on the Orient Express’ final journey before the beginning of World War 1.

The non-linearity of the story, design, unique aesthetic from the rotoscoping technique and recreation of the time period made for a game that still stands out, even today. But, sadly, The Last Express suffered from some horrific luck.

Only weeks before The Last Express launched, the game’s publisher, Broderbund, lost their entire marketing staff. That killed the necessary advertising push that would have been key to helping The Last Express — which cost $US5 million to develop at the time — break even.

To make matters worse, the game’s distribution was split between three companies: Broderbund, GAMEBANK and GAMEBANK’s parent firm, SoftBank Group. The three-way deal was a result of a bidding war for the game’s distribution rights, but after the game was released, SoftBank dissolved GAMEBANK entirely and quit the video game industry.

That meant the PS1 port of The Last Express — and any hope for a second wind of interest, an essential key for the long-tail success that adventure games traditionally relied upon — was cancelled. To make matters worse, GAMEBANK’s death also spelt the end of the game’s wider distribution. The Last Express wasn’t even available on store shelves the Christmas it launched, leaving it a million units behind its break even target.

You can buy the game today thanks to Jordan Mechner, who reacquired the rights to The Last Express around a decade ago. He’s worked with DotEmu to re-release the game on PC and mobile devices.

Image: Earthbound

A classic video game story about a commercial ‘failure’ is Earthbound, a game crippled more by Nintendo’s internal failures and processes than a lack of public appreciation. While Earthbound would eventually become one of the best selling games on the Wii U’s Virtual Console, getting a weird, quirky game like Earthbound through Nintendo’s labyrinthian processes for a wider Western release in the ’90s was an enormous challenge.

“Inside Nintendo, I kind of don’t know that they ever really understood that the game had as big a grassroots following as it did,” Marcus Lindblom, who worked on the game’s English localisation, said.

Image: Terra Nova Strike Force Centauri

A game that I loved that saw absolutely no commercial success was from a studio known for making nothing but hits. Looking Glass Studios’s resume is nothing short of banger after banger: Ultima Underworld 2, Flight Unlimited, System Shock, Thief: The Dark Project, Destruction Derby 64, Thief 2, System Shock 2, and under a previous company name, the original Ultima Underworld and Chuck Yeager’s Advanced Flight Trainer.

But some of their games were enormous commercial failures. Terra Nova: Strike Force Centauri was a tactical 3D shooter with some great Mechwarrior vibes. But the game’s development became hugely expensive due due to an executive decision to include full-motion video, attempting to mirror the success of Wing Commander.

With the FMV shooting all done in-house, the majority of the game’s budget ended up being eaten by the game’s cut scenes. That resulted in key features like online multiplayer being cut, and more time was lost due to rewrites of the script to keep the cutscenes and missions coherent.

Terra Nova was also exceedingly brutal for its time. PC gaming had a reputation in the mid ’90s for scaling poorly, and Terra Nova suffered heavy slowdowns even on high-end systems. Here’s a review from back in the day: 

It falls firmly into the Flight Unlimited/EF2000 nose-dive of running like a sick dog on much less than a P60. Even on a P133, when you turn on the extremely flash external camera views, there’s a noticeable slowdown. It’s virtually impossible to recommend it to anyone not in possession of a Pentium. 

Of course, you can run Terra Nova today on practically anything. But it’s no surprise that all of the game’s success were buried under the fact that most people didn’t have systems that could run the game when Terra Nova released, and the lengthy delays meant Terra Nova was competing with like Civilization 2, Duke Nukem 3D, Warcraft 2, The Ripper and other hugely popular non-PC games (like Pokemon Red/Green, which launched 2 days before Terra Nova) at the time.


There’s a ton of other games that come to mind that never really quite took off, but always have a spot in my heart for one reason or another. The original StarTopia was never hugely successful, but it was hard not to appreciate its Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy-style of humour, even if the combat was abhorrent.

Grim Fandango was another game that struggled, selling about half the units that Full Throttle did. The game did eventually break even. But it was one of those instances where the industry had moved past the adventure game genre, with more advanced 3D graphics and online multiplayer all the rage. “Ron and I have always felt adventure games have the same market they always did, which is about 200,000 units sold,” Tim Schafer told San Francisco Weekly in an interview after Double Fine’s success on Kickstarter. “But with Call of Duty people expect 15 million units sold … People were told, ‘You guys like these kinds of games, but you’re not worth it, so we’re not going to make this kind of game for you.'”

You could even broaden the bucket further, including handhelds like the PS Vita. The video game industry is filled with stories of projects that deserved better, or incredible ideas and releases beset by horrific luck and timing.

So I’m curious to hear from you. What games do you love that never saw the financial success they deserved? Any Ouya fans in the comments?

Comments

  • While I didn’t love it, I had a lot of fun with BRINK. I forget what caused its poor reviews and eventual all-to-soon demise but I always thought it got the short end of the stick. It was a decent little game and it had a fun mantling mechanic before that became more common place.

    • It was a bunch of thing if I recall…
      • The fun exaggerated art style was stomped down by focus on there not being any female character models (an ill-timed loop of gender representation starting to be a recognised issue coupled with not having the resources thereafter to redo all the models and animations)
      • Guns were super generic and boring for the interesting near-future design of the rest of the game.
      • The cool movement it was built on wasn’t enough to push past the numerous other issues when it was already operating in a pretty competitive genre.

      Kinda like how nobody really remembers KillSwitch being the first to do proper active cover in a shooter, because when Gears of War did it a couple of years later it paired it with a suitably visceral design and better-engineered gameplay loop – similarly Brink was functionally just proof-of-concept for an idea that was later able to see more success with Titanfall.

    • I preordered Brink on the strength of its dev diaries and I regret NOTHING about that except that no-one else would play it with me.

      It would’ve been nice if the campaign had been more than just a specific list of maps with bots, too, but beyond that it was a very solid game when you could get some players together.

      I’m done with match-based PVP these days, I don’t have the time to waste on anything that isn’t also delivering me some new narrative experiences at the same time as gameplay, but Brink is the definition of under-rated.

  • Fallout 76, I played about 200 hours in the first six months when everyone was hating on it! Havent played it since the significant updates!

  • Crackdown 2 was excellent fun (so much more addictive than 3)

    Enslaved Oddessy to the West was memorable adventure

    I was addicted to the spies vs mercs in Splinter Cell Blacklist which flopped against GTA and Saints Row IV.

  • Heavenly Sword on PS3. Started off a fairly generic God Of War clone, but by the end the story and acting was phenomenal.

    I thought Anthem had some potential and was eagerly looking forward to the reboot, but well…

  • Not sure if it bombed (I presume it did) but I love Gabriel Knight 3 Blood of the Sacred Blood of the Damned. Another point and click adventure game that tried to go 3D. I actually think the control scheme is pretty user friendly. Instead of moving the character in the 3D space, you move the camera. This means when you stop moving you can still use the mouse to click any items of interest.
    The story is also incredible.

  • Cyberpunk 2077 (PC) was my game of the year… its weird, first playthrough, hardly any bugs, better than any Ubisoft or Bethesda open world on Day 1. Finished it tried a Second playthrough with different build ALL THE BUGS, just gave up as it became unplayable. Which is so weird.

    I liked Anthem, way more than I critised it for and played it for longer than I should. I am really starving for an Action MMO that is not overly complicated, fun to play, and doesn’t try to fleece me with MTX.

    Otherwise all I can think of is the MMOs that no longer exist…

    Marvels Heroes – 300 plus hours. A dialogue style dungeon crawler with Marvel heroes. Disney shut it down after two years.

    All Points Bulletin- a gang warfare game, really enjoyed that before the hacking got obscenely bad and it financially collapsed. (The rarest steam achievements I have are Marvel Heroes and APB)

    City of Heroes – Before World of Warcraft, it was my favourite MMO and I still think it beat WoW in so many aspects of game mechanics it was shame it didn’t get the popularity WoW did.

    • Matrix Online, Tabula Rasa, Auto Assault. A trifecta of MMOs that came out close to CoV and all died premature deaths.

      APB was surprisingly good for what it was, but it could (and should) have been so much more. I still love the ‘Gimme that Punk’ Audio Bullys trailer for APB. If they’d just stuck true to the original vision… instead, the world turned into a glorified lobby for the more lucrative match-based PVP. And a lack of Australian/Asian servers REALLY hurt trying to play that with yanks. The lag was everything.

  • Alpha Protocol, while some elements of the game was annoying (like the hacking mini game) overall the game was great in my opinion

    • Alpha Protocol did so many interesting things. It’s a crying shame that there were lots of broken things because the stuff that worked was amazing. The dialogue system alone was so incredibly ambitious. I can’t think of another game since that has even attempted that kind of reactive system.

  • Kingdoms of Amalur. Solid concept and I was there was more of it, but the piss poor “remaster” has likely signed the death warrant of the franchise.

    • Cam here to say this. I spent a lot of time in that game and sad when the studio went under taking the MMO with it. Never been into MMOs but that would have gotten me to try.

  • Mercs 2 (mostly solid on PC but dragged down by the console versions and some critical glitches) and Saboteur… poor Pandemic.

    Battleborn was a super-annoying case of some great gameplay and design being self-destructed by forcing even the solo game through an online system that was never stable enough to complete a mission. I might have really liked it if it didn’t effectively reset my level progress every 20min so I couldn’t even reach the second big robot battle!

    There are also some neat racing games that never really gained enough traction (no pun intended) like BLUR (cut off from being able to build a tail of sales over time), Dethkarz (because nobody else even heard of it) and Split/Second.

  • I have a habit of enjoying the games a lot of other people complain about hating – especially if they’re from Bioware! I really enjoyed Mass Effect 3 and Andromeda, Dragon Age II , and Anthem. My only complaint with Anthem is that the loot system was terrible, and there wasn’t enough end-game content after playing the storyline missions. I actually think Anthem would have been a better game if they’d made it a single-player game with more storyline content.

    I’m like this with some of the Assassins’ Creed games too – enjoyed AC III and Unity far more than I expected, and I thought Black Flag was a bit meh.

    • *Shadowlee loves DA2, ME3, Andromeda and Anthem*
      Me: Oooh, we should be frien–
      *Shadowlee thinks the best AC game ever made was a bit meh*
      Me: …Nevermind.

  • Not big games, but they don’t seem to be received well:
    Ryse: Son of Rome
    Rage 2
    Splinter Cell Blacklist
    SW: Force Unleashed 2
    AC: Syndicate
    And probably a bunch of others

  • Boiling Point: Road to hell. the first game that came out using X-Ray that Stalker series used. I even played the sequel and the other fps by the same devs the Precursors after an Article about them was put up here during Serral’s run as Editor.

    Im a sucker for janky ex soviet states made games, because while they are buggy and frustrating as all hell due to their ability to crash from just crashing, they often have that charm or gameplay loop that, to quote todd howard, just works

  • I would say Evolve was the game for me. Loved it, but the marketing and launch was a disaster, the player base plummeted and they shelved any plans for DLC and ran down their support until they pulled the servers. Massive pity as it had a lot of promise and I had some great games.

    The recent Predator game springs to mind as well (though that was a lot more janky than Evolve). I know living in Australia limits multiplayer for smaller games, but this one was dead after a month.

  • As luck would have it, I just did a video covering five Windows 95 and 98 games that I consider hidden gems: https://youtu.be/QEBPbKODlVg

    For one reason or another, all of these games didn’t see the success they really should have, and have mostly been forgotten by time, but they are all great and are worth playing.

    • For anyone that doesn’t want top watch the video, my list is:

      Lemmings Paintball
      Shogo: Mobile Armour Division
      Addiction Pinball
      Submarine Titans
      Powerslide

      • Wait, Shogo was hidden/bombed? Everyone I knew at the time who played it loved the shit out of the demo… I guess that didn’t translate to sales?

        Also, haha, Lemmings Paintball. That was a really great period in gaming history. Now that I think about it, that particular franchise diversion definitely has a mirror in PvZ Garden Warfare.

  • Defiance – it was an action shooter MMO that was actually pretty good on release I think it was better than Destiny years before it came out. Solid gun play, abilities, class mechanics and an actual scifi story, challenges, world events, raids, a nice looter shooter with exotic alien weaponry (a gun made people explode into a swarm of flesh eating bugs). It had everything.

    Only problem, it was a collaboration with a SyFy channel TV series that bombed… didn’t have global release (no Asian market) and held back its own development to keep pace with a TV show that wasn’t getting renewed.

    TV show failure limited their budget and appeal, it went free2play and started making some rushed and broken game design choices.

    • Haha, I had a preorder/founder’s pack with Defiance on account of how close it looked to what I missed from Tabula Rasa.
      It was, much like the show, disappointing (things felt like they ‘slid’ along the surface too much, it was all a bit world-of-cardboardy), but probably the more disappointing thing was when they rebranded and relaunched in such a way as to lock my founder account of all the sweet perks that they wanted to F2P re-sell back to me.

  • This is a great article. So many old favourites.
    It’d be awsome if the ‘nostalgia’ tag (that Leah used on the promoted ‘games from childhood’ article) was used more often. That stuff is my jam.

  • Void Bastards got moderate reviews but totally hit the spot for me.
    Heat Signature is amazing, but seems pretty low profile.
    Underrail was a decent shot of Fallout 2 style RPG.
    The Ship was really interesting take on multiplayer that seemed to have players for a very short time.

Show more comments

Log in to comment on this story!