2006 Was The Year Of The Video Game Underdog

2006 Was The Year Of The Video Game Underdog
Image: Kotaku Australia

When you think of years that were great for video games, nobody turns around and says, “2006 was a banger.”

Transition years are often major events for the industry, because new hardware often results in huge spikes of revenue that pleases investors. But it would often take years because the power of that new hardware — the PS3 and Wii that November, with the Nintendo DS earlier in the year and the Xbox 360 having only just launched in November 2005 — translated into meaningfully powerful video games.

The industry remembered 2006 as a record year. A chip shortage — not one as brutal as what we’re going through now, but enough to impact supply — meant old-gen consoles sold just as well as the 360, PS3 and the Wii. The Nintendo DS sold millions, and the DS Lite sold over 9 million units worldwide by the time 2016 ended. Australia was meant to get the PS3 at launch in a global release, but that launch was eventually pushed back to March 2007 due to manufacturing difficulties. (It would go on to sell 27,083 consoles in Australia over 10 days, which wasn’t a bad effort given the launch price was $999.)

2006 video games
When the PS3 did launch in Australia, the lines were long. Image: CNET Australia / James Kozanecki

Developers needed a lot more time to get comfortable with new consoles in those days, unlike the situation today with the PS5 and Xbox Series X that makes backward compatibility a lot easier. And the console launches themselves ran into plenty of problems. The early iteration of the Xbox 360 was beset with the infamous Red Ring of Death, a hardware fault so frequent that it cost Microsoft over $US1 billion in one of the biggest recalls in consumer electronics history.

So it’s no surprise that 2006 was marked by other things. It was the year Twitter launched, the introduction of the Blu-Ray drive, the year Google bought YouTube for $US1.65 billion, the foundation of Amazon Web Services, the year Pixar was bought by Walt Disney, the launch of the MacBook.

But it was also the launch of Wii Sports.

wii sports party game
Image: Wii Sports

I genuinely can’t think of anything I’ve wanted a remake of more than Wii Tennis. Sure, Wii Sports Club was released again on the Wii U. And there’s a sort of tennis game available with Mario Tennis Aces. But the magic wasn’t the same, possibly because the Wii U was a failure, Mario Tennis Aces wasn’t as fun and people probably still had some lingering form of RSI from Wii Tennis all-nighters.

People’s Elder Scrolls obsession was also satiated with Oblivion, which is still one of my favourite showcases for Bethesda’s range and versatility in open-worlds. Sure, travelling through Oblivion itself was eternally frustrating. But you had The Dark Brotherhood line, or some of the Thieves Guild quests. Hell, the Guild quests alone were more interesting than the main storyline. And that’s not because Oblivion‘s main story was dry or dull; it’s just an indicator of how good Bethesda’s quest design and worldbuilding was then, especially compared to what the industry was producing in 2006.

I still remember plenty of people preferring Morrowind to Oblivion. I’ve even heard some lunatics vouch for Daggerfall, which is absurd if you remember how broken that game was at launch. But that was symptomatic of a lot of games in 2006. They were underdogs, filled with plenty of quality, but perennial runners up.

Look at Twilight Princess. It’s easily one of the best games of that year by some considerable distance, and absolutely not even close to anyone’s top three or even top five Zelda titles. Harsh, but then, when you’re up against Link to the Past, Breath of the Wild, Majora’s Mask, Link Between Worlds, Ocarina of Time … well, you can’t really blame people.

But it still had plenty of quality and intrigue that absolutely warranted a remaster. And people have been asking the same thing about Bully, Rockstar’s open-world high school adventure that has astonishingly been ignored for almost 20 years. Sure, the original was ported to mobiles in 2016. But Bully is notoriously buggy on modern systems. Rockstar themselves have been thinking of sequel ideas for a while, spending a year and a half on a prototype.

Medieval 2: Total War — if you can get past the weirdness of 16:9 aspect ratio on games that were designed around 4:3 screens — is another game that still holds up well today. There’s a simplicity to the textures and animations compared to modern Total War games, and Creative Assembly has made so many advancements with the franchise in terms of aesthetics, accessibility and (most importantly) UI. But even though Total War: Rome 2 (eventually), Shogun 2Three Kingdoms and the Warhammer series would probably be most people’s idea of “the best” Total War, Medieval 2 was superb.

2006 gave us games like Okami, underrated gems that would need remasters on other platforms before it could be fully appreciated. There were games like Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth 2, a licensed RTS backed by EA with two excellent singleplayer campaigns that did the original IP plenty of justice. It didn’t receive too much acclaim, mind you, because it happened to launch in the same year as Relic’s Company of Heroes, a game that is still influencing strategy games to this day.

And if we’re talking underrated gems, could there potentially be anything more underrated on the DS than Elite Beat Agents? Of course, it would be hard for EBA to get the recognition it deserved for its rhythm brilliance … because it also happened to get dwarfed by another monstrous rhythm-based banger, Guitar Hero. And sure, jamming on that plastic guitar was fun. But was it as fun as controlling a trio of agents whose jobs ranged from forging concert tickets to helping babies sleep?

Gears of War got its start in 2006, and despite the acclaim I’d argue it wasn’t until Gears of War 2 that the franchise really found its footing. New Super Mario Bros. offered the first new 2D Mario in aeons, but its competence — rather than brilliance — would all be forgotten a year later when Super Mario Galaxy completely rewrote the Mario formula.

The year was littered with plenty of games in a similar scenario. I absolutely loved Dark Messiah of Might & Magic, but I also don’t remember seeing it on a single GOTY list that year. FlatOut 2 was a hallmark of LAN parties the world over; it was practically a ritual in Australia as soon as the clock hit 5:00pm. 2006 gave us Psychonauts, a game that was denied a sequel by publishers the world over until a completely new business model took hold. Neverwinter Nights 2 was some of Obsidian’s best work, until Fallout: New Vegas came along.

Speaking of Vegas, Rainbow Six: Vegas was a brilliant crack from Ubisoft at translating the Tom Clancy franchise into a world feeling the effects of Call of Duty. (Ubisoft, funnily enough, only announced this year that they would finally shut down servers for Rainbow Six: Vegas and Rainbow Six: Vegas 2, an indication of how beloved the games were.) There was Viva Pinata, a game whose time has surely come around again, and the touching brilliance of Shadow of the Colossus.

You could go on and on: Rockstar Games Table Tennis, Microsoft Flight Simulator X, Prey, Hollywood simulator The Movies and its bizarre creations, the hugely entertaining Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, April Ryan’s time-bending adventure Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, Relic’s outstanding Dark Crusade expansion for Dawn of War, and even “games” like Professor Kawashima’s Brain Training.

They’re all great fun in their own way; some even have legitimate claims to brilliance. But many titles from 2006 simply never got that level of reverence, if only because they were immediately overshadowed by something bigger, or because the industry was so preoccupied with such an enormous year of transition. There were certainly plenty of troubled launches, mainstream panic and scandal to dominate the headlines. But 2006 was filled with underdogs too, plenty of which would find success today with a fresh coat of paint and some well-deserved TLC.

Comments

  • Damn, there’s some bangers in that list. I need to go back to creating my little box-art tile mosaics for more years past the 00s.

    Dawn of War’s Dark Crusade has never been matched. I really wish Relic would try, though. I mean actually try to do a better Dark Crusade, not this micro-focused MOBA-wannabe hybrid bullshit they’ve been trying for the last decade and a half. Real time STRATEGY, not real time TACTICS, Relic. 😛 Ugh. I’ma go reinstall Dark Crusade now. So great.

      • Woohoo! I love me some layers to my RTSen. Even just the illusion of it in C&C (choosing between which mission to complete based on some pretense that it might affect later missions) was a thrill.

    • Apart from Necrons being a broken af race, that is, something that was never actually properly addressed even in balance patches until the following (and final) expansion, Soulstorm.

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