Design by Collin Oguro
It's console launch time again, and though we all wait with great anticipation for any news regarding the Revolution, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3, one thing is still very much uncertain--the launch games. As the announcements begin to sprinkle in and the games begin to unveil themselves, we can only hope they'll become games we talk about years down the line when recalling the glory days of the systems. In honor of the impending console generation, we revisit some of the best games to come out on their consoles' respective launch days--not only those that influenced the sales of their systems, but ones that we remember fondly even today as great games, not just great launch games.
Read on as we count down the 13 best games to ever launch alongside a game machine. Why 13? Because there are too many amazing Super Mario games to limit this list to 10, that's why.
13. Castlevania: Circle of the Moon (GBA)
The Game Boy Advance--Nintendo's second attempt at a colorized portable game system--is still one of the best-selling video game consoles in the world, a full four years and three hardware revisions after its initial launch. One of the major reasons for the console's success is its role as a reservation for classic 2D gameplay--the kind of simple, two-to-four-button platforming fun that went out the door when the Dual Shock came in. Of course, this type of game was still viable when the GBA launched, and Castlevania: Circle of the Moon proved it right off the bat.
This awesome platform game picked up Castlevania: Symphony of the Night's torch a few years after its release, continuing that game's tradition of superb, nonlinear platform gameplay. Circle of the Moon had the same refined feel as Alucard's adventure, even though the new protagonist, Nathan "Not a Belmont" Graves, wielded a whip instead of a sword. This was a lengthy adventure by the standards of the day, and it also provided plenty of challenge for experienced gamers. Those who pooh-poohed the GBA as a kiddie system soon found themselves gripping the colorful new system tightly and sweating all over the shoulder buttons as they tried to cope with COTM's final boss fight.
Castlevania: Circle of the Moon was a stupendous launch game for the GBA because it immediately legitimized the handheld as something gamers could be proud to own--partly due to its association with Symphony of the Night, but mostly on its own merits. PlayStation owners who enjoyed SOTN were sure to pick up the system because of this game, and they were probably pleasantly surprised by its high quality. Circle of the Moon was a follow-up product that became a must-have as soon as it hit store shelves, much like the GBA itself.
12. Ridge Racer (PS)
When you think of the PlayStation's launch, odds are you think of Ridge Racer. Or perhaps Tekken, but that would make you crazy, because Tekken didn't ship at the same time as the PlayStation. Ridge Racer was one of those games that not only was a great driving game in its day, but also served as a pretty impressive technical showcase for Sony's new platform.
Starting its life as an arcade game, the whole Ridge Racer series grew to become synonymous with the PlayStation after the first game was released alongside the console. The first Ridge Racer left an impression on early PlayStation owners, because aside from that whole "no analog control" thing that the PlayStation had going on back then, it was an accurate take on the arcade original. Given the premium that had been placed on polygonal graphics around that time, being able to take a game like Ridge Racer home was still sort of unheard of.
On top of that, Ridge Racer was an extremely fun and exciting game. It had a good collection of unlockables, delivered a firm sense of speed, and had just enough tracks to keep you going until the later release of Ridge Racer Revolution. While these days the Ridge Racer series may take a backseat to a few other, higher-impact racing games, in their day, the Ridge Racer games were the best thing going. If you were a PlayStation owner back in 1995, odds are you already know precisely what we're talking about.
11. NFL 2K (DC)
Video game consoles launching with sports games is a trend that's nearly as old as the industry itself. After all, sports is a genre that is immediately familiar to casual and hardcore players alike. But to launch a console with one of the best sports games ever made? That's almost unheard of. Yet in September of 1999, that's exactly what publisher Sega and developer Visual Concepts did with the release of NFL 2K for the Dreamcast.
Football games, long the exclusive territory of series such as Madden and Game Day, as well as various pretenders to the pigskin throne, had become a bit stale at the tail end of the original PlayStation generation--people were ready for something new, a game that would offer a hint at the kind of excitement the next generation had in store. NFL 2K was just that game, an alluring mix of next-generation graphical prowess, spot-on football gameplay, and presentation tricks aplenty that pulled a hard reset on what fans could and should expect from their sports games. It also meant that Dreamcast owners had an embarrassment of launch-day riches--with not one but two must-own launch-day games (the other being the epic Soul Calibur).
Gorgeous graphics, clean animations, and detailed player models were just the start with NFL 2K. The game got so many little touches right--from an utterly unique play-calling system to a redefinition of what play-by-play commentary should sound like in sports games. But it also nailed the most important aspect down from the beginning--creating fun, lively, and challenging football gameplay that became a hallmark of the 2K series throughout its lifetime. NFL 2K was an amazing game for the simple reason that it came out of the gate running at a full gallop and only picked up the pace in subsequent releases.
If you're interested in reading more about NFL 2K, be sure to check out our recent feature, GameSpot Sports Classic: NFL 2K.
10. California Games (Lynx)
California Games didn't debut on the Lynx. Epyx had previously brought the game to the Commodore 64, and other, reduced-quality versions had appeared on the Atari 2600 and NES. But the Lynx, which Epyx designed and sold off to Atari, got its very own version of the game that may have contained the same events but felt different enough to be every bit as impressive as the original C64 version was.
California Games is--like Summer Games, Winter Games, and World Games--a collection of various sporting events, though these have a decidedly "California" vibe to them, making this one of the first "extreme" sports games on the market. It has surfing, hacky sack, BMX, skateboarding, and halfpipe skateboarding. With multiple events, each of which is fun in its own right, it made for a perfect launch game.
Why? Variety, of course. Each of the events is interesting enough to keep you occupied for a fair amount of time. The surfing event lets you freestyle to a certain extent, picking up speed as you attempt to get in some big, off-the-wave spins for points. Hacky sack has a good variety to it as well, letting you spin around, hop up to kick sacks, and even attempt to nail flying seagulls overhead. BMX is a race against the clock, but there are also a handful of areas where you can pull off big flips. And the halfpipe doesn't have all the moves you'd expect from a modern skateboarding game, but in its day, it had what you were looking for. Factor in those constant attempts to beat your own high score--you know, --back when scores actually meant something--and you've got a great portable game for a great, though woefully underutilized, handheld platform.
9. Panzer Dragoon (SAT)
Surrounded by gimmicky launch games, Panzer Dragoon for the Sega Saturn really stood out and instantly became one of the Saturn's greatest showpieces and its first must-have game. It featured an unusually rich storyline and the best shooting action of the time. If only the system had maintained the momentum generated by Panzer Dragoon.
The story begins with an epic cutscene weighing in at nearly 10 minutes in length--unheard of at the time. After narrowly escaping with his life, an unassuming adventurer looks up to see a spectacular battle between a benevolent blue dragon and an evil onyx dragon, and their armed riders. Sadly, the blue dragon is defeated--the rider is shot. The good dragon plummets while the wicked one flies off in victory. With his dying breath, the fallen dragon's rider imbues the traveler with his abilities. Thus begins a battle in which you must guide your powerful dragon through the ranks of your enemies, single-handedly striking at the heart of their empire. Panzer Dragoon established this premise without a single word spoken, and together with the game's unforgettable musical score, the introduction really drew you into the game's unique world and inspired visuals.
While Panzer Dragoon restricted your movement to a set path, you could look in any direction around your flying mount. You could also steer the dragon around the screen, creating the illusion that you truly were soaring high above the unfriendly skies. The game looked stunning for its time; the on-rails control allowed for some spectacular vistas, and during breaks in the action, you could pan around your dragon and just let the gorgeous visuals fly by. But it was more than just eye candy. It was a thrilling, challenging shooter that presented a simple but interesting control scheme.
Panzer Dragoon wasn't a particularly long game, but it was such a stirring experience that it warranted many, many play-throughs. The game also spawned a number of terrific sequels, and fans of the franchise still like to argue about which among them is the best of all. Whether it was worth buying a Sega Saturn just to play Panzer Dragoon is also debatable, but certainly those who played the game are better off for it.
8. SSX (PS2)
SSX came out of nowhere from a little studio nobody ever heard of called EA Sports Big. OK, so nothing about anything related to EA is little, but SSX was still the first game to from the studio that has since popularized the use of the word "street" as an adjective. SSX wasn't just a great launch game for Sony and the PlayStation 2; it was a great launch game for EA as well. Of course, the biggest winners were the players, because SSX was the most exciting snowboarding game ever. In fact, to this day the only snowboarding games to eclipse SSX are its successors, SSX Tricky and SSX 3.
SSX took something as simple as snowboarding and supersized it to really give you an idea of what the PlayStation 2 was capable of. It was bigger, faster, and flashier than anything we'd seen up to that point. Where else could you snowboard through a giant pinball machine in Tokyo, or carve your way down the face of a huge glacier in Hawaii? The crazy tracks were tons of fun to explore, and since you could take multiple different paths down each course, no two runs were the same. When you weren't grinding on twisting pipes or catching huge air, you could build up your riders' stats, earn new boards and gear, or spend hours going for a high score in trick attack mode.
A great launch game will give a console a distinct image that sticks with players for the life of the system. When you think Xbox, you think of Halo. When you think Game Boy, you think of Tetris. SSX may not have had quite the same impact as those games, but it definitely brought a distinct style to the PlayStation 2. From crazy hipster characters to music from the likes of Mix Master Mike and Rahzel, everything had a sort of exaggerated neo-urban feel that gave SSX so much more personality than your average sports game. That playful personality and in-your-face fun are what made SSX one of the best launch games ever.
7. Combat (2600)
In 1977, Telestar, one of the few names in video games at the time, released a dedicated console for a game called Combat, which featured two battling tanks on a variety of different landscapes. Later that year, when the Atari 2600 was released, an updated version of Combat was packaged in, in color and featuring a number of additional modes. Combat was originally intended to be built into the system, but it was changed to a separate launch title at the last minute. If you open up an older 2600, you can see the slot on the motherboard where it was meant to fit. Since Combat remains one of the most addictive games, even to this day, it's a no-brainer to consider it one of the greatest launch games of all time.
The gameplay in Combat is simple: You can compete against another player by roaming around an environment, firing weapons at each other, and attempting to inflict more damage than your opponent within a limited amount of time. The traditional gameplay is fought with tanks, although there are jet and biplane modes as well. There are three different levels in Combat, including an open arena and one that resembles a maze. The difference between the levels depends on how many walls there are in the playing space. You can hide behind the walls, and in one of the game's more interesting modes, Tank Pong, you can even ricochet bullets off the walls toward the other person. In some modes, the only way to get a point from the other player is to hit the player indirectly by hitting a wall first. The 27 modes also include invisible tanks, which are completely invisible unless shot from or fired upon. The biplane modes switch up gameplay a little bit--even though the objective is the same, your perspective is a side view of the vehicles instead of a top-down view.
Though simplistic, Combat capitalized on the most fundamental gameplay mechanics since Pong that games still use to this day. Though the parameters for video games have gotten more complex, the basics are the same. Not only was Combat an innovator, but it was a step up from other games at the time, with a number of different modes to choose from. Players often got attached to one mode and stuck with it, but the sheer number of options put Combat ahead of the rest. To top it all off, it was a pack-in with the 2600, so if you had the system, you automatically had Combat (and chances are, because there were so many floating around, you probably had more than one copy too). As an early game, Combat was great, and as a launch game, Combat was one of the best.
Best Launch Titles
In honor of the impending console generation, we revisit some of the best games to come out on their consoles' respective launch days--not only those that influenced the sales of their systems, but ones that we remember fondly even today as great games, not just great launch games.