In case you're unaware, video game releases are kind of like the box office in that nothing good comes out from January to April. Actually, to say nothing good comes out isn't entirely fair. It's more like barely anything comes out at all. Even the usually prolific indie sub-market goes weirdly dry for the first four months of the year. Therefore, if you're looking for new quality games to play you have two options: 1) you wait until the triple A titles start coming out during the holidays or 2) you look on Steam for older games. Today, we'll be looking at three older games held in significant repute within the gaming community can can offer a larger view of gaming to the casual consumer.
Our first game is "System Shock 2," a sci-fi horror game released by Looking Glass Studios in 1999. The game itself has been incredibly influential since it came out, spawning dozens of spiritual successors and propelling lead designer Ken Levine to auteur status in the gaming community. The plot is you're a space marine who wakes up from hyper sleep. You've regained consciousness just as the space ship you're on is being taken over by zombie-esque creatures called hybrids. You must traverse the ship and survive long enough to figure out what's happening and why. While "SS2" is a horror game in tone, it's more of an RPG in gameplay. You start the game by picking what attributes you want to invest in. There are psychic powers you can upgrade, you can increase your strength or your hacking abilities. However, the real depth lies in the inventory screen, displaying your weapons, food, currently equipped armor and guns, psi abilities, collected audio logs, health meter, psychic power meter and a detailed description written for everything you see. This amount of detail can be a bit inaccessible at first. However, the amount of personal control the player has over everything is an invaluable tool of immersion, offering a sense of realism that you don't get in many modern RPGs like "Mass Effect." However, what "SS2" does better than anything else is winding up the tension. The complete silence except for the clanking of your boots in the steel corridors makes you afraid to do almost anything. Opening a new door could mean coming face-to-face with a hybrid waving a crowbar. Turning a corner could get you spotted by a security camera, triggering an alarm that sends dozens of hybrids swarming to your location. The small amount of health and sparse ammo at your disposal means that these prospects can be assured death. The lack of a map leaves the player blind to where they are or where they're supposed to go, leaving you feeling lost and alone in a hostile world. While the game is long and difficult to navigate, the incredible complexity of the gameplay and level design makes it worth playing if you've been feeling a lack of intellectual challenge in recent gaming options.
The next game we're looking at is more recent: the 2012 ultra-violent opus "Hotline Miami" published by Devolver Digital. The plot of "HM" isn't nearly as complicated as "SS2." At the start of every level you are given orders by your answering machine to go to a building and kill everybody in it. There's a lot of pixelated blood and gore, a few trippy segments involving a horse, a chicken and an owl and a large variety of weapons to kill people with. What provides the challenge of the game is that you can die very quickly. The slightest mistake will end with a complimentary buckshot facial or a dog gnawing at your jugular. However, makes up for this by allowing you to instantly restart the level when you die and making the levels small and tight so you never lose too much ground. "Hotline Miami" is uniquely addictive in a way that only difficult games can be. Every death brings a euphoric anger that instead of discouraging, spurs you onward so that you can finally taste the sweet high of victory. Be warned, however, that this is a game that benefits significantly from a fully-functioning mouse. The touchpad on a laptop won't work since the mechanics require you to use both the left and right mouse button. And if your mouse drags in the slightest then you will inevitably die because you couldn't turn around quick enough to kill a shotgunner. Highly recommended for those looking for an engrossing challenge.
Our third and final game is 2017's "Hollow Knight," an independent title developed by Team Cherry. The plot is very simple: you are in a world of insects. You've arrived on the edges of a once great underground city and your only goal is to go exploring while not dying. The most immediately striking feature is the art style. Unlike "SS2," whose graphics are computer generated, or "Hotline Miami" which is pixelated, "Hollow Knight" wouldn't look out of place in an animated film. The smooth lines and animations are incredible to see in a video game, where player movement or enemy collision are unpredictable factors when programing. The animators have made it seem like the characters are naturally moving and reacting rather than going in and out of pre-coded animations. The heavy atmosphere is not only provided by the solemn character designs, but by the lovely orchestral music, soft colors and moody lighting. Special credit must be given to the audio editors for their seamless transition work. In some portions of the game, you can walk from one area of the map right into another one. The music smoothly transitions from the theme of one section to the theme of another without any indication of when one theme ended and the other began. The gameplay of "Hollow Knight" is obviously inspired by games like "Castelvania: Symphony of the Night" and "Super Metroid." Your primary goal isn't killing enemies or even collecting upgrades for your character. The main goal is exploration and filling out your map. In order for this mechanic to be interesting, the map must not only be big, but offer incentive for you to explore every tunnel you pass by. Thankfully, there are character upgrades, hidden doors and locked locations that you have to come back to later that encourage the player to thoroughly explore. Difficulty curve is also something "Hollow Knight" handles well. The new skills you find throughout one map are the key to getting into the next one. This new ability gives you a combat advantage, so the difficulty of the opponents is ramped up to accommodate. It's a very organic system that lets the combat still feel like a challenge without it becoming impossible to win. Out of the three games discussed here, "Hollow Knight" comes out as the most recommended.
As the modern gaming market continues to remain creatively dry, it's good to have older titles we can turn back to and enjoy. Whether it be the depth of "System Shock 2," the enjoyable difficulty of "Hotline Miami" or the immersive exploration of "Hollow Knight," it's important to remind ourselves that there is still hope for gaming as more than just a casual platform for relaxation. The potential of the interactive platform is unlimited and can do so much more than let you shoot at terrorists through an iron sight.