There’s something of a contradiction when talking about overlooked games, as there tends to be a usual list of “well-known” overlooked games that people fall back on. Yet, if they have a reputation for being overlooked, then they’re not really that overlooked.
With that in mind, here are a couple of games I’m aware of that I almost never see discussed, despite being made by some fairly well-known designers.
Jordan Mechner’s The Last Express (1997)
Jordan Mechner is primarily known as the creator of the Prince of Persia series, and to a lesser extent, Karateka, but in the ’90s, he decided to try his hand at the point-and-click adventure genre. The result was the ambitious and creative The Last Express.
Filled with interesting ideas, the game is brimming over with style. As a period piece, it takes place aboard the famous Orient Express just before the start of World War I. Mechner pioneered the use of rotoscoped graphics in video games with his earlier titles, and he uses it again here, but implements it a bit differently, redrawing all of the actors in an attractive Art Nouveau style. The music is also appropriate to the era, and beautifully composed. The narrative is inspired by classic Hitchcock murder mysteries and mistaken identities, and is generally well written and acted.
What really sets The Last Express apart from other games of the genre, however, is that it takes place in active time. Whereas most adventure games are happy to wait for you to solve the puzzles before advancing the story, the world of The Last Express continues to move forward whether or not you choose to get involved. Characters will go about their own business and converse with each other, and the train relentlessly continues its journey from Paris to Constantinople. This can result in you missing certain opportunities and getting a frustrating game over, but the game accommodates for this by allowing you to rewind time to any point, so you’re not always restarting from the beginning.
For all the different ideas the game had, they all came together remarkably well. Unfortunately, it had almost no chance at success due to a series of unfortunate circumstances. The publisher’s marketing team quit just a few weeks before the game’s release, resulting in almost no advertising. The publisher, itself, was subsequently bought out by a company that was only interested in educational titles, and the game went out of print almost immediately. A few years later, a new publisher picked it up only to go out business shortly thereafter.
Fortunately, the game is currently available as a digital download through GOG.com for a very reasonable price. It’s well-worth looking into, as the game deserved a better fate than it got.
For a more comprehensive look at the game, check out this article at Hardcore Gaming 101.
Alexey Pajitnov’s Pandora’s Box (1999)
If you’re going to be known for just one game, it might as well be Tetris. Alexey Pajitnov has worked on many other similar puzzle games over the years, such as Hexic and Wild Snake, but his 1984 masterpiece has overshadowed just about everything else he has ever done. That includes what could be considered his one “major” game project: Pandora’s Box.
Pandora’s Box is essentially a collection of 10 types of puzzle games that are tied together through a common setup. The titular box has been broken, allowing seven “tricksters” to escape and cause trouble. The only way to stop them is to travel to 10 different cities around the world and solve the tricksters’ puzzles in order to find the broken pieces of the box. Once this is done, the trickster challenges you to an extra-difficult puzzle, and completing it captures the trickster. Capture them all and you win the game.
While I admit I have not yet had the opportunity to play the game myself, reviews indicate that its whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Still, it’s not hard to see why the game went overlooked despite its production values and recognizable name attached to it. Most mainstream players would immediately consider a puzzle collection to be the ultimate snore-fest. Especially in 1999, anything that didn’t use fancy 3D graphics was pretty much treated as if it didn’t exist, and the game was probably written off as casual shovelware.
While it swiftly flopped upon its original release, it still received a positive critical response. It’s unfortunate that the game remains out of print all these years later. It might have been nice for Pajitnov to be recognized for more than one masterpiece.
For more info, check out its listing at MobyGames.