While NFL 2K garnered its fair share of acclaim as a Dreamcast launch game, most gamers who weren't football fans turned to Soul Calibur for their launch-night kicks, and they were amply rewarded by a game that's not only one of the greatest launch games or one of the greatest fighters, but one of the greatest games ever. Period.
Although there were plenty of games that came out on the Dreamcast after Soul Calibur, none of them managed to match it for sheer drop-dead beauty. It ran at a stunning 60 frames per second and managed to model the human form arguably better than any game had before it. It complemented the verisimilitude of its characters with good amounts of flash, such as the sparks that flew from weapons when they struck each other or the explosions that popped up with each hit. Despite the six years that have passed since Soul Calibur first hit, it looks as vibrant and fresh as ever.
Of course, graphical chops wouldn't have meant much if the game itself hadn't been good, but if the game's visuals were what drew people in, it was the fighting system that kept them hooked. While most fighters nowadays emphasize hand-to-hand confrontations, Soul Calibur (and Soul Edge before it) was all about the weapons, with characters wielding bo sticks, claws, and, of course, lots and lots of swords. Namco went a few steps further than was necessary and brought in weapon experts to do motion capture for the game, which led to some wonderfully animated characters.
While there were some balance problems in the game (Cervantes in particular was toned down in Soul Calibur 2), Soul Calibur's combat system was one of the best marriages of accessibility and depth that has ever graced a console fighter. It was easy to pick up Maxi or Nightmare and start mashing buttons, but if you put the effort into learning a character, you were also capable of pulling off some pretty incredible moves, such as Ivy's infamous Summon Suffering. The guard-impact counter system was also an elegant way of letting players either repel their opponents' attacks and shove them backward or pull them off balance by instantly shoving them aside, and, like most other aspects of the game, the system was accessible to newcomers but was difficult to master, especially against fast-moving opponents.
Given that Soul Calibur is currently ranked number two on the all-time ranking list at GameRankings.com, it's a no-brainer for inclusion on any list of great launch games. It's not a game that's special because it helped launch a system, though; it stands on its own merits as a uniquely incredible part of console fighting history.
5. Halo (Xbox)
Halo is a new classic in gaming, and when it was released in the fall of 2001 alongside Microsoft's Xbox, it was reason enough to own that big black video game console. Some PC gaming elitists tried brushing the game off, insisting that a first-person shooter on consoles could never approach the quality of the computer equivalent of such a game. But Halo really did have it all, and first-person shooter enthusiasts who missed out on it missed out on a landmark achievement in action gaming that ranks right up there with the likes of Doom and Half-Life. Halo is not just one of the all-time best launch games for a game system; it's simply one of the best games ever made. The cinematic presentation and fantastic action made you feel like the star of a big-budget sci-fi movie--except it was really good, unlike most big-budget sci-fi movies.
Specifically, what Halo contributed to action gaming was a dynamic battlefield, realistic physics, and a truly cohesive gameworld. Mere minutes into the experience, you got swept up into the memorable conflict between humans and the alien race called the Covenant. You soon grew to appreciate both sides' tactics and technology, and though Halo's first-person shooting combat was extremely satisfying in its own right, the various fun-to-drive vehicles really put the game over the top. The enigmatic hero, known only by his rank of Master Chief, also proved to be a great character who helped drive the story along. For good measure, Halo offered great multiplayer support to keep you busy long after you had reached the story's dramatic finale. The game was dazzling from a technical perspective and clearly demonstrated that the Xbox was capable of much more than any previous consoles.
Developer Bungie was already well known for its Myth series prior to the release of Halo, at least among PC and Macintosh gaming enthusiasts. With Halo, the company accomplished the rarest of feats: It broke through to a new audience in the biggest way imaginable and set an extremely high standard for subsequent Xbox games. Halo's influence is undeniable. The game might have seemed derivative at first glance, but its numerous subtle innovations have been borrowed by countless other games since.
4. Super Mario Bros. (NES)
When we sat down and started thinking about the best launch games for each console system, most of us couldn't help but immediately be reminded of Super Mario Bros. which made the nationwide launch for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System. The game was frequently packed in with the core hardware, which means that just about everyone who owned the 8-bit NES at or around the launch had played it. But it was such a great game that by the end of the console's lifetime, most everyone who had ever come in contact with the console had played it, regardless of when they had gotten their system. Super Mario Bros. took Nintendo's palette-swapped plumbers, Mario and Luigi, out of the mostly mundane missions of rooting out giant insects in the sewers or foiling the schemes of angry, barrel-throwing apes and gave the brothers their first foray into the fantastical Mushroom Kingdom (where they continue to reside today) on a journey to save a princess from an army of killer turtles, giant insects, flying fish, and other oddities, led by the fire-breathing, hammer-throwing behemoth King Koopa (formerly known as "Bowser" in the US).
The game focused on the very simple and familiar platform-action mechanic of jumping, though it also added spitting flames, swimming, and sprinting, which, with practice, made navigating the Mushroom Kingdom a challenging but rewarding experience. The game shipped in the US with a whopping 32 levels (a huge number at the time), broken up into eight "worlds" with four levels apiece. But after a while, most everyone started digging into the game's many secrets and programming glitches (such as the infamous "jump on a turtle repeatedly to earn infinite extra lives" glitch in level 3-1) or using the game's hidden "warp zones." Once you began to figure out how the game worked, you could approach it on your own terms, whether that meant slugging your way through every single level or completing the game in a matter of minutes by using the warp zones from levels 1-2 to 4-1 to 4-2 to 8-1. Even if it hadn't paved the way for Mario's surreal postmodern adventures into the Mushroom Kingdom, Super Mario Bros. kept all NES owners coming back for more.
3. Super Mario 64 (N64)
In the annals of gaming history, the 1990s will be remembered as the decade in which the industry transitioned from 2D to 3D graphics, from simple planar gameplay to a full 360 degrees of freedom. One game heralded this change, ushered it in, and even came to embody the 3D movement more than any other game: Super Mario 64. The Saturn and PlayStation beat Nintendo to the punch by a solid year, but by and large, those first-generation 3D games didn't do anything extraordinary with the added freedom provided by 3D graphics. The racers, the fighters, the same gameplay--just a new coat of paint.
Super Mario 64 was different. Here was 3D's killer app, a game in which the graphics--and thus your perspective on the action--were so essential to the underlying design that you simply couldn't have one without the other. The real star of the show was the magical kingdom itself. Shigeru Miyamoto's first 3D masterpiece created a vast, fanciful, wonderful world that made you want to explore until you'd seen every last nook and cranny--and for the first time, you really could go everywhere and investigate from every angle. There was seemingly no end to the whimsical pleasures scattered throughout the game's vast, varied, and imaginative levels. Yet due to Mario 64's then-unique freedom of gameplay, it was delightfully entertaining just to aimlessly run around those levels, without even advancing toward your objectives.
Mario himself matured so naturally into 3D gameplay that you forgot almost instantly about that oddly shaped new controller in your hands. Mario could backflip, slide down a hill, do a handstand on top of a tree, or take a flying leap out over a bottomless pit--and all of it felt completely natural. It's really to the development team's credit that the game so effectively took advantage of the Nintendo 64's controller, the analog stick and overall design of which were shockingly strange and unique way back when.
When the Nintendo 64 launched in the fall of 1996, you could buy two games for it: Mario and Pilotwings. The latter may have its proponents (somewhere), but it's a safe bet that nobody bought the system without Super Mario 64. It wasn't the first 3D game ever made, but it was the first one you just couldn't live without.
2. Super Mario World (SNES)
Super Mario World would have been a great game whenever it came out, but the mere fact that it was available at launch, not to mention packed in with the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, makes it seem almost too good to be true. Refining many of the gameplay elements of Super Mario Bros. 3 and offering a more visually impressive and deeper experience, Super Mario World was way ahead of its time.
Truly earning the moniker "world," SMW featured seven different areas, including Donut Plains and Forest of Illusion, with more than 70 level maps on them. Most of the game's courses could be progressed through naturally from the beginning, but there were a number of secret areas to find and explore as well, like Star Road. Though you could play through the entire game without finding everything, the percentage-complete indicator encouraged you to return to previous areas and attempt to unlock more secrets. This has now become almost standard for video games, but Super Mario World was one of the first games to feature it. Super Mario World also introduced gamers to Yoshi, Mario's lovable dinosaur friend, who came in four different colors signifying different special abilities. Yoshi went on to play a more dominant role in the unofficial sequel to Super Mario World, Yoshi's Island, and has made numerous guest appearances in Mario games since.
What made Super Mario World so impressive for the time is that it upped the ante in nearly every aspect of platforming and, in turn, in video games in general. The worlds were larger, the colors were brighter and better, and the gameplay was exponentially deeper than in games from the previous generation. Super Mario World reminds us that there once was a time when the data units in subsequent console generations doubled, and when they did, the games that came out looked like none we had ever seen before. Although its greatness extends far beyond its release date, there's no denying that Super Mario World set a standard of quality for launch titles that has been met by few games since then.
1. Tetris (GB)
Though Tetris is now a household name, a big reason it became so popular is that Nintendo shrewdly packaged it with the original Game Boy. The Game Boy needed Tetris, and Tetris needed the Game Boy. The symbiotic relationship between the two caused both to blow up in popularity. Tetris was quite simply the perfect game for a handheld system--you could play it for just a couple of minutes at a time or for long stretches, and it was appealing to everyone, regardless of age, gender, or disposition. Even the monochrome dot-matrix screen of the original Game Boy seemed like it was designed specifically to display Tetris' endless rain of blocks.
Though the game was developed a few years earlier and was available for PCs, the Game Boy version was special because its portable nature made it easy to share with others. While the PC in the late 1980s was still a frighteningly arcane piece of machinery to the vast majority of people, the Game Boy was cute, friendly, and easy to play, just like Tetris. You could hand your Game Boy over to your mother or your grandfather, and they could easily grasp how to play Tetris. Convincing the same people to come over to your computer and sit down at the keyboard was not as easy of a task.
There's no way of knowing how many Nintendo Game Boys were sold just to play Tetris, but considering that tens of millions of Tetris cartridges have been created for the platform, it's safe to say that it's a substantial number. Tetris was a big part of the reason that the Game Boy, and by extension, portable gaming as a whole, was able to get off the ground and be the dominant market force it is today. For the many of us who did get hooked on Tetris for the Game Boy, it wasn't uncommon to daydream about fitting blocks together and clearing lines or subconsciously hum the ever-popular theme song. And for most of us, it was the Game Boy version of the game that got us addicted to fitting strangely shaped blocks together.
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.