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.
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.
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.