If the PlayStation 2 took the ball and ran with it, the original PlayStation can be credited with pretty much creating the ball in the first place. Nearly every subsequent console, regardless of manufacturer, has taken influence from the PS1’s enormous and esteemed legacy, Sony’s masterpiece shaping the gaming landscape as it battled it out against the Nintendo 64 and, to a lesser extent, the SEGA Saturn.
The PS2 may have eclipsed its older brother in terms of sales, but that’s no reason to consider the original Sony console as somehow less deserving of reverence. The PS1 was truly instrumental in catapulting games into the mainstream public arena, helping to take the industry away from the realm of the arcade and firmly into the domestic sphere. Birthed here were some of the most influential, important and beloved brands in gaming, from Tomb Raider to Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil to Spyro and Crash Bandicoot. This was the genesis for so much gaming greatness.
At a time of experimentation and innovation, a few gems have inevitably fallen through the cracks and become lost to time. With this list of the most underrated PS1 games, we hope they can be found and enjoyed once again.
10. Psychic Force
Developer: Taito Publisher: Taito (JP), Acclaim Entertainment (NA, PAL)
Lots of games during the PS1 era had ‘Force’ in the title, but few were as underrated or underappreciated as novel 90s fighting sim Psychic Force. Originally an arcade game, Psychic Force was ported to the PlayStation in 1997, a transfer that did little to diminish the charm of Taito’s ambitious if deeply flawed take on one of the 90s’ most popular genres.
Instead of the standard underground fight clubs and pristine dojos that usually made pleasing backdrops to two burly men kicking one another in the head while shouting incomprehensible catchphrases, Psychic Force’s action is framed by a cube-shaped magical force field. What set the game apart was that fights occurred not only from left to right but also up and down as players floated up, down and across the screen and proceedings tended to look like a brawl had broken out inside an indoor skydiving facility.
It isn’t the perfect game, hampered occasionally by a lack of proper depth and some pretty dreadful dialogue, but what Psychic Force does have is charm and novelty, its fun twist on the format bringing something new to a genre that was in danger of going stale.
9. Wild 9
Developer: Shiny Entertainment Publisher: Interplay Productions
Shiny Entertainment may have built a reputation and ultimately a legacy on profound weirdness, MDK and Earthworm Jim in particular highlighting the now-defunct American studio’s capacity for out and out surrealness, but they were never a developer to let quirkiness get in the way of quality.
Designed by David Perry, the same man who worked on the original Earthworm Jim in 1994, Wild 9 was a sort of 2.5D platform adventure that took many of Shiny Entertainment’s offbeat sensibilities and transposed them into an adventure platform that was as boldly individual as it was punishingly difficult.
Following the brilliantly-named Wex Major as he navigates his way through a strange new galaxy making eccentric friends and forming the game’s titular group, Wild 9 was never quite as polished or cohesive as Earthworm Jim or its many sequels, but it’s well worth digging out for anyone who can’t get enough of the sort of quirky humour that made Jim a household name. Cartoonish, fun and with an identity all of its own, Wild 9 is easily one of the most underrated PS1 games ever made.
Late 90’s beat ’em up Fighting Force debuted at an odd time for the genre as a whole. Beat ‘em up games had enjoyed their initial peak in the 80s with franchises such as Streets of Rage and Final Fight cornering this enjoyably hard-edged corner of the market. The genre would see a resurgence thanks to the likes of Viewtiful Joe and God Hand in the 2000s, not to mention the rise of the hack-and-slash genre, but in 1997, things weren’t looking so rosy.
Perhaps that’s why Fighting Force and its maligned sequel ended up falling between the cracks at a time when the industry was enjoying something of a transition. Situated slap-bang in the middle of a wave that was enduring a trough rather than happily enjoying a peaking crest, Fighting Force’s tale of a brave crew of fighters taking down a criminal mastermind by punching everything in sight failed to generate much critical or commercial attention.
That all said, the first Fighting Force game is something of a lost classic, a satisfying brawler that gives you everything you could want from a fighting game released back in the 90s. It was never exactly revolutionary in terms of its characters, plot or setup, but for being one of the first brawlers to really translate the action from 2D to 3D, Fighting Force deserves more attention than it ever actually received.
The games market has always been one brimming with competition. The fighting game niche has for a long while been sewn up by a couple of major properties, most of which debuted when you still had to go to an arcade and part with your hard-earned quarters if you wanted a safe place to roundhouse your best mate using a character with the head of a leopard.
Tekken, Street Fighter, Virtua Fighter, Mortal Kombat — these are the names that have become household, around forever and certainly not going anywhere anytime soon. Little wonder, then, that with such heavyweights dominating the arena there wasn’t much room left in the ring for a new contender looking to shake up the established order.
What Bloody Roar did have on its side was the novelty factor, building itself around the concept of having a group of fighters capable of transforming into a variety of animals in combat. Coupled with polished gameplay and enticing design, Bloody Roar managed to just about hold its own, going on to spawn three sequels (including another on PlayStation) up until 2003. Sadly, however, it could never quite muscle in on the big boys’ racket, now only remembered as one of the most underrated PS1 fighting games you’ve likely never played.
Developer: Polygon Magic Publisher: ASCII Entertainment (JP), Crave Entertainment (WW)
Galerians isn’t perhaps the most enticing, intriguing or enigmatic title for a game, but you can’t help but feel it might have sounded better in its original Japanese. Polygon Magic’s survival horror tells the story of Rico, a boy with psychic powers who awakens to discover that he’s the only one capable of halting the advance of the game’s eponymous genetically advanced humanoids.
Thanks to its clear creative debt to the Resident Evil games, Galerians does end up suffering from many of the same issues that threatened to undermine the excellence of Capcom’s iconic franchise, namely some rather wonky cutscenes, cliched storytelling, and visual and sound design that could never quite match the tone the game was trying to set.
Still, for a game that came out in 1999, Galerians doesn’t do a bad job of telling its oddball story, doing enough to earn solid reviews and even spawn a sequel in the shape of Galerians: Ash for the PS2. For fans of the horror genre looking back into the past, however, you can’t help that Galerians will continue to be overlooked thanks to the overwhelming nature of Resident Evil’s colossal shadow.
Developer: Taito Publisher: Taito
The classic side scroller has been one of the many casualties of the relentless march of technological advancement, with G-Darius serving as a great reminder that progress isn’t without its downsides.
Originally a shoot’em up arcade game and the fourth instalment in a long line of Taito’s long-running Darius entries, G-Darius was ported to the PlayStation in 1998, eventually finding its way to other platforms such as the PC, the PS2 and, sometime later, the PS4. In a similar vein to the games that preceded it, G-Darius is a classic side-scrolling shoot’em up in which players control the Silver Hawk spaceship and must avoid obstacles and enemies as they process through various zones.
Sadly, the Darius franchise never quite became a household name in the West. G-Darius was missed by many as a string of other titles crowded the market and jostled for attention, but as far as side scrollers go, Taito’s excellent, fast-paced adventure is a prime exponent of just how fun this venerable old genre used to be.
4. No One Can Stop Mr. Domino!
Developer: Artdink Publisher: Artdink (JP), JVC Music Europe (EU), Acclaim Entertainment (NA)
Is there a title that better typifies the phrase “underrated PS1 games” like ‘No One Can Stop Mr. Domino!’? Produced by the little-known Japanese studio Artdink, Mr. Domino charges players with placing down rows of dominoes along a variety of game stages in such a way that enough can then be toppled effectively and the stage can be completed. Dominoes doesn’t get tougher than this.
This is the thing about the fifth generation of consoles: they were still sufficiently primitive that there was still a necessity for innovation in order to justify the existence of the medium as a whole. While most contemporary AAA studios have the budgets and tech to capture the same warzones, post-apocalyptic wastelands and endless tracts of open-world loveliness, studios had to be far smarter, and indeed stranger, when constructing their odd little worlds.
Japanese games in particular evidence this commitment to the surreal and the unconventional, and nowhere is it more apparent than NOCSMD, a beautifully arranged, very quirky piece of design that takes a simple concept and makes it soar. Getting your dominoes in place is a challenging feat in its own regard, but NOCSMD is made brilliant by virtue of its irrepressible charm. If you like games like the gorgeous Katamari franchise, you’ll like love its domino-obsessed cousin.
When and where else could you enjoy puzzle games built around anthropomorphic dominoes in the mainline market? Keep your God of War: Ragnarök. Give me No One Can Stop Mr. Domino.
3. Rapid Reload
Developer: Media Vision Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
The world is a poorer place thanks to the untimely decline of the run and gun shooter. Ok, Studio MDHR did their best to bring the format back to the mainstream with their punishingly difficult animated adventure Cuphead, but for the most part you have to look back in time for the golden age of the medium.
Developed by Media Vision and published by none other than Sony Computer Entertainment, Rapid Reload is a relentlessly enjoyable runner gunner that gives players a choice of protagonists before letting them loose to cause carnage and destruction across the game’s six vibrant levels.
There is a plot about two treasure hunters out to retrieve a legendary gemstone amidst all of the shooting, but quite frankly it would make no difference whether you were out to save a princess, topple an authoritarian government or collect brightly coloured turnips. Rapid Reload is far more about the experience of its face-paced action and breakneck gameplay than it is about telling a cohesive story. For a great exponent of what runner gunners were all about when done well, Rapid Reload looks and sounds as good as it plays.
File Akuji the Heartless firmly under the heading ‘games that would never, ever get made today’. And not without reason.
Without being reductive about a time of great innovation and insight, the PS1 era was a quite strange period for games, exemplified by the utterly bizarre and mostly forgotten tale told by 1998’s macabre fantasy title Akuji the Heartless. In fact, Akuji the Heartless wasn’t so much slightly off the wall as it was strikingly weird and at times absurdly dark.
Crystal Dynamics’ late 90s action-adventure odyssey focused on the titular Akuji, a voodoo priest whose heart is quite literally torn out on the day of his wedding and who must now wander the Underworld searching for a way back home.
Weird or not, what the game did have going for it, however, was pedigree. Published by Eidos Interactive, the same lot who put their name to most of the best Thief games and developed by Crystal Dynamics, the guys who birthed the excellent Gex the Gecko franchise, Akuji the Heartless was undeniably well made, even if its controversial setup and relentlessly dark tone proved off-putting for some.
Bizarre, unsettling but undeniably well put together, Akuji the Heartless is an underrated PS1 game that definitely ain’t for kids.
Developer: Shiny Entertainment Publisher: Playmates Interactive (NA), Shiny Entertainment (EU)
Has there ever been a stranger game than MDK? Perhaps the wilfully bizarre LSD: Dream Emulator or the infamous adventures of Pepsiman take the cake, but MDK has to be up there in terms of the bizarre stakes. Describing MDK doesn’t really do justice to the experience of actually playing it.
Players take on the role of the delightfully-named Kurt Hectic, a leather-clad man of action and part-time janitor who looks like a leather enthusiast roleplaying as the xenomorph from the Alien movies. Tasked with repelling an alien invasion, Kurt must destroy the large ‘minecrawlers’ that have come to strip Earth of its natural resources, a plot that makes as little sense as the game’s deranged visuals would indicate.
Not that MDK spends much of its time anywhere even closely resembling Earth. Shiny Entertainment’s relentlessly bizarre FPS uses a migraine-inducing colour palette of blacks and oranges, giving the game its unique flavour but just occasionally threatening to induce the mother of all migraines.
Strange or not, MDK is still held in esteem today as one of the most influential shooters of the 90s, its rave reviews at the time testifying to how bold and innovative Shiny Entertainment’s underrated oddity actually was. Thanks to its relentless pace and glorious mission design, MDK was way ahead of its time.
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