In 2004, the idea of a video game console as an all-in-one multimedia machine was that it played CDs and DVDs. Online play and downloadable content were mostly for PC players. Many games didn’t even have widescreen support. But those modern conveniences don’t matter when you consider the quality we got that year.
Sony’s PlayStation 2, Microsoft’s Xbox, and Nintendo’s GameCube battled each other as each console delivered some of their best exclusives ever. Players took their first steps in World of Warcraft’s Azeroth, and Nintendo released its two-screen DS handheld. Underneath these headliners are smaller milestones like the debut of Sonic the Hedgehog as a multiplatform star and the current “Zero Suit” depiction of Metroid’s Samus without her armor.
To celebrate one of the best years in the medium’s history, we are reminisce about our favorite games and discovering what happened to their respective franchises and developers.
Note: We’re listing these only by the platform(s) they originally debuted on.
Halo 2 (Xbox)
At the gaming magazine that I used to work for, EGM, we used to set up 16-player sessions of the original Halo: Combat Evolved. But this was in the pre-online days. That meant four televisions, four Xbox consoles, 16 controllers, and a whole mess of hubs and networking cables, all within close proximity of each other. It was incredibly fun — but not very practical. Can you imagine our excitement over the prospect of a fully online Halo that we could play whenever we wanted, from the comfort of our worn-out couches? Halo 2 delivered that plus a surprising dual-protagonist storyline for the single-player game (though I’m still not sure what’s up with the giant plant creature). I don’t want to think about the amount of hours I put into shooting Spartans and Covenants back in the mid-2000s.
Where are they now? Halo developer Bungie is finishing up Destiny, a multiplayer sci-fi shooter for new-generation systems. Meanwhile, Microsoft’s internal studio, 343 Industries, is continuing the Halo legacy with part five (due out in 2015) plus the Master Chief Collection, a compilation of past Halo games (yes, including the legendary Halo 2) for Xbox One.
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (PlayStation 2)
The only other game I remember buying with my own money in 2004 (I was still in high school, so I relied on any funds I had left from birthdays, Christmases, and the occasional allowance) was Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. Metal Gear’s penchant for melodrama can get a little crazy at times, but I thought the tone was perfect for Snake Eater’s 1960s setting — hell, it even had a James Bond-like intro replete with bombastic visuals and a ridiculously catchy song. I loved sneaking through the jungle and hunting animals for food. I also remember getting really mad when I found out that the food in my inventory became toxic if I didn’t play for a few days.
Where are they now? Ten years later, Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima and his team at Kojima Productions are still making new games. The latest, Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, was merely a preview (our reviewer called it an expensive demo) of the upcoming Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Both Ground Zeroes and The Phantom Pain continue the story that began in Snake Eater, a timeline that the developer expanded on in Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops and Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (PlayStation 2)
Grand Theft Auto III shocked the world with its go-anywhere, do-anything gameplay. Players loved its sequel, Vice City, with its neon-infused, ’80s decadence. But San Andreas is still my favorite in the series. Three cities with distinct personalities (and miles of playable territory in between), hundreds of collectibles, personal relationships, minigames galore, territory control games … just thinking about all this is making me want go back and revisit this epic campaign.
Where are they now? Rockstar is still making boatloads of cash with this series. It’s providing steady updates to the online portion of Grand Theft Auto V, but we have no word yet on the next sequel.
Doom 3 (PC)
Doom 3 was a reboot of the original Doom that brought back the scary feeling of being alone in the dark with a demonic beast. It ran slower at 30 frames per second, but it delivered more realistic shadows and lightning that set the bar for outstanding 3D graphics. The beast ran out of the darkness, giving gamers nightmares for years to come.
Where are they now? Good game franchises get a reboot once a decade or so. ZeniMax, which now owns id Software, and its Bethesda Softworks division recently unveiled a preview of Doom 4, which has been renamed Doom.
Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal, Sly 2: Band of Thieves, and Jak 3 (PlayStation 2)
The PS2’s greatest strength was catalog of great games for any genre, and some of these even challenged Nintendo’s dominance with platformers. The third Ratchet & Clank game expands on previous entries of the run-and-gun series with more crazy weapons that you could level up, new sidescrolling stages staring the faux superhero Captain Qwark, and online play. The second Sly Cooper made the thief’s comrades, Bentley and Murray, playable and abandons the straight-forward stealth action of the first in favor of missions that lead up to a heist worthy of Ocean’s Eleven. Finally, Jak 3 finishes off the Jak & Daxter trilogy by placing its heroes into a Mad Max-style wasteland that requires extensive driving to navigate, which adds even more to a gameplay concoction that already combines platforming, shooting, and more.
Where are they now? Over the next two years, both Ratchet and Sly will star in animated movies that will hopefully take advantage of the clever humor that made each series endearing. Sony has also released HD trilogy collections for all three franchises on the PlayStation 3, and they continue to make cameo appearances whether as fighters in PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale or as pre-order costumes in Little Big Planet 3. Finally, developers Insomniac Games, Sucker Punch Productions, and Naughty Dog have all created other successful series such as Resistance, Infamous, Uncharted, and The Last of Us.
Next: 2004 in role-playing games
World of Warcraft (PC, Mac)
Out of all of the games on this list, World of Warcraft is easily still the most relevant. Almost 10 years after its release in 2004, millions of subscribers still play in Blizzard’s massively online world. That’s largely because World of Warcraft has always rolled out new patches and expansions, but it’s also because the original framework is so strong. Even in 2004, Warcraft gave players a huge world filled with endless adventure to enjoy. I know I still fondly remember all those times I would wander around Stormwind City just to explore the architecture or the first time I got to ride around the open plains of Azeroth on a mount.
Where are they now? World of Warcraft’s fifth expansion, Warlords of Dreanor, comes out this fall. It’ll give players a chance to explore the series’ past, but it’ll also update the aging character models for many of the races.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II — The Sith Lords (Xbox, PC)
I’m one of those people. You know, those who prefer the buggier sequel from Obisidian Entertainment to BioWare’s acclaimed original. It’s a better story, exploring Star Wars in a manner no game had done before. Reconnecting your character, The Exile, to the Force reminded me of another masterwork RPG, Black Isle’s Planescape: Torment. And that’s no surprise, since Obsidian came from the wreckage of Black Isle, and Knights of the Old Republic II and Torment share the same designer, Chris Avellone. But LucasArts forced the studio to rush production, resulting in many bugs (a fan patch had 500 fixes following a series of efforts from Obsidian) and an incomplete ending (which fans restored as well). But I preferred this story to the amnesia plot of the first.
And HK-47, the life-hating murder droid, is even better here than in the original.
Where are they now? Obsidian remains one of the most noted RPG development houses in gaming. It produced another masterwork several years later with Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer. It turned out Fallout: New Vegas. And Avellone continues to carry the rep as one of the best RPG writers around, contributing to his studio’s upcoming Kickstater games Pillars of Eternity (coming out this winter) and Torment: Tides of Numenera.
Before the franchise became the subject of RPG-nut derision, Lionhead Studio’s Fable had players rise to heroism in the delightfully British world of Albion. Players debunked lead designer Peter Molyneux’s claims of real-time fauna growth almost immediately, but that could only hamper the experience so much. With a binary moral choice system front and center, the favor (and often lives) of Albion’s citizens were in your hands. A simple but engaging combat system kept progression light, and the optional quests of the finicky Demon Doors often yielded more entertaining results than the main story. Plus, you could kick chickens.
Where are they now? Microsoft Game Studios turned the success of the first game into it’s most prominent, long-running RPG franchise. After two direct sequels and two spin-offs (an Xbox Live beat-em-up and an on-rails Kinect shooter,) a 10th-anniversary remake of the original adventure came out on Xbox 360 and PC earlier this year.
Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (GameCube)
When you ask people to name their favorite RPGs, you’ll probably hear a lot about Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and Chrono Trigger. However, one of my favorites is this clever, quirky, and hilarious adventure. A sequel to Paper Mario on the Nintendo 64, The Thousand-Year Door improved on its predecessor in just about every way. The gameplay, especially the turn-based battles, are definitely familiar, but the presentation is incredibly imaginative. Fights take place on a stage, complete with curtains and an audience, which will reward you if you pull of flashy moves. However, the sharp writing really made The Thousand-Year Door stand out, especially a series of hilarious conversations with Luigi and his hapless partners, who tell you about their own, less-glamorous adventures.
Where are they now? The Paper Mario series is still around, but it peaked with this one. Super Paper Mario on the Wii was more of a platformer than an RPG, and Sticker Star on the 3DS got rid of too many of the series’ best conventions, like partners and a whimsical story.
Star Ocean: Til the End of Time (PlayStation 2)
Remember when Japanese RPGs were more than a niche genre in the West? 2004 featured the release of hits such as Tales of Symphonia and this third entry to the Star Ocean series. While the it had rough moments, particularly the slow beginning and laborious Item Creation mode, it excelled with its combat system that borrowed a lot of concepts from fighting games. Players are free to move at all times, but they had to utilize their stamina wisely to score big combos and avoid damage. Each of the 10 characters had distinct combat styles, and you had a lot of control over their special attacks and computer A.I. tactics. And with its extensive post-game campaign, Star Ocean wound up as something hard to wean yourself off of.
Where are they now?: Since this game’s plot twist kinda messed up the Star Ocean timeline, 2009’s The Last Hope was a prequel that adhered more to series conventions. After that, developer tri-Ace produced the unique shooter/RPG hybrid Resonance of Fate and chipped in on the sequels to Final Fantasy XIII, and it has just announced the free-to-play PlayStation Vita shooter Judas Code as its latest project.
Next: The hardest, creepiest, and weirdest from Japan
Ninja Gaiden (Xbox)
There was a time when no one could tell if Tomonobu Itagaki, the then-brash and eccentric lead of Team Ninja, was full of his own shit. Itagaki was known for making a lot of wild claims throughout his career and was heading into Ninja Gaiden cocksure that he would create one of the hardest action games in the sixth generation of consoles … and to everyone’s surprise, he lived up to that. Any half-assed designer can toss together a difficult game, but it takes a skilled touch to craft something that’s difficult yet fair. The secret to Itagaki and Team Ninja nailing this came down to a fighting game-esque battle system that was complemented by ridiculously well-thought-out enemy encounters, who often shared a similar battle system and used different attack patterns from one another that required constant on-the-fly strategic decisions. Ninja Gaiden wasn’t hard because Itagaki and Team Ninja were being unfair … it was hard because the average gamer had to learn to stop mindlessly mashing through action games.
Where are they now? Itagaki left Team Ninja shortly before the release of Ninja Gaiden II for the 360, subsequently suing publisher Tecmo Koei over a conflict related to bonuses. He’s now head of Valhalla Game Studios, working on Devil’s Third. The Ninja Gaiden series itself has been through some shaky times, with Team Ninja and Tecmo Koei struggling to have the series stand on its own in a post-Itagaki world. The latest effort, Yaiba Ninja Gaiden Z, was a collaboration between top talent from Team Ninja, Spark Unlimited, and Comcept. Critics did not care for it.
Gradius V (PlayStation 2)
With Ikaruga gaining a lot of praise, Treasure was going into the PlayStation 2 as prom queen of the shoot-em’-up ball. That is until it flopped into the punch bowl in an incident known as Silpheed: The Lost Planet. The legendary developer needed redemption and, coincidentally, Konami wanted to revive the Gradius series (perhaps in response to R-Type Final?). Lead designer of Ikaruga and ex-Konami worker bee Hiroshi Iuchi took charge of the project. Treasure’s uncanny talent for laying out creative and challenging encounters that can make any game mechanic seem remarkably deep, is dripping all over Gradius V. Making it one of the best chapters in the series’ long history, if not one of the top shoot em’ ups on the PlayStation 2.
Where are they now?: In 2013, Treasure released a 3D action game in Japan called Gaist Crusher (based off of the manga and anime of the same name). A follow-up, Gaist Crusher God, is in development. As for the Gradius line, a homage to the older titles was released on WiiWare in 2008: Gradius ReBirth. Gradius ARC hit mobile phones in 2010 as a strategy game. In 2011 the series reached “IP platform hell”, aka slot machines, with the clever named Gradius: The Slot. A Gradius VI: Last Gaiden was teased to be in development in 2005, but that wound up canceled within a year. Until Konami contracts Treasure and Iuchi to revive Last Gaiden’s development, shoot-em’-up fans are going to have to stick to V when they are getting the shakes for some Gradius action. Not that having to play Gradius V is horrible in any way, shape, or form.
Silent Hill 4: The Room (PlayStation 2, Xbox, PC)
When people think back on the best of Silent Hill, they tend not to remember The Room. In an already weird collection of survival-horror games, Silent Hill 4: The Room was weirder, taking place in a locked apartment room and several dreary locations outside the eponymous foggy town. It’s not the most popular entry, but for me, The Room was as memorable and powerful as its predecessor, the much revered Silent Hill 2. This time, instead of the loneliness of extreme isolation, players confronted an overwhelming sense of doom and voyeurism — the perverseness of watching others through gaps in the walls and doors and the horrible creeping feeling of someone peering back. That oppressive atmosphere only grew thicker with each new haunting and killing courtesy of madman Walter Sullivan. Wherever the mysterious holes that appeared in Henry Townshend’s apartment took him, it wasn’t to freedom.
Where are they now?: Konami has been quiet about the series since Silent Hill: Book of Memories appeared on the PlayStation Vita in 2012. The original developer, Team Silent, ended its time on the games with The Room, leaving Konami to shuffle the series around to a handful of different creators.
WarioWare, Inc: Mega Party Games! (GameCube)
I imagine the original one line synopsis for WarioWare, Inc: Mega Party Games! is, “create a game for game designers.”
Nintendo really showed its design chops by tossing 138 minigames at us that all adhere to two rules: It must have no more than two inputs, and it can’t last long than 5 seconds. The player mastering each mini-game cleverly played into the larger design, where the challenge is all about speed and adaptation as the games fly by at a panic pace. For a time when mobile phone game development was in its infancy, where developers were working on platforms that were incredibly limited, Nintendo successfully executing the quick and simple concept of these minigames was highly relevant for 2004.
Where are they now? The excitement of the WarioWare series, unfortunately, fizzled out a bit somewhere in between the many sequels and platform adaptations. With that said, anyone in the game industry that does not own the GameCube version of this game is not to be trusted.
Katamari Damacy (PlayStation 2)
We have to thank the King of All Cosmos for the miracle of delivering this slice of Japanese weirdness to the West. Only he would have the vision to send his miniature son on a mission to recreate the galaxy by rolling up anything — living or not — he can find into a ball. The simple controls, bare graphics, and iconic soundtrack make the game a distant cousin to the mobile and indie games of today, but the beauty of Katamari Damacy lies in its sense of scale. The Prince starts off by picking up trash in a small house, but the ball only gets larger until it’s capable of rolling up entire countries.
Where Are They Now?: The game enjoyed several sequels and spinoffs through the years, most recently on the PlayStation Vita and iOS store. The Prince joined Pac-Man as a recurring mascot for Namco Bandai, and at one point the New York Museum of Modern Art featured Katamari Damacy in its halls.
Next: Battle in the ring, on the field, through the streets, and into the fog of war
Rome: Total War (PC, Mac)
Based on Creative Assembly’s 3D game engine for real-time strategy, this third title in the Total War series was one of the best strategy games of all time. You could zoom in on a company of soldiers, or zoom out to see a full 3D battlefield with thousands of soldiers. The action unfolded in real-time as you marched your units across rivers or ridges. You could pull out further to view a map of the Roman empire and figure out where to send your armies next. This title made strategy gaming much more emotional and stressful — and a lot more fun.
Where are they now?: Rome: Total War II debuted last year with awesome new graphics and a huge strategic map that covered the span of the entire Roman empire. Creative Assembly, now part of Sega, fulfilled its vision of creating a game that could scale from an individual soldier to a giant battle.
Vampire: The Masquerade — Bloodlines (PC)
Troika’s Vampire: The Masquerade — Bloodlines offered an impressively open-ended campaign set against a vampiric society just behind the scenes of a modern-day Los Angeles. The game was an adaptation of the tabletop role-playing campaign from White Wolf publishing, and managed to successfully carry over a grand sense of choice and mission variation. Not only could you talk, woo, threaten, or bribe your way around most conflicts, your chosen vampire Clan could have a dramatic impact on your play-style. The ghoulish Nosferatu couldn’t survive long amongst humans without alerting the police, and insane Malkavian vampires could wind up having a full (if one-sided) conversation with a stop sign. Bloodlines was a game begging to be explored and played almost in perpetuity, and it retains an active fan base and modding following to this day.
Where are they now?: Vampire: The Masquerade — Bloodlines was the first third-party game released on Valve’s new Source engine of the time. That made for some impressive physics, but crippling bugs. The release day competition with Half-Life 2 was too steep, and Bloodlines severely under-performed for publisher Activision. Troika closed in February 2005, three months after the game’s release.
Fight Night 2004 (Xbox, PlayStation 2)
It took 2 damned decades of boxing video games for someone to finally nail a control scheme that made punching intuitive. Fight Night 2004 introduced the “Total Punch Control” system, which took full advantage of the Xbox and PlayStation 2 dual analog controls. All of the boxer’s movement are delegated to the left control stick, while all punches are handled off of the right. Punch type, speed, and angle are determined by how the player pushes the right analog stick. This makes the sweet science of dodging, weaving, and sticking an opponent in the kidneys feel incredibly fluid and engaging compared to the old method of slapping buttons. At the time it was definitely one of those, “so obvious I wish I had thought of it first” design innovations.
Where are they now?: EA Sports developed four more sequels to the series: Fight Night Round 2 (2005 — Xbox, PlayStation 2, GameCube), Fight Night Round 3 (2006 — PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Xbox, Xbox 360, PSP), Fight Night Round 4 (2009 — PlayStation 3, Xbox 360) and Fight Night Champion (2011 — PlayStation 3, Xbox 360). The latter title modified the “Total Punch Control” system for what it would call a “Full Spectrum Punch Control” scheme. What’s the difference? Instead of rolling the right analog stick, players simply flick it to activate a punch. It sounds minor, but when decisions are made in milliseconds, any advantage in getting moves out quicker counts. Now, if only EA Sports could flick out a next gen update sometime in the next year or so.
ESPN NFL 2K5 (PlayStation 2, Xbox)
Up until 2004, developer Visual Concept’s football series was always playing catchup to Electronic Art’s seemingly unstoppable Madden games. But that changed with ESPN NFL 2K5. Not only was it an excellent game — I spent hours playing with the speedy QB Michael Vick and the Atlanta Falcons, watching automated halftime shows packed with highlight reels, and decorating my mansion with trophies and scores of team-specific trinkets — but it also had an insanely low price. Publisher 2K Games released NFL 2K5 for $20, costing considerably less than the competition (Madden NFL 2005 retailed for $50 before EA slashed it to $30 in response).
I’m not a hardcore sports fan, but even I couldn’t pass that up.
Where are they now? EA must’ve been scared of NFL 2K5, because in 2005, the company bought the exclusive NFL video game rights from the league and the NFL Players Association, killing off the 2K series and any other developer’s chances of making an authentic football game for consoles. Visual Concepts briefly tried to resurrect NFL 2K in 2007 with All-Pro Football 2K8, which used former NFL players (the deal doesn’t covered retired players) and fictional teams, but that only lasted for one game. The developer is now known more for its critically acclaimed NBA 2K basketball games as well as for co-developing the WWE 2K wrestling titles with Yuke’s.
Tekken 5 (Arcade)
“Heihachi Mishima is dead.” Tekken’s evil patriarch didn’t even wait one game to make his return, but that statement did herald a hallmark installment in the 3D fighting franchise. Tekken 5 introduced the best batch of newcomers in franchise history: Jin’s unrefined cousin Asuka Kazama, the kenpo master Feng Wei, Wesley Snipes Raven, and later on the regal Lilli and brutal Sergei Dragunov. The game also furthered its reputation for eye candy with models that still look good today and gorgeous stages set in burning temples and moonlit wildernesses. Developer Namco also introduced new incentives such as PS2 controller compatibility and profile cards to lure fans back into the arcade. If you’re lucky, you can probably still find a cabinet at your local bowling alley or university student union.
Where are they now? Tekken is no longer the king of the genre it was in the early 2000s — that title is easy to hold when your competition is The King of Fighters: Maximum Impact and Capcom Fighting Evolution. During the Evolution 2014 fighting-game tournament, however, Producer Katsuhiro Harada announced the franchise’s seventh chapter in a bid to reclaim the throne.
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