Some of the biggest hits aren’t necessarily the most hyped games around. In fact, you could argue tht several out there fly under the radar initially because they defy traditional sensibilities. How could any publisher take a risk in pushing these games when they’re so unlike anything else they put out? They don’t necessarily have to be that strange. Maybe they go against the company’s corporate image, or come out at a time when their selected genre is in the midst of a downswing.
We felt it necessary to acknowledge the sleeper hits of the world. After all, these are the true visionaries of the gaming world; the games that dared to take a risk and were eventually rewarded for it. So let’s count ‘em down!
10. Bravely Default
- Platform: 3DS
- Publisher: Square-Enix, Nintendo
- Developer: Silicon Studio
- Release Dates: February 7th, 2014
Square-Enix genuinely didn’t believe audiences wanted traditional JRPGs anymore. They gave the greenlight to Bravely Default as a low-budget experiment, but it turned out to be such a huge game that it was too intimidating for them to attempt a US release. This was a shame, because overseas fans were immediately charmed by Bravely Default’s modern interpretation of the elegantly cute artwork of the 16-bit era. Bravely Default’s battle system also allowed players to treat battle turns like a bank loan and “withdraw” potential turns earlier than expected at the cost of lost turns later, making it too intriguing to ignore.
However, if Square-Enix didn’t notice the encroaching hype for Bravely Default, Nintendo sure did. Nintendo themselves had been blindsided by the demand for JRPGs with 2013’s unexpected hit, Fire Emblem: Awakening. They weren’t about to let Bravely Default fade away from the spotlight. And, once again, they were taken aback by the sales, as shortages for Bravely Default lasted for months at a time. Even now, used copies go for a hefty sum, as no one wants to let go of their own copy!
Bravely Default - Adventure Trailer:
9. Tales of Symphonia
- Platform: GameCube, Playstation 3, PC
- Publisher: Namco
- Developer: Namco
- Release Dates: July 13th, 2004
Tales was always a known franchise, and was already a big success in Japan. However, Tales of Destiny and Tales of Eternia (released as Tales of Destiny 2 in the US) were always overshadowed by their contemporaries on the PS1. It’s not that they were bad games; far from it. It’s just that JRPGs overseas were known at the time for being big, cinematic graphical showcases at the time due to the looming success of Final Fantasy. Tales, comparatively, was this humble little 2D action game that required fighting game-style inputs to use special attacks. Tales of Symphonia was no different, outside of moving to 3D. The combat was still linear, but enemies were still on a 3D space, and you could “shift” your plane to target them.
Tales of Symphonia is the epitome of a game achieving success due to its timing. The PS2 was still the go-to system for RPGs, so the GameCube wasn’t seeing a lot of action on this front barring an admittedly excellent port of the Dreamcast’s Skies of Arcadia. Its last big adventure game was The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker back in 2003. GameCube owners were practically starved for something to play on their system of choice. It didn’t help that the summer is a traditionally slow time for new game releases on other consoles too. Then comes along Tales of Symphonia, boasting a whopping 80 hours of game time. Naturally, people were going to snag it up as soon as possible. Perhaps it was unconventional logic, but it worked out in Namco’s favor, making Tales of Symphonia the bestselling in the franchise to date.
Tales of Symphonia – Launch Trailer PC:
- Platform: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC, Xbox One, Playstation 4
- Publisher: 2k Games
- Developer: Gearbox Software
- Release Dates: October 20th, 2009
Absolutely no one wanted to compete with the oncoming juggernaut that was Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Publishers were delaying their releases en masse just so they could hit the much safer and less crowded early 2010 release schedule. Except, well, everyone was doing it. This actually meant that, suddenly, fall of 2009 was actually pretty empty, except for Modern Warfare 2.
There was one hold out though. 2k Games apparently realized how, with everyone scurrying away from Call of Duty, this meant they could stretch their legs out and draw some attention to Borderlands. Which was good, because, while Call of Duty was presenting itself as this dark, badass military drama, Borderlands ended up providing a much goofier, sillier alternative. People were just coming off the high of the prior year’s Fallout as well, which had successfully blended shooter gameplay with RPG sensibilities, making 2009 a perfect time to launch a gun-based loot game.
Borderlands Character Trailer:
7. No More Heroes
- Platform: Wii, Playstation 3
- Publisher: Marvelous Entertainment, Ubisoft, Rising Star Games
- Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture
- Release Dates: January 22nd, 2008
Direct Suda 51 has always had trouble getting a hit. His prior work, Killer7, straddled the line of “visionary work” and “offensively esoteric”. Heck, his attempt at a wrestling game ended with the main character committing suicide at the end. No More Heroes was character action game that required players to, erm, “jerk” the Wii remote to recharge their lightsaber while its hero chopped off limbs of enemies as he shouted “CRANBERRY CHOCOLATE SUNDAE”. Expectations shouldn’t have been high.
And, in Japan, that was certainly true. Suda 51 even attended a launch event at a retailer himself and offered to sign customer’s pre-orders, to which there few takers. It had a marginally more successful launch in the US, selling half of its 200,000 shipped copies in the first month or so. However, positive critical buzz finally carried over into Europe, where apparently it was doing so well that executives at Rising Star Games were literally weeping with joy over its success. No More Heroes is a fantastic example of a game that benefitted from a globally connected news circuit.
No More Heroes: Hero’s Paradise Launch trailer
6. Batman Arkham Asylum
- Platform: Playstation 3, Xbox 360, PC, Playstation 4, Xbox One
- Publisher: Square-Enix, Warner Bros.
- Developer: Rocksteady
- Release Dates: Date: August 25th, 2009
It seems weird to put a major franchise like Batman on here, but keep in mind that licensed games didn’t used to be considered a noble pursuit. Batman was a notoriously poisonous property, with several different games getting awful reviews and terrible fan reactions. Nobody was really taking their time to put together that perfect superhero game. Even with Rocksteady boasting a heavily Metroidvania-influenced game world and a unique combination of free-form combat and hunter-style stealth action, people weren’t exactly willing to give an unproven developer the benefit of the doubt.
The demo for Batman: Arkham Asylum is what sold it. People needed to get their hands on experiencing Arkham Asylum before they could believe. Not only that, but previews were even discussing how Batman: Arkham Asylum finally captured the detective side of Batman that had been forgotten since the 1990’s cartoon show. Players were rushing to get their pre-orders in just days before it finally came out, suddenly turning Batman into a viable gaming property again.
Batman: Arkham Asylum Launch Trailer:
5. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3
- Platform: Playstation 2, Playstation 3, PSP
- Publisher: Atlus
- Developer: Atlus
- Release Dates: August 14th, 2007
The Persona series had always been seen as an accessory to the mainline Shin Megami Tensei franchise. In fact, Persona was never actually called “Shin Megami Tensei” in Japan, but Atlus added it to the title of Persona 3 in hopes of people drawing comparisons between it and the cult-hit Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. However, the Playstation 2 was effectively dead at the time, with the PS3 having been out for a year. Everyone was moving onto newer consoles. Atlus never expected the opportunity to bring out the superior Persona 3 FES revision.
Thankfully, Persona 3 came out just as people were growing cool with the idea of marrying RPGs with dating sims. Bioware had been easing players into the idea with the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire, and were generating a ton of hype for their upcoming Mass Effect. But those games just had the romance as an aside. No one had even seen a game quite like Persona 3, which fully embraced the concept of balancing dungeon crawling with a social life. It came out to rave reviews, and word of mouth kept spreading until it was an absolutely massive success for the once tiny publisher Atlus.
Persona 3 Trailer:
4. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
- Platform: GameBoy Advance, Nintendo DS, Nintendo 3DS, Wii, iOS, Android, PC
- Publisher: Capcom
- Developer: Capcom
- Release Dates: October 15th, 2005
The Gyakuten Saiban franchise (later translated to Ace Attorney) was a mild hit on the GameBoy Advance in Japan. However, it never made its way overseas when it originally came out, probably because visual novels were still an unheard of genre and required some serious translation efforts. However, when Capcom decided to bring an enhanced port to the DS to experiment with what could be done with touch controls, they found the perfect opportunity to give an international release a shot.
The DS’s touch screen turned out to be a perfect fit for point and click gameplay, as opposed to the cumbersome buttons of the GameBoy Advance. Buzz started growing around the newly titled Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. After all, who was making games about whodunit mysteries and courtroom drama? Capcom struggled to keep their low shipments in stock. But the DS version turned out to be a slow burner back at home too. In 2005, Ace Attorney managed to sell over 100,000 copies in Japan. And then… it just never stopped selling, raking in over 100,000 sales every year it was on the market until 2009 when it finally petered out.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy trailer:
3. Xenoblade Chronicles
- Platform: Wii, 3DS, Wii U
- Publisher: Nintendo
- Developer: Monolith Soft
- Release Dates: April 6th, 2012
Nintendo didn’t really want Xenoblade. Nintendo had acquired Monolith Soft sort of by accident in 2007 while in the process of committing a failed hostile takeover of Namco. They were known for their complex, story-driven 100 hour RPGs, but the Wii had become a success thanks to its simple to understand controls and welcoming family friendly image. Attitudes towards JRPGs were becoming toxic and people were shifting more towards the open-ended freedom of Western RPGs. Xenoblade saw a quiet release in Japan, where it found modest success. However, overseas fans watched trailers for Xenoblade online and were awestruck by how fluid the environments were. Even with the language barrier, Xenoblade was clearly not your average JRPG. This had the design sensibilities of a Western MMORPG, with the art style and creativity expected out of a Japanese developed title, repurposed into a single player-experience.
Then, the impossible happened. Nintendo sanctioned an English release!... exclusively for Europe. According to Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime, they figured that JRPGs were done for in the US. Nintendo didn’t see the point in bringing Xenoblade over. However, US fans were importing Xenoblade in droves, going as far as to hack their Wiis to break the region-coding! Xenoblade ended up as a million-seller for Nintendo, and led Xenoblade to branch into a franchise of its own.
Xenoblade Chronicles – eShop Trailer:
- Platform: PC, Playstation 4, Playstation Vita
- Publisher: Toby Fox
- Developer: Toby Fox
- Release Dates: September 15th, 2015
You’d be forgiven if you didn’t realize Undertale was originally a Kickstarter release. In fact, it was a fairly small one started by Toby Fox, only asking for around $5000. It ended up netting 10x that, though, as creator Toby Fox had gained some buzz for being involved with the Homestuck community after composing some music for the ambitious comic. He ended up working on the game for over 2 years, due to not having any prior experience with game development. It helped that Undertale promised to be a story that tackled themes that most RPGs ignored, like the nature of rewarding players for murder. All with a fun SHUMP-inspired combat system to keep players on their toes
While the narrative, characters, and tone of Undertale struck a chord with players, what set the series off was its popularity in the YouTube space. Japanese-style RPGs were known for their adherence to a set plot. People discovered by watching the game on YouTube, how much the game could be altered depending on how you played it. Even talking to certain characters before others could affect how dialogue would play out. It was design decisions like this that you couldn’t advertise in traditional formats that gave Undertale its heart and soul, and re-opened the possibilities as to what could be done with the medium.
Undertale – Launch Trailer:
1. Pokémon Red, Green & Blue
- Platform: GameBoy, 3DS
- Publisher: Nintendo
- Developer: Game Freak
- Release Dates: September 28th, 1999 (US)
You might be looking at this entry and scratching your head. Pokémon is the second best-selling video game franchise of all time, just behind Mario, Mr. Video Game Himself! Pokémon Red, Green & Blue have sold over 30,000,000 units globally, making it one of the bestselling games of all time! How could it possibly be a sleeper hit?
After a troubled 9-year development cycle, Pokémon Red & Green launched in Japan at around 100,000 units. Considering how long it took to make the game, this was certainly disheartening. And the game was pretty glitchy to boot. It was so bad, that some players were encountering a completely unknown Pokémon that was never mentioned in-game, outside of in some texts found at Cinnabar Island. This Pokémon was Mew, and, according to an “Iwata Asks” with staff of Game Freak which preceded the launch of Pokémon Heart Gold and Soul Silver, was never intended to be in the game. It was something that eventual series director Shigeki Morimoto snuck in as a prank just before the games launched, and ignited fervor among the existing fanbase to acquire one for themselves, to the point that Nintendo held an event for players to net one for themselves! Word of mouth spread and the series exploded from there.
The story of Pokémon’s success is one for the history books. Pokémon is now a mega multimedia international franchise, beloved across the world. And it started with one little gag.
Pokémon Red, Blue, & Yellow Version Trailer:
We feel this is a good sampling of all the sleeper hits that rocked the world. This does not even scratch the surface of all that exist out there, though. Are there any games that we ironically overlooked? Don’t sleep on it, let us know in the comments below!