Prepare to feel old all you late 20 somethings. I was closing up a disastrous first year in college when half the games of 2004 launched, and starting fresh with a new major and new sense of purpose when the other half launched. Has it been so long?
For good or for evil, 2004 was the first year that video gaming began to take on the mega-blockbuster corporation that it has become today. Enormous sequels like Halo 2, Metroid Prime 2, Half-Life 2, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, Need for Speed: Underground 2, Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2, Jak 3, Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. You get the idea.
The idea of annualized franchises began to take shape here and budgets began to skyrocket as popular franchises became sure fire bet publishers were willing to take. Without question, 2004 is where gaming stopped being a niche hobby and became the massive mainstream industry we see today.
Not that the year was entirely devoid of original ideas. All franchises that were created in 2004 all have a 10th Anniversary this year, and we would like to congratulate them for standing out in such a tough year.
Perhaps the largest and most important new franchise of the year was Monster Hunter. The first game launched for the PlayStation 2 in Japan in March, and America followed that September. Neither were met with much applause.
How could this be? In the face of emerging subscription services taking off for online RPGs, Capcom offered a free online RPG jam-packed with all the action and customization you could expect from the booming MMORPG genre. What went wrong?
Well, nobody really bought into the idea of playing the PlayStation 2 online just yet. A module sold separately from the console allowed for online gaming, and the PlayStation 2 Slim just around the corner sported a native modem. By and large though, console gamers had not embraced online gaming just yet, sending Monster Hunter to the back of Capcom’s mind in America.
Where is it now?: Of course, there was a different story in Japan. Capcom persevered with its online ambitions, and the first game managed to reach 1 million sales after a slow burn.
Three years later, Monster Hunter Freedom 2, known as Monster Hunter Portable 2nd, blasted through the sales charts, making it the hottest franchise on the Japanese market. Its success had carried over onto the Nintendo 3DS in Japan.
Monster Hunter 4 launched in 2013 in Japan, selling 1.8 million in its first weekend and 4.1 million over its entire lifetime. We are still waiting for our 2015 release in America, all because we couldn’t fall in line with the franchise sooner.
Remember when Fable was supposed to be the biggest thing to ever happen to RPG’s? You could marry multiple women anywhere in the game’s massive world, become a werewolf for the rest of your character’s life if bit, and plant an acorn and have it grow back as a tree.
Yeah, Peter Molyneux and Lionhead Studios might have oversold Fable a little bit, and it’s impact was stopped dead in its tracks by a little game called World of Warcraft stealing the title of the biggest thing in RPGs.
Even though it wasn’t the revolutionary dream game we were all hoping for, it was still fun at least. Fable 2 would launch on the Xbox 360 too much bigger acclaim, but Fable 3 would once again crumble under its own ambition to a lukewarm reception.
Do we even need to mention Fable: The Journey?
Where is it now?: The idea of a massive RPG world has been beaten to death now with games like Skyrim, Dragon Age and The Witcher delivering on all of Fable’s original promises.
Instead of following in their footsteps, Lionhead Studios and Microsoft have toned down Fable to a cooperative dungeon crawling sporting four playable characters and a player controlled villain at a time. The villain controls the flow of the adventure, directing enemies and earning points like in a tower defense game to build obstacles to overcome.
Fable Legends promises five to 10 years of content through the Xbox One’s cloud streaming services, but I’d be surprised if it made it that long with the severe lack of hype around this game.
Far and away the most original or the original franchises from 2004, Namco recognized the desire for a niche game with all of these sequels and launched Katamari Damacy full force into the world.
At a mere $19.99, the game scored wide praise around the gaming industry for its unique gameplay ideas, cheap yet charming presentation, and what is without question the best soundtrack of the year. Seriously, major publications rated this quirky collection of tunes above the massive soundtrack of Halo 2.
The Prince would go on to become one of the most loveable video game characters of the decade for his unrelenting loyalty and desire to press on, and his instantly recognizable father, The King of All Cosmos, also emerged as one of the biggest jerks in gaming, whipping his poor son into the job of cleaning up his mess.
Too bad his dialogue makes absolutely no sense.
Where is it now?: The core Katamari Damacy gameplay would see a few great sequels through the likes of We Love Katamari and the first portable game Me & My Katamari.
However, frequent releases turned this franchise into the exact monster it was originally standing apart from. The following generation games, Beautiful Katamari and Katamari Forever were well made, but the originality and initial impact hard long since worn off.
It hasn’t exactly shared the same success on iOS either, and series creator Keita Takahashi has moved on from video games pursuing his passion of designing children’s playgrounds. I can’t think of a better man to do it.
We go from the quirkiest game on the list to the most straight-laced. Killzone might have been an original franchise at the time, but it is clearly a product of the world around it.
Sony needed a franchise that would take a bite out of Halo’s dominance, so why not create a game that mirrors everything Bungie did right? A masked soldier on the cover, dual-analog controls, a serious science fiction tone, online multiplayer options. Killzone was the ideal poster boy of the blockbuster gaming world in 2004.
Of course, it also launched to mediocre reception with the weaker power of the PlayStation 2 not always able to keep up with the ambitious graphics and the “floaty” controls. Luckily for Sony, the series would find a better home on the PlayStation 3.
Where is it now?: Guerrilla Games is still chugging along with Killzone and it is still Sony’s poster boy for today’s blockbuster world. Not much has changed really. Killzone: Shadow Fall launched to a decent reception, but many have stated that the graphics don’t hold up to the original ambition.
Just like the AAA environment around it, Killzone is struggling to break free from the chains holding it back from evolving beyond its current lucrative state.
Star Wars Battlefront
Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Yoda, Obi Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader, Emperor Palpatine. The drama of the Star Wars series has always come from a tight circle of central heroes and villains and how they relate with one another. The destructive conflicts and galactic civil war are merely exciting backdrops to get to know these people better and go on adventures with them.
Video games too have always used the films’ characters as the core to building their levels around. Super Star Wars on the Super Nintendo cast Luke, Han, Chewbaca, and Leia reference in the films to make the most intense reinterpretation the films have ever seen. When taking place outside the Star Wars films’ timeline in games like Shadows of the Empire, Knights of the Old Republic, and Jedi Knight, the writers would create their own characters to revolve a story around.
Star Wars: Battlefront was the first time the backdrops were brought to the foreground. You control one of the millions of nameless soldiers battling for supremacy of the galaxy, and when you die, you respawn as another one… and another one… and another one. No backstory, no character arcs. Just a nameless avatar to use when battling out in your favorite actions scenes like Hoth or the forest moon of Endor.
The strictly multiplayer formula proved popular enough to spawn a sequel, Battlefront 2, which would go on to become the best selling video game in the Star Wars series. Although widely regarded as a massive improvement over the original in many ways, like space battles, the addition of “hero” characters like Vader and Yoda kind of defeated the purpose of playing as the countless grunt soldiers who really turned the course of the galaxy. Thankfully, you can turn them off.
Where is it now?: After years of frustration from fans looking for a third game, EA picked up the Star Wars video game license after LucasArts was bought out by Disney. It announced a new Star Wars: Battlefront at E3 2013 using the Frostbite Engine 3. All we’ve seen is a teaser trailer from Hoth, putting us at over a year since we’ve seen more.
When Far Cry hit the PC gaming scene in 2004, it made more of a splash for the impressive tech running it than for the game the tech powered. There was something about it, though, that stuck. While so many first person shooters head down sci-fi corridors or through semi-directed military battlefields, Far Cry dropped you in the middle of the jungle. Aside from the guns at your disposal, you could hop into cars and boats to get around the island. Combat situations could be approached from a variety of directions using stealth, surprise, explosives, or a fast moving car.
The idea stuck, even through a terrible Uwe Boll film.
Far Cry 2 is a favorite among game critics and has been subject of more thinkpieces than just about any other game. Far Cry 3, for all the (very valid) issues people had with the story, has some of the best encounters in the series and in recent shooter history.
Crytek isn’t in charge of the series anymore, but it hit on an idea that has stood through three console generations without anything connecting them but a name and the idea of a man, a gun, and a wide-open wilderness.
Where is it now?: Far Cry is alive and well – the next entry in the series is set for release in November. This time we’re heading not to the savanna or a jungle island, but instead the mountainous region at the base of the Himalayas in the fictional nation of Kyrat.
Red Dead Revolver
The connections between Red Dead Redemption and its predecessor, Red Dead Revolver, are tenuous at best. They both have slow-motion gun slinging, a Western setting, and a visual style owing a lot to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western films.
It’s hard to believe they’re related beyond that. Red Dead Revolver, initially developed by Capcom and taken over by Rockstar, is and was, even back in 2004, not a pretty game. It’s a pretty clunky, forgettable game, too.
But without it, we might not have gotten Red Dead Redemption, one of the most beautiful, entertaining games to come out of Rockstar San Diego and one of the best games of this most recent generation.
Despite its flaws, we owe it to Red Dead Revolver to mention it, despite its shortcomings, simply for the legacy it left behind.
Where is it now?: Rockstar had promised a new game by the end of first quarter 2015, and we all got excited. A new Red Dead is coming! But it was not to be, instead we’re getting a next-gen version of Grand Theft Auto V. Take Two CEO Strauss Zelnick has been clear, though, that Red Dead is an ongoing franchise for Rockstar. It would be a real surprise, after the previous entry’s success, if that weren’t the case. Every big game conference is going to be a white-knuckle ride until then, though.
BONUS: Fire Emblem
We’re going to cheat a little bit on this one, but it wouldn’t feel right to talk about 2004 without the biggest revelation from Nintendo. It’s hard to believe ten years have gone by, but this was the year that Fire Emblem first came to America.
Getting the Fire Emblem games in America is now the stuff of legends. Three years earlier, Super Smash Bros. Melee was the biggest game in Nintendo’s line-up as the main reason to buy a GameCube. While gamers were busy enjoying the game as the usual suspects like Mario and Link, two other swordsmen joined the ranks we hadn’t yet heard of.
Who exactly were Prince Marth and Roy? Nintendo was forced to come clean and reveal to Americans that it had been keeping a series secret from them for over a decade. Not just any series either, but one of its best series!
Three years later, we got our first taste of Fire Emblem’s brutal style of strategy RPG gameplay. Even in the shadow of the Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, many felt that the speed and streamlined gameplay of Fire Emblem made it the superior game.
Where is it now?: Fire Emblem has seen a handful of other games make it to America, but I’m still convinced this one is the best of them all.
The open-world of The Sacred Stones detract from the sense of urgency a limited number of battles grant, and the graphics and storylines of the console games also pale in comparison to the fluid sprites of the Game Boy Advance.
Just last year though, Fire Emblem: Awakening came close to stealing that crown. It also set a handful or records, giving Fire Emblem a renewed sense of presence it hadn’t really enjoyed since the 2004 American debut.
Food for thought, Fire Emblem first launched in Japan in 1990, meaning it took 14 years to localize a game America. In 2018, we will have had Fire Emblem in English for long as we didn’t. I wonder what the chances are of (legitimately) getting the fabulous Super Famicom games over here in that timeframe.
BONUS: World of Warcraft
Yeah, more cheating, but seriously. Find me a bigger and more influential game from 2004, and you get a cookie. World of Warcraft certainly isn’t the first game in Blizzard’s fantasy series, but with the success it has seen, it certainly won’t be bringing it back to its RTS roots any time soon.
Online gaming, co-op gaming, subscription plans, free-to-play, DKP, expansion packs, and even a believable continuous fantasy world. What hasn’t World of Warcraft influenced over the past decade?
Let’s not even think about the merger of Call of Duty publisher Activision and World of Warcraft developer Blizzard, essentially making an untouchable video gaming god of revenue and profits.
Where is it now?: Many have tried to dethrone this MMORPG from being the king of the hill, but even ten years later, it’s still the biggest and most successful game of its type.
World of Warcraft currently finds itself bleeding subscribers by the hundreds of thousands thanks to the rising influence of MOBAs, DOTA, and free-to-play, but in spite of that Blizzard chugs along with development. New and exciting expansions promise that Azeroth will be alive and running for years to come.