Since the dawn of home and portable gaming, players have seen many video game platforms come and go. Some of these platforms, (like the NES, and Playstation,) enjoy abundant success until they eventually fade away in the sunset to retire to sites like this, but other consoles are not so fortunate to have a steady life. They go through peaks and valleys in terms of sales, critical reception, and the release of quality titles. Oftentimes, these game systems fade as fast as they can, hiding from the spotlight or burn out with spite. Other times however, These underdog consoles and plucky handhelds pull through and go out in class and style, putting out a game or two before the end that shines in the eyes of critics and game fans everywhere, showing off the good in the machine in the process. They are the swan song, the last triumphant hurrah before the end. Today we’ll be examining what I consider to be the top five swan songs in gaming.
A couple warnings before we begin: First, this list is limited to my experiences. I can’t see in any of your heads and frankly I don’t want to. Second, don’t expect too many games for Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, etc. Most of there hardware fits into the comfy ride into the sunset listed above, and therefore their last hurrahs have less of an impact than the crazy ups and downs of Sega and NEC. We good? We cool? Alright, let’s go.
5) Kirby in Dreamland 3 (SNES, 1997)
I almost didn’t put this one on the list. It’s not the best Kirby game on the SNES and it didn’t make a huge splash, but upon further reflection I realized it fit the description rather well. Released in 1997, Kirby in Dreamland 3 was the last First part release for the SNES in North America. That’s pretty late in the game. Often the last games trailing out the door aren’t anything special. They’re usually sports games or simple things like puzzles or boring educational software. Luckily, Nintendo was not going to put their 16-bit grey box to sleep with a game like that. Kirby In Dreamland 3 is a good show of what developers had learned from the hardware over the years. Using the extra chips Nintendo put in their carts and some clever little tricks the game is gorgeous with a hand painted look and runs great as well. Levels, characters, bosses- they all look and play great. It’s a worthy entry in the Kirby series and a fine note for the SNES to leave on.
4) Conker’s Bad Fur Day (N64, 2001)
I wasn’t sure if the timing of this release for this game made it a candidate for a swan song title, but given how sporadic releases were for the N64 between 2001-2002 I think it earned it’s consideration. Where do I start with this cuddly game that’s been shaken up and twisted about? (In the best of ways.) Conker was the last game that acclaimed developer Rareware released for the system, and if we’re honest, it’s one of the last quality games they put out before they fell to the lows of Kinect dribble and avatars. Conker did things on the N64 that were rarely seen, if seen at all. The textures and character animations were phenomenal, the game was pretty much fully voiced, and there was a commendable amount of content. That’s a lot to ask of a cartridge game in 2001. But more importantly, the games themes, style, and humor are far from the typical jiggy-finding coin-stealing, happy fest players were used to seeing on the system. Conker was rude, vulgar, loud and witty in ways that would make you take a quick glance around the room if you were telling the joke. None of that is something that would usually come to mind when one thinks of the N64, and that’s a good thing. This game not only proved that with a little elbow grease and determination that there was a lot possible on the N64 than first thought. Conker’s Bad Fur Day an impression that’s hard to forget. That is a good thing. It made people think twice before calling the N64 a kiddy console and it made the suits at Nintendo realize that they can push more mature content more often without leagues of parents and teachers grabbing their pitchforks. I’m not saying that without Conker’s Bad Fur Day I wouldn’t be slaughtering angels with Bayonetta on my Wii U, but I’m saying it helped.
3) Shantae (Gameboy Color, 2002)
Shantae truly is a cool game. It’s a shame that so few people got the chance to play it when it came out. Shantae came out a good year after the launch of the Gameboy Color’s successor, the Gameboy advance. At the time, most people had lost interest in the Gameboy Color, including myself. I wanted a GBA badly myself from the first reveal.. Fun Fact: I got my GBA by making a deal with my mom: six weeks of sleep away camp with no escape schemes and attempts, (these happened a lot previously,)It’d be mine. Anyway, many believed the Gameboy Color to be a somewhat unnecessary stop gap from the start. A temp-toy until the next true heir to the Gameboy throne came along. But in a way that’s kind of what makes it and Shantae so interesting. In addition to its tight controls, fun soundtrack, and different but fun game mechanics like transformation dancing and hair attacks, it boasts some of the best graphics on the handheld. Shantae uses color and graphics effects in a way I really wasn’t expecting when I finally got my hands on it through the e-Shop. Yes, if you look at the big picture, the Gameboy Color wasn’t that huge of an upgrade from the Gameboy Pocket, but when games did utilize those advantages without relenting to slow down or sloppy mechanics, it is truly impressive. It makes you think of what other impressive titles could have been done if they went the extra length like Shantae did.
2) Shenmue 2 (Dreamcast ver., 2002)
I know that this isn’t quite the end of the Dreamcast. It had an extended life in Japan and more or less held out partway through 2002 in the U.S. and Europe. But if you really think about it, it was the end. The end of a promising, massive, saga, the end of a long development, the end of the Sega many knew and loved. The game was doomed and by the time it had reached western shores gamers already knew this. But just because Shenmue 2 was doomed in a sense that doesn’t mean it didn’t hold its position respectfully. Shenmue 2 (and 1) pushed. They pushed everything. Graphics, the systems power, genres, preconceptions of what a game can be; true ambition. Shenmue 2 improves on the original game in pretty much every way. Better time management, easier navigation, a much, much bigger world, crisper textures, Shenmue 2 kept all these promises and more. It let Dreamcast die off with a certain dignity (on the software end of things,) that I think is fitting for Sega. It really is a shame that Shenmue 2 never got a U.S. Dreamcast release, but truth be told, the Xbox version really isn’t that different. Some textures are different/better, some graphic effects are worse, (can we turn down the damn bloom please?,) but in the end it has that Sega vibe that really just feels best on a Sega system. Shenmue 2 is an unfulfilled legacy, figuratively and literally, yet it’s earned lots of love from fans and respect for the Dreamcast that continues to grow.
1) Panzer Dragoon Saga (Saturn, 1998)
What can I say about Panzer Dragoon Saga? A lot actually, a whole lot. In fact, if I don’t finish this up quickly this is going to be the longest, rambling sub-section of an article on the entire site. I can basically sum up the feel and impact Panzer Dragoon Saga has from Saturn fans with a quote from the original Gamespot review: “It’s almost fitting, in the twilight of the Saturn’s years, that it should end as it began. Sure, there was the original Virtua Fighter and the lackluster Daytona USA, but the game that first revealed the true potential of the Sega Saturn was Panzer Dragoon.”(James Mielke, Gamespot.com) The first Panzer dragoon game was the hook that pulled people towards the machine positively in the first place. The art design in the first two games was beyond fantastic. The levels were meticulously laid out, everything had good game feel.. This was the horse you bet on when you argued for the Saturn. Panzer Dragoon Saga took this nice note the Saturn debuted with and then skyrocketed it to great heights as it bowed out of the scene. This is the way to go. The Thing is though; the first two Panzer Dragoon games are rail shooters. They were atmospheric with the lush, imaginary world and vibrant music, but shooters nonetheless. Panzer Dragoon Saga changed all of that. Saga is an RPG and one of the best ones in the 32-bit era at that. Top five. Those unfamiliar with the Saturn, you have to understand. U.S. Saturn owners only got a fraction, a sliver of the RPGs available in Japan. It was really lacking in that department. The fact that this game, an RPG evolving from rail shooters, has stolen the breath of many people is important. The world, the characters, the music, the 100% full voice acting, sucked me in faster than any other game I’ve played. The battle system is truly unique and takes advantage of the Panzers shooter heritage. I actually LOOK FORWARD to random battles. However, all of this praise comes hand and hand with misfortune. According to interviews with key developers at Sega, the source code for the game has been gone forever. This makes emulation near impossible and a remake of any kind is highly unlikely. Prices of English copies of the game have skyrocketed, usually starting around $200.00. I was very lucky to fid it for $70.00 years ago. That’ll never happen again. Playing or even watching video of Panzer Dragoon Saga brings thoughts back to the Saturn itself, and isn’t that what a grand final performance is supposed to do? Get spectators fully engaged and lost in the event. It becomes a part of them. And then, when the stage is cleared, the idea of it all lingers and it will be party talk for years to come. Panzer Dragoon does all of this in spades and that is why it is the ultimate gaming swan song.