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Whether in games, movies, or what have you, everyone likes an underdog story. When you consider the arduous task of making a good game, the odds can already feel stacked against everyone; now, consider making that good title and garnering attention in today’s age. But that’s also the beauty of today’s age: being too cash-strapped in your marketing can be a non-issue if you seize on the right opportunity – perhaps a couple of popular influencers or consistent word of mouth – and catch an audience off-guard. The games that exceed someone’s expectations, whether through ignorance or reserved pre-judgement before playing it, are what this award wants to highlight.
Even though some of the titles that’ve reached this shortlist have big corporate support, it’s the story behind them that caught so many people by surprise last year. That’s the important context to consider as to what makes something qualify for, and ultimately win, this category. After much deliberation, here are the finalists.
Sea of Stars
Dave the Diver
The last time “new F-Zero game” was uttered as an official announcement was nearly two decades ago! Feeling old yet? When you think of how big of a missed opportunity that was for the Wii, DS handhelds, and Wii U, it seems preposterous to think Nintendo would simply smack its forehead and remember it had this series collecting cobwebs. Enter F-Zero 99: the classic skeleton of the SNES era melded with the modern craze of battle royale.
The premise is that simple: you race against 98 other online players in real time around a track, with each track completion winnowing out a select pie slice of the slowest. Of course, it’s not simply about out-racing the competition but also out-living them as well. Gauging your energy meter (health & boost reserves) is crucial in knowing when to execute certain maneuvers while also avoiding slower AI bumper cars that replace previous losers. To see Nintendo casually throw this successful mixture of kinetic racing and battle royale is why this franchise revival has been welcomed by the community at large. Now let’s see a big-budget F-Zero again, shall we?
It’s understandably strange to see the gold and silver going to titles backed by two of the biggest publishers in the industry, especially compared to last year’s winner. But bear with me for a moment. There are two barriers to break down here: Tango Gameworks’ and Microsoft’s reputation. For the former, seeing a prominent AAA horror developer making a colorful rhythm-action title might ordinarily lead to suggestions that you’re better off sticking to your lane. For the latter, to see a publisher that suffers from premature declarations (Everwild, State of Decay 3, Perfect Dark, etc.) withhold a game announcement until shadow-dropping it at a smaller-scale conference is almost impossible to comprehend.
Another benefit is it’s a genuinely fun time. As our own Paul Broussard put it: “Hi-Fi RUSH is like a solid debut show for a new band.” When you combine all of these interesting elements together, from the creativity of its design to its antithetically humble method of arriving on stage, it’s almost as though the stars aligned to make it such a media darling. A smashing success story for Tango Gameworks.