jump to navigation

Anachronox: Fan Favorite, Commercial Flop June 21, 2014

Posted by Maniac in Editorials.
add a comment

In 2002 I had the pleasure to start my career writing about video games by writing for a website operating under the now defunct GameSpy Network.  While the main website hasn’t been updated in several years and the online game server toolsets were shut down just a few days ago, in 2002, GameSpy OWNED PC gaming.  They had a series of successful websites for every game franchise you could imagine, software to help developers provide the best multiplayer gaming experience on the web, and practically ruled every E3 with their intense coverage of the event.  As someone who had, up until that point, spent their life simply an observer of the gaming industry, I knew I wanted the chance to actively participate with it.  In 2002, I got my first chance when I was asked by the website’s founder to submit an editorial as to why Anachronox, a game which had mostly received praise from the players who played it, had flopped.  Twelve years later, I want to give it another look.

I’m sure that many people out there are familiar with the trials and tribulations of a studio called Ion Storm.  It was founded by three industry greats just around the turn of the millennium, John Romero, Tom Hall and Warren Specter, and was funded by Eidos Interactive, who was reigning high on the success of the Tomb Raider franchise.  Two branches of the studio were established in Texas, one in Dallas and one in Austin.  The first game that the studio released which had been developed completely in house was John Romero’s Daikatana, which is considered by many to be one of the worst games ever made.  The second game the studio released was Warren Spector’s Deus Ex, considered by many to be one of the best games ever made.  Few people remember that Ion Storm Dallas released one more game before Eidos Interactive closed them down and kept Ion Storm’s game development from then on exclusively in Austin.  That game was Tom Hall’s futuristic PC RPG, Anachronox.

I first became familiar with Anachronox after stumbling upon the website Planet Anachronox, GameSpy’s Anachronox Site, some time around the year 1999.  As someone who up until that point was purely a PC gamer, I was immediately interested in the game’s premise.  A PC-exclusive science-fiction RPG was a pretty unique concept before the era of the PS2, Xbox and GameCube.  Most turn based RPGs up to that point, like Earthbound or Chrono Trigger, would find themselves exclusively on consoles.  Never having owned a console since the original NES, all of my experience with Console RPGs came second hand by spending hours watching friends play them.  Now, this game gave me the opportunity to experience this play style on my own.

In the summer of 2001, the prayers of many militant gamers who were waiting for Anachronox to be released were finally answered when the game finally went gold.  It received pretty decent reviews from many of the major gaming sites, averaging scores around the mid to high 80s, and was very well received by all the gamers who purchased it.  Whether they got it because they had been anticipating it for years or picked it up on a whim based on initial curiosity, gamers found a lot to like with this game.  Tom Hall successfully took every cliché from the book of RPGs and was able to create a game that worked perfectly on the PC, while still being true to the gameplay design of classic console RPGs.  The game had a great story, an incredible interplanetary scope with each world possessing its own unique design, music, and flavor.  Oh, and did I mention it was just hilarious?

So why was the game, if it was so good, flop so badly?  I think that after the insanely high reviews from Deus Ex, for Ion Storm to come back and release a game that was simply good was just not good enough.  Anachronox used id Software’s Quake II graphics engine, which was a pretty dated graphics engine by the day’s standards, and its art design alone wasn’t able to wow gamers looking for the next big game to show off their high powered rigs.  On top of that, Eidos wasn’t doing too much to promote the game’s release when it launched.  It also had unremarkable previews, Anachronox was named one of PC Gamer Magazine’s Top 10 Games of 1999 back in 1998.  Great way to start off a publicity campaign for a game that wasn’t released until 2001 don’t you think?  In fact, I can’t recall any TV commercials airing or any billboard advertisements posted for this game.  This was in a pretty stark contrast to the never ending wave of commercials that would find themselves on air every time a new Tomb Raider game came out.  I think that Eidos knew that with the Daikatana curse looming over its shoulder and the drudgery of almost four years in development, Anachronox had the worry of a commercial flop even before the game came out.

During the three month lead up to Anachronox’s release, about the only advertising I can remember that was actually done for the game were a few one page ads placed in magazines like PC Gamer.  The ads mirrored the game’s box art, but didn’t really give you much information about the game.  It just had the simple tagline, “All of us have scars, some are bigger than others.”  By choosing to advertise the game in PC enthusiast magazines, about the only people that were being advertised to were the hardcore PC gamers.  Since that point it had to deal with a long journey of mediocre publicity and Quake II engine hate.  Anachronox was an American developed game that took the entire book from Japanese console RPGs.  With that design in mind, it was obvious the majority of the people meant to play the game were gamers who fondly remembered playing classic RPGs on consoles, yet Anachronox was a PC game..  The game that needed to be the product that saved Ion Storm Dallas was simply unable to recuperate the cost of development, and this could be chocked up to a complete failure of marketing.  Shortly after the release of the game, Ion Storm Dallas was shut down.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a PC gamer through and through, and I know there was just no way at the time to get a game as good looking as Anachronox on the consoles of the day.  I’ve been that way all my life and I am more then happy when a great game is released for the PC, but there was a lot working against the game even on a PC end.  When you got mainstream critics unable to wrap their heads around the fact that the graphics engine for a game isn’t top of the line, you get gems like this:  “The maps looked great but could they have done anything with those character models?  I mean c’mon look at how blocky their fists looked.”  Would the writer have said the same thing for Commander Keen, even if it had been re-released with its original graphics?  I believe good gameplay can trump graphics, provided the game is fun, and I believed Anachronox was a lot of fun.  So what if the game didn’t have multiplayer, the game had so much content and was totally replayable,  It’s been over ten years later and even I’ll admit I haven’t found every single nook, cranny, and easter egg the designers left in the game.  Could these mainstream critics honestly tell me that they were not satisfied with the game’s story, gameplay, or humor?

Then there were the tales of huge bugs.  The most famous I’ve heard is a bug I never encountered.  It involved having to follow someone then suddenly when there was a level transition their entire party died mysteriously.   The reviewers might have received the game before the day one 1.01 patch came out.  I know Day One patches are considered the norm nowadays, but typically it would take weeks before a new PC game release would get patched, regardless of the game’s stability.  That first patch fixed a lot of stability issues with the game, but even I would admit I had bug problems too.  Sometimes a few animations were choppy and after a long stretch of gameplay the game would crash while changing maps.  These issues continued to be a problem until one of the game’s former developers released the game’s unofficial 1.02 patch, but it wouldn’t get released until years after the game had left store shelves.  If Ion Storm Dallas hadn’t been shut down as Eidos Interactive thought it was imperative to do immediately, these problems would’ve been addressed and corrected much sooner.  I have to give a lot of credit to Joey, Lucas, Travis, and everyone else that were still working on the game’s issues even though it technically wasn’t their problem anymore.

But there was one thing this game had going for it,  this game has some true fans.  I mean Anachronox is not a casual game to play through.  Anachronox is a sixty-hour game (well, 25 for me).  There is a ton of story, gameplay, puzzles,  cinematics (which don’t have black bars), bosses, and side quests to go through in order to emerge from this game victorious.  Back in the days even before social media, people were really passionate about this game.  It has a near universal appeal.  I remember several years ago an international member of the gaming press flat out told Tom Hall, “We want Anachronox 2” during a major press interview.  This game has fans that have stuck it out through years of development, turmoil, Daikatana, and went to their local game store to pick up a copy of the last game to ever come out of Ion Storm Dallas.   In the days before Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, or even Miiverse, game publishers just had no way to gauge how well received a game is by the game’s players.  Eidos couldn’t read that on some pie chart.

Now, Anachronox is available again online through services like Good old Games.  If you haven’t picked up this great game, I suggest you look into doing so.  If you’re a fan of humor, classic RPGs, or love a good Sci-Fi story, you won’t be disappointed.  And as for Tom Hall, bring us Anachronox 2!