Surprise Video Game Successes

We’re really starting to hit that horrible lull in the year when it comes to video game releases. I don’t know what the complete logic behind it is, but for some reason, game development companies do not see fit to release big titles during the summer months, and instead prefer to back up the holiday season with every title in their arsenals, Triple-A release or otherwise. It’s not fair for gamers who would like to stretch their funds and time instead of trying to invest everything they have into a two-month period at the end of the year.

It’s this time of year that you have to hope for a good surprise to come along and really blow you away. While everyone enjoys riding the hype wave of a major release, and enjoying the fruits of your patience on a game’s release date, there is no feeling that is comparable to that experience when you go into a title with zero expectations only for it to send chills down your spine with just how good it is.

To prove this theory, and maybe generate some positive vibes so a sleeper hit will come our way again, here’s a small sampling of some of the greatest surprise hits of all time.


It’s fitting that a game all about building also represents the typical building blocks of a surprise hit. It had no hype, no budget, a no-name developer, and no real precedent as far as its concept.

I don’t remember when “Minecraft” took the world by storm, but it wasn’t quite after its 2009 beta release. Instead, it was sometime after that when people’s creations started appearing online, and when every game site in the world ran a 200 word feature piece about some novelty game called “Minecraft” that was gaining steam. Slowly, as the unlimited potential the game’s engine possessed became more and more clear, gamers everywhere divided themselves into two groups. Those who “got” “Minecraft,” and those who didn’t.

Of course, going off sales figures, those who got it would seem to make up the majority. By 2011, “Minecraft” surpassed 10 million registered users on the PC, and its release on the Xbox 360 broke the XBLA sales record. Keep in mind that through all of that, the game has still never had any real commercial advertising. While many would say that should be impossible in this day and age, “Minecraft” appropriately continues to thrive in a world it’s built for itself.

“Katamari Damacy”

It’s usually fairly easy to tell when a game developed in Japan is going to make it to American store shelves. If it’s the new “Final Fantas,y” it’s probably a pretty good bet you’ll see it stateside. If it’s a mech-noir dating simulator, chances are slimmer.

So it’s still something of a mystery, then, how a game that features a deformed space prince rolling up a perpetually growing ball of objects to replace the various cosmos his father, the King of the Cosmos, accidentally destroyed would end up a smash hit. There’s little doubt that the concept of “Katamari Damacy” is what got gamers to give it a try, but from there it was the game’s simple controls and creative and addicting gameplay that really started moving titles off the shelves in earnest.

It’s odd that the very concept of “Katamari Damacy” both alienated it to start, and made it irresistible thereafter. It just goes to prove that the occasional chance against all odds, can result in a success story worth more than all the failures that led there.

“Grand Theft Auto III”

It’s almost impossible to remember the days when “Grand Theft Auto” wasn’t a blockbuster franchise with few equals in terms of innovation or sales power. Yet before “GTA III,” that’s exactly what it was.

Of course, after “GTA III”… well, you know the rest. We are still experiencing the impact of “GTA III” to this day, as it introduced most of the gaming world to the idea of “sandbox gaming” in a genre that wasn’t role playing or world building. Overnight, the “GTA” series went from a franchise not even popular enough to be called a cult hit, to the most important game of the decade, and on the shortlist for most important of all time.

Personally, I remember getting “GTA III” with “Devil May Cry” and “MGS 2” (what a year) for Christmas, and barely touching “MGS” and “DMC” until the next year. Going into the game with zero expectations, within an hour of playtime you immediately knew what you had on your hands. It’s hard to imagine there will ever be another surprise hit quite on the level of “GTA III” again.

“Dance Dance Revolution”

I hate it when clichés are applied to any group of people, but for obvious reasons, I take special exception to those applied to gamers. However, it was a widespread belief in 1998 that gamers had no rhythm and were not interested in physical activity during their favorite pastime. It’s a sting of an argument, but it’s not one without precedent.

Of course, leave it to Konami to shatter expectations. “DDR” hit in the waning days of the arcade and kept the industry aloft for a lot longer than it had the right to. Suddenly, gamers of all walks of life were not only leaving their homes, but started participating in a physically exhausting activity that also required them to make fools of themselves in front of the general public. Of course, go figure, almost everyone would come to love it. Soon people were becoming legends at the game, and even players that sucked were finding themselves inescapably drawn to “DDR’s” charms.

Every conceivable reason was against “DDR” succeeding, and it did anyway. It’s easy to see that future hits like “Guitar Hero” would never have seen the light of day if it weren’t for DDR, but you also have to consider ground that “DDR’s” success laid for projects like the Wii and Kinect. Not bad a for a novelty arcade cabinet.


“Pokemon” is the “Harry Potter” of video games. It’s a series that’s quality led it to surpass any preconceived notions regarding buzzwords like “target market.”

That’s the thing that’s hardest to remember about “Pokemon.” Before it took over the world, it was merely a high quality RPG series that featured supremely addictive gameplay, surpassed only by some ingenious and unforgettable design. All of the Poke’ stores, TV shows, movies, and various merchandise that sprung up because of “Pokemon” only existed because the games themselves were just that good. Yet, even though Nintendo was involved with the game, no one had any reason to believe that “Pokemon” would accomplish anything near what it did.

In fact, this has to be the biggest surprise hit of all time. While games like “GTA” changed the industry, “Pokemon” shook the foundations of the Earth. There was no demographic immune to its charms or selling power. Yet even in Japan, this game came out of nowhere, and even struggled to sell at first. And after that, no one thought it would achieve any success in America. “Pokemon” went from an unpronounceable word to a world beater without almost any middle ground.


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