What are the greatest video games ever made? Many discussions center around the mid to late 1990s, with contenders such as Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VII, and Ocarina of Time making some of the strongest cases. Titles like these emerged from the so-called “Golden Age” of gaming, revered not only for their depth and playability, but for their endurance and influence over future generations of games.
In the past fifteen years, only a few games have broken into the “Best Of” discussion. Half-Life 2 gets a mention every now and then, while some folks argue for Wind Waker, Skyrim, or even Super Smash Bros: Melee, due to its competitive scene. All of these titles stem from proven developers, and share big budgets, ambitious worlds, and high end technical achievements. But in September 2015, an odd contender emerged for the crown, spurred by an enthusiastic online campaign to win GameFaq’s massive voting tournament entitled “Best. Game. Ever.” In a few short months, Undertale went from an unheralded release to the top of the gaming mountain.
As the product of a small but successful Kickstarter campaign, Undertale arrived relatively under the radar. Early reviews were positive; critics showered the ten-dollar indie game with near-perfect scores while Steam user-reviews hovered between 97-98% approval. Nevertheless, the game was small enough that popular review website IGN bungled the opportunity to give it a timely review. They finally awarded it a perfect score in January when its fanbase and critical reception were already established.
Fans fell in love with Undertale and word of its existence spread fast among message boards and other online communities. While the game presented a fantastic soundtrack and a surprisingly innovative RPG battle system, it was beloved more for its writing, which expressed humor, charm, and most importantly, heart. Players could choose to avoid battles by talking with, listening to, and becoming friends with every single monster in the game.
But now, as the dust begins to settle and fans have a chance to breathe, where will Undertale stand among the best games ever made? Is it a top 50 all-time game? What about a top 10? Where precisely does it stand?
Undertale presents its story in a way that is unique, moving players to progress through the world either as a genocidal sociopath, or as a benevolent pacifist. Both behaviors are rewarded through dynamic storytelling that is emotionally poignant. Though morality systems are common in video games these days, few others mold themselves to the actions of the player quite like in Undertale. Playing through to the true pacifist ending is a joyful experience, and a notable source of adoration from the game’s fanbase. Go ahead and tell an Undertale fan you think it’s overrated. There’s a good chance they’ll ask you if you completed the game’s pacifist run.
Humor is another major asset of Undertale, and makes for many memorable experiences. I still smile when I think about the snail races, or an incident with a dog that wound up in my inventory, or a particularly odd monster named Woshua, so named because he enjoys cleaning and washing things, including you. There is a great deal of randomness and awkwardness found in Undertale’s humor, which appeals wonderfully to a young, contemporary audience. That said, these jokes appeal to specific tastes, and are unlikely to be as appreciated by future generations. Just as The Marx Brothers and The Three Stooges are less revered than they were half a century ago, Undertale’s humor will fade as it ages.
Indeed, Undertale has its share of weaknesses. The puzzles are very basic, the battles can be repetitive, and walking a neutral path (which is easy to do on accident) results in a less satisfactory experience. It also addresses morality with a broad brush stroke fit for a broad audience, without the ethical nuance of more mature titles like Telltale’s Walking Dead series. These issues are negligible or less to Undertale’s staunchest supporters, but provide fuel to its detractors. When a game sprouts out of nowhere and challenges more technically proficient titles, there will always be detractors, and their points are valid too.
Ultimately it is impossible to appropriately frame Undertale’s all-time significance without an understanding of its historical context, which is still being established. As new games release in the next few years, Undertale’s legacy will continue to shape. Undertale is a game with an endearing story and a quirky cast of characters. But if other games take pieces of it as inspiration and find success in doing so, Undertale may actually become a genre. If Undertale proves to be so influential that it alters the landscape of indie titles, then it will indeed go down as an all-time great game.
Ultimately, the gamers of the world will decide where Undertale belongs in the scope of gaming history. What took 2015 by storm may turn into a pleasant little reminiscence or a rousing success story with a legacy that carries on for years. Only the future can know for sure.
If you love Undertale, it’s your job to carry its torch.