January is named for the Roman god Janus, a two-faced creature said to be simultaneously looking into the past and into the future. If Janus was a videogame fan, both faces would likely be looking back, busy with his holiday haul, ignoring any and all titles released in his eponymous month. What I’m trying to say is: January can be a graveyard for good games.
It is the month we return to work after much-needed holiday—the month our credit lines are low and our backlogs stacked ever-higher. To release a game in January is to try and sell your house in the autumn or pack a theater on President’s Day: By that time, nobody cares. Our priorities lie elsewhere.
This shared inattention can also be a boon to publishers trying out something new. January often hosts strange new concepts, experimental spin-offs, or new kinds of games that would be overshadowed against the mainstream behemoths of October and November.
Here is a list then, in no particular order, of nine videogames tossed into the black pit of commerce known as January. Some should be re-discovered. Some should be forgotten forever. Which direction you face is up to you.
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective
Platform: Nintendo DS
North American Release Date: January 11th, 2010
Capcom used to make games other than Street Fighter, Resident Evil, and Monster Hunter. Into the cold winter months of 2010, they released this detective-puzzle game with a spectre spin: As the soul of a murdered man named Sissel, you jump between objects to move throughout the game world. While inhabiting these everyday things, you can perform a “ghost trick,” animating them into action; leap into a glass of water, for instance, and make it tip over. The living characters will react, often setting off a chain reaction that changes their destiny. Ghost Trick is worth playing for the animation (and nutso characters—with Michael Jackson dance moves?) alone. Also features the cutest animal ever recorded to silicon in the form of Missile, an overly enthusiastic Pomeranian.
The Banner Saga
Platform: PC (and now PS4, XB1, iOS, Android, Mac, Linux, Vita)
Release Date: January 14th, 2014
This beautiful viking tale is perhaps best known for its legal troubles. Candy Crush Saga makers King tried copyrighting the “Saga” moniker, suing Stoic to force them to change their title’s name. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed, and a company best known for Match-3 smarthphone diversions starring sweets and farm animals was not allowed to claim a word that evokes exactly the kind of rich story and ancient trials explored in this adventure. Most of the game looks like a Don Bluth cartoon (if Dirk the Daring were actually Erik the Red). This Saga is merely the first in a proposed trilogy; if you missed it due to that New Year’s Resolution to stop plundering villages, there’s still time to catch up: The Banner Saga 2 has been delayed until later in the year.
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch
Platform: Playstation 3
North American Release Date: January 22nd, 2013
What’s with companies releasing games with feature film quality animation in January? Perhaps they’re hoping for an Oscar nom one of these days. (The Best Animated category has been slight as of late.) Suffice to say, this is the game for anyone who wanted to control Miyazaki films such as Spirited Away or Kiki’s Delivery Service; the famed director’s Studio Ghibli produced the visuals for this fairly traditional role-playing game. The strangest part of this game’s story is its own creation: Ni no Kuni began life as a Nintendo DS project releasing in Japan—with a physical spellbook packed in—but never made it across the pond. The console version did, thankfully, and a sequel for the Playstation 4 was just announced.
Grim Fandango Remastered
Platform: Playstation 4, PC
Release Date: January 27th, 2015
This one’s a bit of a fudge. The LucasArts adventure game cult classic originally came out the day before Halloween in 1998. Fans adored the quest of Manny Calavera into the underworld, filled with beat poets, balloon animals, and hotrod-driving demons. But as a late-90s computer game, Grim soon became obsolete and near-impossible to play on modern systems. With backing from Sony and original director Tim Schafer regaining control of his titles from now-defunct LucasArts, the gang got back together and re-released the game for a new generation, even keeping the 4:3 aspect ratio so as to maintain concept artist Peter Chan’s vision of an art deco Day of the Dead. Funniest game about death ever.
North American Release Date: January 31st, 1999
Another weird-scary game that was just enough “weird” to get pushed out of the Halloween shopping season and dumped into the pre-Groundhog Day stomping grounds. But this particular brand of psychological terror was perfect for the last year of the millennium. Most of the game is spent shining a flashlight into an unknown darkness: quite apropos in a world where fear of the Y2K bug drove millions to buy canned goods and bottle water and hunker down in their underground bungalow. Keiichiro Toyama’s horrific vision would spawn ten sequels over the next fifteen years. Its latest iteration, Silent Hills, was teased with 2014’s surprise P.T. demo, though the project is said to be cancelled due to Hideo Kojima’s departure from Konami.
Platform: Playstation 2
North American Release Date: January 7th, 2002
Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s trance rail-shooter masterpiece first thrust players into a floating musicscape of electronica on the Sega Dreamcast in November 2001, but it was only released in Japan. The first time the West got to fly as a silver cypher shooting down shimmering orbs to a pulsing beat was on Sony’s Playstation 2. Over time, this experiment in interactive synesthesia gained a loyal and loud following, leading to an HD version coming to Xbox 360 and its “spiritual successor,” Child of Eden. Mizuguchi’s space child will return once again in Rez Infinite, announced for Playstation 4’s forthcoming virtual reality platform, Playstation VR.
World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade
Platform: PC, Mac
Release Date: January 15th, 2007
The original World of Warcraft appeared to be a direct follow-up to the overhead strategy of Warcraft III, with orcs and humans battling for supremacy. What happened over the course of more than ten years remains unprecedented: This massively multiplayer online RPG evolved and expanded through a series of expansions that continue to this day. The Burning Crusade was the very first of these, with Blizzard dropping this add-on into stores on midnight, two weeks after the new year. The content added two new playable races and allowed those who had maximized the strength of their character to push onward, bringing both WoW neophytes and burned-out veterans back into the fold. The release was a massive success, selling over 2 million copies on one day, and hinted at a future of additional content being added to games in lieu of straight-forward sequels.
Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball
Release Date: January 22nd, 2003
Sometimes the turn of the calendar year brings us unexpected delights. And sometimes all the female characters in a fighting game are dressed in bikinis and dropped onto a sandy beach, tasked with spiking a ball over a net. The winter months can get cold, after all, and Tomonobu Itagaki, creator of Dead or Alive, a 3D fighting game in the spirit of Tekken or Virtua Fighter, tried his best to warm the chilly living rooms of Xbox owners everywhere. The solid volleyball mechanics on hand get largely ignored, with much of the focus given to its “advanced jiggle physics,” the characters’ slight attire and the ability to pan and zoom a camera around the well-endowed athletes. If nothing else, Xtreme Beach Volleyball remains an important time capsule of the early 2000s, capturing that brief moment in time when Dennis Rodman voiced a martial artist named Zack who won a lot of money, bought an island, named it Zack Island, then invited a bunch of women to play volleyball there. R.I.P Bad Boys circa 1989.
Mario and Luigi: Paper Jam
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
North American Release Date: January 22nd, 2016
January is the perfect time to pick up a role-playing game; we like to imagine becoming a new, better, stronger person as a new year kicks off. Nintendo threw their latest portable RPG onto the early-year pyre just this week. Here, the Mario Bros team up with Paper Mario in what may be the first collaboration with a cartoon and his two-dimensional variant. Expect plenty of wordplay and the same great active battle system from previous Mario and Luigi games developed by AlphaDream. This kicks off a torrent of RPGs on the sturdy handheld in 2016, with a new Fire Emblem coming soon, followed by Bravely Second, two Dragon Quest remakes, and a re-release of the original Pokemon games on Virtual Console for the first time ever.
Since 2003, Jon Irwin has been paid to write about film, techno, ice cream, wine, golf, drag-racing, French children and videogames. His first book, Super Mario Bros. 2, was published last year by Boss Fight Books. Follow along: @WinWinIrwin.