System Shock vs Returnal: What Makes a Cult Classic?

Unfortunate though it is, there are many good games out there that just never get the kind of attention they deserve. They just get buried under the ongoing deluge of releases and wind up largely forgotten by the wider gaming populace. There are those that, for one reason or another, however, eventually make comebacks as cult classics. Why those games, though? Is their rediscovery a matter of mere chance or are they always the crème of the forgotten crop?

Both of these seem unlikely, so perhaps there are certain qualities that cult classics in-the-making all share. One such game, System Shock, actually has a remake coming out at the end of the month. So how about we set it against Returnal, another game that may or may not make it to cult-status in the coming years, and see what they share. If something does indeed pop-out, perhaps we could put it to use and make treasure hunting on the likes of Steam that much easier.

While its sequel, System Shock 2, is the more-celebrated game, System Shock could be considered a landmark game in its own right. Released in 1994, System Shock is one of the first examples of a true immersive sim game. Many features of what would come to be called “emergent gameplay” would be pioneered here by developer Looking Glass Studios. Large, interconnected maps, heavy emphasis on environmental storytelling. multiple, vastly different approaches for puzzle/problem-solving and even audio logs can all trace their origins to System Shock in some way.

System Shock Enhanced - Hallway
Gameplay in System Shock revolves around exploring the Citadel Station and working tirelessly to stop S.H.O.D.A.N., the station’s AI that the player themselves helped to unshackle in the opening moments. Each area is large, sometimes labyrinthian and freely explorable. Players always have a wealth of options before them ranging from multiple paths and approaches, to weapons and tools, to cybernetic augmentations and even overall strategies. SHODAN is the station after all and it’s out to get you; adaptability is the only effective weapon against it.

Atmosphere, characters (particularly SHODAN), decent enough music and the above-mentioned gameplay constitute System Shock’s strengths. Players are given a simple objective and are then left to figure out where to go and how to accomplish it. As they search and pick their way forward, they have opportunities to experiment with their loadouts, try new strategies, achieve little victories against SHODAN…and get punked by it just as often. All the while they’re learning about this place, the company that built it and the people that inhabited it. SHODAN’s regular taunting and interjections keep things flowing too. In other words, System Shock is a “have it your way” kind of game that mostly succeeds in staying lively.

System Shock does have its weaknesses of course. When it launched, its control interface was clunky to say the least. This was still the early ’90s, so the standards for things like first-person controls and UI had not yet been fully established. This is how you get something like DOOM that feels totally modern and effortless and at the same time get System Shock, which was (and kind of still is) often compared to navigating a desktop OS rather than playing a game. Other issues include some levels feeling overly maze-like, a lot of backtracking potential and disorienting “cyberspace” segments.

Even so, System Shock received a positive reception at the time, with media outlets awarding it high scores and glowing praise. Unfortunately, that didn’t translate into sales. The game sold well enough to enable Looking Glass to continue operating, but it didn’t see the kind of mainstream success that games like DOOM did. This was probably due at least in part to the state of PC gaming at the time, but the clunky controls and other negatives almost certainly factored into it too. Considering the impact System Shock had on gaming moving forward, one could say that it did not get its full commercial due.

System Shock Remake - Arboretum screen
Returnal is sitting in a similar situation at the moment. It too has enjoyed a positive critical reception since its launch in April 2021 and has also not exactly sold well. Part the issue is likely the PS5 stock shortages that plagued the platform at the time, but the real culprit is, just like with System Shock, a function of the game itself. In System Shock’s case, clunky controls were likely what held it back the most. Such is not the case for Returnal, though, as its controls could actually be considered one of its strong points. No, in Returnal’s case, the issue is almost certainly its difficulty.

With Returnal, Housemarque went for an ambitious mixture of roguelite, hip-fire third-person shooter with procedural arrangement, bullet-hell projectile spam and highly-aggressive enemies. The result is a game that’s satisfying to play, but also punishingly difficult until the player gets the hang of it. As one might expect, such a setup didn’t go over so well with gamers that were looking to enjoy their brand new consoles without much hassle. It really is shame too, because, much like System Shock’s original clunky interface, once one gets over it they are treated to a something special.

Returnal has a lot going for it. As mentioned before, its visuals and art direction are top-shelf, and they’re backed up by a good performance from Jane Perry as Selene and a musical score that can at times be just as foreboding as it is beautiful. Its highly open-ended narrative also lends itself well to lingering on a player’s mind after they put the controller down for the day. Its real strength, though, the quality that keeps fans coming back, is the very combat and procedural elements that almost certainly turned-off a lot of potential players to it.

Minute-to-minute, Returnal is fast and brutal, and it encourages its players to learn to be the same. Speed and aggression carry the day, and anyone employing anything less will quickly get overwhelmed by projectiles, hazards and enemies rushing their position. Dashing-in for kills, dodging-out through lines of bullets and later grappling for temporary invincibility are all vital parts of one’s toolkit here.

More than that, Returnal’s selection of weapons and power-ups all compliment different mixtures of those three elements. Given enough time, most players should be able to find a playstyle that works for them initially and even eventually grow confident enough to try some new ideas too. All this is to say that there’s no single “correct” way to play, even at the highest skill levels.

The procedural arrangement (not wholesale generation) of levels with different mixes of enemies is also noteworthy. Each room was intentionally designed to the point of being recognizable to the point that one can enter and immediately begin formulating their approach given what they know about it. The exact foes and items always differ, but it still allows players to have a learnable, curated experience while still enjoying procedural randomness. Nevertheless, Returnal can come to feel repetitive after a while, and being able to enjoy it at all requires conquering a steep difficulty curve, so unfortunately, it’s no wonder that Returnal hasn’t seen more success.

So where does Returnal stand when it comes to whether or not it too will one day have the “cult classic” title? Actually, it’s looking good. Returnal likely won’t attain the same kind of “industry pillar” status that System Shock has, but it doesn’t have to. System Shock made it out of relative obscurity because it offered players a unique and fun experience with a lot of potential for further development; Returnal arguably has that too. For System Shock it was free-form gameplay which would eventually cement itself as the precursor to modern “emergent gameplay.” For Returnal, it’ll likely be its combination of twitchy third-person action and procedurally-arranged biomes.

Freed from Returnal’s punishing roguelite structure, this combo has real potential to take-off in the future. Action game fans will always appreciate good gunplay and movement, and combat that rewards, even demands, mastery of both is still somewhat rare at the genre’s upper-end. Pairing that with biomes made up of randomized, but still fully-designed, sections could potentially offer seriously impressive replay value if some future dev (or Housemarque itself) were to explore it further.

It is of course impossible to predict when, how or even if a game will become some sort of cult hit. Maybe Returnal, like System Shock, will go down history as an under-appreciated gem in its time, or maybe it’ll wind up largely forgotten like so many others. It doesn’t seem likely that the latter case will be what plays out, though.

Both of these games introduced fun and interesting systems brimming with untapped potential, and that alone was enough to raise System Shock up to its current position. Why wouldn’t something similar happen for Returnal someday? Considering that, perhaps this is what Steam and digital store divers should look for: fun games with potential-rich ideas. Who knows how many more diamonds could be found if we all start filtering for this?

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