Well, I thought that I’d do something a bit different today. This was because I’d originally planned to write an article about why “under-appreciated” creative works tend to miss the recognition that they deserve. However, I soon realised that I’d probably spend most of the article talking about various albums, TV shows, games etc.. So, I suddenly thought that it might be a better idea to just review these things instead.
Although the article as a whole will be ridiculously long, each review will probably be shorter than my usual reviews, but I’ll try to avoid reviewing anything that I’ve already reviewed before (eg: “Blood“, “People Watching“, “Total Recall 2070: Machine Dreams“, “Gemini Rue“, “Deus Ex: Invisible War“, “Killing Time“, “Realms Of The Haunting“, “Charlie Jade“, “Harsh Realm“, “Bugs (series 1, 2, 3 & 4)”, “Farscape (season 1, 2, 3, 4 & mini series)”, Jack Hunter (films 1, 2 & 3) etc..). Likewise, for practical reasons, not all reviews will include screenshots etc…
So, here are a few under-appreciated gems that didn’t really get the recognition that they deserved. Yes, all of these things might not be absolute masterpieces, but they’re better than you think in some way or another.
1) “Virtual XI” By Iron Maiden (Album): The mid-late 1990s isn’t generally seen as a golden age for the legendary heavy metal band Iron Maiden. During this time, their long-running lead singer Bruce Dickinson left the band for several years and was replaced by another vocalist called Blaze Bayley in the interim.
This change also marked a very slight shift in the musical style of the band, where they temporarily moved away from the raw energy of their earlier albums and produced slightly gloomier music which, whilst still recognisably “Iron Maiden”, had a very slight gothic, introspective and/or mildly melancholic tone to it.
Yet, the two albums they released during this time (“The X-Factor” and “Virtual XI”) are vastly under-appreciated classics. But, I’ll be looking at “Virtual XI” here, since it is my favourite of the two (plus one of my favourite Iron Maiden albums) and because it seems to have suffered the most unfair criticism:
The first thing I will say is that you shouldn’t judge this album based on the first two tracks! Whilst the first song (“Futureal”) is good, but not great – the second one (“The Angel And The Gambler”) is something of an acquired taste, and it doesn’t really fit in very well with the rest of the album.
But, despite a slightly shaky start, the rest of the album is solid gold! Although this album was meant to be slightly lighter in tone than the band’s previous album – the introspective melancholia of 1995’s “The X-Factor” has been replaced by a gloomily authoritative sound that is surprisingly epic and almost cinematic at times. Later Iron Maiden albums may have refined or improved the band’s sound, but none has really been able to replicate the unique atmosphere of “Virtual XI”.
Covering topics as diverse as science fiction, Scottish history, the Falklands war, meteor strikes, thunderstorms and ageing, this album is crammed with atmospheric descriptions and appropriately atmospheric music. One of the key features of this album is that it is a lot more dynamic than previous Iron Maiden albums, with many of the songs starting in an ominously slow way, before gradually building to a spectacular musical and emotional climax.
Although I once saw the musical elements of this album described as being “lifeless”, nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, the guitars don’t always sound as piercing or “sharp” as they did in the 80s and, musically, the album has a slightly gloomier tone to it. But, you have to see this in the context of the band’s development. The deeper and more musically mature sound that the band gradually developed from the turn of the 21st century onwards emerged from this album.
Most of this album focuses on crafting a darkly epic sound that would later be refined when Bruce Dickinson returned to the band. More modern Iron Maiden songs, like “Empire Of The Clouds”, “Paschendale”, “No More Lies”, “When The Wild Wind Blows” etc… aren’t afraid to include ominously slow segments, and it’s all because of this one epic album (or, rather, tracks 3-8 from it).
2) “Unreal II: The Awakening” (Computer Game): Although it has been quite a few years since I last played this game (and I really must re-install it sometime), I have very fond memories of 2003’s “Unreal II: The Awakening“.
One of the main problems with this game is that it was vastly overshadowed by the more ground-breaking and popular “Unreal” (1998) and “Unreal Touranment” (1999). Like those two games, it is a science fiction themed first person shooter game. But, unlike those other games, it contains a much greater focus on immersive storytelling that was somewhat ahead of it’s time.
Although the action-based parts of the gameplay were entertaining, but standard and slightly forgettable, they aren’t why the game is on this list.
Unlike many generic sci-fi FPS games of the early-mid 2000s, this FPS game actually put a lot more effort into immersion and characterisation. Rather than just hopping from mission to mission, you actually have to travel there in a spaceship that is crewed by several supporting characters, in a similar manner to sci-fi TV shows like “Firefly” and “Cowboy Bebop”.
What this means is that, between levels, you get to spend time exploring your spaceship and talking to the ship’s slightly quirky crew of misfits and badasses. This allows the game’s characters to matter a lot more, as well as making you feel like you’re part of some kind of epic sci-fi drama. Not only that, it also lends the game an actual personality too.
In an era of gaming that was defined by generic action games featuring generic grizzled space marines, a game where the space marine actually had a crew of actual characters that he had to rely on was surprisingly humanising and groundbreaking. Yes, the gameplay is nothing special, but this game really deserves more recognition for basically being an interactive sci-fi TV series. It’s fun, memorable, slightly funny and occasionally heartwarming.
3) “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman” (TV Series): If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you’ve probably seen me mention this show from time to time. Although it was popular enough at the time of release (1993-1997) to warrant four entire seasons, it seems to have been forgotten and overlooked somewhat in recent years.
Even though I’m really not a fan of the superhero genre, this old TV show is one of the few exceptions for a whole host of reasons. Eschewing the melodramatic grittiness, complex mythologising and fervent mainstream nerdiness that has defined the superhero genre over the past couple of decades, this show does something truly radical! It is a light-hearted and optimistic romantic comedy series that also includes elements from both the detective and superhero genres.
Realising the sheer silliness of taking the superhero genre seriously, this show affectionately plays these elements for laughs whilst devoting most of it’s focus to the characters of Lois Lane and Clark Kent. Both of them are shown to be intelligent, emotionally-complex people who start out as friendly rival reporters (who have been reluctantly paired by their editor) before gradually falling in love with each other over the course of the first 2-3 seasons.
There are just too many good things to say about this show! Whether it’s the brilliantly optimistic attitude that used to exist back in the 1990s, or the gloriously retro wardrobe and set design choices, or even the astonishing retinue of guest stars (eg: Robert Beltran, Dwight Schultz, Bruce Campbell, Jonathan Frakes, Kristina Loken etc..) it’s a fun, nostalgic, feel-good TV show that doesn’t require you to have read 30+ years of superhero comics to enjoy it.
4) “Robocop: Prime Directives” (TV Miniseries): This was something that I’d seen on the shelves of charity shops and dingy second-hand DVD shops for years before I eventually decided to give it a watch last year. It is a mini series of four 90 minute episodes that were originally shown on Canadian television in 2001:
Although these films occasionally lack some of the hilarious social satire that defined the “main” Robocop films, they more than make up for this by including a long, thrilling and occasionally emotional story about what happens to Robocop after the events of the main films. He’s older, even bordering on obsolete, and he still finds himself drawn into yet another criminal conspiracy.
As well as including a few cool cyberpunk elements, one of the great things about this mini series is that Robocop really gets to be Robocop here, a clanking semi-human juggernaut of justice! However, in addition to this, he’s also allowed to be more than just a two-dimensional cartoon character, and actually has a bit more of a personality in this mini series.
Yet, it might lack the sharp wit of Paul Verhoeven’s original films or the giant Hollywood budget, but this is an astonishingly solid quartet of films that take a slightly more “serious” look at Robocop, whilst telling a thrillingly dramatic story too.
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂