Castles Made Of Sand – Best Sandbox Games

Now, I want to be very clear from the start of this; I’m not saying the best games that are classed as sandbox games. What I’m talking about here are the best sandbox games, as in the best games for the sandbox they have and how fun they have made it to play in or how well they’ve used the sandbox as part of their game. But without further ado, I suppose I should get straight into kicking the article off. And another note just to be clear; these are totally my opinion, you are free to disagree with me, and these are not listed in any particular order.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (PS2/Xbox/PC)Grand Theft Auto - San Andreas

I think this needed to be the starting point; the granddaddy of my love of sandbox games. Now I get that GTA 3 and Vice City came before this, and they had their crazy sandbox fun too, but I picked San Andreas for a couple of very basic reasons. First of all, the map is huge. It might not be the biggest sandbox map, but consider the fact that this game is nearly 10 years old, and consider how crazy it felt back then to have not just one full-fledged city, but three of them and huge areas between them as well. Yeah, them being ‘full-fledged cities’ may look silly now that GTA V is out and has put the Los Santos of last generation to shame, but nonetheless, it was crazy for the time to think about the sheer size of the map. And as I have fond memories of playing with my friend, trying to drive out and explore the world, in spite of the police kicking up 4 stars when you weren’t where you should be.

On top of that geography, San Andreas almost lets you completely inhabit the life of CJ to make him whoever you want. It may sound tedious to other people, but there really was something bizarrely fun to just taking 10-15 minutes out of gang banging to just go to one of the fast food restaurants and just bulk CJ up to make him look stupidly fat and then continue onwards. Or to go to the gym on the game’s daily cycle and just beef CJ up with the treadmill and weights and all that. San Andreas seemed like this weird progression towards integrating Sims-level control of all these aspects of the character, and I loved that. It only further expanded the whole “Well, I don’t want to do missions, so let’s go do everything but” mentality that I adore from sandbox games.

And just a little shout out for the fact that San Andreas snuck in local co-op without people necessarily noticing. Because there is nothing better than dicking about in a sandbox doing nothing with friends, as GTA Online has shown.

Crackdown (Xbox 360)Crackdown

Well, that’s two games from the GTA train now then. I love Crackdown as a sandbox game because what it essentially says is “Fuck missions, you want to chase the bad guy, he’s in the city, go do it”. Crackdown represents a game taking on the idea of a sandbox not just in your time outside of missions, but in the actual ‘missions’. There are many MANY times recently when I’ve found myself thinking about Crackdown when playing other games now that sandboxes have become even more popular; for example, while playing Far Cry 3, and that game throttling me to its narrative for progress and such, I couldn’t help but find myself thinking “This game would work far better if they just took a cue from Crackdown, told me where my friends were, and let me try and figure the rest out, like you actually would probably have to as a jungle guerrilla warrior.” I’m not going to say Crackdown had the most fun gameplay when you weren’t pursuing the story, but its difficult to say that because the story was just part of the gameplay, and everything felt so incidental. It could be very much a case of heading off to explore the city, receiving a notification from the Agency that a high-ranking gangster is nearby, maybe getting distracted by some agility orbs or something like that, and just being within the city as this crazy super-powered cop with all the gadgets and vehicles. It is, and was, basically my go-to point for a game I think current developers are ignoring too much when making their sandbox gameplay.

Just Cause 2 (PS3/Xbox 360/PC)Just Cause 2

I think most people that have played this game probably knew I was going to talk about it when they read that opening paragraph. This game is just almost at the epitome of how to give a player the keys to the world and let them run wild with it. In fact, the game’s basic progress mechanics are very much tied to the fact that the player needs to go and run wild and destroy things and kick butt and screw over the Panaun military. Destruction is almost like experience points. Considering most gamers end up descending into havoc, anarchy and chaos when they’re playing a sandbox game and get bored of story, its almost perfect design. Especially when you give them so many tools and vehicles and methods to destroy the hell out of any base that stands in their way.

And there is SO much to destroy, oh so much. The game is HUGE. And not only is the game huge but they made exploring it so fun. The exploring is so fun thanks to the crazy range of vehicles and the fact that it almost feels like a journey to start another journey. There were plenty of times that I’d need to get somewhere to grab a car, to take that car to an air base, to fight my way through the air base to get a plane, to fly that plane across Panau to get where I wanted and then just nosedive the plane and parachute out and enjoy the explosions. And it never gets old, to the credit of the game. It never stops feeling fun to go through that ridiculous process. Which is probably helped by the fact that the map never feels boring. Not only is there wonderful distinction between each area of the nation across the various islands, with the desert land and the snowy mountains and the jungles and the city, but also there are these wonderful little spots of craziness that most people will probably remember. My personal favourite was always the Mile High Club, which was kind of like a yacht held up by two giant blimp-style balloons, and the yacht was basically this huge nightclub, and it was this huge adventure to get up there and then slaughter all the guards up there and jump off or steal a plane to get away after wrecking all the destroyable stuff there.

Basically, just go play this game if you haven’t already. GO DO IT RIGHT NOW. Especially if you’re going to get it on PC, as dedicated modders created a multiplayer mode with huge ~100 player servers. And you need that in your life.

LEGO Marvel Super Heroes (PS3/Xbox 360/PC/PS4/Xbox One/3DS/Vita/Probably other stuff too/Not on ZX Spectrum though)LEGO Marvel Super Heroes

This is when everyone tells me I’m crazy and this list has now jumped the shark and I need to get my Marvel fanboying in tow, isn’t it? Nonetheless, the final game on my list is LEGO Marvel Super Heroes. In LEGO Marvel, the sandbox you play in is literally Manhattan. I can understand why that might sound a bit small, or it might not sound very fun. But the place is literally packed with things to do. LEGO Marvel is basically the mentality of the old ‘collect them all’ platforming games of the 90s (that many of the linear LEGO games take their formula from anyway) but put into a sandbox. Most street corners have got someone on them, asking for help. And if you help them, you get a gold brick, and you’ll need gold bricks to unlock the bonus areas, which will help you to unlock more gold bricks and more characters. Also, there are LOTS of characters and vehicles around the world for you to unlock through doing little puzzles or races or whatever else. I mean, even if you don’t love the game for the Marvel-ness of it and for the brilliant fun of the story and for the fact that the characters have a lot of variety in their powers and such, the sandbox itself is a fantastic little world to just spend a lot of time in. On Steam, I have 26 hours in the game, and I would probably figure somewhere between 15 to 20 hours of that are just time I spent in the sandbox doing things there, never mind what time I’ve put in on the PS3 version playing co-op.

In essence, you kind of need to play it to see how fantastic the LEGO game formula works in a sandbox. The alternative may be LEGO City Undercover (exclusive to Wii U), which they advertised as far more like LEGO GTA, but as I haven’t played it, I can’t really say.

Anyway, folks, thank you for checking out the list, and remember that these are totally my opinions. Also, remember to go play all of these games that you can. Because I said so.

Joe Trail is the editor-in-chief of Don’t Be A Pixel. Mostly because he says he is, not because he has other writers to edit over. But such is the life of a busy editor-in-chief, obviously. He’s also an avid writer for the site. Of course.



Harder Better Faster Stronger – Top PS2 / Xbox / Gamecube Games In Need Of A Remake

We all spend so much time wrapped up in all these games getting remastered that only came out two years ago, that it can be easy to forget about all these wonderful games that existed before 2012. But thankfully, we’ve got Halo 2 being remastered within the Halo Collection soon and also got Wind Waker HD and the remaster of Halo 1 not that far back, which showed everyone that actually, yeah, we could probably take some games from two console generations back and jazz them up and have them be wonderfully playable all over again. So from that basis, I’ve decided to tell you what are objectively* the games most in need of a remake for the new generation. (*these are totally the subjective opinions of me as the writer and if you don’t agree then that’s fine and you’re totally allowed to be wrong on the matter).

Dragon Quest 8

Dragon Quest VIII – PS2, Level 5, Square Enix, 2004 (JP) 2005(US) 2006(EU)

I absolutely adore Dragon Quest. Absolutely 100% am head over heels in love with it. Where the Final Fantasy series has generally failed to captivate me or keep me in, Dragon Quest filled the gap. And Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King was the first step in all that. Mostly because its an insanely fantastic and underappreciated gem. And that’s not just because it has this amazing old-school turn based JRPG gameplay style, which can be plenty punishing if you haven’t gotten the hang of the system and prepared properly for what you are about to face; the amount of deaths I had facing dungeon bosses because I hadn’t gotten strong enough yet was crazy. Yes, that is me saying this is a JRPG in which you grind, but the thing about having to grind was that it was never this thing that made the game any less fun, it was just yet more time to experience the game and between dungeons and towns.

The reason it never made the game any less fun, and a large reason I’d love to see the game redone in HD or higher, is that the overall design in the game is fantastic. The character and enemy designs, done by Akira Toriyama aka the Dragon Ball Z guy, are absolutely beautiful to look at and packed with character, which means that grinding and seeing the same enemies over and over or running to a new area and meeting whatever new people and enemies the game has to throw at you never stops being fun. The music in the game is just astounding; the battle theme still sticks with me to this day from when I first played the game, which must have been years back. The whole graphic design of the game generally in its celshaded style is almost like a peak for that look, for me personally; it sits so well with the character designs and gives the world such a great look, while also meaning that the game retains its charm even as its aged quite harshly as an SD game. The voice acting is quirky as all hell; Yangus and King Trode’s voices are particular highlights, but there’s also the fun of the villagers who have voices and various assorted characters throughout the story, who all generally have voices that you can’t describe as typical JRPG fare (Yangus’ wonderful cockney accent will probably stay with me forever as a highlight of voice acting).

Yet, despite all this, the game never got a huge amount of appreciation. It has a cult following, sure, and there are ninth and tenth entries into the Dragon Quest series and Toriyama’s designs have become pretty major within the series now, but its never had the widespread appreciation that say Final Fantasy 10 or 12 have, as the big JRPGs of the PS2. And while plenty of other PS2 games have had these big HD remasters, like Final Fantasy X, or definitive ports, like Persona 4, the best that Dragon Quest VIII ever got was a reductive iOS and Android port. Which is far less than it deserves. So get real Square Enix and get me a full-blown HD remake of Dragon Quest VIII already, you damn fools!

Chibi Robo

Chibi Robo – Gamecube, Skip Ltd., Nintendo, 2005 (JP) 2006 (NA/EU)

Chibi Robo is not a game I have played. The chances of me having played it were quite low anyway, between not owning a Gamecube and it being a fairly rare game.  Even with it having had a remake on Wii in 2009 (Japan-only, mind you), its not a game many people know about or really register on the radar of Gamecube classics. People will happily swing around their Wind Wakers, and their Metroid Primes, and their Super Smash Bros. Melee, and even their Super Mario Sunshines, but often enough, a lot of the particularly odd or bizarre Nintendo games and franchises that started on the Gamecube get ignored. Except for Pikmin. People love Pikmin. Understandably, its insanely adorable. But back to the point at hand; here is this cutesy kawaii-as-f*** game about a small robot cleaning up a household, in some kind of super Japanese version of The Borrowers, and yet, here we are, barely registering its existence and how cool it is.

And this is a game that’s had 2 DS sequels as well. Its not like Nintendo have just given up on trying to push it, like its F-Zero or something. Yet, we can’t seem to get Nintendo to want to make a remake for Wii U, when that could be the perfect platform. Imagine the household duties and problems you could solve with your Gamepad; get involved with scrubbing the paw-prints off the floor by using the touchscreen, see how situations are unfolding between various toys on the screen, use AR elements potentially. Imagine what you could get up to if you got to play online; loads of little house-friend robot people, all trying to do their best to keep a house clean whether its competitive or cooperative. You’ve got to admit that kind of has a ring to it. It’s a game that has plenty of potential to make normally boring tasks even more fun, like games like Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing, and that would likely only get even better if you used the advances we’ve had since then. Heck, if that wasn’t true, I doubt the Big N would have bothered even making DS sequels or a Wii port after all that. So where’s the Wii U port, huh Ninty, get on that case!

Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction

Mercenaries: Playground Of Destruction – PS2/Xbox, Pandemic, LucasArts, 2005

With a name like that, why would you ever need to explain the game? But seriously, no, this game is probably one of my favourite sandbox games from that generation, and its a shame that EA never picked it up and made a sequel, because I’m sure a PS3/360 sequel would have been really good if it existed. The gist of this game is; you’re a gun for hire, in the middle of a big war in Korea, between North Korea, and the ‘united’ forces of China, the UN, South Korea and the Russian Mafia (known for their fantastical love of military campaigns against dictators, obviously). And you get to make a real killing, excuse the pun, playing the field and taking down the North Korean regime. Now, when I say taking down the North Korean regime, I don’t just mean shooting millions of conscripted soldiers; I mean literally taking down every building in site with every air strike, artillery barrage and weapon you can get your hands on. This was, probably alongside the classic Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, the game that started the world’s love of shooty games where you blow your way through buildings just like you do with people.

Another important part of why the game was so great was the fact that it struck that amazing Saints Row 2 equilibrium of ‘bizarre partly-emergent hilarity’ and ‘totally self-serious tone and story’. When a game takes itself seriously, as the world goes to pot in the most bizarrely funny ways, it only helps me have more fun, because it gives it this great accidental-cult-B-movie tone which I can never get enough of. I mean, here’s this story that talks a bit game about you going and beating the North Koreans and saving the peninsula and maybe the world, and then you just run it and kick some guys and blow up a giant arch and a few buildings and run a tank through a military base, and your cash goes in, and you’re like HAHA SUCK IT KIM! It’s a game that is wonderfully at odds with itself, without being so at odds with itself that it suffers. The game never deviates from being a serious shooty game, despite the havoc, despite the huge bunker busting air strikes and mini nuclear attacks, despite your erratic behaviour as a mercenary. The vehicles were also pretty great in that game. It had your typical military open world set; cars, tanks, helicopters, all that lot, and they all worked as expected. The fun of all that came in with the open world destruction, as it did with most things in that game. Just running into one of oh so many North Korean bases and getting hands to an attack chopper then launching a bizarre one man assault on Pyongyang wasn’t really something you got elsewhere.

Looking back now, with Shadow of Mordor a popular thing because of its Nemesis mechanic, it also seems handy to note that this game had a similar static system to keep you exploring endlessly for the people you need to take down, in its ‘deck of cards’ system. Essentially, the 52 most senior and dangerous folk in this fictional North Korean government and military were assigned a card each, and all these people were scattered away in the world, for you to stumble upon and then hunt down to capture or kill for rewards. While this isn’t the same dynamic, experience-driven AI that Shadow of Mordor has, it was nonetheless a huge part of what kept pushing you through the game’s environments, and the particular missions in which you took down the Ace officials are, to me, an example of structuring around a system like that which game developers could learn from. The one that sticks with me is the first Ace mission, for the Ace of Clubs, where you sneak onto an island, cripple its surveillance, break into the city on the island fighting a big military force as you go, then destroy his giant reinforced tower with the newly unlocked and totally-free-at-the-time bunker buster air drop. It is your first sight of total insane-level destruction with an air strike that should cost you something like $750,000. And it is glorious. And then you go chase down the Ace and grab him and leg it before you end up getting killed. Now if that description didn’t get your blood boiling, you’re free to go run off and kill some randomised orc, but if it did, then you can help me try and figure out where the hell we need to go to get Mercenaries remade!

Ribbit King

Ribbit King – PS2/Gamecube, Jamsworks, Bandai (Now Bandai Namco), 2003/4 (Its complicated)

This is a game, that if Youtube weren’t a thing where bizarre games are documented, I probably could have sworn I hallucinated playing and owning. The central conceit of this game is a sport called frolf. By frolf, I’m not referring to Frisbee golf, the classic college sport alongside beloved games such as hacky sack. No, by frolf, I’m referring to a portmanteau of frog and golf; yes, this is a sport where you use frogs as golf balls, and hammers as golf clubs. You hit frogs with hammers to play golf. And the golf courses are all bizarre and bounce you around from place to place and have lots of things that you’re supposed to hit to get your score up because this is actually a score system rather than a straight golf system. And all the characters are insanely bizarre and their frogs are styled to be like them. And the story was some bizarre thing about travelling across the universe challenging people to games of frolf for some reasons that I can’t remember any more in your big rocket.

Looking at my description, this game does sound like a fever dream. But I do remember owning it, at one time, and I definitely remember playing a demo on one of my PS2 demo discs. And there are definitely videos on it, because Game Grumps covered it. But even if it had just been a fever dream, it was a damn fun fever dream. Ribbit King is just that kind of bizarre game that you have trouble even finding in the indie community now; its just absolutely insane bonkers mechanics with little framing or anything that makes sense, but it all holds together perfectly and its fun and it works quite neatly. A bit like Super Monkey Ball in that subversively-weird fun that isn’t like much else thing (side note: where’s my new Super Monkey Ball, or even a remake of Super Monkey Ball Deluxe, EH, SEGA?). The kind of thing that only really came from those weird middle of the row publishers like Bandai who didn’t seem to have much clue what was going on but didn’t care and churned out bizarre games.

I don’t know if I can really tell you huge amounts about the game any more besides all that weirdness, because what little I remember from playing it probably 8 years ago at least straddles the line of “Yeah, I remember that” and “Am I making this up in a weird dream about this game that I just remember being super crazy”. So yeah, even if just for my memory, get on the case and remake it Bandai Namco. Its not like you’re up to much else besides Tekken nowadays anyway.

Joe Trail is the editor-in-chief of Don’t Be A Pixel. Mostly because he says he is, not because he has other writers to edit over. But such is the life of a busy editor-in-chief, obviously. He’s also an avid writer for the site. Of course.