RPS Time Capsule: the games worth saving from 2003
Welcome back to another RPS Time Capsule. I will age a thousand years by writing this next sentence, but today we’re casting our minds back to twenty years ago, excavating our personal favourite games from the actually quite good year of 2003. Yep, instant wrinkles like I’ve just been caught in a Death Stranding rain shower. I better finish this introduction quickly before I disintegrate to a pile of dust – much like all the other games from this year that didn’t make it into this year’s Time Capsule. Come and find out which ones we’ve decided to save below.
You know the drill by now. Each RPS Time Capsule is intended to be a neat little package of the team’s personal Bestest Bests from that year, while also hopefully containing some valuable lessons for the game developers of tomorrow, whether that’s because they’re the best example of their genre, the best version of that particular game, or, you know, they’re just plain great. It’s not a definitive best games list, and there will no doubt be a lot of very good classics that get evaporated along the way. There’s only one slot per Treehouse member, after all.
We’re also going by the year of their PC release, so no sneaky console release years, and it’s this version of the game we’re recommending. That’s why some games might appear later on in their lifetime, for example, such as if they’ve received a recent remaster or remake that we’d recommend people play instead of the original.
But as always, there are more games than there are Time Capsule slots. So why not tell us which one game from 2003 you’d save from the never-ending acid rain showers of the future in the comments below?
Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic
Alice Bee: Someone had to do it, or there’d be some sort of riot in the comments, and as the site’s resident BioWare-liker, that burden probably falls to me. Not that it’s really a burden, because this game is very good. You play an amnesiac Force-user – no spoilers – who awakens on board a ship that is already under attack by a Sith (this is, by the way, taking place four thousand years before the Empire exists, which is a neat way of being able to do whatever you want in your Star Wars game).
KOTOR has many of what you’d recognise as hallmarks of a BioWare game: squad combat with companions you find variably annoying or adorable; the option to form relationships with said companions; good-to-evil grading of your actions – conveniently built-in to the Star Wars universe already; side quests; epic story; writing that left an impression. KOTOR has a canonically evil assassin droid who is so fond of blasting people that not having him on your squad is basically an indication that you have no joy in your heart. Above all, it’s a very Star Wars-y Star Wars game that swings for the fences. It sometimes misses – who among us could argue that the lightsaber combat isn’t, at the end of the day, pretty rubbish? – but there’s a reason it’s an enduring classic.
The Simpsons: Hit & Run
James: The only enjoyable Simpsons game from a time when Fox was selling them like dubiously beneficial monorails. Moreover, Hit & Run showed how far a good set of fundamentals can take an otherwise slapdash adventure: nobody cared that most cars didn’t have enter or exit animations when they were so much fun to powerslide about in, and what might have been an eerie emptiness to Springfield’s streets was completely painted over by a colourful city design packed with little jokes to find.
That being said, the shoddiness could have its charm as well, which is why I think a lot of the modern clamour for a Hit & Run remake is misguided. Yes, if it came out in 2023 and the reaction of NPCs to being clattered by a Duff truck was to roll gently down the streets, arms waving in floaty panic, before standing back up and strolling away, you’d think it was rubbish. In 2003, it was the most hilarious thing anyone had ever seen. So rather than contemplate what Mr. Burns’ face would look like with ray tracing and subsurface scattering, let’s preserve Hit & Run as it was, and indeed should be.
Max Payne 2: The Fall Of Max Payne
Alice0: Some of our younger readers might be surprised to learn that falling over was once uncool. Rather than social media stardom and the lofty laudation of an ‘epic fail’, falling over once earned you jeers of “Waaagh!” and “Wuuuay!” From friends and strangers alike for ‘absolutely stacking it.’ This all changed with Max Payne. This grizzled New York City detective might have been trapped in an ever-worsening neo-noir nightmare but when he fell down, he did it on purpose, and he did it while wearing a cool leather coat, and shooting people in a cool way. The first Max Payne made falling over so cool that it received title billing in the sequel, Max Payne 2: The Fall Of Max Payne.
I had a quick go on Max Payne 2 before dunking my disc in the Capsule, and it still feels fun and cool and exciting. The comic book cutscenes and florid narration are so stylised that they haven’t aged against advances in technology or culture, they are simply themselves. The great music helps there too. It is still fun to dive sideways through doors and gun down mobsters in bullet time. And it is still fun to revel in the technological advancement which surely encouraged Remedy to lean in with that Fall Of Max Payne subtitle: physics objects. I am still pleased when Max falls over and the wildly enthusiastic physics engine sends boxes and carts and everything flying everywhere. Silly, sure, but what about Max Payne isn’t?
And it’s still better than the first game. Not just because it didn’t have platforming bloodmazes.
Sim City 4
Mayor Liam: I can only assume Sim City 4 has a very sore back, considering it held up the city building genre for 12 years straight before Cities: Skylines relieved it of its burden. As a series, Sim City peaked here, expanding on the (excellent) Sim City 3000 with fresh layers of management complexity and an exciting new region view that allowed you construct cities across a customisable continent. You could even connect metropolises (metropoli?) to one another via road and rail networks, which in the dark days of 2003 felt like actual magic.
Unlike its predecessors, Sim City 4 feels a little more… gritty? Its depiction of urban environments as they were at the turn of the millennium is surprisingly unflinching. Gone are the bright colours of 3000, replaced instead by earnest representations of low-income housing, factories that belch thick plumes of smoke and featureless apartment buildings that stretch into the sky. Sim City does more with its 2D presentation than any city builder before or since. It’s all tied together by an impeccable soundtrack by returning composer Jerry Martin and a team of collaborators who score proceedings with an upbeat jazz mélange that sounds like a city. Boisterous and flowing with an undercurrent of darkness. It’s magnificent. It’s tricky to run on modern day computers, sadly, but with enough fiddling you too can experience the peak of simulated urban planning as it existed twenty long years ago.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
Hayden: I have one crystal clear memory of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City: hopping in the nearest car after the intro to hear Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean blasting from the radio. Music matters for your memory, and that one track solidified Vice City’s iconic status in my mind.
Whether you have the original Vice City or the Definitive Edition on Steam, you won’t hear Billie Jean on the radio anymore. Licensing issues, the big monster that regularly rears its head to ruin older games, meant that it was cut from the game in an update along with a few other tracks. This meant that Vice City could remain on sale, albeit in a slightly lesser form – until, spoiler alert, it was removed from sale almost everywhere in order to make way for the new Definitive Edition. We probably all have our own opinions on what makes the original better than the Definitive Edition, but I think the music alone is reason enough to put an original disc copy of GTA: Vice City in the Time Capsule.
Ollie: I was eight-years-old when I first played Ghost Master. To this day, I can recall almost every track from the OST. One simple reason: it’s the greatest game music ever. Others may be better, but none are as great. I don’t care, it makes sense to me.
But even aside from the music (which is 95% of the reason why I chose to save it in the Time Capsule), Ghost Master is a singularly brilliant game. Janky and a bit dated, perhaps, but an enthralling and shockingly challenging game about using your entourage of colourful spirits to bring about juuuuust the right amount of panic. Every level is a multi-layered puzzle with various solutions, none of which are straightforward, and all of which are filled with the kind of playfulness and charm that makes me grin from ear to ear while I’m playing.
Tomb Raider VI: The Angel Of Darkness
Rebecca: I’m aware that I’m courting controversy by submitting Tomb Raider: The Angel Of Darkness to the Time Capsule. Yes, AoD was released in a woefully unfinished state and received a not-undeserved panning from critics and fans alike. But it was hugely important to me personally as a teen, and furthermore contained many solid ideas that newer TR games have gone on to imitate and refine. It was also the final outing for original studio Core Design as the series’ developers, making it a historic document that marks a significant end to an era.
The Angel Of Darkness was the game that first encouraged me to overcome a terrific amount of natural shyness in order to seek out online fandom spaces on shaky little Bambi legs. There’s a reasonable chance I wouldn’t be where I am today had that not happened, so my memories of it are quite possibly fonder than it objectively merits. But I still maintain that any time Lara Croft (in either of her reboot eras) works with an NPC ally, or trades with a vendor, or levels up a secondary attribute, you’re seeing AoD’s legacy in action.
The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King
Ed: Games based on books or movies can be brilliant – like GoldenEye 007, for instance – or they can be aggressively bad. We all know this to be true. But LOTR is both a good video game and highlights something else that’s lacking in this day and age (waves cane, puffs on pipe etc): the joy of couch co-op.
I know times have changed and online gaming with your buds is more convenient yada yada. So, that’s all the more reason why LOTR is so important. Firstly, the game knows its limits and commits to being fun, never once does it overextend itself trying to be some visionary extension of the source material. You simply hack and slash your way through cool setpieces, as the camera angles shift to show Gimli shattering a skeletons bones, or Aragorn from below, slicing orcs and earning those arcadey pop-ups of “Excellent!” or “Fair”. I remember hopping on a mate’s couch and loving every second of LOTR’s experience gathering and baddy bashing. That’s why I think it’s important we save this couch co-op silliness for an aggressively online future.
Beyond Good and Evil
Rachel: I’ve not played Beyond Good And Evil, but I saw no one else on the team picked it so I’m swiping it up. It’s a game I’ve heard so much about since I started writing about games, and it’s been sitting in my Steam library for years. So, into the Time Capsule it goes, if not for its status as a cult classic but for my own selfish reasons.
It’s well known that Beyond Good And Evil was ultimately a commercial failure back in 2003, but thankfully its reputation has only grown over the years. I’ve heard many say that it was a game released before its time? Maybe?? Though I can see why. For a game released in 2003, it still looks pretty great, especially compared to others on this list. It also has a great story: a stealthy sci-fi plot that deals with government conspiracy. Also, Jade is badass. She’s got her skull-cracking staff, a camera for her investigative reporting, and her outfit! Like, no one can pull off a pair of green cargos and a bandana like Jade can. And the matching lipstick – incredible. I also love how you can use the camera to take photos of alien wildlife – very cool. Beyond Good And Evil is rad as hell and still totally worth playing, especially since it sounds like the sequel is stuck in development hell. Yikes.
Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time
Katharine: Speaking of games whose sequels/remakes are stuck in development hell… *cue comedy trombone* It’s Prince Of Persia: Sands Of Time! In all seriousness, though, Sands Of Time remains an absolute classic. Not the film, of course. The film was absolutely terrible. But the game! Cor, what a thing. Not only did it single-handedly revive a somewhat shaky series, but it was also a masterful platformer, not least because the Prince’s snazzy dagger let you rewind time (and you all thought it was the sands that did that, didn’t you, you can’t trick me!).
The actual Sands of the title, meanwhile, is what gives the Prince his power. Got no sand? No rewind power for you, sir. You also fight a lot of sand-based creatures, which, sure, might not have been quite as fun as all the wall-running, pole swinging and general parkouring, but hey, many might say it still has better combat than today’s crop of Assassin’s Creed games, amirite? (sorry, Assassin’s Creed, I still love you a lot, yeah?). Really, though, 3D platformers like this just don’t tend to get made anymore, and that’s a real shame. So into the Time Capsule it goes. Don’t worry, I’ll give it a bit of a shake before we seal it up. We don’t want any of the pesky sand getting in there and scratching up all the CD-ROMs, do we?