That happened for me this year. I picked up a game that I heard absolutely nothing about, and it turns out that I've still played it for longer than any game on a particular system. More on that particular game later, let's go over some other under-appreciated games first.
I've always been a huge fighting game fan, but the Dead or Alive series rarely tickled my fancy. Don't get me wrong, I love scantily-clad girls engaged in combat more than the next man, but the deceptively-deep fighting system has a pretty steep learning curve that I had been unable to master with any other instalment of the series. Through the Chronicle mode, I was introduced to each of the game's mechanics and I could gradually notice some variation in the techniques that I used (for a point of reference, I usually spammed kick combos with Tina in Dead or Alive 2 and 4). When I took the fight online, I felt confident in my abilities and even notched a few wins. If it weren't for the connectivity issues, sound direction and puzzling narrative (that runs throughout Chronicle mode), this would have been a real contender. As it stands, it's a great fighting game in its own right, and one of the best games available on the 3DS.
This wouldn't be a discussion about surprisingly good games without addressing the elephant in the room, Sonic Generations. I've been playing Sonic games since I was six years old, and it's been over ten years since I've been able to play an instalment of the series without enduring physical and/or psychological trauma. The latest iteration thankfully allows players to experience the best of both worlds: 2D levels that handle just as series aficionados would remember them to, and more thoughtfully designed levels with dynamic camera angles like the Sonic of modern ilk. It was far from perfect, but Sonic Generations was so unbelievably good (not great, just above playable) that I was nearly in tears.
Even with well-instructed girl-on-girl action and Sonic's return to form, there was one game that ambushed me with its understated brilliance. The most surprisingly good game of 2011 was Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars.
When I pre-ordered my Nintendo 3DS, I could choose between bundles that included either Rayman 3D or this undiscovered, turn-based strategy gem. Thankfully, I went with the unknown and found Shining Force for gun nuts.
To set the scene: apart from knowing it was a launch title (it had to be, it was included in one of the bundles), I knew stuff all about this game. I searched far and wide, and apart from the optimistic musings of an old friend, I had no idea what I was in for.
More than meets the eye
The presentation may be a bit lacklustre, the narrative mild, and the inclusion of 3D questionable, but Shadow Wars is a great game. It's also the meatiest game on Nintendo's new portable, with a campaign that could easily absorb twenty hours of your time and challenge maps after that. I can remember times where the system's battery gave out without me noticing the red lights (and thus, how much time had passed). Customizable load-outs, different classes, and solid mechanics made for the most addictive and enjoyable game available at the system's launch. It may not have been the best game of the year or even the best on the 3DS, but it's well worth a shot.
What game(s) surprised you this year?