Once in a while, some works leave a big mark in the mind of audiences. The reviews won't give it a grade under 9/10, those who saw/read/played it almost unanimously love it, everywhere the work is acclaimed for its original writing or gameplay, unique artistic touch, beautiful soundtrack and so forth. Everything is perfect except… few people actually buy it. Despite its huge critical success, the work is snubbed in the stores or cinemas.
Maybe it was too original and too unique to appeal for a large base (and maybe deliberately so), or maybe it lacked the advertisement that big and long-installed licenses or blockbusters get. Or just got a very clumsy marketing campaign. It can also be a consequence of The Firefly Effect for a series. But as a result of its glowing reputation, it will usually be searched like a treasure several years later by many people who overlooked it at the time, and be all the more difficult to find in shops.
Note this is not about works that you personally liked but didn't get much attention. It's about those that were generally acclaimed and positively left their mark on the media, despite poor selling when they came out.
Contrast Sleeper Hit, a work that no-one was expecting but ends up being a commercial success despite unfavorable odds.
- The Secret of NIMH suffered from poor marketing and competition with ET the Extraterrestrial, but was widely acclaimed for its vibrant animation and moving storyline.
- The Iron Giant was a financial disaster due to a horrible marketing campaign on Warner Bros' behalf. However, it picked up new life on DVD, and has become much more known to this day, mostly in part due to Cartoon Network running 24 hour blocks of it every Thanksgiving.
- The Road to El Dorado is remembered fondly by the viewers but failed to turn a profit.
- Many of Disney's animated films released during the late 1970s to the early 1980s, and during the early 2000s (the villains of those films are the only characters from them to still appear in the merchandise). Exceptions include Lilo and Stitch, The Princess and the Frog, and Tangled in the case of the latter era due to them being the only true successes at the time, and The Black Cauldron, Home on the Range, and Chicken Little in both cases, which are considered by some as "the Bottom Three." (although the Horned King is often marketed in the merchandise).
- It's become a measurable trend that Oscar nominees are grossing less and less. Now that there are nine/ten nominees for best picture you'll frequently find nominees that only sold two or three million worth of tickets.
- Idiocracy was well reviewed by critics and is widely considered a clever comedy, but due to poor marketing it did badly box office-wise. Limiting initial release to only 7 cities and capping out at 130 theaters didn't help.
- The Shawshank Redemption did very poorly in the box office but nonetheless received glowing reviews. The Academy also recognized it - and lead to its vindication as everyone wanted to know what was that film with quite a few Oscar noms.
- Not to mention that it's the highest-rated movie on IMDb.
- The Rocketeer did poorly at the box office (it didn't help it came out around the same time as Terminator 2), but it was well-received by audiences and critics.
- The Monkees' film Head was the last thing anyone expected from the group: a surreal, deliberately plotless Deconstruction of their journey through the Show Business meat grinder. It failed at the box office, but got a lot of good reviews, and today it's fondly remembered as an Unintentional Period Piece of the psychedelic era.
- The Tree of Life failed to make its budget back (grossing just $12 million domestically on a $32 million budget) but won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and won much acclaim from critics (even becoming a top awards contender).
- Donnie Darko was well-received, but did poorly in cinemas. This was in part due to it receiving a limited theatrical run owing to its subject matter (it came out almost immediately after 9/11).
- Hugo. It's made little over his budget ($180 million gross vs $150 million cost). That said, it got 11 Oscar Nominations, winning five (Cinematography, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing) and was critically acclaimed.
- The Hurt Locker was one of the most acclaimed movies of the year... and before the Oscar victory brought it back to theaters, its total gross was $12,6 million, less than its $15 million budget. (it ended with $17 million domestically and $49 million worldwide, still the lowest-grossing Best Picture of all-time - and it's hilarious the fact that it beat the highest-grossing film ever...)
- Tucker: The Man and His Dream failed to recoup its production costs and prompted director Francis Ford Coppola to take time off from the Hollywood system. However, critics credit the film for renewing interest in Preston Tucker's cars.
- Ed Wood is one of Tim Burton's most acclaimed films, even giving one of his stars an Oscar... and is the director's only box office failure with a mere $5.8 million domestically.
- Firefly was loved by viewers, but got canceled after 11 episodes due in thanks to Executive Meddling. A letter campaign led to a movie sequel, Serenity, which was just as acclaimed... and bombed just as much due to incoherent advertising. After that though, the series got a long healthy life of spin-offs and DVD releases.
- The miniseries King was nominated for nine Emmy awards and won much acclaim for its star Paul Winfield but was a ratings disaster when first aired (the first part finishing in dead last in the weekly ratings).
- Arrested Development consistently garnered just enough audience to produce series of diminishing length. It was a critical darling from the off, and its core fanbase remains rabid.
- The Wire was virtually ignored on its first broadcast, its a freaking miracle we even got the full five years of it. Didn't win any major awards either. By now you've probably heard it's good.
- Freaks and Geeks only lasted one magical season, it was beloved by those who saw it from the off.
- The Tick (animation)
- Police Squad!: The fact that it flopped was attributed to the fact that it couldn't be watched casually, you had to pay active attention to catch the jokes.
- Luckily, the decision to switch from TV to film turned out to be a very good idea for the series.
- The Golden Apple was well-reviewed when it was first produced in 1954, and in retrospective histories is often hailed as an refreshingly original work of musical theatre. The original production closed in a few months and the show has only been infrequently produced since.
- EarthBound, possibly the most egregious example in the history of gaming. Long story short, it didn't catch on when it recently came out in America, but the cult following grew greatly since. Most dedicated fans have played the game on emulators, since official copies are both rare and expensive.
- Beyond Good and Evil was met with glowing reviews, some even comparing it to The Legend of Zelda, and earned relatively high marks all around. It didn't do so well....
- Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. Good thing they got an Updated Rerelease, because the PlayStation 2 originals are now pretty much unobtainable (not at a reasonable price anyway).
- Okami sold so badly that it led to the dissolution of Clover Studio (though not for long), and yet the game is considered one of the best the PlayStation 2 has offered. So much that it later got a sequel by another studio on the Nintendo DS and remade for the Wii.
- Psychonauts was critically loved, but very few people got it.
- Kya Dark Lineage got some pretty good reviews, but for most people not that many knew about it. For those who got it, it's a shame it's widely unknown. Doesn't help either that it ended on a cliffhanger.
- Klonoa for the Sony Playstation received glowing reviews from critics, but bombed at retail for being mistaken as kiddy. The game would go on to become a cult classic, fetching over $60 on ebay at its peak.
- Suikoden II, the Even Better Sequel to the first Suikoden, was also a bomb, but certainly not for lack of quality; it is considered by many who have played it to be one of the finest examples of the RPG ever. Rather, it came at the worst possible time: the week before one of gaming history's most anticipated sequels, Final Fantasy VIII, not to mention the Sega Dreamcast launch. Speaking of the former, Final Fantasy VII had stylistically redefined the genre with its big-budget, cinematic 3d visuals just two years earlier, and Suikoden II, which stuck to the isometric 2d of its predecessor, looked extremely outdated by comparison, as practically every other major RPG was following the charge lead by the new generation of Final Fantasy. The game did become a Cult Classic within the next couple of years, and would fetch massive sums on ebay. To this day, there has not been a rerelease, save for a Japan-only PSP rerelease of I and II.
- Valkyrie Profile was also an initial stateside flop, having to do with a late era PS One release, meager marketing push from Enix, and just being too unique for its own good. It did gain a following, and similar to Suikoden II above, become valuable on the aftermarket, but thankfully it received a port on the PSP and two follow-ups.
- Bayonetta, despite being one of the very few games to get a 40/40 on Famitsu and considered one of the best action games of the last decade, didn't sell all that well in its Xbox360 version (coming out at the same period as God of War III probably didn't help). Ironically, the Play Station 3 version, which was bashed for its lack of finition, sold much better...
- Planescape: Torment made very little money, despite being named game of the year by multiple review organizations.
- Similarly, Jade Empire sold far less than Knights of the Old Republic and any of BioWare's later original IPs, despite some heavy praise from reviews.
- Clash at Demonhead
- Little Red Riding Hood's Zombie BBQ
- Shantae and its sequel sold poorly but received very favorable reviews.
- The Neverhood, an adventure game animated entirely in claymation, was released around the time adventure games were going out of style.
- The Metroid series, with the exception of a few million sellers (the original, Fusion, Metroid Prime and Prime 3), has frequently fallen victim to this trope. Still, it keeps chugging along.
- Conker's Bad Fur Day, due to limited advertising and late arrival to the Nintendo 64, hasn't sold as well as hoped. But it gained critical acclaim and a cult following among fans regardless.
- Little King's Story received critical acclaim, yet nearly no one brought it.
- Battlezone 1998 (the 1998 version) was loved by videogame magazine critics, but failed to make an impression in the marketplace.