Now that we’ve covered three weeks of survival horror, it seems appropriate to lighten up with the post-apocalypse. And rest assured, there is no shortage of post-apocalyptic video games out there. Fallout is the most recognizable by far, but favorites also include Metro 2033, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Wasteland and every zombie game ever. Ron Whitaker recently put together a great list for anyone who enjoys such end-of-the-world content.
But I’d like to focus on a particular kind of post-apocalypse – the weird kind. You see, every now and then video games like to step out of their realistic, nuclear war comfort zone and try something really different. Like Tokyo Jungle‘s end times campaign from the perspectives of animals. Or Hatoful Boyfriend‘s dating sim set on a world ravaged by bird flu. A little research quickly revealed that even our beloved gaming classics aren’t safe, sneaking apocalypses into backstories in ways many players didn’t even realize.
So while we wait for Fallout 4, let’s take a look at the strangest, weirdest, and most outrageous post-apocalypses of gaming. Some are great, others don’t make sense, and many are downright insane. But anytime you start to worry post-apocalypses games are getting similar, play these titles and remind yourself how varied the world’s end might be.
Warning: Really old spoilers incoming!
Pikmin fans will probably already be familiar with this post-apocalypse, but it’s still among the creepiest on this list. For those who haven’t played, the series follows the adventures of space explorers arriving on planet PNF-404 seeking missing ship parts or supplies. They discover the native Pikmin, tiny creatures who assist you by building bridges, destroying obstacles, and otherwise finding solutions to puzzles. It’s all adorably charming, right up until the point you realize PNF-404 is a future Earth where humans are long dead.
Oh, Pikmin never comes out and says this directly. But the evidence is pretty hard to ignore. As you explore the planet, you’ll uncover objects which were clearly created by human society, like cans, cell phones, Duracell-brand batteries, and Dr. Pepper bottle caps. In Pikmin 2, Captain Olimar even finds an old shattered globe that depicts East and West Germany.
But the final damning piece of evidence comes from Pikmin 3, where we finally get a look of the entire planet at once. The land masses look different, but it’s absolutely Earth – specifically Pangaea Ultima, a hypothetical Earth 250 million years in the future where the continents threw a party but “forgot” to invite Australia. That’s a really long time, and even if humans survived that long they could have evolved into a completely different species. Perhaps one that’s only an inch high and can barely survive their native environment?
So remember: The next time you let a Pikmin die in-game, you might just be murdering your descendants.
Mega Man isn’t a series I often play, but the backstory always felt like some sci-fi Game of Thrones-ian epic. Its fictional timeline is massive, detailing thousands of years between the creation of sentient robots and a distant future where they become Earth’s dominant life form. And since this is a post-apocalypse article, guess what happened to humans along the way?
For context, the original Mega Man series covers 200X to 20XX, when robots are an integral part of everyday human life. Mega Man X and Zero follow 21XX on, where a new robot race called Reploids is created and grows in numbers. The struggles between humans and Reploids continued for years, most prominently in a deadly series of wars that reduced human populations by 60% in four years. But eventually, the two species finally forge peace and decide to unify their societies. Things are looking up!
Until you reach Mega Man Legends. This series jumps ahead thousands of years to 80XX, where Terra is completely flooded save for a few small islands. But instead of reverting to Waterworld-styled societies, humankind has been completely replaced by organic androids called Carbons. These are human-like androids with skin and organs which can be upgraded with mechanical body parts. The last “true humans” abandoned Terra for the Elysium space colony, but have since gone extinct, leaving behind their DNA for possible cloning. (And the process for resurrecting humans is halted once it’s realized doing so would drive Carbons to extinction.)
In other words, Mega Man is the story of robotic uprisings, a series of devastating apocalyptic wars, and the terraforming of Earth during humanity’s final transition into a cyberpunk race. Pretty heavy stuff for Capcom’s beloved blue robot.
Imagine a fighting game where you controlled dinosaurs and prehistoric monsters. Now stop imagining, because this game exists: It’s called Primal Rage, and when I was ten years old it was the best thing ever. Players dueled to the death using giant beasts, while tiny humans mill about your feet for quick snacks and score bonuses. Character types included a velociraptor, two T-Rexes, and a King Kong-sized ape with fart and vomit attacks. How has someone not made a sequel for this game?
But for all its prehistoric trappings, Primal Rage is not set in the distant past – in fact, one battle arena clearly takes place in a ruined city filled with skyscrapers. Reading the manual confirms that Primal Rage is set following a catastrophic meteor strike that took “Urth” back to the Stone Age. The cataclysm also awakened ancient godlike beings beneath the planet’s crust who are eventually worshiped by human clans. When Primal Rage begins, these creatures have renewed their ancient wars, motivated either by protecting Urth or conquering it for themselves.
Sadly, the planned sequel was eventually cancelled, and cannot be played outside of a few rare prototype arcade cabinets. Which is a shame, because this franchise is basically King Kong Vs. Godzilla: The Post-Apocalypse Game.
Deus Ex: Invisible War
Deus Ex has always excelled at crafting elaborate, player-controlled stories, before throwing them out the window for pre-determined ending. The original game, for example, had three wildly different conclusions that settled humanity’s ultimate fate. Would JC Denton merge with the Helios AI to become Earth’s technological god? Would he assume control of the Illuminati, maintaining the status quo using his own secret empire? Or would he destroy the Aquinas Hub and plunge Earth into a Dark Age? (Fifteen-year old spoiler alert: That last one is the apocalyptic option.)
If the series ended there, it would have been fine. Instead, Ion Storm found itself with a smash hit and a potential sequel: Deus Ex: Invisible War. You might see the problem here: Invisible War had to pick one Deus Ex ending for its cyberpunk sequel. But it couldn’t choose, so it settled on “All Of The Above” and lumped them into a single timeline. The end result is a post-apocalypse setting which looks nothing like a post-apocalypse.
Deus Ex‘s Dark Age ending implied that humanity would revert back into simpler village-based societies. And perhaps that happened – for five minutes. But Invisible War‘s “Collapse” is treated like a brief period of war and economic depression that everyone just walked off. Twenty years later, Earth is actually more advanced and interconnected than ever before, making this perhaps the most counter-intuitive apocalypse of all time. That doesn’t make Invisible War a bad game – it was average at worst – but it’s weird when considered too closely.
Part of the problem is that Deus Ex‘s endings weren’t meant to be interchangeable. In fact, choosing some makes others impossible: Initiating a Dark Age, for example, destroys Helios and the Illuminati in one fell swoop. But not only did they survive, they’re running global machinations in a world that lost its global communication networks at a critical juncture.
In short, Ion Storm aimed for a backstory that would satisfy everyone, but ultimately satisfied no one. Which is a pretty apt description for Invisible War in general.
Super Mario Galaxy
Super Mario is about as archetypal a story as anyone could possibly imagine in gaming. Bowser kidnaps Princess Peach. Mario rescues Princess Peach. Repeat until everyone gets bored and they all try go-karting. Every game feels so similar, it’s almost like the Mushroom Kingdom takes for granted how much danger it’s in every sequel. The player certainly has.
But perhaps we should be taking Bowser more seriously. After all, Super Mario Galaxy heavily implies Mario’s nemesis literally destroyed the entire universe. That would mean Super Mario Galaxy 2 – and everything after it – is set in a new universe built on the post-apocalyptic ruins of the old.
In case you’ve forgotten, Super Mario Galaxy ends with Mario taking the Comet Observatory to the center of the universe to rescue Princess Peach. But right at the moment of victory, Bowser’s artificial sun collapses into a super-massive black hole that consumes everything around it. And I mean everything – Peach’s castle, the Observatory, and the entire universe. The process is only reversed when all the Lumas fling themselves into the black hole, sacrificing themselves to restore reality. Which means everything’s back to normal, right?
Not necessarily. Take a look at Rosalina’s final speech as the universe reforms:
Do you hear the baby stars? These newborns will grow up to become galaxies someday. When stars die they turn to stardust and scatter across the cosmos. Eventually, that stardust reforms to create a new star… And so the cycle of life continues. But the cycle never repeats itself in quite the same way… So… you’ll see.
The suggestion here is that the universe Mario emerges in isn’t identical to the one he left behind. This partly explains where all the new galaxies from Super Mario Galaxy 2 came from, but you could extend it into the Mushroom Kingdom as well. Mario could now live in a New Super Mario World which is similar to the original, but just a little off. Or has this process have been occurring for much longer? Has the Super Mario universe been resetting itself between every Super Mario game, creating new, slightly varied worlds with each iteration? Some where Mario is 2D, some where he’s 3D, or some where he’s an RPG character made of paper?
It’s like I said – gaming post-apocalypses are super weird.
Next week, we’ll be back with a Call of Duty review. And no, we don’t mean Black Ops III!
One more thing! Starting the very minute this article is published, I’ll be playing video games for 24 hours to support children’s hospitals. If you think that’s awesome, please consider donating to my efforts at this page and encourage me to stay awake on Twitter!