Hey, I knew what I was doing. I can’t claim ignorance, and I’ll never claim innocence. Someone offered me a preview copy of Ninja Gaiden 3, so I took it, fully aware that it sucked. I played the demo at E3. I spoke to people whose opinions I trusted. I listened to my razor-sharp instincts and my not-so-sharp gut. Lo and behold, every single warning sign turned out to be dead on. Ninja Gaiden 3 is a travesty.
I play bad videogames. On purpose. And so should you.
But I don’t regret playing it for a moment, because I occasionally play bad videogames. On purpose. And so should you.
To be clear, I’m not talking about a game you dislike contrary to popular opinion. If you have issues with Halo, BioShock, Call of Duty, or Uncharted, that’s fine, but you’re looking way too high up on the list. This requires a degree of premeditation, so anything that invokes a sense of crushing disappointment doesn’t count. Instead, gravitate towards the negative hype. Find something that couldn’t break a 60 on MetaCritic. Locate a game that made people abandon God. Know exactly what you’re getting into, and throw that sucker on with your low expectations locked and loaded.
Normally, as a critic, I spend a lot of time steering people away from such things. Now I’m aiming you straight at the garbage heap and telling you it’s vital to your education as a human and a gamer. Here’s why: You don’t know what you’re missing.
I mean that literally. Without a proper frame of reference, odds are you don’t see certain details, and you should.
Back in 2010, I snapped up a dreary little downloadable called Hydrophobia and found out just how many bad decisions you can crowbar into a seven-hour cliché. Developer Dark Energy Digital essentially created an engine that realistically modeled fluid dynamics, and then built a game around it … minus any other good ideas or, apparently, a working knowledge of modern game design. The consistency was hypnotic. Everything felt off, including (but not limited to) a curiously vague HUD, mandatory fetch-quests to find invisible clues, and ineffective stun-gun combat that made me want to shoot myself.
My personal favorite? A control map best described as the kind of experiment that disproves a theory, with in-game actions haphazardly assigned to random buttons. As an added bonus, pressing anything gave you a stuck-in-glue level of response.
But here’s the thing: If that exact same game had released back in the early ’90s – say, on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System – it would’ve been a groundbreaking title, 10 out of 10 on its technical achievements alone. Not because 20 years’ difference would’ve magically fixed all Hydrophobia‘s problems, but because nobody would’ve recognized them as problems.
As-is, it came out the same month as Halo: Reach. The month after, I played Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. Experience with better games instantly exposed all Hydrophobia‘s flaws, but its mistakes also informed what those other games did right with far more clarity than if I’d spent all my time playing top-rated titles.
We judge games on a lot of criteria: graphics, controls, gameplay design, level design, mission design, story, writing, acting, and setting, balance, length, replayability, general awesomeness. When the action flows just right, we’re generally too busy ripping through the zombie apocalypse or rescuing princesses to recognize small elements working together to entertain us as one amazing whole. No, we focus on enemies to destroy, puzzles to solve, environments to navigate. We don’t often spend a lot of time dwelling on why we’re enjoying ourselves.
But when something goes wrong, we definitely notice.
That’s one reason you see you see a lot of opinions polarized between gushing “It’s so awesome!” praise and flat “It sucks!” denouncements. Small wonder the industry regards a 7.5 review score as a failure; a fun/no fun response simply doesn’t allow for a lot of nuanced middle ground. But that’s exactly what we need more of.
How many times have you seen someone say “The shooting’s great!” as the first and last word on a first-person shooter? Do you even know what that actually means? Because absent any explanations beyond “great,” I sure as hell don’t. I do believe that’s their honest opinion, but I also tend wonder if maybe they’re guessing a little. They liked it, but they can’t nail down any specifics.
So play a bad game. On purpose. They really aren’t tough to find.
Once you commit to the process, you’ll gain an entirely new perspective on life. For starters, you don’t have to waste any time judging this thing on its merits. It doesn’t have any merits; you knew that going in. Oh, you’ll try to enjoy it. That’ll lead to some frustration and mental anguish, but just remind yourself that you don’t actually want it to impress you. That’s not its function. When you finally give up all your hope, you can concentrate on what’s really important: why it’s bad.
It’s easy (and yes, fun) to analyze an obvious mistake — why it’s wrong, how it happened, what would correct it.
Want to see just how good the shooting is in a game? Start by drilling into a few more recent examples where the shooting goes horribly wrong:
- Legendary, a 2008 misstep, casts you as a rat-faced thief who accidentally cracks open Pandora’s box, pitting you against a whole circus of mythological creatures. And werewolves. And a few things they just made up. So it might’ve been nice if your gun’s muzzle flash didn’t completely obscure the screen when aiming down the sights, pretty much defeating the purpose of aiming down the sights.
- Bodycount – a soulless spiritual sequel to style-over-substance shooter Black – throws off even more mixed signals with its iron-sights aiming. Close in, and your barrel swoops right by your reticule, momentarily fooling the eye on which guide you’re supposed to use. And in keeping with the game’s overall generic feel, that reticule doesn’t even feature real crosshairs so much as a general region where the bullets will probably go.
- Rogue Warrior, starring former SEAL Team Six commander-turned-fictional character Richard “Demo Dick” Marcinko, took a Las Vegas view of ballistic science. Some enemies went down with a single shot. Others made you rip through half your ammo regardless of where you hit them. Either way, pulling the trigger was more like shooting craps than Communists. Meanwhile, the opposition’s bullets magically phased through Dickie’s cover to shred his vital organs.
Now compare those to Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. The shooting in Modern Warfare is great because the targeting feels tight and accurate, guns inflict damage consistently, and when hit, enemies react in predicable, desirable ways. And it’s all tied to the appealing (thought admittedly subjective) tactile feel of the weapons and their beefy sound effects. It delivers on the very premise of a first-person shooter not simply by avoiding those other games’ missteps, but by setting down rules that meet or exceed a player’s expectations and sticking to them religiously.
When you start noticing those differences, you’ll start seeing everything good games do that bad ones miss. Enemy placement and number. Mission variety. Pacing and flow. The invisible pieces that make a game truly memorable.
I always go back to “The Bog,” a level in Modern Warfare that seamlessly shifts between four vastly different scenarios. You storm a militant-held building under heavy fire, then sweep it in pitch darkness, then defend it against waves of attackers and enemy tanks. Finally, you move out into an open field to defend a stuck-in-the-mud tank against all comers. And those comers just keep coming.
Every stage gives you the constant impression you’re five seconds away from being totally overwhelmed. Enemies appear in exact locations, in exact numbers, to keep serious pressure on you without ever making it impossible to prevail. The design is that precise. By comparison, Legendary relies heavily on locking you in a room and throwing never-ending monsters at you until you mystically power Item X with dead monster energy. Good luck finding something lazier from any perspective you care to apply.
But that’s the big reason I play bad games, beyond any masochistic urges. It’s easy (and yes, fun) to analyze an obvious mistake – why it’s wrong, how it happened, what would correct it. And when I apply those observations to great games, I appreciate what they do and how they do it more than ever.
I encourage you to do the same. Pick the bottom-feeder of your choice and bring it home as an honored guest. Don’t feel obligated to finish it, and for the love of Benji, don’t buy the damn thing, even if you can scrape it from the bottom of a Wal-Mart dollar bin. Do nothing to encourage these developers any more than humanly necessary. Rent it or, if possible, borrow it from a friend they suckered in with the sweet lure of pre-order bonuses … the sole purpose of which is to bypass reviewers. But they won’t bypass you, your hyper-critical eye, or your scientific mission to pick that game apart without mercy.
Get it. Play it. Hate it. Figure out exactly why you hate it. Then go play a Game of the Year contender, or even something in the mid-range. Trust me, you’ll love yourself for it.
Rus McLaughlin has written for Ubisoft, Electronic Arts, Square Enix, GamePro, Bitmob, GamesBeat, Electronic Gaming Monthly, and IGN. Follow Rus on Twitter.