The holidays are almost over, and with their imminent end, the flood of AAA releases has slowed to a trickle. You’ve had your quota of genuine gaming fun this season. Now toss aside your Gears of War 2, Mirror’s Edge and Grand Theft Auto IV discs for a few hours and discover the delightful amusements of cringe gaming.
Sure, you could watch an hour-long episode of American Idol, reveling in the awfulness and total absence of tonal (and, for that matter, emotional) stability of the early contestants. But why not get this kind of guilty pleasure from a terrible videogame? We can watch bad movies, listen to atrocious music and tune in to awful reality TV with the ferocious gusto of a disaster tourist speeding his car towards the site of an airline crash. The same should be possible for videogames.
My first experience with cringe gaming was the PlayStation 2 version of Miami Vice, which I picked up a few years ago in the bargain bin at my local game store. The ’80s cop show on which the game is based is a guilty pleasure in itself: The pastel universe of its first two seasons became, along with Huey Lewis and the News, one of the main sources of ’80s ridicule. But the videogame, launched 15 years after the finale of the TV series, took it a step further. It failed to recreate the signature pastel universe, overdid the colors and made the game look like Miami Vice reimagined by Andy Warhol. Then there were the inconsistent camera angles, the terribly MIDI-fied version of Jan Hammer’s title score and any number of badly synchronized, badly acted cut scenes.
But these flaws didn’t make me throw away the game. In fact, I kept playing it almost all the way to the end, gleefuly counting its faults. It made me wonder: Could a worse game ever have been made? Is Miami Vice the greatest gaming atrocity of all time? I turned to Metacritic.com for answers. The site smartly adds up every review score, converts them to a percentage and churns out a weighted average.
It turns out that Miami Vice, with a Metacritic score of 27 percent, was far from the lousiest game in recent history. It was beaten to the punch by a dozen other substandard products, bottoming out at a score of only eight percent. Many games in what I started calling the “Cellar of Shame” were tie-ins to movies and television shows; there is, for instance, a Nintendo Wii game based on the “Extreme Ping Pong” movie Balls of Fury (19 percent), a sorry excuse for a game based on the British comedy series Little Britain (tied with Balls of Fury) and a god-awful DS game of the even more dreadful TV game show Deal or No Deal (17 percent).
In these cases, one can argue it wasn’t entirely the developers’ fault. Most tie-ins are made on a limited budget with way too little development time, and are primarily sold as trivial merchandise rather than genuine products. Under these circumstances, it’s hardly surprising when licensed games hit store shelves and fail to deliver.
Some games in the Cellar of Shame, however, are the product of good intentions gone horribly wrong. Take the PC game NRA Varmint Hunter, launched in 2004 by the now-defunct American publisher ISE Games. Sponsored by the National Rifle Association to promote safe firearm use, the game featured a painstaking procedure just to reload a gun, and didn’t even offer players the ability to move. “NRA Varmint Hunter proves that some videogames can be outclassed by potatoes,” wrote review site IGN. It became the third-worst game in recent history, with a Metacritic score of 16 percent.
Bad gameplay was also the most common charge levied against Navy SEALs: Weapons of Mass Destruction, a game released in 2003 by THQ’s shovelware subsidiary ValuSoft that earned a Metacritic rate of 18 percent. “As you’re chucking the box, notice how wonderful it feels to be able to aim properly; and as it hits the trash can with a satisfying clunk, you can be assured that you’ve just experienced the height of its realism,” wrote PC Gamer.
In other cases, there’s something wrong with the motivations of both the publisher and the developer. Earning a Metacritic score of 20 percent, the 2007 Nintendo Wii game Ninjabread Man was an exercise in laziness and self-delusion. It’s a platform game featuring, as the title suggests, a gingerbread ninja. Ninjabread Man included only three levels, but its makers decided to up the long-term playability by making these three levels abominably hard and adding four gameplay modes which were required to finish the game. You can also question the sanity of the developers behind Yaris, a free Xbox Live Arcade game released in 2007 that earned a Metacritic score of 17 percent. It was supposed to be an advergame promoting the new Toyota Yaris model, but the developers decided to spice up the mundane racing action by adding a gun turret.
A crappy Metacritic score can also be the result of a bad business decision. This seems to be the case with the 2005 DS title Elf Bowling 1 & 2, a collection of two freely released PC games sold at full price in your local videogame store. The game landed a measly Metacritic mark of 12 percent, making it the second-lousiest video game in recent history. Review site Modojo.com, awarding the game a generous 20 percent score, called it “a game promising holiday cheer and instead visiting the reindeer stalls and giving you the content.”
What exactly went wrong here? What are the fundamental mechanics behind a shameful excuse for a videogame? Why do projects stay greenlit, even if the budget, the early test versions and the scheduled development time all point to the obvious conclusion that a release would merely provoke the disgust and ridicule of an eager army of reviewers? I got no answers from the developers behind these games, several of whom I fruitlessly contacted. I could only surmise that the pain of being savaged by the critics and the public runs very, very deep. “Do you kick people when they fall over?” replied Matt Falcus of Atomic Planet Entertainment, the development studio behind the Miami Vice game, to a kind and diplomatic e-mail.
It’s often impossible to point out a single element behind the failure of a game. Instead, it’s typically a combination of reasons, and most of them are intertwined. Lack of budget means shorter time-to-market and less talented people on the development team. Bad ideas forced upon a reluctant team create unmotivated developers, rushing the production in the hopes of a more sensible follow up. No one makes bad games on purpose.
But some developers seem to try. I’d wager the American studio Stellar Stone made an intentional effort toward this end in 2003 when it released its PC game Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing through a budget subsidiary of Activision. It succeeded in becoming the worst videogame since Metacritic’s inception in 1999, with a score of eight percent. The developers of the game failed to incorporate the single most basic element in any videogame since the days of Spacewar! and Pong: collision detection. You can drive your truck through any object in the scenery without encountering any resistance. You can even drive your truck up a mountain!
Big Rigs has a prominent place in my videogame collection and is now my primary stop for some serious cringe gaming. You should try it for yourself: It’s hilariously miserable. It’s the videogame equivalent of cringe classics in other media like The Simple Life or Caddyshack II. And there’s more on the way: Stellar Stone notes on its website that it’s working on an online multiplayer version of Big Rigs, along with E.T. Online 2, a sequel to a failed MMOG based on the de facto worst game of all time: the Atari 2600 game E.T. If it’s good enough to fill a New Mexico landfill, it should provide a lifetime’s worth of cringeworthy moments.
Ronald Meeus ([email protected]) has no taste whatsoever in videogames.