Our favorite bad games, and why the idea of a bad game is silly
It was during a recent outing to an arcade with my son, and consquently tag-teaming our way through the classic six-person X-Men brawler, that I realized two things. The first thing was that I still loved the game. I enjoyed arguing about which character was the best, even though I know the answer is Nightcrawler first, and then Wolverine. I enjoyed kicking the shit out of the Sentinels, and bosses like Pyro or the Blob.
My son and I had been watching the '90s cartoon via Netflix, so we were sharing our love of a very specific time in X-Men fandom. For me it was nostalgia, for him it was just a good time.
The second thing I realized was that by all accounts the X-Men arcade game is bad. It's boring, it's cheap, it's designed to get you to pump quarter after quarter in to play, and there's not much to love outside of the licensed characters. I love the game today because it makes me remember playing it when I was younger, and I enjoy playing games with my son, and I still have a soft-spot for '90s-era X-Men characters. My love had next to nothing to do with the game itself, which is rather abysmal.
It's also worth thinking about what it was like to play and enjoy games before everything was reviewed on its first day of release, when you might have read about a game in a magazine, but you most likely went into arcades blind. We didn't worry about Metacritic scores back then, and we certainly didn't skip games due to some lame critical consensus. We went with our gut, and sometimes they meant falling in love with games that everyone else considered terrible. In many ways it was a better time for it, we just played what we liked, and damn the torpedoes.
So Sophie, I gotta know: what bad games do you love?
Sophie's best (of the worst)
Allow me to preface this with the disclaimer that none of the games I'm about to list are actually bad, you just don't “get” them like I do. *hipster glasses* Okay, I'm totally not serious about that. I realize these games aren't exactly the cream of the virtual crop. Here are just a few of my favorites:
- Star Wars: The Force Unleashed
- Star Wars: Masters of Teras Kasi
- Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy
- Star Wars Galaxies
- Star Wars: Bounty Hunter
- Dead or Alive Xtreme 2
- Velvet Assassin
- Robocop vs Terminator
Okay, so let's look at some trends within this list: we have the guilty pleasure/pervert game that I totally swear I like ironically, because no really, let's just not talk about this anymore, the crossover-fanfic-made-real game, a poor man's (or woman's) Metal Gear Solid, and then five Star Wars games. Gee, I wonder what's going on here.
While it may seem that I'm just playing to personal preferences, I'm actually utilizing and showcasing an important aspect of nostalgia, and liking “bad” games: prioritizing. Like it or not, we all prioritize different qualities of different games. I may be willing to give up solid stealth mechanics for the chance to play as a female character, or I may be willing to give up my dignity to admit that yeah, okay, I probably find Hitomi a little too attractive for a fictional character. In the case of Star Wars, well… I really like Star Wars.
Ben, do you think it's okay to let favoritism of a brand or IP affect how we view games?
I used to call games that were licensed, terrible, but sold well “Bruces,” because of that horrible Jaws video game that did so well. The shark in Jaws, by the way, was named “Bruce.” I think we all have a Bruce or two in our collection.
The other aspect of loving bad games is that you didn't have much choice when you were growing up. I would get a new game or two at Christmas, another for my birthday and that was it. If you were stuck with a stinker, you made do. I was just so happy to be playing games at all I don't think it mattered, which led to me mastering some truly hideous games.
Remember the NES Karate Kid game? I can grab all the flies with the chopsticks, on the first attempt, every time. I can beat that shit in one life, while doing all the optional mini-games. This didn't feel like grinding at the time, I was just playing the video games I had around the house.
I really enjoyed Enter the Matrix, and had fun playing the hacking minigame, although by any rational metric that game was garbage. There was an Xbox title called Breakdown that was played completely in the first-person view. That doesn't seem weird, but everything was in first person. If you got punched, the camera moved with your head. If your character threw up, you had to watch. It was an attempt at realism, it was dizzying, but man I thought it was great. Breakdown for life.
Then there was Zombie Revenge for the Dreamcast, a game my friends and I played obsessively. I knew where all the special weapons were, and I enjoyed how weirdly everyone in the game delivered their lines. It wasn't that English was their second language as much as it seemed like they were learning each line phonetically. The pauses were in the wrong place. I can still call one of my friends and say “South Union Railway. Terminal…. CASSANDRA!” I have no clue what they were talking about, but man that line was delivered with some gravitas.
Sophie's final thoughts
I know some people will say that liking bad games makes me part of the problem. We need to “vote with our wallets” and all that, and buying sub-par games that skirt by on brand recognition - which, as you can see in my above list, is clearly the case - isn't helping anyone. Ever the defiant optimist, I'll offer an alternative view: without supporting the sub-par games, developers never get a chance to do things right the next time around.
Sure, sometimes that philosophy bites me in the ass - notice I don't have Force Unleashed II up in my list - but sometimes I can only wonder: what if such-and-such game had received more commercial support? Sure it wasn't perfect, but could early support have helped the title evolve?
I'm not-so-subtly talking about Star Wars Galaxies here. SWG, without question, is my favorite game of all-time. I have thought about this for hours, days, and weeks, and I always come back to it. There simply was not, nor has there been since, a game that was as ambitious as Galaxies, nor has there been a game that achieved its goals so completely. SWG was not perfectly balanced, it lacked structure, and endgame content was practically non-existent. However, it gave players a home in the Star Wars universe, and it felt like home. It was, to use a buzzword every self-respecting journalist hates, immersive. I will go so far as to say it is the most immersive game I have ever played.
Problem is, it was up against the behemoth that is World of Warcraft, and the Galaxies playerbase paled in comparison. Remember that this was back when subscription model was king, and it was thus very easy to label a game a failure if its subcribers didn't measure up to the competition. The game was eventually restructured to feel more like Blizzard's fantasy MMO, and I have always wondered what would have happened if the situation had been reversed. Would WoW have implemented non-instanced player housing? Would they have ditched the MMORPG holy trinity of tank, heals, DPS? Galaxies isn't the only game I wonder about.
What would have happened if Heavenly Sword had sold better? Beyond Good & Evil? Mirror's Edge? These games aren't perfect - in fact, some of them get downright broken at times. But I can tell you now I'm happy to have bought all of them, and I'd do so again if it meant that the development teams could get another crack at the game, another chance to do things right. So yes, I'll buy “bad” games, and I'll display them proudly. I'll play them, and recommend them, and buy HD re-releases, because I believe perfection doesn't come the first time around, and I'm happy to tell developers, “I see promise here. I want you to keep going with this.”
Ben wraps it up
I think we almost need to rethink the idea of “good” and “bad” games. Sure we get paid to talk about games and give some critical thought to what they're trying to do, but I used to work in a retail video game store before anyone paid me to write, and people bought atrocious stuff, and then came back in later to say how much they were enjoying it.
Did I find those games to be bad? Definitely. Was I happy someone was enjoying them? Definitely. It's kind of presumptuous to get in someone's face and try to convince them that they shouldn't be having fun because you don't like a game, even if you can speak in detail about why it's bad. It's like trying to tell someone the movie they're laughing at isn't funny. Sure, you can try, but the person is laughing. Why be a dick about it?
Sometimes people get aggressive when they like a game I gave a poor review to, but my answer is always the same: I'm glad they're having a good time. That's why we like this hobby, right? To have a good time. So as long as you're enjoying your bad games, and you're getting something out of them, and you're having a good time… the game may, in fact, be perfectly okay.