Crapshoot Special: For The Love Of Crap
Every week, Richard Cobbett rolls the dice to bring you an obscure slice of gaming history, from lost gems to weapons grade atrocities. But not this time. This time... it's time to go behind the scenes.
Ever since I started writing Crapshoot back in 2010, people have wanted to know why. Why spend so much time playing often awful games? Why dig up something that nobody cared about even when it was released, and often for very good reason? The answer is simple:
I get paid to uh... I mean, because it's not just the best games that deserve to be remembered. Something bad might still stand out for its unrealised ambition and cool ideas. Something mediocre can still have one big exciting feature that deserves credit. Decades later, something that once seemed great can suddenly be very silly.
Put simply, Crapshoots aren't about bad games. They're about interesting ones. What makes them interesting enough to bring back into the light? That's what we find out every Saturday...
In fairness though, that's not quite how it started. When we originally came up with the idea to do this column, it was going to be in the UK magazine as a monthly feature, about 400 words long, and focusing specifically on the worst games ever. It seemed like a fun idea, and one with no shortage of potential victims... but the more I thought about it, the less enthusiastic I felt. As fun as a comedy hatchet-job can be, especially when done by someone like The Angry Video Game Nerd, Doug Walker and Spoony, most of the time they end up being unfair for the sake of yuks. Everything has to be the worst game ever; an eye-gouging obscenity against humanity itself that must be smashed up with hammers. Worse, half the time the complaints people make are snap-judgements, things they'd have known better about if they'd read the manual, or just not that big a deal compared to other games that were out at the time. That last one doesn't necessarily excuse problems, but nor does it make Game X the Worst Whatever Ever.
(Oh, and anyone who starts any kind of old game review with some variant of "I really wish I didn't have to do this..." needs a slap. You don't. Quit whining. Play something else if you want to.)
I wasn't in the mood to add to that, at least without cause. Who cares if some platform game from 1991 had bad jumping controls? It's not like anyone's accidentally going to spend £35 on it any more, and it's very rare for a game to still be as offensively bad ten years later as something like, say, Leisure Suit Larry: Box Office Bust was on release. Though I suspect that one will indeed manage it.
By the time we'd decided to make Crap Shoot (as it was then) a web thing, I'd already decided to go in a different direction - to push away stuff like Trespasser and Gotcha Babes X-Treme in favour of lost games that were simply cool to know existed. Traffic Department 2192 came instantly to mind for its awesomely horrible main character - Velasquez, the most toxic heroine in PC history. After that came Darkened Skye - a rubbish platformer, made fun by the war being fought between the designers and their instructions to make a game promoting Skittles sweets. Since then, there's been the good, like Callahan's Crosstime Saloon and Zork: Grand Inquisitor, the bad, as splurted out by Man Enough and Les Manley, and the just plain bizarre, from Harvester to The You Testament. Shudder.
Only playing the big, polished games in your favourite genre is a sad waste of what gaming can do. It's often the smaller games - not necessarily indie - that come up with the best ideas and the most interesting settings, thanks to their creators having more creative freedom to make the game they want. There's also plenty of fun to be had in many games that you'd never usually dream of playing, and even the bad ones can be enjoyable in the same way as kicking back with a really awful b-movie.
("Erotic" games for example usually fail miserably at being sexy... but they can still be hilariously funny. Just look at Lula 3D - one of the most surreal road-trip games ever made. Or Bikini Karate Babes, which actually manages to come across as less sleazy than the average 'serious' beat-em-up by being played purely for laughs. Occasionally, one of them will even be decent in its own right. Playboy: The Mansion for instance was a perfectly respectable strategy game, albeit an embarrassing one to own.)
The problem with going back to old games is that they really, really don't age well. Even the good ones can be painful to play - bad interfaces, the horrors of early 3D titles, the pacing, the reward, and even basic rules that the industry has grown out of. Classic adventure games for instance saw no problem with letting you get into an unwinnable situation by not having picked up a pixel-sized pencil, while a classic RPG designed with the idea that it's fun to map out entire fantasy worlds on graph paper is a tough pill to swallow after years of automaps and objective icons. The saddest thing though is to find out a flaw you never even noticed at the time. Take Realms of the Haunting, a game I'm very fond of, but which is definitely harder to get into when you realise the enemy AI is so bad, the demons you're fighting can't actually get through doors. That plus magic recharging weapons does somewhat dull the horror.
The quirkier something is though, the easier it is to forgive mechanical faults and enjoy it for what it is. It might be a specific gimmick, like Life and Death's medical simulation, or It Came From The Desert's take on interactive movies. It might be that you're too busy going "What the hell?" to even notice, like when Hopkins FBI breaks off its gory adult detective game to have the main character go to Purgatory, escape by stealing a woman's clothes, dressing in drag, and chatting up a male angel.
Sometimes, fun comes from the strangest places. The Doom novels for instance are obviously the worst idea ever - there are four of the things, and the entire series is wrapped up by the end of the second. The sheer craziness of them though makes for an amazing read, with the authors quickly giving up on trying to maintain a dark mood in favour of ripping the piss out of the game. You know the demons? Well, they're not demons in the novels. They're an alien race called Fred, and the entire invasion is just a footnote in something the books themselves describe as "The Galaxy's Most Stupidest War".
On the other side of the spectrum entirely, there's Wing Commander Academy. A Saturday morning cartoon based on Wing Commander? Before watching it, I was sure it was going to suck. Instead, it turned out to be one of the best surprises since I started writing Crap Shoot. Since then, it's been picked up for a DVD release that's due out in the US next month. Definitely worth checking out.
What makes for a good Crapshoot game? There's no specific criteria. I like to find games that people haven't heard of, from Bert Higgins: The Man From HELL to The BlobJob and the awesomely named Tongue of the Fatman, but it's always amusing to see how many other folks actually remember them. They have to offer more than simple obscurity though, and there are many that have been sidelined over the years simply because they didn't offer any real hook.
Most of the time, simple arcade games are out for the same reason - there's just not much to say about them. There are exceptions, like with Mega Man and Dalek Attack, but usually relating to something wider than the game itself - a franchise, or one feature that nobody else has done before. Like Wrecked, the crazy anti-drugs edutainment platformer that used real-world drugs as power-ups. Yes, really.
Flicking through the archives, you can probably tell that my favourites games are the ones that tell interesting stories - especially the ones that take something that sounds fairly run of the mill and then go absolutely crazy. Leisure Suit Larry 2 for instance. The first game was about him trying to lose his virginity in a sleazy gambling town. This one was about being chased round the world by the KGB, and ended with fighting a supervillain in his evil volcano lair. And in other bits, it got even sillier!
Long-form write-ups started back with Leather Goddesses of Phobos because it seemed like a good idea and I've always reading sites like Agony Booth and Jabootu for movies. I don't always have the time to do them for games, but they're often fun to do - especially when taking it over the top in write-ups like The Princess Bride or The Unicorn Killer. Definitely won't be doing another Les Miserables in a hurry though. Top writing tip: Never be amused by a tricky idea at 11AM if you plan to get any sleep.
What's coming up in the next few weeks? Oooh, lots of great stuff - some good, some bad, some just plain weird. I'm always open to suggestions though - either in comments, by mail, or Twitter. I certainly haven't played every obscure game out there, and a pointer or reminder of something cool never goes amiss. There's at least one reader-suggested game-related movie on the list at the moment which I've been putting off watching, and several previous subjects have been chosen as a result of just chatting about them. Maniac Mansion for instance, and the mandatory capitals of NITRO FAMILY!
There are currently 75 Crapshoots to read, enjoy, and say tl;dr about. Browse them all here, and with the 'Crap Shoot' tag at the end of each article. As long as people keep reading them. And remember - if you enjoy one, we're always grateful when you hit the Facebook Like, Tweet or Google +1 button to share the love. The bigger those numbers get, the sexier your armpits will smell. (We call it the "Links Effect.")
See you on Saturday for the next one, around 10AM GMT or whenever you get out of bed. Will it be good, bad or just plain weird? You'll have to wait and see... mostly because I haven't decided yet.
But it probably won't be this, one of the first PC games I ever played. This one speaks for itself.
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