Rumour has it there is a site somewhere in New Mexico where you could once find definitive proof of ET. This hallowed ground is not Area 51 but a former landfill site that until recently contained truckloads of unsold cartridges of ET: The Extra Terrestrial, the video game that spectacularly bombed when it was released 35 years ago in December 1982.
Huge numbers of copies of this game were sent back because consumers found the game so unenjoyable. This was all that could be said for a much-anticipated movie tie-in that the designers only bothered to spend five weeks coding. It has since been dubbed the “worst video game in history” and cited as the catalyst for the 1983 US games industry crash.
You’ve probably gathered this is a game legendary for its stupendous disappointment. But it is not alone. Since ET’s release at the start of the home video game era, there have been many, many turgid offerings. Let us take a quick wade through the cesspool of gaming history and see what specimens we can find. Perhaps they’ll teach us something about what counts as good game design – and what doesn’t.
What’s that brushing past my leg? Ah, yes, it’s a copy of Catfight. This act of politically correct genius was touted as “the ultimate female fighting game”. Not so, suggested GameSpot, who made it another contender for “the worst game ever”, and that’s saying something, given what we know about ET.
If the inherent sexism wasn’t bad enough, the game came in for harsh criticism due to its low-quality graphics, unresponsive controls, and poor quality music and sound effects. In particular, it was accompanied by an annoying heavy metal soundtrack that couldn’t be turned off due to a poor options menu. There was even a difficulty setting that caused opponents to do nothing.
Superman Returns (2006)
Bubbling up behind it is Superman Returns, another movie tie-in for the film of the same name. This should have been a game you played as the Man of Steel, able to fly anywhere and show off your superpowers. In reality, Superman Returns is what would happen if the eponymous hero woke up as Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, cursed to repeat the same day over and over again.
On top of the near endless repetition, there wasn’t even a satisfying end-of-game boss battle. Instead, all that happens is that you fight a tornado (meteorological, not the aeroplane) and you’re then left to face the same villains again and again, ad infinitum. A superlatively dull game.
Assassins Creed 3 (2012)
Stalking in the stinking shadows is Assassins Creed 3. Up until this game was released, I felt the franchise was perfect. But this had to end sooner or later. From the very beginning of this game, it was like you’d been placed in a minefield of cut scenes. No matter which direction you walked in, a cut scene just seemed to explode into being. I don’t know about you but I like to play video games. If I want to watch a movie, I’ll browse Netflix.
Kinect Star Wars (2012)
My boot has just connected with something. Oh no, not Kinect Star Wars. This title was the much-awaited Jedi game for the motion-capture console Microsoft Kinect. Sadly, the end result just turned out to be a set of ill linked mini games. And because you didn’t actually have to physically hold a controller, there was none of the anticipated sense of wielding a lightsaber. The rotting cherry on the souring and mouldy cake was the Galactic Dance-off. Watching your favourite Star Wars characters pantomime dance moves for the player was just one rubbish idea too far.
Death Stranding (2018)
As I try to pull my wellies free from the all-consuming suction of crap game history, let us end on a prediction. It relates to the much-anticipated Death Stranding, due for release some time in 2018 and designed by Hideo Kojima of Metal Gear Solid fame. If you look at the trailers for this game, they literally make no sense. There is nothing that can be gleaned from these previews, which consist of people randomly floating into the air, and some people in the same scene not doing so. There are babies being carried around in bottles, invisible creatures, entire scenes shifting from being underwater to instantly being on dry land.
What’s more, when the designer first tried to describe this game to his team, nobody got it. When he tried to explain the plot to actor Mads Mikkelsen, who will play the main antagonist, he didn’t get it. Nobody who has played the game during its development phase seems to have any idea what it’s about.
Now, if you’re like me and believe that good design is all about good communication, then you’ll probably see where this game is going to end up in gaming history. But who knows? Perhaps Death Stranding’s heavy reliance on well-known celebrity talent will help keep its toes out of the bog of eternal stench. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
Craig Weightman, Lecturer in Games and Visual Effects, Staffordshire University.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.