The 10 Worst Games of All Time

Artwork: Chip Taylor
It's rare that a top-ten list--or more precisely, a bottom-ten list--leads to philosophical questions. But that's exactly what happened when my editor asked me to write about the worst video games ever. As I started to think about particularly atrocious games I'd played over the past quarter-century or so, I realized that each one was bad for an entirely different set of reasons.

So what, precisely, makes a game terrible? To help answer that vital question, I turned to the game fans at PC World, as well as to my family and friends, and even a few enemies. They responded with multiple answers, as well as scads of nominees for our list of the all-time worst.

Some titles had rotten game play. Some were a waste of considerable potential. Others led you to question the very reason for their existence, or at least what their creators were smoking. The worst of the worst managed to fit into two or more of these categories.

After sifting through the nominees and reliving memories of games that I'd long since suppressed [Note to my editor: Please see the therapy bills attached to my expense report], I came up with ten clunkers that span the range of different kinds of bad, plus an additional seven dishonorable mentions. The list includes games from 1976 straight through to the modern era--no platform, it seems, is immune to crumminess. (Keep that in mind when you drop a few hundred bucks on an Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, or Wii.)

I ranked the ten worst games using a complex, highly scientific series of factors, looking for lousy playability, crude aesthetics, executive or developer cluelessness, half-baked concepts, and overall negative impact on humanity; I also considered how many unprintable comments I received about a particular title. Hold your nose: Here comes the number one stinker.

Number 1: The Worst Game of All Time

1. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (Atari, 1982)

Platform: Atari 2600

About a third of the people I quizzed came up with this title almost instantly, and it's not hard to see why. No matter how you rate it, E.T. was a misbegotten product that deserved to be buried. (And, as things turned out, it was. More on that in a minute.)

How, you may wonder, does someone screw up the one-two punch of the year's most popular movie and the number one video game console? Through a combination of poor planning and unbridled optimism. Warner Communications, then Atari's parent company, sealed the deal to make a video game adaptation of the blockbuster movie in the summer of 1982, aiming to have the cartridge out for the Christmas shopping season. (Remember the TV ad, with E.T. in a Santa outfit? No? You can refresh your memory.) The result was a severely compressed development schedule, giving programmer Howard Scott Warshaw a mere five weeks to pull the game together.

Then corporate hubris entered the mix: With the expectation of runaway sales, Atari produced 4 million cartridges.

Unfortunately for Atari--and the collective psyche of anyone who ended up buying the cartridge--the rushed development was apparent on the screen. Everyone I spoke to who singled out particular gripes mentioned the pits that the player, as E.T., fell into and would then have to slowly levitate out of, which led to horrendously monotonous game play. None of the qualitative comments I received about the game are printable, except for one: "Famously bad."

Atari's big gamble didn't pay off. Less than 40 percent of the cartridges sold, one of the major financial blows that resulted in Atari's bankruptcy in 1984.

Amazingly, E.T.'s story doesn't end there. In 1983, faced with literally millions of unsold and returned E.T. games added to its already sizeable inventory of unusable cartridges, Atari opted for an environmentally unfriendly (some would say downright hostile) solution: The company dumped them into a city landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico, where they were crushed, buried, and later covered in a layer of cement. The incident was reported in the New York Times and prompted protests and legislation from city officials.

Numbers 2 and 3

2. Super Columbine Massacre RPG (Danny Ledonne, 2005)

Platform: Windows

Do violent video games inspire horrific, violent acts in the real world? No one really knows for sure. Do horrific, violent acts in the real world inspire violent video games? Absolutely.

One of the most recent, Super Columbine Massacre RPG (or SCMRPG), re-created Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold's 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, from the perspective of the two disturbed teenagers. Deriving the game's content largely from video footage of the events, the pair's diaries, and quotes from various media figures, creator Danny Ledonne strove for a certain level of verisimilitude--though the part of the game where Harris and Klebold find themselves embarking on further adventures in Hell after their suicides is, presumably, conjecture.

Like the developers of JFK Reloaded, another re-creation of a historic murder, the creator of SCMRPG claimed lofty aims. On his Web site--whose illegible look (blue and red text on a black background) is some sort of crime against good design itself--Ledonne says the game "asks more of its audience than rudimentary button-pushing and map navigation; it implores introspection." The site also links to press coverage of the game (typical example: the Denver Post's "Columbine Game Makes Us Ill") and a forum for discussion of the game and the actual shootings.

Whether Ledonne's site has any constructive value whatsoever is still up in the air. But as a game, Super Columbine Massacre RPG is appalling.

3. Custer's Revenge (Mystique, 1982)

Platform: Atari 2600

I can just imagine what they were thinking over at game company Mystique: Create an adults-only game under a well-known porn brand (Swedish Erotica) for a platform known for family-friendly titles (Atari 2600). Sex, novelty, and, hopefully, a touch of scandal should make for runaway success, right?

Well, no--not if one of your releases is Custer's Revenge, starring a mostly naked General Custer (he wore boots and a hat) and a mostly naked Native American woman (she wore a feathered headband), who is tied to a post. Your job was to guide Custer through a hail of arrows and a field of cacti to reach the woman and engage in the type of behavior one expects in a Swedish Erotica production.

Not only was game play unnecessarily difficult and the objective questionable on multiple levels, but the game's crude graphics gave the impression that your Lego collection was getting freaky.

In recent years, some games (most notably, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas) have pushed the raciness envelope further than most people could have imagined 24 years ago. That may or may not be a good thing, but at least the graphics and game mechanics have gotten a heck of a lot better.

Numbers 4 and 5

4. Daikatana (Eidos Interactive, 2000)

Platforms: Windows, Nintendo 64, GameCube

Sometimes ambitious projects are badly underplanned. I get that. And sometimes you end up with a little release-date slippage. I get that too. And sometimes the end result isn't quite what was expected. I definitely get that.

But in several respects, Daikatana set a new standard for gaming misfires. Legendary developer John Romero planned to top his earlier work on Doom and Quake by creating a first-person shooter with unprecedented game play and design. When work started in 1997, Romero expected the 24-level game, featuring a time-traveling storyline, to be done in about seven months. Those seven months became three years, with the most notable delay being the midproduction switch to a different game engine.

Little of that would have mattered if the game was any fun. Many of the people I spoke to listed this game as one of their personal worsts without hesitation, citing its stunning mediocrity. Some were also dismayed at the stereotypical nature of the characters, including that of an African-American man named Superfly Johnson. (One of the game designers defended Superfly in a 2002 Salon article.)

Considering the string of unimpressive demos released at various stages of production, maybe the end result shouldn't have been surprising. And considering the $25 million spent on development in the first two years ... well, let's just say that no one got what they paid for.

5. Pac-Man (Atari, 1981)

Platform: Atari 2600

Worst. Port. Ever.

When I was growing up in Montreal in the early 1980s, getting Atari games was something of a challenge--they simply weren't as readily available as in the United States, and the ones that did make it up here usually arrived at a later date. But I wanted--no, I needed to have the highly anticipated home version of Pac-Man, the hottest arcade game of its era. So on the Saturday after it came out, my family got into the car and drove 2 hours across the border to Vermont.

When we returned home, my best friend and fellow Atari disciple came over to witness the unveiling--and we were greeted by several degrees of awfulness. Nothing about this game looked, sounded, or felt the same as the arcade version; even Pac-Man himself wasn't his usual pie-with-a-slice-missing shape, and his trademark "wakka wakka wakka" had become a grating "bonk bonk bonk." The ghosts shimmered in and out of existence (like, er, ghosts), owing to the 2600's limited graphics capabilities. What should have been little white power pellets looked like stale Twinkies.

I went on to master the game because I owned it and therefore felt an obligation to do so, but I felt unclean every time I started it up. (The following year Atari released a vastly better home version of Pac-Man for the Atari 400 and 800 computer systems, but it still didn't make up for the company's earlier travesty.)

The 1981 Pac-Man gets a few more points on our badness scale for company arrogance: It seems that Atari figured that the mere thought of having Pac-Man at home would motivate people to buy consoles, as 12 million cartridges were manufactured--even though only around 10 million Atari 2600 consoles existed.

Numbers 6 and 7

6. Smurf Rescue (Coleco, 1982)

Platforms: ColecoVision, Atari 2600

In 1982, the Smurfs ruled the Saturday-morning airwaves, and we Atari 2600 owners looked on with jealousy as the white-hot property made its debut on the ColecoVision. By the time the game was ported to the 2600, we didn't want any part of it. If you were a kid who loved the Hanna-Barbera cartoon's cuteness, you'd find none of it in the game. And if you were a comics fan who knew that the cartoons were based on a clever Belgian comic strip, you'd be equally disappointed.

Your Smurf, on a quest to rescue the lovely Smurfette, walked through scrolling scenery (apparently the peril wasn't that great, as your character's pace was pretty leisurely) from the village to Gargamel's castle, jumping over obstacles. However, the journey required the patience of a saint, as being just a little off--say, accidentally nicking the very edge of a weed--would instantly send your Smurf to his death.

One shudders to imagine what Peyo, the creator of the Smurfs, thought of the game's not-so-secret Easter egg: Briefly backtracking from the last screen would result in Smurfette's clothes disappearing. Soft porn in a product aimed at little kids? That's offensive. But not as offensive as Smurf Rescue's obnoxious game play.

7. Shaq Fu (Electronic Arts, 1994)

Platforms: Sega Game Gear, Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, Amiga, Game Boy

Games have a long history of celebrity tie-ins, especially for sports figures, going at least as far back as 1984's Dr. J and Larry Bird Go One on One. Most such titles, however, actually have something to do with the celebrity's real-life skills. Like later Shaquille O'Neal movie spin-offs that cast him as far away from being a basketball player as possible--he was a genie in Kazaam, then a superhero in Steel--Shaq Fu gave only a cursory nod to basketball, instead putting Shaq in another dimension and having him use mystical martial arts to rescue a young boy. (If you had concerns about his fighting skills, you could also play as any of the six or seven other characters--but then, why call it Shaq Fu?)

Released during the fighting-game craze, Shaq Fu looked pretty much like Mortal Kombat or any of the other such offerings out back then. At the time, I tried my hand at Shaq Fu on a whim, and found it was too finicky for all but the most patient gamers: You had to hit your opponent in exactly the right spot to do any damage. Combined with the absurdity of Shaq fighting evil in his basketball uniform, it was too much for me.

In the course of my research, I learned that Shaq Fu also came with a CD single from Shaq's similarly titled rap album. Oh, the pain.

Numbers 8, 9, and 10

8. Make My Video (Digital Pictures, 1992)

Make My Video
Platform: Sega CD

If you were an aspiring music video director, you could play one of these games, featuring early-1990s acts Marky Mark (better known today as Mark Wahlberg) and the Funky Bunch, Kriss Kross, and C+C Music Factory, as well as Australian rockers INXS, and create videos using built-in clips and video effects. But forget about unbridled creativity: Your artistic vision was limited by the built-in clips and some hokey video effects, as well as the specific content requirements dictated at the start of each round.

Of course, one could say that the experience was a lot like being a real music video director, minus the pay and the glitzy parties. The trouble was that if you actually did make anything worth watching, there was no way to preserve it for posterity, unless you connected your Sega CD console to your VCR.

In a certain sense, Make My Video anticipated such later Internet-based creations as anime music videos. It just left out the two key components: (a) showing off your work and (b) actually having fun.

9. Prince of Persia: Warrior Within (Ubisoft, 2004)

Platforms: PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube, Windows, cell phone, PlayStation Portable (as Prince of Persia: Revelations)

Ever since the first Prince of Persia in 1989, players had been won over by the various games' charm, story, and design (not to mention the Prince's personal charm). However, by 2003's Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, sales of the venerable series were starting to slip.

In an effort to increase the next game's appeal, Ubisoft opted for a tried-and-true formula and ramped up the violence, sex, and noise. The newer, edgier Prince was aggressive and obnoxious; the level of gore was increased; female characters were eroticized and wore less; and the soundtrack, originally based on Persian music, was largely replaced with hard rock. In short, Prince of Persia went "extreme." As one friend put it, "Warrior Within took everything that Sands of Time did right and threw it out the window."

Warrior Within did sell well, though the revamped combat system may have had something to do with it. However, that success came at a cost: Ubisoft alienated many of the people who had made Prince of Persia so popular in the first place.

10. Elf Bowling (NStorm, 2005)

Platform: Nintendo DS

Remember when, during the waning months of 1999, a company named NStorm released a free Windows game called Elf Bowling? Sure, you do. Productivity ground to a halt all across the continent as people played "just one more game" in which Santa Claus dealt with a labor dispute by using his minions as bowling pins. Remember passing it along to your friends, contributing to the e-mail slowdown at your workplace? Sure, you do. (You can admit it now; the statute of limitations for server blockage is up.)

Now tell the truth: Do you remember ever bothering to play the game after the first week you tried it, or even the first day? You probably don't, because Elf Bowling gets old pretty darned fast. (Don't believe me? try it yourself for a quick reminder.) Most games fade after a while, but 24 hours has to be some kind of record. So why, exactly, would anyone expect people to pay for a DS version of the game, six years after the elf-athletics craze had come and gone?

Seven Runners-Up for the Game Hall of Shame

Lackluster. Tasteless. Just plain odd. These games didn't make the final cut for our worst-ten list. But we can't let them go by without comment--even though some leave us almost speechless. Here are they are, in chronological order:

Death Race (1976): Inspired by the film Death Race 2000, this early arcade game had a simple objective: Run over as many people as possible, and try to inure yourself to their dying screams. Your biggest problem? Trying to avoid the tombstones that appeared in your victims' place. A similar game called Speed Racer (no relation to the cartoon) appeared on the Commodore 64 in 1983, but there you had the choice of hitting people for "devil points," or avoiding them for "angel points."

Microsoft Bob GeoSafari (1995): Bob, the legendarily annoying software package that PC World named the seventh-worst product of all time, featured this "educational" game. Its smarmy elephant host, clunky graphics, and irritating sound effects left you wishing that Microsoft had stuck to Flight Simulator.

Daryl F. Gates Police Quest: SWAT (1995): This full-motion-video title from the blessedly brief mid-1990s era of "interactive movie" gaming featured a questionable namesake (the Los Angeles police chief who was forced to resign after the city's 1992 riots) and repetitive, tedious game play. Like most multimedia games of the time, it flopped.

Postal (1997): Extremely violent even by the standard of extremely violent gaming, this mass-murder title had players blowing away ... well, just about every innocent person in town, including the high school marching band. You can't really blame the U.S. Postal Service for (unsuccessfully) suing the game's producers for copyright infringement. Or Australia and New Zealand for outlawing the game's sequel.

Deer Hunter (1997): Give Deer Hunter its due--unlike Postal, at least it didn't involve gunning down innocent human beings. But the popular hunting game, which spawned numerous sequels and imitators, basically puts you in the role of the guy who ruined Bambi's life.

The Typing of the Dead (2000): Think of this instructional title as Mavis Beacon, except with carnage. You have to question what possessed Sega to create a game in which you had to type words accurately in order to fight off a ravening zombie horde. Maybe the "Type or Die" subtitle was too good to pass up.

The Howard Dean for Iowa Game (2003): Back when Howard Dean's presidential campaign was making use of the Internet like no politico ever had, this Web-based Flash game sought to teach "Deaniacs" about grass-roots campaigning tactics by letting them "strategically place campaigners on a virtual map," "wave your Dean sign to get the word out," and "canvas door-to-door to influence caucus goers." (At least the Iowa citizens you pestered were virtual, not real.) Ahead of its time? Um, maybe. But along with the Dean campaign itself, the game went out not with a whisper, but a scream.

Emru Townsend and Harry McCracken

Emru Townsend blogs for PC World's Digital World, and has contributed his voice to two video game demos. (He's sure it's just a coincidence that neither game got produced.) He is also the editor of Frames Per Second magazine. Harry McCracken is editor in chief of PC World. Thanks to GamePro, Danny Ledonne, and Wikipedia for allowing the use of some of the art in this article.

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