originally published October 1, 2012
In our continuing effort to enlighten the masses (or what minimal masses may read this site) of the worst of the world, today marks our fourth entry in what has become our only regular feature. We have looked at some of the worst movies, worst television, and worst movies again. Today we’re going to look at some of the early missteps by the titans of video gamery.
Since this is my first dip into the pool of mocking history’s worst games, I’m going to pick on the Atari 2600. I never had one of these systems. I begged my parents for one, but they sprung for an Intellivision instead, citing its better graphics and more sophisticated gameplay. Well sure, but there were hundreds of games for the Atari – the games all my friends spent Monday mornings gabbing about because we lived sheltered, non-athletic young lives in an age prior to the dawn of internet porn.
Two questions arise when I look at the above picture, a screenshot taken from the Atari 2600 release of the most famous video game of its time, Pac-Man. First, why is Pac-Man devouring sticks of gum instead of his favorite repast of dots? Second, why the hell is there only one ghost?
Tod Frye, the programmer who was handed the task of porting the world’s most famous game character to the home market, would blame Atari’s insistence on expediency for this game appearing on this list. Atari was so damn thrilled to have scored exclusive rights to this game, they wanted it on shelves as soon as possible. And so, corners were cut.
The first corner to flutter to earth was the cartridge memory. Most Atari games used 8KB cartridges – Pac-Man used a 4KB cartridge because they cost less to produce. Also, the 2600 ran on slower equipment than the arcade unit. Frye had his work cut out for him.
First, he did away with the rounded corners and simplified the maze. Then he used the same sprite for the walls to make the dots, rendering them brown and rectangular. Instead of ‘pellets’, the Atari game called them ‘wafers’. Yep.
Then, Frye had the four ghosts appear in intervals, constantly flickering around the maze so that only one ghost is actually visible at a time. Frye counted on the slow phosphorescent fade of the CRT monitors in everyone’s television back then, as well as the concept of persistence of vision to compensate for this.
Atari didn’t care; this was going into heavy production. There were 10 million 2600s on the market at the time; Atari produced 12 million cartridges, figuring everyone would buy this game, plus two million more would buy the console just to buy the game.
Well, that didn’t happen. But the game still sold over 7 million and turned a massive profit despite the public realizing that they would still need to haul a sack of quarters to their local arcade if they wanted the true Pac-Man experience.
I remember racing to my friend Will’s place when I heard he got the ET: The Extra Terrestrial game for his Atari. Surely this tie-in product must be as incredible as the movie, right? I looked forward to biking high above the trees and avoiding government agents holding shotguns because yes, dammit, they still held shotguns in the version I grew up with.
Well, this turned out to be the game that helped to kill Atari’s fiscal year. In the game, ET runs around looking for three pieces of the magical phone he can use to call home. In the meantime you can pick up Reese’s Pieces (meaning tiny dots) for bonus points. To find his phone pieces, ET must fall into pits and hope they’re in there. I cannot emphasize just how horrible this game is. The sound is obnoxious, the gameplay is stunted, and the feeling of accomplishment upon winning is about as glorious as dropping a heavy object and missing your foot.
This is the game we got:
The cartridge sold well, which means that developer Howard Scott Warshaw probably made a lot of money off this mess. Again, this game was the victim of a limited development window… but come on. I have experienced more fun, more adventure by trimming my nails than playing this game.
It’s believed that 2.5 to 3 million cartridges of this game were unsold. Atari hit some hard times over the following few months, which led to the infamous video game industry crisis of 1983 – a topic for another kilograph someday. In September 1983, truckloads of ET cartridges were allegedly brought to an El Paso landfill and buried in a mass grave. Sounds about right.
I always knew this game would cross my path again.
Perhaps the most infamous Atari game in its history, Custer’s Revenge has become the stuff of legend. Atari didn’t make this one themselves; you can blame a company called Mystique for this one.
In the game, you control General Custer, who wears nothing but a hat, boots, and a bandana. You steer Custer (and his arm-sized erection) through an arrow attack to the Native American woman who is tied to a pole on the right side of the screen. Then you rape her.
Andrea Dworkin, an outspoken feminist, claimed that the game had generated “many gang rapes of Native American women.” Whether or not this was true, I have no idea. I highly doubt that the kind of mind that’s willing to do such a thing would be inspired by an Atari game. Custer’s Revenge was banned in Oklahoma City. Atari got tired of receiving complaints about the game, and set about trying to sue Mystique.
All this publicity totally killed the game, and it hardly sold any copies.
I’m kidding of course – this was the first piece of home erotica gaming, and the public controversy it caused launched its sales through the roof. 80,000 copies may not seem like much compared to Pac-Man’s seven million, but for a game like this, that was pretty impressive.
The game suffered from one other problem, besides its bad taste and questionable interpretation of American history. It was simply a bad game. There wasn’t anything resembling fun in playing through the levels, and its replayability was limited to trucking the thing out whenever a friend came over who hadn’t seen it, simply to allow them to marvel at the fact that you owned a pornographic video game.
So many things considered to be the worst, and I still have another 24 entries in this series before this project ends. Nice to have such a library of horrible, horrible material in front of me.