Play Bad Games

I squirrel away creative works like nuts for the coming winter. I have an odd compulsion, once I own something that’s art to me, whether books, films, or yes, video games, we’re pretty much married. No matter its quality, I will own that work for life. Really, that means I possess works at all levels of quality, from the absolute worst to the “OMG how has this guy not gotten all the awards”.

Years ago, I had decided, during what must have been the truest moment of boredom-induced insanity in history, to play and, as much as possible, complete all of my games. My collection of video games is truly large, numbering in the hundreds, ranging from games produced long before I was born to the present day and beyond, thanks to some weird time shenanigans we won’t get into here. I’m still keeping this quest up today, and I’m still a long way from finishing. I’d like to say I’m a man of class and taste, and that most of the games I own range towards the high-quality end of the scale, but those would be blatant lies. That means that, over the past several years, I’ve played a lot of dreck. I have played games that made me doubt the existence of a kind and loving god, games that I’m sure I put more time into than the developers, games that had me questioning whether boiling my own head would be sufficient to remove the memories of them forevermore.

And you know what? Looking back on them now, it was actually quite a valuable experience.

Most of the people I’ve known will actively stay away from bad games. They might play something that’s kind of meh if the mood strikes them, but something that’s truly bad? Why would they? It makes sense. After the initial purchase, the thing video games really costs you is time, and why would you put so much time into something you dislike? Well, one thing that I’ve found by forcing myself to go through everything on my shelf is that the bad games have value, too. They can help you appreciate both the good games and the medium of video games as a whole more. And not just in a ‘this is so bad that everything’s better in comparison’ way, either.

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For the most part, there’s two types of bad games you deal with. There are those that tried for something and failed, and those that didn’t really try at all. Those that never tried, well, no matter how much I may attempt to rationalize them, there’s often not much in the way of redeeming qualities there. Those that tried and sucked are where the real magic happens. Those are the ones that, while they may not be traditionally enjoyable, might have something that’s worth your time. Maybe they’ve got a good story, even if the team’s not the greatest at putting the gameplay portion together. Or maybe they’ve got some really creative ideas that were just really poorly implemented. Or maybe the way the game was produced on a meta level makes it worth exploring. For example, I’m just now finishing up the Xenosaga… saga. There’s a game series I have every reason to hate. A three game series covering half the size and a third of the plot that was originally intended for it, a story that hits on so many of my pet peeves, a level of meddling from the non-creatives that absolutely crippled the development team, and a gameplay that makes it obvious that the developers were more interested in telling their space opera story than they were actually building a game out of it. And yet, now that I’m reaching the end of it, I find the experience so fascinating. The fact that they were actually able to improve in quality in the final game, in spite of being forced to cut out a lot of what made the engine unique? The way they were able to kind of pull off a game that’s mostly an anime? Having me forget like half of what’s going on, and still making some sort of sense out of it? I may not have been excited about playing it, at least until it gets better in the final edition, but man, it’s really fascinating to me.

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And the fact remains that sometimes the important games, the ones that move the medium forward, are not always the greatest one. If you want to deepen your understanding of a craft, it’s important to analyze and consume not only the best examples, but the bad ones as well. This not only helps you understand where things can go wrong, but sometimes even poorly-made models can lead you places. Final Fantasy II is a great example of this. That game is probably the worst in the mainline Final Fantasy series, with so many gameplay features that seem designed to make the game a chore to play. I also consider it one of the most important innovators in the medium. As far as I can tell, Final Fantasy II is the earliest game to implement the plot alongside the gameplay. Sure, games before this may have had bits of plot to set up the next level, but for the most part, gameplay and plot had a pretty one-sided relationship. The plot would lead to gameplay happening, then you’d reach the end, then more plot would lead to more gameplay, and so on. Final Fantasy II was the one to add in the other half of the relationship, where you, the player characters, were not just being pushed along by the plot, but active participants in it. Things didn’t just happen at a rate coincident with your progress through the game, you made things happen, with plot events coming through as a result of your actions in gameplay. Final Fantasy II laid the groundwork that would be expounded on in Final Fantasies IV, VI, and finally VII, which built those same plot features into something that revolutionized the entire medium. The games very important, and an almost vital trip if you’re looking at playing through the history of games. Even though it sucks.

And, of course, there are times when what’s traditionally viewed as a bad game just clicks with you. Even though it’s reviewed low, it has a combination of features you just really enjoy, and you find it a lot more fun than anyone else. I’m sure everybody has at least a few games like that.

Whatever the reason, if you’re reading this, you’ve probably played your fair share of bad video games.  But maybe, even if the game was bad, the time you spent with it wasn’t so bad after all.  And maybe you should give that one game you’ve refused to pick up for the past decade another chance.  What do you say?

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22 responses to “Play Bad Games

  1. I find it interesting how innovative games don’t always stand the test of time. For instance, you’d be hard-pressed to find a game more innovative and forward-looking than Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar. That game had a novel concept for 1985: how would an RPG function with no antagonists at all? It was one of the first games to have a karma system and it had a larger emphasis on interacting with NPCs rather than the standard-fare RPGs at the time where almost every interaction involved combat. Despite all this, playing through that game nowadays is more work than fun. The interface has not aged well and the lack of direction could leave modern gamers completely baffled.

    I think too many critics declare a game the best of its kind just because it was the first to implement an innovative idea when that’s not always going to be the case (this applies to other mediums as well). If that were true, the original Mother should be considered the best game in the trilogy when it clearly isn’t. It’s like how you can tell a band has talent when they issue their debut LP, but they don’t show their true worth until they have a few more albums under their belt. Sometimes the best games aren’t the ones with the most innovation or originality, but the most polish.

    As for bad games, I don’t play them on purpose. I’ve only played a handful of games that I think are bad, but almost all of those games are ones that have aged very poorly such as King’s Quest II. There were a few games that I felt were bad games in disguise as good ones, and that’s always a major disappointment. Otherwise, if I hear a game is bad, I stay away from it. I think Metroid: Other M is a good example of game that, as you say, “tried for something and failed.” Thanks to bad word of mouth, I ended up dismissing that game outright (and after watching a good Let’s Play, I can safely say I made the right choice).

    But that always makes for an interesting discussion, doesn’t it? Is the bigger failure the work made with no competence behind its creation at all or the one made with misguided ambition? One had no chance to be great while the other one did until something caused it to come crashing down.

    • That is definitely a factor, innovators being left behind by those who improve upon their inventions. That’s one thing I’ve noticed on my ‘Play All the Games’ quest, some games are just better when played in their native context. For almost as long as I remember, I’ve hated Super Mario Bros. 2. The game was a departure from form, and that departure just really didn’t click with me. Yet, when I played it after only playing NES games for a while, it was a whole lot more fun. It just didn’t fit in my previous frame of reference, but once I recalibrated myself by immersing in games of its time, I was able to enjoy it a lot more.

      Innovation is definitely just one aspect leading into a games quality. And honestly, it’s something that I’m very interested in seeing in my games. All else being equal, I’d take a game that had some new and unique features over one that doesn’t any day. It’s far from the only factor leading into a games quality, though, and it’s easy for some people, myself included, to get carried away by the innovation. But really, it’s how well that innovation serves the game, how well it’s implemented, and how well it’s thought out that puts value behind creative features. And some games, unique as they are, just don’t have that. And in those cases, a well-done conservative game would likely fair better than those that are doing new things but don’t have an idea of how to go about it.

      And at the very least, a game that tried for something but crashed and burned would probably be at least good for a quick, mocking laugh. Not sure I can say the same for a game with no soul behind its creation.

      • I agree with that; a game with no soul behind its creation isn’t worth anyone’s time, not even the developers’.

        You also have a good point when it comes to putting games in their native contexts; Ultima IV may not be a great game by today’s standards, but it is when you consider the fact that it was released the same year as the original Super Mario Bros. and it could very well have been the best RPG available at the time (it even predates the original Dragon Quest).

        Innovation is definitely important, yet it’s not the only factor of quality. I’ve seen some cases where a game was innovative, but, because the developers relied too heavily on their one good idea, it made the experience feel overly gimmicky and, paradoxically, one-dimensional. Meanwhile, I’ve also experienced games that, though not particularly innovative, were still an absolute blast to play and the ideas they used were executed near-perfectly.

      • I was thinking back, and a lot of my favorite games are, quite like what you mention here. Not necessarily innovative themselves, but sequels to innovative games that just take what was previously established and focus on doing the same thing better rather than adding all sorts of new features. Persona 4, Super Mario World, Skyrim, etc. are all like that, taking a medley of unique features created by the earlier games in their series, and making relatively small additions to them while just focusing on making sure the execution is as smooth as possible.

        Good or bad, a game’s innovation is just one factor making it so. Innovation is always a calculated risk, and combined with other factors it can make a game bad just as much as it can make it good. As far as bad games go, I think I have more fun with the ones that were throwing a lot of ideas at the wall, even when a lot of those ideas were bad.

  2. Bad is so subjective. Many niche games that I love get terrible scores from professional reviewers. I guess people recommend avoiding poor games because so many titles come out every week. It’s tough finding time to complete the cream of the crop let alone anything that is average or worse.

    • That’s one thing I’ve been focusing on for the past while, learning to leave the review scores behind and buying the game based on how much it seems to interest me otherwise. My buying habits have gotten a bit better because of it, I think.

  3. More like FFII was the BEST Final Fantasy of the original line. It was so grim and gritty that the mood whiplash lasted through three titles before they made a game that wasn’t all whimsy, cuteness and happily ever afters (except for Tella and that one guy in FFV).

    • You’ve got a point there. And hey, there’s a game that I’ve discounted as bad because of the gameplay, yet, as you point out, there’s other factors worth experiencing anyway.

      • There’s really nothing wrong with the gameplay, either, unless you’re insistent upon trying to game the leveling mechanic (which really isn’t that different from something like Morrowind, and is really one of the earliest examples of organic character development in an RPG). Otherwise it plays the same as any other of the first half-dozen FF games just minus the tedious job/esper systems of 3/5/6 and without the boring character rigidity of 4.

  4. Innovative games are nice but if they have not much else going for them they are a novelty, solid design stands the tests of time and then some.

    • Well, that really depends on how it’s designed, I think. Perfect Dark had a very solid design for it’s time, and is one of the more polished N64 games produced. It didn’t really push the box though, and it feels incredibly dated now. The medium has moved on without it. Innovative games may not always be the best experiences, but there’s usually something in there worth trying them again.

      • Especially if the innovation was lacking due to the concept needing more powerful tech to flourish.

  5. Played through xenosaga 1 and 2 and was so burnt out by how incredibly bad 2 was that 3 is still sitting on my shelf untouched. It’s a remarkably frustrating game. I’m also playing Suikoden IV right now. Great example of a game with a great vision and abysmal execution. I guess I love to play the bad ones lol

    • Oof, man, I forgot about Suikoden IV. You’re right, that is a good example. I’m glad I played it, but I don’t think I’ll be tempted to pick it up again anytime soon. I liked the idea of Suikoden on the Swashbuckling Seas than I liked its execution. That overworld was painful.

      And hey, for what it’s worth, I’m finding Xenosaga 2 to be a lot more bearable than 2 was. It’s never better than a 5 out of 10, I’d say, but so far it hasn’t tempted me to drive a hammer through my console just to make it end like 2 did.

      • Xeno 2 is by far the worst rpg I’ve ever felt compelled to finish. The break system is just…broken. And the skill system is even worse. At least the character sprites were improved but wow what a bad game. I’ll start up 3 one of these days. On my rpg bucket list

    • Once I realized I was spending more time and having more fun with the virtual CCG than the game itself and suffered a TPK that would’ve sent me back 3 hours, I never touched Xenosaga 1 again.

      • I’ve played it through up to the end. Never beat it, though. I couldn’t handle the last boss without grinding, and by that point, having to play more of the game was just too much for me.

        Somehow, I did manage to beat episode II, which is even worse than the first one, though.

  6. I’ve found myself doing this a lot over the years. For the most part, I have enjoyed some of the game a lot. This post reminds me of a game called Prisoner of War, a little WW2 stealth based game, made by codemasters. It wasn’t the best game in the world, but I found a lot of enjoyment of it. Its one of those little guilty pleasures, if that’s what you want to call it.

    A bad game can mean anything though, just depending on the person. I think a lot of people pass up on stuff, for the newest and biggest thing. We’ll blame CoD here, but in reality CoD as a whole package sucks imo lol. Its good for a short while for MP, but a lost cause when it comes to everything else it holds.

    • Guilty pleasures. That’s an excellent thing to call it. I’ve got all sorts of games on my shelf just like that which I’ve enjoyed, but I might be the only one.

      • You aren’t the only one, I’m the same. I can’t count the times when I’ve had friends ask me why I had this game or that one, because it was bad to them lol.

  7. I guess what is considered ‘bad’ for one person, can be brilliant to another. I hate the modern war games and would say they are very, very bad games, but there’s obviously people out there who love them and play nothing else 😀

    I’ve never had enough money to just buy video games when I feel like it, so my purchases of games have always been very considered, so I don’t think I would say I’ve played any bad games.

    But then, I adore the Dynasty Warriors series of games, and some people view those and really bad and boring.

    This is a really interesting topic that’s got me thinking now 🙂

    • Honestly, if it’s good to you, than it’s a good game. All the reviews and online rage aren’t going to change the fact that you enjoy it. Even Dynasty Warriors. No matter what people say about it, obviously enough people like it to keep it going for like 20 entries thus far.

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