Pac-Man without the pizzazz. An evil-smashing basketball player. Sex and violence in all the wrong places. And our number one worst game ever. You call this entertainment?
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.