Do you like popular video games? Too bad.
Matt Hawkins, an independent game designer, blogger and self-described magnet for negative things, recently decided he would make a list of the worst games ever made. He wanted to make it the "best" worst-games list of all. His inspiration? "I'm a big fan of wrestling managers who like pissing off the audience."
You don't have to remember Captain Lou Albano or Brother Love to know what Hawkins means. Just check his list, which he presented two weeks ago at the I-CON science-fiction and fantasy festival in Stony Brook, New York. His 10 — well, 11, counting a two-way tie for first place — includes favorites "World of Warcraft," multiple "Grand Theft Auto" titles, the "Madden" series and even a "Final Fantasy" game. He wanted to get booed, at least by some.
After all, how does one justify the following list?
10. "Donkey Kong Country"
8. "Madden" (series)
7. "Grand Theft Auto III," "Vice City" and "San Andreas"
6. "Rise of the Robots"
5. "World of Warcraft"
4. "Sonic Adventure 2"
2. "Link: The Faces of Evil"
1A. "Kingdom Hearts 2"
1B. "Final Fantasy VII"
Hawkins knows some of those titles are world famous. He knows some of those would go on other people's best-games lists. He has reasons for despising each one.
"GTA," for example, is the series he condemns for making it "allowable for the gamer to walk around aimlessly." What's wrong with the two games he put at #1? He said "Final Fantasy VII," released in 1997, brought down the role-playing genre by popularizing simplified gameplay — overly emotional story lines with an ultimately weak antihero — and made it acceptable for role-playing games to be extremely long. "To be considered a valid role-playing game [after that,] you had to be 80 hours long ... I don't have that much time!"
Hawkins' worst-games concept is certainly one of the 10 Least Original Ideas in Gaming, but he came upon the low road by first trying to travel the high one. In previous years, he had failed to draw crowds to speeches about gaming journalism and the cultural distinctions between American and Japanese games. Then, in 2006, he decided to be less "hoity-toity" and make a presentation about the 10 best games of all time. ("Tetris" topped the list.) Instead of drawing a group of five or 10 people, he roped in more than 100. A list of the worst seemed like a natural sequel.
Hawkins never wanted to go after the easy topics. "There's a lot of games out there that I vehemently despise and hate, but they're popular. And I guess that's how it is for anything. Everybody knows 'that album sucks' or 'that book is horrible, but it is so popular that it drives me nuts,' and it lowers the bar for everyone." The games on his list aren't necessarily incompetently made, in his mind. They are worse: They are bad influences.
He did some field research and found that certain games were always on the "worst" lists: "E.T." on the Atari 2600, "Custer's Revenge," "Total Recall," "Superman 64." He wanted to do something different. Those games, however, were just signs of incompetence or bad planning. He wanted to go after worse offenders. But for the record, does that mean that "GTA: Vice City" is worse, in his mind, than "E.T." from good old 1982? " 'E.T.' is a product of a more innocent time," Hawkins said. "People weren't aware of how evil bad games based on popular movies could be. Its hands are less bloody than, say, the 'Batman Begins' game from EA."
He did get nervous before the panel. He knew he'd be hitting many of the I-CON attendees where it hurts. Plenty of attendees dress up as the very characters whose games he might be criticizing. He started doubting his selection process but got some personal support. "My girlfriend said, 'That's your gimmick — pissing people off. You've got to go with the plan.' "
He knew "Madden" would be an easy target, given his audience. "My girlfriend was in the bathroom 15 yards away. She said she heard this thunderous roar and scream." He slagged the franchise for failing to innovate and for being rife with bugs on an annual basis.
Hawkins thought "GTA" might get him a little grief. It actually elicited the most severe response. "Everybody was really, really upset." He tried winning the crowd back by telling them that "GTA" was making everyone in the room look bad because of the series' notorious reputation among politicians and the mainstream media. He knocked the game for not being as mature as its supporters tout, relying on sex and violence rather than truly sophisticated content.
Hawkins did include a couple of games on his list because they were poorly made. Mid-'90s fighting game "Rise of the Robots" had been touted as revolutionary for the genre but was unplayable in Hawkins' hands. "Harvester" was ballyhooed by Hawkins' favorite gaming magazine of a decade ago, Next Generation, before dropping from the press spotlight and apparently being released as an easily mocked horror game gone wrong. It's the one game on the list Hawkins never played.
The "Zelda" title on the list — the "Link" game — was not made by Nintendo and is widely viewed as a clunker. The "Sonic" game marks what he sees as the franchise's decline. Hawkins decried "Donkey Kong Country" for sporting flashy graphics but poor game design. He considers "Shenmue" boring. And what's wrong with "World of Warcraft"? Don't millions of people play it?
"There are no proud 'World of Warcraft' players," he said, adding that they "reluctantly admit they play the game." He doesn't just think it's a time-waster; he thinks it requires a troubling degree of conformity. "It's like 'Communism: The Video Game.' "
Hawkins said he was able to end his session in cheers. He even got a hug from a girl dressed as a character from "Final Fantasy VIII." He thinks next year he'll do a presentation on classifying different types of gamers: "dissecting nerds," as he put it.
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