Since the dawn of “Pong,” one of the greatest kisses of death for a video game has been the dreaded “inspired by (insert name of popular musical act here)” tag line. This is mainly because popular musical acts don’t know much about making video games, despite what they might think, and despite what everyone close to them might tell them. So they go all-in and dream up a usually convoluted plot in which they a) save the world through the power of their music; b) battle an omnipotent, unilateral government hellbent on destroying their music; or c) take on mystical, supercharged and/or anthropomorphic personae inspired by their music.
And as a result, these video games are almost always terrible. But some stand out from the pack because they are particularly awful. So in celebration of MTV’s Gamer’s Week and MTV-backed “Rock Band,” we’ve decided to shine the spotlight on five of the most awesomely bad music-inspired video games ever made. Enjoy. Or don’t. It’s basically the same thing.
» Data Age, 1982
The prototypical “inspired by” game in almost every way, particularly because it sets the bar so low, “Escape” is a vertical scroller in which you guide the barely rendered visages of Journey through a maze of — as the instruction book puts it — “love-crazed groupies, sneaky photographers and shifty-eyed promoters,” to the safety of their Scarab Escape Vehicle in order to make it to the next sold-out show.
Based (we guess) on the band’s mega-successful Escape album from 1981, the game is boring — and we’re using 1982 standards here — mostly because you spend the entire time dodging blobs that look like hot dogs with feet. Along the way, you get assistance from roadies and the “mighty manager,” who inexplicably looks like the Kool-Aid Man. About the only breakthroughs contained within are the decisions to replace the standard health meter with a rapidly depleting stash of “concert cash” and the fact that the members of Journey maintained that the game was based on their real lives — which is interesting, considering it makes them look money-hungry and self-obsessed.
“Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker”
» Sega, 1990
The King of Pop throws on a zoot suit; battles an insidious, moon-based drug dealer; and rescues captive children with his “dance magic,” all while shooting sparks from his hands, tossing his fedora like a boomerang and repeatedly hollering “Wooo!” He has the ability to transform into a giant, indestructible robot and can pilot a high-tech spacecraft. Though we’re talking about the plot of a game released more than 15 years ago, there is roughly a 75 percent chance that this exact scenario is running through Michael’s head right now.
In theory, “Moonwalker” is based on the video for MJ’s “Smooth Criminal,” only, you know, it’s so much more. You guide Jackson through five generic levels (“Club,” “Street,” “Woods”), twirling and kicking at suited baddies and saving small children, while awesomely MIDI-ed versions of his greatest hits play in the background. After doing this for an indeterminate amount of time, Jackson then takes control of a spaceship and engages in a dogfight with the nefarious Mr. Big, the drug dealer who has captured all the kids and is now trying to destroy the earth with a giant laser cannon.
If it sounds mind-melting, well, it is, not to mention that practically everything in “Moonwalker” is made 10,000 times creepier given the, uh, last 15 years of Jackson’s life. And all of that makes playing it an experience unlike anything ever before. Which, when you think about it, is actually about as close to a recommendation as you’re gonna get on this list.
» Midway, 1994 (arcade version); Acclaim, 1995 (console versions)
Aerosmith inexplicably lent their songs and likeness to this pixilated, meandering rail shooter set in — you guessed it — a post-apocalyptic future in which a shadowy government organization (the menacingly named New Order Nation) has outlawed rock and roll. During a very cyberpunk gig at Los Angeles’ fictional Club X, Aerosmith are captured by NON troops (who could, you know, actually be rock critics) and it’s up to you to free them, mostly by firing compact discs at faceless soldiers in riot gear, and the occasional tank.
Conceived during the height of the band’s obsession with cyberspace — a period perhaps best summed up by the video for “Amazing,” which featured that dude from “Dazed and Confused” and his excellent headband — “Revolution X” is terrible in almost every conceivable way. That’s from the soundtrack — which consisted of eternally looped versions of Aerosmith hits like “Sweet Emotion” and “Walk This Way” — to the grainy graphics and the gameplay, (seriously, you could call it “Repetition X”).
It’s so bad that “Revolution X” is almost always included whenever the topic of “The Worst Video Games Ever” is discussed, and it makes you actually root for the nondescript — though incredibly evil — one-world government that you’re supposed to be overthrowing. Because if it’s opposed to Aerosmith, how bad can it really be?
“Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style”
» Activision, 1999
Hmmm, let’s see: An over-baked concept featuring martial arts, the illuminati and/or monks? A project that’s better in theory than in actuality? An impact that would’ve been much greater a decade earlier? Yep, sounds like something involving the Wu-Tang Clan.
In this case, it’s the group’s first and only foray into the world of 3-D fighting games. “Shaolin Style” distinguished itself from other murky games of the era by coming packaged with a limited-edition, wholly unusable “W”-shaped controller.
The loco peripherals were bad, and the game itself was blurry and choppy. You piloted each of the nine Wu-Tang members through a seemingly endless series of battles, with the prescribed purpose of unlocking secret goals — or, in Wu-speak, “chambers” — and rescuing an ancient monk or something. “Shaolin” did earn bonus points for the fact that each member of the Clan had their own unique fighting style, but ultimately, it’s exactly like every semi-lame 3-D kick/punch fighter ever made, except with a limp RZA-produced score and Ol’ Dirty Bastard flopping around on his back, “drunken monkey style.”
“Kiss: Psycho Circus – The Nightmare Child”
» Take 2, 2000
Rifle-carrying members of the Kiss Army likely purchased this game (and probably the Dreamcast it was ported to), played it all the way through, and thought it was awesome. But not everyone is a Kiss fan.
Based — in theory — on the Todd McFarlane-helmed comic book series, which reimagined the band as supernatural beings who battled evil (while wearing platform boots), “Nightmare Child” put you in control of a faceless protagonist sent on a mythic quest to retrieve pieces of Kiss armor, all while blasting your way though drones of same-y creatures in a variety of generic settings. Which means that it was a “good video game” in the same way Music from ‘The Elder’ was a “good album.”
Boring and repetitive, the game was — not surprisingly — skewered by critics, but remains (also, not surprisingly) a favorite of Kiss loyalists. In the long and storied history of rock, there is perhaps no act as unabashedly commercial as Kiss, so it’s surprising that it took them until 2000 to get into the video game racket. But after playing “Nightmare Child,” you kind of wish they never had.