This installment’s question comes from Gameological contributor Patrick Lee: What game do you love despite knowing it’s terrible?
This is a serious question that I have investigated with academic rigor. I have scoured the world to find its truest answer, and my thinking always evolves, but for now? My heart belongs to Stepping Selection, a Japan-only PlayStation 2 rhythm game that is awful by any metric. It simulates dancing using colored foot icons, and the way it maps those to the PS2’s buttons makes so little sense that every time I play it, I am surprised all over again. The songs are not covers of pop standards so much as they are parodies of them, but it’s those music videos—those atrocious, indescribably beautiful music videos. Incompetent and pure, each one collapses around you, crushing you in a mangled wreckage of joy. Watch them and tell me you can’t love this thing with all of your heart. I really hope there is a worse game out there that is deserving of this much love, but I have yet to find it.
Back during the Digimon versus Pokémon schoolyard wars of the late ’90s, I was firmly on team Digimon. That was a defensible position if you were arguing about the cartoons, but only a fool like me would argue that a certifiable turd like Digimon World was superior to any Pokémon. An adventure game with a tedium-to-adventure ratio of 10:1, Digimon World was more about ensuring your digital pal was well-fed, getting enough exercise, and could make it to the toilet on time than it was about exploring frontiers or battling ferocious monsters. But I adored it. I loved the day-in-the-life, domestic approach it took to the virtual pet genre, and how it emphasized slowly building a real relationship with your Digimon. These days my tastes are a bit more refined, but if I’m being honest, I still love this game.
Dark Sector was one of the very first HD console games to start getting previewed at the beginning of the ’00s. We had Resident Evil 4, but we didn’t yet have Gears Of War, so the possibilities of graphically intensive Paul Verhoeven-style video game violence were still very much in flux. “So you’re saying this Dark Sector game will be like when Leon Kennedy fought zombies, but it’ll look incredible and it’ll have a glaive?” By the time Dark Sector actually came out in 2008, after years of delays, it looked and played like hot garbage compared to schlocky peers like Gears and Uncharted. Yet there’s a ramshackle charm about it that I still adore. The barely coherent story, the soporific voice acting of Smallville’s Michael Rosenbaum, and its workman-like action still charm me. Dark Sector is the kind of thing Gilbert Gottfried would have bitched and moaned about in an alternate reality where USA’s Up All Night was about video games instead of the glaive-infested movies like Krull that inspired it.
I’m a sucker for ambition; give me a weird mess with one good idea over a hundred slick Ubisoft parkour checklists. But that same attitude means that I slog through a lot of crap, and nowhere is that slog more brutal—or the sweet ideas it hides so beautifully batshit—as in Odama, the world’s only voice-activated real-time strategy pinball game. Hailing from the team that brought you not just Seaman but also Seaman 2 and bundled with the mandatory Gamecube microphone—so you can order your troops around, obviously, as they guide the precious Ninten Bell toward the enemy’s gate at the top of the screen—Odama is both super serious and sublimely ridiculous, with your soldiers waging war against their stick-figure counterparts while you smash obstacles and barricades with the titular ball of death. Sadly, Odama is one of those games that’s more fun to talk about than play; the need to keep track of your ball, your cursor, and your troops (plus the various necessary voice commands) quickly grows overwhelming. But I still love it, if only because it’s so damn hard to believe such a weirdly ambitious hybrid ever got made.
Exactly one week before FromSoftware’s Demon’s Souls was released in Japan and set the veteran developer on its path to game-critic domination, the studio launched another title: Ninja Blade. It’s the antithesis of the Souls series, a brain-dead action game where a team of modern-day ninjas are deployed in Tokyo to stop the spread of sentient parasites that transform their hosts into monsters. So you, as the youngest ninja of the group, journey across the city, running along the sides of buildings, surfing on missiles, and slicing up everything in sight. It’s repetitive and shallow and ugly and you don’t even get to control your character when he’s performing his coolest ninja moves; as was the custom of the time, they were reduced to quick time event-laden cut scenes. But the stupidity of its premise and action scenes—there’s at least one occasion where the ninja flips through the air with his sword out and carves into a monster’s guts like a gravity-defying human buzzsaw—is enough to keep me smiling throughout. Ninja Blade is a clumsy half-step toward the brand of cinematic lunacy Asura’s Wrath would perfect three years later, but I can’t help but love it.
I’ve loved dragons since elementary school, so I was immediately intrigued by The Legend Of Dragoon‘s basic premise of “It’s kind of like Final Fantasy, but your whole party has dragon wings.” I was disappointed to learn that said wings and their associated “dragoon” powers had to be earned with a particularly hideous combat system that fused traditional turn-based battles with timed button presses and made boss fights remarkably straining. Yet in a case where enough wrongs do make a right, I was willing to put up with it because I was so delighted by the cracked-out plot that involves saving the world of Endiness from a god of destruction, which was also the moon. Botched translations make the whole thing even more charming, like a cockatrice being dubbed “assassin cock” and a dying character being told “Shut up. Talking makes you die.”
I’ve never minded the vast gulf between Peter Molyneux’s promises and his actual games. Like the kid at school who swears he has a jetpack that he just can’t show you or the guy doing bong rips and musing about outfitting his house with a wind turbine, there’s an innocent enthusiasm to his plans that can’t be taken too seriously. That said, Fable III is a mess. The whole experience hinges on a moral dilemma meant to make us consider the price a ruler must pay to ensure the safety of his nation. Is the price of becoming an autocratic despot who grinds his populace beneath his boot in order to raise the funds necessary to fend off an invading army too high? Does it matter if you invest tax money in infrastructure to improve your people’s quality of life if they’ll all eventually be slain by an unstoppable foe? Don’t worry about answering that, because the game certainly never does. Like most aspects of a Fable game, the tough philosophical questions are easily circumnavigated, leaving you free to dance with, hug, or fart on your citizens without a care. Add in a needlessly stripped down power-up system and choppy combat and Fable III just isn’t that great of a game—for most people. I love the hell out of it because Lionhead Studios does first-rate world building. These games mostly reflect actual historical aesthetics, just with beer steins that are three times larger.
It’s easy to rag on The Munchables. Tasking you with fighting an invasion of aliens who just so happen to resemble food, it’s a kid-oriented platforming game with barely any platforming and with level designs so lacking in variety that it’s easy to waste time retracing your steps to find the next path. Checkpoints are walled off for no reason beyond extending play time, and the achievements for clearing each world look like piles of rainbow-colored dog poop. Bandai Namco marketed it as Pac-Man meets Katamari Damacy, but the game lacks the self-aware charm or nuance of either of those series. You spend the bulk of each stage growing your character from a weak baby ball into a massive beast, only to lose it all between levels and start over again. Despite all this, I find the game captivating. From the subtle message telling kids to eat their vegetables before desserts (because vegetable-based enemies are lower levels than the tougher cake-and-candy-based baddies) to the end chapter that cribs notes from Mega Man 2, The Munchables is a goofy romp with great intentions and inconsistent execution. At the very least, it inspires me to clean my plate at dinner time, lest the peas and carrots gain sentience and rise against me.