Let us celebrate magnificent videogame flops.
by Levi Buchanan
November 26, 2008 - In an industry as hit-driven and hype-driven as videogames, disasters take on epic qualities that make it hard not to feel a hint of schadenfreude in the wake of failure. This Thanksgiving, IGN celebrates a collection of videogame turkeys -- games and consoles that should have flown (they had wings), but spectacularly crashed in full public view. Now, these turkeys are not just critically savaged games and mishandled consoles. This roll call of unfortunate creations includes financial calamities and victims of their own crushing hype.
So without delay, let's unveil our ignoble winners...
Now here's a turkey that hit the market completely half-baked: a system that never matched the marketing promise. While the Atari marketers were busy touting the first "64 bit" game system during an era (1993) where bit-count seemed to mean more to gamers than actual gameplay, the company developers, both in-house and third-party,were scrambling in the background trying to make heads and tails of the awkward hardware while dealing severely constricting budgets and schedules. At launch there were only a spare couple of games, including the pack-in Cybermorph, a truly awful attempt at an open world Star Fox and Trevor McFur and the Crescent Galaxy, a pathetic and rigid arcade shooter. The games trickled out at a pace of one or two a month, which didn't help attract an audience. (Written by Craig Harris)
"I'm looking for some sailors." SEGA visionary Yu Suzuki's Shenmue saga was supposed to rescue the Saturn and turn Ryo into a household name amongst gamers. Then it supposed to rescue the Dreamcast. Finally, by the time the game launched in 2000, it was just hoped Shenmue would somehow sell well enough to recover the game's frighteningly bloated development budget. It is estimated SEGA sunk $70 million into Shenmue. To get that money back, SEGA needed to sell a copy to every single Dreamcast owner... and then convince them to buy another one just as a keepsake. While Shenmue did impress the hardcore SEGA base and a contingent of critics, it just never clicked. Sales stalled out at 1.2 million. The sequel on the Xbox fared far worse and the Shenmue storyline came to an abrupt end with little hope of ever finding out what exactly happened to Ryo. Nobody faults the ambition behind the game -- developers should reach for the stars. But Shenmue is a classic example making sure your masterpiece is something that more than the converted will play.
The problem with Lair wasn't just that it was bad; the problem was that it could've been so good. When the PlayStation 3 debuted with a bloated price tag and limited install base, the rabid fans began clinging to upcoming games as proof that the system would rock. One of those much hyped title was Lair, a game that boasted beautiful graphics, a slick package, and dragon combat. Fans beat their chests and posted screenshots as the game came closer and closer to release, but when critics got their hands on the game, the fact that Factor 5 gave no control option other than a flawed, sluggish Sixaxis scheme lead to a pretty much universal panning. Fans were at first outraged, but the majority of folks found the inability to a dragon to turn in flight a deal breaker. (Written by Greg Miller)
Shiny Entertainment's Messiah was nothing short of a false prophet. A tidal wave of hype preceded Messiah's debut into the PC marketplace in early 2000. David Perry, the chief designer of Messiah, and Interplay were successful in getting their game on the cover of magazines and lauded as not the Next Big Thing but the Only Big Thing on websites throughout 1999. But when the game finally debuted, it landed with the thud of an angel without wings. The storyline was certainly promising. Gamers controlled a cherub, Bob, who can possess various denizens of Earth in a mission to fight back nothing short of the concept of sin. Heady stuff, indeed. But the game kept slipping. Christmas 1998. Summer 1999. The demo was unstable and uninspiring. When the game finally launched, it was already forgotten. Messiah undersold and console versions were cancelled.
Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness
Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness was heavily hyped throughout its three-year development cycle. Despite such a tremendous cooking time, the game still shipped early. The game that debuted on the PlayStation 2 in 2003 was a mess, scarred with rough edges everywhere, including a camera that is decidedly unkind to both Lara Croft and the player. Despite the game's first appearance on then next-gen hardware, Angel of Darkness adhered close to an established formula that was running out of gas in a post-Grand Theft Auto III world. Merciless trial and error, bad controls, and a paucity of save points made it a frustrating play from start to finish... or as close to the finish as you could get without cracking the disc in two. Eidos took Lara from series creator Core after this botch job and handed it over to Crystal Dynamics, which did a far better job updating the heroine in Legend.
There's hype and then there's hype. Atari's promoted its Driv3r as the "Grand Theft Auto-killer" which was just inviting trouble. Prior to Driv3r, the series was appreciated and rewarded with strong sales. When GTA3 rewrote the rules with its open-world gameplay, Atari decided to take their series in a similar direction with a hero that can go anywhere, do anything, and steal any number of vehicles -- but the game did not reward open-world thinking. Delays started getting the better of the ambitious production. And when costs got out of control, Atari ended up shipping the game perhaps a touch early. (First hint: Check the cop AI when you escape pursuit by jumping into the water. Total malfunction.) Driv3r sold pretty well on the basis of its hype, but word of mouth kept it from trailing GTA into the stratosphere and the series' reputation took a major hit.
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial is much maligned in the videogame industry as being one of the games that laid low Atari and ushered in the great videogame crash of 1983-84. It deserves this reputation, but let us use this space to clear the good name of its developer: Howard Scott Warshaw. Warshaw was given just five weeks to make a game based on a movie with few action sequences. The blame rests solely with Atari for rushing Warshaw and paying the exorbitant $25 million licensing fee for the rights to the movie. E.T. sold modestly well actually -- 1.5 million is nothing to sniff at -- but the production costs from licensing to cartridge creation were not recouped. E.T. is now legendary as the cartridge anonymously buried in the desert like a victim of a mob hit.
Really, did you expect Superman to escape this top 10 list? Superman's deficiencies are well-known and it stands without rival as the worst Nintendo 64 game ever created. Released in 1999, long after the debut of the system, Superman 64 shows zero evidence that developer Titus Software had a handle on the hardware. Every shortcoming of the N64 is almost exploited in Superman, such as the volumes of fog that obscure your view of the virtual Metropolis. The game itself is the antithesis of fun, taking little advantage of any of the hero's incredible superpowers. The Man of Steel can lift entire cities, but in Superman 64, he's tasked with flying through rings under a time limit. Superman is worth a laugh now, but gamers that put $70 on the counter for the game when it launched were not amused. And nobody will blame them for still nursing a grudge.
You don't engender goodwill by advertising a game with the following tagline: "John Romero's about to make you his bitch." The failure of Daikatana and the fall of Ion Storm is one of the industry's biggest cautionary tales of hubris. Announced with considerable fanfare in 1997, Romero made the claim it could be developed in only seven months. The game launched in 2000. During the interim, the game's development schedule and budget spun out of control. Game engines were switched in midstream as delays mounted. Team members quit in defiant frustration. But it was an E3 demo in 1999 that hobbled the game permanently. After $25 million, the game was running at only 12 frames per second. Eidos couldn't support Ion Storm as-is and took control of the developer, jettisoning its founders. When Daikatana finally launched in April of 2000, it sold a meager 200,000 copies. The rushed N64 port flopped. Ion Storm's Dallas studio (ground zero for Daikatana) never recovered and was shuttered the following year, ending a tale of conspicuous spending without real leadership.
Understatement alert! Atari had a bad couple of years. As if the failure of E.T. wasn't enough, the failure of Pac-Man was so cataclysmic to assist in bringing down not only Atari, but also kneecapping the entire videogame industry. Atari's "optimistic" sales projections were a major problem. Approximately 12 million Pac-Man cartridges were manufactured -- two million more than the number of Atari 2600 consoles in homes. Atari expected hype for Pac-Man to be so strong that it would drive system sales. Perhaps they should have let programmer Tod Frye finish the game before placing the cartridge order. Looking like a rough approximation of Pac-Man, the Atari 2600 game disappointed millions of fans. Seven million of them, really. Atari had to eat the unsold five million cartridges, resulting in a mammoth loss for the company.
Surely, some readers will disagree with some of the entries on our turkey shoot. (We suspect that one in particular will raise significant ire.) But that's what the comments section is for. Let us know which games and consoles you believe are the biggest turkeys before you push away from your computer and join friends and families for tomorrow's holiday. All of us here at IGN hope you have a great, safe holiday weekend and we give thanks to you every day for being a part of our community.