Controversy often equates to difference. Sometimes, that difference is good: boundaries are pushed, new ideas are explored, and conventions are reconsidered, lampooned, or broken altogether. Just as often -- a cynic would argue, more -- there’s something not quite as appealing, be it just a marketing stunt for shock value or simply a poor concoction unleashed by some unwitting agent. Controversy is often remembered, for better or worse, and a lot of people devote an inordinate amount of time parsing out who’s in the right.
Rather than take that well-tread road, for this list, we’re going to be looking at controversial games on their own merits. Here, the controversy is the context, but the quality is what we’re exploring; sure, your game might have a lot of blood and guts, nudity, and questionable moral choices, but is it actually any good? Too often, controversial games get attention without respect, or just simply undeserved attention, both of which need to be addressed. So strap in and prepare to argue, because things are going to get messy.
Of course, while I’ve censored some of the more blatantly problematic screenshots and I will treat the more disturbing allusions with the respect they deserve, some of this stuff isn’t for the faint of heart. Reader beware!
Still here? Good. Maybe you’ll like our other disturbing content.
15 Best: MadWorld
MadWorld is far from the first M-rated Nintendo exclusive, but it is no overstatement to say that it may have been the most violent at the time of release. The peculiar, over-the-top nature of the violence led to both usual and very unusual reactions. Parental watchdog groups decried its inclusion on the Wii and Germany banned the title altogether. However, the cartoonesque violence and distinctly unrealistic art style led others to disagree with the harsh assessment. Australia, usually strictly regulated, passed the game through its censors unchanged.
Critically, the gamble worked; adding a wealth of complexity to the standard hack and slash combat system allowed MadWorld to highlight the absurdly violent without compromising depth. This paired well with the unique stylistic choices, creating an experience that not only diversified the Wii catalog, but also created one of the most compelling titles of the seventh generation.
14 Worst: Night Trap
Movies and games often don't mix anyway, but live-action footage in games always looks kitschy. Even in games that otherwise hold up over the years, you can’t help but chuckle a little at how out of place the video segments are (I’m looking at you Red Alert 2). So is it any surprise that Night Trap, a thinly veiled movie, began its shelf life polarized and only got worse with time?
Unfortunately, Night Trap became the subject of a US hearing that was much ado about nothing; Senator Joe Lieberman, who didn’t even play the game, claimed that the capture of a woman in nightwear constituted significant enough violence to warrant intervention. The game’s mechanics actually reward the player for succeeding in thwarting the attackers, but the outcry superseded contextual information. Now, Night Trap is remembered mostly for causing the ESRB—as it sure isn’t known for quality.
13 Best: Leisure Suit Larry In The Land Of The Lounge Lizards
Let’s face it: games that are controversial exclusively because of their sexually explicit nature are usually bad (if you need any more convincing, just see #10 on our list...or #8...or #2…). There’s a reason exploitation films exists; sex sells. But that doesn’t mean all sexual games have to be slapped together without a lick of ingenuity. To that end, Leisure Suit Larry’s first adventure is an outstanding proof of concept.
Though the later LSL games would often careen into the creatively bankrupt, Land of the Lounge Lizards is rightfully credited for expanding the burgeoning point-and-click genre as much as players’ pants. By being equal parts humorous, entertaining, and erotic, Land of the Lounge Lizards set a standard for defying the trope that sexuality in media is the realm of the talentless. It has so much appeal, in fact, it even got a remake.
12 Worst: Hatred
When Destructive Creations released their now-iconic trailer for Hatred, responses varied heavily. Dissenters thought the indiscriminate murder of civilians in a self-styled “genocide crusade” was grounds for a total ban, while supporters hailed it as extending the cultural boundary for free speech. And yet, in spite of all the drama, an AO rating, and a massive debate on free speech, gun rights, and video game violence, one thing quickly became apparent: Hatred is a remarkably boring game.
Your first five minutes may, depending on preference, be thrilling; the screams of pedestrians -- some disconcertingly real, others laughably wooden -- in their final moments ring out between grenades and gunfire, until you inevitably die. And that’s it. Retreating to the sewers, the game gets even more bland, now being indistinguishable from any other modern shooter...just mostly monochrome.
11 Best: Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number
The original Hotline Miami expanded many players’ conception of just how violent and disturbing a top-down shooter with pixel graphics could be. It’s exactly that sense of surprise -- highlighted as much by the narrative twists as the ultraviolence -- that may have pushed Hotline Miami developer Dennaton Games to explore even darker avenues in the second iteration, with questionable results.
In particular, a sexual assault scene that occurs in the tutorial drew wide criticism, despite the moment ostensibly occurring within the narrative of an in-game slasher film. While many fans and critics thought the increased map size, harder difficulty, and overall more engaging story more than made up for the misstep, Dennaton refused to completely remove the scene. As a result, the game was banned in Australia and remains a polarizing issue.
10 Worst: Duke Nukem Forever
While Duke Nukem Forever is arguably less controversial than its predecessor, Duke Nukem 3D, only one is a garbage pile of disappointment. You can probably guess which one that is. Somehow, despite spending a decade and a half in development hell, the hype for Duke Nukem Forever was palpable in 2011. Fans hoped for more of the topical, risqué humor, inventive weapons, detailed maps, and excellent optimization that made 3D so great.
Instead, we got jokes about privates. While Forever retained all of the adult themes that got 3D in hot water, it had none of the technical prowess to back it up. Even worse, the extended development period dated both the graphics and the humor, making it a relic of nostalgia on day 1. What’s left over looks more like a parody of the Duke than a true successor, and if money talks, players think so too.
9 Best: Bully
For all the mayhem and violence in Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series, Bully became arguably a more contentious title upon release. To many, the subject matter veered from the far-off world of gangs and guns into something that many people actually experience -- including some of those playing the game. The fact that the main character was not only subjected to bullying, but could also take on the role of a bully, drew the ire of mothers and censors alike.
What is often less reported outside of games media is the title’s meticulous attempt to construct a living context for these occurrences. Everything from simulated class attendance to romance options are incorporated, and every NPC in the school proper is designed to be a distinct character, giving a face to those with whom you interact. As a lesson on schoolyard morality, Bully is decidedly middling, but as a game, it’s both irreplaceable and enduring.
8 Worst: Custer’s Revenge
Custer’s Revenge might be called the grandfather of video game controversies and it’s easy to see why: it’s about sexually assaulting a Native American woman, full nudity included. While the dated erection might yield a chuckle from modern audiences, the subject matter has only grown more repugnant.
If you think this is all lost in the cultural context or modern sensibilities, think again; the developer specifically invited women’s groups from the area to see a screening of the game in order to cause a stir. Naturally, the publicity stunt was done for the same reason it usually is: the title itself is lacking. Even in 1982 the gameplay was sparse and InfoWorld went so far as to call the graphics “low resolution” in a contemporary report. In transgressive media, the graphics might get better, but the tactics don’t.
7 Best: Conker’s Bad Fur Day
Hearing a big-breasted flower make sex jokes and grinding up villagers are just a couple of the things you’ll need to do to beat this adventure starring a cute cartoon squirrel on the N64. Needless to say, Conker’s Bad Fur Day got a lot of flak for appearing, at first glance, to be a children’s game, only to open up to one of the most irreverent titles of all time, all on a seemingly family-friendly console.
It probably didn’t help that Rare was already well-known for Banjo Kazooie and, in any other circumstance, Bad Fur Day would have probably been forgotten. But Rare hit a perfect stride, matching excellent animation with inventive character design, detailed and topical worlds with uncommon technical feats, and a balanced narrative pacing that conveyed serious plot points as proficiently as toilet humor. Maybe it's time for a comeback?
6 Worst: Left Behind: Eternal Forces
Right between a first run of the Left Behind films (which were eventually cancelled) and a failed reboot, starring Nicholas Cage of all people, was this peculiar adaptation. While easily overlooked as one of the many, many, many cash-ins of the Left Behind series, Eternal Forces is something of a modern marvel in horrible design.
On the surface, it’s just another RTS with a Christian coat of paint—but, unlike virtually every RTS since the ‘90s, Eternal Forces relies almost entirely on one resource: “spirit.” This requires players to tediously micromanage “conversion” of atheists and actually forces the player to attempt to avoid conflict to minimize loss of spirit, creating a patently frustrating experience. Despite this, you are still often forced to engage in firefights with those you can’t convert, thus earning a reputation for demanding conversion or death. No matter what you do in Eternal Forces, you can guarantee it’s going to be awful.
5 Best: BioShock
BioShock is well-remembered and deservedly so. Despite naming itself as a spiritual successor to the historic System Shock, BioShock managed to carve out a legacy of its own -- to such a point that other games are routinely compared to it. Chaotic, yet purposeful art direction, varied powers in the form of plasmids, and a constant atmosphere of dread work in tandem to create a uniquely engaging experience.
Even so, it’s the narrative -- a keen critique of Objectivist philosophy wrapped in a meditation on morality and choice -- led critics to both elevate it to an example of “games as art” and assail it as oversimplified or gratuitous. Creating the moral choice to “harvest” or save Little Sisters led to outcry that the game was essentially normalizing the murder of little girls. This was exacerbated by what many saw as a simplistic delineation between decency and power that had little to do with the story. Even now the question lingers: was it a misstep? Critics have certainly been wrong before.
4 Worst: Ethnic Cleansing
If ever a picture could tell a thousand words, it’s this one. Ethnic Cleansing is a shooter all about reduction. It reduces the self-evidently complex issue of race relation to a conflict and reduces conflict to gun violence, but more than anything, it reduces the art of game-making to something lacking such self-awareness or effort that it can scarcely be considered “propaganda.” It’s hard to imagine Joseph Goebbels signing off on any media project so utterly inept in conveying anything.
Though technical and creative inability is a long-standing trend in racist media, rarely is such absolute lack of talent or even basic craftsmanship willingly put on display (though you’ll find similar quality from the studio’s music endeavors). The fact that Resistance Records thinks a shooter with such laughably bad graphics, collision detection, and draw distance is worth anything, much less ~$15, would also be hilarious if it weren’t so delusional.
3 Best: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
San Andreas is a perfect foil to Ethnic Cleansing, taking on gang violence in a manner that accentuates both the mature and the outlandish in perfect intervals. Minimized load times, a developed aesthetic, expanded size, and multiple relevant mechanics -- notably, the long-awaited addition of swimming and character personalization/skills -- earned Rockstar immediate praise and a lasting fan base.
This contrasted sharply with the derision it received across the political spectrum: some found the game’s use of mostly minority characters in a gangland background, as well as the arguably stereotypical behavior of said characters, to be offensive; others lambasted what they perceived to be the glorification of gang culture and the game’s explicit sexual nature -- heightened by the “Hot Coffee” sex mod made from (locked) in-game features. Regardless, neither side won the day, and San Andreas is still widely considered to be a masterpiece.
2 Worst: A Game So Terrible, We Can't Use Its Name In A Title
Occasionally, something is so ethically and creatively bankrupt that it causes audiences and critics alike to reconsider established convention. Such was the case with RapeLay, a simulated sexual assault “game” involving a mother and her daughters, one being underaged. The condemnation of this game was so universal and unexpected that the developer admitted bewilderment, as the game had passed Japanese censorship laws.
For all the (justified) controversy, extending so far as to influence a landmark United States Supreme Court decision, the gameplay is not just repugnant, but also uninspired: it boasts such diverse modes as voyeurism, groping, sexually assaulting one woman, sexually assaulting the woman and her daughters, and gang sexual assault. And, well, that’s it. Most games involving sexual assault -- Hellmoo, Corruption of Champions, etc. -- at least attempt to do something else. Even that is too much work for the contemptuous developer of this game.
Truly, this is among the most pathetic media ever conceived -- equally for its subject matter and abject cynicism.
1 Best: DOOM
Never has there been such a strong combination of quality and controversy as the original DOOM. Working off their seminal first person shooter, Wolfenstein 3D, id Software launched this stunning follow-up characterized by unparalleled 3D graphics, networking support, and exceptionally complex level design. The DOOM legacy cultivated a standard picked up by many subsequent shooters to such a degree that “doomclone” entered the gaming lexicon.
Simultaneously, the narrative employed widespread use of satanic imagery, both expanding critically acceptable subject matter and drawing a great deal of outrage. Besides being one of the first games to receive an “M” rating, DOOM was tied to the Columbine Massacre. One of the killers, Kyle Harris, made custom levels for the game, leading to unverified rumors that he had practiced the shooting on the game. Largely exonerated in recent years, DOOM remains a testament to innovation and perseverance in the face of polarization.