How times change. In the life of every artistic medium, there seems to be a period near the beginning where anything goes. Artists can get away with anything, because the moral guardians just aren't paying attention to them. Eventually, the tide turns. Maybe the culture around the medium changes or maybe the moral guardians finally get wise as to what people are up to. Eventually, every medium has to grow up and get respectable.
Video Games are a pretty young medium though. Their path to respectability has been rough and isn't yet complete. So when it comes to content, it's still the Wild West in some regards. The "Violence in Video Games" debate is still on-going and seemingly will never end. But even if they aren't "respectable" as an art form yet, Video Games have developed certain standards for what developers should and shouldn't do. Things that would have been acceptable, or at least tolerated, in the old days would never fly today. Decades of scandal and controversy have made that clear.
With that in mind, let's take a look back at gaming's past. What were some of the games that helped the medium sow its wild oats? And what are some embarrassments that are better off left in the past? These are Video Games No One Would Dare Make Today.
It almost feels like cheating to put a Postal game on this list. This series was made to be in bad taste and deliberately provoke people. Nevertheless, the reaction to Postal 2 justifies its placement. The game's reveling in offensive stereotypes, toilet humor, and deliberately pushing the player to commit acts of extreme (albeit cartoony) nonsense. Animal rights groups were particularly appalled by what was perceived as violence toward cats, with the game using them as makeshift silencers. Postal 2 ended up banned in both Australia and New Zealand.
Nintendo's Punch-Out!! series continues to this day, but you won't find much reference to this original game. That's because of Mike Tyson. While the heavyweight boxing champion appeared to be a good draw at the time, he was the biggest name in boxing, the investment soon soured. Tyson proved to be a controversial figure not long after the game's release. That was before Tyson bit an opponent in the ring. But besides Tyson, Punch-Out!! has also been criticized for the regional stereotyping in some of its characters.
If you want see how well something has aged, look at what used to be considered "edgy." The Duke Nukem series always had kind of a parodic feel to it, but it was pretty straight with its action-movie inspired setup. While this PC first-person shooter got caught up in the same "Violence in Video Games" debate as many games in the mid-90s, that wasn't what really upset people. No, it was the misogyny. The game's depiction of women was ridiculous. It really does go to show how far we've come in a short time.
The first game to get an "Adults-Only" rating from the ESRB. Thrill Kill was going to be a bloody, brutal fighting game like Mortal Kombat. Damned souls in the Underworld were fighting to be reincarnated, with four to a match. That many fighters on screen was novel at the time, but overshadowed by controversy.
The movesets also had suggestive names. It was ultimately completed but not released. The files survived though and bootleg copies are still circling around.
A game so intense, even some at the developer thought it went too far. Manhunt was always going to be controversial. It was too realistic and the very concept was just disgusting for a mainstream release. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. In 2004, Manhunt was linked to an attack in England. Police found no evidence that the game inspired the crime, but the damage was done. Stores in the UK dropped it from shelves and Manhunt was banned in New Zealand.
Gotcha proves that even back in the arcade days, some game developers were going too far. Weirdly enough, it was the controller that got Atari in trouble for this one. Gotcha was a two-player maze game with a joystick for each. Problem was, the joysticks were encased in pink rubber domes.
Rubber domes that resembled two, uh... nevermind
Needless to say there was an outcry over this. Atari released another version with regular joysticks. The gameplay itself didn't help matters. Gotcha involved one player, the "Pursuer" chasing another through a maze to catch them.
The reputation of Conker's Bad Fur Day comes from misperception more than anything else. Developer Rare Studios, known for the Donkey Kong Country series, intentionally set out to make a vulgar parody of traditional funny animal platform games.
Video Games' answer to the infamous Fritz the Cat movies.
Conker was deliberately a profane parody of characters like Sonic the Hedgehog. But some parents and consumers didn't grasp the difference and were shocked at what their kids were playing. That Bad Fur Day was released on the Nintendo 64, home of family-friendly Mario, probably added to the confusion.
Bully wound up being controversial before it was even released. The idea of a video game where you played as the school aggressor, right around when this was becoming a hot-button topic, sent parents groups into fits. That it was made by Rockstar Games, already notorious for their Grand Theft Auto series, was just icing on the cake. The game was accused of promoting negative behavior and there were calls to censor or even ban it. The uproar died down when it was released and critics found that bad behavior was actually punished in-game. Still, the controversy made it into the history books.
We could have put any Grand Theft Auto games on this list, except that Rockstar keeps making the darn things. But a list like this would be incomplete without one, so we're going with San Andreas. Why?
Two Words. Hot Coffee.
That was the name of a mod released online that allowed players to access a mini-game simulating a full relationship between the main character and his girlfriend. The mod's existence set off a firestorm of controversy. San Andreas was even briefly re-rated from "Mature" to "Adults-Only." Rockstar released a patch for the game and recompensed any offended consumers' money.
Here's a tip for future game developers. Don't go for shock value. It never goes well. Acclaim Entertainment learned that the hard way with this faux attempt at a bike game. Originally a sequel to an earlier BMX game, the company realized the game wasn't coming together. They decided to add grown-up content to salvage it. The game allowed players to create topless characters and view live-action footage of real people. The attempt to create publicity worked, but ultimately backfired. Sony refused to release the game on PS2 until it was censored and Wal-Mart wouldn't carry copies at all. Its sales were pitiful.
The "Violence in Video Games" debate is as old as the arcades. In fact, Chiller may be patient zero for it. A light gun game, players take on the role of a slasher and dungeon master, exacting horrible violence on NPCs unable to fight back. Even with the graphical limitations of the time, the attacks and depictions eliminations were considered too extreme. Gamers themselves criticized Chiller. An unlicensed NES port later tried to justify everything by saying the NPCs were damned souls deserving of punishment.
Racing games don't usually raise eyebrows, but Carmaggedon isn't most racing games. Inspired by the cult movie Death Race 2000, players were encouraged to win by either destroying all the other racers or running over all the pedestrians in a level.
A game that encourages vehicular attacks would cause outrage anywhere, but Europe took it a step further. An entire alternate version of the game was released in Germany, replacing the pedestrians with robots and zombies. It took months of litigation for the original version to be released in the UK.
Normally, a Call of Duty game wouldn't be on a list like this. Modern Warfare 2 is the exception to that. An optional mission in the game drew a ton of media attention. In the mission, players take on the role of an undercover agent working abroad. They then participate in an awful spree. Critics found the mission in bad taste, saying it was reminiscent of recent issues across the world. Activision, to their credit, allowed players to skip the mission and warned them of the content.
A certain amount of intensity is expected in a military shooter. It's just the nature of the game. Usually, that means a small cloud of red when you hit an enemy, then they collapse and disappear. Soldier of Fortune took that further. In that game, you could blow away your enemies in extremely graphic detail.
The ratings board in British Columbia actually investigated Soldier of Fortune after public complaints.
Barbarian is an interesting case in envelope-pushing video games. While the game itself had some graphic stuff it was the box art that proved far more controversial. The game's developers used models instead of painted artwork and model Maria Whittaker was chosen to play the barbarian's love interest. But Whittaker proved to be an issue for the game's release in the UK. At the time, she was best known as the "Page Three" girl for newspaper The Sun. The game's box art was accused of being overly grown-up and caused protests.
Another FMV game, Phantasmagoria probably wouldn't have been as criticized without the live action segments. A point-and-click horror game, the filmed scenes with much more realistic aggression than seen in games at the time would have been bad enough. But the story also had a particularly bad attack scene that was unacceptable. Many groups took issue with the scene and some stores refused to carry the game. Roberta Williams, one of the developers, went on a press tour to do damage control. Having a woman argue the game's merits helped end the scandal.
Loosely based on the 2004 adaptation of the comic book character, most people expected this game to be intense. It's a Punisher game after all. But the response publisher THQ got was more than they expected. The ESRB took issue with several scenes of enhanced interrogation and power tools used for things power tools weren't meant for. They were originally going to give the game an "Adults Only" rating if changes weren't made. THQ got around the problem by rendering some scenes in black & white, muting its impact.
Double Dragon is a classic of the beat-em-up genre. It's still a fun game to play today. But some elements of the plot haven't exactly aged well. I mean, the plot kicks off with a thug punching a girl in the stomach, throwing her over his shoulder, and kicking off a gang war. Then if you're playing the single-player version, you have to get into a fist fight with your best friend over who gets the girl. Yeah, it's not exactly progressive. Unlike other games on this list, Double Dragon didn't incite controversy or protest when it was released. It's just of its time.
The negative reception to Shadow Warrior caught developer 3D Realms by surprise. They didn't expect anybody to kick up much of a fuss about their latest first-person shooter. In the game, Players control a ninja warrior working for a massive corporation that releases Demons from another dimension.
Basically Doom but with a kung-fu/samurai skin.
Shadow Warrior was irreverent and didn't take itself too seriously, but some felt the game was insensitive toward the East Asian cultures it depicted. 3D Realms responded by saying it was inspired more by badly-dubbed kung-fu movies than any authentic culture. Several sequels were made.
Hello again, Rockstar games. It seems like everything they make has to push the boundary. Though State of Emergency was more a victim of timing than anything else. Released in early 2002, it was a beat-em-up set in a world where the world had been taken over by a massive corporation. Players engaged in acts of villainy to overthrow this villainous foe. In the wake of other real-world attacks, State of Emergency's advocation of aggression was seen as being in the worst taste.
Cheesecake or Fanservice in Video Games has always been a touchy subject. Developers have to carefully toe the line of good taste. This game didn't seem to realize there was a line in the first place. While the volleyball gameplay was surprisingly good, most people understood what this game's real appeal was.
Some found the game's depiction of women offensive, even positive critics found it rather ridiculous. Blowback grew worse when hackers introduced an even more elaborate mod. The game's publisher actually sued the hackers over that.
The Far Cry series could be forgiven of using some outdated regional stereotyping in its characters and setting. Many of the action movies it draws inspiration from were guilty of the same.
Far Cry 3 was a step too far for some though.
Set on a fictional Polynesian island, players fight to free their companions from modern-day pirates by joining forces with a local tribe. Some of these plot elements were considered culturally insensitive. Most of the issue came from the perception of a "savior" narrative, a criticism the game's director took note of. Far Cry 4 took the criticisms to heart.
There's always something of an unspoken arrangement when it comes to fanservice games. Players agree not to judge the game for falling back on these tropes if the game agrees to provide some actual gameplay. Bikini Samurai Squad didn't hold up that agreement. This is a pretty bad game, both as a cheesecake experience and a hack & slash zombie game. It's currently got two out of five stars on Metacritic. Yeah, it was never meant to be taken seriously, but that's no excuse. Bikini Samurai Squad may not have drawn any controversy, but that doesn't mean they'll make it again.
Here we have a bizarre case. Catherine was a puzzle game (sort of) about a man in anguish over his feelings for two women, his girlfriend and his mistress. Both are named Catherine. And his mistress might be a succubus. It just gets stranger from there. While many critics praised the game for its mature handling of a real-world problem, others detected a more misogynistic subtext to the game's story. Specifically, that Catherine fell into a troublesome dichotomy. The girlfriend as safe and harmless where the mistress was wild and fun. A remake of Cathrine is on the horizon though.
It's not often a game's trailer will cause much controversy. But when Resident Evil 5's first look showed the series' traditional white protagonists gunning down zombies in Africa, there was bound to be a backlash.
They accused developer Capcom of using antiquated imagery.
Capcom tried to diffuse the situation by focusing on the game's anti-colonial themes and adding additional playable characters to the game. But DLC of the character in a stereotypical "Jungle Princess" Outfit only added fuel to the fire.
Context is important when judging a game. There's a difference between something being rendered in an over-the-top cartoony manner and in a realistic, gritty manner. Splatterhouse, a side-scrolling beat-em-up inspired by slasher movies like Friday the 13th, was definitely the former.
But the moral guardians often overlook that distinction.
They took Splatterhouse to task for its over-the-top stuff. Ports of the arcade classic had to be changed and censored for consoles. Publisher Namco used the controversy to its advantage though. The TurboGrafx-16 port had a parental advisory sticker saying the game's themes "may be inappropriate for children... and cowards."
Konami advertised Six Days in Fallujah as the most realistic military shooter yet. Players would take on the role of a marine squad during the Real-Life Second Battle of Fallujah. It would have been the first major video game centered around an ongoing war. But many veterans and anti-war groups raised concerns around the project's appropriateness. The critics felt not enough time had passed to turn actual events like the battle into interactive entertainment. The game has never been released.
FMV (Full-Motion Video) games were a weird trend back in the 90s. They were basically movies that players interacted with through what we now call Quick-Time Events. Night Trap is one of the more notorious FMV games. Players take on the role of a special agent protecting a group of girls from vampiric creatures at a slumber party. It was pretty tame, mostly, but a few scenes of racy vampire attacks drew criticisms. The game's creators even went before Congress for promoting negative behavior. Stores dropped Night Trap from shelves. Along with Mortal Kombat, it forced the creation of the ESRB.
Many of the controversies on this list were unexpected. Harvester is one of the few games to openly court it. When a psychologist released a list of games he found excessively intense, the game's developers demanded Harvester be put on it. Another FMV horror game for PC, it was full of creepy imagery, serious situations, and borderline stereotyping. Major news networks used it as an example of why a games rating system was needed. Ironically, Harvester never took advantage of its notoriety. The company ran out of time and money and the game released late. By then, nobody cared.