Some of My Best Friends Are Bad Games

Thursday, September 16, 2010
EDITOR'S NOTEfrom James DeRosa

It's hard not to stick to sure bets when buying games these days. Publishers release too damn many of 'em, and I don't know about you, but I don't have a lot of unallocated cash lying around. Every now and again, though, I think it's good to take a detour off the beaten trail of the preview/review cycle. Ben's article is an impassioned plea for by-the-numbers consumers to widen the types of experiences they are receptive to.

Game reviews are important. With the wealth of titles newly available every week, they are useful for producing educated consumers. The problem, however, is when we live by the numbers attached to the reviews. As our lives grow in complexity and our free time shrinks, we find ourselves having to make choices about what games we play. Unfortunately, it is becoming more and more common for scores to stop being a guide and start being the rule.

A trip to a video game store has drastically changed in the last decade. We walk through the door, head directly to the new release we came to purchase, pick it up, take it to the register, and leave. Using information gleaned from online research, we calculate what we want to buy before we even enter.

The last time I browsed the shelves of a game store was back in 2002. While wandering the aisles of a Hastings in a small college town, a game called Enclave caught my eye. On a whim, I grabbed the title and took it home, not expecting much from such a spontaneous purchase. After a few levels, however, I found that I loved it.

Enclave won me over with its numerous playable characters, fantastic graphics, and complex levels that hid treasures and replay value in every corner. It quickly became one of my favorite games of the last generation. It wasn't until months later that I found out that the game had a horribly mediocre accumulated-review score. Apparently, all the fun I had was an error on my part.


Our access to information on games has changed drastically. The only source of information on the next "must-buy" title used to be the school playground. One single voice was all it took to sell us on a game, and the more emotion in the voice, the quicker the sale. As the years progress, this light trickle of recommendations has become a torrential downpour of opinions.

It is very human of us to want to turn all this information into something we can easily digest, but by simplifying the review process, we have replaced the kid up the street with the mathematical formula used by sites like Metacritic. The days of passionate word-of-mouth reviews are over, and all we are left with is a cold, hard number.

"I will only play good games; ergo, I will only play games that receive above a 90-percent rating on Metacritic" seems like a pretty logical maxim, but the second rule neglects unique games that may appeal to an individual's specific sensibilities. This mentality mostly guarantees that whatever we do play will be of high quality, but it also makes us more prone to missing out on the fun that "lesser" titles may offer.

Some of my favorite games have been "bad" games. State of Emergency received lukewarm reviews, which makes me question why I'm the only one who enjoys fighting through crowds of looters and attacking people with trash cans, stolen TVs, and anything else I could get my hands on. Jericho had an unforgiving first level, but the rest of the game had all the twisted character design and fun gameplay that I could stomach. My biggest sin, however, is my love for Rise of the Argonauts. According to one score aggregator, it stands at a 54 percent. According to me, the game has an amazingly deep story, fantastically diverse locations, fun combat, and it does a great job of mixing fresh genres with traditional beat-em-up gameplay. All of these games may be "atrocious" on paper, but I will always save a special place for them in my heart.

On a purely selfish level, "bad" games have benefited me by giving me hours of entertainment, but I also have to respect them for their contributions to the evolution of the industry on a whole. Starbreeze was able to hone their design skills to perfection with Enclave; they then used that experience to create the critical darling The Chronicles of Riddick

State of Emergency had a unique blend of a mall environment, hundreds of characters, and tons of improvised weapons, and it's very possible that these features helped inspire games like Dead Rising. We have yet to see how Jericho and Rise of the Argonauts will subtly influence the industry, but anyone who played them is sure to find their horrific character design and their ability to blend role-playing into a brawler inspirational. Subconsciously, developers have learned from the thousands of successes and failures in each of these titles, and the industry as a whole is better for it. 

Video games are an art form, which in turn makes them difficult to evaluate. Publishers release a lot of irredeemably awful games, but when we classify something as " bad" through an either-or process, we may bury a genuinely fun experience beneath a low number.

When you are considering buying a new game, avoid basing your purchase choice solely on a heartless number, and be sure to read the full story or talk to a friend. Find a review voice you can trust, and let them steer you to games you may have avoided otherwise. Dare to dip below an arbitrary 75-percent cutoff point. Finally, every once in a while, buy an old, cheap game on an uneducated whim. Who knows? Maybe you'll discover a hidden gem that feels custom made just for you. 

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Comments (11)
September 14, 2010

I usually take reviews with a grain of salt.

September 16, 2010

Love the advice to take a flier on a cheap game every once in a while. I have a lot of fond memories of some pretty bad games, especially if you play them with friends. Good stuff!

September 16, 2010

I definitely dip into the low metacritic score games in genres that I enjoy. I tend to stick to the higher rated games on ones I don't enjoy as much. For me, that means I've played games like Last Rebellion with sub-50 scores and had fun. (7 hours of entertainment jam-packed into a 14 hour game) and all kinds of silly things like the Atelier series and Recettear, but when it comes to FPS games I've only played some of the bigger titles. 

But it's definitely good to look at the bargain shelf and grab something out of your normal range now and then. Saboteur is one game I might have missed out on if I had completely stuck to highly rated and in-my-genre games, and I enjoyed that for a full 45 hours (out of the 61 it took to platinum it. :)

September 16, 2010

Although I've usually played more of the higher-rated games, I know exactly where you're coming from. Some games, such as "Mirror's Edge," really helped raise the bar for newer games. There are certainly flaws in that game, but nothing beats the sensation of running on walls and wall-jumping in a first-person perspective.


There's also a ton of games out for the Nintendo DS that looked really neat and innovative, even though they only scored about 70 or so. That's why I don't always trust the metascore these days, although it makes for a nice, rough aggregate of all the scores around.

September 16, 2010

It was announced today that one in seven Americans now lives at or below the poverty line.  While Metacritic is highly imperfect, for those of us with less money it serves as a good guide for what we can expect to find enjoyable.  Ever since I started play video games as kid, there is no lower feeling than purchasing a game you don't like.  And renting is not really option either, because Blockbuster stocks so few titles and Gamefly's shipping is painfully slow outside of big titles.

September 16, 2010

Game reviews are unreliable for me. Most of the time they mearly scratch the surface on what a game offers or over exaggerate certain "flaws". A good example is Castlevania Harmony of Despair. It's no masterpiece, but when I completed the game, I realized it wasn't anywhere near as bad as it's reviews would of led me to believe.

September 16, 2010

@Courtney- If low metacritic scores are the bane of developers, then they may be the best friend of gamers on a budget.  A low meta score coupled with two short months can drop a game's price like a rock and let you pick it up at scary-low prices.  Cheap doesn't mean good, of course, but they may let someone play a game they would not have tried otherwise.


But I completely agree, there is no worse feeling than paying good money for a bad (really bad) game.  I could never recommend a friend drop 60 bucks on an unknown game unless we found a well written review that sold it.

September 16, 2010

I completely agree with you. I enjoyed State of Emergency immensely even though I picked it up at close to full retail price at the time and I don't regret a penny. I think it's a solid advice to pick a reviewer that seems to have similar tastes as you and read the reviews with a critical eye for what possible enjoyment might be had out of the game. Also I find that in many reviews I read I might pick up a certain vibe from the reviewer that suggests that the game he is reviewing might give me some enjoyment even though the review is not good at all. Which again proves the point of scores being arbitrary and the value of actually reading review is priceless.

September 16, 2010

lower the price of games and review scores won't be so important.

September 16, 2010

I confess that it's been a long time since I've purchased anything but a AAA title.  As the editor's note pointed out, money is a huge factor.  I'm uncomfortable making a $50-$60 investment on something I may not even enjoy; especially since the return policy for video games is generally unforgiving once you take the shrink wrap off.  But you've inspired me.  Next time around, I'm going to take a risk.

September 18, 2010

This is a tough one.  It's near-impossible to not form a low impression of a poorly reviewed game before you've even played it.  And that's unfortunate.  This is no different from movies or books.  Many gems go undiscovered since a few high-profile critics dismissed them for one reason or another. 

Personally, I've found new favorites among the cheap bin, but also have been burned.  I picked up Moon for DS on something of a whim; the FPS on the go just didn't suck me in.  I also picked up Chibi-Robo for Gamecube.  And holy man, do I love that game.  I'm not saying that either of these were lambasted by critics; I think both were reviewed favorably, actually.  I guess the point is to not get bowled over by another's p.o.v., whether positive or negative, and be open to trying something new and unknown every once in awhile.

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