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We recently took issue with the claim that “gaming has not yet had its Citizen Kane”. As you can see, we managed to find 25 games that qualified for that title – and you had plenty more suggestions besides.
We’d have had no trouble whipping up a counter-list of dismal flops. For every Battlefield Earth or Plan 9 from Outer Space, there’s a Superman 64 or Bubsy 3D. But what about the noble failures? If gaming has its Citizen Kanes, does it also have its Showgirls, its Waterworlds and its Heaven’s Gates?
These are the games that said they were going to change the industry, and ended up falling short. Just as you can call Kane massively influential without thinking it’s the best movie ever (that’s The Goonies, obviously), these aren’t the worst games ever: just titles that contained the seeds of something great, but failed to come through.
Above: Spot the Difference
What it Tried To Do: Bring the world’s biggest arcade game home on the mighty 2600.
What it Did: Damn near killed videogames.
What Went Wrong: In the early ‘80s, arcade games were where it was at, and Pac-Man was their king. As Atari and its ilk tried to expand the home console market, a home version was inevitable. In its haste to get Pac-Man onto shelves in time for Christmas 1981, Atari snatched the first opportunity: code that programmer Tod Frye had written as a quick-and-dirty demo. Frye never intended the patchy program to go to market, but Atari pushed Pac-Man out the door (even after missing the Christmas deadline). The game bore little resemblance to the arcade original: Pac-Man moves with a harsh buzzing sound instead of the iconic wakka-wakka tone, and ghosts are often invisible right up until they kill you. In response to this mistreatment, gamers fled the console market with such force that Pac-Man became one of the main offenders charged with sparking the Video Game Crash of 1983.
What it Tried to Do: Bring cinematic production values to arcade gaming.
What it Did: Bring cinematic levels of non-interactivity to arcade gaming.
What Went Wrong: Dragon’s Lair is the Next Big Thing that kept refusing to happen. An inventive project in its time, the game featured Laserdisc-quality FMV characters in pre-drawn animations, with the occasional joystick command from the player. Dragon’s Lair turned some heads, but was remembered more as a curio rather than as a classic - even in the early ‘90s, when the CD-ROM boom brought the whole trend back. With the improved storage capability of disc media, games like Mad Dog McCree and Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp offered the same perfect graphics and nonexistent playability. All over again, we talked like “cinema-quality visuals” were a substitute for gameplay, and all over again, we got bored and went back to real games. But now we’re wise to such chicanery!
Above: Spot the Difference, Somewhat Embarrassing Edition
What it Tried to Do: Bring girl-power to the Golden Age of Platforming.
What it Did: Introduce the world to Nintendo’s legal team.
What Went Wrong: “The Brothers Are History!” boasted advertisements for The Great Giana Sisters. Back when most gamers still thought Samus was a dude - and long before Lara Croft or Chun Li - the Giana Sisters aimed to bring girls-can-do-anything sass to platforming. Giana Giana and her sister Maria adventured through a variety of dangerous areas, jumping on toadstool enemies and collecting powerup-mushrooms out of blocks. If all this is starting to sound a little suspicious, rest assured Nintendo thought so too: the game was taken off shelves almost as soon as it arrived, and a planned Spectrum conversion was put on hold. The Great Giana Sisters passed into cult history, gaining notoriety as a bootleg gem – but mainstream gamers would have to wait a little longer for onscreen heroines.
What it Tried to Do: Tell gaming’s most epic story… ever.
What it Did: We’ll let you know if the concluding chapters ever happen (which they won’t).
What Went Wrong: You can’t say Shenmue never tried. Virtua Fighter maestro Yu Suzuki intended the five-game series as his magnum opus, blending the technical finesse of the Virtua Fighter games with the narrative depth of the biggest JRPGs. Were Suzuki’s aims too high? Was Sega’s Dreamcast, destined to be the company’s final shot in the hardware wars, the wrong platform for such an epic? Did players not actually want to spend dozens of hours on forklift-based minigames? Call it a bit of all of the above: the series never got past its second instalment. While Shenmue II lived on in an Xbox port and a dodgy “movie adaptation” (really just all the cutscenes without the pesky game-bits in between), it’s unlikely the series will ever see a resolution.
Above: An FPS like nothing you have ever experienced
What it Tried to Do: Make you John Romero’s bitch.
What it Did: Make John Romero its bitch.
What Went Wrong: No compendium of videogaming hubris would be complete without John Romero’s Daikatana. In 1997, the superstar designer announced that work had begun on his next game: a huge project that would change first-person shooters just as profoundly as Romero’s previous work on Doom and Quake had before it. Romero staked his reputation – as well as millions of dollars of Ion Storm and Eidos’ money – on his ability to deliver a game that was bigger and more complex than Doom or Quake had been in their day. After failing deadline after deadline, the game was eventually released in 2000, immediately frustrating gamers who realised they’d waited three years for a sub-Quake 2 plod-fest. Romero’s name was mud with critics and public alike, so he laid low for a while before resurfacing to endorse the machine that would revitalise his career:
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