It’s Monday, and that means it’s time for Ask Kotaku, the weekly feature in which Kotaku’s rank and file weigh in on the burning questions of our times. Sometimes serious, sometimes less so. Mostly it’s just another excuse to talk vidya games. You down?
This week on Ask Kotaku: What was the first game that disappointed you?
In the early ‘80s I would jump at the chance to go with my mother to our town’s Acme grocery store, because it meant I got a handful of quarters and a good half-hour to spend playing Pac-Man. There was another machine near the 7-Eleven down the street from our apartment, but it had cigarette burns and was often sticky with Slurpee residue. No, I needed the perfect, pristine grocery-store entrance machine. That experience, moving that yellow puck through mazes chased by colorful ghosts, made all of this [waves arms about indicating 14 years at Kotaku] happen.
Imagine how happy I was when I learned the game was coming out for the Atari 2600 in March of 1982. Imagine the bright red glow on nine-year-old Fahey’s face as he sat down in front of the TV in his father’s den, opened the box, and popped in the cartridge. Then imagine the bullshit above happening.
The best-selling Atari 2600 cartridge of all time, folks. This hideous, blomping, flashing, flickering, nigh-monochrome piece of ass. Programmer Tod Frye did the best he could with what little resources he had available, but damn. Give me K.C. Munchkin! for the Odyssey2 any day.
April 1992, and conventional scales could not measure my anticipation for The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. The day finally came. I got it! And I... finished it within 24 hours? While that’s what I remember, I honestly can’t say if it’s true... I’m become my own unreliable narrator. Maybe Jonathan Frakes can weigh in. But whatever the actual duration of my third jaunt through Hyrule, I was definitely let down by how quickly it ended, a disappointment that then colored my feelings about a game I had till then absolutely enjoyed.
A more acute, formative disappointment occurred a bit later. As a huge fan of early SNES RPG Final Fantasy II (FF4), I was among the first, on [checks receipts] October 8, 1994, to plunk down a wacky $85 for its long-awaited sequel, Final Fantasy III (FF6).
Didn’t love it. FF6 is a good game, and I even feel enough nostalgia that I’m planning a replay with some mods. But it was different in ways I wasn’t expecting, and failed to give me the same awed endorphin rush as its exalted predecessor. Maybe, I began to realize, investing too much excitement into future events—and smothering them in hard-to-meet expectations—is a recipe for disappointment.
In the early 1990s I owned a Sega CD. I had Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, which I enjoyed, but I also got Kris Kross: Make My Video (I did not own Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch: Make My Video). I actually thought I could Make My Video, but instead, the game (such as it was) only let me cut up old nonsequitur footage of cowboys, ballroom dancers, cars jumping in the air, and a bear. It was possible to add effects to the footage, like pixelization. However, I was expecting more footage of Kris Kross from which to actually edit my own music video.
I guess it’s my fault for expecting more than the game or technology at the time could offer, because whatever I made seemed worse. When I finished making the video, I had to sit there and watch it, and I inevitably felt like what I had just made was just a screwed-up version of what had been a perfectly fine music video (see above). I think I only played this a handful of times—even crappy ports I got as a kid got more playtime than this!
I want to say Far Cry 5, because no game has let me down as much as Far Cry 5. But that would be altering my memories for the sake of a narrative, which I’m told is journalistically irresponsible. No, the true first disappointment is a 2003 Capcom game called P.N.03. I was in third grade, I think (maybe fourth), when it came out, looking for a slick, sci-fi escape from bullies who really didn’t feel like listening to a weasley kid talk about how freakin’ cool Groudon is. Instead, I got a tepid grayscale hallway that was somehow both painfully boring and brutally punishing. Is P.N.03 an actually difficult game? I don’t know. I was eight! Did it kick my ass a thousand times over and teach me that, hey, video games can be just as drab and mean as real life? Most definitely. Talk about a bummer of a wake-up call.
I was about seven or so when I got a PS1, which at that point was already on the way out. But I was a dumb kid and my parents knew I loved video games and didn’t need to have the latest. Plus I got more games because the older stuff was cheaper! Anyway, that’s how I ended up with a copy of Star Wars: Rebel Assault II on the original PlayStation. I loved Star Wars. I loved games. This seemed like a perfect match for me!
Wrong. Instead what I got was a weird on-rails shooter that mixed live action and bad CGI to create boring and frustrating levels I could never beat. I distinctly remember a new feeling after playing it. Before this games were good and I played them and enjoyed them. Then I played this game that I was excited about, based solely on the cover and its connection to Star Wars, and I was no longer happy. It was then that I realized games could be bad, a wild concept to 7-year-old Zack.
The first game I ever fully purchased with my own money was 1994’s Tin Star for the SNES. I walked into the mall, bee-lined for EB Games, and scanned back and forth across the shelves until I finally found something I could afford. Tin Star looked colorful, it looked fun, and most importantly, I’d stared at a screenshot of it dozens of times because it was on the back of my SNES’ box. I might have been eight or nine at the time, which meant that I took it as an article of faith that no console manufacturer, especially Nintendo, would ever steer me wrong. If it was good enough to make it onto the SNES box, it was good enough for me.
And maybe Tin Star isn’t that bad if you have a fancy Super Scope 6 light gun. I sure didn’t. Without it, Tin Star is a crappy shooting gallery where you move a cursor around to kill cowboys before they kill you. On my worn SNES gamepad it played like complete trash.
For about a day I was in denial about just how bad a purchase I’d made. Then my older brother took a crack and also quickly abandoned it, which is not a thing any of us ever did because we only bought like four games a year. Tin Star was the first game that ever made me realize games could be really bad. It would still be to this day the worst experience I’ve had with a bought game if I hadn’t at some point also purchased Battlefield Hardline because someone said it was like a Michael Mann movie (it was not).
I used to only have a gaming laptop, which burnt itself out due to a design flaw in 2013. For my birthday, my friends all pooled their money and expertise to help me build my first gaming PC. We pored over parts and specs, and it was so exciting to go from asking “can I run this?” to “what games do I want to run?”
I built my PC with two then-forthcoming games in mind: Watch Dogs and the rebooted Thief. (Immersive sims! Stealth!) Neither game went over well with critics, Thief especially, which gave me some pause. But I persevered, buying Thief and feeling determined to make the most of it. I didn’t get far; it felt like half a stealth game, absent the experimentation and freedom that drew me to favorites like Dishonored and Deus Ex: Human Revolution. These days, a disappointing stealth game would be just that, but at the time, it was a carefully budgeted-for big game purchase and the guiding principle behind my whole setup. I resented it. I was angry at it!
Sometimes I think about finishing it, just to be sure I dislike it as much as I do, but I think my PC is better used on games that won’t disappoint me so much. (I didn’t like Watch Dogs much, either.)
As I thought about my answer, I realized I don’t usually get “disappointed” in games. Disappointment belies an expectation that was not met, and I typically don’t set expectations for video games. Except for Kingdom Hearts.
Kingdom Hearts owned my ass from the moment I saw the “Simple and Clean” commercial at 16 years old. I had a shelf full of Final Fantasy games right next to Disney VHS tapes—a game that combined them? Tuh. Say less. Kingdom Hearts II came out my first year of college. I forwent buying a textbook so I could have enough for that game, and the BradyGames strategy guide, and the disc protection insurance. I was less enthused by the rest of the games in the Kingdom Hearts universe, largely because I didn’t own the consoles needed to play them (especially PSP’s Birth By Sleep). I missed out on those games and by the time they were compiled for the PS4, I was older and cared just a little bit less. I was simply waiting for Kingdom Hearts III to stun me speechless with its characters, story, and music the way its two predecessors did.
Then it didn’t. It was a mistake to play that game without playing the 623,000 games that came between KH2 and KH3, even though I consulted heavily with explainer videos and my friends who were deep into KH lore. Story points went over my head and the worlds were just boring to me. Frozen? Ew. I couldn’t finish it. It just wasn’t what I hoped it would be.
I can ignore a lot of awfulness in a game if there’s a small detail or gameplay quirk that I particularly enjoy. That’s why Beast Wars: Transformers, released on PC in 1998, remains such a traumatizing memory for me. It took something I loved and butchered it to the point that not even the source material could save it in my eyes.
While Beast Wars: Transformers had all the makings of a terrible game—sloppy controls, awful graphics, a complete disregard for providing the player with anything resembling fun—its biggest sin has to be the way it treated the eponymous transformations. In the television show, the Transformers’ animal forms were just as important as their robot forms because it protected them from Energon, the radiation from which would fry even the strongest Maximal or Predacon. As such, the characters would often have to solve problems without the use of weaponry.
But the Beast Wars game throws all that out the window. Yes, Energon is present and, yes, your character’s beast form will protect them from succumbing to its influence, but that’s it. There’s no way to attack while in beast form and rarely does the transformation give a character access to a new skill or ability. it’s really just there as a cheap distraction while your Energon resistance refills. Needless to say, I was disgusted, and never gave Beast Wars: Transformers further playtime beyond the terrible 15 minutes it had already stolen.
I can’t swear that Super Punch-Out!! was the first game that disappointed me. There might have been something bad on our Odyssey2, and I’m sure The Adventures Of Bayou Billy on NES were not as exciting as I’d expected them to be. But Super Punch-Out!! gave me that special sting of being a game that did not, at first button press, feel close to worth the money that I paid for it.
Games I played in my childhood were gifts from my parents. How disappointed could I really be in them? But Super Punch-Out!!... I paid $60? $70? Can’t remember. SNES games cost a lot then! But I paid for it with my own money from my own job that I worked on Fridays during my sophomore year in college, and this game seemed to suck. Health bars in my Punch-Out? I remember that really bothering me. The game just didn’t feel like the NES original and I wanted nothing of it.
I bought it from a now-defunct New York City electronics chain called Nobody Beats The Wiz, but they wouldn’t take it back even though I was trying to return it two hours after I bought it. It was out of the shrink wrap, they said. So I took it to a used game shop and told them my problem, hoping they’d give me decent money for it. They took the game into a backroom and it came back out shrinkwrapped. Here, they said, take it back to the store now. I took it back to the Wiz. I got a refund from the Wiz. I beat the Wiz. So this wasn’t entirely disappointing.
Kotaku’s weighed in, but what’s your take? What was your first major gaming disappointment? The conversation continues below, so have your say. We’ll see you in the comments, and will be back next Monday to take on another no-doubt nerdy head-scratcher.