In December of 1999, at the tender age of eleven, I received Donkey Kong 64. It was a birthday gift from my parents and even came with a shiny yellow controller, though sadly not the limited edition banana one. Regardless, I popped it in my N64 (after inserting the expansion pack, of course) and snapped the power button on.
My thirteen-year-old brother and I watched as Donkey Kong and his band of misfit apes flailed about to the infamous “DK Rap.” Then came Chunky Kong, noted as “the last member of the D.K. Crew!” As we laughed at Chunky’s awkward attempts to grab an out-of-reach banana, the final line of his segment graced our young ears: “But this kong’s one HELL of a guy!”
This piece originally appeared 6/25/14.
We were both stunned. Did Nintendo just authorize a swear word? We were far from sheltered kids and had both seen our fair share of adult content, but not from video games. My parents had bought this game for me. This game with cursing. Obviously now, as an adult, I look back and laugh at how mild the word “hell” comes across in any situation, but to a prepubescent kid it was exciting and, dare I say, dangerous. Good thing my parents never bought me Conker’s Bad Fur Day or my brain would have melted.
There are those who are put off by swearing, and while it’s still considered offensive by many it’s far from the worst thing you might see in a game today. Let’s take a look back at some of the titles that brought dirty words into the gaming spotlight and how some of them came to be.
Hot on the trail of arcade hits such as PAC-MAN and Donkey Kong was the cube-hopping puzzler known as Q*bert. The Gottlieb-produced title, which was originally named both Snots and Boogers and @!#?@! during development, focused on the titular character whose job it is to avoid baddies and change cube colors.
One of the most unique aspects of Q*bert was its implied swearing when players sent poor Q*bert to his doom. What he’s actually saying has never been revealed, but I’m sure anyone would curse their luck if a snake knocked them off a floating pile of blocks. The game’s audio engineer David Theil was assigned to make English phrases for the game using only a synthesizer. The Ultimate History of Video Games recounts how this process proved rather difficult and after many frustrating tests Theil decided it would be better and more fitting to just generate incoherent strings of sounds. Thus Q*bert’s oddly charming gibberish swearing was born.
This swearing was revisited in the 2012 movie Wreck-It Ralph, where Q*bert is seen as a homeless game character living in the surge protector known as Game Central Station. The bizarre symbols and noises are noted by Fix-It Felix as “Q*bertese,” implying that it was not cursing at all, but a foreign language.
Land of the Rising Sin
The Famicom, Nintendo’s “family computer,” took Japan by storm in the mid ‘80s. Many thought the video game craze was over after the devastating collapse of Atari and the average arcade scene in 1983, but Nintendo intended to prove everyone wrong and launched their influential home console that same year. Japanese games tend to be a bit zanier than your average title, and many times they feature bits of English. Often this text is a referred to as “engrish” due to its poor translation, improper spelling and grammatical errors. Well known examples being lines like “A Winner is You!” and “All your base are belong to us.”
While many games presented information in broken sentences and phrases, only one title dropped the F-bomb right in your lap. Bakutoushi Patton-Kun, or “Explosive Fighter Patton” was released in 1988 for the ill-fated Famicom Disk System. This multiplayer tank game was known for its aggressive instructions which stated, “TURN TO SIDE B AND INSERT TO FUCKING BOX!” Ok, ok. Yeesh. No need to yell.
Two years later a title appeared bearing the name Download. The NEC Avenue-developed game was made exclusively for the PC Engine, which you might know better as the TurboGrafx 16. The game is barely known, and let me tell you that searching for a game named Download online is a special kind of hell.
Download is a side scrolling shoot’em up set in the city of Kabukicho. The year is 2099 and you control Syd, a man hell-bent on rescuing his lady friend Deva from the corrupt Kabukicho police. How does one do that? With a flying motorcycle that shoots lasers! The title is pretty standard fare for a game of that time and is considered a solid action experience. It’s when you fail that things get a little blue. While the game never saw a release in North America, it still had some seriously intense “Game Over” screens that appeared in English.
The next time you mess something up and someone has the gall to tell you about it just frown and yell, “No shit! I got the wrong way!”
The Damn That Got Away
Back in the late ‘80s Nintendo was an eccentric electronic juggernaut. According to the newly-released novel Console Wars the gaming giant controlled a thereafter unheard of 90% of the video game market. The Big N approached this power with cautious optimism, not wanting to become the next Atari. For this reason Nintendo set out to make sure all the titles for their new cash cow, the Nintendo Entertainment System, had quality gameplay and family friendly content. Games from Japan were heavily censored so as not to include too much violence, sexual content or swearing. But of course, some still made it through.
The game Commando was already an arcade hit when its sequel was released on the NES and Famicom in 1988. The game was dubbed Hitler’s Revival: Top Secret in Japan, and lord knows that wasn’t going to fly in America. The game’s name was changed to Bionic Commando and the gameplay itself differed greatly from its arcade father. All Nazi symbolism was changed for the North American release, yet the scene at the end of the game when Hitler’s head exploded stayed intact.
Yep. That’s the one. Oh, and that isn’t Hitler. Capcom decided to change his name to “Master-D” for all regions outside Japan. Despite the name change, the loss of his Nazi attire and the lack of head exploding Master-D still managed to get a “Damn” past the North American censors. Of course, you had to beat the game to get to this fabled line of dialogue, but it was well worth it.
Maybe the “D” in Master-D stands for “Damn.” I guess we’ll never know.
Dirty Duke and a Foul-Mouthed Fantasy
While Duke Nukem was no stranger to guns and pixelated carnage, it wasn’t until he stepped into the world of 3D in early 1996 that he caught everyone’s attention. Featuring nudity, graphic violence and some of the most memorable one-liners in gaming history, Duke Nukem 3D took the world by storm. The game was developed by team of only eight to twelve people and went on to become one of the most influential titles of the late ‘90s.
While Duke’s classic dialogue—such as “Eat shit and die!” or “Life’s a bitch and then you die”—caused a small stir amongst parents and the pure at heart, it was actually Duke’s interaction with the ladies that caused the most controversy. The game was censored in various countries and on multiple ports, but it remains one of the most badass games to grace a PC. Hail to the king, baby!
A year after Duke Nukem muscled his way into gamers’ hearts, a different kind of classic made its way to every RPG fan’s radar. Final Fantasy VII is hailed as one of the greatest role playing games of all time, with many citing it as their favorite title. While the game was not nearly as raunchy as some of the “Mature” rated outings, it still introduced a generation of PlayStation owners to some choice language. Most of the cursing in FF7 comes from Barrett Wallace or Cid Highwind, both of whom are integral characters in the game’s story and action.
Almost nothing beyond “damn” and “hell” made it past the Q*Bert-esque censoring seen above, though in early versions of the game the word “shit” can be seen in all its glory. Later versions, such as the PC and “Greatest Hits” titles, have the word fully censored. Why this happened is unknown, though it’s most likely so the game could stay true to its “Teen” rating. But honestly, who gives a shit?
A Rare Occurrence
Back in the late ‘90s, Rareware could do no wrong. Goldeneye 007, Banjo-Kazooie, Donkey Kong 64—only Rare could deliver hit after hit on Nintendo’s 64 bit console. One of Rare’s early N64 titles was dubbed Pro-AM 64, a racing game that would be the follow-up to the popular NES series of the same name. Over time the game evolved into Diddy Kong Racing, a title which also featured playable critters Rare had been developing for other blockbuster hits. Among these were Banjo of Banjo-Kazooie fame, and the infamous Conker the Squirrel.
In fact Conker was seen in his own game before he made an appearance in Diddy Kong Racing. At E3 1997, Rare premiered the first footage of Conker’s Quest, a 3D platformer in the same vein as Super Mario 64. The game was delayed various times and eventually its name was changed to Twelve Tales: Conker 64. Though the gameplay was solid and the characters were interesting, Rare had one big issue—Conker 64 was remarkably similar to the already-completed Banjo-Kazooie. Something needed to push the game in a whole new direction. That something, of course, was mature content.
Sources from gaming sites IGN and GameSpot reported that the game would be delayed once again while Rare quickly began to overhaul the vast majority of the subject matter to make it as crude, violent, and sexual as possible while still sticking with the happy-go-lucky world they had built. The game launched in 2001, at the end of the Nintendo 64's life cycle, as Conker’s Bad Fur Day. The title became somewhat of a cult hit right off the bat, but it didn’t sell particularly well due to the unfortunate contrast between Nintendo’s mostly younger audience and the title’s mature nature. Conker’s foul mouth moved on to an Xbox remake known as Conker: Live and Reloaded in 2005 and wasn’t heard from until his most recent appearance for the game Spark at E3 2014.
Though swearing isn’t as uncommon an occurrence in mature-rated titles, there are some that do it better, or maybe just louder, than others. In 2006 the game Scarface: The World is Yours launched to positive reviews and a new Guinness World Record for dirty language. Over the title’s 31,000 lines of dialog, the word “fuck” is used exactly 5,688 times, far surpassing any other console, PC or handheld game’s use of the famous four-letter word.
Epic Games, the developers behind the Unreal and Gears of War series, announced in 2008 that they were working on a new IP for the Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC. The result was Bulletstorm, a first-person shooter that used creative killing and cursing to give players a more humorous adventure. Though the insult “dick” was surely used in a game before Bulletstorm, it’s pretty evident that the over-the-top shooter made the most of the word and managed to use it in some truly influential and insightful ways, such as “What the dick-tits!?”
Sticks and stone may break my bones, but words can never hurt me—the classic schoolyard comeback that always seemed to make sense, at least a on physical level. But hurtful words would never be the same after 2012's ill-received Lollipop Chainsaw. Boss zombie and punk rocker Zed makes his hatred known by literally slinging insults at scantily-clad protagonist Juliet. Phrases like “Fucking bitch!” and “Vanilla slut!” rise from Zed’s mouth and fly towards players in a hail storm of swears. We all knew words could be used as weapons, but this is the first video game where that notion can be taken seriously. Believe me when I tell you that you don’t want to get hit by a “Cocksucker.”
The Commonplace Curse
Twenty years ago a game with colorful language would have been the outlier, a title that was daring enough to prove it could sell even with profanity. Today swearing and mature themes are simply par for the course. Every current and last-gen system has at least a few games that feature cursing, and many host dozens. Expletives aren’t just for the Duke Nukems and the Conkers of the world anymore. It has grown from a novelty to a way that real people express themselves.
Multiple “Game of the Year” award winners have embraced foul language to help convey a certain attitude. Naughty Dog’s 2013 masterpiece The Last of Us uses swearing as a form of desperation and occasional humor. After scouring the games script myself I can report that no curse word is used more in the action survival title than “shit.” The well-known obscenity is used over 160 times in the game’s script, edging out the infamous F-word, which is heard on over 130 occasions. The fluid and realistic dialogue of the game gives players a more personal insight into Joel and Ellie’s dark and twisted world.
You can’t have a list of games that have generated controversy and not include Grand Theft Auto, right? Also released in 2013, Grand Theft Auto V is another commercially and critically successful hit that has honed in on a more realistic form of swearing. The series as a whole is well known for exposing generation after generation of players to bad language and other morally reprehensible deeds. While Grand Theft Auto V’s gameplay may be a bit outrageous at times, its crass diction is a perfect fit for its overlying story and characters.
It seems swearing will always have a more prominent place in modern gaming going forward. Over the years, cursing has come to represent more than just a dirty mind or a one-dimensional character. It will certainly be interesting to see what current taboo may just be a blip on the screen in the coming future.
GiantBoyDetective is a long time Kotaku regular and daily contributor to the Talk Amongst Yourselves blog. He revels in all things gaming (especially Nintendo) and can be found on Twitter under the title @SuperBentendo.