Frustrating games in videogame history

Feature Jamie Andrew 20 Aug 2014 - 06:50

From the 1980s to the 21st century, Jamie takes us on a guided tour of the most frustrating videogames he's encountered so far...

I want to take you on a journey through a few decades of game-playing frustration, name-checking the titles that have most made me want to kick a sleeping puppy in the face: games that only a heart surgeon would have the dexterity and patience to complete; games so disgustingly unfair and evil that even Satan beholds their exquisitely cruel construction with envy, kicking himself that he didn’t think of them first.

(Disclaimer: no actual puppies were harmed in the making of this article)

Now for another couple of disclaimers: pointless I know, because nobody actually reads these introductions, right? I believe it’s traditional to skip the rest of this article and head to the comments’ section below filled with boundless and unquenchable rage. (If you’re skimming this now and find yourself sorely lacking for time, here are a few ready-made sample comments you can copy and paste: “(x) game is frustrating? Really? My aunty’s dead cat could complete that on the hardest difficulty level with all of its paws amputated” or “Ths guy’s such a looser. Duz he even play gaymes? LOL”, or how about, “I’ve never read so much crap in all my life. (x) game is only frustrating if you’re a shirking moron. I hope the author gets maimed in some kind of freak agricultural accident, ideally involving ballistic potatoes.”)

Anyway, without further ado, it’s disclaimer time:  

1. Please bear in mind whilst reading this that I’m something of a technophobe. My mobile phone is so antiquated that it doesn’t even have the Snake game, and the only console I’ve ever owned as an adult – the Xbox 360 – has only been in my home since Christmas 2013. This means that there are great swathes of gaming - particularly console - history of which I’m entirely ignorant and oblivious. So I’m not missing out your ‘greatest’ hits on purpose: frankly, I’m old. Old and ready for the sweet, sweet duvet of death.

2. The following article can only serve up a small sample of the thousands of games that have tormented mankind since the inception of home computers. You probably won’t agree with most, or any, of the frustrating moments and things I’ve chosen to cover. I’m not aiming to create a definitive guide; all I want to do is vent, and drag a few of you with me down memory lane.

With these points in mind, let’s get started.

The Sinclair ZX Spectrum

My first submission for the most frustrating game ever isn’t even a game; it’s an entire gaming system.

For those of you who are, like me, between the ages of 30 and 40 (or The Walking Dead, as we’re collectively known), the Sinclair ZX Spectrum will need no introduction. It was likely the first home computer most of us owned. Now, it’s easy for the post-80s whipper-snappers reading this to look back and scoff at the Spectrum’s 8-bit, jerky-graphiced crappiness, but that’s a bit like travelling back in time to 100AD and laughing at a chariot because it isn’t a Renault Megane.

The Speccy was a tiny, spongey-keyed keyboard that connected to a bulky 1980s monitor and an external cassette player (later generations of Speccy had an in-built cassette player, but that was pie-in-the-sky dreaming for a young Morlock like me). If you’re reading this now and thinking, “What’s a cassette player?” then I’d very much like to murder you. Contemporary living does a fine enough job of making me feel like an antediluvian irrelevance without any help from you, thank you very much. If you young hipsters are so achingly desperate to know what a cassette player is, then why don’t you just go and Google it into your new Appleotronic Microtechnic Wi-Pod-Sky-Fones? That’s if you’re not too busy sending each other selfies of yourselves twerking. Want to know just how modern I am? In my day a ‘selfie’ was something Prince was reputed to have given himself after undergoing surgery to have ribs removed.

Let’s be fair. There was one really great thing about the Spectrum: the ease with which you could copy games. All you needed were two cassette players, one of which could record, and hey presto, you had yourself your own little bedroom-based pirate lab. Conversely, the worst thing about the Spectrum was the ease with which your older sister could copy over your games. With one little strip of Sellotape she could convert your prized copy of Chuckie Egg into the Radio 1 chart show countdown. (If that sentence confuses you, ask your great-great-great-great-grandparents to explain it.) 

As if all that wasn’t bad enough, the Spectrum’s loading process itself was a sort of game: a game to test if you could sit patiently for twenty minutes without suddenly smashing everything in your mum and dad’s house to pieces.  You inserted the game cassette, pressed play, and then spent anywhere between three and 33 million minutes listening to the most horrendous noise yet imagined by humankind; if you’re a big fan of analogies, the sound of a loading Spectrum brought to mind a robot being beaten up on a construction site as a thousand stray cats screeched their approval.

Sometimes you waited those 33 million minutes only to discover that there’d been a loading error, or the game was broken, and the realisation hit you that you’d just subjected yourself to ‘Guantanamo Bay meets Clockwork Orange’ levels of torture for absolutely no reason. And sometimes, just sometimes, something even worse than that happened: the game did load.             

Manic Miner (ZX Spectrum)

These days video games are total immersion experiences. The game engines, and fully-realised worlds in which you roam, force you to identify with the protagonists you control so completely that reality takes a back seat. Should the scale, intensity and reality-aping nature of gameplay continue to grow exponentially in the coming decades then there’s a very strong chance that our great-great-grand-children are going to be hospitalised with PTSD thanks to the horrific, holodeckish realism of Dead Space 46.   

Back in 1983, things were simpler. Bug-Byte Software Ltd asked you to identify with nothing more than a glorified white pixel, whose animation made Hanna-Barbera look like Pixar. He was a little man called Willy, the titular Manic Miner, whose mission it was to jump around in a succession of caves searching for keys to enable him to escape back to his terranean paradise, where presumably there wasn’t quite so much emphasis on creatures with keys sprouting from their backs and flying toilets.

Unfortunately for my cursed generation, Manic Miner was developed in the days before save-game checkpoints were invented (“And you try and tell the young people of today that… they won’t believe you”). There was no mercy: you could reach the final level with one life left, be moments from victory, and with one minutely misjudged jump find yourself right back at the start of the game - doomed to endure another slog through each and every nonsensical and increasingly treacherous cavern. And when I say ‘minutely misjudged’, I mean it: if a molecule of Willy’s haircut came within three miles of a bush on the platform above him as he was jumping, he – and by extension you - would instantly die. (Obviously ‘you’ wouldn’t die in real life, because Manic Miner wasn’t written by Conal Cochran from Halloween III.)

Once you’d lost that last life you were forced to watch as a Monty Python-esque boot descended from the heavens and fatally crushed your wee Willy’s bequiffed bonce.  Accompanying this charming death-screen was the sort of rub-your-face-in-it sound effect that would provoke even Gandhi to track down the inventor of the ZX Spectrum and beat him to death with his own sandals.

I know what you’re thinking: “Maybe you found the game so frustrating because you were five years old when you first played it, Jamie. Maybe that’s why you only got to level five.” Well, I’ll have you know that I played the game again on a Spectrum Emulator when I was 30.

I got to level five. Bite me, Bug Byte. Bite my arthritic Scottish fingers.    

Tetris (Game Boy)

Tetris was neither developed for nor exclusive to the Game Boy, but in my mind the two are synonymous.

My step-sister and I had Game Boys when we were kids. One day we linked them up with a special cable and played head-to-head Tetris. She was winning, so in a fit of frustration I head-butted my Game Boy, causing a spider-web crack to fill the screen. I promptly hid the Game Boy inside a toy hamper. For every miserable nerve-shredding minute of the following few months I lived in fear of my mother discovering my crime - as inevitably I knew she would. It was like Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, except with He-Man toys and a Japanese games console.

“Where’s your Game Boy, son?” my mum would ask, an eyebrow raised in suspicion.

“Huh,” I’d harrumph in disgust. “Game Boy? God, keep up with the times, woman. What am I, nine years old?”

I was 10. 

Eventually my mother found the broken Game Boy. When confronted with her accusations I did what any man of honour would do in the same situation: I concocted a bizarre and implausible story in which I shifted blame onto the family dog; I claimed the beast had tripped me up as I was strolling through the house ‘in Medias Tetris’. I calmly explained that I was an unspeakably brave and selfless young man who by hiding the evidence was simply trying to save the dog from a beating. I sought exoneration on the grounds that I was a hero in the mould of Schindler, or Beowulf. Incredibly, she believed me: a strange blip in the otherwise unblemished conviction rate of a mother who usually favoured the pre-cog method of crime detection and punishment. (Meaning that if she could imagine that I might possibly be sort-of capable of a crime past, present or future, then I was de facto guilty of it.)

I digress. As late as last year my mother kept an old Game Boy next to her toilet, which was permanently loaded with a Tetris cartridge (the Game Boy, that is, not the toilet: that would be a weird and unnecessarily expensive ritual). Due to the location of the Gameboy, an unscheduled shit-stop in her house could last anywhere between five minutes and an hour – usually the dead-legged latter.  

I would perch tingling and aching on the toilet seat, my bloodless legs dangling in the manner of a puppeteer-less Muppet. What oxygen remained in my body was put to work propelling swear words up through my throat: the foul language as numerous and varied as it was inventive.  

And all throughout I kept trying to sell myself the old lie: “One more game and I’m done.” Just another in a long line of crazed junkies kidding himself that he had the upper hand over his addiction. “Just one more game,’ I’d snarl, ‘and I don’t even care if I win or not. Once this game’s finished, I swear it… I swear on all the gods in the heavens, I’ll switch it off and wipe my arsehole.” Ah, what folly. (Besides, if you wait long enough, you don’t even have to wipe.)

Frustration is built into the game. It’s what keeps you playing. It’s also what keeps you shouting things like: “RANDOM? How can it be RANDOM when that’s the ninth square block in a row? I need a slotty peggy thing or an up-and-downy long line, and you KNOW IT, you Russian son of a bitch!”

I find it incredible how quickly I can invest a machine with the malevolent sentience of Skynet when I’m losing at a game. “This is what you’ve wanted all along, isn’t it, Game Boy? To make me lose my temper and throw you across the room, smash you into the wall. Oh, you’d like that, wouldn’t you? Well I’m glad that Rocky beat Ivan Drago. WHY ARE YOU MAKING ME DO THIS?!! IT’S LIKE YOU WANT MY DOG TO END UP IN THE INFIRMARY!”

North And South (Amiga)

Infogrammes 1988 title North And South was a faithful adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel of the same name, right down to the sleepy Mexican chucking bombs at people, and the photographer getting his arse tickled with a mouse cursor.

Set during the American Civil War, you played as either the Yankees or the Confederates. The main game screen was a map of the United States, around which you moved your troops until your armies dominated every territory, and the last of your enemies had been vanquished. There were three complementary sub-games accessible through the map screen: there was a battle; a one-man run to capture an enemy fort; and a good old-fashioned money-train hijack attempt. 

The army-on-army battles were the most fun, although not without their taste of unfairness. As a human player, you could only control one unit at a time. If you switched control from cavalry to infantry your horses would be left trotting aimlessly in a straight line until you reclaimed control of them, by which point they’d usually met their swift and brutal deaths. If you were battling the computer in single-player mode, then you faced an omnipotent opponent who could control all three unit types simultaneously. It was a bit like playing against Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation (admittedly a Tesco Value version).

One of the most heart-thumpingly maddening sub-games was the fort grab, which was damn near impossible to pull-off. You rushed your little soldier across a scrolling two-tier landscape that was strewn with storage crates, dogs and dynamite. You could try to get him to mount ladders, but that was only possible if you lined your soldier next to the stiles with scientific, pixel-perfect precision. To add to the fun, all throughout your deadly dash you had to dispatch or dodge fast-moving, knife-chucking enemy soldiers - and every vein-bulging, face-slapping, puppy-kicking minute of it against the clock. You always failed. When a computer opponent undertook the same mission, it always won, and seemingly within about seven seconds. It was tricky to stop their progress, given that your strategic defence options were limited to pressing either the up or the down arrow on the keyboard.

In terms of punch-yourself-in-your-own-genitalia frustration, however, nothing can come close to the train hijacks, and where with monotonous regularity your soldier was punched Popeye-style and launched from the carriage of the money-train onto the hard, unforgiving dirt below. I remember it well. As my wee guy beat his fists on the ground as the train retreated away from him, I was usually to be found trying to dismantle my keyboard with my bare hands. 

Shadow Of The Beast 2 (Amiga)

The environments in Shadow Of The Beast 2 were haunting, and all the more alien-seeming for their sparseness. Playing the game gave me the same eerie feeling I got when I first saw the establishing shot of the lithium-cracking station in the Classic Star Trek episode Where No Man Has Gone Before. Yeah, I know: with sentences like that it’s a miracle I ever managed to convince a woman to have sex with me without recourse to bribery and begging letters.

So the game was beautiful, but beautiful counts for bugger all if the gameplay makes you so angry that you want to cut your own face off with a carrot-peeler. If you died – which was often – you returned to the very start of the game. (After all, check points are for pussies. If the game was to pander to your inability to dodge entirely unpredictable and random dangers, you’d never learn, would you?)

There was one upside to dying: the achingly beautiful pan-pipe death music, which I can still recall with perfect clarity a full two decades after my last shot of the game. I would recommend that you seek it out on YouTube, and then listen to it whilst drinking whiskey and staring wistfully out of a window. But then I’m weird.

Besides, dying wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to you in Shadow Of The Beast 2: worst were the moments in which you found yourself aimlessly wandering the empty gamescape, now bereft of baddies and stripped of purpose, because an hour earlier you’d fluffed a puzzle or made a wrong choice, most of the time unaware that the puzzle had even been a puzzle, or the choice a choice. And so you had to kill yourself and start again. And isn’t life always like that?    

Stunt Car Racer (Amiga)

Geoff Crammond’s 1989 masterpiece Stunt Car Racer is one of those game titles that pretty much speaks for itself. There’s a stunt car. And you race it. On a stunt course. Ah, but hang on, there’s a twist: it’s set in the future: deep in the heady, futuristic end-times of 2006. What, you haven’t seen one before? There isn’t a Stunt Car Racer Stunt Course in a town near you? Wow. Your town must be shit. We’ve got three.  

Anyway, the race courses of the ‘future’, as imagined by Crammond, were raised, roller-coaster-esque affairs, which necessitated the use of cranes and chains to hoist competitors to the starting grid. The cars were fitted with turbo boosters, which to my mind is a potentially lethal extra on vehicles designed to race 100-feet in the air on courses without crash barriers, but, hey, that’s stunt racing for you.  

Two drivers battled against each other over a series of increasingly difficult and death-defyingly dangerous courses, progressing through the divisions with a view to taking the league title. But as a human player you couldn’t, because the game was so pant-soilingly difficult. Or perhaps its mastery required effort and patience, two qualities that don’t even make an appearance in the Top 50 of Jamie’s Key Personality Traits.

Whatever damage your car sustained in one race was carried over into subsequent races, meaning silly mistakes in an early race could wreck your chances of future victory. And damage was hard to avoid. Your car was designed for aerodynamics, not durability: a little too much speed over a mere mole-hill of a bump was enough to send a lightning-strike crack up the side of your damage indicator. The kiss of death.

Before long you would come to the conclusion that foul play was your only viable option. Only one small snag in that plan: it’s impossible, too. For some reason the CPU cars were indestructible and immovable. If you seized your chance and tried to smash one of them off the track as they rounded a corner, your car would be the one lying in a smoking, smouldering heap on the ground below. I lost count of the number of times I found myself shouting: “Well I guess there’s no such thing as physics in the future, is there, Crammond?”

Ultima 8 (PC)

I loved dwindling away my sexless teenage years inside Ultima 8’s large and rich gamescape. Many will baulk at my love for number eight, as it’s universally acknowledged to be the ugly, poo-covered step-child of the saga. What can I say? Lack of sex can do things to a boy’s mind.  

My only quibble with the game – and by quibble I mean ‘thing that made me want to flay the skin from my own back and use it to suffocate small forest creatures’ – is that occasionally it attempted to cross-over into the platform-genre, but was hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with  the game-mechanics necessary to make it playable.

At various points throughout the game you had to execute flawless jumps between platforms, be it over water, lava or million-foot drops. Thanks to a combination of poor programming and an isometric game-grid that robbed you of depth perception and spatial awareness, those jumps were almost impossible to get right. Even if you tried to calculate them using the pooled powers of Pythagoras, Stephen Hawking and Carol Vorderman you’d still fail horribly. The only way to succeed was to save your game before every leap, and pray that blind luck would eventually carry you through.

“I’ll bet Crammond had something to do with this too!” I’d cry, punching my mouse.   

GoldenEye & Mario Kart (N64) multiplayer modes

Both GoldenEye and Mario Kart appeared on the N64 in the late 90s; a pair of games most beloved for their multi-player modes. I’m going to lump them together not because they crave comparison but because they were the twin addictions that seized control of me and my no-good stoner friends in the twilight of our youths. We would descend upon my friend (redacted for legal reasons)’s house for nights on end, playing until we could see the gamescapes tattooed on the insides of our eyelids each time we closed our eyes, like a paused image forever burned onto the screen of a plasma TV.

Now and again we’d arrive at our friend’s house to find the console switched off, the controllers cocooned in their cables and imprisoned in a drawer. Our friend occasionally got the crazy idea that we should be communicating with each other instead of sitting dead-eyed and drugged-up in front of a television screen. Twenty minutes of silence would pass. A few tumble weeds would roll past the window outside. My friend would sigh and open the drawer.

Silence would’ve been the healthier option. Four-player Goldeneye with the License to Kill mode enabled (one-shot kill) created so much hostility between us that it became necessary to institute a UN-style charter to defuse the tension: certain levels and weapon-combos were black-listed; certain ‘combat strategies’ were discouraged; and it was strictly forbidden, under pain of banishment, to unpause the game and murder someone while they were away for a piss. Unfortunately, much like the real UN, our resolutions proved useless. The system broke down.  How could it not? We were all bastards.

There was a level called Facility where one of the respawn points was a vent above a toilet cubicle. We all agreed it was unfair to camp out at the respawn point:  the kill was seen as so easy it was tantamount to cheating. Unfortunately, rules pretty quickly fly out of the window when the reward for breaking them is to see one of your friends literally shaking and shrieking with rage. You can’t put a price on that.    

And now we come to Mario Kart: a plinky-plonky, bright and colourful, cutesy jamboree of fun and frolics that has probably been responsible for more fractured friendships and sincere death threats than every civil war in human history put together. I’m sure some boffin could devise a graph to prove that the cutesier a game and its sound effects,the greater the rage you experience as a consequence of something unfair happening to you whilst playing it – like ‘The Blue Shell of Death, which was about as fair as a heart attack at 23.  

If you’re unfamiliar with Mario Kart (and if you are, shame on you) I can sum it up thusly with the following story: you’re a mushroom driving a little car, and a pink princess in a pink car bumps into you and knocks you into a pit of lava; you get mad, and threaten to disembowel the little princess; your anger is so powerful it could be measured in megatons. Somehow the realisation that you’ve never been made to feel this angry over genocide and starvation in the third world, or orphans dying in the streets of your own country, but you have been made to feel this angry over the death of a cartoon mushroom, only serves to make you madder. At yourself, at the world… at your smiling prick of a friend who not only knocked you into last place, but perpetrated this outrage as a pink princess.

If it’s true that cannabis is the chilled-out hippy drug, then why did playing the N64 make a roomful of stoners all want to murder each other? Thank Christ we weren’t coke heads.

PS: Drugs are bad… mkay? They’re also boring. Don’t do them.

Halo 4 (Xbox 360) multiplayer

I would consider myself a reasonably rational human being, given to bouts of ill-temper, certainly, but basically decent and even-keeled. But shove the Xbox twiddle-stick in my hands and shunt me off into the Halo 4 multiplayer kill-zones, and prepare for the evil bastard love-child of Idi Amin and Saddam Hussein.

It’s lucky that I eschew the Xbox 360’s microphone headset, because had it ever been connected during any one of my many frustration-filled forays into the slayer maps I undoubtedly would’ve been banned from Xbox for life. And then arrested. (I genuinely can’t divulge some of the horrific things I’ve shouted, but I’ll share one of my milder efforts with you: “This is worse than being a soldier in a real war. At least in a real war I wouldn’t be continually brought back to life to feel this perpetually fucked off about dying!” That, ladies and gentlemen, is called perspective.) I don’t think my fiancée’s ever thought me sexier than the times she’s walked into the living room and found me threatening a real-world murder on a Halo opponent, who was in all likelihood a six-year-old child.

When I do lose it’s always due to one of the following reasons:

1. I was matched against people whose mastery of the game is in direct inverse proportion to the amount of sex they’ve had with other human beings. I may have lost, but I’m better than these sad, sexless wretches.

2. My opponents all know each other, and they ganged up on me.

3. Those bastards hacked the network, and were clearly cheating. There’s no other way they could have defeated me, for I AM LEGEND!

4. God Himself vowed allegiance to my opponents, and they’re beating me with magic.

And never for this reason:

1. I was a little bit shit. 

Co-op games, in which you’re let down by your so-called team mates, frustrate me the most, and propel me to the greatest extremes of anger. I feel the need to explain and justify my behaviour under these circumstances by drawing a real-world comparison.

Imagine you’re playing in a five-a-side football match. The opposing team is functioning effectively as a unit, each member demonstrating the optimum balance between team-work and individual initiative. On your team, there’s you: you’re playing some world-class football, really giving it your all. There’s just one problem: the rest of your team’s a bunch of bum-poking, brain-damaged bananas. One of them’s doing never-ending squat thrusts in the centre of the pitch; another keeps running for the ball and then tripping over it every single time - and I mean every single time; one of them’s standing in the corner like a statue, and hasn’t moved in over half an hour, and the last one’s chasing you down the pitch repeatedly trying to kick you in the face as you scream at him: ‘WHAT ARE YOU DOING, I’M ON YOUR TEAM YOU ASS-CLOWN!’. If that happened to you in real life you’d go absolutely berserk, and no-one watching would tell you ‘to grow up’ or ‘to calm down because it’s only a silly game’. So you see? My tantrum IS justified, ALRIGHT? (smashes some crockery.)

But, really, when it comes to games like Halo 4, nothing sucks more than the realisation that you’ve been defeated by people with call-signs like BieberRocks, ShakeDatAss and daviesbigschlong.

Nothing. 

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