A video game's ending is a delicate thing. While it can go anywhere, it has one requirement that sets it apart from the conclusions of books, movies, and other narratives: a game's ending should be a reward of some kind. It's only fair to the player who's just spent hours and hours hopping on goombas or grinding levels by killing desert rats. Woe to the designer who just slaps in a cheap "CONGRATURATIONS" screen after many hazardous mazes and frustrating bosses. Mistakes like that live forever in disgrace, right next to Karnov.
There are, of course, endings that completely screw with the player's expectations, and they're most effective when no one sees them coming. It's one thing to have an insane twist at the close of a game full of insane twists, but it's quite another to cap off a happy exercise in jumping and coin-collecting by showing the Mushroom Kingdom firebombed into oblivion. We're discussing eight of the most memorable mindfucks in game history below. Spoilers abound, and we stuck to American-released games so as not to ruin, say, that part at the end of Sakura Wars where half the characters turn into archangels for no reason.
8) No More Heroes
Considering how Goichi "Suda51" Suda's brain-melting Killer 7 turned out, we would've been horribly disappointed if his subsequent game, No More Heroes, had lacked a weird, confusing, laugh-at-the-player finale. Fortunately, it had one. After disposing of many elite assassins and his own half-sister (itself a player-freaking experience), otaku hero Travis Touchdown finds himself in this little situation.
It's in keeping with the spirit of No More Heroes. Mostly. The game's story sticks close to the real world than Killer 7 did, and it's defined by gory self-riffing that never quite spells out whether it's making fun of nerds like Travis or modestly celebrating them. It's probably the former, considering that he's on the toilet a lot. Then there's the art-gallery dissolve, which we'd compare to St. Elsewhere's last episode if we thought that Suda51 was being serious. The biggest joke here? There'll be a No More Heroes sequel, but not until 2010.
Before Jordan Mechner brought us the Prince of Persia franchise, he gave the Atari generation a lesson in manners. Karateka, his 1984 martial-arts game, has a gi-wearing whitebread hero getting into one-on-one fights with various martial artists and birds. He eventually rescues a princess named Mariko from an evil lord named Akuma, who dresses not like a demonic street fighter but rather like he's got the title role in a community-theater production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado.
Theatrical or not, Karateka's fights all require the player to switch from a run to a combative karate pose. Once they've beaten Akuma, most players just run into Mariko's cell, where she waits with outstretched arms. But what happens if you approach her in your battle stance?>
THAT happens. Remember, this was 1984. There were no passwords, no save slots, and no respawn points in games like Karateka. There was only a princess ending your entire game because you lacked a certain courtesy.
6) Cyber Lip
Cyber-Lip is proof of just how valuable a twist ending can be. It's a Contra-style Neo Geo shooter that does nothing of note: you're a generic commando dispatched to a city where you gun down soldiers and a creepily phallic boss or two. Then you destroy the eponymous super-computer and set everything to rights.
Huh. Can a computer really go "insain"?
I have? Well, that's a relief, because that computer was telling me...
Wait, I thought we were fighting for the...
It might be a cheap turnabout, but players would remember that part of Cyber-Lip at the very least. And when you've shoved over five bucks into a Neo Geo arcade machine, you deserve to come away with something.
5) Final Fantasy VII
The Internet still loves to argue about Final Fantasy VII nearly twelve years after its release, which is a compliment in some backhanded way. Most of the game's controversy centers on whether it's a solid, groundbreaking RPG with somewhat dated graphics or a mediocre, vapid mess with severely dated graphics. Yet there's one part of the game that was obviously designed to get players bickering over the actual plot.
To recap: at the game's end, a giant meteor is barreling down to extinguish all life on the planet, and only a magical spell called Holy stands in its way. Holy doesn't quite work when the big rock comes down, but the planet's glowy lifestream fairy-essence-stuff flows out to help. Then it's the future, and the game's least human main character, the dog-lion Red XIII, and his two dog-lion kids scale a cliff to look upon the ruins of the city of Midgar, now overgrown with plants.
So what happened to all of the people? For years after the game came out, fans wondered if the epilogue implied that the human race was saved or if the planet just saved itself and wiped out all of those evil, polluting, nitrogen-farting humans. Some players, unwilling to accept an ambiguous ending, discovered the horrible world of fan fiction by writing their own gushy, embarrassing conclusions, with weddings and angst aplenty. Square stepped in eight years later and made the movie sequel Advent Children, which started off with the same Red XIII scene (which was centuries in the future) and then showed that everyone was still alive a few years after the game's ending. Not that this stopped the fan fiction.