PC adventure games are a lot like Westerns; in their prime, wildly popular genres that dominated their respective mediums during their era, but died out surprisingly swiftly when consumer taste shifted. Few people will argue that PC adventure games as a genre are alive and well; sure, you have episodic adventure games still being produced (like the new Sam & Max and Strong Bad games) but during the 80?s and ’90s, when it came to PC gaming, adventure games were king, and have all but vanished in the 21st century.
Some of them?like Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Day of the Tentacle and King?s Quest VI, remain some of the best games of all time. But then a lot of them are really, really bad, and some of these terrible games cost a hell of a lot of money to make. Here?s a look at 10 of the worst offenders.
10) The Dig
Lucasarts released The Dig back in 1995 to the delighted anticipatory drooling of nerds across the country. The plot was pretty basic: a giant asteroid is threatening Earth, so NASA sends up a crack team of astronauts to blow it up. During the mission, the astronauts accidentally activate an alien spaceship that takes them to another world. With a lead character voiced by Robert Patrick and promising stellar character animation and amazing CG, fans expected The Dig to be one of the best adventure games ever made.
Instead, it?s a humorless, incredibly dull ?adventure? where you wander around a lifeless monochrome planet solving boring puzzles (Assemble a turtle skeleton! Change shapes on a stick!) and trying to figure a way back home. The tone of the game is supposed to be ?haunting?, since it?s a dead and abandoned alien world and all, but instead it?s kind of like hanging out in a new age shop where you?re waiting for the manager to come back from lunch and tell you about his prayer crystals but you don?t know when that?s going to happen so you just sit in a chair and listen to the soothing music for a few hours while assembling a plastic slide puzzle with a picture of Pac-Man on it. The game also advertised having dialogue written by legendary sci-fi author Orson Scott Card, which sounds great until you realize that in order to make this a selling point, the characters never, ever shut up and go on at length about every uninteresting thing they see. Simply picking up a metal rod will subject you to a minute-long monologue about the possibilities inherent in said metal rod. The Dig had so much potential but wound up being one of the most boring adventures ever.
9) Escape From Monkey Island
The first three Monkey Island games are, inarguably, three of the funniest and most entertaining adventure games ever made. Hilarious dialogue, clever puzzles, great characters; they had it all. So how do you go about totally fucking up a great franchise? Why, force it into 3D and ditch the people who wrote the previous games!
Escape From Monkey Island is a pretty dismal effort. The puzzles are unimaginative and the writing stinks. Gone are the clever interactions and dry wit; this time they went for Dreamworks Animation-style pop culture references in lieu of actual jokes, so there are locations like ?Starbuccaneers?. Get it? They?re motherfucking pirates, so they DRINK COFFEE AT A PLACE CALLED STARBUCCANEERS. Fucking hilarious, right?
The worst part about Escape from Monkey Island, however, is the ending; you?re forced to play an incredibly unfunny, frustrating and badly designed fighting game called ?Monkey Kombat.” See, the Monkey Island series has a history of ?insult swordfighting?, wherein you duel another pirate by trading quips. They did away with that and instead paired a Mortal Kombat parody with that go-to comedy animal that makes everything instantly side-splitting: monkeys. Yes, it?s as horrible as it sounds. Escape From Monkey Island was not only an unnecessary sequel, it killed the franchise for good by sucking so badly. Fuck this game.
8) Quest for Glory 3: Wages of War
The Quest For Glory series was an odd duck. It was an attempt at marrying classic adventure gameplay with hardcore roleplaying elements, including character stats and levels, skills, and combat. The first game in the series wasn?t bad, but the two genres seemed an odd fit. Still, it was amusing enough. At the end of the second game?wherein the villain, Ad Avis, escapes?the on-screen text announces that he?ll appear in the next game, suggesting a serial storyline. Turns out they decided to scrap that for the third game and instead send you to the land of furries.
That?s right. Furries. Quest For Glory III was inserted at the last minute into the franchise, and it was obviously designed by furries because you spend the entire fucking game interacting with creepy ?Liontaurs? (which is a lion with the body of a horse and the penis of a horse in case your brain has not yet been invaded by the furry menace) who are warring against a tribe of Leopardtaurs (which is a leopard with the body of a horse and.. fuck it). Not only is the story fairly uninspired, the whole game feels really slapped together; it?s shorter than the others, and there?s a bug that prevents you from getting a perfect score. It also ditches the series? trademark humor and instead takes everything really goddamn seriously, which compounds the awfulness of the furry element. It?s like reading a really shitty furry webcomic that considers itself a straight-faced epic rather than something to be rightly mocked. That there likely exists lion-on-leopard furry porn based on this game is enough to damn it to this list.
7) The Adventures of Willy Beamish
Willy Beamish was advertised as the adventure game equivalent of a Saturday morning cartoon; colorful graphics, revolutionary character animation for a PC game, and a story right out of the children?s programming playbook, but with humor aimed at an adult audience. Instead, Willy Beamish turned out to be a shockingly ugly, badly-animated, unfunny mess.
Whoever they hired to do the art design on this game should be shot. The background art looks like it was rejected from a 1970s Christian cartoon, with weird, fucked up character design that never, ever looks good. They also used some kind of strange system to do the animation, which was being advertised as ?hand-drawn,” meaning the artists drew each frame individually and animated them by hand. The result is that no two frames ever seem to look alike; the characters are constantly off-model, their faces and bodies distorting strangely even in the most basic of movement. It?s like watching a cartoon put together by retarded children.
The story isn?t anything to write home about. There?s an evil babysitter, a frog-jumping contest and ultimately you?re doing battle with an evil capitalist, who happens to be a lame (and now extremely dated) parody of Leona Helmsley. But the real kick in the balls is the game?s conclusion; it wraps up at the ?Nintari Championships.” Throughout the game you have access to Willy?s Nintari console, which you have to ?practice? at for the championships, and by ?practice? they mean you watch the same cutscene of Willy playing a platformer for about 30 seconds. If you don?t do this shit over and over again?at least once or twice per ?day? in the game?s timeline?you lose the championship and get a shitty ending. They seriously included a game mechanic where if you don?t watch a cutscene of SOMEONE ELSE PLAYING A VIDEO GAME then you lose. What the fuck is that shit?
6) The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery
The first Gabriel Knight game was indisputably awesome. It had great 2D graphics, excellent characters, a sincerely creepy story and Tim Curry voicing the lead character. So when it was announced that the sequel, The Beast Within, would be about werewolves in Germany and use the same odious ?look, real people!? interactive movie style that the adventure game industry had been collectively orgasming over for a few years, fans were worried.
But that didn?t stop Sierra! The second Gabriel Knight game has all the same problems most other ?interactive movies? do?the acting is really bad and the sets look cheap. To make matters worse, all the charm of the original?which focused on Voodoo legends in New Orleans, a unique subject matter to be sure?is gone in this one, focusing instead on a boring werewolf legend that basically amounts to ?Oh my god, it?s YOU! YOU?RE the werewolf!? You also get stuck playing as Gabriel?s assistant Grace Nakamura for a few chapters, who in the first game was pleasantly sarcastic but in this one comes across as a bitter, shrill bitch to everyone she talks to. There isn?t much ?mystery? here, really, and the conclusion feels rushed. This game basically wasted most of the promise of the original.
5) Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist
Everyone knows Al Lowe isn?t funny. He?s managed to make about a dozen games, all while pretending to be funny and appealing to people with shitty senses of humor. While he?s best known for his work churning out low-grade ?bawdy? comedies in the Leisure Suit Larry franchise (and his ill-fated attempt at creating a family adventure game, the loathsome Torin?s Passage), he also tried his hand at a western genre parody, Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist. It?s like Blazing Saddles, if Blazing Saddles were a hideous steaming pile of unfunny bullshit. In fact, part of the reason this game is so pathetic is that it?s trying really, really hard to be Blazing Saddles: The Game and yet can?t even manage to come anywhere near being as funny as even a single minute of Blazing Saddles. It?s like watching Uwe Boll try to make a Holocaust movie because he idolizes Steven Spielberg.
The premise is basic: good guy comes to troubled western boom town as a pharmacist and as the villains encroach he has to dredge up his violent past to take them down. It?s a parody (or at least it?s billed as one) written by a hack so there are a lot of obvious jokes, mostly sexual, sometimes racist (he has an Indian sidekick who?s INDIAN! You know, like Apu! Bet you didn?t see that one coming! Are you holding your motherfucking sides yet because this thing only gets more gut-busting as the gags roll on!). The graphics are fucking hideous; they were going for this hyper-stylized look but everything just looks ugly and unappealing.
4) Martian Memorandum
The second in the now-forgotten Tex Murphy franchise, Martian Memorandum was released between Mean Streets and the only Tex Murphy game anyone ever gave a shit about, Under A Killing Moon, which has the dubious honor of being one of the first ?interactive movie? style adventure games released. That progression in technology is illustrated by this game, which is sort of an awkward halfway point between illustrated graphics and motion-captured actors.
The game itself isn?t anything special?a wordy, dull sci-fi noir mash-up that tries way, way too hard for Raymond Chandler-esque prose and winds up just being verbose and lame. But it?s the execution that kills this game?almost everything about it is flawed. From the badly-acted little video clips and scratchy PC speaker voiceover work, it?s a clear attempt to shoehorn in live actors at a time when that gimmick was selling games and getting noticed by the gaming press but the technology just wasn?t capable of delivering solid results. The live-action clips are just embarrassing; there?s a French guy named ?Jocques Sparrow? (hey, I wonder if they could sue Disney for stealing that name!) who answers his door in a beret and yells ?MON DIEU, WHAT ZEE ?ELL ARE YOU DOING EERE?!? in the worst fake French accent ever. There?s even a sex scene with a secretary who immediately propositions you after you give her her lost earring back. The scene is hilariously bad and even has the character wearing cheesy early ’90s lingerie.
3) Every Single Leisure Suit Larry Game Ever
The very first Leisure Suit Larry game came out in 1987, and it wasn?t funny at all or even a very good adventure game, but people bought it because it might have tits in it. It doesn?t, but people bought it because it might. They were let down, but they couldn?t tell anyone they?d bought it and they probably jerked off to the hot tub scene at the end anyway in spite of there being no real nudity save for a crude 8-bit drawing of a chick in a Jacuzzi.
They then made six sequels, only one of which has tits in it?the seventh game, Love for Sail, but even then it?s an ?easter eg.”. Then they made a 3D version, the eighth game in series, Magna Cum Laude, which has a surplus of tits, but remains painfully unfunny, recycling jokes from crappy college comedies and relying on pointless minigames to progress.
So what we have here is probably the most successful adventure game series of all time?one of the few that continues to this day and even has a next-gen sequel coming out?predicated on the notion that people will sit through a giant load of intensely unfunny fart and boner jokes if at the end of it all they?ll get to see some cartoon boobs. That says something about us as a nation. As a people. And it’s not good.
2) King?s Quest VII: The Princeless Bride
In a bold attempt to alienate the millions of people who played the massively successful King?s Quest series over the years, for the seventh ambitious installment, series creator Roberta Williams decided to try her best to turn the game into an interactive Disney Princess movie using a flawed and shitty ?hand-drawn? animation technique, similar to the one used in Willy Beamish. The result is a dreadfully amateurish, downright embarrassing game that should be forgotten by time.
God damn this game fucking sucked. Not only was it an obvious rip off of the Disney formula?the fucking game opens with a princess singing a god damn musical number for fuck?s sake ? but they just didn?t have the technology down to do decent 2-dimensional animation in a computer game yet. All the same problems that floated to the surface in Willy Beamish are here?ugly-ass malformed characters that go off-model in every other frame, except this time the graphics were at a much higher resolution so every tiny mistake in the animation was visible. The in-game animated cut-scenes are a motherfucking travesty; they?re so crude and badly-done they may as well have been animated in MSPaint.
In spite of all that, the worst thing about King?s Quest VII is that it took the series from being appealing to nearly all demographics?kids and adults, men and women?straight into girly-girl land. The box art looked like a direct-to-video Sleeping Beauty knockoff, and the protagonist was a blonde princess (although for a big chunk of the game you?re playing her mom, so you can choose between old woman and fairytale princess, awesome!) with forest animal friends and all that shit. Any man or self-respecting woman who played through the vastly superior King?s Quest VI would be mortified to be caught buying?let alone playing?this bullshit.
Phantasmagoria was probably the most hyped and anticipated adventure game of all time. Not only was it to be revolutionary?one of the first big-budget, competently-made and lavish adventure games ever, with real actors and groundbreaking interactive movie technology?it was going to be blisteringly mature, a horror story that didn?t pull punches. In fact, the game has a rape scene, wherein Adrienne?the protagonist?is assaulted by her crazy husband. It was controversy fodder for the national media.
Turns out most of the game is you clicking randomly around a badly-rendered version of Disney?s Haunted Mansion ride while controlling a woman who owns approximately one orange long-sleeved shirt, one pair of black jeans and one pair of white Keds that she wears every single fucking day. The plot is just a knockoff of The Shining, where a couple moves in to a remote estate and the husband goes crazy and tries to kill his family, except here it?s ham-fistedly explained at the end that he was possessed by a really fucking badly designed and poorly rendered ?demon? who you then have to fight off before leaving the house, traumatized, never again to return. Hell, they scrapped this entire story even in the sequel, Phantasmagoria 2: A Puzzle of Flesh which tried so god damn hard to be edgy and ?adult? it basically became self-parody.
The production values in Phantasmagoria are laughable. It looks absolutely terrible and if the novelty of seeing moving pictures on your PC didn?t make gamers in 1995 say ?GADZOOKS, REVOLUTIONARY!? then they might?ve seen what a shit game this was. This thing is so obsessed with showing you video clips that there?s a 15-second cutscene that plays every time you try to open a door that?s locked, which happens all the damn time for the first half of the game. Even more hilarious are the death scenes; especially the ending, where if you don?t do just the right thing at the right time Adrienne?s head gets cleaved by a swinging axe, which looks like they filled a pumpkin with Funblood, stuck a blonde wig on it and blew it up.
Phantasmagoria is sort of the ultimate failed promise; they wanted you to think it was going to be this mind-blowing horror adventure that would test your limits, but it?s basically a badly-shot, poorly-written direct-to-video movie where before you get to see the amateurish action sequences you first have to figure out how to find the key that opens the attic. Which is fucking lame.
Robert Bricken is one of the original co-founders of the site formerly known as Topless Robot, and its first editor-in-chief, serving from 2008-12. He brought the site to prominence with “nerd news, humor and self-loathing” as its motto, raising it from total internet obscurity to a readership in the millions, with help from his savage “FAQ” movie reviews and Fan Fiction Fridays. Under his tenure Topless Robot was covered by Gawker, Wired, Defamer, New York magazine, ABC News, and others, and his articles have been praised by Roger Ebert, Avengers actor Clark Gregg, comedian and The Daily Show correspondent John Hodgman, the stars of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Rifftrax, and others. He is currently the managing editor of io9.com. Despite decades as both an amateur and professional nerd, he continues to be completely unprepared for either the zombie apocalypse or the robot uprising.