Isometrics: Ride to Hell: Retribution and the bizarre appeal of the giftedly bad
Welcome to Isometrics, a sweeping sibilant stare at the literary world of gaming, although it may take a little time to justify it’s ‘literary’ qualities, simply because I’m talking the worst game in recent memory and what is commonly described as one of the worst games of all time: Ride to Hell Retribution. It is awful in a plethora of blatantly obvious, objective ways and yet at the same time, given the odd symbiotic relationship of game and player, one of the most bizarrely compelling gameplay experiences I’ve ever had (albeit completely unintentionally). So what is the appeal of games so terrible, and what can they teach us about the ways and means in which games try to enrapture the player?
The answer to the first can be traced probably back to the earliest works of art, but the earliest well-documented example is the poet and actor William McGonagall, widely considered to be the writer of the worst poetry in the history of the English language. There was a perverse glee in his poetry, which got him pelted with rotten fish whenever he performed it in public. In the Book of Heroic Failures, written nearly a century after his death, Stephen Pile noted he was “so giftedly bad he backed unwittingly into genius”. The people of Dundee seemed to share that same sense of schadenfreude, and invariably the performances got so wild that they were banned for safety reasons.
This idea is prevalent in all fiction in one form or another and is probably why there is an affinity for the “so bad it’s good” type of fare, summed up in gaming by the Japanese word “kusoge”. These are badly coded, badly designed games but at the same time have a perverse appeal to the masochist and lovers of irony, since often-times a very terrible game is preferable to a terribly forgettable one. Given the gaming world’s ever omnipresent penchant for trend hopping, this isn’t entirely a surprise. After all, the flavour of the month games are dime a dozen to cash in on a popular trend and pretty much leave no trace in the public consciousness. For example, in the platforming world, everyone and their grandmother has heard of Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog, but how many will know of Zero the Kamikaze Squirrel or Rocky Rodent? Not that many, and not because they were terrible games that didn’t escape the portly and spiky shadows of their more successful brethren and weren’t terrible enough to be morbidly amusing, such as Bubsy or Awesome Possum.
There’s more to this idea of giftedly bad works than just being a terrible example of a popular trend. If that were the case Soldier of Fortune Payback or Raven Squad would have massive cult appeal. Nor can it be based simply on mechanical problems, otherwise games that simply didn’t work at all would be considered the worst games of all time. For a game to be truly terrible there has to be enough talent to get a game to function at all, because then more traditional elements such as art assets, narrative, gameplay, audio and the other checklist elements of your average game review can bring your blood to the boil.
So where does this leave us with the astoundingly awful Ride to Hell? Well it mostly works, seeming to use as many of the Unreal Engine 3 presets as they could get away with, cannibalising most of the mechanics from the disappointingly morose and drab Dead to Rights Retribution, with its mix of cover based shooting action and generic beat-em-up elements, mixed with some racing mechanics. Eutechnyx were hardly the first and will definitely not be the last to mix genres like this, and what the game is mechanically isn’t why the game is so giftedly, hilariously awful. Oh sure, the mechanics when they don’t work are part of the hilarity, particularly when the end of a combo or a headshot sends a foe flying hundreds of feet into the air for seemingly no reason. Those sorts of gleeful physics bugs are funny but it isn’t merely the lack of bugfixes and playtesting that makes a game so simultaneously hateful and amusing. It would be perhaps the storyline which artificially lengthens with the subtlety of polystyrene and is about as weighty. Or the hilarious direction, which pretty much doomed the game to failure with one of the single most nonsensical introductory scenes in the history of fiction. It was simultaneously over and underdirected, with some cut scenes being lavish monuments to insanity, and others containing some of the laziest quality testing possible, with mouths warping into the faces, textures failing to load and the sound quality changing within single sentences. The same is true of the level design, with some levels being absolute feats of insane logic, using mechanics far beyond the capability of the programmers, and others being hour long walks through previously explored areas being forced into fight after fight.
Then there’s the character you play as too; one of the least likeable in recent memory despite this entire last generation creating the same gruff violent marine type characters in game after game, something not helped by its misogyny, featuring girls either as objects to rescue, object to have sex with, or in some cases both within seconds of each other.
I could go on for hours and hours about the many many crimes against gaming Ride to Hell commits but at the same time it’s not entirely damnable, much like McGonnagall can’t be completely condemned despite being the worst thing to happen to the English language before Yolo entered the public consciousness. It had a rough production history, being cancelled by Deep Silver Vienna only to be continued in bits and release nearly five years later. It’s broken, flawed and ruined, and in a gaming world full of overprofessionalism and teams so large and controlled it’s a wonder they don’t automate the creation process, it’s nice to be reminded of these quirky foibles…
Have any of you been masochistic enough to play Ride to Hell? What did you think? Are there any other Kusoge games you’re as shamefully fond of as I am of this (ie. Any fondness at all)? Drop me a line in the comments below, on the Geek Pride facebook group or my Twitter @HuggyDave. See you next Wednesday!