Recently, I’ve been sorting my retro-gaming collection a bit. Specifically, I’ve gone through all my ZX Spectrum games, seeing if all the tapes/inlays/boxes/etc. match up. Also, I’ve been checking the games against the comprehensive World Of Spectrum online database, just to see if I have anything interesting or as-yet undocumented.
As it turns out, I do have something of interest: I happen to own a copy of the lowest-rated game in the entire database. You might think that in order for a game to be the lowest-rated – especially from an era when there were some really terrifyingly crap games released – it would have to be something a bit special.
And you’d be right.
I have a bit of a perverse fascination with products which are really crap. I’m not just talking ‘a bit rubbish’ – I mean things which are so utterly terrible that you genuinely can’t believe that someone actually had the temerity to charge people money for them.
As far as video games go, I thought I’d found a strong candidate for ‘worst game’ after reading reviews of Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing for the PC. Sadly, I’ve not had the opportunity to play it myself, but it sounds dreadful. Featuring such things as opponents who can’t move; no collision detection, so you can drive through buildings; the ability to drive up vertical cliff faces with no change of speed; The ability to keep accelerating in reverse indefinitely; one of the courses being corrupted and crashing the game; and the winning screen proclaiming “YOU’RE WINNER !”.
Now, according to Wikipedia, many reviewers have claimed that Big Rigs is the worst game ever released. And, at least at the time the Wikipedia article was written, the title occupies the rank of lowest-rated game on numerous review sites. So, with that in mind, I’m guessing that those reviewers would struggle to grasp the sheer ineptitude of SQIJ!.
In the past I’ve seen reviews which state that a game is “so bad it’s unplayable”. This is always a figure of speech. You can always play a game to some degree, even if it’s not remotely satisfying. Except… In this case, it’s literally true. Due to a programming error, the controls simply do not work at all!
Take a moment to let that sink in. Here is a game, which was sold for actual money, which you literally can’t play. I find that astonishing.
You might think that not being able to control your character would be a drawback, but the thing is, you don’t actually appear to need to. Without moving, your score just keeps going up, while you neither lose energy nor get killed by anything – just by sitting there!
It is possible to fix the ‘lack of controls’ problem by breaking into the game and typing a couple of commands. And when I say ‘breaking into the game’ I’m not talking about some kind of advanced hacking techniques – I mean just pressing ‘break’. Because, you see, this game is not even programmed in machine code – it’s written in BASIC. It’s not even written in the Spectrum’s built-in BASIC, but a third-party product called Laser BASIC.
The problem with that is, that without compiling the BASIC to machine code, it means you have to have a copy of Laser BASIC in memory for the game to run, so they illegally included the code for Laser BASIC on the tape! Essentially, by buying this game you also, illegally, get a copy of the far-more-expensive Laser BASIC as well. How is that even possible?
So anyway, putting aside the illegality of even owning the game, and assuming for the time being that we’ve gone to the effort of hacking into it just to get it working, is it actually any good? Well… no. Quite the opposite in fact.
Now, I’m not the best gamer the world has ever seen, but I cannot even get off the first screen. If I hold down ‘left’ the sprite moves left in two jerky movements, but then turns round and jumps back to the start before turning round again and repeating the two-jerky-steps-to-the-left. Same when I hold down ‘right’. So I can’t move out of the middle third of the screen! I was almost amazed to discover that ‘up’ and ‘down’ seem to work as expected – except, if you press ‘up’ too much you spontaneously die, for no obvious reason.
What’s worse than that is that the graphics are so full of bugs that you end up with bits of sprites not being erased properly, and littering the screen. Sometimes the ‘baddie’ sprites are not drawn properly and have gaps in the middle of them. When you hold down a direction key, all other movement in the game stops until you release the key.
Why would anyone buy this crap? Well, it could be because of the pictures on the inlay. In the 1980s, when software houses released games on more than one computer, they often used the same inlays, including screenshots. So you’d be used to seeing warnings like: “Screenshots may vary on your computer”, but you could usually see what kind of game it was. Spectrum, Amstrad, and Commodore versions of games generally only varied by the amount of colour on the screen. But, as in so many other respects, this game is different. Because, the screenshots on the inlay for this game do not resemble the Spectrum version of the game in any way – it literally looks like a different (far superior) game.
This game is terrible in such a wide variety of ways, I find it difficult to believe that there could be a worse game that actually got a commercial release. This seems to be an opinion shared by the game’s programmer, who allegedly wrote the game to be deliberately crap in order to get out of a contract, and then was surprised to see it actually released.
So… Is this the worst video game ever?
I’m afraid I don’t entirely believe that explanation for why the game is terrible, written by the game’s programmer. For starters, he says it was written in Laser BASIC even though he knew machine code. When you look at the code, it is so badly written, with such a fundamentally poor grasp of efficient coding practice, that I simply cannot believe that he actually knew machine code. I think he was just crap.
Secondly, he seems to be saying that the error with the controls didn’t appear in the original game, and only appears if you run the game on an emulator. I have a copy of the original game, and have run it on a real Spectrum, and I can confirm that the error is definitely in the original game.
He ends by saying that he went on to write software for Melbourne House, but he’s not credited with any other software in the WOS database – for any publisher, meaning either he didn’t write for Melbourne House, or the stuff he did write was so rubbish that none of it was released.
The more I think about this wretched game, the more I wonder if it was released as a kind of jokey dadaist anti-game experiment.