In the early days, video game development was like the wild west. There were no rules and expectations. While some companies made legendary games we still revere today, others tried to push the envelope too far and came up some seriously controversial games.
So, while you’re thinking that in this brave new gaming world we currently live in, nothing in the past could have been worse, you’d be wrong. Some old-school games were so far against the boundaries of what’s appropriate, they were bending time and space. And this is only the start of the controversy since Atari first released Pong in 1972.
It was a glorious time!
Gotcha (1973) This was the fourth game ever released by Atari and had you and a partner chase each other through an ever-changing maze. It was a decently popular game for it’s time.
What made it controversial, however, was the advertising and the arcade box. The controls were two, pink rubber bulges that looked too much like breasts. Oh, and you had to squeeze and fondle to make your player go. Meanwhile, the ads had a creeper chasing a girl in a nightdress. Yep.
Death Race (1976) This game was a spin off of the developers previous arcade game ‘Destruction Derby.’ Only in this case, you’re trying to run over gremlins.
The controversy stemmed out of the fact that you’re willingly driving over humanoid figures, that scream and are replaced with tombstones. It was just too violent for parents and censors at the time. But it has a sick arcade cabinet though.
Custer’s Revenge (1982) There is literally nothing to this game other than having a visibly erect General Custer, clad only in boots and a hat, crossing the screen to get to the other side. He has to doge arrows, and when he finally gets to the naked Native woman tied to the pole, he gets to have sex with her and earns points for it.
The developers said she was a willing participant; everyone else accurately called it as rape. It got banned in many markets, but also sold over 80,000 copies, but it wasn’t enough to prevent Mystique Games from going out of business.
Punch-Out! (1984) Not only is this game insanely hard, it’s also visibly racist. Just look at that cast of characters. There was just too much stereotyping for the people of the mid-80’s and there were calls to ban it, change the sprites or boycott Nintendo completely.
International Karate (1985) There was nothing wrong with the game, per se, other than the fact that it was supposedly a blatant copy of Data East USA’s ‘Karate Champ.’ There was a lawsuit, a dismissal, an appeal and a ban on sales of the game.
It was a landmark case in intellectual property and copyright infringement in the video game industry.
177 (1986) This one was a Bishōjo game – a type of Japanese video game centered on interactions with attractive girls. You make choices like a choose your own adventure and you date them. Except, in this game, you were prompted to rape them. The game itself was banned by the highest levels of the government for indecency.
Chiller (1986) How’s this for a fantastic game idea; you’re an unseen torturer who has to maim, mutilate and murder hapless NPCs, in a dungeon setting. The quicker you do it, the more points you rack up. That’s the game. You can see why the controversy.
This game didn’t perform well in North America, as arcade owners didn’t want to buy it. It did, however, crush in third world markets.
Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior (1987) There are two points of controversy for this fighting game. The first is the cover art. The models were Michael Van Wijk (who became Wolf on American Gladiators) in a loincloth, and a famous topless model named Maria Whittaker. This made everyone protest the sexual aspects of the marketing, corruption of UK children, etc…
Then, there was the actual violence in the game, which caused people in other markets to ban and boycott. Ironically enough, both of these elements are common place in gaming today.
Super Monaco GP (1987) Unlike the other games on this list, there was nothing about the gameplay or the packaging that got some flack, but some ads inside the game. Given that this was 1987, there weren’t any real world ads in there, but there were certain ones that resembled Marlboro cigarette ads.
So Phillip Morris came after Sega (as well as other game devs) for copyright infringement.
Leisure Suit Larry (1987) In fact, this whole series is pretty heinous, according to those who like to kill everyone’s fun. It’s obscene and mature and plenty of parents, arcade owners, and community groups got all up in arms against it.
Maybe the just didn’t get the humor.
Splatterhouse (1988) This beat-em up slasher game was insanely gory and violent. As well, it had some questionable enemies and story plot points that made very little sense
J.B. Harold Murder Club (1991) There were just too many sexual themes in this murder mystery game, including an unsolved rape, that made everyone uncomfortable with its release.
Wolfenstein 3D (1992) Where should I start? This Doom-clone had violence, gore, too much Nazi symbolism and a giant Mecha-Hitler as the final boss.
You can also include Doom (1993) and Duke Nukem (1996) in this category for similar reasons.
Need I say more?
Mortal Kombat (1992) This was the game that brought video game violence to national attention and helped the industry develop a rating system, like the movies. No one had seen fatalities like these before, and in such clarity and realism.
We all thought the game was fucking amazing, while the grown ups had more than a few problems with the blood and violence.
Night Trap (1992) This was an interactive movie game, released on the Sega CD. The story was that you’re a special agent who’s watching a house full of teenage girls, through live surveillance footage.
Between the voyeuristic aspects of it, there was also too much violence, child abuse and sexual themes for the censors.
Carmageddon (1997) It’s a racing game that grants you bonus points and time if you take out other cars and run over pedestrians and animals.
Internationally, the game either was banned or modified so that you’re running over zombies, or the bodies/blood were taken out completely.
Running with Scissors
Postal (1997) This game is literally about going postal and fucking up as much shit as you can. All the controversy stemmed from the fact that the violence was perpetuated against innocent civilians and authorities, and mental illness was to blame.