To Beat the Unbeatable Game

I was thinking recently about the concept of unwinnable video games, and whether there were any. I believe that, at the time, I had noticed a Franz Kafka book at the library, and thought that a game based on a Kafka story would HAVE to be unwinnable.

No, sorry, I said KAFKA.
As I pondered the subject a little more, it occurred to me that most early video games were unwinnable. There’s no way to win Pac-Man or Space Invaders. You can beat a screen, but those screens just keep coming until you eventually die, or the game runs out of memory. I do have to wonder, however, where you draw the line. Look at a game like Jungle Hunt, which I used to play on our Texas Instruments computer, but was also on Atari systems. There’s a clear goal to meet here, i.e., rescuing a girl from cannibals.

Granted, once you do it you just start all over again on a harder difficulty, but isn’t that also true of the original Super Mario Bros.?

You’d really think she’d be more grateful, wouldn’t you?
Still, rescuing the Princess in SMB requires going through more than four levels, so there’s more of a sense of accomplishment to finishing. Both games give SOME sense of accomplishment for doing something tangible, though, while in most other early games you can really only measure your progress through the score or the number of screens you’ve completed. There are goals in these games, to be sure, but they’re minor goals. I guess in a way that makes them more realistic, since there’s really no way to win at life, is there? The ghosts are going to get you in the end, no matter how many times you eat all of them except their eyes along the way.

Picture source

The concept of unwinnable games played a role in the Captain SNES comic, specifically in regards to the game Berzerk. I don’t recall having played that game, but it’s pretty famous, and a hit with grandmothers everywhere.

Anyway, the relevant comics start with this one.

I think the thing with Evil Otto in particular is that, since he’s the main nemesis and all that, you WANT there to be a way to kill him. Same deal with the similar Shadow in Shamus, a game I used to play quite a lot. Apparently that one is winnable, inasmuch as there’s a set end to the levels, but I don’t think you ever kill the Shadow.

There’s actually a TVTropes page on enemies that show up after you’ve spent a significant amount of time in a certain place, like Evil Otto and the Shadow. By the way, it’s been reported that two people died of heart attacks while playing Berzerk. Holy Zeus, Otto really IS evil! No wonder he’s one of the ten most terrifying video game enemies of all time.

Getting back to my main point, regardless of Alex Williams’ childhood optimism, most of these unwinnable games are known to be unwinnable. There’s no deception involved; they were just made to go on indefinitely. And if there really were a game that purported to be winnable and really wasn’t, news of this would probably reach the Internet very quickly.

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One Response to To Beat the Unbeatable Game

  1. Pingback: Barney Can’t Lose | VoVatia

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