10. Battletoads & Double Dragon: The Ultimate Team
In a sense, the Battletoads games weren’t really “bizarre” or unique at all, but an obvious and calculated attempt to cash in on the success of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Then again, a scenario in which large corporations decided it would be fiscally prudent to create a game about human videogame testers that are permanently transformed into combative toads is kind of inherently absurd. Either way, these games were a lot of fun (the original is also remembered as one of the hardest games ever made, due in part to software glitches).
I chose to include the nonsensical crossover Battletoads & Double Dragon: The Ultimate Team for this list because I love how arbitrary and random their combination is — you can tell the companies involved needed to release a new game and were like, “Hey, those Battletoads games sure are doing well for us. Also, that one about the martial arts twins — what is it, Double Dragon? — yeah, that one’s a hit too. (Thinking) Screw it, let’s just stick ‘em together!” I wish we saw this line of thinking more often in other media, so we could have TV shows like “True Blood & Frasier: The College Years.”
9. General Chaos
There are times when I feel like General Chaos isn’t actually a real video game. For starters, my mom bought it for me at an outlet called Cheap Jon’s that sold all kinds of strange knockoff goods; quite possibly, they also created their own knockoff video games using spare parts and immigrant labor (Cheap Jon’s, which obviously kicked ass, unfortunately went out of business at some point during the 90s). Also, whenever anyone would come over my house, they’d be like, “What the hell is General Chaos?” I was definitely the only kid I knew who had it. A quick internet search reveals that the game did in fact exist, but I still feel that it’s potentially a figment of my imagination that has somehow materialized into a tangible, interactive shape.
General Chaos, an intrinsically and unequivocally bad military game, required users to select a group of five or six infantrymen to take into battle against an opposing squad — that’s a promising enough start. However, instead of partaking in exciting action or warfare, you then simply took turns moving your guys individually and engaging them in highly unrealistic one-on-one combat, like an ultra-lame electronic board game. Presumably General Chaos was supposed to appeal to fans of strategic war games like Risk, but the graphics were really cartoony and the action was very stilted, so I’m pretty sure it just didn’t appeal to anybody. It definitely sucked, but it sucked in a way that was strangely earnest and/or noble; it sucked on its own terms, and I spent many hours playing it out of reverence for this unique crappiness.
8. Shaq Fu
Oh come on, you’re telling me you never wanted the ability to choose Shaq as a character in a Mortal Kombat-esque fighting game? Really? Not even in a game that Entertainment Weekly said proved that “years after the arrival of Capcom’s Street Fighter II, rival software companies still have no idea how to program a fighting game”? Does it change your opinion to know that Allgame.com noted that “the ironic thing about this game is that even though it is based on one of the largest human beings most of us will ever encounter in our lifetimes, the characters in Shaq-Fu are some of the smallest ever in a fighting game of this type” and that “for some reason Shaquille doesn’t look much like his real-life counterpart”?
Well, fine! I’ll just be enjoying some Shaq Fu with its adorably tiny fighters all by myself, then.
7. Awesome Possum… Kicks Dr. Machino’s Butt
First of all, reread the title: it not only contains the oxymoron “Awesome Possum,” but also an ellipsis, a villain that is obviously a complete rip-off of Sonic the Hedgehog’s Dr. Robotnik, and an awkward description of the game’s plot. It is all that is glorious in life.
This game is so blatantly and transparently a Sonic the Hedgehog clone, merely substituting a hedgehog (cute, peculiar, endearing) with a possum (disgusting, foul, heinous), that it’s tempting to dismiss it entirely. But, you really have to hand it to a game that would take its soulless mimicry this far. I mean, come on — you changed the name of the villain from Dr. Robotnik to Dr. Machino??? You couldn’t have tried a little harder? It’s not even like Dr. Robotnik was a key to the success of the Sonic franchise or anything! He’s just some weird-ass fat dude with a bushy moustache.
One of my best friends told me about this game when we were in elementary school and I was convinced he had made it up. When I finally laid eyes on the festering heap that is Awesome Possum, I was in utter disbelief, even as a 10-year-old. They had really made a video game called Awesome Possum? The graphics are really this grainy? It has a heavy-handed environmental theme? Truly, this was something to behold.
“Wanna keep playing?” my friend half-heartedly wondered after we died the first time.
“Nah,” I said. Like Tango & Cash or Thomas Pynchon, Awesome Possum is something that I like the idea of more than I actually like.
6. Zombies Ate My Neighbors
Zombies Ate My Neighbors was definitely one of the most underrated games of its day. I’m actually kind of shocked that it didn’t become a huge hit, because it has everything you could ask for — it’s funny, fast-moving, creative, and has one of the best titles in gaming history. There are tons of levels, monsters, and weapons, and I’m not sure how old main characters Zeke and Julie are supposed to be, but Julie’s definitely throwing some serious cleavage around. Good times had by all.
5. Mutant League Hockey
Much like its football-minded predecessor, Mutant League Hockey wisely combined the popular gaming elements of professional sports and stylized mutant-on-mutant violence. Consisting of fictional leagues with teams names like the St. Mucus Ooze and the Slaycity Slayers, these games appealed to me not only because you could literally murder the other team’s players, but because they offered richly designed worlds stuffed with elaborately imagined teams, players, and rules. For a 7-year-old who had little aptitude for sports, these games took the engaging elements of that elusive world (competition, esotericism, war symbolism, human suffering) and combined them with fantasy and humor — they felt every bit as well-crafted and detailed as the real world of sports that I felt disconnected from.
For an example of how vividly these games re-imagined the world of sports, check out this amazing sentence from the game’s Wikipedia page: “When a player dies, their corpse remains on the ice and may be tripped on; between periods, a giant slug acting as an ice resurfacer eats the debris littering the ice.” If that doesn’t appeal to you, sorry, but we can never be friends under any circumstances. Also, if you get into a fight on the ice, both players get a penalty, but whoever gets knocked out receives a longer penalty for losing. I mean, c’mon — that’s something everyone can enjoy. Hell, you could even bribe the refs.
So why did I include Mutant League Hockey over the slightly more popular Mutant League Football? Play a 90s hockey game and a 90s football game, and then tell me which holds the test of time better — hell, hockey games were better back then than they are now.
4. Bubba ‘N’ Stix
I never actually played Bubba ‘N’ Stix, but came across it while looking up old games for this article. In it, you play as Bubba, a shirtless redneck in overalls who carries around a living stick (Stix) that he uses to beat up enemies or manipulative various things (i.e., he can use Stix to climb things or wedge under rocks, etc.). Stix has green hair and a face, so you can really think of him as a close friend rather than just as a stick.
Apparently it’s basically a side-scrolling platform game, but, personally, I was sold as soon as I read the phrase “sentient stick.” Come to think of it, this game might be a strained metaphor for male sexuality; either way, count me in.
3. Cool Spot/Chester Cheetah: Too Cool to Fool
Just to give you an idea of how exploitative the 90s game market could be, I lumped together these two oddities, both of which were somehow green-lit and released by multi-million dollar corporations and successful game developers. That’s right, people actually thought it would be a good idea to create games based solely on the following properties: Chester Cheetah, the Cheetah-loving jungle cat that resembles a drug-addicted, wanna-be hipster, and Cool Spot, the red dot that used to be 7-Up’s mascot. Seriously, they made a video game about a dot.
These games sent kids valuable messages like “It’s cool to embody your favorite soft drink!” and “I wish I was a hackneyed corporate mascot!” They are remnants from an era in which you could make a video game about literally anything; as someone who tends to rail against incessant corporate branding I should probably react with knee-jerk repulsion towards them, but I can’t help but feel a wave of pixilated early 90s nostalgia. After all, there was a time when I would play a video game about nearly anything — even a dot.
2. ToeJam and Earl
ToeJam and Earl was one of my favorites as a kid, probably due mostly to the fact that it had the phrase ToeJam in its title (although you also have to admire that his partner is named Earl — could they have chosen a more pedestrian name to go with ToeJam?). The namesake characters are actually two alien rappers (kind of like OutKast) who crash-land their spaceship on Earth and need to search for the missing pieces in order to return to their home planet of Funkotron. ToeJam, a three-legged alien with a Flavor Flav-inspired medallion, and Earl, a fat dude in a bathing suit that kind of resembles SpongeBob’s Patrick, make for surprisingly enjoyable tour guides through levels that in no way, shape, or form resemble Earth. The graphics are simplistic, even for 1991, and you spend most of your time riding in an elevator (I wish I was kidding), but you can’t deny that ToeJam and Earl holds a naïve charm that modern video games have simply outgrown. Nowadays, there’d probably be an online component, and ToeJam and Earl would have to get day-jobs to pay for power-ups or spend countless hours exploring levels bigger than most real-life cities.
Then again, maybe I’m just getting bitterly nostalgic over a 20-year-old video game about rapping aliens. Yeah, that might be it.
1. Earthworm Jim
This completely over-the-top, eccentric 1994 offering spawned two sequels, an animated cartoon, a comic book, and an action figure line by following the time-tested adage of anthropomorphized worm + outer space + bright colors = 90s phenomenon. Earthworm Jim was crazy fun, featuring vividly designed levels, awesome music, and a great sense of humor. To give you an inclination of the game’s absurdity, there are levels named “Intestinal Distress,” “Buttville,” and “Level 5” (which is not actually the 5th level). Also, the game’s Wikipedia page contains the following sentence: “The game plays out with Jim eluding and defeating all enemies, and saving Princess-What’s-Her-Name. However, not only does she not return Jim’s affection, but she is also crushed by a random flying cow.” What more could you ask for?