Video game developers are magicians who turn endless lines of code into unforgettable experiences, but they're still human. That means they're just as suceptible to being petty as the rest of us. Oftentimes, this results in fairly innocuous goofs and gags, but other times, these expressions of spite are far more impressive. Here are some of the most notable examples of video game pettiness we can think of.
Even if you don't follow basketball at all, you probably have some notion of how big a deal Michael Jordan was in his heyday. His prolific scoring and unmatched intensity guided the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships in the 1990s, which could have been one or two more had he not briefly retired to play baseball in the middle of his career. Jordan also led the Looney Tunes to victory over the Monstars in Space Jam, which might resonate more with readers of a certain age. He was (and to some, still is) the face of the sport and his greatness might never be matched again. How does this fit into NBA Jam? We're getting there.
Anyway, what you might not know is that Jordan's basketball dominance wasn't eternal, nor was it unchallenged. Before he was winning all those rings, he ran into trouble in consecutive years in the playoffs against the Detroit Pistons. The Pistons won two NBA titles in a row in the late 1980s, blowing past the Bulls in each playoff run using the "Jordan rules." That basically meant they played him extra hard and hit him as much as they could without getting suspended. Age and injuries derailed the Pistons after those two championships, opening the window for Jordan's Bulls to take over as kings of the NBA. It's all in ESPN's excellent Bad Boys documentary, if you're so inclined.
A few years into MJ's reign, Midway's mega-popular NBA Jam games started lighting up arcades with cartoonish, highly competitive basketball action. Jordan wasn't actually in NBA Jam because of licensing, but the Bulls and Pistons were. By the time NBA Jam launched in 1993, the Pistons were an NBA afterthought, but Midway developer Mark Turmell didn't see it that way. A Michigan native, Turmell paid tribute to the Pistons-Bulls rivalry in the game by actually making it so Bulls players would be statistically unlikely to make last-second shots in close games against his beloved team. On average, their shots would clunk off the rim because of some hometown cookin' from Turmell.
The Pistons-Bulls rivalry wasn't as intense as it could have been, as one team aged out of its prime as the other found its groove. Still, thanks to a bit of mild sports fan pettiness from Mark Turmell, it lived on in video game form for eternity.
I don't want to make you feel old, but Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is ten years old. With the series returning to World War II in this year's installment, there are probably plenty of longtime Call of Duty fans who have never played one of the games before the series jumped to present day, and beyond. Father Time is undefeated, as they say.
If you are one of those people who is too young to remember this, the video game industry was inundated with World War II video games once upon a time. Game developers must have all thought the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan was particularly striking because every game had to have a level where you stormed the beaches of Normandy. The Medal of Honor series was actually created in part by Saving Private Ryan director Steven Spielberg, so when they did it, they had an excuse.
2002's Medal of Honor: Allied Assault was so warmly received and popular that publisher Electronic Arts wanted to absorb 2015 Inc., the independent development house that made the game, into its corporate empire. According to developer Vince Zampella, some of the folks at 2015 didn't like EA's aggressive takeover strategy and left to form a new company called Infinity Ward. In 2003, Infinity Ward would release Call of Duty, a World War II shooter that would eat Medal of Honor's lunch in the years to come. As one franchise struggled to stay relevant and slowly died, the other became the biggest thing in gaming.
Zampella is now the CEO of Respawn, the developer behind the Titanfall series. There's a whole other story behind that, but for now, let's just say the formation of Infinity Ward wouldn't be the first time Zampella clashed with a gigantic gaming company. In the lead-up to Titanfall 2's release, Zampella told IGN that the original Call of Duty was "a little bit" of a "fuck you" to EA over its strong-arming.
It's probably not fair or accurate to say Call of Duty exists entirely out of spite, but according to one of its creators, it at least played a part. Telling EA to take a hike and releasing a Medal of Honor killer a year later is an outstanding, perhaps even beautiful act of pettiness.
It already feels like a lifetime ago when each holiday season was dominated by yet another round of plastic instrument music games that took up huge amounts of retail space. "What is Guitar Hero doing to stand up to Rock Band this year?" was a tiresome, annual conversation in gaming spaces. The truth is that DJ Hero never got the respect it deserved, damnit.
But that's a tangent for another time. More relevant is the fact that big-name musicians used to hem and haw about licensing out their music for these games, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the money wasn't right, while occasionally someone like Joe Dirt star Kid Rock would bemoan the inauthenticity of pressing colored buttons to play a guitar. In retrospect, it's kind of miraculous that Harmonix was able to make an entire Rock Band game out of something as sacred as The Beatles.
Anyway, back in 2010, a throwaway joke in The Office referenced playing Billy Joel songs in Rock Band. At that point in the real world, the Piano Man's music had yet to appear in the popular party music game. The Entertainment Weekly episode recap mentioned the joke and dismissed the concept of Billy Joel appearing in Rock Band entirely. There's no way the recap's writer could have anticipated what would happen next.
In a heartwarmingly innocuous example of journalism having real consequences, Billy Joel actually read the recap and told his people to get in touch with Harmonix. A short time later, Billy Joel's music was playable in Rock Band. This one is great because it's impossible for anyone's feelings to be hurt by that. If I wrote something that triggered a series of events leading to popular music getting added to a huge video game, I'd tell that story for years. The video game business is fun sometimes.
Sometimes, developing video games sounds like the opposite of fun. For example, working on anything involving a beloved pop culture icon like Superman could be a nightmare. Just ask Titus Software founder Eric Caen, who told Playboy the rather illuminating story of everything that went wrong with Superman for Nintendo 64.
In case you didn't know, Superman 64 is widely regarded as one of the worst video games ever made. GameSpot's Joe Fielder gave it the astoundingly low score of 1.3 out of 10 in his review. It's ugly as sin and mostly asks players to clumsily steer the Man of Steel through flying rings. That might make for a decent side mission in a game with good controls, but instead, it's the main thrust of a game that feels like it stars a Superman that has never flown in his life. Whenever you do get to do actual Superman things, well, let's just say there are illnesses that are more pleasant to experience.
According to Caen, development of Superman 64 was hindered every step of the way by an actively disdainful DC Comics licensing team that seemingly wanted the game to be terrible. Apparently, the developers signed the licensing deal with one group of people and were almost immediately sent to deal with a different, much less cooperative group of people for the rest of development. The Titus vision for the game from the start was an open world, 3D action game where players could freely fly around the game world; at one point, DC purportedly told them to turn it into a SimCity clone about taking care of Metropolis.
Caen told PlayBoy that the root of the problem was that this new licensing team felt they weren't getting as much money from Titus and Warner Bros. as they would from a bigger publisher like EA. As a result, DC was obstructive and uncommunicative, resulting in a great deal of wasted time and wasted potential. The flying rings level design, for example, was an order from on high, as DC didn't feel Superman should spend the majority of his time fighting enemies.
Ultimately, Superman 64 is a fairly ambitious game that sounds like it was held back by a spiteful relationship between the developers and D.C. It may not have been a good game under the best of circumstances, but no developer deserves that kind of negative energy.
Alright, back to the more lighthearted side of this article. Nowadays, Mortal Kombat's campy brand of violence comes across as the goofy gimmick it was always meant to be. Over-the-top "fatalities" remain silly yet brutal, and the exaggerated executions are a small part of an otherwise well-produced and enjoyable fighting game. It's hard to believe it was ever a lightning rod for political moralizing, but it was.
Back in the early 1990s, MK's fatalities acted as the catalyst for the creation of the ESRB, which still regulates the video game industry's ratings system. Folks like Joe Lieberman thought video games represented greater societal rot, so the industry started self-regulating so the government wouldn't censor them itself.
Any reasonable person can see that it was a hilarious overreaction, including Mortal Kombat's developers. When Mortal Kombat II launched in 1993, Midway included a goofy, obvious nod to the controversy in the form of new finishers. Similar to fatalities, these moves were performed by inputting combos at the end of a match. However, instead of slicing your opponent in half or lighting them on fire, performing a "Babality" literally transformed your opponent into a crying infant. "Friendships" were another option, in which characters would offer up a completely innocent gesture to their enemy. Kung Lao pulls a rabbit out of his hat, Liu Kang pulls down a disco ball and does a little dance and Kitana produces an entire birthday cake.
Thanks to Friendships, Midway turned Mortal Kombat into the wholesome, family-friendly game its biggest detractors thought all games should be. Okay, not really, but that's still a funny response to the extreme response the original game generated.