Even the most successful old-school video games don’t often make sense on a conceptual level. One of the most successful games of all time, remember, is about a fat plumber rescuing a human ruler of sentient mushrooms from a dragon who rules over turtles. Oh, and that same plumber gets superpowers from non-sentient mushrooms and flowers forged from fire.
Some games, however, are so weird they couldn’t possibly have found an audience beyond the morbidly curious. In the search for something, anything that might work, developers created strikeouts like the following:
12. Zombie Nation (NES, 1990)
On its own, the idea of a samurai hunting down zombies is pretty normal, for games anyway. But Zombie Nation cranked up the wackiness to 11 by letting you play not as the whole samurai, but just his head.
Yep, in this game you control the floating head of an ancient Japanese samurai, as you travel to the US to kill an alien who turned the country’s citizens into zombies. You fly around the screen and shoot down enemies with eye lasers and…vomit? The samurai head literally spews mysterious goop out of his mouth that kills the bad guys, and while it may not actually be vomit, it sure looks the part.
At its heart, Zombie Nation is basically an auto-scrolling space-shooter, like R-Type or Gradius. But the utter weirdness of its premise, like how your “spaceship” is the severed head of a long-dead Japanese warrior, puts this game into a twisted category all its own.
11. Action 52: Time Warp Tickers (NES, 1991)
Action 52 is a mishmash of 52 different games, most of which are both terrible and boring. One of the games included on the cart,Time Warp Tickers, is also terrible, but so surreal anyone who witnesses it can’t help but remember it forever.
Your character (if it can be called that) is a pair of walking fingers wandering around, flicking worms and stick figures to death. Each time you do, the screen displays “Time?” with absolutely no explanation. The same thing happens if an enemy hits you and you die, making the whole thing even more nonsensical.
The game’s environment is just as bonkers. Your fingers walk across a black and white checkerboard decorated with flowers and grass, while doors float in the sky, other fingers dangle from the ceiling, pipes drip water that never hits the floor, and arrow signs that only say “?” point in random directions. There appears to be no point to anything, aside from showing us what might’ve happened if Salvador Dali made a video game.
10. Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom (Various Systems, 1984)
Simply by reading the game’s title, it’s pretty clear that Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom is plenty weird, but the game itself is somehow even stranger than you’d imagine.
You play as Sir Cucumber — that’s not a clever name, you’re actually just a cucumber. You’re tasked by King Broccoli to rescue his daughter, Princess Tomato, from the clutches of the nefarious Minister Pumpkin. Aiding you along your quest is Percy, a baby persimmon. Imagine the Knights of the Round Table as told by Veggie Tales, and you’ll get a pretty good idea of what to expect with this thing. What’s more, the fact that the characters live in the Salad Kingdom suggests they’ll all eventually be tossed with oil and vinegar and eaten, making your quest futile at best.
The game itself is a point-and-click adventure, but one that you really can’t lose. No choice kills you, aside from losing boss battles via — not a joke — rock, paper, scissors. Other than that, the only way you don’t win this game is by giving up and playing something less ridiculous.
9. Hatris (Various Systems, 1990)
Everyone knows about Tetris, even if they’ve never played a video game in their life. Well, in 1990, Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov decided it was time to make another game. So he gave us Hatris, which isn’t just Tetris with hats — it’s Tetris with hats on mushrooms.
Tetris has different-shaped blocks, while Hatris has different…hats. There’s baseball caps, Abraham Lincoln hats, cowboy hats, top hats, and wizard hats, among others. They come down two at a time, and you have to place them on one of six Frankenstein heads chilling at the bottom. Stack five similar hats on top of one head, and they’ll disappear, earning you faboo fake dollars. Make enough money, and you can buy new heads, like Charlie Chaplin, Dracula, and Abe Lincoln himself.
Never is it answered where these severed heads are coming from, by the way. Does someone in Hatrisland have a combination guillotine/cloning machine? If so, they need to make Hatris 2 all about that story.
8. Pinball Quest (NES, 1990)
There’s only so much you can do with pinball to make it unique. 1990’s Pinball Quest might be the most out-there the genre can possibly get. It’s still pinball, but now it’s crossed with an RPG. No longer content to simply score points, your ball embarks on an “epic” quest that’s like Final Fantasy in the same way a Little League team resembles the New York Yankees.
The first screen of Pinball Quest has you hit the ball over to a ghost, who begs you to save the princess. You then hit your ball through various screens, killing enemies and opening doors to new screens. You can even purchase items like extra flippers and stoppers to make your quest easier. Even with such power-ups, you’ll still likely spend half your time falling through flippers, winding up on screens you already beat and trying to hit the ball back to where you were before. Backtracking: everyone’s favorite part of any game, right?
7. Sunday Funday (NES, 1995)
Sunday Funday’s story makes no sense, and that applies to both the game’s plot and its origin story.
In 1990, game developer Color Dreams released Menace Beach, an unlicensed NES game where you skateboarded across the screen, killing thugs and gangsters while rescuing your girlfriend. It was a dumb game, but at least it made narrative sense. However, that can’t be said for Sunday Funday, which is literally just Menace Beach reskinned…by the same company, no less. Color Dreams, in an attempt to make money off the same game twice, plagiarized themselves in 1995 with Sunday Funday, turning our skateboarding hero into a Christian on his way to Sunday School.
That in itself is bonkers, but there are just as many enemies in Funday as in Menace. This means thugs and criminals are actively trying to stop some kid from attending Bible class, and they’ll kill him if they have to. That might be the most callous motive for video game evil, ever.
6. Chubby Cherub (NES, 1986)
You’d think Cupid — he of the arrows that make people fall in love — wouldn’t make for a good video game character and well, you’d be right. Chubby Cherub doesn’t even bother to get the character right, turning Cupid into a generic cherub with no arrows, no love, and plenty of head-scratching moments for players.
A dozen of Chubby Cherub’s friends have been kidnapped by burglars, and so he must fly from one end of the screen to the next and save them. You can recover lost energy by opening your mouth wide as a python and eating food floating in the air, which may be the single creepiest visual in gaming history.
Along the way, dogs bark at you by spitting the letter B out their mouth. Seriously — if the letter B hits you, you’re dead, like Resident Evil by way of Sesame Street. If that’s not crazy enough, many of these deadly barks come from adorable, cuddly beagles, rather than fearsome wolves or even snarling rottweilers. Imagine a stuffed animal murdering you with a Skyrim shout, only somehow dumber.
5. Gumshoe (NES, 1986)
Simply hearing the plot of Gumshoe makes it sound like a normal game: you’re a detective whose daughter has been kidnapped by the Mafia. They want you to collect priceless diamond for ransom — once you do, you apprehend the Mafia boss and save your daughter. But then you actually play Gumshoe, and its madness reveals itself.
This is a light gun game, meaning you shoot enemies with the NES Zapper. But in a weird twist, you also shoot your own character. Yep, you point the gun right at the Gumshoe and fire away. This, bafflingly, makes him jump. As weird as that may sound, you need to make him jump so he can collect extra ammunition for your Zapper. That ammo, by the way, is inside dozens of red balloons floating everywhere. And that’s your visual: a hard-nosed, bearded, trench-coated private eye who can’t jump unless shot at; collecting colorful, fun party balloons so the sniper in the distance can shoot him some more. Crusty 40s film noir, this is not.
4. Super 3D Noah’s Ark (SNES, MS-DOS, 1993)
Like Sunday Funday, this is another case of Color Dreams (under their religious label, Wisdom Tree) taking a pre-existing game, reskinning it with a religious theme, and releasing it without Nintendo’s permission. But somehow, Super 3D Noah’s Ark might be even weirder than Sunday Funday.
A clear rip-off of Wolfenstein 3D, Noah’s Ark lets you play as Noah, appropriately enough. Unfortunately for him, the animals on the Ark are not happy, which is fair considering they’ve been cooped up in a crowded boat for days on end. They’re so antsy, in fact, they’re actively trying to kill poor Noah. Since taking them out first would nullify the whole “repopulate the Earth after the Great Flood” plan God has in mind, Noah instead has to run around the Ark and, using only his trusty slingshot, shoot food at the animals. After they eat, they’ll fall into a gnarly food coma and won’t be a bother anymore.
The “bosses” are large animals like camels, since the Noah’s Ark story contains no bad guys outside of water. The final boss is Burt the Bear, who isn’t quite Wolfenstein’s Mecha Hitler, but somehow more disturbing.
3. Lester The Unlikely (SNES, 1994)
Everyone loves an underdog, at least until they have to play as one. The makers of Lester The Unlikely apparently didn’t realize that, as their game featured quite possibly the nerdiest, wimpiest, most aggravating player-character in gaming history.
Lester is a gangly, glasses-wearing super-nerd who finds himself stranded on a dangerous desert island. Your quest to help him escape is hindered by how unbelievably cowardly he is. Everything scares Lester, to the point where he’ll run away from an enemy even if you’re trying to get him to fight. What more: he walks like Steve Urkel, runs like he’s slipping on ice, whines when climbing, and shakes like a leaf when looking down a ledge. Remember, he’s not the hero’s comedic sidekick — he’s supposed to be the game’s hero.
That said, if you actually play the game through, you’ll be rewarded with a whole new Lester. As he progresses, he becomes more confident, stops retreating, stops whining, runs with heroic confidence, and even grabs a sword to fight pirates. He becomes, unquestionably, a real hero. That doesn’t make his journey, or his game, any less bizarre though.
2. Sneak ‘n Peek (Atari 2600, 1982)
The true early days of gaming were marked by developers not really knowing what a video game was. This meant they’d sometimes take real-life games, make a computerized version, call it a video game, and then wonder why they’d have made more money selling lemonade for a quarter a cup.
Sneak ‘n Peek might be the most egregious example of this: it’s literally nothing but hide and seek in video game form. It’s a two-player game that trusts Player 2 to leave the room while Player 1 hides somewhere. Player 2 then comes back into the room and tries to find Player 1 in as short a time as possible. Along the way you encounter obstacles such as…well, there are none. Unless you count boredom.
You do get something resembling freedom, as you can play hide and seek anywhere in the game’s house, and even outside it. That still doesn’t make the game any good, but at least now you know it could’ve somehow been worse.
1. Rex Ronan: Experimental Surgeon (SNES, 1994)
An anti-smoking video game could’ve easily been obnoxious, preachy, or cloying. To its credit, Rex Ronan: Experimental Surgeon is none of those things. Instead, it’s completely out there.
A tobacco salesman is dying and it’s up to you to save him. You do so grabbing an energy by shrinking yourself down to the size of a cell, entering the salesman’s body, and working to remove all the crud and cancer you can. This involves undertaking scientifically dubious missions like entering the man’s brain to “remove the nicotine addiction” using a gun.
Meanwhile, the tobacco company catches wind of your plan — to ensure the salesman can’t live to spread the anti-smoking word, they send tiny, evil robots into his body to wreak havoc. So you’ve got that to deal with too. Oh, and Ronan keeps displaying anti-smoking facts and messages on the screen, because the edutainment game needed something that was actually educational, and not just “let’s cure smoking with microscopic guns.”