The Beauty Behind Licensed Shovelware
When you ask someone, “what would be the biggest stereotype of what constitutes a ‘bad game’?”, two descriptions first come to mind. The first one, at least nowadays, is the asset flip: the cheap game made in a week or so with premade assets found on the Unity or Unreal stores. The second one, especially if you’ve grown up during the late 90’s and early-to-mid 2000’s, is what we all like to call “licensed shovelware”.
We loved calling them cheap marketing ploys to take advantage of another media product’s hype, such as the release of a new movie or TV show. And for the most part, yes, people were absolutely right to slam on these rushed games with little to no artistic value. At the same time, these games would almost always sell well. Licensed games stopped being so frequent on modern consoles’ libraries not because of poor sales, but because publishers initially thought that it would be easier to release even simpler and more egregious titles on mobile phones. This was way before the mobile bubble burst and resulted in the wasteland that is today, with tons of major developers skipping these storefronts altogether knowing that only a handful of games actually make a profit in such hostile environment.
With that being said, even the so-called “hardcore gamer” public, those who dislike bad games and love to say that anything below a 7.5 is a no-no, still buy a licensed game or two every now and then. They grew up with them and will defend a critically disliked game from their younger days almost every time. I don’t care who you are, but you do have a licensed game you love and cherish. A game you can easily play for hours on end to this day and will defend until the end of time, even though said game was most certainly lambasted by everyone else at launch.
For the record, I am not talking about the good licensed games everyone, be it every single media outlet and consumer, loves. I am not talking about the ten billion Star Wars games that sell like gangbusters, or other acclaimed titles like Alien: Isolation, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, Spider-Man, or The Witcher (remember kids, it is based on a book, therefore it qualifies as licensed). I am talking about the middle-of-the-road, utter mediocrity that we have all played back in the day, without exception, with various degrees of reception.
I think one of the most iconic cases of “really bad licensed game most of us still love” is Enter the Matrix. Folks, I will be honest with you, this is a really bad game. But it was released at the perfect time, with the perfect marketing strategy, with the perfect amount of content. Not only did it come out alongside The Matrix Reloaded in 2003, but it was directly tied to the movies as some sort of prequel, featuring the same (secondary) actors from the movies, an original and canonical storyline, live-action cutscenes, and much more. Hell, it even featured a hacking minigame that was simplistic yet quite innovative for the time.
Enter the Matrix is a bad game, but ask your twenty-five to thirty year old friends about it and a good chunk of them will say that they like the game, despite being crap. They can overlook the abysmal AI, the poor controls, plus the fact you’re not actually playing as Neo, and remember the game fondly and even play it to this day. The weirdest thing is that the same generation of consoles was graced with The Matrix: Path of Neo, which, by all intents and purposes, is infinitely better than its predecessor in every single way. It actually follows the events of all three movies, yet no one talks about it nowadays.
In my case, some of the critically loathed licensed games I can easily have a ton of fun with to this day, without the need for nostalgia goggles, are Toy Story 2 and A Bug’s Life, both released the PS1 and Nintendo 64. A Bug’s Life was reviled at launch, but I sincerely don’t understand why. Surely, its controls are clunky, but it looks good, its level design is decent, and there are lots of secret areas to explore and items to collect. Toy Story 2 is a game I consider as good as any other Nintendo 64-era collectathon (yep, I went there), with some of the best level design of the generation. Not to mention the absolute banger that was the second level’s theme song. Both games have a metascore on the mid-50’s on both Metacritic and Gamerankings, yet I don’t think I have ever met anyone who dislikes them.
The list goes on. A lot of people love the Batman Begins movie tie-in, a game that did not age poorly, but is largely forgotten due to the fact it was released a mere couple of years before Arkham Asylum. Deadpool is widely considered to be a poor game in terms of its mechanics, but it’s also loved by many, myself included, due to its hilarious sense of humor, which made people overlook its issues. Even a game like Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker, released for the Mega Drive more than thirty years ago, has its fair share of fans. I am sure that you, dear reader, have a similar story of your own.
Why do we do this? We are well aware that a specific licensed game isn’t good, yet we actually manage to be less critical, we manage to overlook its issues, and enjoy these tie-ins, these perfect definitions of the word “shovelware”, without an issue. What is it about these games that makes us more… tolerant? Is it the novelty of playing a game based on a license we like? Is it some kind of psychological effect that reminds us of simpler days? Does it mean that playing these games brings out the best version of the gamer inside of us?
Well, whatever it is, I for one am looking forward to having a console library filled with these games, even if they don’t end up being that great. Okay, they should, at the very least, be better than freaking Race With Ryan, though…