When you think about it, games have only been a mainstream form of media for a little over a decade. The mainstream success of titles like Fortnite and Call of Duty, backed by casual phone games and the Nintendo Wii, has transformed the landscape of video games. No longer a hobbyist pursuit, modern gaming has become a powerful force of modern culture.
Yet, one aspect of gaming culture we tend to ignore is the flipside of it: the games that rarely get mainstream success. Sales are status in any commercial medium, and for every million-dollar seller, there are thousands of titles, big and small, that never reach such lofty heights. Yet some of these games become more popular with die-hard fans. The growing relevance of gaming has led to a rise in the recognition of cult followings, subsequently a whole subgenre of cult video games.
Background of Cult Video Games
Cult followings in pop culture tend to fall under counterculture. What defines cult followings is the underpinnings of the cultural identity of their fanbase; in other words, the fandom itself promotes cult followings due to their emotional attachment to the product. Star Trek, for example, was a cult television show, kept alive by the superfans and conventions that allowed members of the community to congregate in their love of the product.
Today, Star Trek is mainstream, something a lot of cult media has become thanks in part to social connectivity. “In contemporary America, popular culture is omnipresent,” writes Bob Batchelor in his work, Cult Pop Culture: How the Fringe Became Mainstream. This ease of access to even the most obscure forms of media and art have changed how we consume media. According to Batchelor:
“This fundamental transformation has broad consequences because of its complete totality. Today, like Neo when he decides to enter the Matrix, there is no escape or turning back. As a result, the fringiest subcultures and most ‘out there’ parts of the pop culture universe are within easy reach – often no further than a mouse click away.”
Now, where do games come into this? Video games, like any form of artistic product, have its own share of cult hits. The primary role of being counterculture is perhaps the most significant benefit, a desire to recapture the feeling of belonging to a hobby only a few appreciate. For games, ease of accessibility is simple thanks to emulation, but what ultimately defines a cult video game? I propose two distinct categories: critically acclaimed but poorly selling games, and critically panned but popular games.
In 2001, the game Ico was released by Team ICO and director Fumito Ueda. Upon its release, many lauded the title with critical praise for its mood, visual style, and uniqueness in the early PS2 library. Some critics compared Ico’s gameplay to Prince of Persia, others enjoyed the ambiance of the world itself; Ico was one of the first video games to use bloom effects as a part of its visual presentation, a practice that became mainstream in the gaming industry over time.
Yet, Ico sold poorly; only 900,000 copies worldwide by 2009—eight years after it was released—with only 270,000 copies coming from the United States.
Ico, however, endured, becoming a cult classic because of its unique gameplay. Many fans of Ico often talk about the title with reverence because of how transformative it became, at least on a technical level. Others point to the premise being atypical for most games at that time, a game about gentle guidance and puzzle solving over heavy combat. Several game designers—perhaps the biggest insiders in our culture—have even cited Ico as an influential title to them. This includes names such as Eiji Aonuma and Hideo Kojima, to name a few.
One advantage game media has for cult titles that makes them relevant is re-releases. All forms of media thrive on the backs of fans who remember them, and commercially re-releasing titles often goes a long way to preserve them for future generations. The Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection for the PS3 for example has sparked some interest in the title again, with many playing Ico for the first time when this collection was released in 2011.
There are prominent examples of games that have never gotten a considerable re-release though. One recent example would be Spec Ops: The Line. Like Ico, critics were awestruck by the game’s narrative focus despite the first impression of a military shooter. Literally an adaptation of Heart of Darkness in game form, Spec Ops purposefully subverts expectations the player may have, and calls into question the actions of individuals who often consume the likes of Call of Duty and Rainbow Six constantly.
This was of course purposeful design for Spec Ops. Everything in the game, save for its tacked-on multiplayer, was designed to poke fun at the mechanics and themes of the shooter genre. The combat was noticeably bland compared to other shooters on purpose, a design choice that some critics pointed to as a weakness of the game without considering its themes. This also includes how the developers, Yaeger Development, wanted to purposefully invoke feelings of anger and frustration for the player, especially with its most famous scene involving the White phosphorus.
That subversion, while clever and well written, was not a success. While critics praised the narrative, the drab shooting mechanics were the game’s major weakness, not realizing the design was deliberate. The relative glut of war shooters in 2012 also contributed to it becoming a commercial failure, and despite a large cult following in its own right, Spec Ops: The Line is likely to be one of many acclaimed games that will fall behind as we transition to new generations of consoles.
Many cult classics unfortunately share the fate of Spec Ops. Across every platform from arcade machines to handheld devices, there will always be games exclusive to that system that have dedicated fans but are seldom remembered by the mainstream. Some cult classics, however, are seemingly immune to that curse. One prominent example of this is EarthBound, known as Mother 2 in Japan.
EarthBound is the story of a game that defied the little expectations it had. With an incredibly limited release in North America for the SNES, EarthBound was an RPG that poked fun at American culture on its surface. That satire and its visual simplicity masked a game with deeper themes, mechanics, and design. All the uniqueness of EarthBound was encouraged by lead designer Shigesato Itoi, with the help of producer Satoru Iwata and composers Keiichi Suzuki and Hirokazu Tanaka.
Today, EarthBound is considered a defining video game, arguably one of the greatest games of all time. In 1995, it received little attention. Some have attributed it to the offbeat way the game was marketed, leaning in heavily on the game’s satire. The “This Game Stinks” advert is perhaps the most infamous example. The few reviews at the time noted the simplistic visual style, but the fun factor and humor of EarthBound being worth a look. Other possible contributing factors to its commercial failure included the lack of interest in the RPG market in the mid ’90s, which focused heavily on games modeled after Final Fantasy.
Yet, the cult fanbase of EarthBound kept it alive for over two decades, and modern critique is almost universal praise for the title. Despite the incredibly low sales of 140,000 copies in its initial run, EarthBound has stood the test of time as perhaps the best example of a critical darling finding its audience. Today, EarthBound is so woven into the fabric of the gaming world, it is shocking for some that it was not a critical success. So popular is the series now, that for years fans have been pushing for an official release of Mother 3 to North America.
Cult favorites are not just games that critics enjoyed. Many titles also gain cult followings despite their poor mechanics, themes, or visuals. Much of this follows a pattern we see for other forms of media; a whole cottage industry of low-grade movies, from Italian rip-offs to mockbusters from The Asylum, are often shared online by enthusiasts who enjoy the product.
Novels and music follow suit with similar followings, and games are of course no different. Gaming’s very own industry of shlock and low-grade titles are particularly infamous, and often critically panned, but still played on live streams for the benefit of an audience. An easy example of this includes the abject failure of a title Ride to Hell: Retribution. Released to incredibly poor critical reception in 2013, Ride to Hell is considered one of the worst games of all time, with poor visuals, narrative, broken mechanics, AI, and technical glitches that render it barely playable.
Yet, people remember Ride to Hell because of the horrific design. Critic Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw summed up the point of Ride to Hell in his own review, complete with his acerbic wit. “This could be our Plan 9 From Outer Space. We should have mass screenings of it, get everyone to dress up, put upside down pedal bins on their heads and then beat their wives.” Croshaw, like some other critics, noted how entertaining the horrific design of Ride to Hell can be, and a cult following for the title has done just that for it.
Other games that are not abject failures like Ride to Hell fall into the “B-movie” shlock trap of being bad in other ways. The survival horror title Deadly Premonition is an open-world title which falls heavily into the tropes of other horror titles, complete with what is described as an “eccentric” story by some critics. It was the game's other mechanics, from awkward controls, poor combat sections, and muddy, almost non-polished visuals accompanying the title.
What made Deadly Premonition memorable, however, was its comedic tone. Many fans have cited Deadly Premonition to be like the style of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, with mysterious, sometimes frightening imagery mixed with intentional and unintentional comedy. One critic, David Jenkins, noted how Deadly Premonition, with all its faults, is still a unique experience worth remembering because of this. “If we were forced (and it’d have to be at gunpoint) to participate in an argument about games as art, this is what we’d use as exhibit A,” Jenkins wrote in his review. “Parts, significant parts, are hilariously incompetent and you’re often sat playing it in sheer disbelief at what you are seeing and hearing. But the emotional range, from traditional survival horror scares to farcical comedy, are unmatched by any other title.”
Deadly Premonition had a massively divided reception upon its release, which some attributed to its cult status. Sales initially were incredibly poor, with around 50,000 copies sold. Yet Deadly Premonition has become the quintessential cult favorite, so much so that the announcement for a sequel, currently scheduled for release on the Nintendo Switch later this year, was not only shocking but welcomed by fans of the original title.
The list that can encompass gaming’s shlock is long indeed. Culturally, games of this caliber serve a purpose as the counterculture answer to mainstream tastes. Why play Fortnite for example when you can slum it with close friends in Fallout 76? Why do so many gamers play the unreleased Desert Bus for hours? It lies in the challenge and charity titles like Desert Bus provide; these games become the hallmarks of dedicated players seeking to challenge themselves in a unique way, or to give back to the community and beyond in the most attention-grabbing way possible.
Validating the Cult Scene
There are many ways we can define what a cult video game can be ultimately. Beyond the categories listed here, games never released, obscure indie titles found on the dark corners of Steam or itch.io, even, arguably, fan-made clone games are examples of what cult gaming can be. Heck, the titles listed above are probably the most “mainstream” of cult classics at this point but serve as the paragons of what cult games can be.
The importance of cult video games is just as valid as mainstream gaming ultimately. It is a self-expression of an artistic medium’s growth, and of the dedication of its most ardent fanbase. With greater access to them now more than ever, the sky's the limit for games long after their shelf life, and cult games will always be part of that legacy.