A brief history of (unintentionally) unbeatable games
Last week, publisher Aspyr officially acknowledged the existence of a game-breaking glitch in the recent Switch port of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II. That glitch, which crashes the game after the “Basilisk Crash” cutscene on the planet Onderon, has the inconvenient side effect of making the Switch version completely unbeatable.
While Aspyr promised this game-breaking glitch would be fixed in the game’s next downloadable patch, plenty of game developers in the past haven’t had that option. KOTOR II on the Switch is the latest in a long line of games that were literally impossible to complete (or to get a full, 100 percent completion rate) when they launched.
Here, we’re not talking about games like The Sims or Tetris that are designed not to have a win condition and/or always end in failure for the player (though some games that seem like they fall in that category are surprisingly beatable). We’re also not talking about games where the player is forced to reset after accidentally stumbling into an in-game predicament where they can no longer make progress (TV Tropes has a massive list of games that fit this description).
No, instead we’re talking about games that are supposed to be beatable but, for one reason or another, can’t be fully completed regardless of what the player does (short of using external cheats). While gaming’s short history has seen plenty of these games, here are a few notable examples that should make Aspyr feel a little better about its recent KOTOR problems.
Sqij! (ZX Spectrum, 1987)
Beyond unbeatable, the Spectrum port of this cute Commodore 64 game was totally unplayable due to a programming glitch that made the game fail to respond to any keyboard inputs. But that may not have been a simple oversight.
Eurogamer has the story of coder Jason Creighton, who was tasked with making the Spectrum version of the game despite not being provided with a copy of the Commodore original. When publisher The Power House insisted that Creighton do his best based on a map of the original game, he turned around a last-minute project written in Laser BASIC, rather than machine code.
While Creighton says he didn’t intentionally break the game’s controls, the unplayable mess still made it past the publisher’s quality control and hit British store shelves at the bargain-basement price of 2 pounds. Still sounds like a lot of money for a game where you can’t move, but what do we know?
The fourth version of the Microsoft Entertainment Pack for Windows is well-remembered for this tile-based puzzle game, itself a port of the 1989 Atari Lynx original. But that port changed a single tile in level 88, removing a wall and changing a former dead-end into an open corner. That, in turn, causes the level’s walker enemies to fly out of that corner in a straight line, blocking the player’s progress for good.
The oversight was fixed for subsequent Windows releases of the game, and while early players could technically skip level 88, they would do so knowing there was at least one level they would never beat.
X-Men (Genesis, 1993)
Those who played this early ’90s action game may remember an ingenious/frustrating puzzle in the later levels, where the game told the player to “Reset the computer.” After searching the bare room for a reset button, clever players would hopefully figure out that they had to press the reset button on the Genesis console itself (spoilers for a 29-year-old game, we guess). That little trick worked because the Genesis reset button left a few areas of RAM untouched, letting the game “remember” the player’s progress upon restarting.
However, this inventive design trick became problematic when players tried to play the game on the Sega Nomad. That’s because the portable version of the Genesis doesn’t have a dedicated reset button, meaning players are stuck when they reach the late-game puzzle. And while some fans have gone to great lengths to fix that hardware issue, it’s probably easier to dig up a classic Genesis and reach for that reset button.
I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream (PC, 1995)
This disturbing mid-’90s adventure title, based on the Harlan Ellison short story of the same name, notably features five protagonists, including one, Nimdok, who served as a concentration camp doctor during World War II. That bit of backstory was verboten for the game’s German release, thanks to that country’s long-standing (and recently reversed) prohibition on using Nazi symbols and storylines in video games.
While Nimdok’s section was completely cut from the German release of I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, the game’s ending wasn’t changed to account for the omission. That means Nimdok isn’t around to make a key decision in the game’s final section, making it impossible to access the game’s best, most relatively hopeful ending. As Richard Cobbett wrote in PC Gamer, “In short, yes. Humanity gets wiped out… by censorship. Hurray for censorship!”
Spider-Man (Windows, 2001)
Most people who played this game on its initial release probably did so without issue. But playing on a modern computer can lead to situations like the one in the above video, where Spider-Man fails to fly through a window and falls to his doom during a cutscene.
The glitch apparently stems from how the game’s cutscenes used pre-timed inputs to simulate Spidey’s motion using the game’s standard physics engine. Running the game on modern hardware (with faster-than-expected frame rates) breaks the precise control timing used in those scenes, causing Spider-Man to die even when no one controls him. While most players can skip the cutscene and resume the game, those playing on kid mode are forced to watch Spidey die over and over as the cutscene continually reloads.
Super Street Fighter II Turbo Revival (Game Boy Advance, 2001)
Expert players who could beat the arcade mode in this remake without losing a single round were supposed to be rewarded with a secret fight against the ultra-tough Akuma. Instead, the North American version of the game immediately freezes on a glitchy image of Akuma’s intro pose, robbing the player of their final victory. Emulator players can use rom hacks to fix this bug, but everyone else is punished for playing the game too well.
Bubble Bobble Revolution (Nintendo DS, 2006)
This arcade remake featured a full 100 single-screen levels for its 2005 release in Japan and Europe. When it hit North America in 2006, though, players of the new version would reach the 30th level only to find that an expected boss just failed to load into the room. Since beating that boss was necessary to continue, the game stopped in its tracks before players could see 70 percent of its levels.
The developers at Codemasters fixed this bug for a subsequent version 1.1 release and promised to replace the busted carts. Even without the exchange, early adopters could still enjoy a perfectly playable version of the original arcade Bubble Bobble on the DS.
Guitar Hero II (PS2, 2006)
Only serious virtual shredders probably know that Guitar Hero II‘s code imposed a “strum limit” that made it impossible to register more than 15 strums per second on the NTSC version of the game. That’s a problem, because the Expert note track for the bonus song “Trogdor” (as made famous by Homestar Runner) contains sections that require strumming slightly faster than 15 notes per second.
While the song (and the game) can still be completed despite this limitation, players going for a perfect “full clear” on Trogdor were frustratingly out of luck. For those who just need to get 100 percent, though, a fan mod called Guitar Hero II Deluxe fixes the glitch.
Last Ninja 3 (Wii Virtual Console, 2008)
The original Commodore 64 version of Last Ninja 3 from 1991 is well-remembered by many PC gaming fans. But the European Wii Virtual Console release in 2008 was marred by faulty emulation that meant the game consistently crashed after the first level was completed.
While publisher Commodore Gaming initially promised a patch, it eventually just gave up and removed the game from the Virtual Console, providing a refund to anyone who had purchased the impossible-to-complete download.