Video games have been controversial for years, being blamed for everything from school violence to glorifying the occult to teaching every 12-year-old in America the pop-and-lock. While quite a few games have gotten restricted or removed from the market in many countries, for reasons that range from the petty to the understandable, it actually takes a lot to get a video game outright banned in the United States. Here are a few that came close, if they didn't actually pull it off.
Every Video Game Banned In America
For the young, foreign, or unfamiliar, it's important to establish some context here. Back in the early '90s, video games were still considered an activity for children, and didn't have a content rating system at all. The two games that are largely credited with changing that are the first Mortal Kombat, due to Fatalities like the original Sub-Zero's spine rip, and Night Trap, which had some very slightly racy full-motion video. Both games quickly became controversial enough that the U.S. senate formed a committee in 1993, headed by Connecticut senator and lifelong fun-hater Joe Lieberman, to investigate the effects of video game violence.
At this point, the writing was on the wall. The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) was established in late 1994, so the U.S. video game industry could regulate itself before the U.S. government beat them to it. Every game released into the U.S. market from that point forward was evaluated and assigned a rating based on its content, ranging from E for Everyone to Adults Only (AO).
Usually, the ESRB rating system keeps mainstream games' content inoffensive enough that the U.S. government doesn't get involved. Several games have been censored before release, or accidentally shipped with offensive content, but there haven't been many that you can say have been outright banned. Here are some of the exceptions: games that were, or almost were, pulled from the American market.
Thrill Kill (1998)
The ultimate expression of pure '90s edge, Thrill Kill is a comically bloody fighting game for the PlayStation about dead murderers killing each other in hell, as you do, for the chance to be reincarnated back on Earth. Before 1998, all the games that had copped an AO rating from the ESRB were actual pornography, but Thrill Kill was on track to earn the first AO rating purely for violence.
Instead, it got canceled a few weeks before its release date. Electronic Arts bought out Thrill Kill's publisher Virgin Interactive in the summer of 1998, and later that year, decided to shelve Thrill Kill. Pat Becker, EA's director of corporate communications at the time, was quoted by ZDNet as saying "We have to be responsible for the content that we make available to the marketplace. We felt that this was not the kind of title we wanted to see in the market."
A near-complete version of Thrill Kill has been circulating on the Internet as a bootleg for years, reportedly due to one of its developers deliberately leaking it. Thrill Kill's engine was later used to make the similarly violent Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style, which is kind of funny; the game about fighting for a chance at reincarnation was itself reincarnated.
Too Human (2008)
On top of being a real contender for the worst video game of 2008, Silicon Knights's weird take on Norse mythology is one of the few video games that's ever had to receive a total product recall. Too Human was made with Epic's Unreal Engine 3, and in 2007, Silicon Knights sued Epic over it, alleging breach of contract and lack of support. Epic countersued for copyright infringement and won the case in 2012.
By the terms of the suit, Silicon Knights was legally prohibited from using Unreal Engine 3. It had to cancel its next three planned projects and pull Too Human (and 2011's X-Men: Destiny) from both physical and digital marketplaces. For the next seven years, the only way to play Too Human was to find a used copy somewhere, until Microsoft suddenly rereleased it on the Xbox Games Store just before E3 2019. It was a good move for game historians, but bad for everyone else.
The Guy Game (2004)
There was a wave of PlayStation 2 and Xbox games about halfway through that console generation that seemed to be pitched directly at fraternity houses, with lots of dumb humor and gratuitous nudity. It rarely worked out in the game developers' favor--a bad game with topless women in it is still a bad game--and in the case of 2004's The Guy Game, it landed its creators in court.
The Guy Game is a quiz show for up to four players, where correct answers to questions are rewarded by increasingly uncensored photos of girls who were, if not going wild, at least wild-adjacent. Four months after The Guy Game came out, its publishers and developers were sued by one of the women who had appeared in it. She claimed that not only had she not been told that she was going to appear in a video game, but she had only been seventeen at the time she was filmed. An injunction was granted to stop further copies of The Guy Game from being made, and in 2005, its developer Topheavy Studios announced that the game was permanently out of print. It's not impossible to find used copies of The Guy Game even now, although it's one of a handful of games that's explicitly banned for broadcast on Twitch.
Hatred is the game that concerned parents in 1992 were imagining when they complained about Doom. It's a third-person shooter that places you in the role of a nameless murderer who, propelled entirely by sheer disgust, walks out of his house one night to kill as many people as he possibly can. It's not a good game, but its sheer nihilism, played so straight that it's impossible to take seriously, got it a lot of attention leading up to its release.
Hatred is the third game to ever be rated AO by the ESRB due to violent content, and the first to just let it ride; Thrill Kill got cancelled and Manhunt 2 was haphazardly edited back to an M, but Hatred's developers changed nothing. It came under fire from several different quarters after that, including having to redo its trailers a couple of times to remove references to both the Unreal Engine and New York City, neither of which wanted to be seen as being in Hatred's corner.
The game was briefly yanked from the Steam Greenlight program in late 2014 due to, well, basically its entire deal, before being reinstated a day later due to the personal intervention of Valve co-founder Gabe Newell. Without Newell, Hatred would've ended up either dramatically edited or dead by default.
Postscript: apparently, Hatred's developer Destructive Creations (Daymare: 1998) wants to port Hatred to the Switch this year. It's hard to imagine how they're going to pull that off, unless we're about to see the debut of a special version of Hatred in which everyone's a balloon animal, which would be awesome.
Custer's Revenge (1982)
Custer's Revenge has achieved a unique notoriety for being one of the worst ideas anyone has ever had. It's an unlicensed Atari game where you play as a naked white guy with an erection, who must dodge arrows on his way across the screen to reach and molest a naked Native American woman who's tied to a pole. This is supposed to be erotic, somehow. Every individual element of Custer's Revenge acts to make the rest of it worse, like a turducken of sheer wrong. Frankly, we should let E.T. off the hook and blame Custer's Revenge for the 1983 video game crash.
Custer's Revenge was roundly condemned at release, by everyone from women's groups to Native Americans to anti-porn activists to, I have to hope, anyone who learned it existed. Atari sued Custer's Revenge's developer Mystique, claiming it damaged Atari's image, and the game was actively prohibited from being sold in Oklahoma City. Despite a couple of different attempts to rebrand and rerelease Custer's Revenge, Mystique didn't survive the 1983 crash. Copies of the game are now rare, and can sell on the secondary market for $100 or more. That's not much, really, if you want to own a personal copy of one of video game history's greatest mistakes.
2018 was a weird year on Steam. Valve had effectively abandoned its attempts to curate its storefront, so for a while there, anyone with a month to kill and a hundred dollars could get a game-like object onto the platform. The result was a tidal wave of low-effort crap. One game, Abstractism, turned out to be a cryptocurrency miner; another, Active Shooter, was an attempt by its developer to troll Valve by making the most offensive game he could think of.
Somehow in the middle of all of that, Valve found the time to target-lock on Mutiny!!, an erotic visual novel about an all-female band of pirates having sexy adventures in a fantasy world. It had been on Steam for about six months when the banhammer abruptly came down, with Valve threatening to yank it from the store unless Mutiny!!'s developer Lupiesoft removed its pornographic content. A couple of other porn games received similar notices under similar circumstances; one of them, the dating sim/puzzle game HuniePop, had been on sale and uncensored on Steam for the better part of two years.
While Valve eventually retracted the threat, Lupiesoft updated the Steam version of Mutiny!! to feature a milder version of the game, while also offering a software patch via its website that restored the game's original content. This ended up setting a precedent; nowadays there are a lot of porn and porn-ish games in Steam's darker corners that are "censored" in the same way. The pushback from Steam users did eventually force Valve to update its policies. In 2020, Steam has a surprisingly active scene for porn games, although you have to opt in via its content filters.
The part of the Mutiny!! story that boggles my mind is how it, of all things on Steam in 2018, got singled out. Somehow, in the middle of dealing with all the problems it had created by declaring Steam to be the Wild West of digital storefronts, ungoverned and ungovernable, Valve took time out of its day to go after the airship-pirates porn game. Mutiny!! has some reasonably weird fetishes in it, but it's not like those are on its store page, so I'm always going to wonder: what is it about this game in particular that put it at the forefront of this conversation?
Check out some of our other articles while you're here, because we're clearly out to cover everything we can about the video game industry, especially some of the weird bits:
- The best battle royales, ranked
- How to uninstall the Denevo anti-cheat program that comes with the new Doom Eternal update
- Listen to the full soundtrack for the Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1+2 remasters
Video game history is weird. This isn't even getting into the sheer nightmare fuel that is the average mobile game marketplace. Share your best obscure video game history facts with us via our official Twitter, @PrimaGames.