games / Columns

The Gamer Parent’s Strategy Guide: Shovelware

February 22, 2021 | Posted by Jed Shaffer
Ubisoft Imagine Rock Star Shovelware

My family got our first VCR in the early 80’s. Back then, rental stores didn’t have a lot to offer. New releases were coveted and fought over like a ten dollar TV on Black Friday, and for some reason, studios took their time issuing the back catalog, as if they were hedging their bets that this home video idea might fizzle out. As the device made its case for permanence, people started to see new business ventures the device offered. Smaller production companies could crank out cheap product and it’d make its money back in rentals, even if the quality ranged from “well, I could have the flu instead” to “I’m seeking a cease and desist order”. That’s not to say B-movies (and C and D and E and …) didn’t exist before VCR’s. RiffTrax wouldn’t exist if B-movies weren’t a thing, and Rob Zombie’s entire directorial career seemingly exists to (forcibly) remind us that grindhouse movies are a thing. VCR’s just made the ROI of making a B-movie more palatable. These small studios could skip theaters and go straight to video for schlock like The Toxic Avenger and Subspecies. They knew some damned fool would rent it.

My mother was one of them damned fools. She was to the new release wall what a goat is to a full garbage can. We rented two or three movies every few days, so it was easy to burn through the big name releases and be left with the direct-to-video options. She had no discerning taste. There was nothing off limits for her. It could be of a quality that made cable access look like Jurassic Park, and she’d pay the rental fee without question because it was on the new release wall and we hadn’t seen it. And if we said “um, really?” to anything, she’s try to explain it away with “there was nothing ELSE to rent!” As a result, my Letterboxd profile has such cinematic masterpieces as It’s Pat: The Movie, Puppet Master 4, and Frankenhooker. I’ll provide a link below to the GoFundMe for my ongoing recovery. Although, trust me, you haven’t really lived until you’ve watched a Shannon Tweed softcore thriller with your parents at the age of 13. You’ll never encounter another situation where you both anticipate and fear seeing boobs.

Just because you found Night Eyes 2 under my bed doesn’t mean I should have to pay two weeks worth of late fees, Mom!

Every form of media has its lower-tier options meant to fill holes on shelves and take money out of the pockets of those with no boundaries of taste. Books had “yellowbacks” in the 19th century, and today, any tome that bypasses a hardcover release is usually considered to be literary landfill material by critics. For a long time, TV was the ugly step-child of movies, and cable TV’s niche specialization made it the weird cousin of said step-child, a dynamic that’s now inverted. Now, reality TV has become the broadcast trash of choice, and MTV and VH1 seem to be the prime toxic waste dump for these. The music industry has Coldplay. Wherever there’s a form of media, there’s a lowest-common-denominator producer looking to exploit its customer base with filler, and video games are no exception. There’s a word for this: shovelware.

The definition of shovelware is a little loose. It’s like determining what is art: there are no clear rules, but you know it when you see it. Activision, EA and 2K all have franchises they crank out on an annual basis, but you wouldn’t consider them shovelware (well, maybe WWE 2K20). Bioware was working on Anthem for so long, the original developers’ kids finished the project, and it still came out a buggy, hollow mess of a thing, but it isn’t shovelware. I think the best way to describe shovelware is that, not only does it lack polish and substance, but there is a pervasive cynicism to the game’s existence. You can feel that it was made to be a quick cash-grab.

Shovelware can be found all the way back on the Atari 2600. Atari’s approach to quality control was to throw something shiny in one direction and run in the other, so as a consequence, the console was flooded with some games that could only aspire to be hot toilet. And I’m not talking about Atari being lazy themselves and dropping dead-on-arrival pap like the abysmal Pac-Man port. I’m talking about the under-the-sales-counter anti-classics like Porky’s or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and “games” (those quote marks are doing so much heavy lifting there, they could bench-press an aircraft carrier) based on dog food advertisements (Chase The Chuck Wagon) and beverage mascots that committed home invasion as a hobby (Kool-Aid Man). But even those can be given some latitude, as they were earnest, if baffling and terrible, attempts to get a slice of what seemed like a really popular pie. They were an attempt to exploit a market, but it wasn’t done with the intention of making cheap, quick garbage. It just so happened that the people who design flavors of sugary drinks probably don’t have a firm grasp on video game development.

Oh no.

Once video games proved that they weren’t the next Pet Rock, that’s when you saw true, bottom-scraping, Wal-Mart-bargain-bin shovelware crop up, and no successful console was immune to the scourge. Even the beloved NES, with that gold seal of approval on the box that seemed to promise every game would be a masterpiece, had garbage that was shat out with great haste and minimal effort in order to fill space on a shelf. And I’m not even talking unlicensed trash like Action 52 or Wisdom Tree’s everything. In this case, the prosecution calls to the stand LJN, and their library of movie-to-game … “interpretations” … that will puzzle scholars for decades. You can’t tell me Bill & Ted’s Excellent Video Game Adventure was made by professionals. Maybe professional paste-eaters, sure, but if they’d ever sat in front of a computer prior to getting their accursed assignments, I promise you they were more dumbfounded than the Neanderthals at the beginning of 2001 with the monolith.

And it’s only gotten easier in the ensuing years for a company to burp up shovelware onto the discount rack of your nearest box store, and the production of them has gotten FAR more cynical. Shovelware went from a thing to A THING once the industry shifted from cartridges to discs, as the production cost was lower, so the investment was easier to recoup. The original PlayStation had its fair share, whether it was licensed turds like VIP, or me-too coattail clingers like Countdown Vampires that hoped to rake in money from a hot trend in gaming. PC’s in the 90’s were breeding grounds for this kind of shit, with CD’s in the check-out aisle next to the TV Guide that promised 88 games for three bucks … until you looked at the fine print and noticed that they were DEMOS, or public domain games like checkers and parcheesi. The worst console for this may have been the Wii; it’s been estimated that 132% of the Wii’s library is shovelware, with Ubisoft’s endless parade of Imagine games making up half of that number. When alien archaeologists come to this planet after the human race is long extinct, the Earth’s surface will be buried in unsold copies from M&M’s Kart Racing and Ninjabread Man.

This is how Ubisoft supported Sony and Microsoft. They gave the Wii games teaching girls how to be cheerleaders and babies throwing parties. There is no joke here. There CAN’T be a joke here.

Not that Nintendo is on an island in creating an environment for the worst of developers to drop trou and unleash their crap. Look at any of the digital marketplaces, be it console or PC; you could have the lifespan of a Highlander and you’d still never finish cataloging the mountain of garbage, all hoping to be the next Undertale. Go to YouTube right now and look up gameplay of Life Of Black Tiger. Go on. I’ll meet you at the neurology ward of the nearest hospital, because you’re gonna have a stroke when you see it and realize that was made by real people and not a damaged, half-functional AI programmed by a brain-dead box turtle.

Ready to double-dip on that stroke? If your kid is younger than, say, 12? YOUR KID WANTS THAT GAME. I mean, if you were eight, wouldn’t you? You play as a TIGER. It’s everything the eight-year-old (or 22 year old with an airbrushed ’76 Chevy van) could ever want. And if it isn’t that, it’s getting to be a a firefighter with Firefighters: Airport Fire Department, which really is a game. Although, how do you, as a developer, arrive at such a narrow, specialized section of that career path? Is there really a kid out there thinking “I wanna be a fireman, but only within the confines of Dulles International Airport”?

The airport firefighter game turned a profit, so we gotta strike fast. Here’s my idea for a follow-up – Veterinarian: Small Reptiles and Amphibians from Southeast Asia!

And if it isn’t your kid that wants it, it also exists as an easy solution to a common problem: gift-giving. Your kid has to go to a birthday party this weekend, and you know the birthday boy-or-girl has a Switch, and you need to get a gift. Toys? A board game? A DVD? Well, look no further than a pool made of plastic and disappointment. Dive into the depths of that bin with the big $9.99 OR LESS sunburst sticker on the side, and your problem is solved! Don’t worry about that burning sensation behind your heart. That’s just your integrity as a gamer, dying a slow, suffocating death as you toss that copy of Paw Patrol: On A Roll in your cart with dishwashing liquid, a loaf of bread and the latest Entertainment Weekly. You’ve helped justify shovelware’s existence and convinced whatever fly-by-night, ramshackle operation that “developed” that “game” to make another one to sucker another desperate, hurried parent. You’re so soulless, you’re probably the type of person who watches horror movies released to theaters in January, aren’t you, you monster.

Except I’m here to tell you today, my friend, that you’re not a monster. You’re okay.

For one, do I even need to state the obvious that even the worst shovelware is programmed by humans? Probably fresh-from-college, inexperienced kids, but programmers all the same. Everybody starts somewhere. Before James Cameron became the guy behind the two good Terminator movies, he made Piranha II: The Spawning. Could be one of these college interns goes on to be the next Shigeru Miyamoto, and all because you helped by supporting the developmental sweatshop when you purchased Farmer’s Dynasty.

But more importantly is that, while you have the benefit of age, wisdom and experience, there was a time in your gaming life where you didn’t. You had fifty bucks setting your pocket on fire, and all you had to go on was the box art.

Is this a video game or a Roger Dean album cover?

I know my NES and Sega Genesis library had their fair share of shameful inclusions. Friday The 13th, Technocop, Renegade, Bad Dudes, the NES port of Ghostbusters … I could be here all day. And if you think back, so can you. Some of these games, I can look back on and say they were as bad as stepping on Legos barefooted, and some, defying all logic and reason, hold nostalgic value that I can’t explain. I will go to the grave defending Friday The 13th as if I owe it my freedom, even though I know it’s as wonky as a one-legged table. I know Technocop is all sizzle, no steak, but I adore its OTT, look-at-me-I’m-so-edgy violence and ridiculousness. I’m absolutely, 100% confident that every gamer out there has a few of these in their history.

And for those games that truly are crap – the Sunday Funday‘s and Anubis II‘s of the world – I’d argue kids need that experience of buying a game that ends up better buried in a deep hole. They need to experience floaty controls and hit-boxes twice the size of your character and cheap level design and a draw-distance of three pixels away. They need bad experiences, so they can savor the good ones; you can love Wii Sports on its own, but you gain a new appreciation for its quality if you’ve also played 101 in 1 Party Games. That’s how one learns the concept of value. To them, the value of one unit of the coin of your realm is exactly the number on the paper. We know better; we know that value and cost are not tied together in any way. The best way for young kids to learn the concept of value is through experience; not just getting away with a great deal, but also getting boned on a bad one. Shovelware is the perfect vehicle for that lesson. Every instinct in your body may be to stop little Johnny from dropping a tenner on Space Chimps … but maybe this is how he learns the stove burner is hot, you know? Maybe next time, he’ll hold onto that ten bucks, do some research, talk to friends. Or maybe he’ll find a diamond in the rough.

With a name like Space Chimps, it really could go either way.

Many moons ago, when I wrote the Ask 411 Wrestling column for a brief spell, someone once asked me about Jim Duggan and what was his value. To paraphrase myself, I responded that, in life, not everybody was cut out to be the top dog; one kid might make it to be President, but a hell of a lot more kids would be flipping burgers. That’s not meant to be insulting; it’s just life. Not everybody gets to be the hero. Shovelware is like that; it’s never going to compete with Grand Theft Auto or Forza or Legend Of Zelda … but it’s not aspiring to, either. McDonald’s does not aspire to compete with a Gordon Ramsey restaurant, although no Gordon Ramsey restaurant has a Shamrock Shake, so, is it even a comparison? NOBODY DARES DISAGREE.

Shovelware exists for young programmers and designers to cut their teeth. It fills shelf space in drug stores and cut-out bins with cheap product. It exists for small developers to pump out product and pay the bills while they build a resume that can hopefully, one day, impress a noteworthy publisher or potential investor. It’s digital junk food, but some gamers can’t just let it stay in its highly discounted corner and ignore it. They bemoan its existence, as if merely by sharing space on a shelf with games from respected publishers, it puts a stain upon the entire gaming landscape. Again, I refer you back a few paragraphs to how Ubisoft treated the Wii versus the other consoles of that generation. Then, think back to some of the garbage that other notable developers have pumped out; if you can sit there with a straight face and tell me Activision and THQ were putting their best foot forward when they pushed BMX XXX and Clever Kids: Farmyard Fun onto an unsuspecting world, we just aren’t on the same wavelength.

Just like Asylum mockbusters, Harlequin romance novels, or any programming on MTV, shovelware shouldn’t lessen your appreciation for other media that you enjoy, and your kids wanting some kart racing game because it has a food mascot or a cartoon character in it doesn’t condemn them to Hell. I promise you the desk clerk at CVS won’t report you to Child Protective Services for buying shovelware. If your kid enjoys it, hey, it’s money well spent. And if it turns out bad, it’s no different than if any other game was bad. Hell, it’ll probably be a smaller financial footprint than if you bought them a triple-A game and they hated it. Either way, it’s just a game. As bad as some of these games can be, your kids will not suffer an unrecoverable injury from playing Big Rigs.

How can they, when they’re phasing through solid matter like it was fog?

And in closing

Me on Twitter! My email is still [email protected]! I’m contactable there!

If you enjoy this or any edition of the column, please, share it with friends, post it to social media, etc. Looking to take the profile of this to another level, especially in light of this announcement:

I’m going to launch a podcast of this column in the coming weeks. It’ll go by the same name as the column, and it’ll be available on a number of platforms. I should have a preview up this week (haven’t had time to record it yet), and the first episode in the coming weeks; I’ll drop a link to the trailer on my Twitter. Sometimes, we’ll talk about topics we’ve already covered here in the column, but more in-depth. For those episodes, it’ll be a roundtable discussion with myself and a couple other people. I’m also looking to do interviews of gamer parents from all sorts of walks of life; gaming journalists, YouTubers, programmers, executives, celebrities. I’ve got big plans, and to achieve some of those plans, I’m gonna need you, my readers, to not only become listeners, but spread the word. Get this column in front of new eyes, and when the podcast drops, get it in front of new ears. Every little bit will help.

See you in 2.