Bad games have trouble capturing the same charm as terrible movies. You play games, not passively watch them, and engaging with poor design can ruin an otherwise enjoyably crappy experience. Repetition and messy controls aren’t much fun to deal with, and most unintentionally awful games suffer in that department.
Rest assured, Microforum International did once make a game so bad it’s good. And folks, it’s unbelievable.
Enter Gooch Grundy’s X-Decathlon, the zero-to-hero sports fantasy of your deepest nightmares and a triumphant disaster on every imaginable level. Top to bottom, from its concept to execution, the game’s freaky version of an international sports championship straddles the line between horrible and wonderful. It shouldn’t work, but because you can sample the game at your own pace as you find most entertaining, it endures as a stupid miracle.
Gooch Grundy‘s competition barely resembles a real sporting event. We meet our hero Gooch, a Chris Farley-looking unemployed loser, living with his parents in a den of his own filth. During his morning routine, his bathroom mirror turns into a portal to a world where he reigns as the world’s most famous athlete. He jumps through and enters the X-Decathlon, a perilous sports challenge filled with other weird, unqualified competitors, like “Harvard’s own” ape man Larry Kong, Fred the alien, and the psychic Amazonia, whose name should indicate all the gross exoticism tropes she invokes.
X-Decathlon sports always involve some extreme danger. Instead of the javelin toss, you get the Javelin Catch. In place of the high jump, you climb up the side of a skyscraper. Roller derbies now have landmines. Sometimes you just beat people up. “Award-winning sports journalist” Chip Binkley pops in during the festivities to offer his clueless commentary.
Right off the bat, the game is total nonsense. The random inanity of its premise feels like an outgrowth of the worst faux edginess of the 90s. See the Computer Throw’s instantly dated tech humor, the gigantic zebra-print dogs that attack you in the Nice Doggie Jump, or the lava lamp grunge aesthetics throughout. Gooch Grundy‘s antics come off as too calculatedly wild and crude to be entertaining. Gooch himself should be a champion for everyday underachievers, but his unsympathetic laziness seems drawn from some sort of hatred for effort. (Gooch’s nemesis, Buff Manly, is basically just an angry guy who works out.)
And yet, in spite of itself, Gooch Grundy is hilarious. The game tries so hard to be outrageous, and with enough time and distance, that itself is funny. Its misfires become punchlines. A sport like Full Contact Figure Skating walks that line perfectly: it sounds witty and vicious but maybe too self-consciously clever. Decades removed from the game’s attempts to impress anyone, you have to gape in disbelief that it would commit to something so bizarre.
These ridiculous ideas fare even worse in practice. Across the board, controls rarely fit each sport and distract from the goal when they function at all. Many of the X-Decathlon events share the same unresponsive, sluggish combat actions, regardless of whether they’re appropriate or necessary. The 3D Maze (a sport, somehow?) suffers in particular and boils down to a morass of punching and running into walls. And woe unto you if you play the Hippo Run, a sport where you push a hippopotamus down a racetrack by hammering a button for about five minutes – though that too usually descends into violence.
God help me, I loved every second of this mess. Every misstep has some reason to laugh with it. Events demanding precision timing that the controls can’t supply always end in some over-the-top, explosive failure. Races grind to a halt as everyone runs low on energy, blinks in and out of consciousness, then gets knocked out by an airborne slice of pizza. The live-action graphics endearingly sputter along as if being hand-cranked. The actor playing Chip Binkley fumbles through his lines with a wobbly Mid-Atlantic accent and keeps looking down to read his script. Each new corner of Gooch Grundy’s X-Decathlon is a riot. If this was a movie, a boom mic would fall into the shot.
Unintentional humor doesn’t fix unwieldy design, of course. But Gooch Grundy‘s shoddiness provides a motivation to keep playing. Whether or not you succeed barely matters. You can’t get discouraged over losing something so ridiculous and broken. It lets you delight in its warped sensibilities without the pressure to win. In that sense, it’s superior to better, more coherent games that are actually competitive.
Its open structure helps too: every event can be tried independently, and the Championship mode goes on regardless of your performance. You can buy items with your winnings in-between rounds, but that’s the extent of the continuity. You’re not obligated to trudge through a lousy event to see the best parts of the game. The Troubled Waters swimming event has few worthwhile qualities apart from the 3D sharks, for example, and once you get the idea, you can quit and move on without missing anything.
Maybe that’s the secret to a good bad game. Like in the beloved Action 52, you don’t have to worry about progression. No single challenge has the weight to stop the game in its tracks. Gooch Grundy lets you pick around its playability issues to taste its weirdest, most delicious parts, like a buffet of the damned. (That could probably be an X-Decathlon event, too.)