Video games have come a long way since their inception, but in addition to how they have progressed in substantial ways, so has the public’s perception of them. With there now being decidedly more content on the market and every genre getting pushed so much further, what was once a hot topic in the industry can now be something that barely registers with players.
Furthermore, blood and gore used to be depicted by some stray red pixels and now there’s a level of realism to the carnage that’s unprecedented. There are definitely still controversial video games on the market—in some ways, more than there ever has been before—but they’re all titles that push violence and sexuality to extremes that were never even considered back in the 1990s. Accordingly, Here Are 15 Games That Were Controversial In The ‘90s (But Are Actually Really Tame).
Various versions of Nintendo’s Punch-Out!! were released through the late ‘80s and ‘90s, but 1990 launched the re-branded NES version sans Mike Tyson. Punch-Out!! caused a bit of a stir over its wildly stereotypical depictions of its regional characters, something that would later be some what amended in Super Punch-Out!! Nowadays, there’d be more of an awareness going into the game, or the humor would be played up in a way to show that these are characters that aren’t meant to be seen as offensive.
14 Night Trap
If there’s anything from the video game industry that screams ‘90s, it’s the decade’s fascination with FMV-focused titles that typically consisted of more watching than actual playing. Night Trap centers around a number of underwear-clad girls who need help surviving from vampire-esque intruders. Due to how the game uses real actors, the minimal gore was still a huge deal at the time. Negligees are nothing to get worked up over, but this was one of two games taken to Congress, leading to the formation of the ESRB.
13 Mortal Kombat
Night Trap’s then-“realistic” depiction of violence and sexuality was one title that pushed the conversation of censorship to Congress, but the hyper-violent Mortal Kombat was the other. Mortal Kombat caused a major stir over its Fatalities, but now it’s hardly gratuitous to feature a special kind of finishing move. Mortal Kombat’s current Fatalities are truly over the top and the sort of thing where censorship could be an issue, but back in the 16-bit days the Fatalities were basically animated gifs.
There are now countless first-person shooters on the market and it’s one of the most popular sub-genres in gaming, but back in the ‘90s it was a much less cluttered playing field. Doom was one of the few first-person shooters available and it didn’t hold back. It caused concern over how the gameplay design puts you in the character’s shoes as well as its connections to Hell, but these are now non-issues on the market. Doom is still a lot of fun, but it’s a highly tame experience in comparison to what first-person shooters currently offer.
11 Grand Theft Auto
Grans Theft Auto is one of the few series on this list that still occasionally causes backlash and conjures up concern in parents and watchdog groups. It’s totally reasonable to see actions that attack innocent pedestrians and glorify crime as problematic, but the Grand Theft Autos of the ‘90s were a considerably tamer experience. The core experience revolving around crime was still present, but they hardly cover the scope that’s present now. It’s kind of crazy to look at the initial issues that were brought up with this series considering where the subject matter is currently at.
Splatterhouse is a plucky series of platformers for the Sega Genesis that would almost seem cute if they weren’t so steeped in brutal violence and monsters. Splatterhouse takes a sidescrolling approach to the horror genre and even though it deals with mature material, it’s clearly meant to be tongue-in-cheek. The main character’s resemblance to Jason Voorhees alone is enough of a tip of the hat. At the time, fans couldn’t look past the aggressive content, but it’s not a mean-spirited game.
9 Duke Nukem 3D
There are plenty of shooter franchises to fill up the genre, but one of the reasons that the Duke Nukem series has stayed alive and remained resilient for decades is because it actually gives some personality to its protagonist, even if he is a masculine chauvinist. The sheer fact that Duke Nukem 3D features violence and bikini-clad women was enough of a red flag for people at the time, but this is a game that’s more interested in its gameplay than it is in objectifying women.
8 Wolfenstein 3D
Much like Doom or Duke Nukem 3D, Wolfenstein 3D was the other major shooter from the ‘90s that caused a major uproar. While all of these games incorporate copious violence, Wolfenstein 3D deserves some extra points for how it throws Nazis and Adolf Hitler himself into the mix. Granted, such a thing may still register as controversial now, but with the amount of titles out there that tackle real-life tyrants, it’s certainly less likely.
A bit of an outlier here, Carmageddon is a racer as opposed to the more popular fighting and shooter genres that widely populate this list. Carmageddon's whole point is that it’s more aggressive than the standard racing game and it goes out of its way to be gratuitous. Accordingly, you can fully mow down pedestrians and animals during races, but the game is otherwise so rudimentary in comparison that it’s not that scarring. It’s hardly a graphic experience.
6 Leisure Suit Larry
The majority of the titles on this list are controversial due to their degree of violence and how they may emulate actions by the players. Violence is typically what comes under attack with video games, but Sierra’s Leisure Suit Larry series is a good example of when rampant sexuality is an issue. As the series’ name suggests, Leisure Suit Larry is a highly bawdy experience, but it’s presented in such a cartoonish way that it seems less mature as a result. With the level of dating sims and comparable titles now available, the Leisure Suit Larry games just feel like curious adventure titles now.
5 I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream
Another point-and-click adventure game for the PC with horror and sci-fi influences, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream is surprisingly advanced for its time. The game adapts the Harlan Ellison short story of the same name and presents an episodic-like narrative where characters try to find closure over the sinful lives that they’ve lived. One of the game’s storylines that involved an Axis soldier became the subject of concern, but it’s meant to be a powerful learning experience. Just the appearance of something controversial isn’t such an issue anymore.
SimCopter is a rather surprising subject of controversy considering that it’s not a fighting game or shooter title, but instead a helicopter flight simulator! Even though the game’s core content is nothing to get alarmed over, a programmer went somewhat rogue and programmed unauthorized characters in the game known as “himbos,” who will show up, kiss your character, and act sexual. This would still be gratuitous and unnecessary now, but it wouldn't erupt a controversy.
Postal is probably the game most likely from this list that could still cause a fuss. Not only is the game incredibly violent and glorifies unstable individuals, but it also pushes a heavy anti-law message, which is always going to be hard for authority figures to swallow. Postal is a lot, but we’ve come a long way from this game and considering that a more aggressive sequel to Postal has come out, we’re getting more comfortable with what these games can generate.
2 Shadow Warrior
Shadow Warrior is a shooter series that relatively flew under the radar in comparison to some of the other major inclusions on this list. While all of these games cavalierly throw around violence, Shadow Warrior was also under scrutiny for the game’s ambiguous, yet unintentional, depiction of racism when it comes to Asian cultures. Shadow Warrior didn’t want to ruffle any feathers here and even though issues like this still are addressed today in video games, they’re usually handled or won’t get to this point in the production.
These are all of the controversial ‘90s video games that have lost their bite that we could put together, but there are even more out there. Sound off over your favorites in the comments below.
Even though the violence and sexuality in video games of the 1990s is hindered by the technology of the time, they are still worthwhile areas to show concern over. However, some controversies are incredibly baseless and don’t make sense, regardless of when they happen. Pokémon became the topic of controversy when someone parental organizations linked the game to “Satanic” themes. People still police video games, but culture has become pretty good with moving past this highly reactionary point with titles.
Sources: IGN.com, Gamefaqs.com, GiantBomb.com