Custer’s Revenge is bad, but other games aren’t always better
39 years ago, on September 23, 1982, the worst video game of all time was released. The game, Custer’s Revenge, was made for the Atari 2600 by Mystique, a now-defunct developer that focused on uninspiring unlicensed porn games with titles such as Beat ‘Em & Eat ‘Em.
Custer’s Revenge is their most famous game, almost entirely because of its offensive plot, which involves leading cowboy hat-wearing General Custer’s penis into unwitting, tied-up, pixelated Native American women. It’s a universally gross, boring game, but it has a couple of five-star Google reviews because, on the internet, one hopes speaking positively about a heartless, unremarkable porn game might win one “epic internet points.”
Maybe in some circles, but I’m not very moved by your five stars, Google reviewers. Nor am I interested in dissecting Custer’s Revenge, which would have been totally forgotten to time had it not been so wholly and completely detestable.
I am interested, however, in questioning many games writers’ classification of Custer’s Revenge as “the worst” game.
Although it’s undeniable that, yes, that game is that bad, when you label something with your most polarizing, definitive value judgments, “best” or “worst” of “all time,” it makes it extremely difficult to have a conversation about all the blurrier, graded things. When you stick Custer’s Revenge as video game history’s lowest prong, it implies that, since this unsavory blunder, things have only gotten better. Custer’s Revenge was just a blip, a relic, a byproduct of ‘80s misogyny that we have long moved on from.
But we haven’t. And Custer’s Revenge doesn’t exist in a vacuum; we can’t rocket off from the lowest point in history in just 40 years. Custer’s Revenge’s influence, disappointingly, is still seen in video games today.
Video games still struggle (to put it lightly) with representation of women and with cultural sensitivity, and sometimes even on a wider scale — just last year, big-production, mainstream Cyberpunk 2077 faced scrutiny for its depiction of Asian and women characters. Outside of games, angry chat members often default to gender, sexuality, and race-based slurs, a fact of games that many are forced to accept as just part of the environment, the gaming experience.
How can Custer’s Revenge be “the worst” when so much of what made that game terrible, like ingrained devaluing of women, Indigenous people, and even audiences, for assuming they’d want to buy something so heartless, still slinks around in games today? Games called Rape Day are still made, women developers are unsafe in the workplace, and some of the most popular, well-received games prioritize the white male experience.
Where we stand is far from “the best,” and marking Custer’s Revenge as the “worst,” to me, feels too much like a smug pat on the back. We don’t deserve that yet, and that’s okay.
We have to acknowledge the nastier parts of video game history — the buried roots of misogyny, the suffocating whiteness — in order to truly grow away from them. The more we learn and understand about history (without a knee-jerk reaction to seperate ourselves from the ugliest parts), the better equipped we are to form a future without those same mistakes. A diverse future, where women of color aren’t the punch line, where we can confidently say that we have moved on from what games once were. I’m still waiting for that future to come.