Digital Archaeology: Custer’s Revenge Atari 2600 Review
Custer’s Revenge Atari 2600 – Video Review, History, and Analysis
There are plenty of games which have been proclaimed to be the worst videogame ever made but few stoop to the indefensible depths that Custer’s Revenge on the Atari 2600 achieved. Even Atari’s E.T., the subject of the first Digital Archaeology video, had some degree of charm that, at least in my eyes, gives it a degree of redemption. Custer’s Revenge, on the other hand, is utterly beyond recovery; it is a racist, sexist, victimising title with a deeply troubling theme. As technically inept as games like E.T. and Pac Man were on the 2600, neither game compounded their failings with crude depictions of sexual assault or the glorification of genocide.
Custer’s Revenge appeared in September 1982, around the same time that Atari released its ill-fated adaptation of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The game was produced by a small company called Mystiquewho specialised in creating so-called adult videogames which leveraged crude, sexual imagery and bold warnings plastered on their products to generate press and sell units. Among the company’s small repertoire of titles was a game called Bachelor Party which, like much of the rest of company’s portfolio, drew heavily upon already established gameplay mechanics, whilst adding low resolution pornographic imagery. In the case of Bachelor Party the company copied the mechanics of the Atari classic Breakout whilst replacing the basic imagery of the original with extremely crude depictions of naked men and women – titillating, it was not. Custer’s Revenge upped the ante of this approach quite considerably by supplementing the company’s already lowbrow sensibilities with the casual use of rape as a gameplay mechanic.
In Custer’s Revenge players move from one side of the screen to another, dodging a small storm of falling arrows in order to reach a naked Native American woman tied to a post. Once players reach their destination they must press the joystick’s action button in order to begin assaulting the woman, gaining a point for each time they are able to press the button before an arrow inevitably falls upon their head. That’s it – there is no more to this game than that simple, ever-repeating mechanic. It is appallingly blunt, exploiting, as it did, the intersection of race, gender, and genocide for no other reason than to generate a profit. Perhaps worst of all was the comparative level of success which the game achieved, shifting a reported 80,000 units. At least some of that success was a result of the negative publicity which the game’s publisher deliberately went out of their way to generate. In order to promote the game, its publisher cynically invited members of a New York women’s group and Native American organisation to play it – their trolling worked and a protest was organised that helped to further spread the word about this game. Writing in InfoWorld in November 1982, writer Deborah Wise commented upon the obvious baiting the game’s publisher was engaged in whilst highlighting the need to protest the title’s existence, providing its creators with the very publicity that they had originally hoped to generate.
The game was, and is, utterly beyond redemption. Its subject matter, focus, depictions, and goals make for a nauseatingly disturbing mix. That it was defended by anyone –and it was– was a damning indictment of the early videogame industry. When contenders for the worst videogame made are touted, as they so often are, this title, more than any other, deserves that unqualified recognition.