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A brief history of (unintentionally) unbeatable games

A promised patch should soon allow <em>KOTOR II</em> players to beat the game on Switch.
Enlarge / A promised patch should soon allow KOTOR II players to beat the game on Switch.

Last week, publisher Aspyr officially acknowledged the existence of a game-breaking glitch in the recent Switch port of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II. That glitch, which crashes the game after the “Basilisk Crash” cutscene on the planet Onderon, has the inconvenient side effect of making the Switch version completely unbeatable.

While Aspyr promised this game-breaking glitch would be fixed in the game’s next downloadable patch, plenty of game developers in the past haven’t had that option. KOTOR II on the Switch is the latest in a long line of games that were literally impossible to complete (or to get a full, 100 percent completion rate) when they launched.

Here, we’re not talking about games like The Sims or Tetris that are designed not to have a win condition and/or always end in failure for the player (though some games that seem like they fall in that category are surprisingly beatable). We’re also not talking about games where the player is forced to reset after accidentally stumbling into an in-game predicament where they can no longer make progress (TV Tropes has a massive list of games that fit this description).

No, instead we’re talking about games that are supposed to be beatable but, for one reason or another, can’t be fully completed regardless of what the player does (short of using external cheats). While gaming’s short history has seen plenty of these games, here are a few notable examples that should make Aspyr feel a little better about its recent KOTOR problems.

Sqij! (ZX Spectrum, 1987)

Beyond unbeatable, the Spectrum port of this cute Commodore 64 game was totally unplayable due to a programming glitch that made the game fail to respond to any keyboard inputs. But that may not have been a simple oversight.

Eurogamer has the story of coder Jason Creighton, who was tasked with making the Spectrum version of the game despite not being provided with a copy of the Commodore original. When publisher The Power House insisted that Creighton do his best based on a map of the original game, he turned around a last-minute project written in Laser BASIC, rather than machine code.

While Creighton says he didn’t intentionally break the game’s controls, the unplayable mess still made it past the publisher’s quality control and hit British store shelves at the bargain-basement price of 2 pounds. Still sounds like a lot of money for a game where you can’t move, but what do we know?

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (MS-DOS, 1989)

For the most part, this PC version is a pretty faithful port of the famously difficult first TMNT game for the NES, which was also released in 1989. For some inexplicable reason, though, a single block is missing from a sewer section in Level 3, making an otherwise trivial gap impossible to clear. The oversight was fixed in time for the game’s 1990 European release, but US players were stuck unless they knew how to cheat.

Chip’s Challenge (Windows, 1992)

A version of Chip’s Challenge level Spirals that has been edited to be beatable.

The fourth version of the Microsoft Entertainment Pack for Windows is well-remembered for this tile-based puzzle game, itself a port of the 1989 Atari Lynx original. But that port changed a single tile in level 88, removing a wall and changing a former dead-end into an open corner. That, in turn, causes the level’s walker enemies to fly out of that corner in a straight line, blocking the player’s progress for good.

The oversight was fixed for subsequent Windows releases of the game, and while early players could technically skip level 88, they would do so knowing there was at least one level they would never beat.

X-Men (Genesis, 1993)

Those who played this early ’90s action game may remember an ingenious/frustrating puzzle in the later levels, where the game told the player to “Reset the computer.” After searching the bare room for a reset button, clever players would hopefully figure out that they had to press the reset button on the Genesis console itself (spoilers for a 29-year-old game, we guess). That little trick worked because the Genesis reset button left a few areas of RAM untouched, letting the game “remember” the player’s progress upon restarting.

However, this inventive design trick became problematic when players tried to play the game on the Sega Nomad. That’s because the portable version of the Genesis doesn’t have a dedicated reset button, meaning players are stuck when they reach the late-game puzzle. And while some fans have gone to great lengths to fix that hardware issue, it’s probably easier to dig up a classic Genesis and reach for that reset button.

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