Born to die: Ten fantastically underpowered videogame protagonists

Videogames are largely thought of as a medium exclusively used for power fantasies. Be it the power to commit any crime you want with few repercussions (Grand Theft Auto series), the power to cleave off the wings of giant eagles before partaking in very different kind of cleavage (God of War series), or the power to kill your friends and call them names (Halo series), today’s videogames are undeniably adept at providing us with the illusion that we’ve “gots da power”.

Unbeknown to many non-gamers, there are a ton of videogames that work in the opposite way, instead providing a safe environment in which to live out the experience of feeling powerless. For the same reasons people enjoy overcoming their own fears and insecurities by watching a horror movie or riding a rollercoaster, some also enjoy playing videogames where they have very little power. Games of this type provide the player with a far greater sense of accomplishment upon completion, a sense of being respected by the game’s developer for their ability to handle a challenge, and most importantly, function to create a much more accurate reflection of our true life experiences.

This is a salute to the videogame characters that have gone the extra mile to let us externalize the internal sense of powerlessness we all feel inside, because even though the real world may look like Liberty City, most of the time living in that world feels more like playing Mega Man 9.

Hit the jump for the full rundown on videogame’s greatest wimps.

10) Mega Man from the 8-bit Mega Man games

Mega Man only makes number ten because, compared with the other entries on the list, he’s actually quite the powerhouse. The character’s power level has varied greatly at different points in his career, but even at his worst he’s always got a gun built into his arm that never runs out of bullets. Most of the crumbums on the rest of this list aren’t even half that lucky.

The problem for Mega Man is that just about everybody in his world has either the power to work around his abilities, or the same abilities as him, but to a greater degree. Almost everybody in Mega Man-ville is packing heat, even the cute little empty hard hats. Can you imagine if every hapless mark Niko Belek in GTA IV tried to car jack was packing heat, and if their cars themselves could come to life and start blasting caps? That’s Mega Man’s world: a world where everyone and everything wants him dead.

Worse, everywhere Mega Man turns, there is a potentially life ending run in with sharp, spiky death. Somebody seems to have left murderous spikes all over the entire planet, and just the slightest touch causes spontaneous combustion. Even on Niko’s worst day, in the events before or during GTA IV, he never had to deal with a world this dangerous. 

Why he’s fantastic:

Mega Man is all about tenacity and accepting that making mistakes is the only way to learn. Mega Man’s tenacity is always rewarded with victory, and the expansion of his skill set. Unlike most videogames, the 8-bit Mega Man titles all get easier the farther you go into them. Every level you beat yields a new weapon, and each new weapon holds the promise of less painful life experience. Mega Man may start off the underdog, but his hard work will lead to his emergence as a walking tank. There is no better feeling than paying a visit to past bullies (particularly those little hard-hat-shaped robots) and letting go with a “HOW YOU LIKE ME NOW, YOU TURTLE LOOKING SONS-A-BITCHES??!” as you unload your full arsenal on the cocky little jerks. 

(See also Samus Aran from Metroid, Ladd Spencer from Bionic Commando Rearmed)

9) Solid Snake from the Metal Gear series

Snake may look tough, but in war, looks only go so far. Fire power, body armor, and back up are the three things a soldier needs, and depending on the game, Snake starts off with either little or none of the above. You get the sense that the dude wants to die, either of old age, cigarette smoke, or whatever genetic ailment he’s suffering from that day. It’s almost as if he’s trying to infuriate the player, who from after taking a gander at Snake’s pipes and hearing about his rep from the characters on the codec, can’t help but expect this guy to be able to fight.

Assuming Snake can take on any group of soldiers in a head-to-head battle will only make an ass out of you and Snake. Trying to get through a Metal Gear game with the traditional videogame method of defeating the enemies with force will only lead to two things: getting shot, and dying.

Snake is a scalpel, not a hammer. Use a scalpel to hammer in a nail, and you’re going to get a broken scalpel. 

Why he’s fantastic:

Snake’s inability to take his enemies by force leaves a huge amount of space for the player to fill with their own personal strategies for success. In games like Devil May Cry, the player feels as though it’s Dante/Nero who’s doing most of the work. We sit back and mash buttons while they kick ass. Fun, but not much worth taking pride in (and don’t even get me started on the combos in Killer Instinct). Our relationship with Snake is largely the opposite. The fact that Snake does so little on his own to help you achieve your mission makes you look good in comparison.

Snake does have the basic tools at his disposal to allow the player to strategically get through the obstacles before him, but it’s you who has to do all the work, all the planning, all the waiting under a tank for ten minutes hoping to get a good shot at an enemy soldiers ankles. So when that call from the Colonel or Mei Ling comes through on the codec saying “You’re the most amazing soldier ever, Snake. I want you…to be my new Dad,” the player knows that it’s them, not Snake, who is really getting the praise.

Snake may be the weak link in your partnership, but just like going to a party with your ugliest friend, it all just works to make you look better. 

(See also Pac-Man from Pac-Man, Ms Pac-Man from Ms Pac-Man)

8) The Marble from Marble Madness

Marble Madness is the aptly named game about a marble that’s stuck in some crazy person’s fantasy of marble racing. The marble is completely defenseless. He can’t attack; he can’t jump; all he can do is move. Through the course of the game, the marble will have to clear cavernous gorges, avoid being eaten by slinky worms, keep from being burned alive by pools of acid and steer clear of angry birds with the peculiar ability to make marbles die. There are no ways to increase your chances of success in Marble Madness. There is no power-pellet, no fire flower, and certainly no BFG. The Marble may be number eight on this list of weaklings, but he’s number one in terms of sheer helplessness.

Why he/she/it is fantastic:

Marble Madness is a fine game when played single player, but where it really shines is in head-to-head competition. You’re still stuck playing as a defenseless marble, but so is your opponent. When you are better at controlling your marble than your opponent, the feeling of superiority is fantastic. The level of shadenfreude-derived joy the game can provide is truly extraordinary. Listening to them curse, squeal, and practically cry as they plummet to their death; are eaten alive; or burnt to a crisp … it all does wonders to make up for any powerlessness you may feel. Better yet, if you manage to do far better than your opponent and actually make it to the bottom of the screen before they do, they are temporarily wiped from existence. After that, they do come back, warped up to whatever part of the level you’ve gotten to, but it does cause them to permanently lose precious seconds off their timer. This act may be the ultimate act of videogame-based passive aggression.

“Oh, I’m sorry man, did I go to fast? Jeez, that really stinks. You should try a little harder to keep up with me next time, m’kay?” Right there, you’ve permanently proven for life that you are one of the biggest jerks on the planet and you’re proud of it. 

The sense of utter superiority you feel towards your foe at these times wouldn’t be the same if you beat them using more conventional weaponry, environmental assistance, or other unfair advantages. Competitions in Marble Madness exist on a completely level playing field. When you win, it’s because you are irrefutably better than to your foe, and that’s why this game rules.

(See also the Mario Kart series)

7) Dan Hibiki from the Street Fighter series

A good fighting game tries to be like Marble Madness by also providing a level playing field for all participating players (see Smash Bros, Soul Caliber, and Mortal Kombat). Fighting games are different from MM in that they offer multiple different playable characters with different fighting styles. Developers often spend months, even years, tweaking all the different players to be sure that none are unfairly overpowered.  

Now a great game isn’t afraid to throw off its character balance by sticking in one completely underpowered character just to mix things up. That’s who Dan Hibiki is, the most blatantly underpowered fighting game character in the history of fighting games. An amalgamation of Ryo and Robert from rival fighting game series Art of Fighting, Dan was made to both mock that series, and prove that the world of Street Fighter still had some (stupid) tricks up its sleeve.

Why he’s fantastic:

Dan plays a lot like Ken and Ryu, the two characters every Street Fighter player knows how to use, except all his moves have less priority, strength, and range. He’s just plain awful, which makes even the smallest victory with the character feel like a resounding triumph.

Even though using Dan in an arcade based match is an almost guaranteed loss of money, it’s a surefire way to score bragging rights. Just the act of choosing Dan is will get a reaction from onlookers, some “Oohs and Ahs”, some laughs, but never a “Why’d you pick Birdie man? He sucks” or an “Akuma’s for scrubs. I hope you rot in hell for picking him.” Dan maybe a loser, but he’s a crowd pleaser, and half of the arcade experience is about pleasing the crowd.

Score a combo or, better yet, a super move with Dan and the crowd will be impressed. Your foe will be embarrassed. You will have a smile from ear to ear, like a kamikaze pilot who just scored a direct hit. From there, even if you lose (and you probably will), you still come out a champ. Tack on to that the fact that Dan has multiple taunts, adding to his ability to belittle your opponent, and you have a character that provides a type of entertainment unique to the world of competitive fighters.

There are times in life when you want to give up before you try, when you want to show your opponent that you don’t care if he can beat you, that you’re going to have fun no matter what he/she does. That’s what Dan is for, and that’s why he’s so damn special. 

(See also: Roll and Servebot from Marvel Vs Capcom 2, Norimaro from Marvel Super Heroes VS Street Fighter)

6) Beat and GGs from the Jet Grind Radio series

On the surface, nothing seems weak about any of the playable characters from the Jet Grind Radio. They can all jump at superhuman heights, speed skate with Olympic level skill, fall from three-story buildings, get hit by bionic arms, scimitars, bullets, even air to ground missiles and just keep on jet-grinding (whatever that means). It’s not a lack of ability or willingness to take a beating that makes these guys underpowered; it’s their near total inability to defend themselves.

The GG’s (and nearly all the gangs in Jet Grind Radio) do all their fighting with aerosol paint cans. That’s fine when it’s a “who can paint the most graffiti on the other guys back” fight against another gang, but when you’re facing a giant fire-breathing rhinoceros robot or an honest to god Bionic Commando, it’s hard to feel well armed with nothing but a can of paint in your hand.

Why they’re fantastic:

As silly as the Jet Grind games may seem on the surface, they have an underlying message to them that’s actually quite sincere. The message is “The man would rather fill us with lead than let us express ourselves. We will fight back, but with weapons of our own.” This cuts right to the core of what the spirit of graffiti is all about, something the scuzzy GTA/JGR mash up Marc Ecko’s Getting Up only slightly alluded to.

The fact that the GGs are practically defenseless against the gun-toting, missile-firing cops they’re up against serves to illustrate how badly the police in real life overreact to graffiti artists. It also serves to make mini-Batmen out of the GGs. The fact that they can take down the cops without use of guns only makes them look more badass. If the GGs used guns, the cops would actually have good reason to try and take them down with force. They wouldn’t be the underdogs anymore, they’d just be living up up to the villainous image the cops have slandered them with. In the days of the Dreamcast, a game starring villains was totally off-limits.

I’m sure Sega thought they were already being pretty daring by making a game about “criminals” like graffiti artists. If they only knew how tame that material would appear, and how little money it would make, compared to the likes of GTA IV and the rest.

5) Pepper Pete from Burger Time

If a chef can’t sing, dance, or fist fight, it’s totally acceptable. In fact, it’s a little weird when you go to a restaurant and your chef is caught in the kitchen singing, dancing, and karate chopping when he should be busy making your damn dinner. No, as long as your chef can handle his food, all other skills are optional.

That’s what makes Pepper Pete so amazingly inadequate. He’s a chef, a guy who should be able to deal with a giant, bloodthirsty fried egg just fine. He should be able to slice and dice, or even just eat the damn thing no problem. Too bad Pepper Pete’s only defenses in the face of his food-based pursuers is to throw some pepper in their face, or run as far away from them as possible. Who could blame the guy? If he’s touched by a giant hot-dog, pickle, or other grossly over-sized condiment, it’s instant death.

Why he’s fantastic:

It’s hard to refrain from using this space to just talk about how fantastic Burger Time is in general and how many unanswered questions it contains. Why are the giant foods attacking Pete and why are there even larger burger fixin’s lying around on that scaffolding? Who is all this food for and why does Pete trample on it so?

If Pete knew how to defend himself, or if he was at least skilled enough with a spatula that he could engage in some form of combat with this food that hates him so, so much, then we wouldn’t be able to ask these questions. Burger Time would just be another Donkey Kong or Jungle Hunt. Pepper Pete’s utter failure as a chef is the reason why Buger Time‘s unique gameplay works so well, and why its unique storyline still inspires fans of surrealism over twenty years after the game’s release.

(See also Mappy from Mappy, the pig archers from Pooyan

4) Jill Valentine from the original Resident Evil

Jill Valentine is a member of the special police force STARS. By rights, she should be trained in some sort of hand-to-hand combat, skilled with a firearm, and able to break down a locked door no problem. Not so, my friend. Jill doesn’t break down doors. In fact, she’s the master of unlocking. She’s also pretty skilled at getting eaten by zombies.

In the first version of Resident Evil ever released (long box represent!) one grab and a few bites from a zombie will send Jill into critical health status. It’s not fair because, for whatever reason, her friend Chris can take quite a few more chomps before suffering the same end (more meat on his bones, perhaps?). After Jill’s health goes into the red, any additional attacks therein will be fatal. A bite from a snake, a peck from a crow, even getting zombie barf on her back; all roads lead to the big dirt nap.   

So maybe that’s not such a badge of shame. I’ve never been bitten by a zombie, so I don’t know how close it would bring me to death. But I do know that if a zombie came at me, arms outstretched, I’d be able to run away from the thing without needing to turn in place for a full two seconds. I’d be able to pull my gun and instinctually aim at the ghoul’s face, and not have to slowly turn my body in micro-measurements in order to get my weapon pointing in the right direction. And if a zombie did get its hands near me, I sure as hell wouldn’t just stand there. I’d kick it in the balls, or try to knock it over, or at least try to cover my neck and face. Not Jill; she’s every zombie’s dream meal: standing perfectly still, sometimes even making eye contact with her attacker before getting partially eaten.

Why she’s fantastic:

A lot of people give the older Resident Evil games crap because their controls are so limiting. To these people I offer this question: would soccer be as fun a game if you could use your hands? No sir-ee, it sure as heck wouldn’t. Sometimes it’s not the things you can do that makes a game great, but the things you can’t.

The first Resident Evil was the only game in the series to really scare me, and that’s all because of Jill and the way she controls. After the auto-aim and quick-turn techniques were implemented, the series lost its ability to make you feel truly powerless, which is what any good zombie story is all about.

Resident Evil 1 needs to have these tough controls, as it has the fewest zombies per screen of all the games in the series. Slow moving, unthinking Romero-style zombies are scary in theory, but in practice they just aren’t that much trouble to deal with. The only way to make them physically threatening is to assure that the person they’re attacking is as physically uncoordinated as they are. Enter Jill Valentine or, as bearded family men and zombies like to call her, “a Jill Sandwich.”

That’s for all you Barry Burton fans in the audience. Thanks folks, I’ll be here all week.

(See also: Arthur from Ghosts ‘N Goblins)

3) The Last Guy from The Last Guy

We don’t know a lot about The Last Guy, other than he’s a zombie from the Himalayas who wears a cape and loves it when people form a single file line behind him. It’s also notable that, despite being a zombie himself, zombies just love to try and kill him. He must have done something really wrong to at the zombie office potluck to get the other zombies so pissed off. Maybe he ate all the cake.

Another notable trait of The Last Guy is that he appears to be even more defenseless than Jill Valentine. It could be that he’s some sort of pacifist zombie that doesn’t want to hurt people or other zombies. Maybe he doesn’t want to get his cape torn in the midst of rumble. Whatever the reason, The Last Guy doesn’t hurt anybody, ever, in any way. He may just be the most harmless videogame protagonist in the business today.

Why he’s so fantastic:

The Last Guy is a game that is epic in its scale. The game takes place in different real life cities all over the world, and involves the rescue of thousands of people from certain death. The people in the game are so incredibly terrified that that they refuse to leave their houses; that’s how bad things are. Everyone on the planet is paralyzed with fear; everyone, that is, but The Last Guy. 

Apparently, The Last Guy also has the last pair of balls on the planet, and those suckers are huge. He’s willing to take on the responsibility of rescuing everyone and does it unarmed, all while wearing a god damn cape. It’s his total harmlessness, and his willingness to do what he does, that makes The Last Guy so evocatively heroic, and the game itself so compelling. Quite a feat for a game made out of near microscopic sprites and JPEGs taken from GoogleEarth.

(See also, Frank West, Dead Rising)

2) Lance and Bill from the Contra series

Outside of the Cho Aniki gang, videogame’s most well oiled, striated couple is probably Lance and Bill from the Contra/Probotector series. One is an Arnold Schwarzenegger clone, the other a blue-haired Sylvester Stallone look-a-like. Chances are high that these two would be beyond pissed to see their names on this list and, if they could, they’d likely come to my house Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back-style and personally give me a good ass kicking for besmirching their reputations in this way. That would, of course, be the greatest moment of my entire life. 

Don’t let the screen above fool you, neither Lance nor Bill ever wear wife beaters. They don’t even wear shirts most of the time, let alone body armor. This causes them to die more than just about any other videogame characters on record. The “30 guys code” is part of what’s made the Contra series famous, and what made the code famous is the fact that so many of us needed each and every one of those guys in order to get through Contra

Good job remembering to bring your guns to the war, Lance and Bill. Next time, don’t forget the helmet, the Kevlar vest, and the ability to survive nearly any type of bodily wound. You got shot quite a few times in Commando there Lance, and you in the Rambo movies Bill. It didn’t seem to bother you then, so I don’t know why getting hit in the foot by a slow moving red beach ball looking cannonball thing is enough to kill you in Contra.

Why they’re fantastic:

If you manage to beat a Contra game without the 30 guys code, you will experience a sense of pride that’s entirely ridiculous, but all the same very real. Contra 4 came out on the Nintendo DS not that long ago, and everyone who’s played it knows that, compared to that game, any Metal Gear, Mega Man, or even Ghosts ‘N Goblins game is a walk in the park. Contra 4 is hell.

There is no arguing with the fact that when you survive what feels like hell, you feel immortal. You feel like there is no shirt big enough to contain the majesty of their physique. You feel like an action hero; like a god. That’s who Lance and Bill are. They are action hero gods– and action hero gods don’t need shirts.

1) E.T. from E.T. on the Atari 2600

E.T. is number one on this list for a variety of reasons. For starters, he’s even more defenseless than The Marble, The Last Guy or Pepper Pete, in that he can’t even run as fast as a normal human due to his abnormally stubby alien legs. Secondly, his one ability, to levitate his ass out of a hole, doesn’t even work. Well, that’s not entirely true. E.T. can get himself out of a hole sometimes, if the player’s skill with a joystick and the game’s terribly buggy programming come together in a perfect storm of actual playability. This storm doesn’t occur nearly as often as E.T. falls into holes, which are lain about the world of E.T. for the Atari 2600 with alarming frequency.

E.T. is a very likable character, even when depicted with primitive 2600 quality graphics. You will want to see this little guy make it. But in E.T., you’re never going to make it. You’re actually lucky if the worst thing that happens to you is a quick death, as that at least ends the game in a definitive way. Chances are, though, that you’re just going to fall into a hole. Trust me, it’s worse than it sounds.

The game will then lead you to believe that you can get out of the hole (if not, why wouldn’t falling in the holes just kill you?) but no matter how hard you try, you will not be able to get out…most of the time. There is that outside chance that you will get out of the hole, which will make you feel like this is a game that you could win. Sure, the scientists, army and police are all still after you, and sure, you still haven’t collected more than two of the many required pieces of your intergalactic radio necessary to “phone home”, but if you can get out of the hole, then you can do anything. That’s how you feel…until you fall in another hole (which should only take about five seconds), and even though you do the exact same things that got you out of the last hole, this time you’re totally stuck.

Then E.T. dies.

Why he’s so fantastic:

If you want a videogame that perfectly recreates how it feels to be an adult, play E.T. for the Atari 2600. The programmers unwittingly created a game that is so broken, it actually manages to capture the magnitude of awfulness that is real life. The game is devoid of direction, the programming inconsistent, and the controls unresponsive and unreliable. This shabby execution of code mirrors the shabby job done by the programmers of our society; the politicians, the CEOs, the police, the medical industry, all the forces that shape our greater life experience.

Have you been arrested for a crime you didn’t commit? You could be. Have you had a doctor prescribe you medications you didn’t need or perform surgery that only further damaged you body, with no way for you to later prove their wrong doing? It could happen. Have you been sent off to fight in a war that serves absolutely no purpose other than to meet the ends of the politicians who sanctioned it? Maybe you haven’t, but I know people that have and quite a few have told me that their experience was not dissimilar to trying to play E.T. on the Atari 2600.

The difference is, E.T., and all the characters on this list, are only videogame characters. Their suffering isn’t real; it exists only on the other side of the television screen. That’s why we can experience our suffering through them in a way that’s harmless, even funny. When you die repeatedly in Mega Man or Contra, lose your hard earned group of followers in The Last Guy, or fall into another damn hole in E.T., it’s frustrating, but it can also make us laugh. We all feel that way in our own lives, like we just fell on a bed of spikes, like all our hard work has been in vain. These in-game tragedies are funny because, on a subconscious level, they are our autobiographical truths. It’s funny (and fantastic) because it’s true.

Jonathan Holmes
"Where do dreams end and reality begin? Videogames, I suppose."- Gainax, FLCL Vol. 1 "The beach, the trees, even the clouds in the sky... everything is build from little tiny pieces of stuff. Just like in a Gameboy game... a nice tight little world... and all its inhabitants... made out of little building blocks... Why can't these little pixels be the building blocks for love..? For loss... for understanding"- James Kochalka, Reinventing Everything part 1 "I wonder if James Kolchalka has played Mother 3 yet?" Jonathan Holmes