Time has come and gone between the release of Mass Effect 3 and its Extended Cut DLC – launched to soothe the savage outcry the original ending stoked in fans back in March. As disappointing as Mass Effect 3's original ending was, to call it the worst ending in video game history – a claim many fans have made – is to be excessively hyperbolic.
What Mass Effect 3's original ending did was continue the video game industry's infamous tradition of unsatisfactory or controversial conclusions. Maybe this trip down memory lane will help you remember that, as annoying as ME3's initial use of traffic lights to denote multiple endings was, the video game industry has a bad habit of awful endings. (Obviously, the following contains spoilers.)
8-Bit Fadeouts: Remember Karnov? How you guided that burly bald muscle man through a final battle against some crazy skeleton dragon thing? What was your reward for getting there: a simple black screen with the words, "Congratulations!! The End." Karnov wasn't so much the worst offender, as it was emblematic of most 8-bit game endings. For as many that made a reasonable effort to have still images and text (Bad Dudes had the courtesy to give us a low-fi cut-scene of the President thanking you for your troubles ... with a hamburger), there were more that simply said, "you win" with no fanfare.
Eye of the Beholder: While Karnov and many other 8-bit console games featured abrupt endings, Eye of the Beholder for the PC managed to go even further in terms of quick and unrewarding endings. You spent hours scouring one of the first and truly difficult dungeon crawlers in the history of the genre, you defeat the titular Beholder, and what comes next? You read an unceremoniously long block of text and then dumped right to the DOS prompt. At least the console games didn't try to turn off the system or eject their cartridges for you. Supposedly, Eye of the Beholder's publisher didn't anticipate players making their way to the end, and decided to cut costs by not manufacturing the diskettes necessary for an actual ending. The Amiga version that followed had a proper animated ending implemented – likely as a result of angry PC gamers writing letters to the developer.
Super Mario Bros. 2: Get past the fact that Super Mario Bros. 2 is a revamp of Doki Doki Panic – it's a damn fine, albeit weirdly different, installment in the series. It seems like elements such as the lack of Bowser, new enemies like Shy Guys, and selectable characters, presented a challenge to the localizing team. The original ending where the playable kids escape from the magic storybook got changed into one of the most clichéd ending tropes in modern media: "it was all a dream!" Mario snoring away while a thought balloon loops through the game marked a moment where a major video game sequel used the "All Just A Dream" ending.
Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge: If SMB2 was the first time a major sequel featured an overused clichéd, then Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge upped the ante by going completely surreal for its ending. While the Monkey Island series has always been a bit quirky – featuring zombies, product placement, and literal use of the phrase "monkey wrench" – it at least maintained its own internal logic. But then the hero Guybrush Threepwood falls into a pit, and (stay with me): learns that LeChuck is actually his brother "Chuckie," that they are both actually children, and that the mystical treasure "Big Whoop" is actually an amusement park. The whole time, the player can even choose a dialog option to have Guybrush take note of how weird this whole sequence is. To add on top of this, as the boys walk away, "Chuckie" looks at the player with ominous voodoo eyes, and Elaine is back in the regular Monkey Island universe wondering if LeChuck casted a spell on Guybrush.
Again, SMB2 did the simple "it's a dream" twist, while MI2 twisted round and round and confused PC adventurers for years to come. Ultimately, MI2's sequel, The Curse of Monkey Island, explained the ending away as a hex casted by LeChuck, but the true intention of the ending will likely remain a mystery; Monkey Island creator Ron Gilbert soon left LucasArts and has since become an expert at steering the conversation away from Monkey Island 2's infamous ending whenever asked.
Knights of the Old Republic 2: After going through Obsidian's interesting take on the Star Wars universe, you conclude the game with a really long conversation with Kreia where she tells you what happens to everyone. Only after digging around the PC version did players find elements of actual endings and fates for these same characters – unfinished due to meeting a strict release deadline. This curt and anticlimactic ending represented an overall issue with Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2 - The Sith Lords: lots of cut content (entire planets and sidequests) that made the overall game feel unpolished and disjointed. The, "we didn't have time or space, so here is a bunch of talk instead of action and closure" play that was seen in Eye of the Beholder in 1991 unfortunately made its way to a bigger, more anticipated game in 2004.
Halo 2: Recall that after going through alternating perspectives of the iconic Master Chief and the alien Arbiter (which is a step up from the bait-and-switch of Snake to Raiden in Metal Gear Solid 2), just when everything was ramping up and the player was about to take on the Covenant as the Master Chief ... it ends. Instead of a grandiose battle, Master Chief simply says that he's about to finish the fight, and boom, game over and please wait for Halo 3.
There might be an argument for a cliffhanger ending in the middle part of a trilogy like The Empire Strikes Back, but fans weren't expecting a trilogy at the time. Instead, they got a sequel where you only play Master Chief for half the time, and when it was time for him to deliver the business end of his battle rifle to the Covenant, Halo 2 was over. Suffice to say, players were irate. To add even more grievances by benefit of hindsight: this cliffhanger wasn't even the original plan. Frank O'Connor (previously a lead writer at Bungie, now a franchise development director at 343 Industries) admitted that there was supposed to be an additional mission as Master Chief, but Bungie was defeated by the intense crunch to meet the game's "set in Peter Moore-shaped stone" shipping deadline.
Fallout 3: Here we have another "Western RPG developer whose name starts with B" changing the ending of a big RPG via DLC; Bethesda beat Bioware to the punch by a good four years. Though, the vitriol about the actual ending itself didn't cause much of a ruckus (the most common criticism is that the player couldn't have companions pull a fatal switch); what angered players was that Fallout 3's ending left no room for players to explore afterwards.
Executive producer Todd Howard admitted in an interview, "Based on the feedback I've seen, most people are pissed off that it ends, not the 'ending' itself. Maybe that's one and the same, I don't know." Lead designer Emil Pagliarulo corroborated, "But with each of these, even if the player character doesn't die, the game ends. We'd discussed this, and were like, "You know what? Fallout and Fallout 2 ended. We should end our game, too." What we didn't realize is that, largely because of Oblivion, people really expected Fallout 3 not to end! It's something they've come to expect of us, and we underestimated that. You can be sure it's a mistake we won't repeat in the future." While Bethesda has addressed this criticism, it has also provided a precendent for gamers to voice a complaint on something as fundamental as an ending, and see that get changed via DLC.
With the Mass Effect 3 Extended Cut out and the series getting more story points by way of new DLC, we're interested to see how BioWare's sci-fi franchise will be remembered when we consider game endings in the future. Until then – and until our next inevitable bad ending – we'll take solace in the fact that it could be (and has been) so much worse.
Thierry Nguyen – who ends his career as a freelance writer (and sadly, with Joystiq) after taking a new position within the industry – is based out of San Francisco. He previously worked at 1UP, and has written for GameSpot, PC Gamer, GameSpy, and Modojo. You can follow him on Twitter @ThierryNguyen.
We know there are plenty of other terrible game endings. Have a favorite one to hate? Share it in the comments below.