Shovelware refers to a certain kind of small, quickly made game that’s there purely to boost the number of games on the cartridge. They appeal with quantity, not quality, hence ‘shovel’ware. Shovelware’s rarely remembered and usually boring, like the middle song on the B-Side of the tape.
The pinnacle of old games are the originals and their best copies. The Donkey Kongs, the Super Marios, the Space Invaders… games with a unique idea and easy-to-learn mechanic dominated arcades, and then the at-home gaming devices.
There are cases where a game can be a rip-off and still be good fun. There are a lot of Centipede and Donkey Kong clones in arcades, for example. They still behave like the original game does, and they look different enough to evade copyright, so they get to stick around – those aren’t shovelware.
Alternatively, there were a lot of little games that were fun for an hour, and then got boring. Pong against the computer is one example: it’s totally playable for longer, but the content gets a little dry when it’s just you. That makes sense to include in a game compendium, because while it’s fun, it wasn’t worth 15$ all by itself. That might be two weeks of allowance! The kid’s going to be disappointed. Throw in some other games, like Acrobat and a Donkey Kong clone, and you’ve got yourself several hours’ worth of fun for a marginally higher price.
Compendiums were a fantastic way to showcase minigames that weren’t flashy enough for arcades and too short for their own cartridge. Unfortunately, the compendium market was about to be flooded with shovelware.
Bad Old Games: Especially Action 52
Shovelware was the worst intersection of game characteristics. Unoriginal, unplayable, and unfun. For example, Action 52. Only a few games on it were even slightly playable, and the vast majority of the games were either A) repeats of earlier games on the disc, B) too easy, or C) broken. Action 52 had 52 games on it, but maybe 10 were playable, and 5 were original. Of those 5, most were copies of other, better-liked games like Galaga or Super Mario. Not good copies, either.
‘Levels’ within Action 52’s games were often just recolors of the previous stage. This is a cheap trick to give the player a sense of progress, and most early shovelwares were just re-colors and re-skins of the same game, over and over. The obvious downside to putting so many low-quality games into the same product is that they literally don’t have the space to be good even when the programmer wants them to be. There’s not enough memory in the cartridge itself. “Unique and Good” takes a lot of space! Action 52 was already behind the ball when it came to programming expertise, there was no way they were going to pack that many original games into the limited computing power afforded by the 90s.
The worst part of all of this? The original cartridge for Action 52 sold for 200$ in-stores. That’s 200$ in 1991. “Less than 4$ per game”, they said. It’s difficult to make a game worth less than four dollars, but by golly, Action 52 did it repeatedly.
Action 52 gets a special spot in shovelware history because of just how poorly it was made. It plagiarized music. Games would crash or stop responding to the controls with no warning. Unused assets wasted space within the cartridge. There was a competition to get to stage five of one of the games, Ooze, but the game worked so poorly that it wasn’t possible to get past level 2 without an emulator.
Action 52 is now a collector’s item, and it’s so bad that it has an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to it.
Bad New Games
Shovelware wasn’t just a phenomenon of the 90s, and shovelware still shows up to fill in gaps in the library. The Wii had four separate games that were just the same game with different character models and level aesthetics – the gameplay was nearly identical. As a fun bonus to this already inefficient system, testing is usually also pretty lax! Even if the player enjoys the game, bugs can suck all the fun out of it!
Shovelware can also refer to older games being put back into the regular ‘new’ library for cheap reasons. There are a lot of old games for consoles that are no longer supported, games that may have some nostalgia attached but were otherwise mediocre. Old, weak games take up less space than newer ones, so a developer can fit five outdated games onto one disc for the newest console, and say they’ve contributed to the game’s library. This isn’t the same as remastering, because remastering takes skill. The studio packs up as much of the old content as they can without touching the coding. The only cost is integrity!
By shovelware’s very nature, it’s much easier to pump out than real, new, unique games.
ShovelWare Vs. WarioWare
Shovelware is distinct from better games because it’s missing the love. Pong had love put into it, and the puck never mysteriously phases through the paddle. Banjo Kazooie’s legitimate remake is much better than anything anyone could steal and slap onto a disk with five other late 90’s game clones.
However, sometimes these game compendiums make great inspiration. Take things like WarioWare or Rhythm Heaven, functional compendiums!
WarioWare, a popular, well-made Nintendo game, is a play-off of shovelware. The game features dozens of smaller games, but the catch is that they’re all well-made. Sure, there are games that are less fun – but they’re not badly made, and the overall quality of any of the WarioWare collections is miles above anything a shovelware studio like the one that made Action 52 could produce. No clones of games, no obnoxious recolors – each game is unique. Good minigame compilations are a fantastic way of keeping children and adults alike entertained. Each game has the space it needs to function!
Good compendiums also usually have a central theme. Wii Sports, Rhythm Heaven, and WarioWare all have a unifying theme. Nothing in Action 52 tied into the other games except for Cheetahmen, which was supposed to tie into their sequel and nothing else on the cartridge.
What ultimately separates the wheat from the chaff when it comes to game compendiums? Passion, and a love for the games being made.