If you were to ask me what the worst game I’ve ever played was, my instinctive reaction, without even thinking about it, would be to reply, “Zone Raiders”. Without repeating the contents of my years-old review in their entirety, for our purposes here, it’s worth re-stating the following:

It almost certainly isn’t the worst game I’ve ever played. It’s technically competent, there are no amusing crashes or glitches, or anything else to really criticise on that front. Attempting to rip into this for laughs would make for a really dull 20-minute YouTube video, even by the standards of really dull 20-minute YouTube videos.

Also, it was neither the subject of a significant investment of time nor money: it didn’t cost me a lot, and I didn’t spend hours trying to wring some entertainment out of it. So, all these years later, is it really worth harbouring any feelings at all for this old game that cost a few quid all those years ago? Regret should surely be reserved for worse decisions than this.

Indeed. Yet what I want to return to is what Zone Raiders represents: buying a dull, average game for no particular reason, while already having access to evidence that the game in question may, in fact, be dull and average. I don’t have the boxed CD of Zone Raiders any more, but I do have lots of games that may as well be Zone Raiders on my shelves and in my digital libraries. Faced with a choice between buying one game that most people agree is good and a handful of games of varying quality, the evidence over a significant number of years suggests that I will choose the latter every time.

Let’s compare the purchasing process for the Rik of 1995 and the Rik of 2018 (if you’re able to forgive the grave and borderline irredeemable offence of speaking about yourself in the third person, and I wouldn’t blame you if you aren’t). 2018 Rik has money of his own to buy any of the new games, although he’s out of touch with what’s going on in modern gaming, and there’s already a large backlog of previous purchases to suit any mood at his disposal. As a grown man, he should realise that ‘this might be good to take a look at one day on FFG’ has been invoked far too regularly in the past to justify titles that remain untouched, and he does remember this, most of the time. However, a Steam or GOG sale occasionally causes him to weaken, as long as the game (or selection of games) does not cost more than £10.

1995 Rik is not of working age and does not have much money. Instead of saving up for a few weeks to buy something high profile and good, he regularly browses the shelves of PC World, GAME or Future Zone to see what is on budget release or special offer. As a spotty teenager without an internet connection, there is no FFG and no chin-stroking justification for looking at a broad range of games. On the basis of looking at the writing and screenshots on the back of the box, he is able to convince himself that almost anything might be ‘quite good’ – even titles like flight sims and strategy games that he demonstrably has failed to persist with in the past – or ‘worth a go at that price’ and they will be purchased, as long as they cost less than £10.

Regrettably, for these two people are me, they are both idiots. The idiocy of 1995 is perhaps more understandable, and can be put down to the poor decisions of a child, but it is worse. Unquestionably, some good games could be had for cheap, even in those days, which makes the purchase of something not good even less forgiveable. And it’s not like I wasn’t buying, or at least reading, PC Zone regularly and didn’t have any idea whether games were good or not. (Did the notion of reviews being a ‘buyer’s guide’ ever actually work that way in practice? Or, ultimately, do people always think they know better?)

Note: nicked from Mobygames.

So, what made me buy Zone Raiders? I remember the box art strongly implying a kind of futuristic road racer with weapons, so I pictured something like a more free-form Wipeout. In reality, it was more like a crapper, emptier version of Descent or Quarantine. During my look back through old PC Zones, I spied an early version of the game on the ‘Off the Boards’ section which normally dealt with shareware and freeware. Clearly unfinished, it was praised for being a pretty decent foundation for something. When the main game arrived, it seems not much progress had been made in that respect – again, the engine was considered to be pretty good, but the game built around it was regarded as dull.

This makes sense when delving a little deeper into the work of developers Image Space Incorporated – they’ve since carved out a career in racing games, developing a number of F1 and NASCAR games in the 00s, while their technology is apparently used in a number of other more well-known games including Simbin’s GTR and RACE titles. So perhaps if Zone Raiders had been more of a futuristic racer, it could have been good.

As I said earlier, there are lots of other bad or bad-to-middling games in my past that I’ve probably long forgotten about, it’s just that Zone Raiders happened to be so memorably bland, with such an absence of excitement or things to actually do, other than focus on an incessant beeping noise, that it sort of came to encapsulate all poor bargain-bin decisions. Although now that I think about it, the memories do sort of keep coming: there was Track Attack, which in previews had sort of positioned itself as a successor to Stunts or Stunt Car Racer but at some point had morphed into an obnoxious futuristic racer (is there a theme here?) with a terrible frame rate. Again, I think I still bought it AFTER PC Zone gave it an unfavourable review. There was FX Fighter, supposedly the PC’s answer to Virtua Fighter; and Iron Assault, a mech game from the developers of Screamer with unimpressive visuals and even less impressive video cut-scenes. I could go on. But Zone Raiders was the only one to make me feel as if I’d literally bought nothing.

There probably isn’t as much difference between the 14 year-old boy who bought Zone Raiders and the 37 year-old man who goes rooting through charity shop bargain bins at every opportunity as I’d like, but hopefully there has been sufficient personal growth to ensure 2018’s version of Zone Raiders, whatever that might be, doesn’t find its way into my collection. Farewell then, Zone Raiders, may you and all that you represent remain locked in the Vault of Regret for the rest of eternity.

[Edit: There’s an unfortunate coda to this story – in the process of researching the game a bit more, I discovered to my horror that Zone Raiders has been exhumed from the abandonware grave and is now sold for real money again on a digital platform called Zoom (of which I was previously unaware). Having long ago stopped being angry about Zone Raiders, I now find my sense of inner peace on the topic disturbed: I simply cannot imagine that there is an audience for this game all these years later. And while officially of course I’m in favour of old games being resurrected, there is of course the fact that people are charging money for this absolute dreck: DO NOT BUY OR PLAY ZONE RAIDERS!]