Daniel DiManna
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Desert Bus: The Story of the “Worst Game of All Time”

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Desert Bus
The sad fate of most souls who attempt to play this game
Photo: Pxfuel via CC

If you’re a video game enthusiast, you’ve likely encountered a game or two that have made you question your own sanity. Games with hard-to-beat levels, impossible obstacles, and tedious gameplay are everywhere, but few of them are bad on purpose. This is not the case for one particular game, a mid-90’s endeavor so intentionally grating that it has been dubbed the worst game of all time. Welcome, dear reader, to the baffling world of “Desert Bus”.

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The story of “Desert Bus”

In 1995, legendary magician duo Penn & Teller set out to make a video game. The project, dubbed “Penn & Teller’s Smoke and Mirrors”, was intended for release on the Sega CD, an add-on to the popular Genesis consol. The game was actually a collection of smaller mini-games, each designed as a riff on popular game genres at the time. The whole project was, at its heart, a big joke at the player’s expense.

One of the included games was a deceptively simple driving game called “Desert Bus”. The game puts the player in the driver’s seat of a bus cruising down a deserted highway. The destination: Los Vegas. Seems simple, right? Well, as you might expect from the twisted minds of Penn & Teller, there’s a catch: the eight-hour journey to Los Vegas is in real time.

In order to reach the finish line, the player must drive their bus down the highway for a third of an entire day. Worse, there’s little in the way of stimulation during the journey. There are no other cars, no turns or curves in the road, and no signs. The only sound is the bus’ engine, and the only on-screen movement comes from the bus bobbing and the occasional passing rock. And don’t even think about taping down the forward button; the bus was programmed to list to the right, meaning you have to completely focus on the screen. If you crash, you return to the start in — you guessed it — real time. Last but not least, there is no pause button, so once you start, you cannot stop.

Your reward for surviving the whole eight hours? A single point and the beginning of an eight-hour return trip.

The game’s legacy

It’s obvious that a lot of thought was put into making “Desert Bus” as annoying as possible. Had everything gone as planned, its release would no doubt have elevated Penn & Teller to the status of master trolls. Unfortunately, it was not to be. The game’s publisher, Absolute Entertainment, went out of business, and no other publishers showed interest.​ “Penn & Teller’s Smoke and Mirrors” was never released, and quietly slipped into obscurity.

All that changed in 2005, when a demo copy somehow found its way onto the internet. Word quickly spread about one particular game in the collection: the soon-to-be-infamous “Desert Bus”. Gamers soon took it upon themselves to tackle the intentionally awful driving simulator, and the game developed a loyal following. In 2007, a group of fans launched “Desert Bus for Hope”, a charity event that saw players marathon the game for as long as possible. Their efforts raised $22,805. The event became an annual tradition, and has raised a total of $6,053,137 over the last 13 years.

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In the end, Penn & Teller’s unreleased joke game rose to become a cult phenomenon and a force for good. This year’s “Desert Bus for Hope” is scheduled for Nov. 13, and you can stay up to date on the event and donate by visiting their website.