On September 16, 1994, the newly formed Entertainment Software Rating Board issued its first rating certificates, including the first M rating for the 32X version of Demise. Since then, the organization has taken on the mammoth task of assigning a content-based age rating to virtually every commercial video game released in the United States.
For the most part, the organization has done an admirable job of carefully evaluating the content of thousands of games based on short video montages provided by publishers. The ESRB should also be commended for educating the public about the significance of its ratings — 73 percent of parents say they check reviews before buying games, according to the ESRB — and for getting retailers to adhere to voluntary age-based sales restrictions – 87 percent of stores refused to sell M-rated games to minors during a 2011 FTC survey. Despite some concerns about transparency and review methodology, the ESRB’s industry-wide self-regulation has been a boon to those seeking continued efforts to thwart government restrictions on game content and sales.
Still, among the thousands of ESRB ratings issued over the years, there are quite a few that leave us wondering what the group was thinking. Here’s a chronological collection of some of the most baffling ESRB rating decisions we’ve encountered over the years, ranging from too lenient to too harsh to downright hilarious.
Sega CD, 1994
ESRB rating: T
Just after the ESRB was officially formed, it underwent one of its first tests in Hideo Kojima’s gritty Sega CD crime adventure. The game was rated T despite what one visitor to the Digital Press forum describes as scenes of “a disemboweled dog, maggots eating a rotting corpse, a decapitated man with exposed trachea and esophagus in the neck, and [making] implications for strippers and prostitution.” But Nightfallwhich helped inspire the creation of the ESRB showed slumber party girls in sleepwear, which is obviously much worse.
Super Smash Bros. (series)
Nintendo systems, 1999 and later
ESRB Rating: Various
While the original N64 release got the E rating it probably deserved, a sequel will follow Melee And Brawl were somehow raised to a T rating. Those sequels apparently added “mild violence” and “crude humor” to the “cartoon violence” of the original, according to ESRB descriptors, which are clearly not appropriate until you’re 13. Maybe they didn’t like Wario’s fart-based attacks? In any case, the upcoming 3DS version has been downgraded to an E-10+ rating, even though it has “mildly evocative themes.” Your guess is just as good as ours.
Super Street Fighter II Turbo Revival
Game Boy Advance, 2001
ESRB rating: E
Pretty much every version of this classic fighting game series has been given a T rating, which seems pretty fitting. Which only makes it weirder that the ESRB apparently thought this late Game Boy Advance port was appropriate for kids of all ages.
Mobile and portable ports of violent games often seem to get lower ratings than their console/PC counterparts, even if the gameplay is largely similar or identical. Perhaps the ESRB thinks it’s harder to be scarred for life on a small, low-resolution screen?
Zone of the Enders
ESRB rating: M
This giant space robot brawl is full of the kind of stylized, largely bloodless sci-fi violence that would normally earn a T rating. In fact, the game and its sequel both earned a T when they were re-released as part of an HD collection on the PS3.
So why the M rating? It seems to stem from the included demo of Metal Gear solid 2, which lifted the rating for the entire pack thanks to some more serious violence and subject matter. Still, that still doesn’t sufficiently explain why sequel The second runner also earned an M rating during its original PS2 release. Hmmmm.
Peak Entertainment casinos
ESRB rating: AO
With an AO rating, you might think that this obscure gambling title featured cards with naked girls or topless dancers next to the gambling tables or something. But no, as far as we can tell, this is actually the only title to ever get an AO rating, despite having absolutely no sex or violence.
Why? IGN quotes a press release following the game’s launch as an explanation: “Getting the ESRB rating from AO (Adults Only) was exactly what we wanted. Our goal is to show lawmakers and parents that we can address their concerns about gambling by minors share, and that we are taking the necessary steps to curb it.” We are sure that a stand of principle since 2003 has prevented dozens of children from becoming degenerate gamblers…
Grand Theft Auto San Andreas
ESRB rating: M/AO
If you followed gaming news in 2005, you know what happened here. The Short Version: Hackers found a sex scene minigame (called “Hot Coffee”) buried in the game’s code that was technically accessible through modding. The media went crazy over it; the ESRB changed the game’s rating from M to AO; and Rockstar paid a $20 million settlement afterwards.
Since then, I’ve often wondered if the game would still have earned an AO rating if the “Hot Coffee” scene had been easily accessible in the first place or if it had been allowed to stand as a hard M. , the ESRB had to do somethingand an increase in ratings was probably the easiest move.
Karaoke Revolution: Part 2
ESRB rating: T
Unlike the first edition, which received an E rating, this sequel got a T for “mild lyrics,” which is fine, as far as it goes. But we’re including it on the list because of the changed lyrics in the game version of the classic Boyz II Men song “I’ll Make Love To You.” The part of the song about the singer and his partner taking their clothes off was ridiculed: “Throw you rose on the floor / I take my rose also off [emphasis added].” Since the game is still rated T despite this change, we wonder what it would have earned if the oblique reference to naked people had stayed in it!
Donkey Konga 2
ESRB rating: T
Yet another seemingly family-friendly game that has risen to a much more serious T rating due to “mild lyrics.” There are definitely some mild swear words and semi-adult themes in some of the tracks on the disc. Still, the rating seems a bit high, especially when the European version, which featured a different song list, got a super tame rating of 3+ from PEGI. It seems that the game ended up on the desk of the ESRB just before the introduction of the mid-range E-10+ rating, which might be more appropriate here.
Call of Duty (series)
ESRB Ratings: T/M
While every Duty game since Modern warfare has rightfully received an M rating, the first three Duty titles were only rated T. It’s hard to understand why, as these early games were just about as gory and full of intense wartime scenarios as their more modern successors. Perhaps the ESRB felt the “historic” World War II setting of the early games softened the horror a bit? Perhaps it was the advance of graphics technology that made the carnage worse afterwards Modern warfare? It’s a puzzler.
Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter (series)
Various, 2006 and beyond.
ESRB Ratings: T/M
The two tactical military gunners in the Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter series only earned a T rating, while extremely similar Rainbow Six: Vegas was upgraded to a M. Tom Clancy’s for some reason Splinter cell series is also a bit inconsistent with the ESRB ratings: Splinter cell And Pandora tomorrow got T ratings, but Blacklist, chaos theory, double agentAnd Conviction all earned an M. If there are gradations in the content of these games, they are too nice for us to see.