Saturday, February 9, 2013

Retro Review: Conker's Bad Fur Day

Ever since its release back in 2001, Conker's Bad Fur Day has been lauded as one of the best games on the Nintendo 64 and is considered by some to be Rareware's best game. Rareware and Microsoft liked it so much they remade the game for the original Xbox in 2005 in the form of Conker: Live & Reloaded. For some reason, the game never appealed to me when I was younger (I guess because it had a cartoon squirrel as the protagonist and I didn't really know what the premise was supposed to be about), and as such I never played it. Until now.

I can definitely see why Conker was so highly praised back in 2001. It's a very impressive game for its time, especially in terms of the technology in its graphics and sound, and many of its gamepay elements still hold up well today. The thing I like most about it is that it was a refreshing change of pace from similar platformers of that era. It does show its age in a few areas, however, and there are a couple of design choices that bother me and things that I think could've been better.

The fun bit of trivia behind Conker's Bad Fur Day is that it was originally intended to be a family-friendly platformer in the same vein as Conker's Pocket Tales, a lighthearted child-friendly game released for the Game Boy Color in 1999. Conker's Bad Fur Day started out as Conker's Quest and was later renamed to Twelve Tales: Conker 64. You can actually watch gameplay footage of the original design. After comparisons were drawn to other "cute platformers" that populated the N64 at the time (including some of Rare's previous work), Rare supposedly decided to rework Conker 64 to give it a more unique, stand-out identity. Thus the crude, foul-mouthed, drunken Conker for mature audiences was born.

Conker's Bad Fur Day -- Urinating on fire imps

Conker's Bad Fur Day is probably one of the most "mature" games I've ever played. By today's standards its mature themes are pretty mild compared to things you see in movies and television, but this is a game that deliberately did everything it could to push the envelop for its time. Perfect Dark, for instance, is rated M for blood and violence; Conker's Bad Fur Day has gratuitous blood and gore (in a morbidly graphic, cartoon extreme), intense violence, partial nudity, strong language, strong sexual themes, and strong use of drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. On top of that, it features a lot of crude toilet humor that most sensible people should find somewhat offensive. It's definitely not the kind of game a parent would want their child playing.

This Conker begins with Conker calling his girlfriend, Berri, from a bar to inform her that he'll be a little late for their date. He ran into some old friends who were shipping off to "fight some war somewhere" the next day, and wants to celebrate with them. They spend the night drinking, and Conker stumbles out of the bar in a drunken stupor, trying to walk home in the dark and through the roaring thunderstorm. When he comes to a fork in the road, he heads off in an ominous direction and gets himself lost. He wakes up the next morning with a bad hangover, trying to find his way back home again.

Meanwhile, the fabled Panther King sits on his throne, struggling with a frustrating problem: his end table is missing a leg, so whenever he places his glass of milk on the table, it tilts and knocks the glass over. He summons his mad-scientist-of-a-weasel to find a solution to the problem, who, after thorough experimentation, realizes that the glass keeps falling off the table because it's missing a leg, and the only way to fix it is to get a red squirrel to hold up the broken leg. It has to be a red squirrel because red squirrels are the only animal the exact height of the table.

Conker's Bad Fur Day -- A tablematic dilemma 

That's the entire extent of the story. Conker has to get home, and to that end he explores and does favors for random people while the Panther King wants to capture a red squirrel to fix his table. There's literally nothing more to it. It's about the most bare-boned story I've seen in a long time. They set up the premise early on and then forget about it entirely. Conker doesn't seem to have an actual drive or desire to get home and just goes along with the adventure, and the Panther King doesn't really try to capture Conker. The whole game is just going to the next place and doing the next chore for the next person with no ultimate goal in mind.

Like a lot of good platformers, Conker doesn't really need a strong narrative to be enjoyable. Super Mario 64, for example -- arguably the greatest 3D platformer of all time -- has even less of a story than Conker but it has more driving force behind its gameplay because it gives you a clear goal: rescue the princess. Everything you do in Mario 64 is a step towards that ultimate goal, and they give you numerous smaller objectives ("collect 10 stars to unlock the next part of the castle") to work on in the meantime. Conker constantly sets you up with small goals and objectives (which are themselves pretty satisfying), but there's no emphasis on an over-arching goal or narrative to lend the game momentum, and I feel like the game would've been more enjoyable with a little more of that emphasis.

Conker's world is designed similarly to a Zelda or Metroid game; after playing through a linear beginning area, you're presented with a sort of central region that branches off in several different directions. Most of the other branches are unlocked via cutscene by progressing through the main game sequence and effecting things in different areas. Each branch has its own distinct theme and unique gameplay elements, so it's pretty fun to go along with the game to see what new surprises await as you progress to each new area, but the actual act of exploration isn't that great because the game doesn't always give you a good sense of direction.

Conker's Bad Fur Day -- Helpful roadsigns

You can spend a few hours exploring multiple regions in one chapter of the game only to end up back in familiar territory with no indication of what should be done next (in part because there's no over-arching narrative/goal); the game forces you to wander around just hoping to trigger a cutscene that will open a new area. At one point Conker comes to two different areas and says he could go either way, but he'd rather go to the right because the left smells like poo. In this instance, the game does tell you where to go, but if you go to the left, you can make it all the way to the end of multiple different branching paths only to find that you can't do a single thing there, and then have to backtrack. As such, the game is deceptively linear, which is a little disappointing when you're first introduced to that central region.

On the surface, Conker is a platformer similar to Super Mario 64, Donkey Kong 64, and Banjo-Kazooie (except without all the mindless item-collecting). It's played in third-person, features a controllable camera, and you go into various thematic "levels" or "worlds" to solve puzzles and advance to new areas. You can jump and climb to achieve your goals, but you've also got a basic attack button to smack things with a frying pan. Jumping on platforms and navigating terrain is a crucial element in Conker, but just as important (if not more so) is the game's emphasis on puzzles. Instead of trying to platform your way to some important thing, more often you're trying to manipulate the environment to produce a desired effect.

In one scenario (and this should be indicative of the style of humor in the game), you're trying to get a ball of poop for some inexplicable reason, so you have to find a way to get cows to defecate for you. They put you in a circular room with a raging bull, some cows, and a huge vat of prune juice, so you have to find a way to get the cows to move over to the trough of prune juice by manipulating the bull. In another scenario, you're trying to rescue Berri from a dancing club where she's been made into a cage dancer, so you have to get drunk and urinate on rock men, so that they curl up into a ball, and push them onto switches with your stream. Not the most cerebral puzzles, but they present enough problem-solving to be satisfying.

Conker's Bad Fur Day -- Fighting a giant pile of hay

Solving puzzles and navigating the terrain is assisted by the relatively unique "context sensitive button." Scattered throughout the world are various "context sensitive pads" that, when stood on, allow you press the B button to perform some action unique to that context. In one spot, the pad may let you pull out a slingshot to shoot acorns at enemies; in another, it lets you turn into an anvil to pound the ground; in another, it lets you use a pocketwatch to hypnotize a dinosaur; in another, it lets you do acrobatic somersaults while firing machine guns. These things show up all over the place and, for the most part, they do a really good job of spicing up the gameplay, because you never know what you'll be doing next, and because they make sure what you're doing matches the theme of the area.

At the same time, however, the context sensitive button can be a little annoying. Whenever you're able to perform a context-sensitive action, a lightbulb lights up above Conker's head; this is important for knowing that you're supposed to do something when there isn't a pad on the floor, but it doesn't do this until you're in the exact position to perform the action, and if you don't accidentally stumble into that specific spot you have no clue what to do. For instance, you climb all the way to the top of a very tall structure and the lightbulb does't show up until you're in mid-air, having taken a leap of faith off the ledge with no idea what you're expected to do. So it's either annoying that the pads aren't there to tell you to do something, or it's annoying that the pads only allow you to perform actions in highly specific locations.

The game sends you to a variety of thematic locations which really set the tone for this absurd, wacky adventure. Things start out in a pleasant set of green, windy hills, and then before long you're exploring a barn and the surrounding farmland. Next you're exploring the inside caverns of a giant mountain of poop, and then you're off to a prehistoric area complete with volcanoes, dinosaurs, and hoverboarding cavemen. Then you visit a zombie-infested graveyard and a haunted mansion, and then you're off to a World War 2-style battlefield. The further you get into the game, the more ridiculous the scenarios get, and it's really fun just to see the exotic variety of locales you can visit.

Conker's Bad Fur Day -- Shooting zombies with a shotgun

Each thematic area comes with a variety of sub-levels to complete, each with a series of goals to complete. In the farm area, for instance, you have to make a mouse leave some characters alone so that you can climb up onto the roof to activate a switch to open the barn door. Once inside, you have to defend yourself against a foul-mouthed anthropomorphic pitchpork and his buddies the paint can and paint brush. After throwing a lever inside, you have to climb up to the rafters and navigate narrow support beams while defending yourself against bats. Then you have to fight a giant anthropomorphic pile of hay. These goals are usually very clear once you're in an area, and they all stream seamlessly one into the next so you're always occupied with some engaging task and problem-solving, which is really satisfying.

The different areas also bring about totally unique gameplay elements, in part due to the context sensitive pads, which make it so that your actions match the theme of that area. When you're in the great poo mountain, you're defeating enemies with toilet paper, and when you're in a WW2 battlefield, you're doing it with a rocket launcher. But even beyond that, Conker implements elements from different genres of games, so at one point you find yourself on a hoverboard racing through canyons like F-Zero or Episode I: Racer; later on you're in a haunted mansion fighting zombies with a shotgun like Resident Evil; later on you're shooting nazi teddy bears like Medal of Honor. It's also got a couple of underwater levels and a flying level, too.

Back in 2001, Conker's Bad Fur Day was being hailed as the funniest game ever made, and even lots of modern "Top 10" lists still put Conker near the top. I'm sure I've played funnier games, but whether you find Conker funny will depend on whether you can appreciate things like a giant opera-singing turd, or a bee pollinating a big-breasted sunflower. Even despite the low-brow toilet humor, there's a lot of witty, amusing dialogue, and Conker himself is a particularly fun protagonist since he's frequently playing the reluctant hero. The game also makes frequent references to movies; a lot of scenes in the game are straight out of movies like A Clockwork Orange, Saving Private Ryan, The Terminator, The Matrix, and Aliens, among many other quotes and smaller references.

The Great Mighty Poo

Technically speaking, the game is rather impressive, too. The graphics may be the best on the N64, which is even more impressive since it doesn't even require the memory expansion pack. Conker has some really nice lighting and shaders for the N64, and even features complex lip synching and facial animations during dialogue, and individually-animated fingers on certain characters. Compare this to Perfect Dark, a game that required the expansion pack and had characters with typical N64 block-fists and no facial expressions or mouth movement whatsoever. There are a ton of great sound effects and music as well, including fully voice-acted dialogue, yet another feature that's relatively unheard of on the N64.

Where Conker shows its age is in its camera. Like all 3D platformers of the N64 / Playstation era, the camera is sometimes your biggest enemy. Depth perception is a major problem in certain areas of the game, and at times when you most need to take control of the camera to get a sense of depth and distance, the camera will inexplicably remain at a fixed angle. At other times, the camera seems to deliberately prevent you from seeing critical things in the environment, or it starts moving and panning unpredictably while you're walking along a narrow, winding platform. When you're swimming underwater, the camera gets even worse and you end up flailing around uncontrollably because you can't tell where you're going or where you're aimed at because of all the distortion and its occasional insistence on fixed angles.

Conker's Bad Fur Day -- Underwater swimming

I had particular problems with the WW2 chapter of the game, which takes place right before the finale sequence. That's the section where the game turns into a third-person shooter and requires a lot of precise aiming, but I was playing on an emulator using a PS3 controller. I pretty much suck at aiming with a control stick anyway, and it was virtually impossible to come up with a decent button layout that would facilitate both the normal movement and the over-the-shoulder aiming / movement scheme at the same time. So the emulated controls didn't help, but I'm not convinced using an N64 controller would've fully solved the problem, because there'd still be annoying issues with slow transitions between normal movement and aiming modes, and awkward turning/strafing while aiming.

Finally, I have to say I really enjoyed the ending. Despite saving his own skin and becoming king of all the land, Conker fails to save Berri's life; he sits on his throne, surrounded by various characters he met in his adventure who celebrate the new king, while Conker delivers his final monologue in a sequence that mirrors the intro in reverse: "So, there I am. King. King of all the land. Who'd have thought that? Not me. I guess you know who these guys are now, cause I certainly do, but I don't want to know them. And yep, I may be king, and have all the money in the world, and all the land, and all that stuff, but you know, I don't really think I want it. I just want to go home, with Berri, and, I dunno, have a bottle of beer. Hmm. It's not gonna happen. It's true what they say, 'the grass is always greener,' and 'you don't really know what you have until it's gone.' Gone.... gone...."

Conker's Bad Fur Day -- Ending cutscene

I always like sad and depressing endings, and this one really resonated for me. After all the absurd, crazy adventures, it was nice for the game to settle into a serious message at the end, where the protagonist doesn't get everything he wants and realizes what all he's lost. I connected a lot with Conker as the main character throughout the game, just because he was the reluctant hero constantly thrust into crazy scenarios, but I really sympathized with him at the end, and the game managed to touch my heart in a special way that few games ever do.

And that's Conker's Bad Fur Day. It's no wonder the game was such a successful hit back in 2001, and even if you've never played it before, it's still a satisfying game to play today. It's a solid action/adventure/platformer that was especially original for its time and provided a refreshing twist on the typical platformers of the N64 era. Why did I wait 12 years to play this game?

1 comment:

  1. Too bad berri died(or in this case stays dead). Can't bring myself to play again. I for one can't take tragedies i avoid them like leprousy, but unfortunatly i end up playing some games unknowingly.