While thinking about the accepted standards and roles of games, I had originally envisioned doing a short series of selected reviews exploring this issue. It seemed rather appropriate, given that at the time there were a few games on the horizon which appeared to be pushing the envelope of content. It's definitely something which needs to be addressed in the current climate of a society which hasn't made up its collective mind whether to embrace videogames as a dynamic new medium or condemn them as the cause of social degradation and school-yard shootings nationwide. In addition, it strikes me as fact that games can't stay categorized as simple "games" forever while expecting to remain attractive and interesting to people who are growing and maturing faster than the software itself. Games need to evolve and change both in and of themselves and how we perceive them in order to avoid being forever pigeonholed as child's play.
The first time I tackled this project was with the recent PlayStation title, Fear Effect 2. Although the ad campaign for Fear Effect 2 came out of a gutter somewhere, the actual game was quite good from an intellectual content standpoint. It featured a cast of professional killers on a mission full of double-crosses and intrigue, and the best part about it was that they were portrayed in a manner well-suited for an R-rated action film. Characters swore when frustrated or in tight situations, they pulled no punches in the killing department and there was enough innuendo to feel like something you'd expect to see on a cable channel (with the best parts cut out, of course.) While I'm not saying that this was "mature" content according to the dictionary's definition of the word, I viewed it as a game that took a bold beginning step towards establishing a new and respectable tier of content in videogames, and was a great example of how to do so. Conker's Bad Fur Day however, is not.
Bad Fur Day is one of the last "big" releases for the rapidly fading Nintendo 64 system. Produced and published by Rare, the most important and successful game developer for the Nintendo 64 besides Nintendo itself, Bad Fur Day is one more entry in the genre in which Rare has practically cornered the market—the 3D platform adventure. While most people would say that particular type of game is heavily over-represented on most consoles, the Nintendo 64's library in particular has an unusually high percentage of them. There are a few significant design choices in both structure and content which make Bad Fur Day stand out from its brethren, however, as I as I just mentioned, platform games are a dime a dozen. The real selling point behind Bad Fur Day aren't the twists on gameplay, but rather the radical approach Rare's taken with regard to content and humor . While Nintendo has traditionally been known for being a bastion of decency and family values (remember the "tame" version of Mortal Kombat on the Super NES?), it appears that they have reached a stage where they are ready to take risks. Of course, calling Bad Fur Day a "risk" is putting it rather mildly.
In a nutshell, Bad Fur Day can be summed up as monstrously huge amounts of all the things people never thought they'd see in a console videogame—all rolled up together in the same warning-labeled package.Swearing and curse words, blatant sexual themes and bloody, violent death and dismemberment—this is the stuff that Bad Fur Day is made of, and its aim (I assume) is to be the latest word in sarcastic comedy. Now before I go any further, don't get me wrong. I'm not any sort of prude, and "conservative" is one of the last words I would ever use to describe myself. I'm a consenting adult. and I certainly don't blush easily. With that in mind, I need to say clearly and unequivocally:
I just didn't think the game was funny.
With a title in which the appeal is so contingent on the humor, I found the majority of the jokes to be phenomenally infantile and predictable, being basically aimed at the absolute lowest common denominator. I expected more than a few cheesy lines and situations like something out of a Zucker Bros. film or worse, but so much of the game's humor is lacking any serious wit that it was pretty disappointing. I don't think that feces or urination are intrinsically amusing, so that's half of the game's humor out the window right there. Perhaps the ESRB should adopt a new category—"I" for Immature, or maybe "J" for Juvenile—in order to more accurately describe the game's subject matter. There are also attempts at dry, English-style banter and some very eccentric pieces out of left field here and there, but I didn't find them effective due to the general lack of cleverness.
To talk about swearing in games, I think expletives can be extremely effective in adding impact to serious scenes or evoking laughter in comedic ones when used correctly and with good timing. However, I would without a doubt say that Bad Fur Day does not use its language correctly. The usage and amount of "bad words" in the game's dialogue, in my opinion, would be approximate to using a nuclear bomb to get rid of a few flies. It's tasteless overkill, pure and simple. The fact that nearly every other word in the game is an expletive made me scoff at the entire production since there's nothing automatically entertaining about hearing characters swear for the sake of swearing. The sense I got was that the majority of it was completely childish, needlessly over-the-top, and at the same level of creativity as say, a knock-knock joke that ends in "poop."
It's sad really, since there are several genuinely clever bits of humor, most often involving the game's innumerable parodies of films. While I found several of the takeoffs to be fairly amusing, the truly sharp parodies were sorely outnumbered by the inane, witless jokes and alleged "funny" situations the game plasters you with. The entire thing reeks of a bunch of teenagers stealing a few beers from their parents, getting smashed and then writing up a list of things that would make a "kickass game."
After being quite turned off early in the game by the heavily pubescent approach to comedy, the other problems present certainly didn't help matters. Foremost in my mind was the absolutely atrocious camera system in place. Having nearly perfected the thing in Banjo-Tooie, I was stunned that Rare would use a camera system this defective. It's easily the worst one they've ever released, featuring unresponsive view controls, a choice of angles that all point too far downwards, and there's a tendency for the camera to get physically "hung up" on environmental objects. Trying to get a good view of what was going on was a constant struggle for me and never ceased to be a problem, especially in areas where jumping was involved. To add a large amount of iodized salt to the gaping, ragged wound, the "look around" feature was often completely worthless since the field of view would be obscured by the back of Conker's head! The only way I could ever imagine this camera system being used was if it was the same system when Conker's Bad Fur Day was still "Conker: Twelve Tales" during the initial development a few years ago, and it had been left untouched and in place ever since.
To top it all off, the framerate that takes some extremely noticeable dips at times. I found it to be quite noticeable and it detracted from the overall enjoyment, though it didn't actually interfere with gameplay. While it was running at a generally functional clip for the majority of the game, it wasn't an experience I'd like to repeat anytime soon, especially with the newer hardware available now and some even better machines on the way.
All matters of personal taste aside, there are some points to the game which need to be mentioned. One of the first things that struck me was that Bad Fur Day displays an incredible level of quality voice acting, with almost every single line of dialogue in the game being spoken. Not only is it quite impressive that this much voice can be on a cartridge, the roles are all performed with a very high quality and played back with excellent clarity. Conker's voice in particular is a good choice, and I give respect to any game which manages to do even a halfway decent job in this area—on the Nintendo 64, no less.
Enhancing Bad Fur Day in conjunction with the voices were the different facial expressions for the characters. While a good line delivered well can do wonders, a picture is worth a thousand words—and some of Conker's wide-eyed looks are ballparking in the seven digits. Having both excellent sound and visual presentation goes a long way to fleshing out the character, regardless of whether I found him appealing or not.
A design choice I found quite interesting (and positive) with regards to the game's structure was the about-face Rare pulled in deciding to dramatically reduce the amount of things to collect. While scouring levels for things to hoard is traditionally a staple of the 3D platformer genre, the only thing to search for and pick up are bundles of dollar bills which usually become accessible as you complete the game's various objectives. This was a huge breath of fresh air, especially when keeping in mind Rare's emphasis on collecting in their most recent efforts—Banjo-Tooie and the psychosis-inducing Donkey Kong 64. It was quite nice to focus on completing tasks and objectives for a change instead of combing every corner of a level for that last coin, banana, musical note, star, jiggie, hubcap, videotape or protein-rich nutritional supplement.
Finally, in addition to the lack of collectibles scattered about, the new "context sensitive" system is definitely interesting, though I was unable to finally decide whether it was a good or bad thing. In Bad Fur Day, Conker himself only has a few very basic moves—including jumping, hitting things with a frying pan, and climbing or swimming. The level of control for those functions handles nice and responsively, but the selection feels quite sparse. Luckily, this problem is remedied by "context sensitive" pads which Conker can step on to activate special abilities for certain situations. For example, when surrounded by several large and aggressive dung beetles, Conker can use one of these pads to whip out a sharp-shooting slingshot that isn't normally accessible as an "at-will" move. While I looked forward to seeing what crazy and unexpected item Conker would produce at each pad, (the handful of throwing knives was a particular favorite) I felt rather limited while traveling in the areas between them. While these "context sensitive" areas are a good idea, I'd like to see it taken further. It's a shame that the game takes such a lowbrow approach, since the changes to Rare's formula are generally for the better.
While videogames in general need to advance themselves and expand the levels of electronic expression offered, I don't feel that just ANY step towards testing the limits of what's acceptable is necessarily a good one. This area is something like a minefield that needs to be tread carefully, and without making too many false steps in order to avoid discrediting the medium in general. While it does manage some bright spots of biting satire, Bad Fur Day mostly tests the limits for the sake of testing them, without making a real or significant statement of any kind except to raise its middle finger. I'm sure this game will amass an army of rabid followers who will soon fill my electronic mailbox, but I won't embrace or endorse excess unless it has good reason for existing. With the significant absence of a sophisticated and/or mature comedic sense, there's not much reason for having a copy of Bad Fur Day on my shelf.
Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.
Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.
Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway