While growing up, I always had this nagging awareness that the video game industry, much like fast food, big tobacco, and Fox News, designed their products for a target audience of children. That thought worried me, as I knew one day either my hobby would suddenly have no more relevance to me, or that I’d have to grow a peach fuzz mustache, don a dirty, faded, and malodorous My-Little-Pony T-shirt and start hanging out with boys 30 years younger than me if I still wanted to have interesting conversations. Although I nailed the prediction that grown-up conversation would be boring enough that I wish it would bore a hole in my head so I’d at least get to sit there, all content and lobotomized, I had little realization at the time that Rareware had already begun developing games for adults, and that it might have a little more polish than Custer’s Revenge.
I did have a vague understanding that Conker’s Bad Fur Day existed, but the commercial (below) tells surprisingly little about game play, and actually does quite a bit to frighten off all but the most disturbed teenage boys. So I didn’t pay much heed to the ads, and when I finally did see samples of gameplay, it just looked like another anthropomorphic version of some cute animal jumping through a cartoonish world picking up someone’s trash while trying to avoid falling into holes. And honestly, after Sonic, Yoshi, Banjo and Kazooie, Bubsy, Crash Bandicoot, Earthworm Jim and the rest of the damn zoo of stagnant ideas, Conker didn’t look that interesting, and I never put it together that I may actually want to play this game.
So this game flew under my radar until a few years ago when, indulging Anne in her youtube fetish, I saw it on an episode of The Completionist. Finally, I began to take note of the humor involved, and resolved to play Conker myself. Except the cartridge costs a minimum of $70, and you can pretty much only find it on eBay. So I waited. And it searched. And the price stayed the same. Until, of course, the day came when I bought a new computer with the processing power to run an N64 emulator. (What? It’s not like Rare gets royalties from used games, anyway.) And trust me…I got my money’s worth out of Conker’s Bad Fur Day.
At heart, Conker’s Bad Fur Day follows the same platforming formula used by all the games it. Usually, I suspect that developers only release platformers when their lack of ingenuity and patience to design a good game conflicts with their desire to tear the cash directly out of our hands, but I figured for a game full of adult humor, video game satire, and at least one major musical number, I could sit through one game’s attempt to chuck me into holes for ten hours. The Completionist, however, could cover a raging fungal infection with enough saccharine to give the entire cast of Candy Land diabetes, and I probably should have heeded his subtle remarks that “the controls are a little difficult” with a red flag large enough to attract all the bulls in Pamplona.
But I should start with the story. If you’ve seen the Completionist’s review, you know that Conker spends a night out drinking, neglecting his poor girlfriend Berri at home. He stumbles out of the bar, takes a wrong turn at Albuquerque, and winds up in a wacky world of adventure! Meanwhile, the evil Panther King sends out his goons to kidnap Berri as bait for Conker, because Weasel Dr. Strangelove decided that nothing can balance out a wobbly table like a red squirrel. And there’s a giant poop monster.
In all fairness, I doubt I could come up with a more coherent interpretation. In reality, Berri never realizes that Conker ditched her, since her jazzercising covers up the sound of the phone, and while Conker claims he wants to get home, he actually romps through the countryside, performing favors for the animals (which often involves murdering other animals), and then extorting them for cash. A giant rock monster knocks on Berri’s door, apparently kidnapping her, but the two apparently resolve their differences in a civil and diplomatic fashion as we next see her dancing in the rock monsters’ night club, and Conker reacts to seeing her with a characteristic lack of interest. None of the enemies seem in league with the Panther King, and I use the term “enemy” loosely; the game doesn’t so much have enemies as it has things that can harm you if you interact with them improperly. I have things like that around me, too, but I’ve never really considered my snow blower an enemy. (Rather, we form a reluctant alliance against the snow plow)
The initial scenes between the Panther King and his mad scientist set up a joke about duct tape that never gets to any sort of reveal or punch line, and most of the game’s third act involves a war between the squirrels and the tediz (Teddy Bear Nazis), a cause that Conker throws himself into wholeheartedly for no reason other than some steroidal army squirrel hitting him on the head and throwing him in a troop transport. Through the whole game, Conker shows no interest in anything except monetary personal gain–and an opportunistic interest in breasts–but throw him into a Saving Private Ryan parody and he whips out a cigar and starts mowing down stuffed bears. Rare must have written the story by placing all the scenario writers in separate counties and forced them to communicate via smoke signal, then combining each one’s interpretation into one script, transcribed in Swahili and run through Babelfish.
Much like the story, the game play of Conker’s Bad Fur day redefines itself as the game progresses. And while that fluidity may not spell out a cohesive narrative, it actually does quite a bit to keep the game interesting. Conker has no way of directly fighting back against dangers in his environment. He can swing a frying pan, but only to knock small things out briefly enough to pick them up. At first glance, the game actually takes cues from point-and-click adventures, requiring the players to use their wit in figuring out how objects in the environment alter each other. And true to point-and-click adventure fashion, these puzzles usually make about as much sense as a Texas public school science textbook. Later in the game, Conker picks up guns, which transforms the game into first a Resident-Evil-with-Squirrels zombie shooter, and then a modern warfare shooter.
Conker has a fatal flaw that may just break the game for me–the controls. Platforming by design requires a certain level of coordination, but developers should still find a balance between clever, challenging world design and performing drunken brain surgery during an earthquake, and while Conker usually hits that mark, some segments felt so difficult to control they made me physically ill. As someone who has, in real life, attempted to safely guide drunks away from danger, making sure they pee in the right direction and at a proper intensity, I fail to see the appeal in simulating the experience for enjoyment. Yes, I understand that Conker gets witty super powers by guzzling booze from a cartoonishly large barrel. But when I have to force him to pee in a straight line while rock monsters want to pummel him, and he exercises the coordination of your average Friday night frat boy, well…let’s just say that asking me to help him crawl to the Alka-Selzter after he sobers up doesn’t make me laugh as much as you think it will. And even when sober, Conker’s controls made me want to punch a hole in my screen. From a lava surf board with a seemingly magnetic pull towards rock walls to gun crosshairs that can’t sit even as steady as a three-year-old overdosing on caffeine pills, I honestly don’t believe I could have finished this game without the use of save states.
Conker’s Bad Fur day, as far as platformers go, kept me entertained for the most part. Not great, but nice. I guess the biggest problem for me stems from Conker himself. Yeah, I enjoy mocking video games by using the most unlikely protagonist, but does he have anything else going for him? The indulgent lifestyle and self-centered opportunism effectively satirize our worn-out, cliched game heroes, but if we had to deal with Conker in real life, we’d hate the furry bastard. Who among you really wants to spend any amount of time with a crass drunk who always wants to swindle or mooch money off of you? The guy with a super-hot girlfriend who he barely notices and clearly doesn’t appreciate? The humor in Conker only goes so far. The character only has a superficial level of appeal, the outdated movie references will fly over the heads of anyone younger than 20 years old, and when you take those out, all you have left is a platform game covered in poop jokes. And as a rule, I generally like things less and less the more shit I find piled on top of it.