Ever since I was a young boy (though not quite that young), I have heard stories, nay, legends, about a video game for the Nintendo 64 home entertainment system known only by the moniker “Conker’s Bad Fur Day”. Published back in 2001 by Rareware, this game has constantly been touted as a cult classic due to its unique flavor of irreverent and mature humor packaged in the guise of a colorful adventure/platformer full of huggable animals. For years I’ve been intrigued by its existence, as I fancy myself a fan of those that dare to take the road less traveled, but I really never knew anything about it other than, “It’s an M-rated cartoon game made by the people that did Banjo Kazooie; what more need be said?” While I’ve always wanted to play it and see for myself, I’ve never been one that enjoys crude humor, even if done well, and so I’ve held back time and time again. However, I finally bit the bullet and told myself that I would purchase this hallowed gem and experience the wonder of times gone by.
Then I went on eBay and couldn’t find a single cart that closed at under seventy U.S. dollars, out of hundreds of active auctions.
“So it’s one of those games,” I say to myself as I re-experience the lost joy of price-sniping back before Buy It Now was a thing. Then after three lost auctions I just find a Buy It Now anyways, which ironically ended up costing less than the closing prices of all the auctions I didn’t win. Ahh, the short-sightedness of the rabid internet consumer.
Having already played and enjoyed such Rareware adventure gems as Donkey Kong 64 and both Banjo Kazooie games, I went into CBFD expecting a similar style of game: neutral overworld that leads to various themed stages, each containing a plethora of puzzles, power-ups, and shiny collectable MacGuffins. Granted, I also went into it knowing full well that this is Conker’s-Bad-freaking-Fur-Day, a game infamous in the gamer population’s eyes for breaking expectations, and committed myself to taking everything I experienced with a grain of salt, since I didn’t want the raunchy humor to sully my opinion of the game.
With this being said, Bad Fur Day maintains the core character-control and platforming aspects of these other games, but changes a great deal of the rest. Initially I found myself disappointed with the changes and felt that it was not a very good game; I’d even written lengthy paragraphs explaining my disappointment from a technical standpoint. But as I analyzed those explanations and looked at them through the lens of game design in general, I realized something that completely changed how I now look at it: Conker’s Bad Fur Day might not actually be an adventure/platformer.
I say this because all the normal adventure-game staples are very weakly represented in Bad Fur Day: The game flow is extremely linear, gameplay is inconsistent in style, length from start to finish is disappointingly short, power-ups and abilities are scarce, and collectables are ultimately unimportant. Yet, I can’t write off the design choices of the game as simply “bad”, because they do work, just not from the lens of being an open-ended adventure. Where the gameplay really shines is its missions, which are plentiful, unique, and challenging; some of them even have multiplayer modes as well. Perhaps I’m just mincing semantics (which I hate doing), but I can’t really call it an adventure game when it doesn’t really feel like one, and can’t hope to measure up to other adventure games on technical merits. While I don’t know exactly what the designers of the game were trying to accomplish, it feels like they wanted to focus on putting as many crazy minigame-style challenges into the game as possible, and paste those minigames together with just enough adventure-style flair to get by. I can’t say I consider this the greatest of directions, and would definitely have preferred a full and robust game that kept the same wacky style, but what I got still held its own.
Speaking of style, the adult themes in the game threw me for a loop, but not in the way I expected, even though I went into the game ready to expect anything. Now, once again, I will say I am neither a follower, nor a fan, of crude humor, so I don’t entirely understand it, but I can respect the effort put into making it work, and analyze it from a strictly technical standpoint. With that being said, the “maturity” of the game seemed to wobble up and down like a seismograph. It’s definitely an adult game, but the way in which it is constantly shifts, from salty language and irreverent toilet humor to blood, gore, and violence. As an example for movie aficionados, it’s safe to say that there’s a big difference in style between a movie like Superbad and a movie like 300, even though both are well deserving of their R-rating. But to continue that example, just because both are “mature” movies does not mean they can be combined and still give the same hard-hitting effect; instead they’d be likely to counteract each other, because one is serious and one is not. Situations where the combination does work would be something like South Park, where violence and death is just another joke in the writer’s arsenal, and nothing is really taken as seriously as it would be in real life.
Bad Fur Day straddles that line between “working” and “not working”, mainly because I could never tell if it was taking itself seriously or not. Or rather, some parts of the game took itself seriously and some parts didn’t. When Conker was exploding rats by feeding them too much cheese and bouncing on an anthropomorphic sunflower’s breasts, the designers’ tongues were clearly planted firmly in their cheeks, and the game really shines in those portions as a deconstruction of Western animation. But then I’d see a conclave of mobsters talk about being “faithful” or wade into a D-Day-esque slaughter of fellow soldiers, and despite the irony of these characters being cartoon weasels and squirrels there was very little joy to be had in those scenes, and sometimes the tone would get downright dramatic without a pinch of humor in sight. The important thing about any work of fiction is that it should be consistent with its internal rules, but Bad Fur Day has no rules to speak of: nothing is out of place in this world, so while it’s technically not breaking any guidelines, it’s also not consistent from a viewer’s standpoint. All throughout the game I found myself asking, “Is this satire? Am I supposed to laugh at this part?” In my opinion when a game, movie, book, what have you, doesn’t make that answer clear to a viewer, it either means it wasn’t made for them, or it wasn’t made very well. Yet again, I’ll admit I’m not the target demographic for Conker’s Bad Fur Day and the British sensibilities (let us not forget that Rareware is a British company) probably went over my head, but then I’d ask who is the target demographic? It’s got a little bit for adult gamers of every kind, but the parts that aren’t for “you” seem to spoil the parts that are. Perhaps the designers of the game were throwing everything at the wall to see what stuck, like they did with all the mission minigames: a reliable strategy that can produce amazing results, but requires afterthought and polish to work, which I feel Conker’s Bad Fur Day lacks somewhat.
This commentary isn’t really intended to review the entirety of the game, only the portions which I felt compelled to comment upon, and the characterization is definitely worthy of note. Briefly put, Conker’s Bad Fur Day has some of the best voice acting I have ever heard in a game, with some of the worst writing. The actors were not simply reading lines off a page for this game, and since the text is all displayed on-screen it’s easy to notice the difference: characters will pause in the middle of sentences to think, say “umm”, or add common filler phrases such as “y’know” or “like” or “I guess”. From a technical standpoint these are flaws in conversation, but the fact is, realistic conversation is flawed, and far too many voice actors forget this. This combined with dynamic voice inflection really makes it feel like these are people in a world, not actors on a stage. Sadly, while they are certainly saying something, what they’re talking about can’t compare: the writing is by-the-book and to-the-point for the most part, and while several little side characters bring a wry smile to my face, the majority of the cast and even Conker himself come off as vapid and uninspired, never really showing much concrete personality, and thus never really reacting to the world around them in a memorable way. One might think that the swearing would give a bite to the dialog, but it really doesn’t; it’s there, people do it, f-bombs are bleeped for what’s I’m assuming is humor rather than censorship, and the world continues to spin as normal.
While my commentary on Bad Fur Day trends towards the negative, my opinion of the game does not. I liked this game, and I’m glad I played it, and that’s not just because I’m trying to justify paying seventy-four dollars for it. When the game was on, it was really on, and when it was off, it wasn’t off by that much (plus I had to give it the benefit of the doubt since, again, the humor is not aimed at me). The puzzles and minigames were inconsistent in style, but I think that was the point: they almost never used the same mechanic twice, so I was always experiencing something new. The constant movie homages weren’t exactly good, but they were still fun: I don’t care how passé bullettime parodies from The Matrix are (and maybe they weren’t twelve years ago when this game was released), jumping fifty feet to the side in slow motion while being able to aim at and dispose of four bad guys is fun.
The reason I’m so critical of it is because I like it; it’s how I tend to show that I care. I want it to be better than it is so that I can like it even more. I can see the potential this game had and I can see its ideal version shimmering in the distant mist, but that means I can see all the ways in which it isn’t that ideal version. Enjoyment of a complex piece of media like a game is a balancing act between what you like about it and what you don’t, but unlike a real scale it’s not enough for it to simply be tipped to the positive side, because 51% correct still gets you an F in school; when your goal is perfection, it makes the imperfections all the more obvious. It’s not until the positive overwhelms the negative, not until you get that A grade, that you would say “This is very good”, because when you cancel out the good with the bad, there’s still a big pile of good left over you can enjoy.
Conker’s Bad Fur Day is a cult classic; no amount of criticism from me, either for or against, will change that, and in fact it’s because it’s a cult classic that I decided to care about it at all. What I will say instead is that I believe it’s an overrated underrated game: a competent yet forgotten work with some great ideas which has achieved such a zeitgeist around it that, like the infamous Snakes on a Plane, sounds better on paper than it actually is in the flesh. In fact, given how expensive the cartridge is these days, I’d wager that the majority of its proponents haven’t even played the game, unless of course they picked up its graphically-updated version for the XBox 360, but even then I’d wager that the majority of its fans do not own an XBox 360, if the demographic surrounding that console is any indicator. I suppose in that respect my word is as good as theirs: they get the humor but haven’t played the game, and I’ve played the game but don’t get the humor.
P.S. Thank you, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, for explaining where all that inexplicable health-restoring floating chocolate is coming from.
P.P.S. While deep behind enemy lines I fall onto a featureless subterranean island with hostile missile submarines all around me, and a little girl with a pretty bow in her hair and no visible legs is inexplicably stuck in a gigantic metal aperture on the ground? Admiral Ackbar’s proclamations cannot repel a trap of this magnitude.