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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Conker's Bad Fur Day

Year: 2001
Developer: Rare
Publisher: Rare
Platform: N64
Metacritic score: 92
VGChartz sales to date: 770,000

Every now and then the universe aligns in such a way that the impossible becomes reality.  By the summer of 2001 the N64 was nearing the end of it's lifespan and the strain was starting to wear on it's considerable fanbase.  The PS2 had been out for about a year and the Xbox launch was just a few months away, and the graphical power of both consoles were making the N64 look dated by comparison.  On top of this, the N64 player base had aged 5 years since the console launched and their tastes for more mature content in games was growing and emerging details of the soon to launch Gamecube only confirmed the opinions of many that Nintendo consoles were purely kid-stuff.  What few mature-rated games existed on the N64 were almost entirely first-person shooters with the occasional fighting game thrown in for good measure, but the action and platforming genres were by and large geared towards a younger audience. Everyone assumed the N64 was finished, that Nintendo was focused on their new console and there was nothing left in the lineup that would appeal to those gamers who had "outgrown" the system.  Everyone was wrong.

Rare had been working on a new title based around Conker the squirrel as early as 1997, tentatively titled Conker's Quest.  At first the game was shaping up to be another in a stable of deep platformers with cuddly anthropomorphic protagonists, much like Banjo-Kazooie or Donkey Kong 64.  It was so much like their existing titles, in fact, that Rare feared it would get lost in the shuffle and so a monumental effort to redesign the game was launched.  The finished product wouldn't be ready to launch until the waning days of the N64's lifespan, but when it was finally released it was everything gamers had been wishing for.  Conker's built upon everything Rare had learned developing for the N64 and as a result both the gameplay and the numerous in-engine cutscenes (a novelty on the N64) looked absolutely gorgeous.  The game kept it's action-platforming roots but the difficulty was cranked up considerably with more challenging puzzles and enemies.  An expansive multiplayer suite was added that included a variety of game modes, none of which felt tacked on.  But most notably, the game's story and themes took on an edginess that was rarely permitted on a Nintendo console.  The plot included numerous references to drinking, drugs, sex, graphic violence, strong language, adult humor and parodies of pop-culture.  Just as many gamers were starting to feel Nintendo had nothing left to offer them, Rare delivered exactly what they were hoping for.

The story picks up as Conker stumbles out of a bar blind drunk and gets lost while attempting to find his way home to his smoking hot (in an anthropomorphic squirrel way) girlfriend Berri.  Unbeknownst to our furry hero, the Panther King finds his favorite end table is missing a leg and after consulting his adviser Professor Von Kriplespac decides that a red squirrel would make the perfect replacement and orders his minions to hunt one down.  If that weren't bad enough, Berri is kidnapped by Don Weaso, head of the Weasel Mafia, to force her into being a stripper at one of his night clubs.  The plot only gets more bizarre from there as Conker's greed often subverts his lust and his goal of getting home to give his girlfriend "the business" is frequently sidetracked by his attempts to score as much of the cash scattered around this strange land as he can.  The situations he finds himself in are downright hilarious and even Conker questions the absurdity of some of the tasks he must complete in order to progress.  Some of the highlights include helping a cheating bee, er, pollinate a busty sunflower, fighting a war between grey squirrels and Nazi teddy bears, carrying out a bank robbery heavily influence by the famous lobby scene from The Matrix, and who could forget battling the opera-singing Great Mighty Poo, king of Poo Mountain (you fight him by hurling toilet paper at him, naturally).  Most people would be content to use feces as a one-dimensional joke, but Rare takes it to a whole new level and the virtuoso singing performance given by The Great Mighty Poo is rivaled only by Portal's "Still Alive" as the most hilarious soundtrack in gaming.    

Despite being a massive pile of shit, he was a downright heavenly baritone.  Maybe the corn niblet teeth helped?
The gameplay is similar to traditional 3D platforming games and follows the trend set by Mario 64.  A large central hub area leads to each of the various stage areas found in the game, though each is blocked off until Conker gets to the appropriate part of the story.  Once you've solved the puzzles in an area they stay solved, but you are free to return to it at any point in order to collect cash, health-giving chocolate or one-ups.  The one-ups are especially important as they will buy your way back from the dead as explained by vertically-challenged Gregg the Grimm Reaper who, in a rather high-pitched voice, tells Conker that "Squirrels have as many lives as they think they can get away with."  Conker's arsenal of moves is more limited then in other Rare platformers, mostly consisting of attacking with a frying pan, performing super jumps and twirling his tail to briefly hover in a move Conker fittingly dubs the 'Helicoptery-tail Thingy'.  To round out his skills, there are numerous context-sensitive zones allowing Conker to perform special actions such as pulling various weapons from his pockets, drinking Alka-Seltzer to cure his hangover, or defeating fire imps by pissing on them.  

The lighthearted designs are hilariously juxtaposed against some rather dark black comedy.  I guess even pitchforks can suffer from depression, though before they attempt to hang themselves they should probably seek help (or a wood chipper .    
Given that Rare's previous hits GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark are arguably two of the best multiplayer games on the N64, it's no surprise that Conker's BFD also winds up on that list.  What is surprising is just how varied the different modes are and how they draw from totally distinct genres, many of which aren't even present in the single player game.  There's a free-for-all tank battle mode, a hoverboard race with elements similar to Rare's Diddy Kong Racing, three capture the flag modes (one that pits a team of cavemen against a team of raptors, another that has 2-4 teams competing to steal cash from a bank vault and a traditional team combat mode), free-for-all and team deathmatch modes and finally my personal favorite Beach.  The Beach level is especially fun playing as either the grey squirrel "Frenchies" trying to escape across the border or the Tediz who can try to stop them from three castle towers giving them access to either a turret, sniper rifle or rocket launcher.  The weapon selection in the 3rd-person combat modes has a nice variety from typical deathmatch weapons like SMG's or rifles to instant kill melee weapons like chainsaws or katanas.  There is something hilariously satisfying in using a chainsaw to shred a Nazi teddy bear into a cloud of stuffing.  Other modes also have context sensitive weapons like the TNT plunger in Beach which the refugees can use to instantly kill the Tediz and create a window of easy escape or the tooth and claw based melee combat in Raptor mode.  Despite the odd amalgamation of different game styles each mode is enjoyable in it's own way and the wide variety on offer makes it easy to spend an entire day battling it out with three other players without anything feeling stale.

While one squirrel is chainsawed to chunks, a teddy is getting the stuffing stabbed out of him in the background.  Cycle of violence, friends.
Nintendo was absolutely terrified of this game.  The company execs took one look at it and broke into panic attacks and night terrors of protesting parents accusing Nintendo of permanently traumatizing their children.  Nintendo insisted on including a large print warning label on the game box advising it is not meant for anyone under 17, which is to my knowledge the only Nintendo game to every carry such a label (if I'm wrong, call me out in the comments).  But the hand wringing didn't end there.  Nintendo refused to publicize or market the game in any way (a policy evidently still in place as there is no mention of the game anywhere on Nintendo's website) and Nintendo Power refused to feature or review the game.  Nintendo Power didn't acknowledge the game's existence until 10 years later when it was discussed in the Playback feature of volume 230 published in 2011.  KB Toys refused to carry the game in their stores and Nintendo of Europe wouldn't publish the game in the EU market.  If it wasn't for the solid 2nd-party privileged developer status and long history of successful collaborations it's doubtful Nintendo would have licensed the game at all. 

After being blackballed by Nintendo, Rare was left scrambling to promote the game they had spent the past four years developing.  Rare published the game themselves in North America and Australia (to this day the only other game they self-published was the previously featured Jet Force Gemini) while THQ published the game in Europe.  Shut out from the most widely circulated gaming magazine for Nintendo fans and saddled with a warning label essentially saying the game wasn't suited for the console's largest audience base Rare decided to embrace the raunchiness of their adult-oriented game by publishing an ad in Playboy and putting out a racy TV commercial.  Under such circumstances it's no wonder the game only sold 55,000 copies during the initial launch period, leading Nintendo to criticize Rare's sales performance in their decision to pass on the offer to buyout the developer.  Needless to say, after developing so many hit games for Nintendo, many of which are remembered as the best ever made by a company that wasn't the Big N themselves, Rare felt betrayed and rumors persist that it was Conker's BFD which was the real reason Nintendo broke that bond and sent Rare into the arms of Microsoft.   That would certainly explain why Conker chainsaws the familiar N64 logo in half during the game's opening credits.

But as much as Nintendo feared it, the critics were completely bonkers about it.  Reviewers praised the graphical feats Rare had accomplished noting how improvements in draw-distance, lighting, shadows, facial animations and lip-syncing "makes other Nintendo 64 games look like 16-bit software" in comparison.  The soundtrack and voice acting (much of it provided by lead director/designer/writer Chris Seavor, which explains all the British accents) was also well received and elevated the crude humor far beyond what you'd expect from typical toilet jokes.  It's no surprise that it took the #1 spot in GameTrailers "Top Ten Funniest Games" list.  The only criticisms came from some reviewers who felt that the removal of traditional Rare platforming tropes like item collection cut down playtime and the finicky camera system (to be fair, you can apply that complaint to almost any 3D game from that period).  But those concerns didn't detract from the overall enjoyable experience and in the years since release a large cult following has developed around the game.  It now holds the rank of 9th highest rated N64 game on Metacritic, sharing the top 10 with three other titles by Rare, the only company other then Nintendo to break into that pantheon of great games.

When Rare was bought by Microsoft in 2002 it effectively killed any possibility of Conker's return to a Nintendo console (or any other Rare game from making it's way to the Wii/Wii U Virtual Console).  Even if Nintendo did have the rights to Conker's it's extremely unlikely they would ever let it see the light of day given that the company has only increased it's focus on family-friendly fare since then.  But fortunately for Xbox owners, Microsoft has no such qualms about mature themed games (well, no as many I suppose would be more accurate) and in 2005 Conker: Live & Reloaded was released on Xbox Live.  Though the game was originally meant to be a higher resolution uncensored remake, Microsoft had a change of heart and made some edits to both the single and multiplayer modes that some fans found rather egregious.  While the multiplayer could now be enjoyed online through Xbox live, the game modes themselves were heavily altered.  The variety of modes is reduced to just team-based capture the flag and deathmatch and a class system was introduced.  There were also numerous edits made in the name of censorship in order to whitewash all the foul language from the game, the heavy hand of this is felt most during The Great Might Poo song which was re-recorded and had a number of lyrics bleeped out; both actions greatly reduced the comedic value of this scene.  While the new graphics and textures looked truly stunning, many felt that the game's heart had been sucked out for questionable motivations given the game retained it's M-rating and dire warning labels despite the censorship.

The sickle is handy for both reaping souls and slashing content deemed morally unfit by the censors of the Underworld.
Even with all the changes, the new multiplayer remained popular and was still one of the top 10 most played games on Xbox Live two years after release.  But sadly the servers got the kill-switch in 2010 when Microsoft ceased Xbox Live support for original Xbox titles.  While Rare at one point had mulled a sequel, those plans were squashed when sales on Live & Reloaded failed to meet expectations.  While Rare still owns the rights to the game, the company has changed quite a bit since those days.  Founders Chris and Tim Stamper left the company in 2007 and after a string of sales that fell short of their N64 glory days Microsoft restructured the studio.  New studio head Scott Henson has shifted the company's focus entirely to producing Kinect titles after 2010's Kinect Sports achieved commercial success in the face of middling reviews.  This new Rare seems intent on putting the past behind it so I think the odds of a new Conker game are pretty long.  That means the only (legal) way to play the game now is by finding an old copy and dusting off your N64. But you never know what the future holds, the odds were against Conker from the start but it managed to become one of the best games ever released on the N64.  From all reasonable perspectives it came out at the wrong time and appealed to the wrong crowd, but for that one brief window Conker was the king.

Heavy is the crown, my squirrely friend.  Sigh, where the hell did I leave my bottle of Scotch?  

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1 comment:

  1. If it wasn't for Ocarina of Time this would have been the best game ever made for N64 and those two games together are the sole reason I refuse to donate my old N64. Coming from somebody who has owned both the N64 Conker and the XBOX Conker while the graphics on the XBOX game were a fresh touch, all the changes alienated me from the game. Especially the changes to multiplayer. My friends and I used to Split-Screen the multiplayer and we would set ourselves on a team all against one teddy bear set on the highest difficulty and we would basically run around that multiplayer level that has the bathroom where you can't use your weapons, you have to pee on your opponents. So we'd play in that level and the Teddy would always grab the magnum and we called the make shift mode Predator because most of the time the Teddy saw you before you saw him and on the hardest difficulty he was likely to kill one or two of you before you even got off a shot. The only thing that gave him away was the red laser sight on the Magnum that seemed very much like the predator site. My friends and I would huddle in a corner scared @#%^less of when the Teddy would find us because we knew that the odds were that we'd be massacred. I would have really loved to have tried this mode on the XBOX system with the updated controls and faster aiming mechanics but alas the ability to play that type of makeshift game mode was taken out of the XBOX version which pretty much killed that game for me. I would love to see a modern day remake for PC or 360 though that basically just updates the graphics and controls without making any other changes to the game the way Halo Anniversary updated Halo's graphics.