by Estim20, HSM team writer
Last time I reviewed a game (admittedly not that long ago, and in fact was my last article) I reviewed the Telltale episodic release for Back to the Future. It honored – in its own way – the 25th anniversary of the films and Michael J. Fox’s research for Parkinson’s, bringing back Fox, Christopher Lloyd and Claudia Wells for their respective roles. In case you’re wondering, Claudia Wells played Jennifer Parker, the on-again-off-again-thanks-to-temporal-anomaly girlfriend in the first film.
The game is all well and good, especially if you’re a graphical adventure fan. What I left out of the review, though, due to restricting the focus of the article to Back to the Future, is that Telltale Games, the company behind the release, isn’t new to graphical adventuring game. In fact, several employees garnered experience prior to the company’s formation when they created a prototype of Sam and Max (the game) for Lucasarts.
That’s right; the founding employees of Telltale earned their stripes with the company that creates Star Wars titles. Before the gaming division more or less shifted focus largely to that little sci-fi franchise, Lucasarts developed a line of graphical adventure games, which people still play to this day. Such titles included Maniac Mansion, Day of the Tentacle, the Monkey Island series and Sam and Max Hit the Road.
If you search the rest of Telltale’s catalog, you’ll find only two games that aren’t based on existing franchises: Telltale Texas Hold ‘Em and Nelson Tethers. Even Poker Night at the Inventory is technically a franchise-driven game, given the basic premise is that four characters from other games converge in a poker table and face ‘you’ at a game of cards. Everything else is focused on their respective franchises and, perhaps unsurprisingly given Telltale’s history, are almost universally point-and-click adventure games.
As such the series I decided to review here is another graphical adventure series that you can find available for the PlayStation 3. I am focusing on the series based on an Internet property, Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People, or SBCG4AP for sure.
Okay, I probably lost a few of you to laughter as you read the name. It isn’t that the name is grammatically incorrect; the sticking point is likely the two words that start it off. Who is Strong Bad? Is the title really serious, or is it comedic and facetious? What are its qualifications for ‘cool’ and ‘attractive’ exactly? Well, you can ignore the third question, because it won’t matter, but the other two are fair game.
First, yes, the title is being facetious. It is in reference to the character you control for the span of five episodes, egg-headed ‘wrestleman’ Strong Bad, star (and ensemble darkhorse, really) of the Internet animation series Homestar Runner. Yes, that is its real name and Strong Bad is really a character from this series.
Well, I say ‘series’ with the caveat that it isn’t released on any schedule and it isn’t designed like television animation. There are no set episodes, as much as shorts and skits designed around specific ideas. Today it is a Flash animation site, with numerous shorts, music videos and fourth wall-breaking antics from the cast (and even crew), but its formative years weren’t quite that auspicious.
Homestar Runner as a concept began as the brainchild of Mike Chapman and Craig Zobel back in 1996, making it a good fifteen years old as of the time of this writing. They browsed the children’s section of a local bookstore and found the state of affairs there rather dismal. This prompted them to create a parody of such books, entitled “The Homestar Runner Enters the Strongest Man in the World Contest.” It introduced the eponymous character as well as three other future staples of the franchise, Pom Pom, Strong Bad and the Cheat. Get used to the names; they’re indicative of the world’s general charms.
The only other Homestar-related piece they concocted that year was a music video created with Mario Paint for the SNES, coupled with a song sung in faux-accents and extolling the virtues of Homestar’s great athleticism. For close to four years, these two works were the only available pieces. By 1999, however, that changed when Mike and his younger brother, Matt, took up learning Flash by that point. They needed something to develop their talent, and Homestar proved the essential factor.
Thus was revived Homestar Runner, this time as a website, going live in early 2000. Over the course of eleven years, the creation’s fictional world took form, with various staples and word-based gags that would typify its existence. Homestar Runner, in case you’re wondering, is a simple-minded athlete with no visible arms, skin as white as glue and a speech impediment that sounds vaguely like Elmer Fudd’s. The site includes various other characters, ranging from a green-skinned, slightly creepy coach with a Midwestern accent (Coach Z) to a concession stand owner who frequently dabbles in crazy, faux-black market scams (Bubs). On top of that, the series takes place in the ambiguous geography of Free County, USA – think of Springfield from The Simpsons, but with less resemblance to the United States.
These days, Homestar Runner encapsulates numerous shorts, features, music and even live performances (using puppets instead of animation). Plus, over the years, the site grew to spawn various features and characters, such as Teen Girl Squad, a comic created by Strong Bad involving said teen girls in ludicrous situations. The shorts, generally the longest pieces in the gallery, amount to a significant chunk of the material, building up characters and the setting as well as providing numerous absurd bits of comedy that seem like this is how toons see the real world.
By far the most prolific segment, however, is the Sbemail segment, hosted by the star of this game series, Strong Bad. “Sbemail” is a contraction of “Strong Bad” and “e-mail,” which is a great, concise description of what the segment offers: Strong Bad answering e-mails from real fans. As of this writing, there are 205 Sbemails and they perfectly illustrate one crucial aspect of Strong Bad’s character: he loves electronics from the 1980s. Within the context of the Sbemails, he just upgraded to a computer capable of handling wallpapers, ditching a laptop that could only last for five minutes on the battery.
With eleven years under its belt, the Brothers Chap’s magnum opus isn’t easy to summarize without a good number of pages dedicated to it. Given this is a game review (and no, I haven’t forgotten), it’s less likely I’ll be able to give it the attention such a task needs. I recommend visiting the site and selecting the ‘Random’ feature on the bottom of the screen to get a decent idea how the series plays out. It’s absurd, it’s quirky, and it’s good when you just need five minutes of comedy and bonkers scenarios.
And with Sam and Max as a precedent, Telltale knew it had a chance to translate the series into a graphical adventure series. The series was announced and ultimately debuted in 2008 for Wii before making its jump to PC, Mac and PlayStation 3. PlayStation Network received the episode in full in 2010 for $15, cheaper than the games originally sold for on the Wii.
And now, without further adieu, let’s dive right into Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People. I still love that title.
I should note that yes, the site is named Homestar Runner, who is a character in the franchise. However, Strong Bad is the ensemble darkhorse and is just as popular, if not more so, than his dim-witted co-star, thanks in no small part to his e-mail series online, named Sbemails, as mentioned above. As such, he became the star for Telltale’s venture, with Homestar becoming an NPC.
The story focuses on Strong Bad, dressed to the nines as Mexican wrestler (even though he rarely wrestled ever in his tenure on the site) and so-called ladies’ man. You control him through Free County, USA’s lush environments, such as his house, his car that rarely gets driven and the track and field, all in pursuit of the episodes’ goals. Along the way he’ll meet his fellow co-stars, from unarmed marshmallow-skinned Homestar Runner to broom-shaped Marizpan and Strong Bad’s yellow unidentifiable creature, the Cheat. As said earlier, get used to all these names.
The episodes feel very much like episodes, each one effectively self-contained plots that don’t inherently lead into the next. The only indications you get of what the next episode will be about are the previews, though series of jokes about an arcade cabinet in need of repairs does serve as a series-long build-up to the final episode. As such, you can play any of the episodes, even the final one, in any order without requiring knowing what happened prior.
The first episode does set up everything you need to know about the Homestar Universe without having seen the series, kicking things off with Strong Bad delivering a song about how no one can handle his style. He immediately segues into what he does best: answering e-mails. The first episode pegs him with the question – why haven’t you beat the snot out of Homestar – and he finds himself unable to give a good explanation, so he feels he must now follow up with the request.
Thus begins the aptly-named Homestar Ruiner, where Strong Bad finds a means of runing Homestar’s chances of winning a local contest, dubbed the Free County Tri-Annual Race to the End of the Race. From here on out, is episode after episode of offbeat comedy and plots that resolve themselves just in time for the next episode to begin. By the time you end the series, you’ll have stole and returned a king’s throne, won a Battle of the Bands, filmed a poorly-acted no-budget cop drama ripped from the 1980s and discovered that video game characters aren’t necessarily as charming in real life as they are in digital form. And that’s not including one episode’s outtakes.
If you read my review on Back to the Future, then you know what to expect: very little was altered between Strong Bad and that title. You move Strong Bad from one screen to the next using the left analog stick, tilting it gently to make him walk or further for running. The circle button that caused Marty to dash in his title wasn’t used for that purpose here, instead for canceling holding items and speeding up dialogue.
The shoulder buttons function the same way: you can switch from object to object in the environment and see which objects may be interacted with. This’ll come in handy, though Strong Bad can also face the item and highlight it that way. X still interacts with everything and if Strong Bad is holding an item, Circle returns it to your inventory.
Square brings up the inventory screen, which holds every item that isn’t nailed down. Triangle brings up the map, which you can add locations to as you discover them by either finding them, thus adding them automatically, or adding them yourself when the game tells you to go to a certain location.
This scheme works and little wonder they fiddled little with it for future games. It works well and you likely won’t be fidgeting with it or be too aware of it in-game, helping immersion. Which is good, because the game does want you to pay more attention to the jokes and plot rather than whether or not your controller is actually working.
Rock On, Strong Bad: The Best of Free County USA
Being that the series is based immensely on verbal jokes and absurdity, there are quite a few things that can go wrong, especially when making the transition from web animation to 3D adventure game. Fortunately, the game captures the feel of the universe and art style beautifully, losing next to nothing in the process. The characters look as they should and their environments manage to pull off the cartoon look admirably. It does look like a 3D game – more on this later – but they manage to get it working and that they should be commended for.
In addition, to compliment the visuals, every voice actor from the original web series returns for their respective roles. This wasn’t as hard as it sounds, as the vast majority of voices were provided by only two people. That’s right; two people played every major character in the series, with one, Matt Chapman, playing seven roles (Homestar, Strong Bad, King of Town, Bubs, Coach Z, Strong Sad and Strong Mad). The other voice actor, childhood friend (and wife to Matt’s brother Mike Chapman) Missy Palmer, provides the voice for Marzipan. They pull great performances here and, unsurprisingly, help make the games sound impeccably like shorts off the site.
As for the gameplay: The map mentioned above is extremely helpful for a game like this. SBCG4AP is by no means a sandbox game in size, but the map cuts down on the amount of travel tremendously regardless, especially in such a case as Episode 5, where you’ll be spending plenty of time traveling between the video game world and the ‘real’ world. Episode 4 also benefits from it, as some areas don’t actually contain exits (e.g. Strong Bad’s own ‘country,’ Strongbadia, which is converted into Strongborneo for one scene).
With plenty of locations to explore, there should of course be items to use and view. Fortunately, there are plenty of objects to interact with for the sole purpose of eliciting conversations, rather than solving puzzles. Strong Bad is quite a talker and comments on anything that the game allows the player to select, occasionally more than once, so check items at least twice. Plus, given this is an adventure game, you can use some items in various ways that don’t further the plot, such as sticking people up with Dangeresque Strong Bad’s nunchuck ‘gun.’ Adventure games aren’t new to this and Telltale would continue the tradition with future games (try giving various people algae cakes in Back to the Future episode 4, for example – you’ll never see teeth the same way again).
Speaking of interactivity, I mentioned in my Back to the Future review that sometimes having Marty try to look at the items instead of using the shoulder buttons to switch from item to item can be problematic. It’s a little maddening a few sections, such as the final puzzle in Episode 1, but it didn’t prove too much of an obstacle. It’s odd, though, as SBCG4AP seems to both lack and possess this problem. For the good side of this, I don’t recall any puzzles that felt like the laboratory scene in Episode 1 of BTTF. The puzzles don’t require a hectic scramble to turn on and switch off devices in rapid succession, let alone with two people arguing while you must listen to their words carefully.
On the note of Back to the Future, one issue raised regarded camera angles. Fortunately, this issue doesn’t plague this series. Strong Bad’s outing uses very few camera angles outside of cut-scenes, making it seem like a platform game that hasn’t quite jumped off the ground. As such, you won’t find yourself struggling with the controls as the camera shifts from one angle to the next,
On a side-note, as much as some of the situations in the series can sound too mature for kids when summarized (Dangeresque, Teen Girl Squad’s basic premise, Gel-arshie), the game is fairly kid-friendly. If you find shock humor distasteful and think too many games focus on titillation and violence, Strong Bad’s outing is a breath of fresh air. For $15 you’re getting a series you won’t be ashamed of showing the kids and it lasts a good few hours in total.
Any case, in addition to the main plot points, there are numerous collectibles that add towards a final score – with requisite trophies if you’re a trophy hound – and each are fairly unique and tie into the particular episode. Some are articles of clothing, which Strong Bad may wear. If you find them, they will be delivered to a trans-dimensional photo booth (which looks like a normal photo booth until you walk in) and you can customize your Strong Bad to your liking.
If you ever miss any of these items and want to improve your ranking, the game does end with an Extended Play, allowing you a chance to get anything that’s still permissible to find. There are limits to it, but plenty of items may still be found. Plus it may give you the option of interacting with minor items, for the sake of hearing what Strong Bad has to say on the matter.
And finally, here’s something that’ll be on both the best and worst lists: the game is chockfull of references to its original material, more so it feels than even Back to the Future. Some of the jokes hinge on preceding material, extending beyond just use of characters and setting, and fans of the series will adore them. If there is a game in the Telltale line-up that feels the most fan-service-driven, it’s this one.
Stupidest Things Homstar Said: The Worst of Free County USA
First things first: the series is filled with self-referencing humor. Anyone who isn’t remotely familiar with the series – and sometimes even then – won’t get all the references thrown about, from Gel-arshie to even plot-significant ones, such as Stinkoman. One entire episode is predicated on a running joke, namely that Dangeresque 3 hasn’t been made (until now!). If you aren’t familiar with the series, be prepared to stare in wonder at what transpired.
Secondly: If the graphical quality of the series doesn’t seem up to par with what you’d expect a PS3-exclusive title to handle, that’s because this title wasn’t ever a PS3 exclusive. Remember, it debuted on the Wii, requiring they port it over and adjust certain features to accommodate. The graphics aren’t horrible by any means and don’t nearly mean as much as some might think (or even the Videlectrix boys in-game do and they care a lot about it). Still, if they feel behind-the-times – more so even than you’d expect these games should be – there’s the explanation.
Similarly, the controls work well, but there is one section that would’ve made use of a motion controller, betraying its origins. Episode 5 requires you to find a light musket peripheral in-game (don’t ask – it makes sense in context) and use it as a light source so that Strong Bad can navigate his own house, to free the ghosts of the American Revolution (again, don’t ask). The way it works is you can use the light gun to scare away ghosts and you can move it to deal with the ghosts. This becomes a bit of a pain in either version, though it isn’t much of a sticking point.
When I mentioned Extended Play, I mentioned how it could help you find what you missed during the story. However, this doesn’t give you the chance necessarily to find time-sensitive items found during only specific points in the plot. Also, these items especially highlight the ‘Guide Dang It’ nature of the series, wherein there is little to no way one can expect anyone to find said items without using a guide. This is particularly problematic when the items must be found in specific points, at the risking of being lost forever.
Also, I’ve found more glitches in these episodes than in any other Telltale series I played. One notably overt example in Episode 4 had dialogue from a character no longer in the room continuing to play, without any means of stopping it. The metal detector may also inadvertently react when nothing’s available to unearth. Items you earned previously may suddenly get ‘re-earned’ with the appropriate music and image appearing on the screen. There are several more, but these illustrate the concept simply enough: they don’t interfere with the game too much, but can be aggravating.
Finally, there is no way to buy episodes individually. This does raise the stakes a little in regards to whether one should buy it, though a demo is in place in case you feel interested. The best place to get an idea, naturally, would be the web series, as the games are essentially graphical adventures that double as episodes.
Overall the series is very well-designed and capture the essence of the Homestar series exactly. The game does suffer from a heavier dose of “Guide Dang It” syndrome than Back to the Future, especially in regards to finding all the bonus items (and thus trophies), but it is a brilliantly funny offbeat comedy series that is worth checking out. The demo does provide enough of the experience to figure this out so give it a shot.
For those new to the series, the best option is to check out the series online. This will catch you up on all the reference if you find the game series interesting and entertaining, plus it’s entirely free and it’ll give you an idea of whether you’re into its style of comedy. Overall, though, the series is perfect for anyone into the adventure genre and fans of the series; it may win over a few people new to it, though as always, your mileage may vary.