ast August, the world was given another peek into the brilliantly demented mind of Seth Rogen in the form of Sausage Party — an animated film about talking foods that attempt to avoid their horrific death via human consumption. As you can tell by this column’s title, the actual quality of the film isn’t my intended focus (I didn’t think it was good, although the various ways the food characters were brutally murdered was redeemable). Rather, it’s the concept of utilizing the animated film format — which is, shoutout to Disney and Dreamworks, traditionally used for very family-friendly stories — and making an extremely vulgar and adult piece of entertainment. Simply put: Seeing a sausage spew F-bombs is the antithesis of something like Toy Story, giving Sausage Party an edge of contrarianism that resonated with many people (i.e. Deadpool or Logan against the rest of the superhero film genre).
Offering a refreshing take on an established medium in entertainment isn’t new by any stretch, or even unique to film. In music, some may point to rappers Lil Dicky or Logic, the latter of which very openly professes his appreciation for nerd culture; in american television, there’s the hyper-violent Happy Tree Friends, which I’m sure is the weakest example I could provide but OH WELL; in anime, the brilliant genre-parodying One-Punch Man; and in comics, the ever-so gruesome Invincible or even Scott Pilgrim may fit the bill. While these are fine examples of this successful contrarian theme — except for Happy Tree Friends, that show is trash — I believe that the gaming industry has an even more historically fascinating figure worthy of analyzing. It’s a blast from the (not-too-distant) past: Conker the Squirrel.
Conker’s relevance came during a time when Nintendo wasn’t the garbage truck on fire it is today; when Donald Trump was just a reality show host; Rockstar Games, only in their early stages, hadn’t yet destroyed our youth; and when the NBA All-Star Game was actually worth watching. Yup, it’s 2001, baby.
And it was during this year, on March 5th, that game developer Rare released Conker’s Bad Fur Day for the Nintendo 64. It was in the twilight of the 64’s console life-cycle, and what turned out to be the peak of Rare’s prime—like ‘08–’09 Dwight Howard or Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)–Sweeney Todd (2007) Johnny Depp. Whether it was their success with Nintendo’s most popular gorilla in the form of the Donkey Kong Country series; Banjo-Kazzoie, which some still consider to be one of the greatest platformers of all-time; as well as both Perfect Dark and GoldenEye 007, which could’ve cemented their legacy as a hall-of-fame developer if just for those titles alone. In a sense, Rare was in a state of overwhelming hubris, which might suggest why they’d decide to take a bit of a chance with their next venture — and Bad Fur Day would soon fulfill that gamble. The family-friendly Nintendo soon welcomed it’s devil-child offspring, and the Squirrel’s dirty mouth became an exquisite sight to behold.
On the surface, the tale of Conker’s Bad Fur Day is a simple one. The game’s titular hero goes out for…[breathes heavily, considers making a Cold One with The Boys joke, realizes those jokes are stupid, returns to scheduled programming]…a night of drinking with his pals. Of course, he stays out longer than he promised his girlfriend Berry and ends the night completely hammered, managing to puke all over the sidewalk on his way out of the bar. More importantly, though, Conker’s drunkenness causes him to take the wrong path home, and he wakes up in the middle of nowhere with a nasty hangover to boot — thus expertly solidifying himself as perhaps the worst video game mascot to have as your role model. So now, Conker must embark on a quest to return home and be with his loving girlfriend. As you can probably guess, though, this is going to be far from a simple day for our little squirrel friend.
Given the cute, fluffy, and innocent look of the game’s protagonist, one’s first inclinations towards the game’s style would probably be in line with almost every other animated product: A simple, family-friendly romp through a colorful world of goofy creatures with the only violence being if you threw the controller across the room out of frustration (I may or may not have done this while playing Super Mario Sunshine). Of course, this is far from the case, as Conker’s Bad Fur Day mixes in a variety of inappropriateness from characters literally exploding to some very…um… suggestive imagery.
From the very beginning screen, even before the main menu, we’re treated to a cutscene of our “hero” firing up a chainsaw and dismantling the prestigious Nintendo 64 logo in perhaps the most appropriate piece of foreshadowing ever conceived. If for some reason you ignored the giant “RATED M” sign on the game’s cover and didn’t know what you were getting into, you surely did now. For even more evidence, take the game’s opening shot in which Conker narrates how he’s become “King of alllll the land,” filmed in a way that’s an almost exact replica of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange — insidious facial expression whilst holding a glass of milk and all. Some good ole’ ultra-violence is in store for us, indeed.
Speaking of references, Bad Fur Day is chalk full of resplendent moments that echo some of cinema’s most legendary properties. From Spielberg’s Jaws to Cameron’s The Terminator, there’s a plethora of amusing satire that you’ll find throughout the game’s 8-hour story. Yeah, I know, the whole “Javier just loves anything that references other famous pop culture icons” narrative is greatly exacerbated by me yet again praising something that follows this theme, but there’s more to it than that. As a gameplay experience, the various references made set up for a multitude of different areas and mechanics for the game to employ. It’s, in effect, a vehicle for Rare to flaunt their creativity, and adds a good level of suspense for the player — as you never know, really, what tasks you’ll need to accomplish next.
Take one of the game’s later levels — a complete rehash of Saving Private Ryan—in which you have to dodge heavy artillery fire and then shoot your way through a tight-knit corridor of enemy soldiers. At the time, this entire sequence was both satisfying and somewhat disturbing, which is obvious given the aforementioned source material. But most importantly, it conveys yet again just how much gameplay variety the game has, which is rather impressive for a 3D-platformer. Anyone who plays through this bonafide insane-o-coaster of an adventure is guaranteed to find a scenario they enjoy, with other primary set-pieces including — and certainly not limited to—a giant Gladiator-style arena fight, a mech suit fight vs an alien, and a musically-themed tangle with literally a giant feces. Although, do I think there’s easily a swath of other sequences in the game that are just as equally absurd and profane. My personal pick that embodies the ridiculousness of Bad Fur Day the best would have to be a section in which you have to get Conker drunk enough so that he can literally piss on his enemies.
Keep in mind, this is a game that garnered almost universal critical acclaim back in 2001.
However, admittedly, there does need to be some criticism given to this unique cult-classic. For as much as the game does in terms of gameplay variety, it’s undoubtedly a case of a title that hasn’t quite stood the test of time. Controlling Conker doesn’t nearly hold up as well as many of the other classic platformer’s of the N64-era, let alone some of Rare’s other previous games. It’s fidgety, the camera can be a pain, and the platforming itself can be more of a chore than a rewarding challange. One sequence in which Conker is given a shotgun to ward off a horde of zombies is especially vexing, as the amount of time it takes to even unholster the weapon is so awkward that it could get you killed rather than provide protection. Perhaps it would’ve been more alleviating if a strafe function had been added, or even better aiming of the damn thing.
The gameplay surely stumbles when examining it through the lense of today’s standards, but don’t let that be a major detraction from the surplus of special qualities Bad Fur Day has. The writing is still hysterical, it’s unique style oozes from every corner, and the characters are as memorable as they are psychotic. Even the game’s story — in what might be the most important takeaway—is surprisingly memorable. It’s a character study, of sorts, that examines our main character’s rapid descent into sociopathic tendencies and disdainful narcissism. Sure, Conker was no angel to begin with, but he wasn’t a bad guy. Rather, he was an imperfect being that made some big mistakes, which I’m sure we all can attest to. It’s the classic narrative of witnessing our protagonist’s perpetually declining morals and behavior — yet it ends in such a way that you might not suspect.
Just as was said in the beginning, Conker does, in fact, become the king of all the land. But what we assumed was a face of pride, was actually hiding the face of regret. During the final confrontation with the Panther King (the game’s main villain), Conker’s girlfriend Berri is murdered. What’s worse: There was a moment where he could’ve brought her back to life. So, as Conker sits there on his throne, he narrates to us how he misses Berri and is surrounded by followers he doesn’t even have any affection for, and expresses how much he regrets even knowing them. He’s become the king that has everything — but in the end, nothing.
The experience of Conker’s Bad Fur Day is one that earns itself a spot in gaming’s hall of fame. Not because it’s a gameplay masterpiece—and it’s very, very, very far from it—but because of how much of an important historical artifact it is for the industry. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, times have definitely changed. 3D platformer’s, with the exception of that mustachioed plumber, have become virtually non-existant as far as mainstream relevance goes. The mascots like Mega Man, Sonic, Pac-Man, and Crash are no longer the main staple of the industry, but rather more as the fractured remnants of gaming’s past.
For me, Conker is one of the most fascinating characters of the bunch. He comes from a time when the industry was incredibly primitive, to degrees of damn-near adolescent levels of immaturity. It might not be as shocking, considering what kind of game Conker’s Bad Fur Day is, but one of it’s presentations to the public was in the form of something you’d expect from the Saints Row series: A playable demo inside of a night club in Panama City. Can you believe that? Conker went from having condoms handed out as part of promotional material, to being a disrespectfully filtered figurehead for a virtual reality experience.
It’s a bit of an understatement to say that something starring Conker — or even being as experimental as Conker — isn’t likely to ever happen again. The property isn’t anything that Microsoft would profit mightily off of if they ever considered resurrecting it. Maybe, due to the success of something like the Crash Bandicoot: N’Sane Trilogy, there’s still hope the furry rodent can, one day, come back. Or maybe some might say he should remain gone, and that he’s just an example of our nostalgia-tinted glasses deluding us into thinking he’s cooler than he actually is. Who knows? But honestly, if freakin’ Bubsy’s punk ass can come back, I’m all for Conker getting a second shot.
It’s funny, really. A squirrel mascot originally created to be the face of another friendly 3D-platformer actually turned out to be one of the most unorthodox, genre-defying, inappropriate, and unique gaming experiences I’ve ever had.
Who would’ve thought that?