Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People Episode One: Homestar Ruiner (hence forth to be known as SB:Ep1) marks the return of truly epically titled videogames on home consoles, the most long and ludicrously named game to hit my television screen since Super Street Fighter 2: Hyper Fighting on the 3DO. It also marks the return of the pure point and click comedy adventure to a Nintendo home console (Zack and Wiki doesn't count. That's a point and click and waggler), in a way not seen since Maniac Mansion landed on the NES.
For those reasons alone SB:Ep1 is worth taking note of. But is it any good? Well, the lovely Reverend Anthony and myself recently took the time to play through the game so we could find out and tell you. Apparently, Anthony was once a fan of the website that the game spawned from. On the other hand, I am more of an internet comedy snob, and as such have always done my best to ignore "common" interent comedy sites like Homestar Runner. Coming from two different levels of appreciation with the game's source material definitely had an effect on our experience with the game, but probably not in the way you think.
Hit the jump for our hair raising review.
Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People Episode One: Homestar Ruiner (Wii)
Developed by Telltale Games
Published by Telltale games
Released August 11th, 2008
SB:Ep1 starts off with short musical number that establishes the two things that go on to make up the core of the game. Number one, this is a game that wants to be funny. Number two, this is a game about a conceited prick in a wrestling mask named Strong Bad. So far, I wasn't sold.
I've played many a point and click adventure game that wants to be funny. Most of them have failed. Growing up on the SCUMM games of Ron Gilbert educated me on what a great comedy game should do. Of course, it should be funny, mixing techniques of spoof and parody with unreal, over the top dialog only permissible in non-reality based media like animation and videogames. Perhaps more importantly, a great comedy game should establish characters that the player actually cares about, putting them in situations that we can relate with, no matter how silly or bizarre they seem on the surface. Funny voices and random cultural references maybe the first thing that attracts someone to a comedy, but sadly, it's often seen as the only thing necessary to make the game playable. Likable characters and accessible game scenario are often lost in that pursuit wacky hijinks and "to the extreme", in your face" characters.
That's actually how I felt about the whole Homestar Runner world before playing this game. I was turned off to it fairly early on, when a now ex-girlfriend would incessantly mimic its characters for her own amusement. I tried to like it when she'd go on like that, but I just couldn't. There was no discernible story, no character development beyond Strong Bad being "a dick who is big on bad puns" and HomeStar being "an idiot with a speech impediment", just a bunch of catch phrases and silly voices. I figured there must be more to it that than, and maybe after watching enough of the Homestar videos, I would "get it". But according to the now ex-girlfriend, that was really all there was to it. Just like Family Guy, another soulless comedy that relies on cheap laughs and randomness for randomness' sake to try and get attention, Homestar Runner appeared to be another phenomena that I was either too old or too picky to appreciate.
So going in, I already expected to hate SB:Ep1. Though it took a little while for me to get over my previous distaste for the character, after wandering around the game world and talking to people for about ten minutes, I really started to like the game's world. Strong Bad isn't just a conceited prick in a wrestling mask. For instance, he's also the roommate of some pudgy emo-kid named Strong Sad who he can't convince to leave his room. Even impersonating Strong Sad's mother and demanding he leave he come out and play doesn't help; he isn't budging.
I've had roommates like that, and more so, I've also been that roommate. This was starting to get good.
After leaving the house, Strong Bad heads to the local track to beat up Homestar Runner, a guy I was guessing was Strong Bad's long time foe. Strong Bad gets an email from a stranger at the start of the game telling him he should punch Homestar, and the title character so readily takes to the idea I just assumed they had bad blood between them. However, when he gets to the track, he doesn't hit Homestar. Instead, he decides to try and sabotage Homestar's attempt to win a random local sporting event called "The race to the end of the race".
Wanting to punch someone, but instead deciding to use psychological tactics to attack them instead? I could definitely relate with that too. This game was actually about something. I was impressed.
Along the way to getting to this point in the game, there were a lot of quirky one liners, some funnier than others. But instead of being annoyed with the worst of them, as I was with my ex when she did her Homestar voice, I found myself endeared to them. Just like I'll put up with a friend whose jokes are hit or miss if I otherwise relate with said friend in other ways, I was willing to put up with SB:Ep1's less that hilarious moments because the characters themselves had so quickly grown on me. Strong Bad was a conceited prick with a wrestling mask on, but that's not all he was. He was also a terrified of local bully Strong Mad, not even daring to touch his lunch box for fear of a fierce beating. He was passed up by local girl Marzipan for the decidedly more charming Homestar, and though he doesn't admit it, Strong Bad seems genuinely jealous about this. And when the time comes, Strong Bad does what it takes to help Homestar get his life back on track. Even though it's clearly a love/hate relationship the two share, what they have is a real friendship, more like the ones I have in real life than I'd usually care to admit. Put all that together, and Strong Bad becomes a fully formed, three dimensional character, not just the email reading on-liner factory I had taken him for.
Though this all may be old hat to those more familiar with the Homestar universe, these multiple sides to Strong Bad were all news to me. For that reason, I wasn't phased by the fact that the game starts off so slow, with only vague direction as to what to do and where to go. Remember how in Star Wars: A New Hope, nothing really happens for the first twenty minutes as we are shown all the characters and the "far out" world they live in? That's what SB:Ep1 does with it's opening twenty minutes. It takes a fairly long time before you even find an object that you can pick up, which is a longer amount of time than was really necessary. That didn't bother me though, as just getting to talk to the characters and explore Strong Bad's surroundings were interesting enough to get me involved.
There is also a lot to do beyond just collecting stuff and solving puzzles. There is a metal detector you can use to find hidden treasure, a Videlectix game console that allows you to play the "game within a game" Snake Boxer 5, a cell phone for making prank phone calls, and later a photo booth to take pictures of Strong Bad with, and the opportunity to partake in that "The race to the end of the race" thing I mentioned earlier, which turns into a surprisingly fun Wario Ware-esque mini-game. There is also some random "point and click game within a point and click game" called Teen Girl Squad, which I did not enjoy. It was the exact type of point and click game I feared SB:Ep1 would be, soulless, logic-free, with "wacky comedy" and "ribald, zany dialog" put well before any sort of likable characters or plot. Though there was a lot more to do after one play through, after the first try I never picked this part of the game up it again. It's just a by-passable side game, which was a relief, as it was boring as hell.
The puzzles in the main game are much better. They range from the bottom-up "I've got all this stuff in my inventory and have to figure out what to do with it" variety to the top-down "I know I need to get that thing but have no idea how to get it" type. When you finally figure out how to bring your inventory and the game's world together to solve one of it's many puzzles, you will feel a sense of "Eureka" and respect for yourself and the puzzle's creator. when you feel that feeling, you know your point and click game is doing it's job right.
The beginning of the game, which as I said is more open ended and less goal focused, is actually when the game's puzzles are at their most difficult. There is a little more in the way random pointing and clicking necessary to get through at the start. It's almost as though the games designers didn't want you to be able to rush through things too quickly, and instead wanted to force the player to fully explore the world around them before moving forward. Once you've been everywhere and collected most of the core items available to you, the game moves along quickly, in a task oriented manner familiar seen in most adventure games. From there, it almost goes a little to fast. I beat the game in just under five hours, not bad a WiiWare game, but short enough to still be left hungry for SB:Ep2.
In the graphics and sound departments, the game is a mixed bag. The in-game cel-shaded polygon based character models do a great job of bringing the game's previously flat, flash animated characters into the third dimension. The backgrounds don't make the translation as well. They are generally more drab then they should be, and are far more sparse than other high profile WiiWare titles. SB:Ep1's music is also far from what it could be. The opening song is catchy, as are a few tracks of the other instrumental tracks, but most of the game's music is boring and forgettable. Maybe next episode, Telltale will run out these small niggles in what is an otherwise a finely produces WiiWare game.
If you take one thing from this review, it's should be that this game is not just for fans of Homestar Runner. People already in love with Strong Bad and Co. are sure to appreciate this game in a way I did not, but pre-existing familiarity with the games source material is not necessary to enjoy this title. In fact, even if you were something of a Homestar non-fan like myself, this game may still be for you. It's more funny, surprising, and clever than anything I had previously seen on the site, while being filled with the kinds of secrets, surprises, and puzzles one would expect from a quality point and click adventure. If you are a fan of the genre, pick this one up right away. If not, save your Wiipoints, or better yet, gift this one to that Homestar Runner loving ex-girlfriend you've been blowing off lately because their Strong Bad impression stopped being funny the first time you heard it. I know I can't be the only person who's got one.
As Jon had never enjoyed Homestar Runner, he thought it appropriate to include someone in this review who does. I'd be lying if I said it hasn't been a couple of years since I last visited the site, but I very much adored the random-for-the-sake-of-randomness humor during my high school years and, given my love for Telltale Games, was looking forward to SB:Ep1. This made it all the more unusual when I didn't enjoy the game anywhere near as much as I expected to.
First, the humor: I think Strong Bad is funny, I love the world of Homestar Runner, and certain cameos and references really made me laugh out loud ("I was raised by a cup of coffee!"), but I couldn't help but get Homestar fatigue by the end of the episode. These characters are perfectly suited to five-minute shorts, but I grew tired of their respective schticks after being exposed to them for more than a few hours. Strong Bad can only be consistently arrogant and douchey for so long before he just begins to grate on my nerves.
That said, though, the Teen Girl Squad comic mini-game was by far my favorite part of the episode. As a fan of the Strong Bad emails, having the opportunity to piece together my own TGS adventure was simply a joy; sure, the mini-game has no effect whatsoever on the main campaign, but as a piece of pure fanservice, it's fantastic.
In terms of puzzles, SB:Ep1 is a definite disappointment when compared to, say, Sam and Max. Throughout most of the game, I had no clear direction as to what to do: Jon mentions Strong Bad's goal to sabotage Homestar's victory at The Race to the End of the Race, but your goal isn't made any more explicit than that. I saw things that looked important, so I picked them up, and I did things that seemed like they should be done (after I got a hedge trimmer, I trimmed hedges), but more often than not I had no idea what my overall goals were for any of my individual actions. Yes, I've tricked Marzipan into leaving her house and I guess I can do some stuff while she's gone, but I didn't know why I was tricking her before I did it -- it just felt like the right thing to do based on the situations presented to me. Strong Bad says he wants to screw over Homestar, but that somehow translates into defrauding Homestar, then becoming Homestar, then losing, and then winning.
I had no idea why I tricked Homestar into taking a shower so I could take his clothes, but through his dialog and reactions, Strong Bad seemed to: I found it to be somewhat unfortunate that my protagonist knew so much more about his own goals than I did, and it made the entire game a very clumsy affair as I stumbled from puzzle to puzzle. That said, though, some of the puzzles themselves are actually quite clever, relying on cartoon physics in a way reminiscent of Toonstruck. While I never knew what the hell I was doing until I did it, the solutions always seemed pretty cute in retrospective.
In the end, SB:Ep1 is a mixed bag; it's funny, but can get old during a sustained playthrough, and it's got some neat puzzles, but they're presented in a disjointed, directionless way that'll have players doing things not because the story or characters dictate them, but simply due to odd item placement and situation setups that seem like they should be done just because. It's alternately entertaining and frustrating, in equal amounts -- the very definition of a 5/10, for me.
Overall Score: 6.75 (Good. Replayable, fun, but nothing innovative or amazing. The game potentially has large flaws that, while they don't make the game bad, prevent it from being as good as it could be.)