Heroic kusoge turns heads
Classifying a game as kusoge doesn’t immediately mean I hate it. I’ve covered many games that I enjoy or even love. Ganso Saiyuuki Super Monkey Daibouken is sometimes referred to as one of the worst games of all time, and it definitely isn’t fun, but I kind of enjoyed my time with it. Paperboy on N64 is different, though. I just like Paperboy.
I recognize that Paperboy is a game with a mountain of issues that resulted in critics at the time giving it a great big shrug. However, there’s not much like it. Even while it’s technically the third game in the Paperboy series, High Voltage Software’s take on the formula is wholly unique and somewhat bizarre. A strange take on an already weird license. Problems be damned; it’s one I’ve gone back to quite a few times.
Columnist admits to having bad taste
I feel like I need to explain what a newspaper is. Back when the news wasn’t disseminated at almost instantaneous speeds, people used to receive it through primitive means. One such way was through a compendium of recent events and related editorials. This was printed on wood pulp, known as paper, and is therefore referred to as the “newspaper.”
For a lot of suburban children, the “paper route” was their job. They would set out into a specific neighborhood to deliver newspapers to the front door (or puddle at the end of the driveway) of subscribers. These children were known as “paperboys,” or “papergirls” once women were allowed in the workforce.
Paperboy is an arcade game published in the late 1900s. 1984, to be specific. It was a primitive simulator that emulated the experience of delivering newspapers, right down to avoiding hellfire spewed by stone gargoyles. In late 1999, this concept was revisited by the license holder, Midway, to make use of the recently introduced Z-axis in video games. This was Paperboy on the N64, developed by High Voltage Software in their early days. It, too, is a painstakingly accurate representation of a youth’s journey along their paper route.
Residents flee suburbs in terror
Paperboy is a mix of old and new. The core concept remains the same; you’re let loose on a neighborhood and can stuff the daily edition into a subscriber’s mailbox or drop it onto the front stoop. Beyond that, High Voltage got creative.
Firstly, the on-rails approach has been completely ditched unless you’re playing on the limited easiest difficulty. Normally, you have full roam of the environment, and if you miss a throw, you can simply turn around to re-attempt it. Strangely, if you hurl a newspaper through the window of the house or assault the occupant on their lawn, they won’t unsubscribe. I’m actually not certain if you can even lose subscribers, now that I think about it.
Rather than having the same neighborhood each time and progressing through the days of the week while trying to survive to see the Sunday edition, you progress through a succession of thematically varied neighborhoods. Your main obstacle is the time limit and the life bar of your delivery person. If you manage to deliver to the majority of the people on your route and survive, you get an increase in subscribers in that area. You just keep running the same neighborhood until every house is clamoring for your hot, fresh news.
Paper-delivery person saves baby, kills moose
From there, Paperboy is a bit of a mess, to the point where I don’t even know where to begin. I guess I mentioned that it’s imaginative?
The original Paperboy was already a bit of a dark take on suburbia, but the N64 version is more like how a hospital patient might describe it while anesthesia slowly wears off and there’s a TV playing cartoons nearby. While the first neighborhood is maybe what you’d expect, you then progress through a trailer park, a campground, and a town inhabited by Universal Studios monsters.
It gets weirder from there. My favorite level, thematically, has you scale a volcano delivering newspapers. Eventually, you find the final house in the lava-filled crater. However, there’s also a zoo, another campground, and suburbia under threat of alien invasion.
Then there are bosses that pop up every few levels. These are… not great. I feel like there’s a lot of possibilities when it comes to fighting monsters with rolled-up newspapers, but the ones that actually made it into Paperboy are pretty unimpressive.
It’s unfortunate because those newspapers pack a wallop. Forget the fact that they can break windows for a moment; they absolutely clobber bystanders. It doesn’t matter if it’s a moose or a child riding a tricycle. The newspapers hit them with the force of an artillery round. I can only imagine that the newspapers must be wrapped around bricks, and the paper-person has the throwing arm of a steroid-engorged pitcher, because people get wrecked by those columns.
N64 residents suggest, “bargle nawdle zouss”
On the other hand, Paperboy is a technically rough game. It utilized a weird art-style that I find kind of appealing. It reminds me of the music video for Dire Straits Money for Nothing. It’s sort of low-polygon and flat-shaded; a retro 3D look on a console that is already considered retro 3D. Despite this, the draw distance is way too short, and everything outside of it is obscured in oppressive fog.
Where it’s really let down is the sound. The sound team actually created a lot of nice aural delights. The music is strangely good, and like the game, completely insane. It’s like the soundtrack to a suburb being invaded by clowns. The sound effects are pretty good too, having a punchy and ethereal quality.
However, everything in the game is so ridiculously compressed. Everything in it is muffled, to the point where some of the voice samples are unrecognizable. There are so many music tracks, that it’s almost like the sound team was told that Midway was springing for a certain cartridge capacity, only to cut that down significantly before shipping. It’s pretty awful.
Crazed columnist demands “play bad games”
Paperboy is just one big ball of clunk. It doesn’t control particularly well, its sound is sometimes incomprehensible, and there’s not much depth in gameplay. Yet, despite those things, I still kind of love it.
For one thing, I just love the concept of the Paperboy games, even more so now that they’re culturally out-of-date. However, the fact that Paperboy on N64 takes a strange game and somehow makes it even weirder makes it tantalizing for me. In a lot of ways, it’s a great example of kusoge: it’s plainly bad, but somehow the experience is enjoyable.
Warner Bros. Games has been frustratingly reluctant to do absolutely anything with Midway’s back catalog of games. They’re one of the most frustrating publishers in that regard, rarely even making a brief mention of the history they’ve bought up and are now sitting on. Even if they did delve into the classics, Paperboy would probably be like Spyhunter’s 3D resurrections in that it would be a hard sell to port them. Even still, I would love to see a version that excises all the N64’s restrictions. Not that I think it would make it a good game, but I think even the worst games should have the opportunity to be all they could be.