When Telltale Games first announced that Mike and Matt Chapman’s Homestar Runner license would be the subject of its latest episodic series, the two divergent responses were either “Perfect! How brilliant!” or “What the heck is Homestar Runner?” For those who belong in the latter camp, Homestarrunner.com began as a humble (in size, if never in nature) website whose animated flash cartoons and ultra-retro video games went on to become a surprise Internet phenomenon. Now the cult favourite is finally ready for a video game of its own in the form of the five-part Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People, which kicks off with the premiere episode, Homestar Ruiner. I say “video game” quite intentionally, as along with a PC release (the version reviewed here), SBCG4AP (for not-so-short) also represents the first ever adventure game to be distributed through Nintendo’s WiiWare download channel.
The series headliner and one of the brightest stars of the Homestar universe is Strong Bad, an angry, insulting, chaos-loving character who opts for a wrestling mask and boxing gloves as his daily garb. He’s a hypocrite, a word-mangler, a wanna-be badass. You’ll love him. The story here begins with a customary email challenging Strong Bad to beat up the crowd-loving Homestar Runner, a sweet-but-clumsy moron with a glaring speech impediment. Only too willing to oblige, this prompts Strong Bad to seek him at the track, since Homestar Runner is participating in the Free Country USA Triannual Race to the End of the Race (cue trumpet fanfare, as happens every time the race is mentioned in-game). Things don’t work out so well, though, and after many unfortunate events – mainly of Strong Bad’s own nefarious doing – Homestar ends up as an unwanted roommate, and so the new challenge becomes getting him out of Strong Bad's home.
Since Homestar Runner’s popular appeal extends beyond the niche adventure community, it’s clear that the first game has been aimed at genre newcomers. There’s a tutorial to ease you into the basic mechanics, and the relatively easy puzzles throughout the game make for a fairly mild introduction. And right from the start, even the menu screen offers players a taste of what makes comic adventure games great: varied, hilarious responses to clicking on mundane things. Hearing Strong Bad proclaim, with typical brash confidence, “Sav-eh-low-ad” when you hover over “Save/Load” is a fine example.
You don’t need to be familiar with Strong Bad to enjoy this title, but it certainly helps. Homestar Ruiner’s motley cast is a sweet mix of absurd and charming, and fans will be happy to meet up with old friends like Marzipan, the adamant hippie that dates Homestar Runner on occasion, and Bubs, the flipper-armed concession stand owner with a toothy grin, along with many other recognizable faces. These characters are equally likeable if seeing them for the first time, but no real effort is made to introduce them gradually. The game is simply a day in the life of Strong Bad, and whatever existing relationships and motivations exist among the characters will need to be learned on the fly.
Series fans will also find Homestar Ruiner filled with esoteric in-jokes, but to others it may seem strangely vacant, especially compared to the elaborately detailed, intellectually witty Sam & Max series. The prospect of turning a series of no-frills flash cartoons into a full-fledged adventure game world must have been a daunting challenge, and one that’s been met with only mixed success so far. The characters all have their quirks, to be sure, but the world they inhabit is lacking in any kind of richness or depth. The Homestar cartoons are quite funny, but they’re very short and have little of what you’d call a plot. That’s easy enough to pull off in a brief cartoon, but not so simple to revolve a whole game around. For example, Strong Bad is forever declaring himself incredibly strong, a genius, and good with “the ladies”. He’s absolutely none of these things, of course, but it becomes interesting when Strong Bad thinks Marzipan likes him. The running shtick of a character in denial is hilarious. Problem is, though, these running shticks get old. Part of the reason Strong Bad Email has been such a success on the website is because it deals with material outside of the Homestar Runner canon and puts a unique spin on it. Here all the events take place in the cozy but limited confines of Free Country, USA’s sparse environs.
Like the cartoons they’re based on, the graphics are simple yet appealing in their own way. What they lack in anything but the most meager detail and textures is made up for with the bold, bright colors and a style that’s clearly unique, like a children’s book gone wrong. If there’s a problem, it’s that they too begin to feel underwhelming before long. The simplicity is entirely intentional, but that means there’s only so much to look at, and the world you traverse often feels lifeless, full of unanimated, rudimentary backgrounds, and birds can be heard but not seen. There are several locations to explore after adding them to your ever-adjustable map, but the scenery will still start to look the same before long.Continued on the next page...