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Adventure Gamers Awards
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.
Luckily, the voice acting is even better; always varied, often hilarious and brilliant. And amazingly enough, apart from the sweet and cheerful Marzipan, it’s all performed by series co-creator Matt Chapman. Considering the range, from tough-guy Strong Bad to the raspy, high-pitched Teen Girl Squad, that’s quite a feat. The music is light and lo-fi, unobtrusive and charming. Sure, it provides the kind of ambiance one would expect from midi samples on a keyboard, but good midi samples nonetheless. And if you’re hoping for something more loud and obvious, you can look forward to a funny musical number led by Strong Bad.
Of course, the real selling point here should be the gameplay. Or should it? In the case of Homestar Ruiner, maybe not; the adventure elements tend to take a back seat to character trademarks and silly dialogue, which are the real draw of the game. But you can expect your typical adventure game conventions as well. It’s a familiar point-and-click 3D romp, with a handful of items to use, including a cell phone to be abused for the art of prank calls. You’ll have a few icon-based conversation options when you run into characters, with the occasional option to be angel-sweet (or as close as Strong Bad is able to muster) or devil-nasty, though this element doesn’t seem to bear much weight in this particular episode. The largely inventory-based puzzles can be fun but a little too obvious, and don’t provide anything really clever, thought-provoking, or particularly funny for that matter. Again, if you’re looking for an easy beginner’s adventure game, you’re in luck. As with Sam & Max, a hint system is provided that results in contextual nudges from Strong Bad, but given the relative ease of the puzzles here, it’s unlikely you’ll be too reliant on these.
Aside from the standard adventuring, you’ll also find several mini-games in the course of your journey. But only one of them really works, that being the brilliantly childish “Teen Girl Squad”, which allows you to make your own interactive comics, earning points for wiping out each girl by means of such items as perfume, basketballs, and sunscreen. Meanwhile, “Snake Boxer 5”, from the fictional 8-bit enthusiasts Videlectrix, feels cheap and disappointing. While it’s a funny parody of a shoddy Atari game, it wouldn’t hurt if some effort went into it actually making it a good game. Sure, Videlectrix games are cute on the Homestar Runner website, but they’re annoyingly lackluster when you’re actually paying for them.
Along with the mini-games, there are several collectibles to pursue, including new clothing that you can try out in a photo booth. You can check out a “How much I rule” chart, which provides stats of all the secret items you’ve unlocked in the game, as well as an “awesomeness level,” allowing the player to level up by completing both main and side tasks. An extended mode is even unlocked after finishing the main storyline, allowing the completist in you to collect all the goodies. Both the mini-games and collectibles are just added bonuses, however, which can be bypassed completely if so desired.
As with Telltale’s other episodic offering, Homestar Ruiner has a fascination with comically morbid humor, but it’s presented in a more cute and harmless way. The fact that Homestar Runner was originally aimed at children makes an odd sort of sense when you realize how utterly safe the series feels at times, despite its protagonist’s in-your-face attitude. And while Homestar Ruiner doesn’t have the polished, almost epic feel of Sam & Max, it really isn’t trying to. It’s more about odd, every-day realizations of our own stupidity and ridiculousness. And hey, as gamers, we’ve all saved too many worlds, anyway. We need a break, a chance to do something simple like getting a dimwitted, armless racer out of our house. This game will give you that chance, and make it a relaxed, enjoyable one.
An episode runs for $8.95 on its own or available as part of a five-episode season set for a money-saving $34.95. Homestar Ruiner should provide about four hours of play time, which makes for a pretty good value. On the Wii, you’ll be throwing down 1000 Wii Points for each episode, which translates to a little more money but still isn’t bad. The differences between versions are minimal, with the Wii version allowing you to send emails to friends using photos you took in-game, which is a nice enough extra but irrelevant to the game itself.
At the end of the day, Homestar Ruiner is perhaps a better interactive cartoon than it is an engaging adventure game. Its main appeal comes from clicking on objects to make the characters say funny things. But that’s okay, at least in small doses, which this episode provides. Is that alone worth a purchase? Sure, why not, as it’s good fun while it lasts. But hopefully we’ll see something a little more ambitious in future episodes, because more-of-the-same is liable to become dull for those who aren’t hardcore fans. As an introduction to Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People, then, the game’s adventure elements are mostly a conduit for the humor, the bread to the cheese. And yeah, the bread may be a little mediocre in this case, but the cheese can be divine.