Last time in our Under the Radar roundup, we delved into games featuring Cthulhu-esque monstrosities and poor, terrified little children. Now that we've had enough of nightmares, though, it's time to brighten things up a bit with some comedy.
For those of you who didn't read the previous article, these are games that you've probably not played, but you really should. They're in no particular order, and our only criteria were that they be games most people won't have played yet are still reasonably easy to find. Enjoy.
Psychonauts — PC, Xbox, PS2
Anyone who knows me already knew that this was an inevitable choice in any comedy roundup in which I'm involved. Psychonauts is not only one of the funniest games in recent years, but also one of my personal favorites, to the extent that I lobbied (unsuccessfully) to have it added to our WorthPlaying Best of 2007 list on the technicality that it's now available for purchase on the 360's new Xbox Originals line of downloadable games.
In short, then: Psychonauts casts you as Raz, a circus runaway who turns up at a summer camp for psychic children, with the aim of mastering his psychic powers before his psychic-hating father comes to pick him up — and yes, I know how many times I used "psychic" in that sentence. The brief description is that it's a platform game with the camp itself working as the hub area between levels. The long description is that it's utterly, hysterically funny, and the level design is just as creative as the constant stream of great lines.
Since Raz is psychic, the levels take place in the minds of the camp denizens, with the first few acting as training levels in the minds of the counselors before it all goes horribly wrong and it's up to Raz to save the day. The idea of using the characters' minds as levels allows a stupendous amount of variety, from the neat and orderly mind of scientist/psychic secret agent Sasha Nein, to the turn-based war game going on in the head of an asylum inmate who's fighting Napoleon Bonaparte for control of his brain. The former is a cube that gradually unpacks each area for you to battle through, while the latter is a war game board (complete with hexes) into which you shrink down to assist with the battle.
But the real reason Psychonauts is included here is the humor, and that's where the game genuinely shines. Pretty much every action you can possibly do has a distinct line attached. Try to burn someone with pyrokinesis? You get a funny line. Try to pick up the same person with telekinesis? Different funny line. Hit someone? Another funny line. Talk to people? Funny lines. Just listen to them talk amongst themselves? Yet more funny lines. With a vast range of characters wandering the camp and options for humor that you won't even think of the first time through, there's no fear of spoiling jokes because there are just too many, and every time I play through, I find more I missed the last time. The fact that the voice acting is utterly spot-on in terms of tone, timing and delivery is the icing on a very rich cake.
Sadly, Psychonauts is not for everyone. If you can't stand cartoons, then the graphics will put you right off this. If you absolutely loathe platform games, then it's unlikely you're going to stick through it, even for the humor, as the actual gameplay leaves a bit to be desired in places and a ridiculous difficulty spike near the end of what is, by and large, a fairly easy game, doesn't help in the slightest. Despite the looks, it's not really for kids, either; there's a bit of innuendo, one or two adult references — albeit used in passing — and some very dark surprises if you take the time to fully explore each person's mind and seek out his or her secrets.
If, on the other hand, you want a funny game, then there's a good chance you'll enjoy Psychonauts. Because of the level and consistency of the comedy, it feels like one sublime experience rather than good humor broken up by above-average gameplay. It's something everyone should play, but not something everyone will like. It's also on pretty much every system known to man for bargain-bin prices, so you've got no excuse not to buy it now.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney — Nintendo DS
This is the one game in this roundup that you might actually have played, but I don't care because more people need to play it. It's odd to recommend a game as being funny when there's usually at least one gruesome and convoluted murder per level, but tough: It is funny. This is one of the rare games that has an extremely good Western localization, which differs from translation in that this is stuffed to the gills with pop-culture references, language-based puns, and jokes that must've been almost impossible to translate and convey effectively. I can only imagine how many translators went insane while attempting to get this over to the U.S., but whatever the number, it was worth it.
Phoenix Wright is a novice defense attorney in a world where the law system has undergone a radical change. Defendants are tried pretty much the day after they're arrested as suspects, lawyers seem to double as investigators and trials last a maximum of three days. Oh, and cross-examinations are preceded by anime-style staring contests, prosecutors are free to pretty much make up evidence on the spot and the judge seems to hate you.
The player's role varies between attorney and investigator; in the investigation phases, you look around in a point-and-click adventure way, searching for clues and questioning people. In the courtroom phases, it's all about pressing witnesses on their testimony and presenting evidence to contradict them and prove that absolutely everything they're saying about your client is a flimsy lie. In the process, you meet a variety of brilliant characters with clever things to say and invariably find out who the true killer was partway through the trial. Things always look bad at the start, but with a little logical thinking and a few mental leaps of faith you can expose the testimonies for what they are and slowly turn things around.
I've always felt there are two marks of a good adventure game: compelling characters and good puzzles. Phoenix Wright has both in spades. From the titular Phoenix and his relationship with his somewhat ditzy assistant Maya to the Dick Gumshoe (the most stereotypical and stupid police detective ever created), not to mention archrival super-prosecutor Miles Edgeworth, and the incidental cast that spur each trial along … every single case has genuine characters.
The puzzles suffer slightly more, sadly. The investigation phases can devolve into clicking on everything in sight because the game won't move on until you've found one piece of evidence and you have no idea where it is, and the courtroom phases have to happen in the way the game ordains. You might have a case-cracking piece of evidence, but the game won't let you present it until you've presented another piece to lead into it first, for no good reason. There are many, many strokes of genius to make up for it, though. The final puzzle in the fourth case made me involuntarily clap my hands in glee when it dawned on me, and such moments are common throughout the series.
Of the three games, it's best to start with the first. While the third is a superior game, it closes off the trilogy (roll on, Apollo Justice), and the first eases you in nice and gentle to prepare you for the plot threads that the second starts and the third game closes up.
Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan! — Nintendo DS
The DS being region-free opens up a whole new world of games, almost literally. Admittedly, many of the Japanese games that you could import online are utterly incomprehensible due to, y'know, not being in English, but as long as you stick to simple games, you can usually get by. Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan! (literally, something like "Go! Battle! Cheerleaders!") takes it one step further by being so cartoony that you can follow the story of each level even without the text.
To be honest, the game's humor stems more from the so-ridiculous-it's-hilarious setting than it does from the levels, but they have some sparkles of comedy in them, too. Setting-wise, when someone is in trouble (failing grades, illness, space robot invasion — take your pick), they shout "Ouendan" and three rather butch male cheerleaders, dressed in floor-length leather trenchcoats, appear out of nowhere and, er, dance. To cheer the person on. Obviously.
So, naturally, it's a rhythm-action game, with each level featuring a different person in trouble. You tap the stylus on buttons in time with the music (generally rather good Japanese rock music), and depending on how well you do, you either pass or fail various segments of each level. In the event of a robot invasion, failing one section might have the civilians getting zapped, while getting it right means they find a cunning way to short-circuit a few of the robots. In the long run, it doesn't matter, as merely surviving until the end of the level is enough to complete it, but the little pass/fail cut scenes are so well done that it's difficult to not try out each level multiple times just to see the different outcomes. As noted above, while there are Japanese speech bubbles throughout the levels, it's really not hard to guess what's going on.
If this sounds at all familiar, it's because it was sanitized and released in the West as Elite Beat Agents a little while back. If you have EBA, then you can probably skip Ouendan, as a lot of the levels follow the same plots and there's nothing hugely different between them, but if you have neither, then I'd honestly recommend Ouendan over its Western equivalent. They're both good, but Ouendan is both weirder and funnier, and for whatever reason, Japanese rock that you've never heard of is a lot more compelling than a cover of "Sk8er Boi."
Gitaroo Man — PS2, PSP
Apparently, rhythm-action games that attempt any semblance of a plot are doomed to be extremely weird and probably a little underloved. We have Ouendan up above, we had Parappa the Rapper and its sequels in the past, and we also had the criminally overlooked Gitaroo Man, which, thankfully, got a re-release on PSP as Gitaroo Man Lives!
This game is ridiculous. It knows it's ridiculous, and it doesn't really care. With no attempt at inserting humor whatsoever: U-1 is a normal boy until his talking dog informs him that he's the last hero of planet Gitaroo, capable of wielding the Gitaroos, which seem to be musical instruments of inordinate power. When someone attacks him, the dog throws him his Gitaroo, and he transforms into Gitaroo Man and rocks out to a song in order to beat his opponent (who will also be rocking out to a song on a Gitaroo). Throw in space travel, a supervillain with a black cat, and a horde of villains ranging from a tiny demon to a trio of skeletons, a love interest … and I think we've about wrapped it up.
It's patently insane, and it's wonderful. The music is utterly superb, the voice acting is just over-the-top enough to be perfect and the gameplay — which works in offense/defense phases, where you either use the analog stick to play the Gitaroo, or press the face buttons to defend against your opponent's Gitaroo attacks — fits the tone brilliantly. It's one of the rare games where, no matter your mood, you can't help but smirk. While it's pretty rare on the PS2 these days, there is apparently some justice in the world, and the PSP release isn't too tough to find.
Star Control 2: The Ur-Quan Masters — PC, freeware
It seems to be law that at least one game in these roundups should be free for those who, like me, are still broke after Christmas, so here you go. The Ur-Quan Masters is a PC conversion of a game that was converted to 3DO from PC, confusingly enough. The 3DO version had a number of improvements on the PC original, like improved graphics and full speech, and this puts them all into a Windows-friendly port.
Star Control 2 was (and, indeed, is) one of the most ambitious games ever created, and it pulled it off perfectly. You control a starship in the aftermath of a gigantic space war for which humanity and their allies were on the losing side. Having returned from a colony nobody knew about with a giant alien spaceship, you work on finding out what happened and what's happening, forging new alliances, gathering resources, building up a fleet, and finally freeing humanity and averting an impending apocalypse.
While this is ambitious enough, featuring adventure-like conversation trees in addition to a huge galaxy to explore (with almost every planet capable of being landed on and harvested for resources in a little action game that is more than a little reminiscent of what Mass Effect recently did) and action-based combat, it's also got some of the best writing this side of Dreamfall. Each alien race is different and needs to be handled differently. The Ilwrath are spider-aliens that do whatever their dark gods tell them (usually involving your brutal death), whereas the Pkunk are bird-like space hippies and the Spathi are space cowards. The Ur-Quan, leaders of the Hierarchy that won the last war, first appear to be evil overlords, but enough effort reveals a tragic backstory. Almost every sci-fi trope is visited and either used to devastating effect or ribbed mercilessly.
While there is a lot of darkness and tragedy in the game's universe, it can also be unremittingly hilarious. First released back in '92 (16 years ago!), it was one of the first games to have a hilarious credits sequence, but even ignoring that, at least half of the races will make you laugh out loud. Despite the voice acting being tolerable at best, the lines are so well-written that it doesn't matter; listening to the Pkunk tell you about what the gods are up to is worth a grin every time.
The combat itself is action-based in a small, wraparound arena, with every ship behaving differently. Earthling Cruisers have point-defense lasers and homing nukes. Spathi Eluders, reflecting the cowardly nature of the race, fire rockets from their rear as they fly away. The Pkunk have the best gimmick, though; their religious fervor actually gives them a chance of resurrecting, ship and all, with a chorus of "Hallelujah," when they're destroyed. Try not to laugh the first time that happens.
The game suffers a rather vicious time limit, and by the time you find out about it, you're usually too late to do anything if you've been messing around, but Star Control 2 stands as one of the only true space-based adventure-epics in existence. If it sounds even remotely interesting, it's well worth a try. The updated version, fully updated to work in Windows and featuring all of the 3DO's tweaks, is available here.
That about does it for this week's roundup. Next time, we'll look into some truly unusual games, taking a number of them from the independent developers scene.