Strong Bad's Cool Game For Attractive People

It’s easier, in some sense, to review bad games than good ones. Good games often succeed by just unobtrusively doing what they are supposed to do. Bad games, by their nature, can be held up to mockery and ridicule. It’s harder to be witty about a game that is, simply, fun.

One of the subjects I’ve been known to harp on is the adventure game genre. For a few years in the early 1990s, the entire genre was basically abandoned by the commercial game industry. Apart from a few notable exceptions (The Longest Journey comes to mind), the only people seriously committed to adventure games were those in the amateur text adventure community.

Ron Gilbert, the creator of the Monkey Island games, wrote an interesting article on this subject in 2004. Focusing on “2D graphical adventure games”, which is what the average consumer thought of as an adventure game in the 1990s, he summarizes it thusly: the market for adventure games was always small. The cost of producing high-quality artwork and animation dominates. By his back-of-the-envelope calculations, a 2D adventure game would need to sell between 160,000 and 300,000 units to recoup development costs of about $1,000,000.

Since Gilbert wrote his analysis, a few things have changed. First, perhaps most significantly, the online sales channel has matured. While it hasn’t (and probably never will) completely displaced the retail sales channel, “we’re going to sell our product primarily online” is now a valid alternative, rather than a completely insane pipe dream. Second, the tools for and availability of people with skills in 3D modeling and animation have matured to the point where one can reasonably produce (simple) 3D animated models for less than the equivalent 2D artwork and animation. Lastly, the emergence of a few online stores targeting specific large communities (the Xbox Live Marketplace and WiiWare) have to some extent reduced the complexity of the distribution problem.

So now adventure games can be made more cheaply and distributed more easily to a larger audience. And sure enough, we’ve seen a few good games come along.

Leading the pack is Telltale Games, who launched their Sam and Max series of games in late 2006. For those of you without PCs or who aren’t into downloading, they just released a boxed copy of Sam and Max Season 1 for the Wii this fall.

The episodic nature of the Sam and Max game multiplied the upside of Telltale’s business case. While each episode told its own story, the packaging of them as a “season” allowed heavy re-use of art assets, voice talent, and other expensive resources, while letting them (potentially) realize income over a longer period of time. It also provided a justification for each individual episode being shorter. Shorter episodes mean (if all goes well), shorter development cycles, a simpler testing regimen, and less time until they start recouping costs.

Telltale has stuck with its strategic use of licensed property, this time with the characters from Homestar Runner, a popular web cartoon. The result is a series of games called Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People. I’ve been playing them throughout the year, and in terms of the sheer enjoyment I get when I reboot into Windows, these games are near the top of the list.

My main worry when I began playing the games was that they would be too “in- jokey”. Sure, I watch all of the Homestar cartoons when they come out, but would the humor translate to someone who hasn’t been exposed to them? Fortunately, it seems pretty universal: whenever I fire up the game, visitors in my house end up mesmerized by the pure weirdness on screen. I shouldn’t be surprised. Even The National Review likes Homestar Runner, and if I can have something in common with them, then it’s clear that this has pretty widespread appeal.

Compared to the Sam and Max games, the Strong Bad games are both better and worse. For one thing, the games are much less linear. So in addition to whatever plot each game has, you can also spend your time engaging in treasure hunts, collecting hidden items, taking photographs, dressing up in costumes, or trying to create the funniest possible Teen Girl Squad cartoons. But the games do have an end, so more than once I found myself deferring some of the side activities until later, only to find that once the game ended I had lost the opportunity. Yes, one can reload from an earlier save, but it was jarring.

Calling them “mini-games”, though, minimizes their achievement. One of the recurring elements in the game are the Videlectrix-branded games for Strong Bad’s “fun machine”, which looks suspiciously like an Atari 2600 with a Nintendo controller attached to it. The games for the machine (there’s a different one in each episode) could have come straight out of 1982. They nailed every aspect of the presentation: the graphics, the sound, but most importantly the pure addictive fun of simple gameplay. It would have been entirely possible (and, indeed, likely) for the Snake Boxer game-within-the- game in Episode 1 to have been all snark and no substance. But it’s actually about as fun as David Crane’s original Atari 2600 Boxing. I’m sure that everyone under a certain age won’t see this, but it’s clear to me, at least, that these little games are designed with just the right amount of nostalgia and love. That vibe, in fact, pervades the entire product.

Strong Bad’s Cool Game For Attractive People, by Telltale, for Windows and Wii. $8.95 per episode, or all 5 episodes for $34.95.

Disclosure: Telltale Games graciously provided review copies of these games.