Retrogaming is a funny business, but who decides what is or isn’t funny?
Lots of games try their hand at comedy, but which ones succeed?
Before I start, I’ve got to be 100% honest and admit that the inspiration for this week’s topic wasn’t originally mine. Over on Twitter, the fountain of retro knowledge that is @ausretrogamer posed a question last night relating to humorous videogames:
— ausretrogamer (@ausretrogamer) February 10, 2017
So you should totally go and read some of the content over at Ausretrogamer when you’re done. There’s some great pinball related content there at the moment, but that’s just scratching the surface.
Anyway, back to humorous games. I replied with a few options, but it got my brain whirring, which, along with the current heatwave, is a dangerous business.
Here’s the problem. Games, even retro ones, are a well understood commodity. Comedy, on the other hand, is an endlessly debated topic, because what’s funny to me might be either appalling or dull to you.
Comic tastes change over time, so the comedian in the 1960s telling shrewish-wife gags probably found his gigs drying up in the 1980s following the birth of the “alternative” comedy scene. Those comedians are now the elder statespeople of comedy, with an entirely new generation of comics testing the boundaries of what can be considered funny. There are cultural as well as chronological contexts to comedy, and some matters can remain funny over time while others feel very dated indeed.
Also, Rik Mayall is still dead. Dammit.
So how do you map that against retro games? Ultimately, as with all comedy, it comes down to a matter of personal tastes. With that in mind, and because the Internet loves a listicle, here’s my pick for 10 games with a solid dash of humour in them.
However, it’s not the top 10, because that would be ridiculous, and not in the funny way. I’m not in any way pretending that this isn’t an entirely subjective list of games with humour in them. Objectivity and comedy don’t make for good bedfellows. Equally, I’m well aware of that E.B White quote regarding analysing comedy, frogs and dissection. Your tastes may vary, in other words.
Bomberman (any multiplayer-capable version)
Comedy doesn’t mean that you’re laughing alone. Some of the best comedy moments I’ve had in any videogame have involved Hudson’s explosive mascot and as many friends as a given gaming system will allow. Bomberman is cute in single player, but in multi it can be a real laugh, partly because you’re blowing your mates up, but mostly because you always run that risk of the idiot moment when you blow yourself up. The 2D games are best in this regard, because that 3D transition didn’t go so well for poor Bomberman.
Super Mario Kart
Sticking with the multiplayer (and cute) theme, I can’t go past Nintendo’s genre-defining Mario Kart. Sure, it’s meant to be serious business. That’s why you’re dropping comedy staples such as banana peels on the track, right? Get some friends, get to racing and wait for everyone to laugh at your misfortune as the blue shell hits you right before the finish line on lap 3. Yes, an awful lot of comedy has to do with somebody suffering, and sometimes, you’re the butt of the joke. Again, while it’s a series that’s obviously still in production, the classic versions are still eminently playable today.
Toejam & Earl
Comedy doesn’t have to be in your face and aggressive. It can be laid back and lightly satirical. While I can’t imagine Toejam & Earl coming out of any time period except the early 90s, its bumbling heroes, excellent soundtrack and the risk/reward nature of the gift boxes make it a more gentle, but still chucklesome retrogaming outing.
Conker’s Bad Fur Day
From the subtle… to the crass. Yes, comedy can be blunt and brutal, and this won’t be everyone’s cup of laughter. I can still well recall back before Rare went down the darkly adult line with Conker via the gaming magazines of the day. Post Banjo-Kazooie, though, Bad Fur Day was the right call, and a game that should appeal to those whose comedy stylings tend more towards the scatalogical.
Day Of The Tentacle
Guilty admission time. I’m well aware of the output of Lucasarts, and the many games that could belong in a comedy games listicle. Monkey Island is just one obvious candidate, as is Grim Fandango. I’ll put Day of The Tentacle here because… to fess up… it’s the only one I’ve played to any great extent. Even then, only recently via the remake.
(ducks incoming tomatoes. The comedian’s a bear.)
GTA: Vice City
Grand Theft Auto games have always played with satire, albeit of the very dark kind. All the way back to the original game, and you could perhaps pick any of them. I’d nominate Vice City as the game that goes the most all-out to be comedic, however. The earlier games are a little too freeform, GTA 3 has its darker moments, GTA4 takes that further, and GTA 5 has, well, torture. But in Vice City, the writers never miss the opportunity to lampoon ‘80s excesses, and it works gloriously, even now.
He’s such a groovy guy. A not-so-gentle jab at platforming conventions, good taste, and the genesis for one of the finest (but least appreciated) game-to-cartoon series ever made. Every time I see haggis or hear it mentioned, I laugh, and it’s Earthworm Jim’s fault.
Also, the games are really good. I totally didn’t include this one because I love the cartoon so much because that would be wrong.
This was a triumph. ‘Nuff said.
WWF No Mercy
Wait, I’m throwing a wrestling game in here? Sure I am. I could have included, say, WCW Thunder, because that game is a complete joke, right down to the cheat code that turns your ‘wrasslers into ballroom dancers (honestly, that’s something they programmed in), but it’s not a good, playable game.
No Mercy (and its AKI predecessors, but No Mercy is where the series tops out) takes time out from the entirely-serious* business of professional wrestling whenever a character hits another character in the family jewels area. A legit heel move in actual wrestling, but whenever it happens, the ringbell goes “DING!”.
Why? Because as The Simpsons proved, a guy getting hit in the junk is never not funny.
*OK, maybe pro wrestling isn’t that serious.
Yeah, PS3 is retro now. PS4 is well established, and anyway, PAIN came out in 2007. That’s a decade ago!
There’s a well known Mel Brooks quote about comedy and tragedy that states that “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” PAIN is that falling into an open sewer, over and over again, for laughs. Yes, it’s a one-note joke, but it’s done rather well, albeit in a way that’s not suitable for all ages.
Is this list absolutely definitive? No it is not. Which 10 retro games would you pick for their humour value?
Retro recollections are just random musings on retro subjects, usually whatever I’m playing at the moment.