Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People Episode 1: Homestar Ruiner Review

By Zeus Poplar, Official Out of Eight Adventure and RPG Correspondent

Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People Episode 1: Homestar Ruiner, developed and published by Telltale Games.
The Good: Highly entertaining, a one-of-a-kind main character, and at under $9, it's a steal
The Not So Good: The world feels a bit empty at times
What say you? A delight for adventure gamers and Strong Bad fans alike: 7/8

Some of the developers at Telltale Games have previously worked on such legendary LucasArts classics as Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandango. Now, after releasing the critically acclaimed episodic series Rabid Dog and Bunny Man -- er, Sam & Max -- Telltale Games have turned their attention to one of the most popular cartoons on the internet, Homestar Runner.

I admit, I haven't seen more than twenty or thirty episodes of Homestar Runner, but for good reason: I didn't have Internet access when everyone was forwarding me the links! Luckily, my buddy played them whenever I visited his house, and we had a blast searching for Easter eggs at the end of each Strong Bad Email. I guess that means I'm qualified to review Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People, for I meet the minimum system requirements (rugged good looks) and am neither a die hard fan nor completely ignorant of Strong Bad's totally awesome style.

The visuals are crisp, colorful and do a wonderful job of capturing the look and feel of flash animation. Characters are 3D and cell shaded, but except for certain angles, you can't really tell; this is a good thing, as anyone who's recoiled in horror at Homer Simpson's bulbous, off-color polygon head can tell you. Things look just as crisp at 640x480 as they do at much higher resolutions except for the font, which does get a bit fuzzy at the low end. This means it's a perfect game for people with slow computers who want to try something recent without installing costly new hardware.

Sound-wise (which sounds like a Hobbit but is actually just a made-up word), this game is a champ. Strong Bad mutters his lines like a megalomaniacal Mexican wrestler. Bubs, proprietor of a one-stop shanty shop, sounds like Bill Cosby. And Strong Bad's depressed younger brother is an elephantine Eeyore. All of the characters, except Marzipan, are voiced by just one man: co-creator Matt Chapman. The music reminds me a bit of some quirky independent film, especially the theme to Marzipan's house. Strong Bad even starts things off with a song, which I hope they release as an MP3 download.

Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People Episode 1: Homestar Ruiner opens with everyone's favorite lovable jerk, Strong Bad, doing what he does best: checking the email on his Lappy 486. When a reader asks when he's going to pound the snot out of his hated rival, the armless (and clueless) athlete Homestar, Strong Bad embarks on a quest to win the coveted Silver Trophy of Ultimate Destiny at the local Free Country USA Tri-annual Race to the End of the Race (FCUSATRTTEOTR).

Oddly enough, one of Homestar Ruiner's best features is the map. Usually, maps of fictional worlds rely on a bit of, shall we say, elasticity, especially if drawn years after the series has begun. In Homestar Ruiner, when you discover a new location, Strong Bad opens his map and asks you to drop it wherever you like. (Sometimes he makes suggestions: "I hate that place, put it far away from my house!") Much like certain Japanese RPGs, this lets you arrange the in-game map as you see fit. But nothing is set in stone, as you can freely drag and drop locations even after you've already scribbled them in. As for the locations themselves, they range from Homestar's favorite racetrack, to Strong Bad's messy room, to a surreal photo booth that breaks the laws of time and space.

In one of the game's standout puzzles, Strong Bad has to leave chocolates on Marzipan's doorstep to set things right. But each time he rings the bell and hides around the corner, the ravenous King of Town wanders up and eats all the chocolates before Marzipan can open her door. Frustrated, Strong Bad decides to dig a big hole for the King to fall into. "Seems like a perfect place for a montage," he says, and a montage we get, complete with 80s training music ("Guts... guts and might. Liftin' weights and feelin' all right. It's a showdown. Goin' down town you're gonna mess around"). Again, Strong Bad leaves chocolates and rings the bell. But the hungry old King deftly avoids the trap and eats all Marzipan's chocolates. I won't tell you how the puzzle finally ends, but let's just say it involves a canny use of hedge clippings that Rambo would be proud of.

One of my favorite moments came when Strong Bad begs Homestar's girlfriend Marzipan to invite him to a party. "Do you remember the last time?" she asks. Cut to a flashback of Strong Bad standing on Marzipan's roof, dressed all in black with an eye patch and pink leopard bandanna. "Behold!" he shouts. "I am Lord Barglebroth, come for your souls!" Then he dives off the roof like Mick Foley and lands on her birthday cake. Cut back to Strong Bad scratching his chin. “Not really,” he replies. The game even makes it fun when you get a puzzle totally wrong. Throw a plunger at an out of reach vent and Strong Bad makes na-na-na-na-na sounds. When the plunger falls he says, "Hmm. I thought the bionical noises would've made that work." After unsuccessfully sneaking into the King of Town's Castle and being thrown out a window by his older brother Strong Mad, our hero picks himself up off the ground and says, "I should probably quit doing that. What with the drain bamage and all."

If there's one problem with Homestar Ruiner, it's that the world can feel a little empty at times. There's a point in the game when several new locations open up, and Strong Bad walks through room after mostly empty room, searching for something to do. One location has only The Stick (a stick, natch) and an ugly bush. Strong Bad cracks wise ("Hey bush, it looks like someone hit you with the ugly stick... not you, The Stick, you're beautiful!"), but with little to find other than an Easter egg in more than a few locations, I sometimes got the feeling I was wandering through a deserted MMORPG at 3AM. Even a few more random things to click on would have done much to liven up these areas.

Other than that, the game is technically damn near flawless. The interface is first class: totally mouse-driven, with easy to read subtitles and the ability to save anywhere. There's an Atari 2600 style mini game called Snake Puncher 5 and the truly bizarre interactive comic strip Teen Girl Squad, in which Strong Bad speaks in a squeaky voice and tries to kill as many of the stick figure girls as possible. As an added bonus, after you beat the game, an "extended play" epilogue opens up, which gives you one last opportunity to hunt down any easter eggs and jokes you may have missed.

Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People Episode 1: Homestar Ruiner is skillfully designed, and at $8.99, it's more than a bargain. The humor will no doubt be lost on some (you need a healthy appetite for Napoleon Dynamite-style, "this was cool when I was a kid so it's double cool now!" jokes) but play the game through and you'll no doubt agree that Strong Bad is anything but. Bad, that is. I mean, it's a good... Look, just buy it.