By Marshall Garvey
Release date: March 5, 2001
Platform: Nintendo 64
Rated: M for Mature
Genre: Action, platforming
Format: Single and multiplayer
After its founding in 1985, the British game developer Rareware quickly made its name as a partner to Nintendo. Over the next few years, the company would produce over 40 NES and Game Boy titles such as “Wizards & Warriors” and “Battletoads.” However, the partnership between Nintendo and Rareware reached new heights in the 90’s with the NES and N64 systems, with Rareware becoming a highly invested second-party developer. Throughout the rest of the decade, the company seemed to supply almost all of Nintendo’s most top-notch and revolutionary titles: “Killer Instinct,” “GoldenEye 007,” “Banjo Kazooie,” “Perfect Dark,” “Donkey Kong 64,” and “Banjo Tooie.”
Unfortunately, the company witnessed one of the most precipitous drops in quality imaginable when it was purchased entirely by Microsoft in 2002. From thereon, it would produce subpar flops such as “Perfect Dark Zero,” “Kameo: Elements of Power,” and “Grabbed by the Ghoulies,” the very mention of which still sends gaming critics into fits of laughter. Worse, as a result of the disappointing sales and reception of its newer titles, many key employees quit or were fired by 2010, and the company focused more on titles for the Xbox 360’s Kinect add-on.
Just the year before its doomed sale, however, Rareware released a superb, albeit unexpected, game to end what was ultimately its creative zenith. Entitled “Conker’s Bad Fur Day,” it appeared to be yet another warm, sweet, inviting title in the vein of “Banjo Kazooie” and “Donkey Kong 64.” After all, the title character, Conker the Squirrel, had already appeared in 1997’s “Diddy Kong Racing,” and it featured a gameplay and animation style much like the adventures young Nintendo fans had come to grow up with.
Instead, Rareware decided to take the adorable squirrel and transform him into a crude, irresponsible, alcoholic 20-something who neglects his girlfriend and urinates freely. And the rest of the game’s universe was even more madcap, with busty flowers, Nazi teddy bears, fornicating bees, catfish that literally have cats’ heads, and even a giant pile of poo that sings a mean opera. Add in a dose of clever movie references that no kid would understand (complete with an opening shot that recreates the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”), and the result was a crude but brilliant game for adults only.
The game’s plot is perfectly minimal and flat-out stupid. Conker goes out for another night at the bar, lying to his girlfriend Berri that he’ll be home while borrowing money to get even more hammered. However, he becomes so drunk by the end of the night that when he finally staggers home, he accidentally heads down the wrong path. Upon waking up, a hungover Conker realizes he’s wandered far from home, and from thereon must survive an increasingly bizarre set of circumstances to get back.
To complicate matters, the Panther King, ruler of the land Conker is now lost in, is facing a crisis of sorts. The table next to his throne is missing a leg, ruining his leisurely milk drinking. His weasel servant, Professor Von Kriplespac, recommends using a red squirrel as a replacement. Such is the nature of what will become Conker’s surreal, dreadful day: His destiny doesn’t involve saving an entire world or rescuing a princess, but merely getting drunk, doing favors to get money, and avoiding becoming a table leg.
Like any title from Rareware’s prime, “Conker’s Bad Fur Day” is outstanding due to its blend of smooth, accessible controls and a robust environment. In the former department, it doesn’t control quite as seamlessly as its E-rated kindred spirit, “Banjo Kazooie.” Unlike that game, the player can’t do a first-person view from Conker’s sight to observe the environment, which is frustrating in tight situations. The title character is also easily injured, often from falls that are either aren’t that far or are sometimes necessary to get through the level. The camera can also fluctuate quite a bit. Not to mention, in the true spirit of N64, there are a handful of excruciating and tedious water levels.
In terms of creating an immersive world, however, “Conker’s Bad Fur Day” does arguably the best job of any Rare game. As one of the N64’s last titles, it showed the system’s graphical capability at full potential. The colors and details are inviting and rich, and the variety of levels is a blast to explore. One level has Conker visiting his vampire ancestor Count Conkula in a mansion and graveyard setting that’s as genuinely creepy as any from an actual survival horror game. Another has him swept up in a war between squirrels and evil teddy bears (Tediz), complete with a shot-for-shot recreation of the D-Day landing in “Saving Private Ryan”. In true early 2000’s fashion, the final level even has Conker and Berri doing slow-motion shooting and dodging from “The Matrix”.
Unlike previous titles, though, CBFD relies more on “context-sensitive” action than intricate RPG controls to advance through each scenario. Conker’s controls are as basic as can be, only being able to walk, run, jump, twirl his tale like a helicopter rotor to fly, and whack enemies with a frying pan. When engaged in a puzzle or boss battle, Conker must rely on “context-sensitive” moves native to the environment, triggered by pressing the B button. This works to the game’s advantage tremendously, for while predecessors like “Banjo Kazooie” were meant to be immersive adventures that test the player’s skills and use of resources, CBFD brilliantly utilizes the context-sensitive approach to display its crass humor. In a couple of instances, you have to press B for Conker to drink excessively, then hold it again to urinate on enemies in order to complete puzzles or trigger a boss fight.
Another distinguishing strength of CBFD is its bizarre, eclectic mix of characters. As you travel throughout the wide variety of levels, you’ll progress through interactions with an increasingly strange but always hilarious cast. There are catfish (with actual cat heads) that speak in British accents, weasels that talk and act like mafioso, cavemen that battle you in a gladiator arena, and even giant rocks that get drunk and fight you. Not to mention zombies, a frustrated grim reaper who’s ineffective at his job, barn tools that argue with each other, and a vampire squirrel who resembles Gary Oldman in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Even the bundles of money Conker collects throughout the game insult him with lines like, “Here I am. Pick me up, shithead!”
The game’s finest and most famous moment, however, is its shittiest. Literally. One of Conker’s many eccentric boss battles pits him against a giant mountain of runny feces who calls himself The Great Mighty Poo, aka Sloprano. As he throws his shit at you (per his promise in the opening line of his song), Conker must defeat him by throwing rolls of toilet paper in his mouth during his vocal warmups. It’s one of the greatest boss battles in video game history, and one that simply has to be experienced firsthand.
Even after more than a decade since its release, “Conker’s Bad Fur Day” not only ages exceptionally well, but remains one of the singular classics in gaming history. Aside from a graphically sharper 2005 update for the Xbox, “Conker: Live and Reloaded,” it has yet to be followed up with any sequels in spite of its loyal cult following. But that may be to its benefit, and true to its spirit. Even if Rareware had witnessed greater success after 2002, it’s unlikely that they could recapture the outrageousness that made CBFD such a surprising success. Whether or not everyone’s favorite squirrel returns for another beer-chugging romp of comic mishap, his unexpected adventure in 2001 will always be a satisfying experience.
Original commercial for the game: