Conker’s Bad Fur Day: The most innovative N64 game? (with Chris Seavor)
18th August 2019
There’s no shortage of people singing the praises of Banjo-Kazooie, Rare's most fondly-remembered Nintendo 64 platformer. However, it’s only infrequently that gamers bring up Conker’s Bad Fur Day, one of the most fearlessly inventive games of its era.
I'm not here to convince you that it’s the most perfect game of all time, but despite its modest cult following I nevertheless feel that it never quite got the recognition it deserved – and it’s one of my favourite games.
In a way, the game never really had a chance to succeed. Its “mature audience” theme – which really does deserve the sarcastic quotation marks – meant that Nintendo was wary of promoting it too enthusiastically for fear that children would mistakenly buy the game. Ever protective of their family-friendly image, the game was released to little fanfare (and almost didn't come out in Europe at all).
Nintendo's dedication to localising all of their self-published titles in multiple languages for European countries presented the company with a problem, and the cost of the extensive translation work required for Conker's Bad Fur Day was thought to not be “commercially viable”.
This forced Rare to make their own European publishing arrangements, ultimately leading to the signing of a deal with THQ for a 2001 release – essentially at the end of the Nintendo 64's lifespan and a matter of months before the release of the console's successor, the GameCube.
The combination of these factors essentially meant that Conker's chances of commercial success were significantly stunted from the beginning. It was an under-publicised, audience-restricted title released in the twilight years of a console’s lifespan – and while it has its fans, it was never quite able to enjoy the same hallowed status as titles like GoldenEye 007, Banjo-Kazooie, Ocarina Of Time, and other N64-era classics.
Breaking the mould
I love original things. Even if they don’t always quite work, I always find it energising to experience creative work that discards the rule book in favour of trying something crazy. Projects that play it safe may have a better shot at commercial success, but innovation is irresistible to me.
I therefore have an enormous reservoir of respect for Chris Seavor, the lead designer of Conker’s Bad Fur Day (and voice of Conker), as it is really and truly out there in terms of inventiveness. “I didn't design Conker to appeal to the masses,” remarked Seavor when I asked him about it, “as that always ends up appealing to no one. If you stop listening to yourself and start listening to others then they might as well be the ones designing the game.”
Consider the following (but be warned that there are big spoilers in these bullet points, if you care):
- Let’s start with the obvious: can you name another cute-animal-3D-platformer with ‘adult humour’? To my knowledge, there wasn’t one before and there hasn’t been one since. The idea of matching the zeitgeisty appeal of South Park humour with something akin to a Banjo platformer had no real precedent, least of all from a second-party Nintendo developer.
- Working with the established 3D platformer genre, the developers threw out as many of the tired old tropes as they could. They did away with the millions of collectables seen in Donkey Kong 64 and the laundry list of acrobatic moves made popular by Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie, stripping the experience back to its absolute essentials. Instead, they developed a system of controls involving only a handful of joypad buttons and an ingenious context-sensitive system that was somewhat ahead of its time.
- I could probably write a separate article about the many astounding technical innovations of the game. No other N64 game had full voice acting throughout – I still don’t have any idea how they managed to compress an entire game’s worth of MP3 dialogue onto a 64MB cartridge! Not to mention the dynamic shadow system, coloured lighting, detailed animated textures and other amazing technical feats.
- There was also nothing quite like it in terms of storytelling. I can’t think of a prior game that used the same bookend story structure, beginning and ending with the same scene.
- Nor have I ever seen a platform game ending as shockingly subversive as Conker’s. The entire plot of the game is about finding your way home to see your girlfriend (with the main villain established early in the proceedings), but at the end you don’t fight the big bad guy for the final boss, your girlfriend dies tragically and you don’t ever get home. The game appears to crash, and the credits roll accompanied by the sounds of howling winds and agonisingly sombre orchestral music. It’s the darkest ending possible, and I love it just for its courage.
“It’s that old 'subvert expectations' thing that seems the norm these days,” said Seavor, simply. “No one told me not to do it – that's not how things worked at Rare.”
- The structure of the gameplay refuses to be constrained. Halfway through the adventure, the game stops being a 3D platformer and turns into a terrifying horror game with zombies and a shotgun aiming mechanic; later, it fully transforms into a third-person shoot-‘em-up about the horrors of war, complete with grisly deaths and torture scenes (nevertheless still enacted by cartoon bears and squirrels).
- Somehow, the game also launched the trope I like to call ‘the Singing Boss’, which has been seen a few times since (most recently in Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle) – but never again in such a memorable fashion.
- More than any other game I can think of, Conker’s Bad Fur Day makes heavy and repeated reference to iconic movies, to the point that entire major set-pieces are essentially themed around them (including homages to Terminator, Godzilla, The Matrix and more). Other games of the era such as Gex made small comedic nods and winks to pop culture, but not with the wholehearted dedication of Conker (and I can’t resist pointing out that Conker, by contrast, is actually funny).
Making sense of thingsWith all of these wild innovations thrown together, Conker’s Bad Fur Day might have been a bewildering and incoherent mess, but the game works surprisingly well as a whole with each crazy scenario leading logically to the next – never resorting to outright non-sequiturs.
The game has a dogged dedication to establishing bizarre but coherent logic for all of its gameplay elements. There is a cutscene to explain why there are hovering chunks of chocolate to collect, another to explain why Conker has extra lives, and yet another to explain why the player still has all their money after giving some to an NPC.
Characters who ask you to do things generally have motivations that absolutely make sense, or they otherwise want paying with normal, everyday cash – with no hint of the magical jiggies-and-stars MacGuffins found in other games.
This stands out in stark contrast to other platformers – because why has Banjo-Kazooie’s Gruntilda sealed her lair with doors that require musical notes to open, anyway? Why do coins give you health in Mario 64? Many of these arbitrary things are never explained, but despite all the silliness and jokes Conker’s gameplay has a grounded and consistent internal logic.
Bad Fur Day was a truly unique game, and its creator has remarked before that there will likely never be anything like it again. I think he must be right; the game is an impossible act to follow, with its inimitable style and punk-rock dedication to disregarding the rules.
Conker’s Bad Fur Day wasn’t always perfect to play, and certainly had its problems and frustrating moments – but for anybody with an interest in game design, it was a masterclass of rock-star brilliance that didn’t care if it didn’t work.
“I'm not sure why that should even be a consideration when writing or designing narrative,” mused Seavor. “If you think it works, then do it.”
Chris' new game, The Unlikely Legend of Rusty Pup, is now available on Steam – check it out!