Physicists got it wrong. Atoms, electrons, quarks - all that stuff is basically sound, but the theory goes further. Much further. In actual fact, the most fundamental particle in our universe is...the basketball (or 'b-ball'). Every material on earth is, at the initial level, constructed from b-balls. Carbon is b-balls. The blood flowing through our b-ball veins is made of b-balls. Every star in our cosmos is b-ball in origin. Understand this, and you may begin to understand Barkley, Shut Up And Jam: Gaiden.
Actually, a passing knowledge of RPGs (especially of the melodramatic Japanese variety) will help too - but mostly the b-ball thing. Focus on the b-balls. You may still be a little confused and wondering if this BSUJG business (what, you think I'm going to write that out every time?) is really worth your time. Don't worry: it is.
Warning: This Game Is Canon
Although it's only February, the chances of a funnier game bring released this year seem tremendously slim. Let's get one thing clear from the outset though: BSUJG is not a 'joke' game as such. Nor does BSUJG deserve to be patronised with the kind of fawning, irony-drenched praise beloved of those who might dub Timmy Mallett or Chuck Norris 'a legend'. No, BSUJG is a fully-fledged freeware RPG in the Chrono Trigger mould, with a rich background and storyline. It just also happens to be funny as hell.
Few, if any, JRPG clichs and conventions are left unscathed. Protagonist (and former NBA star) Charles Barkley is a haunted, troubled man with a dark past, but a noble heart. He lives in the future dystopia of Neo New York - a fearsome place where basketball has been abolished and most of his friends slain - trying, as best he can, to make a life for himself and his son Hoopz. Only the semi-encyclopaedic guidance of Balthios, the quasi-spiritual elder, will enable Charles to make sense of this godforsaken mess - but first he must dodge the authoritarian intentions of Michael Jordan, who believes Barkley to be responsible for the civilisation-wrecking Chaos Dunk. Cast as the tragic fallen warrior who's sold out to The Man, Jordan is all set to be the one fan-fiction writers attempt to redeem in a flurry of poor penmanship.
The jibes don't end with the subversion of archetypal characters. Each line of dialogue has been written with earnest, deadpan seriousness - in direct contrast to the ridiculousness of the situations encountered. It is, without exception, magnificent dialogue. Over-explaining great jokes is the quickest way to kill them and it would be remiss of me to leave a trail of explicit spoilers all over the place, so I shall refrain. Suffice to say, throughout Barkley's adventures he explores the Ancient Egyptian-style tombs of former ballers, begrudgingly agrees to help write some poetry for a lovelorn chap who's had plastic surgery to look like a snail and battles the alarming (but misunderstood) Ghost Dad.
Speaking of battles, they're awfully good too. Continuing the theme, they're presented in a Final Fantasy fashion, with Barkley's party and whichever adversaries they've blundered into on the exploration map facing off against each other. At which point it's time to lay some slams and jams on those dastardly foes. This happens in the traditional way, but with a variety of...unconventional moves and skills (or special items) available from the selection menus. Barkley himself launches b-ball attacks (well, obviously) and has a number of special skills like 'Showboat Jam' and 'Vampslam' which are more powerful but also eat up the game's equivalent of Mana. Alongside our hero, Balthios knows the secret of the mystic zaubers - elemental magics which confuse and baffle the enemy; while other characters can fight with lasers or even deadly gun's (intentional apostrophe misuse is something a player needs to get used to). Every advantage is needed when fighting horrible enemies such as Dread Refs, Ball Spiders and... err...gigantic walking whistles which inflate themselves up and fire off a devastating 'peep!' Especially as certain opponents also possess the ability to afflict your heroes with debilitating problems like glaucoma and Asperger's.
Look, I'm not making any of this up. It really happens.
Two things about the battles elevate BSUJG above the games it seeks to satirise. First, there's absolutely no necessity to grind. That means no pointless trundling around beating up rubbish enemies in order to boost characters to a point where they can safely move on to new locations. This is a splendid decision on the part of the creators. Yes, it makes the game relatively easy (most will be whizzing through this in five or six hours) but it means players of every skill can progress with the story and, in conjunction, the comedy. Which is, after all, the strength of the title. The alternative would be like an excellent sitcom episode not allowing people past the first five minutes of jokes.
Perhaps more importantly, the battles actually demand some participation beyond the norm. It's not just a case of balancing attacks and healing while pressing the odd button here and there - several of the offensive moves also involve simple acts of timing to pull off correctly. This is almost certainly 'borrowed' from another game I'm not familiar with [sounds like Mario & Luigi - Ed], but it's well executed here.
Not all is perfection. It's perhaps a bit churlish to pick out odd bugs in a freeware release, but the standard set by the rest of the game is so high that it's only right and proper. When switching screens, rather than continuing to walk in the direction being held, Barkley and his friends tend to 'stick' in place until the same key is pressed again. Which is a bit annoying. Occasionally, the main screen was affected by some mysterious background flashes which only went away when a new set of enemies had been encountered and defeated. Also annoying. The pacing, too, is a little haphazard - speeding up rather rapidly towards the dramatic final confrontation. While this could be a further jab at RPG titles which also suffer from this fault, it seems a bit of a cop-out to defend it on those grounds.
A PhD In Anime
The bad, however, is overwhelmed by the amount of invention and number of special touches which have been crammed in. This isn't a sentence I'd have envisaged writing a few weeks ago, but...the remixed Space Jam theme which appears throughout is worryingly infectious. As is the cheese-rich faux-metal tune that pops up when battling bosses (blame the guy from Deep Purple for that one...but quietly, because they probably didn't get usage rights), and the portentous synth-loops which appear throughout. Depending upon your outlook, the game's graphics will either seem functional (the DirectX 10 claims are, surprisingly, a lie) or a loving 16-bit homage - complete with a number of 'spot the game they've lifted this sprite or tile-set from' opportunities. Err...but we'd best not dwell on that for too long either.
Even the save-game system is designed for laughs. Barkley can save at a number of floating truck pumps dotted around the place (no, I don't know why either), which spew out disturbingly serious critiques of Eastern vs Western gaming styles before they divulge the save-game screen. These ludicrous screeds are either a pastiche of Internet forum ramblings, or...well, the chance that they might be real doesn't really bear thinking about.
Were there more space, I'd speak of the excellent, lengthy reference to Chrono Trigger's boring factory section, or the superb set-piece portions of the Liberty Island level involving sugar, or even the joy of unlocking Victorian Steampunk mode - but those are all best left for the player to discover in full.
Like all the best satirical undertakings, BSUJG is motivated by anger and love. The wealth of knowledge contained within reveals a deep, underlying love of the games being sent up, but also anger at the kind of undue reverence they receive. In short, Tales of Game's (sic) has done the fledgling retro-sports-action-based-JRPG-comedy genre proud. Now, enough talk. See you on court.