This week, I'm playing through the first episode of Telltale Game's 2008 episodic animated adventure series, Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People, entitled Homestar Ruiner. Based on Matt and Mike Chapman's popular Homestar Runner universe, the series stars the popular character Strong Bad, a luchador masked wrestler of indeterminate age and o'erweening braggadocio, though his plans rarely come to the fruition he envisions. I'll be playing this game on the PC (on a laptop with limited graphics capabilities, so please excuse the aliasing and muddy textures visible in most of these screenshots):
I wasn't very familiar with Homestar Runner before I played this series on the Wii back in 2008, but I really took to the world and its cast over the course of the series. The game's quirky humor benefits greatly from extensive writing and voice-acting participation by the brothers Chapman (Matt voices all the male characters himself), and the original cartoons' Flash-animated style translates remarkably well to simple 3-D. The point-and-click user interface is simplified, with object and icon-driven conversations instead of text options, and a free-form map that lets the player decide where new locations go, with no fixed geography or walking from location to location. Like many Telltale games, the system provides hints at a tailorable level -- Low, High, and Medium -- which in general determines how often, and how explicitly, characters will suggest ways to get story progress back on track.
There's a long-standing debate about video game protagonists -- should they be silent, for the sake of the player's freedom to identify and interpret? Or strongly characterized, as in most animated adventure games? In this case, Strong Bad is a fun protagonist to play -- we don't have to agree or sympathize with his worldview to enjoy the experience, which pokes fun at the "hero" more often than not even as we strive to help him accomplish his goals (or some half-baked approximation thereof.)
This premiere episode begins with Strong Bad answering a fan email suggesting he should just "beat the snot out of" his longtime rival, the sweet if brainless ostensible lead character Homestar. But complications are likely to ensue...
As always, I encourage interested readers to tackle Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People - Episode 1: Homestar Ruiner (SBCG4AP 1: HR for... short?) before proceeding with my comments below. Much of the game's humor has nothing to do with solving the puzzles, and this is a game that should be experienced as fully as possible if you find the style entertaining. Be advised that beyond this point, there will most certainly be...
***** SPOILERS?!? OH, MAN! ******
The game opens with a musical cartoon intro featuring Strong Bad's song, Handle My Style, written for the game series by the Chapman brothers. It sets up the Homestar Runner universe quite nicely in a brief period of time, at least from Strong Bad's perspective.
Strong Bad reads his email, we're informed that Homestar is probably down at the race track, and the first destination outside the House of Strong is added to the map. We can jump from any known location to any other simply by bringing up the map and clicking on a destination.
There's a classic Sierra adventure reference early on -- next to Strong Bad's Lappy 486 computer is a case of diskettes. The first is labeled P. Quest, and Strong Bad mentions that it contains "Disks 1 through 24 of all my favorite games!" (I have to say, I personally do not miss the days of media swapping!)
We can't get into Strong Sad's room (the domicile of Strong Bad's emo brother), at least not in this episode, though he will show up to comment on things from time to time. So it's down to the ground floor to check out the kitchen. There's nothing useful here at the moment, though there are some funny lines concerning the fridge, the sink, the smoke detector, the microwave, and some awkwardly homey wall hangings. There's a See Dee Player (the series often adopts overly literal spellings for techno-gadgetry) which features a number of tunes including some BritPout 90's emo rock, Coach Z's latest rap demo, some chamber music, and a Latin rhythm number.
Strong Bad's room contains his 7-track player, Fun Machine video game console, metal detector, and a Videlectrix poster ("We use computers to make video games!") We also find Strong Bad's drawing table, where we can play a mini-game featuring Strong Bad's comic strip, Teen Girl Squad. We don't have to do this, but the goal is to match a selection of props with the right character at the right point in the storyline to ensure that all the girls meets an untimely, cartoonishly violent end. Strong Bad's sense of humor is sometimes of the He-Man Woman Hater's club variety, and his vocalizations gratingly falsetto, though this all plays more as unfamiliarity with the mysterious opposite sex than genuine misogyny ("That sassy, injury-prone Teen Girl Squad!") Strong Bad has misplaced some of his gag ideas, which can be tracked down in the game world to set up the best possible sequences.
The Fun Machine features the Videlectrix game Snake Boxer 5, also optional -- it's an 8-bit style game with mildly 16-bit graphics. Gameplay is simple punch/block/move stuff from an overhead perspective, as a boxer battles progressively more difficult snakes. There's a secret code for the "hidden mode," but it's written down in the manual, also missing at the moment for more optional collect-'em-up play.
The basement features some visual-only jokes with no commentary dialogue -- college sports pennants for Mediocre Institute's Flying Okays, for example. Strong Bad can knock The Cheat, the family's scary-smart cheetah-like friend-slash-pet, into the washing machine, for no apparent reason. The rec room's TV set is playing an infomercial (with uncredited and unintelligible narration by Jared Emerson-Johnson), and the Trogdor arcade cabinet is out of order (this will become a plot element in a later episode.)
There's nothing to do at the house right now, plotwise, so it's time to head out to the track to see what's going on with Homestar Runner. But first, we may notice that outside the house is a suspicious box, under which is hidden... nothing. Strong Bad's snail mailbox contains a black cap, which goes into the Photo Booth inventory, for an optional dress-up activity.
Music, largely drawn and rearranged from the Homestar Runner cartoons, is employed well and sparingly -- it's not constant, but when we transition to new areas it kicks in and then fades out eventually.
An icon-driven conversation at the track establishes that beating Homestar in the Free Country USA Tri-Annual Race to the End of the Race would be a suitable way to "beat" him, and that his girlfriend Marzipan has promised him a big victory party if he wins. We can also learn that Marzipan may be using Strong Bad's Snake Boxer 5 manual for -- horrors! -- a papier mache project. Homestar then has an annoying (to him) phone conversation with Marzipan, leading him to boot his cell phone into the nearby field and head off to the locker room.
We can explore the track and the race's obstacles freely, though we can't interact with some objects while Coach Z is keeping an eye on everything. There's a funny 80's music joke here, as Strong Bad notes that the bleachers are currently "emptier than a Stryper concert." The race requires contestants to cross a rolling log in a swimming pool, ride a pogo stick carrying a Heavy Lourde (Coach Z's Minnesota-inflected pronunciation of "heavy load"), and jump over three obstacles -- a carton of curdled milk, a large turtle, and a conventional track hurdle (and yes, I missed the rhyming joke completely back in 2008!) We can't mess with the camera or the microphone at the side of the track, at least while Coach Z is hanging around, but conversation with the coach establishes that, in order to win, a racer must beat the previous record from all previous races. Coach Z has established a time of 22:00, back in 1999, and it's too late for Strong Bad to enter, as the deadline passed a month ago. Only Homestar and Pom Pom will be competing (Coach Z: "Maybe we shoulda put up some flyers or somethin'.")
As Strong Bad enters the locker room, an icon pops up indicating that new email awaits him at home, but first we ought to talk to Homestar some more -- Strong Bad can suggest he shower, presumably so we can get at his locker, but he's not going anywhere right now. Pom Pom's locker contains his extravagantly expensive training bag; a central locker is empty; and (beefy brother) Strong Mad's locker contains his Limozeen (a popular rock band in the Homestar Runner universe) -- "but they're in space!" -- lunchbox.
As we leave the race track, Strong Bad thinks he should go give Marzipan a piece of his mind about not inviting him to Homestar's presumed victory party, so we can add her house to the map, and we might as well go there now.
There are some balloons tied to Marzipan's mailbox, but we can't just take them ("Do you know hard it is to find eco-friendly mylar?") Can we use the metal detector here? Strong Bad reports that "this little patch of ground already's horked up its share of treasure today" -- so no. Strong Bad can engage Marzipan in conversation -- he has not been invited due to a past (and very funny) cake-diving incident, fully animated in flashback though we don't ever need to see this moment:
We can also discover that Marzipan's hedge trimmers -- presumably to use on the inviting hedges scattered around the map -- are in "the shop," that is, at Bubs' Concession Stand -- and that the Snake Boxer 5 manual has been given to Coach Z. Marzipan has built a big Homestar float, and we can pick some onions from her award-winning organic garden (the main reason she is having the party, though nobody wanted to come until she made it Homestar-centric.)
Bubs is the rotund, blue-faced proprietor of the local concessions stand and all-purpose retail outlet, who sounds a bit like Bill Cosby. We can inquire about business, and acquire Marzipan's repaired hedge clippers. We can also find the cover to the Snake Boxer 5 manual (rendered in classic Activision/Atari 2600 style) under a box.
Back at home, new emails ask whether Homestar's or Strong Bad's head is bigger -- a hint of sorts -- and promote Total Load Total Body Fitness Energy Enhancement Powder, prompting Strong Bad to request a free sample. We can also use the metal detector -- it operates on an audio-driven hot/cold basis as we wander around the landsape -- in the Strongs' front yard and at the track. When we identify a hot spot, Strong Bad plants a flag; we don't have anything we can use to dig it up just yet. We can also find a hot spot in the Strongbadia USA area -- a small area near Bubs' stand that serves as a sort of sovereign clubhouse -- and map out some other Homestar Runner landmarks near Bubs', like the Cool Car, the stick, the Drive-Thru Whale, and the wall, as well as the photo booth. Another cardboard box conceals a blue Data Boys shirt with an embroidered floppy disk logo, for costume use in the photo booth. (I'll note that the Whale's intentionally garbled fast-food speaker pronouncements are much clearer in the PC version than in the WiiWare version, where file size limitations seem to have impacted the compression of this already noisy material.)
The hedge trimmers can be used to turn ugly hedges into topiary -- a guitar near Bubs' stand, Homestar at Marzipan's (with real-leaf fig leaf), and Strong Bad at the track. There's a fourth one, the game stats menu suggests, which must be at an undiscovered location at this point. Meanwhile, a confirmation email indicates that the Total Load powder is on its way to Bubs' -- he's the local distributor, as the only commercial establishment in town. We can goof around with the light switch and the oh-so-psychedelic Rave Switch in Strong Bad's computer room too (there's a bug somewhere here that seems to turn on the subtitles?) The powder has not arrived yet, so another email is pending it seems.
Coach Z has passed the game manual on to Bubs; we can also discuss the race further to learn that any victory must be confirmed via video tape sent to the international ruling body in Sweden. Bubs provides page 1 of the manual, covering the game's backstory about Boxer Joe being forced to return to the ring (after Snake Boxer 4) by the Snake Mafia -- so that's progress, though two pages are still missing. (Yes, collecting the manual pages is just as optional as some of the activities I'm not detailing here. No, I could not resist restoring an Atari-era manual to readable order given the opportunity.)
Strong Bad can use Homestar's cell phone to call Marzipan and tell her the race is about to begin; Pom Pom to ask him not to beat Homestar too badly; the Cheat to suggest he attack Homestar and steal his boombox; himself to hear his cheesy come-on recording for attractive women who may be calling to offer hot tubs and pork rinds; and Coach Z to pin responsibility on Homestar for putting itching powder in his athletic garb, though "he's never complained about it."
While Marzipan is at the track, we can steal her balloons and collect some hedge trimmings which I failed to notice after the topiary work done earlier. From Marzipan's, we can call Bubs' phone tree and Homsar, a sort of bizarro Homestar whose goofy nonsensical pronouncements are always good for a laugh or at least some confusion. ("Step right up! I'm a crudely drawn cupcake!")
We can convince Homestar to apply onions to his body as a speed enhancer, which he does enthusiastically, immediately making it possible to convince him he should take a shower so we can steal his clothes from the middle locker. A cutscene establishes that the now-streaking Homestar (with digital censoring matrix of course) has offended everyone at the track -- the King of Town and Coach Z in particular. Having the clothes in inventory suggests an idea -- we can call Marzipan to the track again, and use the hedge trimmers to liberate the head from the Homestar float. Strong Bad inadvertently burns the float down with its own tiki torches in the process -- so that's a bonus.
Now Strong Bad can don his improvised Homestar Costume -- which fools everyone, though some comment about his strangely enlarged head -- and enter the race. The remarkably bouncy and athletic Pom Pom scores a time in the 5 second neighborhood, while in my playthrough I couldn't even get Strong Bad-as-Homestar across the log, and had to quit the race after a few minutes of trying.
So "Homestar" loses, Marzipan drops him, he's threatened with prosecution for indecent exposure, and victory is... oh, fudge. Now that Homestar is a wanted fugitive and a disgraced race contestant without a girlfriend, he's hiding out at the House of Strong. Strong Bad shouts to the heavens: "Irony!"
The game's second act requires us to undo all the evil done in the first act, restoring Homestar to normality and getting him out of Strong Bad's house, where he seems to be everywhere we look. Homestar is trying to cook up some candy in Strong Bad's kitchen to earn
Marzipan's affections back; in the basement rec room, he is tracking the manhunt
for his indecently exposed self, and he desperately wants not to be a
wanted criminal (this adds the King of Town's castle to the map); and at Strong Bad's drawing table, he fantasizes about winning the race.
A few things have changed to help set up the rest of the story. There's a lifetime supply of Jela-Ton brand gelatin in the kitchen, shipped to Homestar as the second-place prize from the race, which we can acquire. There are also some new emails, including confirmation that the Total Load shipment has arrived, and an ad for a free candy coupon for Bubs' stand, to be found at the track. We can also use the microphone there (now that Coach Z has gone indoors to work on Pom Pom's victory paperwork) to discover a costume mustache hidden in the loudspeaker.
At Bubs', with coupons in hand, we can pick up some free candy (chocolate covered organic packing peanuts -- "the kind of candy I give away for free") and pick up the Total Load enhancement powder. We also need to get Homestar to win the race, which we can re-trigger by "accidentally" erasing the race footage in the video camera at the track by pushing the "Do not touch!" Erase button.
Let's visit the King of Town's castle to see if we can destroy Homestar's criminal record. There's a hedge outside we can trim into the semblance of Trogdor (and earn the hedge-trimming trophy, and collect more hedge trimmings for future use.)
Getting into the castle takes some doing -- if Strong Bad is spotted by the Poopsmith (the King's manure-shoveling bodyguard/custodian), he's thrown out of the castle by the guard, Strong Mad. We can acquire a shovel here, and avoid the Poopsmith by hiding behind a King of Town statue and a privacy screen, moving when he's busy shoveling. The second room has a plunger we can pick up, and a conveniently Strong Bad shaped shrub to hide behind.
If we get all the way to the room where Homestar's record is stored, we find it's being guarded by Strong Mad. We have to stick the plunger against a hole in the wall and scuttle through the ventilation system to grab the document. This is apparently the only record in existence, so even though Strong Bad is shortly discovered and tossed out of the castle, having it in his possession frees Homestar from his criminal past.
Now that we have the shovel, we can dig in the metal detector spots (including a new one by the castle) to find the remaining pages of the Snake Boxer 5 manual (including the secret code, which follows a classic pattern -- Up, Up, Down, Up, Start) and a couple of Teen Girl Squad ideas.
The secret game code accesses a mode where the player is also a snake, with fire-breathing power that builds up while blocking. I was able to get to 21 knockouts in this mode, earning some optional awesomeness points, but no story progress, so this is also completely at the player's discretion.
Let's see if we can get the candy delivered to Marzipan on Homestar's unknowing behalf next. Leaving it on the front porch and ringing the bell, we... are dismayed to see the gluttonous King of Town show up and eat the candy before she can get to the door. There are some handy loose dirt holes here, though, and we can always get more candy from Bubs. We need to dig the holes deeper -- complete with a comical montage and rockin' 80's inspirational soundtrack -- and cover them with hedge clippings to set up a "trap fit for a king." Marzipan accepts the candy and calls Homestar, leaving a message indicating that she is willing to be his girlfriend again.
Now we can tackle the primary puzzle, the re-running of the Race to the End of the Race. Checking the standings, we see that Pom Pom finished the race in 05:30, and "Homestar" was disqualified (in my pathetic first attempt.) Let's see if we can even the odds a bit. Adding the Jela-Ton to the water fixes the log in place. Tying the balloons to the weight lightens the Heavy Lourde. The hurdles present more of a challenge -- we can rearrange them, but we'll probably need to run the race once or twice to figure out that the hurdle goes first, the turtle second, and the curdled milk last to match them to Strong Bad's peaking and flagging strength during this leg.
Erasing the tape and re-running the race nigh perfectly pulls in a new "Homestar" time of 15:23 -- better than Coach Z's long-standing record, but not better than Pom Pom's incredible 5.3 second time (listed on the board as 05:30, per the millisecond sub-second standard for stopwatch numbers.) So we need to disqualify Pom Pom somehow, which we can easily accomplish by filling his equipment bag with Total Load enhancing powder and getting Coach Z to inspect the lockers for illegal performance drugs.
Now "Homestar" is the big winner and can presumably leave Strong Bad's home, after we "Pwove it!" by giving him the trophy, his criminal record, and his cell phone so he can get Marzipan's reconciliation message. All should be well... except now there's a big surprise party going on, and almost everyone has invaded the House of Strong's living room.
We have to turn on the See Dee Player's Latin music to get a conga-line going, though for entertainment's sake it's well worth sampling each of the tracks and the various characters' reactions to them. Then we can use a strategically placed banana peel (formerly stuck under the King of Town by the pizza table) and recline the Luxa Lounger to reroute the conga line a bit, to send everyone slipping out the living room window.
Victory is ours -- "in the most direct and least convoluted way"!
Now an "Extended Play" mode is unlocked, giving us extra opportunities to do all the optional activities if we desire and encounter a few bits of post-game content. After the end credits roll, a preview of the second episode, Strong Badia The Free, is shown, and as I've thoroughly enjoyed this series, I'll probably be playing that one fairly soon.