Cheap as Free: Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden, Chapter 1 of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa
December 24, 2012
Broke? Game store closed for the night? If you’re reading this then you’ve got everything you need to play some excellent free games right now! In Cheap as Free, I look at fantastic games that won’t cost you a penny, often developed by people who just love games as much as you do.
The kickstarter for (breathe in deep) The Magical Realms of Tír na nÓg: Escape from Necron 7 – Revenge of Cuchulainn: The Official Game of the Movie – Chapter 2 of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa reached its goal of thirty five grand during its first day, and everything after that has been gravy for the people at Tales of Game’s Studios. They really deserve it after the demented masterpiece they released back in 2008, (take another deep mental breath) Tales of Game’s Presents Chef Boyardee’s Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden, Chapter 1 of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa. It was the first indie game I ever played, and as downright stupid and weird as the game can be, it’s still a ball to play.
Chapter 1 is not a basketball game in a classic sense (putting it lightly). You will be dishing out both slams and jams, but not against another team in order to score points. This is a turn-based RPG, one where basketball has been outlawed ever since Charles Barkley did a Chaos Dunk that killed fifteen million people. B-Ballers have either gone into hiding, been killed, or gone into service with the government to avoid either of those fates. So, like I said, not much like NBA 2K6 at all.
Putting that little bit on paper doesn’t even begin to describe how weird this game can get. It’s the sort of thing that’s much better to experience than to be told, though, as it makes the teller look like he’s lost his mind. The story skirts a very fine line between being outrageous and stupid a lot of the time, but somehow the game always seems to work. The madcap story is played completely straight, with each character taking the events seriously. There’s no hint that anyone, either in the game or among the people who developed it, doesn’t feel that this is a serious journey across a terrible world. That absolutely dry delivery of this insanity seems to keep the more idiotic aspects in check, and always keeps it firmly in the land of comedy.
I laughed a lot while playing the game. I didn’t acknowledge that a few things were kind of silly, but instead I actually laughed. The stuff in this game is just so bonkers and dramatic at the same time that it’s hard to keep a straight face while the characters talk about it. The story behind someone slam dunking a ball so hard that it sets off a nuclear explosion never stops being funny because it feels like I’m looking in on the conversations of lunatics. The sad story behind the man who became the Ghost Dad (Yes, from the terrible Bill Cosby movie) and the budding love interest with Juwanna Mann (Yes, from yet another terrible movie) are cast with such drama that it’s impossible to keep a straight face while playing the game. The game could have been completely terrible, but all of its oddities keep the game so off-kilter that I played it just to see what weird thing was going to happen next.
It is a pretty good game, though. It’s a fun little turn-based RPG, one that takes cues from the timed button presses of Phantasmaburbia. Like Phantasmaburbia, this game’s attacks all use player input to make them more powerful or effective. I enjoy that a lot, but each character also has a wide variety of attacks that can be used during each round. Outside of magic, each character has a handful of available attacks that can be used based on your preference. The variety helped keep combat interesting, although many of the attacks weren’t very good. I tended to stick with a single favorite with each character since the others didn’t seem to be better/worse in certain situations. It was cool to have the options, but in most cases there is a clear winner in damage output.
Even so, many of the enemies have several animations and attacks as well, so game has a lot of nice visuals going on despite it looking like a game from the SNES era. The array of weird beasts that inhabit the game can do all sorts of things to the players, with many of them having four or five attack routines that will keep you from guessing what they’ll do next. None of these attacks is going to blow anyone’s mind, but it was nice to see a lot of visual variety when I was used to most enemies only having an attack or two.
Also, they tend to use many permanent status ailments that need items to be cured, so I found that the tension in combat was quite a bit higher than most modern RPGs. It wasn’t as bad as getting turned to stone in the first Final Fantasy or anything, but coming down with a case of Diabetes (Spelled as Diabeetus in the game) when you don’t have any insulin can be deadly (Yes, you did just read that correctly. I told you the game was weird). You won’t just get better at the end of combat, so there is an element of planning involved in the game that’s been less common outside of Indie RPGs. Even so, there are many effects that don’t really do all that much to the player, so they didn’t make the game as interesting as they could have.
The best way to avoid getting hit with status ailments is to sneak up on the enemies from behind. Like in Earthbound, you can see the enemies on the screen before you engage in a fight, and can sneak up on them to get a free turn. In this game that completely changes combat, as you typically get almost two full turns with your whole party before the enemies get their acts together and fight back. Even with the biggest enemy mobs, there’s rarely more than one or two creatures left alive after those two rounds. That might have been balanced out by the enemies getting that many rounds in if they snuck up on your party, but this never happens. I’ve been extremely careless and positive that I wouldn’t get attacked from behind, but it only ever happened once. The game is very fussy about whether your party gets back-attacked, and while it’s a nice aid for the player, it makes things a little too easy.
Bosses had a chance to turn the game’s difficulty around, as many of them deal a lot of damage and can dole out multiple status ailments to many party members; but the characters’s magical abilities just block the game’s last chance of being challenging. It’s not long before you get a character who can heal just about anything, so status problems go right out the window. Even worse, one of your main characters gets an ability that lowers a few dozens stats with a single spell, so starting up with that spell in any boss fight will make it easy. Even bosses that are supposed to be highly resistant to damage get weak when you hit them with it, making many of the game’s harder fights far too easy. It makes a lot of the game’s cooler combat aspects a little pointless since you are rarely in any kind of danger, so I wish the game had been balanced a little better.
It’s possible for you to miss out on some of those cool spells, though. As a nice touch, there are many little hidden quests and areas in the game that will reward you with new spells and powers. In order to get some of Barkley’s best abilities, you would have to investigate a comment he made in the sewers about a dog wearing a pair of sneakers. Even after I talked to everyone I still didn’t get the items, and had to go back on a later playthrough to get them. Doing that required me to find a hidden dungeon in a room I hadn’t explored quite thoroughly enough, then fighting several optional bosses. It was a nice touch and gave me some real satisfaction in using the spells, as they were useful for the rest of the game. Most RPG side quests only give items that are good for a while, so it was cool to see a reward that was helpful for the rest of the whole game. It made finding the dungeons and side quests that much more rewarding.
The game is short, but it never really felt that way. The side quests and hidden items help the game out, but it’s the amount of dungeons and odd spots that help make the game feel huge. The individual dungeons are only a few rooms each, but they are interlaced with cutscenes that tell the game’s insane story in perfectly-sized bites. The game strikes an extremely careful balance between gameplay sections and story sections, so everything feels like it is taking longer in a good way. It just all feels like it was carefully measured out despite all of the insanity at work and that the developers weren’t just relying on the gonzo story to get players through the game. Most RPGs tend to lean in one direction or another, but this game manages to hit this great balance that made every part of it interesting and fun. The game is only about six to eight hours long, but it never felt like it was overstaying its welcome or that it was barren of content.
I do wish that the game had been a little bit harder at times, but I really couldn’t argue with the amount of fun I had while playing it. The game managed to keep me glued to it for days as I sought out every little secret and hidden oddity. I loved not knowing whether I would be helping a sewer-dwelling furry write a love poem or if I would have to fight someone who turned into a duergar every Columbus Day. The game never let me get bored or complacent, and in doing so managed to keep me interested and dying for more every second I was playing the game.
Tales of Game’s Studios managed to make something unique and amazing with this game, but I always figured that calling it the first part of the saga was just another joke. I’m sure it was for quite a long time, but now they’ve actually got a sequel in the works. Given the quality of the game they created back in 2008, I have complete confidence in these guys to do something amazing yet again. They managed to cobble together a deranged masterpiece from pieces of other games and great ideas from all over the genre. Play this game if you have any doubt in their abilities as a developer, and to see if you’re the sort of person who can appreciate this kind of insanity.
Basketball jokes. Why do I find them funny? WHY?
Tales of Game’s Presents Chef Boyardee’s Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden, Chapter 1 of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa is available for free from the developer’s site. Please support them if you like it!