If you were fortunate enough to grow up in the era of Nintendo's ground-breaking 64-bit masterpiece (the N64), chances are you're well acquainted with a certain British video game company known as Rare. Rare were arguably the largest non-Nintendo developer for the system, coming out with bona fide video game royalty and mainstays of the late '90s to early '00s. Whether it was revolutionizing the first person shooter genre with games like Goldeneye 007 and Perfect Dark, or creating gaming Hall of Famers like Banjo-Kazooie, if you saw the iconic Rare logo after popping a cartridge into your N64, you knew you were in for a good time. One of their more infamous titles, however, was a little game known as Conker's Bad Fur Day.
Released in 2001, Conker's Bad Fur Day received immense critical acclaim when it hit store shelves. It deviated heavily from the typical games that Nintendo was green-lighting at the time. Instead of being a family-friendly, safe experience, Conker was raunchy, violent, mean-spirited, and achieved one of the rare "M for Mature" ratings on the system. It follows the titular Conker - a red squirrel adorned in a blue zip-up hoodie - the day after his big 21st birthday blowout bash. The game starts with him waking up after his night of revelry, in a pub far from home and with an awful hangover. His only goal is to get home to his girlfriend Berri in one piece, making as much cash as possible in the process. From there, the eponymous Bad Fur Day ensues, leading Conker through all manner of hi-jinks in this unfamiliar land. Little does he know, however, the tyrannical Panther King has put a bounty on Conker's head, for he is a red squirrel. What are red squirrels perfect for? Literally replacing the broken leg for his end table (they are the perfect height after all) to prevent his milk from spilling, of course! From fighting giant piles of sentient excrement to cutting through swaths of the undead in a vampire fortress, Conker has quite the adventure on his way back to his couch, all the while avoiding the Panther King's men. If that sounds absolutely bonkers, that's because it is. These humorous novelties are rare during Nintendo's first foray into 3D gaming, as what was released on the N64 was highly regulated and scrutinized by the company.
Nowadays, while the humor still has its brilliant moments, it tends to come across more as "demented 12-year old's mind run amuck" than biting social commentary or anything even really that offensive.
Conker and controversy
As soon as you boot up Conker's Bad Fur Day you're met with the foul-mouthed squirrel violently bisecting the N64 logo with a chainsaw before letting out a cheeky "marvelous." The game wastes no time showing the player why it was so controversial when it first released all those years ago. Nowadays, video games showing adult content is nothing new. Some of the most popular games that come out each year are bloody, disturbing, and tackle some philosophical or otherwise adult situations. This is 2001 we're talking about though, and it was a different world. Movies like Jackass dominated the zeitgeist, and comedy was in an interesting place. Conker's Bad Fur Day is almost a time capsule of comedic ideology of the time. As the multitude of fart jokes and innuendo cascade through the TV screen, you can almost feel the mid-western-mother levels of outrage that would have come along with Conker's release. An adorable mascot, a bubbly and colorful world filled with that Rare charm, accompanied by (at the time) some of the most deplorable filth available for major release, on a platform known for its child-friendly content. There's truly a sense that the idea was "anything goes" in the writer's room. Needless to say, it garnered a lot of controversy, and that infamy has helped seal Conker's Bad Fur Day as a classic of the era.
Nowadays, while the humor still has its brilliant moments, it tends to come across more as "demented 12-year old's mind run amuck" than biting social commentary or anything even really that offensive. Aside from some antiquated views of sexuality and the female body, most of what's in Conker's Bad Fur Day would be shown on a modern episode of South Park and not even be one of the controversial episodes. They bleep out the majority of the foul language, for goodness sake. That being said, the places this game go are so ridiculous that it remains the main selling point to this day. Every time a new location opens up, you have absolutely no idea what to expect. One world sees you riding a huge raptor, taking massive fleshy chunks out of a giant caveman's ass, another has Conker turn into a bat and fly through the fortress of his ancient vampiric ancestor, offering the local village population for him to feed on, while yet another is an over-the-top parody of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, complete with teddy bear Nazis to gleefully gun down known as Tediz. That sort of lunacy gives the game an undeniable identity that follows it all throughout.
Another rarity for the N64 is the fact that the game is entirely voice acted. Cartridges are expensive and typically unable to hold a lot of data due to their small memory, and the audio files necessary for voice acting can take up a lot of that precious space. Regardless, every character that has a speaking roll is voice acted in fully animated cutscenes, and it's very refreshing to see in a game like this. The voice acting itself is delightfully bizarre. The delivery has inflections in all the wrong places, with incredibly strange speaking patterns. On top of this, the voice actors are very obviously British or otherwise European individuals trying to do American valley girl/Brooklyn gangster accents, making for some baffling line reads. It's all so delectably strange, and guarantees you remember the dialogue and sometimes brutal cutscenes that take place throughout the runtime. Conker himself is painted as a sort of parody of the "lovable goof" cliche, coming across as more of a sociopath than a sympathetic hero. He kills without remorse and uses other people to get what he needs, but in this world that Rare created, that's par for the course. All the intentional weirdness gives the game an ageless charm that compels you to play it more, just to see what other untethered madness the developers could put into reality.
Like most Rare games, Conker's Bad Fur Day also offers a robust multiplayer suite that's definitely worth playing. For its emphasis being on single player, there's plenty of extras in the multiplayer mode that add to the value of the title. Whether it's standard death match with a variety of visceral and comedic weaponry, asymmetric game modes centering around raptors and cavemen, or a surprisingly compelling racing mode, Conker's Bad Fur Day is a guaranteed fun evening for you and your friends or family.
That being said, how does the game actually feel to play in 2022?
In short: utterly atrocious.
No amount of poop jokes can make this level of tedium bearable, with many sections beat out of pure spite and little else.
Ageing like milk
Don't get me wrong, I understand the limitations of a console as old and janky as the N64. As special as that console is and always will be to me and millions of other people, objectively playing it in modern times can be challenging. The controller is weird and unresponsive, and the console itself has consistent and pervasive frame drops. When I say that Conker does not feel good to play, it's taking these factors into account. When playing Rare's other gems, be it Banjo-Kazooie or Perfect Dark, it feels like it's possible to learn the controls and wrap your head around how movement works. In Conker's Bad Fur Day however, I went through the whole game struggling with the controls. This wouldn't be too big of a problem if the game wasn't also tough as nails and wasn't intentionally designed around the controls being difficult to grasp. Games like Dark Souls are difficult because it's up to the player to discover movement patterns and master the systems put in place. Conker's Bad Fur Day feels terrible to play because those systems are intentionally used against you. Half of the game is a platformer, requiring pinpoint jumps and timing around enemies. The other half is a third/first person shooter, using the N64's one stick controller to the detriment of itself. While both of these control schemes are technically playable, both of them have intense issues.
When platforming, Conker's shadow is nowhere to be found. This, again, wouldn't be a problem, but the controls are incredibly touchy, the textures are muddy and difficult to discern from one-another, and the camera is constantly battling you. There are numerous occasions throughout the run time where the difficulty of the stage is deliberately designed around the fact that the game controls like mud. There are multiple sections of the stages (such as the race in the dinosaur chapter Uga Buga) that can take upwards of twenty or thirty tries to succeed on. This isn't because they're cleverly designed and smartly implemented, it's because there is only one specific way to clear a section with tons of extra RNG-based obstacles thrown in the way for good measure. The novelty and interest in these sections starts to fade rapidly as you try over and over and over again to get past one small section of one stage. Repetition and memorization are the only way to get through, with skill being thrown to the side for the sake of frustration. No amount of poop jokes can make this level of tedium bearable, with many sections beat out of pure spite and little else.
The shooting sections are even more difficult to comprehend. Our beautiful modern sensibilities have deluded our memory of the before times. A lot of control schemes - especially shooting controls - have been standardized. One stick moves the player, the other controls the camera, the left trigger aims and the right trigger fires. If you pick up any shooter from the last ten years, this will most likely be the way the game works. It was not so in 2001. Control schemes were the Wild West, and we were the pioneers trying to navigate it all. In Conker, if you want to aim, you have to hold down the L button on the controller. This, in turn, pulls the reticle over Conker's shoulders (or in the case of the bazooka, a first person perspective.) The left stick, which was previously used for movement, becomes the stick that controls the camera and aims your gun. The C buttons (four buttons pointing in the cardinal directions on the right side of the controller) now become your strafing and forward/backward movement. So you aim with your left hand, move with your right hand, and fire with your left hand.
Again, I understand this antiquated system is a result of developers trying to circumnavigate the weird N64 controller, but it feels so unbelievably unnatural that it makes these sections nearly impossible. Couple this with the fact that enemies can very easily swarm you and quickly eat away at your minuscule health, and the shooting sections become an exercise in cautious frustration. Because of this, sections like the vampire castle chapter and the war chapter rapidly degrade from funny and wacky to monotonous and frustrating. Tediz are a hilarious concept until you have to inch your way down a hallway filled with them while they hit you from across the level with pinpoint accuracy and freeze you in your tracks, thus opening you up to take more damage. It gets old quickly.
Ultimately, Conker's Bad Fur Day feels like a game that needed another six months of polish. Little issues serve as constant reminders of this. There's a life system, with severed tails on hooks serving as another life for Conker. This normally isn't a problem, but the checkpoint system is extremely generous, so a running out of lives results in nothing more than the inconvenience of skipping the game over cut scene and reloading the game, rendering the life system redundant. There's small glitches and bugs found throughout. The overworld is nonsensical and confusing. You must complete the game in a certain order, but that order is rarely conveyed meaning you run around in circles trying to find the next area.
Conker's way...or else
That is the real crux of the issue. Conker's Bad Fur Day is a charming, interesting, inviting experience that is marred by it's necessity to be played specifically. The devs don't recommend you play it the way they intend, rather demanding that you do, with outside-the-box thinking and exploration being actively punished. It's upsetting, because I really wanted to love this game while I played it, but it was too frustrating to allow myself to really be swept away by it. The game's theater is an awesome reminder of how life used to be twenty years ago - where taboo comedy sat in a pre-meme age. The world is fascinating and unhinged, with absolutely no semblance of right and wrong to be found. The gameplay quirks and control problems unfortunately just detract from the experience too much for me to actually recommend the game to anyone in 2022, outside of an evening with friends in the multiplayer. Apparently the original Xbox rerelease titled Conker: Live & Reloaded fixes a lot of these issues, and for many is the preferred way of experiencing the game. I hope that's true, because as it stands, Conker's Bad Fur Day for the N64 is a sometimes brilliant relic of a train wreck that you can't quite look away from.
The Great and Mighty Poo will always be a classic, though.
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