Friday, February 7, 2014

Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden - It's Time to Slam Jam

Everybody get up, it's time time to slam now...

Warning: The review you are about to read is canon.

When you hear talk of video games in the media, the one genre that seems to come up the least is the RPG, despite it being perhaps one of the most influential. While previously it was very clear cut what made a game an RPG or not (think quests, item management, character levels and parties as primary components), more games in recent years have been incorporating RPG elements into their design to form a hybrid, the FPS/RPG hybrid being the one that immediately comes to mind. The latest Call of Duty games or games such as Borderlands and Fallout 3 are the most well-known of these hybrids and their influence will only continue to spread into the future. Of course, I am not here to talk about the latest advancements, but rather something else, those being a traditional RPG or JRPG (the differences between RPGs and JRPGs are pretty mundane, so I won’t really go into too much detail there). These games are known for their lore-heavy stories and immersive battle systems, Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts being two of the most iconic franchises in this genre. While they can be a little odd in the aforementioned lore that they build up, they can still be rationally explained quickly in such a way that entices whoever is listening into playing the game.

We've got a real jam goin' down... 

This is where Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden comes in. It has a premise so bizarre that not only would it take a little time to explain rationally, perhaps with a full paragraph of text, but it must also be explained in such a bizarre way that whoever is being told the premise must immediately want to play it in an attempt to try and believe you. I will do my best to explain it in the next paragraph. Actually, I’ll just let the developers explain with the description from the official website, just so I don’t misrepresent anything:
“The Great B-Ball Purge of 2041, a day so painful to some that it is referred to only as the “B-Ballnacht”. Thousands upon thousands of the world’s greatest ballers were massacred in a swath of violence and sports bigotry as the game was outlawed worldwide. The reason: the Chaos Dunk, a jam so powerful its mere existence threatens the balance of chaos and order. Among the few ballers and fans that survived the basketball genocide was Charles Barkley, the man capable of performing the “Verboten Jam”…
Flash forward 12 years to the post-cyberpocalyptic ruins of Neo New York, 2053. A Chaos Dunk rocks the island of Manhattan, killing 15 million. When the finger is put on the aging Charles Barkley, he must evade the capture of the B-Ball Removal Department, led by former friend and baller Michael Jordan, and disappear into the dangerous underground of the post-cyberpocalypse to clear his name and find out the mysterious truth behind the Chaos Dunk. Joined by allies along the way, including his son Hoopz, Barkley must face the dangers of a life he thought he gave up a long time ago and discover the secrets behind the terrorist organization B.L.O.O.D.M.O.S.E.S.
A tale of zaubers, b-balls, and atonement; brave dangers unheard of, face spectacular challenges that even the greatest ballers could not overcome, and maybe… just maybe… redeem basketball once and for all in:
Tales of Game’s Studios Presents Chef Boyardee’s Barkley, Shut Up & Jam: Gaiden, Chapter 1 of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa.”
Yes, that last bit is actually the full unabridged title of the game and the only thing the description leaves out is that the events of Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden take place within the same universe as Space Jam. Yes, they refer to the events of Space Jam, or The Space Jam as it is known in-universe, as so important that it serves as the source from which a lot of important explanations and plot details spring forth. The story is absolutely ridiculous in its premise, which includes teaming up with a cyborg Vince Carter, named Vinceborg 2050, or a Cyberdwarf with basketball leather for skin, as well as encounters with such beings as the Ghost Dad and the Diabeastie (incidentally, diabetes is more important to the plot than you think). What I have witnessed in this game sometimes goes beyond the realm of description with plenty of surprises and original ideas thrown about in such a way that I’m worried that anything I say will spoil the experience for someone. It’s all so silly and over-the-top and I just love it. The only other time I’ve really felt so giddy playing through a game like this was the Penny Arcade Adventures titles and I’m actually thrilled when I see so much creativity put into a game’s world (I suppose I’m a sucker for weird universes, because the sillier it sounds the more I feel like I have to seek it out).

Welcome to the Space Jam (Space Jam)...

But beneath all of the weirdness and surreal happenings, the story is actually pretty well-written (not that I expected it to be bad). There is good world building, as we are given a good glimpse into the lives of those who live in post-cyberpocalypse Neo New York and beyond, both the good and the bad. In the wake of the Chaos Dunk, many lives were lost, but communities were also formed and very shady people came out of the woodwork, including a surgical doctor who insists on eye-gouging prices for a change which is ultimately nothing more than cosmetic.

Above all though, I like how the characters were written and worked into the story. Charles Barkley is a man filled with regret for performing that first Chaos Dunk, a man who wants nothing more than to have a good future for his son, Hoopz. He wishes for a world where b-ball no longer needs to be feared or outlawed. As more characters are introduced, we are able to learn enough about them so that they feel fully fleshed out, even if they are only minor characters (though of course some NPCs are pretty flat for the sake of humor). These characters have hopes and dreams, strengths and weaknesses, desires and needs. Their collective journey had moments that made me happy, sad, triumphant and surprised. There is a feeling that these characters are people and not one-dimensional. Perhaps most interestingly, the characters have discussions not only about their own lives and what might have been different, but b-ball is made into a platform for surprisingly serious, though still silly, philosophical conversations about unity and division between people of different backgrounds. I give props to Tales of Game’s for being able to have serious and poignant moments in a world built off of comedic premises.

The game’s combat is also surprisingly well thought out. Combat is done in a turn-based style, complete with a speed stat having an invisible influence on when a turn occurs. Each of the main protagonists has access to a variety of options, all of which are easily accessible. On any of their respective turns, you can choose to try and run away, use an item, try a regular attack or activate a special move; typical RPG stuff. However, it is here that the game gets a bit creative in its moves. Regular attacks aren’t just a matter of selecting which enemy will be on the receiving end, but rather, in the same vein as Paper Mario (so I’ve heard), will require player input, sometimes as a small mini-game or button mashing sequence, to determine the amount of damage dealt. Special attacks trigger animations which cause damage or trigger different status effects and cost varying amounts of BP to activate. Each character also has their own unique combat style: Barkley uses b-ball-based attacks, with BP moves being “Verboten Jams”, Balthios uses zaubers for both regular and special attacks (just go with it), Cyberdwarf is a healer who relies on hand-to-hand combat and Hoopz is a “Gun’sbraster” who uses “gun’s” (the spellings are intentional). Their attacks are all very well-balanced and responsive and it is easy to develop a strategy and change it on the fly to suit the ever-changing situations. Overall, the combat is very fun and I enjoyed being able to kill Slam Spectres, Slam Phantoms, Ball Spiders and other such oddities as I made my way through the game.

Here's your chance, do your dance at the Space Jam...

With that said, the bosses, some of whom are b-ballers themselves, can be very difficult if you don’t know how to use each character’s moveset properly. Learning how to come on top in the mini-games is the key and experimentation is encouraged. You also need to learn how to effectively combine different tactics if you want to weaken the enemy or counter status effects like Montezuma’s Revenge, Diabetes or Glaucoma through magic or with the invaluable healing items (Tobacco can cure any status effect, though Insulin will also be very helpful at one point in the game). If you can properly manage your attacks and healing items (the two most powerful, and expensive, being Chicken Fry and Chicken Dew), you’ll be one step ahead of the bosses no matter what they throw at you. Though fair warning, the Ghost Dad will give you hell no matter how good you are at that point in the game.

Alright (alright)...

It would be hard to discuss the graphics, considering that so much of it relies on stolen assets from other games, but nevertheless I think the mismatched style works in its favor. The game is undeniably a parody of 16-bit JRPGs and manages to capture that feeling perfectly. While perhaps a little off-putting at first, the fact that most everyone has a different sprite between text boxes, the game world and combat is a great source of hilarity. The radically different aesthetics manage to go together perfectly well to capture the world and create a patchwork that is all its own and deeply memorable. The sound effects are also fitting, though I’m sure a lot of these were stolen as well. In any case, be prepared to hear the sound of a b-ball a lot when scrolling the menus. Voice acting is very scant, but the Charles Barkley impressions at the beginning of the game do add a certain charm to the whole affair. I also liked the music, particularly the remix of the Space Jam theme during the title screen, a choice that perfectly captures the essence of the game. Of particular note as well would be the original score that is written well enough as to never get tiring and a particular boss theme, which happens to be the song Eternity ripped straight out of Blue Dragon (complete with the vocals from Deep Purple’s lead singer).

Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden is perhaps one of the funniest games I have ever played. It shows a boundless level of creativity, incredible emotional range and sharp, smart humor that never ceases to end (even the darkest moments can have a kernel of funny without disrupting or derailing the scene). There is just so much care put into the finished product and it hits so many high notes that I’m not entirely sure this review will do it enough justice. The only way to do this game any real justice is to actually play it and I encourage everyone to try it out as it is easily accessible to fans of every sort. You can download the game for free at Tales of Game’s Studios’ website here:

Now I can’t wait to play the next game in the series, known as (get ready): 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.

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