Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People

Note: This review contains spoilers for Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People.

Even though I wasn’t there at the beginning, I have been a longtime fan of Homestar Runner, a Flash website created by Matt and Mike Chapman (aka The Brothers Chaps) that has been continuously updated on and off since 1996. Though I had not played anything from Telltale Games at the time, their announcement of an episodic game based on the site, Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People (SBCG4AP), caught my interest to where I played each Episode as they came out in 2008 and later bought a physical copy of the entire Season one year at San Diego Comic-Con. While it has been 12 years since I played it as of this writing, during which time Telltale Games famously shut down and the game was eventually delisted from digital storefronts, the COVID-19 pandemic and recent updates to the website after a very lengthy hiatus led to me to revisit the game to see how well it held up. After successfully getting my physical copy to run on Windows 10, I found that it held up much better than I expected and was surprised to see how much the game had stuck with me in all that time.

As with many of Telltale’s other releases, this game, in which you play as the character Strong Bad, uses a point-and-click interface. There are, however, places where you are able to use keyboard controls instead, such as when playing a video game on the Fun Machine. While using mouse controls, you can double click to run faster, while holding down a double click allows you to maintain momentum while dragging the cursor. The HUD itself is also very minimal, with your inventory, map and camera accessible in the upper left corner of the screen.

A screencap featuring the interface, taken from Episode 4.

When you unlock a new location, you can place it on your map and even rearrange the location markers however you like. The map screen has additional pages that keep track of your collectibles and an Awesomeness Rating. Your general actions during gameplay contribute to your Awesomeness Rating, though a guide may be necessary to figure out the right actions to acquire enough points, which I did using the ones available on the highly-comprehensive Homestar Runner Wiki. Most of the time, you cannot obtain the maximum Awesomeness Rating during your initial run, but beating an episode unlocks Extended Play so you can finish the job.

One item that is a constant in each Episode is the Taranchula Black Metal Detector, which can be used in specific locations to obtain some of the game’s hidden collectibles. In Episode 1, you can leave Treasure Markers as a reminder to dig there when you finally acquire a shovel, however it might be possible to forget about said markers unless you follow a guide. Starting from Episode 2, this item is given a shovel attachment that streamlines the process, allowing for instant gratification.

One side activity based on the site’s content allows you to create your very own Teen Girl Squad comics, for which you can gather ideas amongst the other collectibles. Your decisions in how the girls die in each storyline causes Strong Bad to laugh depending on how funny it is, with funnier combination of events giving you higher scores. This, however, gets phased out after Episode 2, since Episode 3 features a non-interactive variant for a side quest and the feature is completely absent as of Episode 4.

Fittingly for Telltale, SBCG4AP is presented in an episodic format consisting of five Episodes, originally released on a monthly schedule. Each Episode has its own stand-alone narrative, however there is some minor continuity between them, which ultimately comes to a head in Episode 5. As such, I will explain the plot of each Episode individually as well as how they differ from each other gameplay-wise as needed.

Episode 1 – Homestar Ruiner

Strong Bad receives a sbemail asking him to beat the snot out of Homestar Runner. When he leaves to fulfill this request, Strong Bad arrives at the Track to discover Homestar has entered the Free Country USA Triannual Race to the End of the Race (FCUTRER), in the hopes of winning the Free Country USA Triannual Race to the End of the Race Silver Trophy of Ultimate Destiny (FCUTRERSTUD). Strong Bad then figures he can beat Homestar this way by making him look bad.

One of the hidden collectibles exclusive to this episode is hidden Coach Z Trophies, which you unlock by completing specific actions over the course of the Episode. However, the specific actions required can be hard to figure out on your own, especially since many of them are time sensitive, necessitating consulting one of the aforementioned walkthroughs to make sure you unlock all four Trophies. Thankfully, these were removed in subsequent Episodes, making for a much smoother experience.

Episode 2 – Strongbadia the Free

While checking his emails, Strong Bad answers one in his usual style, which somehow summons the King of Town. It is then revealed that the King of Town has instituted a new Email Tax and places Strong Bad under house arrest when is unable to pay. Once he manages to figure out how to bypass security, Strong Bad seeks to amass an army to overthrow the King of Town.

One thing to note is that, unlike other Episodes, the map cannot be manipulated here, rather it takes the form of a map from the fictional board game Maps & Miniatures. This fits in with the war theme of the story as Strong Bad conquers other characters’ makeshift countries, and even comes back later during the endgame as part of an interesting minigame. The map returns to how it normally works starting from Episode 3, though the different rules in this installment helps it to stand out from the others.

Episode 3 – Baddest of the Bands

As Strong Bad tries to play Limozeen’s Hot Babelian Odyssey, the Fun Machine breaks. Bubs can repair it, however the repairs cost more than Strong Bad can afford. Strong Bad then comes up with an idea to raise the money by starting a Battle Royale of the Bands, managing to get Limozeen involved as guest judges.

There aren't any major gameplay differences in this installment, however it does introduce a Microphone item not found in any of the others. By singing into the microphone at specific spots, you can uncover some of the Episode's hidden collectibles.

Episode 4 – Dangeresque 3: The Criminal Projective

After five years in real life, Strong Bad finally completes Dangeresque 3: The Criminal Projective, the third film in his Dangeresque film series, and hosts a screening at the House of Strong. In the film, Dangeresque (Strong Bad) is commissioned by Cutesy Buttons (Marzipan) to find a formula that can help save the rainforest. With the help of his partner Renaldo (Coach Z), Dangeresque succeeds, but he returns to find that Cutesy Buttons was kidnapped by a mysterious assailant.

One thing I like about this Episode is the presentation. The in-universe Dangeresque series consists of low-budget films directed by and starring Strong Bad, so I appreciate how they went the extra mile to make it look like a low-budget production, including awkward editing and the use of poorly-made practical effects. A couple such moments that still stood out to me were Strong Sad having mo-cap stuff on him only for the monster he was supposed to be to not have actually been rendered in post, and a scene transition where a background cutout falls over and then the shot immediately cuts to it standing upright again before it hits the ground.

Episode 5 – 8-Bit is Enough

Immediately following the events of Episode 4, Strong Bad’s jump off his couch to escape an angry mob ends with him landing on the Trogdor! arcade cabinet. This somehow causes the machine to come to life, though Strong Bad has to be convinced that it’s a bad thing. After a faulty attempt to fix the machine, the boundary between reality and video games breaks down, leading Strong Bad to have to find a way to reverse it.

One feature I neglected to explain was the camera. This is normally used to take screenshots, which can be used in conjunction with collectible costume items and the in-game Photo Booth. In this chapter, the camera is given an additional usage, where you can take snapshots of ghosts in certain spots to reveal more collectibles.

Taken as a whole, the writing and sense of humor are very on-point for Homestar Runner, each installment feeling just like one of the site’s Toons, or an extended sbemail in the case of Episode 1. Helping this is some stellar voice acting from the site’s three main voice actors, with Missy Palmer returning as Marzipan and Matt Chapman voicing every major character while his brother Mike Chapman goes uncredited. The same recording of Mike Chapman blowing bubbles into chocolate milk is even recycled once again for Pom Pom’s voice. This also makes it worth playing the Tutorial before playing the main game, both to get a good grasp on the controls and because the events are framed in a funny way.

The music also sounds like it would fit right in with the Homestar Runner universe, though some tracks are more memorable than others. One such track is the original song “Handle My Style” in Episode 1, which is also used as a leitmotif for the Field in the same chapter, while Episode 3 appropriately features the occasional metal guitar riff as well as a metal version of the Teen Girl Squad theme. Due to its plot centering on video games, the opening logo sequence for Episode 5 uses an alternate mix of the Videlectrix theme that can also be heard in-game, which is incidentally my favorite rendition of the piece.

The visual design replicates the style of Homestar Runner perfectly, such that the Flash designs translate surprisingly well to the third dimension in a way that still holds up today, including the animations. The backgrounds are also perfect recreations of those found on the site, while at the same time giving a good idea of what the layout of the House of Strong actually looks like. There is otherwise no cohesive layout of locations in relation to each other aside from what can be found in the Field, but that fits right in with the internal logic of the Flash series. In a nice touch, the main and pause/options menus also replicate the appearance of the site’s main page(s), including the main page having Strong Bad or other characters speak when each menu option is hovered over. On that note, the options menu also gives you a choice of screen resolution, and in my case the game looked a lot better when I selected a widescreen (1600x900) view.

Homestar Runner Main Page 1

SBCG4AP Episode 3 title screen

There were some minor issues I faced during my playthrough that are more nitpicky, such as the occasional grammatical error in on-screen text and subtitles or character’s eyes occasionally disappearing for a split second when the camera switches over to them. I also faced an issue in Episode 5 where, upon saving my game and quitting, the screen froze on the last thing I saw and wouldn’t let me change over to another window. Restarting my computer was enough to fix the issue and I didn’t face it again beyond that instance.

I will mention that the Collector’s DVD includes some extra video content when played in a DVD player. One of these features is Dangeresque THREE in 3D, an eight-minute condensed retelling of Dangeresque 3: The Criminal Projective in anamorphic 3D (the type that uses those cheap cardboard red and blue glasses), using footage from the game. It’s not a perfect retelling, however it does fulfill the promise Strong Bad made back in 2003.

Also worth mentioning is that, while I was playing SBCG4AP again, the new Telltale Games relisted it, along with Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Adventures and Telltale Texas Hold’em, on both Steam and GOG, finally giving players who missed out the first time another chance to play it. While I did have the foresight to purchase the physical collection when I had the chance, this relisting made me seriously consider buying a digital copy anyway in case something were to happen to it.

SBCG4AP holds up well as a solid addition to the Homestar Runner body of work. The writing and visuals perfectly replicate those of the website on which they are based, making it an easy recommendation for fans who have not yet experienced the game. That said, the website’s trademark style of humor and the way SBCG4AP expands on its point-and-click gameplay make it worth playing for fans of the gameplay style who are not already fans of Homestar Runner.

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