Telltale Games have been developing some of the most prominent and downright hilarious adventure games of the past several years, while Homestar Runner has been responsible for one of the most popular and ridiculously enjoyable Flash cartoons of this millennium. It may seem fate, then, that these two forces would one day collide to produce the most offbeat adventure game in recent memory, but not even Nostradamus could have predicted the result would be titled Strong Bad’s Cool Game For Attractive People. But here we are playing the green-eyed, glove-fisted former villain’s groundbreaking WiiWare release, Strong Bad Episode 1: Homestar Ruiner, on the assumption that we, too, are cool and attractive. After repeatedly harassing Telltale Games to release some of their first-rate adventure games on the Wii, such as the excellent Sam & Max, it seems like a dream come true, even if no one in his or her right mind was dreaming of a game based on the Homestar Runner web comic.
As the most popular Flash cartoon around, Homestar Runner has prospered as a discreet operation with a certifiably cult following. It’s set in Free Country, USA - just your average American town, complete with a derelict drive-thru speaker that offers profound insight, a concession stand that sells everything from pretend candy to lawn-mowers, and a castle inhabited by its ruler and his personal Poopsmith. The cartoon generally follows the frolicking adventures of Homestar Michael/Hal Runner, a dim-witted star athlete, and his group of friends and acquaintances, such as his on-and-off-again girlfriend Marzipan, his best friend Pom Pom, and the Brothers Strong. Collectively, their escapades hark back to a time when all cool and attractive kids scribbled their own derisive comics, made sound effects while playing awesomely crude videogames, and positively tormented their younger brothers. In fact, if you grew up in the late '80s-early '90s then your imagination likely concocted adventures similar to the ones in Homestar Runner, and in those imaginary fantasies every boy was Strong Bad.
Not unlike The Simpsons, in which most episodes focus on the antics of everyman Homer Simpson while every kid who grew up watching the series knew that his son, Bart, was what made the show cool, Strong Bad makes Homestar Runner look bad. He’s the complex kind of guy who gets off on playing pranks on anyone less freakishly awesome than he and fancies himself a bit of a criminal mastermind, but isn’t above appreciating the joys of soaking in a bubble bath or a good old-fashioned session of dress-up. He’s a short and stocky dude with a luchador mask for a face and boxing gloves for hands, but in his mind his muscles are so bulging that his styles are left no room to hide. In reality, he’s a bullish nerd whose sarcastic wit, combined with an extensive use of simple, often demeaning adjectives, has conspired to make him the most popular character in the cartoon, not to mention the obvious choice of protagonist for a videogame adaptation.
Strong Bad’s daily life revolves around checking email on his Lappy 486, playing Videlectrix games, drawing Teenage Girl Squad cartoons and playing pranks on anyone who gets in the way of his styles. Accordingly, much of the gameplay in Homestar Ruiner revolves around such activities. Each episode will include a retro-styled videogame (Snake Boxer 5, in this case) as well as an original TGS comic and a load of emails. These all prove to be enjoyable, if fleeting, hobbies that establish congruency and meaning in Strong Bad’s '90s-obsessed lifestyle. Potentially, if they properly build upon these activities in future episodes, they could establish a remarkably relatable yet satirical character that is practically unheard of in most current videogames. As it stands, they are the epitome of fan service at best and mildly amusing diversions at worst.
Beyond encouraging you to embrace your inner Strong Bad, Homestar Ruiner’s overall plot and progression are structured like an interactive cartoon and that’s essentially what the game is as a whole. The progression is strictly linear and, honestly, could only occasionally be referred to as proper gameplay. Most, if not all, challenges are a mere case of connecting the dots or following a vague series of steps to advance the story, which isn’t even as easy or intuitive as would seem due to some rather ambiguous objectives. Truthfully, much of the game involves clicking on everything possible and trying to find a use for all the “surprisingly useful, useless crap” through trial-and-error. Towards the end there are a few decent puzzles, but their solutions follow that similar confounding pattern. This is compounded by the fact that the game’s pacing relies heavily on the haphazard nature of the cartoon.
While the writing is certainly strong, this episode might follow the cartoon a little too closely in that you’ll often wonder if you’re watching a game or playing a cartoon. Part of this is a testament to Telltale Games’ ability to recreate the look and feel of the cartoon itself. The graphics approximate the 2D look in a 3D environment about as well as possible and everything from the voice acting to the pleasant, low-key music is straight out of the web comic. However, the stilted pacing and vague gameplay may leave you wondering if you’d be better off just watching the cartoon in the first place. Moreover, if you aren’t a fan of the genre, then this episode will do little to convince you - and if you are, then it will do even less to surprise you.
As a whole, SBCG4AP has the potential to be a hilariously offbeat rendition of a dying breed of videogames. Assuming Telltale Games expands the reach and scope of the gameplay in each successive episode, they will have a cult hit on their hands if indeed they don’t already. Unfortunately, the first episode doesn’t definitively establish itself as a proper videogame as much as it is a charming adaptation of the Flash cartoon. As well as Telltale Games did at offering a tremendous service to fans of Homestar Runner, they are only occasionally able to prove that playing a cartoon is better than watching one.