2021 is a year full of too many gaming anniversaries to cover: Sonic the Hedgehog, Metroid, Megaman, Resident Evil, and Pokémon to name a few. But out of all the 2021 birthdays, one stands out from the crowd in history, gameplay, and lasting legacy with less than five titles to its name: Conker’s Bad Fur Day. This series has only two titles to its name and yet has left a lasting impact on pop culture. Many of today’s adult animated shows such as Venture Bros, Clone High, Rick and Morty, and Robot Chicken contain the same DNA of this booze drinking, frying pan swatting, teddy massacring squirrel. But how does it hold up 20 years later when animated crude humor is as common as acorns on trees?
Like many Rareware games at the time, Conker’s initial concept is absolutely nothing like his final incarnation. The squirrel started out as a playable character in the Nintendo 64 kart racer Diddy Kong Racing in order to promote his future games. As development of Twelve Tales: Conker 64 kept getting pushed back, gamers were occupied with the portable title Conker’s Pocket Tales, which would be the last time anyone saw the squirrel in his family friendly form. With the success of Banjo-Kazooie, many entertainment outlets saw Twelve Tales as a generic cartoon platformer that didn’t stand out from the oversaturated market. Rare took notice and decided to take the game in a new direction despite its near completion.
Bad Fur Day
Enter artist Chris Seavor, who was tasked with taking the project in a new direction when the game was on the edge of cancellation. Rare Co-Founder, Tim Stamper gave Seavor a scenario where a bee hive is stolen by a wasp gang. Using his influence from adult shows like South Park, Seavor is quoted with the following passage on the direction that would define the series to this day:
“What can we do with that? Oh I know…we’ll make it violent.”
After receiving approval from the Stamper brothers, Conker’s Bad Fur Day officially entered production which consisted of a lot of improvising between Seavor and composer Robin Beanland. Eventually, Seavor ended up voicing the main character to this day. For this game, we’ll be looking at the Rare Replay edition seeing as the Nintendo 64 cartridge prices between forty to eighty dollars.
Conker the squirrel is begrudgingly king of all the land, reminiscing how he came to be in his current situation. One night of drinking with friends ends with him lost and hungover as he tries to find his way home. Meanwhile, the panther king is enjoying a drink until it falls off his broken table. After crying over spilt milk, he calls upon his German weasel scientist to fix the matter, which in this case he concludes is a red squirrel.
It’s a classic tale of Alice in Wonderland that’s more about the journey than the destination. The main character, Conker, is relatable as an everyday protagonist who’s just trying to go about his business. Sometimes he’s a college student with his love for alcohol, other times he’s a mediator unless someone wrongs him, and other times he’s just looking for cold hard cash. But his goal is easy to grasp, unlike the world he inhabits that’s always out to get him, but that’s what makes it so hilarious. Throughout the story, so many characters leave a lasting impression with their off-color personalities no matter how short their screen time. These include fire demons that operate a boiler with a brass scrotum, a grim reaper with an animosity towards cats, and the highlight of the adventure, a giant mountain of opera singing feces with googly eyed sweet corn as teeth. Coupled with parodies of films like Jaws, Saving Private Ryan, The Matrix, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, this is the kind of story that doesn’t care about demographics and just wants to run wild with whatever comes to mind. Admittedly, it’s not as risque compared to modern adult animation that has since pushed the boundaries of what it can get away with. But without this, we might not have the likes of Rick and Morty traveling to different dimensions relying on the same improvisation. It might sound cluttered on paper, but in execution the narrative is unique from both the platformers at the time and story driven games today.
Conker’s Bad Fur Day was Rare’s last game on the Nintendo 64. Storing sixty-four megabytes of data, this rivals early Xbox games in how expressive the characters can be. The decision to have the cutesy platformer design juxtapose the raunchy and violent content is the core identity of the graphics. The voice-acting alone is also a technical achievement since not many games were capable of such a feature on the Nintendo 64. Only three voice actors were utilized for the endless characters: Chris Seavor, Louise O’Conner and Chris Marlow. The Rare Replay edition also fixes the frame rate problems the Nintendo 64 version had, making it the better experience. Robin Beanland’s score is also one of the highlights of his career, mixing cheery melodies with dramatic foreboding pieces, one of which is now infamous among players: The Great Mighty Poo.
Rare was already pushing the boundaries of the Nintendo 64 with Perfect Dark, but the presentation in Conker’s Bad Fur Day is the console at its peak.
As an interactive experience, there is very little gameplay to be found, as if Hideo Kojima wrote comedy rather than political espionage. For a platformer, there’s not much platforming before it plays Russian roulette with multiple gameplay styles. Everything hinges on the context sensitive action, which gives you any item you need in a number of situations, as explained by Birdy the Scarecrow:
This also cuts down on the collectible quantity, no doubt a response to the negative reception of Donkey Kong 64. However, this is a double edge sword because the campaign is linear to a fault. There’s not much replayability to entice players for a second round once the story wraps up. In defense of Donkey Kong 64, the over abundance of collectibles provides more content than Conker. Sure there’s a lot of items to gather, but since you’re not required to collect all 200 golden bananas, the mission variety is more engaging. Here, the collectibles are decreased, but so is your move set, limiting the gameplay evolution. The developers stated that the cutscenes acted as power stars for the player. While it’s alluring to see the story to the end on a first playthrough, it’s not enough to warrant consecutive replays. Especially since the fall damage height is pathetically short for a platformer where you’re expected to climb ten stories high without slipping to your death.
The bosses at least make up for the limited gameplay in creativity and battle arenas. As for the genre variety, it’s a welcome experiment, but you’re not given a lot of time, let alone any tutorials on how to get the hang of one mechanic before moving onto another. The most frustrating section is the It’s War level thanks to the dated shooting controls and an uncooperative camera. The idea of going up against teddy bear Nazis is a brilliant scenario, but the camera doesn’t know the meaning of personal space in closed areas. And because the N64 controller was made in a pre-dual analog era, the shooting doesn’t hold up between the awkward aiming sensitivity and lack of training given how much the shooting outweighs the platforming. Not even the Rare Replay edition fixed this as the shooting controls are reversed. Jet Force Gemini added updated controls, so why couldn’t this? The multiplayer on the other hand has a lot to offer once the campaign ends, showcasing a variety of scenarios from a bank heist, to tank wars, to capture the eggs, to racing, to deathmatch, which was in its infancy at the time. While the shooting controls are still a pain to get used to, it puts everyone on a fair playing field. All in all, the gameplay is serviceable, but it’s ironic that it gets overshadowed by the presentation and story.
Conker’s Bad Fur Day may have lost some of its polish with dated shooting controls, sensitive fall damage, and an uncooperative camera, but the rest of the game holds up with unapologetic humor, creative bosses, vast multiplayer, and a surprising narrative that takes an unexpected turn before the credits. It might not be tailor made for any particular audience, but that’s what makes it fascinating in retrospect. It’s ironic that the gameplay in a video game is the least memorable aspect, but everything else is so bizarre that it makes up for these shortcomings. If you’re going into this expecting complex gameplay, you’re going to be disappointed by the lack of substance. But if you’re looking for one of the best comedies in gaming, you won’t leave without your fair share of stitches.
Pros: Unapologetic humor, surprising narrative direction, Robin Beanland’s score, creative bosses, vast multiplayer
Cons: Dated shooting controls, sensitive fall damage, uncooperative camera, small gameplay quantity
Live and Reloaded
When discussing Conker’s Bad Fur Day, it’s inevitable to bring up its Xbox remake as it’s the final time anyone would see a Conker game minus a cameo in Project Spark. The final result, Conker Live and Reloaded, is a mixed bad. To its credit, it fixes the camera and control issues that’s been the ire in many gamer’s palms, making the It’s War level more enjoyable with dual analog shooting mechanics. In fact, the multiplayer is unique even when factoring the abandoned online matchmaking. Thanks to Rare’s bot serving as offline opponents, its easy to see how the military multiplayer became such a phenomenon on the console before being shut down. There’s also Chapter X, which serves as both a prequel and sequel to the first game, expanding the lore with even more clever pop culture references. The surround sound audio is crisper compared to the N64 counterpart, remixing the music with an organic orchestral boost and refining the already stellar voice-acting.
However, certain changes in the overall package have seen fans favor the original despite its gameplay flaws. One of them is censoring more foul language since this was originally going to be called Conker: Live and Uncut. Some might call this a nitpick, but the Xbox was tailor made for an older audience. Why go to such lengths to censor and M rated game when Master Chief is spilling covenant blood next door?
And while the realistic graphics are an accomplishment for holding up years later, it doesn’t fit the tone. The original was a satire of the 90’s cartoon platformer craze where companies tried to create their own mascot. The childlike aesthetic threw people off when it reveled in drinking, swearing, and other crude humor. With the more detailed graphics, half the joke is neutered because it doesn’t look like a kids game. Not only does it feel out of place, but the facial animations are less expressive when reacting to crazy situations. In fact, it predates Disney’s Lion King remake in not understanding how one design choice can affect the entire experience. If this went for a cell shaded approach akin to the Sly Cooper series, it would’ve fit the humor in keeping that cartoonish irony. It’s far from the worst remake, but it’s not one that will win over die-hard fans. Thankfully, there are enough differences between each version to justify their own existence, so it’s a case by case basis on what you’re looking for: a better narrative or better gameplay.
Legacy + Future…?
Being first released on the Nintendo 64, Conker failed to sell well despite critical acclaim for a number of reasons. One, not many mature games were released on the platform, instead opting for competition such as Sony’s PlayStation. Two, it was released near the end of the console’s lifespan with the Nintendo GameCube set to takeover a few months later. Three, it had trouble finding a place on store shelves. Despite receiving Nintendo’s support at conventions (though not enough to be featured in their official Nintendo Power magazine), big retailers in America like Toys R Us refused to sell the game due to it’s mature content. Outside the United States, it was published by THQ in Europe and was banned in both Spain and Japan.
Following the Microsoft buyout, the Rare team wrapped up development on Star Fox Adventures and Grabbed by the Ghoulies before moving onto Conker: Live and Reloaded. Despite being a console for older players, Live and Reloaded repeated its financial failure by releasing near the end of the Xbox’s lifespan. Seavor at one point considered making a sequel called Conker’s Other Bad Day, focusing on the squirrel’s failed tenure as king. This would’ve started with Conker being locked in a dungeon after splurging the royal treasury on hookers and beer. Being sentenced to death, the first level would involve a jailbreak with a ball and chain to escape execution. Microsoft requested the project to transition to the Xbox 360, but Seavor and company jumped ship to the remake instead: an action he regrets to this very day:
“Had I done it now, obviously parodies have changed because these new movies are out and there’s new things to parody. Which is interesting because parodying, that was a problem actually. Now, I don’t even know if we can make Conker now because we’d get our asses sued by everyone for ripping off people’s films. It’s a bit of a funny legal area. I think Microsoft would’ve gone [you know what guys, you can’t do this].”
Afterwards, the team began developing a multiplayer spin-off, Conker Gettin Medieval. This would’ve put the focus on the world of Conker’s Bad Fur Day, with Greg the Grim Reaper as the headliner while taking character inspirations from Lord of the Rings. Eventually the game was cancelled and years later artwork was uploaded online to show everyone what it would’ve looked like:
While fans have clamored for the ever elusive sequel, Seavor has gone on record stating why it may never come to pass:
“If it was made now, and if it was the same team, it wouldn’t…I don’t think we’d do a game that people would want because they’d want the original Conker again, but we’re not the people to make that game – ironically, because we’ve changed. My tastes have changed and I’ve moved on. You’d have a hard time getting it made now. So the only way for anyone to play it is to play the original because I don’t think there’s going to be anything like it again.”
As of now, the N64 edition is widely available on the Rare Replay collection while the Xbox remake is available for digital purchase on the Microsoft Store. Here’s to what we do have.
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