Strong Bad's Cool Game for People Who Already Like Him
In 2006, Telltale Games came up with a formula for creating episodic adventure game series. The first element of this formula involved finding an entertainment property with enough of a fanbase to provide an instant market for their game, but not enough of one to kill their budget with licensing fees. Telltale would then depend on the creator of the franchise to provide the setting, personality, and a fair amount of the game's content, while their people put their efforts into wrapping that content around an adventure game, and making changes mid-series based on user feedback. The first product of this formula was the first season of Sam & Max, based on the comic series by Steve Purcell. The first season was successful enough to warrant a second season, and the second season was successful enough not only to warrant a third, but to apply that formula to two more "niche" franchises. While we won't see how well the formula works with Nick Park's Wallace and Gromit for a few months, the first fruits of their collaboration with Matt and Mike Chapman of the Homestar Runner flash animation website has been released in the form of Homestar Ruiner, the premiere episode of Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People.
When the Brothers Chaps began their website, they named it after their main character, the Homestar Runner, a terrific athlete who runs fast and thinks slow. At the time, he was the dim-witted "good guy" protagonist of their short cartoons, fighting against the comically nefarious deeds of Strong Bad, a self-centered luchadore with boxing gloves. However, in August of 2001, Strong Bad was given his own segment on the site, where he answers an e-mail sent in to him by the site's viewers. While these sessions were initially short and plain, they quickly became the driving force of the site. Strong Bad's answers would spawn mini-adventures, create new characters such as Trogdor and Stinkoman, spin-off entire new segments such as Teen Girl Squad and Sweet Cuppin' Cakes, and eventually last longer than the full-length cartoons on the site. While their core personalities never changed, it seemed as if Strong Bad had gone from the "bad guy" antagonist to the "bad guy" protagonist, with Homestar Runner his dim-witted nemesis.
It was this development that ensured that a game based on the Homestar Runner franchise would, in fact, feature Strong Bad as the title character, and the only playable character. Indeed, the game begins with an e-mail to Strong Bad, and the plot reads like a typical synopsis of a Strong Bad E-mail episode - Strong Bad must prevent Homestar from achieving fame and glory in the Free Country USA Triannual Race to the End of the Race and ruin his life in the process, and in doing so, face unintended consequences. Although the game features the entire stable of main characters, it does not feature any of Strong Bad's alter egos, such as Strong Badman or Senor Cardgage. A number of notable locations from the site are included in the game, such as the King of Town's castle, Coach Z's locker room, Bubs' Concession Stand, and the Stick. During the course of the game, Strong Bad will check his e-mail a number of times, and each one plays like an episode from the webseries.
Unlike with the Sam & Max series, Telltale Games didn't have to think about finding voices to match the characters. Matt Chapman, along with being one of the two principal writers for the series, provides the voice for all of the main characters on the site except Marzipan, whose voice is provided by Mike Chapman's wife, Missy. It is therefore no surprise that everything in the game sounds exactly like it would on the website. How it looks, however, is another matter, as the flash animations on the site are two-dimensional, and the game is rendered with the Telltale Tool in three dimensions. While Telltale is no stranger to bringing franchises into the third dimension - both Sam & Max and their predecessor Bone are based off of comics - the universe of Homestar Runner doesn't make the transition as gracefully as previous franchises have. While the game is by no means ugly, there are times when the characters just look odd, especially when viewed from anything but a full profile. These moments are rather uncommon, however, and for the most part, the visual style works well with the gameplay.
Aside from what can only be described as "minigames", only one of which is essential to the main plotline, Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People does nothing to change up the system of point-and-click adventure games. However, that can hardly be unexpected or counted as a complaint, as the developers at Telltale know exactly what it is they do best, and they do it very well. The puzzles in Homestar Ruiner seem to be rather easier than the ones in Sam & Max, each seldom requiring more than a moment of focused thought, and none of them especially likely to require a walkthrough. The logic of the puzzles is sound within the context of the game's universe, and the game doesn't suffer from the need to pixel hunt or talk to every character about every object in your inventory to proceed. Ignoring all of the side missions, the game represents no more than two hours of gameplay, which can be extended by a series of side activities and quests. Unfortunately, most of these extraneous activities are not especially compelling, such as "Snake Boxer 5", a faux 8-bit videogame that is very faithful to the tediousness of that era. Another activity, based around the Teen Girl Squad spin-off of Strong Bad E-mails, is worth a playthrough or two, but perhaps not enough trial-and-error to achieve the best score possible.
Ultimately, just as in the other similar games from Telltale, the strength of the game relies on the strength of the material. Telltale developed a reputation for handling Sam & Max very faithfully, and their treatment of the universe of Homestar Runner is no different. Mike and Matt's handiwork is all over this game, and at times it feels like a couple of their cartoons interspersed with short segments from the site all run together. How much that idea appeals to you is the key element to how much you will enjoy this game. Aside from slight issues making the transition to three dimensions, the world of Free Country USA is much the same here as it is on the internet, and the quality of the gameplay makes this an easy recommendation for any fan of the Homestar Runner series, and worth at least a try for all adventure game fans.