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Words: Mat Ombler
Nazi teddy bears, a giant singing turd and whisky-chugging fire imps that shove cigarettes up their arses aren't the type of characters you would expect to see in Nintendo game. Unless you're familiar with Conker's Bad Fur Day, of course. Released 20 years ago (its anniversary being March 5th) on the Nintendo 64, it's one of the most adult-themed video games that Nintendo has ever put its name to. So, how did we get here?
Graphic cartoon violence, vulgar language, scat humour, alcohol and drug use, and some very horny characters are just some of the reasons why the game was slapped with a Mature rating in North America and a Parental Advisory sticker in the UK. With marketing opportunities somewhat limited as a result, Nintendo focused on adult publications such as Playboy and Maxim to promote the game, with condoms and fake pills given away at promo events, as well as an open bar during its E3 reveal in 2000.
While all of this is not-very-Nintendo behaviour, it's worth noting that the game's protagonist, a lovable but foul-mouthed red squirrel named Conker, didn't always have a penchant for booze, drugs and violence. His debut was initially planned for a 3D (and very child friendly) platformer known as Conker's Quest developed by British studio Rare, later renamed to Twelve Tales: Conker 64. But there was another 3D platformer already in development at Rare: Banjo-Kazooie.
"We saw a demo of Banjo [as] part of a big announcement, and we didn't know what it was even though they were like ten yards away in another [part of Rare]," says Chris Seavor, who was working as a designer on Twelve Tales at the time. "To our dismay, we started to realise, 'Hang on a second, aren't we making the same game here? Only theirs looks much better, plays much better, and is getting all of the press attention.'"
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Despite their reservations, Seavor says that development on Twelve Tales continued for a while longer, but the overwhelming hype for Banjo-Kazooie drowned out any excitement for the Conker vehicle. It was slowly dawning on the team that they might get cancelled - something that came to a head after the 1998 E3 show in Atlanta.
"We showed Twelve Tales and Banjo was getting all the good press, and we got nothing," says Seavor. "Honestly, it was just a disaster. We didn't know what we were going to do with it. I didn't think we could finish the game based on what was planned - it was over ambitious and we didn't have enough people. It was quite depressing."
Ultimately, the team was facing a huge predicament, and as Seavor was the one doing most of the complaining, he was asked to come up with a solution. "I think looking back at it, my bluff was called," Seavor admits. "It was an, 'Okay, well if he thinks he can do it, then let's get him to do it!' kinda thing, and I'm pretty sure I was set up to fail."
The team was split and those who remained headed back to the drawing board, although some of Twelve Tales' original ideas were reworked into Bad Fur Day. Seavor went from designer to project lead, but he never set out to create a deliberately adult game. All of that just fell into place after Seavor's first idea.
He envisioned a basic fetch quest plot where Conker rescues a stolen beehive from some vexed wasps and returns it to a Queen Bee. The key to making this quest different was adding a punchline at the end of it. Killer wasps in pursuit, Conker rushes back with the beehive over his head, throws it to the ground, and Queen Bee disappears inside to emerge on a massive gun turret. The wasps are blown into tiny pieces.
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It was this approach - small sections of narrative with varying elements of gameplay and a surprise punchline at the end - that ultimately shaped the game's development and differentiates Conker's Bad Fur Day from Banjo-Kazooie - which ultimately came out to great acclaim in 1998 - and other 3D platformers.
"I showed the beehive scene to Tim and Chris (Stamper, Rare's co-founders) and they loved it. They said, 'Let's do 100 of those and we've got a game.' They kept an eye on us. I had to do an outline of the characters, the storyline, then they went through it and said, 'Yup, this is great,' and then it went from there."
"We did that, and then some," Seavor laughs. "Because then we started bringing in the parody stuff and just taking the piss out of films and games."
The game opens with a parody of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange that serves as its prologue. Conker in his throne, glass of milk in-hand, ruler of a kingdom he accidentally conquered on a hangover, surrounded by strange characters that he hates, forever alone after losing the only person in his life that he ever truly cared about (his girlfriend Berri, machine-gunned to death in space by a Weasel Mafia boss, in case you were wondering). It's pretty bleak stuff, as is the scene where Conker watches everyone around him slowly dying in a Saving Private Ryan parody.
"We put a lot of work into the Saving Private Ryan parts," says Robin Beanland, Conker's Bad Fur Day's composer and audio designer. "The world starts off very bright, breezy, colourful, but as you make your way through it gets darker and darker and pretty grim. That was by design. [Seavor] wanted to have less and less music, so by the time you get to the Ryan cutscene, it's all about the ambience and what's happening."
You're probably wondering at what point Nintendo stepped in to try and tone the game down. Pissing on enemies? (There is a lot of pissing). The opera-singing turd that throws balls of shit at you? The Matrix slow-mo shootouts? A literal xenomorph from Alien called Heinrich as the game's last boss? The battle with a bourgeois, big-bollocked boiler where Conker smashes his shiny brass balls between two solid bricks?
With the exception of a few deleted scenes - including one where Pikachu was set upon by a mafia boss (reasonably removed) - Nintendo was remarkably chill about the entire game. Seavor and the team had complete creative freedom without any outside interference, and Nintendo's trust in Rare was largely to thank for that.
"I think that was just the thing about Rare," Beanland says. "It's always been about creativity. Creativity is king, and there's people letting the teams get on and be creative while not having to deal with any of the other sort of stuff or being made aware of it. It was always: 'Just go and create, make something awesome, and we'll take care of the rest.'"
That attempt to make something awesome was successful. Released at the end of the Nintendo 64's lifecycle, Conker's Bad Fur Day was by no means one of Rare's best-selling titles, but it's up there with the best in terms of quality. It holds a 92 Metacritic rating and is widely regarded as being one of the most technically impressive games released on the Nintendo 64. How the game managed to fit on a 64MB cartridge with that much audio and video content is a phenomenal programming feat, with Beanland saying at least 40MB of the game is made up of audio alone.
Beanland's work, implemented by software engineer Mike Currington, went on to pick up a BAFTA award for best interactive sound in 2001. His audio secrets? Using a fizzing Alka-Seltzer to create the sound of bullets whizzing underwater; recording ricocheting bullet sound effects on various surfaces so these could trigger interactively in-game; placing a bin over Seavor's head to get the desired reverb effect when Conker's in a spacesuit; and building a big-band jazz track around fart noises, which included one of Seavor's own emissions for good measure.
During the game's E3 reveal in 2000, Nintendo of America's Ken Lobb said Conker's Bad Fur Day was "the start of a new genre". A shining example of Rare being Rare and Nintendo allowing them to do something different. Twenty years later it's still an anomaly, and it's unlikely that there'll be another game like it. One of the reasons the game has so much character is because there are so many characters in it - over 100 in total, each with their own quirky personalities.
The writing is witty, the characters are clever, and there's a sense of flow and delivery to the comedy that means it consistently hits the mark. Impressive, considering most of the game's dialogue was performed without a script and essentially winged in studio sessions between Seavor, lead animator (and voice performer) Louise Ridgeway, and Beanland.
"The fact we didn't write a script [meant] it felt very quick and fresh because it was so off the cuff," Beanland explains. "And sometimes that was a bit messy, but that's okay because it worked - it kept the flow and the rhythm going."
"Rather than this grand plan, it was just like one thing led to another and everything just kinda fell into place," says Seavor. "I didn't write much down and we didn't have scripts. I had an outline for a task, knew what the characters and voices were, and we just knocked stuff out."
Revisiting the game in 2021 reveals certain bits of the game haven't aged as well as others. Like all 3D platformers, there are camera issues, and some of the jokes don't hit the same way today. But ultimately, Conker's Bad Fur Day is still an incredibly funny game that will be remembered for all of the right reasons: not least of which, being the first video game to legitimately make people belly laugh. It's much harder to forget things that make you smile.
All Conker's Bad Fur Day screenshots courtesy of MobyGames and Rareware Limited/Nintendo. Concept art courtesy of Chris Seavor. Follow the author on Twitter at @MatOmbler, and GAMINGbible at @GAMINGbible.
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