Today’s article was commissioned by a regular reader. If you’d like to have me write about something of your choosing, consider commissioning me! Details here, willing to discuss subjects not covered on that page. Use the e-mail listed there.
Warning: The article you are about to read is canon.
2008’s Tales of Game’s Presents Chef Boyardee’s Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden, Chapter 1 of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa (actual title) has a bit of a reputation among gaming circles. It’s a wacky, absurdist 16-bit style RPG made by some jokers who are now trying to make an actual commercial release sequel after an unexpected fanbase grew around the game. The foundation is built on assets from other games, movies, and more, makes references to real sports stars and fast food novelties, and even includes an actual rant from an entitled weeaboo from the Something Awful forums. The story is about Charles Barkley hunting down someone who used the Chaos Dunk, which is basically a nuclear level disaster of a basketball move that destroys cities, and coming to terms with all he lost when he originally started the current apocalypse. Michael Jordan is a bad guy, and he is portrayed with a color changed Micheal Jackson sprite and is often accompanied by the theme “Sweet Georgia Brown,” which does have a distorted evil remix. Bill Cosby shows up as a radioactive mutant ghost called the “Ghost Dad.”
But here’s the really nutty part: The game takes all of this seriously.
Barkley’s Shut Up and Jam Gaiden is a masterclass in absurdist humor, and a far better example of parody than the popular example of Duke Nukem, which more or less embraces its medium and culture to the fullest and without subversion rather than make clever comedy. Duke is the Family Guy of videogames, with only shock humor and referencing popular things working for him (outside a few inspired moments, like the marker board scene in Forever). Nothing is taken seriously, and it becomes a grating bore, not helped by the fact that the game doesn’t subvert sexist tropes but just presents them hyped up, which doesn’t actually subvert anything. Barkley, on the other hand, subverts all expectations as a comedy game by not making the characters obnoxious joke machines. It’s structured exactly like any other self-serious JRPG style game, but with only the most absurd possible elements in play.
The introduction does a great job of setting the stage. Barkley is living in a ruined city where crime is rampant, trying to look after his son Hoopz. He has a surprisingly effective flashback to before the apocalypse, showing how much life existed before the first Chaos Dunk came down by his hand, or at least they (and he) say. We discover he’s a widower, his sport has been outlawed, and former friend Michael Jordan has become a representative of the law, a betrayer of the other b-ball players. We see harshness and hopelessness all around, and Barkley himself is easily angered and wants nothing to do with anything. When the second dunk comes down, an intense escape sequence plays out, even rewarding you if you gave a beggar some change, and the adventure begins with an old wizard and a broken man trying to find Barkley’s now missing son and discover who made the second dunk.
During this introduction, we also see Hoopz’s character sprite change to a crummy generic sprite of a white child playing basketball, meet a Chinese stereotype with broken speech, discover that a single Burger King chicken fry can heal any wound, have to sit through an elitist rant about “vidcons” to save our game, have several different engrish translation moments (the game was originally written in English), you can choose to have all dialog presented in a fake language from the Final Fantasy games, and you end the intro by going into a sewer tomb for all the dead b-ballers, where some appear as zombies and ghosts. This game is not a serious game, and yet it presents itself as such …and almost succeeds in every single scene.
The entire game constantly stays at this level of absurdity, but the characters always either take it seriously or react in realistic ways within their archetypes. There’s a community of furries who have become their fursonas (this game I swear) and Barkley is hostile to them due to his own prejudices. He can actually get lectured by one of the furries, who makes strong points about living true to yourself even at heavy cost, pointing out how miserable Barkley has been doing the opposite. It’s a heavy character moment, just done with a miffed furry in a community of love struck weirdos. You can help a snail date a fox by writing a poem, dead serious.
That Ghost Dad stuff I mentioned earlier is also one of the game’s more grim segments, as Ghost Dad is killing people and impoverishing an entire town and has to be defeated to be put to rest. Also, the main character of Juwanna Mann lives here and has a past relationship with Barkley where both got burned and have complicated feelings about it. This is all presented straight faced, with all the expected tropes and beats.
That’s not to say the game is traditional joke free. There are a lot of clever moments that outright subvert all expectations, like turning in a super weapon in a side-quest for a pointless sticker, the game pulling a Mr. Resetti if you try restarting after losing in a gambling minigame, and the serious Barkley being the character who lets an evil god free in an extra dungeon in exchange for Incan gold. Everyone gets a temptation based on their character arcs and inner demons, and Barkley, a broken hero with a massive guilt complex, is tricked with gold. He actually says “…Gold …Incan Gold…” It’s beautiful.
The secret to Barkley’s humor is presentation. Where many comedy games fall flat is that they embrace a wacky tone without doing much with it. This is why something like GOD HAND amuses more than Duke Nukem. GOD HAND’s sense of humor plays with genre trappings constantly, but also swerves into bizarre jokes that make very little sense, like Gene running into a masked wrestling gorilla, or the unforgettable line “Sexier than you, babe.” Duke Nukem is an endless stream of “that’s the joke!” with little inventive gags in the mix for a punchline. It references and takes childish pot shots at the competition, but none of it feels earned. There are some good ideas in Forever, particularly the ego meter, but it never goes far enough with those elements. However, Barkley goes in a third direction and really makes it work to its advantage.
Rather than doubling down on ridiculous elements, Barkley makes a much more clever joke by showing the power of JRPG storytelling tropes and archetypes within an absurd narrative, almost making it constantly engaging. The full out jokes are what gives the game kick. Because the game most never drops the serious story facade, when it does for a brief moment, it catches your attention more and throws you off to what the game is going to do next. The humor is also very meta, where part of the joke is realizing that you’re actually invested in saving Vince Carter from his cyborg form or taking down a cartoonishly villainous Micheal Jordan (who actually gets some depth, believe it or not). But that leads to the question of how this game wears the trappings of a traditional JRPG so well, and the answer is quite simple: Most JRPGs are ridiculous, tropey kitsch.
Let’s be honest here. Most JRPGs you have found memories of, especially in the SNES era, are not storytelling classics. They were commonly hampered by translation issues, confusing mythology, overly simple archetypes, and tired save the world stories that tried to spice things up overtime with more focused character arcs in the mix. However, the thematic meat always stayed simple. Believe in hope, friendship, love, and punch evil in the face. Yet, with games like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI, and Wild Arms still having strong, vocal, dedicated fanbases, there’s something to be said for that simplicity. It’s easy to understand and can allow for relatable characters you really want to see succeed. Final Fantasy VI is kind of a mess in a lot of ways, even with re-releases having translation issues and pacing all over the place, but it has top notch character writing, giving most everyone at least a likable personality. Final Fantasy gets that character is important, even in its worst games, and Barkley gets that too.
As ridiculous as the game and cast are, most every character is memorable in some way because so much care went into giving them a voice. Everyone has different speech patterns and vocabulary, all coming off as rue individuals with different cultures and backgrounds. Even if someone isn’t likable, there’s something about them that remains interesting. Once again, some meta elements are at work, as many characters are real world celebs or fictional characters from other works, so the game uses what we know about them in pop culture as the foundation for their story role and personality. Micheal Jordan as the villain works all the stronger because this game is in canon with Space Jam, and is completely unlike that movie outside a stupid, ridiculous sense of humor. Seeing Jordan as someone so despicable instead of the nice guy hero is jarring and oddly interesting the more you see of him. It also works great for Barkley, who’s become a broken father figure trying to hold on to what he has left. We already have an idea of what the real Charles Barkley is like, so seeing him so different in this game is striking.
It’s a strange situation where the game knows it’s absurd, and knows you know it’s absurd, yet still sells itself as a story worth being invested in and succeeds, only to break the illusion irregularly for comedic effect. Barkley is not trying to be a laugh out loud game, but rather an absurdist show with tone whiplash that plays with structure, mechanics, and player expectation to create a much more clever joke. Barkley isn’t a general audience type of affair, but an overly clever farce that makes you think it’s more than a farce. It has the complexity and depth of your average JRPG, which is to say mostly none, yet sells it so well that it remains engaging and memorable. Then, all it needs to do is throw in sucker punches here and there that become hilarious due to how they’re completely out of place in the otherwise stone-faced presentation.
It’s fitting I talked about Samurai Jack’s use of kitsch recently, because Barkley is doing something similar. Ultimately, it’s a celebration and send-up of an entire genre and our seemingly worthless cultural landscape. It makes something special from our most embarrassing cultural touchstones, makes players engage, and then makes brilliant gags from that head space. Barkley’s Shut Up And Jam Gaiden comes from a place of sincere love, saving its mockery for the sort of people who take these sorts of games too seriously (as shown in every save pump including a long winded, cringe inducing lecture from the perspective of an obnoxious elitist who takes every moment to complain about Madden and Call of Duty). It points out why we love JRPGs, but reminds us that this isn’t exactly serious literature we’re engaging with. That is a hard balance to get, but it manages it amazingly well, creating something new in the process. Basically, it’s high class kitsch art, the kind that not even larger projects have ever hoped to make.