Saturday Crapshoot: South Park
Every week, Richard Cobbett rolls the dice to bring you an obscure slice of gaming history, from lost gems to weapons grade atrocities. This week, the Stick of Truth may finally have given this series some gaming dignity, but let's not forget what happened the first time it made its way to our screens.
This game scored 8%. Just 8. Not 8 and then another number, like 2 or 7 or 4. A raw, naked 8%, all the way back in PC Gamer 69, which isn't at all an appropriate number or funny in any way. You'd think that would make it one of the worst games ever reviewed, but as we all know, there are worse. Monsters Inc: Wreck Room Arcade got a single, solitary percentage point to its name. Bass Avenger was, mathematically speaking, twice as good. But still, 8% is what we in the trade refer to as 'a really, really low number'. That's the kind of score reserved for games like Forbes Corporate Warrior, and Little Britain. You might think that at least creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone would have some pride in these early works that helped build their empire of farts, but no. No, no, no. As far back as 2000, they were happily describing this and the others as "these video games that we ****ing hate".
Today is a seriously lousy day to be fitted with a negativity-zapping V-Chip.
South Park is a terrible, terri-OUCH! I mean, asuming we live in an infinite universe where every possibility happens somewhere, South Park might be one of the greatest games ever made! It's certainly not what players who accidentally bought it expected, and who doesn't like surprises? True, they generally prefer different surprises, like finding out a game is much better than expected, but let's not be Mr. Picky here, because nobody likes Mr. Picky. Not even electric V-Chips care about his feelings.
The plot is delightful in its simplicity, serving primarily to lower expectations from the start and actively not use up a great idea that might otherwise never have appeared on the show and given entertainment to millions rather than, well, two. It's a regular day in Colorado, when Stan, Kyle, Cartman and Kenny find out that a comet of pure evil has hit town and turned it into a warzone unlike anything they've ever seen. For starters, it's turned it into 3D, but that's okay! It may seem ridiculous to turn a game infamous for its 2D look into some of the cheapest looking 3D you've ever seen, but on balance that just means it has slightly more polygons than one of the original construction-paper shorts anyway. It's all good!
The action is simply described, due to being dumber than- OUCH! I mean, 'delightfully minimalistic'. For the first three levels, all you have to do is fight turkeys. Hundreds of turkeys. Literally hundreds of turkeys, and occasionally a tougher turkey that produces other turkeys, because Christ knows there weren't already enough turkeys in this turkey. They're all either alien turkeys or escapees from a Renaissance Fair, it's not entirely clear after the bigger ones show up, but thankfully all are weak against the deadliest weapon known to eight-year old men: guns. And also the only ones they start out with: snowballs. Yellow snowballs are also available, give or take a couple of seconds preparation time. By clicking repeatedly, you not only get to blast through the possibly alien hordes, but slowly acquire the gift that just keeps on giving - repetitive strain injury. Alternatively, holding it down produces the kind of fast-winging wrist action normally associated with an Oscar night nip-slip, taking out whole armies before you can even begin slipping into an unconsciousness filled with painful dreams of wasted money.
Unrelated dreams, obviously. Just one of those things that happens sometimes. With no provocation.
You get to play as any of the boys, which is awesome, and there's no real difference between them, which is even better, saving your decisional braincells for things that really matter, like getting to the end of a meal and deciding whether to finish the meat first or have the last chip. Meat, or chip? Chip, or meat? That would be a terrible decision to be stuck on one day, and you know it. Proving that contractual obligation can do anything though, all of them do have their own voice clips. Cartman for instance says things like "You suck!" and "Your mom's a bitch!", and that's great, because that's totally the kind of thing he would say if pelted with a snowball or if he perceived your maternal parent to be of the canine persuasion. This really sets the tone for the sound work here, the best part of which is that the background music doesn't outstay its limited welcome by 'looping'. Just one round is deemed enough, which any discerning listener will attest is more than sufficient to fully appreciate its quality.
Of course, it's not the only collection of noises trying to force their way through your ears and make your bowels wobble. There are effects too, and oh, the soundscape they produce! It's said that there is no greater audio moment in all of gaming than when South Park briefly, blessedly goes silent, and the constant headache-inducing sound of the turkey army clucking en masse temporarily stops trying to trepan you through both ears. Of course, it's not just turkeys who get to delight via their absence. Once they're dealt with, other foes await. Not many players actually reached that point though, because perhaps almost certainly coincidentally the release of South Park on PC led to a huge upswing in people microwaving CDs to see the pretty lightning effects. So many deaths. Still, better than than being one of the poor saps who bought the N64 version. No microwave fun for those Zelda-loving suckers!
Perhaps part of the reason for the experience as presented is that the South Park game was released in 1999, allowing for just two years worth of material to be drawn on and then discarded in favour of killing about a hundred turkeys. It would be nice to think so, or that the limited effort demanded by its realisation led to great things for all involved, like the level designers being able to slap down the boxes and tunnels with one hand and write best-selling novels with the other. Or be able to go into labour while still producing the high-quality art assets that provide this game's trademark look. And that's just the men!
It's hard not to think of the original Simpsons game, really, and how its limited amount of things to draw on meant some seriously odd encounters like giving Mr. Burns a robot suit, making Smithers a jewel thief, and for some reason putting Moe's Tavern underground and next to a cemetery. Was it good? Absolutely. But it was also very strange, and while most people do look back on it with genuine fondness, its deviations from canon have proved somewhat controversial over the years. South Park wisely chose to avoid that in favour of an experience whose quality was unarguable, drawing all its players together and empowering them all to say things like "Even I could come up with a better game than this!"
(My own suggestion: scrimshaw Hangman. The first word is 'antidisestablishmentarianism'.)
The best thing about South Park though is... is... AARGH! NO! ENOUGH! There is no best thing about South Park! If ever a game deserved an 8% of shame, it is this lazy cash-in that even other cash-ins get to look down on! It's a game with precisely three redeeming features. First, it did a not entirely shit job of recreating the show's intro, complete with song. Second, on console at least, the split screen multiplayer might have offered a few minutes of minor diversion for gamers without real games - though on PC it's online only, so no points there. Third, it does not actively give you scrofula - but wow, does it try.
The first three levels are the most infamous whenever South Park is mentioned, and with good reason. They're more than enough to completely, and completely fairly write off the whole experience - three descents into a Hell made entirely of boredom and failure, apparently based on a misunderstanding of both the words 'turkey shoot' and 'game'. Does it get better from there? You will be shocked - shocked! - to learn that no, it does not. The enemies change up a bit, yes, and a few more weapons are added to your arsenal, but it doesn't matter how many chocolate chips you drop onto a shit sundae. It's still a spoonful nobody should have to taste-test, and a tough mouthful to swallow.
The only real reason to would have been that as a poor child in 1999, getting a game... any game... was likely a big deal, as you likely wouldn't be getting another one for quite a while. If you were unlucky to draw something like this, you had no choice but to pretend to like it in order to save face with your friends and hold back the tears while thinking of what else you could have spent that money on that would have given you more pleasure. Like barbed wire suppositories. Or three copies of Waterworld.
But at least this was a one-off, right? Acclaim's other South Park games lived up to the license, and made Parker and Stone look like a couple of grumpy-guts afterwards? You'd think, but no. They were at better, but in the same sense that being kicked in the face is better than being kicked in the face with a steel-capped boot. The first of them was Chef's Luv Shack, a mix of gameshow parody and mini-games of a quality not seen since ITV's Steal. Finally, South Park Rally also existed, hoping that nobody knew that Mario Kart 64 did as well and could also be bought for money. It was easily the best of the original games, yes, but that still makes it roughly 18% worse than Hitler mid-way through a kitten punt.
Thankfully, it looks like The Stick of Truth has finally redeemed the series' games, and while I haven't played it yet, that's my weekend sorted at least. Just as soon as I've run this uninstaller about five times to get rid of any trace of one of the worst shooters ever shat out onto the market, and dipped my whole hard drive in acid just to be absolutely sure. No, it's not excessive. South Park is simply that bad.
And yet, it's still not even close to being the worst shooter ever made.
Think on that. And forever beware the other horrors lurking in that dreaded single percentile.