This preview originally appeared in issue 249 of PC Gamer UK.
The year is 2013.
Charles Barkley is an analyst on the American sports show Inside the NBA. He's a big man, he speaks in a deep, resounding voice, and he is reportedly obsessed with cleaning.
Barkley used to be a basketball player.
The year is 2053.
Charles Barkley lives in Neo New York: a shattered city, ruined by 2041's Cyberpocalypse.
The Cyberpocalypse was Barkley's doing. He accidentally destroyed the world as we know it with a Chaos Dunk: a slam dunk so dunktacular that it killed everyone who witnessed it – everyone but Barkley's young son Hoopz.
Barkley used to be a basketball player.
Barkley Shut Up and Jam! was developed by Accolade and released in 1994 on the SNES and Mega Drive. It was a basketball game, and starred that year's most valuable NBA player: the titular Charles Barkley. A sequel was released the following year.
Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden was released in 2008. Barkley Shut Up and Jam! was a game about basketball and so was Gaiden, but in a very different way. 1994's Barkley was an arcade sports sim, apeing the popular NBA Jam in mechanics. 2008's Gaiden was a top-down RPG that took its cues from obscure cult Japanese games. Where the original took place on small, squeaky courts, Gaiden took players into sugar mines, forgotten tombs, abandoned ball factories, Proto Neo New York, and dimensions devoted entirely to basketball. BSUJ let Barkley play with real life NBA stars. Gaiden had Barkley recruit a party of b-ballers in an age when b-ball was outlawed: a cyborg version of ex-player Vince Carter, known as Vinceborg; 'Ultimate Hellbane', later revealed to be the great grandson of current NBA baller LeBron James; Cyberdwarf, a dwarf with skin made entirely of basketballs; and Hoopz, whose youthful exuberance keeps Barkley sane.
And there's Barkley himself. Through pixellated sprite eyes and world-weary dialogue he somehow conveys all of the real Barkley's competitive aggression and arrogance, topping it off with both pathos – his relationship with Hoopz is strained – and joyful, inane, absolute insanity.
Why Barkley? Why an ageing basketball star for a ludicrous JRPG?
“I just saw that name,” Eric Shumaker says. “I saw Barkley Shut Up and Jam! and thought it would be really funny if we called it Barkley Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden. And that was really the only reason behind it. It's just this ridiculous game and we were going to try and make the game more ridiculous.”
Eric Shumaker co-developed Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden with his friend Brian Raum and a handful of artists and programmers, founding Tales of Game's Studios. The erroneous apostrophe is entirely intentional.
Eric and Brian met on the RPG Maker forums. Both had experience with the RPG Maker software, designed to enable smaller developers to make SNES-style RPGs without a complete knowledge of programming or a big budget. But Eric describes himself and Brian as 'idea guys', people who'd sit back and watch as this unique community of would-be game makers, otakus and RPG purists interacted.
Eventually the duo decided to get their hands dirty. The forums became a fertile breeding ground for Gaiden's strain of abject inanity.
“A big part of Barkley was gently making fun of the RPG Maker community,” Eric explains. “At the time there were a lot of games made with RPG Maker that took themselves very seriously. They had this self-important attitude, but at the same time they were made completely out of graphics stolen from famous SNES games like Chrono Trigger. It was a bizarre juxtaposition that we thought was really funny. We did the same thing: our game is clearly not serious, but we're taking it very seriously.”
Gaiden's save points are the best example of this philosophy. They're antennae, dotted around the levels, which enable players to record their progress. But before they can save, they have to sit through pages of interminable dialogue about the unquestionable superiority of Japanese RPGs over all other games. SNES JRPGs like Secret of Mana are touted as the most important interactive works of all time; Western titles like Oblivion are openly mocked. The save antennae also play host to one of the game's most enduring jokes: videogames aren't videogames in Barkley's future – they're vidcons, the kind of contraction that it's easy to see earnest forum types debating into the ground.
Eric, recognising a kindred spirit in his view of the RPG Maker community, asked Brian to help him write dialogue trees for the gestating Gaiden. The two would talk a lot, but didn't meet in person until after the demo was completed. It was made, inevitably, in RPG Maker. Yet the software that had given them the grounding for Gaiden, as well as the means to make it, had its problems.
“RPG Maker doesn't really allow for mechanically good games,” Eric admits. “We just tried to make a game that was funny. Jesse Ceranowicz, our programmer, was able to port it to Game Maker. That's when we got ideas for making it actually good.”
Game Maker enabled Tales of Game's to improve their work, particularly the combat. Gaiden's fights are standard JRPG fare: one party stands on the left of the screen, the other on the right, and they take turns attacking, and using items and spells on each other. But this being Barkley, the fighting system has a name: the B.A.B.B.Y. system – named presumably after folkloric internet question 'how is babby formed?' It also has a weapon set that includes 'zaubers' (swords named after the German word for magic), basketballs made from pure destructive energy, and gun's. Apostrophe, again, entirely intentional.
Gaiden is a mishmash of these non-sequiturs and obscure references. It's like the movie Airplane: it doesn't matter if a joke falls flat or a reference is missed, as there are another 50 waiting a few seconds down the line. One memorable sequence has Barkley and party searching a sugar mine for a legendary monster, avoiding the walls lest they succumb to diabetes. At the end, they reach their quarry: the Diabeastie. This legendary, minotaur-like monster, is a clump of sugar with a giant punching fist, drawn in something similar to MS Paint. Before he attacks, he grumbles “Sugar SuGar SUGar sugaR.” Shortly after defeating him, Barkley finds Wilford Brimley, campaigner for diabetes care and face of the disease in the US, hooked up to a machine that allows him to absorb the diabetes of anyone else and make it his own, like a sugar-based sin eater.
Eric's favourite part of the game is just as surreal, taking place in a sewer system inhabited by poetry-obsessed people in animal costumes. “Early on, this weird furry guy gives you a turkey feather. Barkley doesn't really like it and he doesn't really want it, but takes it anyway. Later on he gives it to another character, Juwanna Mann [named after the main character in the 2002 movie of the same name where a male basketball player impersonates a woman after being banned from his own team - Terrible Film Ed], and says it's a treasured heirloom from his dead wife when really he's just trying to get rid of it.” Brian's favourite bit is a line uttered by Barkley after he helps convince the ghost of a janitor in the basketball manufacturer Spalding's building that he's been dead for years: “I believe ghosts are like dogs and they just sort of do things arbitrarily.”
These bizarre scenarios came from conversations the two would have. “Brian and I would spend three weeks talking about an area,” Eric says, explaining the development process. “We'd talk about what we wanted to do with the area, or what we found funny, or just bizarre observations we had about videogames or the RPG Maker community. Then we would do this mad rush, like two or three days total, making the area.”
“Eric and I would send the RPG Maker project file back and forth to each other and do work on it,” Brian adds. “And Jesse Ceranowicz would actually start the whole porting process to Game Maker.”
Did they have to research some of the more specific references? Eric: “No, pretty much everything in the game had been in our heads for I don't know how long. Like, the Ecto Cooler [a healing item players can buy in the game] is a real drink. It was a licensed Ghostbusters juice box drink for little kids, and I really liked it when I was little so it's in the game.”
Tales of Game's' triumph with Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden was to turn this jumble of references and in-jokes into something funny for outsiders. Their game is deliberately easy, so that players can absorb the jokes and keep going, with none of the grind of the classic JRPGs being riffed on. In fact, it was grind that inspired one of the game's strangest jokes, as Brian recalls.
“When my brother [Liam 'Billy' Raum, producer for Tales of Game's] and I were younger, we ran into this game called The Pagemaster, based on a Macaulay Culkin movie. We played the whole thing, we beat it, we got to the end and it said, 'Congratulations! Next time get all four library cards.' And I was really pissed about that, especially when I eventually found all four library cards and it just said 'Congratulations! You're the true Pagemaster.' I'd spent hours and hours of my life going through this crappy game for four little library cards that are all hidden behind objects, and it was just the biggest letdown in the world. So I made it a point to put that in the game.”
At the very end of Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden, the same antennae that let you save your game give you a pop quiz on niche Japanese RPGs. Getting all the questions right rewards you with a picture of a library card and the words 'You didn't get all the library cards.'
Brian is gleeful: “The crushing disappointment of not getting all the library cards... I wanted every other game player to experience that.”
Barkley may be full of jokes, but it's not a joke game. Tales of Game's teased a sequel in the end credits, fantastically christened The Magical Realms of Tír na nÓg: Escape from Necron 7 – Revenge of Cuchulainn: The Official Game of the Movie – Chapter 2 of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa. In 2012, four years after Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden was released, the development team launched a Kickstarter page to fund that sequel. They set a target of $35,000, to be gathered over 30 days. Both Eric and Brian fully expected the process to take that long.
They made $35,000 in one night. At the time of writing, they'd made more than double that sum: such a high number that, thanks to some of Kickstarter's more creative stretch goals, all Tales of Game's employees now 'must wear pants'.
Eric was shocked by the positive reaction. “I knew that lots of people had played the game before, but I didn't think that the response would be this quick and this huge. We truly, truly appreciate and are very grateful for the response that we've gotten because it's just incredible.”
The cash influx has made a very real difference to their lives: both Eric and Brian were students when they set up the Kickstarter page; both have since put their studies on hold. Liam, Brian's brother, has 'stopped answering emails,' at his previous job to devote his time to the new game. The cash will also go to other Tales of Game's contributors, as Liam explains: “We're trying to pay as much as we possibly can to our two incredibly hard working artists and two programmers, who are pretty much working full time on Barkley 2 already.”
Barkley 2 sheds its former sports star, giving its lead role to amnesiac youngster X114JAM9, who may or may not be Hoopz Barkley, in search of the missing Cyberdwarf. It's a notably different game. The combat is no longer turn-based – it's real-time: players aim and shoot their gun's (deliberate) with the mouse. It's also open-world, with a huge focus on secrets.
Eric explains: “The backbone of Barkley 2 is this idea that things change over time. As you go off and you do things, the whole world around you changes. There's going to be quests and things that you miss and that you need to be in the right place at the right time to see.”
As examples of how this system will work, Eric talks of quests that are only available at the start of the game then disappear, and how, based on the player's decisions or actions, entire towns could be blown up.
“This has been the plan since 2006. We liked the JRPG format and I think Barkley in many ways still draws a huge amount of influence from it, especially in regards to world design, characters, story and narrative. But we've always wanted to make a game that focused more – mechanically at least – on exploration, while still maintaining the same humour and tone.”
Gaiden was fairly linear in action, with a few branching paths for dedicated secret hunters. Brian wants Barkley 2 to be different. “I think we're kind of entering a weird era of game development where you have to really consider what information the player is going to know before they go in. Or what kind of information is going to keep them playing and discovering things for themselves, or when are they going to give up and go find a guide and ruin the whole game for them. This is I think a way to make a game that I think is worth playing and not just watching.”
It's hard not to think of Brian's experience with The Pagemaster's library cards. His pain could have been salved by a quick Google were he playing today. Eric agrees, and re-emphasises Barkley 2's proposed open-endedness: “I think when this game comes out, the most challenging thing about it won't be the game itself, it will be putting together any kind of walkthrough for it.” Instead, they're looking to the past: if you paid $150 toward the Kickstarter, you'd have exclusive access to a tips line you're free to call when you get stuck, manned by the developers themselves.
Brian cites Dark Souls as a touchstone for the kind of game they want to make, where players can approach the elements of the story in a different order, do different things, and – if they're good enough – bypass areas entirely in the open world. Barkley 2's quests will have some level of dialogue choice too.
Eric provides an early-game example of a quest that's already been written: “Your character X114JAM9 is really a naive guy. You meet these very obvious thug guys in Tir na nÓg – a wretched place, inspired by Shadowrun and other cyberpunk cities – and they say 'okay, we'll show you around. But you have to do this stuff for us first.' And the stuff that you do for them is just incredibly bad. Just terrible, terrible stuff.” Eric starts laughing. “But they frame it in a way where you don't realise it's bad until after you do it.”
Barkley 2 might be a mechanically different game, but Tales of Game's are keeping the happily surrealist streak that made Gaiden one of the funniest RPGs ever coded. The shift from freeware to paid game has enforced some changes – Charles Barkley himself doesn't appear in the screenshots shown so far, to avoid legal action – but Tales of Game's have already proved themselves so stuffed full of ridiculous, hilarious ideas that even divorced from the big man directly, their second visit to the post-Cyberpocalypse will be larger, better, weirder and even funnier than the first.