Basketball, dwarves and Bill Cosby's ghost: Barkley 2 is the weirdest indie RPG sequel
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.
"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."
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.
"The game is deliberately easy, so that players can absorb the jokes and keep going."
“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.”
"The team launched a Kickstarter to fund the sequel. They made $35,000 in one night."
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.”