Knuckle Sandwich is like a grown-up EarthBound

Knuckle Sandwich 004

Lifeless, multi-colored ‘city people’ take up all the seats on the bus as the driver, who I think may be a vampire, tells me I can stand. My silent protagonist, an awkward-looking man with a red face and a fat nose, is new to town and on his way to a job center to look for work. Each job I try I’m rejected from, and slowly I run out of options—my last hope expended when I curl into the fetal-position and get beaten to a pulp by a hive of bees. Just like modern unemployment.

entering battle gif

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This is the plot of Tarantula, which creator Andrew Brophy describes as both a demo for and prequel to his much longer game Knuckle Sandwich, coming out sometime next year. As opposed to traditional demos which may give you a certain amount of time with the full game or access to a few of its levels, Tarantula has its own story—albeit a very short one—set just before the events of the game it teases. Brophy told me he made Tarantula to give us a sense of what Knuckle Sandwich will be without abruptly cutting the experience short.

Knuckle Sandwich looks and feels a lot like the classic SNES game EarthBound. It’s a pixelated RPG set in the modern world with strange, supernatural characters and an absurd plot. The battles share EarthBound’s psychedelic backdrop and even the sound effects remind me of getting a call from Ness’ dad. But it never feels like Brophy is trying to lean on that nostalgia to make Knuckle Sandwich work. He has his own vision of the game he wants to make, his own sense of humor, and that shows up loud and clear in Tarantula.

City people are weird

City people are weird.

Tarantula opens with an enchanting, low-fi rendition of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” as I head to a job center and take a discouragingly high number from the front desk clerk. Told to come back later, my only option is to wander around outside the building and talk to the various characters: a man half-heartedly trying to recruit me for his gym, a couple laying out on the grass instead of looking for work, a boy playing a handheld game, whose dialogue includes Tarantula’s first fourth-wall-breaking joke. These characters are simple and silly, but the writing is clever and each encounter helps to set the tone of the rest game.

in combat gif

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When my number is called, I enter a large, confetti-filled gameshow room and begin spinning a colorful wheel to see what job I will get. Each job has a drab, unwinnable minigame. The ‘Dancer’ job is a DDR style game in a dance studio—where I was alongside the bus driver, who subtlety doesn’t show up in the studio mirror. The ‘Astronaut’ job is a simple scrolling shooter in space. ‘Game Designer’ is spun but quickly dismissed as it “doesn’t make any money”—another self-deprecating jab from Brophy. Finally, being a ‘Bug Catcher’ had me collecting tiny, bug-shaped dots with a net.

None of these minigames are very fun. They’re short, shallow, and again, unwinnable. I complete them quickly and mindlessly—taking pleasure in the presentation rather than the games themselves—until I’m instructed to use my net on a beehive, and am launched into Tarantula’s first and only RPG-style battle. I’m exhilarated to be in a fight after so many mundane activities, and the combat is quickly understandable. The only catch: this fight is also unwinnable.

The battle screen is instantly understandable for RPG fans

The battle screen is instantly understandable for RPG fans.

Brophy tells me the original idea for Knuckle Sandwich (and by extension Tarantula) came when he was working in a boring service job to pay the rent. “I was thinking, ‘what if you made a game really boring,’” he says, “and then if people stuck with it for a long enough time, you threw in something really interesting and out there that you would not expect at all, which was the battles at the time.” Brophy also tells me that the experience of going to a job center only to be turned away from every job they recommended was based on a personal experience he had as well, though I bet without the confetti and colorful wheel.

Knuckle Sandwich minigame Gif

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Brophy says the pacing of Knuckle Sandwich will be very different from Tarantula’s on-rails story. The game is split into chapters, each a day in the life of your character. You wake up and follow a standard routine, starting with a minigame at your boring service job. After that, you’re free to explore the town and meet the characters within it, who change day to day. He also makes it clear that Knuckle Sandwich will have more fights than Tarantula, and fights that are actually winnable, saying the unbeatable bee fight is basically a “joke” on those expecting a more standard RPG.

The concept of making the beginning of a game “intentionally boring” is a risky one, especially when so few people beat the games they play. But Brophy made the characters, writing, and presentation of Tarantula interesting enough that I wanted to keep playing even when I hadn’t reached the action yet. Tarantula is a very short experience, though, and I’m interested to see what the much longer journey of Knuckle Sandwich will look like.

I knew he was a vampire

I knew he was a vampire!

Each NPC has a personality even if they are only in the game briefly

Each NPC has a personality, even if they are only in the game briefly.