Yet it's a slightly younger hero - and one that has an even harder time of it than Mario - who sums up all things bad about happiness in gaming. Although I've never been to a Coulrophobic's Anonymous meeting, even I'll admit clowns are scary, and Circus Charlie is no exception. This 1984 platform game from Konami saw players struggle to get Charlie the Clown through a series of performances to please the immobile, faceless audience. An audience who apparently are used to gladiatorial style displays of death, because Charlie doesn't just have to tame lions - he has to ride them. Through rings of fire. And while I've never reached Steve Irwin levels of animal mastery, I'm pretty sure that while regular lions are quite dangerous, lions that are on fire are, even if just for a short time, considerably more so.

Even the act of walking a tightrope takes on a sadistic tone - he has to walk it while stepping over monkeys. Monkeys that are trained to knock him off the aforementioned tightrope. As for the trapeze, you'd struggle to find a circus performer who could pull off tricks like Charlie's while dodging knives thrown by his colleagues. And through it all, Charlie's grin never slips. Even if his lion's mane has just caught on fire.


I owe Circus Charlie a debt of gratitude. Not a huge one, which settles the score after Pennywise from Stephen King's It haunted my dreams during my formative years, but a debt of gratitude nonetheless, because while trying to get our hero through another flaming ring of fire, a realization hit me: Games, like clowns, fake happiness.

All this time, I've been misplacing my fear. Like the clown, games slap a veneer of smileyness over an intrinsically dark storyline and ask us to accept it. From Mario and Doshin to Circus Charlie and Hello Kitty, it's a bitter recipe - worse than anything from Cooking Mama. We shouldn't embrace this culture of happiness in games. We should snub it. The message to game developers is crystal clear: What you think pleases us frankly doesn't.

Give us high death counts. Give us 200-year-old radio messages pleading for us to help sick children, and punch us in the stomach when we find their skeletal remains. Give us wave after wave of alien, determined to chainsaw us in half. Above all, remember: To keep players happy, you have to make them miserable.

Dean Reilly is happier than you might think teaching game development to students in the U.K. You can find out more at

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