The recent question of “Can videogames be funny?” comes with a grim assumption: They never have been. That was certainly true in the beginning. Early digital games were created with the same objectives as their analog equivalents: to challenge, to entertain, to measure skill and stir competition between players. Did they really need to be funny on top of that? After all, you don’t hear sportscasters on ESPN puzzling over how to make basketball hilarious, nor did Bobby Fischer disappear from the world of chess because he wasn’t allowed to make his knight corpse-hump a fallen rook. Early videogames were built to be played; humor was a luxury that designers could rarely afford.
As the years went by, technological limitations faded and production budgets swelled, freeing developers to tackle the grander questions of “Are videogames art?” and the less-asked but still important “What is it about ‘your mom’ jokes that doesn’t translate to C++?” But despite these newly available resources, most games were still largely humorless affairs. The rare exceptions like Monkey Island only served to whet our appetites for comedy rather than sate them. But just because most games didn’t bring in the funny doesn’t mean gamers couldn’t find it on their own.
All Your Base Are Belong to Us
That famous line, delivered by the sinister yet devilishly handsome CATS in the 1989 Japanese shmup Zero Wing, has become a part of the gamer lexicon. It was such an internet phenomenon that CATS’ fame echoed all the way to TIME Magazine. But despite its fame, Zero Wing is only a small part of a greater legacy.
Gaming is doubly indebted to Japan: first, for reinvigorating the medium with the Nintendo Entertainment System after the nigh-apocalyptic crash of 1984. And second, for enriching their wares with translations so garbled the games can’t help but be funny.
Who knew the humble beginnings of Metal Gear‘s surreal storyline would include a guard shouting “I FEEL ASLEEP!!” upon waking up and gunning down the rookie Solid Snake? Or that Nintendo’s penchant for censorship would have an enraged elder mage screaming “You spoony bard!” at an assumed abettor of his daughter’s demise? It may have not exactly fit the scene’s desired dramatic tension, but the line’s infamy has endured through fresh translations and even snuck into other games.
Better still were the botched translations that marred a game’s ending through poor grammar and typos. Ghostbusters for the NES is a prime example, particularly because the most recent Ghostbusters game has furthered the dialogue on humor in games. While the writers and actors of the new Ghostbusters wrestled with the quandary of adapting proven filmmaking skills to consoles, the NES title simply boasted “You have completed a great game” to those with enough affection for the films to wallow through a phoned-in shell of an experience. It was part of the Japanese programmer’s message of “conglaturation,” which promised that your efforts “prooved the justice of our culture.” Maybe it was worth the slog after all.
Even better is the Ghosts `n Goblins finale, which pulls gaming’s first Shyamalan-esque ending by revealing “This room is an illusion and is a trap devisut by Satan” before forcing you to play the entire game over again. What better way to encourage players than by piquing their curiosity as to what deranged bit of prose would be awarded upon a second completion? Anyone “courageour” enough to “make rapid progres” a second time would not only get the princess, but “feel strongth welling in [his] body.” Strongth? Sounds like he might want to see a doctor about that.
What You Say?!
Translations have by and large improved since those golden days of Engrish, but new tech opened the door for new hilarity: voice acting. Giving actual voices to the text on the screen seems like a great idea on paper. What better way to immerse players in your game than to have a character come alive through spoken dialogue? As it turns out, almost any other way.
Resident Evil helped pioneer the survival horror genre, combining dark atmosphere, genuine scares and scarce ammunition to create the first videogame to feel like a zombie movie. How appropriate, then, that the conversations are reminiscent of a poorly acted Army of Darkness screen test? It’s a testament to the sensational badness of the acting and script that the only thing providing levity in what would otherwise be a dire situation is the characters’ apparent lack of appreciation for the danger they are facing. The examples are too many to count, but the brightest gem in Resident Evil‘s crown glimmers when Barry narrowly saves Jill from a standard “mechanized ceiling crusher” deathtrap. “You were almost a Jill sandwich!” he chortles, earning a giggly “You’re right!” from Jill. You would think somebody had just been chucking actual loaves of bread at her, which would at least make for a real sandwich – they already have the cheese.
The trend of inspired gameplay complemented by voice work outsourced to a community college acting course is not limited to this one example. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night birthed the Metroidvania genre that still sees almost annual updates, but many fans most keenly remember it for its clumsy dialogue. My personal favorite is Alucard’s encounter with the Succubus, wherein neither character seems to have any idea what the context of their lines is. They vary tones, explore inflections and even exercise artistic license on how to pronounce “vampire,” a daring move for a series so ensconced in the bloodsucker’s mythology. This might even fall under the “poor translation” clause if not for the team that brought the script to horrible un-life, where even now it skulks across the globe looking for victims.
I Am Error
Bugs in our favorite pastime have a much more ambiguous status in the halls of humor. Your 100-plus-hour save slot is irretrievably wiped by a firmware update? Not so funny. A character inexplicably contorts into the fifth step of the Kama Sutra Macarena? Exquisite.
GoldenEye was a legend on the N64, singlehandedly shaking off Nintendo’s “kiddy” reputation and opening the door for today’s slew of split-screen FPS deathmatches. But what is any hero without a flaw? The A.I. may have been idiotic at times, and clipping occasionally raised questions as to the corporealness of your characters, but the star of this show was a glitch that can only be described as Nintendo’s first unofficial foray into motion-sensing controllers. The slightest tilt of the game cartridge sent onscreen characters (and, even more hilariously, vehicles) into a flailing, anatomy-defying spin. That these characters were going for the gold in ragdoll gymnastics was humorous enough, but a Japanese meme rocketed this glitch – like CATS’s stirring ultimatum – into a new stratosphere of funny. Not even a classic 007 one-liner can top that.
The mere implication of a glitch is cause for a laugh, as evidenced by Zelda II‘s overweight legend, Error. Once thought a genuine glitch, we now know his name owes more to shoddy translation than shoddy programming. But the suspicion that his moniker is the result of a developer’s gaff still fuels his fame: Is there a hole in the programming? Is his name too beautiful for this world? Either way, Error was a pioneer in game humorology.
Take Off Every Zig
Much has changed since the days when localization meant an unwarranted expense, voice acting was more gimmick than art and play-testing didn’t require its own specialized team and months of work. That’s not to say that these “problems” have been solved, but they’ve certainly been diminished. Does this mean that gamers will now turn over control of the play-to-laugh ratio to game designers? Hardly.
Funny games will be made, yes; but gamers will remain ever vigilant, lampooning the stragglers while absorbing every comical nutrient they can find. Even if the Blazing Saddles of gaming is long in coming, no worries – we have plenty to amuse ourselves with in the meantime.
Brett Staebell is aiming for freelance writer, but will also do freelance voice acting, guaranteed equal to or better than that of Chaos Wars! Enlist his services at defendership[at]gmail[dot]com.