Have you met Conker? Rare’s binge drinking and foul-mouthed anthropomorphic squirrel? He’s a handful and loves a skin full. Before Conker’s Bad Fur Day has even started, we watch Conker casually take a chainsaw to the N64 logo. It’s a sure sign of things to come. Conker’s Bad Fur Day may look like your typical cutesy platformer at first glance, but your typical platformers don’t usually contain graphic violence, sexual innuendos, drug abuse and LOADS of toilet humour. How many platformers have you played where the vast majority of problems are solved by urinating on things?
Conker’s Bad Fur Day is certainly not a game you would associate with Nintendo’s family-friendly image, but its unique charm, quality, and humor have cemented its reputation as a cult classic. Conker’s Bad Fur Day bares all the quality hallmarks of a AAA Nintendo game whilst also being one of the most quintessentially British video games ever released.
In many ways, Conker’s Bad Fur Day is the N64’s very own sitcom. Conker’s adventure begins after a heavy night out in the Cock and Plucker Pub. After battling his hangover in a cleverly constructed tutorial section that breaks the fourth wall (something that game does often, and very well), Conker is thrown into a variety of comedic situations that often play out like a montage of South Park and Happy Tree Friends episodes taking place in Tim Burton’s head.
In many ways, Conker’s Bad Fur Day is the N64’s very own sitcom.
But Conker hasn’t always been the functioning alcoholic he’s now widely known as. Conker’s Bad Fur Day was developed by British game studio Rare and originally started life as Twelve Tales: Conker 64. It was your typical 3D platformer, heavily influenced by the sublime camera work in Super Mario 64. But there was an issue: Rare was also developing Banjo-Kazooie at the same time as Twelve Tales, and it made no sense for Rare to be essentially competing with itself. Banjo showed the most promise, and something had to change with Conker. Chris Seavor, who worked as the lead artist on Twelve Tales, had an idea.
“I was watching lots of South Park at the time and I thought: I wonder if I can do something like that. We wanted to do full speech and…because we knew [the Banjo team] weren’t doing full speech, we thought we can trump them on this one!”
The team put together a short gameplay demo: a simple fetch quest in which Conker is tasked with helping a Queen Bee retrieve her stolen hive from a gang of angry wasps. Seavor admits that the gameplay was relatively simple, but it was the dialogue and characters that brought the set-up to life.
“There’s this joke where he brings the hive back, the queen bee gets her revenge and these massive machine guns come out and kill [the wasps]. It went down an absolute bomb with Tim (Stamper). When Rare saw it they just said: this is gonna work. And they said, right, do 100 more of those – come back when you’ve done them and we might have a game here.”
Twelve Tales became Conker’s Bad Fur Day with Seavor taking the reins as director. Fortunately for Seavor and the team, they didn’t face hurdles one might expect while developing a brand new game under Nintendo. Rare had a proven track record of success, and the publisher placed a lot of trust in the developer as a result.
“The underlining thing to remember was we were trying to make a good game, more than we were trying to make a funny game, the funniest bit was just servicing the gameplay really,” said Seavor. “And everyone on the team has a similar sensibility and sense of humour. We were basically given no boundaries.
“We had outlines for the task, for the story, for the particular little narrative and had an idea what the gameplay would be – mechanically you’re doing this and that will mean this happens for a reason and then you get the punchline.”
Conker’s Bad Fur Day would go onto feature over 100 unique characters, from a milk-addicted Panther King to a cat-hating Grim Reaper. All of these characters required unique voices and impressively, a team of just three people voiced all of the characters in the game, and Seavor explains that at least 50% of the game’s script was ad-libbed.
“Some of the jokes and ideas for lines – in terms of the specific joke, the character and how they reacted – was scripted,” said Seavor. “But how they said it and how it would play out after that was just what sounded right.”
For a game taking so much influence from South Park, it’s not surprising that Conker’s Bad Fur Day is full of pop culture references. For Seavor, movies such as Saving Private Ryan and The Matrix were perfect parody material and ended up playing a fundamental role in helping to shape gameplay mechanics. You’ll also notice frequent nods to Terminator, Star Wars, A Clockwork Orange and loads more.
“In some ways [parody] drove the narrative,” said Seavor. “You molded the story around what the parody was gonna be and it worked. It was a balance as well between gameplay and we couldn’t just have a tonne of cutscenes and nothing else happening in between so there still had to be some traditional game development sat behind that. It was the glue for all the cutscenes. There was a lot of variety in there with lots of different gameplay which is what we wanted to go for.”
“You molded the story around what the parody was gonna be and it worked.
The Matrix parody saw a leather-clad Conker raiding the Federal Reserve Bank, dodging and returning bullets in slow-motion shooting segments. Conker’s take on Saving Private Ryan was a replica of the Normandy beach storm. The end result is a heady mix of challenging platforming, fluid shooting sections and hack-and-slash brutality. It was a unique game unlike anything else on the Nintendo 64.
“There’s so much code in that game, pretty much every task was some new bit of gameplay code written, said Seavor. “It was quite by the seat of your pants. We’d tackle any problem as we came across it. If I’d have known how much of these mechanics were in there… I’d probably have been a bit more intimidated by what we were doing.”
At the time, Conker’s Bad Fur Day was a remarkable game on the strength of its technological achievements alone. It won a BAFTA for Best Interactive Sound, beating the likes of Max Payne, Medal of Honor and SSX. Conker is still one of the best audio experiences that the Nintendo 64 has to offer, featuring full Dolby surround and a massive MIDI soundtrack that bounces between a variety of different genres to serve the game’s aesthetics (no surprise there’s a rhythmic section in one track comprised entirely of fart noises).
It’s just as impressive to look at. The team spent weeks optimizing Conker’s Bad Fur Day to try and fit as much content as possible into the N64 cartridge and managed to do so without the need for the N64’s memory expansion cartridge. There are a lot of moments where Conker’s Bad Fur Day puts Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64 to shame; its environments shine just as bright and the attention to detail in the facial animations for its characters are remarkable when you consider how many characters are in the game. Every single character in Conker’s Bad Fur Day is oozing with personality and charm.
As I revisit Conker to wish him a happy 18th birthday, I can’t help but wonder what’s next for the video game world’s rudest ever mascot. Conker may seem destined to spend his remaining years at Rare in permanent hibernation, but Seavor is currently working on a spiritual successor: a violent, cosmic-horror game inspired by the works of Lovecraft. Thankfully, if Seavor’s description is anything to go by, there’s still hope yet for another game like Conker’s Bad Fur Day.
“It’s really violent. The main character is like a female version of Conker. It’s all little stories, it’s satire and we’re gonna parody stuff like horror movies. And I am gonna take the living piss out of the game industry because it’s absolutely ripe for that…”
Mat Ombler is a freelance journalist who writes about music and video games. You can follow him on Twitter @MatOmbler