My friend James pours us each another glass of scotch as I begin my third attempt to direct a cartoon squirrel to push a dung ball up a fecal mountain. Tara, another friend, looks up from her iPad and watches with a mixture of inquisitiveness and disgust, apparently unaware of how weird Conker’s Bad Fur Day can actually get. We soon skip ahead to face the opera-belching Great Mighty Poo in mortal combat, one of the game’s most infamous moments. I pause the game to take another sip of whisky just slightly younger than the cartridge in the console, and I turn to my friend, saying, “It’s really a classy game, Tara.”
Some sixteen-odd hours later, I sit down to gather my terribly typed notes from last night and scattered memories of my first encounter with Conker, and I immediately recognize how appropriate it is that I write an article about this game while experiencing a hangover sent straight from 64-bit hell. Conker, after all, begins his journey by leaving his bar after a night of binge drinking, taking a wrong left turn, and then waking up to a similar condition. As I sit slumped in my chair, my eyes swollen from a combination of overindulging in alcohol and squinting at blocky graphics smeared across my friends’ Panasonic HDTV, I struggle to scribble out a decent reading of one the N64’s last releases in my notebook.
I guess to understand Conker, one has to first remember that Rare, the team of depraved geniuses behind this mat shot of a game, was one of the strongest developers in the industry from 1997-2001. Though their streak on the N64 began with Goldeneye 007, I know them best for Banjo-Kazooie, which built upon the groundwork of Mario 64 to refine the principles of the 3D platformer in terms of both scope and mechanics. The lighthearted fairytale about a bear and a bird on a quest to rescue a girl from an evil witch sent players to imaginative worlds to collect items and solve problems of colorful characters and established a template that Rare would attempt to perfect.
Conker’s Bad Fur Day continues in this formula, only it seems to have also discovered Banjo Kazooie’s liquor cabinet and stack of Playboy magazines. After the original version of the game tested a bit too “cutesy” for Rare’s taste, the team decided strip their formula to its bones and replace superfluous collecting with linear design and a “mature” audience in mind. Conker warps the worlds of its predecessors. An enchanted forest hosts a mound of shit and a bee that wants to “pollinate” with a buxom flower. Cute teddy bears form a Nazi-like war machine. And of course, the game parodies movies from the last two decades, because that’s how humor worked in the early 2000s.
These are the aspects of the game that are most remembered: the dirty humor that seemed so taboo in my mid-teens, the (at one point literal) piss-take on Rare’s catalogue of design tropes, the impressive colors clashing against swear-strewn dialogue. Picking up the game fifteen years later, I notice how impressive the graphics still look, how the voiced characters (a rarity on the N64) are endearingly tinny and mumbled, and how unexpectedly prescient it appears in hindsight in terms of cutscene storytelling and unexpected self-reflection.
Even through the haze of a splitting headache and tortured stomach, I remember fondly the last days of the N64, and playing Conker last night brought the twilight of the era back to me. Conker’s Bad Fur Day is a game that could only be made at the end of a console cycle. Its disdain for narrative cohesion fuels an anarchic revelry in absurdity, as if Rare cobbled this assemblage from pieces left over after their other games in the genre had been completed. The game did not meet widespread financial success, due in no small part to its release during the N64’s waning prominence. The game, like the console that houses it, fights to keep its state of arrested development, blowing fart noises and shouting dick jokes at its looming obsolescence.
All of this madness comes to a head in the game’s final moments. A series of events lead to the death of Conker’s girlfriend, Berri. The game freezes, and Conker breaks the fourth wall to ask the programmers to assist him in killing a final boss that resembles a xenomorph from Alien. After dispatching his foe, he becomes emperor of a land he hates surrounded by characters he hates even more. Despite his new empire, all he wants is to go home and have a beer with Berri, lamenting his shortsightedness in not asking programmers to resurrect her. In an epilogue, he sits alone at the bar and orders a single malt Speyside scotch and then stumbles out of the bar into the rainy night—this time turning right, as experience has taught him that the left path leads to ruin.
The game’s bleak ending rips the ironic veneer that made the game so gleeful and begins to take its subject matter seriously. It starts out as South Park and ends up as BoJack Horseman, moving from gross-out, parodic humor to melancholy introspection. As a cartoonish mascot in a world fighting to figure out what the hell maturity is, Conker’s youthful carelessness crashes against the weight of responsibility and the unexpected gut punch of guilt. As for the game itself, it parties hard with absurdity and winds up passing out in a vomit-splattered bathtub before limping home sadly, vowing never to drink again even as it eyes the liquor store.
In reflection, perhaps a night of drinking with friends followed by a day of regret and self-loathing is the best way to experience the peculiar mess that is Conker’s Bad Fur Day. It tore itself apart long before self-examination became the new norm, and it did so with the type of clarity that only comes from a hangover after a night spent embracing a shallow understanding of maturity. But I’d like to think that there’s something almost transcendent in embracing a certain bit of self-critical darkness, if for no other reason than to find a silver lining in my own occasional lapses into over-indulgence. Otherwise, there’s nothing to be gained from having a Bad Fur Day. Not one goddamned thing.