Barkley Shut Up And Jam: Gaiden – PC
Developer: Tales of Game’s Studios
Publisher: N/A (Freeware)
Release Date: January 22, 2008
Genre: Role-Playing Games (RPG)
Nerd Rating: 9 out of 10
It’s easy to forget how many good games out there aren’t just the ones that can afford the shiny box art and start off with at least seven splash pages of company logos. It’s even easier to dismiss a game just because it looks like it was made in five hours using RPG Maker and didn’t even have the courtesy to make its own sprites. But I remember where I was when I found Barkley Shut Up And Jam: Gaiden. I was on YouTube, browsing Let’s Plays and saw in the related videos the trailer for a game that I felt could not possibly actually exist. I clicked it, I watched it, I became flooded with curiosity and hype. I mean, right up front, we have New York City wiped out in a cataclysmic explosion, B-Ball is outlawed, and Charles Barkley’s in the middle of it all, monologuing about the harshness of life like some stock JRPG character. It’s like someone photocopied the script of a Secret of Mana game, crossed out every instance of “mana”, and wrote “B-Ball” instead. And made a game out of it.
It seems absurd to believe this laughable concept could be taken so seriously, but not only is this game real, it’s also surprisingly competent in its creation. “Borrowing” sprites and music and using mechanics from other roleplaying games, Barkley Shut Up And Jam: Gaiden is a JRPG-styled parody of the whole genre that somehow manages to be a love letter to B-Ball, Charles Barkley, JRPGs in general, and even Space Jam while still being a powerful game in its own right.
“Wait… Did you just say Space Jam? As in that movie with Michael Jordan and the Looney Tunes playing basketball?”
That’s right. The Space Jam movie. In it, Michael Jordan is inspired by the Looney Tunes to take it to the court one more time and then, after helping them beat the Monstars in a basketball game for the fate of their world, he realizes that he’s still a baller at heart and gives up his short-lived baseball career to rejoin the Chicago Bulls. This silly-serious synopsis should give you some idea of the tone that Barkley Shut Up And Jam: Gaiden employs, because not only is the Space Jam film one of the biggest inspirations for the story, it’s also practically the game’s father. The designer, a chap by the name of “Chef Boyardee”, read a confusing Wikipedia discussion about whether or not the Space Jam film was considered canon with the Looney Tunes continuity or Michael Jordan’s actual life experience (?!). And naturally, this idea of the Space Jam being “canon” with ANYTHING was so hilarious that he and a few other friends decided to make a Japanese-style RPG about Charles Barkley’s life after the events of the film. Needless to say, with that kind of origin, this game didn’t have to try hard to reach that same level of zany, but Tales of Game’s Studios went in it to win it and the result is just sensational.
WARNING: This game is canon.
Barkley Shut Up And Jam: Gaiden begins in Neo New York, built on the devastated remains of the old New York City, which was destroyed before the game began in a world-changing detonation. Because of that day, basketball (more colloquially known as “B-Ball”) was outlawed and every baller from Madison Square Garden to the Palace of Auburn Hills was rounded up and massacred in the wild panic that followed. Everything associated with it was confiscated or destroyed, and the great sport nearly disappeared, except in the hearts of the ballers who still survived. This story is told from the point of view of Charles Barkley, the man said to be responsible for the “Great B-Ball Purge”. He’s the only baller alive capable of performing the mysterious and devastatingly powerful “Chaos Dunk”, a technique said to be responsible for the end of the original New York City, and when another Chaos Dunk is unleashed on a world already wrecked by the ravages of the Post-Cyberpocalypse, Charles Barkley is forced into hiding to protect his son, Hoopz. It quickly becomes apparent that a dark conspiracy by the evil terrorist organization “B.L.O.O.D.M.O.S.E.S.” is taking place, a conspiracy that began with the Space Jam, and it’s up to Charles Barkley to stop it.
So literally, it’s a sidestory where Barkley needs to shut up and jam.
And that’s just where the game starts. Barkley Shut Up And Jam: Gaiden is a rollercoaster ride of unbelievably serious plot points delivered through the mouths of shoddy sprite rips and wacky NPCs. At the same time, it’s also a masterwork of freeware engineering, as despite the game’s disarmingly patchwork graphics, it implements everything from skill-based attack commands and enemy patrol paths to a sophisticated and easy to read item system. Heck, there are even reaction commands in a few of the cutscenes! This isn’t your average RPG dressed up with a silly basketball theme, it keeps demonstrating with every turn of the page that it has new tools up its sleeve, new tricks to throw at you. Puzzles. Bonus areas. Secret items. Snail poetry. Barkley Shut Up And Jam: Gaiden is everything good that you’re not expecting, from start to finish. And since the idea of this being a good game is so unbelievable, let’s dig up a few points about the gameplay to show my point.
Let’s take Charles Barkley in combat, for example. In Barkley Shut Up And Jam: Gaiden, it’s not as simple as picking a target and letting him go, that would be weaksauce baby school, not dipsy-doo dunkaroo. Charles Barkley uses free throws, passes, and jumpers as his attacks, using the bouncing b-ball accuracy meter favored by classic arcade and console basketball games to determine if the attack hits and how much power it has on landing. The “mysterious” stranger he starts off with uses zaubers, which let him attack at range and debuff the enemy party’s speed, each of which has a different attack sequence to follow. Barkley’s special combat abilities are all “Verboten Jams” that focus on one bad mutha on the field at a time, while the zaubers his “mysterious” friend has offer both single and multi-enemy attacks to damage and debuff them and make the battle easier for the whole party to handle.
Each character in game allows for a different playstyle, and Barkley Shut Up And Jam: Gaiden actually breaks the mold by offering one of the most badass healers I’ve ever seen in a game, where the guy can cure status ailments with one hand and suplex a boss with the other. By Clispaeth, there’s an awful lot of depth in this combat system alone. Chef Boyardee and his friends didn’t have to go the extra mile, but they did because they’re a bunch of crazy men who care a lot about a game where you use magical B-Balls to slay sentient bottles of Gatorade in a sewer taken straight out of the set of Chrono Trigger.
Really, it’s that kind of self-aware humor that makes Barkley Shut Up And Jam: Gaiden succeed as a parody as well as an adeptly-programmed JRPG-styled game. Every time you’re in danger of taking the game too seriously, you run into a truck pump that lectures you about how perfect Japanese game design is and how all Western games are mindless fodder. This is the save point, too, so you have to suffer through this entitled sprite calling you a “gaijin” in multiple paragraphs every time you save your game. Many of the NPCs are just inane and selfish about their desires, willing to spout their life stories and hopes and dreams to Barkley as soon as look at him, to which he usually calls them a freak or stupid because Charles Barkley has no filter. The game’s silly yet serious tone never lets up, always reeling you in toward the big finale of the game, which is awesome and hilarious and so completely out of the realm of sensibility that it makes perfect sense, given everything else you’ve seen up to that point.
And what kind of reckless and uncultured gaijin would I be if I didn’t pay heed to the soundtrack of Barkley Shut Up And Jam: Gaiden? The opening theme is the best thing I have ever heard in a JRPG, it’s a chiptune remix of the Space Jam theme, otherwise known as the Slam Jam theme that goes good with absolutely every cool pop-culture song you could find on the YouTubes. That means this game has memetic popularity composed right into its title theme. The rest of the soundtrack is a mix of both self-made compositions and “borrowed” tracks from other games. The normal boss music is one of the original compositions and takes many of its cues from classic SNES boss themes, and is lovingly named “Jonathan Taylor Thomas”, after one of the kids from the old Home Improvement TV series. Why? Just because. One of the “borrowed” songs is Eternity, a boss theme from the game Blue Dragon that made little sense in that game, yet somehow makes more sense here, in this game that makes no sense and yet all of the sense at the same time. There are many more tracks that you’ll hear through the course of the game, and a few that you’ll have to hunt for, but all of them make a real impact on helping elevate this game from a computer class project on marijuana and methamphetamines to a freeware cult-classic.
Now, for the actual verdict: Is Barkley Shut Up And Jam: Gaiden as good as the grade I’m giving it, or is it just a neat title that I’m staring at with rose-tinted glasses and drawing hearts on its test papers for? I want to think it is, but I know I could be a little biased. It could just be the memetic power of this game working its magic on me. But one thing’s for certain: This game has no right to be so good. The concept was made in response to a strange Wikipedia detail by a guy named after a can of soup and a few of his script buddies. Pretty much everything put into this game was intended as some kind of hearty joke at some genre convention or a plot detail used in another series, or just a satire of some silly aspect of life in general. And yet, I find myself loving this game both for the whole and the parts. For a tongue-in-cheek game about the B-Ball Holocaust where Charles Barkley teams up with cybernetic dwarves and gunsbrasting Streets of Rage characters to save a world that hates him, it has an endearing amount of heart. It may just be a joke, but it’s told with such gusto that it’s hard not to love what came out of it. And the fact that the game itself is actually really fun to play? That doesn’t hurt at all.
Barkley Shut Up And Jam: Gaiden, Chapter 1 of the Hoopz Barkley Saga, gets nine slam dunks out of ten. And look out for The Magical Realms of Tír na nÓg: Escape from Necron 7 – Revenge of Cuchulainn: The Official Game of the Movie – Chapter 2 of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa, coming out sometime this year! Something tells me it’s going to be a massive title…
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