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Paperboy – Sega Genesis

Paperboy – Sega Genesis

Platform: Sega Genesis/Mega Drive

Developer: MotiveTime Ltd.

Publisher: Tengen

Release Date: 1991

Genre: Arcade

Nerd Rating: 6.5/10

Reviewed by BendyWend


No, it doesn't say MovieTime. Don't be embarrassed, it took me two decades to figure that out.

I admit it: I never learned how to ride a bike. It was a challenge that my wimpy frame was sadly ill-equipped to tackle. According to our family physician, I suffered from an “inner ear imbalance,” which in retrospect I assume was a gentler way of saying I was a witless, velcro-strap-dependent little bumblefuck. I was bound to traipse the earth in my shitty non-light-up sneakers, stumbling into every cinder block and cat toy God had the providence to place in my big toe’s path. Well, fuck that, I thought to myself (in the age eight equivalent). I’m going to ride that stupid bike. I’ll show my dad. I’ll show my fatass doctor. I’ll show LIFE.

Later that afternoon, I took off my training wheels, made one half lap around my dad’s Dodge Caravan, came to an awkward three-second standstill and tipped sideways smack into my dusty old Radio Flyer wagon. My brave last stand against the infernal machinations of fate had ended in abrupt failure, my sole accomplishments being an orange-sized bruise on my thigh and the sympathetic promise of an early dessert.

Maybe this is what drove me to spend a hundred fruitless hours attempting to complete Paperboy in my youth, leaving me with a handful of psychiatric evaluations and an irrational grudge towards sidewalk curbs. Maybe I’m the last person in the world suited to review this sadistic drive-by simulator of a game. Maybe I’m the only person.


God damn you, bicycle.

Despite the many sins it gleefully commits against its players, I still admire Paperboy for its inventive premise. Many games lay claim to innovation, but Paperboy‘s gameplay structure makes it one of the few that’s truly unclassifiable, falling under the all-purpose category of action/arcade for lack of any better definition. Being one of the earliest examples of isometric perspective in a video game, it’s also the only game I can name that can conceivably be classified as a diagonal sidescroller. Of course, since the screen resolution has been tightened for 16-bit console format, this means the majority of the action is relegated to the lower right corner of the screen, where obstacles announce themselves with minimal telegraphing and maximum annoyance when you find yourself trapped against the sidewalk curb again as a Volkswagen Beetle obliviously barrels toward you.


I guess that part of the street just really needed blowing up.

Given its unique approach, it’s no surprise that Paperboy was the brainchild of Atari’s wildly creative arcade division of the 1980s. The game’s arcade cabinet famously featured a novel handlebar joystick. Maybe that was more fun or better suited to the game’s design. That was not the game I played. After two whole console generations’ worth of hand-me-down ports, the Genesis version was the last to grace consoles as a non-digital download. Its lone reason for existence was its technical advancement, being the only version to pass a plausible resemblance to the 1984 original. It even boasted some of the same dialogue clips, as filtered through the digested tinfoil that constituted the Genesis’s pitiable sound chip. Nonetheless, it’s a small price to pay to hear your character quip “Let’s see you hang ten!” as a flurry of audio sprinkles blankets your eardrums.

poodle chases owner again. THANKS OBAMA

You may think this is a meaningful choice. Listen closely and you’ll hear the sound of laughter.

The game structure is broken up into three different levels representing difficulty curve. (Easy Street, Middle Road, and Hard Way – get it?) After picking their poison, the player is tasked with the unenviable responsibility of delivering papers to their subscribers’ houses whilst surviving an entire week of every bullshit obstacle the game can possibly throw at them. This rogue’s gallery of pixelated villains includes and is not limited to: lawn mowers, Scottish terriers, sewer grates, joggers, tricycle-bound toddlers, miniature tornadoes, funeral hearses, bomb-planting gangsters, fire hydrants, ne’er-do-well skateboarders, the FUCKING GRIM REAPER, and breakdancers (which, as I later found out with the benefit of a larger TV, were not upturned wiggling bathtubs).

Why you jivin me bathtub. why

This grab bag of commonplace-sights-cum-antagonists is Paperboy‘s claim to humor. From the perspective of a fresh-faced paperboy, the most mundane images of suburban life suddenly morph into the countless hands of fate eager to drag him to his impending doom. It is an incongruous hodge-podge of Americana; the iconic paperboys of the 1950s had long faded into the realm of nostalgia by the game’s then-present-day time of boomboxes and R/Cs. All the same, it does effectively establish a theme by which enemies (i.e. everybody but you) can be easily identified. And therein lies the question of Paperboy‘s blurry morality.

Personally I like to think they were arguing over who was the best Catwoman which is silly because its undisputably Eartha Kitt

Action/platform games a mere generation earlier had about as much success in creating an atmosphere of realism as a block of styrofoam passing itself off as a loaf of bread, but they were good at utilizing their slim graphic capabilities to communicate their core mechanics. Take the quintessential example, Super Mario Bros. While goombas, koopas, lakitus, and the like are now so familiar to audiences they’ve become tropes unto themselves, the initial impression of their designs was so bizarre that players could only register them as non-sequiturs. But this reaction worked in the game’s favor, as it made them immediately recognizable as enemies, and were utilized to great effect as a tool to teach players how to interact with the game world.

Its almost as long as the neighborhood itself, does that not raise anyone else's concerns over their priorities

The bonus round at the end of each day. Try to avoid the giant mounds of exposed fiberglass.

Paperboy seems to understand this principle, but by incorporating the arbitrary nature of hyperactive arcadey gameplay into a situation familiar enough to have grounding in reality, it pushes plausibility just far enough that it tumbles forward into the uncanny valley of cognitive dissonance. Subscriber or no, every NPC in Paperboy poses the threat of a potential lost life, and since taking them down has no detrimental effect on their subscriber status, there’s no drawback to whapping every last human being you encounter upside the head for a few extra points. Strangely enough, after you lose a subscriber, you are once again given points for barraging their house with random acts of violence. Even worse is the fact that you can earn back those same unsubscribers, who pick the broken glass out of their empty window frames as if nothing happened. You’ve essentially bullied them to submission. That’s one hell of a monstrous achievement. The only other time I’ve felt this guilty as a player was after stabbing a sleeping giant in Shadow of the Colossus.

Also if you lose enough houses the game tosses a handful back out of sheer pity and its the most humiliating thing Ive ever experienced

I hope it was worth it, you God damned sociopath.

Given its tongue-in-cheek encouragement of property damage, Paperboy lays a claim to teaching kids the merits of social irresponsibility in video game format long before Grand Theft Auto became the golden calf of virtual deviance. Still, Paperboy is weirdly choosy in the way it enforces its nihilistic morals. You can bully the subscribers to your heart’s content, assaulting their children, abusing their pets and knocking over their family tombstones, but the simple act of running over their flowerbed goes beyond the pale. And from the moment that line is crossed, the neighborhood turns on its heels and cannot know rest until you’ve been wiped from the face of the earth. Drivers desperately rev back and forth in their driveways, eager for the opportunity to commit vehicular manslaughter. Lawnmowers inexplicably roar to life as you pass by them. Stereotypical housewives brandishing rolling pins bolt out their front doors with the manic fervor of a suicide bomber, attempting to physically collide with you in order to put an end your crusade of meaningless violence. From the blase and unassuming suburb emerges a surreal, lawless dystopia motivated by the sole purpose of eradicating your miserable existence.

Who even has tombstones in their front yard unless they have a million hamsters

Desecration for fun and profit!

Apart from your duty to subscribers, there are a certain number of non-subscribing houses in each level. Unlike subscribers that can be reconverted after you screw up, these customers are impervious to your charms. They angrily decorate their ornate gothic houses in black paint and welcome mats that loudly proclaim “GET OUT” to showcase their disdain for the humble paperboy, apparently the only living person in the world worth caring about. Paperboy encourages players to approach the situation in a mature manner by vandalizing these beautiful works of architecture, awarding points for every window shattered, archway destroyed and bust defaced by the unquestioned might of the newspaper bundle. No wonder the neighborhood is so committed to sabotaging him.

At least they kept the smiley face

Being consumed by blind hated and vengeance doesn’t mean you can’t take the time to accessorize.

Despite the many temptations provided by the destructible scenery, the mechanics of Paperboy find a clever way to naturally balance the needs of progression against sating its lust for gratuitous cartoon violence. The player is only given ten newspaper rolls to throw at a time, with refill stacks popping up at regular intervals. As there are plenty of non-subscriber houses to use as target practice in-between, you can end up spending your rolls rather quickly, necessitating a degree of management in order to save ammunition for the actual job. In a weird way, Paperboy‘s mechanics teach a player how to strike a balance between fun and responsibility. Not a bad lesson amidst the chaos of animated statues and killer bee swarms.

He only wanted a turn on paperboy's sweet ass Huffy

Don’t think I can’t see you there, game. The outlines are a dead giveaway.

Unfortunately, whenever I feel myself falling in love with Paperboy‘s many personality-filled NPCs and interactive objects, it unfailingly finds a way to snap me back into frustration mode. Many pratfalls are barely avoidable to begin with, and if you happen to lock yourself onto the wrong side of the street, the game will outright trap you in an inescapable situation and force you to fall back on the death knell of trial-by-error gameplay. More than a few lost lives can be attributed to the fact that an object’s hitbox is just a smidge higher than its sprite suggests, leading you to yet another ass-over-teakettle spill when you were sure you had already scrolled past the possibility of danger.

Why would you remove the obstacle that killed me and then spawn me RIGHT IN FRONT OF A SIGN oh god my wrist is trembling

Is Paperboy a good game in spite of its technical botches and uncompromising token-taker spirit? After twenty years of playing it, I honestly can’t tell. Its mechanics are inherently sound, and I’ve always been struck by the game’s naiveté to its own surreal nature, but accomplishing anything within it seems like an exercise in utter futility. It’s an undeniable foundation of my childhood, and I’ll always consider it a classic, but there’s just something about it that enrages me on an unconscious and fundamental level.

One day, Paperboy. One day I’ll show you.

What if these are the people that live in the empty houses and they just assume they have a break in every single day

Written by Nerd Bacon

Nerd Bacon


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  3. Thanks, guys! I only ever played Paperboy 2 once for all of five minutes, but from what I remember it’s much more free-form in design. And honestly, the Genesis Paperboy isn’t so much a BAD game as it is extremely punishing. But that’s just par for the course for arcade ports.

  4. This is one of the most hilarious and well-thought out reviews I’ve ever read. I might give it a go the next time I’m feeling masochistic.

  5. Excellent review! I have the SNES sequel and might have to give that one a try. Ive never played Paperboy, but its one of those games so many people have at least heard of!

    Good stuff BendyWend.


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