Hey! You have your former NBA star in my Japanese-styled RPG!
Not too long ago, I came to a revelation that Japanese-styled RPGs are nothing more than piles of mediocrity. I don't understand why there's a fan base that surrounds a genre that includes tedious and un-interactive game-play. Some people would say that the storyline in these games make up the week game-play. But I don't see why anybody would spend $60 on something that you are only going to enjoy for its story, when you can go to Barnes&Noble and buy a book there that's roughly around $20-30. Or better yet, go to your local library and rent a book there for free. And the great thing about books, is that you don't have to play through tedious game-play to get to the next story sequence. However, there is one Japanese-styled RPG that I enjoy, and that game is none other than Barkley: Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden. This game improves on almost every aspect in JRPGs including the storyline, battle-system, the progression, the variety, and it's best feature is the fact that it's free.
I first heard about Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden through (what else?) Game Revolution. When I first saw the title, I got the names confused in my head, and thought that it said "Chuck Berry", instead of "Charles Barkley" (I mean can you really blame me? they both have the same initials), and thought that it was a rhythm-based game. It wasn't until I looked-up freeware games on Wikipedia, that I finally found out about the game.
The story-line in most JRPGs are usually (if not, always) clichéd. Involving some androgynous male character who:
A) has amnesia, and his memory is linked to saving the world.
B) wishes to avenge the death of the citizens in his burnt-down village,
or C) found this ancient relic that has something to do with saving the world.
Although the biggest problem with these story-lines, is that they always try to take itself too seriously, while simultaneously having feminine villains, terrible dialog that would be impossible for a mentally sane human that's over the age of 15 to utter, and clothes that is too gay for even the guys from "Queer Eye" to approve of. However, in Barkley, the storyline doesn't contain any of the above elements.
The storyline takes place in a post-apocalyptic future in the 2050s, where basketball (or how the game calls it, "B-Ball") has been banned, because of Charles Barkley's act of committing the forbidden "Chaos Dunk", which caused the apocalyptic future. The thing that's great about Barkley, is that it doesn't take itself too seriously. At it's core though, it's pretty serious, but when you have the main villain being Michael Jordan, and when the movie, Space Jam plays an integral part in it's story, you will find yourself laughing allot of times while playing. It's also great to know that this game was developed by people who actually speak english, and doesn't have to worry about the english translations you would find in allot of JRPGs. It's also great that the dialog the characters utter, are actually things that people would say (except for the gas pump, which I'll discuss later), with people saying "****" and talking like how everyone else does in the real world. So overall, the story-line is witty and charming, and the dialog is much better than what you would find in a Final Fantasy game. Although, the game never really explains why Barkley is in a healthy state at the age of 90.
Battle-systems usually play an integral part in JRPGs, mainly because that's the only element in those games. Well that's really a shame, because the battle-systems in these games are boring, tedious, repetitive, and un-strategic. However, that cannot be said about the combat in Barkley. The first thing you'll notice about the combat (or should I say "before combat"), is that there's no random encounters. Not only that, but you and your enemies can get the edge based on your movement on the field. And that's not all either. This time around, enemies don't re-spawn, which prevents the game from being nothing more than a grind-fest. Anyway, lets talk about the actual battle-system. It's still turn-based, but the experience is much more similar to something like Paper Mario or Shadow Hearts, than Final Fantasy. There are many attack-moves for your playable characters, which require different button presses, adding skill-based game-play to the battles. If it weren't for this skill-based game-play, the battle system would've probably been bland and tedious, but instead, the designers choose the right path to make the battles fun and engaging. Something you would rarely find in any other JRPG.
Another problem that I have with JRPGs, is the lack of progression and variety in its gameplay. You see, the first hour or two that you experience in most JRPGs, is the same gameplay you experience throughout the entire game. Again, that isn't the case with Barkley. There's allot of of variety you would encounter in its game-play as it progresses. One time, you will enter a hazardous dungeon that you can only traverse, by paying attention to your radar that detects radiation. Another time, you will be play a mini-game that's in the same vein as a sim date. There are even times where you can make decisions that effect the game. Like deciding whether to use the subway or the ferry to obtain access to Liberty Island. None of these decisions actually effect the story line, but it's the closest thing you would find to branching game-play in a JRPG.
I would also like to make a brief mention of the music that's included in Barkley. There's allot of well-written 16-bit style music tracks, as well as the theme from Space Jam and the Ian Gillian song from Blue Dragon. And the great thing about it, is that the music files are included in the download as mp3s, so that way, you can transfer them to your ipod or whatever, and listen to them whenever you feel like it.
Now just because of everything I've said in the above paragraphs seemed like I would give this game an A, there are still some problems I had while playing this game. Probably the most obvious complaint I had was that this game seemed to be targeted to fans of the NBA, with allot of jokes centered around players that I've never heard of. This doesn't really make much sense to me because I doubt that a majority of NBA fans are into JRPGs, and vice versa. Also, there are some game-play elements that are introduced as you progress in the game (bounty hunting, world map), which would have you believe that these elements would appear again multiple times as you progress, but they only appear once, which makes the game feel like a big tease, showing you these interesting mechanics, only to find out that was the only time you will witness them. One of the things that I like about JRPGs (especially the Final Fantasy games), is the interesting character customization options you are given (like the license board in FFXII). Unfortunately, that sort of customization is absent in Barkley, making the game feel a kind of shallow. Also, there's this gas pump that acts as a save point, and everytime you save a game, you are given this dialog sequence that constantly praises JRPGs, Japan, Japanese sub-culture, and calls every game that was developed in North America "stupid" and "for the moronic". I don't know whether it's suppose to mock or appreciate fans of japanese sub-culture, but the one thing that's certain is that the gas pump(s) really has its head far up his ass.
Despite all of these problems, however, Barkley: Shut Up & Jam: Gaiden is one of the best JRPG games you are going to experience, not just as a freeware game, but one that can be compared to the games that you can buy at Gamestop. The wit, the charm, the battles, and variety makes this all very original in a genre that never does anything drastically new or different.
+ witty and charming storyline
+ fun & engaging battle-system
+ progressive and varied game-play
+ great music included in the download
- teases you with interesting game elements
- limited character customization
- you have to be a fan of the NBA to understand allot of the jokes
* You know, to me when I write a review for a game I like, it makes me sound like a 12-year old Internet fan-boy