By Alex Distefano
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If you listen to the critics, Conker's Bad Fur Day is either the most fetid, violent, lowbrow game Nintendo has ever released, or its bestand funniestoffering yet. Featuring a hung-over, foulmouthed squirrel that's equal parts Bugs Bunny and Fritz the Cat, this is a game for Howard Stern, Eminem, and Maxim-ites, where nothing is sacred (except booze) and all is solved via toilet humor or bloody war.
A Gamers.com reviewer, for one, said a singing piece of poo in the game, released March 5 and rated M for players 17 and over, spewed "several uncensored words that would make George Carlin blush." A Gamespot UKwriter expressed mental trauma, saying, "Its incredibly obscene and lewd humor makes Conker's Bad Fur Day something of a shock."
Why the big stink? Nintendo isn't supposed to disturb, let alone quake, the moral ground. The distributor of Pokémon is the last bastion of the sweet and cute, the benign witch to wicked Sony and its winged monkey, PlayStation 2. But Pokémon waned almost as quickly as Furby, and the company needs to move forward. Although its new console is due this fall, Nintendo is currently the ultimate underdog; its laggard, cartridge-based technology is nowhere near Sony's speedy DVD system, not to mention the coming behemoth, Microsoft's X Box.
Worse for the kid-friendly company, its audience is rapidly maturing. "Nintendo is trying to capitalize on the new demographic of gamers," says Steven Kent, the dean of game critics, "one that's growing older every day, one that's in its twenties and even thirties."
Chris Olmstead, whose Golin/Harris PR firm represents Nintendo, says the upchucking, urine-squirting Conker signals a rebellious turn for Nintendo. "We couldn't tone it down," he says. "If we did, we'd get flak from the press anyway. It's for mature audiences, and you can see it from the moment you begin the game."
But is Conker anything more than a defiant but shallow collection of button-pushing, Andrew Dice Clay-inspired comedy? Is it blue enough to reach the older demographic it covets? Kent doesn't think so. "I am not sure that a urinating squirrel is the answer Nintendo needs," he says. "If Nintendo wants to reach adults, it will have to get out of the cartoon business."
Sex, profanity, and drugs don't usually translate to blockbuster games. The X-rated Video Vixens of the mid '90s, in which you had to drive a porn star to distraction or get berated, flopped. The ultraviolent Kingpin, released in 1999, didn't do well, either.
Already, a Conker backlash may be brewing. Says Daphne White of LionLamb.org, a parents' organization that monitors violence in entertainment, "We don't care about what adults do, but the fact that Conker is being marketed for its toilet humor disturbs me and leads me to believe it's targeted at 13-year-old adolescents, not an adult audience." White points out that studies have shown retail chains often let kids buy any game, no matter what it's rated.
Nintendo spokesperson George Harrison says the company isn't targeting minors, à la Joe Camel. Instead, he says, marketers are stenciling Conker ads outside bars in 20 major cities, in an effort to reach college students.
And the game has a sly intellectual bent, with a hefty amount of parody making up for the coprophagous grossness. Over 50 flicks, including Saving Private Ryan, Alien, and Dr. Strangelove, get roasted enough to make you smile, if not laugh out loud. Best of these is a Matrixsend-up with Conker clad in a black leather trench coat, corkscrewing in graceful slo-mo through the air while shooting bullets. Imagine Destiny's Child's Beyoncé dancing through a tsunami and you'll get the idea. Conker's big-screen satires have a lot more depth and feel truer than the blue elements, which don't go far enough to be truly adventurous. "Maybe they should have just done a game with more movie parodies," says Kent. Or maybe they should have hired Karen Finley as carnal consultant.