Innocence Lost: Tracing Conker's Journey from Family Friendly to Rated R

Sometimes constraints will lead you to your best work

Innocence Lost: Tracing Conker's Journey from Family Friendly to Rated R

Imagine the look on the Nintendo execs' faces when Rare pitched their Conker concept: "We have this idea for a foul-mouthed, alcoholic squirrel who pisses on his enemies and chugs beer like it's going out of style? Oh, and there's also a boss battle between Conker and The Great Mighty Poo."

You can practically hear the collective pearl-clutching echoing through the halls of the Big N's ivory tower.

But as we now know, that didn't happen. Conker's Bad Fur Day ended up releasing as a delightfully twisted oddity in Nintendo's squeaky-clean lineup of family-friendly fare.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves here.

Conker's Bad Fur Day wasn't always Conker's Bad Fur Day, but rather, a collect-a-thon called Twelve Tales: Conker 64. It was envisioned as a lighthearted 3D platformer starring the squirrel protagonist Conker on a series of whimsical adventures.

That all changed eventually, however, when the team behind Twelve Tales found out another team within Rare was making an N64 classic: Banjo-Kazooie. Rather awkwardly they didn't find out until attending E3 1998.

"We saw a demo of Banjo [as] part of a big announcement, and we didn't know what it was even though they were like ten yards away in another [part of Rare], To our dismay, we started to realise, 'Hang on a second, aren't we making a similar game here? Only theirs looks much better, plays much better, and is getting all of the press attention,'" Chris Seavor, designer on Conker's Bad Fur Day.

To make matters worse, Twelve Tales was getting next to no media attention while Banjo-Kazooie was stealing all the limelight.

"We showed Twelve Tales and Banjo was getting all the good press, and we got nothing," says Seavor. "Honestly, it was just a disaster. We didn't know what we were going to do with it. I didn't think we could finish the game based on what was planned - it was over-ambitious and we didn't have enough people. It was quite depressing."
Previews showed a family-friendly experience in the form of Twelve Tales: Conker 64

So what now? Well, when life gives you nuts... erm, squeeze 'em?

Twelve Tales was completely overhauled into the subversive, mature-rated experience that became Conker's Bad Fur Day, taking Conker from a cute mascot into a foul-mouthed, drunken antihero.

"I showed the beehive scene to Tim and Chris (Stamper, Rare's co-founders) and they loved it. They said, 'Let's do 100 of those and we've got a game.' They kept an eye on us. I had to do an outline of the characters, the storyline, then they went through it and said, 'Yup, this is great,' and then it went from there."

What worked particularly well was Conker's ability to lampoon popular media of the time and parody that throughout the game. It's a brilliantly funny game, even if the references are a bit dated by today's standards.

"We put a lot of work into the Saving Private Ryan parts," says Robin Beanland, Conker's Bad Fur Day's composer and audio designer. "The world starts off very bright, breezy, colourful, but as you make your way through it gets darker and darker and pretty grim. That was by design. [Seavor] wanted to have less and less music, so by the time you get to the Ryan cutscene, it's all about the ambience and what's happening."

Seed-y humor

But how did Nintendo take to this? I mean, I couldn't think of a more anti-Nintendo experience that culminates, and I shit you not, with a giant singing turd you must defeat to save the bidet. Just look at these lyrics from the song, The Great Mighty Poo.

I am the Great Mighty Poo
And I'm going to throw my shit at you!
A huge supply of tish comes from my chocolate starfish
How about some scat, you little twat?

Well, according to this article, Nintendo were a-ok with all the pissing and shitting and everything else this game had to throw at you.

Nintendo: Approved.

Surprisingly, Nintendo embraced an extremely hands-off approach during the development process.

Apart from axing a handful of over-the-top moments, like a scene depicting Pikachu facing off against a mob kingpin, they gave the green light to virtually everything. The team at Rare was granted an extraordinary level of artistic license, free to explore their wildest ideas without meddling from the publishers.

Rare could do no wrong, apparently, and that extended to over-the-top and adult humour.

"A graphical masterpiece" - IGN

Perhaps there's an assumption that Nintendo of yesteryear only catered for kids, but in retrospect, that's not entirely true, is it? Here we have a game that might be more thematically suited to PlayStation, but Rare were given completely creative freedom to create something within the realm of their abilities.

Nintendo wasn't completely alien when it came to more adult experiences. After all games such as Clock Tower, Mortal Combat II and even Doom were released on the SNES.

And they did, as when Bad Fur Day released, it was a critical hit, with many publications lauding what a breath of fresh air the game was. Expectations subverted.

Pre-hangover Conker.

Conker's Bad Fur Day may not have set the world on fire commercially, but it carved out a special place in gaming history as the black sheep of the N64 era. A reminder that even the most squeaky-clean companies can let their hair down and embrace their inner degenerate every once in a while.