Rare had a problem. According to IGN, Conker’s upcoming adventure in development was apparently pegged by criticism as “being too cute and too much like the bear/bird duo to really stand out”. The bear/bird duo referred to were the lead characters from Rare’s 1998 game for the N64, Banjo-Kazooie.
The game had also gone through a few changes since it was announced in 1998. It started out as Conker’s Quest which would borrow from Banjo-Kazooie’s 3D platforming formula. A year later, the game changed its name to Twelve Tales: Conker 64. And now Rare was being told that Conker wasn’t unique enough. According to this interview hosted over at Amazon, it wasn’t so much criticism as it was looking at what Rare had created among the “cute platform” games category and feeling that another one would finally be one too many prompting the change in direction.
The developer quietly dug in and began working on a solution and in 2000, Conker’s Bad Fur day was revealed by Nintendo. It would hit shelves this day, in 2001, roughly a year later. It would also be nothing like what it started out as.
I’ve always been a bit puzzled over the years by where Nintendo sometimes shot its censorship arrows. Back when the NES ruled the roost, it was host to a variety of games from Super Mario to arcade ports like NARC with exploding body parts which could make some of what Nintendo decided to excise from its localizations confusing in hindsight. Nintendo’s censorship of elements deemed offensive to its market audiences were notorious such as when the villains of Capcom’s Bionic Commando went from Nazis seeking a Fourth Reich in the Japanese market to Badds led by someone who “only” looks like Hitler and is called Master D for the West.
Granted, censorship laws and taboos can vary depending on where you go, but Nintendo’s application of said power over the years could still appear a bit haphazard even today. Even in the interview above, the anonymous developer being questioned confesses that if they had approached Nintendo a year earlier with the same idea, they would have “they’d have shown it the door”.
Nintendo’s penchant for censoring some things (like Mortal Kombat’s blood on the SNES turning into “sweat”) while allowing others was due in part to their determination in maintaining the “family friendly” image for their hardware. Sure, people flew apart in NARC when they were hit by a rocket, but it’s nothing that you didn’t already see in the arcade version or in the movies. Even id Software’s Doom and Wolfenstein 3D showed up on the SNES — albeit with alterations.
Which is why it was relatively surprising to see something like Conker’s Bad Fur Day on the N64. After some soul searching, Rare turned it around transforming it into an adult action game with an M rating from the ESRB with a giant pile of shit as an enemy boss daring anyone to compare Conker to Banjo-Kazooie. Nintendo did wave the censorship wand a bit (such as removing references to Pokemon and the KKK) but Rare claims “99.9 %” of what they had in there remained. And it wasn’t a bad game.
Conker’s Bad Fur Day comes off as a Disney-esque animal adventure having met Ralph Bakshi in a dark alley. The story kicks off with Conker drinking the night away at the local tavern, the Cock and Plucker, and trying to find his way home during a dark and stormy night while drunk. Waking up with hangover in a strange place, he starts the tutorial portion of the game which breaks the first many of fourth-walls as he tries to get home. And that’s just the start of a very bad day for our hero as he experiences pop culture movie references, crude humor, and jumping puzzles on his way to the end.
Gameplay mimicked that of Super Mario 64, which Rare confesses to copying to a degree (especially its camera), although it had a few innovative touches. One of those were “context sensitive” pads. Stepping on these caused a light bulb to light up over Conker’s head and enabled him to perform a specific action pertaining to the pad, often taking the form of a special attack against a boss.
It also featured local multiplayer across a variety of modes such as a “heist” type mode (players try to escape with a bag of cash while trying not to be upstaged by the others who are doing the same thing), co-op team events such as storming a beach under fire as the “Frenchies” or defending it as the evil “Tediz”, to straight up deathmatch.
Conker’s excelled in a number of technical areas, too. The game featured large, playable areas, a wide range of facial expressions for Conker, detailed textures, sounds, effects, and even lip synicing. Text is all spoken in the game despite being cartridge-based. The advanced technical nature of the game pushed it to be one of the few 64MB cartridges for the N64. Conker and a large amount of the code “was already written” noted by the interview above linked to Amazon when they decided to change it into a more mature game, though Rare also spent considerable time digging back into the N64 hardware to squeeze even more performance out of the machine.
The game was critically well received across the board with many critics — and players — remarking how advanced the game felt on the surface compared to the rest of the N64’s library. Not only that, but the dark humor and mature themes were also a hit along with the extensive voice acting, characterizations, and wide ranging variety of play elements from simple platforming challenges to driving a toy tank around to defeat an enemy boss.
On the other hand, it sold pretty badly by Nintendo standards according to this IGN article that tracked sales of the game in 2001. By April, the game had only sold 55,000 units which was considered “miserable” by the article. Several factors were to blame. One was Nintendo’s marketing efforts targeting only the M-rated demographic and focusing those efforts in adult-only venues such as Playboy magazine ads limiting its reach.
Another factor was timing. The game came out today in 2001. But a few months later, the Nintendo Gamecube would arrive in November for North America and go head to head with the Microsoft Xbox in the same month. In the meantime, Sony’s PS2 was already out for a year by the time Conker came out, slowly ramping up its own numbers building up on the success of the PS1. As for the N64, the market for it and its games were already waning by the time Conker arrived. And it wasn’t cheap to make those 64MB carts, either.
As limited as it was, it left behind a considerable legacy both with fans who loved it and went on to be remade by Rare as Conker: Live & Reloaded in 2005 with its multiplayer retooled and expanded to support network play over Microsoft’s Xbox Live service. In 2015, Conker’s Bad Fur Day was included as part of the Rare Replay collection for the Xbox One. As of this article, physical copies of the original N64 game regularly command high prices on auction sites such as Ebay with “sealed” copies demanding several hundreds of dollars.
Conker’s Bad Fur Day was one of those remarkable moments in Nintendo gaming that stood out for being an unexpectedly mature game for a Nintendo platform at the time as well as being a perfectly fine and thoroughly entertaining title on its own merits. This was one of Rare’s shining moments way back when on the N64 where they had also been responsible for other iconic greats such as GoldenEye and Perfect Dark. The only thing missing was an adaptation for the big screen by Ralph Bakshi.