There’s something almost perverse about the way that marketers and toymakers exploit a certain aesthetic many of us have an impossible time resisting — cute.
From doe-eyed Precious Moment figurines to cartoon breakfast cereal mascots, cute is calculated and engineered to stir us to coo on sight and buy a product. The more exaggerated the eyes, the shorter the proportions, and the more pastel the colors are the better.
One of the most insidious perpetrators of the Cult of Cute were the Care Bears, an 80’s toy brand empire created (ironically enough) by a company already experienced in manipulating emotion, American Greetings. The Care Bears pushed cute to almost pornographic levels. They were small, cuddly brightly colored teddy bears with names like Funshine and Love-A-Lot Bear — so sickeningly precious, you’d half expect them to shit Lucky Charms.
As someone cynical about manufactured cuteness, I was looking forward to playing 505 Games’s Naughty Bear. It looked like an amusing parody of cute overload by juxtaposing Care Bear-style kids toys with the over the top, hack n’slash violence of many M-rated video games. It’s something that the infamous Nintendo 64 game Conker’s Bad Fur Day achieved to a small degree.
The good news? Naughty partially succeeds as satire. The bad news? It doesn’t really succeed as a $60 video game.
The best part of the game is the first 10 minutes or so, where you first take on the role of Naughty Bear himself, a social outcast who lives alone in the shiny, happy domain of Perfection Island. In comparison to the Care Bear lookalikes of the the island’s other inhabitants, Naughty has a little gruff to him, a rip to his fur here and a chewed off ear there to give you a visual cue of Naughty’s dark heart. He’s a little like a violent (and stuffed) version of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.
As the game begins, Naughty flies into a murderous rage after not being invited to fellow bear Daddle’s birthday party and getting laughed at by his peers for the size of his birthday present. And thus, the cuddly psycho begins his campaign of maiming, murdering, and terrorizing all of the denizens of Perfection Island.
This is all narrated cleverly by an omnipresent British narrator (who sounds like actor Jim Dale), who heightens the atmosphere with an element of kindly childhood nostalgia at the beginning of the game with comments like, “Hey, Naughty Bear, why don’t you give Daddles a nice birthday present?”
Soon, however, the lilting tones of the narrator turn from the sounds of comfort something more like the tone of an Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs, adding to the inappropriateness of the proceedings by constantly egging on Naughty Bear to commit random acts of violence and mayhem. He calmly asks, “Hey, Naughty Bear, I wonder what Daddles’ head would look like on a sharp stick?”
In other words, don’t expect a happily ever after ending here.
After the set up, Naughty Bear must leave his lonely hut and cause death and destruction in a number of ways to rack up “Naughty Points.” The system is set up to reward utilizing a number of different ways to kill or destroy things. You could choose to hide in the forest or sneak up behind an unsuspecting teddy bear and hack at them with a machete like something out of a slasher movie. You might also steal a ninja sword to set them on fire, shoot them in the face with a pistol, or use bear traps to capture and torture them. If you’re feeling particularly sadistic, you could use psychological warfare and slowly terrorize them until they go insane and commit teddy bear suicide with whatever weapon they happen to be holding.
The violence is pretty brutal, but it’s mitigated by the cartoonish nature of it. There’s no blood or guts or dismemberment, just fluff flies. It’s actually just a bit less tame than your standard Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote cartoon.
Things fall apart for Naughty Bear when you realize how shallow the game actually is. Instead of a singular narrative, the game has seven episodes that must be unlocked by collecting a number of trophies given out for high scores in the previous episodes. In other words, to continue on with the game, you might have to rehash the level that you just played several times. This seems like a pretty big no-no for video game design in 2010.
To make matters worse, each level doesn’t feel that much different from one another. They often follow the same path. Naughty Bear leave his cabin, goes to the village, and creates chaos. The combat is also flawed in it’s repetitiveness. There’s one button for hitting and another button to dodge. If your victim has been hurt enough, you can commit a Mortal Kombat -style “ultra kill” execution. These are funny the first time, but there is one specific animation per weapon. It gets tired after the second or third time.
Toss in an iffy third person camera and throwaway multiplayer, and you get a pretty shoddy overall game.
In theory, Naughty Bear could have been a vicious send up of the Cute Industry and a refreshing break from a video game world cluttered with war-based first person shooters and “me too” licensed titles. In the end, however, it appears it was the game developers themselves who were the naughty ones.