Tokyo Jungle: the year’s most original end

Screen Shot 2012-12-30 at 22.49.21

There were many nuggets of gaming gold this year, from Fez’s 8-bit brilliance to Dishonored’s high-gloss grandeur, but one title’s oddities went the extra mile to give it an edge in ushering in the future…

There’s a bit at the start of I Am Legend where Will Smith sneaks around a deserted, post-apocalyptic Times Square behind a helpless, CGI deer, the smell of breakfast in his and his trusty dog’s nostrils. Then, just as Mr Big Willy Style is about to get his gun on, a CGI lion leaps out of the undergrowth and gobbles up Bambi, depriving our hero of his grub and giving us all a nice scare into the bargain. It’s shocking, it’s well worked, and it’s arguably the only thing worth watching in the entire film.

Now, imagine the tension of that scene extrapolated across an entire mini series, but without Will Smith pretending to cry, CGI ghouls changing scale on a whim or Hollywood execs riding roughshod over one of the best horror novels ever written, and instead of watching, you actually control the deer. Unorthodox doesn’t quite cover it.

Well, this year Sony did more than imagine, it made an entire game out of it, and it might just be the most interesting entertainment world-ending yet. As the Mayans’ premature threat of apocalypse subsides to the very real end of 2012 at least, revisiting it feels timely. While not quite my favourite game of the year, it was certainly my most memorable gaming experience, amid much strong competition from Dunwall, Acorn Plains and friends, and to my surprise and delight it’s a sentiment shared by many in the inevitable end-of-year lists.

As the opening cinematic of ‘Tokyo Jungle’ kicks in, the 28 Days Later-esque images of Japan’s capital as a ghost town suggest yet another generic end-of-the-world premise at first, modern gaming so often desperate to mimic the film industry’s every turn. Yet this is no safe, triple-A franchise; as a download-only release produced by a small team and flogged for a tenner, risks can and will be taken. And as the game proper opens, with you controlling a distressed Pomeranian – and not a tooled-up, grizzled mercenary searching for his family in sight – you realise you’re in the company of something truly unique.

For reasons unknown, the human race has been wiped out and only animals remain. What ensues is a series of breed-specific RPGs in a small sandbox world, where you must level up by marking your territory, impressing a mate with your fetching and fighting skills, feeding to stave off hunger, procreating, and all the while avoiding bigger, badder animals who want your sweet meat in their mouths, plus keeping the inevitable toxic post-apocalyptic fallout out of your fur.

While it starts off light, with vulnerable deers and silly looking dogs, you’re soon into crocodile, lion and even dinosaur territory, the many-teethed teams battling it out improbably across the city as if Whipsnade Zoo is staging its own interpretation of The Warriors, or Shane Meadows has been  handed a celebrity-voiced Disney film to direct. Yet through this feral battle of wits, the story of how the human race snuffed it is slowly revealed, almost as a side note, mankind’s consumerist legacy revealed through interaction rather than exposition. Well, the animals wouldn’t really care, would they? It’s totally Japanese, utterly bonkers and absolutely brilliant.

With so many future visions, be they film, TV or games, focusing on well-worn, overdone scenarios, the Tokyo Jungle team deserves credit for trying something as radically different as an apocalyptic animal life-management simulation, a diabolical interpretation of a Nintendo title turned upside down and hung above an altar. The fact that it turns such a potentially ludicrous set-up into a gripping, tender, often hilarious package – don’t forget to accessorise your animal with an appropriately coloured hat – is even more surprising. Sod Remote Play updates, someone should get a real-time version on PS Vita soon, so ripe is the idea with Tamagotchi-meets-Pokémon potential.

While Tokyo Jungle is far from the perfect game – its formula’s a tad repetitive, the controls occasionally frustrating, the visuals representative of its small budget – it will grab you with its sheer originality of thought, and its word-of-mouth, cult success is testament to the fact that being different can still be rewarded.

If you’re a PS3 owner, you almost have a duty to download it, much in the same way as you do its superior stable mate, Journey, as games as out there as this need to sell for publishers to continue to take these kinds of risks. Given the gaming crystal-ball choice of zombies and beige space marines in our future, I think I’d rather have a front row seat to watch a kangaroo fight a golden retriever.

Except I wouldn’t, of course, as according to Tokyo Jungle I’d be dead. Happy new year.

Tokyo Jungle is available to download now on PS3,

NB: I hadn’t intended to do a ‘games of 2012’ list, as 1) I haven’t found enough time to play Borderlands 2, ZombiU, The Walking Dead or Far Cry 3, all of which from a few hours here and there on all of them I can tell should feature strongly, 2) I’ve seen everyone else’s lists of the year and, aside from the titles mentioned, mine would be basically the same but in a slightly different order, and 3) like albums of the year lists, I disagree fundamentally with the idea of comparing artistic endeavours of such varied size, teams, hardware and intents, reducing their many successes to an inane television list show format.

But since I’ve already written this Tokyo Jungle ode, I guess it won’t hurt to fill in the blanks on what I’ve particularly enjoyed, and played far too much of, this year, for those interested. So here are the 10 other games I’ve particularly enjoyed this year, in no particular order…

Punch Quest
Kid Icarus: Uprising
Gravity Rush
Trials Evolution
New Super Mario Bros U
Little Big Planet PS Vita
XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Except, of course, none of these are number one. These 10 are great, sure, but there was only ever going to be one number one – despite me stating earlier that I don’t agree with ranking artistic endeavours. This game is hypocritically good. My number one ate up more of my time this year than all the other games combined, and entertained me at home, abroad and everywhere in between, and for that reason alone deserves to be recognised independently.

Oh, and because it was made by one bloke on his own – that, too.

If you know me, you’ll know what it is already. I’ve written so much about it this year already people are no doubt bored. But if I really haven’t managed to send you to sleep with my constant praise slathering yet, there’s a load of words on it here.

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