Clever Parody Games You Should Try

by Matthew Stolpe on Oct 23, 2014 at 10:45 AM

Video games have a long and storied history with humor, one that Game Informer’s own Ben Reeves has chronicled well. As games and technology have evolved, so too has the medium’s ability to incorporate different subgenres of comedy. Parody, however, remains largely uncharted waters.

Plenty of titles in the past have devoted time to making comical nods to other games and cultural events in the industry, but few devote their entire being to making fun of just how bizarre games can be. Today, we’re highlighting those bold games that step back and poke fun at their own oddities, the titles that aren’t afraid to take jabs at the industry’s more unsavory elements, and yes, even the games that prey on our nostalgia for old-school gameplay.

Retro City Rampage (Wii, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PS Vita, Steam, 3DS)

Retro City Rampage lets you know what it is the second you boot it up: an affectionate parody of classic arcade and 8-bit games, as well as the relatively more recent open-world games. This labor of love features send-ups of nearly every classic retro-era game – you name it there’s a reference there. Paperboy? Player, the player character, spends one sequence delivering newspapers and dodging perilous traffic on a bicycle. Mega Man 2? One of the Retro City’s earliest moments parodies that game’s iconic intro cutscene and music. Legend of Zelda? One sequence has Player fighting through enemies as he brandishes Link’s sword and shield.

Retro City juxtaposes these references with pot shots at gaming’s idiosyncrasies. The text is replete with A Winner Is You-esque mistranslations that plagued many old-school titles, shootouts happen at the Convenient Barrel Factory, and some missions shatter the fourth wall with how frank they are about their arbitrary objectives. The combination of these elements – the references and the metahumor – calls attention to the fact that although our memories have canonized many of these old school games as perfect, even they had their problems. 

DLC Quest (Steam)

One of the more cynical entries on this list, DLC Quest is a satirical title that examines how the game industry has changed as a result of downloadable content. When you first boot it up, the 8-bit platformer presents you with a husk of a game, devoid of features gamers assume are necessary in a title. The player character can’t jump (a travesty for any platformer), background and sound effects are nonexistent, and perhaps most glaring of all, there are no movement animations. Instead of walking, your character awkwardly hovers around. All of these necessities are locked behind a fictional paywall; players must gather fake currency to purchase diegetic expansions like the “Animation Pack” from shopkeepers Nickel and Dime if they are to complete their quest to save the princess. 

Just like the real games market, many of the DLC packs you can buy are unsubstantial, pricey, and hold no bearing on your completion of the game. That horse of yours is looking weak. For just 250 gold, you can deck him out in a “sturdy” set of horse armor. That environment is looking dull, too. Why not spruce it up with the season pass? It only costs 199 cold. Virulent market practices like these are likely why developer Going Loud Studios made the game’s sequel DLC Quest: Live Freemium or Die free for PC users.

Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)

Critics largely agree that while Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard fails as a third-person shooter, it succeeds as a parody in both its premise and script. Despite what its title may lead you to believe, Eat Lead is actually Hazard’s debut game, clueing discerning players into this game’s decidedly meta streak. Once a megastar of Doom-esque shooters, Hazard ran his franchise into the ground after he “signed on” with a publisher that saturated the market with reductive family friendly spinoffs. Hazard jumps at the opportunity to reboot his brand, but soon discovers that his new game’s plot twist would replace him with a different protagonist a la Metal Gear Solid 2. Guided by a virtual companion named QA (wink, wink), Hazard fights his way through an ever-changing game code that sees him in a variety of settings typical of shooters and action games.

Eat Lead may be five years old, but its humor is still on point. The opening levels are mired with tutorial text at an excess that even Hazard himself disdains. “I think after 20 years in the industry I know how to fire a damn gun,” he grumbles in the opening moments – a sentiment felt by any veteran of a coddling tutorial. But this joke is but a dash of cynicism in an otherwise playful romp. With deadly water gun shootouts, a corny catch phrase (“It’s Hazard time!”), and a boss fight with a JRPG hero who only speaks in text boxes, it’s a shame that Eat Lead wasn’t a more polished title.

Up next: Social games, South Park, and military shooters.


Cow Clicker (Facebook)

This list’s prime example of parody by emulation, Cow Clicker is the Facebook game to end all Facebook games. Games critic and Georgia Tech professor Ian Bogost created the satirical app in response to the rising popularity of social games – Zynga’s Farmville in particular. Players have but one simple task; click the cow in their pasture for points every six hours. Nothing else occurred after clicking the cows - no surprise gameplay surprise, no story or context, just arbitrary, meaningless points. If you wanted to earn clicks faster, you could use “mooney,” a virtual currency bought with Facebook credits, to accelerate the time. Players could also earn points by inviting their friends to their pastures, gaining clicks whenever their friends tended to their cows.

Although it was as insipid as the games it mocked, Cow Clicker became unexpectedly popular, peaking at about 56,000 players. In response, Bogost started incorporating player feedback in the form of achievements and new skins, but never changed the core gameplay. Eventually, the Cow Clicker phenomenon climaxed in the “Cowpocalypse,” a catastrophic event that saw all the cows vanish Leftovers-style. Much like as in the classic Percy Bysshe Shelley poem Ozymandias, nothing beside the empty pasture remains, but true fans can still click where their bovine brethren once grazed.

South Park: The Stick of Truth (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Steam)

South Park is one of the most incisive satirical shows currently on cable television, and has been that way for 18 seasons. It comes as little surprise that South Park: The Stick of Truth, the franchises’ most faithful foray in gaming, keeps that acerbic wit alive. Stick of Truth doesn’t parody video games in particular so much as it targets nearly everything in its orbit. Still, some of the RPG’s richest material comes from the shots it takes at gaming tropes. Game humor abounds with jokes about silent protagonists and Nazi zombies, not to mention a literally climactic boss fight, but the real star of the show is the Canada sequence. The show has always portrayed Canada and its denizens as off-kilter and backwards, but takes it a step further in the game by rendering the proud nation in an isometric, 8-bit overworld, complete with a chiptune version of “O Canada” as background music. This stylistic departure is no doubt humorous, but also highlights how foreign modern games can feel from their retro origins.

Honorable Mention – Duty Calls

Duty Calls isn’t so much a full-blown game as it is a playable short. Designed as a promotional vehicle for People Can Fly’s Bulletstorm, Duty Calls lampooned the well-worn tropes and game design of a certain military shooter mega-franchise. From the excessive, rapidly-progressing ranking system to the announcer calling out “Boring” when you fire your gun, there’s no denying this parody lacks subtlety, but that’s also the point. These jokes call attention to how drab and stifling the military shooter formula became post-Modern Warfare, and in contrast highlight Bulletstorm’s bombastic and colorful nature. Duty Calls is no longer available, but the video above captures the whole admittedly brief experience.