From Unlikely to Unlikeable – Super Nintendo – Lester the Unlikely – 1994

Genre: Platformer

I have mentioned in various conversations, the idea of games having ‘heart’ and that it helps some of those games thrive where they may not otherwise.  The same can be said for the opposite side of that idea.  Some games either try too hard and demolish their ‘heart’ or they try to put up a façade of ‘heart’ for the sake of sales.  Looking at the surface of Lester the Unlikely, a Super Nintendo game with a cult following, one could see that this game falls into one of those columns.  Which one, however?

We open on Lester, our hapless “hero”, looking for a quite place to read his new comic.  He manages to seat himself next to some cargo, falling asleep.  When he wakes up, he is on a ship under siege by pirates, so he grabs a lifejacket and swims for the nearest shore.  How can a nerd with no confidence who’s afraid of everything find his way back home?

The game’s mechanics are basic.  You can walk, run, and jump.  You can pick up items, which you almost always need to use in the stage you find them in, and you can grab onto ledges to pull yourself upward or make long jumps viable.  There are a few unique mechanics.  The most prominent is that Lester seems to evolve.  The first time you approach most things- a high ledge, a spider, and even a turtle- Lester will run the other way in fear.  The next time you approach, he will approach slowly, still afraid but overcoming his fear.  Partway through the game, his posture even changes and he goes from slumped over and meek to busting out a strong and solid stride.  While this doesn’t directly affect game play, it does add a certain element to the game’s tone.

The other mechanic that struck me as interesting was that not everything is combat related for progression.  With one boss, you have to avoid the creature and its attacks while you chip away at a rock with a boomerang to make your way through.  In another level, you jump from rooftop to rooftop, avoiding the enraged denizens of the village, but if you fall, you end up in a cage that you have to escape from through various means.  In an age where most games involve busting through everything and everyone, it’s nice to see a game emphasizing different tactics.

For what it’s worth, the game plays in a standard way.  It is difficult, but never too difficult, and it calls to mind various similar games of the time.  The intentions with the game itself, mechanics included, seem ambitious.  The story is benign enough, the gameplay is fairly average, and nothing really stands out in the game beyond the mechanics I’ve already mentioned.  It isn’t a bad game, but it certainly has more discernible flaws than pros.

First off, the game tries hard to capitalize on the ‘nerd-ism’ of Lester.  He’s smelly, he’s sleepy, he’s weak; everything is mentioned at some point or another.  The truth is that this premise has been done better in other forms (cinema mostly) and the character doesn’t come off as likeable, save for the fact that the player should empathize with him being a loser.  In that, the lack of ‘heart’ in the game appears.  Every joke at Lester’s expense and mention of his nerdiness comes off as dry and nearly malicious, and while that may have flown well for the younger set when the game originally released, it feels forced and contrived now.

The other setback for the game is that the graphics make it feel stiffer than it really is.  Lester’s movements, on the whole, are well animated, but seem very limited space-wise.  His walk seems confined, and various other actions he takes seem rigid.  This made moving the character around a bit erroneous at times, as one false step could easily end your hero’s life.  Once you’re used to how the character moves, it is easy to overcome, but in the early levels, it does throw a wrench in the machine.

The graphics of this game are pretty good, especially concerning Lester.  While the stiffness messes with the gameplay a bit, he moves fluidly.  Creatures look like they should, for the most part, though the backgrounds get somewhat repetitive throughout the game.  They tend to be colorful and detailed, though, and they are not altogether unenjoyable.

The sounds and music veer into the obnoxious side as time passes.  There aren’t many background tracks to the action, so you’ll be listening to a lot of the same music over and over again, and a lot of the sound effects seem to be intentionally grating.  While that is fun once in a while, this was a rare occasion where I found myself muting the game as I played through (which really only took about an hour and a half, if that).

It is easy to see where this game might have a cult following.  The game makes a lot of well calculated steps that are just off from where they need to be.  Character progression is neat, but wasted on a character you don’t want to empathize with.  The controls aren’t bad, but the graphics make you feel like they are rigid and unresponsive.  A few of the ideas in this game are ahead of their time, and some are lacking, even in the time they were produced.  Added to this is the fact that the ending all but promises another game, though Lester isn’t quite as ‘unlikely’ by the closing credits.  Like a few of the games in the blog, I recommend trying the game at least once.  If nothing else, it offers a window into the up and coming advancement of games at the time.  Taken as a piece of gaming history, the game has quite a bit of value.  Taken as a game on its own in the current, though, it shows every sign of age a game would be expected to.

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