Somebody once told me “maybe, for the sake of your general mood, you should stop playing licensed Game Boy Color games,” to which I replied “Hey now, not every game can be an all-star, but don’t these lesser games also deserve to be remembered?” Of course, as soon as I said that I realised it was a load of cobblers, and it would be perfectly fine if games like today’s were forgotten – developed by a company called Prolific, it’s the 2001 Game Boy Color what-are-you-doing-in-my-swamp-em-up Shrek: Fairytale Freakdown!
Yes, it’s a game based on the big green meme machine himself. There’s Shrek now, putting the freakdown on some poor soldier. I’m undecided as to whether “freakdown” is a portmanteau of freakout and beatdown or showdown, but I’m leaning towards “beatdown” because this is a one-on-one fighting game. That’s right, a fighting game. On the Game Boy Color. Based on Shrek. I bought King of Fighters XIV this week, I could be playing that instead. Why do I do this to myself?
Here’s a list of game modes, an otherwise ordinary videogame screen enlivened by Shrek’s face peering over the top and exuding an aura of sheer contempt for what he sees. You can fiddle around with options and passwords, you can practise (although in this instance it’s unlikely to make perfect) and you can Play Game. If you Play Game, you fight through a bunch of the other characters in an “arcade mode” style. You might notice that Shrek: Fairytale Freakdown has no two-player mode of any kind, so before I’ve even started playing it’s been condemned to the very lowest tier of fighting game trash.
“Select your Champion,” orders Donkey; say it out loud using your best Eddie Murphy impression, if you like. Strangely Donkey is not one of the playable characters, but most of the other characters from Shrek are. There’s the main ogre himself, of course, plus Fiona, the Gingerbread Man, the Big Bad Wolf and so on and so forth. A bunch of them are locked when you start playing, but it only takes five or six rounds of fighting to unlock every character and you get a password so you can unlock them straight away once you’ve beaten them, which makes you wonder why the developers even bothered having them locked in the first place.
I’ll be playing as Shrek himself, naturally. DO NOT stare at Shrek’s face for too long, lest you be drawn into the same vortex of madness that has clearly consumed the hapless ogre. He’s got the facial expression of someone who was having a nice time at party but just sat down heavily on the host’s cat and now it’s not moving.
It’s impossible for me to see “Let’s Rock!” in a fighting game and not immediately think “Heaven or Hell!” to myself. Hmm, maybe I should play some Guilty Gear after I finish this article.
Also: dear lord what is wrong with Shrek’s face in this game?
“They wouldn’t listen, Donkey. I just wanted them out of my swamp. They wouldn’t listen, and now they’re all dead. It’s just me and you now, Donkey. Me, you and the silent swamp that sees all.”
Okay then, now it’s time for some actual fighting. The graphics sure didn’t improve any, huh? That’s Shrek on the left, and in case you were having trouble working it out from the pixels in front of you he’s fighting the Big Bad Wolf. It’s a one-round fight with very little in the way of gimmicks or elaborate combat mechanics – the only real difference from most one-on-one fighters is that the stages aren’t simply flat planes, and they have different platforms, height levels and even holes you can fall down if you want the fight to be over as quickly as possible.
As for the controls, they’re pretty much as you’d expect them to be. You’ve got a button each for punch and kick – although those are fairly loose definitions and some characters don’t technically kick or what-have-you – and the d-pad moves your character around, with up being jump. You’ve also got special moves, performed using the standard “directional-buttons plus attack” set-up. Each character has (as far as I could tell) two special moves. In Shrek’s case, these are a short-range “yoga flame” type attack performed with quarter-circle back and kick, or a long range projectile using the good ol’ fireball motion. Get used to executing Shrek’s projectile, because you’re going to be using it a lot if you want to get through SFF with the minimum amount of agonised rending of garments. Happily, performing fireballs and the like isn’t all that difficult, because whatever its many, many other problems may be the game is generally quite good at recognising your controller inputs. It’s definitely far better than the input detection in Hokuto no Ken 7, although I suspect that says more about Hokuto no Ken 7’s shocking lack of quality than it does about SFF.
Not that I needed special moves for this fight, because once I’d managed to jump over the wolf’s projectiles and get right up in its snout, I could just hammer kick repeatedly. Shrek used his drop-kick over and over again, and the wolf tried to fight back by doing the same thing. However, Shrek had the health advantage from landing the first blow and so he won the race to the bottom of their respective health bars. He celebrates by waving his arse around. The Big Bad Wolf is lucky to be unconscious.
Onward we go, with the next fight being against Pinocchio. You know how I said Shrek has a “fire blast” attack? Well, it’s a fart. Of course it is, this is Shrek. He bends over and rips out a fart so potent that it immediately combusts on contact with air. You might think this would be an incredibly useful attack in a fight against a small wooden boy, but sadly it isn’t because, surprise surprise, the collision detection in SFF is bloody rubbish. Sure, the methane cannon has the potential to do good damage, but there’s no way of knowing whether it’s going to hit your opponent or not. Sometimes you’ll fart right next to someone and they’ll ignore it or, even worse, risk one of their limbs to reach through the cloud and punch Shrek in the arse. Other times they’ll take damage despite not actually touching the attack. It’s not just this move, either: seemingly every attack in the game is either utterly unreliable or will always hit if you’re even vaguely nearby.
Even Shrek’s regular attacks suffer from this, and after I won the previous fight by doing nothing but drop-kicks, I thought I’d try it on Pinocchio. It didn’t go so well, because despite launching my attacks from the same position only around one out of four made contact. You can see in the screenshot above that I’ve executed what would be the perfect drop-kick by any reasonable criteria – at just the right distance that I should be leaving bootprints on Pinocchio’s retinas – but did this attack do any damage? Did it bollocks. So, that’s another big reason why SFF is a horrible experience, and you spend a lot of fights sort of “inside” your opponent, neither of you being able to land blows unless the seemingly random whims of the game’s collision detection deign it to be so.
I do like that one of Pinocchio’s attacks is his extending his nose at you. There aren’t enough nose-based attacks in fighting games. Get on it, Dhalsim. You can also have fun wondering what lie Pinocchio is telling in order to get his nose to spring out so quickly that it hurts people. I’m going with “this is a fun game that definitely isn’t broken and doesn’t look like it was scraped off the sewer walls in Lego City.”
Next up is the Gingerbread Man. He runs around on little candy-cane stilts! Ha ha, that is fun. Then the fun abruptly stops when you realise the Gingerbread Man has one strategy and one strategy only: he runs, runs, as fast as he can (a genetic trait found in all gingerbread people, it seems) and pelts you with projectiles from as far away as possible. Once you manage to close the distance, you might be able to land one attack – if the hit detection is feeling generous, anyway – before the Gingerbread Man runs to the other side of the screen and does the same thing again. What an absolute pain in the arse this fight is, made worse by basic movement in SFF being slow and soupy, with characters floating in the air and no two jumps ever seeming to have the same trajectory. Much like the first battle, I only won by somehow managing to land the first blow and then trading hits, although in this case we trading projectiles because, unlike in pretty much every other fighting game ever, when two projectiles hit each other they don’t cancel each other out. Imagine Ken and Ryu standing at opposite ends of the screen, hurling endless fireballs that pass right through each other, and you’ve got some idea of just how dull this fight ended up being.
Now I’ve unlocked the Gingerbread Man as a playable character. He looks about as pleased at this development as I am to be playing this game.
It feels a little early for a mirror match, but here’s Shrek versus Shrek in a no-holds-barred grudge match. After all, who could want to beat Shrek up more than Shrek himself? Wow, man, that’s deep. Unlike the combat, where my Shrek and the Other Shrek stood apart, flinging projectiles in the hope that one of us would walk into an attack. Then the Other Shrek got bored and wandered into a pit. If even the CPU characters find this game too dismal to play, then what chance do I have?
Well, this might be useful. I can’t think of a power you’d be more keen to have in a fighting game than invincibility. It’s never explained how Shrek makes himself immune to physical harm. It probably has something to do with onions.
Eager to test out my new impervious body, I rushed into battle with Robin Hood. Except he’s called Monsieur Hood in this game (and in the original movie, apparently.) Monsieur Hood? Is he French now? I’m amazed that this change didn’t cause controversy amongst British conservative types. I could definitely see the Daily Mail running a “HOLLYWOOD HACKS IN FRENCH ROBIN HOOD DISGRACE” headline.
Oh, right, the invincibility. I never managed to use it. I wanted to, but I could not for the life of me figure out how to activate it. I realised it’s got something to do with you health bar, and the “P” icon at the bottom-left only lights up when you’re below a certain amount of health, but I tried every combination of buttons and d-pad motions I could think of and never managed to trigger it. I think I did a fairly thorough job of testing the various permutations – and the Game Boy Color is not exactly overburdened with buttons, so there’s not that much to try – but no matter what I tried, Shrek remained resolutely vincible.
Moving on, to a fight against a dragon. I’m sorry, that’s a lie. It’s actually a fight against those gaps in the bridge. Oh, sure, the dragon tries to get involved by swiping at you with her tail, but those holes were the main challenge. Not a fun challenge, either, so it fits in nicely with the rest of this game.
It’s difficult to judge just how much of SFF being bad is down to it appearing on the Game Boy Color, a platform that’s about as suited to the fighting game genre as an abacus is to hosting a flight sim. It just doesn’t have to the power to be pushing around the detailed, fast-moving sprites that you’d need for a satisfying fighting experience. That said, surely a Game Boy Color fighting game could be better than this one. Shrek: Fairytale Freakdown has that “licensed game” feeling all over it: rushed, uncared for and probably made with a tiny budget, but knowing that doesn’t make it fun to play. It’s awkward to both hit things and not get hit by things, the graphics are mostly bad and occasionally astonishingly ugly, the music is meandering, tuneless bleeping and it’s simply an all-round miserable experience to endure.
Oh look, another special power I never figured out how to activate. I bet if I knew how to use them, it’d seem really obvious. In this case, however, it’s probably for the best that Shrek’s speed power lies dormant. I had a hard enough time controlling him without him being sped up.
After another fight against Shrek – he’s got a lot of issues to work through, apparently – you’re thrown into battle with a hooded executioner named Thelonius. Thelonius’ name is a reference to the famous jazz musician Thelonius Executioner, you see.
The fight against Thelonius plays out as the opposite of the Gingerbread Man battle. Thelonius has a projectile – a throwing axe – but he rarely uses it, preferring instead to run as close to you as possible and grab you in the chokehold you can see above. This is rather annoying, as there seem at first to be no way to avoid the chokehold. If Thelonius gets near you, then you are getting throttled, and it’s difficult to keep away from him because he moves at the same speed as Shrek. I was having quite a lot of trouble with this fight, and consequently feeling pretty crappy about myself for being bested by a goddamn Shrek fighting game, until I realised that Thelonius has no defence against Shrek jump-kicking in place. He can’t grab Shrek while he’s in the air, so just hop up and down on the spot with your legs outstretched until Thelonius walks into your feet enough times to be rendered unconscious.
Here’s one tiny, insignificant detail in SFF that I genuinely liked – this stage takes place in a wrestling ring, and you can jump up to the top of the turnbuckle and launch your attacks from there. This is especially fun when you’re playing as Shrek because one of his jumping attacks is a flying elbow drop, so you can at least pretend you’re Macho Man Randy Savage.
I’m ninety percent certain “Ogre Strength” is code for extreme body odour. Those are green stink lines, not rippling waves of chi formed by Shrek’s sheer martial prowess
The final fight – here’s a tip, go and play Final Fight instead of listening to me complain about this game – is against the villainous ruler of Duloc, Lord Farquaad. Y’know, I didn’t realised “Farquaad” was supposed to sound like “fuckwad” until years after I’d seen the movie. I guess I’m just a pure and innocent soul.
Anyway, Farquaad also has a grab attack that’s frustratingly difficult to avoid if you try and fight him using Shrek’s incredibly short-ranged punches and kicks, but in Farquaad's case he jumps on your head and does a merry jig. This makes it far more aggravating than Thelonius’ chokehold, giving me the drive I needed to power through this fight and finish the game.
Projectiles came to my rescue once again, and I realised that they can hit enemies that aren’t on the screen. In fact, if your opponent does leave the screen, there’s a good chance they won’t bother coming back and you can throw projectile after projectile towards them. Most of the time they’ll just stand there, somewhere off-camera, and get hit. By this point I was more than happy to beat this game without having to see or engage with the other characters.
Here’s your ending. That’s all you’re getting, there aren’t even any credits. Just that same artwork of Shrek with the haunted expression of someone realising they’ll do anything to survive after the apocalypse. Anything.
In some misguided attempt at fairness, I went back and tried out the other characters to see if playing as them makes SFF any more enjoyable. It does not. I think Shrek and maybe Thelonius are slightly slower than the other characters, but beyond that they’re all much of a muchness. I think Farquaad might actually be the “best” character, because he’s got that head-dancing grab attack plus a move where he charges forward with his head down, impaling his foes on the prongs of his crown. It seems to travel right through every enemy attack and deals big damage, so if you want to get through SFF as quickly and painlessly as possible, try insert the symbol of your royal authority into the tender flesh of all and sundry.
I think I’ve covered this, but Shrek: Fairytale Freakdown is a really bad game. Slow, ugly, poorly balanced and unpredictable in the whims of its game engine. What’s worse than that, though, is that it’s so obvious. You and I both knew that this was going to be a terrible game, and the developers made no effort to include anything even vaguely new or interesting. And why bother? The executives who greenlit this game probably didn’t give the developers the time or resources to come up with anything better than this. So, SFF slides down the greasy chute of videogame obscurity and lands in a stinking, foetid pile with all the other licensed Game Boy Color games. I’ll play a good one some day, I swear, but for now I’m going to a) play some of that King of Fighters XIV I mentioned earlier and b) apologise if I got Smash Mouth stuck in your head.
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