The Meanest Game Nintendo Ever Made, A ‘Zelda’ Parody Not Sold In America

Big money deals are in the gaming news. I find that fitting now that I’m publishing a piece about “Freshly Picked: Tingle’s Rosy Rupeeland,” a most unusual game for the Nintendo DS that, at its core, makes money the root of everything.

Money = Life. That’s the gameplay philosophy of “Tingle.” It makes for a game that is novel, warped and punishing in a way I’ve never experienced before, a game that I think has broken me.

Like the headline suggests, the whole thing has led me to view “Tingle” as the meanest game Nintendo has ever made.

“Tingle” came out in Japan in September of 2006, and a little over a year later was released in Europe. It’s never been announced for the U.S. release, possibly because it’s star, the fey map-seller from some of the more recent “Zelda” games is not too popular with some of the more macho gamers in the States. Not so in Europe, I guess, where the back of his game box proclaims in green, yellow, teal and pink text that “Still single at 35, Tingle sets off on a search for happiness.” (They never quite say he’s gay, but they don’t do much to make you think otherwise.)

I was fascinated by this game from the minute I heard about it. I was curious what kind of game Nintendo might make about a character the company must know is hated by some, and even by his supporters probably considered lame or, at best, a goof.

I imported the European version of the game in late September and spent the next month juggling it with the DS’ “The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass.” Where I found “Phantom Hourglass” a little too reminiscent of previous “Zelda” games, I found “Tingle” refreshing. Nintendo and obscure Japanese development studio Vanpool produced an adventure title that plays like one long joke on “Zelda.” It’s a tweak of conventional dungeon-puzzling and overworld-adventuring. Some of the “Tingle” game’s music and sound effects are ripped right from the “Zelda” titles, as are the names of some locations.

But where Link is heroic, Tingle is, well, pathetic.

To the extent that the game got any attention among U.S. gaming bloggers it was because of Tingle’s oddness as a leading man. But what makes this game looniest is how it handles money.

This game appears to be a radical experiment in video game world economics. And it seriously stressed me out.

I’ve reported about Nintendo’s reticence to bring a good number of its titles from Japan to the U.S. In this case, what I describe may make you wish they’d give this one to the U.S. or lock up the borders and keep it far, far away. I’m both attracted to and repulsed by the game. I would not be surprised if the reaction from others also was love/hate. “Tingle’s” appeal teeters like a coin on its edge.

Games can present some deviously inspired checks and balances. Did you ever play “F-Zero” and marvel at the economy of boost-speed and shields being powered by the same rechargeable energy bar? Speed up too much in an “F-Zero” race and you have no shields to protect you from collisions. Keep your shields high and you’ll never use the speed boosts you need to pull ahead.

“Tingle” utilizes an even more vexing trade-off: your money is your life. Your health bar is measured in rupees. Taking damage from an enemy knocks rupees from your wallet. Get all of your money knocked from you and Tingle is dead. Note that you must spend a lot of money in this game, always keeping your funds spent fairly low and therefore Tingle’s life in precarious balance (pun certainly intended). You must spend on essential items such as glass jars that can contain the soups and juices you concoct and sell for profit. You need to spend money to open gates that give access to dungeons. And because Tingle is fairly weak, you need to spend money hiring wacky bodyguards — a feisty kid, a warrior princess, a guy in black suit and shades — to get you past just about any trouble.

This whole game is about money. Once you adopt a dog who dresses up in the same kind of green hood Tingle wears, you don’t give the dog a bone. You “sell” him one. At one point, the dog showed me his pleasure by offering 74 rupees.

Yes, it’s all about money. The wise old sage who encourages you throughout your quest has a giant rupee for a head.

How can a game about money work? “Tingle” shows that it can confound so many of your notions of what works and what is fair in a video game. Consider these twists:

  • In most adventure games the cost of items is clearly established. Need to buy a shield? Some armor? A golden chicken? A village merchant or town elder tells you what you must give to get what they’ve got. In “Tingle” the non-player characters will rip you off. Want a 10-ingredient pot in “Tingle”? Don’t know how much it costs, because the lady cook won’t tell you? Well, make an offer. In a miserable twist to classic bartering, most of the game’s character to whom you make a lowball offer will pocket the money you offer them. And then they will start negotiations over from scratch. So when I found a character who promised a great secret if only I could pay him “four figures,” I made a mental note (only possessing three figures of rupees at the time). I came back to him later in the game when I had about 3000, offered him 1000 , got laughed at and left with just 2000. Did anyone else know that Nintendo published games this mean?
  • In most adventure games the rewards for your heroic deeds are pre-determined. Save the princess or beat the mini-boss, and you can trust that you’ll be rewarded with an amount of gems, hearts or some other reward appropriate for your survival through the next stage of the game. In “Tingle,” the people you save ask you what your reward should be. In the game, I saved a dehydrated journalist by serving him some needed drink. He asked me to name the figure for my reward. I did not jot down in my notes the amount I asked for, but I did note that he laughed that I asked for so little. He gave me what I wanted, but it seems I could have taken him in for more. Had I just cost myself some money that I would need to buy my way through the next level?
  • In most adventure games you are given a map — or you can buy one. In “Tingle” you can risk navigating in ignorance by selling your maps back to the game. At the start of each chapter of “Tingle,” you are given an unfinished map. You can complete each one by circling areas where you find unusual land formations and monuments. While exploring the game’s Lon Lon Meadow area (“Zelda” reference, see?), I was hurting for money. So I went to the old lady in town, sold my map of Lon Lon for 1250 rupees, thereby deactivating the map read-out on my DS’ upper screen. What’s next, selling your health bar or inventory screen for profit? What would you do without in your heads-up display to gain more money and health for your character?
  • In most adventure games — platform games and MMOs too — the player can easily determine what they must do to reach the next locked-off level. A blocked door will commonly be marked with the number of stars or puzzle pieces required to open them. In “Tingle” the player can only guess what it will take to reach the next level. An elevated wishing pool next to Tingle’s house is the literal jumping-off point from which the game’s hero can access each new area of the game. The tower needs to be elevated to trigger access to a new place, and that trigger only flips after Tingle has thrown coins into the pool. How many coins? The game never says. The player must keep on tossing gems into the pool until the tower rumbles and rises. Trust me. Not knowing how close you are to being able to level that tower up is a strange experience. It makes you keep wondering if you’re keeping pace with the game or doing something wrong.

I reached my “Tingle” breaking point just before Thanksgiving. I was exploring the game’s Deku Forest. I had come across a washed-up Tarzan named Junglo who, like most other characters in the game, would only help me if I paid him. For example, I had to pay him to help me cross a chasm. For my money he made his ape pal stretch from one edge of a narrow expanse to the other. Classy guy.

So I was deep in the forest and, I suspected, close to  my destination, the Great Deku Tree. I found myself in one of those old-school mazes like they had in the original “Metal Gear” and “The Legend of Zelda” — one that requires you to walk through the same screen multiple times, exiting and re-entering at different sides in a specific pattern. Junglo charged me money to guide me through it. At its exit I faced the Great Deku Tree. The mighty Tree explained it needed saving from some polluted water and asked me to enter and be a hero. Except it also wanted money first. And once I paid and entered, I immediately encountered a gate that, you guessed it, required I pay a toll.

Money. Money. Money. In real life I’d like to hope that not everyone wants money from me. I want to believe that every time I spend doesn’t bring me closer to my doom. Experiencing such things in this game? Stressful.

I’ve come to think that this game was programmed to be a form of payback. It feels like karmic balance hoist upon me on the part of video game characters who are tired of how many times they’ve gotten the short end of game’s financial transactions. If non-player-controlled game characters could choose which game they would be in, if they could be in one that gets them some revenge on player-heroes who walk into their homes, kick apart their pots, steal their heart containers, take their treasures, and make purchases in the shops without ever offering a tip, then they would pick “Tingle.”

“Freshly Picked: Tingle’s Rosy Rupeeland”… I get it. It’s not fun to get shortchanged. I’m glad I got to participate in this little experiment.

But it’s no longer fun. You never gave me a big enough raise. My rupee wallet is thin. I quit.