In Europe they're making fun of video games. And the people doing it are game makers themselves.
Since the fall European PlayStation 2 consoles have been spinning an Atari-published game called "Asterix & Obelix XXL 2: Mission Las Vegum," an adventure whose title characters fight through a world populated by an Italian plumber armed with a water pack, a group of speedy runners wearing blue hedgehog helmets and soldiers with shields shaped like hungry yellow semicircles. A recurring character named Sam Shieffer, with triple-lensed goggles on his head, occasionally rappels from the roof or is suspended from the rafters with a "Splinter Cell" split.
All of that is video game parody, and it might very well be the first. Three decades or so old, video games are only now getting the equivalent of "Scary Movie" or "Spaceballs": a game that makes fun of where it came from.
"We haven't seen any other games parodying other video games," said Edith Protière, co-president of the game's developer, Etranges Libellules. "We thought that would be something new and different."
According to Protière, the game was among the top five PS2 titles sold in France this Christmas. It has been available on PC in English in Europe since October, but, perhaps owing to the fact that Asterix and Obelix are comic book characters famous only outside the U.S., it is not scheduled for release in America.
The game wasn't always a sure thing even in Europe. When Protière's team first explored the idea of making an interactive spoof, they were met with resistance. "Very early we came to people who said it was dangerous because of rights," she said. It wasn't just the lawyers who were concerned. Some of her creative people thought making a gaming spoof might make them look like they had no ideas of their own.
She remembered telling them that wasn't the point. "When you see the Wayans brothers movies or the Mel Brooks movies, they are making something out of it."
And so, in the spirit of Darth Vader being recreated as Dark Helmet, her developers set to work in spring 2004 to remake some of video game's biggest icons in a new image. Exit Lara Croft. Enter, in the same famously tight outfit but stretched around an oversized gut, Larry Craft.
Comedy is notoriously rare in video games, where the funniest games often keep the joke-to-action ratio of a Hollywood action movie, rather than a Will Ferrell or Jim Carrey flick. Bona fide game comedies — like "Conker's Bad Fur Day," "Space Quest" and "Monkey Island" — make less fun of other games than they do movies or overall genres like sci-fi and fantasy. Even at that, comedy isn't common.
"It's really, really hard to do," said Dave Perry, president of "Matrix" game-maker Shiny Entertainment and veteran creator of more than two dozen games. He said it's hard to figure out how to generate humor, leaving designers to fall back on familiar gameplay not built for laughs. "Do you blow up buildings and shoot people? Well that's easy. I can do that all day long and keep making those games."
Perry — who is in the early stages of making a new comedy game for 2007 — said one of the most formidable obstacles to making a game funny is the multiyear process of actually making a game. "You kind of sit down and design all your levels and you create a bunch of tasks and people go do them and build the game. That as a system in itself kind of sucks [out] some of the life and the humor that you would put in the game."
Perry said he got around that problem in the early '90s with his slapstick game "Earthworm Jim," which was a critical and commercial success. He attributes much of the humor to a simple rule that required designers who brought ideas to planning meetings to draw their ideas out by hand.
Protière said she didn't necessarily consider her design team to be full of natural comedians. "I wouldn't say we are funny, but we try to have fun doing what we do."
What they did do was rent some of the Wayans and Brooks spoofs and use them for inspiration. It turns out that the movies are what gave the game designers — many of whom were skittish about being too obvious with parody — courage.
"I don't know if it's something about French people but we kind of like to make it soft, whereas when we were watching the movie it was clear that it was a parody of something, not just an allusion that would be understood by someone who saw the film 10 times."
The designers wound up creating parody versions of about 30 video game icons, including Mario, Sonic, Lara Croft and Rayman. In the background they stuffed sight gags to about 70 more, including more obscure nods to games such as "Ecco the Dolphin," "Chu Chu Rocket" and "Pikmin."
The team also choreographed some parody into the gameplay itself. Examples include a barrel-jumping "Donkey Kong" bit and a segment that has players ricocheting Asterix off giant red pinball bumpers as they would "Sonic" on GameCube or Dreamcast.
One of the world's most popular video games, "Grand Theft Auto" is parodied only on the game's box art. But Protière says there might be more "GTA" spoofing to come. "We had an idea with that," she said. "But we're keeping that for our next game."
With sequel ideas in mind, does Protière see her team as gaming's first Wayans or Zucker brothers? "We'd love to," she said. "We still have a long way to go."