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.
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:
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.
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