Barkley: Shut Up And Jam Gaiden is an easy game to dismiss offhand. First, it was made with RPGMaker; not a software platform with a storied history of high-caliber releases, exactly. On top of that, it sounds more like a one-off joke on a gaming forum than a concept that could actually be sustained as a full-length, functional game.
Well, as it is the first chapter in what is (maybe) going to be an episodic series, and offers up only about six hours of playtime, it can't accurately be called a "full-length" game. What is here, however, works surprisingly well. I think this is due to the game being crafted with an underlying story that is actually quasi-serious and fairly well written, and then being mashed up with all sorts of NBA characters and gamer culture in-jokes; if they had taken the straight-ahead Scary Movie sort of approach, with just a non-stop series of disjointed "wacky" parodies, it would have likely come off as very tedious. As it stands, I actually enjoyed it more than quite a few commercial RPG releases.
To add an extra layer of bizzarity, the game is a sort of follow-up to the animated film Space Jam. I didn't have the privilege of catching that one during its theatrical run, but apparently it starred Michael Jordan as he saved the world from a team of space monsters who stole the souls of a bunch of NBA stars and fused them into a basketball. Our man Barkley was one of those who inhabited the ball, and upon his return to Earth, he unwittingly unleashes a Chaos Dunk during a game that rips the stadium apart and kills everyone present except his infant son.
The year is now 2050 (Sir Charles has aged exceedingly well) and the world is a cyberpunk dystopia worse than anything ever envisioned in P.K. Dick or Gibson. Basketball is outlawed thanks to Barkley's fatal dunk, and apparently Michael Jordan has turned traitor to the game, serving as the chief inspector of a government unit that seeks out underground practicioners of b-ball and executes them. Barkley lives with his son in relative peace, but his life soon gets flipped and turned upside down when another Chaos Dunk goes off in Manhattan, killing millions. Believed to be the only person capable of such a dunk, Barkley immediately becomes wanted by the authorities, and has to go on the run. Somehow involved are a shadowy terrorist organization called BLOOD MOSES, who Barkley decides to track down for answers.
You can see where this could easily become corny and tiresome right from the outset. Somehow, however, Tales of Games makes it work in the face of the odds. As mentioned, the underlying plot is actually fairly grim and a bit serious, and the dialogue is actually all pretty sharp and well-written. The juxtaposition of this grim and interesting setting and story with goofiness such as Larry Bird as a priest, status inflictions such as "diabetes" and "Parkinsons" (which actually makes the character sprite jitter), and boss battles with Bill Cosby's Ghost Dad, accentuates the humor and keeps the game fresh.
The gameplay and structure are also pretty solid. The sprites are basically amateur scribbles, except those that were copped from some other game (this includes pretty much all of the character portraits), but everything is put together pretty well and the crapiness of the art really never becomes a distraction. There's some slight problems with the gameplay - character movement is a little slow and stiff, and they sometimes inexplicably get hung up on the entrances to rooms - but for the most part it is very well done and a cut above what I've come to expect as the RPGMaker standard. Battles are side-view, with a non-fixed screen that tracks characters as they move to attack each other, and nearly every character attack has some sort of action-based input (somewhat similar to Final Fantasy X). You also see some Dragon's Lair/Shenmue sequences occur, where buttons must be pressed at the right moment - unfortunately, after one long sequence towards the beginning, this mechanic sort of disappears from the game except for a couple of short, token reappearances.
Most surprising was the soundtrack - team member Chef Boyardee, who apparently also did the bulk of the game design and writing, has put together a very passable imitation of a JRPG soundtrack, with some songs that are even iPod-worthy. I assume it's his, anyway - he's credited as the artist if you play the MP3s from the game folder, but the in-game credits jokingly attribute the soundtrack to Nobuo Uematso, and a couple of the songs from the game are swiped from other sources (including a hilarious 1980s-esque hair metal song that works surprisingly well as a boss battle theme).
As it is basically a running parody of JRPG conventions, the game is definitely geared towards at least semi-hardcore gamers who spend a fair bit of time on the internet, but if you're reading this, then that's probably you. It has a story that is actually worth following for it's own sake, some genuinely hilarious moments, and the gameplay is solid. I don't know if Tales of Games actually intends to continue the Barkley saga - or if they have enough left in the tank to craft another entertaining game with this premise - but this by itself is a short but fun treat.