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Rag Doll Kung Fu and the rough path to innovation

This "flashback" review of an independent game released in 2005 was written originally for the Indiecade blog.

Of all the games I have purchased, I have only been asked for an ID to prove my age once (which actually says a lot about what kinds of games I buy, but that's another story), and that was for Rag Doll Kung Fu. It's rated M (17+), because there's blood and gore, violence, "language" (whatever that is) and use of drugs. I find it amusing, because while it is true that this PC game actually includes all those elements, it is also true that there is an important parodic tone to the whole game that differentiates it from, say The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (which has the same rating with similar elements according to the ESRB).

The essence of Rag Doll Kung Fu is encapsulated in its title: it's a fighting game using ragdoll physics. The mix is certainly unusual, and its sheer unconventionality also results in rather awkward gameplay. It is a fighting game, where to fight you have to click which part of the body you want to hit your opponent with--a rare control choice for a genre that usually thrives on direct manipulation of your character. You also move your character by pulling it from the head or from an arm, dragging it as if it were a child reluctant to leave his place. The characters jump around by dragging them across the screen with your mouse, and this is basically when the ragdoll physics really shine. You can drag your character up, up, up in the air, limbs flailing around, in order to reach high places, or flap around your nunchuks to attack your enemies. Eating mushrooms helps you slow down while you jump, so that you have more control of your character's flapping. The characters enthusiastically ask you for "more, more mushrooms", smacking their lips in delight when they eat them. Yup, you guessed right, this is the "use of drugs" described in the ESRB label.

The awkwardness of gameplay is widely compensated by the tongue-in-cheek tone of the game. The intro cinematic of the game is a home-video parody of kung-fu movies (which mostly were already quite funny, whether it's on purpose or not), with fake chinese dialogue with subtitles, blatantly bad costumes and make-up. Once the game starts, you have the option to leave the grainy looks of stock film on, so that it feels as if you were actually playing a continuation of the movie. The game, however, is more stylish than the clumsily shot and cut video, thanks to the slick physics system, and cutesy painted versions of the characters in the story. The dolls and the objects of the space, in spite of their cut-out looks, feel tangible thanks to the physics simulation. This palpability is probably the highlight of the game, the illusion that you can touch the world and affect it.

All in all, the experimental nature of Rag Doll Kung Fu hampers gameplay, though it is still an enjoyable game to play, and more to watch. The usual control scheme is fun to fool around with, though its novelty may wear out well before you complete the game. In any case, the game's achievements outweigh its drawbacks in the end. It is one of the trade-offs of innovation, you cannot get it all right the first time around.

Rag Doll Kung Fu is worth remembering now because its makers have gone on to a big contract with Sony, and will be releasing LittleBigPlanet, one of the most anticipated games for PS3, this fall. This review was intends to remind players that many of the innovative games that we see in consoles these days (from Portal to N+) come from small teams who just wanted to make a small crazy game, for their own enjoyment or as a student project. Indie developers are thus key to bring a breath of fresh air to the big industry names.

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