Like the show or not, one of the reasons South Park is still around is its ability to stay relevant. Much like The Simpsons evolved from a hastily drawn cartoon about a drunk dad who liked to choke his son, South Park incorporated current events and pop culture into its repertoire and became so much better for it (“Crack Baby Basketball” is one of the best satires of the NCAA I’ve ever seen).
Unfortunately, this game hails from the first two seasons, where cussin’ fourth graders, Kenny’s myriad deaths, and Cartman’s fat ass were the jokes. I can’t really blame the game for being stale on those points – it’s only as good as its source material, after all – but it does mean you’re going to have nothing to do beyond fighting off waves of mutant turkeys, Mephesto’s clones, and alien visitors because Chef says so.
Gameplay is straightforward FPS, and each level has the same goal. “Tank” enemies spawn throughout the level and create “minion” enemies – minions go after you, while tanks try to make it to a spinning South Park sign at the start of the map. Any tanks that you let slip by must be faced in a penalty round at the end of the level. Here, all the escaped tanks are merrily thrashing on a small section of a South Park neighborhood, and it’s your job to kill them before they can destroy every building. The exception is the last level of each chapter (5 chapters in all), where you will face a boss with a unique weakness you must maneuver around to hit.
The tank/minion gameplay means there’s a bit more to it than just moving from the level start to the level end, but the gameplay itself is repetition personified. Levels are vast, and you’ll face only one enemy type per chapter on normal difficulty, so topping the hill to find another batch of swarming cows starts to induce more sighs and eye-rolling than pulse-pounding excitement. This is especially true considering that only the tanks count – minions are simply in the way, and dropping them does no more than add to an end-of-level tally. Furthermore, nearly all of your foes have only melee attacks and simple “close the distance” AI, so encounters never get more involved than running backwards and unloading your limited arsenal (more on that in a bit). The few ranged enemies can be bested with some fancy sidestepping.
The main draw is playing as the show’s four kids, but the game’s handling of this feels lacking. You start by picking which kid you want to play as, then spend the first level of each chapter collecting the other three. You cannot switch between the kids at will, so you’ll only see them when you switch to new weapons. It seems like the first two weapons you collect go to your default kid, then the next get assigned to a random one. This way you do at least get the chance to spend time playing as everyone.
There’s not much point to it though. The kids share one life pool, and each controls and functions absolutely identically. The only change you get is in their voiced quips and reactions, but even these are disappointing. The kids speak only in catchphrases from the show, and their lines are so few and so frequently repeated that I legitimately wonder if any new VO was recorded for the game. Issac Hayes as Chef is the only one who seems to talk directly about what’s happening, while the kids just spout off clips that could have come from previous episodes, like “cool, dude!” and “respect mah authoritah!” Any of the show’s other notable characters are restricted to background cameos (like the Big Gay Al clone type, or Officer Barbrady in an alien stasis tank), and don’t even speak or appear in cutscenes. It really feels like the bare minimum of interaction with the show.
Since the show’s stars aren’t making the game worthwhile, it falls on the absurd situations to bring any humor. These aren’t funny either. It’s not a matter of taste, it’s that you’re simply presented with illogical enemies without context or commentary. It’s weird and “zany” for the sake of it, as if that should automatically count. The voices and writing are what make things like Mecha-Striessand sacking the town work on the show, while the game does nothing more than ask you to shoot quirky, but repeated, enemies until the level end. If you can laugh heartily at shooting aliens with eggs squirted out of a squirming chicken, or at short-circuiting robots with a noxious fart cloud from a Terrance and Philip novelty doll, then that’s great – but those pieces alone are all you’re going to get. Again, it feels like the bare minimum.
So we’ve covered that the game doesn’t even bother to set up actual gags or satire, and lacks even the basic presentation value of the show. The only thing left for an FPS to offer is some inventive weapons, and as you can guess, the delivery falls short here as well. Weapons are repurposed playground equipment; rubber dodge balls, a toy dart gun, and a homemade toilet plunger launcher are the order of the day. Crazier weapons, like a cow launcher or “alien dancing gizmo” (makes enemies dance) appear only in the final levels.
Each gun features a secondary attack to slightly change its situational usefulness, and some of them end up being quite effective (that dart gun!). However, ammo for all of these weapons is confusingly limited. Since minions don’t drop extra ammo, you’ll spend everything you’ve got on trying to stop the tanks. Your default attack is to launch infinite snowballs at a blazing speed, and its what I found myself stuck with for the majority of the game. The snowballs wear minions down eventually, but will probably wear you down with sheer boredom first.
I should stop here and point out that this could entirely be the fault of the PC port – having only played this version, I’m not sure. The PC version features difficulty levels where the N64 original doesn’t appear to. Aside from randomly inserting enemies from other chapters, these difficulties seem to simply increase every enemy’s resistance without also increasing stashes of ammo. It’s entirely possible I continually ran out of supplies because these new difficulties weren’t balanced, and so “easy” is actually the intended mode. Approach with caution.
The graphics are another good reason to stick to the N64 original. This port is locked to 640×480, but the textures appear to have been created for a resolution even lower than that. Environments look fairly smeared and heavily aliased – any hardware filtering done by the N64 doesn’t get a comparable version here. The artwork is minimalist by design, to match the cardboard cutout style of the show. It generally works and translates to 3D well, but does also create bland areas such as the endless caves and canyons. All textures are also a single shade of color and rely on the lighting engine for any shifts, which it does through clunky bands of sharp gradients.
The PC version is also just generally a stumbling port. All environments display visible texture seams. Background music streams off the CD but only plays once per level before stopping – no more music until the next level. Your view infrequently auto-snaps to center, possibly an artifact from its original analog stick control scheme. There’s also no quicksaves, and a reworked, Internet-enabled multiplayer mode that I doubt anyone was playing even when the game was released. The only reason to get the PC version is a nearly tripled draw distance over the N64, but that’s not much of an incentive. Even mouse and keyboard accuracy seems unnecessary here.
I’m not going to lie, the most fun I had with South Park was when I slapped on some cheat codes and blasted through enemies without thought. I take this as a further suggestion that the PC port’s added difficulty levels were a haphazard afterthought, and “Easy” (or just the N64 original) is the way to play. Even still, this isn’t a game meant to last, and the basic FPS format doesn’t even try to be as funny as the show. Whapping clones with an infinite supply of snowballs to brief, recycled voice clips from the show isn’t something that even fans can embrace. Nothing that made the show worth watching is here.
Tank and minion system gives you something to consider beyond racing to the level exit. Artwork (except the lighting) is true to the show and translates to 3D well. I had some good chuckles pelting Cartman in the face with snowballs while he called me a “hippie son of a bitch.”
Clunky PC port. Endless repetition in both environments and enemies. Recycled voice clips. Cutscenes are limited to Chef talking to the kids – no use of the many other South Park characters (No Mr. Hat? Well fuck you then.) In short, it’s dull and it isn’t funny, but it barely even tries anyway.
“That’s for sticking stuff up my ass.” – Cartman