One More Go: Cubivore, or a look inside Nintendo's heart of darkness.
By Margaret Robertson
It's a tranquil scene: a herd of gentle creatures gambol by a pool. They chirrup and neigh as they drink. When a predator thunders down towards them they scatter, but one is too startled, too slow. The beast's massive jaws close on its back legs, breaking them.
The creature shrieks and flails, but already blood is fountaining from its wounds. With a twist of its neck the beast pulls the shattered limb free, the sudden wrench sending the dying animal through the air in an arc of gore, to fall in a helpless heap.
Animal Leader is a game all about - and only about - fighting and fucking, and it's made by Nintendo. Not just any Nintendo, mind. Early GameCube Nintendo. Nintendo at its most cartoony and saccharine. Wind Waker Nintendo. Super Mario Sunshine Nintendo. Animal Crossing Nintendo.
Sex and death Nintendo.
I still have no conception of where Animal Leader (or Cubivore, for those in America) came from. It was the only game ever made by Saru Brunei, one of those incestuously close second parties which seem separate from Nintendo only in name. [Ed. note: see 1] Designed initially as a Nintendo 64 title, it emerged on GameCube as a sparse and grubby world, built entirely out of squares. And I mean entirely. Animals are square. Flowers are square. Leaves are square. The ripples that follow you through a pool are square. And the blood which squirts out of your squealing prey? Oblong, actually, but you take the point.
Much more vivid than the world was the gameplay. You prance through the meadows and fields, like a cubic gazelle, until you spot another creature. At once you're transformed into something with the grace of a puppy and the ferocity of a hyena. Skidding enthusiastically into your target, you snap your jaws shut on a limb (square, of course), chomp upward to get a better grip and then rip, toss, swallow. In the brutal world of Animal Leader, the more you kill, the more you mutate, and the more you mutate, the more females you can have group sex with. I've mentioned that this is a Nintendo game, right?
In reality, of course, it's not an aberration that it's a Nintendo game. I'll admit that the threesomes-for-raw-meat equation at the heart of it is a bit stronger than anything you'll get in a Mario game, but it's not as if Sunshine, Wind Waker and Crossing don't have a dark heart.
You can't tell me you didn't wince at the revelation that Bowser Jr. was Delfino Isle's troublemaker, acting out his resentment of the weird love triangle between his Bowser, Mario and Peach. Is Peach his real mother? Because if so it seems like he must be the result either of rape or some super-elaborate rape-play, which either way is staggeringly dark territory. Wind Waker opens with a child abduction. Animal Crossing is about mortgages and futures speculation. Nintendo has always understood the bleaker elements of the human condition.
Animal Leader, then, is just the purest expression of this long tradition, which makes me happy. It makes me happy because I love violent games. I love being violent in games. Violence is a core part of the human experience, and it would be weird if we didn't explore it in this medium, just as we explore it in every other. But I like honestly violent games. I like games which are upfront about their violence, and about its consequences and your reasons for enjoying it.
It's the same thing that always made me much more comfortable with the first Manhunt - which is uncomfortably, uncompromisingly honest about its voyeuristic thrills - than something like Prince Of Persia: Warrior Within. I remember spending an infuriating afternoon listening to Yannis Mallat boast about how the game ought to be allowed to get away with higher degrees of violence because its enemies weren't strictly speaking people, thanks to the corrupting effect of the Sands. As if the time that the team had spent making them move like people and scream like people and bleed like people could be obviated with a plot point.
Animal Leader's natural - naturalistic, even - enthusiasm for its violence is one of the reasons I always stick with that name, rather than the more familiar Cubivore. It's game about being an animal, with truly animalistic priorities and preferences. In that regard it's a less offensive title than something like Viva Pinata which dodges so many tricky questions about food chains and life spans. There are truths in Animal Leader, and not many games can say that.
The glaring double standard, of course, comes with its handling of sex, which is off-screen and sanitised, as all sex continues to be in mainstream games. That though is a battle for another day, and another column which might give me an excuse go to back to Fahrenheit or Sands Of Time in the search for games that at least try to do it properly. For now, I'll stick to exploring my inner carnivore, thanks to the most realistic game Nintendo ever made.
[Margaret Robertson is the former editor of Edge magazine and now videogame consultant. One More Go is her regular Offworld column in which she explores the attractions of the games she just can't stop going back to.]
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1. ^ [Pedantic ed. note: Technically (pushing glasses up nose), it's the only GameCube game made by Saru Brunei after the Marigul funding deal. Prior to that, they created the (frankly pretty bad, despite its Delaware soundtrack) adventure game Jungle Park for PlayStation, Saturn and PC, which bears more than a passing visual resemblance to Animal Leader's character design. Saru Brunei head Gento Matsumoto also created the Wired-Mag-extolled CD-ROM Pop Up Computer, which I suppose Offworld should cover at a later date. Anyway, sorry to interrupt. -Brandon]