Everyone has heard the saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover”. I guess the equivalent for video games would be “don’t judge a game by its trailer,’’ or screenshot perhaps. I am all too guilty of passing judgment quickly based on a first glimpse. Developers know that gamers form an opinion of their games based on a quick look, and that’s why many of them crank the style up to eleven in terms of the art direction. Games like Cuphead, or more recently Art of Rally, have unique art styles that immediately draw your attention. Similar to how Cuphead encapsulates classic ‘30’s and ‘40’s cartoons in its art style, developer Mighty Yell decided to evoke a 1990’s cartoon aesthetic in their new game The Big Con. The main cartoon that comes to mind is the Nickelodeon classic Doug; the character designs, colors choices, and most environments feel like they would fit right into that universe. Tugging on player’s nostalgia heartstrings sounds like it could be a gimmick, but there’s more to the game than the totally rad graphics.
I would classify The Big Con as an adventure game, but it doesn’t feel like a normal adventure game. The playable character Ali is a sassy seventeen-year-old girl who lives with her mother, Linda, above the video shop they run in mid-90’s small-town America. She loves working at the video store with her mother and is enjoying her summer vacation. The story begins on the eve of her dreaded yearly trip to band camp. It’s closing time at the video store and Linda tells Ali to help the remaining customers make their selections. At this point you are introduced to the Listen mechanic, allowing you to overhear what people are talking about giving you clues that will help you if you talk to them, or in other ways, such as overhearing codes to safes and other locked things (nobody locks their things with keys in this universe, it’s all three-digit combo locks or four-digit number pads). Once they close up shop for the evening a sketchy pair of individuals are skulking around the store. Linda tells Ali to go upstairs and pack, but there’s a Listen prompt in the next aisle. Ali learns that her mother owes over $97,000 to Ricky the loan shark, and he’s going to take the store from her if they don’t pay.
That’s a lot of money, so unsurprisingly Ali is upset and decides to sneak out the window and go for a walk. Ricky and his goon aren’t the only dubious characters in town that evening. There’s a slick-looking fellow hawking ice cream from a cart outside of the temporarily closed ice cream shop. Ali strikes up a conversation with this young man, named Ted, and to make a long story short he basically teaches her how to pickpockets and then convinces her to team up with him on a money-making con job road trip. He remains vague on his intentions, but Ali’s intentions are clear: she wants to save the video store. Ted acts as a sort of mentor to Ali and explains the different mechanics in the game. The game also introduces a silly, skateboard-toting straight-out-of-a-90’s-cartoon ghost to give you advice, fittingly-named Rad Ghost.
I was slightly taken aback when I heard the plot. Saving a mom-and-pop small business sounds noble, but doing it at the expense of other people seems kind of messed up. Obviously, this is just a video game, and in the end, Ali does learn a lot about herself along with some valuable life lessons – this is a coming-of-age story, after all. Ted does have some lame reasoning as to why it’s alright, something about how if it’s money they haven’t spent then they don’t need it. All in all the game takes a very light-hearted and humorous approach to all of this, putting you in many comical situations in order to earn and swindle the cash you need to save your video store.
The story is delivered to you as you make your way across a portion of the country. You make various stops to pickpocket and con people out of their money. Almost every level/stop is a unique location – though there are a couple of instances later in the game where you return to a previous location. Each area has multiple “activities” or cons that you can pull to make some dough. The first stop is a mall where more than a few of the patrons are obsessed with getting their hands on a Burble (a Furby-like toy). You’re able to steal one from one father-son duo and then sell it to another, and if you’re crafty you can snatch the special edition version from the display case at the toy store and sell it for a pretty penny to the original father-son duo. There are many different types of cons and scams you end up doing. Later on in Las Venganza (a Las Vegas clone), you are asked to acquire five out-of-state driver’s licenses for another character, and there’s a bunch of money-making schemes/tricks for you to make use of inside the casino.
The main mechanic you’ll be using is the pickpocket/stealing mechanic which is simple but effective. When you’re in position a wallet icon will appear at the bottom left of the screen, the number of bills sticking out of it indicates how difficult it will be and typically how fat the wallet is.. Holding down the Y button causes a HUD to pop up and you have to release Y while the moving icon is in the purple area to succeed. If you fail then that person will get mad and you’ll have to put on a disguise to attempt to steal from that person again. There are a ton of disguises you can find and they’re all pretty funny, with one of the first ones you get being a paper bag with eye holes. There’s also a clown nose and various sizes and styles of mustaches. My favorite one is the wizard hat and beard. The best part about the disguises is that they show up during the conversations and little cutscenes.
If you get caught three times in one area then you’re in big trouble… Actually you aren’t, you’ll just have to spend a little bit of time doing some menial labor like rewinding tapes (Yikes!) or maybe spend a few minutes in jail. There is an option in the pause menu where you can set pickpocketing to auto, but I’d suggest giving the mini-game a chance. (There might be more drastic penalties for getting caught in certain areas, I only ended up getting caught three times in three of the areas).
Not everything is a con or a scam. You can have many conversations with various characters, and there are a fair amount of recurring ones. There’s an extremely lame comedian with the worst jokes on the planet; if you give him advice each time you see him then he might have a reward for you before his big show in Las Venganza. There’s also a timid fellow you meet on the train who is on his way to meet his girlfriend for the first time (they’re pen pals), and if you help him out you’ll also be rewarded.
The game uses a somewhat muted neon palette, with some characters having unconventional skin tones and hair colors. Overall the art style is very eye-catching and evokes the 90’s cartoon aesthetic perfectly. I also liked the VHS theme in some of the menus. There are a few graphical issues however. I found it strange how the camera would zoom really far in on Ali or other characters at some points and then stay zoomed in too long. I also witnessed a few janky animation glitches, where an arm might shake strangely for a few seconds. In addition, there were also a few times where characters slid instead of walked. At first, I really liked the backgrounds they designed for the conversations but started to eventually feel like they were too static and monotonous.
The audio has some bright spots but there are also a few issues, just like with the graphics. The music tracks are all really good. I liked the title track, and there were a few others that fit really well in with the whole package. However, it bothered me how the music was synced up with the conversations. Many times the music wouldn’t match the tone. I did like the sound effects that would play for the characters at certain points, although some of those sounds were recycled too often.
As someone who grew up in the 90’s and watched countless hours of Nickelodeon, the art style alone is an instant sell, but The Big Con is more than that. The game has a great sense of humor and the story stays entertaining throughout. It might not be Da Bomb, but it would definitely be worth a rental.Become a Patron!
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.Want to keep up to date with the latest Xt reviews, Xt opinions and Xt content? Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.