As anyone who’s ever read a fairytale will know, these constantly retold stories are full of dark subtexts and barely repressed savagery. Videogames are no different – and if anything, it’s the sunniest, most pastel-hued games that secretly carry the most grim, disturbing themes. Won’t someone please think of the children?
Regardless of what platform you choose to play it on, Animal Crossing is broadly identical: as a lone human settler in a forest clearing full of animals, you settle into an idyllic, dreamlike existence of gentle adventuring and crafting. You can collect shells on the beach and exchange them for money, dig up bags of gold and go fishing. There are battles to fight, and you’ll never die. It’s like a fantasy retirement village for the people who love shopping and collecting things.
Animal Crossing’s society of doe-eyed, sweet-talking creatures masks the game’s horrifying agenda. It’s actually a simulation of capitalist oppression, first saddling the player with a crippling mortgage that grows as fast as they can pay it off, before luring them into a materialistic treadmill of drudgery and spending.
Before you know it, you’re in thrall to Tom Nook, the apparently benign shop owner who rules the state of Animal Crossing with an iron fist. As the game goes on, Nook’s megalomania grows, his initially tiny shop gradually increasing in size until it’s become a sprawling department store. At the same time, your home gradually swells from a tiny hovel to a palace, allowing you to fill your life with an ever greater accumulation of furniture, trinkets and other pointless tat. Viva Piñata
What could be more relaxing and pleasant than a game about gardening and animal husbandry? Rare’s sugar sweet management simulation, with its candy-coloured animals and serene atmosphere appears, at least on the surface, to be one of the most genteel videogames available on any system.
Beneath the surface of this apparently pleasant game lurks a heart of stone. The sun may shine brightly in your garden of paper creatures, but death is seldom far behind – incompatible species fight to the death. Weaker animals are preyed upon by stronger ones, or become sick and die. Oh, and if any members of your extended menagerie should annoy you too much, you can always beat them to death with your shovel…
Little King’s Story
This criminally overlooked Wii strategy adventure is one of the most engagingly designed games of recent years, and despite its finicky control system, weaves a sprawling tale about a little boy and his exploits in a mythical kingdom of pastel colours and sentient vegetables.
Little King’s Story is quite possibly the most subversive videogame ever to appear on a Nintendo system, as the player is actively encouraged to expand their despotic rule over an ever-expanding kingdom of downtrodden subjects. The game’s initially tiny, overgrown hamlet gradually mutates into a continent-spanning empire, while the Little King’s wealth increases with every violent conquest.
Actually a biting satire on empire, religion and greed, Little King’s Story is far more adult – and oddly disquieting, on occasion – than its graphics would lead you to believe.
YoYo’s Puzzle Park (AKA Gussun Paradise)
A weird, largely forgotten Japanese platformer released in 1999 for the PlayStation, YoYo’s Puzzle Park is a very odd game indeed. Looking and playing like a mixture of Bomberman and underappreciated Jaleco platformer Rod Land, the object of the game was to clear each stage of impossibly cute enemies.
As family-friendly as YoYo’s gameplay appears to be, there’s something oddly troubling about the mechanics behind it. For one thing, you’re playing the role of a weird character with a spherical head, who may or may not be an overgrown baby (he’s actually called Gussun, the star of an entire series of Irem platform puzzlers throughout the 90s) who kills enemies by first stunning them with a party popper, before obliterating them completely by kicking a gigantic ticking bomb in their face. It’s very surreal, and far more violent than it first appears.
Nintendo’s charming, beautifully designed attempt to bring realtime strategy tactics to a console-owning audience. What’s not to like?
The realityIs there another taskmaster more cruel and heartless than Captain Olimar? Having crash landed on an alien planet, he exploits the radish-like, innocent creatures of the title to reclaim the lost pieces of his ship. Little more than expendable slaves, the little Pikmin are sent off into danger almost as soon as they’re born, and soon fall victim to the dozens of predators and pitfalls that lurk in the planet’s leafy undergrowth. Captain Olimar, meanwhile, stands far back out of harm’s way, probably laughing as his drones wander to their doom. The heartless, heartless swine.
Inspired by his hobby of insect collecting, series creator Satoshi Tajiri came up with the concept of Pokémon, and the resulting RPG became a colossal hit on the Nintendo Gameboy in 1996. An apparently harmless adventure in which players catch and train mystical creatures, Pokémon rapidly grew into a multi-million dollar media phenomenon, spawning numerous movies, merchandise and fluffy toys.
You know a cultural touchstone has run dangerously out of control when references to it are seen emblazoned on a Boeing 747, and the sight of a Japanese passenger jet covered in grinning Pokémon animals will be enough to bring some religious groups out in a cold sweat.
Pokémon’s popularity among youngsters has provoked the suspicion and hatred of religions all over the globe, and the franchise has been accused of everything from encouraging interest in the occult to providing children with a worryingly accessible gateway to gambling addiction. Oddly, the Vatican defended Pokémon as just a bit of harmless fun, which should be enough to get alarm bells ringing by itself.
The central aim of Pokémon is to capture animals, train them, perhaps sharpen their claws up a little bit, and then force them to fight one another to the death. A bit like a sanitised, digital form of cockfighting. Where’s the harm in that?