Not So Kewl: The Early Years of South Park Games

Believe it or not, there was a time when South Park games weren't very good...

This article originally appeared in the Den of Geek New York Comic Con special edition print magazine. You can find the digital copy here.

Over the course of its 20-year run, South Park has won Emmys, a Peabody Award, and it was even nominated for an Oscar. But what are the show’s co-creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, most proud of? Parker has said in interviews that he’s most gratified that they haven’t handed it off. Parker and Stone still voice almost all of the raunchy animated comedy’s main characters. Either Parker or Stone is listed as a writer on every single South Park installment. Parker has also directed or co-directed all but 15 of 267 episodes.

South Park‘s voice is Matt and Trey’s voice, so it’s hard to imagine the show without them. Hard, but not impossible. In the late ‘90s, a video game company called Acclaim cranked out a series of South Park games without Parker and Stone’s involvement. It went as well as you’d expect.

The show premiered in August 1997. By December 1998, it was everywhere. George Clooney, fresh off of his career-making run on ER, guest starred in episode four as Stan’s gay dog Sparky. The second season premiere, “Cartman’s Mom Is Still a Dirty Slut,” set the record for the highest-rated non-sports broadcast in basic cable history.

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In that climate, South Park video games seemed like a slam dunk. But Acclaim’s first effort, South Park for the Nintendo 64, wasn’t much more than Turok 2 with some South Park trappings and added fart noises. A few months later, Chef’s Luv Shack mashed up South Park and Trivial Pursuit with classic arcade games. One developer joked that it was “the highest quality game you could get out on the market in five months.” In 1999, South Park Rally dropped the show’s iconic characters into an uninspired Mario Kart knock-off.

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But South Park isn’t an action thriller or a game show, or a competitive sport. Even if these were good gamesand they aren’tthey don’t have much to do with South Park. The show is at its best when it uses crude humor to slyly dissect celebrity trends and pop culture. By contrast, aside from a few dirty jokes, Acclaim’s games played things completely straight.

At a PlayStation 2 launch event, Stone admitted, “We’ve had really bad video games.” In an interview with Playboy, Parker was even more direct: “They’ve made all this shit and these video games that we hate.”

For most of the 2000s, South Park stayed away from video games. A Grand Theft Auto-inspired open world game was cancelled early in development and would’ve remained completely unknown if a fan hadn’t discovered a prototype on an old Xbox development kit. Parker and Stone’s production company, South Park Digital Studios, found some success with the Xbox Live game South Park Let’s Go Tower Defense Play!, but that game was praised more for its gameplay than its use of the South Park license.

In 2009, Feargus Urquhart, CEO of Obsidian Entertainment and developer of Fallout: New Vegas and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, received a phone call from Parker and Stone. At first, Urquhart thought that the call was a prank. As it turns out, Parker and Stone really were on the line. They wanted to make a South Park role-playing game, and they wanted Obsidian to develop it.

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Obsidian got straight to work on a new game, and this time, Parker and Stone were involved every step of the way. Parker wrote the game’s 500-page script. South Park Digital helped design the characters and the environments, and funded the game’s early development, ensuring that the game met Parker and Stone’s rigorous standards.

Despite some hiccups involving publishers, South Park: The Stick of Truth launched in 2014. On the surface, The Stick of Truth plays like a typical fantasy role-playing game, but as it progresses, the game carefully dismantles many of the genre’s most prevalent tropes. Character customization and the types of big moral choices that players make in games like Skyrim or Dragon Age don’t really matter. The exaggerated political drama of Game of Thrones and The Witcher 3 is reduced to petty playground squabbling.

In other words, The Stick of Truth is a fun and authentic South Park experienceone that looks like it’s going to be replicated later this year when the sequel, the superhero-themed The Fractured but Whole, hits store shelves. Obsidian isn’t returning for this go-around, but Parker and Stone are just as involved as ever. That’s a good thing. After all, as the past 20 years have shown, if it’s not Matt and Trey, it’s just not South Park.

South Park: The Fractured but Whole is out on Dec. 6, 2016 for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.