A long time ago, in a now-defunct game development studio, an idea was born. What if girls really could do anything boys could do? Suppose there truly were no limits on their ability to succeed, if gender differences were stripped away, and a positive role model could be found to help girls all over the world realize their full potential? Why, that would mean a woman could be an archaeologist and star in her own adventures just like Indiana Jones! What woman wouldn’t love that idea: traveling the world, exploring lost cities, finding forgotten artifacts, evading danger by the hair of her pony-tail? “Perfect,” said someone in a power suit, “green-light that baby and get it on PlayStation consoles everywhere by, say, September of next year!” Were this the origin story of a certain pistol-packing, dinosaur-slaying icon from 1996, this article would have a happy ending. My editors like happy endings for this column the way you enjoy a vigorous helping of genital rug burn. That means I can only talk about Barbie Explorer from Runecraft Studios and Vivendi Universal, and not Tomb – uh, that other game about a globe-trotting adventurer with two X chromosomes. Much like Indiana Jones, I can only say I’m sorry so many times.
Honestly I was excited at the prospect of playing this game for the column. Not because I expected great things from it, but because it’s a Barbie game with potential. Games aimed at girls tend to be pandering because they’re made by guys who think they know what girls want, instead of by people who understand the only thing girls want in a video game is a good video game. So unlike other entries in the Barbie catalog, this one seemed to have the least to do with making sure your make-up was applied correctly and picking out your wardrobe for your little turn on the catwalk (yeah, on the catwalk…). It wasn’t instantly outside the realm of possibility for the game to be fun. Then I learned it was made by Runecraft, the same bunch of yahoos who developed a computer adventure game based around a guy lost in his own house thanks to the Y2K bug. For some reason this put a damper on my enthusiasm. But then I thought, “How hard can be it be to make a Tomb Raider clone when you have five games of Core Design’s work to mine for ideas?” Ha ha ha ha ha, and there I go thinking again!
The story’s cute. Intrepid reporter Barbie is interviewing the curator of a local museum who was something of an Indiana Jones type back in his glory days. He shows her his pride and joy: a mirror, cracked and rather shabby looking, that requires five different pieces to restore to its former glory. He found the first piece, a large yellow gemstone, years ago, but the other four eluded him. While working on restoring the mirror for his exhibit however, he found a map revealing the locations of the other four treasures. Lara Croft has slightly more pressing issues like being trapped in the bowels of an Egyptian pyramid, but Barbie’s the sort who will try anything once, so with the museum’s blessing and a leave-of-absence from her job as a reporter, she dons her hiking boots, safari hat, and tight shorts. Barbie has leveled up from Barbie: Journalist to Barbie: Explorer!
Barbie Explorer doesn’t look like a bad game. It’s clearly borrowing from other influences, but it’s not like that doesn’t happen all the time, so I won’t hold that against it. It’s clearly aimed at a younger audience, so it does not surprise me it isn’t as complex as other 3D action platformers. What I will hold against it are the camera and the controls, which appear to have been designed by committee and then infected with leprosy. Tomb Raider succeeded because it had great controls for the time. Barbie generally goes where you want her to go, until the camera decides you’ve moved into a different area, and performs a Twilight Zone-like switch where left equals up, right equals down, and up equals maybe left, or right, or up, depending on where you happen to be standing on the screen. In a game that tasks you with not falling into bottomless pits, this is as shameful as returning home to live with your parents because that art history/philosophy double major isn’t paying the dividends you expected.
The thing is, if the controls weren’t quite so sticky and unresponsive, Barbie Explorer would actually be a decent game. The graphics, while not pushing the PS1 to the limits the way a game released in 2001 should, aren’t awful. They’re a bit sparse, and they’re not perfect at executing the whole ‘depth perception’ thing which makes it seem like you’re walking right through some treasures when in fact you’re just standing behind them. But they do a reasonable enough job of differentiating Egypt from Babylon and Africa from Tibet. I understand there’s a Windows version of this game that looks even better, but since I don’t have it, I can’t say anything more about it.
As just mentioned, Barbie’s quest takes her through four different parts of the world. Africa, Tibet and Egypt are open at the beginning, and you can tackle them in any order, but Babylon isn’t available until you’ve found the artifacts in the first three areas. Good thing Barbie’s got such an awesome clothing budget, because it allows her to dress for any climate, even the frosty mountains of Kathmandu to the darkest tombs of Cairo. She’s also got a moral aversion to slaughtering endangered species, so you have to avoid birds, elephants, yeti, flying fish and other hazards all intent on putting a stop to your career as an explorer. If you manage to get past the exploration stages, it’s time to mess with a short boss fight which could be anything from a gigantic snake to a poison-spitting plant. Passing the boss stage means you claim the treasure and can go on to a new area. Pretty simple.
Barbie’s got a nice assortment of moves and ways to interact with her environment, all of them taken from the Tomb Raider playbook, but what would you expect from a game released in 2001 that’s going for Tomb Raider-lite? She climbs walls, rolls under or jumps over obstacles, shimmies across monkey bars, swings on ropes like Pitfall Harry, throws the occasional switch, and drags large objects like rocks and statues around the landscape using her legs and not her back, because Barbie is an expert in kinematics and ergonomics. The game even has a VR Simulator training environment which explains how to do everything she’ll need on her adventure, which is a nice feature even if you only use it once.
Barbie Explorer doesn’t contain many puzzles, but the ones it does have (that don’t involve jumping on a diagonal axis, which requires a blood sacrifice to perform correctly) are well executed for the most part. They’re on the simpler side, since again, the game’s made for kids and not thirty-somethings on a deadline, but with that in mind they’re acceptable. The African stage which concludes with Barbie having to jump on zodiac symbols which flash on neon-lit floor tiles like the world’s largest game of DDR in particular is nicely done. It does make one wonder why someone decided to build an astrologically-themed disco in the middle of the jungle, but Barbie’s not one to judge other cultures for their aesthetic dance choices, so neither should you.
Unfortunately I couldn’t find anyone among my friends willing to give the two-player mode a try, no matter how much Coors Light I offered in return. I guess I’ll never know how much fun it is for Barbie to compete with her best friend Teresa Rivera in seeing who can finish a level with more gems, and fewer deaths. I don’t understand why none of my so-called “gamer” buddies would step into the shoes of Barbie’s hot Latina BFF for some girl-on-girl action, but consider all your asses un-friended. Don’t play like I wasn’t willing to let you be Barbie either–Teresa bakes cupcakes and rescues stray animals in her spare time, so I see no shame in her game. Message me when you’re willing to stop conforming to societal expectations of gender norms and help me out with my column, you spineless sack chompers.
OK, so Barbie Explorer isn’t as awful as exploratory testicular surgery. I actually found this game kind of cute and endearing as I played through it, which is a lot better than I expected. That doesn’t excuse the final, massive problem I have with the game: the ending. So you’ve put all your time and energy into trotting around the world, finding the various little statues and goodies so you can complete the Mystic Mirror. This whole time we’ve had questions in the back of our mind–mainly, ‘Will Barbie still have a job as a journalist when she gets back from her world tour?’ and ‘What does the mirror do?’ Answers to these questions will not be forthcoming. In the final FMV, Barbie and the professor put the finishing touches on the mirror, placing the missing artifacts just so, when suddenly the mirror repairs itself! The cracks in the glass vanish like a bag of Fritos at 4:20, and just as we’re about to learn the secrets of the mirror, the screen fades to white, the words “To Be Continued…” appear, and then: rage.
No game geared towards children should be capable of producing the kid-inappropriate language I spewed upon seeing the credits roll. While it might have seemed like a good idea in 2001, the truth is it’s been fourteen years now and there’s still no sign of a sequel. Runecraft imploded in 2002 following the release of Butt-Ugly Martians: Zoom or Doom! for the Nintendo GameCube, but there are other video game companies out there, Mattel. I need closure! Did Barbie manage to save the world, or doom it to a horrible curse? Maybe that mirror was broken for a good reason! Are there other abandoned sites across the world that have yet to be scavenged by Lara Croft and her ilk where Barbie could have fabulous adventures with her friends? What about Teresa–is it fair that even when she wins, she loses since the story isn’t about her? That’s not cool; what sort of message does that send?
And think of the possibilities! Barbie has other BFFs with whom she could adventure: Midge, Raquelle, Grace, Summer, and Nikki would all be willing to help her on her globe-trotting exploits. You have a ready-made world with a whole slew of multi-player options and costume-based DLC (don’t act like you don’t know they’re ‘fashion dolls’) just sitting right there, waiting for someone to do something with it. Don’t let this be another Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance. You have the power, the girl power, within you to see this quest through. I deserve to know what the Mystic Mirror does, and so do the rest of my readers. You made a promise to continue this story. And I demand my continuation. But with better controls. If you make me diagonal jump across sinking lily pads again, I swear I’m never buying another accessory for my California Dream House. Then where will you be, Mattel? Where will you be?