“You know where you are? You’re in the jungle, baby. You’re gonna diiiiiieeeeee!” -Axl Rose
You know that feeling when you impulse buy an unheralded low-budget indie game and think to yourself “where has this been all my life?” I had one of those moments after playing the PSN-exclusive release Tokyo Jungle. I mean, come on. A post-apocalyptic nature simulator where you play as one of dozens of species of animals struggling to survive and procreate in the toxic ruins of the biggest city on Earth? Concepts don’t get much more interesting, at least not to a nature geek who spends too much time thinking about dystopian futures and apocalyptic events.
But there’s always the execution to worry about. A great concept does not always a great game make. And there’s only so many things an animal can do, really. To borrow an old Slipknot album title: “Mate. Feed. Kill. Repeat.” pretty much sums it up. But one should never underestimate the power and appeal of Japanese weirdness. I came to fulfill my dreams of becoming one with nature, but I stayed to experience the joys of complete fucking batshit insanity afforded by the randomness of a game in which animals ranging from chicks to cows to goddamn coelurosaurians share the same ruined city.
Did I ever picture myself as the leader of a tribe of Pomeranians engaged in an epic turf battle with the feline forces of evil before? I did not. Weighing the worries of getting fleas from a bunk female with the fear of dying alone and getting a game over before finding a better mate? Not so much. And I never gave much thought to the risks involved with attempting to mark territory under the nose of a pack of hyenas either. Nor could I imagine the terror of being a small sika deer pursued relentlessly by an organized pack of terriers. No, but in this case it was probably karmic payback for all of those baby chicks I kicked so hard they flew off of the screen earlier just ’cause I could. At least now I have another excuse to hate lapdogs.
If nothing else, this game is utterly unique. All of the old-school difficulty of the dreaded and beloved Souls series, but without all off the macho egocentric human bravado. You’re not slaying any massive demons to save the world, you’re just a humble creature trying to get by and pass on your genes until you can unlock the next step up the food chain in a world that desperately wants you to die and will go to extreme lengths to starve, poison, and murder you to bring that inevitable end about. And when you die, you start back at square one like this was an 80’s side-scroller without the extra lives. Tough yet unfair. Classic gaming.
It always starts simple enough. It may seem easy to be able to play as a lion in a world of rabbits and gazelle for that first couple dozen years or so, but you’ve presumably earned that right by grinding and conquering as all of those lower beasts to get that power. But how long can you hold onto that king of the jungle crown when your food sources suddenly vanish, your world becomes polluted, and suddenly you’re surrounded by mobs of unfriendly crocodiles, bears, and dilophosaurs that want nothing more than to devour your flesh and absorb your liony strength for their own?
That’s a lot of pressure, man. Maybe you’d rather play as a nice, peaceful herbivore. Plenty of grasses to hide in, you don’t have to chase down your meals, and the meek are supposed to inherit the earth anyways. Plus, the inability to mount a believable offense against the apex predators of the world opens up some interesting tactics. Like when a panther is in your way and you lead it into a pack of wolves and then hide in some foliage and watch the silly carnivores tear each other apart while you slink away, chuckling evily to yourself. Is there something wrong with me that I still find ways to be destructive while playing as harmless species?
The trials that manifest themselves while traversing the post-apocalyptic Tokyo wasteland are legion, and the stories that result can be made epic by your choice of attire. I forgot to mention that you can totally dress up your animal of choice and make him a bonafide character. The ill-fated tale of my epic quest hunting the dreaded Beagle Boss for the first time with my cat and his merry gang of fraternal feral felines just wouldn’t have been as memorable if the protagonist didn’t have a mohawk and wasn’t wearing a schoolgirl outfit and cat paw gloves over his actual cat paws. It made the decimation of my clan by a single ruthless canine after an awesome run a truly tragic thing to witness and the epic ballad about the confrontation in my head sounds like a verse from “A Boy Named Sue”. This doesn’t happen when I play Assassin’s Creed or Halo.
So I get my dream of an open-world nature sim with dozens of animals, it’s got the bonus of being apocalypse-themed, AND I get to play wacky Japanese dress-up and make the whole thing completely absurd? And it’s got an inappropriate-yet-oddly-pleasing EDM soundtrack too? How did this game exist for nearly three years without me playing it? And why haven’t YOU played it? Okay, maybe you’re not a nature-obsessed weirdo who gets a kick out of the idea of dressing up hippos in tuxedos with a beanie, but if you were you’d be either kicking yourself right now or shaking your head at me for being so behind the times, having already unlocked all of the creatures and purchased all of the DLC for yourself long ago.
It’s nice to be reminded that there are still developers out there who want to bring us something fun, simple, new, and slightly insane. Tokyo Jungle is one of those titles that I wish would come along more often and give us some real bang for our buck in a world where season passes for underwhelming AAA games are starting to cost as much or more than the games themselves and continual hype is dulling our sense of wonder at exploring these virtual worlds. Sometimes it’s the little independent titles that slip in under the radar and catch us by surprise that help us recapture those feelings that made us want to be gamers in the first place. It’s a good feeling.