I’m not a ‘90’s child, but I do have a morbid fascination with the era. The terrible fashion (which I love), the terrible music (which I love) and the terrible politics (much less of a fan). But the thing that really gets me is all the ground-breaking games. This was a time where basement art met corporate commerce and discovered the concept of being “attitudinal”. By which I mean a 2cool4skool blue hedgehog. It’s a hard thing to capture, but Sonic Mania, Doom (2016) and Final Fantasy VII Remake all managed to bring us “the good old days of gaming” that we hold dear in our fuzzy memories.
The Big Con seeks to capture this nostalgic magic, only it doesn’t have a direct reference point to pull from. The closest comparisons are the LucasArts point-and-click adventures and ToeJam & Earl. However, these comparisons breakdown as The Big Con doesn’t feature obscenely obtuse puzzles and developer Mighty Yell doesn’t appear to be extremely problematic.
The game follows Ali, a teen working in her mom’s video rental store, about to be sent to band camp, much to her chagrin. She wears loud clothes, has a snarky but loveable (also a tad annoying) attitude and genuinely seems happy til a loan shark rocks up in her small town and begins extorting her mom. At the same time, Ali bumps into a shady fellow called Ted. Next thing we know, Ali has learned she is a very good pickpocket, and we are ditching camp to go on a road trip with a stranger to pull off The Big Con and save our video store. It plays out almost exactly as you’d expect, but is a serviceable vehicle for some good ‘90s humour.
The game drops you into semi-open areas and tells you to earn a certain amount of money to progress to the next story beat. Gameplay cuts between isometric exteriors and 2D interiors with a very fitting “cool S” transition between. For the most part, the game does a good job at simulating running a con job (not speaking from experience or anything), you wander a level casing the joint, pickpocket everyone in sight and eavesdrop for leads for bigger opportunities. Once you have the lay of the land, you intact your more elaborate cons and are either rewarded for “helping” someone out just rob them blind.
While the ‘90s charm and Saturday morning cartoon artsyle go a long way, the problem is none of this is very engaging. You are told early on, “don’t get caught three times”, and the only way to get caught is to fail the pickpocketing mini-game. You can fail cons by messing up dialogue options but this doesn’t contribute to getting caught. Pickpocketing is an exceptionally easy, one button mini-game which I only failed once. You can wear disguises, but this never affected the three strikes on my HUD and there is only one mission where you need to change clothes to sneak in somewhere.
Sadly, some genuinely funny writing can’t save the more involved cons from feeling like anything more than fetch quests. Ali overhears or exhausts dialogue options until she finds out what someone wants, brings the item back and is occasionally quizzed on previous conversations. You are then given reward money – rinse and repeat.
The biggest problem with The Big Con, however, is just how rough around the edges it feels. There’s an acclaimed voice cast but only one actual line of dialogue spoken out loud. The rest of the VO is JRP-esque text box pop-up barks. Minor visual glitches are a constant and I often found myself able to repeat conversations with characters once they were very clearly done with me and even sell items multiple times if I re-entered menus fast enough. The biggest glitch I saw skipped an entire level. This could be a neat speedrunning trick, until I realised you can’t go back to previous areas and there is no New Game option. Unless you go into your machine’s options and delete your save data, you can only continue from the game’s final save once you beat the game.
The Big Con should be easy to love – it’s nostalgic, irreverent and pops with life and colour, but dull moment to moment gameplay, a predictable story and numerous glitches make it a bit of a bummer.