Nothing New in the Villlage: The 35 Year Old Ancestors of Untitled Goose Game

Everyone loves the Untitled Goose Game. I love the Untitled Goose Game. If you haven’t played the untitled Goose Game, you should play the Untitled Goose Game: A stealth game that follows in the footsteps of Metal Gear Solid and Hitman, Goose Game’s masterstroke is dialling back the context of the action so that, rather than a hero saving the world, the player takes on the role of an arsehole Goose devoted to creating comedy and chaos. Who wants to save the world from a shadowy organisations when you can steal a dude’s slippers and dump them in a pond?

In recent times, I can’t think of anything quite like the Untitled Goose Game. Surprisingly, however, the aged Zx Spectrum had at least three different titles that were similarly devoted to playful mayhem. Let’s look at each in turn.

Skool Daze/Back to Skool

Released all the way back in 1984, Skool Daze (and sequel Back to Skool) are probably two of the earliest examples of social stealth games. Starring (renamable) anti-hero Eric, the player has a slightly more noble objective than that of the horrible Goose: with a terrible school report locked away in the headmaster’s safe, Eric’s goal in both games is to extract the code from his teachers so he can break into the safe and switch his report for a more flattering forgery.

What makes the Skool games so interesting is the way that Eric has to hide in plain sight. Though there are a number of covert tasks Eric has to complete in both games (like activating the shields hidden around school in the original and getting the teachers drunk on sherry in the sequel,) he has to achieve them while simultaneously appearing to be conforming to school rules. If Eric is seen somewhere he shouldn’t be or doing something he shouldn’t the teachers will give him lines. Hit 10,000 and he’ll be expelled from the school.

But what of chaos? In the original Eric is armed with just his fists and a catapult but this arsenal is expanded to include a water pistol and stink bombs in the sequel. Though these tools are required to meet Eric’s overall objective, you can use them to be a general nuisance instead – clearing out classrooms with stink bombs and knocking down teachers and pupils alike with your catapult. Eric might have an overall goal, but the Skool games are also incredibly enjoyable as an experiment in seeing just how much trouble your virtual pupil can get away with creating.

Jack the Nipper

Jack the Nipper (and sequel Coconut Capers) are perhaps the closest title in setting to the Goose Game. Rather than a Goose, Jack is a terrible toddler whose task is to wander around town finding activities to help him fill his naughtyometer to 100%.

Though more arcadey in design than the Goose Game (each screen is patrolled by a host of colourful characters who, if touched, will contribute to Jack’s nappy rash-styled health bar) Jack the Nipper makes for a good companion: where the design of the Goose game feels like it riffs on the slapstick of stop motion children’s classics like Morph and The Trapdoor, some of the more outlandish schemes Jack has to come up with – like growing man eating plants in the local park – seem more akin to the more outlandish comedy found in comics like the Beano and Dandy.

The only issue for Goosey veterans with this one might be the difficulty. With a vast map that includes a number of exterior and interior locations, it isn’t always a hundred percent clear what your supposed to be doing – and that’s before you factor in the way you have to dodge Jack’s opponents as they mercilessly home in on his location.

How To Be A Complete Bastard

A title I’ve written about before, Bastard takes elements from the above and combines them to make the most puerile experience you could find that would technically be classed as ‘adult’. Based on a book by Bottom/The Young Ones’ star Adrian Edmondson, the game finds your bastard infiltrating a party held by a bunch of yuppies (young upward mobile types, don’t you know.) Like Jack the Nipper, the aim of the game is to fill an arbitrary arsehole gauge (in the case the words ‘complete bastard’) by finding unpleasant yet amusing things to do to your fellow party goers.

Bastard is an interesting game for a couple of reasons. First it has a novel take on 3d representation. Rather than the isometric angle used by so many spectrum games, each screen in Bastard is represented by a split screen that give an X and Y view of the room. Pressing left will move you from right to left in one screen, but from bottom to top in the other. It takes some getting used to.

The second reason is that, unlike the other two, it’s relatively laid back. There are no marauding teachers or angry adults like their are in the other two titles, so as long as you avoid the handful of instant game overs (like murdering someone with gardening implements) you’re basically left to your own devices.

In terms of puzzles and humour, Bastard represents the most juvenile form of adult humour going. Condoms can be eaten, sinks urinated into and fellow party goers stabbed with pens. The world feels alive enough for all of this to be entertaining: not only do guests mill around from room to room of their own accord, but they are also capable of reacting to your behaviour – clearing out of the room, for example, if you fill up on curry before passing a massive amount of wind.

What’s Good For the Goose…

I think the parallels between Goose game and these titles are useful beyond amusing trivia. Though I presumed Untitled Goose Game was the work of British developers who were probably familiar with games like Skill Daze and sitcoms like the Young Ones’, it is actually the work of an Australian bunch who were inspired by the idealised view of British rural living found in British kids programs like Postman Pat. Though Goose Game might hit some remarkably similar thematic notes to these Speccy classics and share some cultural inspirations, it’s arrived at them from a completely different evolutionary branch.

Now, before we criticise the Spectrum titles too heavily, I think we should take a moment to recognise the genius of their designers. In Goose Game, most of the comedy comes from the reaction of the human characters, watching triumph make way for panic as the unfortunate gardener realises that, though he has recovered his radio, your horrible goose is now making off with one of his prize pumpkins.

Though the hardware they were built for was much more restrictive, the same can definitely be said for the entertainment in the Skool games. Though there are some compromises – the lessons only last about half a minute and the teachers can be somewhat Terminatoresque in their pursuit of Eric – the game is compelling because the world feels like a school. The anonymous and identical younger kids skitter around from class to class, the teachers disappear off to the staff room when they don’t have to teach and class swot Einstein inevitably blabs to the teacher if he sees anyone (including, but not necessarily, Eric) misbehaving. Best of all, the teachers have a deliberate erraticness to them. Not only can a well timed catapult shot land someone else in hot water, but the teachers will occasionally (and rather satisfyingly) punish Einstein for telling tales when he reports one of your many misdemeanors. Snitches get stitches…well, err, lines.

This is all quite impressive for a series that was done and dusted before the release of the original Super Mario Bros in the US. It isn’t just the Skool games that boast impressive features either. It’s nice to able to follow individual party goers around the world of How To Be A Complete bastard, for example, as the game does a reasonable enough job of remembering who is where in its open, fully-explorable world.

Though the older titles are impressive, they do provide us with some interesting insights into how far we’ve come when it comes to backing unusual concepts. One problem across all three game is the requirement for endgame conditions. Though Bastard features no villains in a traditional sense, there are a number of booby traps that will bring the game to an abrupt end, like farting near the gas cooker. Though there’s a logic here for anyone who’s seen TV programs like Young Ones, these instant game overs feel a bit at odds with the laid back explorative nature of the rest of the game.

Likewise, the overly aggressive opponents in the Skool games and Jack the Nipper partially detract from the puzzle-based objectives of both games. In Jack the Nipper, the adults can move at the same pace as Jack and will shadow his movements relentlessly, making it incredibly difficult to escape the constant damage they deliver. Meanwhile being too slow to return to a lesson in the Skool games can add 25-50% of your line quota in one fell swoop go as a teacher relentlessly spams your poor dawdling Eric with lines.

By way of contrast, the Goose game has undoubtedly benefited from the rise of casual games and being created in an era with a more laid back approach to structure. Though the villagers can undo all of your attempts at fowl play (ahem…sorry), there are no game over conditions of any kind. The player is always free to either try again from scratch or directly salvage the situation by snatching items out of the hands of the unwitting humans. This makes the game a lot less frustrating than it would be if the player was forced to restart every 20 seconds.

This difference in approach deep into the roots of these games. Both Jack the Nipper and How To Be a Complete Bastard feature obvious global objectives but offer little help when it comes to achieving each individual individual act of bad behavior. Goose game, on the other hand presents the player with clearly defined boundaries via individual objectives that are specific to each of its areas. Consequently, Goose game is much, much easier to just pick up and play. This isn’t surprising: While Goose Game was created in a world that contained the likes of Candy Crush, Jack the Nipper originated from an era of complicated flip screen adventure games that you to to map the game world for yourself.

Overall then I think we can take a couple of points away from all of this. The first is that – regardless of how innovative and outlandish a title seems, there’s probably some precedent for it in the library of the Zx Spectrum. That’s what having a 10,000-strong software library can do for you, I suppose.

The second is that, even when being incredibly innovative, it’s difficult to get past the prevailing perspectives of the current time period. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you. In ten years time, we’ll have two sets of equally hilarious games which will both act to illustrate the prevailing gameplay priorities of their respective eras.

Jack The Nipper and Skool Daze are both available on the Antstream retro gaming service, while all three Spectrum titles are available as free legal downloads from the World of Spectrum archive.

Untitled Goose Game is available now for PC, Mac and the Nintendo Switch.