Arts

Game On

Best game ever? No, but ‘Undertale’ warrants the hype

I got to “Undertale” late, and by the time I did it had already stirred controversy. The 16-bit-style role-playing game, released in the fall by the indie developer and composer Toby “Radiation” Fox and published for Windows and Mac PCs, won a December readers’ poll at the gaming site GameFAQs, naming it not only the best video game of the year but the best game ever.

This didn’t sit well with some people: How could anyone consider such a newcomer — and a pretty, 1990s-looking newcomer at that — to be the best game ever? In the online forum debates on the site that followed, many gamers were incredulous. “Wait,” wrote one forum denizen to another. “You literally believe that over half of all gamers think Undertale is the best game ever? You’re entitled to that opinion. I’m just curious.”

Now that I’ve played it, I can understand why it has developed such a fiercely loyal community. No, “Undertale” isn’t the best game ever, but it has a feel to it — and a heart to it — that is exceedingly rare.

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The basic premise is simple: You play a kid who falls underground into a world populated by monsters who have a long, troubled relationship with humans. Your only task is to get home. Immediately you start meeting zany, interesting creatures, many of them delightfully rendered despite the game’s retro look. This is one of those titles that squeezes every ounce of juice from its graphic limitations.

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The music is so, so wonderful. Fox, something of a wunderkind, composed the score himself, and it is extremely evocative, bringing to mind both the “overworld themes” (that is, the music you hear when you’re just walking around) and the up-tempo combat themes from the Super Nintendo RPGs of yesteryear. Many moments here brought me back to the countless childhood hours I spent with the “Final Fantasy” series.

The combat is a trip, partly because, in most instances, you can avoid striking any blows altogether. Instead, the game offers other actions, depending on the bad guy, which lead to unexpected results and a sort of mini-game in which you control a heart that has to dodge obstacles that vary from baddie to baddie. This is a unique, engaging system for encounters with enemies, and I didn’t get tired of it. (If you want to simply fight monsters, you can do that instead.)

That ability to progress without fighting is indicative of the broader, fundamental sweetness at the core of “Undertale.” Even many of the meanest-looking monsters are just lonely, or want to be pets, or have stories that, if only you listened to them, would make you empathize. We humans and you monsters aren’t actually that different after all, the game tells us.

This is not a normal slash-everything-that-moves RPG. This is something different. Different and wonderful, and I wish I hadn’t taken so long to get turned on to it.

Jesse Singal can be reached at jesse.r.singal@gmail.com.