The year 1991 marked the debut of Capcom’s Street Fighter II: The World Warrior. This arcade classic took the world by storm, codifying the fighting game as a genre and leaving a profound impact on the medium as a result. Such was the popularity of this title that the ensuing console ports sold by the millions. It didn’t take long for other companies to ride the wave generated by this rapidly rising trend. One of the most famous rivals to Street Fighter II was released the following year in the form of Midway’s Mortal Kombat. It generated no shortage of controversy due to its violent content coupled with the fact that the characters were represented by digitized spites based on real actors.
Another company that threw their hat in the ring was Visual Concepts. Founded in 1988, this company took the fighting game template and decided to provide a more humorous, cartoonish take on it. The result was ClayFighter, and though it didn’t fare as well in the critical eye, it nonetheless proved to be a modest hit, selling 200,000 copies. Shortly thereafter in January of 1994, Visual Concepts released a game known as Lester the Unlikely. During this time, certain developers began to experiment with the artistic side of medium, crafting unique experiences such as Flashback and Out of this World. I have little doubt Lester the Unlikely could be described as unique, but how does it fare against these pioneering art titles?
Analyzing the Experience
Lester is a typical teenager and fancies himself quite the comic book enthusiast. Such is the extent of his passion that he intends to purchase all 52 covers of the comic he is currently reading. It is his hope that this impressive display of devotion will capture the admiration of his peers. One day on the way home from school, he walks to a harbor, and in a critical error of judgement, decides to take a nap amid cargo being loaded onto a ship. The pallet is then hoisted up along with Lester, making him an inadvertent stowaway. Unfortunately for our intrepid hero, the vessel is raided by pirates before he can explain his plight to the captain. Lester grabs the nearest life vest and swims to a nearby tropical island. With his comic book ruined, he must find some means of escaping the island alive.
Lester the Unlikely is at its core, a 2D platforming game. However, the design of this game leans more heavily towards puzzle solving than a typical, contemporary example. As such, all four buttons on the face of the controller are utilized for running, jumping, attacking, and using items. Because some of the levels can be labyrinthine in their design, you can hold down the shoulder buttons to look up or down. It’s especially handy whenever you’re having trouble determining whether or not it’s safe to drop down from a ledge.
At the start of the game, you must make Lester climb two ledges. Upon reaching the edge of the topmost one, Lester breaks the fourth wall and begs the player not to make him advance any further with a weak, “No”.
This is mostly because you would do well to exercise caution when climbing down from a tall structure. Unlike Mario or Sonic the Hedgehog, a fall from a significant height will damage Lester. What you must do is have him walk to the edge of the platform, turn around, and hold down. If you did this correctly, Lester should gently lower himself down. He can only take three hits before dying, so recklessly running forward at all times will invariably prove fatal.
This game uses a rotoscoped actor, a lead artist from Visual Concepts named Eric Browning to animate the title character. The game boasts over two-hundred frames of animation for Lester, and even the simple act of walking demonstrates that such a claim is no exaggeration. Lester’s inability to fall without getting hurt is likely a complement to the realistic touch afforded by the animation technique, as similar games such as Prince of Persia required players to descend from higher ground gradually.
After making his way back to ground level, Lester will happen upon a crab. The shock of seeing such a horrifying behemoth is so great that he, against the player’s will, runs in the opposite direction.
You must guide Lester back to the crab so that he may defend himself with a rather halfhearted kick.
After dealing with the titanic threat, he stumbles upon an even greater one: a turtle. He reacts to this turn of events in the exact same way – by running away.
By now, most people will have learned that this is far from your average platforming game. Lester is not a fearless daredevil as is implied to be the case with countless video game protagonists – quite the opposite, in fact. Though this was established in the backstory, the gameplay reinforces it beyond any reasonable doubt. Instead, Lester was likely intended by the developers to demonstrate how poorly an ordinary, nerdy teenager would fare in these situations. On top of being needlessly condescending to their audience, it makes for a subpar experience. Lester will constantly act against your intentions up to and including fleeing in the opposite direction into bottomless pits.
Not only that, but for much of the game, his comically inept attempt at kicking is his only means of defense. What’s worse is that it seems to have a slight delay, meaning you will usually have to press the button a split second before the enemy is in range. This extends to every other action you make Lester do. As a result, you would ideally need to plan out what you need to do in any given situation in advance, timing everything so that your reflexes are operating slightly ahead of what’s occurring onscreen.
After the second level, Lester will find himself in an underground cavern. This is where the game truly begins to drop in quality. To begin with, your primary enemies in these areas are bats. It should go without saying that they’re harmful, so if you want Lester to advance past them, you will need to make him throw a rock at them. If Lester gets too close to them, they will swarm him. From here, your only chance of saving Lester is to run far enough away and hit them with a rock. However, their speed ensures that this task is nearly impossible; if he delays for even a second or runs into a dead-end, he will unavoidably take damage. It’s frustratingly easy to run into a swarm by accident.
You will then need to open a chest to obtain a ruby inside. This will allow Lester to open the door leading outside. I’m sure that most people looking at this situation would assume, being equipped with a padlock, one needs to find a key to open the chest. I myself ended up spending about ten minutes scouring the area for a key before I got frustrated and threw a rock at the chest. To my surprise, it broke the padlock and opened. It’s interesting that the staff would opt for a more pragmatic solution than finding a key which disappears upon use, but it goes against basic video game logic.
Astoundingly, it only gets worse from here. In the next stage, Lester will encounter Tiki statues. The first two sets are harmless, but the final one in the third shoots darts at him. There is no way to escape once they start firing, and getting hit with one will kill him instantly. This conundrum has an admittedly logical solution; by kicking the first statue, the other ones will topple, nullifying the threat. After that, Lester can advance to another statue capable of shooting darts at him if he gets too close. The same tactic won’t work twice, and there is still no way to dodge or run past the projectiles.
What you must do is climb down into a seemingly unremarkable pit and retrieve an emerald. Before encountering the Tiki statue, I fell down the pit by accident, and failed to notice the gem. I’m sure a lot of other people wouldn’t have seen it either because it barely stands out from the background. With the emerald in tow, he must place it on an altar in from of the statue, whereupon a spirit informs him that he can pass safely.
This puzzle doesn’t work simply by virtue of not informing the player there’s a problem to begin with. It’s true the sign in front of the statue reads “Beware,” but that does not sufficiently signal to the player the advanced cause-and-effect solution they must concoct. That is to say, if someone were to find the emerald, their first inclination likely wouldn’t be to place it upon the altar unless they fell victim to the trap at least once. Even then, the only reason they would think to do that is because the emerald is the only item found on the level and the altar draws some level of attention to itself. It’s not because they would know the statue is a trap and only by appeasing a mysterious being can they proceed.
Subsequent puzzles fare no better. At the end of the next stage, a spirit implores you to drop the skulls of his rivals into a pit of fire, warning you not to drop his own. It’s not a complete shot in the dark because one of the skulls doesn’t resemble the spirit in any way, but if you guess wrong, he will kill you instantly and you have to start the level over just to get another chance. In fact, this is a problem that runs throughout the game – you only have a single chance to complete these levels. Even if Lester makes it to the end of the level and is killed by a trap you couldn’t see coming, it doesn’t matter at all.
Soon thereafter, Lester will discover a village. In some of these huts, the tenants are home. They suffer uninvited guests poorly as evidenced by the fact that they will lob spears at Lester as soon as he enters. It’s not entirely unfair, as smoke will be emanating from the chimneys of occupied domiciles, and it’s possible to exit immediately to avoid getting Lester killed. However, like everything else up to this point, it’s still unlikely players would catch on unless they saw Lester getting killed by them at least once. Even then, the smoke is partially obscured by the status window, making it difficult to see.
After exploring the village, he meets the chieftain’s daughter, Tikka. She tells him that the reason her fellow tribespeople have been hostile to Lester is because pirates recently discovered the island and are wreaking havoc. As part of their conquest, they captured her father, Hector. Lester offers to rescue her father, calling himself “Lester the Heroic”. In response, Tikka bestows unto him a decidedly more apt title: “Lester the Unlikely.”
The next stop on Lester’s journey has him riding a raft in the jungle.
You will need to periodically dodge a piranha that leaps out of the river and have him kick off a snake from an overhead tree until he can jump to the other side. If passively waiting on a raft until you need to take an action sounds thoroughly unengaging, that’s because it is.
At the end of the stage, Lester needs to grab onto a vine and swing to the other side to safety. This is easier said than done, as Lester can only latch onto the very tip of the vine. If you mistakenly believe that he can grab onto any part of the vine so he can slide down, your understandable conclusion likely reached by playing the superior Donkey Kong Country will be rewarded by being forced to watch Lester tumble into the abyss. Due to the continued absence of checkpoints, such a mistake will result in starting the level over again and you waiting several minutes to retry the simple jump.
Sometime later, Lester encounters a giant ape holding Tikka hostage. Having acquired a boomerang from the previous stage, he can easily defeat the creature as long as you guide him properly. This is the only boss fight in the game, and surprisingly, it’s actually done well. It’s a situation most enthusiasts can reasonably figure out. Studying the ape’s attack patterns is vital to win, but you’re not punished too much for making a mistake, for it does not kill Lester instantly. After saving the Tikka, she rewards Lester with a kiss. This causes him to become confident in himself; he begins to stand up straight and his running amination no longer has him flail pathetically in front of his face. Though I have to give Visual Concepts credit for developing a character arc for their protagonist, it doesn’t improve the gameplay at all.
In fact, starting in the next level, the semblance of quality the game possessed is tossed away, and it goes right back to being terrible. After fighting off the ape, Lester must outrun a cheetah. Between him and the cave entrance on the other side are several tar pits with vines hanging overhead. Naturally, the jungle cat will fell Lester in a single strike, and if you hang onto the vine for even a fraction of a second longer than needed, it will catch up. To add insult to injury, the final pit has two vines instead of one, which will more than likely throw off your timing, causing Lester to fall into the pit.
The second cavernous area is even worse than the first. Thankfully, there are no bats present, but there are plenty of annoyances in their stead. In the first room, you need a torch to light the way. If you advance without taking one, the darkness will consume Lester. The game deems this state sufficient grounds for losing a life. There are five torches: two red, one blue, and two yellow. If Lester takes the red or yellow torches, spikes will erupt from the ground and ceiling, impaling him. Only the lone blue torch can be safely removed. As per usual, there are no hints towards the correct course of action whatsoever.
After navigating a maze, Lester will find himself deeper underground. Here there are pressure plates that, when triggered, will cause the ceiling to descend. Should the ceiling touch Lester’s head, he will drop dead. This is a common trope in countless adventure stories, but Lester the Unlikely provides a unique take on it.
Specifically, Visual Concepts dispensed with the notion of fair play by blending the buttons with the ground tiles, making them virtually indistinguishable from each other. It’s possible to trigger the first set and still make it to the end, but you better hope you take the most direct route possible.
After avoiding the deadly spiked ceiling trap, Lester must make it past a pylon and a giant spider. You deal with both threats in the same manner – by using the boomerang on an obstacle preventing Lester from leaving. To be honest, these levels aren’t too bad. The pylon stage requires platforming skills, but as long as you’re used to how Lester handles, you will be fine. As if to make up for this, the stage after the spider drops Lester in the middle of a lava flow. You better not dawdle, as the lava is instant death as well. Lester must occasionally jump over lava pits, from which fireballs erupt. It’s not as strict as the cheetah stage, but it still doesn’t leave much room for error, and navigating the stage is practically guaranteed to drain a few lives.
After emerging from the caves, the game shockingly becomes decent. Lester must make his way past the harbor where the pirate ship is docked, infiltrate it, and rescue Hector. Why can I say this is the best part of the game? The instant death traps are mostly done away with, and upon defeating the first pirate, Lester can take his sword. It’s the best weapon in the game, as only two strikes with the blade are enough to fell a pirate.
This is the moment when Lester reaches the end of his arc. From a subjective standpoint, it doesn’t work because even if a character is meant to improve by the end, there is a certain level of competence action game protagonists should meet from the onset. Lester begins the game so far below what should be considered an entry level protagonist that by the end, he has only barely met the standard rather than surpassing it in any meaningful way. Granted, it’s impressive that he braves situations which would frighten a normal person, but a lot of it feels disingenuous. Discounting the fantastical hazards, the reason I say this is because the pirates are amazingly easy to defeat. They approach very slowly and take a few seconds to slash when Lester is within range. It makes sense that someone who presumably has no combat experience would be able to defeat these foes easily, as anyone could handle it. However, it raises the question of how these pirates managed to hijack a large cargo ship when not a single one of them knows how to use their weapon.
Finally, Lester blows up a locked cabin and defuses a crate of TNT before it can explode, thereby saving Hector’s life. For his bravery, the chieftain bequeaths Lester a surfboard, and in a serendipitous twist of fate, a nearby atomic test at the Bikini Atoll creates tidal waves powerful enough to guide Lester all the way back home.
There’s a reason I’ve been chronicling this game’s grievances in such detail. I can sum it up in a single screenshot. To get in the right mindset to comprehend what I’m about to reveal, you can read my recap a second time. If you choose to do so, take note of every time a wrong move was punished with instant death. Once you’re ready to advance, go ahead and look at the screenshot.
You start off with three lives, and there are no opportunities to procure more. Lose them all, and you’re taken to this screen. The number below the yes and no options means exactly what you think it does; you can only choose to continue three times. Expend all your chances and the game is over. The SNES marked a time when the ability to save via an internal battery became the rule rather than the exception. A large reason for this is because as artists became more ambitious, the number of games one couldn’t reasonably finish in a single session increased as well. Evidently, Visual Concepts weren’t aware of the trend, as the player effectively has twelve chances to complete the entire game. It matters not whether you died at the burial grounds or Lester was caught in a TNT explosion in the final room; failure will mean starting from the very beginning.
The kinds of puzzles that feature in Lester the Unlikely were admittedly par for the course in classic adventure games. To their credit, you were theoretically given infinite chances to complete them, as even the most unforgiving ones gave you the ability to save at any time. Here, nonsensical logic abounds, and a simple mistake could be the difference between clearing the game and being forced back to the start.
A saving grace would appear to exist in the form of a secret level select code. To activate it, one need only press the “X” and “Y” buttons in rapid succession on the title screen. It’s a true testament to this game’s quality that such a basic function is seriously flawed. Though it will indeed start you at the beginning of any level you so choose, the programmers forgot one tiny detail. Lester obtains a boomerang at the end of the tree house level and carries it with him until he receives a sword. In implementing the code, they neglected to place the boomerang in Lester’s inventory at the start of every level up until the docks. As many of the levels between those two points require it to advance, selecting them will place you in an unwinnable situation. An example can be found in the following screenshot.
Drawing a Conclusion
Visual Concepts were truly ahead of their time. With their cowardly lead being a transparent stand-in for the average gaming enthusiast, they showed zero respect for their audience long before the 2010s when the AAA industry made it common practice. For obvious reasons, it’s not an accomplishment they should be proud of. On a more serious note, a lot of people consider Lester the Unlikely one of the worst games ever made, and I don’t entirely agree. Make no mistake, this game is terrible, and there is no reason why anyone should play it, but at the same time, I can see merit it what it tries to do.
Final Fantasy IV had been released a mere three years prior, and works featuring dynamic characters were slowly becoming the standard as a result of its vast influence. Lester the Unlikely was notable for attempting to create one in an age when you would only ever see them in role-playing games. In the right hands, it could have mapped out an interesting evolution in video game storytelling. Indeed, I like the idea of the protagonist openly acknowledging the player’s existence. It provides a sound explanation for how Lester would know to do these ostensibly random actions to escape the island; the player serves as an omniscient force that can impart this valuable information through select button presses. Unfortunately, there are two problems with how the relationship between the player and the protagonist pans out in this game. The first is that, at the end of the day, the player is technically more responsible for Lester’s triumphs than he himself is, rendering his arc shallow. The more pressing issue lies in the writing. Lester protests against what you’re trying to make him do, yet the dialogue doesn’t reflect this, making his breaking of the fourth wall serve no higher purpose than to showcase his milquetoast demeanor. In order for a narrative such as the one depicted in Lester the Unlikely to be fully realized, it needs a talented writer who understands and becomes one with the medium’s quirks and oddities. On this front, Lester the Unlikely is doubtlessly a product of its time with insipidly inane writing that does not complement the type of game it’s trying to be at all.
Experimentation is crucial for the growth of any medium, but I think most people can agree that this is a case where it failed to produce anything of substance.
Final Score: 2/10