The speedrunning festival Awesome Games Done Quick is not yet over but the greatest run of the event has already been crowned. There’s a good chance you might not have even seen it. No, I don’t mean Argick’s Sonic Mania run that might have broken the Guiness record for fastest commentating. I’m talking about Lizstar’s run of Mr. Bones — a video game that’s part blues musician rhythm game, part full-motion-video mini-game extravaganza, part Dada-esque meditation on depression and the nature of evil.
You heard me.
I was out yesterday for reasons, sleeping extremely poorly, fading in and out of consciousness when sometime around 5 a.m, I woke to the image of man using bongos to animate an army of skeletons. Powerfully intrigued, I sat up from my couch, turned up the TV, and decided to give this weird little run my full attention.
The Mr. Bones speedrun was tucked away inside in the Awful Games Done Quick block — a mini event within Games Done Quick that features games too bad, broken, or too weird to be a part of the regular showcase. To call this game awful does it a major disservice. This game is good. I don’t even mean in a “so bad it’s good” way. I mean legitimately good good. Mr. Bones came out on the Sega Saturn in 1996 — a product of Angel Studios, the developer responsible for Ecco: The Tides of Time before transforming into Rockstar San Diego once they were acquired by Take-Two Interactive. Mr. Bones is a game about an evil Svengoolie-looking scientist (ironically named DaGoulian so Angel Studios knew what it was doing there) who uses a graveyard of criminals to create an evil skeleton army to destroy the world. One of those skeleton minions, Mr. Bones, is a dead blues musician who was mistakenly buried with the criminals and therefore not compelled to join DaGoulian in his evil quest. The game chronicles Mr. Bones’ adventure as he tries to stop DaGoulin from taking over the world.
Cutscenes are usually the bane of a speedrunner’s existence and, if they can be, are usually skipped. This run of Mr. Bones was the odd cutscene% run meaning cutscenes would not be skipped in order to experience Mr. Bones in all its comedic/artistic glory.
From the very first words spoken byMr. Bones, I knew this speedrun would be special to watch. Upon realising he is a dead skeleton, Mr. Bones ruefully exclaims, “Didn’t I used to have more skin on these bones? Man, you know I got the blues.” I let out the loudest, deepest, full-belliest laugh — something that’d been impossible for me the last 36 hours. From there it only got better.
I want you to watch this run so I won’t spoil the absolute brilliance of this game, but highlights include:
- Mr. Bones falling apart and getting Gulliver’s Travels’d by a civilisation of munchkin people who agree to put him back together if he saves their people from a horde of spiders
- A mini-game that’s reminiscent of Monkey Island’s insult swordfighting and has you beat back an approaching skeleton monster by putting together bad jokes.
- A random bongo jam session
- So, so much more
A lot of Mr. Bones’ special moments revolve around his guitar playing. The music is truly incredible, produced by noted rock guitarist Ronnie Montrose. In the first half hour of the run, Mr. Bones, in order to escape the crowd of skeletons that have caught up to him, attempts to placate the crow via a bitchin’ guitar solo rhythm mini-game for which the enemy skeletons show their appreciation by waving lighters in the air. Mr. Bones’ blues skill comes in handy again when faced with a banshee ghost on the moon. Why is he on the moon? Who the hell cares, just go with it. His heartfelt song pacifies the banshee and he ends up seducing her into letting him go.
Mr. Bones’ repetitive gameplay of barely-explained mini-games is probably why it ended up in the Awful block, but some of the mechanics are innovative for a Sega Saturn game from 1996. When Mr. Bones escapes the graveyard of criminals, he’s put in an autoscrolling platformer in which he has to dodge tree branches and lunging enemies. Every time he gets hit, his health-bar — displayed as Bones spelled out in bones — loses a bone, which in turn causes Mr. Bones himself to lose a bone — kinda like Fallout 3’s limb damage mechanic but way more badass. Too many lost bones and Mr. Bones will start losing critical limbs. At one point, Lizstar takes too much damage and Mr. Bones is forced to hop around as an armless, legless torso. Another unique gameplay moment involves Mr. Bones and his shadow. He’s being attacked by shadow monsters and must make use of a light source to make his shadow bigger or smaller depending on the enemy. The further away Mr. Bones is from the source, the smaller his shadow is and therefore able to jump over smaller projectiles. When he gets closer to the light source, his bigger shadow is able to scare away larger monsters. These kinds of innovative mechanics — a far cry from the usual run, jump, shoot — are something I’d expect from indie games on the Switch but this game came out in 1996, y’all!
Beyond the quiet brilliance of the game itself, Lizstar’s great personality elevates Mr. Bones to the best speedrun of the event. She’s bubbly and enthusiastic — hard to be at 5 in the morning, even when the American government isn’t letting white-supramcist rioters walk free. Since the game contains a lot of cutscenes and the at-times too-long gameplay portions would necessitate a lot of downtime, she encouraged donations that included any kind of skeleton or guitar pun message. This led to a lot of “bone to pick” and “humerus” puns which are funny as shit when you’re deliriously tired at 5 in the morning.
With only two days left in AGDQ, Mr. Bones is a tough act to beat. It has all the elements of a perfect speedrun — great game, great runner, great couch commentator. I watched it twice and found so many things I missed the first time through that I was equally charmed the second time around.