I was born in 1991, which means that I wasn’t a teen until the early 2000s. I still think of myself as a ‘90s kid, though, because the early 2000s were just the 1990s with more internet. So The Big Con, out now on Xbox and PC, reminds me of my youth, a time when trips to the video store were common, payphones were still a thing, people were going crazy over Beanie Babies, and I pickpocketed and conned hundreds of people across the US. Wait, that last one is actually just in The Big Con, a new adventure game about grifting to save your mum’s video store.
In The Big Con, you play as Ali, a young teen of the 1990s who lives in a small town and helps her mum run the local video store. Within the first few minutes, you discover that your mum owes some nasty, mafia-type fellows over $US90K. If she doesn’t pay up in 10 days, she’ll lose the store. It’s a bad situation and Ali feels helpless to do anything. Conveniently, soon after learning of this problem, you encounter a young man who teaches you the basics of how to grift, hustle, pickpocket, and con people to earn some extra cash. Ali realises this might be the best way to help her mum and save the store, so she teams up with this guy and the two begin a cross-country journey to steal enough dough to save the day.
It’s fitting that this game about the ‘90s is also an adventure game, a genre that was popular back in that decade. As with most adventure games, you spend a lot of time in The Big Con talking to people, collecting random objects, and then realising that you have exactly what you need to solve a puzzle. But in The Big Con, “solving a puzzle” often means finding a way to grift and hustle. You can, for example, spy on people by hiding behind things like walls or trash cans, gaining information about a mark that can then be used against them to get extra money.
For example, while in a large, very ‘90s mall, I saw a dude talking to his son and, eavesdropping on the conversation, learned that he was rich, his son was a bit of a spoiled brat, and that he wanted to get him some new, super-rare collectible toy. So I pickpocketed him and some other people, used that money to buy some popcorn, and gave that popcorn to the hungry mall security guard. Naturally, she went to eat it in her office, letting me sneak in behind her to find the passcode to the storage room behind the toy store, which I used to sneak in and grab the rare toy, which I sold to the dude, but not before asking him for more money, which I could do because my earlier eavesdropping had told me he was rich.
Yeah, this is an adventure game all right. Thankfully, none of the puzzles get too hard or use annoying adventure-game logic. You can also leave areas without solving everything once you get the amount of cash you need to unlock the next level. This means that if you do get stumped on something, you can probably pickpocket a few more people, solve something else instead, and have enough cash to bail.
Pickpocketing people is oddly thrilling. You come up behind them and then hold Y, starting a minigame where you have to release the button once a marker slides into a special section of an on-screen metre. Simple, but fun.
But is it OK to steal from people to help save your own mum and business? Your grifting mentor does talk about how you only steal a little bit from people — that way, he says, they don’t notice and nobody gets hurt. But even still, when I lifted 10 bucks off a random janitor, I felt bad. The Big Con does let you pick and choose who you con, so you can be nice to folks who seem to have less money or stability in life, though the game doesn’t reward or punish you for making these choices.
The colourful, ‘90s-inspired visuals and silly tone help make it easier to ignore these ethical concerns and just have fun grifting. Yet, it still seems odd how quickly Ali starts stealing from people, including a kid at one point, without much hesitation. I get that examining how desperate people can often target other desperate folks isn’t really what this game is trying to do, but it feels like it could have spent more time pondering the ethics of Ali’s wild, con-artist journey.
The characters you encounter throughout The Big Con are well written and often connected with me, which did make it harder to pickpocket or lie to them. (I still did it because mama needs her video store!) There’s a lot of heart in this game too, which makes some of its technical issues a bummer to experience. In particular, the camera sometimes wiggles and wobbles around, almost as if it had one too many Zimas. There were also times when dialogue bubbles would cover up other textboxes or UI elements. And for some reason, you can’t use the mouse at all — either in menus or in gameplay — which feels like an odd choice for this kind of game.
For folks looking for a challenging adventure game with deep, complex puzzles or storylines, The Big Con is probably too light and simple to really enjoy. It’s also a shorter game, one you can probably beat in about four hours or so. Its shorter length and easy puzzles make it hard to recommend for diehard adventure game fanatics, but if you grew up in the 1990s and miss going to Blockbuster or wearing terrible fashion, The Big Con is an amusing, bite-sized blast of nostalgia with a bit of crime mixed in for added excitement.
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