Greetings, Geeks! This is a (somewhat) monthly series where our staff discusses some highlights of some of our favorite hand-chosen games. If there is a modern game that you would like to read what we have to say about it, let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org!
After trashing Shovel Knight and Chrono Trigger for being hyped because of their appeal to retro gaming nostalgia, I looked forward to doing the same with Undertale, the next game that the staff agreed upon to play. As it was released on September 15, 2015, avoiding spoilers concerning its primary and unusual claim to fame—the ability to play as a pacifist—is neigh impossible. Therefore, when I started my playthrough, I decided to do an “honest” run, where if I got stuck, I would quit and then write my reflections before looking online for the solutions. After all, these 8 and 1-bit games share in common an appeal to audiences who have been playing video games since before GameFaqs, let alone YouTube.
I only proceeded as far as Papyrus before I threw in the towel, failing to take the hints that every time I spared him, the dialogue text changed, unlike some of my other Act options. Coupled with my lack of dexterity in dodging his attacks, I succumbed to his blows, but not before discovering that I had failed in an unexpected way. Undertale’s quality dispelled my prejudice.
My curmudgeonly ways were thwarted the first time Sans and Papyrus appeared on the screen at the same time. Fans will remember the scene: after discovering that Toriel lacks the fortitude to strike the player-character down, gamers will soon encounter Sans, who warns that he and his brother are on guard, supposedly looking for any dangerous humans. Undertale punctuates this goofy exchange when the player arrives on the next screen with Sans and Papyrus rapidly exchanging glances for ten seconds without actually saying anything.
It’s so stupid. And I love it!
I laughed when Sans stands on one side of a long screen, and the player crosses it without breaking scene, and Sans is standing on the other side. What? How does he do that, lol? When Sans says he has accomplished a ton of work, a skeleTON, Papyrus scolds him. But Sans retaliates, saying that Papyrus is smiling at the joke, and his brother confirms, “I AM AND I HATE IT!” It was at that moment that I laughed out loud for the first time, which brought the attention of my children.
“What is this?” they ask.
“Undertale,” I reply.
“OMG UNDERTALE!!!” they exclaim. They then begin rattling off a cast of characters I have yet to meet, because Undertale is apparently so child-appropriate that the kids at school talk about it like they do Bendy.
Therefore, after this, I am going to become like a little child and indulge further in the bliss that is Undertale. I am salty that an inanimate object, the Dummy, is counted as a kill, though.
As I’ve gotten back into video games and read quite a few reviews, there’s a cliche phrase I see often: “subversive take on the genre.” The only game I have experienced that truly earns that description is Undertale.
I’ve been a lifelong JRPG player, so whenever I start one up, there are many things I do automatically. Open every drawer, optimize gear, grind for XP, and so on. And Undertale turns almost all of these mechanics on their heads. Most games that want to bring the player’s own real-life experience into the story do it by breaking the fourth wall. Undertale (as far as I can remember) never does this, and has a clear story to tell, yet the entire time, it’s clear that the game is talking directly to you and your experiences in as much as it is trying to tell the story on the screen. It’s truly impressive.
Considering that one playthrough of the game took me a mere four hours, Undertale is a must-play for any JRPG fan. It also includes one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever witnessed in a video game, presuming that you’ve played Final Fantasy VI beforehand.
“The Quest to Defeat Sans”
Undertale is a fantastic game based on an incredible idea. The humor is full of character, the story is excellent, and the game has been memed to the moon and back. However, any reviewer can attest to that, likely even on this very article. Therefore, I’m writing today not to review Undertale, but to write about one of the greatest gaming achievements I have ever accomplished to this day: My quest to Megalovania, the quest to defeat Sans the skeleton.
For those who don’t khnow, Sans is one of many “monsters” within the underworld of Undertale, and is a fan-favorite of the cult classic. He’s lovable, cares for his brother, and is armed with the kinds of puns that would put would-be dad jokers to shame. But, throughout the game, he has some moments that put the player slightly on edge. This raises a few questions: Who is he? What is his power? Is he a bad guy? Will I have to fight him? Where is Temmie Village?
To most players, Sans is innocent. To most players, he won’t “give you a bad time.” But, in this round, I’m not most players. I, most definitely, was going to have “a bad time.” And I loved it.
To clarify, Undertale is a game with multiple ways to play. At one extreme, the pacifist ending, the player clears the game without killing anything and everyone gets a happy resolution. If not for a required controversial side story, I’d say this was the ending people should get with no second thoughts. If anything is unfortunately killed, they can still get any myriad of different endings. But, in order to fight Sans, and hear one “Megalovania,” one of the greatest musical tracks in all of gaming, everyone must die. In the wise words of Obi-Wan Kenobi: “I will do what I must.”
The genocide route had a difficult start for me. I had to stare at the mirror, stare at the moral ambiguity of the choices I was making, and decide: Do I really want to do this? Does this reflect who I am in any way? Is this wrong, to kill all of the characters I just saved via a different, pacifist, playthrough?
In the end, I was able to overlook my discomfort for the sake of the goal, and decide that, while the game guilts me for my rather sociopathic actions, it is merely a game after all. I had to prove to my doubting friends I could do it, and I was gonna hear “Megalovania” in my own playthrough even if it was the last game I played! Those who decide not to play the genocide route for the fact of killing everything, as my friend does, I do not blame in the slightest. But boy, did I want to fight Sans. I was filled with DETERMINATION.
After getting started, and overcoming my personal doubts, the genocide route was pretty easy to get the hang of. Undertale works as any classic RPG does, with random encounters. Once I found out that I can walk in circles on any screen in the level to farm my required kills, I just turned on some tunes, locked my joystick, and let my controller take care of most of the game for me. In the end, there was only the cryptic messages left to keep me company in each level. “8 left.” “3 left.” “But nobody came.” It was at this moment that I was 100% sure. I wasn’t this monster in the slightest. The character and the player are absolutely different. I don’t have any cryptic messages like that in MY head! …Do I?
Things were a breeze for me for half the game. It went as follows: hunt monsters, save, finish off monsters, save, ignore a cryptic message from Sans or some other character about how bad my character is, save, and move on to the next level. Easy Peasy! And then I encountered the one exception: the monster who doesn’t die, Undyne. Enter the first of two major battles of the playthrough, and a tough one, at that. Undyne is a nasty battle. With her many arrows and spears, she shattered my heart again and again while I tried to learn her attack patterns. The battle starts deceptively slow, as her battle began in all other playthroughs of the game. But when she becomes the Undying, Hero of the World, things are turned up a notch. Up to 11. After a lot of dying, more spears, a medieval armory, and having a song that will be permanently in my memory, I persevered.
After beating Undyne, I found that battles weren’t the only thing dialed up. Now I, by which I mean my character, was considered a force so horrible that the rest of the characters were being evacuated, fleeing from my murderous path, and characters who were once a major pain were now dying dramatically in one hit. It felt disgusting as much as satisfying, but now I was almost there. Regardless of the obstacles and almost being forced into a different playthrough, Sans awaited me.
By now, my character had turned into a complete maniac. He no longer spoke. He only counted the remaining monsters as targets in the way. Like Darth Vader and the Jedi, he hunted the characters to nigh extinction. So, by the time Sans stood in his path, there was no more ability to reason, and Sans knew it, across all timelines. So when he attacked, I died three times before even hearing “MEGALOVANIA.”
Initially, Sans didn’t want to fight me. He was wondering if maybe we could even have been friends. But now, the only connection he felt to me was one of wary terror. He was either going to stop me, or I was going to kill not only his world, but all of both worlds. And tried he did. And he succeeded. Again, again, and again. By the time I finally had bested him, he killed me more times than his fingers, more times than his toes, and more times than he cared to count. But I was DETERMINED. Sans was going down, and I was going to have my bragging rights.
It took me a week (!!!) of playing to beat him. In the school cafeteria I played, and I played steady at home. Again and again I saw my little heartbreak, and heard the Game Over screen toll. For two days alone I fought him only to be bested by his final attack. When I was bested at that point, I wasn’t angry, but only upset to have been taken out of the thrill of the battle. Finally, after the said week of fighting, my DETERMINATION won out. I beat him, and effectively brought the world to an end. Now when I open Undertale, there is nothing but a great black void and the sound of wind. Where epic battle once played it is now silent, and I’m overcome with a sense of emptiness. But there, deep inside me, is also a spark. A spark of pride for having endured one of the most epic boss battles in video game history. A memory I will never forget.
Wowie, Undertale! A valiant contender to be the poster child of indie games, an admirable work of art with so much internet attention.
Undertale is where I go to reference good characters in a story. Its writing alone shows each character has emotions, ambitions, and the capacity for growth. They’ve become icons people relate to, and even find an identity for themselves. It’s almost scary how much people love this game!
Anything to do with Papyrus are my favorite parts of the game.
I don’t believe Undertale receives its fame from merely being a good game, or from the praise of an adoring internet culture. I believe it to be both. It’s rare for such a thing to happen, and if we were to study cult classics of gaming, we couldn’t fully grasp why a game is chosen, only that it is. Better scholars than myself will find patterns related to other famous games through innovation, or ground-breaking formulas in their findings. But I believe that towards the end, there will remain a mysterious something, a missing link, so to speak. Kind of like that one last mystery some scientists have with their theories of creation.
Am I implying Undertale is destined to be a great game? I’m not sure, that is another topic altogether. But this is what Undertale is for me, a grand mystery.
It came during a time where I couldn’t afford games or a decent computer. All I had was a Chromebook, so instead of trying the games, I was living vicariously through the people that live-played them. By the time I could get my hands on it, I knew the in’s and out’s, all the secrets and stuff. But it was still fun to experience. Undertale reset the idea in me that I like playing games more than watching.
- Even after all of that, I find it a decent game overall. Ultimately, what I feel sets it back is the Genocide route.
- We might think ourselves bad for wanting to take the path for seeing the bad ending, but it was created in the first place, so who is the bad person, eh, Toby?
And for the biggest challenges, Undyne and Sans, it seems ridiculous to need mastery of the game, and memorizing hours of attack patterns to beat them. Games like Dark Souls are different, because you’re learning to read your enemy, a useful skill for almost any game. Undertale attack patterns are no more useful than the Crash Bandicoot muscle memory ingrained inside my noggin.
Genocide also had potential to be much more, and ends up feeling akin to an afterthought. For instance, why not destroy the Core? Or another example, the player character had to take the elevator; why did no one rig it to break? Undertale had a tiny chance to have more flesh added to the world, but it was missed.
But my own experience to Undertale is perhaps the missing link to why it, and the infamous titles of yore, remain timeless. A small work of art providing an outlet for gamers, on a mass scale, to have their own personal adventure.
Being a pacifist is a pain.
At least, playing as a pacifist in a video game is a pain.
See, some games technically allow you to complete all their missions without killing any enemies. Doing so usually requires much time and effort; you have to conceive of off-the-wall strategies and waste time luring enemies to specific parts of the map (or otherwise wait for them to wander to spots in their patrol routes). In the end, you still end up with the same cutscenes and story beats. It’s much faster and easier to slay your foes and proceed to the next area.
But this is one way that Undertale is so unique: rather than relegating a pacifist playthrough to those who pour countless hours into learning all the minutiae of a game’s mechanics, it takes pacifism and makes it a fun, accessible, and satisfying approach to playing the game, one that impacts the story in significant ways. In every enemy encounter, you can choose to “Act” instead of “Fight”; by choosing to “Act,” you are presented with a set of non-violent actions to perform in an attempt to end the encounter peacefully. These actions are almost always funny and/or clever, such as petting the head of an armored Pomeranian puppy or entering into a flexing competition with a buff seahorse. Each combat scenario, then, becomes a sort of puzzle. If you complete the entire game in this manner, sparing every creature that tries to fight you, you get a special happy ending that eludes all who kill even a single monster.
Taking the genocidal route in Undertale, wherein you kill every monster in the game, actually takes far more work than playing pacifistically. You have to go out of your way to wander around the game world, whittling down each area’s population down to nothing. This approach is not without reward; the toughest bosses of the game only rear their heads when you play the villain, and they come with some stellar music. The price is steep, however, as it is not only time-consuming, but you must also watch the game’s lovable cast meet their gruesome end one character at a time.
In any other game, I never bother trying to complete the story as a Pacifist. But with Undertale, I can’t imagine playing it any other way.
I’m reluctant to return to and reminisce about Undertale because it’s emotional, and things like that will typically have an effect on me. I’ve meant to go back to Undertale and play the genocide run, but I’d rather not end up feeling bad about myself. Whenever a game has a good run and a bad run, I typically choose the good run; though it’s just a game, it still hurts my conscience to choose to be morally evil even in a hypothetical and artificial situation.
In Undertale, you can either kill every enemy you encounter or allow them to live. If you decide to spare them, you must use other methods to vanquish them. I really enjoyed this mechanic because every single enemy has a different way of being subdued. It was creative and typically ends up being some sort of item or phrase that will flatter the enemy and turn them good or docile.
What I enjoy most about the “true” ending is that it reminds me of what unconditional love is. It reminds me of what sacrificial love is, what selflessness is. But oftentimes, games will not give a reason why their protagonists are so selfless. Some games have protagonists that are dynamic and change as they learn lessons and run into conflict. Other games have protagonists that are static and are already selfless once you start playing. Undertale’s protagonist is basically you, the player. The game never forces you to kill or spare enemies—you can choose that. It is best to play Undertale however you want, however you would, if this was a real life situation. You’re just a normal boy who fell into a hole and you find yourself alone in an entirely different world full of monsters, many of which want to kill you and one specific monster that wants to kill everyone. Will you choose to save those who want to kill you or will you kill everyone in pointless rage?
One of the many praises for Undertale concerns its characters. They’re memorable and leave a lasting impression on you. My favorite character is Sans for his humor, his lightheartedness, and his underlying warmth and care. Despite his calm demeanor, when rubbed the wrong way, he is not exactly who he seems. I did not get to see the other side of him, since I played the pacifist route, but what I’ve read about him makes me curious and has tempted me more than once to play the genocide route. Perhaps one day, but not today.
I’ve seen fans post and brag all over the web that everyone needs to play this game and that’s true. Undertale contains a soundtrack that will stay in your head for days, it has an entertaining battle mechanic that is reminiscent of Earthbound, and it has a memorable story that shows what comes of a lifestyle of revenge and vengeance. It asks the question, “what happens when all you that you do is payback evil for evil, Unfairness for unfairness?” What then? Who will be the one to choose to respond with love in the face of evil?” It has a gospel-like message and will leave you thinking about it for weeks after.