Where does one even begin with a game like 1994’s Lester the Unlikely? Well, the game’s titular hero is described as a “typical teenage boy” who is “kind of geeky, and kind of sleepy.” Though perhaps better descriptions for the character would be obnoxious and pathetic. As this is a character who sums up the terrible nature of the game itself.
How’s this for a plot, Lester becomes an inadvertent stowaway on a cargo ship after he falls asleep next to a cargo crate after reading a comic book on the docks. At some point, the ship is raided by pirates and sank. Lester managed to escape, however, and is able to swim to a tropical island. Lester must now find a way to get back home. Yeah…
In terms of gameplay, Lester the Unlikely is a baffling entity. It looks like a 2D platformer, with the goal really being as simple as getting from point A to point B, but what kills it are its frustrating and inconsistent mechanics and overly cryptic nature.
Lester has more in common with Abe from Oddworld than he does with Super Mario, being a purposefully weak character who has to find ways other than action to overcome obstacles. But while Oddworld found clever ways to play off Abe’s weaknesses, here Lester’s shortcomings are just irritating.
Lester, it should be noted, is an immense wimp. He’s afraid of just about everything in front of him, and yes, this affects the gameplay. When Lester first approaches a ledge to jump from, he might quiver in fear, and the first time he encounters a certain enemy, he’ll run away (against the player’s control). Upon a second attempt, Lester might be a little skeptical, and by the third time he can overcome his fears of an object or enemy and get moving.
There are some who try to defend this direction for the game, claiming it brings a realistic element to this wimpy character that he needs to overcome his fears in order to progress. These defenses don’t have much ground to stand on, however, as the implementation of this supposed narrative element is both underdeveloped and works against the gameplay.
Surely the developers could have come up with a better means to showcase Lester’s progression? There were a couple of instances where I died because Lester ran away from enemies and into a bottomless pit. I had no control over it. Having the character stop the action against the player over and over again often breaks the momentum.
The whole concept just feels unnecessary, considering all you have to do is continuously walk towards an obstacle two or three times for Lester to overcome his fears. It just feels pointless and only drags out basic gameplay elements, instead of actually integrating some character development.
Lester’s only standard means of attack is the single most pathetic kick in video game history, though at certain points in the game he can pick up weapons like throwing rocks and (at the very end) a sword to fight off pirates. Additionally, there are certain items to pick up to advance through certain levels, but the game never tells you about them beforehand, so you’re basically left wandering around the place guessing as to what you’re supposed to do.
In one stage, a series of totem poles shoot one-hit kill darts at Lester if he tries to walk by, but you can take out these totem poles with one of Lester’s aforementioned pathetic kicks. Later in that very same level, there is another totem pole that kills Lester in a single hit, but you can’t kick it down. I figured out by accident after falling off what looked liked a bottomless pit that there was a crystal at the bottom of said pit, and that you have to take the crystal to a pedestal in order to deactivate this particular totem. How on Earth is anyone supposed to just know that? There’s nothing that informs you of any crystal, the means with which you took out the previous totems suddenly doesn’t work, and the crystal itself is hidden down a pit that looks like you’ll die by falling down it! Could that scenario be any more cryptic?
Trial-and-error is an apt term to describe Lester the Unlikely, because it seems like the game’s entire idea of challenge stems from having the player continuously die in order to memorize the pattern of the game. In some instances, that could work. But here everything is already so cryptic and flawed that it just makes things all the more frustrating. It also doesn’t help that players have very limited chances to complete the game.
Lester has three hit points, which can be refilled by finding canteens that look more like grenades. Lester only has three lives, and three continues. And no, there are no extra lives or continues to be found in any level. If you get a game over, it’s back to the very beginning of the game. So Lester the Unlikely forces players into a trial-and-error experience, while giving them very limited chances for them to get to know the environments to successfully pull off the memorization required to complete the game.
Making matters all the worse are the mechanics themselves. As if having the character act against the player’s will weren’t bad enough, Lester’s jumps also feel incredibly awkward. What’s weirder is that the jump button rarely even seems to work when walking, but it works (as well as it does) when standing still or running.
Then there’s Lester’s health. It seems like Lester can’t do anything without getting hurt. Oftentimes you’ll fall down a small ledge and take no damage, and then fall down a ledge of the same height and take a hit. There’s no explanation for the inconsistency. Even more baffling is the fact that sometimes jumping too far when running will injure Lester. Even if you grab on to a ledge, Lester will still take damage if he leapt too far. I can’t figure it out.
Many of the enemies are also a pain, with the bats found in the game’s second level being among the most annoying enemies in video game history. Bats come in swarms, and can be scared off if you throw a rock towards them. But if you suddenly walk, run or fall into them (which happens all too often) you’re as good as dead. The bats will keep swarming you until you’ve lost all your health, and you can’t run away from them no matter how hard you try. Even if you throw a rock, sometimes it won’t scare away all of the bats, so you either have to find another rock or, if there are no other rocks around, you just have to accept defeat. It’s preposterous game design.
The levels themselves are but another fatal flaw. Many of the levels feature ledges that you aren’t sure whether or not you can fall from without dying, while others seem to purposefully place obstacles in such a way that Lester has to take a hit in order to move forward (which again, is all the more frustrating because of the limited chances the player has). Once you reach the graveyard is where things start getting really unfair.
The graveyard stage sees much of the ground crumbling into pits of fire. If you stand on any pieces of crumbling ground you can’t move and are killed instantly. On top of that, ghost hands pop out of the fire and drag you in if they touch you. Couple these obstacle with the already-muddled jumping mechanics, and it’s a nightmare.
It only gets worse from there. A short village stage sees Lester inspecting a series of huts, with some of these huts containing angry villagers who throw one-hit kill spears at Lester as soon as he walks in the door (once again, there’s nothing telling you which doors contain the villagers, so it’s another unfair instance of trial-and-error). Then there’s a river rafting level that has a constant barrage of piranhas leaping from the water, snakes falling from trees, and aggravating vine-swinging mechanics (which, I kid you not, require you to touch the very tip of the vine at the bottom, otherwise you fall through the vine) to create one of the most obnoxious stages in video game history. Immediately following the raft stage is one that’s built entirely on the vine-swinging mechanics which, I reiterate, is a real pain.
By this point this is all sounding like a rundown of the game’s stages. But it’s difficult to go into detail about Lester the Unlikely any other way. Aside from starring a character who goes against the player’s actions, the game just comes off as a showcase of the very worst in level design.
Admittedly, the game’s animation is surprisingly fluid for its time, but that only works to emphasize how comically stupid Lester’s movements are. And any plus-side the visuals may bring are countered by ear-grating, repetitious music.
Lester the Unlikely is simply a disastrous game. It’s unfair, cryptic, frustrating, and oftentimes, broken. And it stars the absolute worst character I have ever seen in a video game. You’ll want to run away from Lester the Unlikely faster than Lester runs away from a turtle.