It’s hard to think of a better game with more humble origins than Undertale. The brainchild of Toby Fox was a passion project in the medium if ever there were one, with Toby Fox almost singlehandedly creating the entire game; from its premise to graphics to gameplay, to its sublime soundtrack, with only some of the artwork being provided by others. Taking inspiration from Nintendo RPGs EarthBound, Mario & Luigi, and Super Mario RPG, Undertale not only did a fantastic job at living up to its inspirations, but also in creating an identity very much its own. By providing an engaging battle system, a unique sense of humor and charm, and a narrative that could only work in the video game medium, Undertale subverted many RPG traditions and became a video game masterpiece.
In Undertale, players take control of a human child, who has fallen into the dreaded Mt. Ebot, whose underground has served as the world of monsters ever since they were banished there by humans long ago. A magic barrier prevents the monsters from leaving the underground, and only the power of human souls can break it. Because of this, many monsters want the human dead, as their king is but one soul short of destroying the barrier. But these monsters are far from mindless killing machines, in fact, most would rather tell you a joke or show off their hat than do you harm.
In their quest to leave the underground, players will confront many monsters. During such encounters, the player can go the usual RPG route and slay the monsters, gaining experience points and leveling up along the way, or they can find non-violent ways to end the encounter. By selecting the “Act” command during battles, the player can interact with monsters in a myriad of ways, with each individual monster having their own distinct personality that the player must figure out in order to find the best solution to the encounter. If you can figure out the right action (whether it be dancing, flirting, or even giving a monster personal space), you can then simply spare the monster, which won’t net you any experience points, but will still provide gold.
Interactivity is added to these turn-based battles when the player is on the defensive. Every enemy has their own unique attacks, with the defensive segments modeled after bullet hell games. During a monster’s attack, the player takes control of their soul (represented by a heart), which the player must then navigate to avoid oncoming projectiles. White enemy attacks are the standard, and are simply to be avoided. Blue attacks won’t harm you so long as you hold still, while orange attacks will require you to move through them to avoid damage. Meanwhile, the occasional green attack will actually heal the player’s health, leaving you to attempt to grab them amid the bombardment of other bullets.
The battle system is an utter delight. The ability to fight or act is already a terrific innovation, but by combining it with the only interactive turn-based battle system that rivals Mario’s finest RPGs, Undertale’s battle system becomes an all-time great for the genre.
That isn’t where Undertale’s innovation ends, however. Arguably its most notable element is how detailed its narrative is, and how it brings out the best in the video game medium.
There are many games that give players different moral options with tackling different scenarios, but none that really showcase the consequences of their actions in any meaningful way. Usually, choosing good or evil in a video game simply dictates whether your character is surrounded by a heavenly aura, or if they have burning red eyes while wearing edgy, black clothing. But every choice the player makes in Undertale leaves a lasting impact one way or another.
The benefits of gaining experience points and leveling up are obvious, as you’ll gain more health and strength the more you advance. But when you kill a monster in Undertale, you may come across another who grieves for their fallen friend, or wonders why they don’t hear from their old buddy anymore. This of course means that going the route of a pacifist may be more challenging – as your stats remain as they are at the start of the game, outside of armor – but doing the right thing becomes its own reward.
I will refrain from going into greater detail, as Undertale’s narrative is one that’s full of surprises. But the way in which it tells its story – with every moral action having its consequence – is entirely original, and may now serve as the benchmark for how to tell a deep, meaningful story in a way only a video game can.
Even with the emotional weight, Undertale is also an incredibly funny game. As stated, each monster has their own unique personality, with the boss monsters easily becoming one of the most charming cast of characters in a video game. Much of the dialogue is laugh-out-loud hilarious, and the sheer absurdity of many of the characters is sure to leave a goofy grin beaming across your face.
Visually speaking, the game may not exactly look ‘pretty’ – being reminiscent of a later NES title – but it does look timeless. The fact that Toby Fox could capture as much personality in the game visually as he did with his writing is an impressive feat unto itself. Undertale’s greatest aesthetic pleasure, however, has to be its soundtrack.
Undertale’s score – composed, of course, by Toby Fox – is one of the all-time great video game soundtracks. It marries the infectiousness of retro video game music with an impeccable sense of personality. The overworld tunes are often hauntingly beautiful, while the battle themes are catchy, and each boss is given a track that’s nothing short of unforgettable. Undertale’s soundtrack is perhaps rivaled solely by Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze for the best of this decade. And as far as I’m concerned, it joins the likes of Donkey Kong Country 2 and Super Mario RPG as one of my favorite gaming soundtracks of all time.
Some may nitpick at the fact that Undertale is a pretty short game, especially for an RPG. But that seems like a moot point when one considers that Undertale is one of the few games that feels like a fully-realized artistic vision by its creator. Everything that is present in Undertale is nothing short of delightful. It’s unique, charming, funny, touching, and a whole lot of fun.
When Toby Fox created Undertale, he molded his game after some all-time greats in the RPG genre. Little did he know that his “little” game would end up sitting right alongside them.