It doesn't always have to be violence and death here at VGJunk, you know. There are some videogames that don't revolve around giving anonymous thugs a variety of interesting new holes, and after rat-a-tat-tatting my way through nihilistic vengeance simulator The Punisher the other day, what could be nicer than a pastoral break in the nature-filled world of equestrianism? So let's relax with Ubisoft's 2005 Game Boy Advance title Pippa Funnell: Stable Adventure, also know as Why VGJunk Should Never, Ever be Left in Charge of a Living Creature.
Pippa Funnell is a woman who is good at doing things on horseback - you know, like making them dance and jump over horizontally balanced poles. Look, I'm a working-class city boy; I'm out of my depth here. Suffice to say, Pippa Funnell is a very horse-y lady, which is unsurprising given that she's called Pippa, possibly the single most horse-obsessed, jolly-hockey-sticks name a woman can have.
In Pippa Funnell: Stable Adventure, you'll be transported into the magical world of horse ownership and you can love them and pet them and play with them every day, but first you've got to create a character. Well, choose a gender at least.
I'm honestly shocked that you're given the option to play as a boy. Does that make me a bad person? Am I really so narrow-minded that the very notion of controlling a young boy in the every-girl's-fantasy world of horse-looking-after-hood surprised me? Well, no, it was less about perceived gender roles and more that I was surprised that Ubisoft even bothered to include the option. I can't imagine Timmy Trott here got chosen much, and he's not getting picked today as I decided to play as the young girl.
Gah! Not sure why the developers felt that selecting a character should be accompanied by an animation of their disturbingly slack-jawed features flashing right before your eyes and then slowly fading to black, but hey: what do I know about style and aesthetics and not having the creepy faces of lobotomised cartoon children flashed against my retinas?
Once you've named your child, you can get straight on with the game - no customisation here, no different outfits to choose from, just issue them with a name and then prepare for the wildest, wettest, most equestrian rollercoaster adventure of your goddamn life!
A farm of my very own! With paddocks and stables and a sizable area that could easily be converted to car parking facilities! It's every horse lover's dream come true, and it's all yours to manage as you see fit.
Pippa Funnell: Stable Adventure is, as you have probably guessed, a business management simulator with a horse-farm theme. SimNag, if you will. Your goals are simple: to have a wonderful and rewarding relationship with your horses, and to accrue as much cash as possible by providing bed-and-breakfast facilities and horse-riding lessons. You pay to upgrade the various parts of your farm, like building new guesthouses, improving your stable facilities and - most thrillingly of all - transforming that barren patch of dirt on the left of the map into a car park that will be the envy of every small-scale horse-rearing business in the Home Counties!
It's an obvious point to make, but I feel I must make it still - this game is called Stable Adventure. Link has adventures. Samus has adventures. The Final Fantasy games? An adventure, every one. But running a small-time horse-wrangling operation? That's not a videogame adventure. It might be in the dismal confines of "real life," where your happiness, lifestyle and future prospects are inexorably linked to how well you do at persuading people to come and look at your horses, but for a videogame? Nah, I'm not buying it. Not until my horse saves a kingdom from an evil overlord or something.
Oh yeah, I have a horse! I should probably go and meet my horse!
Damn, that's one miserable-looking horse. I've only owned her for a day and already I've broken her heart, but she's bravely trying to smile through the pain. She's probably just distressed that I bought her, took her away from her old home and dumped her in this barely-functional fly-by-night operation that doesn't even have a proper car park yet.
So, this is my horse. Her name is Zora, she's twenty years old and her square, lidless eyes speak of hard life filled with sights better left unseen. She'll fit right in on the VGJunk Ranch!
Oddly, you don't get to name your horse. Surely that's the first thing you'd want to do with your new horse? How can I bond with the horse if I don't get to name it? What if you received your new horse and it had the same name as the kid who bullied you mercilessly at school or that slapper your dad left your mum for? What then, huh? Straight down the knacker's yard, that's what. Luckily for Zora, it's a name I can live with and she gets to stay. But she's sad, so what can I do to cheer her up?
Well, I can rub her. Success? She's smiling, at least, but then she was smiling when she had the giant "I HAVE A BROKEN HEART!" icon over her head so I guess that doesn't count for much. I think she's just humouring me as we both stand here, the awkward silence broken only by the swishing of the brush, both parties desperate to get away from each other. Forget that, though - I'm playing a game about horses and I want to go for a ride, dammit!
Beg pardon? I have to "absolve a training unit"? Slow down, I'm not hip to all this horsey lingo. A lot of the text in Pippa Funnell: Stable Adventure is like this, as though it was translated from a non-English language by someone who wasn't really that enamoured with the job. What this means, though, is that before I take Zora out on the road, I have to pass a test to make sure I can trot from left to right and hop over the occasional barrier.
Oh yeah, now we're gettin' to the good stuff. For a game promoted by a famous horse rider, the actual riding of horses seems to make up a very small percentage of this game, but it is there and before you can explore it further you have to pass this test and make it to the end of the course without touching any of the fences.
This was harder than it sounds, for several reasons. Firstly, I was marvelling at sub-1998 Flash animation graphics. Poor Zora moves like a blob of Marmite forlornly dripping down a concrete wall. Secondly, it took me a long time to figure out that you can make your horse run faster by pressing the R button. Until then I'd been trying to clear the hurdles at a walking pace, which was not going well. Zora certainly seemed to be having a rough time of it, a suspicion that was confirmed when I got back to the stable and discovered she'd sprained her ankle.
One ride we went on. One ride! Zora is far too delicate a creature for my ruthless brand of horse management. Well, there's nothing for it but to call the vet.
He's listed as a doctor. He's not a doctor, he's a veterinarian. He needs to learn his place, but first I'll let him diagnose Zora's problem, despite the game already telling me she has a sprained ankle.
Good work there, Doc. Really appreciate your input. You're truly a luminary in your field.
Poor old Zora is out of commission for a few days, and as I don't have any other horses I suppose I'll have to do some of the tedious office-based tasks that'll help me expand my empire. Let's have a look who else we can call on the office phone besides the not-Doctor, shall we?
First is the breeder, and I gotta say he really does look like the kind of man who knows a lot about horse sex. I say "man", I think he's some kind of horse-breeding Nosferatu who has descended from his mountaintop castle to help these horses get it on.
I should point out that the second icon isn't "inject adrenaline into your horse's heart like that scene from Pulp Fiction," that's the button you press when you want to breed two horses. They use a syringe, you see. I personally would refer to it as a "Love Syringe," but that's why I'm not a horse breeder.
You can also call the blacksmith to re-shoe your horses. Does he look Welsh to you? He looks Welsh to me. Not in a derogatory way, he just looks like a Welsh guy who enjoys rugby and is a dab hand at nailing things to horse's feet. Sadly, he suffers from the same deformity of the forearms as Popeye. There is no known cure.
Oh, and there's this woman who sells you things, like nicer brushes for brushing your horse with. I'm not sure why the character designs suddenly went from "sort of cartoony" to full-on purple anime hair, black lipstick and huge boobs, but there you are. Maybe they let the work experience kid design this one and he plucked her straight from his DeviantArt account.
After messing around for a few days, talking to the various people you can call, upgrading some buildings, buying some advertising and breaking ground on the car park project, Zora was finally well enough to ride again and I even managed to pass the test. Your reward?
The ability to take your horse out for a ride in a variety of scenic locations!
You could visit the countryside, where even the cows in the background are too bored to pay attention. Actually, I think they're looking at that faintly phallic cluster of trees in the background, which makes sense because it's by far the most interesting thing in this game so far.
You can go to the beach. There's, um, sand? And the occasional lighthouse.
Or maybe the forest is more your thing? Pick whichever one you like, there's no difference between any of them and every ride is the same as the test - trot from left to right, jumping over fences, trying not to die of boredom. If you came into Pippa Funnell: Stable Adventure expecting a game about horse-riding then you'll be disappointed, because that aspect is a barely-functional waste of time that you'd have been embarrassed to play in the days of the ZX Spectrum, never mind in 2005. No, the game is really all about the business management side of things, and in that regard I think it does okay. It's obviously not the deepest business simulation out there, but for a handheld game aimed at a younger audience I think it holds up okay, even if it is a bit too easy.
Too easy, he says. Ha ha. Now watch in horror as the wheels come right off.
As soon as I managed one full ride, Zora came down with the 'flu. Brilliant, that means I've got to call the doctor out and have him tell me that she's got the 'flu and then give me, I dunno, a trough full of Beechams or something. Fine, let's call him up... hang on, what's that icon on the right?
Oh. Oh, I see. Castration, sure, cool. Pippa Funnell: Stable Adventure is a videogame where you can pay a small, bearded man to castrate something. This process is called "gelding," apparently. Here's a tip: if you're squeamish, and especially if you're squeamish and male, do not visit the Wikipedia page on gelding. There are... photos. Brutal photos. Did you know that when castrating livestock, a device called an Emasculator is often used? It does exactly what you think it does. It also sounds like the name of a villain from a fetish comic, (or the hero, if that's your bag,) which is not something you can often say about veterinary tools.
I know I'm joking about this - and if I can't joke about castration, then what else is there? - but it's also kinda cool. Videogames have a wide reach. A huge, expansive reach. Sure, a lot of them are about killing things with guns or recreating sports, but whatever your interests are there will probably be some video or computer game that accommodates them if you look hard enough. Wanna drive a bus? You can do that. Go scuba diving? That too. Run a horse business and do all the things that a horse business entails? Well here you go, kid, just don't blow all your money on upgrading the car park. I don't have a deeper insight here, I just think it's cool.
Not so cool is the news that the RSPCA is onto me for not looking after my horse properly. I was hurt, scared, confused - I thought I'd been doing an okay job! I cleaned Zora's stable out, I let her recover from her many and various illnesses before forcing out on rides, I even bought a new brush to rub her with at huge personal expense, but nothing seemed to work. Desperate, I started looking at replacement horses, suspicious that Zora was trying to undermine the business.
You can buy horses whenever you like as long as you have the room for them, and they come in three genders - male, female and males that have known the remorseless embrace of The Emasculator. I wanted to buy Alejandro the Stallion because, c'mon, he's a stallion called Alejandro! Sure he's the colour of beetroot and his flowing mane is cast in pure and shining yellow, but he's much better than Aiden. Who calls a horse Aiden? In the end it was a moot point, because in my relentless quest to create Europe's most advanced car park I had spent all the money and I couldn't afford a new horse.
Then came the fateful day that Zora was taken away from me due to my neglect. To be honest, I wasn't sad to see her go. I'm not a horse person, and Zora was more trouble than she was worth. However, without any horses to bring in the customers the VGJunk Ranch quickly began losing money at an alarming rate.
Still, the new office looks nice. It'll be a pleasant place to hang myself after failing to recoup my crippling debts.
And that's pretty much all I got out of Pippa Funnell: Stable Adventure, and while I'm obviously well outside the key demo for this one I can at least that that it didn't seem so bad. The core of the game, the business management side, felt relatively competent and just about right for the kind of age range it was targeting. The horse riding sections, however, are pretty abysmal - enjoyment-free fun-vacuums that feel less bolted on and more hastily applied with magic marker seconds before release. If you're really desperate for a stable simulation, there are probably better examples out there, but for a GBA game this isn't quite as horrible as it could have been.
Oh, and I eventually figured out what I was doing wrong. I forgot to feed my goddamn horse. I was not kidding when I said I should never be left in charge of a living creature. In my defence, the "feed horse" option was hidden deep within three layers of menus, there doesn't appear to be any indication of your horse's hunger and at no point did I receive a warning saying "I dunno man, maybe you should give that horse some food or something?" or anything of the sort. Well, I did get that warning from the animal home, but they didn't tell me what I was doing wrong - they just sat, and watched, and whispered "okay, if he doesn't give that horse some food in the next four or five days, we'll swoop in and get her" between themselves, and I'm the villain here? No way, man. I'm out of the horse game for good. Next time, it's back to shooting things with guns.