Undertale: Meme or Masterpiece?

There are a lot of indie games on the market these days. Which is simultaneously a good and bad thing. Good because we’ve got a ton of amazing games made by people who love what they do, uninhibited by big studio mandates! Bad because I don’t have the time to play them all!

This makes the few that break through the mold and become mainstream successes all the more impressive. Especially because when they make it big, they make it huge!! Five Nights at Freddy’s started a multi-media empire! Cuphead took over the internet landscape completely for ages and now has a full cartoon on the way! Stardew Valley became the go-to chill out game!

And then there’s Undertale.

Let Goat Mama tell you a story.

Holy shit, this game blew the fuck up! It is impossible to deny the impact this game has had on modern culture! It completely changed how people approach game design! From the moment it came out, it became one of the most praised video games of all time! Many people consider it to be the single greatest game ever made!

But that success was somewhat undercut by the reaction to it. It got so popular that people started bashing on it simply because of how popular it was. People started making incredibly uncomfortable and morally reprehensible pornography, which was practically inescapable whether you wanted it or not. And to top it all off: the sheer number of memes made it hard to take the game seriously anymore.

Now that time has passed, I’m here to return to Undertale and ask the question: is it actually that good? Or did we all get swept away in the hype? Is this game a masterpiece? Or was it a passing fad that makes for great memes?

The screen that haunts all of our nightmares.
And our meme Discord pages.

Let’s find out, shall we?

You play as *insert name here*, a human who fell into the underground world of monsters. After a brief encounter with a murderous flower and a tutorial given by the goat mother, you are set out into the world with one goal: escape. But to fulfill that goal, will you make peace with your enemies? Or will you wade through a path of blood for your freedom?

This game’s story has three major different paths, all of which are determined entirely by how you play the game. If you play passively, you’ll get a calm, somewhat goofy, and feel-good path. Kill a few people and you’ll get a slightly darker story. Take the time to grind and slaughter everyone in your way and you’ll get the darkest and most difficult path.

The simplistic genius of this cannot be overstated. This is a perfect way to put power over the narrative in the hands of the player. Your choices aren’t reduced to simple dialogue options with limited effects on the story. Rather, it’s your actions in combat and your choice in side activities that choose your path.

Which path you enjoy the most is entirely subjective. The pacifist route isn’t all that difficult, but it’s incredibly heartwarming and satisfying. Meanwhile, the genocide route is downright painful, presenting you with an incredibly bleak narrative with some of the hardest boss fights in the history of video games.

Be warned, however! Your actions will permanently effect every single repeated playthrough you’ll have afterwards. If you started off with a genocide run, the consequences of them will follow you through every single run you have afterwards. Meaning that you will never escape the consequences of having murdered all these cute little monsters.

I’m headin’ to Grillby’s, you guys want anything?

Not that you’ll even want to. The characters in this game are so lovable that it physically hurts to murder them! They’re all so cute, doofy, and lovable, from the smallest one-line NPC to the friends who will keep in touch throughout your whole adventure. It certainly helps that there are several side activities to help flesh out these characters, such as the date with Papyrus and cooking dinner with Undyne.

It certainly helps that the world itself is full to the brim with a charming atmosphere! The setting is so full of life and charm that it’s super easy to get sucked into it! Everything, from the darkest cave to the brightest home of the goofiest NPC, is a delight to explore!

Even if some of these levels are super annoying to play through. Like the swamp place where you need to light up lamps to create the path. Or the entire Undyne path after you finish fighting her. In fact, replaying most of these levels is a huge pain on a gameplay level.

Visually speaking, this game is simple and charming. It’s got that classic 2D/bit style, but it sets its own unique identity with its use of color and animation. On top of that, it’s got one of the most consistently amazing soundtracks to any indie game I’ve ever played. It’s the kind of game that you can recognize with a single glance.

Oh my god, it’s Ness!

The contrasting use of color is one of the more interesting aspects to me. In the overworld, everything is dark yet colorful. All the characters are bright, cute, and pleasing to look at. Meanwhile, all the environments are dark, the only lights provided by sources like lightbulbs, lava, or whatever else might glow in the shadows beneath the earth. It gives the whole game this confined, claustrophobic feeling. All you need to do is look around to remember that you’re trapped underground.

Which makes each ending all the more powerful.

Then there’s the combat. Here, all color completely disappears. The characters become simple black and white. The only color on the screen is the various attacks, which are color-coded for the player to easily recognize how to handle them. This contrast creates a great divide between the peaceful exploration of the world and the danger of battle. Here, in the heat of combat, your decisions will decide whether you walk a dark or bright path.

Which brings me to the gameplay. At first glance, this is your typical turn-based RPG. But there are more than a few unique additions that make this game truly fun to play.

The big, obvious one is how you can approach. Sure, you can just bash the enemy with a weapon until they die. Or, if you aren’t a psychopath, you can find a way to negotiate with them. Once you make peace with them, you can show Mercy and end the fight without bloodshed. Although you won’t gain any EXP for your efforts.

Just because you won’t attack doesn’t mean your enemy won’t, though. When they do, the game becomes a bullet-hell shooter. You need to dodge your enemy’s blows and survive long enough to either kill them or make peace with them. Some of these attacks are color coded, which require a unique way of dodging them. For example, blue attacks require you to sit still, orange moves need you to move, and green moves will actually heal you. The game is full to the brim with these, so keep on your toes.

Sorry if you’re colorblind.

This system is simple, but it leads to some of the most varied, fun, and sometimes challenging battles I’ve ever experienced in an RPG. From the goofy to the challenging to the horrifyingly bizarre, the sheer variety Undertale squeezes out of its combat system is honestly incredible! You never know what insane surprises await you around the corner!

As you might have guessed, I like this game a lot. It does still, in fact, hold up. And it probably will for years to come. It can be easy to forget, given how much weird and uncomfortable shit exists surrounding this game. But it is, in fact, a masterpiece.

Man, the internet has a weird approach to love, huh?


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