Before Dan Harmon rocketed into the limelight thanks to the success of Rick and Morty, and before Donald Glover took off as Childish Gambino, there was Community. A sitcom about Greendale Community College, where episodes involved school-wide paintball fights, zombie invasions, record-breaking pillow forts, and the birth of new societies based on upstart social media platforms.
The show follows six distinct personalities thrown into a study group who soon become fast friends, as they navigate life, the school’s strange happenings, and try to scrape a passing grade. It holds a very dear place in my heart, and I still utter film nerd Abed’s phrase of ‘coolcoolcool’ every single day. It’s a show I revisit every couple of years, and I recently rewatched Digital Estate Planning, an episode where the study group has to play through a video game to win their friend Pierce’s inheritance. I told you, it’s a weird show.
It’s the kind of video game that looks cool but you know you’ll never play, like the one with the foul-mouthed robot in Her, or the psychedelic trip of a game in Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Californication, made by real video game developers. Well, turns out this one is real, and it’s awesome. It’s at least ten years old, but it’s free to download and play and it’s all I’ve been doing in my spare time these last two nights.
Journey to the Center of Hawkthorne looks exactly as it does in the show. It’s a pixelated 2D platformer with an 8-bit soundtrack and sprites. The game has been created by a team of volunteer developers and is open-source, in case anyone wants to work on bug fixes or improvements. It’s a colossal community (ha) effort, one that its creators believe to be completed.
Choose from one of the six members of the study group and get on in there. I picked Troy because I’m a massive Childish Gambino stan. The sheer variety of costumes on offer is astonishing – it feels like they’ve got one from every episode. I chose Fiddla Please!, from an episode where Troy stars in an all-Black rendition of Fiddler on the Roof. When he dies he says ‘Oy!’ Sensational. You can also rebind all of the keys, which is great for comfort and accessibility. The in-game tutorials and prompts even update based on your chosen inputs, something many professional games don’t do.
Within minutes of starting, the game reminded me how hilarious Community was. The floating, disembodied head of Pierce’s father, Cornelius Hawthorne – who wears an ivory wig – appears in the exact same spot it does in the episode and calls the study group a bunch of fruits, junkies, and sluts.
Journey to the Center of Hawkthorne is the kind of game I can see people saying wouldn’t be made today. It’s covered in dixie flags and mocks everything an old coot like Cornelius would stand against. There’s also a Valley of Lazyness which leads to the US-Mexico border, across which are located the Chili Fields and Taco Town. It’s a caricature of an old man’s warped perception of everyone different who he views as lesser than him.
I didn’t venture far into Mexico, I ended up there by accident when looking for The Mines. I thought I’d finish the game in one sitting, two max, but I was dead wrong. This isn’t some tiny, cheap tie-in. It’s a bonafide video game. There’s a crafting system, side-quests, dialogue trees, affection, followers, bosses, and deceptively hard platforming. It even has cheats!
One segment in the mines had me trying to remain on a minecart while I had to jump and duck over obstacles as well as bouncing on spider webs to get enough height to clear a large obstacle. I must have died at least ten times here, I just didn’t expect any of it to actually be hard. It’s never unfair, however, and once I’d gotten the timings down I rocketed across and felt the same sense of pride I imagine all those Celeste players keep banging on about.
What did I find at the end of the mineshaft? Why, a level eight Laser Lotus, of course! Pierce is part of a cult called Neo-Buddhism, Community’s not-so-subtle jab at Scientology. These cultists have taken over the mine and their leader is the first boss I found. He’s not easy, either. He shoots lasers – increasing in number as his health depletes – and has a jump attack that intercepts you as you try and get over him. Again, I died several times before beating him.
I’ve played this game for two nights and have barely scratched the surface. I’m currently trying to save a village from rampaging acorns – I have no idea what Cornelius has against them – and am completely sidetracked from the main quest. This is why I can’t finish RPGs.
I’ve been busy exploring the mountain trying to off this fucking Acorn King, but according to the game’s subreddit – that’s right, there’s still a relatively active community (ha) for this fever dream – there are tons more locations I haven’t even seen yet. “Is there a hidden entrance to the other side of gay island towards the blue Forrest?” is a genuine query on the sub.
Community fans are a truly dedicated bunch. They made this game a reality, and they have my ever-lasting thanks. I’m going to enjoy playing this on my holiday, as it runs smoothly on my crap laptop. I want to call it a perfect slice of nostalgia, but it’s so vast it’s really the whole pie. I just hope I haven’t bitten off more than I can chew and this is a game I actually end up finishing. Turns out, there’s even post-game stuff to do, so I don’t fancy my chances.
You can download Journey to the Center of Hawkthorne here for free.
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