Serious Sam games always felt like they were made in about 12 minutes by inebriated chimps: “Okay, put one big monster here, then put an even bigger monster over there. We’re done!” That lack of craft and trashy irreverence always gave the games whatever frisson they had. So why bother to upgrade to high definition? Unlike first-person shooters like Modern Warfare 2 and BioShock, the Serious Sam games never aspired to sear anyone’s corneas with their beauty. Yes, the Egyptian tombs, where you’ll spend the majority of Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter, are now texture-mapped. But to what end?
At the center of the game is the unserious Sam Stone, who isn’t a character so much as an aggregate of action-hero clichés. This postmodern commentary on zinger-spouting goons was no doubt more relevant in 2001, when the first Sam game shipped. Though some of Sam’s zingers still merit chuckles—when a gang of enemies runs screaming past Sam, he says, “Hey, you headless freaks! I’m over here!”—in 2010, with games like Fable and Mass Effect presenting more complex, interesting heroes, the action-hero-aggregate trope feels out of date and out of touch.
The enemies, naturally, turn out to be far more compelling than Sam. There are demon frogs and galloping skeleton-horse things; there are square-headed pillow creatures that run toward you at top speed, their arms swinging wildly. Finally, there’s the quintessential Serious Sam enemy: The headless, shirtless running man holding aloft a pair of bombs with the fuses lit.
You’ll likely spend the bulk of the game backpedaling wildly, hoping whatever is chasing you finally dies before you run out of ammunition or places to backpedal. In fact, Sam spends so much time backpedaling that after a few hours, moving forward begins to feel foreign. The designers’ goal is to overwhelm, to throw absurd amounts of mayhem your way, to keep you from breathing. This sounds compelling in theory. But in practice, wondering when a suffocating attack will finally, mercifully end is exhausting. Those who have played any of the Serious Sam games no doubt are recalling that feeling right now.