Blockbuster. Backwards baseball caps and flannel shirts tied around the waist. That weird neon squiggly pattern on any and all rugs and chairs. A societal obsession with Beanie Babies and Furbies. If any of these create a sense of nostalgia for you, you should check out The Big Con as soon as possible and get a dose of ‘90s fan-fiction straight to your veins.
The Big Con follows protagonist Ali as she tries to raise $97,000 in 10 days to save her mother’s video rental store, grifting and pickpocketing her way across America with new friend and up-and-coming criminal Ted. This new indie release is most successful as an exploration of a late 20th century playground, rather than the con-artist extravaganza its name promises.
Back to the ‘90s
Every aspect of The Big Con has been meticulously crafted to remind you of the 1990s in the United States, whether a true or fictionalized version. The game’s opening menus feature a mini cathode ray television with a VHS tape deck. It tells you the automatic save icon in the upper right corner is a “floppy disk; we used them to save stuff back in the day.”
Colors are bright, sometimes even disturbingly so—many characters are in various purple and green hues à la the cast of Nickelodeon series Doug (1991–1999). The music is tinny with energy, reminiscent of The Cranberries and Nirvana. The theme song (yes, there’s a theme song) is sung by Rockapella, the group behind the Carmen Sandiego theme (1991–1995). There’s an option on the menu to turn off/on a laugh track to make your show feel like Seinfeld, Boy Meets World, or Full House. Even the loading screen commits: It’s an animation of THE COOL S.
The homage to a certain vision of the ‘90s extends to writing as well. Ali talks about how much she loves her mom’s video store, even the chore of rewinding tapes. She quotes lessons from public school D.A.R.E. to encourage others to stop smoking or to not do drugs. To name a few background NPC jokes: 1) One laments that no one wants to invest in his idea for shoes with wheels in them, 2) a financial investor claims that banks are invincible, and 3) two men clearly designed to emulate Wayne’s World say to each other, “Hey man, we should start a TV show.”
It’s an enjoyable, whimsical, and playful trip.
The Big Con of The Big Con
From preview screenshots, I thought that I’d be taking Ali, a rebellious and “anti-The Man” teenager, on an adventure where she’d be robbing corporate stores and moguls. Instead, the gameplay largely consists of pickpocketing everyone you see around various town maps, most of whom are just normal people.
The game’s tutorial is set in Ali’s hometown square (complete with a gazebo and an inexplicably large golden statue of corn). She gets close to friends and neighbors she’s known all her life so she can steal $1 from them, even as they say things aloud to each other like, “I hope I can make that concert” or “I’m saving up for my kid’s college tuition.” I felt slimy and gross, and I was relieved when Ali did too.
Unfortunately, the feeling doesn’t stop there. Throughout the game, you have options to listen in on characters and essentially check their wallet before you rob them. For a while, I tried only to pickpocket characters that seemed like assholes (a father murmurs to himself next to his screaming child, “If you have the money to spoil a child, you should!”) or had plenty to spare (a wealthy train patron whose family fortune seems to have come from war crimes).
But, inevitably, to make the amount you need, you’ll have to pickpocket everyone, even people who only have a few bucks in their pocket and are just hoping for a cup of coffee, a new headshot for their acting career, or to take their crush out on a date.
The game sets the promise early on that pickpocketing isn’t the only way to make the money you need, that you can grift NPCs by listening in on them and then bringing them the item they want in exchange for gratitude money. But these opportunities are far and few between, and the controls are clunky enough that it’s not always clear who you can “give” items to or if you’ve done enough to satisfy certain thresholds. One time I robbed a guy of a golden fanny pack, then realized I could offer him a platinum fanny pack, but apparently only in exchange for the golden fanny pack—which I already had, because I stole it—and then I just had this extra platinum fanny pack.
Ultimately, pickpocketing (a timed mini-game that you can actually turn off from the main menu) is the main thrust of the gameplay. It’s a quietly satisfying activity, but I don’t know if it’s enough to hold players’ interests, especially when there were several levels where I was just running around a very large map looking for a few wandering NPCs. Furthermore, the maps aren’t always super clear; I didn’t always know when I was about to permanently exit a zone and struggled to see behind buildings for a mission item I was supposed to look for. These moments drag down an otherwise short and sweet game.
Game’s Got Heart
Where the gameplay may be lacking, The Big Con makes up for with emotional stakes. I found Ali’s relationships to be engaging, funny, and heartfelt. She can call her mom and her best friend—who she’s currently on the outs with—from the road. She makes friends with recurring guests along the road, including a particularly funny Pawn Shop Broker (the game’s way of letting you sell random items for extra cash). She even has a delightful imaginary friend called Rad Ghost who serves as a helper—emotionally, and logistically with controls—throughout the game.
I reviewed The Big Con on Xbox One, and while I enjoyed the gameplay enough, I imagine it would work even better on a mobile device (which it isn’t on right now). The game can be completed in under 10 hours, and given the road trippy, min-max feeling to each of its levels, I think it would be best enjoyed with space to breathe. The Big Con could be a great fit for anyone who needs a game where they can quickly play a level or two between classes, work meetings, lunch breaks, errands, etc., and less as an option for a deep serious gaming binge.
Amid the nostalgia and time travel, there is a very tangible reflection on the transience of commercial fads as well as a love and concern for small businesses. Ali is a good kid, and getting to follow her journey, living vicariously through her as the cool ‘90s teen I never was, was worth even the most lackluster of pickpocketing opportunities.
The Big Con is out now for PC, Xbox Series X|S, and Xbox One at an MSRP of $14.99.
*Review code provided by the publisher