High Scores: Bonetrousle

As Papyrus lives in the shadow of sans., so does “Bonetrousle” rattle in the shadow of “Megalovania.” The latter has been canonized in the Smash Bros. series, perhaps the highest honor a videogame song can be paid. Its covers receive the highest hit counts of any Undertale covers on YouTube, a category with an already staggeringly high popularity. Smooth McGroove’s “Megalovania” cover, for instance, has 42 million views, while his “Bonetrousle” video has a far lower but still incredible 10 million. “Megalovania” is Toby Fox’s coup de grâce, the hundredth of 101 tracks on an OST widely regarded the best of the 2010s. The “Megalovania” hook has become almost as iconic as the seven-note opening bar of Super Mario Bros. The story of the song’s conception and evolution is well documented. It is an extremely rare species: a videogame song about which enough has been written already.

“Bonetrousle” deserves a spin in the spotlight. It’s a bop and, unlike “Megalovania,” not a bummer. Without going into too much detail, the narrative context of “Megalovania” captures Undertale at its darkest. The situation is macabre, as good death metal tends to be. “Bonetrousle” is relatively uncomplicated fun. It makes me wanna dance. It’s currently No. 1 on my Apple Music Replay ’22 playlist. I’ve played it hundreds of times and watched this fan video dozens. The song is as strangely satisfying as a slice of butterscotch-cinnamon pie, as stupid and fun as Undertale itself.

Undertale’s strongest selling point, besides its music, is its comedy. It’s a very funny game and a funny soundtrack, too. The average song on the soundtrack is either pleasant (“Snowdin Town,” “Ruins”) or silly (“Spooktune,” “Temmie Village,” even the divine “Death by Glamour”). Comedy is a kind of music, and Fox’s ear is sharp, with a keen sense of timing, tone, and context. His game, like Cuphead and Celeste and so many great indie games of the last decade, is rich with references to classic games. Fox is interested in the canon of videogame music, as the mock-aria “Oh! One True Love” delightfully illustrates by sending up Final Fantasy VI’s famous opera scene. He speaks the language of videogame music so fluently that he’s able to convey the notoriously untranslatable quality of humor. As a friend put it, Undertale is “actually funny, not just funny for a videogame.”

I don’t love “Bonetrousle” just because it’s funny. I also love it because it is weirdly Russian. The creators of this Cossack-dance fan video would agree. The first time I heard “Bonetrousle,” I was instantly reminded of the Tetris “A” theme. I don’t think this is a coincidence. Lots of villains in gaming history have been coded as Russian: Sonic’s Doctor Robotnik, Dr. Wily and certainly Dr. Cossack from Mega Man, and worst of all, Super Punch-Out!!’s Vodka Drunkenski. These games were taking their cues from the Russophobic popular culture of the Cold War, which was ongoing for most of the Nintendo Entertainment System’s lifespan. Papyrus is coded Soviet not only in his musical theme: he dresses in red; his signature “nyeh heh heh” has echoes of the Russian nyet; even the “rous” in “Bonetrousle” echoes the “Russo-” prefix. Papyrus and sans. are literally “types”—they’re named after fonts—and figuratively, they represent types. Papyrus’s type is familiar from Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons: the persistent but hapless henchman, a bumbling nogoodnik hoping to impress a Fearless Leader.

I would argue Papyrus is the first real boss of the game. I know, I know: there’s Toriel, whose battle theme “Heartache” has actually made me cry. (It’s No. 2 on my Replay ’22 list.) But Toriel is a pun on “tutorial,” and her boss fight more or less signifies the end of the game’s tutorial stage (the Ruins). Papyrus is the real deal. Like most first bosses, he’s kind of a pushover. But still, he’s a real boss. And “Bonetrousle,” while silly, is also pretty boss. The Undertale soundtrack has no generic boss theme; each boss gets their own battle theme, as well as at least one variation of that theme heard outside battle, which allows their characters far more room for development than in most games. We’re introduced to Papyrus with “Nyeh Heh Heh!,” a simplified non-battle version of “Bonetrousle,” which takes you by surprise during the boss fight with the addition of its disgustingly groovy percussion section. The evolution of “Nyeh Heh Heh!” into “Bonetrousle” mirrors Papyrus’s development from a pathetic wannabe who struggles with the Junior Jumble into a competent adversary who bested me at least once and sent me to the doghouse. The whole point of Undertale is to dignify monsters; “Bonetrousle” accomplishes this by having Papyrus’s theme evolve, showing us that he’s more than just his “nyeh heh heh.” At the same time, it’s also dignifying the Russian stereotypes of video games past. To spare Papyrus is in some way to spare Robotnik, Wily, Drunkenski, Boris, Natasha, and all the monsterized “types” Papyrus represents.

After playing Undertale, I’ve had the uncanny experience of guilt for the violence I’m enacting in other video games. Recently, my friend and I finished a co-op run of Kirby’s Dream Land 3, perhaps the most kid-friendly game a person could imagine. And boy oh boy, the slaughter we wreaked on that Dream Land! At one point, we assassinated a whole family of foxes and tanukis. The games that come up most often in the decades-old videogame-violence conversation are the most obviously violent: Mortal Kombat, Doom, Grand Theft Auto. But Undertale gets the player thinking about videogame violence at a more fundamental level, bringing the mercilessness inherent in a game as anodyne as Kirby into sharp relief.

Or what about Castlevania, the series whose “-vania” suffix appears famously in Undertale? Buried in Castlevania is the sort of xenophobic anxiety audible in the Muscovite rhythms of “Bonetrousle.” We wouldn’t have Castlevania without Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a novel that expresses late-19th Century anxieties over the rise of non-Western global powers and “uneasiness over the morality of imperialism” as Britain lost control of its colonies, per the Victorian literature scholar Stephen Arata. Uniting Dracula, Castlevania, and Undertale is a monsterization of the foreign and the promise of some control over that foreignness. By calling into question the morality of that desire for control over monsters in the game, Undertale unsettles the definition of monsters outside the game, and outside games in general.

This is why people are as obsessed with Undertale as I am. In addition to a comedy, it’s a deeply reflective game, attentive to matters of genre, trope, theme, and ethics. “Bonetrousle” might not seem as good a representation of the game’s depth as “Megalovania” or “Undertale,” but much like Papyrus himself, there’s more to it than you might think. Even if it’s not as hardcore as its big brother, it’s every bit as full of character. It engages with the history of video games and has become part of that history itself.