"Her NAME is Britta!"
The weirdest thing about "Digital Estate Planning" isn't that 75% or so of the episode takes place in a SNES-era looking video game. This is Community, after all, and such a peculiarity is almost to be expected at this point. No, the weird thing about it is that it should have aired last week, when such a mostly pointless diversion would have played better if it had occurred in the two month period where the "Greendale Seven" were seemingly doing nothing.
As we learned in "Curriculum Unavailable," since being expelled from Greendale, the group hasn't done much - mostly just moping and wondering what to do with their lives. Thus, it would make perfect sense for them, having nothing better to do, to join Pierce in a confusing battle for his inheritance. Starting with a stock sitcom moment of the characters arriving somewhere new/undesirable and having one of them complain as if they apparently never spoke on the ride over, we learn that the late Cornelius Hawthorne has set up a challenge in order for Pierce to claim his inheritance - he and seven of his closest friends (well, six - Levar Burton was a maybe) must play through a video game and defeat the final boss in order to get his money.
I guess we can ignore why this hadn't been addressed months ago (Cornelius died in the season's 6th episode, back in November), but throughout the entire episode I couldn't help but wonder why they thought this was so important when last week's ended with them rushing off to Greendale to save the Dean from Chang (two characters who do not appear and in fact aren't even mentioned this week). Absolutely nothing about this half hour ties into the season's ongoing plot threads, which feels a bit awkward. If I had to guess, the animation (or the scripting - Dan Harmon tweeted a few times about his procrastination on finishing the dialogue for the voiceover scenes) took longer than expected and they needed the extra week (or more), but if that was the case then I wonder why they didn't just dub in a joke about it like they did when the editing process for "Remedial Chaos Theory" took longer and it got swapped with "Competitive Ecology."
Perhaps I wouldn't have been so hung up on it if the episode was funnier. I'd think the idea of setting these particular people inside a video game would be funny enough, and doubly so when you factor in the writing staff's ability to drop in inspired references in an area that I particularly enjoy, but honestly in terms of laugh out loud moments this might be the season's low point. Unsurprisingly, the bigger laughs almost all stemmed from the brief live action scenes (I particularly liked Pierce's confusion over how to win a video game), which were also elevated by Giancarlo Esposito, Cornelius' long time assistant who was tasked with putting them into the game and then becomes their nemesis as he battles to win the inheritance for himself.
The game scenes themselves, on the other hand, are CUTE, but they're not particularly funny. I don't know if we're supposed to laugh every time Troy jumps for no reason, or the constant "oops" moments where the characters kill each other, but I didn't find it all that amusing even at the start, let alone in the third act when they were still doing that with alarming frequency. There are isolated moments of brilliance - I loved the aftermath of the "Winger speech," and how Jeff uses Britta's penchant for screwing everything up to score a major victory against their opponent, but most of it just lacked the wit I've come to expect from the writers.
Instead, I just started amusing myself trying to spot each game reference. Some I saw/loved right away (the castle is totally from Ghosts n' Goblins!), and others were pretty much a given, like the easily collapsible bridge you must cross when fighting Bowser in the original Super Mario Bros. Others were a little more obscure; I THINK I caught Ice Climber at one point? The game itself seems to be mostly inspired by Zelda, with a mix of platforming, overhead maps and RPG elements, but at times it seems to just take the form of whatever they feel like doing, like pretty much every fake video game ever created for a TV show or movie.
On that note, I wish they had implemented a limit on deaths, allowing for the group to be whittled down (and give the game any sense of real stakes) as it approached its emotional climax, in which we discover that Gilbert is actually Pierce's half-brother ("Remember Etta, your nanny? She had a hot cousin."), and that Pierce is happy to not only discover this but that he won the game because of friendship. The Christmas stop-motion episode had this idea - when a character died they were gone forever (or until the final scene), allowing for quieter moments that justified the approach. Here, they never really show a compelling reason for showing the game - it might have been funnier to just sit and watch them fumble about in the booths for the entire time (think the D&D episode - we didn't see them in some fantasy world, after all).
Speaking of underwhelming emotional beats, this was the episode in question during Chevy's much (over?) publicized "storm off the set" moment. The episode's tag originally capped off the video game plot, but Chevy didn't agree with the idea and stormed off the set. Anyway, now the tag is a goofy bit about Abed and Troy finding a baby in the study room and instantly assuming they have to care for it, which doesn't even make sense in the context of the storyline because it takes place on Greendale, where they are no longer welcome. Again, when exactly does this episode take place?
But that's all over-obsessive nerd shit, and ultimately the episode is too harmless to get that worked up about. Not every episode can be a laugh riot, and it's the first "low" since the impressionists episode (almost two months), which is a perfectly good batting average. And there are another two on in a half hour, so it's even easier to shrug at. It was a fun idea, and there are some inspired jokes and lots of freeze-frame gags to go back and study ("Giraffe Mode!"), but overall it's the sort of episode that I'll only play to hear the commentary when the DVD comes along.