Oddworld: New ‘N’ Tasty Review

*Review based on the Playstation 4 release of Oddworld: New ‘N’ Tasty*

Like the Phoenix rising from the ashes, or Stone Cold Steve Austin emerging from “The Ringmaster,” Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath took the Oddworld series in a bold new direction after the disappointment of Munch’s Oddysee. From there, it seemed like the sky was the limit for what Oddworld could be.

Aaand then Oddworld Inhabitants put a halt on all game development shortly after Stranger’s release.

Disillusioned by turbulent relationships with publishers, Oddworld creator Lorne Lanning and company decided to try a new venture and create an animated film titled Citizen Siege, though the economic downturn of the late 2000s put an end to that dream as well. Things turned around for the better for Oddworld Inhabitants when, in 2010, Indie Developer Just Add Water jumped in to help bring the Oddworld series back into the spotlight. Though the partnership between Oddworld Inhabitants and Just Add Water has since dissolved, their tenure together was successful in relaunching Oddworld, first with HD re-releases of Munch’s Oddysee and Stranger’s Wrath, and then notably with a full-on remake of Abe’s Oddysee, titled New ‘N’ Tasty, which was released in 2014.

Though New ‘N’ Tasty suffered from some bugs at launch (many of which have been worked out in the years since), and some fans were displeased with some of the cosmetic updates it made to Abe’s Oddysee, New ‘N’ Tasty proved successful enough that Oddworld Inhabitants decided to use it as a launching pad to reboot the series, with its upcoming 2021 follow-up, SoulStorm – a quasi-remake of Abe’s Exoddus – replacing Munch as the second proper installment in the originally planed five-part “Quintology” of Oddworld titles.

While it may be a tad disheartening that the only “new” Oddworld game released since Stranger’s Wrath is technically not a new entry at all, Abe’s Oddysee, though a classic of its time, was definitely in need of some updating. And well, that’s exactly what New ‘N’ Tasty provides: a faithful recreation of Abe’s original adventure that still finds time to make some much-appreciated modernizations to the game. Though it also has to be said that there are still some notable bugs present in New ‘N’ Tasty , and that its faithfulness to the original game may come at the cost of some missed opportunities to be something more.

The story here is identical to that of the original release, told with a much stronger graphical sheen, of course: Abe is a Mudokon slave at Rupture Farms, the “biggest meat processing plant on Oddworld.” With the Paramites and Scrabs – Rupture Farms’s favorite meat sources – starting to turn up thin, CEO Mullock the Glukkon decides to turn their Mudokon slaves into their newest food product, which Abe happens to overhear after eavesdropping on a board meeting (for reasons I don’t understand, the remake uses the image of a popsicle shaped like a Mudokon head found in the censored international version of the original game for Rupture Farms’ “new and tasty” product, as opposed to the Mudokon head on a stick found in the US version of Abe’s Oddysee. I can understand if the original image was considered too graphic, but why replace it with a popsicle? It kind of takes away from the severity of the moment).

Realizing that he and his fellow Mudokons will soon be the next item on the lunch menu, Abe decides to escape from Rupture Farms and free his fellow Mudokon slaves.

The cutscenes are recreated word for word, but with modern graphics and a few extra cinematics implemented on occasion. I can’t complain, Oddworld always did a great job at telling a meaningful story, but doing it in a way that’s still expressed with the simplicity of video game storytelling of its time. If anything, the excessively movie-esque games of today could do well for themselves by taking a page from Oddworld’s book on how to tell a video game story.

The gameplay is also largely the same as it was in the original, albeit with some modern tweaks to make Abe control more fluidly (for the most part). Players still run, jump, sneak, hide in shadows, and talk to their fellow Mudokons. Abe can also chant to open portals to free any Mudokons following him, and to possess Sligs (the guards that patrol Rupture Farms) in order to infiltrate enemy lines.

A few notable changes have been made to the proceedings, however. First and foremost, there’s now a difficulty setting, with the easier difficulties giving Abe some added health, while the hardest difficulty brings back the original game’s challenge of everything killing Abe in one hit. Purists of the original will probably swear by the hardest difficulty, but honestly, I think the additional options are a welcome way to ease more audiences into Oddworld.

Another change is that, while the original release of Abe’s Oddysee separated the action into different screens (with Abe moving like he’s on spaces on a grid), the world of New ‘N’ Tasty is a lot more seamless, only needing to load when entering a bonus stage or new level. This makes Abe’s movements a lot smoother, with the awkward exception of his jumping, which still works as if Abe still plays like he used to. It’s unfortunate, because otherwise Abe controls so much smoother than he once did, so to have his jumping still feel so stiff is pretty jarring.

The most appreciated change, however, is carried over from the original game’s sequel, Abe’s Exoddus: the quicksave!

In its original release, Abe’s Oddysee would only save your progress at annoyingly spread out checkpoints. This could make things grow tedious as you’d have to replay decently large stretches of game just because of one brief instance of trial-and-error. Though Exoddus was just as difficult, it had the wherewithal to give the player the ability to save wherever they pleased. Stuck on a particularly tough puzzle? No problem, just save after every step so you don’t have to redo the whole thing after every mistake. New ‘N’ Tasty still includes checkpoints (which are more mercifully frequent this time around), but the ability to save your progress anywhere and everywhere is a real godsend.

Another attribute New ‘N’ Tasty adopts from Exoddus is the ability to speak to multiple Mudokons at once. Again, this is a greatly appreciated change to the proceedings, as the original Abe’s Oddysee could really try your patience in moments with multiple Mudokons, which required the player to communicate with one at a time, and sometimes even have to go through a puzzle/bonus stage as many times as there were Mudokons to save. So again, having New ‘N’ Tasty carry over this element from Exoddus makes the experience a lot more enjoyable.

This does, however, bring up one of New ‘N’ Tasty’s missed opportunities. Abe’s Oddysee featured a total of ninety-nine Mudokons to rescue, while New ‘N’ Tasty brings the number up to two-hundred and ninety-nine (one shy of Exoddus’s three-hundred). You might think, going into New ‘N’ Tasty, that the levels may be bigger or they may have added more secret areas to accommodate the additional Mudokons. Sadly, you’d be wrong. Despite adding two-hundred Mudokons into the mix, the layout of every level and bonus stage is exactly the same, right down to the locations of the secret areas. There’s just a lot more Mudokons in many of the same places. So…what’s the point of the extra Mudokons?

Another issue that arises from these changes is that very few of the puzzles and bonus areas have been tweaked to accommodate them. Some puzzles that may have taken several steps to ensure the safety of multiple Mudokons can now be finished much sooner as you can talk to every on-screen Mudokon at once. Granted, I’ll take the easier challenge here over the difficulty created through tedium of the original, but it would have been nice had the game found a way to tweak more puzzles and bonus areas to keep the difficulty intact even with the changes.

Because the game no longer works in individual screens, some of the puzzles that are changed have only been altered for the wrong reasons. Namely, the drones that would prevent Abe’s chanting used to affect an entire screen (if you shared a screen with a drone, you can’t chant, leaving the player to find a creative way to destroy the drone or lure a Slig away from it). Because the game no longer plays out by screen, the drones now all have a (not entirely clear) area of effect, so you can sometimes simply solve a problem by standing at a safe enough distance away from the drone. It’s not a big deal, but again, if you change certain key features of the game, you have to adapt the obstacles to them in order to retain the obstacle in question.

One thing’s for sure, the game is absolutely gorgeous to look at. I’ve heard a lot of fans claim that the remake doesn’t capture the same atmosphere of the original, so I was a bit hesitant going into New ‘N’ Tasty. Though I can agree that Rupture Farms itself may not be as dark and gruesome to behold as it once was, I don’t think the atmosphere is completely lost. There’s a lot of prominent lighting effects in the game, which might explain why Rupture Farms doesn’t look quite as grizzly as it once did, but I think the complaints are more than a little exaggerated.

There are also still a few persistent bugs to be found in the game, mostly graphical ones, but the game did crash on me a couple of times. And to my fright, the game went back to the startup menu right as I was about to claim the platinum trophy, with my game file seemingly having been erased. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case, and after restarting the game everything was just as it was.

It certainly is odd that the complaints I’ve heard thrown towards New ‘N’ Tasty are either that it plays too close to the original to feel like a worthwhile update, or that it streamlines things to the point that it isn’t faithful enough to the original. Of course, with two such extreme opposite viewpoints, I think it’s safe to say the real answer lies somewhere in the middle.

Oddworld: New ‘N’ Tasty serves as a great introductory point to the series (both because it’s literally a remake of the first game in the series and because it lacks the frustration of the original). The changes it makes are for the best in terms of playability, though it seems like an oversight for the puzzles to largely remain as is despite the changes. As does the fact that they tripled the number of Mudokons to rescue without expanding or adding to any area in the game.

Still, even the original Abe’s Oddysee, while aged in a number of respects, remains a fun and unique experience in gaming. To be able to play it with some modernizations to bring it up to date a bit probably do make New ‘N’ Tasty the ideal way to experience Oddworld’s original Oddysee today.

7

Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath Review

*Review based on the Steam release of Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD*

And now for something completely different.

That Monty Python quote may be a tad overused, but it’s certainly a fitting way to introduce Stranger’s Wrath, which has to be the odd man out of the Oddworld series, and I mean that in the best possible way.

After Munch’s Oddysee – the second installment in the originally planned five-part “quintology” of Oddworld titles – failed to meet its creators’ vision, in addition to having a disappointing reception from critics and fans alike, developer Oddworld Inhabitants hit the pause button on the Quintology and decided to make a whole new kind of Oddworld game. Unlike the previous “bonus game” in the series, Abe’s Exoddus, this new title wasn’t to be a more polished version of an established formula (though there was some talk of a Munch’s Exoddus back in the day), instead, this new Oddworld entry would be unlike anything that came before it. This game would end up being Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath, a title whose bold ambitions and deviations from series’ tradition paid off in spades.

Originally released on the Xbox in 2005, Stranger’s Wrath was, like Abe’s Exoddus before it, quietly one of the best titles on its console (and I’d argue it’s whole console generation). Stranger’s Wrath became a surprise critical hit and quickly gained cult classic status. Though poor sales numbers and falling outs with publishers saw Oddworld Inhabitants leave the video game industry for near of a decade shortly after the game’s release. It’s a crying shame. Though Oddworld has reemerged in recent times, you can’t help but wonder of all the possibilities the series missed out on during those silent years, especially after Stranger’s Wrath pulled away the curtain and proved Oddworld was a series that could go seemingly anywhere.

After having created unlikely heroes in both Abe and Munch – characters who were incapable of defending themselves but could find other ways to overcome enemies and obstacles – Oddworld Inhabitants decided to make their third protagonist a stark contrast to his predecessors: The titular “Stranger” of Stranger’s Wrath has a face like a lion, and arms like a gorilla (making him the first mammalian creature in Oddworld, unless the Fuzzles from Munch’s Oddysee count). To cap it off, he’s a badass bounty hunter carved from the same cloth as Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. Suffice to say, the Stranger is pretty far removed from Munch.

Although Stranger’s Wrath takes place on the same continent of Oddworld as the previous entries in the series, it’s in an area untouched by the industries of the Glukkons (the series’ usual antagonists), being largely underdeveloped and reminiscent of the wild west. In fact, I’m not even sure if it’s ever been confirmed if Stranger’s Wrath takes place around the same timeframe as the other Oddworld games, or if its events occur sometime in Oddworld’s past.

You’ve probably deduced by now that Stranger’s Wrath is a western. As stated, the Stranger is a mysterious, no-nonsense bounty hunter, drifting from town to town bagging outlaws for precious Moolah (the currency of Oddworld). Though Stranger’s quest for cash isn’t all about greed, as he requires a hefty sum to pay for a life-saving operation, giving the character a vulnerability that makes this lion-gorilla more human.

It’s not just Stranger and his place in Oddworld that differentiates Stranger’s Wrath from the previous Oddworld titles, but it’s also very different as a game. Whereas Abe’s Oddysee and Abe’s Exoddus were 2D puzzle-platformers, and Munch’s Oddysee attempted to translate that into 3D (while introducing several original ideas that, sadly, didn’t quite pan out), Stranger’s Wrath combines a first-person shooter with a third-person action-adventure.

Given the game’s time of release deep into the Xbox/PS2/GameCube generation – something of a creative dark age for gaming in which concepts like color were frowned upon for being “too kiddy” – the changes Stranger’s Wrath made to Oddworld may have damaged the series under less talented hands (need we remember how Jak & Daxter tried to be more “edgy and mature” with its sequels, which now just seems like laughable conformity in retrospect). Thankfully, the creativity of Oddworld Inhabitants is still at play here, and arguably at its best. Somehow, Stranger’s unlikely marriage of genres works seamlessly at the press of a button.

“The 2010 HD update still looks pretty impressive.”

If the Stranger has anything in common with Oddworld’s past heroes, it’s in his disdain for guns. Putting an Oddworld twist on the first-person shooter, Stranger is equipped with a crossbow over his right arm, which doesn’t shoot bolts or arrows at enemies, but the various little critters scattered about Oddworld, humorously referred to as “live ammunition.”

When in first-person mode, the player can equip two forms of ammo onto Stranger’s crossbow at a time (one on the left, one on the right). There are eight primary types of this live ammunition, giving players a lot of options and combinations as to how they want to tackle a situation: Zapflies are electrically-charged fireflies that can be shot in quick succession or be given a short time to charge up and do some real damage or knock out electrical devices. Chippunks are foul-mouthed little rodents who will lure an enemy away from a group with its insults (the bad guys can’t wait to step on them). Bolamites are spiders that wrap enemies in their webbing for a short time. Fuzzles – returning from Munch’s Oddysee – can be fired directly onto enemies or planted as a trap, and provide continuous damage with their ferocious bite. Thudslugs are heavy, beetle-like creatures that can knock an enemy out with one well-aimed shot. Stunks are like skunk versions of chippunks, leaving a terrible smell where they land, causing the bad guys to vomit and making them easy pickings for Stranger. Stingbees, which come in massive quantities, are fired like a machine gun. Finally, Boombats, as their name bluntly suggests, are bats that explode.

What Oddworld Inhabitants managed to successfully do with the live ammunition concept is create a variety of well-defined weapons that each have a distinct role, and will all come in handy at one point or another. Though different ammo types are better for certain situations, none of them ever come across as a pointless addition.

Bad guys are worth more Moolah if they’re captured alive, but there’s also nothing stopping Stranger from taking them out of the picture altogether. Some ammo types are better suited to incapacitating enemies (like Stunks or Bolamites), whereas others are more lethal (Stingbees, Boombats and Fuzzles). After an enemy is downed or killed, Stranger can use a vacuum like device on his crossbow to suck them up to collect the bounty (a mechanic I have to applaud. So many story-focused games are so concerned about something being “too video game-y” as to not fit in with their narrative, so it’s great to see games like Stranger’s Wrath not feel embarrassed to embrace a more convenient video game element to go with their story). Personally speaking, my favorite is the Chippunk/Stunks combo, luring in an enemy with the former then using the latter to capture said foe whilst they puke.

The boss outlaws are trickier, having both a health bar and a stamina meter. If you want to bag a boss alive, you have to find the best way to deplete their stamina, which is different depending on the boss. The only setback to this is it’s rarely apparent what a particular boss’s weakness is, and if you’re out of that particular ammo by the time you get to the boss, you don’t always have an opportunity to get more of that specific ammo during a boss. It isn’t a huge drawback, but it is a little bothersome to not know ahead of time if you’re trying to bag the boss alive for more Moolah.

Stranger finds more ammunition by coming across the nests of each respective creature, knocking them out and collecting them. The exception are the zapflies, of which Stranger has unlimited ammo. This might be my only critique with the live ammunition. While it makes sense from a gameplay perspective that Stranger needs one type of unlimited ammo so that he always has a means to collect more, I think the zapflies are a little too good to be the one that comes without limits. The other ammo types (other than Stingbees) are in short supply, with Stranger holding a max of about ten to fifteen shots apiece (though you can buy upgrades for more ammo). So it seems a little overpowered that the ammo you can charge up for a stronger shot is the one you can’t run out of.

The first-person aspect is only half of the equation, of course. Players can also swap to third-person to use melee attacks and run faster (with Stranger going beast-mode and running on all fours at top speed). Like the bosses, Stranger also has a stamina bar, which is used for the melee attacks and, interestingly, to heal. Instead of finding health around the place, the player simply needs to hold a button for Stranger to “shake off” the damage at the expense of stamina. That may sound like another overpowered element, but you’d be surprised how many times you can still manage to bite the bullet as you wait for your stamina to replenish during a gunfight.

Like Abe and Munch, Stranger can communicate with NPCs. Due to the game’s heavier focus on action, “gamespeak” has been streamlined to a single button, with Stranger simply asking what he needs to for information (or to remind the player what they’re supposed to be doing, if there’s no NPC present).

The structure of the game is simple enough. Go to the bounty store, accept a job, head out to find your target, take out his gang and eventually the boss himself (usually cumulating in a big shootout with the boss and his gang, or a more traditional boss fight). After you’ve exhausted a town of its outlaws, you move onto the next and do the same. Sometimes, you’ll even have an option as to which job you want to take at which time. And just before the formula might start to feel repetitious, the game throws a huge curveball at the player, and though the core gameplay remains intact, the structure changes drastically.

I won’t give away any spoilers, but you could say that Stranger’s Wrath is divided into three acts: Act one comprises of the first two towns and their bounties. The second act is the third town, where the game gets considerably bigger. And act three comprises of everything post-shift.

Again, I don’t want to give anything away, but it should be noted that the twist the game takes has been a talking point ever since the game’s 2005 release. Some love it as an all-time great gaming twist that benefits the story of Stranger’s Wrath, while others feel the game becomes far more linear after the twist. While I can understand the complaints of the latter category, and may even personally prefer the more game-focused first two acts as opposed to the story-based third, I find myself siding more with the more positive outlook of the twist. So many games want to be everything (a trend that started in the generation of Stranger’s Wrath, which saw the rise of Grand Theft Auto and Elder Scrolls, and has only become more extreme in the years since), but they end up lacking a definitive purpose. It’s refreshing to come across a title like Stranger’s Wrath that knows exactly what it wants to be, and executes it so well.

Though I will admit I have two issues with the game’s post-twist timeframe: the first is that (again, without spoiling anything), it becomes much easier to get a hold of more ammo, which takes away some of the uniqueness that hunting it down has in the earlier parts of the game. The second is that each of the Live Ammunition types (save the Zapflies) get an upgrade during this section. That may sound cool, but the issue I have is that I kind of like the functions of some of the un-upgraded ammo better, but once it gets the upgrade, you can’t switch it back. Given the direction the game goes, these changes make sense. But it would be nice to have the option to use the tools at play the same way you did up to that point.

Though it may be something of a shooter, I actually think the best game to compare Stranger’s Wrath to would be another beloved 2005 title: Shadow of the Colossus.

Like Colossus, Stranger is a story-driven game in which the game drives the story. Some may complain that these titles are “too linear” or that “they don’t have enough for the player to do other than the main objectives.” But to complain about such things is kind of missing the point of these types of games. While today, we have the dreaded “walking simulator” (first-person games with minimal gameplay in which the player simply walks through the story), Stranger, like Colossus, tells its story through a game. Perhaps it’s not quite on the same level of “a story only a video game could tell” as something like Undertale. But like Colossus, Stranger is the combination of gameplay and narrative done right.

It’s impressive how Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath both deviates away from the series’ past while also somehow managing to fit right in to their established world. The only returning creatures of Oddworld’s past are the aforementioned Fuzzles, and the doctor who plans to perform Stranger’s operation, who is a member of the Vykker species introduced in Munch’s Oddysee. There’s not so much as a mention of Mudokons, Glukkons or Sligs. The townsfolk are all featherless chicken people called Clakkers, while a tribe of natives, salamander-like creatures called Grubbs, also show up. Meanwhile, the outlaws Stranger hunts down are an assortment of goblins, dinosaurs and slugs (their specific species are still unnamed, though it’s pretty cool how the game utilizes a consistent batch of creature designs for a varied assortment of baddies). It’s the right kind of franchise reinvention, which of course makes the series’ extended absence after Stranger’s release all the more heartbreaking.

There are a couple of areas in which Stranger’s Wrath may show a bit of age. Namely, the jumping definitely feels very “mid-2000s action game” in that it feels a little slow and awkward. This can make some moments that implement a bit of platforming feel a bit less than ideal. It should also be noted that there are some technical issues with the game, particularly in the Steam release I played for this review (the achievements are notably buggy in this version, but I suppose that’s only an issue if you’re really into those kinds of things). There were also a few graphical errors during some in-game cinematics (I actually beat the game twice ahead of this review, and while most of these graphical hiccups only showed up in one playthrough or the other, one particularly funny moment happened during both).

I used an Xbox One controller for my playthroughs, and it has to be said that whatever the default controller settings are on Steam for Stranger’s Wrath are dumbfounding. I admit I was worried for a brief moment that maybe Stranger was always just a mess a to control, and the game itself didn’t live up to my memories of it. Thankfully, a quick internet search gave me the instructions I needed to reconfigure the control setup to feel more like it original release, putting my concerns to rest. Stranger’s Wrath has also been made available for the Playstation 3 and, most recently, Nintendo Switch. I’ve heard the PS3 version lacks the technical bugs of the Steam version, and I’m assuming the Switch version follows suite. So those might be more ideal ways to play Stranger’s Wrath today, but none of the bugs found in the Steam version interfere with gameplay in the way those of Munch’s Oddysee did. So if you reconfigure the control setup for the Steam version it’s still plenty playable.

And play it you should! Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath, like Shadow of the Colossus, is one of those games that quietly received praise for its originality, but went under the radar in its initial release. Whereas Shadow of the Colossus eventually went from being recognized as a cult classic into an all-time great, Stranger’s Wrath has unfortunately never broken through that glass ceiling that Oddworld has sadly been under since day one. In a more perfect world, Stranger’s Wrath would have ascended right alongside Shadow of the Colossus. Here’s hoping that one of these re-releases will eventually see Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath takes its place on the pedestal it’s always deserved.

9

Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee Review

*Review based on the updated Steam release of Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee*

The Oddworld series has had a turbulent development history. Originally envisioned as a five-part “Quintology,” the series quickly expanded to include “bonus games,” after the success of the first entry in the series, Abe’s Oddysee, lead to the development of an unplanned direct follow-up, Abe’s Exoddus. The second “proper” installment in the Quintology, Munch’s Oddysee, would then see a number of road bumps in its own development. Originally planned as a Playstation 2 exclusive, all the work developer Oddworld Inhabitants made for that version of Munch went out the window and had to be rebuilt from the ground up when the game transitioned to the Xbox. And with the pressure of releasing Munch’s Oddysee as a launch title for Microsoft’s then-new home console, many of the ideas and concepts series creator Lorne Lanning and company had for Munch had to be trimmed down, cut short, or removed entirely.

It should be no surprise that Munch’s Oddysee is widely accepted as the worst entry in the series by both fans and critics then. Even Lorne Lanning has publicly expressed his disappointment with the finished product on numerous occasions. Munch’s reception would shift Oddworld Inhabitants’ focus onto a bonus game once again, as the next Oddworld entry, Stranger’s Wrath, was created with the intention of separating itself from Munch’s Oddysee as much as possible.

That was the end of the line for Oddworld for a good while. The series would end up having more cancelled and unrealized games than it did actual releases. Squeek’s Oddysee, the planned third entry in the Quintology, was never released, nor were multiplayer title The Hand of Odd or the spiritual sequel to Stranger’s Wrath, The Brutal Ballad of Fangus Klot. It wasn’t until 2014 with the release of Oddworld: New ‘N’ Tasty – a remake of the original Abe’s Oddysee – that the series would return. At that point, Oddworld Inhabitants chose to reboot the series, using the remake as a launching pad to start things over. 2021 will see the release of SoulStorm, a “complete re-imagining” of Abe’s Exoddus which is now being reworked as the second installment of the Quintology, effectively making Munch’s Oddysee completely non-canon (Stranger has hopefully escaped this fate, given how little it had to do with the previous games anyway).

It probably didn’t help the game’s reputation when the four Oddworld titles were bundled together on Steam in 2010, with the port of Munch suffering from so many bugs and glitches that it continued to receive patches and updates all the way into 2016.

Playing Munch’s Oddysee today, twenty years after it debuted alongside the original XBox in 2001, its shortcomings have only been magnified. It’s a shame, because in terms of ideas, Munch’s Oddysee has no shortage of creativity. But it’s now more obvious than ever at how all these ideas were only partly realized. The sacrifices made in its development make Munch’s Oddysee feel like a series of missed opportunities and lost potential.

The titular Munch of the game is a Gabbit, an amphibious creature with a large head and a single leg. Actually, Munch is believed to be the very last Gabbit, as the species became popular hunting game for their eggs (considered a delicacy by the Glukkons, Oddworld’s dominant species of businessmen), and for their powerful lungs, which are compatible with most of Oddworld’s other species (with Glukkons being such heavy smokers, Gabbit lungs come in handy). Gabbits were also used for experimentations by Vykkers (who are under Glukkons but above most other creatures in the Oddworld pecking order, filling the roles of scientists and doctors).

Unfortunately for Munch, he ends up kidnapped by a couple of Vykkers, who perform a series of experiments on the poor Gabbit, installing a sonar device onto his head. Munch manages to escape the lab with the help of the Fuzzles – small, round creatures that look like fuzzy versions of those old chicken McNuggets characters – another popular subject of Vykker experimentation.

Meanwhile, original Oddworld hero Abe returns, being instructed by a being known as “The Almighty Raisin” to find the last Gabbit. With the help of Munch, Abe can rescue more of his enslaved Mudokon brothers. And with Abe’s help, Munch might just be able to track down the last known can of “Gabbiar” (Gabbit eggs), and save his species from extinction.

Munch’s Oddysee obviously continues the series’ environmental themes, but it’s pretty apparent early on that much of the story didn’t make it into the final game, with a number of plot elements feeling rushed or forgotten. The plot also gets a little silly later on, with Abe and Munch trying to make a particularly “lazy and incompetent Glukkon” wealthy, so that Abe can use his telepathy on said Glukkon to win the Gabbit eggs at an auction (why Abe and Munch can’t just sneak into the auction and possess whoever happened to win it is a detail that maybe needed some explanation).

It seems Munch’s Oddysee fully embraces the more comical and cartoonish aspects of Oddworld, which isn’t a bad thing in an of itself, but it’s a bit sad to see the series’ darker and more gruesome elements disappear, as it’s that combination of grimness and cartoonish antics that help make Oddworld feel so unique. Even the environments look brighter and more colorful than in Abe’s solo outings.

Whereas the “Abe” titles were 2D puzzle-platformers, Munch’s Oddysee took things into the 3D platformer route. Perhaps the shift to 3D was another hurdle for Oddworld Inhabitants (aside from Nintendo with Super Mario 64, can you name a developer who got 3D right in their first go?), though credit where it’s due, Munch’s Oddysee had some innovative ideas for the genre that still feel unique all these years later.

Notably, both Abe and Munch are distinct characters not just in appearance, but in gameplay as well. Abe can move faster and jump higher on land, but is unable to swim. Meanwhile, Munch may be slower by default, but he can find wheelchairs to move faster, and is a capable swimmer to boot. Abe can once again possess enemies, while Munch – using the sonar device in his head – can hack into machines to control them. Abe still communicates with his fellow Mudokons, with the native Mudokons becoming soldiers that can go into battle in place of the defenseless Abe, and can even be upgraded to have melee and ranged weapons (giving the game a light RTS twist). Munch, meanwhile, can free Fuzzles from their cages, and can similarly command the vicious creatures against enemies.

I love all of the gameplay ideas in concept. Sadly, none of them feel like they reach their full potential. What’s even worse is that, despite being Munch’s game, he definitely feels like he gets the short end of the stick between the playable duo.

Due to the shift in 3D, Abe’s chanting now works differently here, requiring the use of “Spooce Shrubs” to produce a telepathic light, which the player then controls until it finds an enemy or runs out of time (you can use up to 10 Spooce to make the light last longer). Not only is the Spooce found everywhere, but Abe can instantly regrow a shrub after picking it up, which Munch can’t do. And even though there are still moments that prevent Abe from chanting, there are far more opportunities for him to possess enemies than there are for Munch to hack into machines, which only happens on a few occasions. There are even more than a few moments where you can cheese your way through a stage by using Abe’s possession abilities to clear an area of its foes, instead of working through the level the way I think it was intended given the layout (I can’t help but feel Oddworld Inhabitants intended to include the drones that prevent Abe’s chanting in these segments, but just forgot to include them).

There are also more levels that include Mudokon soldiers than Fuzzles, and as stated, you can upgrade the Mudokons (once again using Spooce), but the Fuzzles lack variety or advancements. The Fuzzles also have trouble keeping up with Munch when he’s on his wheelchair, nor can they follow him into the water, effectively making his soldiers much less useful than Abe’s, on top of already being less interesting.

It’s things like this that make Munch feel underdeveloped from a gameplay standpoint. He’s a cute little fella (well, as cute as anything in Oddworld could possibly be, anyway), but I feel like Oddworld Inhabitants could have done the character better had they settled on one idea for him, like his preference for water. If Munch had some kind of aquatic soldiers and had water-based puzzles to solve, his gameplay would probably feel a lot more fleshed out. The developers should have leaned into the idea of Munch’s amphibian nature, instead of throwing in the sonar device and hacking and Fuzzles. Munch is a Jack of all trades, but a master of none, whereas Abe’s gameplay is more concrete (albeit his jumping feels pretty awkward this time around). As a result, Munch feels like the sidekick of his own game.

Of course, the concept of “too many ideas and not knowing what to do with them” kind of sums up Munch’s Oddysee as a whole. Abe’s Exoddus also had a rushed development, but because Oddworld Inhabitants knew what it was (a bigger, better sequel to Abe’s Oddysee), the end result was fantastic. Munch’s Oddysee feels like Lorne Lanning and company had a lot of ideas for the game, but didn’t settle on any one of them by the time development was pressured into meeting the XBox’s launch.

I can’t help but feel the way to go for Munch’s Oddysee was to build on the “3D platformer meets RTS” aspect (with Abe on land and Munch in water). The game just isn’t nearly as interesting in the levels that are absent of the Mudokon and Fuzzle soldiers. It tries to implement puzzles like in Abe’s titles, but these puzzles quickly become repetitious. One notably lackluster stage is literally just Abe doing some platforming to reach switches to open doors so Munch can pass through repeatedly. Another requires Abe to possess a “Big Bro Slig” to take out the other Slig soldiers in the stage, without informing the player that the Sligs in this particular stage respawn numerous times, and you have to exhaust their respawns in order to make things safe for Abe and Munch. That’s just tedious and cryptic.

There are other examples of shortcuts and cut corners taken: Paramites and Scrabs reappear for one level apiece, but they feel like token appearances this time around, instead of part of Oddworld’s unique setting (they even act identical in this game, further devaluing their appearance). Even the stages and their progression feel unfinished, with levels ending simply by having Abe and Munch stand on pads with their faces on them, which takes players directly into a loading screen and then immediately throwing them into the next stage (I have nothing against linear structures in games, but surely a world map at the very least would make the game feel far less fragmented).

Despite the years of fixes and patches the PC version of Munch’s Oddysee went through, I still experienced some notable bugs during my playthrough for this review. Three in particular stood out: the camera in the game is already more than a little messy, but when it was meant to focus on a particular object for a key moment in a stage (like unlocking a door after solving a puzzle), it would seemingly lose all control before only kind of focusing on the intended object. The second involved possessing enemies, as the ball of light that Abe conjures when he chants would sometimes (not all the time, but sometimes) only move when jumping. Finally, the most confusing bug involved the run button. Normally Abe and Munch just walk when using the control stick, and you need to hold a button to make them run. But in some stages, it was the opposite, and the characters ran by default, and walked when I held the run button.

Whether or not bugs such as those were present in the original Xbox release, I can’t remember. Either Munch’s Oddysee was always a much more technically flawed game than I remembered, or the PC port is still a mess after years of fixes. Either way, it doesn’t help the game’s reputation as the low point in the Oddworld series.

I love Oddworld. It’s one of gaming’s most unique settings, as interesting as its creatures are ugly. And it delved into deeper lore and worldbuilding long before that became commonplace in popular culture. But it’s also a series whose creative ambitions have often been out of reach for what its developers could realistically achieve (and what its publishers were willing to do). That’s evidenced by the unfinished nature of the original Quintology, and the numerous cancelled games besides. But it’s perhaps epitomized through Munch’s Oddysee, a game chock-full of brilliant concepts that end up haphazardly realized.

4

Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus Review

*Review based on the Steam release of Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus*

I don’t know if I’ve ever been more grateful for the save feature in a video game than I am for that of Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus. The original Oddworld title, 1997’s Abe’s Oddysee, is a unique puzzle-platforming experience whose gameplay and imagination stand the test of time. But it’s also hard as all Hell, and only saves your progress at widely spread out checkpoints, making its trial-and-error moments needlessly time consuming as you inch closer and closer to victory with every attempt, but have to start a sequence all over again whenever Abe gets shot, chopped up, flattened or blown to smithereens.

Thank Odd then, that Abe’s Exoddus, the unplanned 1998 sequel, implemented a quick save feature. You can now pause the game, and either save your progress on any screen (resuming your progress from that point when you restart the game), or you can quick save at literally any time to respawn in that exact spot when you die. And should you be a jackass and quicksave right before an impending death (something my younger self enjoyed doing a little too much), you can select the “restart path” option to go back to a checkpoint. To cap off this streamlining of saving, when you load your game, your most recent save file will always be on the top of the pile, in contrast to the first game listing them in alphabetical order by area (with the areas being listed as abbreviations, which could make things tricky).

This alone makes Abe’s Exoddus a vast improvement over Oddysee. But the improvements don’t stop there. Exoddus is a much bigger game than its predecessor, with just about every element of Oddysee being expanded upon in fun and meaningful ways.

It’s something of a shock then, when you gain the knowledge the game was entirely developed – from planning stages to release – in a relatively short nine months. After Abe’s Oddysee – the first installment in the planned five-part Oddworld Quintology -became a surprise hit, developer Oddworld Inhabitants was pressured into making a sequel to meet the next holiday season. With a short timeframe to make a new game, Oddworld Inhabitants held back on the second Quintology entry (Munch’s Oddysee), and decided to make a direct sequel to Abe’s Oddysey which could use the same assets and thus shortening development time to meet their deadline.

Series creator (and voice actor for basically every character) Lorne Lanning made no secret of what a nightmare he thought this rushed development process was, and how it burned out the development team. Though that’s an understandable reaction from the game’s creators given the circumstances, they should at least take solace in knowing that their efforts paid off. Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus was not only an improvement over Oddysee is pretty much every way, but was also one of the best games to be released on the original Playstation console. And due to the adjustments and additions it made to the formula, it has stood the test of time a lot stronger than its predecessor.

The game begins immediately after the events of the first game. Abe, the Mudokon savior who rescued his fellow slaves from becoming minced meat from Rupture Farms, has a vision from long-dead Mudokon spirits (humorously named “the Three Weirdos” in the game). The Weirdos inform Abe that sacred Mudokon burial grounds are being disturbed, and the bones of their ancestors are being dug up by unknowing Mudokon slaves (their eyes have been sown shut, so they don’t know what they’re digging) under the SoulStorm Brewery corporation (Mudokon bones being the secret ingredient for the brew).

So Abe sets out with a few friends to liberate more Mudokon slaves and save the sanctity of their dead. That’s easier said than done, however, as the destruction of Rupture Farms has made Abe public enemy number one to the Glukkons, whose many corporations are now under heavier security.

Although Abe’s Exoddus uses the same engine and assets as the first game, pretty much everything has been given more depth and variety. While the first game had ninety-nine Mudokon slaves to rescue, Exoddus expands that number to three-hundred. The player can still use the “gamespeak” feature to communicate with these Mudokons, but now Abe has more things to say, and certain Mudokons will require different interactions.

Along with the “hello,” “follow me” and “wait” commands from the first game, Abe can also say “sorry,” “stop it,” “work” and even slap a Mudokon in the face. Sorry is used to apologize to depressed and angry Mudokons, while stop it is used if they are bickering amongst each other. Work is used to have them help out when a problem requires multiple sets of hands (like multiple switches needing to be pulled in unison to open a door), and to have them resume their duties when a Slig guard passes by, to avoid suspicion. Finally, the slap is used on Mudokons who have been exposed to laughing gas, and are recklessly running around in need of a good slapping. There are also the aforementioned blind Mudokons, who rely solely on Abe’s voice and can’t follow the character himself, making for some notably tricky moments.

Best of all, however, is the “All of ya” command. In Abe’s Oddysee, many moments could grow tedious if they included multiple Mudokons, as you would have to talk to each one individually, and often have to repeat a process as many times as there were Mudokons in the area. But with the All of Ya command, you simply get the attention of every Mudokon on screen. Like the new save features, it’s the best kind of streamlining.

Of course, Abe still has his chanting, which is not only used to open portals to free slaves, but also allows Abe to telepathically control enemies. In Oddysee, Abe could only control Sligs, using them to infiltrate enemy lines and utilize their fire power, since Abe himself can’t attack. in Exoddus, there are also flying Sligs that can be controlled, which come in handy as the traditional Sligs can’t jump. Wild Paramites and Scrabs can also be controlled by Abe this time around, and it’s clever how the game utilizes their established behaviors from the first game for the sake of gameplay (Paramites attack in packs, so you can communicate with others when they’re under your control, whereas Scrabs are extremely territorial, and will fight each other on site). Later in the game, Abe can even possess Glukkons! Though the Glukkons aren’t built for fighting (under their suits they walk with their long arms, like Sebulba from The Phantom Menace), Sligs will do whatever they say without hesitation or suspicion. And of course, Glukkons can access important areas that no one else can, due to their high standing in Oddworld.

Perhaps strangest of all, however, is that Abe has the ability to possess his own farts. Yes, Abe could fart in the first game, but more as a pointless joke (and the occasional game of “Simon Says” which utilized the voice commands). But here, Abe’s flatulence have more utilitarian use in gameplay. If Abe comes across a SoulStorm Brew vending machine, he can have a drink which will fuel his next fart. If Abe farts after drinking a brew, said fart will explode where it stands within a few short seconds. But if Abe chants within that time, he can possess the fart, and use it to find enemies, bombs or drones (which prevent chanting and possession) and blow them up with it. Admittedly, it’s a little weird within the context of the story that Abe would drink the brew (though I suppose it’s a “using their own weapon against them for the greater good” kind of thing), but the fart control does give Abe a fitting means to attack without taking away the puzzle-solving strategy.

Like its predecessor, there are still a number of moments in Abe’s Exoddus where it really feels like the developers packed on the trial-and-error with some of the puzzles, and there are some secret areas with hidden Mudokons that you can miss (in my review of Abe’s Oddysee, I complained that there are a couple of hidden areas hiding behind large, obstructive objects in the foreground, but there’s at least one such secret in Exoddus that’s hiding behind a barely obstructive object in the foreground, which is probably even more annoying). But these elements aren’t nearly as frustrating as they were in the first game due to the aforementioned save feature. You can literally save after each individual step of a puzzle if you want (the quicksave is instantaneous to boot), and if you miss a secret, you can more easily load a previous save file to find it (though if you’re going for 100% completion, I recommend having a guide or walkthrough handy, because you wouldn’t want to undo too much of your progress just to backtrack to one secret). So even though some of Oddysee’s drawbacks are still present, they are much more tolerable this time around thanks to the improved saving.

Video games are an art form, I don’t know why that’s ever in dispute. But video games are at their strongest artistically when they embrace their game-ness. The first two Oddworld titles may be the most overt example of this. Oddworld was one of the earlier example of a video game pushing the narrative merits of the medium (with its environmental and sociopolitical themes). While Abe’s Exoddus may have come about due to commercial demand as opposed to Oddysee’s more inspired creation, the sequel is by far the superior work because it’s a better game. I think there’s a lesson a lot of today’s developers could learn there.

8

Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee Review

*Review based on the Steam release of Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee*

In 1997, an odd little game arrived on the Sony Playstation by the name of Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee. Developed by the aptly-named studio Oddworld Inhabitants, Abe’s Oddysee was planned to be the first installment in the five-part Oddworld Quintology (yes, Pentology is the proper term for a five-part series, but quintology just sounds better, I suppose). The game was a surprising critical success, and even performed commercially well. Though additional Oddworld games would follow, only the second installment in the quintology, Munch’s Oddysee, was produced (the other two Oddworld titles, Abe’s Exoddus and Stranger’s Wrath, were considered “bonus” games that built on Oddworld’s mythology). Oddworld Inhabitants had notorious relationships with publishers, and eventually left the gaming scene for close to a decade, before they returned with a remake of Abe’s Oddysee titled “New N’ Tasty” in 2014, to start the series over.

The Oddworld Quintology may be continuing anew, but it’s a shame the original vision of the series never came to light, because Abe’s Oddysee certainly got things off to a great start. In many ways, Abe’s Oddysee was ahead of its time, with gameplay that still feels unique to this day, and an equally unique world to go with it. Though it has to be said that the experience of playing Abe’s Oddysee today is hampered a fair bit by a steep difficulty curve (including some outright cheap moments that go against what the game instills in the player early on), which is made all the more difficult by a convoluted save feature.

The story is set on the titular planet Oddworld, and the game does a pretty terrific job at giving the player a good insight into its world with very little exposition. Rupture Farms is the biggest meat processing plant on Oddworld, and slaughters the creatures of the planet with reckless abandon (“We used to make Meech Munchies… until the Meeches were through”). In Oddworld, certain species are born into different social classes, and Rupture Farms is no exception: at the top of the pecking order are Glukkons, suit-wearing, cigar-smoking businessmen. Sligs are miserable creatures that are born to be the hired guns for the Glukkons. And at the bottom of the totem pole are the Mudokons – humanoid creatures that looks like a cross between Gollum and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from the 90’s movies – who have become slaves to the Glukkons’ many corporations.

Abe is one such Mudokon working for Rupture Farms, notable for being more blueish-gray than the Mudokons’ usual green coloring. Late one night when waxing the floors, Abe passes by the boardroom, and curiosity gets the best of him. He listens in on a board meeting, where the Glukkons are discussing Rupture Farms’ decreasing sales. The Paramites and Scrabs – Rupture Farms’ most popular meat sources – are starting to turn up thin. But CEO Mullock has a “great” idea for a new product: Mudokon pops, which are little more than Mudokon heads stabbed on a stick (at least in the US version. International versions of the game censor it as a popsicle shaped like a Mudokon head, which lessens the impact). Horrified at the fate the Gluckons have planned for him and his fellow Mudokons, Abe hopes to escape from Rupture Farms, and free as many slaves as he can (for gameplay purposes, there are 99 in the game to rescue).

There’s an obvious environmental, sociopolitical element to the game. But what Oddworld managed to do to great effect is expressing these themes without ever feeling self-righteous. It has a good balance of imagination and humor to go along with the political aspects (one button even allows Abe to fart, just because), which prevents the game from feeling too pretentious or in love with itself. There are far more story-heavy games made today (whether artsy indie titles or AAA games that think emulating movies equates to art) that get such praise for their narratives upon their initial release, only to be laughed at as egotistical hot air in hindsight. When you make the comparison to Oddworld, such games end up with even more egg on their face.

In terms of gameplay, Abe’s Oddysey is a puzzle-platformer. Abe is no fighter, and if one Slig catches him he’s toast in a second’s time. But Abe has some tricks up his sleeve: he can sneak and hide in shadows, roll into small spaces and, crucially, he can chant to telepathically possess Sligs.

The chant is also used to open portals to free your fellow Mudokons, but it’s only one of several voice commands Abe can make. Abe can also communicate with Mudokons with “hello!” “follow me!” and “wait” (as well as the aforementioned fart, which makes both Mudokons and Sligs giggle). This is important because, once puzzles are solved and the dangers are gone, Abe will have to guide Mudokons to the nearest portal. This “gamespeak” was truly innovative in its day, though there’s an unfortunate caveat in that Abe can only guide one Mudokon at a time, which makes certain moments with multiple Mudokons more than a little tedious (it should be no surprise that Abe’s Exoddus, as well as the remake, fixed this and allowed Abe to communicate with groups).

Another issue with the game is when the focus becomes more action-based (mostly in the middle section of the adventure, when Abe is often chased by wild Paramites and Scrabs). Abe controls well enough, but he controls well for the slow paced nature of the majority of the game. When things get hectic, and Abe needs to run, jump and roll in quick succession without missing a beat, it just feels off. Abe just isn’t made with the same kind of precision as characters like Mario or Sonic, but these chase sequences often play out as if he does, which makes them feel clunky.

There are additional problems when it comes to rescuing Mudokons. The process itself is simple enough (make sure it’s safe, guide them to a portal, chant to open said portal), but there are several hidden Mudokons that -should you miss them – you don’t get a second chance to rescue. And some of them are hidden in really esoteric places (gee, I never would have thought that there was a hidden room I could climb down to behind the large, obstructing object in the foreground, because why would I?). What’s all the weirder is that the majority of these secret rooms and hidden Mudokons are in the earlier portions of the game, whereas things are more out in the open later on. So these missable Mudokons feel like one big beginner’s trap. You probably wouldn’t think of how you find some of these secret areas until later in the game, long after you’ve missed your chance to rescue the poor souls. I’m not sure if this was intended to incite replay value (with the knowledge you have by the end of the game you can redo the beginning and get everything), but it feels like a cheap means to achieve it.

There are a number of other beginner’s traps in regards to the puzzles. While some of the puzzle solving is clever and leads to genuine “aha!” moments, there are more than a few where the game will feel like it’s throwing one cheap death after another on the player, prolonging certain sections by forcing the player to make only a little more progress with every try. Trial-and-error isn’t unforgiveable in video games, but it certainly isn’t ideal. And sometimes, Abe’s Oddysee just takes things way too far. It’s one thing if the trial-and-error is the result of my own mistakes, but how am I supposed to just know when dropping down a hole will put me right in a Slig’s line of fire, or when I casually stroll to the next screen just to be greeted by a hungry Slog (it’s like a Slig’s dog) two feet in front of me?

Granted, you have unlimited lives, so you can keep trying a section as many times as you need to get it right. But the game can be really stingy with the checkpoints, meaning that sometimes you’ll have to replay decently large sections multiple times over just because of one tricky little detail (what’s worse, if there are secret rooms and Mudokons within that timeframe, you’ll have to rescue them again every time until you reach the next checkpoint). I’m all for a good challenge, but when difficulty teeters into tedium, a game loses me.

On the subject of checkpoints, the save feature is the game’s single biggest drawback. A game this demandingly difficult should at the very least apply checkpoints liberally. Not only are these checkpoints in short supply, but the game actually does have a manual save option in the pause menu, but it still only saves at the checkpoints! I’m guessing this means the checkpoints themselves only save your progress when you die, but not when you quit playing the game, whereas the save option ensures you can reload the game from that checkpoint the next time you play? But then why separate the two? Either just have the checkpoints save the game, or let me save my progress on whatever screen I need to!

To further convolute things, when loading a saved file, the checkpoints are listed in alphabetical order, which isn’t how they appear in the game itself (it’s easy to find the levels themselves, but the checkpoints of the levels are often out of numerical order, which gets confusing). Goodness, why do I have to jump through so many hoops just to save and load my game?

By now things are sounding largely negative, but these drawbacks have merely been magnified with age. I still feel like there’s enough good to make Abe’s Oddysee a worthwhile gaming experience.

The gameplay is unique and fun, especially when you get to possess a Slig and infiltrate the enemy (sometimes there are drones that prevent Abe from chanting to possess a Slig, giving you another obstacle to overcome by finding a way to destroy the drone or luring a Slig away from it). The graphics, while aged, give the game a distinctly dark (sometimes gruesome) atmosphere, as does the music. Abe’s Oddysee was years ahead of its time in regards to merging gameplay and story. But perhaps best of all is Oddworld itself, one of the all-time great video game worlds. So much about the game is dedicated to its worldbuilding, and the world it builds is really unlike any other in the medium.

Better things laid ahead for Oddworld (the two “bonus” titles, Abe’s Exoddus and Stranger’s Wrath were the best entries, oddly enough), and with the series set to continue in 2021 from where the remake left off, better things may still be in its future. And while going back to where it all started may be rough around the edges, it’s still sure to leave an impression.

6

I’m Done with Super Smash Bros.

I’m done with Super Smash Bros. That’s it, I’m done with it.

Recently, during the presentation of Sephiroth’s inclusion into Super Smash Bros., they also revealed a host of new Mii Fighter costumes based on Square characters. Most were based on additional Final Fantasy VII characters (because no other Final Fantasy exists, apparently), but then they just had to go and do it… They brought back the Geno Mii Fighter costume.

Yes, despite being the most consistently requested character to join the Super Smash Bros. roster for about two decades now (who hasn’t yet made it), Super Mario RPG’s Geno is once again relegated to a Mii costume. It’s disheartening, to say the least.

Now, Geno is also the character I personally have most wanted to join Super Smash Bros. for quite some time now. However, it isn’t simply Geno being denied as a playable character (again) that has lead to my decision of leaving Super Smash Bros. behind me (though it’s a notable part), but the fact that Geno’s Mii costume status really hits the nail on the head towards something I’ve felt for quite a while now: Super Smash Bros. simply isn’t Super Smash Bros. anymore.

What I mean by that is that Super Smash Bros., at its core, is a Nintendo fighting game. An excuse to bring Mario and Pokemon and Zelda and Metroid together, and provide fanservice to Nintendo’s history. That eventually grew into the broader history of video games once Solid Snake (and later Sonic the Hedgehog) were added to Super Smash Bros. Brawl. But the series still retained its (for lack of a better word) “Nintendo-ness.”

It was really cool at first, to see Super Smash Bros. open its doors to characters outside of Nintendo’s own. The possibilities it opened up seemed staggering. Unfortunately, as time has passed, it’s become increasingly clear that Super Smash Bros’ scope of video game history and fanservice has shrank considerably. What seemed like limitless possibilities has unraveled to become narrower and narrower.

It seems every other Nintendo character that’s added into the mix is another Fire Emblem character (who, if it weren’t for their name plate, I couldn’t differentiate from Marth if I tried). And now, the third party characters are becoming more and more of the same type of character.

I can accept Sephiroth. I understand he’s popular, and I’ll take him over Sora any day. But the fact that Sephiroth is now a character after there have been a few dozen other anime swordfighter characters kind of makes his inclusion mean nothing. He’s just another one on the pile.

Super Smash Bros. is losing its “Nintendo-ness” and basically becoming just another anime fighter, of which there is no shortage of on the market. I mean, seriously, how many anime-looking guys with swords does Super Smash Bros. really need? And it’s funny how people who (inexplicably) defend Sakurai’s every last decision like to use “but there are a lot of Mario and Pokemon characters” as a rebuttal. Yeah, but the Mario and Pokemon characters are at least unique (with maybe one exception apiece). And given that they’re the two biggest video game franchises – Nintendo or otherwise – of all time, I’d say they’ve earned as many characters as they can have.

I mean, where does Fire Emblem place on the Nintendo ladder? Like, the fourth wrung, maybe? I’m not saying it’s bad, but it certainly hasn’t earned having more characters represented in Super Smash Bros. than, oh, I don’t know, THE LEGEND OF ZELDA! It would be like if you went to Disneyland, and instead of Mickey Mouse, Frozen and Lion King characters they had Treasure Planet everywhere. Treasure Planet isn’t bad, but it isn’t one of Disney’s more remembered features. You’d be like “what the hell?”

I know people would think this is just personal bias speaking. But hey, I absolutely love Pikmin, but I don’t think it needs another character in Super Smash Bros. Its representation seems to fit where the series places in Nintendo’s history. This isn’t about personal favorites, it’s about how Super Smash Bros. – a series built around fanservice of video game history – has narrowed down its fanservice to a very specific niche, and isn’t even doing a good job at catering to said niche, considering the variety of Fire Emblem characters they could have as opposed to the ones they’ve chosen (most of which are basically “Marth again”).

Why should Shovel Knight, Bomberman, Goemon, Sans and Isaac – characters who could bring so much variety to both gameplay and in representing video game history – be relegated to Assist Trophies or Mii costumes, while seemingly any blue-haired swordsman from Fire Emblem can make it as playable characters by default? Again, Sakurai’s questionably loyal fanbase always point out “it’s a Japanese game, of course there are anime-looking characters.” But my complaint isn’t that these “anime” characters are there, it’s that it’s always the same type of character being multiplied over and over again these days. Video games, especially Japanese video games, are incredibly versatile and diverse. But you’d never know it if modern Super Smash Bros. additions are what you’re going by.

Seriously, what the hell does Final Fantasy VII have to do with Nintendo? I mean, geez, couldn’t they have at least added Tera or Kefka? Y’know, someone from a Final Fantasy game that was actually on a Nintendo console? But no, here’s more Final Fantasy VII, because that’s the Final Fantasy that appeals to the very specific anime crowd Super Smash Bros. is now catering to.

Look, I don’t dislike anime. I get people riding me all the time about it. In fact I DO like anime. Sometimes even love it. My all-time favorite movie, and probably my biggest creative inspiration, is Spirited Away which, last I checked, qualifies as an anime. I greatly enjoy One Piece, have fond memories of Cowboy Bebop, and so on and so forth. Anime character designs aren’t the problem. But when I can basically sum up the majority of newer Smash Bros. characters as “an anime swordsman” it gets more than a little repetitive.

Anime, like anything else, has good and bad. Notice I haven’t mentioned the Dragon Quest “Hero” character being in Super Smash Bros. Because while he/they are very prominently anime, Akira Toriyama’s character designs stand out. I can distinguish his designs from a crowd. I can’t really say the same about the Fire Emblem characters or Tetsuya Nomura’s Final Fantasy character designs. We’re getting to a point where it feels like these characters are coming off a conveyor belt.

So again, Super Smash Bros. seems to be abandoning its broad fanservice and tributes to video game history and instead is turning into, well, pretty much any other fighting game because of it.

Yeah, Banjo-Kazooie’s inclusion was a beautiful, beautiful thing. The irony is, despite now being owned by Microsoft, that’s the only DLC character for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate thus far that actually feels like they belong in Super Smash Bros. (okay, I suppose Min-Min as well, but I think an ARMS character should have been added from the get-go, so her status as DLC still feels overdue).

It’s just not worth getting excited over a new Smash Bros. update anymore. I don’t find myself thinking “oh man, I wonder who the next character is going to be!” so much as “I wonder which anime swordfighter will be in next…” It no longer feels like the Nintendo fighter it once was. And wasn’t that the whole point of the series to begin with? With all due respect, if I want to play an anime-style fighting game, I’ll play pretty much any other fighting game. Again, it’s not these types of characters themselves that’s the problem, rather, that it seems like the series has a blatant favoritism for this type of character.

Why are the only fan requests making the roster these very specific types of anime-style characters? Why are so many potentially great additions shoehorned into Assist Trophy and Mii costume roles? It’s just not fun anymore. Maybe it is for fans of those anime-style games, and good for them. But it seems less and less diverse players are being considered when it comes to who gets listened to.

I remember how much fun it was waiting for Super Smash Bros. Brawl back in the day, checking its website regularly for updates, and being thrilled when they’d announce a King Dedede or a Diddy Kong or even an Ike (again, back then the series wasn’t oversaturated with such characters). Brawl seems retroactively looked as as the weakest entry in the Super Smash Bros. series (even though that distinction should belong to the N64 original), but damn, it knew how to make its character additions mean something.

Sure, Steve from Minecraft was a pleasant surprise (even if I don’t have any particular feelings towards Minecraft one way or another, seeing as I haven’t played it yet). But like Banjo, it feels like an isolated incident. Like “we’ll throw this crowd a bone as we prepare the next sword character.” I miss when every addition to Smash Bros. felt the way Banjo-Kazooie or Steve did. Looking forward to the next Smash Bros. character used to be a game in itself. Now, I basically have to look into what the newest Fire Emblem game is and I can guess who’s coming. And if not Fire Emblem, a character who looks like they were cut from the same clothe.

I love Super Smash Bros. More, I love what it is in concept. But that aforementioned “Nintendo-ness” just doesn’t feel present anymore. Even the story modes come across as kind of Kingdom Hearts-esque. I find myself – as a Nintendo fan – feeling left behind by the series. I mean, Sephiroth and Bayonetta can make the cut but not Dixie Kong? It feels so far removed from what Super Smash Bros. used to be at this point. I find that I just can’t get excited about it anymore. Yes, the series is still mechanically competent (I named Ultimate as my Game of the Year for 2018 because of its polished gameplay, though suffice to say I’ve been rethinking that decision for a while now), but its heart and soul feel different.

It’s not a hopeless situation. There are things the series could do to win me over again. But if it keeps going the way it’s going… *Shrug*

Maybe by the time Switch 2 comes out and Nintendo releases Super Smash Bros. 6 (or 7 or whatever, I still don’t know where the series stands with the 3DS/Wii U entries as different games), maybe then the series will go back to the versatility it once had. And maybe then the series will actually make Geno a playable character like fans have been asking for two decades now. But until then, I’m done with Super Smash Bros. I just can’t get excited about it anymore. Maybe some day I’ll make a revised “most wanted characters” list just for the giggles, but seeing as none of my most wanted characters are anime sword guys it’s not like they’d have a chance anyway.

Until Super Smash Bros. reclaims that “Nintendo-ness,” it’s kind of in a similar boat for me as Paper Mario at this point, in that I now get the same “if you’re going to outright give fans the middle finger, why should I care?” feeling from it. Nintendo killed Paper Mario by removing its depth, RPG elements and variety, and now they’ve done the same to Super Smash Bros. by turning a franchise that celebrates video game history into a franchise that panders more and more exclusively to a very specific audience. And if you don’t fit square-peg into that audience, you’re basically left in the cold.

Imagine if you and a group of friends exchanged gifts every year during the holidays. But then, all of a sudden, only one of those friends keeps getting all the gifts. Maybe another friend gets a little trinket or whatever on occasion, but only the one person is getting all the good stuff. That’s kind of what Super Smash Bros. feels like now. It stopped giving gifts to everyone, and decided to pick a favorite at the expense of everyone else.

The recent additions to Super Smash Bros. have left me wondering if I really care about Super Smash Bros. anymore. The reveal that Geno has been relegated to a Mii costume again made me come to a conclusion: I don’t.

Super Mario World and Super Nintendo Turn 30!

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the original release of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in Japan, and along with it, Super Mario World.

With all the hullaballoo Nintendo is (understandably) making for the 35th anniversary of Super Mario Bros., they’ve been strangely quiet about this moments anniversary. As far as I’m concerned, the Super NES is the most timeless console of all time. While the original NES has earned its place in video game history, playing it today, it does feel like a product of its time, save for a few exceptions (Mario, Mega Man, Kirby). Similarly, the Nintendo 64 pioneered and revolutionized 3D gaming. But testing new waters meant that not everything about the N64 has held up swimmingly, and again, with a few exceptions (Mario, Zelda, Banjo, Starfox and Kirby), the Nintendo 64 can also feel a bit like a relic.

The Super NES, on the other hand, hit that sweet spot. The culmination of everything game design had learned up to that point, polished and refined. The SNES continued classic gameplay and franchises, while introducing hosts of new ones, and made them all better than ever. And beyond all expectations, the classics of the SNES haven’t aged a day. It really did earn the monicker of “Super.”

More specifically, let’s talk about Super Mario World. The best video game launch title of all time, Super Mario World is at once synonymous with the Super Nintendo, and also one of the rare games whose reputation might just transcend its console (certainly no small feat, given the console in question). I mean, Super Mario World is just the definition of a classic. You don’t really think of the year of release or the era in question when it comes to Super Mario World. It’s simply a perennial classic that stands on its own.

Super Mario Bros. 3 may have perfected what Super Mario Bros. started, but Super Mario World somehow perfected that perfection. Brilliant level design, repayable levels, secret exits and hidden worlds, Super Mario World effectively created the difference between simply getting to the end of a game, and completing it 100%. You could also speedrun it and try to best it in as few levels as possible if you wanted. Basically, while NES titles and prior video games were all about high scores and finding the fastest way to get to the end, Super Mario World created the broader options of how you could complete a game. Both speed runners and completionists owe Super Mario World more than a little thanks.

And, of course, who could forget the introduction of Yoshi! Mario’s cute little dinosaur sidekick quickly became Nintendo’s second most popular character (sorry Luigi). Yoshi even starred in Super Mario World’s 1995 prequel, Yoshi’s Island, and went on to star in franchises of his own.

Like the Super Nintendo itself, Super Mario World felt like a refinement of of its predecessors, with Nintendo adding new and creative ideas around every corner. A classic in every sense of the word.

As an added bonus, November 21st also serves as the anniversaries of the original releases of Donkey Kong Country and Donkey Kong Country 2 (DKC3 misses the mark by one day). So you could rightfully call November 21st “Super Nintendo Day” (which I very much do). DKC was released on this day twenty-six years ago, while DKC2 celebrates its big twenty-fifth anniversary today. As an added bonus to said added bonus, Donkey Kong Country Returns was released on the Wii ten years ago today, to commemorate the sixteenth anniversary of the original DKC… How the hell is Donkey Kong Country Returns a decade old already?

Anyway, I’m getting sidetracked. Happy Super Nintendo Day, everybody! And a very happy 30th to Super Mario World! Wahoo!

Luigi’s Mansion 3 Review

When Luigi’s Mansion was released as a GameCube launch title in 2001, it was an interesting little oddity in the Mario franchise. A small excursion starring the lesser Mario brother taking on a house full of spooks and specters in Ghostbusters-like fashion. It was fun and unique, but short-lived. And for over a decade it seemed that Luigi’s Mansion was to remain a one and done affair. It was surprising then, that a sequel was released on the Nintendo 3DS almost twelve years later. Though it lacked the atmosphere of the GameCube original, Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon proved that the concept of Luigi doing his best Peter Venkmen impression still had a lot to offer. It may have taken the timeframe between an original Pixar movie and its sequel, but Dark Moon turned the once isolated Luigi’s Mansion experience into a viable franchise of its own (it even spawned an arcade spin-off).

Developed by Canadian studio Next Level Games (who also made Dark Moon, as well as the Mario Strikers games and the Wii installment of Punch-Out!!), the bluntly titled Luigi’s Mansion 3 was released on the Nintendo Switch on Halloween of 2019. Taking the best bits of the GameCube original and the 3DS sequel, Luigi’s Mansion 3 proved to be the best entry in the series yet by some margin.

Though the game still houses the word “mansion” in the title, the action this time around actually takes place inside of a hotel. This high-rise hotel, The Last Resort, is the vacation spot for not only Luigi, but also Mario, Princess Peach, and a group of Toads. Because Mario and the gang are never allowed a proper vacation, the whole thing ends up being a rouse. During the first night of their supposed vacation, Luigi awakes in the middle of the night to find that Mario, Peach and the Toads have gone missing, and the seemingly luxurious hotel has transformed into a dilapidated, nightmarish tower filled with ghouls. It turns out the hotel’s owner, Hellen Gravely, is actually a ghost, working under Luigi’s recurring foe, King Boo. King Boo has successfully captured Mario, Peach and the Toads and trapped them in portraits, and almost does the same to Luigi, before the younger Mario brother makes an escape (perhaps King Boo should try capturing Luigi first next time… and maybe he and Bowser should work together, because King Boo seems pretty adept at capturing Mario, so together they could get a lot done).

Luigi soon finds that his mentor in ghost-catching, Professor E. Gadd, has also been captured by King Boo, and is in the hotel. Luigi finds an extra ghost-catching device left by Gadd, and soon uses it to rescue the mad scientist. From then on, Gadd takes refuge in his ‘ghost-proof’ bunker, and provides Luigi with different gadgets and abilities along the way (including “Gooigi” Luigi’s gelatinous doppelgänger) in the quest to save Mario, Peach, the Toads, and to put an end to King Boo and Hellen Gravely’s plans.

Being a Mario game that isn’t one of its RPGs of yesteryear, the plot of Luigi’s Mansion 3 is of course simple stuff. But the action becomes something truly memorable by how much personality and character shines through. Luigi’s Mansion 3 is one of the most vibrantly-animated video games ever made. The game is bursting at the seams with charm and humor, particularly physical comedy, with Luigi’s Mansion 3 being on a level of its own in that category.

Not only has Luigi’s anxious, trepidatiously-heroic personality never been more on display, but other characters, and even enemies, are filled with exaggerated movements and expressions (Next Level Games, perhaps realizing that Professor E. Gadd had never previously been seen walking more than a few feet, gave him a decidedly hilarious running animation). While Mario games have often had fluid character animations, they’ve never been so innately humorous as they are here, with Luigi’s Mansion 3 evoking Loony Tunes at times.

The gameplay is an utter delight. The basics are still the same as they’ve always been for the series: stun ghosts with a flashlight, catch them in your vacuum, dwindle down their hit points until they finally get sucked up. The Dark Light from the second game returns, and is used to find/solidify invisible and spectral objects, as well as release your friends (and coins) from portraits. But there have been a few fun little quirks added to the proceedings: the Poltergust vacuum can now let out a burst to keep large groups of enemies at bay, should Luigi find himself overwhelmed. Luigi can now slam ghosts that are caught in the vortex of the vacuum, which depletes larger chunks of their health with each slam. The Poltergeist can now also fire a plunger, which sticks to objects for Luigi to pull and drag them.

The biggest gameplay addition is the inclusion of Gooigi, who works as a second playable character. Once Gooigi is obtained, the player can switch between Luigi and his gooey clone by the press of a button (or a second player can join in to take on the role of Gooigi for some fun co-op). Gooigi mostly controls identical to Luigi, but has some pros and cons unique to him. Being the slime-like creature he is, Gooigi can sink into drains, squeeze into narrow spaces, walk passed spikes, and pass through cages like Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean. On the downside, Gooigi cannot move in bodies of water or come into contact with fire, or else he dissolves and retreats back into Luigi’s Poltergust.

Although on their own, these additions may seem small, when you put them all together, they really add a lot to the classic Luigi’s Mansion gameplay. In particular, the puzzles that require both Luigi and Gooigi to step into action really bring out the game’s creativity.

One of my complaints with Dark Moon was its mission-based structure. The first Luigi’s Mansion had a unique atmosphere and sense of place for a game set in the Mario universe. It may not have been truly frightening, but the titular mansion of the original game felt like like a set place and, relative to the series, was appropriately eerie. Dark Moon removed that atmosphere in favor of a mission-based structure, which made the experience feel fragmented and episodic. The first game felt like you were scouring a haunted mansion. The second game simply felt like levels in a video game.

Luigi’s Mansion 3 finds a nice compromise between the two. The Last Resort houses 17 floors, each with a different theme or motif. Because things no longer begin and end with a set mission, you have more freedom to explore and go at your own pace, like the first game. But with every floor featuring a different theme, Luigi’s Mansion 3 has a stronger sense of variety, closer to the second game.

“Boy, doesn’t this just personify Luigi’s placement compared to Mario? Mario’s key collectibles include stars, suns and moons. Luigi collects… elevator buttons.”

Each floor houses its own collection of special treasures to find, as well as Boos to catch. The game is progressed by defeating a floor’s boss and acquiring the elevator button they’re holding, which then allows you to go to the matching floor of that button (though they aren’t always in sequential order, which is a nice little touch).

The boss fights are a lot of fun. While the first two Luigi’s Mansion games could admittedly get a bit repetitious, the boss fights alone in Luigi’s Mansion 3 bring out so many fun ideas out of the series’ gameplay that you’ll always be wondering what’s around the next corner. And while the boss ghosts may not capture the same (relative) scariness of the Portrait Ghosts from the first game (thus resulting in not quite the same unique atmosphere of the GameCube title), they are a definite step-up from Dark Moon, which had no Portrait Ghost equivalent.

Players who just want to complete the story can do just that, but for completionists, you can always backtrack and hunt down every last treasure from every last floor of the hotel. And if that’s not enough, Luigi’s Mansion 3 even features multiplayer!

Luigi’s Mansion 3 not only houses a series of local multiplayer mini-game modes, but also builds on the “Scarescraper” online mode introduced in Dark Moon. This cooperative online mode sees up to eight players (four as different colored Luigis, and four as their corresponding Gooigis) brave the Scarecraper by completing one randomly-generated floor to move on to the next (up to ten floors). Most floors will ask players to exercise them of all their ghosts, while others will task players with collecting a certain amount of treasure, having everyone gather in a specific room, or finding lost Toads and escorting them to a teleporter. When all floors are completed, the Luigi-centric team then comes face-to-face with a boss fight in the form of Boolossus.

Scarescraper is a simple multiplayer mode in concept, but insanely addictive in execution. As the clock keeps ticking and you desperately try to find the last ghost/Toad/lump of cash, it becomes a hectic scramble that requires real teamwork to overcome. And while Nintendo’s lack of voice chat is usually a hindrance, this is one instance where the feature isn’t exactly missed. If a player gets caught in a trap and requires another player to rescue them (as getting yourself out of a trap takes considerably longer and exhausts the time limit), they press a few buttons to alert the other players of their whereabouts, hoping their team can get rescue them in time. Again, a lack of voice chat is normally a big problem with Nintendo multiplayer games, but here, it may have made things too easy. It’s difficult to describe, but the Scarescraper is somehow more fun by forcing teams to work together while giving them minimal tools to do so.

Luigi’s Mansion 3 isn’t perfect: the controls can take a little getting used to (especially if you’re not playing with the classic controller), I feel like there could have been some additional incentives for completionists other than a few (often easy to find) treasures and Boos, and there are a few annoying puzzles here and there (sadly, the movie-themed floor, perhaps my favorite in the game, possibly contains the most cryptic puzzles). And while the idea of a multiplayer-exclusive boss fight in the Scarescraper is really cool, it’s kind of a bummer that it’s always the same boss fight (just a couple more would have added a lot).

All things considered, however, Luigi’s Mansion 3 is an extremely fun experience that is always at the ready to throw something unexpected at the player. There’s something new seemingly around every corner, some of which might truly catch you by surprise (which is why I haven’t gone into too much detail on what the different floors of the hotel have in store). And it does so with some of the most exuberant and hilarious animation in the history of video games.

8

Macbat 64: Journey of a Nice Chap Review

*Review based on the Nintendo Switch release*

 

Macbat 64: Journey of a Nice Chap is – as you may have guessed from the title – a nostalgic love letter to the Nintendo 64 era, primarily the games made by Rare for the console (because let’s face it, outside of Mario and Zelda, the N64 was the Rareware machine). Originally released via Steam in 2017 and ported to the Nintendo Switch (its most fitting platform) in 2020, indie developer Siactro does a great job at recreating the visual look of the N64, and a “pretty good” job at capturing the idea of Rare’s games for the console. The initial nostalgic glee is short-lived, however, as Macbat 64 is so bitesized that it feels more like a prototype used to pitch a more complete game to a publisher, as opposed to the final game itself.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with short games. I have often said I’ll take a great short game over a needlessly long one any day. But there’s a difference between a game that’s simply short but feels fulfilled (like Portal), and a game that feels short because its recourses could only take the developers’ vision so far. As you may have guessed, Macbat 64 falls into the latter category. It provides some fun and charm, but not any more than you might find in a tech demo.

The game is mostly inspired by Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64, though it does try its hand at some variety and features a Diddy Kong Racing-esque stage, and even a 2D level that deviates from the Rare motif and seems inspired by Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards.

 

Siactro’s heart is definitely in the right place, and its nice to see them try to implement a variety of N64 inspirations. The problem is that all of Macbat’s ideas are only realized in their most marginal forms. Despite the Banjo-Kazooie inspiration, there’s no hub world or anything of the sort connecting the stages. You simply select the stages (in sequential order) on the title screen. And each of the game’s stages can be completed in less than five minutes. I maybe completed the whole game in about forty-five or fifty minutes.

Players naturally take control of Macbat, a monocle-wearing bat whose only actions are walking and jumping (he can jump several times in a row thanks to his wings, but tires out after reaching a certain height, possibly another nod to Kirby 64). Every stage – with the exception of the Diddy Kong Racing one – simply features Macbat accomplishing a series of tasks, which usually involve him collecting five coins to purchase a special item from an NPC, or four balloons to send a particular object floating away.

“Banjo-Kazooie composer Grant Kirkhope has a fun little cameo as the voice of a monkey.”

Macbat is recruited on an adventure by a pirate parrot (who probably would have made for a better choice as the player character, if we’re being honest), who set out to save their world’s water supply, as the “Water Factory” has stopped working. So you travel across different levels collecting different objects, and are ultimately rewarded with one of the Water Factory’s keys at the end of a stage. It’s silly nonsense, but the characters lack the personality of their inspirations to liven things up.

Again, Macbat 64 is a game of honest and respectable ambitions, but those ambitions are too barebones and barely realized to amount to much. The initial smirk you may get from the visuals and music from each new level quickly melt away as the level is completed before you realize it. On the bright side, the game only costs two bucks on the Nintendo Eshop, so you can’t exactly say you were shortchanged.

 

If a college student made this same kind of game to showcase their abilities and ideas as to pitch them to a studio, I’d see a lot of promise here in Macbat 64. But as a final product, it feels more like an empty promise.

3

Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time Review

Crash Bandicoot’s recent resurgence has to be the best reboot in video game history (one could argue that title belongs to Sonic Mania, but that wonderful game was followed-up by the dreadful Sonic Forces mere months later, somewhat negating the goodwill Mania created). There have been a few great video game franchise revivals over the years – such as when Retro Studios picked up the Donkey Kong Country mantle – but they were revived continuations. As far as hitting a complete reset button goes, Crash Bandicoot went from a washed-up mascot to once again becoming a viable franchise as if we were back in its heyday.

The original “unofficial” mascot of the Playstation brand has had a slow burn of a build-up to his first brand-new game in over a decade. Back in his absent years, Playstation 4 commercials featured background cameos and references to the face of Sony’s early days in the gaming market. In 2016, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End featured a segment where series’ hero Nathan Drake played a stage from the very first Crash Bandicoot on his Sony Playstation in a fun meta moment (the Uncharted series being created by Naughty Dog, the original creators of Crash Bandicoot…back when they actually made video games). This lead into 2017’s release of Crash Bandicoot: The N. Sane Trilogy, a compilation of Naughty Dog’s original trio of Crash Bandicoot titles recreated from the ground-up for the PS4. Though the games showed some aging in certain areas (namely some tricky perspectives, these were released in 3D gaming’s infancy after all), the N. Sane Trilogy proved that fun itself never ages, and showed that there was still an audience for the franchise. Then in 2019, Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled (a remake of Naughty Dog’s final Crash game, one of the few kart racers that is held in a similar regard to Mario’s) was released, and pushed the boundaries for what to expect in a video game remake.

Now seemed like the appropriate time to finally pull the trigger on a brand-new Crash Bandicoot game. And that’s exactly what happened when Toys For Bob announced they were making Crash Bandicoot 4, fittingly subtitled It’s About Time, which released at the beginning of October 2020.

That “4” in the title is important, as it’s the game’s way of telling players outright that this is a continuation of the original trilogy, ignoring the games that were released post-PSOne/pre-N. Sane Trilogy.

I remember way back when I played Crash Bandicoot: The Wrath of Cortex (the “first fourth” Crash Bandicoot title) it was obvious that the magic just wasn’t there. It certainly wasn’t the worst platformer you could find at the time, but it was uneventful enough that from that point on, I had kind of forgotten how much I enjoyed Crash Bandicoot back in its heyday. Unlike something like Super Mario, which has proven timeless, it seemed Crash had his time in the sun, and it was over. The series was destined to be a fond memory of the past.

The N. Sane Trilogy was more than just a nostalgia-fueled remake (though it was that too), but a launching pad to start the series over, which continued with the Crash Team Racing remake. Now, Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time successfully follows-up this relaunch in such a way that it makes you forget everything that happened to the series after the PSOne era. And in the end, Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time proves to be the best game in the series.

Ignoring the gimmicks of later entries, Crash Bandicoot 4 utilizes the same kind of platforming mechanics and stage design of the original trilogy (though the game was built from the ground-up, and doesn’t utilize any assets from the N. Sane Trilogy). It’s a 3D platformer, but it plays more like a 2D one. Crash Bandicoot (or his sister Coco, who is playable in any of Crash’s stages from the get-go) run, jump and spin across linear levels, with the camera usually following behind them (though there are also sections with a straight-up 2D perspective, as well as the series’ “chase” levels, which sees the player character running towards the screen). Along the way, they break crates (think Donkey Kong’s barrels) and collect Wumpa Fruits (akin to Mario’s coins or DK’s bananas).

While I have to admit there are times when the perspective can be a bit tricky, leading to some unfair deaths, for the most part, Crash Bandicoot 4 is an utter delight to play. Yes, those occasional trickier perspectives prove that Crash’s formula isn’t as timeless as that of Mario, but Crash Bandicoot 4 is proof that fun gameplay and strong level design make up for any shortcomings.

That isn’t to say that this is merely the same old Crash Bandicoot with new levels, as Crash Bandicoot 4 makes quite a few meaningful additions and adjustments to the proceedings. The most immediate during gameplay being that Crash/Coco’s shadow is made more prominent, with a targeting reticle around it, which may sound like a small detail, but it greatly benefits Crash Bandicoot’s unique perspectives of 3D platforming.

Another change occurs before you even start the game, with players able to choose between “Retro” and “Modern” play styles. Retro plays things true to Crash’s history, utilizing extra lives and game overs (which will send the player back to the beginning of the current level, no matter their progress), and also means collecting one-hundred Wumpa Fruits results in an additional life. Modern mode does away with lives, meaning you’ll always be revived at the most recent checkpoint no matter how many times you die. Wumpa Fruits still have a purpose however, as collecting 40, 60 and 80 percent of a stage’s Wumpa will reward the player with gems (more on that in a minute). If you select one play style but find yourself wishing you’d picked the other, you can switch between Retro and Modern mode at any time in between stages, so thankfully your file isn’t locked onto a set play style.

Between the two, I recommend starting out with the Modern mode, because Crash Bandicoot 4 certainly lives up to the series’ infamous difficulty. In fact, I dare say it’s the most difficult Crash Bandicoot title since the original (though thankfully, it’s much better designed than the first game). But if you just need that classic Crash challenge, the Retro mode is always there. It’s actually a very nice addition to have an option like this.

Another new element comes in the form of N. Verted mode, which is essentially mirror mode – with the stages flipped in reverse – with the fun added bonus of each world’s N. Verted levels boasting a different art style: One world is in black and white, with Crash and Coco’s spins adding color to the world, while another takes on the aesthetics of a comic book, to the point that sound effects appear as on-screen words like “Pow!” and “Bam!” in the tradition of 1960’s Batman. Sadly, because each art style is confined to their respective world, the N. Verted mode doesn’t quite match up to the similar “Tonic” features from 2019’s Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair, but it’s still a fun twist that makes the traditional mirror mode a lot more worthwhile.

 

A more gameplay-focused addition comes in the form of the Quantum Masks, four spiritual voodoo masks who represent time and space, who serve as new power-ups during certain points in the game. One mask allows the player to phase certain objects in and out of existence (you could say these objects can be placed in categories A and B, with the B objects being ethereal when A is active, and vice versa). This alone feels like a wonderful addition to a platformer, and makes for some of the game’s most creative challenges. A second mask utilizes dark matter to give Crash and Coco a superpowered perpetual spin attack. This is admittedly a bit hard to learn, as it makes the controls feel oddly floaty and restrained at the same time, but it also adds some extra variety to the game. The third mask allows the player to slow down time for a few seconds, with Crash/Coco being the only thing that still moves at normal speed. This power leads to some especially interesting obstacles (and even allows Crash to touch the series’ dreaded Nitro crates without instantly exploding). Finally, the last mask changes gravity, allowing Crash and Coco to flip upside-down and walk on ceilings, for a little Super Mario Galaxy-esque level design.

“Slowing down time to jump across falling platforms of ice is the best kind of stressful.”

Each mask feels like a welcome addition (even if the second mask’s spinning ability feels like the developers ran out of time/space-themed ideas), and they really change up the gameplay in some truly inventive ways. Some might be disappointed at how situational the masks are (as soon as their section is done, the masks are removed automatically), but honestly, with the way the level structure works in Crash Bandicoot, I don’t really think they could have been implemented any other way.

My favorite new addition, however, are the stages that center around different characters. While Crash and Coco are the default playable characters in the main stages, three additional characters become playable in the forms of Crash’s archenemy Dr. Neo Cortex, Dingodile, the half-dingo half-crocodile mutant who served as a boss in Crash Bandicoot Warped, and an alternate universe version of Tawna, Crash’s girlfriend from he first game.

“I admit I’m not a fan of Tawna’s new hairstyle. The whole “bright colored hair spiked to one side” has been done to death in video games.”

Tawna plays closest to Crash and Coco, albeit with an additional “hook shot” weapon that allows her to grab and latch onto things at a distance. Cortex is fittingly the most different, coming equipped with a blaster that can transform enemies into platforms (one blast for a solid platform, two blasts for a bouncy, gelatinous platform, with a third blast reverting the enemy to its standard self, if things need readjusting). Though Cortex lacks the double jump of the bandicoots, he instead has rocket boots that allow him to dash forward in a short burst which, when combined with the enemies-to-platforms mechanic, really gives Cortex’s stages a strong puzzle element. My favorite has to be Dingodile, however. Already the series’ most outrageous character just by being what he is, Dingodile not only attacks with his tail, but also has a vacuum gun that sucks up crates by the dozens, can throw TNT crates at enemies and objects, and gives him a little hover/double jump combo (akin to Dixie Kong in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze).

There is an unfortunate caveat to these characters’ stages though. While their introductory stages are entirely their own, all of their subsequent levels are only theirs up until a point, at which case it switches over to Crash/Coco, turning into one of their prior stages with small tweaks.

You see, during the main stages, you’ll occasional come across an event that leaves Crash or Coco scratching their head (like an explosion taking out a group of enemies before you can even approach them). The Tawna, Cortex and Dingodile stages present the story from their point of view, and how their actions lead into the aforementioned “head-scratching” moments, which then segue into that previous stage from that moment, with a few changes to crate and enemy placement to mix things up.

While this is a fun twist at first, and equally fun to see how the other characters’ actions play into things, after a while you begin to really want the other characters to just have levels of their own. It’s a bit disappointing when a Dingodile level really starts to get going, only to abruptly end and switch over to something you already played as Crash. Maybe the game will get some DLC that can expand on the other characters, or perhaps we’ll eventually get a Crash Bandicoot 5 to do just that. But as of now, playing as the side characters in Crash Bandicoot 4 feels like a great new addition that’s only partly realized.

If, by now, you’re curious how all of this comes together – what with the bandicoots, alternate universe characters, evil scientists and dingo-crocodile hybrids – there actually is a story here. In fact, though it may not be a particularly story-heavy game, Crash Bandicoot 4 probably has the most elaborate plot in the series.

Though this is a direct sequel to Crash Bandicoot Warped, Crash Bandicoot 4 is appropriately set twenty-two years after its predecessor (if you’re wondering why none of the characters are older, it’s because it’s Crash Bandicoot – a series largely inspired by Loony Tunes and Animaniacs – I don’t think they’re aiming for realism here). Dr. Cortex, along with the evil voodoo spirit Uka-Uka and the time traveling villain Dr. Nefarious Tropy (N. Tropy), have been trapped in a pocket dimension between time and space for all these years. After countless attempts to escape (on Uka-Uka and N. Tropy’s part, they remark that Cortex has done nothing but whine for the entirety of their banishment), Uka-Uka finally manages to tear a hole in space and time. Though the effort costs Uka-Uka all his energy, sending him into a deep slumber (and writing him out of the picture rather unceremoniously, I have to admit), it allows Dr. Cortex and Dr. N. Tropy to escape, with the latter building a space station that can replicate the tear in space and time created by Uka-Uka to reach other dimensions in a plot to conquer the multiverse. Dr. Cortex, becoming something of N. Tropy’s assistant, in turn recruits his own former assistants Dr. N. Brio and Dr. N. Gin to build an army to help out with their plot.

N. Tropy’s tampering with time and space results in the Quantum Masks reappearing, an event which catches the attention of Aku-Aku (Uka-Uka’s benevolent older brother, and something like Crash’s Obi-Wan Kenobi). So Aku-Aku sets Crash out on an adventure to awaken and unite the Quantum Masks in order to put an end to N. Tropy’s plot and bring balance back to the multiverse.

It’s a simple plot, but one that I appreciate for changing up the series’ formula in a few ways, most notably by promoting N. Tropy to the role of primary antagonist. He was always my favorite Crash Bandicoot villain, and I always found it weird how he was introduced in Warped as one third of the main villain trifecta (along with Uka-Uka and the returning Cortex), but then was taken out midway through the game. And then when The Wrath of Cortex reduced his role to a stage obstacle, suffice to say it seemed like the character had missed potential. So it’s pretty cool to see the series continue after all these years and not simply bring back the Crash vs. Cortex formula (though that’s still here too), but effectively redeem N. Tropy and make him a better villain than ever.

Sure, the plot is nothing too fancy, and there’s a couple of elements that could use more fleshing out (particularly when it comes to N. Brio, who – given the rebooted nature of the game – was last seen turning over a new leaf in Crash Bandicoot 2. He even addresses Crash and Coco as his friends in this game, but is still working for Cortex, so I don’t know what that’s about). But it’s a fun little story that manages to find a way to hit a reset button on everything post-Warped while also paying tribute to the series’ entire history, even the less savory years.

On the downside, despite the inter dimensional nature of the plot, the actual levels seem more focused on the time travel aspect (a concept which Warped already tackled). There is a Mad Max-style world early on, and then a later world which I won’t spoil also plays off the different dimension theme, but most seem built around different places in different time periods. There’s a pirate world, ancient Japan world, and a dinosaur world. All cool themes, sure, but they don’t really come across as different dimensions. Hell, even the snow world (one of my favorites in the game) is referred to as “The 11th Dimension.” Again, snow and ice are always a great theme, but what’s “11th Dimension” about it?

There is another aspect to the game that sees things continue even after the main plot is resolved which I have mixed feelings about. This “epilogue” section can feel like an alternate idea Toys for Bob had pitched for the story of the game, and ended up tacking it on in addition to the main story just because they still wanted to use it in some capacity. On the other hand, it’s not like this is a serious game where such a story addition would come across as pointless bloat. When your franchise is as innately silly as Crash Bandicoot, you can kind of get away with these things.

I suppose these are all quibbles. I can’t imagine the story and themes are the main reasons someone would play a Crash Bandicoot game. The game succeeds where it really counts, gameplay. Crash Bandicoot 4 really does feel like the true continuation to Crash Bandicoot Warped I had nearly forgotten I’d waited twenty-two years for. It’s the classic Crash Bandicoot gameplay made fresh and new.

If you’re a completionist, Crash Bandicoot 4 also happened to be one of the deepest games I’ve played in that regard in quite some time. If you just want to complete the story, you can do that, but if you really want to get everything out of the game, you’ll stick with it long, long after the story is done.

The time trials from Warped reappear. After completing a stage, you can replay it and grab a clock at the start to begin that stage’s time trial. Breaking certain crates will award you precious seconds of time, and you can earn different relics (sapphire, gold and platinum) depending on how fast you complete a level.

In addition, every stage houses six gems. Three of which, as mentioned earlier, are earned by the amount of Wumpa Fruit you collect. A fourth gem is earned in the series’ traditional way of breaking every single crate in the level, while another is simply found hidden somewhere within the stage. The final gem is the hardest, and requires the player to only die three or less times on a stage to claim it (don’t worry, you can always start a stage over if need be). And yes, the N. Verted versions of the stages have six gems of their own (including the hidden gem in the level being in a different spot than its standard version).

The gems are used to unlock new character skins for Crash and Coco, which are a fun cosmetic change, but admittedly they may not be the strongest incentive for those who aren’t already completionists to replay the stages. And like the N. Verted visual styles, each character skin is locked onto a specific stage (get X amount of that level’s gem to unlock that skin) which can make collecting some of the skins a bit tedious. Unlocking the costumes by using the gems as currency may have been a more desirable way to go for some players.

If this weren’t enough already, some stages even house an item called a Flashback Tape, a floating VHS that you can only collect if you haven’t died up to that point. Each Flashback Tape unlocks its own bonus stage (accessible on the world map), which takes the player back to the days when Cortex was experimenting on Crash. The Flashback levels are particularly tough gauntlets that task the player with breaking every crate, which becomes much trickier than it sounds.

We’re still not done, believe it or not. Because if you’re a really hardcore Crash Bandicoot fan, there’s one last challenge the game has in store: N. Sanely Perfect Relics. As you may have guessed from their name, these are awarded for performing a perfect run on a level, meaning destroying every crate in a stage without dying. In a game that’s already pretty darned difficult, this is quite the steep challenge.

Of course, all these things are only there if you want to tackle them. They give Crash Bandicoot 4 a stronger sense of replay value than I’ve seen in some years. I often find myself dedicating an entire play session just to claiming a new gem or two.

“The game even includes a polar bear-riding stage a la Crash Bandicoot 2. This makes me so happy.”

This is all on top of an already great platformer filled with variety in gameplay, complemented by catchy music and the series’ oddly-satisfying sound effects. The occasional cheap death due to difficult perspectives and the unrealized potential of the additional playable characters are the game’s bigger drawbacks (because more Dingodile can only ever be a good thing), but they still don’t prevent Crash Bandicoot 4 from being one of the best platformers of recent years.

The N. Sane Trilogy may have brought Crash Bandicoot back. But Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time makes it feel like the series never left.

Crash’s comeback has certainly been the best in gaming I can remember. Now if only something similar could happen to Halo, Final Fantasy, Paper Mario and Sonic… again.

 

8