Retrokick – Earthbound

It’s been a while since the last Retrokick. I know, almost two months since my last headlong collision with the saccharine walls of my childhood. Shocking. Discontented pensioners should be collecting at the end of my road, locked in hushed discussion about my sudden living in the moment, allowing only the occasional “Oh I know” and, “Absolutely appalling” to waft its way through my perpetually ajar window. But to tell you the truth, the switch-up’s quite…bracing, it turns out.

I was hit, however, by a particularly strong waft of blast-from-the-pastitude after rewatching Rob Reiner’s 1987 film Stand By Me. Dark, folkish, wayward with a discernible maturity, the King adaptation has always held amongst my top coming-of-age films. And despite Ape Inc’s Earthbound attracting most of its praise from its satirical nature, it’s very much a game that instilled that same juvenile precocity when I locked buttons with the 1994 RPG after it launched on Nintendo’s Virtual Console.

Earthbound might for me be an endearing, refreshingly witty JRPG, but it’s also incredibly relevant today. Gaming and self consciousness has attracted more in-depth discussion currently than has ever been, and the reflexivities of Metal Gear Solid, The Stanley Parable, Undertale and most recently Daniel Mullins’ Pony Island, have had their hands in developing gaming not just as a form of entertainment, but one of creative expression.

And considering that all this has happened in very recent years  (Pony Island only having released two months ago), it’s rather innovative ( not to mention brave) of Ape Inc. to have produced a concept so fresh and challenging as Earthbound.


As the second in the now-cult-favourite Mother series, Earthbound‘s very inception could very easily have been canned. The Mother series was dreamt up by one of Japan’s top slogan writers, Shigesato Itoi, whose advertising line for Seibu Department Store remains one of most prominent in the Japanese advertising industry. As well as landing a voice acting role in My Neighbour Totoro, Itoi had co-written songs with the Oscar-wining Ryuichi Sakamoto and a collection of short stories with Haruki Murakami, who just so happened to be one of the country’s best loved contemporary writers.


Actually, I don’t remember this self-proclaimed ‘photographic genius’ giving Ness the pictures. Did he just stalk a young gang of children, obsessively capturing their adventures?

Understandably, Nintendo eventually approached him in 1987 to write the slogan for one of its games. Itoi, however, agreed on the condition that they allow him to pitch his idea for his own video game: Mother. Despite his creative portfolio, however, Itoi was turned away by the company’s best known developer, Shigeru Miyamoto, as a high-profile games enthusiast, rather than an artistic prospective designer. It was only later that Itoi recovered his chances. Itoi was called back by Miyamoto, having been instructed by Nintendo CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi to inform the seminal sloganer (whom Yamauchi heavily respected) that his idea had been successful.

Mother’s success continued, too, selling nearly 500,000 copies in Japan. After a sequel was planned, Itoi set to work with Kirby’s HAL Laboratory, and suffered technical difficulties to say the very least. Earthbound was worked for four years, and after multiple developmental set-backs, the remarkable Satoru Iwata was brought in to lend his development expertise.
And of course, here Mother 2 is. It was finished, and released in Japan in 1994, a year later in the US as Earthbound. Of all things, the ambitious SNES title was advertised through the olfactory medium of the scratch-n-sniff.

Those cards of what can only be described as compressed death, that all too often laced the underside of your fingernails with eau de rotten egg, or something equally repulsive. It evoked curiosity, but together with slogans like “Earthbound. It’s like living inside your gym shoes” and “Earthbound. The first Role-Playing Game with BO”, adverts didn’t offer much in the way of enticement, even if the satire within the game’s description was markedly apparent. The game’s cheery art style wasn’t held highly in the States either, and along with its vague marketing campaign, Earthbound struck both as unfashionable and unpromising at the time. Quite ironic considering the huge success of the similarly styled Pokémon Red and Blue only two years later, with no graphical criticisms in sight.

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Earthbound‘s narrative strikes initially as a nod to the coming-of age film. Ness, the incurably inquisitive protagonist of this double-sided adventure is woken one night by a meteor landing, and obviously feels compelled to check it out. The id of the child. Upon discovering that the fallen chunk of rock now native to his back garden is rather the vessel of powerful spacebeing named Buzz Buzz (because of course he is), Ness learns that his idyllic 1960’s hometown is under invasion by intergalactic warlord, Giygas, who intends to enslave the Earth. What ensues is a shared quest between a psychic girl, a firearm-handy genius, a perpetually-frowning distant prince, and an incredibly determined young man, as they traverse various cities and civilisations to thwart Giygas and save the Earth. An average plot, but communicated with remarkable boldness and even bolder flair. A shame, considering its self-effacing marketing struck as little more than a cheap joke.

The quaintly tiled visuals might’ve been unimpressive for the SNES, but where the anterior Secret of Mana and Illusion of Gaia opted more for *proportionate character design, Earthbound’s visual predilections assume instead a decidedly Charlie Brown direction. As I guided my motley crew of children across Halloween-party ghost towns and strange cults lead by paintbrush-headed townsfolk, the knee-bobbing piano licks of Peanuts hummed reminiscently at the back of my mind.


Much of the humour in Earthbound stems from its observation of a world where kids appear to run the show. Not in a despotic, We Need to Talk About Kevin way, for adults certainly aren’t lacking, or much controlled. They just don’t care as much as we might expect them to. Against Earthbound‘s waggish crayon art style furthermore, it’s not just noticeable – it’s startlingly funny.

Your own mother tells you to ‘Go for it!’ as you embark on your adventure with no certainty of return, because she knows you’ll just defy her anyway – as is the instinctual impudence of any gamer. She also knows you’re playing a game, as does seemingly everyone in Eagleton, many of whom occasionally let the illusion of this Trumanesque world to slip every now and then, with its smarting jabs towards at the player and gaming traditions. Honesty is Earthbound‘s driving characteristic, and given reflexivity in gaming has only started to trend recently, you can imagine this drove quite the rift between the peculiar SNES title and…well, just about every JRPG going at the time.

And it wasn’t just a distinctive quality that made Earthbound notable. Whilst there was nothing quite like Earthbound at the time, its wryly literal humour and deceptively Utopic art style has since fed through into a plethora of other games, both within and beyond the realms of Nintendo. Majora’s Mask, Animal Crossing, Retro City Rampage are just a few titles that revelled afterwards in intentional kookiness, and there’s a little more than a mere taste of Earthbound in all of them. Heck, it even inspired South Park: The Stick of Truth. The game as a foundation for quirkier titles cannot be overlooked, and whilst the form is somewhat taken for granted nowadays, back in 1994, it was a huge risk for APE to take. I’m ultimately glad they took it. I bet Miyamoto is too.

Dungeon Dev

Beneath its smarting, referential tone and beguiling writing though, Earthbound is a relatively standard turn-based RPG. You can attack, defend and use consumables to regenerate health, as well as equip a variety of weapons in between enemy attacks. Levelling up and increasing character health and strength is noticeably easier than in other RPG’s, with experience points being awarded voluminously, even for reasonably straight-forward encounters.

I’ve never been one for turn-based combat, but battles with some of the weaker, yet more persistent enemies often felt unnecessarily drawn out. I found myself resorting to the ‘AUTO’ function after one too many Runaway Dog encounters, and since most opponents possess idiosyncacies and tendencies, this leaves combat feeling predictable, monotonous and occasionally mundane. The original’s lack of save points could also become frustrating; throw in as many quirkily-penned lines as you like, when you’re constantly oscillating between your next big location and finding a damned hotel to save your progress, gameplay can feel restricted by just how time-consuming this transpires to be.
Fortunately (or perhaps not, considering the power of first impressions), most of these instances occur early on, and gradually sputter out as the story develops.


Something I really did appreciate, as a veritable un-frequenter of turn-based bashing, however, was Earthbound’s neglect of random encounters. I’ve always felt interrupted at the prospect of random encounters in an RPG, so much so that Pokémon regrettably continues to be one of the most unnecessarily frustrating games I’ve ever played. But allowing enemies to be visible whilst exploring the battle ground aided Earthbound’s pacing unanimously, even including the option to outrun larger enemies should Ness’s health dip too low.

Another favourite quirk of mine is its constant mockery of the empowered player. Rub a possessed toadstool the wrong way and it might just muss up your control scheme, leaving Ness floundering freely into rocks, trees and all manner of townsfolk as you try earnestly to control him. And don’t worry, it’ll leave you just long enough to suss things out before inevitably re-muddling it all over again.

Earthbound never really lacks originality or character, it’s more the issue of design and technical issues clouding its kooky charms. Amongst the most beguiling is its soundtrack; a peppy, rosy-cheeked, shoulder-twitching, nostalgia-rousing chipset collection that often does as much to reference underlying themes as the words of its odd little folk.

Mini Barf

As I mentioned earlier, it does try its best to be honest with you. Beneath the boppy muzack symphony lies a darker, suspended set of notes; ones that escape every now and then to merely hint that there could be something deeper going on. Today, I’m oddly reminded of the static interruptions and bassy monotones of David Fincher’s Fight Club, although that particular dose of satire didn’t come till ’99.

But alas, playing Earthbound for any of these things alone is a little like watching JJ Abrams’ Super Eight just for the aliens. It’s the wider awarness that makes it. Not just within genre and archetype references, but of the communities that thrive within those genres and know those archetypes well. Earthbound still retains, for the most part (although the Toby Foxotrons, Foxlings, or whatever else they may or may not like to be referred to have since turned to enjoy the delights of Undertale’s influential Daddy), something of a cult status. As of this moment, it’s still incredibly niche, but given its recent release on Nintendo’s Virtual Console (and I have a sneaking suspicion the aforementioned skeleton-dating sim partially influenced that) and the increasing vocality around commentative video games, Earthbound could enjoy some- I think quite deserved – post-millenial praise.


*considering the visual constraints of the SNES era and the technological advancement consoles and PC has seen since, it can be problematic to claim either game was particularly or remarkably proportionate, but we’ll keep the comparison here between SNES games to avoid any unwarranted or potentially violent eventualities.


Retrokick – Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped

Last time on Retrokick we delved into the game I turned to whenever I felt small. Now, ladies and gentlemen, we plough past the caffeinated synapses of my retentive memory bank to access a game I turned to when I was small. One of my first games, and certainly the title that ignited my – at times I’ll admit – questionable romanticism for third person platformers.

crash warp room 3
Oh yes. Oh yes. Here we are, my friends. Crash Bandicoot. Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped.
Crash Bandicoot is a name that has attained incredible prestige in the platforming world. Arguably the definitive Playstation mascot, the plucky orange goof represents Naughty Dog’s first venture into 3D platforming, and the candy-striped heart of nostalgia for many children of the 32-bit era.

Warped was the third installment in what would soon become – for better or worse – the extensive Crash series. The second Crash had been widely popular, selling over 800,000 copies by April 1998 in Japan alone, and Naughty Dog were given under 11 months to materialise a third.

Given the immense pressure the company were under, it’s a wonder how Naughty Dog managed to deliver a game that didn’t foreshadow the likes of Assassins Creed Unity, let alone a game as satisfying, challenging, intricate and drop-dead wacko as Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped turned out to be.

crash bandicoot 3 medieval

The escapade is set immediately after the events of Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back. After Clancy Brown’s incredible antagonist, Neo Cortex has his formidable ‘Cortex Vortex’ destroyed, it becomes thrillingly apparent that an evil far beyond the washed-up scientist’s feindish forces is on the horizon.

Unleashed is Uka Uka, a paranormal tyrant and incidental twin of the mask that granted temporary invincibility in Crash 2, Aku Aku. Although at the time, my infantile tongue merely conceived him as ‘Boogah Boogah’.

crash bandicoot aku aku

A name to which I remain fastidiously faithful.

Perhaps concordant with his gravelly register, Uka’s hella evil. Hella evil, and hell-bent on gathering powerful crystals to exploit and ultimately enslave the Earth. Unfortunately, as crystal-kind is scarce nowadays, Uka Uka wishes to travel through time to nab them from their original positions. With the enlisted help of Dr. Nefarious Tropy, a diabolical time-augmenter with Captain Hook charisma and a Time-Twisting Machine, the dastardly duo whorl through continuum vortexes, on the inexplicable hunt for those precious purple talismans.

crash bandicoot cortex begs

Naturally, as the eponymous Crash Bandicoot, it’s your job to stop them.

It’s a typical goodies-v-baddies setup; one that doesn’t differ heavily from the Crash 2 formula. But the fresh wickedness of Uka, Tropy and other such goons as Dingodile ensured that the world of the Bandicoot didn’t fall flat on campy humour, and character interactions were kept interesting. And it’s always fun to watch Cortex cowering in fear.

The visual choices Naughty Dog made with Crash 3 felt somewhat mute in comparison to Crash 2. The undefined flatness given to characters against the simplistic backdrop of a whirling vortex is especially apparent now, paling in comparison to the delightful angularities of Cortex’s bulbous noggin in the precursor.

crash bandicoot tiny vortex

Crash 3′s character animations look a little flat.

Crash 3′s amorphous character animations gnaw especially at the killer vocal performances given for Dingodile and Tiny Tiger, and the holographic presentation I’d found so characteristic in Cortex Strikes Back was sorely missed here.

Visual quality elsewhere is undeniable. Crash 3 sported colour schemes that felt marginally more dynamic, and oversaw the introduction of entirely new domains. A favourite remains the prehistoric levels, not just for their volcanic design, but its immense sense of character. The levels are riddled with familiar Cortexic minions that hide Apocalypse-Now-style in swamps and bogs in attempt to bag you up. Barriers of steaming magma test your reflexes as hulking cretaceous beasts chase you.

crash bandicoot cortex hologram

Crash 2’s holographic animations suited the style better.


Above all perhaps, was Crash’s  veer into Mario/Yoshi territory, with the addition of a mountable dinosaur friend to aid your prehistoric travails; something that came in particularly handy during time trial segments.

For the most part, Warped played like its predecessor. Crash could jump, use a spin attack, crouch and body-slam. Whilst the latter had always been the exploitable solution to hard-to-reach areas, Crash 3′s doltish bosses offered an alternative. After defeating each boss, powerups were received to super-charge one’s abilities, making level traversal a little more varied than Crash 2, and much more entertaining.

crash bandicoot baby t

Crash’s sister, Coco also took a more active role in Warped, appearing as the controllable character in many of the ‘bear-ride’ sections that’d been available in the previous game, only this time sporting a fiery orange Tiger Cub, called Pura. Whilst her appearance didn’t switch up level progression, it contributed nicely to the storyline, overseeing Warped as a collaborative effort between siblings against the formidable forces of Uka Uka. It certainly beat Coco’s pervasive teenish attitude previously.

Bosses themselves were, again, multi-tiered, and although manouevres didn’t deviate much (if at all) from those adopted in the previous game, the time and attention to detail artists such as Charles Zembillas put into creating Cortex’s hybrid goons definitely shines through. From Tiny’s Tiger’s galumphing leaps and bounds, to N. Gin’s intergalactic mech suit, each boss wears its own idiosyncrasies on its sleeve; leaving you to veritably (and amusingly) exploit it.

crash bandicoot dingodile zembillas

Naughty Dog had originally intended Dingodile to breathe fire, but ultimately changed him to a flame-thrower-wieldy menace after Zembillas suggested it would make him more interesting [Artwork by Charles Zembillas]

Despite this, looking back at Warped with eyes jaded by recent, more complex attack patterns, it’s easy to claim Crash 3‘s bosses feel a little too simple. Whilst the frequency at which Dingodile attack does have its volume turned up with each tier, it’s easy to get the hang of, perhaps leaving a modern newcomer to the series feeling a little unchallenged.


This being said, though – even for design and writing alone – the brutish bodyguards of the Crash series are a whimsical treasure, and are varied enough never to become dull. So even if you’re finding N. Tropy a breeze, he’ll at least entertain you while you kick his time-oriented ass.

The notion of gems and secret warp rooms was, by the time Warped released, a well-recieved one. Indeed, with the third installment, Naughty Dog had significantly upped the ante when it came to hidden goodies, making Crash 3 strikingly more complex than its 1997 predecessor.

crash bandicoot polar

crash bandicoot pura

Not wishing to divide the room or anything here, but Polar or Pura?


It was much more common to access hidden pathways and brave notorious ‘death-paths’ in order to obtain every gem, with each level posing the dangling carrot of relics for beating it within a specified time-frame. Indeed, some time trials were so stringent that they required powerups to beat. With superdashing, superjumping and the occasional fruit bazooka at one’s disposal, time trials have represented one of the highlights of Warped for me, and if ever I needed a remedy for the bosses’ lack of challenge, obtaining each platinum relic provided the bittersweet tonic.

Naughty Dog also created three new engines to support new modes in the game. The motorbike was an acquired taste; taking a little more concentration to avoid swerving hazardously into bottomless pits or into hatefully slowing desert patches. The jet ski segments were also amongst the least enjoyable levels, with clumsy controls that made navigating tight corners difficult.

Rest assured, if you’re not bothered about gems or relics, these stages provide a delightful break from platforming antics, but the liberal control scheme here often meant doubling laboriously back after missing several crates, or spamming the restart function in order to beat the time trial. Consequently, I often found myself grimacing at the sight of another pirate ship.
crash 3 jet ski.jpg

On a lighter (and quite literal) note, Crash 3: Warped maintains its status as one of my favourite video game soundtracks. Amidst a delightful assortment of catchy bass riffs, synthy crescendo and head-bopping percussion, composer Josh Mancell had always known how to rock a didgeridoo, and with the effervescent warblings of the xylophone to top it all off, the tunes of Crash 3 are tough to beat in a 90’s platformer.

In under a year, Naughty Dog had managed to deliver a Crash that lived up to its predecessor, bursting with emphatic character and wacky design, whilst maintaining the intricacies that were so popular amongst older audiences in Cortex Strikes Back. It’s a true feat to behold even now. Perhaps especially now; an era technical slip-ups, incompletion and game-imploding bugs.

crash bandicoot infant cortex and tropy

Through it all, Naughty Dog have remained consistently strong, proceeding to conquer such acclaimed series as Jak and Daxter, Uncharted and The Last of Us. Does Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped still hold up? Unquestionably, and arguably not just because this game was a huge part of my childhood. Overall, it delivered everything that a sequel should have been. Balancing familiarity with a deluge of new features, Warped was a romp that remains a pleasure to venture through in the beshadowed hours of Saturday morning.

And with the recent remasterings of Oddworld: New n’ Tasty, and both Ratchet and Clank and Uncharted 4 set to grip the Dualshock 4 later this year, would it be so naive to anticipate the return of the Bandicoot for his 20th birthday?

crash bandicoot e3.png

Oh very good, Mr. Layden. Very good indeed. Just give me Crash at 60fps with at least one Clancy-Brown-Mr.-Krabs joke. Hold the microtransactions.






Retrokick – Monster Hunter Freedom Unite

Alas, Monster Hunter. The game I always turned to whenever I felt small. A world I didn’t necessarily topple into in order to feel massive because, if anything, its menagerie of formidable Wyverns and flatulent Conga habitually bludgeoned into virtually negative hit points. But what was so appealing about the Monster Hunter games was the assertion that one didn’t have to be massive in order to face smothering odds, and that brute force was a mere tool at the disposal of style and methodology.

mhfu popo1

Monster Hunter Freedom Unite  was the hopeful enhanced edition of prior action-rpg, Monster Hunter Freedom 2. The Western Monster Hunter games were ported from the second Monster Hunter for the PlayStation 2, which never reached outside of Japan. After a modest reception on larger consoles, Capcom decided to translate the franchise onto portable devices, and Freedom Unite received a Western PSP release in 2009.

And in a restricted sense, it worked. Very well, in fact. Freedom Unite was a veritable hit in Japan, with a million copies sold in the first day. Western reception, on the other hand, was, and continues to be, comparatively dry.

mhfu pokke What little story Freedom Unite possesses is simple. Lone, insipient hunter you are, your exploits in the snow-capped mountains fall short with the prompt arrival of the Tigrex, an enormous wyvern adorned with orange-blue stripes. After a brief battle segment you are rendered unconscious, awakening in the parochial village of Pokke. Weakened, but before the straightforward path unto Monster Hunter glory.

However, in Freedom Unite, the line between ‘straightforward’ and ‘easy’ has never been more stark.

A large part of what there is to love about Freedom Unite lies in its stunning visuals. Expansive maps are comprised of craggy mountaintops, tropical jungles and punishing desert territory, all of which are home to highly specialised – and highly lethal – monsters.

mhfu cephadrome

Your timely rendezvous with the notorious Tigrex opens up an unforgiving world of hulking, fanged gorrillas, subterranean manta-worms and paralysing super-wasps. The tally of things that can kill you in Freedom Unite is vast, and its diversity has come to be a hallmark of the Monster Hunter series.

Ventures are punctuated with smaller, peace-loving beings too, however – and from the passive mammoth creatures, the Popo, to the nippy anthropomorphic Felyne race, the prehistoric world of Freedom Unite breathes with every alcove. And it’s truly beautiful – however ambiguous and terrifying – to behold.

The village of Pokke constitutes your base of operations for your monster hunting antics; a place where you can buy armour, farm and stock up on provisions for the treacherous path ahead. Whilst the purpose of the village is more administrative than anything else, the atmosphere of Pokke is one of rustic coziness; a warm, welcoming lull after hours of beastly galavanting.

You can also have a pig. With a crown.
mhfu pig

Freedom Unite possessed a combat system that has since been refined by the Souls games, boasting gargantuan foes with equally dessimating attacks. Weapons are extravagant but equally taxing to handle, making calculating one’s moves imperative, as one ill-timed roll or wonky swing could very well send you reeling into the cold clutches of oblivion, lending greatly to the game’s challenge level.

It’s also remarkably satisfying to watch your character prancing about Pokke with all the vaulting vigor of an incredibly pent-up Freudian.

Whilst, in retrospect, there are similarities between Capcom and From Software’s creations, Freedom Unite still achieves a very personal uncertainty as to what waits around the next corner, and with the looming prospect of randomly spawning beasts over unrelated missions, the sense of danger remains as fresh today as it did then. As a result, Freedom Unite‘s world – six years on – still appears very much alive.

The life of Freedom Unite extends beyond the single player experience, and its online play system is often the reason some return to the game. The PlayStation Ad Hoc Party function allowed four PSP and PS3 owners to team up and brave true titans of beasts, which, considering the tough single player tussles, amounted to a more balanced and deeply involving battle experience. Admittedly, Ad Hoc practice is relatively thin nowadays, but Monster Hunter’s capacity for camaraderie endures to this day, surfacing in the more recent 3DS titles.

mhfu battle

This being said, the series is a gem with some very distinct blemishes. Freedom Unite is certainly no exception, with clunky combat manoevres and esoteric gameplay explanations overlooking some of the game’s truly beautiful aspects.

Capcom’s inefficacy at explaining the game to newcomers has filtered into the series’ overall reception, which has only hindered its reputation. Battle tutorials take the form of exhaustive dialogue segments, which, especially when so adamantly placed at the beginning of the game, makes Freedom Unite difficult to really jump into. The interface is particularly elusive, designating a weighty ‘start up time’ to Freedom Unite to merely learn its navigation. Rest assured, Freedom Unite isn’t a game you can play in your lunch break.

Combat movements are slow, leaving the player vulnerable to hits against large groups of enemies. Healing said hits are no picnic either, and last a positive age, requiring the player to distance themselves from the action in order to heal and evade failure, which isnt’ always easy when there’s a litter of raving Giaprey on your behind.

The champion ailment in Freedom Unite, however, is its wonky camera controls. The camera is unintuitive and lacks precision; often requiring manual adjustment via the D-pad’s left and right. This unnecessarily complicates combat situations, and strikes as particularly archaic with retrospect.

mhfu giadome

Freedom Unite takes a risk-reward decision with quests, but it doesn’t always serve the game well. Particularly bountiful quests will eventually ask the player to pay in-game ‘Z’ currency to progress, which can prove harsh on beginners. Each time you fall in battle, your pay is docked, which found me continually out-of-pocket before unlocking the next set of adventures. Previous quests must then be re-done or useful crafting items sold, again touching on that prehistoric sense of the nomadic, but proving incredibly repetitive in the process.

The lasting mundanity in a game with such epic moments is unfortunate, and seems to have affected the series overall. Monster Hunter sustains a reputation for heavy grinding and steep learning curves – something that perpetuates the series’ still rather niche audience.
But as I always say, there’s more to life than a good old grind. I’ve said it at least twice, anyway.

mhfu beach

Freedom Unite’s glorious soundtracks remains one of my favourite things about the game. An orchestral treasure, Freedom Unite‘s soundtrack offers a score of epics to tap into the soul of the hunter. Each boss revels in its own operatic theme, scopic hikes are mellifluously resonant, and many humorous inflections are taken to brighten the mood. There is a distinct sense of majesty exuding Freedom Unite‘s soundtrack, and alongside its towering behemouths and lush landscapes – it’s certainly a game that sounds as good as it looks.

Freedom Unite is a rewarding game, but only when studied extensively. The stringent control scheme and haphazard camera controls make the combat significantly more difficult, and possibly contributed to the game’s poor Western sales. This being said, Freedom Unite proffers a level of immersion uncommon for a PSP title, and its hefty challenge has gathered something of a cult following.
mhfu tigrex

In the wake of Freedom Unite and its predecessors, further entries have built upon the world of the hunter, and with the fourth installment proving more accessible than any other in the series, the Monster Hunter following is timidly – very timidly –  expanding, albeit on an explicitly Nintendian platform. It does, however, mean that there’s not a huge amount of reason to return to Freedom Unite, as later installments have proven a little more forgiving, navigable and visually pleasing.

But you can have a pig. That’s the take home message here. With a crown.

Retrokick – God of War

In light of the increasingly pervasive surge of festive spirit, I’ve found myself having to go cold turkey. It’s been tough, but I’m getting there.

For nights still plague me with visions of Raiders. I’m racked with Radscorpions;  head run amock with the metaphysical Deathclaw, as incited by the diminutive hue of the Dualshock lightbar in its longing coo for my re-initiation into The Wasteland. Settlers need your help. Bobbleheads lay undiscovered. Steel.

No. No I say! There is time elsewhere for Mutant escapades and Mad Max romanticism. I need to go outside, so that I can do things. I need something fresh, something linear, something relevant enough to quell my Fallout 4 infatuation; outlandish enough to convince that my retentive collection of Nuka Cola Quantum isn’t, in fact, the be all and end all.

god of war kratos j.jpg

Maybe God of War wasn’t exactly what I needed, but it does have the word ‘war’ in it. And war never changes.

And before the ‘outside’ part of the above is brought up, I did play it with the windows open.

I told you, I’m getting there.

God of War was developed by Santa Monica Studios, who’d go on to affiliate with the Twisted Metal series and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, as well as subsequent entries in the God of War franchise. After the generally positive, but fairly forgettable reception of their first game, Kinetica, director David Jaffe was given nigh on complete control by Sony over the studio’s next title. Expressing a desire to create a game that had its routes in passion, Jaffe  strove to make Santa Monica’s next project a game that he – as a gamer – would delight in playing.

So naturally, God of War was born. A furious action platformer that blended the epic with the ridiculous, and demonstrated an ability to thrill and nauseate in equal measure. No winning Playstation mascots today, folks. Just Kratos. And his winning beard.

God of War is a bombastic tale that isn’t afraid to shout about it. Drawing inspiration from Desmond Davis’ Clash of the Titans, its story chronicles arguably the most iconic badass in video gaming. Kratos is a palid, brawny spartan, whose brutish attitude and rampant sadism aren’t exactly in short supply.
god of war ed nortongod of war kratos

The design for his character was later revealed to have been inspired by American History X; Kratos exuded a similar static aggression to Ed Norton’s Derek, even possessing a few visual references to the film. Kratos possesses a scarred eye that faintly resembles barbed wire, for example, with a tattoo that discernibly crosses his left breast.

As Kratos, the player takes on the role of the epic ‘hero’ in a bid against Ares, the perfidious ‘god of war’ who has naughtily turned his back on Olympus to cause mayhem in ancient Athens. Much in contrast to the endeavours of the typical do-gooder, however, Kratos’ vow to kill Ares has its roots in personal gain.

Equipped with the Blades of Chaos, whose chains have been seared into his flesh, Kratos is tasked by the etheral goddess, Athena, to find Pandora’s Box, that will grant the power to kill Ares and purge him of his sins.

god of war rubergod of war ares

And, as nostalgic comparisons are quickly becoming customary, here are  pictures comparing the likenesses of Ares and Ruber from Quest for Camelot, a marvellous film that I implore all readers of this post  to watch. It also has Eric Idle.

We’re consistently given tidbits of Kratos’ history, through a series of cutscenes that surface throughout the game, explaining the roots of his personal wrath towards Ares. The cinematic themes of loss, betrayal and hardship are all rather archaic, but the episodic nature of Kratos’ story keeps the player interested learn of the sin-riddled anti-hero, however repugnant he appears.

The art style is reminiscent of classical mythology, although Jaffe’s childhood interest in Greek myth permeates the presentation of its kin. Purple-tinted minotaurs wield giant, spiked hammers, and glaucous cerberus puppies must be offed before they promptly treble in size. There’s a very definite juvenility about God of War, that serves to enliven its environments amongst the, often quite literal, barrage of death.
god of war minotaur grunt
The battered halls of the suffering Olympus are obstructed by bloodied corpses; defiled structures bear the observations of architects who’ve since faded from existence. The tormented, forelorn atmosphere lends to an immense sense of solitude, granted, but it also emphasises the epic proportions of Kratos’ Homeric quest to restore ancient Greece.

Environmental transitions of the game are met with picturesque cinematic sweeps of the crumbling Greece, and even now, it’s difficult not to gawk. There are moments in God of War that have you clawing your way up a titan’s back, torpedoing through Atlantian ruins and leaping betwixt chasmic pitfalls, and it’s still spine-tingling to behold those same tortured surroundings, despite their restricted access by the game’s linear format.

god of war landscape

God of War implemented the engine of Santa Monica’s first game, Kinetica. Fun factoid for you.

In interviews, Jaffe has made his value of gameplay over cinematic quality clear, and as a result, the gameplay is truly what makes God of War. The combat system is combo-based, and relies on swift, rapid attacks in order to decapitate and disembowel and disembody your way through each fallen land.

Opponents themselves are easily obliterated singularly, but the sheer mass of them that tends to be propelled your way is frequently met with avid button-mashing. However, encounters with some of the larger enemies will benefit from implementation of God of War‘s many combat combinations. The execution of specific combos relies on memory, but sets are simplistic and feel natural to perform. The game bulks typical PS2 platforming controls with block and dodge mechanics, allowing alternation between favoured attacks and evading those of enemies to flow; a crucial element in games of the hack n’ slash genre.

If the Blades of Chaos aren’t doing it for you, though, there’s a smorgasbord of special abilities to ensure your every sadistic whim is catered for. Whilst unnecessary powerups and seldom-visited abilities remain a common problem amongst action games, those in God of War have a reasonably equal niftiness. Poseidon’s Rage, for example, can come in handy when thronged by multiple soldiers, whilst Zeus’ Fury employs capabilities more suited to ranged opponents. Hades even equips you with a damn army of souls.

god of war hades

Of course, you’re free to hack your way through with your chaotic kitchen knives if you’re so inclined, but using a selection of powerups during a boss battle can often provide the hefty dint needed to aid a bloodthirsty victory.

The majority of God of War‘s gameplay seems focused on combat, but the game’s puzzle elements seem neither rushed, or careless. Levels are reminiscent of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time – also for the PS2 – but instead opt for puzzles that are more isolated, and complexify some stages. Flipping a switch in this game often means backtracking through a level to see what on Earth you did, and there is a more diverse range of puzzle-solving to be had in God of War.

god of war puzzle

But alas, in a game with such an emphasis on combat, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Indeed, despite the masses of enemies offering an engaging challenge in many situations, I often found the persistent suffocation by innumerable zombies frustrating in those that required attention elsewhere.

There is a particular instance, for example, in which Kratos must push a cage up a slope. As the heave-ho begins, multiple soldiers rise from the earth to inevitably do him in. As I was incessantly caught in the replenishing swarm, the cage I’d lugged so far was left, again and again, to roll blissfully downwards. These instances feel painfully drawn out as a result, and err on the brink of mundanity.

Mundanity is veritably pulvarised when confronted with the game’s hulking bosses, though. These goliaths that surface at pivotal narrative points are a major asset to God of War, but their relatively meagre presence leaves much to be desired. No one boss battle is straight-forward, and unlike many of the common enemies, force the player to adapt their combat strategies. They’re also remarkably structured, ‘multi-tiered’ challenges, that end in the sort of rampant brutality that warrants a convulsive shudder, but as masochistic as I sound for admitting it, a couple more giants to contend with would’ve been grand.

god of war hydra

I realise the irony in asking for an additional set of monstrous jaws when I struggle to shift a cage up a hill. But what can I say, that’s just my skill set, by gum.

Despite the game’s tenacious brutality, however, there are a few attempts at empathy. But whilst many of the cutscenes hint at an intent to humanise Kratos, as a tortured soul riddled with guilt, the effect is often little more than parodic. Most lines are yelled unto the barren sky in a way that scream ‘soap opera’, more than ‘inner turmoil’. Although God of War was by no means intended as a captivating emotional drama, the delivery in these scenes feels forced, and too intense to give Kratos much substance outside his zealous butchery.

The game’s hyperviolence and apparent revelry in it has, does, and will no doubt leave a sour taste in the mouths of some, and whilst I find myself occasionally questioning its exuberance, I can only respect its awareness for what it is. A lot of the gameplay is stylised to the point of ludicrousy; a prime indicator that God of War doesn’t take itself all that seriously.

god of war violence.png

The game’s exaggerated animation and ultraviolent finishers border on satire, alluding darkly to humour without pandering for laughs. Indeed, if there are laughs to be had in God of War, they’ll almost exclusively be at the expense of one character or another, but however grim its humour may be, its presence provides an apt offset to the game’s intense narrative peaks.

Intense, in fact, seems to lace every sinew of the God of War franchise, including its score. Classical war-chants and instruments of ancient Greek culture have certainly formed the inspirational basis of many of the game’s battle sequences, to heighten the grotesque vigour of the menacing Kratos. Whenever I listen to some of its (marginally) less gallant tracks, however, there’s always a distinctive Indiana Jones feel which, I’ve a feeling, wasn’t entirely accidental.

god of war balls


God of War is, at its core, a hack and slash game, and whilst its vehement gore and intense narrative isn’t likely for everyone, it was an important entry in the action-adventure genre. Indeed, the game has since spawned numerous novels and sequels – the third of which was remastered for the PS4 only this year. Hell, there’s even been word of a film adaptation floating around, which – as of this moment – I’m only 40% concerned about, and the original still proves robust amongst the likes of Devil May Cry and Prince of Persia.

Whilst not technically original, the game’s cinematic spin, has only been enriched with numerous sequels, and its rich and compelling world-design continues to be recognisable today. Whilst the graphical capabilities of the PS2 original can’t quite match up with such more recent adventure titles as the Uncharted series, God of War‘s visuals still hold up in their own right, and for a game with rather unremarkable components, it’s certainly made a lasting impression on the gaming community.



Mentioned interviews with Jaffe:

Retrokick – Rayman 2: The Great Escape

Like it’s 1999. A time of trying to pronounce ‘millenium’ with all the verbal dexterity of a slug. A time of Toy Story 2 and tamagotchis, accompanied by the creeping sense of dread that we’d better get out of our torn jeans and sideways caps before Justin Bieber came along in his double-drop-crotch whateveryoucallits. But more importantly, a time when Ubisoft was two isolate words.

ubi soft

As has been well-observed, a platformer without some array of cartoon chums and dastardly foes – in the NINETIES, no less – was a rare and seldom-visited notion. Rayman 2‘s robo-pirates are certainly no exception, and lend to a creativity that stands out as a hallmark of the series in general. These cybernetic buffoons have broken the heart of the world, would you believe it, enslaving all of fairykind in the process. Darkened prisons line the halls, penetrated by the immanent whimperings of the captured fae; an assurance that this Rayman sequel can be grim, as well as chucklesome. This havoc is overseen by the inimical Admiral Razorbeard, whom I’m only really mentioning because of his resemblance to Count Duckula. And because he’s the main antagonist. But mostly…
count duckularayman admiral razorbeard

                         …I love Count Duckula.

Rayman himself was introduced to the world four years prior to The Great Escape as a laid back, almost lazy protagonist, whose first venture beyond the comfy confines of his hammock was bespoken by a blasé thumbs-up. It was all cool. He’d get to it. But a nautical cell is far from home, and the ambivalent fate of the fairy kingdom seems to have perked the limbless sprite up a bit.

Good thing too, as Rayman 2: The Great Escape proffers a fast-paced jaunt through woodsy glades, molten sanctuaries and underwater caverns, collecting magical essences known as lums, in search of the four archaic masks of Polokus, in order to awaken the spirit of the world and end the tyranny of Razorbeard. The game was originally released for PC, Dreamcast, N64 and PlayStation, but I’ll be drawing almost exclusively from the N64 and PS1 versions.

rayman prototyperayman graphics

Given that Rayman 2: The Great Escape was a sequel, the game was originally intended to follow in the footsteps of the sidescrolling original. Despite 2D concept art being released, the idea was later scrapped for a fully fledged 3D platformer. Ubi Soft even made a brief nod to this occurrence by including a prototype of the Rayman 2 sidescroller in the PS1 version of the game, unlockable upon collection of 90% or more of the 800 yellow lums. The 3D layout suited the protagonist’s frisky disposition, and really allowed the discernible concepts and quirks of its quietly received predecessor to shine.

The abandonment of the original layout proved to be a widely acclaimed choice, too. Rayman 2 on the N64 was a graphical marvel, trumping those of most other available N64 titles. Visuals were smooth, attaining a depth that knocked Banjo Kazooie and Donkey Kong out of the park; a feat that really embellished the game’s zany cast, and with very few hitches. The PS1 port is  noticeably feebler in comparison; an expected infirmity given the PlayStation’s visual constraints, with no ‘Expansion Pak’ to boost the resolution. Despite its slightly dimned visuals, however, Rayman 2 still holds up on the PlayStation; offering a distinctively rustic, celtic-inspired environment that appeals as much to me now as it did my miniature self.

rayman fairy glade

The controls are simple and certainly intuitive. Whilst jumping and attacking were typical of the genre, The Great Escape took a leaf out of Ocarina of Time’s book by allowing Rayman to lock-on to nearby enemies, making both combat and manoeuvre easier. Movement feels smoother with the PS1’s Dualshock, but goes sadly underappreciated in terms of control scheme. The PlayStation port is riddled with faulty camera angles that frequently obstruct the player’s view, rendering navigation of some of the more agile levels frustrating. Whilst the Dualshock’s right stick was mapped to offer a more cumbersome alternative to the already existent attack button, using it to integrate a more dextrous camera control would’ve been the wiser choice.

In contrast to the collect-a-thon trend that appeared to have surfaced in other popular 3D platformers, Rayman 2‘s gameplay was almost explicitly linear. Levels existed upon a visible timeline, to be completed in chronological order, but remained accessible  to return to, should you wish to complete the game 100%. This approach contributed heavily to the pacing of the game, allowing action to build towards the occasional boss fight as the difficulty raised steadily.

It’s a shame that bosses themselves are rather weedy, in this way. The levels themselves are easily the most challenging part of the game (excluding dealing with erratic camera angles), and to end them with a behemouth that can be annihilated in three short rotations feels a little unfulfilling. Nevertheless, The Great Escape’s ingenuity permeates each boss battle, with its own folkish design and amusing introduction. And despite the flimsiness of some foes, there is still much fun to be had.

rayman jano

The PS1’s memory issues prove to extend beyond mere polygonal truncation, however. Players of the N64 port may be struck by just how much of the game is missing on the PlayStation, with some more memorable moments scrapped. There is an instance – on the N64 – in which the player gains control of a pirate’s ship; a brief, yet notable eccentricity that is missed in the PS1 version, and something that slightly interrupts the otherwise tremendously paced story.

But that isn’t to say the PS1 version is devoid of its own additions. In fact, one of the most noticeable differences between N64 and PS1 versions is character dialogue. Rayman 2′s blithe assortment of kooky characters was fully voiced in European languages on the PS1, whilst the N64 comprised exchanges in amusing gobbledygook. Whilst there’s something noble about giving a character a more relateable voice, the PS1’s voice acting feels a little forced, and the garbled voices are better suited to the world’s caricatured atmosphere and amusing character animations.

rayman teensies

The Great Escape on the N64 offers an eclectic soundtrack, ranging from casual, rocky riffs to the tribal bongoings of a mystic jungle. Again, the soundtrack has been pruned considerably for the PS1 port, resulting in a less varied, but still fairly ambient collection of melodies. In both ports, though, the game suffers from a painfully narrow selection of character sound effects. The odd grunt, groan or exclamatory yelp can’t often go amiss in a 3D platformer, and those in Rayman 2 feel like they’ve merely been slapped on for convenience. Rayman’s asthmatic breathiness whilst running isn’t all that imperative, and becomes a source of mild irritation beyond the first few levels.

This being said, some sound effects do lend useful indicators within the gameplay. For example, one level oversees the rescue and escortment of Globox – a lovable, frog-like goof – from the clutches of the tyrannical robot-pirates. Without the caricatured teeth-chattering of Globox, I’d have probably had to backtrack through the level to find him. Nevertheless, considering the game’s reliance upon wacky humour, a greater scope of vocalisations could have benefitted Rayman 2‘s inviting sense of character.

rayman baby globoxes

Yes, Rayman. I know you’re out of breath. Yes, Rayman. I know cardio’s not your thing.

Rayman 2: The Great Escape is a well-paced platformer that displays amusing, yet mysterious magical flair. The game’s creativity is undeniable, with an exaggerated cast that swings between the comically contemptible and the lovably doltish; all reinforced by an impressive visual depth that enriched the concepts of the original Rayman. Rayman 2‘s legacy suffers from the dissention porting can often create, but aside from comparitive disagreements, both PS1 and N64 releases offer an unmistakeable whimsical edge that can be both dark and entertaining.  Rayman’s chronicles betwixt the, still quite active, fairy realm might have sprung from timorous beginnings, but The Great Escape was where the limbless Ubisoft mascot began to really revel in all his audacious pluck.

Retrokick – Spyro the Dragon

The review starts in the second paragraph. I like a bit of a waffle, don’tcha know.

My return to Oddworld seems to have rekindled my appreciation for the unknown in gaming. Before the striking pervasivity of the Internet, progression in games was all down to you. And your delightful cousin, if he felt impelled to watch. I remember a time of button-pressing for no other reason than curiosity; searching every corner exhaustively because there just had to be one alcove that concealed a reward. It wasn’t even so much what lay in wait for me to discover, but the mere fact that I (or we, as the case often was back in the shared-console era), had sussed it out. Hidden gems are something of a rarity with contemporary games; perhaps, in part, a reaction to the wide popularity of Let’s Plays and video walkthroughs. I’m not knocking them; they can be entertaining, interesting. But I can’t stopper the feeling when watching footage of a game I have yet to play, that I’m somewhat killing the thrill.
In light of this rumination, I’ve turned the focus of this Retrokick to a game that exercised this curiosity; nurtured it in those early Saturday hours between the cessation of The Hoobs and my parents’ bleary-eyed confusion as to why on God’s green Earth I was up at such a time.

hoobs hubba hubba

I knew Mr. House from New Vegas reminded me of someone…

Spyro the Dragon was Insomniac Games’ first platformer, but it wasn’t its first game; a title that belonged to first-person-shooter, Disruptor. Offering simple first-person-shooter mechanics and psychokinetic powers, Disruptor wasn’t condemned, but reviews seemed reluctant to yield anything more than that it was ‘alright for a DOOM clone’. Poor sales and even near bankruptcy had evidently left a sour taste in Insomniac’s mouth, as its second project proved a far cry from zapping cyborgs in militarised barracks.

Spyro the Dragon overlooks five dreamlike lands, all having existed harmoniusly since time in memoriam. But, as we’re all likely aware by now, harmony makes for incalculably drab storytelling. So when the Artisan realm gives a less-than-stellar description of Gnasty Gnorc, a hulk-like brute who lives in a separate dimension (with apparent access to a live feed), and on a prime TV News Report no less, dragons far and wide are magically encased in crystal as Gnasty rains hell down upon the dragons’ domain. Subsequently, our sprightly soon to be PlayStation mascot, Spyro, takes it upon himself to save dragonkind and defeat Gnasty and his gnorc army, whilst casually pencilling in time to recover all the lost treasure in the process.

Despite its trite storyline, Spyro furnished an otherwise typical platforming control scheme with a few dragonesque eccentricities. As Spyro you could charge enemies with your horns, breathe fire and glide elegantly between the many podiums in each world, rendering world exploration (and the subsequent recovery of the gems) smooth and enjoyable, with the ability to change the camera angle to avoid cumbersome pitfalls. The HUD was integrated into the animation, too; a zippy dragonfly named Sparx dictates your health status by ranging from bright yellow to sickly green; a lively contributor to a distinctive world.

spyro gliding

And ‘distinctive’ appears to be exactly what Insomniac was aiming for, especially in the aftermath of an unsuccessful DOOM clone. Spyro the Dragon was, at its release, a feat of graphical triumph for the PlayStation. There were games around at the time that evoked a similar style to Spyro, but, with the exception of Crash Bandicoot 2, their polygon potential up until this point were comparitively flat:

croc graphics
Inhumanly ‘pointy’:

tomb raider the polygons

Or just….purposeless:

bubsy 3d

Although, let’s face it, lack of purpose is probably the best part of Bubsy 3D.

But Spyro’s visuals enticed with a smoother, more rounded design with few (if any) polygon glitches in sight; something that suited the game’s open layout and exploration elements, and contributed significantly to the way 3D platformers for the original PlayStation were received.
The game’s vibrant palette, on the other hand, isn’t always easy on the eyes. Admittedly, I’d be lying if I said Spyro’s Saturday-morning-toon vibe wasn’t beguiling, but it’s a little too candied to bear for very long, and I would’ve appreciated some darker textures to offset the convolution of bedazzled colour.

spyro the adventure begins

As does my desire for aspirin.

As you adventure through the five mystic realms, you’ll encounter numerous gateways to others within each. Now, the game market is positively dappled with the concept of the open world, but during the era of PS1 3D platforming, most titles were explicitly linear. The world of Spyro surrounds the player from the off, and leaves them to choose their own order of play; something that lends greatly to the game’s lax pace. Whilst the gameplay can’t be deemed truly ‘open world’, the environments are certainly expansive, and exploring the nooks and crannies of each in pursuit of paintbox gems makes for one of the game’s real (and enduring) strengths.

The various quirks of each boss are inventive and amusing, but are pretty unremarkable once the level is over. Indeed, I was often disappointed by just how easy it was to galvanise these big baddies, and found myself anticipating flying levels as the only stages in the game that evoke a real sense of thrill. Even considering Spyro’s leisurely pace and priority of collection over combat, bosses could have benefitted from an increase in challenge level as the final obstacle between you, and that delicious 100% achievement.

Moreover, Spyro happens to be one of the most repetitive games I’ve ever played. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; there’s not much else to Spyro other than collecting jewels, and it’s enjoyable because of that. When the repitition transcends into overly fomulaic character design, however, the lines between integrity and tedium begin to blur.

spyro dragon1spyro dragon2

It’s more apparent today that the elder dragons are tinted reskins of the same few designs, and their voice acting is limited. It’s a shame, given the stout sense of character amassed by the game’s art style, as it lends no excitement to the prospect of liberating a new statue. Rescued dragons offer stale hints the player has likely already worked out, and the disarming cockiness that surfaces within the writing for Spyro himself simply isn’t supported by Carlos Alazraqui’s frankly diffident vocal performance. Although Spyro‘s focus is directed more towards the gameplay (and these problems were somewhat smoothed over in the sequels), looking back at the game from the narrative-heavy perch of Uncharted and Ratchet and Clank, Spyro the Dragon’s storyline and sense of character doesn’t quite hold up.

The rambunctious exploits of our young dragon hums along to a, mostly, progressive-rock theme, employed by the talents of former The Police drummer, Stewart Copeland. Music contributes to the zealous optimism of the game’s protagonist, but sadly, does little else. Indeed, after a while of recycled riffs and the same old rhythm, the soundtrack begins to grate a little, and the fact that there’s a timpani in there does little to placate.

Timpani aside, however, Spyro possesses some of the wackiest sound effects I’ve ever experienced in a video game. From the jaw harp twang of assaulted gnorcs, to the bizarre quacking of butterfly digestion (yes, Sparx is an adorable, monstrous, butterfly killer), the sounds of the Spyro jungle have me tickled every time I play.

spyro toasty

Whilst I’m a fan of games that test your limits and force you to adapt, Spyro the Dragon’s steady pace stokes an adventurous spirit that doesn’t punish you for taking your time. Although the game’s vocal performances feel outdated and out of joint with its exuberant visuals, the sense of achievement following completion remains, whilst its relaxed atmosphere and hidden recesses still make for a worthwhile nostalgia-trip.

Retrokick – Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee

I’ve been on a retrospective kick lately. I have, with uninhibited vigour, been kicking myself down a path of reminiscence littered with Wonka Nerds, Pokèmon, and undoubtedly, video games. And those scratchy plastic pogs we English called tazos. After the existential tirades of SOMA and its prompt accompaniment by the deluge of life around it, it was invigorating to look over some of the enchantment that marked my introduction to console gaming.

And after a bit of flame-shootin’ and bandicootin’, I decided not only to brave the path of nostalgic disillusionment by revisiting my miniature self’s treasured titles, but delve into some of the games I’d missed whilst out climbing trees, licking pavements, or whatever I did.

So where better to start than with a game I simply couldn’t fathom as a kid.

oddworld abe shocked

And after one playthrough I’m already speaking in rhyming couplets. Result!

Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee was the first game born out of Sherry McKenna and Lorne Lanning’s co-founded Oddworld Inhabitants, and the introduction to what transpired to be one of the best loved titles for the Playstation.

Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee follows (you’ve guessed it) the misadventures of Abe, who has since become recognised alongside Crash Bandicoot as one of the leading lights of the PS1 era. Lovable yet scrawny and defenseless, this bug-eyed dope is part of the Mudokon race, who have become enslaved by the villainous Glukkons; the owners of the antagonistic meat processing plant, Rupture Farms.

Unfortunately for all involved, meat has since become scarce, ultimately spoiling all the Glukkons’ lovely delicious money. In order to compensate, the Glukkons decide to start using their own workers to make ‘something new n’ tasty’. Upon learning this, Abe makes a timely escape, but rest assured, his destiny has yet to be realised.
oddworld abe scars
Oddworld Inhabitants’ debut has you traversing oppressive industry and ruthless wilderness as the guy with none of the luck, to realise his potential as the saviour of his fellow Mudokon slaves.

The Oddworld universe stands as a veritable window into the dark and novel imagination of Lorne Lanning; familiar enough in its socioeconomic ideas, divergent and rich enough for the player to explore it, in all its bizarre complexity.

Despite later Oddworld games taking more of a 3D approach (and not necessarily suffering because of it), for me, the franchise will always work better as a 2D sidescroller. The layout offers a carefully constructed environment that in turn promotes the player’s construction of survival plans, using actions with much more precision, and thus, confidence.

But aside from aiding gameplay, the sidescrolling aesthetic really reinforces the viciousness of the Oddworld universe. It singles you out as the survivor against a backdrop of trampled scrubland; the unfortunate stooge against seemingly impossible…odds…
oddworld jump
Core controls are simple; nothing out of the PS1 platforming ordinarium. There’s a run button, a crouch button, a D-pad to move and a jump button. What did make Abe’s Oddysee stand out amongst other 2D platformers of its time, however, was its ingenious talk system.

Holding either L1 or L2 not only allows Abe to guide his fellow Mudokons to freedom like a diplomatic Django, but opens up a whole new dimension to the otherwise typical platforming elements of the game. In addition to jumping on stuff, running on stuff and throwing with stuff, progression often means memorising melodic passwords and taming friendlier beasts.

With this in mind, Oddworld isn’t just an A to B platforming grind. If it was it’d be a much shorter game. It is instead a barbed wire maze consisted of anxious planning and brazen execution, where the only relaxation is found in the hysterical aftermath of a rabid pursuit, only to soon melt back into that impending sense of vulnerability.

However, what alluded me about Abe’s Oddysee back then was its rigidity. Abe is often required to jump, roll or otherwise act at moments so particular that they don’t grant much leeway for mistakes, resulting in a style of play that almost borders on rhythm gaming.

This isn’t too enthralling for an uncoordinated child (such as I was) and looking back, this kind of precision wasn’t complimented by the game’s punishing nature. But hell, if ever there was a game that made you feel godlike after success, it was Oddworld.

oddworld slig steven olds

Still, a part of me hopes for a DDR version with this [artwork by Steve Olds].

But even now, I can’t pretend that Abe’s Oddysee was always a picnic to play, because all who’ve experienced it would soon proclaim from the tops of Paramonia that I’m a despicable liar. Enemy reaction speed is irregular, often rendering it impossible to react quickly enough to survive.

Moreover, checkpoints aren’t highlighted and minute mistakes are punished remorselessly by resetting the stage. These experiences weren’t uncommon for earlier games (and to some extent, these aspects are part of what makes Abe’s Oddysee so rewarding), but if you’re looking for an exciting, concise adventure to occupy your breaks with, Oddworld sure as hell ain’t it.

Whilst this was true for me, however, I continue to be impressed by how, despite this trial and error style, Abe’s Oddysee still manages to excite, involve and terrify me. It’s self aware enough to anticipate that you’ll be endeavouring to succeed over and over again, and as such, ensures that something completely unexpected lies in wait in the next undiscovered screen.

oddworld scrab chase
The various sounds of Oddworld are used very much in tandem with the idiosyncratic behaviours of its mighty beasts. As such, you quickly learn to associate subtle sound and movement with help, hostility, and anything in between. Spider-esque face-hugger Paramites might hiss but only attack when backed into a corner, whilst scissor-beaked brutes -the Scrabs- emit a hoarse roar, callously trampling their foes’ corpses on sight.

Sounds contribute to a living breathing (and albeit trapped) Oddworld, and as the calls of the once-sacred beasts you encounter can span multiple screens, you can never really be sure what’s waiting for you, and thus sound never undermines the intense vulnerability of the protagonist.
As for the music, it’s kept relatively minimal, but remains effective even against the soundtrack of many recent games. A soundscape of organic vocalisation and rhythmic percussion, Abe’s soundtrack overlays a sense of ancient balance, and with it, Abe’s remarkable quest to warrior-hood.

Whilst this atmosphere is slightly offset by the marked dramaticism of the FMV cutscene accompaniment, this plays up the comedy in the reluctant hero’s journey, usually serving as an effective point of relief between fretful gameplay segments.

oddworld moon
Despite its demand for rigorous timing and at times, unpredictable enemy AI, Abe’s Oddysee marked (on the back of each hand) the beginning of a franchise that was innovative, challenging and involving. Playing the luckless chump who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time was, for the time, a refreshing change to the intrepid hero, and while initially vulnerable protagonists had been touched upon before (in Rayman, for example), it was Oddworld that consistently outmatched your capabilities; encouraged constant adaption whilst its vibrant world always gave reason for doing so.