Does anyone else remember the ‘clay’ craze that took place circa 1993? It seemed like every game and his dog wanted to be made out of clay, when in reality it was probably just Interplay. Maybe the whole thing was a symptom of those ‘photorealistic’ FMV games on the Mega CD, or Mortal Kombat. Then again, who really cares? Claymates is the second ‘clay’ themed franchise from Interplay, ClayFighter having just been released six months beforehand.
Claymates is built around a bizarre premise: your name is Clayton (coincidence? You decide), and your nutty professor father has developed a formula to turn humans into animals(!) and is presumably about to show you/experiment on you(!), when out of nowhere an evil shaman teleports himself inside the laboratory, transforming you into a ball of clay with his stick before spiriting your father away!
THIS IS BLASPHEMY! THIS IS MADNESS!!
This is Claymates.*
So now you’re this blue ball of clay rolling around a garish level that exists solely within the confines of your backyard sandpit [Americans read: ‘sandbox’]. You’d be surprised what you can fit in a sandpit! It’s funny, because Claymates invented ‘sandbox’ gaming before GTA did [except not really, because that was a joke, and if we were to take it that literally the first child that ever took up a bucket and spade invented sandbox gaming]. Anyway, you pick up a coloured ball of clay pretty soon and transform into a slow-as-buggery cat or a mouse-with-his-ass-on-fire most of the time, but occasionally you might transform into something interesting like a bird that pecks and flies really badly or a squirrel that throws acorns or a fish that shoots bubbles. I don’t know what they thought they were onto here, but I noticed before the title screen that Interplay had trademarked all these animals, giving them names like “Muckster(TM) the Cat” and “Globmeister(TM) the Gopher” (apparently not a squirrel anymore), which is interesting considering the animals pretty much look like generic depictions of what they are (the mouse looks like a mouse, the cat looks like a cat, etc.).
Thing is, I thought you were still ‘you’ (Clayton) when you picked up the clay and transformed into an animal. After all, is that not what Prof. Dad’s formula was all about? Perhaps this means that you’re imbued with the evil shaman’s animistic powers and can channel the spirits of these kooky characters, which begs the question, why, then, would the shaman even need the formula if he already had the power to channel animal spirits?! This game raises far more questions than it seeks to answer.
After you’ve pondered the logistics of animism and weird science, you run and jump from left to right kleptomanaically collecting gems, items, power-ups, and uncovering secret mini-levels. The collect-a-thon is, however, spoiled by dubious checkpoint placement and the fact that you lose all gems, items, and animality upon dying (even if you’ve reached a checkpoint). The harshness of it all really discouraged me, and was seemingly at odds with the game’s initial invitation to experiment and explore. That said, Claymates is still inviting, and packed full of things to do. Upon finishing the level, two robots are unleashed upon your backyard (overworld) and help you break into your neighbours’ backyards(!) and consequently, their sandpits (levels). Curiouser and curiouser.
The sandpit’s band consists of Pan on whimsical pan-flute, a clown on slapstick trombone, and various cute little bits and pieces. The action button doubles as the run button, which is a bit awkward, seeing as slow-as-buggery Muckety-Mucky-Muckster(TM) can’t run and slash at the same time. “Oozy(TM)” the Mouse is impressively fast – possibly even faster than a certain blue hedgehog – and must make use of the ‘blaze-processing’ boasted about on some virtual box art I found the other day. Problem is these fellas run about as smooth as an oil slick, but let’s chalk that one up to personal preference, hey? The level design is Spartan*, but clever – the various power-ups and level devices themselves are crude, ugly, and reminiscent of Apogee’s Word Rescue shareware.
The sprites look okay, and I suspect the clay effect would have knocked the socks off of kids on their CRT televisions back in the day, but now they look a little out of place juxtaposed with the decidedly un-clay levels (which I guess is kind of the point). The character animation is terrible once again – I’m starting to see a trend here in most non-Mario/Sonic platformers – to the point that I’m wondering whether it was animation, and chiefly animation, that separated those two giants of industry from the rest of the competition during that era.
It may not be Mario and it may not be Sonic, but Claymates is definitely one of the more interesting platformers out there. I suspect the lack of polish is inversely proportional to the overabundance of ideas crammed into these sandpits. My advice: climb into the sandpit wide-eyed like a child and you’ll be in a state of constant surprise.
Just don’t come crying to me if you get sand in your eyes.
* No, I haven’t been watching 300 lately.