Claymates

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 (get it?), 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.

"NO!!  FATHER, PLEASE!!!"
“NO!! FATHER, PLEASE!!!”

So now you’re this blue ball of clay rolling around a garish level that exists solely within the confines of your backyard sandpit.  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 goldmine they thought they were sitting on here, but I noticed before the title screen that Interplay had trademarked all these animals, giving them names like “Muckster™ the Cat” and “Globmeister™ 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.).

Timeless Classics(TM).
Timeless Classics™.

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 action button doubles as the run button, which is a bit awkward, seeing as slow-as-buggery Muckety-Mucky-Muckster™ can’t run and slash at the same time.  Oozy™ 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 shareware.

Deliciously Ugly.
Deliciously Ugly.

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.  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.

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Chester Cheetah: Too Cool to Fool

Chester Cheetah went to school, so he's 2 Cool 2 Fool.
Chester Cheetah went to school, so he’s 2 Cool 2 Fool.

Ah, Cheetos – the staple food of Geekdom. What better way to sell your cheese-flavoured snacks to that core demographic than to have your Company Mascot With Attitude(TM) star in a videogame? I’ll tell you: with a better videogame.

Too Cool to Fool is the second and last of the short-lived Chester Cheetah ‘series’ (THANK GOD). Both games released in the same year, which should give you an idea of the time and effort that didn’t go into this.

It’s all the more disappointing when you consider the quality of the animation in the old commercials. There’s virtually no animation to speak of here, much less level design. Chester walks – yes, he’s a cheetah and he fucking WALKS – across a flat plain filled with enemy turtles that move faster than he does, in a post-Sonic videogame.

Unlike Sonic, Too Cool to Fool is Definitely Not Cool. The music can only be described as “dangerously cheesy”. The game opens with a prologue from the mouth of Chester himself (and indeed, so does every level) written in anapestic tetrameter. You may remember this poetic meter from such publications as Dr Seuss’ ‘Yertle the Turtle’ (AGAIN WITH THE TURTLES). Yeah, real cool.

When Chester went to school, he learnt to write in anapestic pentameter.
When Chester went to school, he learnt to write in anapestic tetrameter.

Let me showcase the frustration for you: you’re WALKING along flat, boring yellow ground with the occasional purple tree blocking your view in the foreground, jumping on turtles that are faster than you, collecting items that are in no way Cheetos-related. Then comes a bulldog-driven steamroller, seemingly impervious to your jump attack. There’s no visual feedback; you knock it backwards a little bit, but the bulldog appears decidedly nonplussed and the steamroller undamaged. It wasn’t until I watched the demo that I learned you could in fact destroy the steamroller if you jump on it five times. Or you could do what I did earlier; just let it steamroll you and drive on by. There’s collectible shades (even though Chester is already wearing a perfectly serviceable pair of sunglasses) which make the whole screen darker. Then you come to piranha-infested waters at the end of the level. This is the part of the game that forces you to learn to press ‘Select’ at the title screen and realise that the ‘R’ button actually does something for once, and that is dash. You then of course map the function to a more logical button like ‘Y’ or ‘B’ and replay the level. Now apparently cats are afraid of water because it makes them shatter into pieces, and piranha schools rise and fall in Mexican waves. They try to eat you sideways to no avail, but lucky for them they have razor-sharp fins that kill you anyway. And if you survive that, there’s a boss fight waiting for you on the other side.

Bland, boring level design: check!  Walking cheetah: check!  Invulnerable bulldog-driven steamroller: check!  Purple tree blocking foreground: check!
Bland, boring level design: check! Walking cheetah: check! Invulnerable bulldog-driven steamroller: check! Purple tree blocking foreground: check!

I can just imagine the disappointed looks on the 90s children’s faces as they wrangle with this 16-bit representation of their favourite cheese-flavoured snack mascot. Poor Mum didn’t know any better. It’s sad, because children were no doubt the intended audience, given the Seussian pre-level rhyme and the sheer poorness of the game. It’s a platformer without platforms, what else really needs to be said?

Chester summed up the whole affair from the very beginning:

“I just don’t dig this bogus gig.”

Neither do I. But maybe I’ve been asking all the wrong questions. Would it sell a pack of Cheetos? Probably it would!

“Screw this, Cheetos are heaps better than this game. Wanna get some Cheetos?”

“YES.”

Aero The Acro-Bat 2

The following post is a guest piece done by Travis, who is in the process of getting a blog together about… books or something. Once he has that, keep an eye on the right side; it’ll be linked over there. Here’s his summary of Aero The Acro-Bat 2.

aero-acrobat-pic

This is the first time I’ve played one of the Aero games, having not really explored the SNES library in much depth. But I’ve played its ilk before. Aero the Acro-Bat 2 is a game of abstract simplicity, where you are trying to get from point A to point B, while collecting small spinning or glowing things as much as possible, and while avoiding the numerous entities trying to kill you. How do you know they’re trying to kill you? Because they are not you. If it moves, it wants you to die. There are no allies or NPCs in this game. There is only you, and the mechanistic engine of doom within which you exist.

It also helps that the enemies you face in the first few levels are almost exclusively clowns and spiders, which are universally horrifying beings.

These loathsome creatures are just a manifestation of the game’s broader attitude, though. The clowns and spiders and weird floating balloon things are just extensions of the malevolent game world. The game wants you to die. It doesn’t want you to make it to point B. I played this game for 20 or 30 minutes, and I had to continue twice. That means I died at least eight times, due to the classic video game trope of having 00 be your last life. This is not a game that expects to be beaten in a single sitting, or even at all, by most gamers.

But despite the fact that the game hates you, it is actually pretty great. The controls are decent, if a little floaty; you gain momentum as you run, you jump a satisfying distance, and you can drill diagonally upward, which acts both as a double jump and a second attack. You can also drill downward and shoot…stars, or something, by collecting ammo around the map. It’s very simple, but in my half-hour of play I noticed enormous improvement in my performance, which is the mark of a good game. I also noticed that it’s quite possible to take various routes through the linear stage just by gaining momentum and making smart jumps. There were at least a half dozen secret passages I stumbled onto on my way through the first three levels. I could see this game having speed runs on youtube.

In fact, here’s one. Some jerk beat this first level in about thirty seconds. Apparently you can drill diagonally down, too.

But even though I liked the game mechanically, I just couldn’t make myself play it for very long. And it isn’t the fact that there was what appeared to be a precognitive goatse reference in the intro “video.”

goatse-screen

Wow, those are some fucked up hands.

No, I can’t play this game because it is about a generic anthropomorphic creature in a generic castle being attacked by generic enemies, using standard attacks and collecting hamburgers. Everyone collects hamburgers. That was really the turning point. I saw a floating hamburger near a wall and I was like “Fuck you. This ain’t no Burger Time.” As soon as I turned on the game, I felt a bit queasy just looking at something that provides such a powerfully boring experience, but it was the burger that broke the fatty’s back. I don’t think bats would even eat burgers.

So, I recommend giving it a try; if you find the aesthetic to be a charming source of nostalgia, I imagine you will enjoy it a great deal. That is, until you miss your drill attack at a clown doing jumping jacks for the eighth time in a row, and you run out of star ammo, and you decide fuck bats.

Aero The Acro Bat

Aero gets his bat-ass handed to him.
Aero gets his bat-ass handed to him.

It’s funny how things turn out. I knew I had Angus, Scott, Brian and Mekki working with me on this blog, so I had to figure out the schedule. I figured I’d have Mekki go last, because he’s working on his thesis defense all week. For a reason I forget, I put Angus first. I wanted to see Scott and Brian’s reactions to the deplorable Yogi Bear and Rocky and Bullwinkle games. That left Aero the Acro Bat for me, which was nice, because when I was a kid, I had this game…

…For some reason.

Back in the day, when I got my SNES used (the same Xmas the N64 was released, no less!), it came with about seven games. Some classic Mario-related games (All-Stars, Kart, World), an NHL game, a couple more… and Aero The Acro Bat. It didn’t seem to fit, and yet, it did.

This game is actually pretty fantastic.

I know what you’re thinking; you’ve been burned many times by games with half-adorable, half-edgy anthropomorphic animal characters. I know. We ALL played Bubsy. But Aero is different! Each level has different, intriguing tasks, and a rather brutal time limit in which to do them. The Circus theme of the first few level is well-realized, and the sound is… well, it’s weird but enjoyable.

Aero’s main attack is jumping into the air, which bats totally do, then turning into a DRILL TO DRILL ENEMIES (something most bats don’t do; only the rare Drillbit Bat is known for this behaviour). His main enemies are a bunch of evil clowns that may or may not be robots (I can’t tell). You can jump through flaming hoops suspended in the air magically. This is awesome.

But most awesome is the noise Aero makes when he dies. Sort of a womanly scream, like someone walked in on your mom in the shower. You need to hear it to believe it.

I recommend this game unless you are scared of circuses, because there’s a lot of circus-ness in this title. That probably rules out the whole world, because who LIKES those creepy clowns? I put forward that NOBODY ISN’T SCARED OF CLOWNS.