As promised, here are six more characters that tried to become the next big hero in the platform games genre. Last week, we’ve seen the disaster that was Bubsy the Cat, as well as the mildly successful Aero the Acro-Bat, among others. This week, we’re continuing with the animal theme with six new videogame heroes that could have been very successful if the stars were aligned correctly. In fact, a couple of today’s entries were popular enough but fell into oblivion for different reasons.
Since this is only a continuation of last week’s article, the introduction is not going to be very big. Just remember that there are no rankings here, simply a lot of nostalgia that has been brought out by my love of platformers. I’ve been playing Yoshi’s Island DS a lot recently, which reignited my passion for the genre. Now I’m just hoping that more classic franchises will get a worthy sequel instead of a port or an easy cash-in piece of crap of a follow-up, and that more companies will develop fun platformers with good gameplay instead of some of the stupid stuff that usually gets pumped out and is mainly aimed at children, who apparently like any game as long as its colourful. I recently plugged my cousin on a Super NES to keep him away from my Wii (and thus preventing things being destroyed by swinging remotes) and the game he liked the most was Chester Cheetah: Too Cool To Fool. I think this proves my point.
Just a final side note, since I’m on the subject of hopefully good future platform games: I’ve seen and heard a lot about Drawn to Life, and it looks promising. The mechanic of creating your own hero is very attractive, so it’s now up to the developers to make levels that are both imaginative and clever.
Let’s now go back to our scheduled profiles.
Today’s Featured Characters
Bug!: Released in 1995 for the PC and Saturn, Bug! was an early “3-D” platform game about another animal that needs to save another girlfriend from another evil queen. The quotation marks are there because it wasn’t really 3-D. It was more 2.5-D because not everything involved free movements. In fact, the game mostly played like a traditional 2-D side-scroller. So what did the game do to set itself apart? Not that much. It simply relied on simple but fun gameplay which was solid enough to keep players from giving up before finishing the game. Otherwise, it was all pretty standard, with the usual desert stage and other innovative locales, but who cares as long as it’s fun, right?
Bug proved to be a popular enough hero to warrant a sequel, which was once again released for Windows and for the Sega Saturn. While I played the original Bug!, I will admit to never playing the sequel, titled Bug Too!. In fact, I was completely unaware of its existence until I started doing some research for this article. Here’s what I found: this time, Bug and his cool-named friends Maggot Dog and SuperFly travel through different movie-themed stages that are parodies of well-known franchises. While this premise looks an awful look like another animal-centric 3-D platforming game, the two games were released close enough to believe that both were in development around the same time. Do I smell industrial spying? Probably not, but the similarity is still there. One thing’s sure though. Either because of the Saturn’s third place ranking in that era or because of its own lack of success, the Bug franchise stopped after the second game while the other movie and TV travelling animal continued starring in his own franchise for a couple of year after the demise of the insect hero. Who’s that mysterious character who managed to outlive the lovely Bug?
Gex the Gecko: OK, so he’s not that mysterious because should you have the slightest sense of observation, you would have noticed the 120 by 120 pixels picture right under the ending sentence of the previous paragraph. Gex arrived in 1996, and of course, he had an attitude that can only be called rebellious. However, he isn’t a normal hero like any other platformer has to offer. In fact, Gex is nothing but a couch potato. In his first game, he seals himself in his house with a lot of food and a giant television with no intention of getting off his butt. A lot of mothers complained about Mortal Kombat for being violent and corrupting children left and right, but nobody tried to bust this lazy gecko, who showed kids that staying inside, watching TV and becoming fat by eating snacks was cool? The world really is a screwed up place. Fortunately, Gex got sucked into his own television by the evil Rez, who wants to make him the new star of the Media Dimension, thus making the game much more interesting for everybody. From that point, Gex battles through different TV-themed worlds before fighting Rez himself, using standard platforming tactics, like jumping and spitting fire. In my opinion, the first game was somewhere around average on the fun scale, but I have to admit that Gex did have some attractive features (such as the TV-themed stages), and it’s not like the developer, Crystal Dynamics, had anybody else to call a mascot. To add to it all, the public and even a couple of critics liked the gecko. Therefore, Gex’s push as a new platform games superstar continued.
For the sequel called Enter the Gecko, which was released in 1997 on the Playstation, Gex did like many other mascots at the time and made the jump to 3-D. I didn’t play it until 1998, when it was ported to the N64, but I did like the new direction the series was taking, and so did the reviewers, giving the game many positive ratings. The plot had Gex being called by secret agents who want him to eliminate Rez, who has returned and hijacked the Media Dimension. Gex accepts and does approximately the same thing as in the first game, but in three dimensions and in more stages. I replayed the game for the sake of this article, and while time wasn’t as kind to it as I thought it would, it did manage to be entertaining enough, and when compared with many current run-of-the-mill games, it still holds its own quite nicely. One thing worth mentioning is the funny one-liners delivered by the gecko through the game.
Crystal Dynamics capitalized on the current wave of Gex-mania and released Gex 3: Deep Cover Gecko for the Playstation in 1998, and once again one year later on the N64. This time, Gex had to rescue secret agent Xtra, played by a real-life Baywatch babe (back when Pamela Anderson and her co-stars were still considered hot) from the evil Rez, who was back in the Media Dimension. To accomplish this task, he went through more TV-Themed levels – even dressing as WWF’s Steve Austin for one of them – and collected even more remote controls. Once again, it was a good game without being a classic, but after the requisite port to the Game Boy Color, Gex disappeared from the surface of the planet and was never mentioned again. Are we to assume that he moved in with his new sweetheart and enjoyed human-on-gecko action?
In truth, it probably all goes down to the developer, Crystal Dynamics. While Gex was successful enough character and mascot, the company was also developing the Legacy of Kain series, which one must assume was more profitable. They have also been occupied as the developers responsible for Lara Croft’s recent revival with Tomb Raider Legend and Tomb Raider Anniversary. Nobody knows if Gex will reappear one day or if he is even mentioned nowadays within the studio, but if he is, there’s a good chance he’s taking a backseat to the more popular and real cash cows of the company.
Superfrog: I am fairly partial to frogs. I really like them. This might be because of my French ancestry, but no matter what’s the cause, I think that the little amphibians are fun and hilarious. This is why Superfrog is one of my favourite forgotten heroes. While he has always been relatively unknown in North America, he used to be quite a hit in Europe. The frog is the star of only one game, which was released in 1993 for the Amiga before being ported to the PC. It was created by Team17, makers of the Worms games. The premise is standard stuff: you play as a prince who was turned into a frog by a witch. As if it wasn’t enough, the witch then kidnaps your girlfriend, so it’s your job to get her back. Quick side note: I can understand why Bowser would want to kidnap Peach (wedding + beastiality), but I have forgotten what were the witch’s motives for kidnapping Superfrog’s girl. Since I couldn’t find it online, the only thing going through my mind right now is some slight lesbian undertone. Good enough for me.
The story is simple (although points are gained for featuring a frog) but the strength of the game resides in its gameplay. It features the normal run and jump mechanic that is expected from platform games, but it is practically flawless in its execution. The graphics are of very high quality for the time with rich colours and cartoon-like characters. One thing that needs to be pointed out is that the game has a very obvious product placement in the fact that your character must drink bottles of Lucozade to become Superfrog. Since Lucozade is a UK drink, I just thought it was some made-up potion when I was a kid. I’m still on the fence when it comes to deciding if this or Cool Spot is the better game advertising soft drinks.
So, why didn’t we see more of Superfrog if the first and only game featuring the characters was so good? The first reason is that while the game was successful, it was still relatively unknown when compared to the more popular games of the time. A second reason would be that once Worms hit it big, it became Team17’s primary project, despite some smaller titles still being released for the PC in the meantime. To this day, Superfrog still remains a cult favourite and has retained a small but rabid fan base, with two popular fansites still online and a number of cameos in bigger Team17 titles. There have also been rumours of the original game being ported to the DS and PSP, and according to Wikipedia, the developers have expressed an interest in reviving the character in an all-new title. Superfrog might not stay forgotten for very long at this rate.
Psycho Fox: Yes, I owned a Master System, although I didn’t have many games for it. One that I enjoyed was Psycho Fox, and while I never did understand why this particular fox was psycho, I still liked the game enough to keep playing it without ever managing to finish it. While going through websites hoping to find more info on this title, I found a picture of the end boss, and all of a sudden, I finally managed to understand the title of the game:
The story is all about an evil god called Madfox Daimyojin who is turning your land upside down. The people want him gone, so they send a fox to do the job. However, it’s not just any fox. It’s a fox that can turn into a monkey, a tiger or a hippopotamus. Playing as a pink hippopotamus has got to be one of the greatest memories from my childhood, along with getting that George “The Animal” Steele action figure for my birthday. Of course, each animal has its pros and cons, like jumping high, punching harder, etc. You also have an ally/shield called birdfly, who will take a hit for you if you happen to be carrying him. The game consists of seven worlds divided in three areas each, all of which are about as colourful as any children show you can imagine.
Psycho Fox is pretty standard as a platform game, but everything it does, it does well. I always thought that the game never received a sequel, and while this is true in name, it does have two spiritual sequels in Decap Attack, a Sega Genesis game, and Kid Kool, an NES game. I never played the former, which is apparently a good game, but I have played the second one and didn’t think it was anything special. No matter what happened with the “sequels”, nothing can take away the fact that this game could let you play as a psycho fox, a monkey boy, a cute little tiger and a pink hippopotamus. No other game has been able to do that for me up to now, and for that simple reason, it will always remain in a special place in my heart. *sniffle*
Punky Skunk: Not a lot can be said about this mascot. I wouldn’t even dare use the words “hero” when it comes to this guy because it would be greatly exaggerating his abilities. In fact, common sense told me not to write about Punky Skunk, as the world would probably be a better place if he stayed forgotten. However, this article is also about failed platform games characters, and I don’t think you can get much more of a failure than this, or at least, not since I already mentioned Bubsy 3D in the last article.
You see, this was no ordinary skunk. This one liked extreme sports, like inline skating, snowboarding and even jumping on a pogo stick. Yeah, it doesn’t get more extreme than an instrument which seems to have been invented for the sole purpose of featuring its users taking bumps on “America’s Funniest Home Videos”. With all of these “extreme” tools at his disposal, Punky Skunk had to save the world from a crazy wolf. When you dig a little bit deeper, you realize that the only thing this wolf wanted to do was to create an amusement park on the skunk’s island. If saving the island means playing all the way through the game, I think I’ll let the evil wolf win. At least there will be something fun left at the end.
This game has been a great source of laughs for me. My friend used to point at this game in the preview section of either PSM or OPM and tell me how much cooler than Mario and Kirby this character was. I thought something was wrong if the publisher was spending so much effort hyping his attitude and not his game (the same way the focus switched from Lara Croft’s games to her breasts in the many Tomb Raider sequels). He decided to get the game anyway, and while he did stop bragging about Punky Skunk being cooler than Mario, it didn’t make the game any better. Last week, while reading more about the game, I learned why this game sucked so much; apparently, it was released half-finished, since the development team was running out of time. I don’t know if this rumour is true, but it would explain a lot of things. At least, it would explain why the publishers gave up on Punky Skunk after one game.
Earthworm Jim: Oh, the dilemma. Can a character that was featured in four games, made cameos in countless others and starred in a TV show be considered a failure? Can we really consider a character that has become a cult favourite for many gamers is forgotten? In order to get my answer, I asked a group of co-workers, all of which are aged between 25 and 39, and all of which have been gamers at different points in their life. Only two of them remembered the guy, and one of them was from the cartoon. It is with a lot of sadness that I have to declare that Earthworm Jim’s star as a platformer hero has not only faded, it has been completely extinguished.
The first game, released in 1994, featured the character’s origins, back when he was nothing more than a normal earthworm. A spacesuit fell on him out of nowhere, and transformed him into a gun-waving superhero. That game featured Jim trying to stop the evil bounty hunter Psy-Crow as well as Queen Slug-For-A-Butt while rescuing Princess Whats-Her-Name. Just typing these names make me want to bust out the SNES and play this once again. This game got great reviews, even getting the full monty from a couple of critics. This could lead nowhere but to a sequel, where Jim must rescue his princess from a forced marriage to Psy-Crow. This game also got many positive reviews, so what’s left to do after conquering the Genesis and the SNES? Bring the series into the third dimension.
The sad thing is that instead of passing the test successfully like other series did, Earthworm Jim 3D suffered from the Bubsy syndrome. The development cycle was stretched way past what was originally intended and lasted about three years because of many changes in publishers. Despite such a long time in the making, the game still managed to be rushed, so some parts had to be left out. In the end, it just wasn’t that good at all, with unresponsive controls and numerous camera problems. It’s a shame, really, because the storyline was actually quite fun and clever. A cow landed on Jim’s head, meaning that he had lost his marbles. Therefore, he had to venture inside his head and find them back by going through the different zones in his brain. They often say that the story is the most important part of a game. If it was true, Earthworm Jim 3D would have been a classic. Unfortunately, a fun story can only go so far if the gameplay is not cooperating.
As you can guess, it pretty much killed the series for a while. A game was released for the Game Boy Color on the same year as the 3D game, and the first two titles were ported to the game Boy Advance to mediocre reviews. Earthworm Jim also appeared with another fallen hero called Boogerman in Clayfighters 63 1/3. The original is now supposed to receive the port treatment for the PSP. The only question is, will this game bring back the franchise to the mainstreams, or will it only kill it for good? We can only hope for a home run, or else Jim might have to call it quit for good.
This week’s edition finishes the list of animal heroes in platform games that I had originally written. I had a couple of others on the list, but they didn’t quite make it. I was going to feature Kao the Kangaroo, because his crappy games are the perfect definition of “failed characters”, but it looks like someone might be buying them because they still keep getting made. I was also thinking about Titus the Fox, but he was only featured in one game, and it wasn’t even really his game. In fact, it was originally a French game starring some French guy, but the title received the Super Mario Bros. 2/Doki Doki Panic treatment and was adapted for the North American release.
Next week’s edition is going to be part 3 of 4 of the “Forgotten Platforming Heroes” series, and it’s going to feature weird characters that are not animals, but still are not quite human. You can always try to guess in the forum thread what characters are going to be featured next week, and you can also discuss this week’s roster as well as old platform games in general.
Until next time, just remember to stay away from Punky Skunk.