You Probably Forgot About This Game: Forgotten Platforming Heroes (Part 3 of 4)

In this third part of the “Forgotten Platforming Heroes” series, we will move away from animals to finally introduce characters that would not otherwise stare blankly into empty air or scratch their ass on the carpet if they were not in a videogame. Today’s protagonists are not quite human either, so what does that make them? I guess we could label them as “fantasy characters”, but to me, this sounds more like something out of Dungeons and Dragons. I guess that today’s categories could be simply called “unidentified creatures”, although some of them are quite easily identifiable. I mean, you all know what a hand is, right?

Yes, the six platform games heroes that will be presented in this article all fall somewhere in the “weird” category. One thing that I have noticed while compiling the lists is that this edition is the one that contains the most 3D-only characters. There is no real conclusion to draw from this, but I guess that animal mascots were starting to lose their appeal by the time most games made the jump to the third dimension.

Before jumping into today’s list, I must mention the two e-mails (yes, two!) I received from angry Earthworm Jim fans that were mightily pissed off that their idol would be mentioned in a column about forgotten games. Yes, Jim had a good run while it lasted, and his cartoon wasn’t half-bad, but the truth is that once he went away, nobody outside of hardcore fans really noticed. Sure, gamers will probably remember him if you mention his name, but then again, gamers have a tendency to remember obscure things that the non-gaming crowd would otherwise forget. Why? Because that’s what geeks do. As a test, I casually talked about Earthworm Jim to my sister-in-law, and she doesn’t know him. However, she reacted positively to Mario, Sonic and Yoshi. It’s sad, but nowadays, our favourite worm has become nothing more than a trivia only remembered by nostalgic fans.

Today’s Freaks

Chameleon Twist: The protagonist of this game is named Davy, and originally, he was a simple chameleon. However, after following a rabbit into a hole, he landed in an unknown world and was transformed into a “super alien chameleon” (the game’s words, not mine). In order to go back home, he has to travel through six standard worlds themed after what you would usually see in the genre: jungle, desert, ghosts and so on. All of this happens in 3D and would be pretty bland, but the game is saved by the fun gameplay mechanic of pressing a button to stick the chameleon’s tongue out and then controlling it independently with the N64’s analog stick. Saying that it saved the game might be a bit strong of a word, but it did make things more interesting in a game that would have otherwise been mediocre and devoid of any challenge.

Against all of my expectations, the game developed a cult following and a sequel was made. As if the developers weren’t pushing their luck enough by releasing a sequel, they took many things that made the first game slightly fun and took them out. The tongue control was still there, but gone were the multiplayer mode, the original setting and the super alien chameleon. Instead, Chameleon Twist 2 featured a slightly modified chameleon going into the sky to collect carrots. The camera problems that were already apparent in the first one – but which many excused because that was back in 1997, when many 3D games had such an issue – were back though, and this time, it was pretty hard to simply ignore them, as they caused many cheap deaths, to the point of breaking the game. Needless to say, Davy the sometimes super alien, but now slightly modified chameleon didn’t get another chance, as even the fans of the first one were feeling let down by this new release. The concept was interesting at first, but the whole thing was ruined by poor execution, and a series that was only marginally successful couldn’t survive these flaws.

Jersey Devil: This is another character that existed only in 3D form, however, this one had only one game to his name before the publishers gave up on him. Coming around the same time as many other platforming mascots were debuting on the Playstation (Spyro, Klonoa, MediEvil, Tomba!), and with the hype some of them generated, Jersey Devil was left behind. Something that was not helping at all is the fact that the game isn’t that much fun to begin with. Starring the mythical Jersey Devil (who looked more like a purple bat than anything else), the gameplay consists of nothing more than collecting five letters to proceed to the next level, eventually meeting the evil Dr. Knarf who was sending his equally-as-evil pumpkins after you and the rest of your city. Using a system similar to Donkey Kong Country, the game tried to encourage people to explore every nook and cranny of the gaming world with the hope of achieving a 100% score. Unfortunately, this was another game that suffered from the camera issues that seemed to plague many 3D games of the time. After going through a few level of the game, I didn’t feel like continuing, and it looks like I wasn’t alone. After only one game, Jersey Devil faded into obscurity pretty quickly, while many of its contemporaries at least made it to the sequel.

Glover: All right, so let’s imagine you are asked to try and come up with a good character for a 3D platform game. Animals are clichés, humans are boring… what else can you imagine? How about a glove? Yeah, I know it sounds a bit ridiculous, but somebody did try it, and the results were not entirely disastrous. The story however was all over the place. It’s about a wizard who is making an experiment when an explosion blows his gloves off. Personally, I would have preferred if his socks were blown off, as the potential for humour is much more apparent, but I guess a game called “Socker” might not be as marketable. Anyway, one of the wizard’s glove lands in a cauldron of evil potion and becomes the evil glove Cross-Stitch, while the other lands outside and becomes Glover, the good glove. However, there were also crystals on the top of the castle, which were blown away by the explosion, and Glover has to recover them by turning them into balls! I applaud the originality of turning gloves into videogames characters, but I have a suspicion that whoever came up with this story had something funny going on inside his head from the start.

The whole act of collecting crystals was a lot of fun because of everything Glover could do with his balls. (Yeah, I went there) However, the game was held down by a lack of precise controls. Shortly put, if you took away the balls and put any other generic mascot instead of a living glove, the game wouldn’t have seemed as unique, and all that would have been left is an average, middle-of-the-road game. Glover 2 was announced for the N64, but it was cancelled before completion. That is because the publisher, Hasbro Interactive, closed a lot of its studios as cost-cutting measure, before Hasbro decided to completely shut down its gaming division by selling the rights to its games and characters to Infogrames, now known as Atari. Who knows? Maybe Glover would have been destined for bigger things if its original publisher was still in business.

“¦nah, you don’t think so either?

Plok: Here’s one guy who had it all: a unique look, a good game, and yet, gamers did not take him into their heart. His game was mildly successful at best despite offering some very competent gameplay which was different from what was being done at the time – the hero could literally throw his limbs at his enemies – and graphics that looked lush and brilliant. In fact, the character must have looked pretty special to everybody because after the game was released in North America by Tradewest, Nintendo themselves tried to distribute it in Europe while Activision tried the same in Japan. Even with everybody’s best effort in the mix, the game never achieved the kind of success it could have had, and a sequel was never made.

In this game, the titular character, Plok, is on a mission to protect his island from flea-like invaders after he promised his grandfather he would do so when he would die. Therefore, when he wakes up one day to see flea flags everywhere on the island, he gets very angry and starts pummelling every enemy in sight until things are right again. This is where the game gets fun because this is accomplished by throwing your arms and legs around. The free limbs mechanic is even more interesting because Plok can lose them for a while, as they sometimes need to stay in a place to activate a switch. As you can guess, the fewer limbs he possesses, the fewer chances he has in battle, so this can provide some good puzzles and challenges. All of this happens in bright, colourful worlds which are supported by some of the most charming music I’ve heard from an SNES game.

I think it’s a real shame that Plok didn’t catch on with gamers. It’s not that nobody tried; the game even had three different publishers. I guess that Plok was its generations’ Psychonauts: a great platform game that has been ignored by the masses.

Vectorman: In 2049, humans are seeking other planets to live on after Earth has become too polluted. Still on the planet are orbots, mechanical beings trying to clean everything up for an eventual return. One of these orbots inadvertently attaches itself to a nuclear missile and goes crazy, takes control of the other orbots and plans to kill humans as they try to come back to his new kingdom. Vectorman, another orbot, escaped from his control because he was discharging toxic wastes on the sun at the time of the uprising. Back on the planet, he is the only one who can stop the evil Warhead and save the Earth. Hey, that’s not a bad story at all, and I bet it could even make a pretty good sci-fi flick. At least, I don’t think it can be much worse than “I, Robot”.

Originally released in 1995, the big selling-point with Vectorman at the time was its graphics. Using techniques similar to what Donkey Kong Country did on the SNES, the game used pre-rendered 3D models to give the illusion of 3D graphics in a 2D game. Sure, it doesn’t look as impressive nowadays, but for a Sega Genesis title, it was easily one of the prettiest games available. The gameplay itself was not as impressive as the graphical aspect, but it provided a satisfying platforming experience and brought the entertainment factor to very high levels. Vectorman had the ability to shape shift using different power-ups and could shoot baddies using a gun, which could also be upgraded. The game was a critical success and a sequel was made. This time, Vectorman’s spaceship was shot down and crash landed on a planet inhabited by mutant insects. This game provided more of the same, and once again, the game was a success. However, even though it was a Genesis game, it was released in 1996, near the end of the console’s lifespan. The character then floundered until a sequel for the PS2 was announced, but eventually cancelled. Rumours say it would have been a first-person shooter, in the vein of Metroid Prime. Apparently, the redesigned Vectorman also had an eerie resemblance to Master Chief. Probably sensing that such a game wouldn’t have brought much to the series, the idea was killed before making it to store shelves. Maybe Vectorman will attempt another comeback if the concept is right, but in the meantime, he is enjoying a revival on many of Sega’s Collection games as well as on the Wii’s Virtual Console. Wow, I didn’t have anything bad to say about this character! Indeed, Vectorman was good, and I have a hard time explaining why nobody ever released a proper 3D version of the game. Bubsy could get one but not Vectorman? What a shame.

Alex Kidd: Here’s a guy who had it all, but was shunned in favour of a cooler, younger mascot. Yes, before there was Sonic the Hedgehog, Alex Kidd was Sega’s mascot. He did quite a lot in his time. In fact, between his debut in 1986 and his demise in 1990, there was at least one Alex Kidd game released each year. The games were never the same, and the gameplay varied quite a lot between each title. That is because a lot of the times, Alex Kidd games were something completely different in Japan, and Sega simply changed the sprites to cash in on Alex’ status in the USA. Nevertheless, the character has been a staple of Sega’s Master System console, and even had one adventure out on the Genesis. The monkey-eared boy from planet Aries had a good run, but in 1991, Sega decided that he didn’t fit in with the new image they were trying to market, and they completely dropped the character in favour of Sonic.

I only had the chance to play the first game, “Alex Kidd in Miracle World”. I have very fond memories of it, and by searching the net, it looks like mostly everybody does. However, it also looks like near the end of his run, there was a sharp drop in quality, and the last two games (Enchanted Castle and Shinobi World) were nowhere near as fun as the original. Recently, the only sighting of Alex has been on the Sega Genesis Collection release as well as on the Wii. However, it looks like someone might be interested in bringing him back someday, because Aceland Studios has put a petition online, trying to gauge interest in an eventual revival of the franchise. Will it ever lead anywhere? Will it only bring new ports, more releases on download services or entirely new games?

In the end, it’s hard to judge what the real cause of the downfall of Alex Kidd was. While it is easy to point at Sonic’s arrival, one must wonder if the series’ later titles had something to do with it, although the overall quality of the games in the franchise was usually top-notch. Another reason might have been that customers were simply sick of the character because of the number of games released that bore his name, but when you look at the number of Mario games released each year, then you realize it cannot be the real cause. In the end, I believe that the simple reason is that Alex Kidd was associated too deeply with the Master System, and because of its lack of success in North America, Sega wanted to distance itself as much as possible with the release of the Genesis. With Alex being associated with the old system so much, they had no choice but to let him go in order to feel fresh and new.

Poor Alex. Maybe we’ll see him again soon, but with 16 years of inactivity, we can only wonder if he will be able to survive in today’s ruthless gaming business.

In Closing

Next week’s final edition regarding forgotten platforming heroes will feature human characters. While I won’t reveal which characters will be featured, I will leave you a couple of hints. There will be cavemen, a guy who picks his nose, a Tenacious D song and three guys with incredibly cool but somewhat cheesy names.

In the meantime, you can either click the button below to send me some feedback or leave a comment in the forum thread. In the meantime, why don’t you try to find a way to play some Plok and tell me how you like it. Surely I can’t be the only guy liking the game.