[Every Thursday is Retro Day at Gamer Limit, so kick back and enjoy the classics. Feel free to check out our full schedule right here!]
After Simon Jones’s The Neverhood piece last Thursday, the logical follow-up is its sequel: the overlooked PlayStation gem, Skullmonkeys.
While set in the same universe as its predecessor, Skullmonkeys is a completely different beast. It’s a platformer in the purest sense of the word – that is, there are platforms EVERYWHERE, and one false step means a quick death.
Luckily, the claymation charm stayed intact through the genre shift, and Klaymen remained as lovable a protagonist as ever.
First off, the entire game is animated with clay: the characters, the backdrops, even the sound effects are clay-like. This not only provides a unique game world, it also allows for some ridiculous quirks that could only be achieved with the hand-crafted aesthetic.
The actual gameplay is incredibly derivative Earthworm Jim-style shenanigans (not surprising, considering that game creator Doug TenNapel created Jim’s character, as well as Skullmonkeys hero Klaymen). It’s just a simple side-scrolling platform game. Run. Jump. Collect a hundred clay balls for an extra life. Make it to the end of the level to win.
But the cutscenes… oh my! If you dig fart jokes, this game may very well make you pee your pants with laughter. There is a wicked humor permeating the entire world that was completely unlike anything else on the market at the time. I suppose you could describe it as a morbidly comic cross between Tim Schafer and Tim Burton.
Farts melt enemies’ faces. Klaymen breaks out (hilariously) in painful, itchy boils because he ate the wrong potato. Beans are eaten with empty eye sockets. Heads are removed. Arms are eaten. Monsters are bisected with safety scissors. The gruesomeness is lightened by the very nature of the clay medium, and Klaymen’s unassuming nature and near-muteness make him a lovable lead.
The music, likewise, is incredibly organic. The soundtrack consists of acoustic guitars, primal grunts, drums, some good ol’ fashioned beatboxing, and other alien instruments (I think I even heard a zither at one point). Some tracks consist of nothing but mouth noises, in the style of Bjork’s 2004 a cappella album, Medúlla.
The shining moment, however, is the bonus level song, which stands out as perhaps the single funniest in-game song of all time – no exaggeration. The soundtrack, Imaginarium: Songs from the Neverhood, even won GMR Magazine’s “Best Game Music of the Year” award. (You can find some copies on Amazon for about $70, or a few of the songs can be heard here.)
The problem with Skullmonkeys is that it peters off as it progresses. The first few levels are incredibly unique and fresh. There are charming cutscenes every twenty minutes or so, and they always feel like a worthwhile reward for what is otherwise a very standard platformer.
About halfway through the game, the cutscenes become fewer and farther between. Couple this with some incredibly frustrating jumping required of the player (picture a Mario game where every jump is a full screen onto an eight-pixel-wide moving block), and you have the reason that most of the few people that actually played the game left it unfinished.
Normally, I would say, “Stick with it. Your perseverance will pay off in the end!” Sadly, this isn’t true. The first half of the game is fun, clever, and you never know what you’ll come up against next (weirdest boss battle ever: Joe-head-Joe!). Every gamer should play the first half of Skullmonkeys.
The second half, however, is full of frustrating, controller-throwing moments. A normally calm, collected gamer, even I was yelling at my TV. “Come on! Are you kidding me?! Am I done yet?” There were hundreds upon hundreds of raised and moving platforms to navigate with no clear end in sight, and there was only one (one!) memorable cutscene throughout the whole second half of the game.
At least I finally figured out where I got to use the potato bestowed upon me at the beginning of the game.
Still, it sucks to see an interesting game go downhill so quickly and leave me with such an unsatisfying ending. “Whoops, budget’s met! Roll credits!” Cutting the playtime in half would have given the game so much more impact. The dozens of fan sites and the game’s cult following would be better deserved if the entire product was as fresh and strange as the first few hours.
I can’t say I’ve ever recommended playing a game without insisting you complete it, but it’s like Star Wars. Stick with the first half (Episodes 4, 5 and 6) if you don’t want your complete experience to be a tarnished memory. If you had quit while you were ahead, TenNapel, you could have been a gaming icon.
Sometimes, the taste left in our mouth overpowers any former sweetness.