Bandicoots and Bad Fur
Crash, Conker and the Beginnings of Modern Platformers
Welcome back to our in-depth look at the graphic design and evolution of games. Today we’ll be examining the scope and spread of the first iterations of 3-D platforming/adventure games.
At the height of what is known as the Console Wars, all the major game companies released their first next gen hardware, boasting highly improved graphics and many 3-D titles. The various title franchises attempted to transition from largely 2-D worlds into a 3-dimensional space, some with great success, others with less-than-ideal outcomes. This was a gigantic learning curve for many video game companies, discovering what 2-D platforming concepts worked well in a 3-D space, and what fell flat. On top of this, the change in the game space meant that visual information also needed to change to become compatible with it. In this article, we’ll look at all of that.
Crash Bandicoot (PlayStation 1, 1996)
The big premier platformer for the Sony PlayStation, brought to us by the now prolific Naughty Dog studios, Crash Bandicoot follows the misadventure of a bandicoot named Crash (of course). Crash himself is a forced evolution or mutation of a bandicoot, turned into a bipedal humanoid by the Evolvo-Ray of Dr. Neo Cortex and Dr. Nitrus Brio [ 1 ]. With his newfound intelligence and opposable thumbs, Crash is out to stop Cortex and Brio’s plans to create an army of mutated animals with which to conquer the world, as well as save his girlfriend, Tawna—another mutated bandicoot.
Crash himself is a well-designed protagonist. His cartoonish aesthetic and bright orange fur make him stand out amongst the various backgrounds of the island he will traverse. The inclusion of blue jeans, sneakers, and fingerless gloves add a touch of humanity and quirkiness to him. He has a large face that allows for various grand expressions, most of which are in the “goofy” category. Indeed, his characterization is meant to portray a certain level of foolishness, painting him as a kind of idiot savant. He moves fluidly, keeping a brisk jogging pace throughout the game. His abilities are limited, having a simple jump and a spin attack that can both smash crates, but are more limited in their applications in dispatching foes. Jumping on a turtle, for example, does not remove it from the screen, but causes it to retreat into its shell, allowing Crash to use it as a springboard for higher jumps. Using a spin attack on the same turtle in its walking or retreated state remove it from the screen. Foes dispatched with the spin attack fly out of the game world with pinball-like physics. Along the way, Crash is aided by the spirit of a witch doctor, Aku Aku, who has scattered several of his masks across the islands. These masks act as Crash’s buffers against damage, allow him to be hit once without dying. Gathering a second mask grants Crash another hit, and a third limited invulnerability for a short time. Time was also taken to give Crash several unique death animations. Being killed by a fire effect scorches Crash completely black, his eyes blinking in disbelief. If he is run over by a boulder, he is completely flattened like paper. Being exploded by a TNT crate nearly disintegrates him, leaving his eyeballs, shoes, and nose to fall back to earth. These deaths take some of the sting of failure away, but despite their emphasis on humor, they do not negate that feeling completely.
The HUD and interface for Crash Bandicoot is kept track of off screen. When the player gathers a collectible item, that number briefly appears on screen, then disappears again. This leaves the entire screen free for the player to view the stage and its various obstacles and is a well-executed idea. The information that we do see is not very complicated: on the top left the number of fruit collected will appear whenever the player collects fruit. 100 fruit grant one extra life. The extra life count appears in the top right whenever an extra life or 100 fruit is collected. The Aku Aku mask floats just behind Crash when it is gathered, and disappears if Crash takes damage, or turns into a golden-hued mask when a second one is collected. When Crash becomes invulnerable, the mask covers his face, and flashes for the duration. There are also bonus stage icons that come in the form of Tawna’s face and Dr. Nitrus Brio’s face. Collecting three of these transports Crash to a small bonus stage where he can collect more fruit and extra lives. While this amount of visual information is small, it’s really all that is needed, and is very intuitive. The secondary part of the interface is the percentage completion score, which is displayed at the end of every level. A player must collect 26 gems, two gold keys, and smash all boxes in the 32 levels of the game to achieve 100 percent completion. If you missed a box, you are told at the end of the level, where all the missed boxes drop into Crash’s head. If you didn’t miss any boxes, and you collected the level gem, Crash instead does a brief victory spin and takes a knee, arms up in the air with a huge smile on his face. After this screen is the save screen, which shows total percentage complete, how many levels are complete, and how many keys and gems you have. Oh, and the Super Password (32 characters long, yikes), just in case you didn’t have a memory card.
The stages in Crash Bandicoot come in the form of a three-island chain called the Wumpa Islands, that are owned by Dr. Neo Cortex. These locations consist mostly of jungle forest, ancient ruins, rivers, and a few factory-like or laboratory areas. The designers made quite the creative use of their 3-D space. The very first level is reflective of typical platformers—it is linear, with narrow boundaries clearly defining the space, but thanks to its 3-D environment, Crash travels forward to reach the end, rather than left to right. There is left and right space, which means that Crash can also move there, but it also creates different opportunities for platforming obstacles. There are, for example, giant rolling stones that rock left to right on a track. They cannot be jumped over, but the player can time their movement to get around them on either the left or right side of their rolling tracks. This limited horizontal space also allows the player to completely avoid some enemies. Other levels do take the traditional left-to-right platforming approach, but they aren’t limited to a 2-D space. Instead, Crash can move to the background and foreground, and indeed there are some levels where secret items are hidden in the background behind walls. Other levels have 3/4 top-down view, extending the horizontal space slightly, though they are functionally the same as the standard forward-moving design. Finally, there are stages where Crash must move toward the screen, running away from a gigantic rolling boulder. This is perhaps the most interesting use of a 3-D space in any platformer, creating a need to quickly react to obstacles that can’t be seen ahead of time, as well as requiring a level of memorization if a player wants 100 percent completion.
The foes that Crash must face come in the form of animals, plants, humans, and the semi-human experiments created by the evil doctors. Crash will jump and spin his way through giant crabs, turtles, skunks, massive Venus fly traps, monkeys, tribal humans, lesser mad scientists, swarms of bats, robotic orbs, and more. The enemy designs here are simple, with all foes being a combination of polygons rather than textures. Their designs get the point across as to what they are and what they can do, and you never feel as though an enemy didn’t tell you what it was capable of just by looking at it, but Naughty Dog saved the more complex designs for the main characters and bosses in this game.
Speaking of bosses, Crash Bandicoot features six. First up is Papu Papu, an overweight tribal chief that you confront inside his hut. He is a bit of a racist caricature, as games from the ’90s didn’t have any qualms about casual racism. He wakes from his slumber on his large throne, and attacks with his long staff, spinning it around counterclockwise, then smashing down. When he stops his spin cycle to smash is when the player must strike with a spin attack. Our second boss is Ripper Roo, an anthropomorphic blue kangaroo, driven to madness by the experiments performed on him. His eyes are illustrated in the classic spiraling kaleidoscope fashion, his tongue hangs from his open mouth, and he wears a strait jacket. His boss chamber is at the bottom of a waterfall, where the old ruins were built around a river. There are nine platforms to jump across, and Roo will hop around each one at random. Boxes of BIG TNT will flow down the waterfall, and the player must activate them and let the explosions take care of Roo while avoided being jumped on by the mad marsupial. Third up is Koala Kong, a massive, muscled koala who has a larger torso than his small legs could reasonably hold up and wears a red tank top and simple tan pants. He makes his lair in the underground mines. Kong is in the background, behind a track of mine carts that are transporting coal (Get it? Coal-ala Kong?), and a river of lava sits between his space and Crash. He will pick up large boulders and hurl them at Crash, whom the player must move left and right to avoid the hits, as well as the occasional TNT box that will drop from the ceiling. After a few tosses, a boulder will remain behind, and the player must use the spin attack to throw it back at Kong—though this needs to be timed correctly, as they can also hit a mine cart and waste the shot.
Moving right along, we have Pinstripe Potoroo, a weasel-like furry who dresses like a classic New York gangster, with a red pinstripe suit, green undershirt, and black tie, who waits for Crash in the factory office. He also has a tommy gun and does his best to pump Crash full of lead. The player must duck behind the furniture in the office room, then hit Pinstripe with a spin attack when he needs to reload. We then come to the 2nd in command, Dr. Nitrus Brio, who Crash confronts in his personal lab, which is inside a gothic-styled castle. This mad doctor is styled after the infamous Igor of Frankenstein fame, with a giant bald head featuring tufts of hair on either side above his ears, sunken eyes, a green lab coat, and a five-o-clock shadow. Brio will throw explosive vials at Crash, as well as green vials that create slimes. Destroying these slimes lowers Brio’s considerable health bar. When this bar is down to half, Brio will ingest a strange mixture that turns him into a giant, hulk-like monster, reminiscent of a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde transformation. In this form, he will smash his arms around and cause debris to fall from the ceiling. Using this debris as a platform, the player must jump on his head three times to finally defeat him. Finally, the player faces the man himself, Dr. Neo Cortex. Another large-headed mad scientist, Cortex has a crescent of hair just above the ears that offsets his otherwise bald head, upon which is a giant “N.” His eyes have a permanent red under-shadow, and he wears a classic white lab coat. He faces off against Crash atop his giant purple blimp, outside the burning ruins of his lab. Cortex flies on a small hoverboard and shoots various energy blasts at Crash from a distance. The player must reflect the green blasts using the spin attack, while being careful of Cortex’s changing attack patterns. These boss level designs are simple at their core but can be quite challenging for first time players. The amount of detail in each is quite impressive for the time.
When the console wars were still at their height, I chose the PlayStation, and thus was around for the premier of Crash Bandicoot, but I did not play it, at least not the first entry. I found Crash 2 and 3 to be loads of fun, so going back to look at the first installment, I expected similar fun in the gameplay. Since the formula for these games didn’t change too heavily over time, and neither did the humor, I was happy to find that the first Crash was just as fun as its sequels, if a bit shorter. As a premier platforming title, Crash Bandicoot delivered a decent challenge, a simple but fun storyline, and very interesting level designs. The graphics are dated, of course, but they were amazing in ’96, and while the game may not have captured imaginations, it certainly displayed what the PlayStation console was capable of.
Super Mario 64 (Nintendo 64, 1996)
In the same year, Nintendo released its next installment in its flagship franchise. Super Mario 64 is fondly remembered by gamers everywhere as the penultimate 3-D platformer of its day. The dedication to making a smooth transition from 2-D to 3-D is evident in every facet of this legendary game. The plot is basically unchanged from all the other Mario games: Mario receives a letter from Princess Toadstool, inviting him to her castle for cake. When Mario arrives, he discovers that Bowser has taken over the castle and captured Peach, using the castle’s Power Stars, and Mario must stop him [ 2 ].
Looking first at Mario himself, the Italian plumber’s overall design didn’t change very much, but the transition to a 3-D model defined his appearance more explicitly than the 2-D titles. He has a more complete face with better defined features, including a more stylish mustache. His clothing, while being the same blue overalls, shirt, and boots that he has worn for his whole game career, now have a bit more pop to them. His movements are that of a man in a hurry; he runs fast, arms swinging wildly behind him, but is also capable of sneaking by walking very slowly. As in previous games, Mario can jump, but with the addition of a double and triple jump, a power slam performed from midair, a backflip, side flip, and wall kick flip. These additional movement tools allow an experienced player to easily navigate the game stages via shortcuts, while still being friendly to newer players. Mario also has a deliberately visible shadow below himself that helps the player judge where he will land. Mario can pick up some enemies, like Bob-ombs, and throw them like weapons at other enemies, and even ride on Koopa shells like a surfboard [ 3 ]. Mario can also punch and kick, including a jump kick, sweeping kick, a sliding kick, and a dive roll. This is a huge break from his traditional method of fighting by jumping on enemies or shooting fireballs at them [ 3 ]. Additionally, for the first time since Super Mario Bros. 2 (not counting the RPG), Mario has a life bar, displayed as “Power” in the top center of the screen whenever damage is taken, or when swimming to represent how much breath remains. When Mario takes hits, he’ll become staggered and momentarily invulnerable to damage. This is replenished by collecting coins or getting air bubbles underwater. Finally, Mario does have temporary power ups in the form of caps, which he can get from exclamation point blocks. There is a Wing Cap, which allows Mario to fly; a Metal Cap, which makes Mario invulnerable but much heavier, disallowing high and long jumps, and swimming; and Vanish Cap, which allows Mario to walk through metal fences and some walls. These cap power ups are conveniently placed in areas where they will be quite useful.
Mario 64’s interface follows the simple styles of previous games. In the top left of the HUD we can see how many lives remain. In the center, we see Mario’s remaining Power when he takes damage or is healed. Just to the right of top center is the number of coins, which are cashed out at the end of a level, granting one extra life per 50 coins, up to a maximum of three. Lastly, in the top right, is the total number of Power Stars collected. The camera, which is humorously held by a Lakitu Bro, is controlled by the C-pad buttons, and can be moved around Mario in the eight cardinal directions, as well as be zoomed in and out. While these camera controls are good, they don’t quite work as expected 100 percent of the time, with certain angles around corners or near buildings forcing the camera to move one way. The only other problem with the interface would be its “old-style” look, appearing as though it was ripped from a 2-D game and put into a 3-D game. Even so, this well thought out interface and camera controls were nearly perfect for this game.
When it comes to the game world, we are greeted with a decent amount of variety and detail. The game is broken up into 15 main courses and nine secret courses, which are accessed from the main hub of Princess Peach’s Castle. Each of the main courses has six collectable power stars, each requiring a different objective to be fulfilled, and a 7th star for collecting 100 coins on the level. This only brings us to 105 stars, with the last 15 being scattered among the secret levels and the castle hub. As you can only collect one star at a time in each level, this means you will replay these levels several times, especially if you want to collect every star. This design choice is a means to keep the amount of space required for the game low, as the cartridge for the N64 wasn’t too expansive, memory wise. This has the added effect of making each level’s design matter a lot more, and the design team certainly took that notion to heart. From the simple green hills of Bob-omb Battlefield to the blocky Whomp’s Fortress, to the creepy Big Boo’s Haunt, and the rest, we can see the dedication to detail. Yes, the textures used here have not aged well, but considering our expectations in ’96, these levels looked gorgeous, and honestly aren’t hard to look at today. Each level has multiple paths that can be taken to achieve the various mission goals and becoming familiar with these paths and how to access them will allow the player to more quickly traverse the levels the second, third, or forth time around. Thanks to this design, replaying the levels to collect every star becomes less about repetition and more about how cleverly you can navigate to your objective. On top of this, the player is allowed to choose, to an extent, which levels they play through first, as more difficult levels only require a small amount of Power Stars collected to access. This slightly open mission selection allows veteran players to skip ahead to the more complex levels if they so desire. The only big flaw that can be found in these levels is with moving platforms, which do not have inertia physics, meaning that Mario does not move with a moving platform if he jumps. This makes portions of Rainbow Ride, where Mario must ride on moving rainbow carpets, a lot more dangerous than they needed to be.
Many of the classic Mario enemies make a reappearance here. Goombas, Koopa Troopas, Bob-ombs, Chain Chomps, Boos, Bullet Bills, Bubs, Piranha Plants, Fly Guys (a flying Shy Guy), and so on. These classic foes are given a nice polygonal upgrade, and their previous simplistic designs allowed their 3-D models to emulate their old game appearances more closely, despite the technological limitations of the N64. We are also introduced to a slew of new enemies. The Bullies, small iron-like spheres with horns and feet, which seek to push Mario off platforms, can only be defeated by being pushed off themselves. Chuckyas, a new species of Bob-omb with a purple shell and red boxing gloves, don’t explode, but instead pick Mario up and throw him in a random direction. Defeating these require Mario to get behind them and pick them up, giving them a throw and a taste of their own medicine. Bomps, or Pushy Walls, are a cousin to Thwomps, being parts of a wall with a face that push outward at regular intervals, creating a hazard for Mario to avoid. With the return of old foes, with better models, and the addition of new ones, Mario 64 displays the graphic capabilities of the N64 and keeps the game familiar to the veteran players while not making it just another rehash.
Thanks to the new controls, the boss battles in Mario 64 are a lot more interesting than the 2-D ancestors. The King Bob-omb, a massive Bob-omb with a mustache and crown, offers little challenge to Mario as the first game boss, only requiring Mario to pick him up from behind and throw him three times. The Whomp King, a bigger whomp with a crown (sensing a pattern here?) will attempt to flatten Mario with his spiky body. The player must avoid this attack, then use the Ground Pound maneuver three times when the Whomp King is on the ground. The Big Bully, a larger and more imposing version of the Bully, will engage Mario on a platform above lava and attempt to shove the plumber in. The player must outmaneuver this Big Bully and push him into the lava instead. The Eyerock, sometimes called Hands, is a pair of giant, golem-like hands with eyes on the palms. It will try to slam Mario or push him off the platform, and the player needs to punch each eyeball three times to defeat it. The next boss is Big Mr. I, who is literally a giant eyeball with a blue iris. This eyeball is easily dispatched by running around it rapidly, causing it to become dizzy and knock itself out. The Wiggler, a giant, yellow, centipede-like creature, will attempt to run Mario over, and must be stomped on the head three times to be defeated. The game’s main antagonist, Bowser, of course makes his glorious and menacing 3-D debut. He is fought three separate times—once in the Dark World, once in the Fire Sea, and once more in the Sky. This iteration of Bowser is much, much bigger than Mario, being roughly five times his size. The massive, green shelled, dragon-like monster will stomp around, slash with his claws, and breathe fire if given the chance. The key to defeating this overgrown reptile is to grab him by his tail and give him a spinning hammer-throw into one of the exploding mines that border each of his combat platforms. These boss battles are fun, though they may not provide the kind of challenge some players are looking for.
Moving forward from the amazingly fun 2-D platformers of Super Mario World and Yoshi’s Island, the transition of the Mario franchise into 3-D had to be nearly perfect to meet fan’s expectations. When I played this game, it was very clear that the production team took great effort to make Mario’s controls as smooth as possible, as well as creating a 3-D world that was both simple and challenging. While I find Super Mario 64 to be quite entertaining, I have to say that only being able to collect one star at a time is disappointing. While I understand the choice from a design perspective, as a player it feels a bit tedious to go back through a level over and over to collect all the stars. Super Mario 64 is a triumph in gaming, taking a 2-D franchise into the world of 3-D with what looks like a seamless effort. What minor gripes one might have with the game are easily overshadowed by its wonderfully constructed game world, characters, and gameplay.
Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo 64, 1998)
Another titan among the industry, the Legend of Zelda series had to wait two additional years before seeing an N64 release. Ocarina of Time was a game-changing title (pun intended). The story, this time around, is a little more complicated. Link, a child gifted by destiny, is tasked by Princess Zelda to obtain the three Spiritual Stones so he can enter the Sacred Realm and take the Triforce before Ganandorf. Link ultimately fails in this quest, as Ganandorf follows Link into the Sacred Realm to steal it. Link’s spirit is then sealed for seven years; after which he is awakened by the sage, Rauru. Now that he is old enough to wield the Master Sword, he stands a chance of defeating Ganondorf, but only with the aid of the Seven Sages, five of which he must awaken before they can offer their aid [ 4 ].
Link himself reflects his previous incarnations, maintaining his green tunic, hat, tights, boots, and overall Elf-like appearance. The new, polygonal-based design is rough looking by current game standards, but in 1998, gamers had never seen anything so detailed in 3-D before. Notably, Link has two forms in this iteration of the franchise. Kid Link is short, using smaller weapons like the Kokiri Sword, Deku Shield and Slingshot, and overall is very limited compared to Adult Link. The older Link has the legendary Master Sword, can wield the Hylian shield, gets his iconic bow and Hookshot weapons, and so on. These two versions of Link face very different levels of challenge, and this is reflected by the amount of gear each can obtain and use.
Taking combat from a long-standing top-down platforming adventure RPG from 2.5-D into 3-D is no small feat, and the new mechanics introduced in Ocarina are reflective of this massive change. Flying enemies now have the full range of Z axis to play with, making them a far greater nuisance than their predecessors. The addition of Z targeting is the solution to this uniquely 3-D problem, making combat fundamentally different than previous games. Many of the foes in Ocarina require the player to wait for them to become vulnerable before damage can be dealt, making fights reactive rather than proactive. You can become encircled by foes with no quick way to dispatch them all, having to wait for the proper time to attack, which creates a lot of tension in fights. Whether this kind of change is good or bad is a matter of personal taste, but it was a necessary change for the 3-D transition, as a hero who can take advantage of three dimensions needs foes who can do the same. Throughout the game, Link will face the ever-familiar bats, skeletons, giant spiders, Octorocks, ghostly Poe, wolves, zombies (called Redead), mummies (called Gibdo) and more [ 5 ]. The graphic quality of these various foes is not particularly high, but in ’98 they were quite good, at least when compared to their counterparts of the 2-D games.
While the game world of Hyrule is large and open to the untrained eye, the game itself is very linear. There are optional side quests, yes, but progressing in the main story requires certain events in a certain order. The pass to the Gorons’ mountain, for example, is blocked until Link talks to young Zelda and Impa and receives a letter that allows him to pass. Asking the player to take certain steps in a linear quest line isn’t a bad design; in fact, if you have a specific story to tell, it’s a good way to go about it, and introducing new mechanics in this progression allows the player an easy transition into the later portions of the game. You won’t run into anything you can’t handle. The dungeon levels are where the design of the game really shines. The level of detail put into every corner of the various temples, and the complexity of their puzzles, evokes the same feeling of previous Zelda titles while also adding the fresh 3-D perspective. Inside the Deku Tree, for example, you can look all the way up or all the way down the elevated paths, giving you a unique visual perspective on the dungeon, allowing you to see what lies ahead, or what you might have missed behind. This also creates opportunities for the designers to place puzzle pieces elsewhere in the game space, like the various eye reliefs that will open doors when shot with the slingshot or bow. While this was done well, given how new the technology was, I still wish more had been done with this aspect.
Ocarina’s interface is laid out very similarly to its predecessor’s. In the top left is Link’s health, represented by a number of hearts. This health meter can be increased by collecting the various Pieces of Heart from around the game world. Bottom left displays the total amount of Rupees, this game’s currency, which can be used to purchase secondary weapon ammunition, shields, potions and so on. In the top right of the display is the currently equipped main weapon (Kokiri, Master or Biggoron’s sword respectively), which is keyed to the green B button. Next to this is the context-sensitive action button, keyed to the blue A button. Finally, we have the three C-pad buttons which allow quick use of three items. The Start button brings up the inventory sub screens, where the player can change Link’s equipment to suit their current needs. Notably, Kid Link items are not usable by Adult Link, and vice versa, though they do not disappear from the inventory. Using the L and R shoulder buttons, the player can navigate through the pause menus, with the World Map, Items, Quest Status, and Equipment screens [ 6 ].
The various boss and mini-boss fights in Ocarina are interesting visual spectacles, and all their polygonal models are quite detailed, though most of them fall into a very similar pattern. The first three bosses, Ghoma, King Dodongo, and Barinade, all follow the same patterns—they have a period of attack, followed by a period where their weak point is exploitable via the special dungeon weapon or item. Then, after being struck by that special weapon, they become vulnerable to regular sword attacks for a short period of time. Indeed, even the boss battles in the various temples against Phantom Gannon, Volvagia, Morpha, Bongobongo, and Twinrova follow a similar pattern. They each have various forms of attack that they transition into when enough damage is done to them. Each one requires the special dungeon item or weapon to make them vulnerable to regular sword attacks. While the Adult Link bosses are more complicated in their attack patterns, this predictability in how they will eventually be defeated takes away a bit of their menace. The final boss Ganandorf doesn’t quite follow this pattern. He requires a combination of volleying his own magic back at him with the Master Sword and using Light Arrows to stun him out of his flight, then slashing him with the sword when he falls to the ground. In his second form, the massive pig Ganon, Link is separated from the Master Sword via a wall of flame, and the player must hit Ganon’s tail with either Biggoron’s Sword or the Megaton hammer, using Light Arrows to stun him long enough for this hit to be landed. When enough damage is dealt, the wall of flame subsides, and Link can retrieve the sword, which must be used for the final blow. It’s difficult for me to do justice to these boss fights in mere words. The first time encountering these bosses, even with their predictable natures, was one of the most exciting experiences for fans of the franchise. Their brightly colored special effects and fantastic, mythological, and alien appearances made each of these bosses a memorable encounter.
Of course, for all its merits, Ocarina has many shortfalls. The first and most irritating of these is how Navi works—constantly stopping the player mid motion to deliver information, as well as her frequent “hey” voice notifications. This information, necessary or otherwise, would have been better served in an opt-in style, allowing players to skip her dialogue if they wanted to, particularly during repeat play throughs, or by displaying the notification without interrupting regular play. This delivery of information is reflective of the switch in overall game style, from a semi-open 2-D world to a roomier but more linear 3-D one.
Next is the infamous Water Temple. There have long been rumors that you can break the game here by using the keys in the wrong order, but this is false. What is true is that some of the keys are not in obvious places, and because the water temple needs so many, it can be very frustrating when you miss one. It’s a large dungeon and requires a lot of raising and lowering of the water level to complete, making it very time consuming, even more so when you can’t find that last key.
The last bit that annoys is how long it takes to transition between eras. Having to go back to the Temple of Time via teleport song, playing another song and waiting through the cutscene. Every. Single. Time. This really should have been made skippable, or better yet been allowed outside the Temple of Time. In the predecessor, Link to the Past, all you had to do was use a magic mirror and boom, you’re in the other world. A simple transition like that is sorely missed here.
Much of the praise given to Ocarina of Time is well earned, but when looking into the games of the past it’s important to take off the nostalgia glasses and acknowledge where things weren’t as good as we thought. Though I still very much enjoy Ocarina of Time today, these errors stick out. Even so, despite the dated graphics and gameplay issues, this game remains a classic that is still fun to play to this day.
NiGHTS into Dreams (Sega Saturn, 1996)
Getting away from the N64 for a bit, we come to a lesser known but still excellent title in NiGHTS into Dreams. Brought to us by the same team that made Sonic, NiGHTS is the tale of two teenagers, Claris and Elliot, who enter the world of Nightopia, where all dreams take place. There they team up with Nights, a Nightmaren, and work together to stop the evil Wizeman from destroying Nightopia [ 7 ].
The character of Nights is an interesting one. Firstly, Nights is presented androgynously, which is the first character to my knowledge that was purposefully done in such a manner. They wear a sort of jester’s motley, with a purple hood that ends in two points, a pink and gold vest over a white, long-sleeved shirt, and purple pants with boots to match the vest. Nights has the power of flight and uses this to navigate through the various obstacles of Nightopia. They are capable of simple acrobatic maneuvers, like backflips and barrel rolls, the former being used to gather items that might have been missed on the initial pass, and the latter of which acts as Nights’ attack. Nights’ main objective in each level is to recollect Claris or Elliot’s Ideyas, spheres that contain their emotions of hope, wisdom, intelligence, and purity.
The game’s interface can be a bit confusing for first-time players, though there are some elements that become evident on their own. In the top center is the timer, which counts down from a time of 120 seconds. In the top left we see current number of Blue Chips, of which 20 are needed to overload the cages that hold Claris or Elliot’s Ideyas. In the top right is the total score for the level, which has a bearing on the overall rank the player receives when the level is completed. Lastly, at the bottom right is Nights’ health bar, which is green and depletes when Nights takes damage. This aspect is probably Nights’ weakest, as the information displayed does almost nothing to inform the player of the game objectives without requiring a good amount of experimentation.
The game itself has four “Mares” for each of the teenage protagonists. These Mares each have four Ideyas that need to be retrieved and are further split up between gathering those. This is a seamless split, however, meaning that once the first Ideya is collected, you immediately continue onto the second without a loading screen. The navigation of the Mares is quite interesting, incorporating classic 2-D side-scrolling alongside a three-dimensional space. Essentially, for the majority of the game, Nights flies left to right or right to left, but also shifts around certain points in the game world, taking them into the foreground of background depending on how much of a turn is made around a given object or structure. You can see objects in the background that you will circle around to collect later in the level. It’s one of the most unique takes on three-dimensional navigation that I’ve ever encountered.
NiGHTS into Dreams doesn’t have regular game enemies, rather the focus is on items collection and speed. It does, however, have boss battles at the end of each Mare. For Claris’ Mare, we have Gillwing, the gigantic flying technicolor tadpole dragon. Gillwing is easily dispatched by slamming into its head repeatedly. Next for Claris is Gulpo, a giant blue piranha that swims inside its own dream fish tank. This tank has other fish around it, which Night must use as a launching point to blast into the tank and slam through Gulpo. Last for Claris is Jackle, a tougher opponent whom you face off against inside his nightmare circus tent. Jackle will throw tarot cards at Nights which have a slowing effect. Nights must remove Jackle’s cape to make him vulnerable to attacks, though Jackle will try to get back to his cape as quickly as possible when it’s removed. For Elliot, there is Puffy, a rabbit eared humanoid with a bouncing ball-like lower body. Puffy’s attacks don’t hurt Nights but take time away from the timer. The players must navigate Nights to grab Puffy and launch her downward into the next room to damage her. Second for Elliot is Clawz, a giant cat monster with shark fins, orange stripes and long claws. This cat will go around the track of its room and light up mice piñatas, which must be destroyed to defeat him. The last boss for Elliot is Reala, a Nightmaren very similar to Nights themselves, though with a red and white color scheme. You face Reala in their throne room and must paraloop them three times to defeat them. If you manage to defeat all of these levels and bosses with a score of C or better, then you can go on to face Wizeman the Wicked. Wizeman appears as a massive humanoid in a blue robe with giant pauldrons, a wickedly spiked helmet, and six floating hands in front of him. Wizeman throws blasts of fire, massive asteroids, boulders of ice, and tornadoes at Nights. The player must navigate around these various obstacles and slam into Wizeman a total of four times to defeat him once and for all.
This game’s take on three-dimensional space and how it can be used was quite unique for its day, and while other games have stepped into using partially 3-D spaces, NiGHTS into Dreams certainly had a unique spin on the traditional linear platforming and collection-oriented gameplay. I’d not heard of this title back when it was first released, which is a shame, because I’m certain I would have enjoyed playing it then as much as I did now. Navigating the game’s levels took some getting used to, as the semi-3-D areas can sometimes confuse, but once you get the hang of it, it’s simple enough to fly around and complete the various levels. The game itself is not very long, but it is quite beautiful to behold, and I’d recommend a quick playthrough to anyone with an interest in the obscure.
Conker’s Bad Fur Day (Nintendo 64, 2001)
Introduced towards the end of the N64 lifecycle, Conker’s Bad Fur Day is a game of intentional absurdity. Brought to us by the legendary Rare, this is the story of a squirrel named Conker, who, after a night of binge drinking, becomes lost and tries to find his way back home. Along the way, Conker runs into various denizens of the forest who need his help and pay him handsomely for it. He is also pursued by the Panther King, who needs a red squirrel to replace a broken table leg [ 8 ]. Make sense? Well, it’s not supposed to. It’s just a flimsy plot design to facilitate the game’s jokes, and that’s OK.
Conker’s first appearance was in Diddy Kong Racing as one of the racers. This time around he’s ditched the cart. Conker’s polygons and textures are quite highly detailed for an N64 game, which is likely due to coming out much later in the console’s lifespan, when the hardware was better understood and could be pushed further. Conker has a very expressive face, with a full range of emotions from happy, confused, thoughtful, greedy, hungover, and so on. He moves at a brisk, jogging pace, and can double jump and use his tail like a helicopter for limited hovering. He also comes equipped with a frying pan for smacking enemies. This may not seem like much, but it’s all a plucky squirrel needs to survive in the great outdoors.
The interface of Conker’s Bad Fur Day is even simpler than most. The only two parts that appear are Conker’s health, in the form of bars of chocolate, and his extra lives. The more complete the bar of chocolate looks; the more health you have. You increase this health by picking up chocolate you find around the game world. The first time Conker dies, the reaper explains that squirrels have as many extra lives as they think they can get away with, though you definitively start with three. You gain more lives by picking up squirrel tails, which is kind of gruesome for a squirrel to do. Lastly, the game features several “Context Sensitive” zones, where Conker will be able to do various things, like use weapons such as throwing knives, a slingshot, toilet paper, or even machine guns. A lightbulb will “ding” over Conker’s head to indicate that he is on a Context Sensitive zone, which is also indicated by a large B on the ground.
The environments of this game are sparingly detailed, which is not to say that they look bad, but rather that there isn’t too much substance in the various map sections. The game takes Conker through the forest, rocky valleys and gullies, a barn, a bullfighting ring, a lumber mill, a boiler room, a mountain of poo, and several more. These locations aren’t overly big, and usually only have one or two main objectives to complete before Conker can move on to the next area. Their textures are generally smooth, and the polygons don’t look overly blocky or poorly placed, making these stages some of the better-looking ones in the N64 library. These various locations transition into one another in a mostly linear fashion.
The various mundane foes of the game mostly consist of other small, woodland animals and insects. Most of the time, it’s a better idea for Conker to avoid fighting, as outside of the Context Sensitive weapons, his frying pan doesn’t provide too much punch. The little red squirrel will run into dung beetles, strange dinosaur worshippers, and sentient boxes out in the regular game world. In the “It’s War” chapter, Conker is armed with guns and ready to kill as many Tediz (Nazi teddy bears) as he is able. When he’s done with war, Conker and his girlfriend, Berri, dress up Matrix style in the “Heist” and rob a bank, killing the heavily armed and armored weasel guards in the process. This game’s focus isn’t really on combat, at least not until the last two chapters. Before this, it’s more about solving the various puzzles that unlock the next areas. It’s my suspicion that these combat-heavy chapters were only included due to their tie in to jokes on Saving Private Ryan and The Matrix.
There are, however, some thematic boss fights within Conker’s Bad Fur Day. The first one that comes to most people’s mind is the Great Mighty Poo and his operatic singing. This giant poop will throw globs of crap at Conker, who must avoid them and wait for the Poo to start singing, at which point he can throw a roll of toilet paper into his mouth. The player will battle a Hay Robot from the back of a pogo-hopping pitchfork, first setting its hay covering on fire, then following it down a pit to dismantle it once and for all, to a mock Terminator theme. The Big Big Guy, a gigantic furnace piloted by fire imps, is fought inside a boiler room. Conker must lure him underneath the water pipes, then pull a lever to flush the contents onto him. This only stuns the Big Big Guy, which then allows Conker to smash his, literally, brass balls (ouch). Buga the Knut, a giant primitive man, faces Conker in an arena. The little squirrel must ride a small T-Rex, jumping over Buga’s shockwaves and waiting for him to swing his club down. Then, he can have the T-Rex head-butt Buga’s groin, then ride around to his butt and bite a piece of it off. Eventually, Buga’s loin cloth won’t stay up due to his missing buttocks, and he runs out of the arena in embarrassment. The encounter with Count Batula is an odd one, as you don’t really “fight” him so much as gather so many villagers for him to consume that he becomes too fat to hang from the ceiling and falls into his own meat grinder. In the War chapter, you battle a gigantic mechanic Tediz robot with a little girl commanding it. Conker has a tank this time around and needs to use the cannon to blast the Little Girl away, which makes the giant machine vulnerable to a blast from behind. You do come face to face with the Panther King, only to have him die due to an alien parasite bursting out of his chest. You then suit up like Ripley, deliver a beat down to the alien, and throw it out of the airlock, but it keeps coming back. At the last moment, the game “locks up,” and Conker makes a deal with a game programmer to give him some help with the alien in exchange for “not telling anyone” about the game locking up. As you can tell, the emphasis of these boss battles is their humor, rather than their difficulty or their narratives.
Many of the jokes in CBFD are dated and immature. During its time, it was considered fun, edgy, and amusing in a slapstick and offensive kind of way. In 2001, it was one of the first Nintendo titles to earn a Mature rating by the Entertainment Software Rating Board for “mature comic mischief” [ 9 ]. Today, it’s the kind of game you might play once or twice, just so you could say that you did, though you’d probably only find it amusing if you were blazing up. I personally found it a lot less fun than it was hyped up to be. It’s not a bad game necessarily, but the dated and often immature humor isn’t quite appealing to me. It didn’t really innovate a whole lot, as the N64 was on its way out and there wasn’t much else to be done with that console’s hardware. However, the game has gained such a cult following that it even has a remastered version available for those diehard fans.
These games are just a few of the first 3-D platforming and adventure titles. Since their release, and because of the lessons learned by their pioneering mechanics and graphics, the platforming and adventure genres have seen some great strides forward. Whether you consider these classics or not, their impact on gaming and graphics cannot be denied.
- “While attempting to create an icon to symbolize their system, as Mario and Sega before them, Sony’s wildly successful Crash Bandicoot, represented a departure from the typical ‘mascot’.” Crash Bandicoot. Sony. 1996. PlayStation.
- “Mario’s translation to the 64-bit 3-D platform was a significant adjustment.” Super Mario 64. Nintendo. 1996. Nintendo 64.
- “What can be said about Ocarina that hasn’t already been said? A seminal entry into the Zelda series.” The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time. Nintendo. 1998. Nintendo 64.
- “Sega’s NiGHTS: Into Dreams was a breakout hit for their new hardware, while failing to gain the following of other franchises.” NiGHTS: Into Dreams. Sega. 1996. Sega Saturn.
- “Tongue in cheek, Rare was able to reinvent the ‘kiddy’ franchise in Conker’s Bad Fur Day, for ribald and ‘adult’ audiences.” Conker’s Bad Fur Day. Rare. 2001. Nintendo 64.
A man of many talents, Clayton has worn several hats. His work focuses on visual mediums like film and gaming. A practiced martial artist and a graduate of Johnson and Wales University with a Bachelor’s in Graphic Design & New Media, he brings both tactile experience and academic credentials as measures of his considerable expertise. Clayton is both Manager of Steam-Funk’s core writing staff and part of the firm’s senior creative team, helping craft both The Living Multiverse and firm policy.
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- Steam Staff. “NiGHTS Into Dreams on Steam.” NiGHTS Into Dreams on Steam, Steam, store.steampowered.com/app/219950/NiGHTS_Into_Dreams/. Accessed 4 January, 2020.
- Kartanym. “Conker’s Bad Fur Day for Nintendo 64 (2001).” MobyGames, Blue Flame Labs, 31 Mar. 2001, mobygames.com/game/n64/conkers-bad-fur-day.
- Kushner, David. “Nintendo Grows Up and Goes for the Gross-Out.” New York Times, 10 May 2001, nytimes.com/2001/05/10/technology/nintendo-grows-up-and-goes-for-the-grossout.html.