By PistonHyundai 0 Comments
[This is the second entry in a series of blogs. It's recommended you read the first before you read this one.]
Moving on from the unfortunate results of John Romero's id departure (closing thoughts: god damn it I should've worked in the title "id and Egos" somehow), I want to shift gears to something a little more positive, so let's talk about a pair of games that inspired me to write these blogs to begin with.
The Worst Mistake I Ever Made: From Earthworm Jim to the Neverhood & MDK
You wouldn't be blamed for comparing Shiny Entertainment's classic-ish Earthworm Jim series to Ren & Stimpy. It's true that they both have this deceptively crude charm to them, where the things you're being shown are offputting and kind of disgusting—and yet you can't look away because of how well animated it all is—but it goes deeper than that. When Ren & Stimpy debuted in 1991, it marked a paradigm shift in cartoons from blatant commercialism to something more creator-focused. Cartoons have always moved merch in one way or another, but the 80s were a time where toy manufacturers ran roughshod on the animation industry and entertainment was often just a means of getting some poor young sap to ask Mommy for a G.I. Joe or a Transformer. Everybody loved the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon, but it wouldn't even exist if the creators weren't looking to sell action figures. While Ralph Bakshi and John Kricfalusi's fourth wallless Mighty Mouse reboot would get the ball rolling towards a new standard, it would be Kricfalusi's later Ren & Stimpy that would break out huge, representing a new wave of cartoons that looked to the Golden Age of Animation for inspiration. Inspiration which animators would use to inform their own warped creations, unbeholden to pesky license owners or studio executives. Two years after Spümcø's cat and dog duo first hit TVs across the United States, a similar transition would play out for a handful of game developers in California.
If you played video games in the 90s, you're at the very least familiar with the work of David Perry (who I can't not call Dave, thanks to this bit from Earthworm Jim). Like John Romero, the Ireland native was fixated on computers from a young age, spending his youth programming small games for home computers and sending them to magazines for them to publish. By the time he was 17 years old, Perry was working in London on home computer ports for various companies, something that eventually landed him a job at Virgin Games. During his time at Probe Software, he would meet designer Nick Bruty, and the pair would be offered positions at Virgin's new US-based studio during their work on the Terminator. They accepted, and it's here that the backbone of Earthworm Jim would begin to form. At least, as much of a backbone as a worm could have.
Considering the gigantic overlap in staff, Virgin Games USA is for most intents and purposes the prototype for Shiny Entertainment. They're mostly known for a trilogy of Genesis licensed games that, in addition to being some of the most popular games on the system, would share an engine that serves as the foundation on which EWJ was built. Mick & Mack as the Global Gladiators was their first title as Virgin Games USA, an action-platformer with an environmentalist bent and loads of McDonald's advertising. It's pretty unremarkable, but is notable for being the first game of Perry's that Tommy Tallarico would compose music for (And would you just listen to those samples?). It also firmly establishes the team's knack for quality artwork, thanks to a then-huge team of eight artists and the solid animation skills of future Shiny employee Mike Dietz. Their next game, Cool Spot, is a beloved "hey, this actually isn't bad" advergame classic, and is the Virgin game most like Earthworm Jim. You can see a lot of the gameplay basics of Shiny's debut taking form here, most evident in the sprawling, sometimes confusing levels, eight-way shooting, and the less-than-ideal collision detection with level geometry. Finally, there's their smash hit adaptation of Disney's Aladdin, a game second only to Sonic in its success on the system. It doesn't have a lot in common with Jim from a gameplay perspective, but its lauded "DigiCel" process (where real animation cels are digitized for use in-game) would play a part in bringing the Earthworm's animations to life. Virgin Games USA was working on a fourth licensed game based on the Jungle Book, but by the time it was finished, Eurocom would be the studio attached to it. Most of the Virgin team left mid-development to join Perry in his new venture at Shiny Entertainment.
Shiny would use much of their Virgin Games experience to make Earthworm Jim—the first release under their 3-game deal with publisher Playmates Interactive, the video game branch of the toy company responsible for Teenager Mutant Ninja Turtles (go figure)—but it still very much feels like the product of a team that was absolutely thrilled to put those damn kids games behind them. The gameplay feels like an evolution of Cool Spot (but eschewing the collectathon aspect and focusing much more on combat, having you run and gun through huge levels) and the visuals evoke the quality of Aladdin, but the similarities end there. Instead of fast food mascots or Disney characters, Shiny tapped the imagination of Douglas TenNapel, an animator that joined them during the development of the Jungle Book after having worked at BlueSky Software on SEGA's adaptations of Jurassic Park and, of course, Ren & Stimpy. TenNapel was the creative mind behind Earthworm Jim, crafting most of the characters and providing Jim with his trademark voice.
The world that TenNapel created for the game feels like a direct subversion of the kind of bouncy mascot platformers both he and Shiny were making before the company formed. Instead of going with the faux-cool of a Sonic the Hedgehog or even Cool Spot's own Anti-Cola mascot, Jim is an anti-mascot that's ultimately kind of a dope: a bumbling figure—featuring a Jim Varney-esque southern twang—that totally lucks into the bionic suit that gives him any of his noteworthy abilities. Gone are the Green Hills and sunny beaches of your typical platformer, replaced with junkyards, intestinal labyrinths, and even the gates of Hel- Heck, rather. Characters like the villainous Queen Slug-For-A-Butt (short for Queen Pulsating, Bloated, Festering, Sweaty, Pus-filled, Malformed Slug-For-A-Butt), her sister Princess What's-Her-Name (a commentary on the prevalent yet often meaningless damsel in distress trope), and the mad Professor Monkey-For-A-Head round out a marketer's nightmare of a cast. These aren't just aesthetic choices, either: even the gameplay takes strange detours to host hamster rides and rounds of competitive bungee jumping.
Its mechanics haven't aged particularly gracefully (the pseudo-360 degree firing feels pretty clunky, the whip swinging is far more frustrating than it should be, bosses give little feedback on damaging them...), but I just have to respect the free-wheeling attitude with which the game was made:
Once we released Earthworm Jim we knew we had a hit on our hands, but while we were making it I don’t think we really knew how big it would be. We were trying to establish ourselves as artists and as a company, and we were really passionate about what we were doing. However day to day during production we were just trying to entertain each other, making the game we wanted to play, and I think that comes through in the final product. -Mike Dietz, iGame Responsibly interview
Even with its rough edges, EWJ is a game where you can tell the development team just went for it. The animation is still impressive today, backgrounds are gorgeous and full of detail, and the gameplay has a great balance of variety. Tallarico's soundtrack is a real standout, offering straight-faced action game bangers—something he flirted with during Cool Spot—interspersed with ragtime, bluegrass, and big band non-sequiturs. The gameplay may not hold up its end of the bargain, but at the end of the day, this is a game the development team really put themselves into, sometimes literally. Many of the series' elements are named after the developers themselves, such as stages Big Bruty, Andy Asteroids, and the sequel's Lorenzen's Soil (there's even a cheat code in the SNES version taunting programmer Nick Jones for entering in a cheat code whose inputs were changed mid-development). It isn't one of my favorite games to play, but it's something I can't help but admire regardless.
Like Playmates' TMNT before it, Earthworm Jim was a near-immediate sensation, leading to Playmates-brand action figures, a Special Edition port of the original game, an animated series starring Dan Castellaneta, and a sequel the following year. While the SEGA CD's Earthworm Jim: Special Edition is by far the best way to play the original game, the series wouldn't quite reach the same heights afterwards. Earthworm Jim 2 has a lot going for it, being one of the best looking 16-bit games of the era, but the first game's issues aren't really addressed and the gameplay ends up a little too varied. It's filled to the brim with different gameplay styles, but the amount of gimmick levels and 12 different rounds of the dreaded Puppy Love often proves overwhelming, leaving you trudging along in the hopes of making it to the next traditional stage. The game was a success, but it was also the end of Shiny as we knew it, as a surprise E3 announcement would reveal during its development.
Mistakes Were Made
Joining the recent rush of mergers and acquisitions among video game companies, Interplay announced that it has acquired Shiny Entertainment. The news startled attendees at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, where the announcement was made, because of Shiny's prestige in the industry. Run by David Perry, Shiny is the young Laguna Beach-based company that created the Earthworm Jim games for the SNES and Genesis. -Gamepro, August 1995 issue
Very recently, a prototype version of Earthworm Jim 2 was unearthed, painting a picture of the game as it was extremely early in development. It features plenty of levels and other content that wouldn't make it into the final version, but the most fascinating thing about it is that it features loads of unused prerendered 3D graphics. In addition to 3D characters missing from the final game's levels (a green monster previously only seen in previews, dragons in the Flyin' King stage, a roller-coaster cut from Inflated Head's carnival world...), there's a test level that's little more than a copy of the first game's New Junk City with the addition of a big 3D robot that idles in front of you. Betas and prototypes are always an interesting window into what could've been for a video game, but Earthworm Jim 2's prototype doubles as a hint towards Shiny's future, giving vital context to Interplay's acquisition of the company.
Perry could see the writing on the wall: the Shiny formula wasn't going to last forever. It was 1995, and everybody was enraptured by the 3D capabilities of the Sony PlayStation and the upcoming Nintendo Ultra 64. Earthworm Jim 2 was able to successfully integrate its 2D art with pre-rendered 3D despite its many cuts, but to Dave, Shiny was on borrowed time. After all, what good would a bunch of traditional 2D artists be in a world where Bernie Stolar wasn't even allowing 2D games on Sony's new machine? Fearing the worst for his studio, Perry decided to cut his losses and sell the company to Interplay Entertainment, a safety net he would later call the worst mistake he ever made.
As you might expect, a lot of the Shiny crew didn't take the Interplay sale very well. Perry had a great reputation among the team as a programmer that really cared about the input of artists (the credits in Global Gladiators' manual list Perry with the nickname "I need more artists!"), so it came as a shock to many that he would sell the company. After years of working for sometimes-literal Mickey Mouse operations, Shiny's autonomy was something a lot of its employees valued, so it wouldn't take very long at all for many to abandon the company. Some would see EWJ2 through to the end, but Doug TenNapel would leave in April—quite early in development, if the prototype's build date of the 24th of that same month is to be believed—and have an E3 announcement of his own two weeks later:
Not all the folks are Shiny Happy People on the good ship Earthworm Jim. Half of the original eight-man team at Shiny has left. They've jumped ship after Interplay purchased Shiny, and they have set out on their own to form their a new gaming company called Neverhood. -Electronic Gaming Monthly, September 1995 issue
A Beautiful Day in the Neverhood
Residents of the Neverhood, Inc. included artists Ed Schofield and Mark Lorenzen, both of whom left Shiny to join Doug almost immediately. Lorenzen, an old college buddy that worked alongside Doug at BlueSky, joined Shiny during the development of Earthworm Jim 2 but left to join the Neverhood before completion, mirroring TenNapel's own experience on Virgin's Jungle Book. Fellow Shiny employees Mike Dietz and Eric Ciccone would join later, as they wanted to see through EWJ2's development. Setting out to acquire funding, Doug courted the months-old Dreamworks Interactive, who were looking for creative new games to publish alongside their internally-developed ones. During the week of E3 1995, the Neverhood made a pitch in the home of one of the company's founders: Stephen Spielberg. The idea was a break from both action-platformers and 2D animation, a PC adventure game inspired by LucasArts and Myst, done entirely in claymation. With the greenlight from Spielberg, the Neverhood signed its own 3-game publishing deal with Dreamworks and only a year (and three tons of clay) later, their first game, known as the Neverhood Chronicles, was released on Halloween 1996.
Now, I'm a gameplay first kind of guy, so my patience for 90s point-and-click adventure games isn't exactly the best. The backtracking and trial-and-error that often comes with the genre isn't something I'm really into, so I was blown away by how much I enjoyed the Neverhood Chronicles (often just called the Neverhood). It smartly avoids many of the pitfalls of its contemporaries, resulting in an experience that rarely frustrates. It's not flawless, but thankfully, many of its issues can be alleviated with modern conveniences.
The Neverhood is quick to let you know it isn't just another adventure game, opting to throw you into things as soon as the publisher/developer splash screens are over. Following a brief title card sequence, you wake up in a room and start solving puzzles, knowing zero about your character or the strange clay world around him. There's no menus, no introduction cutscene, nothing. Just a lanky clay dork waking up in a big clay room with a clay hammer hovering over its only door. The Neverhood was influenced by an art show that TenNapel did in the 80s called "A Beautiful Day in the Neverhood," which was a series of 17 paintings depicting a city made out of clay, but while while the Neverhood is a desolate, sparsely-populated world full of odd clay structures, similarities to the 1988 incarnation end there. This Neverhood is far more abstract, featuring bizarre landscapes and strange buildings, sometimes made out of sandwiches (fans of the Chip Butty will be right at home here). You meet a handful of oddball characters as you make your way through the world, but the game focuses more on exploration and puzzle-solving than character interaction, as you search for 20 video disks scattered throughout the Neverhood. Each disk contains a piece of the world's story, as told by the dim-witted yet affable Willie Trombone. It's here that you learn that your name is Klaymen and are eventually told the origins of the Neverhood and the reason why it's so empty. The game's straightforward start and its relative lack of NPCs may lead you to believe that the story is more of an afterthought, but the Neverhood actually has the most backstory and world-building of any of TenNapel's works.
The "yeah, but" caveat that comes with the Neverhood is widely regarded as the Hall of Records, a building that hosts the titular "Neverhood Chronicles." This is a codex containing almost all of the lore to be found in the series, drawing inspiration from the biblical story of creation. Going into the game, I treated this as a huge red flag considering TenNapel's frankly abhorrent beliefs that stem from his being a fundamentalist Christian, but it thankfully ends up as a fun read, filled with humorous stories that fill in the world's many blanks while also being entertaining in its own right. The catch with this is that all of it is implemented in-game as a literal wall of text that can take up to ten minutes to traverse through, and that's if you simply want to skip reading any of it and reach the video disk you need at the end of the hall. It's a now-notorious sequence of the game because of this, but it's become far less of an issue in the time since the game's release. Not only can you read the entirety of the Chronicles online, but ScummVM also allows you to skip all of the non-essential rooms, expediting the process greatly. God bless emulation.
Puzzle-solving in the Neverhood will feel familiar to adventure game veterans, but the variety and some forward thinking really makes them shine. There's tons of different flavors of puzzle in the game, from tile sliding and matching games to more intense logic puzzles, and they sometimes even change the visual style up to something more hand-drawn. There's no dead ends or game overs—save for one incredibly obvious one that's more of a joke than anything—and you use items automatically as you interact with objects, so instead of savescumming and pixel-hunting or dicking around with an inventory screen, most of the focus is where it should be: actually thinking about the puzzles. They start off easy, but by the end you encounter some pretty taxing puzzles, and while you'll probably have to hit Google up for at least one of the solutions, there's always a logic or clue to them that you can follow (Stuck on the mouse puzzle? Follow your nose.). The biggest drawback that the puzzles end up having is the amount of backtracking you have to do. Occasionally you'll come across symbols that are the cypher for a puzzle in another location, meaning you'll have to strut along to another location with the symbols in tow. It can be a bother, but there's a much-welcome fast travel system introduced partway through the game, and you can skip the first-person traversal FMVs and any other cutscenes on the way. Thanks to modern technology, you can even use the print screen feature of Windows to store any information in lieu of grabbing a pen and paper.
The Neverhood is one of the better adventure games I've come across in terms of gameplay, but the game's aesthetic really steals the show. The clay style is a perfect home for the Neverhood team's talents, and while the FMV scenes are unfortunately pretty compressed, the animation both there and in gameplay is full of life and always entertaining. For as much as I can praise the look of the game, though, what sticks with me is the music. TenNapel recruited Terry Scott Taylor, frontman of Christian rock band Daniel Amos, to compose music for the Neverhood, giving him a rough direction of the kind of genres they were going for. What they got in return was one of the wildest and most addictive soundtracks in any game. It's largely driven by acoustic guitars, but it takes Tommy Tallarico's penchant for abrupt genre shifts in the Earthworm Jim series to the next level, throwing in 70s funk, swing, and whatever the hell this is. There's plenty of vocals, but good luck deciphering much of the lyrics, as Taylor skats, mumbles, and coughs through most of it. More than a lot of other games, the music is a huge part of what makes the game special, as there's nothing quite like wandering around a clay structure trying to figure out what the hell you're supposed to do, all while some dude is in the background rambling about playing a little ping-pong. The game even dedicates an entire puzzle to a radio full of batshit musical interludes, including some skits and a reference to the Simpsons' Beatles reference.
Overall, the Neverhood is the team's creative peak. It was a game I treated with a lot of apprehension beforehand, but it won me over almost instantly. I can't decide if it's my favorite Neverhood game or not—the follow-up, Skullmonkeys, is a better-playing platformer than either of Shiny's Earthworm Jims—but it's one of the most memorable adventure games you'll ever play.
Murder Death Kill, or Mission: Deliver Kindness, or Max, Dr. Hawkins, & Kurt, or...
Meanwhile, in Laguna Beach, Shiny wasn't just sitting on their hands while the Neverhood hit the ground running. After all, they still had another game to make for Playmates. It'd be easy to think that with a contractual obligation and a lack of TenNapel and company, the crew would be forced to rest on their laurels and just churn out lousy Earthworm Jim sequels, but just the opposite happened. Don't get me wrong, suck ass Earthworm Jim sequels were churned out, but not by Shiny: to keep things fresh, the company enacted a no-sequels policy, meaning future Earthworm Jim games would be outsourced and largely stink. Looking to create something new, Nick Bruty would rise to prominence in the company, laying out the groundwork for Shiny's next big game.
Like the Neverhood for, well, the Neverhood (Naming your studio after the franchise you're making can be a real pain in the ass, huh?), Shiny's next title was a bit of a diversion from the kind of games they were used to—and tired of—making. Instead of going for a 2D action game with kid-friendly sensibilities, they wanted to make a 3D shooter with heavy sci-fi influence and (slightly) more mature content. Taking a decidedly edgier tone, the game would be called MDK, short for Murder Death Kill. At least, it was supposed to be: in a bit of irony, the acronym would eventually take on a fluid meaning, as Murder Death Kill wasn't exactly the most marketable title. Content restrictions like this were the kind of thing that console manufacturers like SEGA and Nintendo enforced, and looking to break free from that, MDK also ended up as Shiny's first PC game, a perfect opportunity for a studio looking to flex 3D muscle.
Just like Quake II the same year, MDK would be a polygon-pushing 3D hardware-accelerated visual showpiece focusing on alien worlds, but where id Software's off-world landscapes are woefully pedestrian, MDK offers far more interesting design. It isn't quite the benchmark for 3D hardware that Quake II was, and the dithered low-color 2D assets definitely show their age today, but the art direction remains outstanding. The levels combine abstract architecture with flat-shaded polygons and complex sky textures to create a world that feels legitimately alien. Every area looks unique, and the gameplay upholds that sense of diversity.
You play as space station janitor Kurt Hectic, who is recruited by scientist Fluke Hawkins to destroy alien forces who have landed on Earth in humongous Minecrawler vehicles to strip the planet of its resources. You descend from Dr. Hawkins' ship, the Jim Dandy, with the doctor's patented Coil Suit in tow to infiltrate these Minecrawlers and destroy them from within. On the way down, you play a minigame of sorts where you avoid SAM missiles and collect various power-ups before the stage begins in earnest. Once you're on the surface, things feel a lot like Doom: there's no vertical aiming, and combat is more about moving around enemies as you dodge projectiles than it is about precision. Unlike Doom, however, there's a sniper mode that lets you aim, zoom up to 100 times, and even get headshots in an industry first (well, almost: the 2.5 update for Quake's Team Fortress mod beat MDK to the punch by a matter of weeks), all accomplished from a slick first-person interface that lets you watch up to three bullets as they travel to their targets. You can enter sniper mode whenever you like, but you'll mostly use it in puzzle-like sequences where you'll have to reach enemies hiding behind barriers by using well-placed mortar shells. Typical combat is more about using your Coil Suit's chaingun and various collectible thrown weapons and power-ups to tear up opposition. It's relatively simple compared to the more intricate action of modern shooters, but the game's pacing does an excellent job of keeping things fresh.
Even if you were to compare it to something like Call of Duty, where the runtime is usually about four hours or so, MDK is slight. YouTube playthroughs clock it at around 2 hours and there's only six levels, but the game milks a hell of a lot out of them, packing tons of ideas into each moment. Each level was designed by a different person on the staff, and it shows. No room looks or plays quite like the last, and over the course of the game's short-but-sweet campaign, you'll participate in bombing runs, traverse alien shooting ranges (featuring cut-outs of live-action humans as targets), and even sneak into an enemy base disguised as a robot. The most common break from firing your weapons is platforming, which is done with the aid of the Coil Suit's parachute. This parachute lets you glide across gaps with ease, and along with the third-person view (plus a vault to climb up ledges with) makes the platforming a welcome addition, which is something you can't really say about a lot of its first-person competition. Main rooms are broken up by tight corridors, which serve as stealth loading screens. These sections pose the greatest threat to the game's breakneck pace, but even these areas wind up being canvasses for Shiny's designers. The second stage treats these corridors as amateur bobsled courses, eventually giving way to an entire snowboarding section in following levels, complete with knockoff James Bond music. MDK perfects Earthworm Jim 2's kitchen sink approach to gameplay, throwing surprises your way at every moment without straying too far from the action you're there for. It can feel a little disappointing that the game's so short, but it beats having too much of a good thing, something BioWare's MDK2 proves with its repetitive corridor shooting.
Overall, MDK feels like a game from a studio out to prove that they still had the fire that made them one of the premier game developers of the 90s. It was put together by a measly six-man team, yet everyone seemed to have been firing on all cylinders: the 3D technology was cutting-edge and damn near overshadowed by the impeccable 2D artwork, the gameplay is Shiny's trademark action at its most polished, and even Tallarico's soundtrack feels far more grandiose (even if it still has the goofy one-offs you've come to expect from his work with the company). Despite the practical skeleton crew, MDK is Shiny's best work by far.
Mistakes into Miracles
After MDK, Nick Bruty and fellow MDK designer Bob Stevenson would leave Shiny to form Planet Moon Studios, which would make acclaimed third-person shooters like Giants: Citizen Kabuto and Armed and Dangerous (as well as the PSP's Infected, which might just be the most 2005 game ever made). Following this, Shiny struggled to find the magic that made MDK the success that it was, developing multiple games in concurrence to mixed reception and middling sales. They'd eventually be sold to Infogrames, develop the divisive (yet profitable) Matrix games, and finally be merged with the Collective to form Double Helix Games, which itself would be purchased by Amazon in 2014 (just as the studio was coming into its own with the surprisingly solid revivals of Killer Instinct and Strider).
As for the Neverhood, their first game wouldn't quite have the reception that it probably deserved. While it sold modestly (and apparently had a lucrative OEM deal with Gateway), critics were tired of adventure games, so the team would take inspiration from their previous work at Shiny and make the Neverhood's sequel a platformer. Influenced by the obstacle-course design of Donkey Kong Country and set in a planet neighboring the Neverhood, Skullmonkeys is a delightful little game that continues the irreverent streak of the series (and features a soundtrack that may be even better than its predecessor). The company's final game for Dreamworks, BoomBots, unfortunately wouldn't live up to standard set by the previous two games, and the studio would shut down shortly after release. The Neverhood's residents would then scatter until 2013, when Mike Dietz and Ed Schofield's animation-focused studio Pencil Test would reunite with Doug TenNapel to create Armikrog. While the game was a Kickstarter success, most feel the game pales in comparison to the Neverhood Chronicles, which it was a clear successor to.
Shiny's demise and Armikrog's poor reception certainly puts a damper on things compared to where John Romero and id Software are today, but there's still a good message to be found here. While Romero's ousting from id led to Daikatana's troubled development and Quake II's creative bankruptcy, the exodus of talent from Shiny was a net positive. It proves that it's not always about one key talent when it comes to a development team: Shiny was a studio packed with skilled artists, programmers, and designers, and while TenNapel's departure left them shorthanded, it allowed the MDK team to step up and create their best game while the Neverhood was able to accomplish the same exact thing. The worst mistake David Perry ever made could've been a whole lot worse, all things considered.
The Shiny story doesn't quite come full circle like how Romero and id both found redemption in revisiting Doom, but- oh wait, hold on-
Okay, as I was wrapping this up, they announced that the original Earthworm Jim team is reuniting to make another game. For Tommy Tallarico's new console. Intellivision president Tommy Tallarico's new console. What a fucking crazy future we live in.
Well, with this newfound ability to summon revivals of long-dormant franchises via blog post in mind, be on the lookout for the next entry which will cover, uh, how they should totally make Skate 4. Stay tuned.