Doug TenNapel is out of his Goddamn mind, and you'd best thank your lucky stars that he is. Within his brief romance with the gaming industry, jack-of-all-trades TenNapel (known on the streets as "Dougie Ten") has given us two of the most inventive franchises that you likely aren't very familiar with: Earthworm Jim and the Neverhood. While neither of these series are necessarily top of the class in their respective genres, it was the presentation, the sense of humor, and the style that sold these games. Oh, not to say that they.. y'know, sold all that well. But to those who have encountered and enjoyed The Neverhood, the value was in the complete package -- the claymation visuals, the ecclectic music, and the humor, which was sewn deep into every element of the game. This level of presentation and dedication to a project is really rare nowadays, but we'll lament that fact a little later.
Not really much to speak of. The Neverhood drops you square on your ass in a bizarre world full of bizarre stuff and really bizarre music, and leaves the figurings-out to you and your protagonist, Klaymen. A couple of things pop out at you, though: the world, fascinating and strangely beautiful, is awfully empty. Despite the various signs of civilization throughout the Neverhood, you'll spend a lot of time wandering around empty hallways, empty courtyards, empty rooms -- well, with the occasional giant monster chasing you around and such, as you might expect. For the bulk of The Neverhood, it's just you, Klaymen, and a handful of clues that eventually reveal the fate of the world around you and what exactly happened. In the mean time, though, there's pointin' and clickin' to be done!
The Neverhood boils down to what is essentially a point-and-click adventure game, once a dominant species in the gaming world and now hunted quite close to extinction. But keeping in line with the game's design aesthetic -- an odd cataclysmic mishmash of minimalism and overdrive insanity -- there's not much by way of Monkey Island-style specific interaction. You lead Klaymen around with a click, and where you click, he goes. If you click something with which he, in any circumstance, might be able to interact, Klaymen will do so; this includes buttons, switches, doors, stuff, plants, sticks of dynamite, et cetera. You have an inventory, but you can't really look into that inventory at any given time. If you have the item necessary for an action, Klaymen will use it.
You're given no explicit direction as you set out on your quest; however, a series of disks left by Klaymen's cousin, Willie Trombone, that will fill in the details. If you're really hurting for narrative, you're in luck: the Neverhood Chronicles, a Bible-like story of creation, is laid out upon the walls of a 38-screen-long hallway in the city. It's a really, really long story, and proof positive that a hell of a lot of thought had been put into the genesis of this world. More than that, it's a testament to the game's romance with well-timed excess -- well, that and Klaymen's two minute belch.
As you've probably already guessed, the heart of The Neverhood -- or any adventure game -- isn't so much in the gameplay itself, but the advancing of the story, experiencing the world, and solving the puzzles. It's a slow-paced journey, but you'll appreciate that while you're taking in the scenery. The Neverhood is absolutely beautiful, and makes up for every crime ever committed in claymation (Clayfighter, and.. uh, Gumby) with its stunning animation (particularly in the cutscenes) and incredible character designs.
The Neverhood CD-ROM includes a making-of video in hilariously low resolution -- hey, it was 1996 -- that illustrates a great deal of the work that went into realizing a world entirely out of clay. Playing the game, there are moments when you're looking at a room or an object and you can see tiny indentations that you know are fingertips, and it strikes you that every object in the game was sculpted by hand. Believe me, The Neverhood is a game that will never, ever happen again -- the production of such a work is way, way too expensive and took far too much manpower to put together. It's much easier for a team to slap together something that looks vaguely like clay out of polygons and call it "clay-shaded" or somesuch than create a game like this. It's a shame, especially when so much creativity and humor can be wrung from such a concept.
And holy crap, this game is funny. One of the funniest games ever made, beyond any doubt. And like I said earlier, it's something that permeates every element of the game's design, from the visuals to the music -- the game never, ever takes itself too seriously. If you liked the music in Katamari, you'll absolutely adore composer Terry S. Taylor's work in The Neverhood. Not only is it uproariously silly, it's actually pretty damn good, like other elements of production throughout the game.
The Neverhood is a card-carrying adventure title and, as such, has many of the same flaws as most games in the genre. Lots of the puzzles are a bit obtuse, requiring, say, a hieroglyph from one end of the game to be somehow reproduced on the other. If you're lacking in photographic memory as I am, you'll want to bring a pen and paper along for the ride, but to be honest, you shouldn't be playing this game for the puzzles. You ought to play The Neverhood for the complete experience, the style and the imagination of the game and its creators. Despite some major faults as an adventure title, The Neverhood remains a fine example of the genre as well as one of the most astounding visual odysseys you're bound to see in gaming. Just take my word on this one. It's f*cking amazing.
Why You Probably Haven't Played It:
The Neverhood is a victim of terrible, terrible timing. The first chapter in Doug TenNapel's saga came out in 1996; Super Mario 64 had come out a month earlier, ushering in an industry obsessed with 3D graphics. Meanwhile, Diablo had just landed on the PC, itself shifting the platform's focus in a much different direction. Adventure gaming, then, became niche almost as quickly as 2D or otherwise unconventional (clay) graphics did. Many of the traditional genres were shuffling loose their seats of power, and despite its fairly positive critical reception, The Neverhood got shuffled to the bargain bin pretty quickly.
Not long after, the game was systematically snatched up by a very, very dedicated fanbase that had elevated the game to a quirky cult sort of status. The game now commands somewhere around $50 on the aftermarket, which is a bit pricey for those unsure of the sort of game they're buying. The game has since been relegated to a number of abandonware sites, but you won't see me linking to 'em -- not because I think it's akin to stealing, mind, but because the version you'll often see on abandonware Web sites are stripped of their cutscenes and a good deal of the music is either missing or appears in greatly-reduced quality. I'd rather someone steal the game outright than commit the sin of piecing it up.
Rev. Anthony's Take:
Even ignoring the lovingly detailed clay environments of The Neverhood, it's still a true classic of adventure gaming. It combines the lonely, puzzle-based gameplay of Myst with a surreal humor that many would be quick to liken to a LucasArts adventure game without considering just how individual the game's sense of humor really is. It's an ironic, slapstick, borderline-religious slice of true imagination in video gaming. As Aaron said: we've never seen another game like it, and we probably never will. Some may be hesitant to plop down 50 bucks for a decade-old game that may or may not be your cup of tea, but I have to insist: if you care at all about adventure gaming, you owe it to yourself to pick up The Neverhood. And get some Kleenex while you're at it; once you've finished, you'll have no choice but to mourn the death of such a truly original adventure franchise.
Given The Neverhood’s relative failure, the boys at the Neverhood studios decided to make a compromise for their next title: they would keep the world and protagonist they loved so dearly, but they’d switch from the PC to the PSOne, and they’d change out the vastly underappreciated point-and-click adventure genre for a more typical platforming title.
Skullmonkeys, an extremely flawed yet endlessly charming side scroller, was the result.
After Klaymen hands Klogg's ass to him at the end of The Neverhood, the banished villain flies through space, aimlessly, until landing on the planet of Icthys. A world that just happens to be inhabited by a race of thuggishly strong creatures, known as the Skullmonkeys.
The Skullmonkeys look exactly how you’d think they would: apelike bodies with a skull for a head. Klogg quickly and easily convinces the stupid Skullmonkeys to worship him as a god and follow his orders without question. His plan, he tells them, is to build an evil engine (“Evil Engine Number Nine,” he calls it, though it’s never explained how evil can be used a fuel source, or what could have possibly happened to Evil Engines One through Eight) which he will then use to fly back to the Neverhood and bomb it into oblivion.
One intelligent Skullmonkey, watching from afar, decides to summon Klaymen for help. Through methods that need not concern the average reader (the Skullmonkey sends a robot-bird-thing that fetches Klaymen and brings him to Icthys), Klaymen arrives on the scene and begins his journey to reach and destroy Evil Engine Number Nine.
Skullmonkeys’ gameplay style could not be more dissimilar from that of The Neverhood, even though Skullmonkeys is its sequel. Where The Neverhood was a point-and-click adventure game, Skullmonkeys is a straight-up platformer. In the time between The Neverhood and Skullmonkeys, Klaymen evidently did a lot of exercising: he can sprint and jump and do all manner of things that would have made the original Neverhood a hell of a lot easier, if only he’d used his athletic skills back then.
Apart from his ability to run and jump on enemies to dispatch them, Klaymen also has a few items at his disposal. He can collect and fire energy balls, release homing birds, shrink, use a pterodactyl backpack to glide around, and use a nuclear bomb to destroy every onscreen enemy. Yet while Klaymen can use all of these destructive items, don’t assume that Skullmonkeys is an action game. These items are fairly rare, and they only exist to make the platforming easier. The game never throws more than four or five enemies at the player at one time, thus making these items of mass destruction something of a last resort.
But, again, that’s not to say the player won’t be forced to use these items constantly. Why? Why is it that, even though the player rarely has to deal with more than half a dozen baddies at one time, the player will still be using homing birds and energy balls whenever possible? Because the game is really, really, really goddamn hard, that’s why. Klaymen can only take one hit (unless he collects a rare halo item, which, even then, only allows Klaymen to sustain one more attack before dying) from anything in the game.
Touch a Skullmonkey? Death. Get hit by a projectile? Death. Miss any one of the thousands and thousands of insanely difficult jumps, or make a mistake in a timed jumping puzzle? Death, death, and more death. While extra lives are plentiful and the game operates on a password system, Skullmonkeys may literally be the single hardest side-scroller I have ever played in my life. It is absolutely unforgiving, and simultaneously forces the player to be extremely patient (in choosing when and how to jump) and very quick (in avoiding enemies and jumping at exactly the right time). That’s not to say the game isn’t fun as hell, though: once you finally beat a level you’ve been replaying for the past two hours, you get a kind of satisfaction that has been all but lost in the modern world of automatic checkpoints and manual quicksaving.
Structurally, Skullmonkeys is very similar to Donkey Kong Country: the player faces an (admittedly anticlimactic) boss every few levels and each level is large and linear, yet filled with many secrets. Each stage is filled with numerous bonus levels, which are unlocked when the player collects three squiggly-looking icons. Interestingly enough, the bonus rooms themselves often had secrets of their own: it’s not uncommon to reach a bonus-room-within-a-bonus-room, if you look hard enough.
Graphically, Skullmonkeys is pretty much identical to The Neverhood, necessary side-scrolling changes notwithstanding. The game consists almost entirely of clay characters and backgrounds, and the cutscenes are rendered in lovely stop-motion claymation. Even though Skullmonkeys and The Neverhood are exact opposites of one another from a gameplay perspective, their graphical styles make them feel very, very similar.
Oh, and Skullmonkeys has the single best soundtrack ever composed for any game in the history of mankind. Ever. It’s composed by Terry S. Taylor, the same man who scored The Neverhood, but no game soundtrack will ever reach a Skullmonkeys level of genius. If you don’t believe me, just listen to the song that plays when you enter a bonus room.
Listen to it.
UPDATE: Because I'm a complete jackass, I forgot to mention that the Bonus Room song, along with all of the other Skullmonkeys songs, are available at WorldofStuart. He also includes a much more indepth Skullmonkeys review than I've posted here.
Why You Probably Haven’t Played It:
Even if you were one of the lucky few to get your hands on The Neverhood, Skullmonkeys was intentionally marketed as if it were a completely self-contained game with no real connection to the Neverhood universe. Just look at the cover art:
No Klaymen, no Willie Trombone, no Klogg. Even to a Neverhood fan, this would have looked (from the front) like a surreal puzzle game or something. Sure, if you turned over the box you’d get a synopsis of the story and a picture of Klaymen, but it’s not a stretch to say that most people wouldn’t make the effort. Hell, I bought The Neverhood a year ago, and I didn’t know Skullmonkeys even existed until last month.
Not to mention the fact that The Neverhood was a PC title and Skullmonkeys was a PSOne platformer – say what you will about brotherhood in the video gaming community, but those two systems had (and still have) two very different sets of fans. Adventure gamers may not have wanted to see the series turn into a side-scrolling platformer, and side-scroller fans didn’t give a rat’s ass about the Neverhood universe.
Add to this the insane platforming difficulty, and you’ve got a side-scroller with a very small niche audience. If you were one of the few who could handle the unusual style and difficulty, Skullmonkeys was a conventionally rewarding experience. If you were anybody else, this was just another game to ignore in the considerably massive PSOne library.
Similar to The Neverhood, Skullmonkeys is the kind of game that you shouldn't play because it's a great platformer. It's a stylistically incredible game wrapped in the body of a platformer, and that platformer isn't necessarily very good. What time I've spent with the game seemed like a challenge to see more Neverhood -- to watch the cutscenes and see more of TenNapel's world, I had to play this somewhat shitty platformer and get my ass handed to me every step of the way. Don't let that deter you if you're a fan of the series, though -- if you, like us, were heretofore unaware that Skullmonkeys had anything to do with the Neverhood, you might be interested in taking a second look.
And that's all for those titles. As said earlier, an unlicensed Japanese spinoff was made a few years after the release of Skullmonkeys, and Boombots, a claymation fighting that somehow managed to be even worse than Clay Fighter, only included Klaymen as an unlockable character. And, what's more, it's not even available to torrent:
No, I most assuredly did not.
And with that, so ends our ode to The Neverhood: an admittedly flawed, but wonderfully detailed franchise whose games remain far too few in number. If you're in desperate need of a TenNapel fix and you've already played Earthworm Jim a hundred times over, then it's really worth giving the Neverhood games a shot.
Oh, and you can always watch TenNapel's goddamn amazing sci-fi/kung fu short film trilogy, Sockbaby. You don't even have to search for them, either: we're happy to provide, dear readers. We're happy to provide.
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