Games that time forgot: Psychonauts

Part 2 in the "Why Cooking Mama is Majesco's Flagship Game This Year" expose.

Last week, I wrote about Advent Rising, Majesco’s first entry in a supposed sci-fi trilogy which actually ended up damn near sinking the entire company. This week, the subject is Psychonauts, the game which pretty much did. After the combined failures of Advent Rising and Psychonauts, Majesco lost 18 million dollars and its CEO immediately resigned.More on Majesco’s other failure after the jump.You have to wave bacon in front of your face to make this guy pop out. Seriously.StoryIsn’t really that important, to be honest. The protagonist, Raz (short for Razputin), enters a psychic summer camp, where children are trained to become Psychonauts (psychic soldiers). Stuff goes awry, people are kidnapped, and it’s up to Raz to save the day. I’m being this vague for two reasons: (A), the story is little more than a scenario for Raz to meet interesting people and jump into their minds, and (B), getting any more specific would make me sound like a goddamn idiot. Seriously. This game is filled with more weird characters and situations than you can imagine: psychic secret agents pretending to be small children, a psychic detective that lives inside Raz’s brain who can only be summoned by waving bacon in front of Raz’s nose…I sound like a moron already.Raz.GameplayPsychonauts was designed by Tim Schafer, the man behind Grim Fandango and Full Throttle. If you’ve played those games before (and if you haven’t, what the hell is wrong with you), take the weird sense of humor, classic adventure gameplay, and off-the-wall characters, and then stick them into a platforming game. That’s the essence of Psychonauts. Basically, Psychonauts has three gameplay aspects: collecting, camp jobs, and mind levels. Collecting is done pretty much everywhere in the game; one of the few universal critiques of Psychonauts is that there is too much collecting. You’ll collect psychic cards, scavenger hunt items, psychic graffiti, Indian arrowheads, ammo for your psychic blast…the list goes on.The jobs you do in the camp are sort of like the overworlds in games like Banjo-Kazooie or Mario 64, except integrated more gracefully. In those two N64 games, you did most of your adventuring in specific worlds that branched off from the overworld; in Psychonauts, you do just as much adventuring in the overworld as you do in the crazy levels that take place in the minds of others. Tron + Bullfighting = Bulltronning.And it’s these Mind Levels that really set Psychonauts apart from any other platformer you’ve ever played. As you explore the camp, you’ll find people with severe mental problems–they’re paranoid, delusional, or obsessed with something from their past. After meeting these people, Raz can solve these problems for them by jumping into their minds. Each character’s mind consists of a very large level with a very specific art style; no two characters have a similar looking mind level, and, most of the time, no two levels even play the same way. One will have you sneaking around and wearing disguises, while another will be straight platforming, while another will be filled with bullfights and wrestling matches. Each mind level is beautifully detailed and really evokes the feeling of what a particular mental problem visually resembles: it’s hard to explain, but you may find yourself playing through a level and thinking, “Oh, so that’s what schizophrenia looks like.”Overall, each level of Psychonauts looks different, plays different, and feels different, in a totally good way: each world feels detailed and polished, and you can sense the amount of care that went into making each world look unique.Why You Haven’t Played ItCan't think of anything particularly clever to add here. It's Raz running from missiles, what do you want? Most of you probably don't even know these alternative comments exist. This is editorial masturbation, is what this is.First and foremost, Psychonauts suffers from what I like to call Beyond Good and Evil syndrome: the graphics are too “kiddy” for most adult or teenaged gamers, and the gameplay is too original or inventive for children. Because of BG&E syndrome, the game is stuck in a weird limbo: teens won’t play it, and those kids that do play it end up disliking it. Similarly, Psychonauts is a hard game to write a review for. No matter how enjoyable it is to play a game THIS imaginative, writing a review in which you use the phrase “Psychonauts is a really original game” fifty times tells the reader absolutely nothing about what makes the game great, or if it’s even any fun. Given that the marketing campaign was weak (if not nonexistent), the only place gamers had to find out about Psychonauts was through annoyingly vague game reviews. Christ, just look at this article: I wrote the damn thing and I still can’t figure out what the hell I’m trying to say about the game. The only way to really experience Psychonauts is to play it, which I would suggest.You’ll have a hell of a time doing even that, however: Psychonauts is one of the few major releases that is still not compatible on the 360. Remember when Dan Hsu grilled Peter Moore about why games like Barbie Horse Adventure were backwards compatible, but games like Psychonauts weren’t? Yeah, that’s still an issue. On the sort-of upside, though, Steam says they’ll be digitally distributing Psychonauts at some point this month, along with Majesco’s other failed brainchild, Advent Rising. As mentioned earlier, all of these problems combined to pretty much sink the good ship Majesco. Even though it was simultaneously released on the PC, Xbox, and PS2, it sold less than 90,000 copies overall. Majesco’s stock plummeted, the CEO resigned, and the stockholders filed a class-action lawsuit against the developer.And, a couple of years later, we’re left with Cooking Mama.That’ll teach you to make an innovative game, Tim Schafer.

Anthony Burch