Developer: Double Fine
Platform: Xbox, PC, PS2 (originally); now available on Xbox360, PS3, Mac OS X, Linux
Metacritic score: 87 (cross-platform avg)
VGChartz sales to date: 210,000
WHAT MADE IT GREAT
Every now and then we are treated to a game that defies all conventions and expectations with it's originality. It can be a fresh take on a stale genre, a unique setting or maybe a thoughtful story but however the developer achieves it, it's sure to leave a lasting impact on those who play it. Tim Schafer has made a career out of delivering this impact time and again, and perhaps none of his efforts is more beloved then his 2005 cult-classic Psychonauts. Wildly creative in it's Tim Burton on peyote design, an outlandishly unique setting and writing so hilarious you will literally laugh out loud, this is a 3rd-person platformer adventure title like nothing you've played before.
The story follows young Raz (voiced by Richard Steven Horvitz who you may recognize from Invader Zim) as he escapes from the circus to enroll at Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp, a government training facility designed to turn kids into skilled psychic agents called Psychonauts. After an introductory cutscene, you take control of Raz and begin exploring the psychedelic campgrounds that form the game's hub world. It's easy to get lost exploring the scenery as every inch is packed with fellow campers to interact with and myriad collectibles to hunt down. Digging up arrowheads allows you to purchase goodies from the camp store while the PSI challenges and cards can be collected to increase your rank and unlock new psychic abilities such as levitation, telekinesis, pryokinesis and more. But it's the zany cast of characters and their hilarious conversations that gives the setting a life of it's own and are the true reward for wandering Whispering Rock.
|Dogen is one of the more memorable characters you'll meet. His tinfoil hat isn't just stylish, it also prevents him from accidentally exploding people's heads. Just don't ask him what he thinks about squirrels...|
Once you get around to undergoing "Basic Braining", you'll be taught the ABC's of psychic warfare. Each level takes place in the mind of one of the characters and comes with a visual style unique to that character's personality, for instance the martially minded Coach Oleander's mindscape takes the form of a raging battlefield. Within each mind you'll have to navigate a series of challenging obstacles and overcome powerful bosses representing that character's unique psychosis (and at Whispering Rock there are plenty of psychoses to go around). The platforming is genuinely tough and requires careful timing and tight movements (made a little more frustrating on the PS2 thanks to Budcat Creations' rushed port; see more below) but the challenge is a welcome one and you'll find yourself chuckling at the mental imagery around you even as you die repeatedly. There are also collectibles within each mind to help you rank up such as semi-transparent figments of imagination and emotional baggage, literally anthropomorphic suitcases requiring a matching luggage tag to "resolve".
|The campers may think Linda the Lungfish is a monster, but she's just a little misunderstood is all. The level in her mind, in which Raz takes the form of a 10-story monster wreaking havoc on a lungfish city, is one of the game's highlights.|
It's the little touches like these that make Psychonauts so engaging to play. All these various collectibles and unlockables could have taken the form of generic tokens, but Double Fine lovingly weaves everything into the setting and style of the game's narrative. Even the start screen is thematically relevant, it's not merely a menu but a giant brain which Raz must run around and find the correct portal to start or load a game. The more you explore your surroundings, the more fleshed out the characters become and you begin to realize how deep the rabbit hole goes. As Raz becomes more powerful and the story unfolds you'll find yourself pushing on in the face of greater difficulty and more challenging puzzles not to beat a level but to advance the story, and that's the most powerful testament to a game's greatness that I can think of.
WHAT WENT WRONG
Publisher marketing missteps are always an easy target for blame and Majesco's handling of the game was certainly less than stellar, but I think there's more to the story. Double Fine originally cut a deal with Microsoft to publish Psychonauts as an Xbox exclusive but for reasons that aren't entirely clear Microsoft backed out of this agreement. Majesco stepped in to save the project and expanded it to Windows while outsourcing the PS2 port, but as a smaller publisher their comfort zone was with small budget value-oriented games. With Psychonauts they had a brand new IP based that was quirkier than the mainstream fare and took a little time to grow on you, so it didn't have name recognition or instant shelf-appeal. Psychonauts needed a serious investment in marketing to back up the money already spent on development and Majesco wasn't capable of providing it. By the end of 2005 Psychonauts had only registered 100,000 sales and Majesco announced it was leaving the big-budget games business entirely.
Whether it rode a wave of hype or not, Psychonauts was still a great game. Reviews at the time were overwhelmingly positive, with EGM going as far as saying ""Anyone who doesn't fall for the unique characters, hilarious dialogue, and brilliantly conceived environments of Psychonauts has no soul." And it's not just sentimentality that keeps gamers raving about this title as I found myself just as enthralled replaying it after all these years, still bursting into gleeful laughter at jokes that remain fresh. There was some criticism of the difficulty spike in later levels and the PS2 version, dinged for having worse controls and some audio syncing issues as a result from being ported, do feel a bit more noticeable but by and large it's easy to see why the game was strongly recommended by critics. It's no surprise that it went on to win numerous industry awards for everything from Best Writing to Game of the Year, even nabbing a BAFTA Video Game award for Best Screenplay.
|Just because Nils Lutefisk uses his clairvoyance to spy on the girl's bunk doesn't mean he approves of unintended sexual innuendos. I like to think it was writing like this that helped nab that BAFTA.|
But despite all the accolades and glowing press to compensate for the lack of advertising, gamers were unwilling to give it a shot. Perhaps it's because gamers had turned their backs on platformer adventure titles and were instead wrapped up in shooters such as Battlefield 2 or action games like God of War. Or maybe we had developed a craving for games with more realistic and mature (read: violent or sexually explicit) themes. Whatever the reason, it's clear that there was little patience for an offbeat and clever original title that eschewed adult content in favor Saturday morning cartoon sensibilities. Psychonauts was like the band of lovable losers competing against the wealthy jocks, but as much as we like seeing the misfits win in the movies when it comes time to lay our money down most people aren't going to bet against the odds.
WHAT IF IT RELEASED TODAY
The great thing about living in the internet age is that even the most obscure cult obsessions can be given a second life. Thanks to continued interest from diehard fans, in 2006 Psychonauts was the first in a wave of Xbox Originals offered for download on the 360's Xbox Live Marketplace. Three years after that it became available on GOG.com and in 2011 it became available on OS X for the first time when it was introduced to Steam. Just this year it expanded to Linux as part of the Humble Indie Bundle V with Tim Schafer reporting that Psychonauts had beaten it's original retail sales after only a few hours. Most recently the game was added as a PS2 classic for download on the Playstation Network in August 2012 (although poor audio-syncing and some rough edges around the controls make this version the weakest of the available options). Including all the digital sales from these sources (not tracked in the numbers reported by VGChartz), Psychonauts has gone on to sell well over half a million copies. Maybe those numbers don't compare to Halo 4 or Black Ops 2, but still impressive for a game that was written off as a total flop over 7 years ago.
Not only has new life been breathed into the original, but buzz continues to build that a true sequel is still a possibility now that Double Fine once again owns the publishing rights to the game. Marcus Persson, the creator of Minecraft, even made an offer via Twitter to fund the project. Those hopes quickly cooled once the required budget was estimated at a cool $13 million, but Schafer and Persson continue to discuss the possibility. Who knows, perhaps Psychonauts could grow beyond it's cult following and rise from the ashes to become a full-fledged success? I guess if I want to know the answer to that I'll just have to get back to collecting PSI cards to rank up my own psychic powers.
|I'm pretty sure I visited this same area on a trip to Amsterdam. Wait, no, that was while tripping in Amsterdam.|
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