By John Walker on November 5th, 2009 at 4:15 pm.
Once upon a time this platform game came out that no one cared about. Mark Donald was the editor of PC Gamer at the time, and it was given to me because it came from that guy who used to do adventure games, and I’m the adventure game guy. It was down on the magazine’s flatplan for a page. Psychonauts or something. Not knowing anything about it, and with absolutely no PR foretelling us about it, I installed it with confused expectations. Within a couple of hours I called Donald and said, “This needs more than a page.” By the next day I had bargained it up to four pages. Which was all the space they had left. Psychonauts was something special. And is now available for $10 on Good Old Games.
The story continues. I spoke to colleagues on other mags and websites and said they really should be reviewing it, and a few got hold of copies, and of course loved it. Big positive press, but the game came out in the US only, unable to find a UK publisher. Some months later THQ announced they were going to release it, and we got excited again. In fact, Mark Donald commissioned me to review it for a second time (something I’m not sure has happened before or since in the mag), giving it another two pages. There was an advertising campaign. I remember seeing posters in shops with quotes from my review on them. It was happening! The game that deserved more attention that year than any other was getting a proper release.
And then, out of nowhere, THQ announced they were delaying the release by three months. All the magazine ads, posters, etc had a date for November. The review in PCG came out in time for that date, completely pointlessly. And when they eventually slipped it out it was without any notice or promotion at all, and it whimpered and died on the shelves, any potential audience already disappointed twice and now completely confused.
It was brutal, for a game that should have been a phenomenal success. In case you never played it, it’s a game set in a summer camp for psy-powered children. Raz, the main character, sneaks his way in despite his father’s opposition. The camp plays as a hub, packed with a cast of wonderfully written and acted kids, as well as an adult staff of camp counsellors. Raz enters the brains of those in the camp, each containing a unique thematic world to explore, collect figments, deal with emotional baggage (crying suitcases), and unlock buried memories. It was and still is outstanding. It never repeated an idea. A level in a lungfish’s head was a Godzilla-riffing metropolis to stomp on. A depressed love-ruined artist had Italian streets and buildings regularly stampeded by a bull. A man who thought he was Napoleon had a multi-scale board game for a brain.
Of course it has some problems. Technical problems for some with the infamous Meat Circus, and certainly there have been better engineered platformers – the edge detection was dreadful, main character Raz frequently falling to his death when he should have grabbed a ledge. But it also had the problem of simply not being like anything before it. It didn’t conform to the rules of platform games as the Crash Bandicoot crowds might have been expecting. It was… it was really bloody smart. It is. It is really bloody smart.
It certainly has gained enough reputation in hindsight. It’s not a forgotten classic, by any stretch of the mind. It was the reason everyone sat up and took notice when the first rumblings of Brutal Legend appeared. But it still hasn’t been played by nearly enough people. Which you should bloody well put right, now it’s an almost insultingly cheap ten bucks, DRM free. Or if you want it on Steam it’s already they same price there (£6).