Have You Played… Psychonauts?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game recommendations. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

Tim Schafer’s last great game? Oooh, there’s a statement. Whichever way you fall on that, it’d be hard to argue that Psychonauts [official site] weren’t a wondrous thing.

Boy did this game get a hard time. Published by THQ, they provided a big marketing campaign for a release date they then chose not to use, the game finally coming out months later with no advertising at all. So confused was everyone that this became the only game PC Gamer ever reviewed as a new release twice. I know – I wrote both of them.

And wow, did it ever deserve better treatment. A cross between a platform game and third-person action-adventure, with the soul of an adventure game underneath it, this is a glorious experience. You play Raz, a kid with a natural gift for the unnatural, who sneaks his way into a summer camp for psychically gifted children. As well as the enormous and wonderful camp hub, levels were set in the brains of various adults (and fish) on site, each a different style of play and art, representative of the psyche of the individual. It is at times hilarious, heartbreaking, poignant and daft, with so much going on, so many surprises and treats. Few games come close to being as packed with heart as this.

59 Comments

  1. Ace Rimmer says:

    Had a pop at it, nearly broke my fingers trying to get through the first training-course-type-thing on mouse and keyboard, left in frustration and haven’t been back.

    • ansionnach says:

      Played it with a controller but this was more so I could sit back on the couch. Grew up playing PC games on the keyboard – can probably do better in Street Fighter games with one than an arcade stick or Saturn pad!

    • LionsPhil says:

      Yeah, I found the actual platforming infuratingly unfun and didn’t even get as far as the first journey into someone’s mind. It doesn’t matter how good the writing may be; I can’t stand the game part of the game long enough to get to it.

      • RuySan says:

        Agreed. While the premise can be interesting, the mechanics themselves are very mediocre. It left me completely bored.

      • ansionnach says:

        There was more fiddly, annoying platforming at the start. I’d almost given up on it but it certainly gets better.

      • rcguitarist says:

        I was so bored while playing this game that I found myself falling asleep! I would wake up and my character would be running against a wall. And that’s after getting a full 8 hours of sleep the previous night and drinking a monster energy. It takes quite a dull game to overcome all that and put me to sleep. I’ve played alot of platformers and love the genre, but this one was a bust.

        • gunny1993 says:

          … you might be diabetic

        • cpt_freakout says:

          I didn’t even get past the installation screen! It was so dull and badly written that it made my face contort in such a way that all blood circulation to my brain stopped, putting me in a coma for a few years! Then I woke up and remembered what I was doing last and started sleepwalking from all that boredom, something not even the most savage of vitamin B injections could bring me back from, so boring it was!

    • Laurentius says:

      Same, it was quite ago I heard that game was good but I didn’t knew it was cult classic. So I tried but I couldn’t do well even on the begining, it wasn’t fun, gave up and never felt urge to play it again.

    • Rozza says:

      The platforming was fiddly, but you really missed out.

    • Tuco says:

      Played with a controller and I had absolutely no problem whatsoever with the platforming in this game.

    • ersetzen says:

      Didn’t really have a problem with keyboard and mouse until the meat circus. BUT THEN… God that thing was frustrating.

      • Gap Gen says:

        Fun fact: On my first go through my sister beat Meat Circus for me

      • MikoSquiz says:

        They fixed some geometry issues and generally made it easier in an update, which also added things like 1080p resolution and 16x anisotropic filtering to take it from “looks good for an old game” to just plain “looks good”.

        Of course, the key to Meat Circus was always using skills like invis, shield, confusion grenades, etc, to ‘cheese’ your way past the otherwise brutally hard challenges.

        ..no, I didn’t figure any of that out the first time I played it and just brute-forced through them instead, grinding my teeth down to nubs in the process.

    • Urthman says:

      This completely baffles me. I’ve played lots of 3D platformers of this style (Mario 64, Mario Sunshine, Banjo Kazooie, Rocket Robot on Wheels, Rayman 2, the Spyro games, Toy Story 2, Pitfall: Lost Expedition, LEGO Star Wars/Batmans/Marvel/etc.) and Psychonauts ranks with the best of them. It’s for sure the best one available on PC.

      Bouncing around on that Psi-Ball, zipping through the psychedelic race, bouncing way up high and floating to your target on the Psi-Parachute and then slamming to the ground with that giant hand, stomping around as a giant in Lungfishopolis, zooming off the edge of the cubic world in such a way that you “fall” way up high on the next side as gravity reorients, jumping around the crazy milkman level, zipping along the twisty power lines, constantly changing which way is down – Psychonauts is a joy to play.

      And that’s not even counting all the great adventure-game bits: the way you can use every power on every character and it’s almost always entertaining if not hilarious; the spoof of Kaiju movies, the nifty design of Black Velvet Level and how perfectly it illustrates Edgar’s psyche; the awesome 3-level Waterloo game; the lunacy of the G-men, all the hilarious dialog…

    • MikoSquiz says:

      Really? I’m not much of a platformer guy, but apart from the nightmarish last level (which was since tweaked to make it easier, in the patch that added HD resolution support and such) I found the game fairly easy-breezy. The hardest thing about it is definitely some of the puzzles that involve finding things – looking at you here, Milkman level – and if anything the platforming feels too much like lightweight filler fluff connecting all the fantastic dialog and art and whatnot.

    • gunny1993 says:

      Platforming was no worse than any other Adventure game I played, fiddly but they all are on M+K

    • bill says:

      Try it again with a controller, please.

      I tried it with a mouse and keyboard originally and bounced off. A few months later I tried it again with a controller and it was much better.

      People always seem to pop up and criticise the platforming, but imho it wasn’t particularly any more fiddly or worse than any other platformer of that era. It is much weaker at the beginning though, which was probably a bad design idea. The first level is pretty dull, and you don’t get many of the better platforming moves for a while.
      Once you get the energy ball then the platforming is much more fun.

      The targeting, on the other hand, was a pain in the butt. But every console game of that period had the exact same annoying targeting, so I won’t criticise it for that.

  2. ansionnach says:

    Great game. A bit like Zelda (but with much slacker mechanics) crossed with Grim Fandango. Maybe it really wants to be an adventure game, but the action bits mainly work as well. They’re several notches above the terrible action sequences that you might get in adventures like Full Throttle, anyway. Even though you might sometimes die through little fault of your own, I enjoyed the boss battles most of the time. Unusually for a game, the really imaginative, great stuff happens a good way in and is then sustained until the end. Many of them run out of steam by the half way mark (and maybe this wrong-foots reviewers who don’t get all the way through).

  3. somnolentsurfer says:

    This is a great game, particularly now you can play a the current Steam release with the rebalanced Meat Circus. The PS2 version remains the only game that has genuinely caused me to break a controller in frustration.

    I think everyone kinda knows this is great though, right? If we’re talking about Schafer’s wonderful overlooked works, I’d argue strongly for Brutal Legend.

    • ansionnach says:

      That bit was really annoying. Played the gog version a couple of years ago, not sure if it got that patch too. It’d probably still be annoying anyway.

    • Pazguato says:

      Brütal Legend is a really good game. The problem is that the mix between RTS and Action Adventure seems no so natural to some people like Platform and Action Adventure (Psychonauts). Really a shame, because it was great.

      • Yglorba says:

        Calling Brutal Legend a hybrid of those types of games isn’t quite right. It’s very much a game that isn’t sure what it wants to be (mostly because Schafer wanted to make an RTS and the publisher insisted on another action adventure; he didn’t want to merge the two quite like that.) As a result, both halves show amazing promise but come across as slightly half-baked at times — something like Psychonauts or the Legacy of Kain series is a better action-adventure; Sacrifice is a better RTS.

        And Brutal Legend doesn’t really get anything unique out of combining the two; it’s two decent games sort of crammed into one box because the developer and publisher wanted different things.

    • draglikepull says:

      Brutal Legend is great.

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      Ninja Dodo says:

      Agreed. It would have been nice to have had a singleplayer campaign for the other two factions (which were planned but scrapped apparently) and the open world side missions could’ve used more variety, but Brutal Legend was a lot of fun.

    • Urthman says:

      Worth quoting in every Psychonauts thread, from the Double Fine website:

      What’s up with Meat Circus is that you’re a sissy. Sure, sure, invisibility is very important when Raz’s dad is trying to knock you off those tight ropes. And your shield will bounce the knife thrower’s blades right into those spinning target wheels. And also you can throw a confusion grenade at that bunny and then just go pick it up, instead of trying to grab it with Telekinesis. Those things are also true. But the main point I’m trying to make here is that first one, about you being a sissy.

      (Which just illustrates the frustrating tenet of game design, that if you give players a difficult brute-force way to get through as an alternative to solving your clever puzzles, lots of them will take the obvious-but-difficult route and hate your game.)

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        Phasma Felis says:

        Yeah, it’s bizarre how people will completely ignore entire mechanics no matter how obvious you make them. Give your players a key, three levels later show them a brick wall with a locked door in it, come back an hour later and find them screaming in frustration as they try to headbutt their way through the wall.

    • Darth Gangrel says:

      Someone on this very site (probably Kefren) offered a code for the Steam version of Psychonauts in the comments for a Bargain Bucket article. I was lucky enough to activate it before anyone else (always too late otherwise), but haven’t played it yet. It’s one of those games which aren’t exactly my thing, but might still be enjoyable. It will be my first Tim Schafer game as well. Then I’ll probably want to play Brütal Legend, along with Grim Fandango of course.

  4. Eight Rooks says:

    Another game that’s not quite as amazing as its legend makes out. It always was a fairly conventional collect-a-thon under the hood, the controls were so-so and other games integrated “psychic powers” better with the experience moment to moment. PsiOps was/is far more fun to actually run around and experiment with. Still, everything else is wonderful – the writing, the humour, the heart, the art design, the visual gags… I lost interest the first time I tried it, years ago, and only recently went back. I’m glad I did – no, it’s not the last proof of Schafer’s genius or whatever, but it’s still well worth playing.

  5. Pazguato says:

    Will we ever see the awaited sequel? I hope so. Loved it.

  6. unit 3000-21 says:

    Of course I did. It has a place in my ex aequo top 5 games of all time. I really like how it all holds together – it’s not only funny, and has a ton of imaginative locations with cool and diverse gameplay, but you can also see that much thougth went into keeping with the psychoanalitic theme. Emotional baggage, figments, hidden memories, Vodello’s secret room – it all makes sense. And you can try everything on everyone, and they all have unique comments about it, really in the spirit of “the devs thought about everything”. And as well as being funny it’s also moving because it confronts emotional problems of really likable and memorable characters. And I even liked the meat circus, even though I’ve almost broken my keyboard when doing it for the first time. Such a shame there was no sequel, but maybe that’s for the best, as it remains more unique that way.
    In conclusion – I am the milkman. My milk is delicious.

  7. evilsooty999 says:

    I must be one of the few people who thought it was completely ‘meh’. Got bored half-way through and didn’t complete it – the humour just wasn’t my cup of tea.

  8. banananas says:

    Aaah, such a true gem this game! Story, gameplay, art: everything speaking the same, weird language here. The colorful and full-blown trippy aesthetics are a hard treat to find, even today, amongst all the brown noise of the hundredth iteration of military/modern shooty-shooty, orcs’n’elves cliché fantasy, spaceship operas and zombie extravaganzas. Don’t get me wrong, I had my fair share of quite colorful indies, because that’s where the REAL music plays these days. They are also brilliant and more power to them!
    However, this game is literally oozing psychedelics from every crooked angle, and faint mumbled whisper, particularly in retrospection.
    Well, who knows, knows. :)

  9. Phantom_Renegade says:

    Pyschonauts was written rather well, but played rather badly. Rather liked Brutal Legend in that aspect. The actual game part of the game was however annoying enough for me to quit. In both those games. The only reason that hasn’t happened yet with Broken Age is because solid controls aren’t really necessary in adventure games. But in platformer games not having solid controls makes even the finest game ever written a chore, an exercise in frustration.

    I think we can add that to the list of things Schafer needs. 1. A project manager who can say no to him. 2. Someone who can program good controls. 3. Some humility.

    • MikoSquiz says:

      My feeling is that Tim Schafer should be making animated shows for Adult Swim rather than games. He’s fizzing with ideas and a talented writer capable of turning those ideas into stories, characters, and dialog, but he’s not as good at turning ideas into functional and enjoyable game designs, or at least not at implementing those designs into functional and enjoyable games. If he was kickstarting an animated movie, short film, or series, I would be throwing money at my screen. If he kickstarts another game, I’m going to be wary at best.

  10. geldonyetich says:

    Did I play Psychonauts?! It’s one of my favorite games of all time. I fell in love with the demo, bought the collector’s edition, and got a nifty set of Psychonauts cards which I never ever use for fear I would besmirch their cheaply wrought but gorgeous surfaces.

    Perhaps the question should be, “Did I play Psychonauts 2?” And the answer is no, dammit, Doublefine, why have I not been able to play Psychonauts 2 yet? You can make sequels, you have “double” right in your name!

  11. WiggumEsquilax says:

    No, no I have not played Psychonauts.

    I am one of those people.

  12. Nixitur says:

    Wow, so many people in the comments here are complaining about the controls. I may just be kinda weird, but I’ve only ever played it with mouse + keyboard and it worked completely fine. The controls are simple enough, there’s only very few keys you need to press and the camera was never a problem.
    In fact, I once tried it with a 360 gamepad and couldn’t stand the controls with that. Maybe if you’ve been having problems with the controls, try out mouse and keyboard? Playing a 3D platformer without a gamepad may sound heretical, but I honestly felt they were pretty good.

  13. Eightball says:

    I thought the controls were manageable (though not much better than that) until Meat Circus. I’m not sure if I’ve played with the rebalancing or not. Someday I’ll get back to it…

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    Ninja Dodo says:

    Psychonauts was grand. Really hope they get a chance to do a sequel.

  15. caff says:

    I found the 3d platformer mechanics a strange fit for what lies underneath. The story is rich, psychodelic, insane, funny, sad and altogether utterly gripping. I wish those who struggled with the controls had delved deeper.

    The name of the game is perfect, given its ability to ram your mind under the skin (“psyche”) of the characters therein.

    The milkman/lungfish levels were utterly sublime, and made me laugh and cry in equal measure. Would love to see a sequel or spin off from Double Fine.

  16. InternetBatman says:

    I loved the 3d mechanics. I think not enough people used levitate to its fullest. It made many of the levels much easier, especially the meat circus.

  17. Jalan says:

    Yes. Finished entirely on PC. Keyboard + mouse.

    That camera though. Especially when it came to the end where you needed to scale around objects (no, I’m not referring to the tightrope bits).

    Also, if it were socially acceptable, I’d drape myself in Black Velvetopia from head to toe.

  18. Sir_Brizz says:

    I don’t know about outside the US, but inside the US this was one of two games released by Majesco Entertainment in 2005, the other being Advent Rising. Both were quite excellent games that just needed a bit more time in the pot.

  19. A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

    One of my all time favourites. A genre frankensteining super-game. No game attempting to do so much deserves to do it all so well. Impossible to pick a favourite level/brain. Napolean board game? Picasso bull run? Godzilla fish town? Genius, all.

  20. MikoSquiz says:

    I think I’ve bought eight copies now, after originally pirating it as a broke-ass student. One for me, a Steam copy for me, a gift for my ex, five gifts for friends.

  21. Zekiel says:

    Sure have. I loved it, and that’s in spite of the fact that I don’t particularly like platforming, I could complete the final level (even though I was playing the Steam version which was apparently easier) and I had a load of CTD or BSDs that got really annoying.

    I’d say the gameplay is OK but the humour and variety is just wonderful. There’s nothing else like it.

    It’s worth pointing out that the first and last levels are easily, easily the worst. I’d advise anyone to push through the first level (e.g. using a walkthrough vid) and see if they enjoy the second one.

  22. Fenix says:

    Confession time: when I was a teenager I had developed this dumb idea that platformers were games for kids and the real games were the RTS’s of the world (I was stupid I KNOW), so I bought Psychonauts once… but for my younger brother.

    He ended up never playing it for some reason, and I didn’t ever get to experience it.

    To rectify that, I’ve been playing it recently, and have to say it’s a fantastic game. I would even dare to say that had I played it when I was 17 it would probably changed my life.

  23. LEF says:

    The not-so-secret ingredient in several great games: link to web.archive.org

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      Tam-Lin says:

      How I loved that site. And I found out too late that the creators went to my college at the same time I was there. Had things gone slightly differently . . . I could be at Valve, somehow.

  24. DeepFried says:

    This is the game I bought my first controller to play, it may also be the first non-valve game I bought on steam, it was certainly way back then anyway.

    Great game no doubt, shame Tim has never really come close to it again.

  25. cpt_freakout says:

    Also finished it with mouse and keyboard – such a great game. A few months back I even saw a Raz t-shirt for sale online and couldn’t resist buying it, even though it’s red and makes me look like an adolescent, but I don’t give a shit. I remember trying to explore every nook and cranny in the camp hub – I was always expecting some platformer easter egg behind or above everything, so I spent an unnecessarily long time trying to make impossible jumps and weird movements, all in the name of exploration. So much fun, and quite funny as well!

  26. Framed Parcel says:

    Psychonauts is the greatest game I never finished. I loved the gameplay, the characters, the story and all of the amazing levels… except for the Meat Circus.

  27. bill says:

    Awesome game. But it takes a while to show you why it is awesome, and it needs a mouse and keyboard. Love it.

    Er, sorry, I guess I’m supposed to include all the required comments about how the controls are bad and meat circus is terrible etc… but, tbh, I think those memes are overused and self perpetuating.
    I played the game before I learned that the controls were terrible and meat circus was the devil, so I didn’t really notice either of them.

    The first level is dull, and the z-targetting is a pain (like all games at the time), and collecting all the fragments is a chore, but no one ever mentions those flaws because they’re too busy complaining about meat circus.

    I love the way the open world hub opens up and gives you new ways to navigate it, and the way it evolves to reflect the events in the story. It’s like ocarina of time’s hub area, but better.

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      Angstsmurf says:

      Yeah, I don’t get all the complaining either. Which are the *good* PC 3D platformers that this is so inferior to? Can anybody mention one?

  28. Scobles says:

    This was the last game I bought on CD-ROM. I do not miss swapping discs when installing. But hey, what a game! Think I only beat it once but played up to the final level half a dozen times (man, love those asylum levels). Look at it fondly whenever it goes on Steam sale and think “…maybe its time to go back”.