This weekly column looks at classic video games both in how they looked back in the day and how they stand up today. Though scores will be assigned, our tough review standards will be relaxed a bit for these games to give a general overview instead.
All retro games come courtesy of Retro Games Plus, located at 1761 Post Road East in Westport, CT. If you’re in the northeastern part of the United States, please give them a look.
Coming from Diehard GameFAN like I did, I heard enough about quirky games from the 90s to the point where I automatically have a ‘Nam-like flashback if I hear any mention of Grim Fandango. This isn’t to say that the game is bad—I wouldn’t know, but all indications are that it and its brethren are—but that I was inundated by references to it. Underappreciated games like that tend to draw a cult-like following. Skullmonkeys is one of those. When I went to RGP last week, I took home two games, one of which I’ll go over next week. This week’s was requested specifically by the owner saying, “This is worth a lot of money, and I have no clue why.”
Considering that I barely remember Skullmonkeys at all and never even heard of its predecessor, The Neverhood, I’m in his corner. So how does Skullmonkeys stand up?
HOW WAS IT THEN: Though it was technically impressive for its time, Skullmonkeys was panned for being a frustratingly hard platformer that was competing against the likes of Crash Bandicoot for attention. The main reason for buying this game was its humour, which is best described as the bastard love child of Monty Python and Ren and Stimpy; it combined fourth wall-breaking song lyrics with fart jokes to create an interesting combination, to say the least. The graphics of the game were also outstanding, with the cutscenes and the main game being rendered in a claymation style, making the whole affair seem like Gumby as told by Tim Burton. The platforming aspects, however, were lackluster compared to the competition. The camera zooms in too much, which makes precision jumps more of a leap of faith than anything that can be timed; and foreground objects get in the way a lot, which is a problem when enemies are behind them. Environment-caused deaths were nothing new in 1998, but they were reserved more for 3D games with terrible cameras.
IGN wasn’t kind to the game in its review, hitting on it for its sameness and comparing it negatively to the likes of Gex (GEX!). Gamespot was less kind, stating that a few design decisions threatened to ruin the game and that they disliked the frustrating difficulty. No one, neither consumer nor critic, liked the fact that a system that supported removable memory went with a password save system. Simply put, as far as platformers went, Skullmonkeys was a few funny cutscenes and some dry humour going against strong competition in the genre.
HOW IS IT NOW: With a lot of the elements in Skullmonkeys all but lost to time, from side-scrolling platforming to claymation, a weird thing occurred: Skullmonkeys stands up better in 2011 than it did in 1998. The problems with the game still exist, but they’re not game-breaking. If anything, they almost add to the game’s antiquated charm.
Technology does hurt Skullmonkeys, don’t get me wrong. There’s no ability to zoom out the camera, which is way too close to judge jumps by default; and the foreground graphics, while intentionally put there, are still annoying because they don’t give a “ghost” view that’s been popularized since. These and some other foibles get in the way of the game and make it harder to play than it should be. Furthermore, while the lack of memory card saving was annoying in 1998, it’s almost game-breaking for a generation of gamers who never grew up having to write down and keep passwords. This is one game where the advent of save states on emulated copies does a lot of good.
However, the game’s charms hold up very well today. Though some of the colour palletes are washed out and bland, the game definitely holds a better graphical candle today than other games of its era with a timeless look combined with outstanding rendering of the clay figures. The sounds of the game are also very good, with an outstanding soundtrack that has variety and even some fourth wall-breaking in the bonus stage room. In fact, the humour is the main reason to go through Skullmonkeys. Just know that if you introduce this to one of your douchey hipster friends—the kind who quote lines verbatim and with no context from Monty Python and the Holy Grail and the like—you will probably end up punching that person within a week.
The main reason I’m loathe to recommend this game is that, once you’re done with it, the only thing left to do is to find all of the secrets, a task that is more frustrating than it’s worth. Considering that, this game is $30 at Retro Games Plus, and versions in good condition are going for much higher. This isn’t the type of game one wants to spend $30 on unless it’s to say they have it.
Skullmonkeys is a game that everyone should experience at least once, but after they’ve done so, they can be satisfied rewatching the good parts in YouTube.