The first time I encountered an Oddworld game was on a PlayStation demo disc. Intrigued by its unusual setting and use of the 2D platforming genre at a time when most new games were desperately trying to claw their way into full 3D, I was ecstatic when I finally got the opportunity to play it. Abe’s Oddysee, which was first released all the way back in 1997, had me at “This is Rupture Farms.” Its bizarre world, teeming with alien creatures and sadistic technology (and vice versa), was clearly exactly the kind of place my younger self wanted to be (let’s not read too much into that, shall we?).
It was only relatively recently (early university, I believe) that I got my hands on my own copies of the games (Abe’s Oddysee and Abe’s Exoddus; more on Munch’s Oddysee and Stranger’s Wrath later) via eBay. Before then I had to rely on my best friend bringing them over to my house when she visited (we’d usually repeatedly run the Mudanchee and Mudomo Vaults, honing it to a fine art) or otherwise waste money renting the same scratched disks from our local rental shop over and over again. Since then I’ve also acquired them again on Steam (although still prefer them on the PlayStation due to slight porting issues, but I digress). But why exactly do I like these games so damn much and, by the same token, why should you?
As I’ve already mentioned at least twice now, I love the setting of the Oddworld games. It’s dark and funny and scary and weird all at the same time. There’s the traditional Fern Gully (or, if you prefer a more current pop culture reference, Avatar) style opposition between nature and “civilisation”, the peaceful Mudokons so frequently falling under the Glukkon boot (or, ancient spoilers, glove?). There are big bad corporations and an accompanying dearth of wonderfully grimy technology (it’s always all the better for being that way). There’s a complete ecosystem in motion behind the scenes, with enough outlandish creatures to encounter during the game to make you wonder – or perhaps fear – what else is out there that we don’t see.
The characters of the Oddworld games – mostly voiced by creative director Lorne Lanning – were generally likeable whether you were on their side or not (come on, you had to feel at least a little sorry for the sligs without pants), and Abe’s narration made sure you knew what was going on without being excessive. The music of the Oddworld games, an eclectic yet fitting mixture ranging from mystical to industrial, was enjoyable enough to distract you from your fifth slig-related death (and even if it wasn’t, there likely had been sufficient musical stings to warn you of your impending doom). Additionally, Oddworld’s innovative GameSpeak system – along with the game’s purpose-made AI engine ALIVE (Aware Lifeforms In a Virtual Environment) – meant that Abe could perform fairly sophisticated interactions with NPCs both friend and foe (slapping sligs from the shadows, anyone?).
But let’s not let the rosy goggles of nostalgia completely cloud my vision; like all games, Abe’s Oddysee and Exoddus had their faults. A little like Mirror’s Edge, the games were criticised for featuring a certain degree of necessary trial and error; the first time you did certain sections, for example, you were likely to die at least once in finding out what to do. However, the potential dread of moving onto a new area was mitigated somewhat in Exoddus thanks to the addition of a quick save feature. Despite this, overall the games were very well received, garnering more or less uniformly high ratings, and amusingly those that gave lower ones seemed to largely attribute it to their steep difficulty curves; maybe it wasn’t their kind of game.
Earlier on, I mentioned that I would come back to Munch’s Oddysee and Stranger’s Wrath. First off, I must admit that I have less experience with both of these titles, particularly the latter (although I did see both to completion). Once again it fell to my faithful friend to supply not only the games but also the Xbox. While I somewhat missed the 2D playstyle (though I suppose that’s what you get for spending the majority of your childhood playing Sonic the Hedgehog), Munch’s Oddysee was definitely true to the previous games’ feel. The new characters and creatures fitted seamlessly in amongst the existing ones, with Vykkers a suitably sadistic replacement for the Glukkons as primary antagonists. However, Stranger’s Wrath, despite also being an undeniably good game, I found a little more problematic to appreciate. Not having much skill with console-based FPSs probably didn’t help, but this dramatic genre shift and the fact that it, to me, felt markedly different from the other Oddworld games meant that I never quite got on with it as well as I did with the other games. I should probably get my hands on HD version and give it a second try…
So should you bother getting your grubby little three-fingered mitts on these games? My own obvious bias aside, for the uninitiated the Oddworld series is an important piece of video gaming history and what with the games now being dirt cheap on digital distribution platforms such as Steam (as well as being available as a complete set in the form of the Oddboxx) and OnLive, there’s little reason not to give them a try. If you’re a fan wishing to complete your collection (or would otherwise like to see some of it in shiny HD), however, then it’s really a no brainer.
Now if only I could get myself a pet Paramite…