I just had to escape, I just had to be free,
And I didn’t even know, I had a destiny…
“The following is a contributor post by the Bizzaro Mage.”
I have been gaming since 1994, when I was an awestruck eight-year-old playing Sonic the Hedgehog on the Master System II that my parents got me for my birthday.
Twenty-five years have passed since then and I have played hundreds of games across a good few platforms. Yet, even with the upsurge of 3D games, the introduction of online gaming, HD screens and cloud storage, one game has always stuck with me, always demanded an almost yearly replaying in one form or another. The game is 1997’s Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee, a brave first step in what would become a series of bizarre, challenging and totally unique series of games.
Oddysee was created by Oddworld Inhabitants, an American company led by Lorne Lanning, who came up with the game’s setting and personally voiced protagonist Abe. It was published by the now defunct GT Interactive, who would go on to become Infogrames just a couple of years after Oddysee was released.
The release in question happened on the 19th of September, 1997 for the Sony PlayStation and garnered largely positive reviews at the time for its unique visuals, bizarre characters and challenging platforming and puzzles. My first experience of the game was from a demo disc that came free with the official PlayStation magazine here in the UK, which my father and I played over and over again, almost in a sense of pure wonderment at how much more advanced its mechanics and personality were than poor old Sonic and friends on the 16-bit machines.
I have always been one for a good, immersive plot and Abe’s Oddysee captured my heart almost instantly, thanks in no small part to what was, at the time, a jaw dropping intro cutscene in which we are introduced to the titular Abe and his place of work (or indeed prison), the RuptureFarms meat processing factory. To this day that haunting intro music still sends a chill down my spine.
Abe is a creature known as a Mudokon, a largely peaceful tribe that is at one with nature and has a very strong tribal look and feel to them. He and his fellow Mudokons are forced to work at RuptureFarms, which is responsible for the mass genocide of the world’s other species in the name of providing the more industrious species with pies and other snacks. They’ve already driven the poor Meeches to extinction and it seems that the wild Scrabs and Paramites aren’t far behind.
Its only business…
RuptureFarms and its fellow industries are ruled by the Glukkons, tall, squid headed beings that, with their suit-like garb and big cigars, are a straight up pastiche of fat-cat capitalist moguls. Their enforcers are the Sligs, who were always my personal favourite Oddworld denizens. Squid-faced thugs with machine guns, they are utterly heartless and will happily gun Mudokons down or beat them senseless.
One day, after eavesdropping on the Glukkons’ board meeting and learning that they intend to dip into the Mudokon population as a new source of meat, Abe panics and makes a run for it and so begins Abe’s Oddysee in earnest. The mission is simple enough, escape RuptureFarms and a find a way to rescue all 99 of Abe’s fellow workers. Abe narrates the story himself using poetry, which works very well and sounds pretty awesome to boot.
To help Abe in his quest, Oddworld Inhabitants bestowed players with a simple, limited yet very nuanced set of speech commands called GameSpeak. Holding either L1 or R1 and pressing the triangle, square, circle and X buttons would solicit a range of different phrases or actions, from “hello” and “follow me” to a dorky chuckle and a rather noxious fart.
Yep, that says “fart” alright.
Players could use these commands to interact with other denizens of the world, primarily the Mudokons (interacting with Sligs mainly ends up with Abe getting shot to death or being told to “work” if he is out of range, and don’t even try it on a Scrab). GameSpeak could be used to guide Mudokons out of danger and to nearby bird portals, which could be activated with Abe’s chant so they could be freed.
Abe’s chant had other uses too, such as possessing bells to play tunes that unlock doors and, perhaps most importantly of all, possessing the dull-minded Slig guards in order to solve puzzles or otherwise indulge your inner sadist. As a twelve-year-old boy I didn’t realise that you even control possessed Sligs for an embarrassingly long time and, when I finally figured that out, hosing down other Sligs in lead became extremely satisfying, almost as much as the gory meat-burst when you ended your possession and the unfortunate Slig exploded in a shower of gore.
Getting the game’s good ending depended on your ability and commitment to rescue your fellow slaves, if you didn’t free enough then Abe would meet a rather grisly fate come the game’s conclusion. In order to reach this, you had to steer Abe through a series of truly stunning locales, from the oppressive, dark, orange-hued RuptureFarms facility, through a series of trials in the wilds of the Paramonian jungle and Scrabanian desert then finally back to where you started, to take the fight back to the Glukkons.
Along the way, you will have to tangle with a number of wild creatures that, whilst lacking the Slig’s automatic weaponry, are still very dangerous. Scrabs are tall, beaked monsters that will chase you down on sight, yet will ignore you altogether if there is another Scrab with them, in which case you have a few seconds to escape whilst the highly territorial beasts fight to the death. Their counterpart is the jungle-dwelling Paramite, a squat, spider-like creature that will cheerfully follow Abe around, hoping that the player will toss it a tasty chunk of meat from the various sacks of offal that litter the level. If cornered, however, they will panic and kill Abe in a heartbeat. They also become a problem if there are more than one in the same area, in which instance they will gang up on Abe and murder him en mass.
I suppose I can’t talk about the creatures of Oddworld without mentioning Elum, Abe’s ill tempered beast of burden that he can ride across Scrabania and Paramonia. Many of the puzzles in these sections of the game are Elum-based, with the ugly yet somehow charming beast being able to jump huge chasms where Abe would normally fall to his death.
The game really brings these places and creatures to life, thanks to both exquisitely designed and animated sprites and the wonderful, hand-drawn backgrounds that are different on every screen. Some of them are truly breathtaking, such as the Scrabanian temple looming in the distance from across the vast desert or the entirety of the stockyards and free fire zone, a dusky wasteland in which everything is in silhouette and campfires dot the wilderness.
Free fire zone is still my favourite video game locale.
Abe’s Oddysee is hard to compare against other media; I am sitting here right now racking my brains as to what even comes close to this game’s style, looks and themes. The closest thing I can really think of is the story of Spartacus, a slave to the Romans that escaped, freed many of his people and went on to cause utter chaos and devastation to his former captors. Though Abe is largely non-confrontational and his people very much in favour of peace, it is clear that the only way to save the wild lands of Oddworld from the greedy Glukkons is to cast down their factories and wipe them out.
To be fair, the game does a good job in keeping any ludo-narrative dissonance to a minimum as Abe’s somewhat cowardly nature in the cutscenes is mirrored by his squishiness in game: instant kills happen often and relentlessly and the best way to get your head around a puzzle is simply to launch yourself into it and get a feel for it, as Abe has infinite lives and will simply repsawn a few screens back from where he died. His fellow Mudokons are also very easy to kill, as are the Sligs, their Slog Hounds and the wild Scrabs and Paramites. There are no health bars, only brutal deaths.
To finish, I would like to briefly acknowledge the game’s strong environmental message. The Mudokon’s quest is to save the wild Scrabs and Paramites from extinction by protecting their lives from rampant industrialisation. I t is all too easy to draw a real world comparison to this as the ongoing expansion of mankind has pushed species like tigers almost to extinction. It is a strong message, especially when the last platform game you played was about a blue hedgehog that had it in for a mad scientist who trapped animals in robots. Perhaps the message is the same, yet Oddysee delivered it in a far more thought-provoking way.
Abe’s quest is all about saving lovely places like this.
This game is also credited to be the one that finally, after months of putting it off, forced my father to shell out for a memory card. Turns out he wanted to see that good ending too.
The 8-Bit Review
Graphically, Abe’s Oddysee has aged well, much in the way that Final Fantasies VIII and IX did, thanks in a large part to the largely hand-drawn environments and the fact that it’s a mostly 2D platformer. As I stated earlier, the backgrounds range from atmospheric to stunning and the game even makes use of shadow and light to aid Abe in sneaking about. The environments are all very different to each other, even the latter stages of the game, once again set in RuptureFarms, look massively different to the part of the factory that you started the game in.
The sprites all look good still, 25 years on. The creatures of Oddworld are unique, wonderfully animated and all look a little bit grotesque. They’re all a joy to observe, be they trying to kill Abe or just going about their business.
The only aspect of the game that one may consider to have aged is the cutscenes, which are full motion video and fully 3D. Even though they don’t look as good as the in-game graphics, I do think they still hold up well, I find them to be superior to that of FMVs in other PlayStation games and perhaps the unique visual style helps to take the edge off things a little. Also, the way in which some of the FMVs merge straight into the gameplay is very impressive, the only real contender I can think of on the PlayStation for this is Final Fantasy VIII.
Abe’s Oddysee’s music is an interesting example of how a score can dynamically be weaved around what’s happening on screen. In times of low stress, such as when you are heading across areas devoid of enemies or traps, the music is very subtle, almost intermingled with the background noise, be it the sound of machinery in RuptureFarms or the sound of cicadas in the stockyards. Once you do encounter danger, however, the music becomes more prevalent, more urgent even. Sneaking past a sleeping Slog will elicit a more fraught piece of music but, if the creature should wake up and give chase, it erupts into a high energy, action-oriented track that only gears back down when Abe jumps to safety or is mercilessly killed by the Slog, forcing a respawn.
The creature voices and noises are also very memorable, I spent most of my latter years of high school working on my Slig impression. Abe, voiced by the game’s creator Lorne Lanning, sounds dorky yet committed to his mission, and the opposing Slig guards sound nasal and cruel, barking commands and laughing nastily whenever Abe or another Mudokon is killed. The Scrabs sound utterly terrifying with their howls and croaks and the Paramites hiss and click like enraged giant insects. Each creature is very much different from the others and it adds a great flavour to the game.
Oddysee is a very tight platformer that is littered with interesting and challenging puzzles. Your biggest obstacles are your fellow creatures, bombs, industrial machinery and falling to your death, all of which you will be doing plenty of. This game would have perhaps gotten a 10 score here if not for the exclusion of a quick save system, something which would mercifully come to its sequel. Quick save would have taken the frustration out of some of the more obscure or just pure harsh puzzles, allowing the player a chance to catch their breath mid-puzzle and save their progress so far. Instead, Abe is repsawned a few screens back upon death, forcing you to go through the whole process again and again until you get it right.
This game excels as a platformer, yet GameSpeak adds a whole layer on top of that, allowing the player to interact with the world in really inventive and clever ways. Most Mudokons can only be rescued using this feature and progression would be straight up impossible in parts without it. Just a few voice commands from Abe (and the Sligs) add so much extra character and depth to this universe, sometimes making it seem more like a movie than a platform game.
In order to get the good ending you have to save more Mudokons than you leave behind or kill. If you want to save all 99 then you will have to go in search of secret challenge areas. Some of these are easy to find, others are very obscure and will drive you mad searching for them in subsequent playthroughs. These hidden puzzles tend to be extra tough and really put all of your puzzle solving mettle to the test, especially toward the end of the game.
I honestly don’t think this game would be as beloved as it is to me without its story and characters, even if some of them are just breezed past. Abe himself has a nice story arc, going from terrified escapee to avenging demi-god over the duration of his adventure. The game’s main nemesis, Molluck the Glukkon, is somewhat less fleshed out, but works in his role just fine thanks to his strong characterisation as a fat-cat businessman (businessglukkon?) that is thinking only of his profits and destroying the world around him. The only other major character is Bigface, a Mudokon shaman-type guide in a big tribal mask. He doesn’t really do very much apart from send Abe on his way and laugh at a badly timed fart at one point.
The overall narrative is a simple but effective one, with Abe’s hero’s quest backdropped by the tumultuous world of Oddworld itself, which is locked in its battle of industry versus nature. Abe has to unlock the secrets of his people and discover his destiny in order to defend the wilderness, even when said wilderness is trying its hardest to kill him. The final part of the game, whilst still challenging, becomes something of a revenge fantasy, with Abe occasionally unlocking the power of the Mudokon god Shrykull and being able to annihilate entire areas’ worth of Sligs, Slogs, mines, bombs and other traps in one massive burst of energy. It’s very cathartic and never gets old, mainly due to the fact that this power is only given to Abe sparingly and as a reward for rescuing a certain number of Mudokons.
Whilst this game’s sequel, Abe’s Exoddus, fills the universe out a lot more, it is fair to say that Oddysee delivers a strong universe with a simple and enjoyable plot to enjoy within it, even if it does lack really memorable individual characters.
As I eluded to at the start of this critique, Abe’s Oddysee is the game I go back to most years, hardware allowing. Whilst the puzzles are fiendish and the enemies merciless, the game exudes a strong sense of pick up and play. This could be down to the tight and simple control scheme or maybe just the fact it isn’t a 30/40 hour slog like most of the JRPGs I used to play on the PlayStation back in the day. In fact it is possible to hammer Abe’s Oddysee in just a handful of hours, should you want to breeze your way through and reach the (no doubt grisly) end as quickly as possible.
But like many games, the devil is in the detail. If you take your time to explore for secret areas and work on reaching the ultimate accolade, rescuing all 99 Mudokons, then this game is going to take you a lot longer. I’ve only rescued all 99 once, back in 1997 or ‘98 since then I always try but seem to miss a couple of Mudokons here and there. Maybe that’s a damning inditement of my attention to detail as I get older and games get faster and more hand holding.
This is an interesting one and I had to think long and hard to come up with a score here.
The main path through the game, from beginning to end, starts off fairly easily and, if you’re just trying to get to the next level as fast as you can, it only really starts to become a fair challenge around the Scrabania and Paramonia stage, which is about halfway through the experience. The return to RuptureFarms at the endgame is a lot more challenging, introducing ever more complex puzzles. The final stage even has a time limit, which really cranks up the tension and, for me at least, resulted in some badly timed, sloppy moves that cost Abe his limbs.
As I previously mentioned, the real challenge is in the secret areas and their puzzles. An example of this can be seen in the very first screen of the game where attentive players can find a secret entrance to one of these hidden puzzles. This puzzle featured a range of different mechanics that otherwise aren’t even introduced to the player for at least a few more minutes if they just stuck to the main path. Even outside of this, that first hidden area is fiendish, an unforgiving timed puzzle featuring dangerous machinery, electricity fields and several Mudokons to rescue.
Similar puzzles are littered all the way through Abe’s Oddysee and it’s really up to the player whether they want to go looking for them or not. But surely you all want the good ending, right?
Unique is a word I’ve dropped a few times throughout this piece, so it’s only natural that it would be reflected somewhere in the scoring process.
All the Oddworld games, not just Oddysee, are absolutely dripping with their own sense of identity and it’s easy to see when just looking at screenshots of the game. From character designs to the variation and love that went into the backdrops of Oddworld, it’s safe to say that the creators had a lot of fun making this game and that it all came from their own imaginations.
Even outside of the visuals, the unique nature of Oddysee is easy to find. That subtle, dynamic soundtrack was something rarely glimpsed up to 1997, the way the music changes to fit the context of what is going on at that moment is something that perhaps you won’t notice at first but, when you do, one cannot help but marvel at how effective it is.
Even the gameplay itself, whilst ostensibly a traditional platformer, is so layered over with traps and enemies with actual behaviour patterns that it feels like something completely fresh and different. GameSpeak adds a layer of originality again, allowing creatures in the game world to interact with one another in more advanced ways than simply killing each other on sight. It all adds to up to be ambitious game with a totally unique look and feel all of its own.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
Even 25 years later, I still enjoy blasting through this masterpiece of a game, to the point where I would rather play OG Abe’s Oddysee than the more modern, updated New N Tasty version, which I feel lost some of the original’s beauty via its conversion to 3D. But that’s a story for another day. Abe’s Oddysee received good reviews and multiple awards, including GamePro’s “E3 Showstopper” award back in 1997.
This praise is, I feel, earned by the game’s complexity, gorgeous visuals and brilliant creature designs. I seem to remember spending several hours honing my Slig drawing skills when I should have been studying in class such was my obsession with Oddworld.
The only gripe I still have all of these years later is the lack of a quick save option, forcing the player to retread difficult puzzles over and over again becomes a total chore when Abe is blown to bits or mauled by an angry Scrab for the 100th time. The more you play, however, the less of a problem this becomes as you can quickly pick up the more nuanced ways in which to get past obstacles, for instance the exact second in which to disarm a landmine or knowing how close you get to a Paramite before it loses its temper and takes you down.
All in all, I would very much recommend Abe’s Oddysee to anyone who enjoys a more mature platform gaming experience, or else just likes weird and unique characters having an adventure in an equally twisted universe.
Aggregated Score: 8.6
Stepping from the shadows into the light, the Bizzaro Mage somehow functions as an average human being most of the time, just one with a faire few retro games cluttering up his tiny house. Check out his rambling attempts at sense over at winst0lfportal.wordpress.com.
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Categories: Game Review