When we talk about the original PlayStation it’s easy to get lost in the huge wave of 3D titles that made their mark on the console. It’s no surprise, Sony was very keen that their console was seen as a 3D gaming platform and actively encouraged developers to make 3D offerings. Look beyond this however and there’s a perfectly grand selection of more traditional 2D side-scrollers that made their mark and more than matched the offerings of Nintendo and Sega’s machines. In particular one PlayStation game managed to define itself as something that looked and felt completely different. That game was Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee.
Abe’s Oddysee is a delightfully dark humored 2D side-scroller that not only revels in its more adult themes, it plays directly up to them. The game launched in 1997 with a 12 rating; largely brought on by the surprising level of violence (Murdering Mudokins isn’t a kids pastime) and some dark humored moments (Watching Sligs randomly beat down on Mudokins is very un-PG). The game has a sense of doom and gloom that titles like Mario and Rayman wouldn’t dream of touching with a barge pole – and Abe’s Oddysee is all the better for it.
The story is kept simple and its to the benefit of the games flow. You play as Abe, employee of the month at Rupture Farms and generally all around hard worker. You stumble upon a plot that sees your bosses wanting to turn you and your colleagues into tasty snacks. Revealing he doesn’t suit a life on a stick, Abe makes the immediate decision to escape. It’s from here that he goes on a grand adventure, taking him across Oddworld and ultimately bringing Abe to his ultimate destiny – save the Mudokins.
One thing that really makes Abe’s Oddysee stand out is just how solid the core game play is. Even all these years later – the controls are tight; with gamers expected to learn then master all of Abe’s abilities. Running and jumping becomes a precision activity as the difficulty ramps up and the puzzles become more and more harrowing. This is a game that demands trial and error. Death isn’t an endgame but a step on the way to you being able to overcome an obstacle. You’re not penalized with lives and level restarts here – simply kicked back to the beginning of the puzzle and asked to try again. It fosters a sense of experimentation. The desire to see how far you push certain enemies and seeing if you can overcome the odds – and its great fun.
To assist in this enemies behave in repetitive patterns. You have to learn their mannerisms if you plan to stay alive long enough to get passed them. It’s a game where you have to think constantly about what you’re doing, or face frustration. To this end the level design is very simple; keeping puzzles to a handful of screens and asking you to work within set parameters. Enemies will chase you between screens – but this affords you the opportunity to lay traps or even lead away foes to allow you access to areas you couldn’t reach previously. Puzzles require switches to be pressed or certain tasks to be completed. As the game marches towards its end, the difficulty ramps up and the puzzles become pin-point in their difficulty.
Perhaps the smartest thing about this game though is the 99 Mudokins. Throughout the game your constantly reminded that you have the ability to save 99 of Abe’s friends – or kill them. The game never forces your hand and it’s not really played up as a major feature until about 2 thirds of the way through the game – by which time it’s almost too late to undo your evil deeds. Abe’s Oddysee comes packing two endings – depending on how many of your Mudokin friends you manage to save. Fail to save at least half of them and Abe’s story takes a grim and fairly harsh turn at its conclusion. Save enough however and you’re granted the real ending – as you get to watch Abe fulfill his destiny and escape Rupture Farms a hero.
Gamespeak is one of the more quirkier ideas to come from this mechanic – allowing Abe to command his friends and lead them to their demise or freedom. You can say “Hello” to grab their attentions, ask them to follow or tell them to wait. Or whistle and fart to help solve puzzles. It’s all done in good humor and can be experimented with to your hearts desire – even to the point where Sligs will interact with you in unexpected and humorous ways.
Of course there are a few shortcomings. For one a few of the puzzles in the games second half can be awkwardly obtuse. The game tries to offer assistance but when none is offered; it can make progression all the more frustrating. Likewise the Gamespeak is frustrating when multiple Mudokins require control. Abe’s Exodus fixed this issue by slamming in an All of you” option but that doesn’t fix the issue here.
I could go on and on about Abe’s Oddysee. Even the way the different screens transition feels in-keeping with the spirit of the overall game. It feels like a page being turned, like the story’s being pressed forward. The way the developers used light to create menacing night-time stages. The artistic direction (which is gorgeous throughout) through to the way that sounds are utilized throughout. Abe’s Oddysee was something of a cult classic when it first landed. It never reached the levels of Mario or Sonic – but managed to carve out a franchise that had fans excited. So great is the game that the re-release of New n’ Tasty was effectively a like-for-like remake. In recent times the game has enjoyed huge success and the series is finally on the receiving end of the praise it’s always deserved.
I fully recommend grabbing the original on Steam if you’re curious about the franchises origins. It might not have the shine of New N’ Tasty – but there’s a hugely competent game at its core and one that you really shouldn’t miss.