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Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee - A Retrospective Review
With the release of 32-bit consoles in the '90s, 3D platformers were in. The N64 had Super Mario 64, which was, quite frankly, all it needed, alongside Rare's Banjo-Kazooie. Meanwhile, Sony had Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon. Not only were 3D platformers in, they also had to be bright, child-friendly, and preferably rather cuddly.
Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee went against this ethos. Whilst everyone else was entering three-dimensions, the team at Oddworld Inhabitants stuck firmly to two. Moreover, rather than cast the player as a cute, anthropomorphic animal (or Italian plumber), they instead created a weird-looking blue alien with his mouth stitched together.
The best thing was, it worked. Abe's Oddysee was a fairly big success on the original Playstation, and Abe himself went on to be an unofficial mascot for the console alongside Spyro and Crash.
A lot of this success came down to the story and world design. Rather than create an abstract game space within which levels could be created, Oddworld Inhabitants crafted a real, living, breathing alternate world. Instead of being a one-of-a-kind superhero, you were an ordinary (blue) guy that worked at a factory. The factory in question was Rupture Farms, a giant meat processing plant on Oddworld, run by the evil Mullock the Glukkon.
In reality Abe and his fellow Muddokons were little more than slaves. What's more, due to Rupture Farms exploiting the world's natural resources, most of the animals (Scrabs and Paramites in this case) were facing the threat of extinction, and, at the beginning of the game, Abe discovers that his kind are going to be next on the menu. At least as far as video games go, this was fairly heavy social criticism to have in a story. Director Lorne Lanning, who also voiced Abe, has repeatedly gone on record as saying that he's quite a fervent anti-capitalist, and a lot of those ideas are clearly echoed within the game.
What's so great about the story though is that it took these concepts and presented them in a way that wasn't lecturing or whining at the player. You just wanted to play a cool 2D platformer? Fine, Abe's Oddysee had very tight set of controls for a platformer: one button to run, and another to jump, that was about it. Moreover, it didn't sugar-coat it's world: whilst being weird and wonderful, Oddworld was depicted as quite a depressing and brutal place, and there's a heavy thread of really dark comedy that runs through the entire story.
Added to this was what was, at the time, quite a unique concept: the ability to communicate with other characters. Not only did Abe have to escape Rupture Farms, he also had to make sure his buddies got out too. In order to do this Abe could talk to them using a system called Gamespeak. For example, in order to get a fellow Muddokon to follow you, you had to say "Hi" and then "Follow Me". They were fairly simple instructions that you could give but the whole system helped cement the idea that you were operating within a bigger world, and you were just a part of it. More importantly, if you didn't save enough Muddokons throughout the game, you were treated to the bad ending, which acted as an even bigger incentive to do the right thing.
Of course, Abe was pretty defenceless; he couldn't fight back against anything that attacked him. Sligs, essentially slugs in robotic pants, that guarded Rupture Farms, would shoot Abe on sight, with one shot meaning instant death. To combat this Abe had just one weapon: possession. By chanting, Abe could possess a nearby Slig and the player could control it and do with it what she or he wanted. Typically this meant going across several screens and murdering every other Slig with your machine gun before blowing up your newfound meat-puppet. However, Sligs could also communicate with Slogs, their faithful guard-dogs, as well as deactivate door locks which again allowed the Gamespeak element to flourish.
The best part about the game though, is that it really felt like an epic adventure. After a desperate escape from Rupture Farms, you were sent on a quest through the sacred lands of the old, native Muddokons in order to gain the power to destroy the meat-processing plant and all the Glukkons that ran it. When you finally returned in the game's final level, it felt really exciting, you were pumped and ready to take down these guys with your new powers.
Of course, that journey sent you through the wilderness of Oddworld that was teeming with Scrabs and Paramites. They might not have wanted to kill you the way that the Sligs did but, to them, you were food. Rather than have them be generic threats, the developers gave Scrabs and Paramites different behaviours. Scrabs for example, would attack you on sight, but if a fellow Scrab was in the vicinity, they would ignore you and start scrapping with one another. Meanwhile, Paramites were pack hunters and would flee if they were alone...provided you didn't push one into a corner that is. It added another puzzle-like tweak to what was essentially basic platforming gameplay.
Even at the time of its release Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee was known for being a difficult, and rather unforgiving, game. By today's standards that's only been amplified more so. The game also didn't have a particularly great checkpoint system, with a good chunk of gameplay being wiped every time you died. Dying wasn't that hard either, considering any attack was basically insta-death.
Still, these minor foibles don't detract all that much from what is one of the best 2D platformers of its time. The best part is, for those that missed it the first time around, it's since seen a re-release on the Playstation Network and Steam, meaning that picking a copy up isn't all that difficult. What's more, an entire HD remake is coming later this year called Oddworld: New 'N' Tasty to just about every platform, so there'll be no excuse for not having given it a go.
Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee was released in 1997 for the Playstation and PC.
© 2013 LudoLogic