Munch’s Oddysee: The End

In the lengthy closing cutscene of the good ending, we finally see what use Abe and Munch got out of their trip to the surface and back: Lulu is now wealthy enough to win the Gabbiar auction. Except this still doesn’t really make sense. Abe has to mind-control Lulu through the entire process — Lulu doesn’t even like Gabbiar, doesn’t want to spend his entire new-found fortune, has no intention of just handing the can over to a couple of known criminals. So if Lulu isn’t a willing collaborator, why does it need to be Lulu? Can’t Abe just wait for the winning bid and then mind-control whoever won? I can imagine possible reasons why this wouldn’t work, but if the creators of this story even considered the possibility, they give no sign of it. No, Lulu is the only possible choice not for practical reasons, but for reasons of dramatic irony: you made his fortune by mind-controlling Glukkons, now you take it away by subjecting him to the same treatment.

I do want to keep going with the next Oddworld game once I’m through with IFComp for the year, but I have to say this one, even in its revamped form, was a step down from the first in most respects. There’s just an awful lot of filler where you repeat things you already know how to do in a series of similar-looking environments. The final level brings out some new wall textures to create a palatial look, and the effect is just to emphasize how much all the previous levels looked the same. There was a point toward the middle of the game where it started introducing ways to upgrade your Mudokon followers, turning them into powerful hand-to-hand or ranged combatants. It seemed like that might build up to something interestingly tactical, but the whole mechanic pretty much gets dropped after a few levels, probably because it made things too easy.

Munch’s Oddysee: Eggs? Eggs. Eggs!

Perhaps I’ve just been inattentive, or failed to read between the lines. It would be easy to do in a game where the story and gameplay are so separate. I can keep the Lulu side of the plot straight because it’s integrated into the levels, but there’s some purely interstitial story as well. Mostly it takes the form of headlines on a newspaper displayed after you complete a mission. The top story is generally the mission’s aftermath — “GLUKKON DONATES PROFITS TO LULU FUND! MAGOG MOTORS OUTA GAS!!!”, for example — but there’s also been an adjacent series in smaller type about the impending auction of the last remaining can of Gabbiar. Gabbiar is the roe of the Gabbit, which is to say, Munch’s species. Munch is generally assumed to be the last of his kind (hence his side of the rescue missions involving Fuzzles instead). So that roe, if still viable, could be the last hope for the continuation of his people.

I hadn’t really paid much attention to this plot thread before, assuming that it would assume prominence when it was ready, but there’s something else that’s got me thinking about it: the emergence of Labor Eggs. I had seen the phrase “Labor Eggs” in the game’s help text before, when it explains that the ending will depend on how many Mudokons, Fuzzles, and Labor Eggs you rescue. But only now, in the last few levels, do I get an explanation of what the phrase “Labor Eggs” means. It just means the eggs of Mudokons, kept by the Glukkons to be hatched into laborers. Which raises questions about where these eggs come from. As I’ve noted before, every Mudokon we’ve seen appears, at least, to be male — although these are aliens, so who knows?

Now, there is at least one specifically female character, also mentioned only in the newspapers: a Glukkon queen, who requires Gabbit lungs for some medical purpose. Which, now that I think about it, shows extreme short-sightedness on the part of the Glukkons. They have a desperate need for Gabbits, but Gabbits have been hunted to near extinction, so what do they do with the last clutch of viable Gabbit eggs? Package them as food. This is really par for the course for Glukkons, though. Their domination of the planet is based on ruthlessness, not good planning.

At any rate, the deal with the Labor Eggs is that they’re in boxes, which you have to pick up with a crane and drop into a hole. In the level where they first appear, there are 22 such boxes, all in the same area. You can’t access the crane until you’ve got rid of some guards, but once you’ve done that, there is nothing at all interfering with the task. This moment is pretty much pure repetitiveness, lacking challenge or interest. And that’s a distillation of the worst aspect of the game as a whole: its tendency to give the player busywork, to fill out scenes with activities that aren’t challenging or interesting. “Labor Eggs” may be a doubly accurate name.

Munch’s Oddysee: The End of the Massive Side-Quest

Finally I’m through with the Lulu Fund shenanigans, which turned out to take up the bulk of the game. To recap: Abe and Munch’s plan involves making a low-level Glukkon named Lulu stinking rich. They do this by sneaking into various other Glukkons’ offices, possessing them, and making them give their life savings to Lulu, after which they die from the shock of suddenly being broke. It’s a nasty scheme for a grotesque world. Lulu, as far as I can tell, is oblivious to why everyone is suddenly being so generous with him, but honestly he doesn’t get a lot of screen time, so who knows what he’s thinking? All I can say for sure is that he’s pleased with developments.

The last of the Glukkons you rob is dressed differently from the rest, with a glittery purple cowboy hat and aviator-style sunglasses. He doesn’t act any different — like all the Glukkons, he just stands in his little office waiting to be possessed, repeating the same seven self-aggrandizing barks in a gravelly Brooklyn accent (“I’m at the top of the world”, “How did I get so perfect?”, “I’m going to need an ass the size of a truck to fit this wallet”, etc.) But the outfit makes it clear that he’s a special Glukkon, a boss Glukkon, even if there’s really nothing to distinguish him otherwise. (There may be a lesson in that.) Afterwards, Lulu, with uncontainable joy, wears the same outfit on the flying barge that brings him to Vykkers Labs, the floating fortress that’s been your goal.

It looks like my guess was right: the whole point of the Lulu scheme was to let Abe and Munch sneak back to Vykkers Labs aboard that barge. And that’s where the story stops making sense to me. First of all, this isn’t the first time we’ve been to Vykkers Labs. It’s where Munch started the game. Abe had this whole mission to rescue Munch, and although that didn’t quite go as planned, due to Munch escaping without his help, he did have a considerably simpler way of reaching the Labs back then. Secondly, if Vykkers Labs is where they needed to be, why did the original plan involve leaving at all? Now, Abe’s Oddysee had a similar overall arc. There, Abe escaped from the meat plant, had a series of adventures in the world outside, and then in the end returned to where he escaped from to free the remaining captives and destroy the place. But there, there was a clear reason: Abe didn’t have the ability to finish his task until he visited the ancient temples and received powers from his people’s gods. (Powers which he seems to have lost after the conclusion of that game, by the way.) What did Abe and Munch gain by leaving the Labs before their task was complete? They’re no more powerful than they were when they escaped.

Project Lulu makes sense as game design: it provides an excuse for an arbitrary series of levels that don’t advance the story individually. But I don’t know that it makes sense as plot.

Munch’s Odyssey: What I’m Noticing This Time

Coming back to this after yet another lengthy pause, I’m struck afresh by a couple of things I hadn’t been thinking about much before.

First, I was finding some of the platforming unduly difficult. I’d quicksave just before trying a jump, then attempt it multiple times without success, falling short even after attempting a run-up. This turned out to be because I had forgotten how to run. Munch’s Oddysee on PC has a strange system for this. You essentially have three gears: Run, Walk, and Sneak. Tapping upward or downward on the D-pad shifts your speed one gear. All this despite controlling the character with an analog joystick, which has speed control built in! I suppose it’s because this whole gear system was added for the sake of keyboard-and-mouse. It doesn’t seem to have been present in the original Xbox version. In fact, when in Walk mode, I find I can still slow down to the point of entering Sneak mode just by pushing the stick less far. I just can’t run without shifting up.

Honestly, I’m glad to have a discrete Sneak mode. In situations that require sneaking, you really don’t want to stop sneaking just because your hand jostled a little. It’s still weird to use the D-pad to toggle it in this way, but I suppose they were running out of buttons. The face buttons are already overloaded, with the A button assigned to both Jump and Use Object (so you can’t jump when you’re near something usable), and the other three doubled up, doing one thing when tapped and another thing when held down. It’s all pretty complicated, and I frequently make mistakes like telling my followers to attack when I really want them to pull a group of levers.

The other completely unrelated thing that’s catching my eye this time around is how butch it all is. Which is a little surprising considering how it’s all framed as weirdos vs bullies, with the weirdos as the good guys. Well, Abe may be an ectomorph who sings his enemies to death rather than throw a punch, but he’s still visibly muscular, in a lean and wiry way. Moreover, the biggest of the bullies — the new extra-large Sligs with the beefy arms and the handheld miniguns and the four-legged robot undercarriage — are primarily there to be possessed and controlled by Abe. Seriously, this was the central aspect of the first two levels I played after coming back. While controlling a large Slig, your main concern is mowing down the lesser Sligs, directly confronting violence not with stealth or cleverness, but with greater and more powerful violence. The game wants you to have it both ways: You’re simultaneously the bullied and the bully, the weirdo with unsettling mind powers and the hulking revenge fantasy.

Munch’s Oddysee: Revamp

Let’s rewind a little. I’ve been meaning to finish Munch’s Oddysee for months now, and last month added an extra motivation: an unexpected update to the game, apparently the first in six years. In fact, not just an update. The press release calls it a “new port”. I’m guessing that there’s a new Oddworld game coming soon, and that both this update and the inclusion of New & Tasty in the Humble Montly are meant to get people talking about Oddworld again in preparation for it. (It’s obviously working in my case.)

Unlike New & Tasty, it doesn’t seem fundamentally changed from the previous version. It’s basically the same game, with the same rules and the same levels. The character models are more detailed and the framerate is higher, or so it claims. Having not played in a few months, I can’t tell the difference. But the feel of the controls is definitely improved, particularly in the menus, where moving the selection with a joystick was hit-or-miss before. And the sounds are much better, both in playback quality and in design. I complained before about cartoony boings, and those are basically gone. Munch’s footsteps no longer offend the ear. Abe falling down a cliff no longer sounds like Popeye in a fistfight. There’s still a certain amount of slide whistle on large jumps, but it’s a very reasonable amount. The sound design was my one biggest annoyance with the game, and I really wasn’t expecting it to just spontaneously get better. Maybe I’ll be better motivated to finish the game now.

The one thing that worried me about such an extensive rewrite was: Would it recognize my saves? Or would I have to start over from scratch? It turns out that my saves were accessible, but the save UI is weird enough that I didn’t realize this at first and wound up replaying the first few levels anyway. Also, it must be converting the old saves to a new format rather than just using them directly, because they all have the same timestamp, around the time I launched the game. As a result, the save menu can’t arrange them chronologically like it usually does, and instead sorts them in reverse alphabetical order by the name of the level. I had been saving at the beginning of every level, and had no idea of the name of the last level I had played. Fortunately, there was one converted save named “Quicksave” — which is distinct from the actual quicksave slot used by the new code.

Munch’s Oddysee: Slog

Another day, another level. That seems to be how fast I’m getting through this game right now, on those days that I play it at all. One level = one session is a reasonable equation, but I feel like my lack of binging, especially as I approach the end, signals a flagging of interest. The latest level was chock-a-block with land mines and other explosives, with large numbers of Slig guards, including a new, larger type, a sort of Slig giant with a more powerful gun and a more blatantly robotic lower half. None of this made the level more interesting. It just made it take longer.

Nonetheless, I do want to finish the game, if only to justify to myself moving on to Stanger’s Wrath, which is of particular interest to me simply because I know so little about it. I hadn’t even heard of it before it wound up in a Steam bundle. So for all I know, it may be even more dreary than these later levels of Munch’s Oddysee.

Munch’s Oddysee: Product Placement

So, Munch’s Oddysee has these vending machines dispensing power-ups in the form of soft drinks. Some can be used by both player characters, some are exclusive to Munch. A drink called “Expresso”, for example, makes either character run faster, while “Zap!” lets Munch attack nearby enemies with electrical arcs from his cranial implant. Health can be restored with cans of SoBe energy drink, from vending machines with the SoBe logo with the two lizards.

I’m informed that this isn’t the case in all version of the game. Apparently there’s a HD remake for Playstation 3 and Vita that uses a made-up “Health Up!” brand name instead. But in the version I’m playing, it’s SoBe, except for one Health Up machine I’ve seen. I don’t know what the deal is with that.

This is far from the first or worst instance of egregious product placement I’ve seen in games. The example I always think of is Lemmings 3D (aka 3D Lemmings), which stuck Jelly Belly logos all over the place, and even made a huge jar of jelly beans into a major part of one level’s geometry. To this day, whenever I see Jelly Bellies, I think of Lemmings, which is presumably the opposite of what was intended. I also think of the obscure 2002 action-adventure Darkened Skye, which was actually designed from the ground up as an advergame for Skittles, even basing its content on then-current Skittle commercials and including a Skittle-based magic system. The truly remarkable thing about Darkened Skye, however, was that, unlike most games based on junk food, it tried to hide it. The packaging mentioned Skittles only in the small print on the back, and you could play it for a couple of hours before encountering any Skittle content. Today, it’s remembered for nothing else.

And that’s why I feel the way I do about product placement of this sort: that it’s the sign of a game that’s lost its way as art. It’s letting money dictate content. Well, okay, that’s going to be the case regardless. Budgets are limited, and studios need to make games that will sell. But this is letting money dictate content in an obvious and intrusive way, and I have to wonder if the increased brand awareness is enough to outweigh the resentment it engenders. I’ve heard tell that gun manufacturers pay handsomely to get their wares included in the latest military shooters, and that’s creepy, but in a way, it doesn’t seem as bad to me, because at least guns are relevant to a shooter. They belong there in a way that Earth beverages don’t belong in the Oddworld.

The Oddworld setting even gives the whole deal some additional ironies, starting with the way that the whole story is one of struggle against capitalist excess. Putting ads in games is, when you think about it, totally something Glukkons would do. But also, beverage manufacturers in particular were the main bad guys in the previous game. Now, understand that there’s a completely deliberate irony of Abe and the Mudokons using and even relying on the products of their oppressors. Abe’s Oddysee makes it clear that Abe has eaten and enjoyed the Scrab Cakes and Paramite Pies made from his people’s sacred animals, and Abe’s Exoddus has him drinking a Glukkon-made beverage from vending machines as part of solving puzzles, much like he does here in Munch’s Oddysee. But the premise of Abe’s Exoddus is that the Glukkons are using the addictiveness of that very same beverage to re-enslave the Mudokons, and late in the game there’s a revelation about how it’s made that I won’t spoil. As such, I have to wonder if SoBe really thought this through. This is the sort of thing that advertisers tend to be sticklers about. The story of Munch’s Oddysee itself doesn’t seem to contain anything so outright negative about its soft drinks, but the game does make all the cutscenes from Abe’s Exoddus available from its main menu as a recap of the story so far. Considering how ham-handed the product placement is in the first place, I suppose it’s just a matter of nobody involved knowing what they’re doing.

Munch’s Oddysee: Glukkons

The head bad guys of Oddworld are of a species called Glukkons, which have cephalopod-like heads and slender bodies with no arms — or rather, as we learn in the final cutscene of Abe’s Oddysee, their arms are actually the appendages they walk on, while tiny torsos and stunted legs dangle between their shoulders. You don’t see this normally because they wrap their absurd bodies in expensive armless suits that constrain their movements. They are the Oddworld’s personification of capitalist greed, physically incapable of doing anything for themselves, suited only to giving orders.

In Abe’s Oddysee, Glukkons only appeared in cutscenes. Both Abe’s Exoddus and Munch’s Oddysee, however, put them into levels, where you can possess them by chanting, just like Sligs.

To be more specific, in Munch’s Oddysee, there’s a whole sequence of levels in the midgame based around stealing various Glukkons’ life savings. See, Munch and Abe need to sneak onto a flying-saucer-like lab complex, and the plan to do this involves elevating a particular low-level Glukkon’s position within the Glukkon hierarchy by making him extremely wealthy. It hasn’t been explained yet why this is necessary, but I assume it has to do with transportation to the saucer. Like, it only sends down shuttles to pick up newly-minted gazillionaires or something. At any rate, there’s a sequence of levels where you break into a series of industrial operations, find the Glukkon in charge, possess him, and make him transfer all his assets to Lulu. (That’s the low-level Glukkon’s name, Lulu.) As always, releasing your possession kills the host, so Lulu doesn’t even have to deal with lawsuits or anything afterwards, although I don’t think he’s really complicit at all.

Here’s what it means for the game. First of all, the player characters are suddenly proactive. They’re not escaping from someplace, and they’re not reacting to an emergency. They’re doing Mission Impossible stuff. Going on self-contained missions and succeeding at them. Secondly, it provides an impetus for variety, as you visit Glukkons in different lines of business. Or at least, that’s how I imagine it was intended. The fact is, the graphics of this game don’t seem to support much diversity of style. There’s exteriors with rounded cliffs, and there’s interiors with metal walls, and that’s pretty much it. The earlier 2D games definitely had an edge when it came to art.

Munch’s Oddysee: Annoyances

As I’ve said, you can switch between controlling Abe and controlling Munch at the touch of a button. But I find I prefer to use Abe most of the time, switching to Munch only when necessary. Partly this is because Abe gets around better. He can jump a lot higher than Munch, and I think he walks faster as well, although this could be an illusion caused by their different gaits. But mainly I avoid using Munch because he makes this irritating “boing boing boing” as he hops along.

It’s especially disappointing because the sound design on the first two Oddworld games was so good, to the point of being a large factor in why I liked them as much as I did. The occasional dramatic drum riffs were particularly satisfying — solid, sharp and resonant. Sure, there were cartoony bits, such as the squeaking of the floor when Abe walked on tiptoe, but that was reasonably restrained and, moreover, usefully informative.

Munch’s boing isn’t even the worst of the cartoony sound effects in the game. Abe does much worse when he falls a long distance. But Munch’s walk is much more pervasive and unavoidable, and in addition, Munch is perilously close to being the game’s Scrappy-Doo anyway, being a suddenly-introduced character who doesn’t quite fit in stylistically with what’s gone before and who takes over the story. He’s even proportioned kind of like Scrappy, with that oversized head. I’d have complaints about his voice acting if he had more lines.

The thing is, though, all of the Oddworld games I’ve played have had their annoying aspects. In Abe’s Oddysee, it was the doggerel. All the cutscenes were narrated by Abe telling his story in terrible, terrible verse. This was quietly dropped for Abe’s Exoddus, which, however, upped the ante on fart jokes. Abe always had the ability to make fart noises as part of the same in-game speech system that let him say “Follow me!” and “Wait here!”, but in Abe’s Oddysee, there was no in-game reason to do so. Fart noises existed solely for the amusement of those players who found them amusing. Abe’s Exoddus, on the other hand, had a whole mechanic built around drinking fizzy beverages that made Abe gassy, then farting, then chanting to take control of the fart the same way that he takes control of Sligs. Munch’s Oddysee keeps the concept of beverages from vending machines granting special powers, but doesn’t use that specific power. So I’m kind of wondering now if Stranger’s Wrath, the fourth (and, to date, last) Oddworld game, will keep the pattern by dropping the boing sounds and/or getting rid of Munch entirely, but introducing some new annoyance.

Munch’s Oddysee: Captives and Combat

I have to correct myself on a few points. There still are some captive Mudokons around, distinguishable from the free Mudokons by their headgear. Some of the Sligs do carry guns, although you get something like halfway through the game before this starts happening. And the game does drop the extreme hand-holding eventually. In fact, it more or less announces the fact: the spirit guide who occasionally pops in to give tutorial advice says “I have no idea how you’re going to pull this off”. I’ve started hitting levels where it’s not at all obvious at first where to go and what to do, where the first phase consists of exploration to discover what your options are (and to off the occasional Slig of opportunity). It’s a little like the exploration phase in an adventure game.

There’s one big difference between captive Mudokons and free ones: Free ones can be revived if killed. It takes time and costs spooce and is best avoided if possible, but it can be done if necessary. Whereas if a captive Mudokon or Fuzzle is killed, you’re simply locked out of the possibility of a perfect victory, unless you restore an earlier save.

And, unlike Abe’s Oddysee, this game really wants you to get perfect victories. There don’t seem to be secret Fuzzles in hidden challenge areas; if there were, Munch could find them with his special sonar ability. Information about how many captives there are on each level and how many you’ve saved is easily accessible in multiple ways: in-world scoreboards, a quick status check on the right trigger button, details available in the pause menu. Really, it gives the player loads of help. And one of the effects of all that help is that it makes perfection seem achievable, so that you don’t risk your rescues without reason.

Free Mudokons are your troops of choice when it comes to fighting Sligs, but they’re not always available. Sending your rescued captives into combat carries risk, but sometimes is the best approach. Sometimes you have other options, like having Munch operate a crane and drop explosives on them. But there have already been a couple of cases where I chose the absurdly tedious approach: Send Abe in alone, have him slap the Slig a few times before he gets killed, then have Munch revive him and repeat, gradually wearing the opposition down until victory. I’m fairly certain that this is not actually the optimal approach, but it was completely safe, and the game let me do it. That’s what sort of game this is. The sort that lets you substitute tedium for cleverness. That’s about as far from Abe’s Oddysee as you can get.

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