Skullmonkeys/Neverhood comparison

I reinstalled The Neverhood and played through a bit of it to see if my earlier comments were at all accurate. If anything, I understated things. I called the look “handmade”, but I didn’t specify that the scenery had finger gouges all over the place.

I also mentioned the impression of three-dimensionality. This goes way beyond the look of the graphics. The Neverhood goes to great pains to give an impression that the gameworld is a single continuous physical object, using the tricks employed by graphical adventures from Myst onward. You get maps, glimpses through windows of distant locations that you’ll visit later, puzzles based on adjacency of locations you can’t walk between directly, and physical manipulation of large landscape features to alter what locations are accessible. Presumably many of the backdrops were assembled and photographed individually, but some of the exterior scenes had to have been done by moving a camera around inside a large clay model. Skullmonkeys, by contrast, is clearly a disjointed series of levels assembled out of sprites. How disjointed? Travelling from level to level involves jumping into a “warp gate”. Even though some of the level graphics in Skullmonkeys are quite attractive (particularly the “Castle de los Muertos” level, which involves running across battlements in silhouette against a red sky), I have to call The Neverhood’s overall approach more impressive.

The one area where Skullmonkeys really beats Neverhood is in its framerate. The Neverhood‘s animation looks unbelievably clunky after playing Skullmonkeys for a while. It doesn’t take long to get used to it, though.


As I start this blog, I am finishing up Skullmonkeys, an old-fashioned 2D platformer for the Playstation. In fact, it was already old-fashioned when it was new: it was released in 1997, just after Mario 64 and Tomb Raider on their respective consoles ushered in the age of the 3D platformer.

Even though it was a critical failure and a commercial bomb that killed the company that made it, this was one of the first games I sought out when I finally bought a PS2 in 2004. I wanted it because it was the sequel to a game I liked a great deal, The Neverhood, which is a puzzle-based third-person adventure game for the PC. Apparently the creators of The Neverhood thought that the best way to correct the disappointing sales figures of the first game was to switch to a more popular genre and platform, thereby alienating half of the fans of the original and making it impossible for the rest to play it. It’s a bit jarring that Klaymen (the hero) is suddenly able to shoot energy blasts that make his enemies explode. He never did that before.

The grand concept behind The Neverhood was that it’s all made of clay: the characters, the environment, even machines and buildings. It was a striking and original look, and the designers emphasized it by leaving the clay rough and wobbly, just so you never forgot that they had molded it all by hand (unlike the smoothed-out models used by Aardman, for example). Skullmonkeys is similar, but in lower resolution and with parallax scrolling. Oddly, parallax scrolling messes up the claymation look more than the lower resolution does, making the scenery look more like a collage than a three-dimensional space.

Graphics aren’t everything, of course. Except they are in this game. It’s all about style, not gameplay.

I have managed to reach the last of the game’s seventeen levels, but without enough lives to actually get anywhere near the end. I am currently trying to get more lives from the 1970s.