It is a dark night, clouds harboring ghoulish dangers roll across the sky, and far off in the remotest out corner of Jersey Town is a castle of unwholesome architecture brooding from a hill over the scattering of farm houses below. Mad Dr. Knarf is in his laboratory clicking his heels and tongue as he works on his diabolical experiments to corrupt wholesome vegetables and deny their freedom to grow and be eaten by Man. Suddenly, in a moment of stillness where the sweat rolls off the brow in rushes in through the door with a loud bang the man-child pumpkin headed assistant- "Master, Master!" "This better not be a rat again," replies the exasperated Dr. "OH NO! LOOK!" That's right, it's no rat, but something far cuter... and far deadlier- it's the little baby Jersey Devil! KABOOOM! No more lab.
Years later, when Jersey town has mushroomed into a growing metropolitan city, terror is being sprung loose on its citizens. There are rumors that the kidnappings are being done by a strange creature known as The Jersey Devil, but perched high above, silhouetted against the night sky is the one who Knows- no, it's not Batman. It's something with an air of mischief that has a vendetta to strike- BOO!
Jersey Devil is the perfect Tim Burtonesque platforming adventure romp, full of comforting colorful gothic overtones, and fueled by an imaginative and playful introductory animation. This is exactly the kind of game that defines for me why in the ongoing debate between Sony and Nintendo, the PS1 will always outshine the N64. While there are many games that parallel in style Jersey Devil on the N64, including such fan favorites as Banjo Kazooie, this game represents the pinnacle of that type of experience.
Now sure, there is a huge difference between the N64 expression of this type of game and the PS1's. There is a spectrum of this kind of colorful and quirky animation adventure platformer where JD stands on the more linear side of things, and Banjo Kazooie would stand on the more circuitous level hopping experience where returning to levels numerous times to complete various challenges, in your ongoing collection racket is a dominant thing.
Now it's true that Nintendo has always been known as a circuitous company, while its' competitors, such as Sega, Sony, and Microsoft, have generally sought a more linear approach, but in the case of the N64 I frankly find their views on the gaming experience to have gone into the range of being absurdly tedious and their worlds to be about as underwhelming as one can discover. I want to be clear: I am not a Nintendo hater, even though my Italian blood sometimes would have me go Stalone on Mario.
In fact, I grew up not only with the Sega, but also the NES and SNES- and I have a huge library regarding both systems that I cherish. To the day I die I will probably have to always have a Nintendo console because of Metroid. Metroid is the kind of circuitousness I love that Nintendo makes, a mesmerizing, mythically alien world that doesn't hold your hand but asks you to orbit through and in it till you are embodying it. It gets in you without the necessity of a painfully traumatic face hugger experience- and I love it!
But the N64 is not the kind of system I like, and I have really tried. It feels like every time I pop in a cartridge I'm being treated to a insufferably didactic sermon in my own stupidity. Everything that begins with promise, every character and world that may tickle me turns into sluggish wormhole of routine, repetition and drudgery. The rythm is all off and my hands, feelings, and thoughts were meant to dance even though I'm glued to my seat.
So Nintendo doesn't know what they are doing when it comes to describing and giving the experience of a colorful, cartoony adventure plat-former - they kill it! But Sony gets me everytime addicted by knowing just how to fuel my imagination. Sony does two things with this type of game, as well shown in JD. (As a side note, I am not including in my comparison games like "Rugrats" which are based off of a tv serial or film. Those often boringly end up like Nintendo)
First they toy with circuitous level exploration and returning. They don't make it feel like all the time every single thing has to be replayed and re-digested. They balance the rhythm of the replay, often not requiring a whole level to be replayed to access new items or sections, but just a portion- and generally this portion is invigorated with playful details that spring enchantingly from the already appreciated environment, story, characters, and gameplay.
Sometimes as long as one has the appropriate skill there isn't needed hardly any replay at all, and this is good. Rhythm is so important in video games because a video game is a kind of interactive literary phenomena and the dynamics of gameplay should exist as a kind of dance- a healthy expressive reaction to a kind of embodied reality. There is a kind of flow state between the world being there to communicate its' personality and capture the sense of wonder and interest of the player, and the player's desires and ambitions to pursue its' challenges to their conclusion to satisfy the irresistible seductions that have been instilled.
In the case of JD the structure consists of a main hub, the town square, and six realms, linking from the former, respectively containing two levels each, plus a bonus level. There are hostages to be rescued scattered throughout each level of the realms and a collection of nitro boxes that have to be broken in order to blow up the various labs at the end of each level after the boss fight. These two requirements are necessary for a true completion of a level and obtaining the good ending of the game.
As far as the main levels of the realms are concerned it is not necessary to make a return trip to any of them provided the player has the requisite skill and awareness to complete on his/her two tasks. The only replay is through the main hub, where upon completion of a level one will always return to regroup, and the realms themselves where one can travel to one of the two levels or bonus levels. Generally, as one level is completed in a realm the town square will open up to a new realm with an entertaining new cutscene, deepening the mystery. This opportunity is added to the already given of the second level opening up in the former realm.
Now when it comes to the realms themselves they are semi levels with various platforming and puzzle mechanics to navigate to reach a level, but these mechanics are so coordinately streamlined that mostly they are part of the experience of the one particular level being pursued and are not shared in reaching another level. Added to that, these realms are small anyways. Then this sub-hub itself is generally playfully re-invigorated so that the return still maintains that initial sense of wonder. Such examples include the spouting waterfall in Greenpark from which you must glide to reach the inside of a tree on a little island in a lake, and the former unfriendly chimp you dueled with in Amazing Boxes that comes to your aid in reaching Monkey's Trail after you've used your wings to put a banana at his feet.
Finally, those bonus levels you're curious about make themselves clear as to their access by indicating the power level needed to operate the barriers in the way (i.e. how many labs you destroyed.) Provided you collected all the boxes of enough levels and destroyed their respective labs you may go sailing!
The Second thing that Sony does is they try to avoid being too mundane. I mean if I am entering into one of these cartoony worlds the last thing I really want is for it to feel like my own backyard. Most of the time when I flip the switch on my N64 I find myself a few minutes in asking "why don't I just go outside and play in my own backyard?" There needs to be an element of the surreal for me to want to stay. The levels in JD always have an underlying current of the surreal to them. There is a kind of amorphous ambiguity that lingers in the distance, even though I might be standing on the hard ground of the recognizable. I can't quite put my finger on it always- but I definitely feel the strange tickling my funny bone while I'm walking along the "normal."
These qualities are so well diffused throughout that even though the game is now startlingly easy compared to when I played it as a child, my wonder is not lost and I still stay attached. As of this writing I have been playing for some time with a full capacity of 99 lives. Do I abandon Jersey Devil because I'm bored of challenge? No! Just as I wouldn't abandon if I had a child my child when he or she was in their full outpouring of uninhibited imagination. Through engaging in this perfectly captured sense of youth and magic my own being brightens.
Everywhere I see the surreal in this game- those boxes or clockwork gears I platform across that seem to float in the middle of a ceaselessly vast void, or that labyrinthine chamber of pipes in some factory with their ambling conveyor belts. I feel myself surrounded by a great oblivion while trying to pick my way along what there is of seemingly solid ground that does not till the very end substantiate where all of it is going. And then there's Dr. Knarfs presumed home, a place as pathologically mad in its construction as his mind must be. In the Cemetery It's perched high atop a hill that rests in the domain of clouds. One must navigate a wrap around as they ascend, avoiding plummeting boulders, before reaching a squeezed and bulging dilapidated home, full of enchanting paintings that arrest your attention as the floor collapses underneath your feet, sending you to your doom.
One particularly surreal experience is the haunting stained glasswork in the Crypt. It is of what appears to be a foreboding skull, bulging head, and a crown of teeth below spread wide in a ghastly smile which speak of an all-knowingness that sends shivers down my spine. This piece stands out with it's teeth and forehead so sharply in a terribly unsettling way, each of its teeth are like the pearls of a haunting danger awaiting me... and yet the one depicted in the glass is no fright at all, but merely a dumb basketball player with a big head who thinks too highly of himself. I am only sparring, in the end, over a basketball hoop with some kind of stereotypical jockey who has buck teeth for a mouth!
Finally there is the surreal even in the music. A common theme is a kind of Danny Elfman harmony: rising stairs of cautionary steps; descents of tension; then some soft hanging winds of contemplative gloom; and then... alas! what is this?? It is what seems a kind of gallant military march. Why am I wandering among floating coffins and seeing the bones of the dead rising up from the waters, and hearing this?! It is absurd, jarringly discordant with everything I've experienced!
So when we open up the graves of the dead to see who had the greatest creative genius- and who had the best understanding of fun and exploration, was it Nintendo or was it Sony? I think today's tomb raiding speaks for itself. With a carefully crafted combination of the surreal, a well played hub renewal that consistently keeps things lively, with easy access to levels Jersey Devil certainly delivers the punch and the tail slap in the face to Nintendo.
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