Blinx: The Time Sweeper
Creating a platformer is a fine art, perfected by Nintendo – considered by many to be the only exponent of truly brilliant platformers. But there have been some challengers and if you can cast your mind back as far as 1991 and recall the advent of Sonic The Hedgehog on SEGA’s MegaDrive, you’ll remember that it made a huge dent in the comparatively slow-moving world of Mario on the SNES.
Now fast forward to the founding of Artoon, the development studio responsible for Blinx. Formed in 1999, Artoon was started by Yoji Ishii and Naoto Ohshima: the very people who revolutionised gaming and the fortunes of the MegaDrive by giving birth to Sonic and his compardres. And here they are again, pushing the boundaries of what we have come to expect from games: firstly infusing a much jaded genre with a dose of innovation: secondly, by using that much underused species of gaming character, the common or garden alley cat; and thirdly, by giving him a cleaning appliance as a weapon.
Featuring what must be the biggest leading role in a game for a cat since Rat Attack (which we don’t want to talk about), Blinx is an operative in the Time Factory, where a massive workforce of biped cats work to create and control time. In charge of the ebb and flow of time, the cats ensure that there are no time glitches and that no time cheats like Marty McFly or rogue packs of dwarves can muck around with its passage. But the opening cut-scene shows us that things don’t always go as planned: a gang of rascally pigs on flying motorcycles have invaded world B1Q64, freezing, speeding up and generally mucking around with time so that they can loot and steal from its inhabitants. The rest of the factory operatives, after staring for a while in startled wonderment in the way that only cats can, decide that the world is lost to them and prepare to shut it down: but when Blinx sees that the pigbandits have kidnapped a girl with pigtails on sticks, he leaps into the world to save her, and it, from the dangers of stray time crystals and the monsters they become if they aren’t collected by an operative with a special time-sucking vacuum cleaner.
As with most back stories, this time control malarkey is an excuse to showcase the unusual gameplay: the most essential element of which is the fact that Blinx has the ability to control time. He can do with time what most of us can only do with video recorders, fastforwarding, rewinding, pausing, recording and slowing down the passage of time. When you are confronted with three or four time monsters at once, you can pause or slow down time, making everything on screen apart from Blinx himself stop or slow down, so you can run around shooting the enemy while they either stand stock still or move so slowly that you can dance round them in circles. There are endless uses for the time controls: you can stop the flow of water and walk upstream through fast flowing waterfalls, record yourself pressing a button so that you can simultaneously press two at once, and stop blades from swinging so you can pass through unscathed. But although some time controls are useful some of them seem virtually redundant: for example, fast forward speeds up time and seems to apply to none of the puzzles you are presented with. Although they are an interesting innovation in terms of gameplay, they are used only for a fairly standard group of puzzles, and, as a concept, have been underused.
Blinx doesn’t come with an endless supply of these controls: he has to earn them by collecting time crystals which either lie scattered around the levels, or have to be acquired by killing the time monsters you have come to defeat. But by ‘collect’, we don’t just mean the random accumulation of shiny things with the aim of gathering more and more crystals and time controls. Like the butterfly collector, there is an art to Blinx’s accumulation. You can only hold four crystals at one time: if you collect, say, three purples and one of another colour, you are rewarded with a rewind, the control which corresponds to the purple crystals. If you get four of one colour, you get two of that control.
One of the major flaws of Blinx is the collection of these things. There are many points where lacking a time control makes it impossible to complete a level, and as there is only a finite amount of crystals on most levels, if you pick up four which don’t add up to a combo, you get a ‘bad crystal combo’. It’s too easy, in the melee of battle as well as just in passing, to accidentally pick up crystals which mess up your combos. If you end up unable to get through the level because your crystal combos are unworkable, you have no option but to press the ‘restart level’ button before you actually get through the game. This trial and error play can lead to frustration, especially with the tight time constraints applied to each level. The camera angles, too, do nothing to assist your collection and fighting, often getting stuck in walls or behind objects which prevent you from seeing approaching danger.
The graphics have a slightly grainy, gritty look to them, but in no way skimp on solidity or details. Blinx himself is a honed-to-perfection platform character, giving way neither to total cuteness, or to ice cold cool in a way which is reminiscent of the attitude which gave Sonic his edge, and thankfully in no way similar to that dowdy, dungaree bedecked dullard so beloved to the Nintendo massive.
The time monsters you encounter are formed from the stray time crystals produced by glitches in time, and since the world you are trying to save is peppered with such glitches by the invasion of flying pigs, then its up to you to kill every one. Each level has a set amount of monsters, and the completion of each level rests on killing every single monster within the set tenminute time span – something that gets very tricky as you move into the last half of the game. The monsters seem to be designed with a children’s toy/circus performer theme in mind, and, feature space hoppers, hot air balloons, and oddly shaped, bearded gymnasts balancing on giant rubber balls. Each monster has a different mode of attack which you quickly become familiar with, so that, theoretically at least, they should be easy to defeat. But you are put at a great disadvantage by the fact that your vacuum isn’t always the most accurate of weapons. It is fairly limiting in that it will lock onto the nearest enemy, regardless of whether the shot will have any effect or not, and if you are too far away from an assailant, the vacuum will fire your carefully collected missiles into thin air. The inaccuracy of your weapon, added to the fact that the monsters can defeat you simply by touching you, can make the fighting very frustrating: especially in a situation where you have three or four monsters on your case at once.
Although Blinx has its flaws, it is innovative and unusual enough to make it a worthy purchase for Xbox gamers – especially those who are longing for a decent platformer on the Xbox. Blinx adds something new to a genre which for a long time has been waiting for a new direction. The gauntlet has been laid down: gamers will now be looking for something different from the traditional, predictable platformer.