4 Nintendo 64 3D platformers that everyone forgot about
6th July 2021
If the 3D platformer genre had a heyday or a golden era, the Nintendo 64 years were surely it. Games like Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie set a high bar of quality, and for several years jumpin’ and collectin’ were absolutely the order of the day.
But while most people who grew up with the genre remember the likes of Banjo, Conker and Donkey Kong 64, there were numerous other jump-’em-ups that came out during the console’s lifespan - many of which attracted relatively few sales and then quickly faded into obscurity.
In today’s post, I want to dig out and dust off four old N64 platfomers that have largely been forgotten and have a fresh look at them. What happened to them - and why didn’t they leave the kinds of legacies that Nintendo and Rare’s efforts would prove to have?
This game was a relatively early addition to the N64 platformer pantheon. In fact, it came out in 1997 - six or seven months prior to the release of Rare’s Banjo-Kazooie in the summer of 1998.
Although it was a bit rough around the edges - as you would surely expect a 3D platformer of the time to be - it did boast some innovative game mechanics. Playing as a chameleon to explore the game’s worlds, the player would be able to use their extending tongue to latch onto items, enemies, or grabbable poles around the world.
However, it wouldn’t take long before the novelty of this would wear off and the game would gradually reveal itself to be an otherwise pretty unremarkable platformer that most critics described as being mostly just a bit too easy, boring, and burdened by a notably crappy 3D camera. It also had a multiplayer mode that is probably best described by saying that it ‘received mixed reviews’.
That didn’t stop publishers Sunsoft (who are still around today) from pushing out a sequel, Chameleon Twist 2, a year later. It was a game that surely nobody had been clamouring for, and somehow it managed to attract worse reviews across the board than its predecessor. After that, the Chameleon Twist series was basically dead in the water and was never really heard from again.
Just in case anybody couldn’t tell from the art style, this was a game from the same studio and creator as the Rayman series (Ubisoft and Michel Ancel respectively).
In this one, you play as a rather disconcerting-looking alien called Ed, who haplessly drops a big ol’ tub of a mysterious Tonic onto planet Earth from his spaceship and causes the planet to go into complete disarray.
Then some bloke called Grögh ends up drinking the Tonic and getting superpowers that mean he can turn into a 3D platformer villain (which is pretty unfortunate for Ed, all things considered). Cue Ed having to do a bunch of levels, collect a bunch of things, and basically try to save the planet from his own incompetence.
Tonic Trouble wasn’t a bad game as such, but mostly suffered from an acute case of Generic Syndrome - every element in it was serviceable, but nothing stood out as being especially memorable. Even the game’s title reportedly went through at least eight different iterations before Ubisoft’s marketing people seemingly just gave up and plumped for the largely forgettable “Tonic Trouble”.
Starshot: Space Circus Fever
As crap of a name as “Tonic Trouble” is, though, it surely can’t hold a candle to “Starshot: Space Circus Fever”. Which marketing genius came up with that one? It literally refuses to stay in my head: I immediately forget what the game is called one second after I get done reading the title.
It was released in 1999 to little fanfare, whereupon it quickly failed to set the world on fire and was largely overlooked by consumers. Gamers who did pick up a copy found themselves playing a quirky platformer which certainly had some neat ideas, but was also plagued by off-putting technical problems.
In addition to choppy frame rate issues, the game was often made quite frustrating by its seemingly hostile camera (which would routinely settle into angles that were uniquely unhelpful for being able to see what was going on, or otherwise try to jeopardise the player’s jumps by freaking out unexpectedly while they were in midair).
Multiple reviewers at the time of release noted that Starshot had obviously also taken rather a lot of cues and inspiration from Rare’s Banjo-Kazooie (just, you know, without the parts about actually being good).
Nope, I’ve forgotten the full title again. One more time, please…?
There is a very good reason why this N64 game isn’t well remembered today, and that’s because it never actually came out for the console.
To be more precise, the N64 product was going to be a port of a previously released PS1 game. It got close enough to release that several gaming magazines in 2000 actually ran reviews for the title - but the game itself never materialised on shop shelves.
As the name would suggest, it was a sleep-themed quest with two playable kid protagonists (described memorably at the time by IGN as “a couple of corn-fed plumpers”) exploring a world of dreams in search of the titular 'Winks' (which were dream creatures who needed rescuing).
In a bizarre twist, 40 Winks resurfaced many years later in the form of a Kickstarter to get the N64 port a proper release via specially made collector’s cartridges (with the campaign ultimately meeting its goal and ending up getting fulfilled).
You can also get the game on Steam these days, although by all accounts it’s a pretty shonky emulated version of the original Playstation game that doesn’t seem to be going down terribly well with the punters.
In the end, it’s hard to avoid the inevitable conclusion that the reason most of these games quietly slipped off the map was that they simply weren’t all that good.
It was true that they didn’t have the marketing clout of Mario and Donkey Kong, but then again, some other third-party platformers (such as Spacestation Silicon Valley and Glover) did prove to be good enough to attract a niche following of fans who still remember them fondly today.
Of course, the genre saw a bit of a decline through the 2000s and beyond, and I can’t help but wonder if that was because a lot of game companies had learned that 3D platformers were both hard to make and commercially risky. You had to come out with a Banjo-quality title to be in with a good shot - and I suspect that many publishers became reluctant to invest in projects that had a high chance of ultimately being destined for turkeyville.
Personally, I always thought it was a bit of a shame that in many ways it feels like the genre never really got going. Unlike, say, first person shooters, which have seen twenty or thirty years of constant iteration, innovation, and improvement, 3D platfomers have seen relatively little development activity since the Nintendo 64 era (apart from occasional outliers such as Super Mario Galaxy and Odyssey, Yooka-Laylee, and A Hat In Time).
It’s hard not to wonder what sort of 3D platformers we’d be looking at today if the genre had been properly alive and active this whole time. Makes you think, dunnit?