The humble powerup may be the most misunderstood game mechanic in all of gaming.
Powerups are, of course, an item almost exclusive to the video game genre. In fact, if a powerup existed in pretty much any other story, it would be chastised as lazy writing, or a stupid deus ex machina. The puny hero gains the ability to grow to double his size and breathe fire just in time to tackle the bad guy? Please. I’d argue that this is the reason your typical RPG is designed the way it is: the protagonists gain power and strength from hours and training, so you, the player, believe your party has organically grown to god-slaying level… even though you just won because you exploited a magic rock found an hour ago, and could have used said rock to stomp all over the entire planet if you had only hijacked an airship during the prologue. And the mere existence of powerup-like mechanics in other stories seem to neuter the universe, aka why doesn’t Sailor Moon use her ultimate attack at the start of every battle? Oh, great, Goku learned a new technique, now the rest of the crew is going to have to train for six months to be relevant again.
Powerups are godsends in video games, though. Correct me if I’m wrong, but like a lot of gaming staples, the powerup started with Pac-Man, and those delicious power pellets that turned monsters into mobile sandwiches. And while Pac-Man may have invented the powerup, it’s Mario who holds the most iconic powerup in gaming: the super mushroom. Don’t worry about lame genetics or a complete lack of training, no, you can double your mass with a bite of fungi. A similar powerup mechanic has been emulated time and time again across games and genres, which makes it all the more a shame that even Mario’s creators seem to have forgotten how powerups work.
Before we go any further, I want to be clear exactly what I’m talking about. Super Fighting Robot Mega Man, for instance, does not collect powerups as I’m talking about them in this article; those robot master weapons are more like consumable upgrades. Similarly Samus Aran only ever upgrades her repertoire, and literally requires those upgrades for the rest of her mission. And, as obliquely referenced already, any given hero in a RPG does not acquire powerups, that is more of a progressive level up, and is, generally, just as required as Samus’s upgrades. Yeah, alright, I’m sure someone has a naked level one run of Final Fantasy 9 somewhere on youtube, but it’s not the optimal way to play.
Which is the thing about powerups: they shouldn’t be required.
Mario has slowly descended into “required” powerups since Mario 64’s various limited-time-only hats granted more of an unique time trial challenge than an effective way to battle the King of the Koopas, but it reached a nadir during the Super Mario Galaxy era, when the fire flower became just as limited and situational as Metal Mario. Actually, come to think of it, this may have all gotten started with my favorite nemesis, Yoshi’s Island, where Yoshi’s only available “powerups” were transformations into limited vehicles. Hm. ROB! Scowl at that dinosaur fellow for the rest of the evening! Yes, again!
While the 2-D Marios have been good about keeping powerups as powerups, the recent Mario Maker seemed to hedge its bets by making the dedicated “always the same powerup per box” , Koopa Klown Kar, Lakitu Cloud, and other similar items very situational. While the powerup boxes seem to have been rectified via updates, the initial message is clear: stop having fun with that Kuribo Shoe, now you must acquire one to vault these munchers. Granted, this is Mario Maker, so you’re more at the mercy of sadistic, amateur level designers than any Nintendo staff, but look at the Nintendo World Championship Levels: the Koopa Klown Kar is not a toy, please use it to stick Mario in Bullet (Bill) Hell.
Which is amusing, as the finest example of powerup usage is probably the Gradius franchise and its many imitators. Risking your life to collect glowy bits that allow you to choose your powerup load-out is pretty much exactly what I’m looking for with powerups (a mushroom is more delectable when you have to chase it off a cliff), and the risk/reward of death possibly stripping you of all your hard-earned lasers makes that peach all the sweeter. That’s the other great thing about power-ups: they’re temporary if you don’t know what you’re doing, but, assuming you’ve got some skill, you’ll gobble up all the ghosts, fireball Bowser, and sink that alien heart into the ocean with Spread.
But when powerups go wrong, you get something like Claymates.
Claymates is an action/platforming game in the vein of Mario or Sonic, with gameplay that wildly flips between slow, measured platforming and running around like an idiot. At the start of every level, you are Clayton (ugh), a human boy who has been transformed into a little blue ball. Your abilities are roll, jump, and “punch”, an attack with all the range of Link’s 2-D adventuring sword. Additionally, when you are ball-Clayton, you are fragile as heck, and one hit means you’re popped. But have no fear! You can collect clay ball powerups that allow you to transform into various common animals: cat, duck, gopher, fish, and mouse. Each of the animals have different abilities, and, by their power combined, you might just be able to rescue your father, (okay) a scientist who invented these clay formulas (seems legit), but was kidnapped by the witch doctor Jobo (wait, what?).
This, honestly, is a pretty good premise for a 16-bit platformer, and certainly beats the pants off Bubsy (who wore no pants). The idea of switching between different animals and their eclectic skills is a good one, but it is severely marred by the combination of a capricious powerup system and overanxious adversaries. Let’s just look at the fish powerup, aka Goopy the Guppy (ugh). The entire second world of this game is an ambiguous “The Pacific”, and it’s basically the game’s water level. As you can likely guess, Goopy takes to the water like some kind of aquatic creature, and, for much of the watery world, you only ever want to be Goopy. Except, like an errant lance pickup ruining your Ghosts ‘n Goblins run, you can still obtain and instantly transform into other animals… all of which “drown” underwater, and will only last ten seconds before reverting back into the delicate Clayton ball. Similarly, Goopy the Fish will only last for ten seconds out of the water, so the second you leave the water, track down one of those other powerups, and, geez, better hope this isn’t some temporary situation where you’re supposed to just know that you’ll need Goopy again before the timer terminates. And, to be clear, Goopy isn’t just some Frog Suit that makes swimming easier, Goopy is all but required in all water areas (ever try punching a shark when you’re a measly clay ball?), and if you grab the wrong powerup or take a hit, well, good luck seeing the end of the level seeing the surface again.
This continues for much of the game: the cat’s vertical scaling abilities are required… or you’re just going to fall in the lava (mud? Is that supposed to be threatening?). The gopher’s nut tossing (shut-up) is an offensive necessity when samurai are bearing down on you… or it’s time to eat sword. The mouse is probably the worst of all of them, though, as his ability to run at hedgehog speeds are fun for the whole second before you run into a deliberately dropped enemy that reduces you back to sphere form. What I wouldn’t give for Sonic’s rings…
And the bosses? Yeesh. The creatures that are 100% meant to hit your doughy avatar are going to reduce you to nothing inside of the opening salvo, and then your ability to counterattack will be as limited as, well, attempting to battle a giant spider with a wad of clay. It doesn’t end well for anybody.
Claymates isn’t a bad game, and I’m sure there’s some way to beat the game without ever collecting a single powerup, but man is that no fun. All the helpers of Claymates are fun to play as, and, taken individually, I wouldn’t mind a platformer dedicatedly tailored to any one animal, or even a game where each world features a different protagonist with new gameplay. Space Station Clay Valley. But by making the entire cast, effectively, fast and flimsy powerups, the game that requires those special beasts is severely limited. Fun transforms into frustration just as quickly as a mouse mutates back to a clay ball.
This is Goggle Bob reminding you to please consider powerups responsibly.
FGC #73 Claymates
- System: Super Nintendo. That’s it. Even Clayfighter made it to the N64…
- Number of Players: One clump in a world he never made.
- Puzzle it out: Every level ends with a weird little overhead puzzle where you have to direct a pair of toy robots to chop down trees and blow up rocks by sliding obstacles into their paths. It is, at best, a time waster, and at worst, an insult to pushing around mine carts. That’s not how mine carts are supposed to work in a 16-bit platformer!
- And speaking of shmups: The final level turns into a space shooter against an alien menace that has invaded the space station where your dad keeps the clay antidote (obviously). I mean, it really doesn’t make any less sense than Kirby riding a shooting star while assaulting a lovecraftian monstrosity, but at least Kirby had the good sense to grab a life meter on the way out of orbit. The final boss battle will actually randomly throw a shield powerup at the player, but at that point, you’re so used to everything killing you instantly, I wonder how many people avoided that powerup as quickly as the deadly laser.
- Favorite Clay Transformation: I’m biased in favor of cats, and Muckster the Cat’s expression portrays a feline that believes he is too good for this game… which he probably is…
- Claymates Cameo: Claymates never got a sequel, but its cast does randomly appear as ring announcers in Clay Fighter (1). Yes, that’s probably where you’ve seen these guys before. What? You never played Clay Fighter either? But there was an angry snowman!
- Did you know? The Claymates box touts that the game contains “Blaze Processing”, a clear swipe at Sega’s equally imaginary “Blast Processing”. Personally, if I made a game featuring a hero that is predominantly a little blue ball that occasionally pops in to a pinball based bonus stage, well… people in glass houses shouldn’t toss around hedgehogs.
- Would I play again: I’m not going to say never again, because there are some interesting and fun platforming challenges here, but on the other hand, I’ll probably hack in some kind of “always be Doh-Doh the Duck” code and see how the game plays when it’s not so… careless.
What’s Next? Random ROB has chosen… The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Wow, ROB, way to pick a classic for once. Break out your ocarina (I know you have one, don’t be shy), and toot along to the tune of the Hero of Time. Please look forward to it!