Publisher: THQ (Console), THQ Nordic (PC)
Format: PS2, Xbox, GameCube, PC
Released: November 10, 2003 (NA Console), February 20, 2004 (PAL Console), November 10, 2017 (PC)
The year is coming to a close and the wave of summer’s big releases is finally dying down. Which means it’s time for the “new releases” page on Steam to go back to showing off some of 2017’s more weird and wonderful titles. Dating sim fans are enjoying Nekojishi, a free-to-play visual novel that lets you romance some buff, handsome cat-men. Even the obscure RPG/puzzler crowd are sinking their teeth into the “Iron Chef meets Monster Hunter” platforming beat-em-up, Battle Chef Brigade.
Meanwhile, I’ve been spending some time with Sphinx and The Cursed Mummy, a Eurocom-developed Zelda-like from the mystical years of the early 2000s. Recently resurrected with a remastered PC port (I assume because THQ Nordic needed money for that new kitchen installation), I decided to give it a try after missing out on it during my PS2 years.
The game is pretty much what you’d expect out of a Zelda-like. Take control of a lion-tailed young hero on his quest to save the world, fight some dudes, explore some dungeons, find items to beat said dungeons even better…er. You know the drill. One area where it does differ from it’s green-capped inspiration, however, is in its visually appetising artstyle, taking cues from Egyptian mythology to create a surprisingly stunning fantasy world, even by today’s standards.
Unfortunately, after spending some time with it, I can’t say I share the same nostalgic excitement of those who played it back in the day. To me at least, the game needed a lot more than a simple touch of the HD brush to make it palatable to a modern audience.
I’m sure that back in 2003 Sphinx would have been the crème de la crème in terms of cartoony action-adventure games. From what I understand, it even gave some of my personal nostalgic favourites like Jak and Daxter a run for their money. But fourteen years later, it’s pretty hard not to notice the obvious wrinkles that the remaster’s 4K makeup is desperately trying to cover up.
Combat is an exercise in frustration, not only facing you off against enemies with hit boxes that occasionally forget they exist, but also giving you no ability to lock onto them. There’s the litany of annoying fetch quests disguised as filler, requiring you to spend up to half an hour searching for three separate sets of someone’s lost keys before letting you progress. And, most questionable of all, there’s also absolutely no checkpointing system to speak of; instead relying on save points that are spread far too few and apart to be helpful. Let’s just say you’ll want to clear your schedule before you even think about tangling with any of the game’s boss battles.
But if it sports so many player-unfriendly design choices, why am I even talking about Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy at all? Well, it turns out that there are some small gold nuggets hidden within its monotonous slurry.
Every now and then, our Link-substitute Sphinx comes across an obstacle that requires an item or key that’s been stashed away in the big bad’s impenetrable castle. Lucky for him, our titular “Cursed Mummy” just so happens to have had his rotting corpse recently teleported inside of the spikey fortress. Thus, through the combined powers of plot, vase-shaped McGuffins, and an anthropomorphic basket (no, seriously), you occasionally get to take control of the unlikely undead underdog as he ventures into the booby-trap littered fortress of evilness in order to find whatever boomerang/medicine bag/copy of “Woman’s Weekly” that Sphinx needs to continue his journey.
Unlike Sphinx’s Zelda-esque sections, however, the Mummy gets to enjoy a completely different style of gameplay. Rather than put up with wonky combat or pointless fetch quests, the Mummy’s levels are chock-a-block with exciting obstacle courses filled with booby traps designed to maim, shock, and squish.
Now, being more platformer focused, you’d expect that you’ll be spending most of your Mummy time navigating your way around these deadly devices. But as it turns out, thanks to his recent bout of undeadness, the Mummy can’t take damage from the castle’s unnecessary number of booby traps. As a result, you actually end up using a majority of the castle’s defences against itself by taking on the properties of whatever trap you’ve bumbled into.
Got a pesky wooden gate in your way? Set yourself on fire and burn that sucker to the ground! Need to fit through some iron bars? Squash yourself into a thin bandaged pancake and walk right though them! Have three buttons you need to push, but only have one of you? Not a problem! Just get chopped into pieces and turn your lonesome existence into a three-corpse button-pushing party!
Seriously, its hard to believe just how much variety Eurocom managed to squeeze out of this incredibly unique mechanic. As big fan of macabre comedy, I was hooked on it the moment I first saw the clumsy cadaver receive an unexpected shock treatment from a deceptive electrical booby trap. With no annoying health penalties to worry about, the game practically invites you to experiment with its various forms of cartoonish self-mutilation. I constantly got an absolute kick out of recklessly running headlong into new forms of traps and watching the poor Mummy get lowered into lava or transformed into a weird bat skeleton…thing.
But just as soon as these sections arrive, they are always sadly cut short just as you really start getting into them. I would always have to bid a sad farewell to my new undead buddy once he found the item he was looking for. But at least he always gave a happy grin and a bandaged thumbs-up to let me know that I’d get to see him again soon before the game violently ripped him away and gave control back over to Sphinx.
It’s a real shame that these tightly designed levels have to be lumped in with an otherwise clunky Zelda-like, especially placed so few and far between each other. Through the game’s ten to twelve-hour playtime, you’ll only ever get to enjoy these segments six times, each lasting somewhere around twenty minutes at most. But it says something about just how fantastic and unique their design is that I was willing to slog through so much tedium and frustration if it meant I could eventually see my happy undead boy again and figure out some more delightfully morbid puzzles. Even if only for a fleeting moment.
Perhaps with a sequel that the game’s ending optimistically alluded to, these sections could have been further fleshed out and maybe even become a more major portion of gameplay. Sadly, even with some modern attention thanks to the recent PC port, I don’t see that happening anytime soon. But, who knows, perhaps it might inspire other studios to play around with a similar “solution through suffering” mechanic. Even if I have to move on from the undead pal I had come to know and love, I have to admit that it would be wonderful to meet someone like him again.