Mid-Aughts Meltdown #1 – Blinx: The Time Sweeper

Hello and welcome to the debut entry in Lily “Lovely Bones” Ryan’s new ongoing series on video game history. This week we’ll be delving into a strange and scary time for game development, the often ugly adolescence of 3D platformers, through the little feline that could, Blinx: The Time Sweeper.

Information on this forgotten marvel is not easy to find. This article would not be possible without sources including Mitch Wallace’s Gamesradar article on the production of Blinx, which was the backbone of our inaugural History section. This series cites all sources for quotes and imagery used for factual, demonstrative, and transformative purposes, and these sources will be linked throughout.

Please consider supporting MobyGames and Video Games Museum,1 as their staffs tirelessly catalogs key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium. Credit to Brakeman on that statement, and credit for the header image goes to Geek Reply.

I apologize for the orientation of the two self-submitted pictures in this article. They will be corrected as soon as possible

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The first two games of Mid-Aughts Meltdown! Credit: Myself

Prologue

It all comes back to Sonic Adventure. I was a small child growing up on a mountainside cabin in California, until my family moved to the stinky hellhole known as Bakersfield in 2001 for the sake of my older brother and I having access to a better education. That was the year I started playing video games through the Sega Dreamcast, and among the many quirky, varying-quality titles played in early childhood, the two titles that towered over all others in iconography and cinematic quality (and weren’t too intimidating to try at the time, like Shenmue) were… Sonic Adventure 1 and 2.

I won’t dig too deeply into these games. I mean honestly, there could be a whole article just for them, and I’m sure there already have been. Nonetheless, I cannot overstate the shadow this series cast over my relationship to video games as a medium. I still crave the sense of continuous momentum that these games, as well as the port of the original Genesis game on the Sega Smash Pack, introduced to me. (Luckily I have since learned first-hand that inertia is an essential part of most platformers, especially the side-scrolling ones, and that I can find a far more overall satisfying experience of it through games like the original Super Mario Bros.Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, and indies like Matt Makes Games’ Celeste. And the intermittent better Sonic games, mind you.)

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Credit: Logopedia

The Sonic Adventure series offered a particular vision of what for the time were state-of-the-art graphics used to express an involved, dramatic narrative with a modern science fiction aesthetic, married to thrilling action gameplay (most notably of course being moments like the beach chase, or 2‘s Shadow races and Escape from the City), and a whole damn lot of attitude. I really do think it’s that presence of narrative (and to a lesser extent the distinctive aesthetic) that set the tone for my expectations of video games going forward, despite it not holding up much at all. I don’t still cry about Shadow’s heroic sacrifice, but I did grow up into someone who’s still more of a film and literature person by nature (with no pretensions or judgments) and often struggled to engage with video games and basically anything interactive for a lot of her life.

Barring the experience of a bona fide classic of a certain age for its own sake,2 an arc or character to attach to is a natural need of mine to bridge the gap that’s still there. What’s changed in my understanding of this is the sheer variety of ways by which those arcs and characters can be experienced, or more simply, grasping the integration of gameplay and story. Even with that growth and understanding, it’s still a balancing act, one that was benefited from some of my first real Nintendo experiences being games like Majora’s Mask and Super Mario Odyssey. Not everything needs to be as overly ambitious or faux-cinematic as the Adventure series,  as I hope those examples demonstrate. Just a good melodramatic theme song does a lot of heavy lifting honestly, as Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has clearly demonstrated. But applying context really does add a lot to connection with a game, and it’s worthwhile to express that context with creativity and variety.

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Blinx creator Naoto Ohshima’s concept art for Sonic.              Credit: Sega Stars

What kind of excitement and continuations of the promise Sonic Adventure made to a young Lily would the future bring? To some extent, that’s what we’re answering with this series. It will attempt to capture the atmosphere of a certain time period, in all of its dumb, weird glory, through two parallel figures, one a broad cultural force, the other a single youth in its totality. The eponymous Madness characterizes not only the ever-troubled games industry whose history we shall be exploring, but also the relationship I had to it, the complicated childhood spent cobbling together my own personal Canon out of various odds and ends churned out by that industry, sometimes for better but often for ill. The first step on this journey is Blinx. After years of coveting because…well, because it was like a whole new Sonic Adventure with a new fuzzy critter and new gameplay, when I finally obtained Blinx in the late 2000s, I was old enough for the game to simply bore me into almost immediately quitting without any blame on myself for a game’s poor performance. That was a disappointment of the highest order for the young girl who had anticipated the game so much, and it’s time to confront that.

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The menu screen for 2002’s Blinx. Note the evidently mandated Xbox-exclusive tag included in the game itself. Credit: Video Games Museum

The History 

The present narrative surrounding Blinx by reminiscing players, to the…limited extent that the game is remembered and said narrative exists, is frequently based around a notable misconception. Something akin to Sonic the Hedgehog‘s first years of existence is imagined: an arduous, extended period of marketing-based debate, design, focus testing, redesign, and so forth, all with the intent of creating a precisely perfect mascot character for Microsoft and their first dedicated gaming console, the Xbox. In fact, the central gameplay mechanics for the game were conceptualized, based on a demonstration of the console’s hardware from Microsoft, before the character of Blinx was ever designed.

As Microsoft started planning for the Xbox’s late 2001 launch, they understood that competing with the industry’s Japanese titans meant that they couldn’t simply expect their Western games like the highly influential first-person shooter Halo to appeal to a Japanese sensibility. Of course, they also couldn’t anticipate how that market would notably shrink over the next two decades, from Japanese players accounting for nearly 50% of the world gaming market in 2002 to only 10% by 2010. Microsoft would ultimately start to neglect this market more and more as the degree to which it affected their performance continued to shrink, but that’s jumping ahead in time, for the moment.

Pre-launch Microsoft worked diligently to establish a development presence for various foreign markets and Japan in particular, leading to a variety of titles including cult classics like post-apocalyptic strategy action game Phantom Dust, and Japan exclusives such as a fighting game called The Wild Rings, a port of the Dreamcast’s Rent-a-Hero No. 1, and early FromSoftware game Thousand Land, which is described by IGN as a multiplayer map-creator strategy game. Leading the charge on these projects was then-VP of game publishing for Microsoft, Ed Fries, who set up a Microsoft Game Studio publishing branch in Japan which brought in Japanese third party developers to pitch games to Fries and Blinx co-producer Earnest Yuen. One of these studios was Artoon, which had been founded and led by Naoto Ohshima, one of the original 1990s character designers for Sonic the Hedgehog before an early departure from Sega.

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Former Microsoft game designer and executive Ed Fries.  Credit: GeekWire

Ohshima and co. visited Fries without any specific pitch in mind, starting with the general notion of a cute cartoon character that could catch on in Japan like Sanrio’s many mascots (Hello Kitty, Gudetama, etc.), examining the Xbox’s hardware, developing their ideas for game mechanics, and then finally returning to Microsoft with a proposal for Blinx: The Time Sweeper in late 1999 or early 2000.3 Ohshima designed the idea of a feline sci-fi hero with inspiration from figures like fairy tale character Puss in Boots and Alice in Wonderland‘s Cheshire Cat, originally giving Blinx purple fur to further underline the connection to the latter beyond the usage of the Cheshire Cat’s signature wide grin, as seen in the header image.

The twin notions of Blinx as a character and time manipulation mechanics built for the Xbox’s hard drive quickly made the project exceedingly popular within Microsoft, considered by Ed Fries to be the best and most interesting among the early line-up of games he oversaw for Microsoft. Fries, who in his pride for the game also takes credit for the rather infamous “First 4-D Action Game Ever!” marketing tagline, points to Microsoft founder Bill Gates himself as one source for the notion that the Xbox needed its own definitive mascot, but ideas like this or that Blinx could or should compete with Mario were not taken as seriously by everyone within the company.

Having experienced managing PC gaming for Microsoft for years prior to the Xbox’s development, Fries felt that there was no true need for an overall mascot for the company, or a specific platformer to be associated with the Xbox in the West, as games such as Voodoo Vince and Psychonauts were all already also in development. The only true goals for Blinx were 1. to serve as a cultural foothold in Japan, which to some extent, it succeeded in, having some merchandising presence in those first years after the game’s October 2002 release, and 2. to lead the Xbox’s second holiday season in sales, which it did not so much succeed in. Blinx was among a number of notable disappointments for Microsoft in its early going, as covered by this archived GameSpy article, which reports that only 156,000 copies of Blinx had sold by May 2003. Despite this performance, Microsoft moved forward with a sequel out of a continued need to compete with Nintendo’s dominance on the children and family gaming market, which also motivated their buyout of Rare just two weeks before Blinx’s launch. It was only after Blinx 2 suffered an even worse performance due to decreased marketing and releasing one week after Halo 2 that the Time Sweeper finally put up his cap for good.

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Naoto Ohshima in a publicity stunt with his former employer that definitely doesn’t feel like he was forced into at gunpoint.                                                Credit: Official Sonic the Hedgehog Twitter account

In the years after the rather swift petering out and end of the Blinx series, Artoon continued working with Microsoft through the Xbox 360 exclusive fantasy RPG Blue Dragon, a possible future subject for this series, and continued developing platformers through two separate handheld games for Nintendo, Yoshi Topsy-Turvy and Yoshi’s Island DS. Artoon’s parent company, AQ Interactive, filed for bankruptcy in 2010 before being salvaged by a 2011 merger with mobile developer Liveware and Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons owner Marvelous Entertainment, which became simply Marvelous and then Marvelous Inc. later in the 2010s. Along with its unpopular recent iterations in the aforementioned farming simulator series, Marvelous is co-developing and co-publishing the forthcoming Switch-exclusive mecha action game Daemon Ex Machina. Rather than continue after the initial bankruptcy, Ohshima departed Artoon and led several of his employees in founding Arzest. While Ohshima continues as a character designer and general producer, his development studio has settled comfortably into a mobile and handheld Nintendo based niche with games like Boost Beast, Yoshi’s New Island, Hey! Pikmin, and even specifically handling the Giant Battle sequences for this year’s Mario and Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story 3DS port.

A small, but persistent fandom has been devoted to this two-game series since its 2002 beginnings, mourned it upon its official end when Microsoft dropped the trademark in 2014, and continued to discuss it since then. John Walker’s Eurogamer retrospective on the game cites a common experience with the Blinx fandom circa the early 2000s: “Never did this happen more often than after [the release of] Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. When Jordan Mechner’s reinvention of the series came out in 2003, there was nary a mention of the game that wasn’t accompanied by, “Well, actually, I think you’ll find Blinx did it first.” The idea for the Prince’s time-manipulation abilities came to one of the game’s producers while they were in the shower, but according to the internet the seed for such things must have come from the third-person adventures of a time-travelling cat.” When looking back on the game, Ed Fries himself echoes a common refrain from that fandom, that people who appreciate this series and especially the first title are “folks who understand that the first game was meant to be challenging and really test your gaming skills”. And now, it’s finally time to interrogate this notion of the game’s strength in the challenge it offers, and that absurd 4D action game tagline for good measure.

The Game 

This very first trailer sets the tone for Blinx, neither in the dissonant self-serious nature designed for a closed corporate meeting, nor in the presentation of the Time Powers, but in the effectual representation of the core gameplay and level design. Undoubtedly influenced by higher profile, earlier 3D platformers like Sonic AdventureSuper Mario 64, and Banjo Kazooie, we have Blinx the cat as a relatively standard platform star, buoyed by special upgrades in the same vein as Mario’s hats or suits, moving, jumping, double-jumping, swimming4 and jump-dodging through environments, (and here’s the rub), the majority of which take the form of open-spaced exteriors (or interiors big enough that the distinction is relatively meaningless, like in World 3), while functioning as an inertia-based, straightforward course-completion game that typically handles better in 2D. 5

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Our hero is a romantic at heart. Credit: MobyGames 

As I established above, my young self was indeed craving a narrative background to complement the wacky goings-on of any given sci-fi platformer, and my goodness does Blinx‘s opening cutscene give us one! It introduces us to the Time Factory, a facility outside the bounds of space and time that serves to maintain the stability of time throughout the universe, and it is staffed entirely by cats because, I guess they’re left-brain thinkers. The Factory’s Time Sweepers, such as Blinx, are dispatched to fix glitches that leak time-altering crystals which, when left unchecked, eventually mutate into dangerous Time Monsters. The Sweepers also oppose the Tom Tom Gang, a band of greedy pig rogues led by Benito,6 who flagrantly disregard the stability of time and horde Time Crystals as much as possible. The Tom Toms raid dimension BQ164, which largely resembles contemporary Earth beyond the presence of a vaguely defined princess with bizarre braids, naturally kidnapping said princess and causing a massive glitch and influx of Time Monsters in the process. The Time Factory orders all of its sweepers to evacuate and then permanently quarantine the world to prevent the monsters’ spread, but Blinx’s infatuation with the very childishly designed princess drives him to dive into the dimension and single handedly clear out every Time Crystal and Time Monster.

This sequence from Adult Swim’s Lucy, Daughter of the Devil is brought you to by the Avocado’s own Kajigger Desu!

Like any platformer of the era remotely worth its salt, Blinx has a number of distinct worlds to navigate along the way of this journey to clean up BQ164. There are eight main worlds in Blinx, each with three stages, a shop in the middle, and an end boss by itself. These worlds are called Rounds, for the sake of being different. I will continue to call them worlds. Also natural to the era and the game’s immediate progenitors, there are plenty of obtainables / collectibles within these worlds. The following is a full list of collectibles in Blinx 1: Gold, six different varieties of time crystal, secret medallions in three varieties, and then items to be purchased, different models of time sweeper vacuum, different colored hoodie-turtlenecks, and retainable, non-aesthetic upgrades like adding more slots to your lives or your time powers, which become absolutely essential to obtain as the game progresses.

These eight worlds are titled based on a general time theme with occasional straining for puns, and they are as follows: Time Square, Deja Vu Canals  Hourglass Caves, Forgotten City, Temple of Lost Time, Mine of Precious Moments, Everwinter, Forge of Hours, and then the secret final world, Momentopolis. Only the first four worlds and the final boss world can be said to fully have an aesthetic of their own. Even that very first world, 7 is merely an off-brand Tim Burton set of kooky buildings against a dark skyline, but that was distinctive for video games if nothing else.

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The Forgotten City, World 4. Credit: Blinx Fansite

Many of these titles really don’t rise beyond exactly what it sounds like, such as World 2, a crumbling riff on the Venetian Canals. World 3 is a cave system where the central mechanic is a sort of quicksand that won’t kill Blinx on its own but will pull him away from he was heading. World 4 is a vaguely Romanesque ancient city that is very vertically oriented and sets the game up for its rapid loss of visual identity with the Tomb Raider riff of World 5. World 6 is devoted to Rare’s beloved minecart levels, but with some strange ideas that we’ll get to later. And then finally we have an ice world and a lava world, completing the descent into platformer cliches. The former will also be elaborated more on later, while the latter is where I finally gave up on trying to finish the game. In both my brief experience with World 8 and my research on it later, I concluded that its sheer excess of hazards was utter bullshit. This includes a wide open space where four separate axes swing through at varying angles from the ceiling while at least four monsters are all charging or firing at the player, and another in the level I did play which features an electrical circuit that zaps in a continuous 360 degree pattern, again with several monsters also in the mix in a very tight space.

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The Time Factory maintaining its apparently accepted policy of abandoning millions to die. Credit: MobyGames

Each and every level has a time limit of ten minutes for completion, and by the time the player reaches World 4, (at least for me) they will regularly be down to the wire of the last 30 seconds. The convergence of that time limit with the lives system and the lack of any real save system whatsoever is where the worst and most notable parts of this game’s arcade roots shine through. 8 GameSpot’s Greg Kasavin aptly expressed a sentiment common among contemporary reviews of the game that equally speaks to my experience: Completing any given level of Blinx brings more relief than satisfaction or joy. This is just a taste of the aggravations in store for Blinx the Time Sweeper, and it gets at what is sort of the thesis for this article, which goes back to Ed Fries’ remark that this was supposed to be a more challenging platformer, and the broader attitude it represents.

There is a precisely designed, learnable and user friendly form of difficulty, which we’ll be calling challenge, and then there is what I call obstruction, an oft-romanticized inorganic difficulty produced by a mix of mechanical limitations and incompetence, conscious inaccessibility/user-unfriendliness, adherence to design choices of yesteryear that were themselves the product of hardware limitations, high player performance expectations, and more.  One is satisfying and one is not. Obstruction is one of the defining principles of Blinx‘s design, which is very clearly both intentional and unintentional on the developers’ parts depending on the aspect being discussed specifically, and that is the poisonous truth behind the proud defenses of this game offered by Fries and fans alike.9

The feel of playing as Blinx is not optimized for an exploratory experience or a forward-progression experience, as most clearly demonstrated by his movement. He is, in the words of a character whose game will eventually feature in this series, slower than molasses going up a hill in January, with crutches. While there is an overall lag possibly brought into the game by the emulation of the Xbox 360 I played on, that still doesn’t account for the sluggish walk experienced when the game is running smoothly, especially considering that this is Blinx’s natural top speed, despite the presence of a run button in such arcade classics as Super Mario Bros., which has seventeen years on Blinx. Additionally, Blinx dies in one hit and cannot attack on his own, left to constantly be haphazardly dodging with the aid of a camera whose quality is exactly what would be expected for an early 3D platformer. Blinx the hero’s limitations are the first layer of obstruction within this game’s design, and they exist in service to a misconceived idea about gameplay. Blinx is, by design, a very limited figure in order to force the player to rely on the real star of the show, the Time Sweeper vacuum, in both of its functions: 1. gathering and then firing ammo to eliminate enemies and remove obstacles, and 2. activating five Time Powers that vary between being dissatisfying shortcuts to use in excess, situationally applicable, and outright useless.

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The most regularly used power in the game, with the font and coloration from the final game. Credit: German website Gameswelt

Pause and Slow are the first of these, Rewind and Record are the second, and the last is Fast Forward.10 You’ve seen three of these five in action already thanks to the trailer from earlier, and you’ve probably already put two and two together regarding Fast Forward’s sole contribution to this game: it substitutes the run button that should be there, bringing Blinx up to a tolerable speed while also making navigating platforms and dodging enemies more difficult. The circumstantial Rewind and Record each play roles in navigating the environment, reconstructing a destroyed pathway and interacting with two different points at once,11respectively. To gain these powers, the player must gather the corresponding Time Crystals, obtaining either one or two manifestations of one power based on having gathered three or four of the same kind of crystal. Any other combination is a Bad Crystal Combo that destroys the crystals without the player gaining anything.

There is a sixth and final Time Power slotted separately from the others: Retry, which stands in for Lives to such an extent that it is still represented by a heart. For the sake of the emphasis on time control, Retry does not simply respawn you, but in fact rewinds Blinx from the point of death back along the path previously took, which would be relatively clever and satisfying (actively positioning the player to react in real time and correct their original mistake) if it weren’t for the deaths so frequently being bullshit, Rewind being made to feel all the more unnecessary, and worst of all, the Retry often undoing something positive like a monster kill or positioning Blinx precariously in midair dodges or jumps. Undeniably both for my younger self and my current self, the Time Powers were relatively well-conceived and fascinating in principle, but their implementation leaves them wanting. They are quite literally keys to locks, shortcuts to victory without any sense of empowerment or independent thought, getting Blinx past various doors or other forms of gateway like a swinging axe or a broken bridge without any further iteration, any actual puzzle.

Pause quickly becomes the most consistently used power, not just because it’s more widely applicable than anything else by a significant margin (easily subbing in for Rewind’s designated uses most of the time) but because its usage is made vital in the more standard combat and platforming sections of the game. Successfully getting a number of monster kills or avoiding attacks in during a Pause is, once again, far more of a relief than any kind of fun or satisfaction, but it can’t be fairly defined as the player using a crutch that they don’t need to because of how the game so firmly forces them into relying on these powers. Movement is sluggish and shooting is finicky, rendering Pause as the method to even the playing field even before the game is throwing four or five monsters at you at once. It’s certainly not fun to do this, but when I can miss several shots in a row truly not out of any error but just because both the aiming and shooting are so imprecise, and I’m doing all of that against the clock, why the hell would I not freeze monsters in their tracks and shoot them point blank?

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Look at those three different kinds of crystal all bunched together, then look me in the eye and tell me you could possibly collect one without getting all three, whether by walking into them or by sweeping them up. And they’re like this constantly, sometimes with even worse overlap. Credit: Myself.

All of this is exacerbated further by the poor design of the Crystal system. With both the set number of Crystals already in the level and the randomized burst that come with each defeated monster, there is very little opportunity for strategy on the player’s part because they are so often forced into Bad Crystal Combos, and that only gets worse as the Crystals get increasingly scarce in the later worlds. On the opposite side of the equation, there’s the introduction of Rewind at the beginning of World 2, where a stupidly massive amount of Rewind Crystals are placed right in front of the bridge that needs to be fixed. That provides no choice or exploration on the player’s part and would be frustratingly boring at any age. In every direction, there’s simply nothing satisfying related to the time-based gameplay in this game called Blinx: The Time Sweeper. 

By the time the player does get to those later levels with infrequent Crystal distribution, they are faced with not only the very concept of backtracking within a level clashing with the level’s time limits,12but the previously established imposed limits on actually being able to gain Powers by scavenging for leftover Crystals. Soon, the player realizes what they are being expected to do: they have to go back to earlier levels where the pre-laid crystals are more abundant and easier to gain Powers from, like in that World 2 Rewind example from before. And they can’t simply duck into a level, gain various needed Powers or more likely multiples of the same Power, and duck back out. Oh no. You can’t retain anything you’ve collected within a level without fully completing it. You have to navigate the entire thing, and kill every single monster, over and over again, as necessary, just to be able to enter the newer levels with the tools necessary to even possibly complete them. It’s no wonder that I just went ahead and kept replaying World 1’s levels to get as many Pauses as possible, as you’ll soon learn why. Before diving head-on into the level design, however, you need to grasp the full extent of the disdain this game apparently has for its players.

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World 6, the Mines. Where backtracking and replaying really kicks into high gear. Credit: Gameswelt

The Sweeper you have at the outset has pretty basic attributes: storage of five pieces of ammo at a time, only holding objects of fairly small size, roughly the same size as Blinx, three slots each for Retries/lives and for all other Time Powers. The handful of Quality of Life choices in this game are largely relegated to the Sweeper, which really does feel like it had the most overall care put into it. There is a nice use of rumble effect to give the sucking up of gold, time crystals, or trash as ammo a weighty feel to it, there is a fairly reasonable amount of distance from which something can be pulled into the vacuum, and best of all, the button or trigger can be held down continuously to gather multiple items, it does not need to be pressed repeatedly. There’s also the matter of gold always being available in ample amounts from any given level, but that suffers from the overall implementation of the shop system.

There is, unsurprisingly, a progression system through the Shop situated in each world for improving the Sweeper. Do these take the forms of individual modifications applied to the same one Sweeper in the name of streamlining? No. There are entirely distinct Sweeper models each with new features, such as greater strength for attaining larger objects that inflict more damage. Some of these models are only available in the later worlds’ shops and are entirely inaccessible for a large portion of the game. But surely there is at least an inventory to ensure that once the player has their first new model, it can be switched out with other owned models at will? No. In fact, once that first upgraded Sweeper is purchased, the original is now in the shop, needing itself to be bought in order to be used again.

Why would you buy the worst Sweeper? Don’t buy back the worst Sweeper, y’all. 

Indeed, once the second upgraded Sweeper is bought, that first upgraded model, which costs somewhere between 2000 and 4000 gold, in turn needs to be bought again in order to use it. Only one Sweeper can ever be owned and used at any time, forcing a constant stream of gold collecting and spending if one is willing to commit to using the exact right Sweeper for any given situation. And just like with the Time Crystals and Powers, not only is the core gameplay experience and the forced replay of it rotten, but the rewards for the effort is mere salt in the wound. Consider the following, a particular enemy called the Phantom Lizard, which comes in two varieties, slime and fire. This monster is surrounded by a massive shell consisting of one of the aforementioned elements, which requires ten distinct hits of ammo to destroy, leaving the small lizard to be killed with one more shot. The general absurdity of the obstacle represented by the Phantom and Fire Lizards only escalates so much further when taking into account both the matter of ammo availability, and learning the “solution” to this monster:  a special elemental Sweeper that modifies its ammo (fire for the slime variant, ice for the fire variant), with no other benefits to it. Two separate Sweepers that each cost vast amounts of gold solely for the sake of streamlining the defeat of one kind of monster. Reader, I refused on principle to indulge in such bullshit.

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The World 1 boss battle, and probably the most widely recognized enemy in the game. Credit: CESPage

To truly unpack this game’s essence through its level design, I will have to delve even further into certain specific gameplay aspects, but I will also be positioning several of  Blinx‘s worlds alongside one another and delve into their connections and contrasts.

The very first level is the closest Blinx ever comes to the ideal version of itself. By level 2, its design will already be tearing itself apart at the seams, but for one brief, glorious, painless moment, the game is fully functional, albeit not at its most caveat-filled fun. Blinx clumsily grafts exploratory elements onto a linear, more arcade-like whole, and nowhere is that more apparent than in that first level, which might as well be a straight line that happens to have a couple entirely optional paths branching off. This is obviously pretty boring in isolation, but when taken in the context of having returned to it after playing later levels, and that will happen because forced replayability for the sake of extending the game’s length is the name of the game here, one realizes that this utter straightforward simplicity prevents the developers from getting in their own way. One realizes that minimizing the spacial expanse and exploratory opportunity enables them to access something at least resembling the cathartic Sonic Adventure-esque blast-and-dash experience that Ohshima and Artoon were envisioning, building on the course completion groundwork laid by 80s arcade games.

The time limit and its corresponding grading system, another aspect that feels at least to me like a stylistic tie to Sonic, creates the expectation and motivation to complete the levels quickly. The time limit is here because it was in arcade platformers, and the secret areas are there because they were present in 3D platformers. The exploration at its best is its least intrusive, rendered optional both structurally (literal deviations along a straight path) and motivationally with only one particular kind of nonessential collectible as the main reward, the carrot on the stick of replayability. Never apparently do these developers consider the contradiction of the time limit and the exploration both being present, how each tugs on the other until both are loose and unsatisfying. Indeed, it is also never considered that even the base mechanic of stopping to collect ammo obstructs the inertia of level progression. So what is it about level 1-2 specifically that makes the brokenness of the game’s core design so apparent? A brief experience of exploring off the beaten path is incorporated into the central progression of Blinx reaching the goal zone, and it ponderously stops his momentum dead in its tracks. It helps one to better understand the first level, that it was only nigh-uninterrupted movement that brought about any joy for me or synchronicity of design from the game. Certainly the combat couldn’t achieve that.

The aforementioned secret medals are the player’s primary goal for the exploratory component of the game. There are a total of 80 medals, and the rewards for them are staggered at being earned after collecting ten medals, then twenty, then forty, and then all eighty. For all the time and effort that it took to collect those first two sets of medals, what are our hard-earned rewards? Two extremely short13 clips of Tom-Toms doing funny poses set to a laugh track. A throwaway motivation for a throwaway feature. However, the real punchline to the secret medal collecting doesn’t come until one learns, most likely not firsthand, just what the reward for having all 80 of them is. It unlocks, finally, a Sweeper that has all of the upgraded attributes in one, from the stronger power to the elemental attacks. Or rather, it unlocks the ability to purchase that Sweeper. For 90,000 gold. Even when the game affords the possibility of streamlining being accessible, it is ensured that it could not possibly be accessed until there is no use for it. And for good measure, it’s paywalled.

Despite lacking the painless simplicity of World 1 and being rather ugly and disorienting visually, the cave world is probably the overall highlight of Blinx as an experience. This is due to a confluence of factors, such as being early enough in the game that they’re not yet throwing too many monsters at the player all at once, making use of larger space in a way that is structured and neither confusing nor overly tight, and perhaps most notably, the sheer presence of the aforementioned central sand mechanic that is unique to this world, easy to recover from, and is to some extent iterated upon across the world’s three levels, like some sort of…compelling, competent game. Even the hidden areas manage to hit a sweet spot, providing not only powerful pieces of ammo and those darned secret medals, but also direct shortcuts that typically only skip a bit of environmental chaff and not any monsters that need to be defeated, actually at least trying to bring the 3D exploration back around to working with the intended fast pace of the levels.

BCaves
World 3, Caves. A standout of sorts as far design goes. Credit: GamerShell

The final World that we’ll be considering in this analysis of Blinx’s level design is Everwinter, the penultimate ice world with very particularly obstructive environmental obstacles, and also the last World that I fully completed, arduously and begrudgingly. These obstacles include 100% of this world’s ground being covered by an icy surface that Blinx cannot walk but only slide across uncontrollably, thus taking what is already a clumsy control system and basically smashing it to pieces, rife with collisions into monsters or some of our other exciting features, plummeting into both insta-kill freezing water and random empty abstract space on the fringes of the world, and lastly, thin ice patches that collapse upon contact and can potentially appear anywhere. World 7 has what could easily have been my single favorite piece of level design in the entire game, which is probably not what you were expecting to hear this late in the game, but don’t forget that “could have been.”

World 7-1 features a wide centralized area with three doors blocking three distinct pathways, each opened by a different corresponding button. One button is in that same central area, the others are on the pathways behind two of the three doors, and the final door leads directly to the goal zone with two final monsters. It’s not necessarily knock you out of the park good, but it’s functional, clean and simple without feeling completely linear like World 1. Where it falls apart does indeed start with the ice sliding, which can work for an individual puzzle or section, but being applied to every single piece of an entire world would be misconceived even in a game that controlled as smooth as butter. What adds to this severe starting disadvantage is matters like the doors refusing to stay open on their own, requiring a Pause and Slow for being able to actually pass through each and every one.

This wastes the most helpful Powers on the same lock-and-key designs as always when they theoretically could go towards more defined problem solving, and practically need to be held onto to survive the lethal combination of the sliding movement and monster overload. All obstacles in this game are equally simplistic yet excessively demanding, and that is the magic of obstruction. There are five monsters beyond the first door’s pathway, and seven beyond the second. The presence of enemies is paced carefully in both placement and amount in any given game. When the elimination of all monsters is actually unavoidably essential to the course-completion objectives of the game, that kind of precise pacing is all the more important. Not only pacing but any rhyme or reason whatsoever is wholly sacrificed here at that altar we keep being dragged back to, obstruction. If a single section of a level can cost a player all of their available ammo and force a reload of the entire level, then either the ammo system itself or the quantity of monsters need to be removed or changed. That didn’t just happen multiple times on this single section, that happened repeatedly throughout this game in a variety of situations all unified by this matter of sheer imbalance. For that individual part of the game, this is pure excess and needless complication dragging down a level structure that I could genuinely admire the beauty of.

Credit: IGN

And yet all of that still doesn’t compare to World 7-2. This level is effectively gated into three main areas by three separate collapsing ice sections, and those collapses are made all the worse by not occurring on flat ground, instead being slid into from a downward slope, a new addition to all the problems already present with the World’s ice sliding. The sheer momentum and spacing involved necessitates a Rewind over a Pause, because even the fastest trigger finger can only avoid the cracks about to form in the slope, not the now-frozen enemy being slid into.

The sheer frustration of this entire level structure is further exacerbated by the Crystal Problem, the matter of needing to anticipate what Powers will be needed ahead of time or back out and get them from elsewhere because they simply can’t be gained within the level itself. This is applicable to plenty of other areas in the game, including World 7-1, but it reaches its apex here for just how much demand is being put on the player to specifically be sure to come in with at least three of the infrequently appearing and rarely helpful Rewind power. It’s at least plausible that one might manage to scour various other levels and come out with one extra mandated Power, but there might not even be any Rewinds to find in this level whatsoever. That first unexpected collapse on my first try of the level elicited a groan that can only come from the realization of just how much tedious replaying they are about to do.

Furthermore, after the final collapsing section, there is a very tempting hidden area offering additional ammo needed to defeat the six monsters Blinx faces that require 22 discrete pieces of ammo among them, thanks to the Phantom Lizard. It is impossible to return from this hidden area back to the late-in-the-level section it was entered from, due to the steep cliff structure of this part of the level. Forced to go further into the hidden area, the player discovers that it loops back around to the area between the first and second collapsing sections, again entering that section as a one way trip. If the player only had three Rewinds, they have used them all, have no way to get around the collapse again, and must quit out. Making use of the branching paths and exploratory component is actively punished by being unable to complete the level.

This level takes all of the game’s toxic core tenets, the arcade-exploration hybrid, the forcible replay value, the obstructive notion of challenge, to their logical and yet wholly unreasonable extremes. When I first reached back to that earlier part of the level, and realized what had happened, I did in fact start crying. I asked, Why would you do that? I still ask this.

The Wrap-Up

As previously established, the exact point at which I finally surrendered to the Eldritch horror that is Blinx at its worst was the start of World 8, with its onslaught of hazards that included rising lava, conveyor belts hurtling molten bars towards Blinx, lightning machines, far too many monsters, and the existential ennui that one is hit by when they realize just how much time they’ve spent on Blinx the fucking cat. After I had finally surrendered all remaining willingness to complete the game, and began to replay comparatively merciful earlier levels as a memory-refresher, I found myself astonished to see whole minutes shaved off my fastest completions of levels in Worlds 3, 4 and 5 by these replays. In the same way that a teacher who whacks you with a ruler and considers asking any questions an act of disrespect might have taught you something, whether or not it was what they were supposed to, this game had to some extent and despite all best efforts on both parties’ hands, inadvertently taught me how to play it after all. These are not the only disturbing thoughts I was confronted by in the last of my time spent with this agonizing game. Another came about from the need to inform all you lovely people out there exactly how this game ends, at least in gameplay terms. I doubt you’re concerned about Blinx’s triumphant hug with the still-inexplicable princess.

After completing World 8, a second cutscene finally kicks in, depicting a confrontation between Blinx and the Tom-Tom Gang that is quickly disrupted by the pigs’ misuse of their horde of time crystals, creating a massive Time Golem with all of the same time-manipulation powers as yourself. The Golem sends Blinx back in time, forcing the player into a boss rush gauntlet through identical replays of half of the previous boss fights, including the infuriating ice fish from the aforementioned World 7, before finally fighting the Golem in an arduous multi-stage fight where it will abuse fast-forwards, slow-downs, and pauses, concluding with a phase where Blinx has to specifically use each and every kind of time power once to defeat it. Dying at any point during the boss rush, including against the Golem, forces the player to start from the very beginning. This whole sequence that I never had the pleasure to play first-hand is sort of a metaphor for the experience of playing this entire game in its masturbatory, cyclical parade of death.

Blinx: The Time Sweeper is the most rotten parts of arcade gaming and 3D platforming stitched together into a Fiji Mermaid of an experience. It rightfully failed for that, and the only reason that it is remembered is the enduring self-serious masochism of gaming culture.

 

Our next article will be taking you into another 21st century vision of the future, an oppressive setting with funky beats, a diverse cast, and the charm of being exactly what you’d expect from a Western attempt to compete with Mario Party. It’s Fuuuuuuzion Freeeeeeenzy!

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