Hello and welcome back to the Mid-Aughts Meltdown on its one-year anniversary, fresher and edgier for a new decade in all the ways you’d expect: we’ve got publisher-mandated bolted-on multiplayer; a fursona character creator 13 years before Sonic Forces, but without the dedicated audience to reference and pander to of that older series; the bad guys are playable and more fleshed-out in a jarring but charmingly clumsy way; and perhaps most importantly, our hero’s got a scar now!
It’s finally time for the unglorious return of the little feline that could, in Blinx 2, alternately known as Masters of Time and Space in the West and Battle of Time and Space in Japan.
Information on this game was especially hard to find, as even those previous sources with a penchant for varying curiosity and/or nostalgia for the first game evidently found themselves unmotivated to document this even more disregarded and forgotten follow-up. This series will continue to cite and link all sources for quotes and imagery where appropriate, used for factual, demonstrative, and transformative purposes.
My neighbors and childhood friends, aforementioned in earlier articles, had a copy of Blinx 2: It existed exclusively as a local multiplayer team shooter for us in the few times we did play it, and much like in the marketplace, it was easily overshadowed by bigger and better options in that vein in 2004-05. I do find it amusing to realize in hindsight that they must have gotten it at or not long after launch, considering what other new and full-price games they were making sure to get at the time. Meanwhile, I was getting a Gamecube only after it had incurred several years and price slashes, and I still foolishly gave it away for chump change in 2010 or 2011. Ah, memories.
There really is very little available production history for this title, so here’s what I’ve been able to surmise: after the first game’s release in late 2002, Microsoft quickly greenlit the sequel, with development starting in early 2003 under the mandate of significant executive-overseen retooling in response to the first’s tepid performance. After the sequel was first officially announced and unveiled in June 2004, that retooling was publicly explicit and at the heart of the game’s marketing, rare for the era actions of transparency for the sake of best reaching old buyers and new ones alike. Whether you kept away or were actively underwhelmed, don’t you worry, Microsoft came in and made sure you’ll like it this time. If this series initially was far less market research driven than its surface suggested, as we discussed last time, then market research is undoubtedly what came to its ‘rescue’ afterward. It’s distinctly possible that in this process they actually alienated the very small but dedicated already established fans who liked the first game the way it was.
The dedicated Blinx 2 page for both the distinct entities of the series’ Fansite and its Wikia rather helpfully catalog popular criticisms of the game from its minor cult classic fanbase without any concern for encyclopedic integrity. These criticisms range from the game reducing the difficulty from its predecessor (to which I scoff furiously…but also, it turns out, kinda understand, as I’ll explain), to disappointment regarding choices made in the expanded narrative like Blinx no longer being the protagonist and concern that the series’ child-friendly tone was disrupted by things such as the realistic violence of the Tom Toms’ firearm and baseball bat weapons and the ‘scary’, edgy monster design for the final boss, the Scissor Demon.
Combining that with failing to reach the mainstream in part to devastatingly poor timing of releasing one week after Halo 2, Blinx’s second chance was an even bigger flop and ultimately destined to be his last chance. Artoon and Microsoft’s relationship was most likely strained by this and the former would go on to work primarily1 with Nintendo going forward, both as that company and in its current form as Arzest.
Now, as for my own time with the game itself… The titular character is set aside in favor of emphasizing the Time Sweepers as a group, and their rival faction of robbing pigs, the Tom-Toms, with customized player characters from both. A bunch of characters familiarized with each other are immediately thrown at the audience without any establishment, voiced by such VA veterans as Phil LaMar and Roger Jackson. You are enmeshed in the training, hierarchy, organization, etc. of both of these groups, and the structure hinges both on that dual factionalism and precisely planned operations against each other. As a result, where Blinx 1 rushed itself off to the races and in the process shoved the player into the deep end of the pool gameplay wise, Blinx 2 belabors its point by sandwiching a 7 part tutorial sequence between two cutscenes. It goes on to follow up the first three levels of the campaign with two more cutscenes and a second tutorial sequence in four parts! I’m barely into the game itself and the aforementioned retooling is already intensely blatant.
After all the suffering I went through a year ago, I love imagining those conversations between Microsoft and Artoon starting with, “Hey, first off, chill the fuck out!” Like, check this out. Instead of instantly dying from any single hit, the player/sweeper now has a gradually depleting health bar that can take at least five hits before finally having to spend a Retry/Life. Although your performance in each level is still timed, there is no time limit. The measurement of overall time taken to complete the level only serves to determine how much extra gold you’re rewarded at the end, with no shamey grading system present whatsoever. In turn, the time crystal system has been softened substantially by removing the bad combo feature, so now multiple kinds of powers can be gained at any time, and so for that and other reasons forced replays of earlier levels is totally absent. These choices alone render so much of my misery from the first game completely moot.
Oh yeah, this thing has multiplayer. Original Xbox largely local multiplayer, so…couldn’t really test that one out. The story mode provides the option to be played by two people, which I imagined to have the players operate in parallel through the cat and pig campaigns, but it turns out to the more traditional two players together in one level with, according to GameSpy when the game was first announced in June 2004, “facing tougher groups of enemies and unique two-player challenges”, and being “rewarded with unique map locations that are only accessible in two-player mode.” However, I’m pretty sure my partner would literally rather die before she could be convinced to trudge through a bad 3D platformer alongside me. In the 18 months we’ve been living together now, we’ve frequently tried to find games to play together, to a mixed success: Super Smash Bros. is perfect, Overcooked is perfect, Snipperclips was frustrating but might be given another chance, and platformers have struggled pretty consistently at least as of yet, and those were in her preferred 2D format. We played Super Mario World in a back and forth fashion for a little while last summer, and Blinx is no Super Mario World.
Nevertheless, I persisted through for a while longer. In the first boss fight of the game, a shard of the Big Crystal is contained inside of a stone golem rampaging on a small island, so the Sweeper that Time Forgot has to gather bombs, fire one at the golem’s feet to knock it off balance and falling onto its back, and then fire another at its exposed weak spot. The island setting features a little village to run around in for some flavor while evading the boss’ attacks, and the general size of the map is big enough to not feel trapped while not so big as to lose urgency and not feel the need to keep moving to avoid attacks. It truly feels like the developers took to heart frustrations they heard towards the first game’s bosses and did their best to move closer to a Nintendo style simple but satisfying design without totally removing the personal stamp of the series’ bizarre aesthetics. Sliding the bomb under the golem just right is a bit finicky, but overall this Blinx boss fight feels good and…is fun? That can’t be right.
Even with everything that first game put me through and how grateful I am for the well-conceived and realized quality of life changes that were needed and are present, Blinx 2 does frankly employ too severe of over-correction in many places, and fails to back that up with satisfying fresh design ideas. Where before almost every time power was established within the first couple levels, the introduction of time powers is glacially paced now, starting with exactly one unlocked, belaboring each one’s implementation beyond reason, and only introducing two or three total in the span of how much I played before I had stop. In general, each level explains the player through the entire process of its completion in detail, including describing the solutions of every single puzzle encountered in the game at the very literal click of a button.
This establishes a pattern that persists across the game’s design decisions, where severely flawed features of the original are reduced substantially or removed entirely rather than refined whatsoever, and alongside them are various new features being introduced that are just as unrefined as the original’s were. The titles promise us that there are new space powers employed by the evil pigs in counterpart to the familiar time powers. Although there is some charm in the ideas featured, like the one that is effectively those Acme black holes from Looney Tunes, there are unfortunately so many introduced so quickly, which is already very jarring given the belabored tutorials I’ve already recounted, and so few of them are especially functional. They can fail to be effectual on their own and suffer even worse for their interaction with my old friend the awful camera and other systems, just like how movement and aiming suffered in the first. Items need precise placement, but the camera won’t look at the destination of the throw arc, and more often than not you’ll attract attention that you’re not supposed to.
This series never really nailed movement and action to begin with, and in its second chance it devoted so much time, resources, and space of its campaign to utterly obnoxious and clunky stealth sequences which completely kill both the momentum and what endearment I had genuinely started to gain for this game. Getting caught, frantically running around with enemy projectiles being fired at you every which way with many loud noises blaring and drawing this out for ten minutes or more only to die or otherwise reverse a lot of progress, was truly agonizing. Actually proceeding through a sequence successfully wasn’t much better. Whatever else was still decent enough simply didn’t balance out the threat of more of these stealth sequences. I wish I could entirely blame Microsoft for this, but frankly, Artoon already near-completely bungled the core gameplay of this series once.
It’s not crazy to think they could do it again with a different kind of gameplay, and the impression I had, from both firsthand gameplay experience and what I could gather of developer comments on the game, is that they really wanted to focus on their new toys of space powers and fleshed out the Tom Toms as the vehicle for that, and were going to do that regardless, even at the clear expense of properly redeveloping gameplay they’d already introduced. The campaign also has multiple open space cat-on-pig battle sequences throughout, clear previews and prototypes for the multiplayer mode, and those along with Blinx’s ever-so-edgy scar scream being the product of Microsoft’s heavy hand far more than the inexplicable stealth gameplay.
With how little there is to really…talk about with this game, I’ve decided for my conclusion to briefly return to a previous idea of analyzing this series and its infamous first 4D action game marketing within the larger context of the history of time travel in games as both a mechanic and a narrative component. This history ranges from the career of Patrice Désilet to Overwatch and indies like Life is Strange and first brings us back to the 90s, when Chrono Trigger was released, the N64 Zeldas were being developed, and Désilet began his career at Ubisoft as one of the designers for a most unique unknown gem: “Hype: The Time Quest,” a 1999 Playmobil tie-in adventure game about a knight’s journey through centuries’ worth of his kingdom’s history to save it from darkness. Hype‘s gameplay followed in the model of those many other seminal yet frustrating 90s computer adventures with their item gathering and environmental interaction towards the solution of grandiose, obtuse puzzles.2
Like with Chrono Trigger and Ocarina of Time, time travel is largely a setting and narrative device and not a mechanical one, but these lay the groundwork for the idea to be developed further in some of their follow-ups. With Hype and Désilet, it was the establishment of his career-long fascination with time and time travel, which he would bake more directly into the gameplay and ideas of his projects through directing Ubisoft’s reboot of Jordan Mechner’s Prince of Persia series and his creation of Assassins’ Creed, before he left Ubisoft in the 2010s and began work on Ancestors: A Humankind Odyssey,3 which is very enmeshed in early hominid and human history and thus the passage of time without the active manipulation of it.
Majora’s Mask and The Sands of Time formed much of the blueprint of what actual time-based gameplay has looked like ever since. The sands and the ocarina, at their most fundamental, provide the abilities to repeatedly rewind and slow time in order to correct mistakes and fit more actions into a smaller frame, whether they be defeating the Prince’s enemies or doing side quests in Termina. (The ocarina can also fast forward in order to match up to precise points in Termina’s tight schedule.) These consistently and strongly correlate with how time mechanics have been used in the (20 and 17 respectively) years since these games first released. Tracer in Overwatch, Max in Life is Strange, Bayonetta the Umbra Witch, even that dipshit Tim in Braid and the more obscure eponymous hero of The Misadventures of PB Winterbottom have all in large part followed in these first footsteps of slowdown, rewind, and/or fast-forward. Obviously there has been refinement and variability in these ideas during the 21st century, and while I tried to be thorough I’m sure I didn’t nearly cover every occurrence of time-based gameplay. I’ve been playing Into the Breach for the past several weeks up to this publication and I didn’t even mention that until now!
Nonetheless, it’s a fair understanding to reach that those were the foundation for the development of the ideas of time-based gameplay, and from there we can recognize one more pattern and learn from it: pretty consistently, the time manipulation mechanics are still supplemental to a core gameplay. From first-person shooting and cooperation to adventure game puzzles and choices to Bayonetta’s frenetic character action and all the way back to Zelda‘s several different systems including the totally separate mask transformations, time control is part of the palate but rarely at the core of it.4
With these patterns and that last piece particularly in mind, I find myself reflecting on this series and especially Blinx 1 one more time, feeling more than anything else that I do appreciate that there was imagination and ambition here, in both entries, but in the grand scheme of things, perhaps they would be better off if they fit better into them by not emphasizing the time and space powers so much in both variety and essentiality to completing the levels, and instead refining some of what was there to its fullest extent. I’m deeply sympathetic to being so excited about any new idea that pops into your head that you just keep chasing that dragon, but a creator needs to have a sense of perspective about ingenuity or innovation, and unless they’re in a context where they can afford to take major risks and trust the audience to willingly take risks as well, like they’re David Lynch or whoever, above all a creator, especially a developer with their practical concerns, needs to first build a real floor you can walk on without falling through, a space of stability from which to build further.
Launching this project and maintaining it these past twelve months has been a challenge. I’ve gone long periods without publication for reasons ranging from lack of motivation and mental distress to more urgent deadlines from my recently concluded college education, and while I make no apologies for having other responsibilities, I am sorry for not being more regular in my work when everyone’s support never wavered in turn. I will do better. I wasn’t sure whether I’d keep MAM in its form going in 2020, worried that I was not engaging or growing my base of readers and that I was contributing less to valuable media discourse than I’d hoped by focusing on mediocrity and negativity. However, not too long ago, my dear friend Ben Shambrook reminded me of the sheer delight that can come from the unique charms of culture’s detritus. And they will always be valuable for providing the sense of perspective to more fully appreciate how and why a piece of art has succeeded or failed. The shit stays in the picture. I simply care too much about bad art to let it go completely, but things will be changing.
MAM will continue to be a celebration of bad games in all their weird glory, with both production history and firsthand accounts of gameplay still being included. However, this series will not be the main focus for right now. I will primarily be working on themed miniseries of articles that will release in sequence at a regular clip before being permanently completed. I’ve discussed these projects before to varying degrees, most notably the Oddworld Historia, a catalogue of Lorne Lanning’s troubled, singular, highly political series, intertwined with the history of my long relationship with it, and how it is finding new life as we speak. After flirting with writing about them last year, I am proud to announce the first of these article miniseries, beginning in February, will be Super Mario Misadventures, a five-part chronological account of my first-time experiences with the 3D Mario games. Mid-Aughts Meltdown entries, along with one-off reviews like my Link’s Awakening essay and my upcoming Late to the Party on another Zelda title, will be produced and released supplemental to these main projects. I hope you look forward to this as much as I do.
A whole lot of time and the occasional small financial expense goes into making this series possible. Please show your support however you can to help keep this going, whether that means sharing these articles wherever and to whomever there might be interest, or for those able to, donating to my Patreon dedicated specifically to these writings, which is linked here: https://www.patreon.com/lilytina
Thank you to Marcus TAC, Dramus18, Singing Brakeman, Ninjaneer, Prestidigitis, Science is Bad, and others for your financial support of my work. Thank you so much to everyone for your reading. I hope I can keep doing this for a long time to come.