Game Name:  Psychonauts
Developer:  Double Fine Productions
Publisher:  Majesco Entertainment
PC Release Year:  2005
Review Date:  June 7, 2015

Loyal to a fault is the best way to describe most gamers.  Get past the distinctions like male or female, old or young, and there exists a single cross-thread linking them all together.  That string is a desire to replay popular game franchises in the latest and greatest graphics engine.  Whether it is soccer moms designing houses in The Sims 4, or college students cursing out opponents in the latest Call of Duty, developers notice these trends and give the people what they want.  It is no wonder then, that studios have shifted resources away from new intellectual property and towards annualized sequels.  After all, pushing a product out to an established fan base is a low risk, high reward proposition.  With this in mind, it is a feat that a title as quirky and unique as Psychonauts actually exists.  Equal parts Nintendo platformer and ‘90s era Nickelodeon cartoon, there is nothing else quite like it.  Say what you will about the overinflated egos that characterize the industry’s most influential game designers, but they alone have the will and drawing power to promote wholly original ideas as Tim Schafer does here.  Simply put, he and his team have created a title that should be on every gamer’s short list. 

Countering common gaming conventions, Psychonauts introduces a hero that is unlike most others.  Rather than some kind of anthropomorphized animal, or overly-serious adult who is running from his past, a little boy is at the center of this tale.  His nickname is Raz, and while he has been gifted with mind powers like levitation and telekinesis to help him platform through the game’s various stages, he is extraordinarily ordinary compared to his peers. This is because Whispering Rock Summer Camp is his home for the duration of the story, and while it effectively serves as the game’s hub world, it has a more important narrative purpose.  Much as Hogwarts instructs young witches and wizards in the Harry Potter series, this camp is a school for psychics.  Having spent his earliest years sheltered away from people with such abilities, Razputin is often a step behind his classmates who have been in attendance each and every summer of their young lives.  In the end, though, this makes him far more compelling than J. K. Rowling’s preordained protagonist.  There is no ‘Chosen One’ in this story, so when someone begins to steal the brains of the camp’s inhabitants for nefarious purposes, a selfless desire to help his friends and a determination to succeed is all that sets Raz apart from the other children.  Gamer culture has a nasty habit of looking inward and waiting for a figurative superhero to fix its problems, so it is refreshing to see this type of egalitarian message that heroic deeds are not wholly owned by traditional heroes.

Taking the boy-as-hero observation a step further, it is impossible to imagine anything else since Psychonauts is, for the most part, a beautiful ode to childhood.  Before the story tumbles into darker territory and Raz gets pushed into a world of adventure, an innocent life of making friends, crushing on girls, and dealing with bullies is all that is presented to gamers.  Taking canoe trips, earning merit badges, and searching for long-lost tribal arrowheads are among the game’s earliest objectives, and while the outlines of a cleverly-designed tutorial are occasionally seen, players are too often reminiscing about their own summertime rites of passage to notice.  Artistic design only helps to further these impressions, as the cliffs, woods, and shorelines forego the ultra-realism of the middle aughts in favor of simple, but brightly colored textures.  Complementing them are a range of surreal character models which are disproportioned and rather odd looking.  They are an immediate trigger for Millennials, though, who spent countless hours watching the peculiar animation of cartoons like Rugrats and Rocko’s Modern Life.  For them, this is something both familiar and fun; a reminder of the pop culture which helped shape them into the adults they are today.

Capping it all off is the fact that Psychonauts has some of the most inventive level design of any game that I have yet played.  In a move that is familiar to anyone who has seen the film Inception, our hero can use his mental powers to enter the minds of friends and foes to see their perspectives on life.  For an ultra-logical and reserved person like Sasha, this means a cubist black and white world, almost like crossing a science lab with something out of the imagination of Salvador Dali.  For a party girl like Milla, this means giant bubble machines, brightly-lit disco balls, and confetti everywhere.  Ever have your parents tell you that some scary animal was more afraid of you than you were of it?  Raz has one of these moments with a giant mutated lungfish, and upon entering its head, he finds himself filling the role of Godzilla in a city of tiny lungfish.  It gets even cooler with a young descendent of Napoleon Bonaparte, who is playing a cross between Risk and Chess in the back of his mind.  To achieve victory, you must shrink yourself down to command the game tokens, which are very much alive, in battle.  While physically moving the pieces around is a necessary task, finding escargot for a hungry French knight and weapons for a cowardly foot soldier are just as important.  These adventure game elements infuse a lot of personality into the conflict, much as our own imaginations used to do with fights between action figures when we were kids.

At least Psychonauts is willing to die from the very same sword it lives by, since its greatest flaw results from following through on this level design philosophy.  Case in point is the Meat Circus, which is the game’s final stage.  Designed as a nightmare mashup between the hero’s and villain’s minds, it combines the worst elements of a carnival and butcher shop into a single grotesque whole.  Most reviewers at the time of release knocked it for its insane increase in difficulty.  While this in and of itself is a fair criticism, especially since the need to escape rising water or protect a little boy from harm essentially imposes a timer onto the most complex platforming of the game, it is nothing that a die-hard Nintendo veteran cannot handle.  You know who has not played every 3D Mario game from the Nintendo 64 onward, though?  Children, and with today’s industry returning to a world of 2D platformers, most of them will be ill-equipped to handle the challenge.  If they play the game at all, that is, since the pseudo-horror elements in this stage are definitely off-putting for a younger audience.  It was nice to see the commitment of Double Fine to design the levels for their characters, instead of the other way around, but they probably should have made an exception in this case, so that their tribute to childhood could truly be enjoyed by kids.

As I struggle to finish new posts during my third housing move in four years, this website of mine has done a stellar job of reminding me why I generally prefer multiplayer games.  Whether playing co-op skirmishes in Company of Heroes, or squaring off against a random opponent in Hearthstone, humans provide a sense of dynamism and unpredictability to gaming that engages me more than most single-player experiences.  Even some of the games I recommend drag a bit as I work towards the reel of credits.  However, this one was never a chore to get through, because I was always excited for the next silly gag or over-the-top level.  It is unfair to label Psychonauts a video game, and simply leave it at that.  No, this is almost a form of digital wish fulfillment.  For me, it may as well have been the fountain of youth since it triggered the type of unfiltered joy I felt when I turned on my Nintendo Entertainment System for the very first time.  Few titles can elicit a wave of pure happiness in a player, and fewer still have solid mechanics to back that experience up.  Despite its inability to remain a family-friendly title towards its conclusion, Psychonauts has easily climbed into my own top ten list, and only the most curmudgeonly of cynics would fail to say the same.

Verdict:  Recommended