40 Winks (PlayStation) review
"40 Winks aims its cute and dreamy self directly at one of the toughest arenas of gaming to crack - the nebulous zone in which young children and almost-teens swim together. Perhaps at the same time it hopes (in vain?) that the Mario-like powers of 'universal appeal' will embrace and hold onto the rest of the audience. The game is a wonder-filled 3D fantasy platformer in which a doe-eyed young sister and brother pair named Ruff and Tumble enter the worlds of their dreams to rescue the rema..."
40 Winks aims its cute and dreamy self directly at one of the toughest arenas of gaming to crack - the nebulous zone in which young children and almost-teens swim together. Perhaps at the same time it hopes (in vain?) that the Mario-like powers of 'universal appeal' will embrace and hold onto the rest of the audience. The game is a wonder-filled 3D fantasy platformer in which a doe-eyed young sister and brother pair named Ruff and Tumble enter the worlds of their dreams to rescue the remaining 40 Winks. The Winks are friendly little critters who exist to make sure we all have sweet dreams at night, but they've been kidnapped by a sleepless old curmudgeon known as Nitekap. With the help of his bumbling teddy sidekick Threadbear, Nitekap wants to make sure that nobody else will get a good night's sleep either.
The story of the Winks is told by mummy as she tucks the wide-eyed youngsters into bed in an opening animated FMV of stunning quality and unflinching earnestness.
('Bedtime is booooring!' groans Tumble, bouncing obnoxiously.)
Factor in your age and pause at this point to gauge your reaction to the whole story thus far. Now you've just got to ask yourself one question,
'Do I feel jaded?' Well, do ya? PUNK?
Your answer to this question versus your age may determine in an instant whether you would love 40 Winks or file it away with a Gen-X sneer. The issue of the game's kid-charm is confused by the fact that 40 Winks is huge and challenging - read 'hard' - to the extent that it might stun or repel the young child who may be charmed by its story and presentation. More than a year passed between me buying this game and first completing it, the longest timespan for any Playstation title I have purchased (Which puts Deathtrap Dungeon in 2nd place? YE GODS!) So who's left? Fourteen year-olds who'd be up for a solid platform romp but might feel too embarrassed to show this game to their friends, let alone play it? Or gamers like me who broke twenty but love to watch both David Lynch and Disney?
Personally I am won over by 40 Winks, and I love most of it (and I HATE some of it! More on that later...) but I'd really consider myself a rare case on this one. It's a brave game which wears its earnestness and capacity for wonder on its sleeve in a way that certain Nintendo characters would never dare. But for all of the above reasons, I sadly accept that a very small percentage of gamers will come out of 40 Winks saying, 'This game is great,' the way I do. It's just too weird a mix.
When you start a new game you must choose which young rascal you wish to play, Ruff or Tumble. Ruff is the sister, a mite taller than her brother and I'd guess a year older. In game terms they handle exactly the same way so the choice is for fun. Both are brazenly chubby with round heads almost as big as their round bodies. Ruff sports a red nightgown and clutches a teddy in one hand as her weapon while Tumble is in blue pajamas and brandishes a candle. When the kids stand still you'll see them look around them with a stunned expression of wide-eyed wonder, one which can still elicit a laugh or a smile even after hours of play. The kids come armed with melee and missile attacks to fend off the bad guys. A one-two-punch-KICK combo is available in three button taps, and you can also collect moons which allow you to fire scary 'screams'. Finally you can roll or slide into enemies or try to 'butt-stomp' them. Your own health is measured in 'Z's which are keeping you asleep. Lose all your Zs and you wake up and lose a life.
The kids' squatness results in a delightful visual scale which takes you straight back to childhood, making everything onscreen seem huge and mysterious! These environments are as vivid as the contents of a giant toybox upended in your face. There are six themed dreamworlds you'll explore: Haunted Hi-jinks, Seabound Shenanigans, Astral Antics (outer space), Ancient Adventures (dinosaurs and cavemen), Medieval Adventures and Pirates Ahoy. Each world contains a hub area, three very big main levels, a bonus racing level and a boss level. A mumbling living alarm clock known as Wakey-Wakey pops up around the levels to offer helpful hints. In your house at the start of the game he also offers a tutorial on the controls, which is a very nice addition for beginners. The background music catering to the moods of the different levels is pleasant enough, sometimes robust and bouncy, sometimes quiet and wistful, but it's rarely memorable or distinctive due to the very subdued arrangements of the tiny virtual orchestra.
Some doors within levels are locked by chunky buttons you must butt-stomp to activate, or levers you must slap. Others are padlocked and require that you collect a certain number of cogs - ten, twenty, thirty or forty - before the padlock will explode with a satisfying crack. Cogs are not used up; it's more a level of access issue. Once you have twenty cogs for instance, you can open all '20' doors on the level. In each level you must find four elusive Dreamkeys as well as rescuing varying numbers of Winks. Locating all twelve keys per world gives you a shot at that world's boss monster. Beat him and the door to the next dreamworld is unlocked back in your house.
Levels are distinctive and chock full of entertaining features which you can interact with, not to mention being rich in atmosphere. In the haunted house you can look at individual paintings of Addams Family types on the walls as you listen to the moaning of spooks and the rattling of chains in the background. Furniture onto which you can leap whizzes around in one room poltergeist-style, and candelabras float about 'hassling' you in the library. There are pianos on more than one level where you can actually jump up and down along the keyboard and hear the splatter of notes rise and fall.
There are dazzling underwater sections in many levels where you must swim through 360 degree labyrinths whilst holding your breath for a 100 second time limit. Your exhalations bubble to the surface and shimmer into ripples, and you can grab mouthfuls of extra air from little pockets on the seabed with a melodramatic gasp. You'll swim through underwater cities, sunken ships and lily-covered ponds, and surface on sunny beaches or in a jungle. There is a wonderful accompanying effect of the game's musical soundtrack muting out almost completely when you're underwater, as if it too has been submerged. In outer space you can watch wonky green aliens drag their rockets onto a launchpad before running in there and messing up their plans. Geysers, lava canyons and Indiana Jones style boulder shenanigans await you in prehistorica.
The beauteous environments are complemented by endless sparkling atmospheric effects: rain, glowing lamps to light the way, shimmering vortexes, the quicksilver trail left by Tumble's candle, splashing and rippling water - and the graphic engine is flawless to boot. There is not a single moment of clipping, fog, pop-up or pixel attack. You can even control the camera with both the shoulder buttons and the second analogue pad, or hold Triangle down for a scrollable first-person view. In fact (I'm moving towards a revelation here), I will categorically state that I believe the dark horse of 40 Winks to be The Best Ever graphical achievement on the Playstation in this genre. You'd swear you were playing on a 128-bit console.
The worlds are of course populated by numerous cute but very troublesome bad guys. The greatest feat of the game's characters, once again thanks to some stunning graphical work, is their cartoon expressiveness. A mad little zombie stomps around in a library managing to look sad and angry at once. Parrots tease and spit seeds at you in pirate-land. Some pirates yell out 'Aharrr!' and strafe you with cutlasses, others hobble on peglegs or snooze or quaff down rum. Puffer fish chase you underwater and inflate suddenly to skewer you, whilst smaller harmless fish follow you around out of touching curiosity. Alien mice, baby dragons, huge dinosaurs, scuttling crabs, disembodied knights, angry bees... 40 Winks has tremendously high enemy variety.
The core gameplay elements of hitting switches and levers, collecting glimmering keys, cogs, Zs, and tokens for extra lives, make up typical platform action. Exceedingly well-designed in this case but still typical. 40 Winks comes into its own then by bringing something new to the gameplay party. Its star attraction is the kids' ability to transform into other characters with different powers and attacks. Since they're now in their dreams, they get to play at being the sorts of heroic or exciting fantasy figures that they know from stories. When you find a little toybox with a symbol on the side, you can jump in then the box will rattle madly before you burst out as the new you. You can be a fairy (or jester for Tumble), a caveperson, a ninja or a robot, depending upon the toybox. Okay, personally I can't say I've ever fantasised about being a caveperson, but the others, sure!
Each change lasts for 100 seconds which can be topped up by grabbing coded icons, and you will need to exploit each character's abilities to quickly unlock certain doors or bypass certain environmental features. Fairies and jesters can dash very fast, lob magic about, leap so high they virtually fly and don't need to breathe underwater. The cavepeople have lousy jumps but killer attacks and can smash holes through some of the terrain. Ninjas have frantic attacks, high dexterity and can swing on overhead ropes and wires. And the robots have jet-packs for high jumps as well as fun homing missiles.
The attitude displayed by the kids when they get to play these characters is my favourite part of the whole of 40 Winks, and Ruff as the fairy is my favourite of the lot. She wears a pink dress with wobbly fake angel wings on her back and runs about like a manic birthday girl, smiling, giggling and yelling as she fills the air with monster-destroying stardust and waves her toy wand. She's plainly having a wonderful time and I doubt that anyone watching her could resist the emotion. Tumble isn't quite as charming as the jester, but there's a well-observed hint of malice in his laughter when he blows things up, which reminds me of plenty of little boys who probably enjoy physically destroying stuff just a little too much. (Guilty as charged!) Feedback on the dual-shock controller is a knockout when you play the robot or caveperson. The screen will shake and the controller will almost thump its way out of your hands as your metallic or monster feet pound the ground; a brilliant visceral effect.
The spectrum of characters on offer results in some stunning level design, with puzzles requiring that you race from place to place as different people whilst facing off with monsters, jumping your way through rigorous environments and exploring thoroughly to make sure you don't miss any keys or cogs. For the most part it's fun, it's wondrous and it's challenging. However, I'd be indulging in a white lie if I didn't warn you that it can also veer with scary suddenness into being 'trying' or 'extremely harsh.'
There are four danger areas where the game will turn on you at times. Combat is tough. The main game engine is exacting and inertia-heavy. Missing a single cog or key can result in literally hours of backtracking through hard levels. And fatal plummets occur infrequently enough but are threatening enough that to die by one feels like a complete insult in the face of longs sessions spent building up your Zs and moon ammo. Such dilemmas have caused me to invoke language which has no place around this beautiful game.
The biggest challenge for any player is definitely the inertia. It's brilliantly programmed but just way too hard to be manageable, especially for a very young player I'd imagine. The analogue pad provides 360 generous degrees of response but you'll feel the G-forces tugging at your little 'jammies even when you just skip in a circle. And this game's environments demand strings of accurate jumps. Trying to get yourself up onto a barrel only a fraction wider than the base of your character is hard enough without the high chance of slipping off from momentum. Even just climbing to the next level of a terrace might necessitate a run-up and well-timed tap of the button if you don't want to bounce back down. So this can be frustrating and punishing.
Part of me admires and really enjoys the combat system. I admire the way they give all of the enemies hit points and give the player multiple attacks. These are actual battles with a bit of depth, not simple 'jump on the gribbly's head and it dies' affairs. The sound effects are also great fun. The kids yell out in mock karate style as they flail about - 'Hoo ha ha YAHHHH!' - and every monster has its own growl or yelp or wheeze to reflect its distress at being clubbed.
Still, with the inflexibility of our basic melee attacks this can all stray too often into frustrating territory. Your kid's three-hit combo has a huge pause built into it after the concluding kick, and during this pause there's a %90 chance that the enemy you're fighting (or his friend) will bop you back. The basic enemies are Hoodwinks, little green grommets who growl and spit (missile attack) and try to whack you with clubs (melee). And on normal difficulty even these guys require four hits to kill, one more than your combo can manage. What can you do to get around this? Well, you can mix your combat up with rolls and screams, and you can also think to just tap the button twice to leave out the kick. This actually works a treat because you skip the worst pause and can then just hammer in with another one-two - but this took me ages to discover, so how many little kids would have the subtlety to come up with the idea?
When you get injured by anything in this game, half the Zs you sustain as damage splash about you like coins. If you're fast you can actually grab them back up before they glimmer and disappear, in effect halving the damage you took. This may sound like a great blow-softener, but most of the time the temptation to try it just results in more enemies bopping you while you're circling in a frenzy trying to grab your Zs. I've skilfully managed to triple or quadruple my damage this way. Environmental damage is even more savage. Landing on lava for instance can nail %25 of your life in an instant, and the pain forces your character to yelp and flip into the air! Bouncing madly, you struggle to get back onto terra firma while fighting the tidal inertia. You either die or come out of it so drubbed you wish you had died. Judicious use of saved games in the hub areas is your main defence against some shock-horror deaths.
The boss fights are a really nice surprise, being well-judged for all players. In each boss level you must deal with some beast or vehicle piloted by Nitekap's oafish teddy Threadbear. These encounters are always cleverly designed and fun, combining the odd environmental hazard (sticky spiderwebs, flaming pits, swinging blades) with the threat posed by the rampaging giant spider, robot teddy, charging dino etc. as the case may be. If you're getting too bashed up, Wakey Wakey the clock will pop in with a hint about where the current monster's Achilles' heel is. When you beat the boss, you get another amazing FMV usually depicting some goof-up as Nitekap tries to stitch the teddy back together.
'Ohhh, sew your own leg back on!'
I do not toss the 'amazing' word around here lightly. If we consider that the state-of-the-art for this kind of animation must be the just-released film 'Shrek' at this time of writing, 40 Winks cut-scenes are technically the equal of that film, and finely performed. Seriously. Yet whether you'll be able to loosen up to enjoy their simple child-oriented humour is another matter.
I know I've elaborated at length upon the difficulties in playing 40 Winks, but I'd stress that they are factors which come out to frustrate you in episodes, not constantly. For the most part you will skip happily through the environments, wow at some of the best graphics ever to grace the Playstation, drink up the dreamy atmosphere, get involved in the fighting and puzzle-solving, and have an especially great time when you get to transform into ninjas and friends. Well, you will do all of the above if you can come at the game initially. Even then you may feel confused about your overall attitude towards it from moment to moment. Some elements might touch you with cuteness and strike you as poignant reminders of the joys of childhood. Others may be cloying and make you feel uncomfortable or irritated with their earnestness. 40 Winks goes out on a limb in this way, and though I guess its creators at Eurocom hoped everyone could love its particular taste, I don't think that was ever going to happen. It is child-oriented while being mostly too daunting for children, then when it comes to everyone else, its unique stylings will sit very differently with every single player.
- Stunningly beautiful game - Best platformer graphics ever on PSX
- A huge adventure with great level variety, design and atmosphere
- Cute and incredibly expressive characters
- Fine sound-effects and vocal performances too
- Transform into fairies, jesters, monsters, ninjas and robots
- 40 Winks brilliantly captures childhood joy
- Superb FMVs are technically ahead of their time
- Definitely challenging
- Unquestionable longevity due both to challenge and overall size
- It's a really brave game!
- Unique kid-stylings will completely repel some players (while drawing others)
- Too hard overall - Definitely a stretch for those young kids
- Miss one item and you will be backtracking until you cry
- Inertia comes on like G-forces come onto astronauts
- Tough combat will grate at times
- Fatal plummets and environmental cruelty can make you wince (or worse)
- Game as a whole is definitely an acquired taste
If you're a platforming fan, a lover of technical wizardry, an old-fashioned seeker of wonder or a parent whose child already shows some skill dabbling in the waters of videogaming, I definitely recommend that you chase up 40 Winks. Sure, rent it first to determine whether you will take to the game's subject matter or not. I severely doubt anyone would finish this game in one rental unless they went at the game 24/7. Then if you do take to it, I'd really hope that you would run out and buy it to support this charming and brave game for its passion, imagination and wonder. Its longevity is also undeniable. If you want a solid platform game which could go on for months if tackled in sessions of an hour or so at a time, this is it.
With a 'reviewer's tilt' I could give 40 Winks an eight out of ten. Nevertheless, I think to be honest with other gamers and myself I must figure in the strange age and taste issues of this game and some undeniably frustrating play experiences (lengthy backtracking, sudden maulings from the environment) for a seven. Still, make no mistake, my heart is with 40 Winks!
-- 40 Winks -- 7/10 --
Community review by bloomer (March 07, 2004)
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