"Before you get to the 'cool' stuff in the game, which ranges from new zones to explore to abilities that include bubble bowling, you'll have to collect a good number of spatulas and socks. The latter tend to be hidden quite deviously throughout the numerous worlds you'll explore, while the spatulas themselves are out in plain sight in the same sense that the stars were in Super Mario 64. There are lots of them to collect, and it can get old quickly, but this is a minor genre flaw because the worlds SpongeBob explores are so engaging."
When you walk into a store that carries games, it's easy to look at the shelf of selections available and spot license-based games. Disney. Nickelodeon. MTV. The list goes on and on. Generally, it's also roughly equivalent to the list of "games you should never buy even if you're drunk and you want a game and it's the last one in the store and that's the only store in the whole world." However, there are exceptions. The biggest exception to this rule that I've found in recent years would have to be SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom, a game that is genius not only because it makes such terrific use of the license in question, but because it's a blast to play.
Apparently, someone painted "Your bikini bottom stinks" on a wall, and this is the start of a terrifying conspiracy that involves rampaging robots and an unfounded sense of culpability on the part of everyone's favorite yellow sponge. While SpongeBob tries to set right a wrong that was never his to claim, you'll help him along by directing him through massive worlds bursting with collectible goodies such as golden spatulas and Patrick's socks. Helping in the crusade are Patrick and Sandy, both playable characters that add some true depth to the game because the set of moves they employ are unique. You've not lived until you've seen Sandy lasso from one hanging star to the next, then use her whirling rope to glide to the safety of a distant ledge the over-sized Patrick could never have reached. Speaking of the bumbling starfish, his ability to chuck fruit at targets is also quite endearing, as is the way he prances around teh stages.
Of course, the main attraction is the title character. He's the one who gains new moves as you progress through this massive game, and he's the one that you'll find most useful in general. As you might suspect, these minor improvements to his available moves come at a great price. Before you get to the 'cool' stuff in the game, which ranges from new zones to explore to abilities that include bubble bowling, you'll have to collect a good number of spatulas and socks. The latter tend to be hidden quite deviously throughout the numerous worlds you'll explore, while the spatulas themselves are out in plain sight in the same sense that the stars were in Super Mario 64. There are lots of them to collect, and it can get old quickly, but this is a minor genre flaw because the worlds SpongeBob explores are so engaging.
I honestly didn't expect nearly the variety that I found here. Early stages find you making your way up grass-lined ledges, balancing on trembling plateaus and facing monsters at every turn. Later on, you'll explore sandy beaches, frightening forests, laser-strewn museums and more. It's easy to forget that you're underwater, and I was pleased to see so many different textures employed. The artists here definitely weren't lazy.
Nor were the level developers, as it turns out. While there's a healthy dose of 'stomp on the switch to save the day' puzzles, you'll also encounter plenty of tasks that involve choosing the correct character and putting his or her skill to optimal use. For example, one area puts you at the center of a platform and you must toss projectiles at cannons around you before they destroy you. Do so and you get... a golden spatula. It's not so much of a prize, but it fits the game's general goofiness and it's not like other genre collectibles (a Teddy's head, a star, a shine or whatever) really inspire feelings of total satisfaction. A decent number of the shines you must collect also are merely excuses to make your way through another level, too, so the game never entirely feels like a drawn-out treasure hunt in the way that projects by companies such as Rare did.
Also, thankfully, you don't have to collect every spatula in the game. Though it certainly feels good to know you've done so, you can always skip the 'boring' parts. The only reason to get the golden goodies is so you unlock new stages. Bikini Bottom serves as the game's 'hub' area, and is divided into three segments. Each of these plays host to several stages, which you can tackle in any order so long as you've gained access to the corresponding hub area. It's not terribly difficult to reach the final areas of the game for this reason, which is just the way I like it.
Speaking of things I like, there's the audio department to consider. The people that voice the cartoon also lend their voices here, to frequently hilarious effect. Mr. Plankton sounds just as devious as ever (as he should), and the main protagonists manage their usual good cheer even in the face of a threat so terrible as the rampaging robots. Around a third of the time, you get to hear some dialogue from various other characters letting you know where to find the next shi--er, spatula. Some of the woeful tales they tell are quite amusing, and SpongeBob's serious reaction to the bad news is all the more entertaining.
Also entertaining are the infrequent boss battles, though they also fall in the 'things I would not miss if they were gone' category. Every so often, you must fight a rampaging robot that also happened to eat his Wheaties, and the result is a challenging boss fight most every time. Sometimes, things get frustrating. For example, one stage forces you to hop around rickety wire platforms along the outside of an arena as a robotic Patrick dashes about causing mayhem. You have to respond with an attack, but you're generally busy avoiding the disgusting projectiles hurled your way. The camera, meanwhile, refuses to adapt entirely to the situation, so battles along those lines can definitely keep you busy. Still, I've seen a lot worse in the camera department, even from 'superior' development studios, so it's not like this is a crippling blow to the game's playability. Also, there's something that's just truly fun about toppling a giant robot shaped like a starfish. Maybe it's just me.
One thing I'm not alone in, though, is my appreciation for the game's overall difficulty. You might expect something based on a Nickelodeon franchise to be simple, given the perceived target audience, but the later levels here will quickly dispel that belief. I can't tell you how many people have written me asking for help since I started writing my walkthrough on the game, but there are a lot of points where you can get stuck either because there's some tricky level design at work, or because of some of the puzzles that you must solve. After all, the path forward isn't always obvious... in a good way.
So just in case you fell asleep somewhere over the course of the review, let's skip ahead to the summary: SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom is exactly the sort of pleasant surprise I was looking for. Filled to the brim with great level design, solid visual flair, awesome support from the studio and even a lengthy and often difficult quest, this is one of those license-based games that deserved every bit of attention it got... and a great deal more. A lot of 'serious' gamers may skip over this one because of its cartoony veneer, but they really shouldn't. If you like platformers, pick this one up today!
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Staff review by Jason Venter (September 19, 2004)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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