The history of video games has had many anthropomorphic animals attempt to become a mascot or a household name. I’m talking about the ill fated names of game characters such as Awesome Possum, Aero the Acrobat, Bubsy the Bobcat, and Gex. As someone who has an almost sad obsession with forgotten games, I’ve always taken pleasure in re-assessing these forgotten titles to see where they went wrong.
For some reason, one particular furry failure has escaped my grasp, but not longer as I have finally played Blinx the Timesweeper for the original Xbox.
This feline was set to fill the hole of a mascot for the Xbox brand, as folks at Microsoft thought that his cartoonish design could resonate with a wider audience than the gun wielding and expressionless Master Chief; they specifically thought that a cartoon cat would do well with Japanese audiences.
Blinx the Time Sweeper is a lot of things. It’s not, as the back of the box refers to it, “The first 4-D action game ever.”
I can say that because I don’t know what the hell that means and I’m pretty sure you don’t know either, marketing person at Microsoft.
But what Blinx the Time Sweeper does have going for it is that it stars a cat named Blinx. I understand that’s a vague label so I’ll be more descriptive.
To paint a picture of Blinx in your mind’s eye, imagine if you took the Cheshire cat from Disney’s animated film Alice in Wonderland, painted it cheese puff orange, made it suck in its gut, gave it the goggles that every anime character wears on top of their head but for some reason you never actually see them put on their face, put him in a North Face jacket, give it a bright red pair of Jnco jean shorts, then permanently stitch on the grin of a guy who you had to give a fake phone number to at the bar because he just won’t leave you alone, and then you would have an accurate image of who Blinx the cat is.
So, where did this lovable cat come from? Discovering the origins of these lost games is one of the pillars of this column, and in the case of Blinx it’s one of the more fascinating things about the game.
Blinx was the creation of japanese game developer Artoon. Artoon is interesting because it was a development house made up of former Sega staff. The company’s co-founder and director of Blinx was Naoto Ohshima, who is significant because Oshima is the man credited with coming up with the character design for Sonic the Hedgehog. The man who made Sonic made Blinx.
That Sega heritage and the experience of its director are not really present in Blinx the Timesweeper, and neither is a good game.
If there is anything accurate about that bold statement on the back of its box, it’s that I would actually describe Blinx as an action game. It sure isn’t a platformer as I foolishly anticipated. Blinx may be a cat, but he has the speed and jumping ability of a panda bear. At least Bubsy could get some air.
Blinx uses his time manipulation powers, something that all cats in this universe appear to posses, to slow down, pause, rewind, fast-forward, and record time. Most of that is self-explanatory except that record ability, which allows the player to plan out an action while time is frozen, similar to Supergiant’s game Transistor, and then act it out when time resumes as normal. Blinx uses these powers, and his time vaccum to suck up trash that can be used as projectiles, to hunt down some first-draft looking enemies known as time monsters.
Now Blinx isn’t just busting these creatures because it makes Blinx feel good, although he might be. These monsters are real trouble makers, or at least that’s what the cats tell me. They spawn out of time glitches that are created when an abundance of time crystals are left unattended around the world by the time sweepers, the time police force that Blinx and every other cat is a part of.
That’s what you do in Blinx, you suck up things laying on the side of the curb, you do some time magic, and you throw it at a creature that may or may not have deserved the title of “monster.” I guess Blinx the Maybe Prejudiced Trash Sweep didn’t have the same ring.
It’s a design that has a lot of potential, the whole concept of manipulating time is what drew me to Blinx in the first place, but it doesn’t take long to realize why we aren’t on the fifth sequel to Blinx, Blinx 5: Guardians, right now.
Right off the bat it’s apparent that Blinx performs pretty poorly. I will make note that I was playing Blinx on an Xbox 360, as it was my only option, so it’s possible that these issues are due to software emulation, but it’s still representative of my experience with the game. Blinx runs at a solid 15 to 20 frames-per-second that makes the experience feel as if you are using your slow-motion powers at all times. Because of this, Blinx feels sluggish, and that bummed me out because one of my favorite things about these mascot games is getting a sense of presence in their fantastical worlds through the characters interactions with the world around them.
That world is one that is segmented into levels through a menu, which is an interesting design considering that this was put out in 2003 and one would probably expect some kind of overworld to connect everything together. These dioramas are rather small and have straightforward critical paths with not much room for exploration. Its look is not one that is whimsical, in fact it’s somewhat surreal. Buildings are twisted, its palette is an assortment of highly saturated colors, and it all looks very Nightmare Before Christmas-ish, which I’m not sure it’s what they were going for with this. Combine that with the poor performance, the very existence of Blinx the cat, a scattering of detached levels, a bunch of obtuse shaped creatures with huge gobs and goofy eyes, and it begins to feel like like a disconnected fever dream.
Each of these levels has a set number of time monsters that need to be hunted and wiped from existence. Blinx’s brand of justice sounds easy enough to carry out until one realizes that there is no way to aim your garbage at enemies apart from being in the general direction of your target and hope that your busted sofa or broken door hits its target (it probably won’t). This issue is made even more frustrating when you have to fight giant bosses that are usually faster than Blinx. Of course you do have those trademark Blinx time powers, but those come with their own frustrations.
In order to use these powers Blinx must collect time crystals. Collecting three or four time crystals of a certain ability – pause, slow-down, rewind, fast-forward, record, – will allow Blinx to use that ability or bank it for later use. This is also how health is gained, by collecting three or four health crystals. These crystals are finite in each level, they can be found scattered around a level or explode like candy out of a pinata when you kill a time monster. But here’s the catch, Blinx can carry four time crystals at a time and each of those slots needs to be full in order to transfer those crystals into an actual ability. If you need a rewind, you have to fill your slots, find three rewind crystals and one other random crystal in order to get one rewind ability or you can get four rewind crystals and that will net you two rewinds. But if you get anything other than three or four of the same type of crystals, you won’t have a match and those crystals just disappear from your bank and cannot be reclaimed in the level. This can often leave you hung out to dry because how easy it is to run into these crystals by accident.
There were countless times when I desperately needed health or a pause, had banked two of the same type of crystal, but then killed a time monster and its fast-forward or slow-down crystals inside of it rained on me causing me to not be able to get the ability I wanted and waste the crystals that I just unexpectedly acquired. So when I had to approach the next level with a boss I had no health because the game also doesn’t replenish your health when you start a new level, you either have to backtrack to previously finished level and hope you get enough crystals this time or go to the in-game store and buy health. The amount of issues that this system creates is plentiful. I haven’t seen this type of design oversight or just plain poor design since the early days of the Nintendo Entertainment System. The way Blinx’s time crystals work is actually extremely reminiscent of Fester’s Quest for the NES, a game that many have documented as one of the worst games of that generation.
All of this comes together to create a less than mediocre game, and I really, really have trouble finding something redeeming about it apart from me now truly knowing that Blinx deserves to live in obscurity.
In Blake J. Harris’ book, Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation, Harris talks about how Oshima came up with Sonic’s design by combining the designs of two famous mascots, Mickey Mouse and Felix the Cat.
I always felt that this was an act in cynicism. Oshima was asked to pitch something marketable, and he kinda said “this will sell” with his design for Sonic, but Sonic never felt as cynical to me as much as Blinx the cat does.
Blinx feels like a character created without a real grasp of what audiences wanted in the new decade. He’s the backwash of the nineties given digital flesh and fur. His game certainly doesn’t feel like something put out by a group of developers who once worked at such a renowned publisher and developer. This team came up with an innovative idea for a game where the player can manipulate time, but they weren’t able to realize that idea into a sound design and game. It wouldn’t be too long after its release that Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time would release and it would actually deliver on some of the ideas in Blinx. Blinx 2 would be a thing that came into existence, but nothing more after it; Artoon would go on to work on some games in the Yoshi’s Island franchise. Xbox would soon just make Halo and its protagonist Master Chief representatives of their brand. Nowadays not many remember Blinx, and while it’s origins might be interesting, that’s definitely for the best.