Thursday, October 31, 2019

SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom (PS2)

When SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom, based on the long-running SpongeBob SquarePants cartoon on Nickelodeon, was first released in 2003, I did not actually own any of the home consoles it was initially released on, and so had to settle with experiencing the PC version, which was presented as a point-and-click game. If memory serves, it was generally serviceable, however for years I had been wanting to see what the console version was like, even after finally getting a PS2 as a gift just as the PS3 was around the corner. After finally getting a PS2 copy of the game a few months ago, I was just planning on playing it after playing through the Spy Fox trilogy when a remake was announced by THQ Nordic for later this year, entitled SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom – Rehydrated, which promises a Crash Bandicoot-style graphical upgrade and the inclusion of a number of cut content from the original release, making me anticipate playing the original even more to see what it was like. After getting the experience I always wanted, I found the game had held up surprisingly well, even with some minor setbacks.

In his latest effort to steal the Krabby Patty Formula, Plankton (Mr. Lawrence) invents the Duplicatotron 3000 to amass an army of evil robots. However, he doesn’t realize until it’s too late that the Duplicatotron was set to “Don’t Obey”, leaving him unable to control them. Meanwhile, SpongeBob (Tom Kenny) and Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke) are playing with toy robots at SpongeBob’s house. The two want to play with real robots, and so Patrick makes a wish using a “magic wishing shell” to make it come true the following day. The next day, SpongeBob sees Plankton’s army of robots, believing it to be the result of the wish he and Patrick made. With the robots making a mess of things around Bikini Bottom, it is up to SpongeBob to stop them.

The story is written very much like an episode of the first three Seasons of the SpongeBob SquarePants cartoon, allowing it to feel like Battle for Bikini Bottom could be canon even though it isn’t. As it came out a little over a year before The SpongeBob Squarepants Movie debuted, the game as a whole feels like a love letter to the pre-Movie Seasons, with many background references sprinkled throughout the game and sometimes incorporated into gameplay. The visuals and the concepts/designs exclusive to the game even feel like they jumped right out of the show, even if they appear a little outdated by modern standards.

Throughout the game, you play alternatively between SpongeBob, Patrick and Sandy from the cartoon, each with their own playstyles. SpongeBob, the primary player character, uses a lot of bubble-based abilities that you accumulate over time, allowing multiple ways of attacking enemies and interacting with the environment. The final upgrade you get towards the end, the Cruise Bubble, is the most powerful, as it launches a bubble missile you can control with the camera, at the cost of being able to defend yourself. SpongeBob also has the ability to sneak by gently pushing the joystick, which is useful for some situations.

Patrick’s moveset involves throwing objects for long distance attacks and for traversing the area, while Sandy’s abilities involve using her rope to grapple onto objects and enemies or to swing across large gaps by grappling Texas-shaped icons; Sandy also has the ability to triple jump, using her rope like a helicopter to glide on the third jump, which is also handy for covering large gaps. Most stages also have bus stops in certain places that allow you to swap between SpongeBob and either Sandy or Patrick depending on the stage requirements.

Between all three characters, health is represented by SpongeBob’s underwear, each pair representing how many hits you can take. This can be extended by collecting Golden Underwear found sporadically throughout the game, each of which gives you one extra hit point. Humorously, Patrick and Sandy also have special dialogue that addresses the fact they are collecting SpongeBob’s underwear, with Sandy in particular expressing disgust.

SpongeBob (left foreground) engaged in a fight with Robo-Sandy (left
mid-ground) in the Poseidome.

Much of the gameplay involves a lot of platforming, though it is generally well-designed and made to accommodate different characters’ abilities. Each of these levels is also modeled after recurring locations from the first three Seasons of the show and largely divided into four sections, expanding on each locale when necessary such as with Goo Lagoon or the unnecessarily difficult Kelp Forest. A few sections also incorporate surfing (or, in SpongeBob’s case, toungeboarding) down a slide to mix things up, with the Sand Mountain level being centered entirely around it. The levels also have a fair amount of difficulty for the most part, though there was a bit at the end of the game that left me resorting to using a speedrun technique just to get through it.

In a rather clever bit of forward thinking, and possibly a clever nod to the Season 3 episode “Idiot Box”, the beginning and end of each section of a larger level feature a Warp Box, touching both of which opens them up and allows you to instantly teleport between them, which can save a lot of backtracking through stages. Other nods to show include Hans (the live-action hand from some episodes) pulling you back into the playable area if you go too far off and the fish announcer/news anchor narrating boss fights. The one issue I have though is that the camera cannot be adjusted at all (something I would like to be adjustable in the Rehydrated remake), leaving it permanently stuck with an inverted x-axis that sometimes made things like combat or toungeboarding a little more difficult for me than they needed to be.

One of the main forms of collectibles in the game is Shiny Objects, which can be found scattered around each level or by defeating enemies and destroying Tikis; there are multiples different types of Tikis, some of which must be approached differently such as sneaking up on them or using a long-range attack. Shiny Objects can also be used to open up clams to unlock parts of an area, though the amount you need increases on subsequent clams, so grinding Shiny Objects becomes important fairly quickly.

The more important collectible in the game is Golden Spatulas (referencing the Season 1 episode “Plankton!”), which are required to advance through the game. Golden Spatulas can normally be earned by completing objectives, though some can also be acquired by bribing Mr. Krabs with Shiny Objects (which, like the clams, increases every time) or finding Patrick’s lost socks (of which there are 80) and returning them to him at a rate of 10 socks per Spatula. There are 100 Golden Spatulas in the game, though fortunately you only need 75 of them in order to reach the final boss.

Sandy has the ability to glide during a triple jump.
(Screencaps are somehow hard to come by.)

Most of the voice cast from the show at the time reprises their roles in the game, allowing it to feel very authentic with the TV series, perhaps the most important for gameplay purposes being Tom Kenny as SpongeBob, Bill Fagerbakke as Patrick and Carolyn Lawrence as Sandy. Mr. Krabs and Mermaid Man, however, are both voiced by Joe Whyte rather than Clancy Brown and the late Ernest Borgnine respectively (presumably for cost reasons), and the result is very obvious. While Whyte does get better at sounding like Brown as the game progresses, his take on Mermaid Man sounds absolutely nothing like Borgnine, which may be attributed to not having as much time to get used to the role like with Mr. Krabs. Fortunately, Tim Conway was able to reprise his role as Barnacle Boy for the game; as Conway passed away not long before I got to play this game, it was nice to be able to hear him voice the character one last time.

Should the Rehydrated remake choose the rerecord the voices, it would be interesting if they were able to secure Clancy Brown as Mr. Krabs, though I’m not sure what would happen with Mermaid Man’s voice. As for Barnacle Boy in particular, should they go this route, it would also be interesting if they were able to preserve as much of Tim Conway’s audio as possible rather than replace it.

Aside from the voice acting, the music in the game is also very good, with each level and boss fight having an appropriate and memorable theme that matches its respective tone. Some music also takes more influence from the cartoon, such as the Bikini Bottom hub world taking from one the show’s more prominent pieces of background music. Some other standouts include the music used for SpongeBob’s Dream (a shortened version of which is also used as battle music), Industrial Park (the Robo-Patrick boss fight) and Flying Dutchman’s Graveyard.

Even after 16 years, SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom holds up surprisingly well as a solid and inspired platformer, especially for a tie-in game. Aside from some camera issues, the gameplay is well-designed and varied, with some great music and voice work from (most of) the original cast. I would highly recommend this game to existing SpongeBob SquarePants fans and/or those anticipating the Rehydrated remake, though the game works well enough on its own that I would recommend any fan of collect-a-thon platformers to give it a try.

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