Remembering the Classic Games of Shiny Entertainment
The now-defunct Californian studio's David Perry discusses some of the company's finest work, including "Earthworm Jim" and 'MDK.'
Shiny Entertainment was a company that lived up to its name, shining brightly and briefly for about a decade as one of the most interesting game developers in America. Taking their name from the R.E.M. song "Shiny Happy People," the studio created several standout titles in the 1990s and early 2000s, becoming well known for an offbeat sense of humor and bizarre visual styles.
Unfortunately, the latter half of the developer's life was less memorable, eventually becoming more associated with licensed games, their last release being an adaptation of The Golden Compass, which, like the film it was based on, received a tepid critical reception. Shiny ultimately closed in 2007, but it'll always be remembered for its very best releases. Here, we chat to company founder David Perry—now a boss at Sony's cloud-based streaming service Gaikai—about some of the company's best known games, and the legacy they have left behind.
Gameplay from 'Earthworm Jim,' for the SEGA Mega Drive/Genesis, via World of Longplays
Earthworm Jim (1994)
The game that launched Shiny as a brand and David's personal favorite amongst his own output, Earthworm Jim was an instant classic, and became one of the first games to successfully capture that indescribable Saturday morning kookiness of 1990s Nickelodeon. The notion of designing an earthworm as a platforming hero came off as a hilarious dig at the rife platform mascot culture of the time, which tried so hard to inject attitude into various animals, be they hedgehogs (Sonic), bobcats (Bubsy), or miscellaneous (Zool). Even the villains had an anarchic streak to them: Evil the Cat, Psy-Crow, Queen Slug-For-A-Butt, Bob the Killer Goldfish.
Jim was designed by Doug TenNapel, an animator from California who would achieve further success post-Jim with his bizarre designs for the cult 1998 claymation adventure game The Neverhood (which has recently seen the release of a spiritual successor, Armikrog) and its platforming sequel Skullmonkeys. "I didn't know Doug but he was highly recommended," says Dave. "We gave him a test to join the team. As a result he showed up with Earthworm Jim and we loved it. So Earthworm Jim not only scored him a job, but it also got us excited enough to build our first game."
Crucially, and in contrast to his platform competitors, Jim was relatively weak on his own, and reliant on a technologically advanced "super suit" that granted him strength. This was a deliberate move by David and his team at Shiny. "I think that in game design there's a great value in contrasting abilities, meaning if you're strong all the time it's not as fun as going from very strong to very weak. One moment you are kicking butt, the next you're in massive trouble. So, that's why I personally loved the super suit. When Jim was in it, he was incredibly tough; and when he was out of it, he was just a squidgy, naked worm."
In addition, David cites a somewhat obscure influence regarding the dynamic between the clumsy hero Jim and his faithful sidekick, Peter Puppy. "My favorite cartoon as a kid was something called Hong Kong Phooey, and in that you had the same relationship where the title character feels like the tough leader, but his sidekick Spot the Cat—or in our case, Peter Puppy—ended up saving the day quite often." This relationship would later continue in the Earthworm Jim cartoon, where our hero was voiced by Homer Simpson himself, Dan Castellaneta. It was followed by the fantastic Earthworm Jim 2 in 1995, and the poorly received Earthworm Jim 3D in 1999, which was not developed by Shiny, but by now-defunct Scottish developers VIS Entertainment. Interestingly enough, Shiny's next game, MDK, would also make a subtle nod to Hong Kong Phooey by casting gamers as a janitor-turned-superhero.
'MDK' gameplay, via YouTube user Nightowl2244
Earthworm Jim is probably Shiny's most famous creation, but MDK is their enduring masterpiece, standing tall as one of the greatest games of the 1990s. Translating Earthworm Jim's chaotic run and gun platforming into a 3D arena, MDK was ahead of the curve in several respects. Released in the summer of 1997 for PC and Mac, and later for the Sony PlayStation, MDK was the story of a humble space janitor named Kurt Hectic who found himself tasked with saving Earth from reptilian alien miners.
Similarly to Jim's super suit, Kurt was emboldened by an anatomic "coil suit," granting him special powers that included, among other things, a pterodactyl-like helmet with an in-built sniper rifle, becoming one of the first 3D shooters to feature such a weapon, and the ability to glide using a parachute. The sniping allowed players to zoom at incredible distances across the game's then-impressive vistas in first-person via an HR Giger-like helmet HUD that showed off Kurt's ammo feed, which could be switched on the fly with six interchangeable bullet types. It was a revelation, and even the likes of id Software's iconic Quake, released one year earlier, had nothing in its arsenal to rival it. The gliding mechanic was a novelty at the time, but later appeared in games like the classic Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver.
"Designer Nick Bruty and I were a two-person team for many years, and for MDK he finally got to lead his own team with incredible talent like Bob Stevenson (art) and Andy Astor (programming)," explains Dave. "The original pitch of shooting someone in the eye from a mile away solved a massive problem in games at that time, by offering the ability to zoom into distant objects and target them. It was the first ever sniper weapon in games. So Nick had a great hook for the game, and that's what made me really want to support MDK."
Also similar to Earthworm Jim was MDK's refusal to take itself too seriously, with a surreal sense of humor evident that was firmly becoming a Shiny staple (level four, for example, was set in Kirkcaldy). It is also notable for its score by frequent Shiny collaborator (and current Video Games Live composer) Tommy Tallarico, whose sweeping soundtrack remains highly memorable.
Shiny relinquished sequel duty to BioWare, who released MDK2 in 2000. While a great game, the change in developer led to a noticeable shift of tone, possessing a slapstick quality that was less dark than Shiny's original.
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'Wild 9' gameplay from the PlayStation, via YouTube user Artificialraven
Wild 9 (1998)
Wild 9 was Shiny's second stab at a platformer IP, but failed to replicate the popular success of Earthworm Jim, despite some gameplay innovations and another fantastic soundtrack from Tommy Tallarico. It was a long production, and used a 2.5D style of platforming made popular by contemporaries such as Pandemonium!, Bug!, and Klonoa: Door to Phantomile. It starred a coiffured bro named Wex Major, who set out to save his eight kidnapped companions, who together comprise the "Wild 9" of the title. Its levels were built around the use of Wex's weapon, a portable levitation device called the Rig, in a similar fashion to MDK's levels being built around its sniping and gliding mechanics. "Wild 9 was based on a hook I really wanted to try," explains Dave, "where you could grab an enemy and stuff it into its own trap, or hold it in clouds of smoke and hear the enemy cough and splutter, or dangle it off a building. Torture in a game? It was a new kind of power gamers hadn't experienced before, so with that hook the team had a lot of fun experimenting with ideas."
'Messiah' PC gameplay, via HDBacon Retro Gaming Official
Some wondered how Shiny could top superhero earthworms and assassin space janitors, and Dave admits that their next venture may not have hit quite the right notes. "Making a game starring a baby was a terrible idea, and I'm completely guilty," he says. "I actually made the same mistake twice by making a game called Herbert's Dummy Run back in the 1980s." Yes, Messiah saw the player cast as Bob, an angelic putto sent to cleanse a corrupted Blade Runner-like future dystopia. What could have possibly gone wrong? "Why a baby?" asks Dave, rhetorically. "Well, it had that Earthworm Jim mechanic of weak-strong-weak. The big hook for Messiah was the real-time possession of enemies, jumping into and out of their bodies. We had endless ideas but ran out of time. The 'Play as a Baby' idea has now been proven as a really bad idea for hardcore action players. That said, we had a ton of fun making the game and were the first to generate real-time tessellation in video games."
'Sacrifice' PC gameplay, via YouTube user TwinsensBrain
The game that received the best critical reception of Shiny's work, Sacrifice was another change of pace for the studio—their previous release was simulator curio R/C Stunt Copter—and was considered a radical shake-up of the real-time strategy genre at the time, with amazing 3D graphics that were shown off by companies such as Intel. "Martin Brownlow (programming) and Joby Otero (art) led our internal team on Sacrifice," explains David. "We had another team making Messiah, which was based on an absolutely ground-breaking technology. Martin took that, added his amazing code, and built Sacrifice."
Sacrifice was notable for downplaying resource gathering, which was a staple of other RTS games like StarCraft and Command & Conquer, and also made the bold move of having much of the action take place from a third-person perspective. David commented on the passion of the game's multiplayer community. "It was my favorite Shiny game during development, but after playing with gamers online they wiped the floor with me. I didn't find that amusing as I knew the game inside-out and they still played better!" The game was also notable for simplifying traditional RTS keyboard and mouse controls, which could be convoluted for beginners. Sacrifice's evolution in contextual mouse control was something that would become more commonplace over the next few years.
"I was proud of something that people never noticed in Sacrifice, and that was the control system that would become invisible the more you learned it," Dave says. "To explain, if an advanced player was playing they'd be moving their mouse around issuing instant commands in an interface that didn't even need to display any icons." Despite critical acclaim, the game did not sell particularly well, perhaps stymied by its unusual design and high system requirements, and would set Shiny Entertainment on the path of bill-paying licensed products that would define the company from then on.
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'Enter the Matrix' gameplay (part 1), via YouTube user Killer3LV
Enter the Matrix (2003) and The Matrix: Path of Neo (2005)
The Matrix seemed like a natural fit for a video game tie-in, and hype was high for Shiny's take on this landmark film, particularly given that its first game spin-off, Enter the Matrix, was released before the negative buzz surrounding The Matrix's sequels had really set in. But then, Shiny did seem to be an unusual fit for the franchise. "I think, like you, the Wachowskis really liked MDK, and we were huge fans of their work too," explains Dave. "As you can imagine, I was competing with every major publisher to get the rights."
Enter the Matrix was a financial success, but reviews were mixed, and fans were split over the creator's decisions to have gamers play as Ghost and Niobe, relatively minor characters in the films, rather than the more familiar Neo, Trinity, et al. Dave had run into a similar creative situation earlier in his career while working as a Mega Drive programmer for Probe Software. "I had a tough time when I made The Terminator as you couldn't play as the Terminator (you played as Kyle Reese), due to licensing reasons," he explains, "and I think we had the same challenge trying to explain to gamers why they were not Neo. That's why we followed Enter the Matrix up rapidly with Path of Neo. That said, the directors provided far more than we expected, they gave us the game design and an hour of exclusive Matrix footage that you can only see if you complete the game."
Indeed, Enter the Matrix was so interconnected with the plot of The Matrix Reloaded that it led to criticism that it took away from the film in some respects. The game still retains traces of Shiny magic, despite its problems; addictive hacking mini-games and a noble attempt to replicate the films' balletic combat were among its successes, despite a clear rush to keep the project up to speed with The Matrix Reloaded, finished to coincide with the movie opening in cinemas. It was an ambitious endeavor in the way it blended its plot with the film that inspired it in such a symbiotic fashion in a way no film-to-game tie-in has tried since, though the unloved MMO Defiance tried something similar fairly recently. The Matrix: Path of Neo was a more familiar prospect and finally put players in Keanu's shoes.
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