When was the last time you laughed at a game? I don't mean laughed at how crap the graphics are, or how bad your mates are at playing FIFA. No, I mean a game that was funny enough to make you laugh out loud - a genuine, involuntary belly laugh. I'll tell you the last time it happened to me. It was this morning, as I fired up Tim Schafer's wonderful Psychonauts yet again.
Originally the game was to be published by Microsoft, but somehow the decision was taken to pull the plug on the publishing deal, leaving what was shaping up to be a great game out in the cold with nowhere to go. Many, many months later and in swooped US outfit Majesco to give the game a second chance... THANK GOD!
On the surface, Psychonauts is just another platform game, in much the same way that Toy Story was just another animated movie. A wildly imaginative adventure set in a summer camp for psychic kids who dream of becoming the mental secret agents of the title, Psychonauts is what you'd get if the writers of Futurama teamed up with Pixar for an epic psychedelic adventure, got Tim Burton to design the characters, and then let you play the result rather than simply watching it. So, not really a run-of-the mill platform game then.
See, creator Tim Schafer is something of a legend in the gaming world. Most console gamers may not have heard of him, but as the man behind such PC classics as Monkey Island 2, Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandango, Schafer has already shown that bust-a-gut comedy scripts and interactive entertainment are not mutually exclusive. With Psychonauts, he turned his attention to the joys of double-jumps and floating platforms, and the result is quite simply the best game you've never played.
This is a game overflowing with ideas. Playing as ambitious new kid Raz, you explore levels that take place inside the minds of the game's many hilarious characters; each area taking on freakish properties, depending on the state of the mind you're in. Insecurity, low self esteem, anger and paranoia are all teased out into psychologically appropriate boss battles and platform challenges.
From an explosive mental battlefield, to an eye-bogglingly topsy-turvy suburbia - populated by eerie government agents, an enormous board game - and on through the see-it-to-believe-it mania of the Meat Circus and Lungfishopolis (see Bonus Info) you'll never see the same thing twice. Levels twist and turn like optical illusions, but thanks to the canny design at work, you're never left baffled or lost.
And the innovation is matched by the gameplay. As well as a superbly-crafted ongoing story of mental mystery and brain theft, there are dozens of optional challenges and side quests to seek out, both in the real world and on the astral plane. Scoop up figments of the imagination, or track down repressed memories. Locate buried arrowheads, hidden Psi Cards and other collectable goodies.
Reunite emotional baggage (literally... weeping suitcases) with their tags. And all the while you'll be gaining ever more bizarre mind powers with which to navigate the lush cartoon world - levitation, pyrokinesis, invisibility, even clairvoyance. It's a scientific fact that it's impossible to dislike a game where you can set squirrels ablaze just by thinking about it.
Psychonauts is one of those wonderfully crafted gaming experiences where you can see that passion, care and attention has been poured into every last pixel with the sole aim of entertaining you. The script, the voice acting, the level design... everything is polished until it shines, and the sheer wealth of hilarious jokes and secret goodies means that it's a pleasure to play over and over.