Much like the stagnation of fighting games to which fellow GameCritics.com writer Brad Gallaway alluded in his recent review of Tekken 4, platform games have evolved little since Nintendos Super Mario 64 revitalized the genre in 1996. Most platformers are still stuck with the same ideas of collecting limitless items, defeating monsters in cartoon-like ways and exploring massive 3D worlds attempting to unearth every last secret the game has to offer. Blinx: The Time Sweeper, with its creative use of the Xboxs hard drive, may seem like the game that will breathe new life into the genre. And in a lot of ways, it is easily one of the most conceptually daring platformers released since Super Mario 64 introduced the genre to 3D. In other ways, however, it falls victim to some very minor problems that, over the course of the 40-level game, add up to become increasingly cumbersome to the gameplay. Blinx offers a lot of ingenuity, but, although it comes very close, isnt quite the savior that the genre needs.
Blinx is a cat who lives in a world between worlds; he is a janitor of sorts. Using a special vacuum cleaner (his "Time Sweeper"), he rids worlds of monsters created by glitches in the fabric of time. Blinx and his many fellow Time Sweeping cats are going about their business when a gang of bike-riding troublemakers begins wreaking havoc on world "B1Q64." B1Q64 becomes so chaotic that the fearful felines decide to evacuate and close it off to prevent its chaos from spreading to other worlds Blinx decides to show his mettle and save it from destruction. Theres also an arbitrary blurb about a kidnapped princess, as if Artoon is making an extra effort to remind us its a platform game.
There are 40 levels in Blinxten worlds divided into three levels and a boss fight. Unlike most platformers, the levels are actually very small and must be completed in under ten minutes. The object is simply to defeat a given number of monsters. Its how Blinx the cat accomplishes this, though, thats interesting. Throughout each level, there is trash scattered about. Blinx can use his Time Sweeper to suck up the trash and then shoot it at monsters. Also scattered throughout the levels are "time crystals," which give Blinx his VCR-like time manipulation abilities. He can fast forward (making himself invincible), rewind, pause, or record himself (the recording will the play over with a "ghost" Blinx). So say for example that you reach a bridge, only to see it fall before your eyes. By using the rewind function, the bridge will return to its original position and Blinx can run across it before it collapses again. If he spots the bridge as it begins to fall, he can use the pause function to hold it in place for a short period of time. In one clever sequence early in the game, Blinx must record a duplicate of himself to launch himself from a seesaw.
The catch is that these time-manipulation abilities arent simply handed out in unlimited quantities. In a refreshing break from the "collect everything" mentality that pervades most platformers, Blinx can only hold four time crystals at a time. To get a time function, three of the four crystals must be the same type. If the crystals are mismatched, all four will be lost. Since there is a limited amount of crystals in each level (some found randomly, others dropped by defeated monsters), careful forethought must be used in collecting them. Exhaust your crystal supply recklessly, and it becomes necessary to restart the level. Blinx can also collect gold in each level that can be used to buy items from a store (there is one store in each four-level world). He can purchase more powerful vacuums, "retry" hearts, and other such necessities.
The remaining mechanics are standard platformer fare. Blinx has a handy double-jump, and slides down walls with a humorous "mmeeeerrrrooowwwww." With a relatively slow running speed hes not the quickest cat on the block, but with the smaller design of the levels his movement usually feels just right. Blinx will have to do the standard platforming stuffjumping on rotating blocks, dodging traps, etc. There are a few animations that are lacking, such as the ability to grab onto ledges, but with the gameplay focused on time manipulation, youll hardly notice.
Blinx blends its time-altering and platforming elements to create a cerebral style of play that combines mechanics similar to most platformers with the mental pressure of Tetris. Throughout each level, Blinx confronts various problemsa collapsing ledge, a violent river or a raging waterfall, for example. With only ten minutes to complete the level and a limited supply of time crystals, its necessary to conjure up solutions at a blistering pace while using your reflexes to navigate the worlds and evade attacks from monsters. The early levels ease you into the game fairly gently, but by the fourth world it becomes quite challenging. And its at this point that some of the games problems begin to come into the limelight.
Enough 3D platformers have been done well enough that no developer should be excused from a subpar camera system. Blinx has easily the worst camera Ive experienced in years. Although it is possible to rotate the camera with the right analog stick, that is not the problem. The problem is that the camera is often so close to the action that movement becomes disorienting. Monsters frequently attack from off-screen or when the camera becomes stuck on an object. In the early levels, when only a handful of monsters are confronted, its not a problem. But by the later stages, when multiple monsters are close by while Blinx must navigate environmental obstacles, the camera can render the game unplayable. Its not quite as bad as it sounds as such moments arent too frequent, but they do occur too often to be dismissed as an occasional glitch.
And for such a brave cat, Blinx sure cant take much of a beating. Blinx has a certain number of "hearts" displayed in the upper-left corner of the screen. Anytime hes hit, be it caught in the blast radius of a bomb, rammed by a charging monster or clobbered by an old refrigerator spewed from the mouth of one of them, he losses a heart. The game rewinds and allows you to retry the situation from a safer distance. While this is an innovative concept, the problematic camera makes for a number of frustrating retries. Additionally, Blinx does not start each level with a set number of hearts. He must either collect retries by gathering heart crystals (in the same manner as collecting time crystals) or purchase them from a store using gold collected in the levels. This means that it often becomes necessary to replay earlier levels simply to collect power-ups, which strikes me as a contrived way to make the game longer and harder.
Also sorely lacking is independent aim of the Time Sweeper. Blinx can only aim the vacuum in the direction he is moving, which means its impossible to shoot up, down, or while moving either to the side or backwards. Again, its not a problem early in the game when monsters are encountered sparsely and can usually be dealt with from a relatively safe distance. Its only later in the game, when Blinx must fight multiple monsters at once while navigating tricky environmental obstacles that the lack of an independent aim becomes frustrating.
But even though Blinx suffers from problems that are absent from most of today's best platformers, its inventive gameplay picks up the slack. Truly taxing for the mind and the thumbs, its a game that only gets deeper, better and more challenging as it progresses. The concept of time manipulation begins minimallyinitially, the time functions are used mainly to find secrets, defeat monsters, or perhaps access a part of a level more quickly. Later in the game, though, the concept fleshes itself out and blends seamlessly into the gameplay through excellently designed, unique levels. There are always incentives to replay the levels, and often if you pass something up for lack of having the proper time function its usually worthwhile to replay the level to see what you missed. Blinx does so many creative things so well that its too bad that the platforming elements arent crafted well enough to carry the concept to its full potential. It's still a wonderful game, and truly challenging even for a seasoned gamer like myself. It doesn't reach the seamless heights of Super Mario 64, but it successfully brings a unique angle to the genre that no platformer since Miyamotos masterpiece has equaled.