Claymation is without a doubt one the most timeless methods for animating characters and setting in a story. Can you imagine the 80s without Gumby or the California Raisins? How about Christmas without Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer or The Nightmare Before Christmas? Imagine the influence Chicken Run and Robot Chicken have had on your perception of white meat. In the realm of video games, the 16-bit era was the perfect time for developers to experiment with the classic art concept of claymation. In 1993, Visual Concepts and and Interplay collaborated on a concept to make a claymation fighting game, with the idea that they could draw younger gamers to the fighting genre by not depicting human fighters ala Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, Samurai Shodown and the rest. While their finished product is visually appealing, whether Clayfighter holds a candle to the games it sought to borrow a market from — and sometimes, parody — is another matter entirely.
One of the benefits of the claymation style is its intrinsic whimsy that is easily tipped toward humor. Clayfighter jumps on this facet full-throttle by making its characters comedic as well as mildly crass. For instance, Bad Mr. Frosty can often be seen after a victory spinning his head on his finger like a basketball and growling, I’m bad, I’m cool, I know I’m cruel. The Blob, who looks like eyeballs attached to a freshly opened pack of Playdo, will spit at his opponents from across the arena when he is not molding himself into a boot, hammer, or other such object of destruction. The announcer is hell-bent on encouraging the flying of more chunks of clay. “Cut in HALF!”, he exaults when The Blob executes his buzz-saw maneuver. The Clayfighters can’t help but teeter on the brink of ludicrous given their zany origins: a purple meteor of whatever set a collision course for earth and transformed Playland on impact from your everyday theme park into Clayland. The eight figures who rose from the amorphous rubble were after nothing more than to be the king fighter of this circusy world.
A zany premise is all good and well, even for a fighting game, but a game of this genre is only as convincing as its fighters. In this vein, Clayfighters has some winners and some losers. The fact that Bad Mr. Frosty and The Blob are the only two fighters to be featured in all five installments of the series (both SNES and N64) speaks to their quality, but also to the lack thereof regarding the supporting cast. Tiny is the name of a body builder who may be pinheaded, but his “medicine ball” move packs a fantastic punch. Taffy is as malleable as his name would imply — he is capable of some zany and contorted shenanigans. Overall, what makes these characters winners is that their move list is both sensible and utilitarian, but not without its fun gimmicks.
While the remaining four characters aren’t without fun gimmicks of their own, overall they aren’t well-rounded enough to make many gamers commit to fighting with them regularly. One would think that Bonker, a cataclysmic clown, and Ickybod Clay, a pumpkin-headed spook, would have more to offer. Sadly, Bonker doesn’t hold many tricks in his long pockets as one might think, and Ickybod, despite being capable of teleportation, can’t ever seem to get his head to roll in a devastating direction. To their credit, both of these characters do appear in all installments of the Clayfighter series but one (C2: Judgment Clay). Helga and Blue Suede Goo, our resident musicians, are the worst of the worst, and never see life after Clayfighter’s first sequel, Tournament Edition. Although she does pack one killer vibrato, those expecting our Viking mistress to harbor other traits of Nordic vengeance will be sorely disappointed. And what is an Elvis impersonator doing in a fighting game? Clearly, he thinks that slinging his pomade-crusted pompadour will be more effective than it ends up actually being.
The characterization of each fighter is highly dependent on their respective home arenas, though on the whole most are not enhanced by them. At first glance the stage backgrounds are eye-catching in their novelty, but quickly lose their engaging edge of atmosphere. Blue Suede Goo’s arena is the worst: the fighters face off on a grand piano where I keep expecting karaoke lyrics to appear. Bad Mr. Frosty’s Winter Wonderland is perhaps the best with its resident penguins, giant candy canes, and Fort Frosty in the background. What all stages are sorely missing are interactive elements: waiting in the wings of Tiny’s coliseum are lions who paw the air but never engage with the fighters, while Taffy’s candy factory features overflowing vats of goo that I would have paid to see a character become caramelized in. Probably the biggest missed opportunity is the river of variant colored liquid flowing behind the fighters in Bonkers’ clown house. Hello, you make a direct adage to Mortal Kombat 2’s iconic Dead Pool stage but don’t allow the fighters to whap their opponent into the sludge? To me, withholding this opportunity from the gamer is unfair, if not downright inexcusable.
The lack of interactivity in the Clayfighter stages is a crying shame, because it might have gone a long way in redeeming the largely nondescript scrapping that comprises the matches. Unless you are playing as either Bad Mr. Frosty or The Blob, combatants too often resemble a pair of sparring Stooges rather than esteemed fighters intent on obliterating their opponent. Especially if one is content to button bash, the characters perform altogether too much hopping, bopping and back-handing to make repeat gaming enticing. There are eight different characters to try, but (again, save our two champions) everyone’s ability appears to be even-stevens. Optimistically speaking, this makes the playing field fair, but it also removes the mystery of discovering which characters carry pressing advantages over others. As one can imagine, timing becomes even more paramount when so many same-tier characters are involved, as well as establishing an attack that is balanced between putty-to-putty combat and utilizing projectiles.
More than anything, Clayfighter is a funny game. By extension, it’s also fun at times. But there were too many missed opportunities to make this a game frequently returned to by many gamers. In my opinion, Clayfighter 2: Judgment Clay far outstrips this original. The sequel clears out the fuddy duddies to make space for more memorable characters, and the gritty ethos that befits 90s attitude is more fully embraced. Even still, it wouldn’t be until the Nintendo 64 that the Clayfighter series would find its true identiy, as one could argue that a 3D engine is perfect for the art of claymation, not to mention the world of crass potential it lends itself to. It was a grand idea to feature a claymation fighting game in 1993, the same year Tim Burton and Henry Selick introduced A Nightmare Before Christmas to the world. With plenty of potential, Clayfighter could have used more memorable characters, more in-depth satire, and even more of a story if it were to truly add to the prestigious art of claymation.
Three out of Five Stars.
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