This month Claymates celebrates 25 years. Sadly, it never turned into the big hit that the people behind it a quarter of a century ago were hoping for. And even to this day, for the most part, it flies under the SNES radar. But the question is, does it deserve to? In this gamer’s humble estimation, the answer is a resounding NO. Claymates is quite a fun and unique game that rises above the average SNES platformer. Right off the bat you can’t help but notice its claymation look. But most notable of all is the ability to morph into one of five different animals — all with varying abilities — and levels brilliantly crafted with those creatures in mind. By the way, I interviewed the programmer of Claymates, Brian Greenstone, and that Q&A can be found toward the end of this review. Many thanks, Brian! Happy 25th anniversary
CLAY… HERE TO STAY?
THE STORY GOES…
Mudville, USA. Clayton is zapped into a blue clay ball by the vicious Jobo. The witch doctor then kidnaps Clayton’s father Professor Putty. Clayton’s day just went from bad to worse, and it’s up to him to save his dad, himself and Mudville by gaining back possession of the magical serum.
Citizen Kane this ain’t, but this is a 25 year old Super Nintendo video game we’re talking about here
PLAYING WITH CLAY
Finding yourself in Clayton’s yard, the game thankfully doesn’t look like that for long. It’s more or less an overhead map screen with some puzzles thrown in, but more on that in a bit. By the way, does Clayton live by an amusement park or something? O_o
Starting out as Clayton, your life is brittle and bleak. Your only form of offense is a giant fist. Luckily, there’s a gray ball nearby that turns you into Oozy the frenetic mouse. Leap through random tree holes collecting red gems, complete with a lovely mini explosion of sparks once procured, and jump on bouncers to send our plucky field mouse sky high.
Sandwiched between two bouncers, the poor rodent’s fragile body is deflected back and forth like a scorching pinball. You can almost feel his bones rattling, his tiny teeth chattering as he is flung from one bouncer to the next. When you come across a new animal form, it’s a hint that you should probably take the bait as the next section is sure to have terrain most suitable to your latest transformation.
Muckster climbs trees to reach otherwise unreachable goodies. Later on, you can switch back to the mouse if you wish. His bark is actually stronger than his bite.
Successfully bounce off all the squares one at a time to win. Sounds easy, right? Until you factor in that with each bounce it gets faster and faster.
Following the conclusion of each stage, there’s a brief puzzle that must be solved before you can enter the next level. A pair of mindless robots wander around aimlessly. You’re tasked with manipulating the environment in order to steer them toward the weapons required to clear the path. I have mixed feelings about this gimmick. I liked it initially, but it grew a bit old after a while and I just wanted to jump into the action. Still, I give them credit for trying something slightly different.
Sunday morning strolls are the best… that is until two weasels crash the party.
Smiling clouds abound as though it were a Nintendo game. Throughout the history of civilization, cats and dogs have struggled to get along. Claymates doesn’t attempt to change that.
Continue markers and collapsing bridges… hey, you can’t always be original.
Overhead power lines are a dangerous place for an itty bitty mouse to be. Unless of course, that mouse happens to be Oozy and his powerful bark.
Electrical charges zipping along the exposed wires will keep Muckster on his toes, er, paws. After traveling high above ground, make your way underground.
Muckster’s casual stroll, complete with his head held high, captures your typical feline attitude to a tee. You revert back to Clayton (the blue bouncing ball) if damaged in animal form, where you’re then just one hit away from death. I love the pinball effect that those bouncers induce. So damn satisfying.
Enemies ramp up, so be sure to grab that second Muckster power-up. Since you’re already Muckster, you don’t transform. Instead, you can now throw a clay ball a short distance that boomerangs back. It also gives you an extra hit to play with. Good stuff.
Linger around these shady underground tunnels long enough and you just might run into doppelgängers decked out in red carrying scissors. Shout out to Jordan Peele! Multiple passageways await as you ricochet off the bouncers to make your way back up to the surface.
*shakes fist* “These here tunnels be big enough for only one of US!“ A waterspout sends you to your first boss encounter…
Thankfully you can morph into Globmeister before the battle with Big Ben, a floppy-eared clay hound of hulking proportions! The chipmunk hurls acorns aplenty, making short work of the colossal canine.
Following the victory over Big Ben, Clayton clambers into a cannon and is shot across the globe where he lands in the great Pacific. Hmm, I smell salty water…
Although it looks like you can, Muckster sadly took ducking lessons from Mega Man…
Ricocheting off bouncers like a pinball never gets old. The Pacific introduces us to a new animal friend, Goopy. He spits air bubbles and can stay on dry land for only 10 seconds.
Surrounded by deadly piranhas and razor sharp spikes, you best better catch that ride and catch it fast!
Whew… just made it! Piranhas aren’t shy to jump so keep an eye out. Later on, you find yourself swinging precariously over a bed of spikes.
Clayton is slow moving and offers very little defense in his clay ball form. Find the next animal morph ASAP. Good news: you’ve found Goopy. Bad news: just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water…
Claymates has two different bonus stages. This is the second type. Is it just me or does the first shot there remind anyone else of Uniracers? (Although Uniracers came out about six months later). I much prefer the first bonus stage shown earlier. This one can go on for too long, wearing out its welcome, and the physics feel slightly off.
Mallards are cranky and testy. Punch them out of their misery.
Where’s Martin Brody when you need him, eh? Enter those small wooden doors for a nice little surprise.
Leader of the Pacific, Corky the Clam is a tough customer to crack. Keep your distance and shoot from afar whenever possible.
Corky’s giant eyes are taken out one at a time. I’m a huge sucker for video games that feature deterioration damage on its bosses, which not nearly enough games do.
Clayton never once imagined in his wildest dreams that he would ever end up in the Land of the Rising Sun, yet here he is. Adventure beckons!
Samurais litter the Ooze Garden. [I wonder if one of them is Oroku Saki -Ed.]. They’re fast suckers and the katana’s long reach makes them a lethal foe. You can morph into Doh-Doh, a bird that can fly for a brief bit provided you get a running start.
Mighty winds give life to paper lanterns, allowing you just enough time to use them to reach the top. Morph into Mucky and get ready for a ride so wet and wild that even Schlitterbahn would envy.
Muckster shows off his great leaping ability, but haste makes waste. Having the clay ball power-up is huge, especially in areas of play where there’s very little room for error.
Temporary invincibility is always appreciated. A bevy of irascible samurais guard the stage exit. If your clay ball doesn’t get the job done, just keep swiping. It’s a numbers game and sooner or later you’ll get a hit [Are we still talking about Claymates, or online dating here? -Ed.]
Globmeister is the only one who can dig, which allows you to explore new playing areas below the surface.
Platformer Rule #72: The collectibles in your game MUST, at some point, be placed in the form of an arrow. Rule #89: Falling objects must be present. In this case, lanterns filled with explosives apparently, since they explode upon impact.
WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE!
We’ve got fun and games.
We got everything you want honey.
We know the names!
We are the people that can find whatever you may need.
If you got the money, honey we got your disease!
Clayton finds himself in Africa. That giant rotating coin there evokes memories of Sonic the Hedgehog.
Things get a lot tougher in Africa. Obstacles and projectiles come flying at you from every which direction.
Globmeister’s life must be flashing before his very eyes. Muckster too, for that matter. Jobo is the boss of Africa, but the game isn’t over after defeating him. There’s one more place you must traverse…
Claymates turns into a horizontal space shooter!
INTERVIEW WITH BRIAN GREENSTONE
The programmer of Claymates, Brian Greenstone, was nice enough to participate in an extensive Q&A. The following interview was conducted on August 4, 2015. Enjoy.
Me: How did Claymates come to be?
BG: This was my very first Super Nintendo game that I was hired to do straight out of college. I had already made a lot of games for the Apple II and Apple IIGS, but this was a whole different ball game for me, so I had a lot to learn from day one. The idea was originally my boss’, and he wanted to do a claymation game. I forget how he got hooked up with this claymation firm, but the people we hired were really good, and they helped a lot in the design.
Me: How long was development?
BG: I believe this was a 9 or 10 month project. That was fairly typical of SNES games at the time.
Me: What were some pros and cons working on a game that relied purely on claymation?
BG: The main issue was memory space and color palettes. Both were very limited on the SNES. The company that did the actual claymation for us supplied us with each frame of animation, and then it was up to our artists to reduce those frames to something usable with the 256 color palette that we had available. One other issue was that if anything went wrong it was very hard to fix, and adding new animations required going back to the claymation company and waiting for them to do it. In a normal game the artist would simply sit down and draw a few new frames of animation by lunchtime, but not so for claymation.
Me: There’s some confusion online about the North American release date. Wikipedia has it listed as April 1993 and some folks swear by that. [Note: As of March 2019, it’s since been changed to April 26, 1994]. Others claim first quarter of 1994. GameFAQs has it as March 1994. Please clear the air: when exactly did Claymates first hit store shelves in the US?
BG: My memory is a little foggy on the exact date, but what happened was that the game was shown at CES and was a big hit. The game was supposed to be released shortly thereafter, but around the same time Visual Concepts began work on Clay Fighter, another claymation game. At the time fighting games were huge, so Interplay, the publisher, wanted to hold off releasing Claymates and wait for Clay Fighter to be completed instead. This took a very long time — in the meantime Claymates sat on the shelf. Additionally, the original name of the game was “Animal Exchange” — at least that was the working title. Interplay wanted to call it Claymates, and we objected strongly. That name was absolutely horrible, so when it finally did get released (probably in 1993) it didn’t do well. Interplay gave all the attention to Clay Fighter even though Animal Exchange had won awards at various trade shows, and the name change to Claymates scared off any self-respecting kid over 8 years old.
Me: How many copies were sold?
BG: I’m not sure. I know the game was a bit of a disappointment due to Interplay’s mismanaging of the marketing.
Me: You mentioned in our Harley’s Humongous Adventure interview that you wanted Claymates to have a different name. What was that name, and was there a reason given about why EA changed it to Claymates? And, how did EA (Electronic Arts) get involved? There is no mention of EA being attached to Claymates anywhere that I know of. Did you mean to say Interplay instead?
BG: For some reason I thought it was EA, but actually the publisher was Interplay. As mentioned above, the game’s working title was Animal Exchange, and we never really thought that would be the shipping title. But then we never thought Claymates would be either. We had a whole bunch of other titles that we suggested to Interplay and they were all better than Claymates, but for some unknown reason Interplay insisted on that name, and it destroyed the game’s chances of success.
Me: The box was incredibly unique. As a kid back in the ’90s it totally stood out in a crowd! How did you feel about the box?
BG: Yeah, the box was really cool! We thought that was going to make up for the horrible title, but it didn’t. It definitely got people’s attention but it was also a very expensive thing to do for the manufacturing. The lenticular lens — the original faux 3D technology — made the box look very neat.
Me: Speaking of the box, it proudly touted BLAZE PROCESSING (obviously inspired by Sega’s Blast Processing campaign years prior). Is there a story behind this?
BG: I vaguely remember that. If I remember correctly it was all marketing BS. It didn’t actually mean anything, and I’m sure it was another Interplay marketing idea since it made no sense [Ouch -Ed.].
Me: Claymates is pretty long by genre standards. Why wasn’t there a password (or save) option? Thankfully, the three warps included throughout the game do help somewhat to mitigate that.
BG: Could you save games on SNES? Wow, it’s been so long I can’t even remember. I guess there were passwords, right? Seems we should have had that.
Me: Do you recall the ads and if so, what’s your opinion of how the game was advertised? I remember they had the fish Goopy doing a Playboy-esque spread! Clever with the “Claymate of the Month” tagline too!
BG: Despite the horrible title, the ads looked pretty good. Very colorful, and well designed. Probably the only bit of marketing that Interplay did correctly with this game.
Me: There are five animals that Clayton can morph into. Which one is your favorite and was there a rhyme or reason for the five that were chosen?
BG: The fish was my favorite simply because the actual clay model for him looked so cool! I don’t remember if there was really much rhyme or reason to the different animals other than we needed variety. The claymation guys did a bunch for us and we picked the ones we liked the most.
Me: After each stage there’s a puzzle to solve before advancing to the next stage. You had to move carts and other objects in order to manipulate the mindless robots to reach the exit. I didn’t really like it personally just because I feel it disrupts the flow of the game. What’s your opinion of those gimmick puzzles?
BG: Yeah, I don’t think I was a fan of those either. They were probably put in there to try and differentiate the game and give it some sort of bonus round type feel. From what I remember we struggled a bit with them because they used up valuable memory space that we needed for the main game.
Me: The Milky Way, the last level of the game, transforms Claymates (I suppose that is rather ironic / poetic if you think about it…) from a platformer to a space shooter. Talk about that.
BG: I think that’s the level that used the infamous “Mode 7″ on the SNES. That was the primitive pseudo-3D mode, and there wasn’t much you could do with it. Making it a space shooter was probably the only thing we could come up with that worked with the very limited resources we had. Plus, we thought it looked cool.
Me: Do you have a favorite stage or world?
BG: I’m sure I did, but after 22 years I couldn’t remember it enough to say. I just know that I enjoyed making that game, and since it was my first “professional” game out of college I was proud of every bit of it.
Me: Was a sequel ever planned?
BG: Oh, yes. We thought the game was going to be a big hit since it played so well at CES, but when Interplay destroyed it with poor marketing decisions, it ruined any chance of that sequel ever happening. They just wanted to do Clay Fighter sequels instead.
Me: It seemed like Visual Concepts and Interplay enjoyed a successful relationship with titles such as Claymates, Clay Fighter and Clay Fighter 2 AKA C2: Judgment Clay. What was working with Interplay like?
BG: It was actually very good other than the fact they ruined the game by holding off on its release, giving it a horrible title, and then completely ignoring it over Clay Fighter. They gave us everything we needed to develop the game, and they were a good company. I later worked with their Mac subsidiary MacPlay on Power Pete.
Me: Looking back on Claymates, what are you most proud of? What disappointed you? If you could magically go back to tweak some aspect of it, what might that be?
BG: Hehe, well, I’d change the horrible title. Other than that, I think for my first console game it was really good, and considering we had 128K of memory to work with we got a lot in there.
Me: In closing, any funny or memorable stories you’d like to share?
BG: I wish I could remember the name of the claymation company that did all that work [instruction manual states A-OK Animation, Angie Glocka and Owen Klatte -Ed.]. They were really great guys to work with, and it sure would be fun to do a claymation game like that nowadays. It would be such a nice break from the CG world we live in now.
Thank you Brian Greenstone for answering my questions and thanks for programming this underrated SNES platformer
WHAT THE CRITICS SAID
Claymates received solid reviews from the gaming magazines of its day. EGM gave it scores of 6, 7, 7, 7 and 8. EGM’s sister publication, Super NES Buyer’s Guide, rated it 80, 81 and 84%. Super Play, typically more difficult to impress, gave Claymates a very respectable 79%.
Sadly, despite pretty good reviews and a robust advertising campaign full of ’90s charm and cheese, Claymates more or less got lost in the SNES shuffle. Even to this day it doesn’t get as much recognition as it probably deserves. It has way more substance than Clay Fighter, that’s for damn sure!
Claymates, though far from perfect, has quite a bit going for it. The levels are long enough to sink your teeth into and the level design is fairly well crafted. The gimmick of morphing into five different animals all with varying abilities makes it a blast to play, even if the control isn’t super crisp. The claymation look definitely sets it apart from the rest of the pack. Although it may lack intricate details, there is a certain charm to the visuals that can’t be understated. Each animal, including Clayton himself in blue putty ball form, has its own unique attack. It’s just more satisfying to peck critters to death — or viciously hurl acorns at them until they’re vanquished — than the standard hop ‘n bop formula that so many of these games employ. So any slight deviation earns extra points in my book, especially when you essentially have six different playable characters. Variety is the spice of life!
The music in the first world sounds a bit annoying but it gets better as the game progresses. Some of the later melodies are rather catchy; there were times where I found myself humming! There is a lively and whimsical beat to the soundtrack that makes playing Claymates even more enjoyable (once you get past that first world at least). I really dig how the levels are designed around the different animals. When a new color clay ball appears, you can bet that the next stretch of that level will be based around the abilities of the new animal. This helps tremendously to keep the long levels feeling fresh and your gameplay style switches on a dime depending on the animal you are using.
Above all else, Claymates has heart. You can tell that the people involved had a lot of fun making it and weren’t afraid to take risks. Look no further than the last level which all of a sudden boldly morphs into a side-scrolling shoot ‘em up! There’s something charming about Clayton’s adventure — he goes from his small hometown of Mudville, USA, to the Pacific, Africa and even the Land of the Rising Sun. Along with his animal friends, you’ll have to guide him even to the far reaches of outer space to save the world from certain doom. It’s not the best platformer ever made but it’s fun and delightfully eccentric. I recommend Claymates if you’re looking for something quirky and under the radar!
SAD BUT TRUE: July 11, 2015. Saturday night. At 6:40 PM I fired up Claymates. When I finally beat the game straight through (due to a sad lack of a password or save option), I looked at the clock and it was 1:40 AM. I sat and played through Claymates for 7 long hours. Wow. That goes down in history as my single longest game playing session, beating my previous high by probably a good 3 hours or so. Insane. Of all games, Claymates! For some wacky reason, on that particular night, I was locked in. I managed to beat it although the last level took me several dozen tries it felt. I’ll probably never do that again but man was it a crazy fun night