A brief history of Oddworld

Once more, with soul.

Oddworld: Soulstorm is an upcoming game from Oddworld Inhabitants and Just Add Water, and the first entry into the Oddworld game series in seven years.

Ahead of the release of the highly-anticipated Soulstorm, I wanted to briefly revisit the Oddworld game series, give an overview of the design of each one, how they fared on release, and how they’ve all independently played into the design and release of the upcoming Soulstorm. A little bit of backstory. The name ‘Soulstorm’ was originally the working title for Abe’s Odyssey, the studio’s debut release. 

Soulstorm is also taking direct inspiration from Abe’s Exoddus – the sequel to Abe’s Oddysee. Oddworld set out to make five games as part of the ‘Oddworld Quintology’, each game serving as a chapter of this collection. However, as it stands, only Abe’s Oddysee and the studio’s third release, Munch’s Oddysee, are counted as entries to the five – Abe’s Exoddus and Stranger’s Wrath are considered spin-offs set in the same universe. 

Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty is a remake of Abe’s Oddysee, while serving as the first instalment of a remastered version of the quintology. With a revised storyline and a capable development team, Soulstorm is looking as though it may become the second instalment to this revitalised series. That’s a lot of games on quite a messy timeline, so let’s dig into each individual games.

Oddworld: Abe’s Odyssee

Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee is the debut instalment to the Oddworld series, released on the PlayStation. The game is the dark, delightful brainchild of Lorne Lanning, co-founder and president of Oddworld Inhabitants. Together with current CEO Sherry McKenna and the publishing assistance of GT Interactive, Lanning set out to bring the concept of Oddworld to life under the working title ‘Soulstorm’. However, as the game developed, its kooky, loveable protagonist became the star of the show.

The game came out in September 1997, an exceedingly strong year for not just PlayStation titles. At the time, the PS1 was boasting a slew of huge new entries to established franchises such as Crash Bandicoot 2, Tomb Raider 2, and Final Fantasy VII. It was also set to welcome impressive new IPs to its roster such as Croc, Grand Theft Auto and Klonoa. Oddworld had some stiff competition, but it was also incredibly different.

In Abe’s Oddysee you play as Abe, a charmingly simple character belonging to a breed of weird creatures called Mudokons. The Mudokons are kept as workers (slaves) inside Rupture Farms, a massive meat processing plant run by the game’s antagonist, Molluck the Glukkon. Molluck has slowly been exterminating the various creatures of Oddworld to turn them into food and grow his empire. When he realises that the creatures are rapidly becoming extinct one by one, he hatches a plot to mince his Mudokons into monetised munch. 

Abe overhears this plan during one fateful late night shift waxing the floors, and decides to make a run for it. His escape involves navigating the labyrinth that is Rupture Farms, as well as its surrounding swamps and structures, while saving as many of his fellow Mudokons as he can. The game also has multiple endings depending on how many Mudokons you manage to set free.

Your job sucks, but at least your CEO doesn't want your head on a stick

Platforming mechanics, stealthing and puzzles make up the bulk of the gameplay, shrouded in gorgeous, gloomy landscapes that are far too rich for their own good in a 2D side scroller. While running, jumping and sneaking were all standard movements, Abe’s Oddysee introduced some unique elements to its gameplay too. Gamespeak is a fun mechanic used to communicate with your Mudokon mates in order to lead them to safety. However, you had to be careful how you used it; the enemies will HEAR YOU. 

Telepathy is another fun one; you can chant to possess the game’s enemies, Sligs, in order to get them to kill each other and progress, or have them off themselves. Abe can’t actually attack anyone or anything, he can only use his environment to progress and survive. If you get caught, you’re dead. It did NOT fuck around.

Visually, it’s perfect, but every level haunts you. You’ve barely got time to absorb the locale before some kind of unsavoury creature is trying to either snaffle your guts, or blow them out with a semi-automatic. The character designs are just lovely though; the thing that I cared about the most. I used to spend hours as a kid trying to draw the enemies using the booklet from the PS1 case, and even ventured into designing my own monsters at one point.

Abe’s Oddysee also shines through its incredible cutscenes. Lanning’s own background in film alongside the team’s experience in animation and production meant for some strong FMV, utilised to go deeper into the game’s plot and Oddworld’s overarching lore.

It was received incredibly well for its stunning art direction and cutscenes, but rightfully criticised for being hard as fuck. Either way, the game was a huge success, and it set Oddworld up as one of the most exciting developers to watch. Lanning and his team had not only created a game, they’d created a whole universe to play in, with endless possibilities. 

Abe’s Oddysee was also remade in 2014 in collaboration with Just Add Water. This remake, Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty, sought to preserve the original environments while enhancing the original gameplay, which it did pretty well. If the game’s original graphics don’t sit well with you, this is a top place to begin your Oddworld journey.

Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus

Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus serves as a follow-up to Abe’s Oddysee, continuing Abe’s story as he escapes the jaws of capitalism. This time, he’s discovered that the Glukkons are manufacturing a beverage called ‘Soulstorm Brew’ (another name drop) but of course, their process is not exactly ethical. Once again, these capitalist monsters are enslaving Abe’s Mudokon race, but this time they’re using Mudokon bones and tears to make their product. Tears are slightly more sustainable than literal body parts, but nonetheless, Abe is fuming.

The sequel functions on the bones of the original; similar 2D platforming mechanics, the enemy possession techniques, plus the return of the gamespeak system with some upgrades. It also introduced an extremely welcome quick save feature, allowing you to save the game manually. 

Abe's Exoddus was a comfortable expansion on the first game

Exoddus also improved the Mudokon rescuing ability. Just like the first game, Abe has to save a load of his mates from peril, using the familiar communication and leading mechanics. This time round, Mudokons have feelings and ailments that can hinder Abe’s ability to save them. For example, an angry Mudokon will hit surrounding NPCs. A sick one can only respond to Abe’s gamespeak when they’ve been cured, and blind Mudokons have to follow Abe just using sound. This adds a new level of complexity to the rescuing, but makes rescuing far more rewarding.

Abe’s Exoddus is obviously very similar to Oddysee in terms of visuals. It built upon the reception of the first game, utilising that same creepy art style. It was also received well by critics, with the only major criticism being that the gameplay and story followed the first one a little closely. It was a safe expansion on the debut and a solid entry to the Oddworld franchise. The upcoming Soulstorm is slated to be a reimagining of Exoddus, so the bones of this game are important.

Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee

Munch’s Oddysee is the third instalment of the Oddworld game franchise, released in November 2001 as a launch exclusive for the original Xbox. 

Work on the title began in 1998 shortly after the release of Exoddus, with the intention of hitting alongside the new generation of consoles. Munch was originally intended to be a Playstation 2 release one year prior, but ended up coming out with the Xbox console. The publisher of the first two titles was acquired by Infrogrames, which later became Atari SA, and Oddworld partnered up with Microsoft’s publishing arm instead.

Munch’s Oddysee serves as a follow up to the first two games, but introduces the (odd) world in a brand new way. Munch is a Gabbit, a rare breed of creature in the Oddworld universe. The plot sticks with the franchise’s formula of ‘capitalist baddies monetise wildlife’ – the megalomaniac Glukkons are after the Gabbits’ eggs in order to make caviar. In fairness, the Glukkons have taken reform quite seriously – pivoting from throwing entire races into meat processing plants to a slightly more palatable brand of battery farming.

The gameplay has you switch between Munch and former protagonist Abe, as you move through Oddworld’s familiar lush environments, except they’re all 3D now thanks to the hardware upgrade. To solve puzzles scattered throughout the environment, you have to move between the two characters, each with their own unique skill set. Sometimes only one of them can perform an action, for example, Abe has his signature chant ability, but as well as using it to rescue his pals, it appears as a ball of controllable energy to solve puzzles with. Munch can’t chant, but he can swim, so he’s useful for water-based bamboozlers. 

Munch’s Oddysee is the least popular of the four main entries; Oddworld’s next-gen journey hit a few snags. Lanning’s vision was executed well, but the game was rushed to completion in order to hit the Xbox launch date. However, with this partnership in place, Oddworld had a solid foundation to make sure their next title really hit.

Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath

The lukewarm reception to Munch’s Oddysee saw Oddworld turn in a completely new direction. It shelved the Abe saga and unleashed a new style of game, with a protagonist and a whole new set of mechanics, all wrapped up in the same vibrant Oddworld universe.

Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath dropped in January 2005, a few months before the release of the Xbox 360 and a good four years after Munch. With its new Microsoft publishing prowess and fresh hardware capabilities, Oddworld had a little time to rethink its offering and create a game that really showcased the depth of the world it created ten years prior. 

You assume the role of Stranger, an aloof and mysterious bounty hunter with the swagger and attitude of the mid-noughties Xbox. He’s all wide-brimmed hats and grunting, worlds away from Abe’s personable goofiness. Stranger is on a mission to raise cash for an ominous, life-saving operation. To make moolah, Stranger travels from town to town in a Sergio Leone-inspired  western setting, alleviating the various nasties of each locale by completing bounties for the Sheriff. 

While the gameplay itself was fairly linear, Stranger’s Wrath offered the illusion of an open world setting. You can choose which bounty to do at any given time, you can explore different areas, and your mission reward varied depending on how you chose to complete it; enemies captured for a bounty are worth more alive than dead. You can also batter the townspeople for a bit of pocket change, but too much slapping and they will start shooting you back.

The combat system was a revolutionary new addition, especially to Oddworld. Unlike Abe’s pacifist runs, Stranger has a wealth of offensive capabilities. He can whack enemies in third person, or he can shoot at them in first person with his trusty crossbow. The perspectives can be toggled at will, adding new choices to your gameplay.

The crossbow mechanic is hands down one of my favourite things in a video game, ever. Instead of shooting arrows or bullets, Stranger shoots live animals at his foes. In order to get your living ammo, you have to hunt it in the world. The ammo types range from ‘Fuzzles’ (introduced in Munch’s Oddysee) furry little bastards that will gnaw baddies to death, to ‘Boombats’, bats that will go boom when fired. ‘Chippunks’ can serve as a noisy distraction, while ‘Stunks’ can incapacitate enemies with a spurt of smelly gas, and Stranger can suck ‘em up in his bounty hoover while they’re projectile vomiting. Stranger’s Wrath didn’t offer up a gorgeous world with puzzles to solve, it handed you to the keys and let you drift around freely.

Stranger’s Wrath was considered a success critically, but suffered immensely from poor sales. Despite massive differences between the two, Stranger’s Wrath was seen as a rival to Halo, which impacted its footprint. Plans to also release the game on PS2 slowed to a halt as EA struggled to port it, which meant marketing for the port was also non-existent. 

The commercial failure of Stranger’s Wrath, manufactured by EA, prompted an offer from EA to acquire Oddworld, which Lanning and McKenna declined. 

The issues with Stranger’s Wrath contributed to huge changes at Oddworld Inhabitants. In April 2005 – just four months after the release of the game, the company cancelled all of its ongoing projects and Lanning closed the studio. This decision was met with confusion, but Lanning later explained that the business model of studios requiring a publisher’s money in order to make and launch a title wasn’t right if it meant that the publisher could make huge, impactful decisions without the developer’s blessing – like EA’s choice to not market Stranger’s Wrath.

The rise of digital distribution effectively brought Oddworld back to life; these four games made their way to Steam with the development assistance of Just Add Water. Stranger’s Wrath was the first title in the series to hit PC, in 2011. Developers on the original Xbox release worked with the Just Add Water team to make for a smooth and faithful port of the game. The others followed, eventually becoming a package bundle titled ‘The Oddboxx’. Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty remains its own release, developed by Just Add Water and published under the Oddworld label.

This pretty much brings us up to speed, in preparation for the release of Soulstorm. It’s a name that has carried the Oddworld brand since its inception, first as the working title of Abe’s Oddysee and the name of the Glukkon brewery in Exoddus – the game that Soulstorm is inspired by. It’s clearly an important release for Lanning and McKenna, and one that has been in the works for many, many years. I expect it to be a labour of love, one that will satisfy lifelong Oddworld fans and catch the eye of the new ones. Oddworld’s message of shoving capitalism up the arses of the people that perpetuate it reaches far beyond the games that they create, and I’m excited to experience that once more. I’ve heard Molluck the Glukkon is actually now on EA’s board of directors.

Oddworld: Soulstorm is out on the 6th April, available on PS4, PS5, and the Epic Games Store.

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