It was 15 years ago this December that I first received my PlayStation 2, and I have very strong and very fond memories of the console; it saw amazing titles like Ratchet & Clank, Jak & Daxter and an arguably lesser-known game called Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy. Oh, fancy that…this has the same name!
Sphinx was a little platformer that slipped under most people's radar- except my mother's. She purchased it, and to this date clearly remembers the Fire Mummy animation, and loves the game- I was never allowed to sell it, so a boxed copy remains in my dining room to this date. Despite the fact I'm pretty sure I've used a VHS player more recently than my PlayStation 2, and the last time my mother touched it we had dial-up internet. (All together now- beepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeepbabeepbeep…deedeedeebzzzh baddingbadummm, badeebadeeeeeeep…)
For anyone under the age of 12, that was the noise the internet made back in the 90s and early 00s- I didn't just have a seizure and hit the keyboard with my face. Anyway, back to the review. I'll try not to let nostalgia (or my mother) cloud my judgement, as we head back into the world of Ancient Egypt for a magical adventure…
Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy is available on Steam for £13.99 (and also on PlayStation 2, Xbox and Gamecube, if anyone still uses those).
The game takes place in a fictional version of Egypt; it's a word entwined with both historical figures and Greek myth, whole live in or surrounding fictionalised versions of real ancient cities, like Abydos, Heliopolis, and Uruk. Each significant character has their own unique appearance, often reflecting their namesake; the titular Sphinx has a tail and wears a headpiece reminiscent of a lion, while Horus is more bird-like; just like the Egyptian God Horus, he has the head of a falcon. The game begins with a focus on these two, who are both proteges of the priest Imhotep, whose appearance still baffles me after 14 years. They're sent on a mission to retrieve the Sword of Osiris from the dark land of Uruk, a final challenge to see what they've learned and whether they're ready for independence and to begin the path to their own destiny.
This, of course, is just another excuse for an old man to get teenagers to do his dirty work- he disappears after transporting them to Uruk, presumably to put his feet up and watch ancient Egyptian gameshows- probably Pyramid.
It's not long before the two find trouble, and after navigating a series of obstacles, we see the Sword of Osiris on a pedestal on an outcrop- it's not very well hidden, to be honest, so I'm surprised it's still sat there.
The game then begins a descent into a comedy of errors; the bridge Horus is on gets blown up by a giant Eye of Ra protruding ominously from the Castle of Uruk, before blowing up Sphinx's escape route, forcing him to instead teleport to a mysterious location after being swallowed by a lion. Seriously.
Cut to a young prince waking up in the morning; Tutankhamun. It's his birthday, and everybody is thrilled- except his brother, Akhenaten, who is a little peeved that Tutankhamun has received significantly more pomp and circumstance for his special day. Or perhaps he's just miffed at his erroneous name, what with Akhenhaten actually being Tutankhamun's father in real life. Though I don't think I can really complain about historical accuracy in a game featuring a civilisation predominantly consisting of anthropomorphic creatures, monstrous pets and a talking basket.
After a menial fetch quest for his incredibly lazy aunt, Tutankhamun stumbles into his brother's trap- to turn him into a mummy, then take his shape in order to rule Luxor. Though actually, it's not his brother at all, but the Egyptian God Set, who is just as evil in this game as in Egyptian myth- if not more so.
Needless to say, the "mysterious location" Sphinx is teleported to is the same place this bizarre and sinister ritual is being performed, in front of Tutankhamun's beloved Nefertiti (again, historically inaccurate), who I'm pretty certain knew what was going to happen, but didn't deign to tell anybody else in advance.
Sphinx procedes to vandalise the place, interrupting the ceremony and inadvertently foiling Set's plans- for now. Tutankhamun is turned into a mummy (hence the game's title- "Sphinx and the Cursed Tutankhamun doesn't scan quite as well), and along with his "brother" and assistant Menes, who has possibly the biggest nose of any human in any video game, gets sucked into a void. The canopic vases, in which parts of the prince's soul are kept, are lost and spread throughout the world. Can you guess what you spend the rest of the game collecting?
Imhotep sets Sphinx the task of rescuing the prince, by finding vases containing bits of his soul and sending them to his mummified corpse in the Castle of Uruk using Bas-Ket (the aforementioned animated basket- if the highly inventive name didn't give it away), This temporarily revives him enough to explore the castle for a while, run into about nine million death traps, find some stolen jewels, then collapse and magically teleport back to the dungeon, sending his findings back to Sphinx- without getting a word of thanks in return. How rude.
Oh, and also something about saving the world from a really evil Egyptian god. But it's mostly about the Mummy- otherwise, it'd be called Sphinx and the Really Evil God.
As the game switches between Sphinx and the Mummy, so too does the gameplay style. Sphinx is more action-based, gradually acquiring abilities that let him do more things; most of these items seem to be Gods' former property, which leads me to wonder if we're actually nothing more than petty thieves.
As Sphinx, you'll fight enemies, catch monsters which you can then use in battle (or donate to a museum), which is vaguely reminiscent of a series of Nintendo video games I can't quite remember the name of…Digimon?
There are also several mini-games that can break up your rather important quest- who cares about foiling Set's plans to take over Luxor when you can play Simon Says instead? Swimming challenges and a gauntlet are also available, and there's a variety of different people you'll encounter along the way- only a minority of whom are human. Sometimes it's fun just to explore the world on your zip line, smashing pots and collecting scarabs (the game's currency). Unnecessarily smashing pots rings a bell, too…
The Mummy, meanwhile, is very limited in his abilities of fighting and communication (what with being dead, and all), so his portion of the game is restricted to puzzle solving; pulling levers, jumping on platforms, shimmying on ledges- typical platforming tropes.
What's unique- and brilliant- about this game, however, is the variety of things that can happen to the Mummy, in order to help solve the puzzles (or just for a laugh). Tutankhamun can be electrified, set on fire or flattened thin, amongst other abilities. Each comes with their own rather amusing animation- despite being dead, it would appear that he actually feels pain, which is a terrifying prospect if you think about it too much. So instead, just picture him jumping around making monkey noises because he's on fire. Oh…maybe Imhotep is a monkey?
Not everything is perfect, however. The controls are often a bit clunky, and sometimes you'll miss a platform or rope you swear you jumped on, and have to start everything again- the worst is if you fall into an abyss as a consequence and lose part of your health- which doesn't recharge. Instead, you must pick up ankhs to replenish it, which are occasionally found by killing enemies or by other means, like breaking more pottery or throwing coconuts at trees.
The game is also not easy by any sense of the word. It may be because we now live in the age of Google at our fingertips and having a decreasing level of patience, but unless you pay close attention, things aren't always that apparent, like where to go, or what exactly you're looking for. This is not a criticism of the game; more a sad reflection on gaming culture in the present age. Instead of wandering around the palace looking for eight different hidden amulets, for instance, it's much easier to look up a guide to solve puzzles which otherwise should challenge your brain and keep you occupied for a good five or ten minutes. There are few tutorials, no map or waypoints, no quest journal. You have to remember everything you're told, or use logical leaps- which, if you return to the game after a lengthy break, would be a right bitch. This may confuse or annoy some, but I think it's a wonderful reminder of how challenging games used to be, and perhaps future games should look back on this era and take note. Currently, the only game I often hear people talk about being truly difficult is Dark Souls. Not that this is anything like dark souls, mind. Though souls are involved.
The most irritating thing, however, and is perhaps a less welcome echo of the past, is saving. Saving the game can also only be done at special save statues, and it doesn't just save your location or progress, but your health, as well- there's no getting off easy. I'm perfectly fine with challenging games (to a point), but the saving mechanic can get problematic if the statues are few and far between; the Mummy sections often must be done in one sitting, so if you're short on time you'll either have to leave your PC on for hours (as I did) and suffer the consequences of a slightly higher electricity bill, or shut down and replay everything from the last time you saved- the message here is save often, unless you actually enjoy redoing the same bit over and over. Which if you die a lot, you'll probably have to anyway.
Graphics and sound
I remember when I first played this game on my PlayStation, I thought the graphics were pretty good. Indeed, for a remastered game, they hold up really well. There's a degree of cartoonish charm, especially with the Paper Mummy, and the world is rather colourful- impressive, considering how dark and depressing the tone often is.
There are a few minor irks, like the rendering distance; you won't notice the existence of many enemies until you come into very close range, and if you're playing on a large screen you might want to grab a magnifying glass in order to read the subtitles. This is essential- there's no voiced dialogue, just a few sound effects (the funniest all emanating from the Mummy in moments of pain- which sounds really horrible when you say it out loud). The characters also make repeated gestures while talking, which can often come across as comical and overly melodramatic- interactions with Horus often result in over-exaggerated pointing, Imhotep consistently looks like he's in the music video of a power ballad, clenching his fist and looking to the sky a lot, and Sphinx largely stands there smirking, regardless of the situation.- almost as if he's zoned out and singing to himself in his head.
The soundtrack is pretty decent, too; as far as I can remember, they've kept the original score, which was apparently noteworthy enough to merit a separate online release- something which took almost two decades to see for the amazing Crash Bandicoot tracks (and I'm still waiting on a Spyro one, drummer from the Police!)
Music isn't always something you notice when playing games, at least not for me- it's only when it ceases (as it did when I encountered a bug while I was playing) that you realise just how atmospheric and complimentary it can be. With a variety of locations comes a variety of themes, and none of them are particularly jarring, even if they're not all that memorable, either. The sound effects, be it grunts of pain or bubbling of lava, are perfectly acceptable, and the lack of voiced dialogue, while potentially irritating for some (like the illiterate, lazy or people with regular eyes), is probably for the best; I'd take Imhotep even less seriously if he actually sounded like a thespian…whatever he is, declaring that a great and terrible evil is forthcoming.
The game is by no means perfect, but the developers are continuing to work on it, already releasing ten updates in the space of ten days after release. As the bugs are ironed out, and bionic eyes are installed in all of us dramatically improving our vision, we'll have a nicely polished remaster of a console classic.
There haven't been that many memorable games set in ancient Egypt lately. Yet what has been released has been pretty great. Though why spend £40-£50 on Assassin's Creed: Origins, when you can buy Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy instead? Yes, it may be 14 years old, but it's still fun, challenging and a blast to play, for new players who never got the chance upon initial release, or returning players (like myself) looking for a nostalgia kick. Just don't tell my mother it's been re-released, or she'll steal my computer for two months.
There's only one problem (even bigger than the threat of losing my PC)- it took at least ten years to come terms with there being no sequel. Now the wound has reopened, and I'll spend a good many more suffering. Please, somebody, make Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy 2. I'll be the lead writer if you want- I have experience. I once wrote a short story at school about a pet elephant who goes on the rampage in a pharmacist- a bit like that Simpsons episode, but less funny or popular. I'll stop talking now, and go and play one of the best games of my teenage years again. The Simpsons Hit & Run, of course.
Thinking about it, that also needs a sequel…
|+ Original story which adds quality to the game||– Some minor bugs|
|+ Varied gameplay styles||– Annoying save system|
|+ Challenging gameplay|