Is there a more globally despised creature than the cockroach? Oh, sure, people are more frightened of snakes, sharks and [insert local geographical menace here]. But just in terms of sheer, unadulterated disgust, the roach rules! It could be because the largest can grow to half a foot long (15 cm), or because it can live over a week with its head cut off, or even because it's a scavenging omnivore that would gladly feed on human flesh if it confused our sleeping bodies for dead...
Yes, it could be any of these things, but really it's far more basic than that—the cockroach is simply ugly and vile, invades our homes and our food, and lurks in the shadows like a secret, silent stalker. We see them from the corners of our eyes in that hazy instant when dark turns to light, and then they're gone. They're like insect ghosts haunting us, but very much real.
So I ask you (assuming you haven't already run screaming for the can of Review Raid), does the cockroach sound like an ideal protagonist for an adventure game? Well, the gutsy developers at Pulse Entertainment thought so. They gambled that a game about a cockroach would be so abhorrent it becomes compelling. The result? An obscure, raw little gem called Bad Mojo that shouldn't be missed by anyone but the most pestphobic.
As the story opens, a loser named Roger Samms is planning to flee the pathetic hovel he lives in above an abandoned bar, thanks to a fortune embezzled from an entomology grant. Before he can escape, he is confronted by Eddie, the obnoxious landlord who lives downstairs with his free-roaming cat. Alone again after the interruption, Samms grabs his late mother's locket, which unleashes the titular bad mojo (a hex or spell). Suddenly, before you can say "Kafka," a metamorphic storm of magical energy turns Samms into a cockroach, and the player's task begins.
Since no obvious objectives are presented at first, it's time to begin exploring in the hopes of understanding and ultimately reversing Roger's predicament. However, we quickly learn that the world we once knew and took for granted as a human presents some serious transportational and survival issues for a small bug. As a result, the entire game becomes a giant obstacle course of household elements. What was once familiar and insignificant is now awesome and insurmountable, and that's the unique design and clever challenge of Bad Mojo.
Each room contains multiple dilemmas, but scattered about are symbols which trigger helpful (though cryptically poetic) clues. The game has very few conventional puzzles, opting for organic difficulties instead. Whether it's navigating makeshift bridges through deadly insect traps, wending across a stovetop maze while boiling chili splatters the available paths around you, or creating safe passage through gusting vents, there's plenty to keep a roach busy. None of the challenges can be considered particularly difficult, but will still require careful exploration and observation to succeed. A few are decidedly illogical, but never so much that they frustrate and annoy. Progression through the game is largely linear, as courses are typically dictated by boundaries of spilled liquids, poisons, and basic architecture. Credit goes to the developers, however, for making these borders feel so natural.
As you pass from room to room, you are also rewarded with video sequences that present a much more human drama unfolding. Without giving away any details, it becomes clear that Roger's transformation has a higher purpose—one of redemption and reconciliation. This adds a very personal dimension to an otherwise surreal experience. Regrettably, the direction of this story is established so early and so blatantly that it loses all sense of mystery and wonder. It's still a nice touch, but ultimately offers little dramatic impact, and that's a shame.
The game plays out in a third-person... um, no... a bird's-eye overhead... err... Well, whatever the applicable insect terminology, you see yourself as a cockroach, at any rate. Frankly, this was a good decision, as a direct bug’s perspective would require a compound viewscreen that would make us all dizzy. Besides, the strength of the imagery is in watching yourself skitter around the game world as a critter you'd really prefer to crush with your bootheel.
I'd describe the onscreen interface, except there isn't one... at all. There is no cursor, no commands, no inventory. Maneuvering Roger roach is done entirely through the keyboard’s arrow keys, and that’s the sum total of the learning curve. I know the mere thought of direct control is enough to discourage some people, but movement doesn't come any easier than this. Believe me, you could probably control it with your nose if playing with the keyboard attached to your face didn't pose some logistical problems of its own. The game design is very forgiving of clumsy fingers, so you shouldn't find yourself meeting your doom accidentally.
As you'd imagine under the circumstances, item manipulation is extremely limited. Only tiny objects can be affected at all, and then only by making full body contact. So you'll be able to slide a bottle cap or peanut shell a small way, but are powerless to move a fork or shoe. This adds a refreshing degree of realism, and again, will pose no problems even to the most dexterity-challenged gamer. Unfortunately, Bad Mojo rarely lets you move items that aren't directly involved in overcoming obstacles, so the interactivity is limited and inconsistent.
It is possible to die in Bad Mojo, and you'll undoubtedly get stuck in paint, singed by hot pipes, or sucked up by a vacuum along the way. You'll also encounter a few nasty surprises from spiders, rats, and a stealthy cat paw (but it's a perverse laugh watching the kitty munching its catch). Fortunately, our roach has five lives which return us to the moment of truth for another chance. While the extra lives are appreciated, when all five are gone, it's game over. As you can save anywhere, it's easy to avoid losing any lives at all, so the arbitrary limit is rather pointless besides serving as an emergency backup. For those already feeling their blood pressure rising at the prospect of death-defying action sequences, rest assured—these obstacles are intended to catch you sleeping once, then test your wits to overcome, not your reflexes.
Graphically, the game is a marvel, though it dates itself by running in a window and using only 256 colours. The environments are intricately detailed, and beautifully rendered. And by "beautiful," of course I mean "hideous". This is no scenic landscape, but the filthy underbelly of a seedy dive to begin with. But what stunning dirt it is! You can practically feel the rust flaking off the furnace, or smell the stench of the old, stale cigarette butts in the ashtray. The vivid backgrounds are displayed in pre-rendered 2D, with some effective animation worked in to give the game world some life. Our roach character is fully 3D, and can climb over, under, and around anything the design allows. The model isn't nearly as detailed, but our little antennae wave back and forth, and our six legs scurry us about convincingly.
It should be noted that the game holds absolutely nothing back in the gross-out department visually. Mind you, if you're prepared to give a cockroach game a whirl, you'll probably have the constitution to handle squirming maggots, larvae, fish guts, rat carcasses, and blood trails. Nevertheless, notice served. It's not overdone, but it's there.
The FMV videos sprinkled throughout the game are far and away the weakest part of the entire presentation. They are extremely pixelated, horribly (over)acted, badly scripted, and worst of all, technically unstable (I won’t cheapen us all by calling it “buggy”). The pixelation can be excused by its age, while the acting and dialogue can still be appreciated from a B-movie perspective. The glitches, however, were a truly bothersome hindrance. Many times the game froze for loooooong durations before or after video clips. Sometimes it'd correct itself, occasionally I could coax it, but still other times no combination of key pounding, threats, and creative cursing would cause the next scene to trigger without quitting the game entirely and coming back. This was most notable while playing it on Windows XP, but I did test it on my Windows 95 computer also, and still didn't get smooth performance. As the game uses QuickTime, which is notoriously finicky on its own, I would recommend uninstalling any version of QuickTime you have, and using the game version for best possible performance.
Sound is a mixed bag that leaves no overwhelming impression. The music is comprised of several tracks of eerie techno-creep that is well suited to the gameplay, providing a kind of sinister atmosphere and urgency. The downside is that there are far too few of them, and each recording is extremely short. As they loop repeatedly, it won't be long until you find yourself wishing for something new. You can turn the music off, but the game's sound effects are too sparse to offset the silence. The occasional noises like sploshing in impassable liquids or slip-sliding on porcelain are nicely done, however.
Bad Mojo should provide somewhere in the neighbourhood of 5-7 hours of gaming before offering several possible endings, each depending on how much you accomplish in the climactic timed sequence. I know that's another dreaded adventure element for some, but once again, the developers have allowed ample time, and success is based on decisions, not finger-twitching.
I'd love to recommend Bad Mojo unequivocally, but of course I do have to suggest caution for those on the fence about the subject matter. Although the game offers so much more than shock value, it does contain some inherently disturbing images that cannot be overlooked by the squeamish. You know who you are. If watching A Bug’s Life was your idea of courageous, move right along; there’s nothing to see here. On the other hand, if you're still reading this, you're either a masochist or feel you might have what it takes to brave a wild ride through the insect world. Either way, if you think you can handle it, you can.
You’d be hard pressed to find a less likely source for an adventure, but the radical premise, innovative approach, and graphical richness really help to make Bad Mojo such a creative, compelling title. Forget what Sierra, LucasArts, and Cyan taught you about adventures. Check your preconceived notions at the door, and play the game on its own terms, and you’ll be rewarded with one of the few truly unique gameplay experiences the genre has to offer. Granted, the game length and relative ease may leave some people wanting, and the biggest challenge may be finding the game these days. There are also some scripting and technical issues that prevent the game from being a true masterpiece, but when all is said and done, Bad Mojo is an unlikely but overwhelming success that easily makes my “must play” list. It'll creep into your mind, and crawl into your imagination, and establish itself as a truly memorable adventure.