How could a developer solve a problem like a desire to build a side-scrolling platformer in a 1996 3D graphics obsessed world? The answer was to find a middle ground, which we affectionately refer to as 2.5D today. Published by Crystal Dynamics and created by Toys for Bob in Novato, California close to the development of GEX, PSone Pandemonium! was able to retain classic 2D platforming gameplay while showboating the 3D technical advantages of a 32-bit console.
Beginning with an ugly opening movie – note that the generic character design and introductory cinematics were overhauled in Pandemonium!'s renamed Japanese release as Magical Hoppers – you're introduced to a whacko jester called Fargus, his deranged talking stick-puppet Sid, and Nikki the acrobat. It's Fargus and Nikki who you switch between as playable characters on the linear Mystic Map in a land called Lyr, after Nikki unwittingly unleashes a monster called Yungo by dabbling in a 10th level spell at a Wizards in Training Seminar (W.I.T.S). The goal throughout 18 levels and three separate boss fights in this single-player game is to send Yungo back to his own dimension – not just because he resembles the slug-baby offspring of Jabba the Hutt and a Rancor monster – but also to save the village, and to earn three wishes from the Wishing Engine.
With Toys for Bob's Paul Reiche III as lead designer, plus Ken Ford and Fred Ford as lead programmers, it's the presentation of the in-game visuals and the dynamic use of 2.5D viewpoints in Pandemonium! that become more endearing than its opening sequence. Console gamers were just getting their heads around the 2.5D perspective, as a large part of the Next Wave preview in the October 1996 issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly was spent explaining how Pandemonium! controls as a side-scrolling game – despite it appearing to be 3D.
Issue 87 of Electronic Gaming Monthly also reasoned that "this makes the title more interesting, but it forces the player to be extremely cautious while waiting for that unseen enemy". The downside of a dynamic 2.5D perspective is that it can feel disorienting, for example during the start of level 13 on Honcho's Airship, and it's not an ideal viewpoint for dodging falling boulders in the Lost Caves. The camera doesn't always help for judging where to land, which is essential for a platforming game, although in a similar manner to Jumping Flash! you can use your characters' shadow as a guide to your positioning.
The preview in the October 1996 issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly concluded that players should keep an open-mind by not expecting Pandemonium! to be PSone's answer to the spacious 3D structure in Super Mario 64, and they argued that its linearity is a deliberate part of its design. There is also a playfulness to Pandemonium! as the skiddy slide sections scattered throughout the levels are slippery fun, just as they were in Super Mario 64. In regards to gameplay, Pandemonium! is essentially a side-scrolling game, as you bounce on enemies' heads, hold down the jump button on trampolines or during wind gusts for higher air, and time your leaps to avoid cloud platforms from disappearing.
Power-ups like temporary invincibility and shooting fireballs are as traditional to a platformer as the Starman and Fire Flower were in the original Super Mario Bros., although Pandemonium also includes a shrink ray and the ability to roll boulders onto enemies in the Burning Desert, so Fargus or Nikki can take the power back. There are checkpoints to break each stage into sections, which are often triggered by finding a key to open a gated pathway. During select moments in levels you can also trigger a magical shape-shifting ability to add extra variety to the gameplay. Early appearances of the shapechange powers include: Fungus Grotto's agile frog with longer leaps, Branky Wastes' charging demolition Rhino, Canopy Village's turtle with a protective shell, plus Honcho Airship's dragon that can fly upwards and dive back down while breathing fire, in a basic multi-scrolling shmup section.
Pandemonium! has a shorter six hour completion time than Rayman or GEX, largely because its difficulty curve is more accessible and it's not as much of a memory test platformer, although it can initially seem harsh by not including continues. Also, with only two hits per life and three lives before game over, the core set-up is a challenging game in the way retro titles are perceived as being difficult today. That is before you discover that you can chain multiple passwords to craft a difficulty balance that is finely tuned to your personal skill level and play style. As long as you write down the password after completing each of the 18 levels and three boss skirmishes, you can supplement the level code and beef-up your resilience with passwords including VITAMINS for an extra 31 lives, and CORONARY to play with seven heart containers instead of two.
Yet, it's advisable to avoid using the seven hearts CORONARY password until you become stuck, because it unbalances the game's difficulty design to make it too easy, plus you largely won't need it to conquer all of the levels. However, it may become tempting when you meet the Wishing Engine final boss. For some inexplicable reason the end-game boss is not Yungo, but an eyeball on mechanical spider legs, and its cheap fireball attacks reach across a circular runway to quickly destroy a small health meter. This is following two very easy boss battles against the Shroom Lord and Goon Honcho, which are more notable for the way they loop around a constantly rotating circle, and how the ring-path boss encounters in Pandemonium! possibly influenced games like Sonic Rush on the Nintendo DS.
Pandemonium! has its fair share of cheap hits as enemies knock Fargus or Nikki onto spikes, into snap traps, and down instant death pits, plus their projectiles follow the curvature of the 2.5D perspective even when the enemy is hidden by the camera. Checkpoints can also feel too far apart, so sections like the placement of sharp woodcutting blades and saws in Honcho's Logmill become frustrating. Each character has a special action, so while Fargus can cartwheel into a tumble attack, Nikki has an awkward double-jump that necessitates a second button press at the top of her leap, similar to in The Revenge of Shinobi. Unfortunately, the timing of button presses doesn't always feel responsive enough for precise platforming. Apart from the Wishing Engine, the greatest difficulty spike is at the end of level 18's Storm Temple where not even Nikki's double-jump can help to navigate past recurrent hurricanes that blast you into the abyss if you don't hide in glass cages.
For the most part the final third of the game is a highlight of PSone Pandemonium!, with especially the sky sections from level 14's Dragoon Skyfort to level 16's Efreet Palace representing some of the most creative stages in the game. These include Donkey Kong Country-like cannons, whirlwinds, rainbow bridges, trampoline clouds and wind tunnels to provide the most entertaining sections out of the main 18 levels. Therefore, if you picked Pandemonium! up for the inexpensive £3.99 price-tag on the PS3, Vita, or PSP, it's worth putting six hours of gaming time into seeing the end of the game.
Over time developers from Crystal Dynamics would continue their careers elsewhere, and some of their talent moved to Naughty Dog – including Bruce Straley and Evan Wells who between them worked on a variety of PSone GEX games, plus Richard Lemarchand whose contribution to Pandemonium! received a "Special Thanks" credit. Lemarchand was involved with Pandemonium! for a few months where he created its entertaining playable end credits section, which involved guiding an invincible Fargus or Nikki around a psychedelic, neon platforming course. Toys for Bob's developer name credits pop-up as you bounce around to a frantic, carnival, celebratory tune.
This is just one example of the effectiveness of Burke Trieschmann's Pandemonium! soundtrack, so while the music doesn't always have the sweet melodies of platformers like Rayman and Mickey's Wild Adventure, when combined with the graphics it's more consistent than the first GEX game at conveying Pandemonium!'s themes of an acrobat and a jester journeying through the magical land of Lyr. The music starts strongly with the title screen and Mystic Map level select menus, as it sets the tone of plucked strings and folk tune twangs for stages like the Skull Fortress and Spider Forest. Early on you may be tempted to turn the volume for the music up to a louder position than the distracting boing-based sound effects.
Branky Wastes has an energetic, charging, western banjo tune, while Dragoon Skyfort whistles with wind flutes, as the Acid Pools' music drips and bubbles, and the Storm Temple's tune appropriately takes a dramatic turn. While it may have been unintentional, or possibly as an extension of an irrational fear of clowns, there's a freaky and slightly creepy edge to Fargus' design as a kooky jester. The music also takes an eerie approach when necessary, like in the chilly Frozen Cavern, plus it sounds shrill and abrasive in the Lost Caves, and sometimes adds mystical Egyptian tunes to fuse together an atmosphere.
Released in North America in October 1996, and a month later in Europe, Pandemonium! may not be the dominant spooky title to haunt your retro memories by including a secluded central location, like how Resident Evil's Spencer Mansion and the inverted castle in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night are more likely to ensnare your priorities. However, while it doesn't have a Pumpkin Gorge like in MediEvil or GEX's opening Cemetery world either, Pandemonium! is still worth considering as a bonus title if you're compiling a PSone Hallowe'en gaming list. After all, Fargus and Nikki charge across the skeletons of long deceased monsters, leap over bubbling green cauldrons of acid, and have to brave their way through spongy webbing spun by menacing red spiders in dark wooded areas.
Although there are moments of murkiness to the backgrounds in levels like the Fungus Grotto, and Honcho's Logmill, Toys for Bob were predominantly wise to stick with bright colours for Pandemonium!'s backdrops. With the PSone spinning polygons around on a 2.5D plane, it doesn't run quite as smoothly as traditional 2D platformers like the aforementioned Rayman and Mickey's Wild Adventure, but in the context of 1996, the 2.5D graphical payoff was worth it for the dazzling variety of camera perspectives. It's still a pleasure to witness how the side-scrolling visuals wrap around the inside of a rooftop in the Dungeon Tower, or how the consistently impressive Cloud Citadel constantly shifts the perspective between the interior and exterior of a castle.
In the battle of the great mid-1990s rotating tower chase sequences, Pandemonium!'s Hollow Stairway may have pipped Mickey's Wild Adventure to the post, as the camera even shifts to a top-down, vertigo inducing viewpoint in a number of Toys for Bob's levels. The blurb for the magazine advert of Pandemonium! described Crystal Dynamics' pride at how a "freestyle 3D Camera cranks out the ultimate blend of brilliant visuals and knock-out perspectives", and it's clear today at how inspirational this approach to 2.5D has become on modern side-scrolling games.
Almost two years before Pandemonium!, Clockwork Knight on the SEGA Saturn was an early example of a platformer using scaling and 2.5D to add depth to its background visuals. However, in 1996 there was something magical about how Toys for Bob's camera wrapped its side-scrolling gameplay around the curvature of paths and buildings, so it's no joke to state that PSone Pandemonium! expanded upon 2.5D's visual potential. With a determination to combine 32-bit 3D graphics with traditional 2D gameplay, the single-player journey of Fargus the jester or Nikki the acrobat is a strictly linear 18 level progression through its Mystic Map of Lyr – plus defeating three separate circular boss stages for the reward of three wishes from the Wishing Engine. Yet, it's also no jest to articulate that Pandemonium! was bested a year later by Klonoa: Door to Phantomile as PSone's truly spellbinding 2.5D platforming game.