The 3D platformer was very much a ‘fad’ genre back in the day, as game companies all over the world figured out ways to get their colourful mascot collecting all sorts of MacGuffins strewn around big playgrounds. During this era, a game based on the popular SpongeBob SquarePants show was released called SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom, and it quickly garnered a following due to the reach of the show and the quality of the gameplay.
It’s not entirely surprising, then, that THQ Nordic opted to bring it back as SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom - Rehydrated, as there’s plenty of good ol’ nostalgia to be mined here, both from fans of the game and the show. This remake is more than just nostalgia bait, however; it’s a genuinely good game that looks better than it ever has before, even if there are some caveats.
The story is kept about as barebones as possible, following the typical TV plot of Plankton being up to no good and causing a lot of problems for everyone else. Here, he’s built a machine that churns out robots so he can rule Bikini Bottom, but he forgets to set the obedience switch to “Obey”, thus causing the robots to go on an uncontrollable rampage. As a result, it’s up to the combined efforts of SpongeBob, Patrick, and Sandy to rid Bikini Bottom of robots and shut down the robot-making machine in the Chum Bucket.
Though the plot isn’t anything particularly memorable, the tone and quality of the writing that characterized the first three seasons of the show can be seen all over Battle for Bikini Bottom. For example, Sandy’s caricature-like take on a Texas native shows through all the time as she keeps coming up with southern idioms and calling the robots “varmints”. Meanwhile, SpongeBob and Patrick are ever the lovable and naïve fools, especially in how they routinely take Plankton at his word when he’s clearly manipulating them. Those of you that have plenty of love for the show will be pleased to know that the tone is maintained quite well here; it feels like much of the content here could’ve easily appeared in an episode.
Gameplay follows the tried and true formula of the 3D platformer collect-a-thons that were so popular in the late '90s-early '00s, and all the expected tropes are present and correct. Instead of stars or jiggies, the crew goes from level to level in search of golden spatulas, which unlock new levels once you’ve found enough of them. Usually, collecting all the golden spatulas requires you to collect a number of other collectables, too, such as grabbing several stolen art pieces for a museum or picking up enough shiny objects (basically coins) to pay Mr. Krabs. Fortunately, there aren’t any character-specific items as some games were notorious for, but rinsing a level of all its secrets will often require you to use all the characters to access different sections.
At the outset of your journey, you only control SpongeBob, whose kit centres around his world-class bubble-blowing skills. He can do things like rolling a bubble bowling ball or smashing enemies with a bubble Viking hat, and he feels like the most ‘balanced’ character. Patrick fills the role of the ‘heavy’ character here, and his main draw is that he can pick up and throw various fruits (or enemies) to hit switches and destroy robots. The throwing mechanic can be a little hokey given that the fruit explodes after a few seconds and that the auto-reticle target doesn’t always highlight what you want it to, but issues like these never become more than a minor irritation. Finally, there’s Sandy, who can beat up foes with her kung-fu and lassoing skills and can glide for long distances by waving the lasso above her head. On the whole, it feels like each character brings enough new techniques to the table to justify their existence, and each one gets plenty of time in the spotlight as the levels frequently ask you to switch up playstyles.
Level designs are a little more linear than games of this genre are known for, but this helps them to have a more focused and cohesive feel. Typically, there’s a golden spatula at the ‘end’ of the level, but along the way are several more opportunities to take rabbit trails and pursue secrets with various characters. And though the platforming seldom proves to be overly difficult, there are plenty of ideas mixed into a level to keep you on your toes. Downtown Bikini Bottom, for example, starts off with a series of timed races to get through gates as SpongeBob before the doors close, then switches gears to a lasso-heavy segment in which Sandy needs to swing and glide her way across the tops of buildings. This well-balanced mix of different objectives remains consistent throughout the whole adventure, giving it a nice pace and doing a great job of keeping things from growing dull.
Robots are sprinkled throughout each level, leading to many brief pauses from the platforming for kicking some robot tail. Combat is kept simple, usually just requiring you to button mash your way through a couple of enemies and destroy a robot respawn machine or two, but enough new enemy types are introduced along the way to prod you into changing tactics. For example, the Rock Bottom level introduces a ‘sleeping’ robot that will attack anything within a certain radius, necessitating that you either sneak up on it or somehow attack it from a distance. Considering that combat is usually more of an afterthought in a 3D platformer, it’s nice to see that Battle for Bikini Bottom goes a little further in its enemy variety to keep enemy encounters fresh.
Though the main adventure provides more than enough of a draw on its own, this remaster also includes some content that wasn’t in the original game. The most prominent of this is a new multiplayer horde mode that reuses a cut boss form the original. Two players can work together or against each other online or locally, and the goal is simply to survive waves of robot enemies and clear islands. The main three characters from the single-player mode are here, alongside some new playable characters – like Squidward and Gary – who all more or less play the same as each other. To be fair, this multiplayer mode feels a little shallow and tacked on, but it’s fun for a quick breather every now and then, and the ease of use with single Joy-Con play ensures that anybody can hop in relatively easily.
As a remaster of a 2003 release, the main draw here is the enhanced graphics and sound, and Purple Lamp has done a stellar job of updating this classic. Considering the somewhat flat and dark look of the original, it’s almost a bit jarring with how bright, vibrant, and lively each environment looks like. For example, the boss fight against Robot Sandy in the Poseidome has replaced the previously nondescript crowd in the background with hundreds of fish waving around neon glowsticks, giving the whole fight a much better and more exciting tone. The remastered soundtrack sounds incredible, too, taking an already strong mix and elevating to a much higher sound quality.
If we were to stop there, it would go without saying that this is an exceptional port, but unfortunately, a litany of technical issues mar this otherwise pleasant experience. For example, the uncapped framerate targets 60 FPS, but this can quickly dive to sub 30 FPS regions if you happen to be in any semi-open area or there are lots of moving objects on screen at once. Then there are the glitches, which can range from minor to nearly game-breaking. For example, when we defeated King Jellyfish in his boss fight, the post-fight cutscene glitched out and didn’t play in full. As a result, the path to a golden spatula that’s unlocked after the fight wasn’t opened, effectively locking us out of ever collecting that one.
Things like this pop up far too frequently, alongside animations that don’t play right (if at all) or audio that isn’t synced properly. Now, a recent patch put out by the developer has fixed many of the issues present in the initial release, so it’s not as bad as it’s been. However, several more issues are still unaddressed, and their near-constant presence gives this port a rather cheap and rushed feeling. The underlying content is undeniably solid, but you’ll be hard-pressed to get through this one without running into some performance problems or glitches.
Considering the long-reaching cultural impact that the SpongeBob cartoon has had on modern pop culture, it’s nice to see that the franchise got at least one solid video game that properly represents the unique draw of SpongeBob and his friends. Though Battle for Bikini Bottom doesn’t bring anything new to the table as a 3D platformer, its strong level design, lighthearted tone, and gorgeous remastered visuals make this one an easy recommendation. That being said, rampant technical issues hold the game back from true greatness, which is a real shame given the quality in nearly every other area. As a result, this certainly isn’t the game to unseat Super Mario Odyssey, but those of you that love a good collect-a-thon 3D platformer will find plenty to love here.