Sunday, October 1, 2023

Review: SpongeBob SquarePants: The Cosmic Shake — A F.U.N. Nostalgia Trip

The Nintendo 64 and original PlayStation gave us some of the most instantly recognizable (if not exactly the best) games ever — Super Mario 64, Glover, Crash Bandicoot, Spiro, and Gex, just to name a few. 

What all these games have in common is the one thing that truly separated the fifth generation of consoles from every other generation that came before it: 3D. They were all 3D platformers that showed off the power of the new generation of systems. 

But by the PlayStation 2 era, the heydays of the 3D platformer were all but over. But while games like Grand Theft Auto 3, Shadow of the Colossus, and Final Fantasy X were redefining gaming, there was one 3D platformer that really caught fire: SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom.

Back in 2003, Battle for Bikini Bottom was riding the wave of SpongeBob mania. Stephen Hillenburg’s nautical nonsense show had ballooned from its pilot episode in 1999 to a worldwide juggernaut with 2004’s The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie. Caught right in the middle of the early aughts’ SpongeBob mania was THQ’s 2003 game Battle for Bikini Bottom.

Battle for Bikini Bottom went on to become one of the top-selling PlayStation 2 games of all time.

And at the time, it meant a lot to me, too. I was just the right age when the first few seasons of SpongeBob aired, and I remember exploring his underwater world with the power of the PS2 being absolutely mindblowing for me.

That context is important because SpongeBob SquarePants: The Cosmic Shake is developer Purple Lamp and publisher THQ Nordic’s spiritual successor to Battle for Bikini Bottom

To put it plainly, it’s a tall order.

Over the dozen or so hours I spent playing The Cosmic Shake, I wasn’t disappointed. Purple Lamp lovingly recreated Bikini Bottom, captured some early of that SpongeBob magic, and kickstarted my nostalgia. 

But The Cosmic Shake isn’t all F.U.N. and rainbows. 

Here’s my review of SpongeBob SquarePants: The Cosmic Shake for the Nintendo Switch.

Nautical Nonsensical Plot

It probably won’t surprise you to hear that the plot of The Cosmic Shake is a little thin. 

SpongeBob and Patrick meet a fortune teller named Kassandra, who gives them a vial of Mermaid’s Tears that have the power to grant wishes. In typical SpongeBob and Patrick style, the pair go overboard and make too many wishes at once, causing a rip in space and time that allows Cosmic Jelly to cover Bikini Bottom.

The rip also opens portals to new Wishwords, which function as parallel universes. SpongeBob and Patrick enter each portal to save familiar characters and bring Kassandra back cosmic jelly so she can fix the rip in space and time.

So that plot’s serviceable, and most people might not expect much from a game like this, but hear me out. The strength of the SpongeBob series is its zany stories. It feels like that’s missing here. As you play through the Wishworlds, you’re not really progressing the narrative — you’re just rescuing the people of Bikini Bottom. There isn’t a sense of movement toward anything in particular; you’re just ticking things off a checklist. 

It’s a relatively small nitpick, but I had to mention it.

Capturing SpongeBob SquarePants

The most impressive thing about The Cosmic Shake is just how perfectly it captures the heart and soul of the series. 

The absurdist humor from the Hillenburg era of the series is back, and there are tons of references to those early episodes. The Krusty Krab Pizza, Fred the Fish, Rock Bottom, Glove World, Bubble Buddy, and hundreds of other staples from the first few years of the series make their appearances in The Cosmic Shake

Exploring Bikini Bottom

In The Cosmic Shake, Bikini Bottom functions as the hub world, but it’s also way more than that. Bikini Bottom is a huge open area that feels like a living and breathing town.

As you progress through the main campaign, new sections of Bikini Bottom open up, and you can explore familiar locations from the series like the Shady Shoals Rest Home, Mrs. Puff’s Boating School, the Chum Bucket, and the Krusty Krab. Around Bikini Bottom, there are tons of collectibles, enemies, and secrets to discover. And exploring the hub area is made even more fun by the residents.

The characters in Bikini Bottom have their own unique dialogue, and some even have side quests for you. But what really makes Bikini Bottom feel real is that there’s a voice actor for every single NPC in the game. It’s small, but it goes a long way toward building the game’s fun, authentic atmosphere.

Around Bikini Bottom, you’ll find portals that take you to other dimensions. These other dimensions function as the game’s levels. Outside of Bikini Bottom, there are seven levels in the game, each much different from the last. The first three worlds — Pirate Goo Lagoon, Karate Downtown Bikini Bottom, and Wild West Jellyfish Fields — are probably the most interesting in the game, and they feel the most fully realized.

When I first hopped into Pirate Goo Lagoon, I was shocked at how massive it is. These levels are enormous, but they’re also a little one-dimensional. Here’s what I mean. Each level has its own theme and challenges, but it’s not totally open for you to explore: Throughout the game, the level design is extremely linear, and it doesn’t leave much room for creativity. There’s one path in each level, and if you don’t follow it closely, there’s no way to finish the level.

Once you’ve finished the main objective in each level — saving the resident of Bikini Bottom and bringing them back to the hub world — there isn’t much reason to return to the levels. Sure, there are collectibles to find, but outside of that, once you’re done with a level, you’re done. I think there’s a lot of lost potential here. The levels need more story-based objectives to make you want to return and play through them again.

Underwater Collect-a-Thon

Throughout the campaign, you’re constantly on the lookout for a few different types of collectibles, but the main two are cosmic jelly and doubloons. Gold doubloons unlock more costumes to purchase in the Costume Shop. Cosmic jelly works like currency in the game, so the more you collect, the more costumes you can buy. 

There are 11 different SpongeBob costumes that you automatically unlock as you progress through the campaign, but there are 20 more costumes you can unlock if you want to track down all the game’s gold doubloons, bringing the total number of costumes to 31.

Finding the doubloons and unlocking new costumes is fun, but the costumes don’t actually do anything. They’re totally cosmetic, a huge letdown for me. You can imagine how the developers could have used SpongeBob’s costumes to give him unique powers or abilities — like the different Spidey suits in Marvel’s Spider-Man or even the Cappy captures in Super Mario Oddyssy — and that would give players even more reason to try and unlock them all, but the game offers nothing like that. It feels like a huge missed opportunity.

In platformers, there’s nothing more important than tight controls, and The Cosmic Shake misses the mark. The controls feel way too loose, and SpongeBob’s movement is so slow that it feels like he’s walking — and jumping — through quicksand. SpongeBob’s double-jump and pizza glider help you readjust and recover from clumsy platforming, but they make the game so easy that it almost feels like cheating. 

Lackluster Performance

There’s no other way to say it: The Cosmic Shake is rough on the Nintendo Switch. It’s absolutely playable, but it’s a slog. Loading screens can last 30 seconds or more, and when more than a handful few things are on-screen at the same time or SpongeBob jumps from a tall ledge, it feels like the game’s framerate drops to the teens. And the performance only got worse the longer I played. 

It’s easy to point to the Switch’s 2015 (!) Nvidia Tegra X1 chip and complain about the performance of new games in 2023, but The Cosmic Shake is your garden-variety 3D platformer. There’s no reason it should be all that taxing on the Switch’s hardware. Again, it’s not game-breaking, but it’s unexpected.

But I did have one issue that was potentially game-breaking. During my playthrough, after three or four hours, the game glitched and wouldn’t let me save my progress. I went to the menu several times and clicked “Save,” but I couldn’t replace my old save file. And the auto-save feature stopped working as well. 

I didn’t want to lose my progress, so I had to keep the game running and put my Switch into sleep mode. I’m sure my saving issues will be patched out by the official release date, but it was a frustrating experience.

A Game Out of Time

As much as I enjoyed my time with The Cosmic Shake, I couldn’t stop thinking that it feels like a game out of time. As I mentioned earlier, yes, the golden age of 3D platformers is over, and that contributes to the feeling, but there’s more to it than that. 

To put it simply, I don’t know who this game is for.

The most obvious answer is kids, right? 3D platformers tend to attract a younger audience, but are kids today still watching SpongeBob? To be more specific, are they still watching the first three seasons? Almost exclusively, the jokes and references in The Cosmic Shake come from the early years of the SpongeBob TV series and 2004’s The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie. Will kids today understand the references? Will they understand the jokes? Because if you don’t know the source material, a lot of the humor in The Cosmic Shake falls flat.

For aging millennials, The Cosmic Shake is a fun nostalgia trip, but I doubt many 30- and 40-somethings are even aware of The Cosmic Shake. And even if they are aware of it, how many are planning on playing it?

So The Cosmic Shake sits in an uncomfortable space. The kids who watched SpongeBob 20 years ago and would have loved a game like this now have kids of their own, and 12-year-olds today have their own cartoons — cartoons that were made for them. They don’t want our microwaved leftovers, even if it is SpongeBob.

The Verdict

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Cosmic Shake is a fun 3D platforming collect-a-thon that gives fans a new adventure with an old friend. But it’s also a game that’s struggling with its identity — Who is it for? Why was it made? What does it give us that Battle for Bikini Bottom didn’t?

So should you play it? Well, SpongeBob fans are going to love it. Exploring familiar locations and interacting with Bikini Bottom’s residents are the stuff nostalgia is all about. But if you’re not a huge fan of the original series, The Cosmic Shake doesn’t offer many reasons to pick it up. 

I’m giving the game a solid 7/10.

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Cosmic Shake will release on January 31 and is available on the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.

Justin McGee
Justin McGee
Lifelong Nintendo fan. Follow me on Twitter @PuffyRedShirt

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