If you’re a gamer, you’ll undoubtedly be familiar with Super Mario 64. It’s one of the most influential games of the 3D era, and often ranked as one of the best of all time – Nintendo’s first 3D platformer quite literally wrote the rulebook. One of the 3D platform games it steamrolled at the time was Argonaut’s Croc on the PlayStation, and what makes this all the more striking is that Croc may have actually inspired and influenced the shape of the Nintendo classic. But, where Mario is still an icon, Croc has now vanished into obscurity – why? Who was Croc, and what happened to him?
The story begins with a company called Argonaut. Founded in the UK in 1982, the team caught Nintendo’s attention for breaking open the Game Boy, showing an incredible level of technical prowess. They went to meet Nintendo in Japan, and were hired to develop both Star Fox and the technology that made it possible, the Super FX chip. The chip allowed for more advanced 2D special effects and the use of 3D polygons on what was ostensibly a 2D console – it really cemented the contractual relationship between the two studios.
In an interview with Eurogamer, Argonaut founder Jez San explained that the contract helped the company grow, but also limited it. He said: “We grew during that time, but there was also an exclusivity clause which meant that Nintendo pretty much had control of us. We had the benefit of being the only outside company that was working with them for a while, and we were paid our costs, plus a royalty. Nintendo kept telling us to stay small and keep working exclusively for them, but they weren’t paying us the serious cash that they were paying other partners. Our agreement with Nintendo was mostly a royalty deal that relied on sales. When we wanted to branch out and do other games, they wouldn’t let us until the end of our contract.”
The relationship was a strong one, and Argonaut were working on Star Fox 2 for Nintendo. But then, things fell apart: “The end came when we pitched to do a 3D platform game, the likes of which had never been done before. We mocked up a prototype using Yoshi. It was essentially the world’s first 3D platform game and was obviously a big risk – Nintendo had never let an outside company use their characters before, and weren’t about to, either. This is the moment the deal fell apart.” The new Star Fox was canned, although Nintendo used much of the code to make Star Fox 64.
It was a commercial success – the PlayStation version sold more than three million copies worldwide
San claimed that the Yoshi prototype was so similar to Mario 64, it must have influenced the game’s creation. He also suggested that Shigeru Miyamoto hinted as much to him, although reports on this are somewhat mixed – Nintendo at the time said that they had another game (Mario 64) already in development. Whatever the truth, Argonaut now had a prototype game, and eventually chose to work with publishers Fox Interactive, who had a plan for turning Croc into a multimedia franchise.
Argonaut began to rework the game. Computer artist Simon Keating reworked the main character, with a request to make it marginally similar to Yoshi, and he worked with lead designer Nic Cusworth to figure out the game’s mechanics. They divided each level into several smaller sub-sections, due to both hardware limitations and the team’s desire to avoid having to create depth perception. Their idea indeed was that each room would feel like its own individual puzzle to solve, although the inventiveness loses its way as the game progresses. They also created small adorable creatures called Gobbos for Croc to save, because they thought a princess would be too out-there.
Croc: Legend of the Gobbos was released in 1997, and it received mixed reviews – critics found the game derivative of other, better platformers, but said it was entertaining enough in its own right. They were impressed with the game’s graphics, as neither the PlayStation nor the Sega Saturn were believed to be as powerful as the Nintendo 64, but they slated its gameplay, environmental designs and the frustrating controls. However, it was a commercial success – the PlayStation version sold more than three million copies worldwide – and so a teased sequel was put into development.
In 1999’s Croc 2, the title character goes searching for his missing parents as well as saving some more Gobbos. The game received a huge marketing campaign from Fox, who were convinced by its potential, and there were definite improvements. The camera now followed Croc around the game’s interconnected world, the controls are certainly improved, and the level design shows more promise. But all of these improvements come with caveats that impact on playability (the camera swiftly becomes annoying), and the difficulty is generally quite unforgiving. It failed to catch general attention, and the sales were much smaller.
Even now, fans are clamouring for more Croc
After these two games, the Croc train hit the buffers as far as the franchise was concerned. Fox’s planned TV show never materialised, and a proposed Croc 3 on the Xbox met a similar fate. The idea was a popular one, but Argonaut was a small team used to small budgets, and unable to scale up to the PS2 and Xbox era – as a result of the changing face of games and the reduced income from their successful properties (such as the PS1 Harry Potter games), the company liquidated in 2004.
But that wasn’t it for Croc. In 2000, a loose remake of the first game landed on the Game Boy Colour, and it was followed by Croc 2 the next year. The first game was a side-scroller, the second a top-down adventure game in the style of The Legend of Zelda – but, despite the variations in gameplay, neither was particularly well received. No-one expected these games, and after the collapse of Argonaut, that really should have been it for Croc, but he had another avenue for life – mobile games. I don’t know if it’s fair to say that Croc thrived in mobile games, but his back catalogue expanded from four console games to include another three instalments, thanks to Morpheme. The most recent mainline game, Croc Mobile: Volcanic Panic!, came in 2006, but a further six games, the legally-dubious Croc’s World, would emerge since.
Yet, even now, fans are clamouring for more Croc. After the success of the rebooted Crash Bandicoot and Spyro trilogies, #BringBackCroc began to trend, with Jez San stating that he plans on returning to the character someday. There are not, currently, any firm plans, but given Croc’s incredible ability to survive, I wouldn’t put it past him finally making a comeback. There’s a lot of goodwill for the character, and a game that finally lives up to the series’ potential would be an incredible comeback.