You don’t need a game review to point out the value the video game industry places on nostalgia. Over the past decade and a half, publishers like Devolver Digital have made a huge splash by putting out retro-inspired titles and games with pixel art graphics.
Despite appearances, though, many of these games have forward-thinking ideas underneath the surface. It’s exceedingly rare to play a brand-new game that feels right out of another era of game design. But that’s exactly what SpongeBob SquarePants: The Cosmic Shake feels like.
The Cosmic Shake is a spiritual sequel to 2020’s Battle for Bikini Bottom: Rehydrated, an expanded remake of the 2003 console platformer. While The Cosmic Shake shares many elements with Battle for Bikini Bottom, a key difference in the new game is that you only play as SpongeBob. Instead of switching between characters, you unlock new costumes for SpongeBob as you progress through the themed levels.
The nautical nonsense begins when SpongeBob and Patrick are given three magic wishes by the mysterious mermaid fortune-teller Kassandra. Once all three wishes are granted, though, Bikini Bottom spirals into cosmic chaos, and the town is nearly destroyed. As SpongeBob, you must travel via portal to different worlds where the residents and Bikini Bottom landmarks have been whisked away. Patrick has been transformed into a balloon, which winds up being a clever plot device that allows the dynamic of the show’s main duo to be omnipresent.
Each of these worlds mashes up a location or episode from SpongeBob’s history with a different fantastical theme. You’ll travel to Pirate Goo Lagoon, Halloween Rock Bottom, and five other worlds over the course of this linear 8-10 hour adventure. The simplicity is comforting, yet antiquated.
The one part of The Cosmic Shake that feels the most modern is its use of the show’s original voice cast. These iconic voices add a level of legitimacy to the world and allow most of the jokes to land. Even though it’s ultimately a budget game at $40, this casting re-emphasizes that The Cosmic Shake is the new, big SpongeBob game — for better and worse.
If this all sounds wonderful and exactly what you want from a SpongeBob game, you’re probably in for a decent time. When Battle for Bikini Bottom was rehydrated by Purple Lamp, it was a divisive release that relied on how far your nostalgia could stretch. Despite being an entirely new game, your enjoyment of The Cosmic Shake will be entirely dependent on how much fondness you have for the 3D platformers of your childhood.
While I can’t speak to the game’s other versions, playing on Nintendo Switch, I experienced distractingly inconsistent frame rates. Halloween Rock Bottom, the best and most open-ended of the levels, had a lot of trouble on Nintendo’s hardware due to the space’s size. In general, The Cosmic Shake was relatively bug-free, but these performance issues were hard to ignore, given it has the scope and fidelity of a remastered PS2 game.
There is a joy to the simplicity of that, there’s no doubt. Exploring the creatively decorated worlds as different iterations of the world’s favorite sponge is a breeze. The galactic romp takes you to and from all your favorite characters as SpongeBob rescues them via boss battles and platforming puzzles.
The combat itself is weightless and mundane. There are a handful of enemies you’ll fight and be taught very explicitly how to defeat (it is ostensibly a game for children), but by and large, these encounters are sparse and meaningless. Half-baked stealth encounters add variety but lack any challenge even — I suspect — for younger gamers. While SpongeBob’s move-set is limited, it does expand with each level. However, there is only one combat power-up that ever makes a significant difference.
You get the flying karate kick early on. My first thought was that speedrunners are going to have a field day with this thing. Once you’re airborne, you can target most enemies with this kick and zip right to them. It has a ridiculous range and often feels like it breaks encounters. But, unlike much of the rest of SpongeBob SquarePants: The Cosmic Shake, the karate kick is pure, unadulterated fun.
In its dedication to the retro feel, The Cosmic Shake frequently stumbles into antiquity. SpongeBob barks the same five or six voice lines throughout the entire game, despite it growing tired after the first world. The character walks a knife’s edge already, and while I have been a SpongeBob fan since childhood, it’s easy for an extended session with Tom Kenny’s iconic squeak to become headache-inducing.
My biggest issue, though, is that while The Cosmic Shake places an emphasis on SpongeBob’s costumes, the way you earn them is backwards. Throughout the game, you pick up jellies, of which there is an ample supply. You can also collect gold coins, but there is only a handful of those per level, and many of them you can’t find until you replay a stage. These coins help you increase your star rank, which in turn earns you four costumes you can unlock for 500 jellies each.
There are seven rank tiers, but each one doubles the coin requirement. It wasn’t long before I was halfway into the game and needed eight coins for the next four costumes. In the time it took me to gain those, I collected thousands of jellies and had reached the final boss.
The forced repeated content isn’t necessarily the issue. Bikini Bottom residents give you quests that add additional collectibles to each world, and revisiting them allows you to open up paths that were previously ability-gated. What is so frustrating is that a majority of the game’s collectibles are saved for the post-game, therefore so are the costumes.
The way Cosmic Shake throttles progression is unsatisfying and ultimately discouraging. It stretches out the length of the game, sure, but the fun in replaying the game should be having a reason to wear all the outfits you’ve spent time unlocking. By design, there are many costumes you won’t get until you’ve sopped up nearly all of the content. Placing a focus on fashion should encourage player expression. Instead, The Cosmic Shake treats it like just another carrot on a stick.
SpongeBob SquarePants: The Cosmic Shake Review — The Bottom Line
- Lovingly crafted worlds and costumes that reference the TV show’s best moments.
- Original voice cast is charming (for the most part).
- The Karate Kick is completely OP, and I love it.
- Slow costume progression and a broken jelly economy.
- Combat feels pretty weightless.
- SpongeBob has five catchphrases that he repeats ad nauseam.
- Performance issues and distractingly inconsistent frame rates.
SpongeBob SquarePants: The Cosmic Shake attempts to be a lovingly rendered throwback to the licensed 3D platformers of the early 2000s. It’s hard to argue that it fails at on any of those counts. As a modern game, though, it feels antiquated in ways that hold it back. Not everything needs to reach for the stars, but The Cosmic Shake would have benefited from some fresher ideas.
[Note: THQ Nordic provided the copy of SpongeBob SquarePants: The Cosmic Shake used for this review. Featured image via THQ Nordic.]