Last modified: June 25th, 2021
Behold, one of many semi-forgotten treasures from the PlayStation 2. Allow me to share with you this strange, quirky game that honestly didn’t do very well commercially, but which that deeply influenced and inspired me throughout my childhood with stunning visuals, clever design, and a completely unique aesthetic that was far more creative than many other things out there.
This is one of the more common screenshots of the game, but it really illustrates just how stunning the colors are in this world:
Set in a only-somewhat-culturally-insensitive fantasy version of ancient Egypt – but one which is also kind of a separate world or reality so it’s easy to get away with being a bit offensive – Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy is a decent fighting game and a bad platforming game. It feels like Jak and Daxter made sweet love to Assassin’s Creed, and Spyro the Dragon was the godfather.
There’s something about the color quality and light diffusion in this game that is vastly superior to many other PS2-era games. I’m sure a lot of this lighting is done manually (there’s no day/night cycle in this game) but the effect is still absolutely stunning. There are even triggered events to add to the atmosphere – a cloud of white birds fly overhead as you approach the bridge, giving you a cinematic welcome to the city. Even better, the atmospheric diffusion makes these pyramids and statues feel enormous. I definitely suspect there’s some Disney World-style eye trickery happening.
The game heavily uses purple and orange as a color contrast to astounding effect:
This is actually captured from the title screen to the game, right before the logo appears. Our camera spins and weaves around and through the castle of Uruk, a setting that’s obviously meant to be the “evil land”, complete with lava and fireballs raining from the sky. But by using that same purple-gold color combination that we see in the city of Abydos above, we still understand that these very different locations are in the same world, and they’re both beautiful in their own way.
It’s really quite incredible how little green there is in this game world – which makes sense, as they’re trying to capture a desert environment. The palette is mostly made of orange and yellows, with red, purple, blue, and only the occasional drop of teal in the shallow parts of the ocean. We usually think of lush jungle plants and flowers as beautiful video game environments, but Sphinx manages to make a lava-scarred desert wasteland stunning.
But how about the character and creature models?
This game’s overall aesthetic treads a fascinating line between beautiful fantasy and horror. Many of the characters are expressive and cartoony, but settings and monsters are grim and sometimes outright frightening.
So this absolute nightmare is one of the very first enemies you encounter, and it does kind of set the bar unfairly high for monster designs. There’s something particularly horrifying to me about an armless torso, also seen in Scrabs from Oddworld, because it’s just so bizarre and inexplicable. This creature almost reminds me of some kind of sci-fi robot, and now I can’t stop thinking about how cool it would be to re-imagine certain robot designs as undead monstrosities composed of chitin and bones instead of steel plates. There’s just so much here to appreciate – are those ribs or weird centipede-like legs? It has a cat skull for a head! Look at those freaky crab legs!
One of the first “monsters” you encounter in the game (though he’s non-aggressive), and sadly only used in ONE small area, we never actually get to see the lower part of the lava toad’s body. The name suggests he would be a big, squat, froggy thing, but that slender dragonlike neck makes me think more of a snake-necked turtle, or even just a completely limbless lava snake of some kind. Honestly, it would have been very easy for them to just call this a “lava dragon”, and I’m actually really glad they went with “toad”, because somehow calling this guy a toad gives him way more delightful personality and a sort of whimsical cuteness.
They did a really good job designing a creature that looks like it resides in lava – his crackled skin looks like partially-cooled magma, and he has an awkward top-heaviness that I love. It’s bizarrely rare to see animals that, like in real life, blend in to their environment.
Also – this is an INTELLIGENT creature! He talks to you in full sentences and even helps you out. Poor guy must not get much intelligent conversation opportunities in Uruk. His talking animation is incredibly fluid and satisfying, his lip movements interspersed with casual flicks of his long serpentine tongue. I love that his eyes are just dark, unblinking pits – they really pop against his vibrant body, and it makes me wonder if he has special eyes that can see in magma.
Just a tiny orange-red scorpion with metal legs and a giant serrated metal knife instead of a stinger. I love it. I’m usually pretty iffy about inorganic body parts but they made it cohesive enough here for me to buy it.
I’ve definitely seen a “land-piranha” monster before, but these tiny goblins are all head and have hilarious tiny chicken feet. And just look at that murderous wide-eyed stare! Piranhas are, incidentally, only native to South America, so it’s kind of a weird choice for a world inspired by ancient northeast Africa – but okay, I get it, this is a fantasy world. Honestly, if they had just called it something other than a piranha I wouldn’t even gripe.
Holy cow, look at this thing’s FACE! It’s like a horrible cardboard skeleton mask merged with rotten black flesh. The way the entire upper jaw is segmented like some kind of separate pop-top lid is so cool to me, and the exaggerated bags under the red eyes. A strange number of monsters in this game have horns, and I can’t help but feel like the designer had WAY cooler and more cohesive ideas for this world and creatures than what we get in the published game.
Okay, where the heck did this design come from? It looks COMPLETELY different from all the other monsters. Also, it looks like a sentient carrot. Maybe a beet. Starkly cartoonish, this weird little impish thing is NOT the usual image of a cyclops, which are typically large and imposing one-eyed humanoids. I wonder if these guys were originally conceived as some kind of mandrake or plant monster? It’s just so bizarre that they have clear leaves for hair and green plantlike limbs. They don’t even sprout out of the ground – they dwell in old temples and shoot lasers from their eye at you. If you’re gonna make these devilish goblins plant parts, you gotta at least make it cohesive with their behavior and environment or it just becomes confusing.
But oh man, look at that SKULL FACE! I’m a huge sucker for skull faces. Okay, so, first of all, armadillos are a Western hemisphere animal. Again, I’ll excuse this because it’s a fantasy world, but it would have been better if they had just called this something else entirely. By the way, this is what a real armadillo skeleton looks like so you can see that this creature’s head-skull is actually more akin to a disturbingly elongated HUMAN SKULL than a natural armadillo’s skull. I have a headcanon that many of this game’s monsters are actually deformed human undead, perhaps from being improperly mummified, or the magically-animated “leftovers” from dead people.
So in case you can’t tell, the back of this creature is split open to reveal a FULL-SIZED HUMAN BRAIN. WHAT. Worse, it appears to have been surgically opened and partially STITCHED BACK TOGETHER. WHAT. Worse-worse, it just has bloody claws instead of normal legs. Worse-worse-worse, it has a round lamprey-mouth and latches on to your head from above, and has to be shaken off. This so clearly evokes “mummification gone wrong” (remember, they would remove the brains and organs to mummify people!) to me, as if this is somehow re-animated human grey matter that wasn’t sealed up or preserved properly and turned into a horrible little monster that sucks the life out of living people.
This game sure likes calling things “spiders” that definitely, definitely are NOT spiders. Raptorial scythe-limbs, a cat skull-like face, and a bizarre mummified beehive-shaped body. Love those exaggerated eye sockets/eyebrows.
This was another creature that existed purely for the museum side-quest, and we never got to see animated in-world. Just a dorky little pink thing, but it’s so cute to see this weird segmented shell on a weird little miscellaneous vertebrate. Is it even a mammal, or maybe a reptile?
All games with world-building could benefit from passive wildlife, and these little dudes would fill that role perfectly.
Many of the game’s enemies fall into the “mummified” category and are described as undead, and there’s clearly magic in this game world, but the rules are vague and unclear. I love that the mummy bird’s face isn’t a beak, but rather a beak-shaped reptilian snout with fangs. We don’t even know if this “bird” has wings bound to its body beneath the bandages, or if it just has those oversized ostrich toes as its only limbs. I love the giant, top-heavy head and the tuft of blue-green feathers sticking out from the bandages like some kind of punk rock hairdo.
Oh, and these guys also only exist in the museum side-quest. No live Mummy Birds to fight in-game.
This game features a Museum where you can see static models of the various monsters – it’s actually one of the side-quests to capture the missing exhibits and help fill the museum. However, the Geb is already there – a static model of an unfinished game enemy. I love this creature and am heartbroken that we never got to see these guys, who are described as peaceful and kindly, lumbering around the hostile lava-desert of Uruk. I love that the Geb doesn’t resemble ANY one animal – it has a weirdly snake/bunny face with tall upright elf ears, and the main body appears to be chitinous segments without any real ribcage. Several of the game’s creatures have natural patterns that resemble tribal symbols or even ankhs, so the “cutie mark” on these guys are either body paint or organic. But man, those colors! I love that rusty-red on the upward-facing back spikes.
Also, the Geb Queen is one of the boss enemies, but she resides in a largely empty area and the boss fight comes out of nowhere – clearly hinting at an unfinished region. I have gripes about the Queen’s design, given that she’s slender and way too human-feminine with kissable lips. Oh, and she’s inexplicably mantis-like, which doesn’t match the rest of the mammalian Geb creatures at all. Hm.
A quick note before we talk about this final monster: It’s really weird how many North African animals or mythological figures they could have created monsters based from – I mean really, no crocodiles? Jackals? Gazelles? I guess Sphinx himself is kind of a lion-man but those would have been a fantastic predator or even boss. And the only snake enemy is bright green and has a cartoon Gex face and looks super dorky.
The final boss is the god Set, typical “bad guy” of Egyptian mythology. Set spends most of the game in the form of a Jafar/Voldemort-type pasty snake-man wearing black goth armor, but transforms suddenly into this extremely cool and abstract lava monster for the final boss battle.
This is a REALLY COOL creature design, but it’s got absolutely no resemblance to mythological Set, who had the head of a mysterious unidentified animal which might be a horse, or maybe an anteater, or maybe a giraffe. Set is also associated with the desert and storms, not magma, but okay. I think they decided that Set is the “bad guy” of Egyptian mythology and elected to make him Satan-like. Hey guys, you don’t have to make everything meet the standards of a white Christan audience… especially when we’re talking about a culture that definitely, definitely isn’t white and Christian. You could have educated people, game!
But here’s what’s cool – his head matches the mysterious “eye of Sauron” spire and laser in the castle of Uruk, suggesting that the castle is modeled after this form of his. That’s cool in-world lore! It’s just not Egyptian mythology.
Most of the NPCs in this game are animal-headed people – maybe, because the normal civilians were already designed like the animal-headed Egyptian gods, they had to make the actual god designs more impressive. But seriously, this is a staggeringly awesome monster design – the abstract “eye of Sauron” head (if it can even be called a head), the lava/fire running up through the chitinous center of the body as if being siphoned up from the magma below.
I feel like this game had a REALLY brilliantly creative concept artist and character designer whose creations were used poorly by an unimaginative greedy producer. There is so much untapped world-building and lore that could be built into this game. Instead the story literally involves a character with no backstory or personality running around and discovering that he’s the “chosen one” by some stone columns with his name written on them. It sucks. The only character with any personality is the Mummy, and he is a lot of fun, but maybe that’s only by comparison to Sphinx.
All-in-all, this is still a really cool game, but it teases at an even richer and more creative world than what we actually see.
Take a look at the full monster bestiary here:
And here’s a walkthrough of the Abydos Museum, where still models of all the monsters and un-released creatures can be seen, and this gives you a sense of how the game looks and feels to play.
So in conclusion, Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy is a halfway decent video game with amazing visual design and creature models, but a completely underwhelming story and a massive gap in worldbuilding and lore. There is clearly a lot of really cool, unfinished content that only makes me desperately crave to see what could have been.
It also very much needs to “shit or get off the pot” in terms of Egyptian mythology – either stay true to actual ancient Egypt and use the super-cool stuff that’s actually part of that culture and religion, or ditch Egypt entirely and create an entirely fantasy world that’s only loosely based on Egypt and ditch the Egyptian names and references.