Nearing the end of SpongeBob's journey under the sea, you're tasked with guiding a ball through a giant Rube Goldberg machine in Mermaid Man's Lair. Once you activate the machine you have to match the ball’s painstakingly slow speed while using SpongeBob's arsenal of bubble abilities to make sure it doesn’t fall over. It’s a simple task in concept, but trying to execute it is some of the most unfun and Sisyphean gameplay in recent memory. In one section of the puzzle, all you need to do is stand on a button, and that button opens a gate for you to bowl a bubble into so you can progress. The only problem is that during SpongeBob's wind-up animation for bowling, he walks forward. That means you fall off of the button, which closes the gate and prevents you from bowling the bubble where you intended, when you intended. These kinds of gameplay barricades are common, and force you to restart and face your demons again, and again, and again.
SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom - Rehydrated is rarely amusing or challenging, and completing it is an entirely dry experience. It looks nice, and brings back fond memories of a classic cartoon through iconic set pieces and tight voice acting, but its uncomfortable and outdated mechanics make you feel frustratingly trapped and are ultimately outclassed by countless other modern and classic platformers.
SpongeBob is a show built on rapid-fire humour and good pacing, but this game misses that mark. The game is a remake of the 2003 cult classic 3D collect-a-thon platformer of the same name. There were three versions of the original: a 2D platformer, a 3D platformer, and one full of minigames. This version took me around 20 hours to play through the main story and get a bunch of bonus collectibles, and from the movement to the jokes, the whole thing feels slow, with none of the comedic timing that makes the show so beloved.
It starts off when Plankton accidentally creates an army of uncontrollable robots that you have to defeat as a rotation of familiar faces: SpongeBob SquarePants, Patrick Star, and Sandy Cheeks. The main menu is a hub world where you can select stages based on notable SpongeBob locations like the Flying Dutchman's Graveyard, Jellyfish Fields, and Goo Lagoon. Your main objective is collecting Golden Spatulas. They're littered around the world and are used to unlock stages. You can also find Shiny Objects and Socks which can be spent to buy spatulas from Mr. Krabs or Patrick respectively.
Diving into the game is exciting at the beginning. The Greater Bikini Bottom Area is carefully re-imagined into a clean, revitalized style that’s popping with a new paint job. It looks glossy, but you have to wonder how necessary the whole visual update is when the original doesn’t even look bad. It’s got the same voice track as the original, with almost all of the voice actors from the show picking up their roles for the game, directing you around to various objectives and making short conversation. You can tell the voice actors are trying hard to carry the experience, but they can’t do that because they're only given a few canned lines that repeat over and over again outside of the cutscenes. In a sense, Battle for Bikini Bottom - Rehydrated functions as a SpongeBob museum, highlighting the environments that give life to the series. There’s a keen attention to detail in recreating the original's charm, which is done well, but this underwater world's allure falls flat without quality-of-life updates that consider how differently we play today.
After the first few areas, exploring quickly becomes a chore. Some spatulas are thrown at you for doing nothing, and others feel impossible to get due to bad camera angles and unexplained systems that you’re somehow expected to know. Luckily there are a ton of helpful existing forum posts and walkthroughs for the OG game that can guide you through the most annoying parts. But that lack of consideration given to the spatula’s locations is off-putting and causes the game to start dragging within the first few hours.
Movement is just as unpleasant. It’s a constant wrestling match with mechanics that are both restrictive and awkward to a point that they remove your focus from the current objective and makes you want to put the controller down. Moving platforms are slow, and you have to jump on them often. If you miss them you end up bored, sitting there, waiting for the platform again while looking at an idle animation for too long and listening to the same short music loop on repeat. Even if you like the Stephen Hillenburg bangers, this gets annoying fast. Once you ace a moving platform’s weird rhythms, it doesn't mean it's over. Sometimes there are robots placed right at the end of those sequences that are too large for your character to move around properly because of their lack of mobility. It just feels cruel. It feels like your only options are to have SpongeBob try to jump to a place out of bounds and get escorted back to the stage by the giant floating hand named "Hans," or fall to the start.
...this underwater world's allure falls flat without quality of life updates that consider how differently we play today.
There were multiple points in the game where I climbed up to the top of a high structure and a rogue robot knocked me all the way down into water. Ironically, none of the protagonists can swim, so I instantly died and respawned at a checkpoint. Having to start all over is truly deflating. I’m willing to learn how to excel with a game’s controls even if they're difficult to grasp at the start, but with Battle for Bikini Bottom - Rehydrated, it isn’t a matter of understanding the controls and abilities--it's a case of the controls just not working well. It's fine for games to punish players for being bad, but this game just feels constantly punishing for no reason, and it doesn’t seem to notice it or acknowledge it. Sometimes there are different ways to get to golden spatulas, but the game also randomly blocks paths with invisible walls, rendering your attempt to get there useless and telling you that your solution isn’t right. Walking into those walls feels like a slap in the face just for thinking creatively.
The levels revolve around walking to recurring characters around the map, picking up tasks from them, fighting robots, and swapping between two characters to utilize their strengths and complete the area. The loop could be enjoyable, but you can’t run in this game. Or dodge. Or swap characters conveniently. It's grueling. You have to walk around slowly, fight almost every robot in your path (some areas are way too packed with enemies), and frequently move back and forth to Bus Stops that are out of the way 90% of the time for character swaps. The protagonists all have distinct play styles that grant you access to different parts of the maps--if SpongeBob can't jump there, then run over to a Bus Stop so you can swap characters to Sandy and Lasso Glide over. But if you die, good luck keeping your cool. Deaths can feel beyond unfair, restarting your progress to the point that you may end up looking into the dark depths of the loading screen abyss thinking, "Why? Why me?"
The fleeting fun I had during this game happened during the boss fights. They wake you up out of autopilot mode by transforming the game’s monotonous motions into something that demands your attention. Your colossal foes and the tricks up their sleeves cause you to start thinking about your movements carefully. The cutscenes before the start of the fights are genuinely funny, backed by an intense synth tune, and each battle is commentated live by a talking fish. These moments are a bright light in the game and make it feel alive, just for a moment. It’s a delight to have the game make you laugh at these points, because most of the other jokes in the game just don’t hit.
If you find you still have fond feelings about the original SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom, you should watch a speedrun of it or find your old copy and dust off that PS2. This one isn't it. Remasters, ports, and remakes are nice because they make games more accessible to new audiences, and the ones that excel understand that some features from the game's era are antiquated and should be updated or removed. SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom - Rehydrated flops like a fish out of water when it comes to this. It’s a game so focused on emulating and embellishing the original that it doesn’t know the parts of itself that are fun and the parts that aren't. It lost sight of the basic elements that make a collectible platformer enjoyable. This game doesn’t promote curious or keen gameplay, the movement isn't smooth, and gathering collectibles never feels rewarding. Ultimately, the game winds up being an unpleasant nostalgia trip that nobody should pack their bags for.