ClayFighter: The Muddy Fighting Game Series of the 90s

In the era of Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat, a new challenger stepped up and it was filled with stop-motion clay models.

When Capcom made waves with Street Fighter II in 1991, various companies tried to get in on the fighting game craze. The genre was still fresh, so the possibilities seemed endless. Some games tried to simply copy Street Fighter II and hoped it would be enough. Some tried to be Street Fighter II, but improve on the formula. Others tried to find a gimmick or two that really made them stand out.

Mortal Kombat, for all its faults, succeeded because it was different enough from Street Fighter II while still, at its core, hitting the same notes. With the blood, digitized actors, different controls, and B-movie atmosphere, it was more derivative than a clone. Midway found its novelty take and reaped the rewards. Few other games were as successful.

Visual Concepts and Interplay Entertainment decided that maybe they could get in on the action by going the other direction. If Mortal Kombat was Street Fighter II gone darker, bloodier, and more realistic, then why not a fighting game that was lighter and sillier? Something with a unique and colorful look where you could use its cartoonish design as a selling point to parents who might not approve of spine-ripping or head-biting.

But it needed more of a gimmick to stand out. If Street Fighter II and its wannabes featured drawn sprites and Mortal Kombat (and its impending wannabes) featured filmed actors, what was left? The animation studio Danger Productions was brought in to help make a fighter that featured stop-motion animation revolving around clay fighters.

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And so, ClayFighter was born.

It took nearly a year of development, what with stop-motion animation being a total pain in the ass, but it got done. Going against the grain of the other fighting games of the time, ClayFighter bypassed the whole arcade debut business and instead first appeared on SNES in November 1993. With eight goofy, clay-based combatants and an afterthought of a final boss, the game certainly had the personality needed for people to take notice.

Despite being goofy, it wasn’t really a parody of fighting games in any way. Not like Divekick would become decades later. Instead, it was just a bizarre nonsense game featuring snowmen and clowns trading punches in the name of supremacy.

As the story goes, a meteor made entirely of radioactive clay crashed into Earth, right in the middle of Muddville’s local circus. The clay mutagen spread across the circus, transforming people and objects into clay-based lifeforms. The diverse pile of warriors went to war over who would become king (or queen) of the circus.

Our cast includes…

Bad Mr. Frosty: An evil snowman. Frosty has a pretty great design where instead of having stick arms, his arms are made up of snowballs and he has sticks for fingers. Frosty would go on to become the mascot of the series and is one of the only two characters to be in every ClayFighter game.

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Taffy: A pile of taffy turned into a stretchy being.

Blue Suede Goo: An overweight Elvis impersonator with a razor-sharp pompadour. Original name from the beta version of the game was Elvis the Impersonator.

Bonker: A surprisingly jacked clown.

Tiny: A simple-minded wrestler/strongman who for some reason isn’t a grappler in-game. Originally was going to be called Crusher.

Ickybod Clay: A ghost with a pumpkin head and sheet body, who is obsessed with scaring everyone. Originally was going to be called Ghost Guy.

Helga: An overweight opera singer Viking lady because…circus. I don’t know. Originally was going to be called Val.

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Blob: The remaining clay goo was drawn together and became its own sentient life form. A pretty rad shapeshifter, Blob, is in the same company as Bad Mr. Frosty as a character in every incarnation of the series.

Then there’s N. Boss, who’s only playable in versus mode via code. He’s a circle of orbs with two eyes whose only attacks are a throw and use of every projectile. He’s a bit unexplained and half-baked, but he’s still the best boss battle the trilogy’s given us.

Aesthetically, the game is great. Outside of the final boss, the characters are well-designed, look really good, and are unique with no Ryu/Ken overlap. The soundtrack is seriously great for SNES, including an opening theme song with actual lyrics. The backgrounds are…there. Nothing special, but nothing terrible. There’s even a wonderful Gordon Solie-style announcer doing intros and outros, burrowing a permanent memory of “BAD MISTAH FROSTY! WINS DA BATTLE!” into the brains of many. Chances are, if you played the game in the 90s, you can hear that line clearly in your head.

They even have pre-round introductions by the creatures from Claymates, another clay-based game Interplay was releasing around that time.

Unfortunately, while ClayFighter had a brilliant atmosphere, it was still just a floaty Street Fighter clone without anything to add to the genre. The only newish thing added in the game was the KO system. Super attacks weren’t commonplace yet, so what they had was this thing where, if you hit your opponent consecutively enough times, an arrow saying “KO!” would point at them. During that time, if you were to hit a non-projectile special attack unblocked, it would basically blast them across the stage.

But that was it. Despite all of its delightful fluff, it was still just a lesser version of Street Fighter II. Fun for what it was, but still a mediocre game with a nice package.

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Plus it always bugged me that 1-player mode always made you go through the exact same path of opponents, including having to fight Taffy, Bonker, and Tiny multiple times.

Speaking of Street Fighter, Interplay went pretty all-out on advertising the game because it felt like there were like half a dozen different magazine ads for it. Several of them were about making fun of the competition. One ad had Bad Mr. Frosty standing over the crushed remains of Chun-Li and Blanka, SNES Street Fighter II’s cover girl and boy. One ad was done in the style of the original Mortal Kombat magazine ad, only with the ClayFighter cast shown off, the tagline edited, and the dragon logo replaced with silhouettes of Blue Suede Goo and Taffy.

Then one ad had Taffy wrapped around Fuuma and Janne from World Heroes. Um… World Heroes, huh? That’s the fighting game that needs to be taken down a peg? That was #3 on the hit list? I know things were slim pickings back in the early 90s, but really? If you say so, Interplay.

I am rather shocked that Interplay never tried to expand the brand in any way. It seems nearly every fighting game had something else to its name during that era. Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, and Darkstalkers got their own cartoons while the likes of Tekken, Virtua Fighter, Eternal Champions, and Killer Instinct got their own comic books. Hell, Primal Rage of all games not only had a comic miniseries, but it had its own prose novel!

(Note to self: pitch Primal Rage retrospective article to editor)

In 1994, ClayFighter was ported to the Genesis and it wasn’t exactly a lateral move. The graphics and sound design each took a pretty big hit. Most notable was the drop in quality for the theme song, which couldn’t even include the lyrics.

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Around that time, they released an updated version for SNES called ClayFighter: Tournament Edition. It was only available to rent from Blockbuster Video, which is just as well, as there was nothing in there that would make you want to buy the game over again if you already had the original. They fixed some glitches, added a tournament mode (featuring single or double elimination), allowed you to choose different colors, gave you options to alter the speed, added a new intro to explain the premise, and put in a couple of new stages.

Blue Suede Goo’s Tournament Edition background is outright horrifying, by the way.

ClayFighter was enough of a success to warrant a sequel, and Interplay put together ClayFighter 2: Judgment Clay. It came out in January 1995, just over a year after the release of the first game. They were able to complete the game in about half the time as the original and boy did it show.

The graphics are very different, feeling more like something out of Gumby. For the most part, it lacks the charm of the original’s look, especially with how the sprites are mostly smaller and less detailed. You look at something like Hoppy’s win pose and you really can’t tell that he’s even a clay model from the lack of shading. He looks sort of hand-drawn.

The backgrounds are especially bad, outside of the craziness that is Blob’s stage with a giant Blob looming in the background, on his way to destroy a city. The rest are huge eyesores, like Bad Mr. Frosty’s, which looks like a grainy photo of Santa’s Village, or Mount Mushmore, which is a gross-looking depiction of Mount Rushmore featuring characters who didn’t return for the sequel. The absolute worst is Kangoo’s, which is a boxing ring watched over by a bunch of nightmarish, giant kangaroos in suits, two of which appear to be kangaroo versions of Don King and Jack Nicholson.

The music is incredibly generic and would be fine for something like Double Dragon, but is completely misused here.

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As the story goes, the nefarious Dr. Kiln (mentioned in the manual, but in no form shown in the game) took the meteorite from the first game and spread its contents across the rest of Muddville. Now everybody’s fighting it out to see who runs the town.

Once again, we only have eight guys to choose from (sort of). The roster includes…

Bad Mr. Frosty: Was reformed via prison and traded his top hat for a backwards baseball cap. Why? Because it’s the goddamn 90s and backwards baseball caps are the coolest shit ever! That’s why! Now let’s go skateboarding and cross our arms while pointing our elbows as high as we can!

Blob: Also remade from scratch, Blob actually looks a bit better this time around. Between his appearance and his kickass background, he’s like the outlier of the game. Go figure.

Tiny: The canon winner of the last game because it’s always the least interesting character they go with. The Liu Kang Effect. Tiny was supposedly added in last minute and they just reused his sprites from the first game. It makes him stand out like a sore thumb due to the difference in quality.

Kangoo: A boxing kangaroo with a baby kangaroo in her pouch.

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Goo Goo: A giant baby with a rattle-mace. Runs with a gang of law-breaking babies.

Nana Man: A talking banana with a Caribbean accent.

Hoppy: A massive rabbit made out to be a hybrid of Stallone and Schwarzenegger types. Is really the only new design worth a damn.

Octohead: An octopus with attacks that utilize his many arms. Doesn’t actually look that bad.

Originally, there was going to be a gorilla in a skirt named Lucy, but she was cut due to time restraints. Similarly, there’s speculation that Ickybod Clay was going to come back—possibly reusing his old sprites—but that didn’t happen for similar reasons.

There was also no final boss character. Instead, the roster of eight each came with a different doppelganger. They were mostly the same, only with different color schemes, different stances, and a couple altered attacks. Bad Mr. Frosty’s evil double was Ice, Nana Man’s was Dr. Peelgood, Hoppy’s was Sarge, etc. All of them were unlockable.

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While the game was certainly faster than the original, it also felt a little too weighed down, and the controls weren’t the most responsive out there. Plus, once again, there was nothing new or unique to the sequel. Even the “KO!” system was gone.

ClayFighter 2: Judgment Clay was the forgotten entry in the series, overshadowed by both the original it failed to surpass and the high-profile follow-up that fell on its face.

The third ClayFighter was certainly the most ambitious project. Originally called ClayFighter III: Chaos on Claymodoand later ClayFighter Extreme, it was announced in 1995 as a launch title for Panasonic’s M2 console. That console was then cancelled and the game became a project for Nintendo 64 and PlayStation. The PlayStation version was dropped, and with the habit of adding “64” to every other Nintendo 64 title, ClayFighter Extreme became ClayFighter 63 1/3.

The character designs would be more like the first game than the second, but with tons more detail added in. Fighters would now have super attacks and “Claytalities.” Loads of cartoon voice actors would be brought aboard, like Dan Castellaneta, Jim Cummings, Rob Paulsen, and Frank Welker. Other Interplay characters would guest-star, giving it a roster of a whopping 17 characters. One magazine even hinted to the possibility of Saturday Night Live’s Mr. Bill as being a secret character (which wasn’t the case, but I was pumped regardless).

I want to shift gears a little, if I may. Rather than talk about ClayFighter 63 1/3 like a documentary narrator, I want to get a little personal and talk about it from my point of view.

From the moment this game was announced, I was completely stoked. I loved fighting games and had every intention of getting my hands on the Nintendo 64. A ClayFighter for Nintendo 64 sounded like my jam to the nth degree, and while that might sound ridiculous knowing what we know now, you have to remember that this was a different time.

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To get all “back in my day,” the internet back in the mid-90s wasn’t quite the powerhouse it is now. If you wanted real news on video games, you had to get your hands on EGMGame Pro, and the propaganda-filled Nintendo Power. Month after month, I would look through them for any information on the game. What I got, from time to time, were some beautiful screenshots of what it was supposed to look like in-game. I fell for a trap, ultimately, because these were stills shown in high resolution. Higher resolution than the game itself was capable of, at least, but I wouldn’t have known that at the time.

Hell, the only footage I was able to see of the game involved some work: going on IGN’s page via the school computer and downloading a file for 45 minutes, only to see ten grainy seconds of Blob whiffing a super. This didn’t really give me much to go on.

I semi-regularly checked the Interplay website, which had its own page for the game, but it was rarely ever updated. When they did update, it was usually to point out that the release date was being pushed back again and again. The game I was chomping at the bit to play was constantly being delayed.

In the era of internet web rings, there were plenty of websites about Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat (SO MANY). I was only able to find one site about ClayFighter 63 1/3. It was a primitive page filled with any news the guy behind it could find, and he was just as excited as I was.

Then, on October 23, 1997, the game finally released. I had to go to stupid school, but I was at least able to check the computer there to see that one guy’s ClayFighter site. The top post was him saying that he’d just bought the game and was going to play it for the next several hours. After a couple hours, I checked back to see his thoughts.

The site was replaced with something along the lines of: “The game is shit. I’m closing the site.”

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Oh no. Oh, sweet Jesus, no.

I got the game that day, and needless to say, it was underwhelming as hell. It was murky-looking, the animation suffered from the lack of frames, the gameplay was slow and tedious, the presentation was embarrassing, and so on. If it didn’t already feel unfinished, it was confirmed by the fact that they dropped five whole characters. One of which was on the box art, which only featured four characters to begin with!

The third chapter of clay lore centers around Dr. Kiln’s plot for world domination. He takes over Klaymodo Island along with some fellow bad guys, but wouldn’t you know it, some of the more heroic ClayFighter characters stumble upon the island as part of a vacation. In total, the game has twelve characters.

Bad Mr. Frosty: Has his top hat back and now comes off as louder and more grave. Is played up as the main hero now.

Blob: Redesigned with a constant People’s Eyebrow thing going on. Talks like a dimwitted slob, sounding exactly like Infraggable Krunk from Dexter’s Lab.

Dr. Kiln: A mad scientist with a German accent. The manual talks about his hand getting infected with clay and Kiln having to cut it off. Not only is this an Evil Dead 2 reference, but it’s also background for yet another character who wasn’t in the final game.

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Houngan: A sassy voodoo priest who fights with voodoo dolls, a tribal mask, and a rubber chicken. Easily the best-looking character in the game.

Ickybod Clay: The ghost returns to haunt the island. Is redesigned with stalk-like hands. Coincidentally, his backstory claims he was “exiled” from the previous game, referencing how he was almost included.

Taffy: Very similar to his old self, though now he has a candy gun.

Sumo Santa: Is Santa Claus. As a sumo wrestler. Coincidentally, every single ClayFighter game has something in there about Bad Mr. Frosty going to war with Santa in some way. It’s like that’s the only joke they know.

T-Hoppy: Being the only Judgment Clay character worth bringing back, Hoppy returns as a half-bunny/half-cyborg. He’s been brainwashed/reprogrammed by Kiln.

Bonker: Instead of being your basic clown who looks like he’s been hitting the gym, Bonker is a frumpy, short, sad sack using a poodle named Fifi as a weapon.

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Kung Pow: A Chinese martial artist type who is also a chef. Is such a racist caricature that even the cast of Punch Out think he’s going too far.

Earthworm Jim: The big-name platform hero shows up, voiced by the same guy who played him on the cartoon. It’s a pretty good novelty.

Boogerman: A less-known platform hero, the booger/fart/burp-based superhero joins the fray and is played up as Earthworm Jim’s rival.

The usual announcer was replaced by none other than boxing announcer Michael Buffer, who was selling his voice all over at that time, what with his appearances in the Ready 2 Rumble games and World Championship Wrestling. Going with the theme of the game, he’d constantly announce, “LET’S GET READY TO CRUMBLE!

There were a couple gimmicks in the game that added to the atmosphere, but were mostly pointless. Stuff like how instead of blood, characters would bleed pieces of clay and objects related to them. Like Sumo Santa would bleed wrapped gifts or Blob would have burgers spill out of him. Just as unnecessary was the ability to travel through the 3D backgrounds and knock your opponents through doors, causing the fight to spill into a new location.

Meanwhile, footage of the beta version of the game makes it apparent that the backgrounds were originally your average 2D fighting game style. They were more detailed and honestly looked a lot better, making the 3D backgrounds seem like a bad decision. Then again, I guess they just wanted it to seem more cutting edge, since 3D was in.

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Then, of course, the Claytalities. Everyone had 2-4 of them and they were 90% stupid. Usually by-the-numbers finishers that involved cutting opponents in half, squashing them, squeezing them, or knocking them into the distance.

That said, there were still a couple good Claytalities mixed in there. Blob would devour his opponent, turn into a bomb, and explode, killing both himself and his opponent. Houngan would go ham on his voodoo doll, outright mauling his opponent in response. T-Hoppy would dress like a magician and transform his opponent into a copy of himself, where they would proceed to insult each other until the loser is gunned down.

Oh, and there’s also one where Sumo Santa accidentally felches his victim and is forced to crap them out. Hey, remember when that first installment was created so parents could buy their kids an all-ages game?

At least, animation problems aside, the characters did have personality. The sculpted models looked expressive and the voice actors definitely improved on earlier takes of the characters.

Unfortunately, it all felt like they tried too hard to have more than they were able to handle and compromises left Interplay with an unfinished product that was okay at best.

Still, the developers got to redeem themselves at least a little bit. In the middle of 1998, they released ClayFighter: Sculptor’s Cut. It was unavailable to purchase and could only be rented at Blockbuster, making it one of the rarest Nintendo 64 games for collectors. No, really. You can get some serious cash for this game on eBay.

The update goes to show how much better a game can feel if the atmosphere is on point. In terms of gameplay, everything is mostly the same, but there are now vibrant menus and hand-drawn character select images and pre-fight boss dialogue and so on. The whole package comes off as far less rinky-dink and feels like the cartoon it’s supposed to be.

Speaking of which, it also comes with an intro with a theme song that sounds straight out of something from Saturday morning.

Ugh. I love that song, but to this day I can’t understand what’s being said after the first “CLAY! FIGHTER!” Is it “One-to-one they set the stage?” Damn it all…

The big thing in all of this is that they brought in four of the characters cut from the earlier game.

Lockjaw: Dr. Kiln’s mangy dog with a huge set of teeth.

Lady Liberty: A buff, human-sized Statue of Liberty, out to save T-Hoppy from being mind-controlled.

The Zappa Yow Yow Boys: A trio of bratty native children who fight by standing on top of one another. They want all the visiting clay warriors to get the hell off their island.

High Five: Dr. Kiln’s giant, dismembered hand. Unfortunately, despite the game feeling more complete, High Five is anything but, only featuring one super attack and having zero Claytalities.

Even with the added characters, there’s still one missing: Hobo Cop. Clad in dirty, torn clothes and makeshift armor made from garbage cans, Hobo Cop was going to be an alcoholic vigilante. Here’s what Nintendo Power’s old article on ClayFighter 63 1/3 had to say on him back when he was intended to exist.

Hobo Cop spent too many years on the force trying to forget the horrors of his job. Now he’s a staggering, swaying embarrassment to the badge. But even the lowest clay fighter has his dreams and his pride. Can Hobo Cop rise to the occasion and help Frosty bring Kiln to justice?

Nintendo decided that, no, Hobo Cop could certainly NOT rise to the occasion because he wasn’t going to be in any of their games due to being too offensive. So there’s your line, folks. Kung Pow is okay. Sumo Santa turning his opponents into explosive diarrhea is okay. Hobo Cop is going too far.

Outside of a few screenshots, the only known footage of Hobo Cop in action is this YouTube video of a prototype of the PlayStation version of ClayFighter Extreme.

After Sculptor’s Cut hit Blockbuster, the ClayFighter property essentially died. The Nintendo 64 wasn’t exactly the best friend to Interplay, considering 1999’s Earthworm Jim 3D killed that property as well.

Since then, there’s been minor bumps in terms of revivals, but nothing that’s really stuck. In 2009, they announced a re-release of Sculptor’s Cut for WiiWare and DSiWare under the title ClayFighter: Call of Putty. Despite a few screenshots released, there was little in terms of updates and the project was eventually cancelled.

More recently, there was a trailer in 2015 that suggested the return of Earthworm Jim, but instead promised the return of the fighting franchise I just spent far too many words rambling about:

Using unflattering quotes from reviews is one of those jokes that never fails to make me smile.

From the little information given about the new ClayFighter game, it’s supposed to feature about twenty characters, meaning it would be an actual new game and not a re-release. Regardless, there’s been no information since, nor has there been a single image, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this “2016 release” is as DOA as that fighting game with the big boobs.

You know, SoulCalibur.

In this nostalgia-loving world we live in, it’s hard to say if we’ll ever see a new ClayFighter or if we even should. Stop-motion animation in video games has gone the way of the dinosaur (especially the Primal Rage dinosaur, which is also stop-motion), and I don’t really know if all that effort is worth it. Even if you’re bypassing that novelty altogether to just focus on the humor and cartoony characters, is anyone going to really care?

But hey, we live in a world where Killer Instinct was able to make a comeback, so who knows?

Gavin Jasper wouldn’t mind a Smash Bros. knockoff for a ClayFighter revival. That could work. Follow Gavin on Twitter!