The title screen for Rugrats The Search for Reptar with the show's curlicue title type as well as some button prompts and Start Game text

I’m Tommy Pickles, and I’m Here to Get Shit Done

You’re all doomed!

Doomed

October 31st, 1998. Perhaps you were a kid. Maybe you were anticipating trick-or-treating that night. Maybe you were, I don’t know, feeding your incessantly beeping Tamagotchis, or trying to master Rock the Cradle on your yo-yo. What other things did ’90s kids do? I should know, I was one. Let me cast my mind back.

In 1998 I was obsessed with Nickelodeon. It didn’t really matter what it was: if it was preceded by an orange splat and a ‘Nick-na-Nick-Nick-na-Nick-Nick-Nick’, I was in. There was something intoxicating about the wobbly, jittery cartoons Nickelodeon produced back then. Hey Arnold. Aaahh!!! Real Monsters. Rocko’s Modern Life. And, of course, the phenomenally popular Rugrats.

Back to Halloween 1998. That was the release date of the incomparable Rugrats: Search for Reptar, the Playstation game that left an indelible imprint on my psyche. Strange, confusing, and insanely frustrating at times, Search for Reptar stands out in my mind almost like a vivid fever dream where you play as Tommy and it’s your job to collect puzzle pieces by completing a series of strange and increasingly dangerous mini games.

I decided it would be a good idea to pick the game up again. It was strange, yes. But what surprised me, as an adult having birthed two children, was the incredible responsibility put on Tommy’s shoulders: because God, does this game put that baby through hell.

What would it be like to be Tommy Pickles, I wonder? Trapped in a nightmarish, sharply polygonal game world where danger and potential death lurk around every corner? I think it would go something like this.

———

October 31st 1998

I’m in my house. It’s barren and a bit, I don’t know, pointy? The grown-ups have gone. It’s just me. I can go into every room, even the bathrooms! I’ve also climbed up and down the stairs alone, which I guess is like a safety hazard or something. But no one’s stopping me, so I did it a few times in a row just for fun.

It’s kinda lonely here. It’s weird and empty and kind of haunting, you know.

Maybe this is like a weird dream or something. I bet that’s it! I just need to properly wake up. Maybe if I find all these strangely levitating Reptar bars and finish that puzzle my Dad gave me earlier, I’ll wake up again and go back to only being mildly neglected. If I –

 

November 1st 1998

I must have got sleepy, because I blacked out.

I found a pack of cookies in the kitchen. Just laying on the ground! Anyway I blinked and Angelica was there and she had this murderous look on her face like she gets when she’s really hungry. So she chased me around the kitchen while I, Chuckie, and Phil and Lil quickly ate them before she could get to them.

Where are the grown-ups?

Angelica looked like she might kill and eat me afterwards, either out of fury or starvation.

Talking about Angelica. She demanded Chuckie take off his glasses and then ordered him to look for us in a game of hide-and-seek. Again, no adults around to control her. She’s outrageous.

Chuckie was really anxious when he found me. He nearly blinded me with his hair, which is way sharper in this dream world than it is in real life, but I didn’t say anything.

Geez. I made it through the day with my eyeballs and sanity intact. Now if I could just – 

 

November 3rd, 1998

Getting kinda annoyed with the whole ‘sudden blackout’ thing. Rammed my head against the wall several times just to see if it would wake me up but it didn’t work. I raced Angelica – again, down the stairs, alone, just flying down the steps with no supervision or fear – and won. Which I found impressive because I’m a baby and she’s four.

Part of me is starting to give up hope of ever waking up again. My bones ache. And my legs are cold. My legs are always so cold. I long for a hug, and milk, and trousers.

 

A screenshot from the opening animation for Rugrats Search for Reptar where the camera is the point of view of one of the parents who has picked up Tommy holding a bottle while the blond girl and redhead and twins stand in the background

November 6th, 1998

I live with the terrible anticipation of blacking out at random. Also, I get a creeping sense of dread whenever I walk by the basement. Something’s down there. I can feel it.

Today, I saw Dad. And then he was gone again, and I played mini golf. Which was actually fun. I forgot for a minute that I’m dreaming. But then we were home again, and the adults were watching a soccer game, and Angelica was back yet again, and this time we decided to keep the chocolate milk from her. I don’t know whether it was fair to not let her have any but I drank so much I nearly threw up afterwards. The others are starting to turn on Angelica. There’s something faintly Lord of the Flies about the joy they took in stealing that milk from her. You know? I can feel something brewing there, and it’s not pleasant.

Now I just want to –

 

November 12th, 1998

Today, I saw the depths of hell.

Grandpa took me and Chuckie to the park and then disappeared, because a goose stole his fake teeth. (I’d say this was unusual but this could probably happen in real life because Grandpa is a fucking liability.) And we had to get through this hedge maze but also not get killed by a goose. And just when I thought it was over, Chuckie was captured. I had to chase him down as he screamed and flailed on the back of the furious goose. And so I jumped on Spike’s back and chased him down.

I’m aching and covered in bruises. Spike was injured several times in the pursuit. Everyone has gone now. I have changed now, forever. I am a grown-up boy, scarred, and trapped in the body of a baby. From now on, I will take no shit. I will simply not comply. I will –

 

November 17th, 1998

The key is to complete the puzzle. It is the driving force that propels me forward through more nightmarish, difficult days. I must complete the puzzle. I must complete the games. Only then will I wake up and be free from this lonely, angular hellscape.

I have done so many things. I sent Angelica on a mission to space. I directed Spike through the sewers to save Cynthia. I watched as Angelica launched Chuckie through the air into a pile of leaves. He sustained several injuries. I patched him up and told him everything would be okay, which was a lie, but Chuckie is fragile and cannot handle the truth. 

There is no rhyme or reason to these activities. There is no point anticipating what they might be, or when the next task will come. My only concern is the puzzle pieces. I embrace the challenge. If it takes one attempt or fifty, I will get the puzzle pieces. I will return home.

A screenshot from Rugrats Search for Reptar with polygonal Tommy facing off against two menacing clown toys in the basement with a bottle meter in the corner

 

November 20th, 1998

I fell through a mirror today and entered a strange upside-down world in which I had to collect a series of balloons. I don’t actually know where I put them when I collected them, but I still got a puzzle piece.

Occasionally, I get a fleeting thought. What happens if I complete the puzzle and I don’t wake up? But I have to push that thought from my mind. That is the kind of thought that can undo a man.

Decided to enter the basement. I am Tommy Pickles, and I am here to get shit done. Nothing can stop me. That’s what I thought, until I was almost killed by a clown robot, menacingly stalking me around the basement saying sinister things like “you will never ever be bored again” and “I’m your friend, mmmggaghhh”’ There was a moment, trapped in the corner, in which I thought death may be the preferable option.

But I defeated him anyway. One piece to go.

 

November 22nd, 1998

The power went out just now.

At first, I froze with terror and stuck my thumb in my mouth. A childish habit. But then I remembered. The refrigerator! That giant, glowing cabinet of goodies. That has light. I could just go downstairs (providing I did not tumble down the stairs to my doom) and open the door.

But then, ghosts! Actual ghosts! Appearing out of nowhere, like a horrible wispy nightmare. And now I’m stuck here, trying to find a battery. I can blast the ghosts with my torch, you see, and they dissolve in the burst of light. There’s probably some kind of metaphor here but I’m too tired to care about that. I just want to get to the refrigerator.

Okay. It’s just there. Just within reach. I’m out of batteries now. I must just run. I’m so close –

I’ve done it! I’ve opened the door! I stand here, bathing in the cool air. I can feel the puzzle piece sliding into place. I will escape this nightmare. I will –

———

Anyway, I imagine it went something like that.

This is where I make a confession: I never actually finished Rugrats: Search for Reptar. In 1998, I was ten years old, and probably more than capable of getting over that last level. But I just lost the motivation. Eventually, the janky graphics and the terrible camera angles got to me and I gave up in frustration. (I also glitched through a wall one time, and that terrified me, because I have a deeply-rooted fear of glitches, so that might be why I was too scared to pick it up again.)

I picked it up again, determined to finish it. But I got a headache from the music and I found the whole thing really frustrating. Once I got past the initial nostalgia burst, I was kind of over it.

What can we take away from this? I’m not sure actually. I came away from it not just with a headache, but with a deep appreciation for the general improvement of video games. And, underneath that slightly haunting I am an adult, what the fuck am I doing with my life feeling that I get quite a lot, a real fondness for those 90s TV shows I spent so much time with. And while Rugrats: Search for Reptar does have a nightmarish quality to it, it does feel like a decent interpretation of the world of Rugrats. You know? The character voices are the same, the house is spot-on, if a little bit desolate, and the games tie in with the actual episodes. It could be worse. It could be so much worse.

Maybe it’s this nostalgia, but, I cannot wait for the release of Rugrats: Adventures in Gameland. If it’s done right, I reckon this will be one of the metaphorical puzzle pieces us tired and nostalgic millennials need to keep us going in a world that feels increasingly strange and nightmarish in itself. Only this time, we’re old enough to play it for hours at a time with no adults telling us to get off screens in case our eyes go square.

———

Megan is a freelance writer based in Somerset, England. She writes about videogames and the meaning of life in her newsletter, Side Quest.

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