23/08/2016

ZX SPECTRUM NINJA COVERS

You know what the 1980s had? The ZX Spectrum, Britain’s premier home computer for lovers of very rubbery keyboards. The 1980s also saw ninjas reaching the peak of their pop-culture influence. If only someone had thought to combine the two! Oh wait, they did. Many, many times. There are more ninjas on the ZX Spectrum than in Godfrey Ho’s filmography, and for your viewing pleasure I have assembled a collection of cover art from some of those games. Some of it may be amateurish by today’s standards, but you cannot deny that these are indeed games with ninjas in them. Apart from the ones where you look at them and think to yourself “that’s clearly not a ninja,” I mean. But hey, who are we to judge what a ninja looks like? Have you ever seen a ninja in real life? No, you haven't. That’s kind of the point.
Ninja


Let’s begins, as seems appropriate, with a game simply titled Ninja. I wonder if there was a meeting where the creators sat down to think of a name and were delighted to find that every other ninja game was called “ninja this” and “ninja that” but the name Ninja remained unclaimed. That’s serendipity, that it. As for the cover, it’s not bad at all. It’s got a guy who looks like a ninja on it, which is a good start, even if he did get a bit overambitious when designing his ninja claws. Having a two-for-one sale on spikes, were they? Those things must be forever getting tangled up with each other, and I can only imagine the carnage that would ensue if he stored them in the same pocket as his headphones. A closer look reveals a few other quirks: this one’s totally on me, but at first glance I thought the victims in the bottom left were wearing aprons, making me think that the ninja was terminating the staff of his local B&Q. Then there’s the fist at the bottom, positioned in a way that gives the impression that the ninja keeps it tucked in his trousers until the moment is right for it to strike, swiftly and without mercy, from out of his open fly.

Ninja Commando


Poor old Ninja Commando, his ninja face-mask doesn’t fit quite right and it must be very unpleasant to be running around doing your ninja business with the constant sensation that your mask’s about to slip over the end of your nose. I did try to decipher the writing on his headband, but I only got as far as tentatively identifying the first character as the number seven, so if you’ve got any better suggestions let me know otherwise I’m going to assume he’s been a ninja for seven years and his co-workers got him a special headband to celebrate. Maybe it’ll give him the confidence to defeat that much larger red ninja.

Ninja Massacre


Well, no cover art is ever going to live up to that title, is it? It’s relatively action-packed, I suppose, but I’m not sure I’d describe it as a massacre. A ruckus, possible. Ninja Fracas at the outside. The most interesting thing about it is the relaxed demeanour of the man in the background who’s being stabbed in the face. That’s the unbendable will that martial arts training gives you.

Ninja Master


In which Conan the Barbarian meets his most dangerous foe: an out-of-scale ninja who catches him in a deadly ambush. Makes sense to me, if you can take down Conan then you’ve truly earned the title of Ninja Master. He clearly knows what he’s doing, he’s using a flying kick to disarm his opponent while the barbarian’s distracted by Cinderella’s castle.


If that ninja looks familiar to you, it might be because you’ve seen the poster for the “classic” Golan-Globus movie Enter the Ninja. Conan does not appear in that movie, so sadly this cover is as close as we’re ever likely to get to seeing Conan vs. the Ninja Clan.

Bionic Ninja


Hey, I’d recognise that midriff anywhere: that’s RoboCop’s abdomen! Okay, RoboCop’s abdomen with a big scoop taken out of it, but still. I’m not sure how stealthy a mechanical ninja is going to be, but on the plus side he can manufacture his own clouds of disorienting smoke. Oh, and according to the back of the case his name is Ninjabot 1. Make sure you wear your plastic hood when you go out to slay your enemies, Ninjabot 1. It’s forecast rain.

BMX Ninja



I think I’ve mentioned this before somewhere else on the internet, but that is clearly a samurai and not a ninja. Samurai fight by a code of honour, and would never stoop to knocking a child off a skateboard, not even if that skateboard happens to be the ugliest thing ever crafted by human hands. The full-face helmet, combined with the samurai deelyboppers, (I assume that’s the technical term,) kinda make the BMX Ninja look like a Gundam, don’t you think? I know they put out a new Gundam series every two minutes – gotta keep those shelves stocked with toy robots – so here’s my pitch for the next iteration: Gundams on Bicycles. That’s it, everything else is the same but all the mechs ride around on appropriately-sized bicycles. It might make some of the fight sequences a little awkward, but any problems can be glossed over by having one of the characters pop a wheelie.

Ninja Scooter Simulator


Here’s one I’ve definitely written about before, in the article about the game itself, but I couldn’t not include it on this list because c’mon, it’s called Ninja Scooter Simulator. That’s the kind of thing that just makes you glad humanity bothered to evolve its way out of the primordial ooze. All the salient points about this one are covered in the earlier article, but I’m still bemused that the ninja appears to be wearing loafers and I still have no idea how that back wheel is supposed to be affixed to the scooter. Oh, and the ninja seems to be trying to cast a magical spell on his sword. Look, buddy, I’m sure you have just as many questions as the rest of us but I don’t think you’re going to find the answers in your sword. Did I mention that you don’t actually play as a ninja in this game? Incredible.

Oriental Hero


One of the problems with wearing the all-concealing black attire of the ninja is that you don’t get much sun. Even I’ve got more of a tan than this ninja, and I shun the daylight like a vampire with meningitis. He has a defiant stance, this ninja, in that he’s defying you not to look at his exposed nipple. That’s his plan, you get hypnotised by the nipple and then bam, he throws his pet snake in your face. The old Sneaky Snake Nip-Whip, the ultimate sure-killing technique.

Shinobi


Time for some not-terrible artwork with the Spectrum port of Sega’s classic Shinobi, and apart from the logo making me crave liquorice there’s nothing wrong with this one. All right, so Joe Musashi looks less like he’s framed by the setting sun and more like he’s about to be turned to paste by an oncoming train, but aside from that it’s good. It’ll give you a sympathetic knee ache if you look at it for too long, though.

Ninja Hamster


Admittedly I’m not a zoologist or anything but that isn’t a hamster. I don’t know what it is, but hamster is right out. A cracked-out Ewok, possibly. Whatever it is, it’s shaved its limbs and is taking a rare pleasure in slapping that mouse. I’m getting conflicting messages about how much the Ninja Hamster’s enemies really want him dead, too: the mouse is wearing boxing gloves, presumably because he thought this was all going to be a bit of harmless exercise, but the crocodile is carrying a  mace. Personally, I think the crocodile has the right idea. The Ninja Hamster needs to be dealt with as harshly as possible. Just look at his face, he’s way too into the violence. Sure, he’s knocking people out with unarmed combat now, but give it a few months and he’ll be having all the woodland critters lined up and shot.

International Ninja Rabbits


Having played the Commodore 64 version of Ninja Rabbits, I can assure you that “Microvalue” is a very appropriate label for it to be released on.
There’s nothing that says a ninja can’t also learn karate – everyone should have a hobby, after all – but it’s annoying me more than I’d like to admit that the star of International Ninja Rabbits is wearing a karate gi and not a ninja outfit. Not even a mask! I guess he wants to make damn sure everyone knows he’s a ninja rabbit and not a common-or-garden human ninja. It makes a real mockery of that "ninja combat" blurb, because he's obviously using karate, but more importantly whoever designed this cover managed to make the promise of "ninja combat" look boring. You wouldn't think such a thing could even be possible, but here we are.

Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles


The glut of animal-themed ninjas is surely the result of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ runaway success, although ironically the word “ninja” was scrubbed from their name and replaced with “hero” in the UK, as “ninja” was deemed to be inherently violent and liable to drive British kids to silently assassinate their friends in the school playground. Don’t worry, they’re the same four radical turtle bros you know and love. Leonardo still leads, Donatello continues in his suspiciously vague role of “doing machines” and Michelangelo still sits splay-legged with his crotch on full display for all the world to see. What, were you expecting decorum? He grew up in a sewer.

Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles: The Coin-Op


There’s another TMNT game. It’s a decent approximation of the cartoon’s style, although the turtles’ grimacing faces make it clear that skateboarding through an open sewer pipe is not the tubular thrill-ride they thought it would be, but they can’t lose face by admitting it was a bad idea.

Last Ninja 2


Here’s the grammatically confusing Last Ninja 2, and when you are drawing a large number two for your cover art, at what point do you have to concede that it’s gotten away from you a little and your two is now too big? Okay, okay, so I’ll admit that this is a decent cover for a game about a shogun who travels through time and conquers New York, even if it doesn’t feel particularly ninja-y. Why, those could just as easily be the eyes of a mad wizard, vengeful ghost of a mafia boss or any other entity that might want to take over Manhattan. It needs a headband with some unrelated Japanese symbols on it, maybe a few shurikens. Hey, that’s a good point – all these ninja covers and not a single throwing star between them! It’s probably for the best given the, ahem, unpolished nature of most of this artwork. Any shurikens involved would probably have looked as though they’d been crafted using the same production method we used as kids: cutting rough star shapes out of Coke cans using a pair of rusty tin snips. It's a technique that leaves you with shurikens that don't fly very well and won't stick in things when thrown, but handling them will slice up your fingers like you approached Freddy Krueger for an ill-advised high five.

Ninja Remix


There are so many ninjas on the Spectrum that we’ve reached a point of ninjas within ninjas. The big ninja seems tense or at least very warm, the sweat pouring down his nose serving as a good example of why you shouldn’t keep your head completely covered all the time. The little ninja in his eye? Not so much. That ninja’s having the time of their life. They’re not doing a flying kick, they’re leaping into the air and clicking their heels together at the sheer joy of being a ninja. My best guess is that they’ve just seen their careers advisor from high school. The shadowy world of espionage in feudal Japan is difficult to break into, is it, Mr. Johnson? Well, who needs a back-up plan now!?

Legend of Kage


It might seem like a bit of a stretch, but the game’s blurb describes Kage as “a young ninja” and besides, there’s no way I was going to let that outfit slide. Who knew they had mankinis back then? Kage is out to rescue a kidnapped princess (as though there’s any other kind of princess) and he must have been given this task when the rest of the royal family saw him and said “look at what this weirdo is wearing, he must be pretty bloody brave.” Technically it’s a pretty good cover, with some dynamic cartoon action and a man in the background who appears to be carrying a carton of french fries on each ear, but I just can’t get past Kage’s clothes. It’s not even the near nudity and prospect for some truly bizarre tan lines, it’s that it looks so damned uncomfortable. You’re a ninja, Kage. Your uniform is essentially pyjamas. I would start seeing that snuggliness as a perk of the job, if I were you.

The Ninja Warriors


The only thing “incredible but true” about that tagline is that it’s truly, incredibly inaccurate. I don’t even understand what part of The Ninja Warriors is supposed to be true. That ninja warriors once existed? Because I think even that is up for debate, or at least the idea that real ninjas did a lot of warrior-ing is. They certainly didn’t fight cyborgs in a futuristic dictatorship, which is what happens in The Ninja Warriors. I feel the composition of this piece is rather unfair on the red ninja, too, especially considering she’s the player one character of Ninja Warriors. For a ninja it’s probably a relief to know your face is obscured, but that’s what the masks are for.

Shadow Dancer


You know, I always thought wolves had necks, but it seems I was mistaken. Apparently they’re all neck. Thanks for clearing that up, Shadow Dancer. Also, it’s nice to see Lawrence of Arabia’s still getting work.

Shadow Warriors


Or Ninja Gaiden to you and me, and here’s a cover included because a) it’s good and b) it’s incredibly “of its time.” There’s no way you could place that artwork at any other period than the late eighties / early nineties. Bright colours, a ruddy great ninja, and even graffiti-style lettering that adorned thousands of market-stall t-shirts during my youth. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, even without checking, those aren’t real Japanese characters. However, the Japanese should definitely adopt them as the pictograms for “gnarly” and “x-treme.”

Saboteur!


Finally for today, my absolute favourite ninja cover on the ZX Spectrum with Saboteur, a cover that has most certainly earned that exclamation mark in the title. Where can you start with this masterpiece? The title's sort of accurate, I guess. If you're trying to sabotage something, then murdering everyone in a three-mile radius will probably get the job done. Or how about the fact that the ninja has upgraded from primitive weapons like the sword to a fully-loaded MAC-10? He’s even put a silencer on it, as a gesture towards his ninja heritage. Then there’s his face, an expression of complete sensory overload, the look of a man who was pushed to the limit by the loud noises and flashing lights until he broke and began operating on pure instinct like a puppy during a fireworks show. No, the very best thing about it is that the ninja isn’t even looking at the man he’s kicking in the head. He’s a busy guy, he doesn’t have time to stare deeply into the eyes of each person whose life he snuffs out. I get the impression that the saboteur is very easily distracted, and should probably consult his doctor about potential ADD treatments.

There we go then, a hefty chunk – but not all – of the ninja-related covers of the ZX Spectrum. What did we learn from this look at the ancient shadow arts? That ninjas never use shurikens and they like to stand out in the open and fight, mostly, putting ninjas in the same category as professional boxers and half the clientèle of my hometown’s pubs at kicking out time. What a mysterious breed they are.

19/08/2016

BATTLANTIS (ARCADE)

Now we know what happened to the fabled city of Atlantis: an aggressive species of giant sentient bats invaded and claimed the city for their own, the former Atlanteans telling people that their home had sunk beneath the waves to avoid the embarrassment of explaining to people they were defeated by bats. Or the title of today’s game is a portmanteau of “battle” and “Atlantis,” if you’re really so afraid to access the wondrous powers of your imagination. Yes, it’s Konami’s 1987 arcade shooter Battlantis!


I’ll be honest, when I first looked at this title screen I thought those tendrils were the angel’s legs and they were rubbing their crotches all over the logo. Also, it looks like I’m already too late to save Atlantis. That rather takes the pressure off our hero, doesn’t it?


Battlantis doesn’t offer the player much in terms of plot. The title implies there’s some kind of battle involving Atlantis, and a bit of poking around informed me that the hero’s name is Cripeuss III and he’s out to stop the “Boss Enemy” Asmodeus. Aside from that, the game does give you a little information about the game’s enemies if you leave the attract mode scrolling for a while, which is something I always like to see. If I’m going to be killing these guys by the dozen then I should at least know their names, right?


So the game begins, but what kind of game is it? Well, it’s Space Invaders, with a pinch of Galaga. A single-screen shooter in which the player shoots rows of monsters as they descend towards their position. That seems like a very strange game to be making in 1987: Space Invaders was almost a decade old by that point, and at the speed videogame trends bloom and die it might as well have come out at the same time as the Magna Carta. Not one to thrill the player with its novelty, then, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be a bad game. Maybe Konami have managed to put a fresh twist on the formula? Well, it doesn’t start out feeling that way. It starts out feeling, you know, like Space Invaders. You move left and right along the bottom of the screen, using your slow-firing weapon to pick off the monsters one at a time. There are a couple of barricades in front of you, barricades that can be destroyed by projectiles, that provide either cover or an irritating obstruction depending on the current monster situation. The fantasy setting makes it look a bit different, at least, although in this case the fantasy also includes modern firearms because if you look closely at Cripeuss’ sprite he appears to be carrying a double-barrelled shotgun. Now I’m disappointed that Battlantis isn’t an Army of Darkness tie-in. It would take very little effort to change Cripeuss in Ash and the monsters into Deadites, so someone please get on that. I can’t offer you money for your efforts, just the knowledge that you’re making the world a groovier place.


Shoot all the monsters and a boss of sorts appears, a slightly larger monster carrying a shield that requires multiple shots to destroy. Thankfully the miniboss tends to stand still, throwing easily-dodged Olympic torches at the player. Thus the fight devolves into little more than tapping the fire button and hearing the incredibly weedy plink-plink-plink sound effect of your bullets hitting his shield, occasionally sidestepping the boss’ attacks.


Stage two: The Devil’s Whack-A-Mole. No wonder Atlantis sank, it’s full of holes! Holes filled with winged demons, who attack by flying directly at Cripeuss rather than moving in the regimented downward movements of a traditional Space Invader. They only take one shot to kill, so there’s that, but they’re also quite fast and there’s a veritable swarm of the bloody things.


This leads me to the biggest problem with Battlantis, and that’s the utterly ruthless difficulty level. Now, it’s a well-documented fact (documented by my win/loss record on Street Fighter V, mostly) that I’m not great at videogames, and arcade games are usually more difficult than their console counterparts. However, I don’t often struggle to get past the second stage of any game, but it took me more than a few tries to clear this one. The standard one-hit-kills are in place, and when coupled with a basic weapon with all destructive power of a paper bag filled with the sneezes of tiny kittens, Battlantis is really stacking the odds against the player. Enemies are fast and numerous, many of them fire projectiles and what’s worse is that when they reach the bottom of the screen they can climb up to your castle’s battlements. I know the enemies reaching the bottom of the screen is a pretty standard way to lose a life in games like this, but it feels so much harsher in Battlantis because they’re right there at the side of you and you can’t do anything to stop them because apparently Cripeuss has such severe back problems that he can’t even rotate his goddamn torso. There is a weapon that shoots projectiles sideways, but to use it you have to collect two power-ups at once. That doesn’t sound too bad, but all the power-ups in this game are timed; you don’t get to keep them until you lose a life, you get to keep them for about ten seconds. You can’t hold the button down for continuous fire, so you're in a race to see whether your will to continue or your thumb gives up first. Oh, and you’re limited to five continues by default, so you can’t even credit-feed your way through the game. Just bear the punishing difficulty level in mind for the rest of the article, because I’m guessing it coloured my opinion of Battlantis. See if you can figure out where I gave up and started using cheats.


Stage three has a proper boss in it, and frankly it’s a relief to know that I don’t have to worry about him reaching my castle and attacking from the side. Cripeuss’ complete lack of peripheral vision is usually a real problem, but not against the game's big bosses, and I can concentrate on shooting this thing while avoiding the triple goo-balls it slings around the place. It’s just a shame that the boss isn’t more interesting to look at – its most notable features are the two massive thumb-prints on its shoulders, as though it was made of clay and the sculptor didn’t bother smoothing it off.


Battlantis isn’t much to look at all over, really. Lots of flat colours and basic animations, with few of the enemies having much character. That said, looking closer at the little guys in the red robes, they appear to be carrying rocket launchers. Shoulder-mounted anti-vehicle weaponry is a decent substitute for character, if you ask me.


I take it back. That’s too many rocket launchers. I’m only one man, one man with a double-barrelled shotgun that I very rarely get to power-up into a large crossbow that can pierce through multiple opponents. This is all too much for me.


Ah, this is more like it. Finally, Battlantis throws me a bone and gives me a break from the otherwise relentless tide of death by pitting me against a frog. A really angry-lookin’ frog, sure, but it’s still just a frog.


Then the frog gets hit by lightning and mutates into a monstrous behemoth of a frog, revealing a deep lack of understanding about how frogs work. Put fifty-thousand volts through a frog and all you’re going to get is a very unpleasant mess and an aroma that you’ll never forget. Please note I’m not speaking from experience here. How great would it be if that’s what happened in the game, though? The frog hops out, gets zapped and pops like an overfilled water balloon, Cripeuss moves on to the next stage with a slightly bemused look on his face.


And so Battlantis continues, with Cripeuss defending a castle in a land that I thought was covered in soapy lather at first, perhaps formed when the soap factories of ancient Atlantis began to sink. On closer inspection, I think it’s supposed to be snow. I also collected a power-up that lets Cripeuss throw extremely ugly-looking bottles at the monsters. The bottles explode when they land, allowing you to take multiple enemies out at once, assuming they're kind enough to stand in a clump. As well as this and the slightly more powerful crossbow weapon, you can also collect as speed-up icon and once that makes you invincible. The invincibility power provides the only time in the game you don’t feel like the “before” model from a fifties bodybuilding advert, because you can run into the enemies that scrabble up your parapet, if you’ll excuse the phrasing, to defeat them.


Oh look, a dragon. A dragon that spits pizzas! You don’t see that every day. Unless you work at Domino’s and that’s the dark secret to their success.


There’s a stage set in space, by the way. This sudden change in altitude is never explained. How would you explain it, anyway? The ancient Atlanteans really were spacemen and their city did not sink into the ocean but rather flew back into the cosmos that spawned them? That’s ridiculous, I’m sure no-one could believe that.


Battlantis’ level of difficulty continues to do unfortunate things to my blood pressure, but in the interests of full reportage I should say that at least there’s a consistency to it. The hit detection is a more than a little generous in favour of the enemies, but it’s not unpredictable. One thing that’ll make your life easier is learning the order that the monsters attack in, because there’s a surprising amount of... not strategy, exactly, but needing to know what comes next. In many of the stages, if you don’t defeat the enemies in the right order, you’ll be too far away to get across and deal with the next batch before they reach your castle, so learning attack patterns is almost mandatory if for some reason you’re desperate to see the end of the game. Speaking of which…


Here’s the final boss – Asmodeus himself, one assumes – and he’s a big, ugly lump. He feels very Konami-ish, that’s for sure: I could easily imagine him appearing in a Contra game. In fact, I’m not sure he didn’t. He also reminds me a bit of Smash TV’s bosses, especially because you can blow his eyeballs out. It’s a simple battle in concept – destroy the fleshy sacs on the side so they can’t spawn projectiles, pop his eyeballs and then finish the job by shooting his exposed brain. Is there any greater physical flaw than “an exposed brain”? Testicles so long and pendulous you risk standing on them whenever you walk, maybe, but that’s a weakness that unlikely to appear in a Konami arcade game, so instead it’s the brainmeats that take the punishment. A bloody good job, too: this fight is long enough, I dread to think how long it’d have dragged on if Asmodeus was in possession of a fully-formed and eminently sensible skull.
I get the impression that it’s a very difficult fight. Asmodeus puts a lot of projectiles into the air, including ghosts that can land on your castle. I can see how that would be a challenge. You know, if I wasn’t already deep into the “screw this, time for cheats” portion of my playthrough.


With Asmodeus defeated and Atlantis free to fall into the ocean in its own sweet time, Battlantis draws to a close. Your reward for suffering though it is a rather cute picture of the development team, which is nice. I’m not sure why they’re pictured kneeling in a flowerbed, but it goes to show that bizarre decisions at Konami are not a recent development.
There’s something else to note here. A message that read “more stages to go.” That’s right, Battlantis has a second loop. It’s fair to say I felt a lot of trepidation in hitting the start button, but I managed to summon up the courage somehow.


The backgrounds are the same as before but somehow, against all the odds, Konami managed to make the game even harder. More enemies, tougher enemies, multiple minibosses to be fought at the same time: grinding through it is an exercise in masochism that I would not recommend. It’s not as though there are any new bosses or anything.


There is a stage where the monsters are arranged in a swastika. Okay, so it’s the manjji symbol rather than a Nazi thing, but it still took me a back the first time I saw it. I expected the monsters to be evil, but not, like, Nazi evil.
Anyway, I played all the way through Battlantis again. You get a slightly different ending, and when I say “slightly” I mean in the way that having nine of your fingers ripped off in a terrible combine harvester accident is slightly better than having all your fingers ripped off. Would you like to see this one extra screen, the sum total of your reward for suffering through Battlantis two more times than anyone ever should?


Thanks, but I knew that already.
Battlantis, then. A game that’s not quite bad enough to hate, but one which feels lazily composed and with a difficulty level that sucks all the fun out of proceedings with the efficiency of your parents standing in the doorway and giving thumbs-up during your first romantic encounter. There’s nothing to thrill the imagination here, folks, and that means it’s not worth slogging through the hugely-outdated-even-in-1987 gameplay. On the plus side, the art on the arcade flyer is pretty rad, to use the parlance of the time.


Straight from a Dungeons and Dragons expansion, this one, with some great monster illustrations. However, things get a bit weird if you look at Cripeuss for too long. At first glance he appears to be wearing nothing but golden underpants that leave absolutely no room for any external genitalia, but on closer inspection you can see folds near his, erm, intersection. So, he’s either wearing trousers that match his skin tone or he has a very unfortunate skin condition. Then there’s his cape. Nothing wrong with the cape itself, it’s the fact that he’s attached it by clamping it directly onto his pecs that troubles me. He also has a shield. I wish I’d had a bloody shield in the game. Anything to make Battlantis a little easier would have helped to make it more enjoyable, but as it stands we’re left with the videogame equivalent of assembling flat-pack furniture in the dark: fiddly, not much fun and unnecessarily difficult.

17/08/2016

CRAZZY CLOWNZ (ARCADE)

No, I haven’t broken the Z key on my keyboard, today’s game really is called Crazzy Clownz. Released in 2001 by Leisure and Allied Industries – a company name that just screams fun – Crazzy Clownz is a ticket-dispensing arcade machine featuring clownz of varying degrees of crazziness. Whether the extra Zs are supposed to denote heightened levels of craziness or a game so boring it’ll put you to sleep is yet to be revealed, although I’ve got a strong guess about which one of those is the case. Something that definitely won’t put you to sleep, and indeed may eliminate the very concept of sleep from your psyche, is the title screen.


For pity’s sake, clown, you’ve got company. Put a shirt on or something. Notice that this clown has no eyelids, presumably having sliced them off with a razor so he can see all things at once, never resting for a moment. He looks bad enough as a still image, but just wait until you get a load of him in motion.


Dear Lord, that’s not pleasant. Someone sat down and made that, you know. Human effort was expended on its creation. Mankind has wrought some truly bizarre things during the course of history – the Sphinx, a financial crash based on tulips, the career of Jedward – and this clown is right up there with the most baffling. Why has he replaced his hair with a crystalline candy floss substitute? Why does he only have one tooth? Has he been eating his own rock-candy hair, and that’s why he’s only got one tooth? There are no answers to these questions, of course. Normally this is where I’d describe how sinister this clown is, but honestly he’s so ugly that I just feel sorry for him. That’s not to say there’s nothing sinister about Crazzy Clownz, mind you: I managed to find a sales brochure for the game and two of its selling points are listed as “design that attracts children” and “luring circus theme music,” so if you’re looking for a hook for your horror novel then there you go.


Here’s the gameplay. It’s your standard Breakout / Arkanoid clone with a circus twist: the bricks are balloons, the paddle is a trampoline and the ball is replaced by a shirtless clown in hideous trousers, a phrase that also works as my plan to make the sport of golf more interesting. The balloons have points on them, and the more points you get the more tickets the machine will give you at the end, because Crazzy Clownz is a redemption game. You know the kind, it gives you tickets that can then be exchanged for prizes if you take them to a small booth staffed by a bored teenager with a name like Ricky or Shannon. The gameplay is just about okay, in an ultra-basic kind of way, and you’ve got some degree of control over where the clown flies depending on which part of the trampoline he lands on. You don’t lose a life if the clown misses the trampoline or anything, you just lose a bit of time as you wait for him to recover from shattering his coccyx and climbing back into action. The most notable thing about the gameplay is that you control the trampoline with a physical steering wheel for no real reason that I can discern. If you told me the developers had a surplus of small steering wheels kicking around the office, I’d have no trouble believing you.


The only other thing to pay attention to are the special “TICKETS” balloons. Each one’s got a letter of the word “tickets” written on it, and if you collect all the letters you get a jackpot bonus and some extra tickets. I’m sorry I don’t have anything more interesting to say about this aspect of Crazzy Clownz.


I thought I’d done okay, but my efforts (my efforts to stay awake, mostly) only netted me a measly three tickets. What the hell can I get with three tickets, beside a look of contempt from Ricky in the prize booth? One of those plastic moustaches that you clip to your septum in a manner that’s both uncomfortable and unhygienic? Half of a pencil eraser shaped like an ice cream? You know what, forget this – I’m going back in and I’m not coming out until I’ve collected all the “TICKETS” balloons and won the jackpot.


It turns out I had to cheat by giving myself some extra time in order to win the jackpot. Funnily enough, the final letter always seems to appear just as the timer runs out. There’s a random element to the placement of the letters and I’m sure it’s set up in such a way that every now and then they appear at a rate that allows you to collect them all, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to play Crazzy Clownz long enough for that mythical moment to roll around. Not because the gameplay is boring and unchanging, although it is, and not because I have better things to do with my time, because let’s be honest, I don’t, but because the game plays “Entrance of the Gladiators” on a constant loop even during the never-more-inaccurately-named attract mode. I could feel the music making me a worse person with every iteration. Any further exposure, and I’d have been finding out what happens when you forego “guilty” or “not guilty” and enter a plea of “clown music” during a murder trial.


There, I won the jackpot. Now I can afford a light-up yo-yo that doesn’t light up or an oversized novelty pencil. I am satiated.
And there you have it, that’s the entirety of Crazzy Clownz. A mediocre Breakout knock-off with only one stage, a repellent coating of clownosity and the vague feeling that you’re being cheated while you’re playing it. Why did I even bother writing about it? It’s an equal mix between believing that all games should be remembered even if they’re ugly, joyless nonentities, a strange fascination with the not-really-videogames nature of redemption machines and the chance to say “look at this clown, he’s ugly as balls.” I’m sure I’ll write about a “proper” videogame next time, but I had fun delving into the existence of these crazzy clownz and sending my spellchecker into fits in the process. I did learn some things about Leisure and Allied Industries, the creators of this game: they’re based in south-east Asia and Australia, which explains why the clown in the game has an Australian accent. They operate a chain of family fun zone places, referred to on their website by the almost heart-stoppingly exciting title of “video amusement facilities,” called Timezone. They also put out another ticket game called Ripper Ribbit. I will never be playing that game, because it cannot possibly live up to my mental image of a cartoon frog stalking his victims through the foggy streets of Victorian London.

11/08/2016

DEAL OR NO DEAL (GAME BOY ADVANCE)

It is with great... hang on, what’s the opposite of excitement? Indifference? Okay, it is with great indifference that I present for your reading pleasure an article about Gravity-I’s 2007 Game Boy Advance version of Deal or No Deal! Wait, where are you going?

Oh, you decided to stick around, did you? Because I wouldn’t have blamed you if you’d left. Well, here you are and yes, it’s a Game Boy Advance recreation of the world’s premier television show about opening boxes and anonymous phone calls. There’s a two player mode! Imagine the incredible odds you’ve have to overcome to find another person with a Game Boy Advance and a copy of Deal or No Deal, never mind a person who met those criteria and was willing to play Deal or No Deal. You’ve got more chance of finding Lord Lucan in your underwear drawer.


Here’s the game’s title screen, but who the hell is this man? He looks like a nightclub hypnotist with a string of restraining orders and unpaid bar tabs. The villain from a bootleg James Bond movie with a title like Target: Silverfire. A man whose YouTube channel is a fifty/fifty split between the clear intellectual superiority of atheism and pick-up artist techniques. A harsh assessment, maybe, and unfair accusations to level at someone I’ve never met, but I’d avoid him if he tried to talk to me in a bar.
Okay, so I looked it up and his name is Howie Mandel and he hosts the US version of Deal or No Deal. He seems like a decent enough bloke. He’s got an extreme irrational fear of germs, apparently to the extent that he built another house next to his house that he can live in when one of his family is sick. It’s a bloody good job for him that he’s a wealthy celebrity then, isn’t it? Otherwise he’d have to build some kind of decontamination tent out of Tesco carrier bags and packing twine. The reason I didn’t recognise Howie Mandel is that the UK version of Deal or No Deal is presented by bearded nutjob Noel Edmonds, a cosmic-ordering peddler of “magnets that cure cancer” pseudoscience bullshit and the man responsible for inflicting Mr. Blobby on an unsuspecting world. I would take Mandel over Edmonds any day of the week.


The first thing you see when you start the game is this lengthy (and unskippable) text crawl which reminds the player that, amongst other things, they’re playing a game and that no real money is involved. Well, that’s one award Deal or No Deal has in the bag: Most Patronising Videogame. It does make you wonder whether the developers have had trouble with this situation before, though. Maybe they knocked out a Who Wants to be a Millionaire game and people kept turning up at their offices with photocopies of their GBA screens and demands for a massive cheque.


You know when I said Howie Mandel looks like a Bond villain? Yeah. A villain who wants revenge on 007 for supergluing his fingers together. “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to fetch me a bottle of nail polish remover.”


Howie then unleashes his rather unnerving army of faceless mannequins, each of them carrying a numbered case. He refers to them as his “26 better halves,” which by my calculations means there are thirteen and a half Howie Mandels out there. That seems like too many Mandels for one planet to sustain.


Now I have to pick a case. I went for number thirteen in defiance of superstition, and because I felt sorry for lady number thirteen because she doesn’t quite fit on the screen. Deal or No Deal is a good illustration of the differences between the cultures of the USA and Britain: the US version has shiny metal cases presented by a group of glamorous women, where as in the British Deal or No Deal the boxes are plain red cubes controlled by bog-standard members of the public. We are but a simple island nation, after all.


So, how does Deal or No Deal work, then? Essentially, it’s a guessing game. Each case contains a cash value, and your goal is to leave with as much money as possible. What happens is that you pick some cases to open, and the cash values contained within are eliminated from the game. After a while, the mysterious banker will call you on a special telephone and make you an offer, based on the values still in play. So, you want to eliminate the lowest values first, pushing up the average of the remaining values so that the banker offers you a more lucrative deal. Or you can just open all the cases and stick with what’s in the case you chose if you’re feeling especially brave. Showing the lack of imagination that’s plagued me for my entire life, I elected to start with case number one.


Well, that couldn’t have gone much better, could it? The lowest possible value, eliminated with my first pick. The banker must be bricking it.


And so on it goes, with the player picking six boxes to open in the first round and enjoying – sorry, enduring – the case-opening animation every time. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the person responsible for this game’s graphics did not work as hard as perhaps they might have. I mean, it’s a videogame, you’re freed from the restrictions of television and limited only by your imagination! Instead of a case, you could have placed the number inside the abdomen of a giant space lizard and had an astro-barbarian hack his way to the number with his laser-axe. Okay, that’s just a first draft, but you get the idea. If I’d wanted to see this many cases being opened I’d have applied for a job at airport security.


The first round is over, and it went rather well. All the biggest numbers are still in play, so I’m in line for a good result. Time to hear the banker’s offer, then.


That’s one heck of a telephone, arriving in 2007 after a time-portal opened up during the filming of a Duran Duran video. I would unashamedly have that telephone in my house.


The banker’s offer was a derisory $34,000. What’s worse, the game actually does that bloody “pause for dramatic effect” thing that TV shows do in these situations. Well screw you, Deal or No Deal, because I’m playing this on an emulator with a fast-forward feature, so I win this round. As much as anyone who’s playing a GBA version of Deal or No Deal can be considered a winner, anyway.


Obviously I didn’t take the deal, so that means another few cases to open before the banker makes a new offer, the cycle repeating until my incredible box-choosing skills meant I’d played just about the perfect game of Deal or No Deal. Trust me, I’ve got my legal team going through that disclaimer at the start with a fine-toothed comb, searching for a way that I can leverage my talent for guessing into cold, hard cash.


In the end, I made a deal for $330,000. Turns out my box only contained two hundred bucks. How thrilling.
That’s about it for the main “Deal or No Deal” game mode. My conclusions? It’s about as accurate a videogame version of the game show as you could hope for. It plays Deal or No Deal. If you want to play Deal or No Deal for non-fabuolous imaginary cash prizes while sitting on the toilet then this is a perfectly acceptable way to capture that experience – although I’m sure there must be a mobile phone version, that’d probably be easier these days. At least you’d be able to see the screen properly, something certainly not guaranteed when using a GBA.
As for the non-gameplay stuff, it’s a mixed bag. One impressive feature is that there’s a lot of digitised speech from Howie Mandel crammed into the cartridge, and it’s very crisp and easy to hear. You could argue it’s easy to get that much speech in there when the game itself must surely take up next to no space, but still. As for the graphics… well, you’ve seen them. They’re pretty horrendous, grainier than a year’s subscription to Wheat Farmers Weekly magazine and lacking any kind of flair. Particularly challenging on the eye is Mandel’s 3D model, especially in motion.


There is something genuinely unnerving about the way his facial features slide around on his egg-like head, as though his expressions are formed by a highly-coordinated colony of amoebas that are always on the move.


The fun doesn’t stop there, though! There are two other game modes included, in the incredibly unlikely event that you somehow become bored with the main game. The first is the Vault Game, the goal of which is to crack the combination to said vault. You pick three numbers – represented, of course, by the cases from the main game – and you’re then told whether each number was higher or lower than the correct combination. You use this information to make another, more informed guess, until you arrive at the correct code to open the vault. The amount of money you win (and, just to make this perfectly clear, this is not real money and the developers will not give you any real money) decreases with each unsuccessful guess. Is it any fun? As a tiny lockpicking minigame in a different, better game it would be okay, but as a standalone thing it’ll keep you interested on a timescale usually only used by scientists tracking subatomic particle interactions.


The other minigame is High or Low. Open a case, then guess whether the next case's cash value will be higher or lower than the previous number. It’s one hell of an achievement to keep making games that are each more boring than the last considered the level they started at, but Deal or No Deal is extraordinary in that regard. You don’t even get a special congratulations screen if you manage to guess correctly for every single case in High or Low, something which I managed to do on my very first attempt. I put this down to spending so long trying to scrounge up cash in God Hand via the video poker game.


I don’t think I’ve ever written about a game with so little need for a concluding paragraph, but I’d feel weird not including one, so here it is. Deal or No Deal is a game that perfectly recreates the mechanics of the game show but without any of the tension and potential schadenfreude that comes from seeing someone gamble away the chance at winning a life-changing sum of money. If you like Deal or No Deal enough for that concept to excite you then hey, this is the game for you, although I will point out you can recreate the game yourself at home by using folded bits of paper and having someone shout a number at you every now and then. It also gets extra points for not including Noel Edmonds.

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