13/09/2011

MARKO'S MAGIC FOOTBALL (SNES)

Some things work together even if it seems like they shouldn't, like chocolate-covered pretzels. Sometimes when two disparate items are forced together the results are disastrous, like that time with the babies and the flamethrowers. Have you ever wondered which category a combination of jumping on floating platforms and kicking a ball around would fall into? Good news if you have: while I can't hope to resolve the serious mental issues you clearly suffer from, I can at least tell you about Domark's 1995 dribble-em-up Marko's Magic Football.

I hope you're not expecting wizards and dragons and shit, because the only "magic" in this title is the ability to summon a soccer ball from some spectral otherworld. Before we get to that though, let's wallow in the mire that is MMF's plot.

Colonel Brown, owner of Sterling Toys, is an evil man with an evil plan. I mean, I'm not one to make snap judgments but he is wearing a top hat and has facial hair, a combination which hasn't been a sign of honour and honesty since the day Abraham Lincoln was shot.
Anyway, in addition to making dolls and train sets, Colonel Brown has a sideline in creating mutagenic toxins of frightening power.

Ironically, this was the result Hasbro were aiming for when they created Play-Doh. The Colonel's vague plan revolves around taking over the small Northern town of North Sterlington using an army of mutated sludge monsters. At no point is it mentioned precisely how an army of mutated sludge monsters will help him take over, but I presume it'd be through them taking various clerical jobs on the Borough Council and then renegotiating parking permits and granting his favourite pub a 24-hour liquor license, that sort of thing. What I'm saying is Marko's Magic Football is almost certainly about a man trying to get elected Mayor of a small industrial town in the north of England.

Our hero Marko, who for some reason was loitering in a darkened alleyway, spies a nefarious ooze-pouring villain. Oh, and some ooze gets on his football and it becomes magic. I think. This bit isn't very well explained: in fact, it sort of feels like MMF is a sequel to a game that doesn't actually (as far as I know) exists and Marko has already had some adventures with his magic balls that we are not privy to. Long story short, Marko, who is happy with the current democratically-elected council members, decides that only he and his powerful balls can stop Brown's plan.

And apparently he's going to stop him by popping a cap in his ass, if that pose is anything to go by.

Here's Marko at the start of his quest. Doesn't it just scream "90's platformer"? Actually, the thing that strikes me most about MMF is how European, and in particular British, it looks. The subject matter, the cartoon nature of the graphics, the font used for your score - it all adds up to a very British look, and I was surprised to find out that MMF didn't start out as an Amiga game. Marko himself looks as though he could have been taken straight from the pages of The Beano, and I'm sure you won't be surprised to learn that the developers Domark were a British outfit who at one time employed Games Workshop founder Ian Livingstone as a designer. He didn't work on this, though: I guess he was too busy fleecing wargamers with expensive miniatures by then.

The game itself is a platformer of the "move-left-to-right" variety, so any hopes for a hidden gem of dazzlingly originality go right out the window fairly early on. However, MMF does have one gimmick; if you haven't figured out what it is yet, I hope for your sake that's because you can't read and are just enjoying the pretty screenshots because otherwise your lack of brainpower is probably terminal.

He's got a football! It's magic, or ooze-coated, or mutated or some such bullshit. It serves as Marko's weapon throughout the game, although by far it’s most useful application is as a springy platform. The idea is that you press Y to kick the ball ahead of yourself, varying the strength of your kick by holding down the button. If you lose your ball, you can press X to call it back to you or Y to summon a new one from the foetid depths of a dimension where only balls can exist. There are a few other moves as well; you can do keepy-uppies to either perform a bicycle-kick attack or an upwards header, you can walk on top of the ball like some bladder-based lumberjack and you can dive onto the floor which seems pretty fucking appropriate given the "footballer" motif.

That all sounds fine, or at least is sounds like a generic mid-nineties console platformers. Marko's' main problem, and it's a pretty insurmountable one, are the dreadful controls. Firstly Domark decided to ignore the conventions set by almost every other platformer and have the A button as jump and B as run, a switch that takes a lot of getting used to. Then there's Marko's actual movement, a baffling bundle of jerky physics that conspire to suck all the fun from the game. Kicking the ball seems to take forever. I know, I know, it uses a lot of Marko's dark soul energy to summon a ball from the howling void but excuses like that are no use when you keep getting hit because you can't summon a ball quickly enough to hit the enemy that's fight in front of you. Then there's the jumping. A standard jump launches you pretty high but with almost no horizontal movement, leading to you miss a great many jumps that seem like they should be easy. If you run and jump you can move further horizontally, but here's the weird thing: you don't need to be running to do a running jump. As long as you're holding the run button, Marko can launch himself from a standing start as though he's got a Soyuz rocket shoved down his kecks. This essentially means that you have to press two buttons to perform a normal, useful jump. Combine this with Marko's overall slowness, clumsiness and large, enemy-magnet size and you've got a recipe for dull and frustrating game. And now that's established, let's play this damn thing!

You start off in Suburbia avoiding cartoon cats and seagulls, collecting stars and... and, uh... hang on, who is that enchanting woman?

Why, she's beautiful!
Bafflingly, the electric-pink Neanderthal lady is actually the mid-stage continue point, sort of a megacephalic version of Sonic the Hedgehog's ding-dong lollipop things. Creepiest of all, she actually marks your position by taking a photograph of you. MMF is spreading a dangerous lesson here, namely that you can go to a small industrial town in the north of England and take photos of young boys kicking a football around without someone beating you to death with a pool cue.

More dangerous than the continue marker are these hired mercenaries who are trying to kill in a hail of gunfire. I was a little dismissive of Colonel Brown and his plans earlier, but he was committed enough that he hired some men to murder a child in broad daylight. That's dedication for you... unless, of course, he didn't hire these cold-blooded killers and they're after Marko for some other, unexplored reason. What did you do, Marko?

What did you do!?
Once you reach the end of the stage, usually marked by a contraption with tubes and funnels sticking out of it called the "recycling machine", you get a password; head off to the next stage and... well, that's it really. It is not a game that's crammed with originality.

Occasionally the location changes - as you can see, we've gone from suburbia to the sewers. There are some adorable ghosts in the sewers, as well as spike pits and disturbing women with cameras. Are they different women, a terrifying army of giant-headed clones? Or is it just one woman, stalking Marko wherever he goes, following him into the sewers and taking photographs amidst the darkness and filth? I don't know. I don't want to know.

The sewers are less fun than the streets, would you believe. Because you're in a series of small rooms and narrow pipes, Marko's lack of grace becomes ever more apparent as you repeatedly smash your head against the ceiling. The developers also tried to jazz the stage up with some fancy foreground effects, like the pipe pictured above that adds to the underground ambience by completely obscuring your vision. Smooth work, Domark.

The Industrial area sees Colonel Brown recruiting more henchmen to his child-murdering cause, with the addition of flamethrower-wielding lunatics and stereotypical builders who hurl bricks at your head. To my mind, that's even worse that the guys with the guns - at least in that case, you could argue that maybe they're not real bullets, they're paintballs or rubber bullets or something. With these builders, there's no such room for conjecture. They want to crack your skull open with a brick. No arguments, no confusion, just a grown man with a desire (or a contractual obligation) to kill a child with blunt force trauma to the head.

Luckily, you can defeat these vicious killers by kicking your football at them. Now, I'm not saying that getting hit with a football isn't painful - taking a goal kick full in the face from about ten yards away was one of the most painful experiences of my youth, as well as resulting in me expelling from my nose a stream of blood and mucus that I can only describe as looking like some kind of Lovecraftian Christmas garland. The problem is Marko taps the ball toward his foes with all the ferocity of an arthritic poodle... and it still hurts them. These burly builders and sludge monsters are defeated when hit with the equivalent force of a stiff breeze. I guess that football is more magical than I gave it credit for. That, or it extends an invisible monofilament wire when kicked that slices its targets into tagliatelle.

There's a forest stage, and here I will hold my hand up and say it's not that bad. The effect of the sunlight poking through the treetops is nicely done, and the music isn't bad either. Here we see our hero about to be crushed between a small man with a vastly swollen, sentient scrotum and a policeman on a pogo stick.
For some reason, there's a circus-themed stage:

You mean, like, "don't start murdering children and taunting the police by mailing them body parts?"

Thankfully, videogames developers realised early on that clowns are a blasphemous force for evil, so you very rarely have to play as one and can usually kill any clowns you come across with impunity. It's God's work, that's what it is. It's not just clowns, though: giant rats with jump from the big top in an attempt to sink their not-inconsiderable fangs into your ball, and there are more rifle-toting child-killers around than ever before.

The final stage is the Toy Factory a dull and confusing maze filled with sexual predator / Geppetto-looking old men who throw screwdrivers at you. There's really not much else I can say about Marko's Magic Football at this point. There's nothing new in the final stage bar the background tiles, and it's still the same awkward, clunky gameplay that it was in level one. I must admit, things had gotten a little better on the front once I figured out how to do a running jump with moving but still, nothing really changes. Jump on the platforms, find a platform that you can't quite reach, summon your ball and use it as a trampoline, repeat.

The final boss battle with Brown abruptly begins after you reach the top of a certain ladder. There's no cutscene, so dialogue, nothing - Brown just appears as a normal enemy would, which is sadly typical of a game for which blandness appears to have been their ultimate goal. MMF is the Bran Flake of the videogame world: bland, inoffensive, occasionally painful.
Brown is actually extremely difficult to beat: this is not due to his fiendishly clever battle plan (he just walks back and forth firing his gun) but Marko's tendency to perform any physical movements with the exaggerated slowness of a goddamn mime artist. No matter though, because if this game has taught us nothing else it's that kicking a football at something will eventually solve any problem. Brown (presumably) dies, there's an investigation, the police suspect Marko for years but can never find any evidence and any witnesses that come forward are soon found dead, covered in football-shaped bruises.

Christ, even the ending screen is menacing. In general, Marko's Magic Football has a weird feel to it, as though its thin veneer of cutesy cartoon fun is peeling away at the edges to reveal a dark underbelly of pain and torment. In fact, I think I've figured out why this is: this whole story is actually the psychotic delusions of young Marko, a geek who was bullied so badly he snapped and developed a fantasy world where he is the saviour. Honestly, it all makes sense. His weapon is a football, the symbol of the athletic and sporty kids who mocked him most brutally - he has taken their power and perfected it, reaching a mythic, "magical" level of skill that his tormentors could never hope to equal. Adoring girls follow his every move, taking photographs. The builders and policemen represent adults and authority figures that never took him seriously when he told them of his suffering, and Colonel Brown? He is the ur-villain, created solely from Marko's mind. Just look how generically evil he is, unsurprising when you consider that he was formed from Marko's subconscious notions of what a villain should look like. So there you have it: Marko's Magic Football is a delusional fantasy created by a deeply traumatised young man.

On the plus side, at least it recognises my undoubted gaming talent. I think with the "you will go down in history" line, Domark are really making promises that they can't keep.

As you can probably tell, I'm not a huge fan of Marko's Magic Football. It's not a terrible game: the graphics are nice enough and pretty well-animated (and those ghosts in the sewer are cool), and the music isn't bad, but on the whole the game is bland and the gameplay is scuppered by the poor controls and physics. Worst of all? For a game with "football" in the title, this features a distressingly small amount of football-related content. So overall, if you really like the British-a-bit-Amiga-Beano-type graphics, or you've played every other decent SNES platformer then hey, here's MMF. Otherwise, do yourself a favour and stick to Super Mario World.

2 comments:

  1. I think the Amiga game you might have thought of at the beginning was Krisalis' Soccer Kid
    http://www.lemonamiga.com/?game_id=1236
    Which came out in 1993, so it could simply have been a rip-off with less imagination thrown in?

    ReplyDelete
  2. xanderten50: I think you might be right - a combination of vague memories of Soccer Kid and the Amiga-style graphics, I suspect!

    ReplyDelete

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