05/06/2012

WHERE'S WALDO (NES)

So then, Where's Wally, or Where's Waldo if you're American, or Hvor er Holger if you're from Denmark. I'm pretty sure that VGJunk's readership falls into the correct age range to remember this particular pop-cultural artifact very well indeed. If you're a little too young to remember Wally / Waldo / Holger and his merciless rampage across the world of children's entertainment, here's a very brief summary: a British artist called Martin Handford illustrated a book of cartoon crowd scenes. Hidden in each of these scenes is Waldo, a bespectacled man in a striped sweater. Your mission is to use your eyes to look at these pictures until you have located this man. The pictures are big, Waldo is small and the whole exercise is probably as damaging to your eyesight as viewing an atomic explosion unprotected or watching Cool as Ice. Once you've found Waldo, move on to the next crowd scene. Repeat until the book is finished or the muscles of your eye have collapsed under the strain.
Someone thought a videogame version of this would be a good idea. They were wrong, but work went ahead anyway and in 1991 the world was assaulted with Where's Waldo? - the NES game.


The answer had better not be "He's right there on the stamp" or this game would be even more disappointing than I'd anticipated.
I decided to play Where's Waldo mostly because I've had the theme song from the animated series stuck in my head for weeks now and I apparently didn't think this was sufficient Waldo-related punishment for whatever crimes I may have committed. Yes, there was a Where's Waldo cartoon series. According to Wikipedia it only ran for twelve episodes - I was ready to challenge this as I'm sure there were many more than that, but thankfully my brain piped up to remind me that I was a kid with the attention span of a month-old puppy whose blood has been replaced with a solution of Red Bull and amphetamines. I just saw the same few episodes a million times and was too stupid to remember them, that's all.


Still, that's a catchy theme song, right? In its own jumbled, gankadank way, I mean. Unfortunately for me, Where's Waldo didn't follow the usual progression of "thing is popular with children" to "Saturday morning cartoon of said thing" to "game of the cartoon of the thing". I say unfortunate because without the expanded world of the cartoon series, all the game has to work with are the books.


Your aim is to get Waldo to the Moon. What business he has on the Moon is never specified. There are three difficulty levels, and I'll be playing on hard because there's no way I'm letting a twenty-one-year-old videogame based on a children's book about looking at things get the better of me.


This is the world map, I guess, although you don't get to control anything. Waldo wanders between the stages at his own pace, a frustratingly lethargic pace, a pace that implies he's really not that arsed about getting to the Moon after all and maybe I should just stop playing. I nearly took him up on his offer but eventually he reached the Train Station and the first... stage? Picture? Whatever you want to call it, it looked like this.


This is half of the first stage, at least. There are two main differences between the easier and harder difficulties: on easy there's only one screen while on hard you have to scroll across to see the whole thing, and the harder difficulties give you less time. Other than that they've got the same play mechanics, and the game works exactly as you're probably imagining it does. You've got a cursor, and once you've spotted Waldo you move the cursor over him and press the button. That's all there is to it. Making an incorrect guess loses you a big chunk of time, and as you only get set of time to complete the entire game you'd better make sure you've located your target before you start pressing any buttons. So, can you see Waldo in the picture above?


How about now?


There he is! By my reckoning he's fifteen pixels tall, so that should give you an idea of the kind of barely-recognisable streak of pixels that you'll be searching for. I hope my mother doesn't read this: after all the times she told me off as a child for sitting too close to the TV whilst playing videogames she'd be very disappointed to know I'm still doing it twenty years later.
At least Waldo is wearing his trademark outfit, though. That's something to help narrow the search; you've just got to keep an eye out for his famous stripy jumper. Right, next stage!


Here's the full Forest scene for your delectation. I'm beginning to see the glaring flaw with the NES version of Where's Waldo: you cannot take Martin Handford's ultra-detailed illustrations and recreate them on the NES. It simply does not work. They tried, bless them, but they failed, because the NES just does not have the resolution required to make this concept work in any meaningful or enjoyable way. You're not looking for Waldo, you're looking for a slightly different group of pixels amongst a sea of garishly-coloured dots. This really is Eye Strain: The Video Game.
Part of the fun of the original Where's Waldo books is that there's something interesting happening on every inch of the page, so even if you can't find Waldo you'll have something to look at. Can the NES version manage the same feat? Well, here are three vignettes from the Forest scene that caught my eye.


From left to right: A psychopath daintily carries his killin' axe through the woods, a strange man crawls up to a Boy Scout troop on all fours with intentions that can only be described as "sinister", and a faceless golem leaps from a bush, scaring a zombie into a coma. I think. Look, there could be any number of things happening here but the graphics are so small and undefined and rendered in such violent hues that I'm starting to get a headache and I've only just finished stage two.


Thankfully the next area is easier on the eyes, because it's a cave and it's mostly black. This stage works differently than the others: Wally walks about the cave, presumably up to no good, and you can only see him when you move the cursor over him. Cue a tedious session of wiping the cursor across the screen row-by-row until you happen upon Waldo. Then you press the button and walk Waldo to the exit. That's not all, though, because once you've broken through Waldo's veil of shadows you can pick up an hourglass icon. This icon either gives you 100 extra seconds... or takes 100 seconds off your remaining time. It's a fifty-fifty chance, and on hard mode it's essentially a fifty-fifty chance between giving yourself a fighting chance and rendering the game unwinnable. My advice? Ignore the hourglass. In fact, why not ignore the entire game? You'll feel better for it.


Oh hey, here's a fairground. The selection of rides is very poor. No Ghost Train? Then I'm not interested. I can't tell you where Waldo is on this picture, as I have forgotten and I can't look for him again, what with the strain of playing this game having reduced my ocular muscles to quivering, formless strands of tissue.


Next up is the City, and Waldo attempts to shake off his pursuers by blending into the crowded streets. Why are we trying so hard to find Waldo, anyway? What has he done? Whatever his undoubtedly heinous crimes are, they're probably tied to his efforts to reach the Moon. He's obviously been driven insane by the constant surveillance of his every movement, and he sees the Moon as his one last shot of living a peaceful life without our omnipresent gaze hovering above him.
The City is also home to many other freaks, like these fellows here:


An elf and an old-fashioned water pump capture an escaped convict, an alien lifeform that's trying to disguise itself as an Earth dog and can't quite manage it and... I have no fucking clue. A boulder falls onto a man as he attempts to Moonwalk into a different man who is wearing a lifejacket despite being miles from the nearest body of water? No wonder Waldo can't wait to reach the comforting vacuum of space.


While Where's Waldo has been utterly pointless so far, once you reach the Subway stage it takes a sharp lurch downward into "really goddamn awful" territory. To give your poor eyeballs a rest, this is a puzzle stage in which you have to guide what I guess is supposed to be a subway car (the tiny blue rectangle of the left-hand side) to Waldo by rotating the tracks. You can only rotate the tracks next to you when you stop in one of the black squares, and that's fine, except there's also some unidentifiable old bastard following you around.


Seriously, who the hell is this supposed to be? He looks like Leonardo da Vinci wearing a smock and a giant pair of headphones. If he lands on the same square as you, you might as well reset the game because he drains all your remaining time in less than a second if you're in contact with him. This isn't so bad on the easier difficulties because he moves quite slowly, but on hard this whole section becomes a fist-clenchingly frustrating jumble of random decisions and ill-timed button presses. You just have to guess your way through the whole thing, because Leonardo over there won't give you a moment's peace. Did I mention you also have to collect Waldo's glasses from wherever the hell he left them on this subway line? Waldo must be some kind of big-shot if the subway comes to him and he can send it out to pick up his lost property. I assume he has some serious dirt on the head of the Transport Worker's Union and he's not above a spot of blackmail.
If you do manage to persevere long enough to escape this nightmarish subway - and I'll be honest, I very nearly stopped playing right there - you'll make it to the final "search for Waldo" stage. It's a castle!


If that font's anything to go by, it's a very Castlevania-y castle!


No, no it isn't. It's a boring old Where's Waldo castle instead. It's surprisingly easy, considering it's the final proper stage... or at least it would have been but for one slight problem. Here's what Waldo looks like on this final stage:


The more perceptive amongst you maybe have noticed that Waldo is dressed in blue and white. Blue and white only, in fact. No red stripes. In this game, this game about finding Waldo in a large crowd, Waldo being identifiable only by his trademark red-striped outfit, here is Waldo dressed only in blue and white. Thanks a bunch, game. You couldn't even get that right.
It gets worse, though. The first time I got to the Forest stage I couldn't find Waldo for the life of me and honestly, I was starting to feel pretty emotionally crushed that a videogame adaptation of a kid's book was getting the better of me. Turns out I couldn't find him because, like an idiot, I was looking for some bespectacled prick wearing red, white and blue when he was actually dressed like this:


That's not Waldo, that's Freddy Krueger! The vast and overwhelming pointlessness of this game is all too clear to me now: Why does this game exist? Are there people out there who are too lazy to hold a goddamn picture book, "no siree I ain't doin' no readin' cuz books are for geeks" types who would otherwise have missed out on the wonderful world of Waldo? And who in the great green jumping Jesus would buy this in the first place? Surely no kid would ever have said to their parents "no mum, I don't want Super Mario 3, I want Where's Wally!" Even uniformed elderly relatives, normally the main purchases of licensed videogame tat, would surely balk at this because for the price of an NES game in 1991 you could have bought three actual Where's Waldo books. This is the most pointless videogame I've ever played. Even Hooters Road Trip had a purpose behind it, even if that purpose was advertising their business through the joint media of breasts and cars, but this takes the original product, removes all the fun from it and then slaps it into an NES cartridge.


There's one final stage remaining. I say stage, I mean fruit machine. This is the launch mechanism for the rocket that'll take Waldo to the Moon, and it consists of a one-armed bandit plastered with his own face. Did you build this rocket, Waldo? I can't think of any other reason your smug face would be the blast-off signal, your egotistical bastard. Press the three buttons at the right time to stop the reels on Waldo's face and you're up, up and away, hopefully out of the orbit of this crappy game forever and ever.



Here's the Moon, then. It actually looks... pretty nice. Better than that castle, at least.


And then Waldo turns up and ruins it. This is the entire ending, by the way: Waldo arrives on the Moon, gads about on the surface for a moment and then realises he hasn't brought any food, water or oxygen and dies a slow, lingering death, his bones forever laying in the Lunar dust as a grim warning to others. Alright, I might have added that last bit myself, but that's all you get. Game over. Good work looking at those ugly pictures, champ - now fuck off.
I think I've established that Where's Waldo is a bad videogame. Actually, that's not true because it's not even a videogame. It's a semi-interactive book with the occasional frustrating minigame tacked on. So, who is responsible for this unhappy little pile of dreck? Ocean? Tose? Well, that's the thing - it was actually created by the current champions of the gargantuan RPG, Bethesda.


The composer of Where's Waldo's music - a generous description, if I'm honest - was Julian Lefay. He worked on the early Elder Scrolls games, even being credited as project leader on Daggerfall. That's something to bear in mind next time you smack a dragon in the mouth on Skyrim: the experience was created, at some level, by the same people who made Where's Waldo for the Nintendo Entertainment System.


5 comments:

  1. You've got the demographic spot on over here. I have recollections of both the books, the saturday morning cartoon (which I very much enjoyed) and I can even remember a Where's Wally console game being rubbished by the good people at Mean Machines to the same degree as Mario Paint.

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    1. I'm amazed that they persisted with Wally games after this one, because the Mean Machines review is presumably about the sequel "The Great Waldo Search". Honestly I think think comparing it to Mario Paint is a little harsh on Mario Paint.

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  2. "his bones forever laying in the Lunar dust as a grim warning to others." I hate to point this out to you, but in the vacuum of space he would not rot, therefore his bones would not be visible.

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    Replies
    1. I'm relying on Wally being up there long enough that thousands of micro-impacts from falling space debris have stripped away his flesh.

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  3. The game's main downfall is that NES has a limited color pallete, and that's why Waldo keeps showing up in funky colors. It's not only a bad game, it was a poorly concieved concept.

    ReplyDelete

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