Once more I trudge ahead, heavy-shouldered and grey of beard, to bang away at the endless granite mountain that is the licensed home computer game, hoping to unearth a shard of something interesting but mostly just coming away with bruised childhood memories and a growing contempt for "the old days." Which is it going to be today, hmm? Well, let's find out as I look at Melbourne House's 1987 Commodore 64 cash-in Inspector Gadget and the The Circus of Fear!
Or INSPECTOR GADGET AND THE CIRCUS OF !!FEAR!!, as the casette cover has it, giving it the air of an email about possible clown terrorists forwarded to me by my grandmother.
First, a quick overview of the Inspector Gadget cartoon series for those of you who don't remember it or never knew it to begin with, and as it first aired thirty years ago that might well be quite a few of you. Thirty years! Sorry, sorry, back on track.
Inspector Gadget is a bumbling, Clouseau-eque detective who has many adventures while trying to scupper the fiendish schemes of the villainous organisation M.A.D. While the utterly oblivious Gadget blunders his way through a series of almost-fatal scrapes, the crime is actually solved by his young niece Penny and their dog Brain. The international terrorist organisation is repeatedly foiled by a nine-year-old girl, Gadget takes all the credit and oh, did I mention that Gadget is a highly advanced cyborg whose body houses an array of technological upgrades that make Robocop seem like a man in an iron lung? Because he is. He's got extendable limbs, a phone in his hand, the ability to inflate like a beachball which I'm sure the designers had a very good reason for including in a robot policeman... and of course, they never work properly when Gadget wants them to. That's the humour of the show, you see.
It's colourful and goofy and full of the usual cartoon action, elevated above the average by Don Adams' work as Gadget's voice. Think on that as you gaze upon the title screen of the Commodore 64 game.
It may be a little stark, but, erm... it is stark, and empty, and so is the rest of the game. I'm gonna go ahead and tell you right now that all the things you might associate with Inspector Gadget - Penny, Brain, Dr. Claw, Chief Quimby, Gadget's super-cool transforming policecar, mishaps, pratfalls, exploding orders, fun - none of those things are in the game. The only things in The Circus of Fear that are definitely taken from Inspector Gadget are the hero himself and one other thing that'll I'll discuss later. Yes, I know, Penny and Brain are even featured on the cover but that's the only place you'll be seeing them.
So, what does this Inspector Gadget game actually include instead of, you know, anything from Inspector Gadget?
Roll up, roll up, and experience all the fun and thrills of the circus! Gaze in wonder at the rotting, moth-eaten Big Top! Thrill at the large Iron Cross used to decorate the center ring! No, we don't have elephants or a human cannonball but feast your eyes on Gloopzo, the Living Oil Slick!
I think that thing's actually supposed to be a seal. A broken, mutated, oh-please-God-let-its-torment-end seal. Honk honk!
Okay then, the gameplay, and I'm not sure what kind of game you'd describe it as. A puzzle game, maybe, where the only puzzle is to figure out what the hell you're supposed to be doing? The icons at the bottom bring to mind a graphic adventure, but that's not really what's going on here either. For the first half of the "action," I'd have to describe Inspector Gadget as a "rub-up-against-the-scenery-and-press-fire-em-up."
You'll notice that the bottom of the screen is filled with empty spaces and a "look" command. The empty spaces are reserved for Gadget's, well, gadgets - at some point he lost his robotic arms and legs, his gun, his helicopter hat and his inflatable coat, which does at least sound like something that Gadget might do. Seriously, it's difficult to overstate just how much of an utter moron Gadget is. Your first task is to find your missing equipment, which is randomly located throughout the circus, placed invisibly in the backgrounds. Fifty percent of the game is spent pressing against anything that isn't just a plain wall and pressing fire in the hopes that you'll uncover a missing gadget.
Here I went through one of those blue doors and found a small stone cabin that makes a mockery of the circus' topography. The main circus tent is hardly vast, made up of only ten or twelve screens that form a closed loop, with several of these charming mountain getaways somehow bolted onto the outside. Maybe they were already there when the circus came to town and M.A.D. just pitched the Big Top around them.
Never mind their relaxed relationship with the laws of physical space, though - by searching that dresser while a silent and immobile bearded lady looked on, I found a pair of binoculars! I know it doesn't sound as exciting as rollerskates that pop out of your feet or a head-mounted helicopter, but the binoculars are very important, as we shall see later.
That's half of the gameplay, right there. Brush up against everything that's not a striped wall, tapping the fire button. Melbourne House essentially created a "looking for your keys after a drunken night out" simulator and slapped a cartoon license on it.
The only impediment to Gadget's hunt for his missing body parts are the enemies that patrol the various screen, and I do mean patrol: walking back and forth is their only offensive option. If you touch an enemy, you lose thirty seconds from your remaining time and you're warped back to the starting screen. The enemies are at least consistent with the circus theme: we've already seen the seals and the bearded ladies, and there are also dwarves and lions. I think.
They're either small lions, or dogs that have wedged their muzzles into a pencil sharpener at some point in the past. The lions behave the same way as all the other enemies, doing nothing but pacing back and forth along their patch of the screen. They are circus animals, after all. They've probably had the will to do anything else long since whipped out of them.
After a while, you'll have collected all of Gadget's parts. Except you won't have, because there's always one empty space where Gadget's hat should be. I know it's supposed to be his hat, because you're shown what fills each slot when you start a new game, but after playing through The Circus of Fear five or six times and frantically grinding Gadget along every available surface as though he were the world's most dedicated circus-based sexual deviant, I never once managed to find the hat. As far as I can tell, it's simply not there. Don't feel too disheartened, though. Of the five items you can collect, only two of them are actually required to finish the game and the hat isn't one of them. But what do your gadgets do?
Go go Gadget legs! Using the legs makes our hero's torso hurtle upwards, the slimy pink mess of his intestines trailing from his severed midsection.
"Wowsers! The agony is unbearable!"
Not really, they're just telescopic legs that lift you up to the high-wire.
That's all the legs do. They bring you to this pointless screen where a midget advances toward you along the tightrope. There are three possible outcomes here. One, the midget runs into you and you're teleported back to the start. Two, Inspector Gadget draws his pistol and guns the midget down in cold blood, leaving him trapped on the high wire unless he has his coat, in which case three, you can inflate your coat to float back down.
He looks like he's wearing an inept foil swan as a tutu, but at least he's safe and sound.
Let's recap what the legs and the coat do, then. They allowed me to pointlessly climb up to the high wire, shoot a midget and then float back down. Just so we're clear.
The gun is an honest-to-goodness no-foolin' gun. You can shoot the enemies with it. This is a game where Inspector Gadget can cap a lion. You can go on a rampage, running through the circus with a gun in your hand, shooting women and seals. I mean, if there were clowns in this circus then it'd be understandable but no, Gadget's carnival of death is only open to seals, lions, women with facial hair and the occasional dwarf. That's hardly in keeping with the original cartoon, is it? Never fear, Gadget doesn't end up with the blood of the innocent smeared across his cybernetic hands for long: once you leave a screen and come back, anyone/thing you've shot will be alive again as though nothing has happened. The animals are still horribly deformed, of course, but at least they're not riddled with bullets.
That just leaves the binoculars and the arms, and that's when you get into the second half of the game. Once you've got those two items, you can start arresting the M.A.D. agents, but first you have to find them. This is done by using the binoculars near an enemy. Yes, I know there was already a "look" command available but these agents are masters of disguise and nope, I'm sorry, I can't really justify this one. Binoculars? Really? Not even a magnifying glass, which Inspector Gadget is shown using many times in the show? You're going with binoculars. Great.
The binoculars, then. Use them on a screen with an enemy present, and if that enemy is a M.A.D. agent, then the binoculars' icon will change to read MAD. Yes, that lion is a M.A.D. agent. It must be true, my magic binoculars told me so. Maybe that's why the lions looks so bizarre: they're really just two of Dr. Claw's goons in a terrible lion costume.
The next step is to use your arms to capture the terrorist / king of the jungle. It's easy, just stand in front of the lion and press fire. It seems that Gadget's arms incorporate some technology borrowed from fellow Eighties pop-culture icons the Ghostbusters, because rather than carrying an angry lion around at arm's length, Gadget compresses it into some kind of handy carrying-case.
Convenient, huh? No reading of rights, no arrest procedures, just a lion crammed into a portable miniature prison - a prison that I couldn't get rid of. The MAD block stuck to me no matter what I did, hovering by my side like the eternal spectres of those I have wronged (the many lions I shot, for starters) and preventing me from using any of my items. All I could do was wander the tiny, endlessly looping map, fruitlessly searching for a way to remove the MAD icon until I eventually ran out of time and got a game over.
I nearly gave up. The game certainly wasn't giving me any hints and even the internet didn't seem to have any answers, but for some reason I ended up trying again. Maybe it was foolish loyalty to a cartoon I loved as a kid. Maybe it was because I was feeling too lazy to find another game to write about. Maybe I'm just an idiot. Whatever the reason, I once again entered the Circus of Fear, recovered my scattered body parts and grabbed a lion.
This time, through the time-honoured method of pressing fire in every conceivable location, I managed to ditch the MAD marker.
One of the rustic cabins has no enemies in it. If you press fire while you're in that particular cabin, the MAD agent disappears from your hand. That's it. That's Gadget's plan for rounding up these criminals - stick them all in a room with a roaring fire and no windows, the rolling green hills of freedom clearly visible through those holes in the walls. Sadly, this is the part of the game that most closely resembles the logic of the cartoon.
All you have to do to finish the game is capture six M.A.D. agents and deposit them in the holiday chalet.
Done and done. That's the ending. I think it's the worst ending I've ever seen. It's almost identical to the "you failed" screen, just with a couple of words changed and a few more colours. At least Melbourne House were consistent when it came to the lack of effort put into this game.
And what a game it was too. A really bad game, a lazy game, a game with all the ephemeral pointlessness of a complimentary pack of airline tissues.
I'm not sure where to start when it comes to the problems that beset Inspector Gadget and the Circus of Fear, but let's begin with a basic one - moving Gadget around the screen. Left and right on the joystick move him left and right, that's fine, all is well with the universe. What do you think up and down do? Move him up and down? Wrong answer. Instead, pressing up moves Gadget diagonally up and to the right, and down takes you down-left. Bizarre. I think it's supposed to be an attempt to simulate perspective, but all it does is make it extremely awkward to do something as simple as walk up the bloody screen. If you want to walk straight up, your best option is to rapidly alternate between moving up-right and left in a jerky, twitching mess of poor animation and flailing pixel legs.
Do I even have to mention that the collision detection is atrocious? Of course it is, with some enemies letting you overlap them as you walk past but the bearded ladies zapping you back to the start if any of your pixels so much as brush against their hirsute forms. The enemy placement is a nightmare too - this is a flip-screen game, and the enemies are frequently located right at the very edge of the next screen, giving you no way to see where they are and no chance to avoid them when you move on to the next area.
Even worse than the technical issues are the design decisions. Where the hell is Gadget's hat? Why bother providing the other items if you only need the binoculars and the arms? The only challenge in the game comes from figuring out what the hell you're supposed to be doing, because there's sure as hell no help from the game itself, and once you have figured out the game's arcane secrets and completed it once there is literally no reason to ever play it again. There isn't even a score. I don't mean that there's no high-score table for you to try to beat, I mean there's no score at all. I don't recall ever seeing a Commodore 64 game before that didn't have some kind of points tally. This game really is quite remarkable.
The lameness of this game is further compounded when you learn that Melbourne House were working on a completely different Inspector Gadget game, an on-foot racing game / obstacle course with some actual gameplay.
It was apparently completed, but then they scrapped it and released Circus of Fear instead. I haven't played this lost Inspector Gadget game, but I feel confident about saying that it's better than this one.
Even after all this disappointment, there remains one reason to at least load this game up in the first place - the title screen music. Yes, much like Bat Cat there's a piece of audio that shines out from the gloom, and it's a C64 rendition of the famous Inspector Gadget theme tune.
Notice I said "load the game up," not "play it," because this music is only present on the title screen and not in game. Simply get to that point, sing "go, Gadget, go!" at the appropriate times and never, ever press the space bar to start. Trust me, it's not worth it.