A thought that occasionally pops into the flaccid grey slop of my mind as I write VGJunk articles is that there's a whole section of gaming history that much of the world - and by that I mostly mean America - didn't experience. That would be the European home computer market of the mid-eighties and early nineties which, as the name suggests, was mostly European. Japan and America got titles we never received like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI, but that was okay because we'd already had the joy of playing games on the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum. Earthbound? No thanks, we still have all these movie tie-in games from Ocean Software to play through. Yes, it was a time of great bounty and endless pleasure. No, I'm not still bitter, why do you ask?One of the knock-on effects of this was that because the British computer game market was so constrained by its geography, there was a stream of games being released proudly featuring licensed shows and characters that would only be recognisable to British people. The Grange Hill game springs to mind, as does Viz: The Game, and today I'll be looking at one such title - Piranha's 1986 Commodore 64 release The Trap Door.
Full disclosure: I'm writing about the Trap Door game solely as an excuse to watch episodes of Trap Door. If you've never seen Trap Door, and chances are you won't have unless you're British and you were born in the early eighties, it was a claymation children's show about the adventures of Berk.
That's Berk there. He's an amiable blue monster with a West Country accent (and if you've never heard one, think of the "friendly rural folk" accent from your own country) who lives in spooky castle with his friends Boni, an ennui-filled talking skull, and Drutt, a bizarre spider-mouse-rock hybrid... thing that scuttles around the place making noises like someone in the middle of psychotic episode trying to swallow a gerbil. Berk works in the castle's lower regions as a cook / butler / general skivvy for The Thing Upstairs, a never-seen monster who is forever growling orders at Berk, which Berk then fulfills in his usual cheerful, no-nonsense manner. This often involves hitting monster with a rolling pin.
You see, Berk is also in charge of the titular trap door, which serves as the only barrier between the castle and the hordes of freakish, malformed creatures who live in the stygian caverns below. Most episodes of Trap Door revolve around Berk leaving the trap door open, a monster escaping and causing havoc, and then the monster being dealt with in some way. That's where Berk's rolling pin comes in, although that's far from the only solution. Sometimes he just sends the monsters up to The Thing Upstairs as lunch. Like I said, Berk's a no-nonsense kinda guy.
For a kid like me, obsessed with the grotesque and malformed, Trap Door was an absolute joy to watch and I love it to this day. It's still very watchable now - the humour that comes from seeing Berk's deadpan reaction to whatever vile creature has dragged itself out of the trap door never gets old, the plasticine animation is utterly charming and Willie Rushton's voice acting is fantastic. It is, in short, a Good Programme.
Then it was turned into a computer game. I'll be honest, I'm feeling some trepidation here. Is a beloved childhood memory about to be dashed against the rocks of underpowered computer hardware and lazy licensed cash-in antics? Okay, enough stalling, let's find out.
I'm certain that my friends will tell you that I am, indeed, a super berk. I'll take that option, please.
Here it is, the world of The Trap Door recreated on the Commodore 64. Admittedly, it isn't especially impressive-looking for a C64 game. In fact, it looks almost identical to the ZX Spectrum version of the game, but all the major characters are here and Berk and Boni look pretty much spot-on. Drutt, who you can just about see lurking behind Berk, is less accurately portrayed, looking as he does like a cross between a frog and a lemon. Still, two out of three isn't bad. The Thing Upstairs is also here, his words appearing on-screen to tell me what I'm supposed to be doing. He wants a can of worms - presumably to eat, although he may well have other plans for them that I would rather be kept ignorant of - and it's your job to satisfy his wishes. The game has already won points from me by attempting to recreate Berk's life of menial drudgery instead of just making another platformer or maze game. Time to find some worms!
Once I'd restarted the game and redefined the control to a more comfortable layout, I embarked on my quest. There aren't many controls to master, just movement and two buttons for "drop" and "tip." Tip things up, that is, not leave a small gratuity. Trap Door plays like a graphic adventure without the menu or parser, with a series of puzzles that need to be solved by walking around the rooms of the castle, finding objects and combining them in ways that will produce the desired result, that result usually being "The Thing Upstairs gets his dinner."
In the screenshot above you can see the storeroom, where I found a can. That's fifty percent of my job done already! I searched around the few rooms available to me looking for worms and there were none to be seen, so that left me with just one place left to look: the trap door.
There's a valuable lesson here, and that lesson is "never obey orders contained within the theme song of a children's television programme." The Trap Door song famously warns "don't you open that trap door," but by walking Berk over to that switch on the wall, the trap door flies open and worms issue forth. The trap door may house untold horrors, but it's also more efficient than the Tesco home delivery service.
Once the worms are exposed, it's a simple matter of picking them up and dropping them into the can before Drutt eats them all. This is easier said than done, because Berk moves so incredibly slowly that you'll wonder whether he accidentally swallowed a fistful of temazepam before you started playing, doddering from one spot to the next at the kind of pace normally only witnessed in particularly sluggish glaciers. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that I have already found the worst aspect of this game, and it's Berk's walking speed.
I eventually managed to get three worms in the can. I wasn't sure if that was the required amount, but chasing worms around only to see Drutt slurp them up like living spaghetti was starting to get frustrating so I placed the can in the dumbwaiter and sent it up to The Thing Upstairs.
The praise from a hideous unseen creature lurking in the attic of haunted castle turns out to be much more rewarding than the endings of any number of modern videogames. Well, to me it does, probably because given the leaden pace of Berk's movement collecting those worms felt like a Herculean task truly deserving of recognition. Or possibly it's because my father never thanked me whenever I brought him a can of worms, I couldn't say.
Filling a can with worms was just a warm up, a chance to get used to the controls and survey the various locations, but now The Thing Upstairs is ready to expand his culinary horizons and Trap Door is about to get difficult, starting with the raw, nerve-shredding insanity of... fried eggs.
That sounds even easier to rustle up than a can of worms, and it would be if there were any eggs around, but there aren't and once again Berk is forced to open the trap door in the hopes that some eggs will crawl out.
A bird flew out instead. Well, that's fine too, I just have to figure out how to extract eggs from the bird and I'm sure there'll be something around the castle to help with that.
A ghost escaped from the trap door at the same time, a morose-looking cyan spectre with eyes at shoulder level and hang on, that's the ghost of Horace! All those times I got him killed in Horace Goes Skiing by walking him into heavy traffic, only for his immortal spirit to end up under the trap door. It's a small world after all!
The ghosts follow Berk around, and if they touch him they teleport him to a random part of the castle. You can get rid of the ghosts by offering them something to eat: I tried to feed it Boni, but it wasn't having it so I had to open the trap door again and harvest more worms. They seemed to satisfy Horace's terrible hunger for a while, and the ghost disappeared leaving me with the task of finding a way to get this bird to lay an egg.
While I was looking for helpful items, I found a small white bishop's mitre in a wicker basket. Upon seeing it, a plan began to form in my mind: if I could get the mitre onto the bird's head, the shock of being made a senior member of the Catholic clergy would cause it to lay an egg out of sheer surprise. Somehow, this insane plan actually worked, although there were some stumbling blocks. Firstly, how do you get the mitre up there? I figured this out by accident when I accidentally catapulted Drutt into the air: anything on the trap door when you flip the switch is flung upwards by the force of the opening door. It was as I saw the mitre travelling upwards that I realised it was actually a bullet, and I was using the trap door to launch said bullet into the bird's cloaca. I felt no remorse.
The other issue was figuring out what to do with the egg once it was out. Luckily, I found a frying pan. At least some things make sense in Trap Door's bizarre universe.
Here's the bird part-way through laying the egg. The very large egg. No wonder its eyes are so wide.
Once you've got the egg on the pan, you just have to leave it on the stove to cook for a while before sending it up to The Thing Upstairs.
Screw you, pal. Given the amount of effort it took to get one cooked egg to you, you're lucky to get anything at all. I doubt I could have managed to prepare more eggs anyway, because I simply didn't have enough time. Did I mention that you're timed? If you don't meet The Thing Upstairs' demands quickly enough, it results in a game over and some stinging criticism.
Berk takes it well, though. He's a laid-back guy.
Overcoming time constraints is the meat of Trap Door's gameplay. Everything is timed, from the main timer that counts down to failing your overall task to each element within that task - for example, if you take too long getting the fried eggs into the dumbwaiter they go cold and The Thing Upstairs sends them back down. It's a test of precision and planning, trying to get as many of your ducks / giant trap door birds in a row as possible in order to counteract Berk's lack of speed and occasional problems picking items up. Unfortunately, I'm not great with precision and after just about managing to cook some eggs I reached something of a brick wall.
A bottle of eyeball crush, huh? Simple, I just need eyeball and something to crush them with.
By a process of elimination, the eyeballs must come from this box of seeds I found, because there's nowhere else to get eyeballs short of ripping them out of one of the game's creatures. I tried that, and it didn't work, so it must be the seeds. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the three seeds go in these three convenient plant pots.
Sure enough, after a little waiting around three mighty eyeball-bearing plants have sprung up. You could say they're... eyedrangeas. Look, I'm sorry but that was the best eyeball-plant pun I could come up with. You're welcome to submit your own.
Once I'd gathered the eyeballs, placed them in a vat with a spigot and positioned a bottle under the tap, all I needed to do was find something to crush them with.
This giant moveable weight seemed like a good candidate, but apparently that's far too logical for the weird world of Trap Door and it didn't work. Once again, I was forced to disobey the theme song and open that trap door.
This thing jumped out, and jumped, and jumped some more. It bounds around the game world, crushing all before it under the weigh of its massive boots. Here's the answer to my prayers, I thought, and a quick look at a walkthrough confimed that this monster was indeed the key to success. Get it to jump into the vat and it'll crush the eyeballs, providing Berk with a bottle of delicious vitrous humour smoothie that he can give to his boss. Except I could not get the bloody monster in the bloody vat. You can push the vat around by walking into it, but as you can imagine it's rather unwieldy and Berk moves it so gingerly that you'll wonder whether he's filled it with nitroglycerine and he worried about blowing up the castle. I managed to get it near to a spot where the jumping monster sometimes landed, but for the life of me I couldn't get it on the correct plane and every time the monster just landed close by, leaving the eyeballs uncrushed and Berk at risk of losing his job. In the end, I ran out of time. Mission failed, back to the start of the game.
This time it's "boiled slimies" on the menu, and I've got a pretty good idea where to find those - if you're looking for slimies, probably the first place you should check is your castle's very own swamp.
They're the same as the worms, essentially, although harder to catch because sometimes they disappear under the muck. Still, I managed to grab three of them and throw them into the large cooking pot found in the storeroom.
Getting them into the pot took far longer than you might think, because I didn't realise you had to climb up to this ledge and drop them in from up here. I'm still not sure why - Berk's clearly tall enough to put the slimies in the pot from ground level, even if he has to use a bit of a slam-dunk motion to do it. Whatever the case, they're in the pot now and it's time to boil them. For which I need heat. Which I don't have. I tried pushing the pot near the stove, but that didn't work, and in the end I had to consult a walkthrough. Open the trap door, it said. A monster with a flamethrower will appear, it said. I did, and it didn't.
For whatever reason, the flamethrower monster refused to emerge from the trap door and so I was stuck with no way to boil these adorable living creatures alive. I left the trap door open for a while, I tried flicking it open and closed repeatedly, I even tried putting Boni on it as bait in an attempt to lure the monster out, all to no avail. The last thing only resulted in Boni falling into the trap door. He screamed on the way down (in text form). Once again, I felt no remorse. This job has ground away my sense of empathy.
With no way to boil the slimies, my time once again ran out and the game was over. Of the four tasks put to me, I only managed to complete two of them, which doesn't sound like a great return but I'm not going to take all of the blame for that. It's hard to progress when the game straight up doesn't work for whatever reason, and getting the jumping monster into the vat seemed achievable but far too frustrating to persevere with. I'm sure you won't blame me for not trying to get all the way through this one.
There is one final task to complete once you've beaten the rest, and that's to claim Berk's reward by using the weight to smash open a safe and reveal the ending.
(screenshot from c64endings)That's it. That's your reward. Well, at least it fits in with the tone of the show - The Thing Upstairs is hardly a kind and nurturing employer. As nice as it would have been to see Berk get a happy ending, it would have also been a bit odd.
So, I didn't quite manage to complete it, but I've certainly played enough of it to form a conclusion and that conclusion is that Trap Door is an interesting game. Not a bad game, not really a good game, but an interesting one. Presentation-wise, it overcomes the disappointing first impression of the graphics by capturing the feel of the Trap Door world fairly well. If you've ever seen the show, the jittery, block-caps text used for The Thing Upstairs' commands will cause his voice to pop into your head, and Berk in particular looks great - the artists did an excellent job of capturing his fat-handed, waddling walk and his pleasantly dopey facial expressions. There's even a rendition of the theme song that might not be particularly accurate but is still very good.
The best thing about the game, though, is the kind of game it is. This could easily have been a simple cash-in job, with the Trap Door characters plugged into a side-scrolling action game or something equally pointless, but by making a title that sticks to what actually goes on in the show, the whole enterprise feels so much more... Trap Door-y. Berk performs his thankless work with a smile on his face, even when Drutt gets in his way and Boni starts complaining, and that's how it should be. There are problems with the mechanics - Berk's movement speed is still my most hated aspect of the game, getting items into the right positions can be a nightmare and it's hard to be positive about the game not spawning monsters necessary to progress, but because it's such a short game these things don't ruin the fun entirely.
If you grew up with Trap Door, then give the game a try - just don't let it frustrate you. If you haven't seen the show... well, I think every episode is on YouTube and watching Berk smack monsters with a rolling pin is probably a better use of your time.