I tried, I really did, but I just couldn't come up with a witty or even mildly amusing way to start this article. Not when the theme of today's game is pizza. You don't mess with pizza. It's the David Attenborough of snacks, the Martin Luther King of takeaway food. I'll just say that today I'll be looking at Jaleco's 1992 delivered-in-thirty-minutes-or-it's-free-em-up for the Famicom, Pizza Pop!
Oh goody, I get to repeat my little spiel about Jaleco, a company which has long fascinated me due to their status as the nearly men of Japanese game development. They made games that were, on the whole, solidly just above average, often with something to recommend them besides the gameplay - The Astyanax looks lovely and Earth Defense Force has once of the most overlooked soundtracks of the early Nineties, for example. Jaleco just couldn't crack that upper echelon and create a real classic, some efforts being closer than others but all of them more average than awe-inspiring. But hey, who knows: maybe Pizza Pop will finally be the elusive jewel in the Jaleco crown.
No, of course it won't. Did you not read that last paragraph?
The intro begins, and a young man sees something he likes in a jeweller's window. Something he really likes, if the floating heart is anything to go by. Videogames usually reserve these kinds of sickening public displays of overt affection for the rescued princess at the end of the game, so what could possibly be waiting inside this jeweller's shop such a reaction?
It's a diamond ring. A very large one. I guess our hero is just really into his bling.
Oh, I see. He's got a girl to impress, and he thinks that a $10,000 diamond ring will do the trick. I think spending ten grand just to get your foot in the door is a bit of a risk, pal. Start off with a cubic zirconia, see if she notices. Take her out a few times and get to know her. She might turn out to be a neo-Nazi or something. You wouldn't want to give a neo-Nazi a huge diamond, now would you? Didn't think so.
Regardless of the flaws in his plan, our hero is determined to buy that ring and so to raise the... I was going to write "raise the dough" there. I didn't plan it that way. The game hasn't even started yet and already my subconscious mind is trying to slip shitty puns into the text. Buckle up, kids, we could be in for a bumpy ride here.
Anyway, you get a job as a pizza delivery man, a quick and expedient way to raise ten thousand dollars. Your boss, the very Earthbound-looking man behind the counter, tosses you a pizza pie and tasks you with taking to to the person pictured at the top of the screen.
On foot, that is. This guy is really going to earn his money, and he'll start by transporting his delicious cargo across these mean city streets via the familiar videogame mechanics of running, jumping and smashing cats' heads in with one of those giant pizza spatula things. Actually, that last one might be unique to Pizza Pop.
Yep, this is a side-scrolling NES platformer from Jaleco, and already I can feel the weight of its averageness pressing down upon me because the phrase "side-scrolling NES platformer from Jaleco" might very well represent the Platonic ideal of the average console game of the early Nineties. You run from left to right, you jump over obstacles and avoid or defeat enemies, either by jumping on their heads to stun them or by hitting them with your aforementioned giant pizza spatula thing. I'd recommend jumping on the bad guys, because your pizza spade - hang on, I just looked it up and it's called a "peel" - because your peel has almost no reach.
It's all very jolly, smooth and easy to control with the exception of your attacks, which are a bit cumbersome but fortunately not often required, your jumping skills being enough to see you through. It's... yeah, it's jolly. I can't think of a better word to describe it than that. Everything is bouncy and jaunty in a way that seems to be deliberately aping American cartoons of the Thirties and Forties - it wouldn't feel odd if the main character was replaced by Mickey Mouse. Hell, that'd at least explain why there are so many cats out to destroy you.
Even the end of stage boss is cats, or at least cats are the weapons used by your true opponent. That's the guy on the right. Yeah, the one who looks like a beatnik. I have no idea why a beatnik is harassing this poor pizza delivery boy, but he did cause me to examine my own outfit a bit more closely, which led to the realisation that I'm playing as a bellhop who delivers pizza on the side. Well, that ring was very expensive, he's gonna need two jobs.
The beatnik summons cats to defeat you. They jump down from the windows ledges with all the graceful ferocity you'd expect from a cat - it's just a shame for them that cat is Garfield. They're not difficult to avoid : just jump on 'em, stun 'em and whack 'em with your peel. Job done, the pizza is delivered and the troublesome beatnik slinks off to devise a new plan, probably one involving combat sloths or something.
There's no rest for our hero, and he's immediately assigned another delivery job. I have to assume that the customer's portrait is for our benefit and the Pizza Pop staff can't see it, because there is no way I would send anyone to meet that man alone.
That's the kind of face you only ever see underneath newspaper headlines, headlines like "Local Man Snaps, Kills 15."
Things are a little different in stage two, because you're climbing upwards instead of moving horizontally. The beatnik has decided to model his latest round of villainy on Donkey Kong's early career, and he sets up at various points along your ascent to hurl barrels at you. Questions like "what's in those barrels?" and "why?" should be put to one side. If you can't enjoy the sight of a hep cat throwing barrels that look as though they're full of toxic waste at a pizza delivery boy for what it is, then Pizza Pop isn't the game for you.
It's a short stage - all the stages in Pizza Pop are short, but this one especially so - and when you reach the top of the tower your rival uses him mob connections to summon up a gangster. This provides a possible explanation for the beatnik's continued attempts to fuck my pizza boy over - he works for the Mafia's pizza distribution arm, and they don't want anyone else muscling in on their turf.
Oh yeah, the mobster. He attacks by throwing his hat at you. When his hat's in the air his head is exposed, so use that time to jump on his skull. This makes his eyeballs pop out of his head in a Tex Avery fashion, but I'm not sure it's part of the game's cartoon ethos. I think that's just what happens when someone jumps on to the top of your head.
All right, this is more like it - the boss has sprung for some wheels, and the first half of stage three is a high-speed scooter ride across a landscape of convenient ramps and metal barriers that are launched onto the road ahead of you from somewhere off-screen. It's kinda like that bit in BattleToads - you know the bit I mean - except not nearly as soul-searingly frustrating. You can move up or down the screen to avoid obstacles, and the landing points of the flying barriers are clearly marked by their shadows. Billy Ballbag the Bastard Beatnik is your main concern, because he's a lot harder to avoid than everything else, but all told it's a nicely-implemented diversion that's fun simply because it's well-designed - fast and challenging but ultimately fair and doable. Good work, Jaleco.
The rest of the stage is rather more familiar, a basic hop-n-bop jaunt through a construction site filled with men carrying pneumatic drills and some jumping sections based around conveyor belts that are much easier than they look. There isn't even a boss, just a jumping "puzzle" involving pressing a couple of buttons to get a crane moving. Some days you're mobbed by angry cats, sometimes it's smooth sailing. The life of a pizza transport technician is a multifaceted one indeed.
There's a bonus round between stage three and four, because why not? Pizza Pop's owner has gone mental and started throwing uncooked pizzas into the air. You could say he's raising the dough oh god it keeps happening.
It's your job to catch as many of them as you can and put them in the oven, trying to catch as many as you can at once for extra points. It's alright, I suppose, and even if you actively dislike it the lack of any tangible reward for success means you can just, like, not do it. Let the pizzas fall. Dealing with the chef's insane outbursts is not part of your job description.
Stage four, and there's more construction work going on. This really is a city on the grow, it's workers fuelled by an unending stream of pizza. Building work must have slowed dramatically since I showed up, though. It's hard to get any work done when the pizza boy is jumping on your head.
You know what this reminds me of? Pac-Land. The bold colours, the isometric platforms, the simple platforming gameplay, it's all there. Both protagonists even wear a jaunty hat and have a long, protruding nose. Will there be ghosts in Pizza Pop? Well, we shall see. Oh, okay, there are ghosts in the next stage. Sorry, I just couldn't wait to tell you.
Before we get to that, we have to dispose of this stage's boss. Part building site foreman, part enormous carrot and all bored out of his mind. Just look at his face, there are one thousand and one things this guy would rather be doing, like overseeing the concreting of the foundations or bribing the safety inspector to let his crew use pneumatic drills on top of an unfinished skyscraper.
Okay, so he's not really a carrot. He's just spinning around really fast. That's what he does - he spins, reaches the edge of the screen and tried to hit you with a spade. That's your opportunity to bash him. It's not a difficult fight.
A haunted house! Alright, this is much more interesting than ongoing construction work. And look, ghosts! The Pizza Pop / Pac-Land comparisons grow ever stronger.
Did Pac-Man ever use the ghosts as mobile platforms, or is their touch always fatal to him and his kind? I'm not sure, but the pizza boy has no such worries and as he bounces from ghost to ghost the only problem he faces is that it'll be really difficult to get the ectoplasm stains out of his trousers.
I love that ghost's defeated face, by the way. One of Pizza Pop's most endearing features is that the characters are full of, well, character, with big, detailed sprites that have an almost child's-drawing simplicity to them that works very nicely within the setting.
The ghosts would have been my favourite enemies had it not been for the appearance of several hovering pumpkins in the second half of the stage. Nothing beats a good pumpkin. Oh man, there're still five months to go until Hallowe'en, I'm going to stare at the spinning pumpkins for a while to soak up some spooky ambience... except that's not really an option, and stage five is where I learned about Pizza Pop's most limiting factor - time.
You only get three minutes to complete each stage. That's the whole stage, too: your time doesn't refill between sections. I spent some time dawdling at the beginning of the stage, enjoying the ambience and observing the ghosts' movement patterns, only for the screen to start flashing with warnings as I reached the boss. With only a few seconds remaining, I didn't have enough time to defeat the boss, and so I lost a life. Then Pizza Pop hits you with a sucker punch - if you lose a life, you restart right at the beginning of the stage. No checkpoints here, not even before a boss, and if you manage to die then have fun doing the whole stage again and remember to do it fast because we're timing you.
Oh, and here is the boss of the haunted house. It's a vampire with Gary Rhodes' hair and a habit of transforming into a bat so he can dive-bomb you. Ah yes, the elegant aristocrats of the night, subduing their prey through repeated headbutts to the face. It's like Interview with a Vampire transported to Glasgow city centre on a Saturday night.
To beat Vlad here, all you need to do is bait him into attacking, move so he misses and then bash him, a sequence of events that give the whole battle the odd air of a Benny Hill skit, the pizza boy trying to avoid the vampire's unwelcome amorous advances by running back and forth and hitting him with a pizza spade.
After some standard platforming atop a bunch of very run-down bridges, stage six is mostly notable for the jet-ski section that makes up its second half. Looks similar to the scooter bit from, earlier, huh? Well, you couldn't be more wrong, because this one has jumping fish instead of metal barriers. Okay, so it's almost identical. It did seem a lot harder, but I think that's because the idea that I had to be moving as fast as possible in order to beat the time limit forced me to take more risks and therefore crash a lot more. I'm not good under pressure.
The jet-ski is abandoned for the boss fight, and what a boss it is - a bipedal bulldog who, judging by the position of his hand-paws, wants to engage in a spot of pugilism under the Queensberry Rules. Oh, and he can vomit up puppies to help him fight. Yup, baby dogs flyin' out of his mouth, the stance of a bare-knuckle boxer, a beautiful beachfront setting: this boss has it all!
Well, it's definitely not what I was expecting. The other stage's boss battles at least made some kind of sense; a vampire in the haunted house, a construction worker at the construction site, a mobster on the building (because mobsters live in buildings, you see) but the puppy-spewing, prizefighting bulldog? I have no idea. I just jumped on his head. Look, I'm here to deliver pizza, not take detailed taxonomic notes.
The final stage, and it's quite clearly a trap set by your beatnik nemesis. A mystery man wants you to deliver a pizza to the top of this derelict building / Castlevania clocktower arrangement, and sadly this is where Pizza Pop really loses its way. The time limit is more pressing than ever, so rather than being able to take your time and actually enjoy the game, it's all about barrelling through the area as fast as possible so that you've got plenty of time to fight the final boss.
The final boss is at least adorable, a pink robot with a permanent expression of righteous indignation plastered across his molybdenum mug, and he's mostly a decent enough final opponent. He's got a wide variety of moves, like shootings his fists at you, throwing his head around and wobbling his body about on a spring so you can't jump over him, but the problem is the only way you can damage him is to use your peel to knock his flying fists back at him, and that's not a move he uses very often. Most of the fight is spent waiting for that specific attack while avoiding his other moves, and once again the problem is the time limit. Only seconds left? Tough luck, he's going to cycle through all his other attacks, leaving you to watch impotently as the seconds tick away. The time runs out, you lose a life and it's right back to the beginning of the stage to try again.
It's just all so unnecessary. If you're going to build your entire game around the idea of going fast, that's fine, but just make sure that you follow through on the concept. Sonic the Hedgehog is obviously the ultimate example of a game about going fast, and it's fun because you have to go fast in order to get past the obstacles - you can't take a leisurely stroll around a loop-the-loop, for instance. This isn't the case in Pizza Pop, where if it wasn't for the time limit it'd make much more sense to take your time and play the game like a normal platformer, and as a result the game ends up feeling hurried rather than fast-paced.
Eventually I managed to reach the robot with time to spare. Upon defeating the robot, it's revealed that the beatnik was inside all along, his desperation to stop this pizza boy eventually leading him to build a fake robot body like he was some Allen Ginsberg-inspired Lex Luthor facing off against the pizza-bearing Superman of our hero.
Now that everyone in town has been satisfied by a delicious takeaway meal, the pizza boy has finally raised the $10,000 he needs to buy that diamond ring and impress the girl he likes. Off they pop to the jewellery store to make the purchase that will undoubtedly seal their love forever more...
Wha wha whaaaa, sad trombones aplenty and now our hero will never get his end away.
But what's this? It turns out the girl is more pragmatic than the protagonist gave her credit for, and she doesn't care about diamond rings because she loves the pizza boy as he is - stinking of anchovies, greasy and no doubt covered in acne as a result. Plus she knows he's got ten grand going spare, that probably sweetens the deal. Even the beatnik has seen the error of his ways, and he partakes in a drive-by flower delivery to wish the happy couple well. Isn't that sweet? Unless he was trying to win our hero's heart with a bouquet of roses, and this whole thing has been his attempt to get the pizza boy to notice him. Then it's just kinda sad. Poor little beatnik.
Pizza Pop, to the surprise of no-one, manages to continue Jaleco's fine tradition of games that aren't bad but are just missing something, or that take a wrong turn somewhere in the gameplay department. On the whole, there's a lot to recommend here: the platforming antics are fun, there's a nice mix of different styles with the scooter / jet-ski sections and whatnot, the character designs are great and everything has a pleasing cartoony bounciness to it that just brings a smile to my face. Pizza Pop's problems are the time limit and the brutal decision to make you start from the beginning of the stage when you die, but even that latter one is understandable as this is a very short game and checkpoints would make it shorter still.
Would I recommend it? Yeah, I'd say so. It's just a shame it turned out how it did, because with more stages and less emphasis on speed, Pizza Pop could have been a really great little platformer. As it stands, it's... well, it's a Jaleco game. I think I'll have to leave it at that.