27/06/2013

ALICE IN VIDEOLAND (C64)

A beloved children's book is dragged kicking and screaming into the future - or 1984, at least - as classic psychedelic poetry jam Alice in Wonderland is revamped for the digital age by Audiogenic and a man named John Fitzpatrick. It's Alice in Videoland for the Commodore 64! If you stumbled across this article while looking for information about the Swedish electro band Alice in Videoland, I can only apologise. I don't know anything about them other than yes, this is the computer game they were named after.


There's Alice now, her bright smile betraying no hint that she feels bad about having two holes in her face instead of a proper nose. Okay, that's a bit harsh. This is a perfectly acceptable picture given that it's from a game as old as I am. Maybe Alice in Videoland won't be so bad, or at least better than the other Alice in Wonderland-themed game I've written about.


A gnarled and sinister tree points out Alice's name. I should mention that I haven't even jumped down the rabbit hole and entered Wonderland yet. That disturbingly humanoid tree just happens to be growing near Alice's house.


Forget the creepy tree, there's the White Rabbit! Chase him down and capture him, Alice. Your vengeful tree-god demands it.


Things get a little Silent Hill 2-ish as Alice contemplates jumping down the hole that the White Rabbit disappeared into. Unlike in Silent Hill 2, I'm fairly certain that this doesn't represent Alice symbolically descending into the darker truths of her damaged psyche. She just really likes rabbits in waistcoats.
This is also the very first bit of gameplay in Alice in Videoland. After the completely automatic scene of Alice walking to the hole, you have to press fire to jump in. For a moment I was nervous that Alice in Videoland was going to feature one of those interminable tutorial sections that every modern game seems to possess, but I needn't have worried. For here on out, this game explains absolutely nothing to you.


Alice falls through the bowels of the Earth. Once again, you have no control over her actions. Her sprite resembles ET in a party frock. And so you fall for a while, your movements determined solely by the shape of the tunnel, wondering if there's ever going to be any actual gameplay. Then the tunnel opens up and things get... odd.


Now you can move! You can probably also feel your eyeballs recoiling into your head in horror as the backgrounds flicker and change through a painful kaleidoscope of clashing colours and vile patterns. Alice is still falling, but you can move her around with the joystick. Your newly-granted control over Alice allows you to avoid the framed pictures showing the blasphemous sigils of the Elder Gods and the lamps that look like Goombas standing on bowling balls.


I recommend trying your very best to avoid these obstacles - not because they hurt Alice, because nothing in this game hurts Alice and there are no health points or lives or anything like that, but because making contact with them causes the game to emit a horrible screeching sound as punishment for your poor joystick control. It's harsh but effective, the aural equivalent of an electro-shock collar, and I made a concerted effort to keep away from the pictures.


It's not all about avoiding the décor, though. Cakes, keys and potions all appear as you fall, and as far as I'm aware your sole gameplay task is to collect as many of them as possible. My score counter went up when I touched them, anyway. What also happens when you touch an item is that the background colours flash disorientingly and the music, usually a mellow little ditty, warps like it's being played at the wrong speed and takes on a weird metallic edge. If you're looking for a Commodore 64 game that you can play near a sleeping person's head to make them suspect they're having a mental breakdown, then Alice in Videoland is the game for you.


Alice has landed at the bottom of the hole. I know everything looks identical to when I was falling, but trust me, I'm on the ground now. There are tables here. Cakes and potions still fly through the air, colliding with Alice and making her grow and shrink seemingly at random, the backgrounds and music twisting and deforming with each new item that clatters into Alice's giant, cumbersome form.


The void is formless and endless. Keys and doors, the sound of grating metal, the keys do not open the door the door is eternal endless eternal endless no end to the Land of Wonders the door the door the door -


ULTRA OSTIUM, LUX PERENNIS.


The nightmarish whirlwind suddenly ends. No warning, no goal accomplished, just a grey screen. The grey screen is very soothing after what has come before, and I welcome it gladly as I swallow a couple of paracetamol and take a moment to regain my composure.
So, that was all rather strange, wasn't? I have no idea what I was supposed to be doing - collecting items, sure, but to what end? There was no target score, and while I collected plenty of keys none of them seemed to work with the doors that were scattered about the place. I managed to find a copy of the game's instructions, but even they were vague and not much use beyond telling me that collecting the White Rabbit's watch ends the "scene" and that you can press the function keys to use the cakes and potions you've picked up. I'm just going to tell myself I got loads and loads of points and move on.


Okay, this is better, calmer, less of an all-out assault on the senses. Sure it's more colourful than a flock of parrots having a bacchanalian orgy in a bucket of Skittles, but at least these vibrant hues don't flicker about like a colour blindness test gone berserk.
It also makes more sense as a game than the first area, although it's still fairly obtuse. There are flies fluttering about the place, Bread-and-butterflies and rocking-horseflies, and they must be gathered up to satisfy Alice's unyielding desire for points. To this end, Alice can jump around the screen and climb on the mushrooms. This means that unlike the first area, where there was barely anything to control other than walking in the four cardinal directions, I can finally discuss the gameplay of Alice in Videoland. This is a shame, because the gameplay is pretty bad. Stiff controls, cluttered graphics and loosely-defined goals all add up to the gaming equivalent of doing a jigsaw while wearing oven gloves.


That feeling is not helped by the seeds which the flowers fire at you and the Caterpillar's hookah smoke, both of which shrink Alice and render her unable to jump. I guess passive smoking really does stunt your growth.
In fairness to this second scene, it's much more graphically competent and unlike the first area there is at least some kind of gameplay here, even if it's extremely basic and poorly executed. After a while, Alice's fly-catching comes to an abrupt halt and the next area springs into glorious storybook life.


Chess! That's what the kids love, a good ol' fashioned strategy boardgame. At least a black-and-white chequerboard pattern is well within the C64's wheelhouse in terms of graphics, so this scene should be rather less painful on the eyes.
Chess, then, but not actual by-the-rules chess because that wouldn't fit in with the nonsensical nature of Wonderland and would also (I assume) be something of an arse to program. Instead, you control Alice and the two white knights against the Jabberwocky - here portrayed by a demented blackbird - and Tweedledum and Tweedledee, who for some reason are bishops. The goal, as ever, is to score points, and to do that you can either use your knights to capture the opposition pieces, or get Alice all the way to the last rank for a big points bonus.


Unlike the previous areas, I feel like there's a fragment of a neat idea here. You can either control Alice directly to make her advance up the board or sidestep left and right to avoid Tweedledum and Tweedledee, who will push you back down if you collide with them, or you can take control of your knights to "capture" the other pieces and stun them momentarily. The Jabberwocky can also capture your knights, so eventually you'll be left with only Alice herself, slowly trudging up the board towards her promised queenhood. There's some potential in this setup, and if it had been expanded into a full game there might have been a decent little strategy title lurking within, but as it stands Alice's Adventures Across the Chess-Board are just tedious. Remember to move left and right occasionally in order to avoid the twins, waddle blockily to the top rank, bask in the glory of having, erm, made it to the top rank, wait for the Jabberwocky to capture your knights so you can move on to the final scene.


Alice's last opportunity to scour this dreamscape for precious, precious points takes the form of a game of croquet. The programmer thankfully realised that croquet is dull as all get-out - although maybe that's my bitterness that there was never a videogame based on Heathers talking - and so they changed it into pinball, and for the first time the aim of the game is clear - whack the bouncing ball through the card soldiers / hoops at the top of the screen. I'm not sure about those card soldiers, man. There's just something depressing about them. It's the way they're looking back over their shoulders, their expressions carrying an air of weary resignation.


"This shit again? I swear to God, I'm gonna hand in my notice any day now, file a grievance with the union. Captain Hook's guys don't have to put up with this crap."
So, the croquet ball pings around the screen, and pressing fire makes Alice swing her flamingo mallet to nudge the ball about - and I do mean nudge, because getting any real direction on the ball is almost impossible and just moving the large Alice sprite between the large bushes and fences is a chore in itself. If the ball rolls over to the bottom of the screen, the Red Queen destroys it and once you're out of balls it's game over.


It doesn't work especially well and even if it did it wouldn't be much of a game, but even this section has a couple of neat ideas. One is that the amount of balls you start with is bolstered by the number of rocking-horseflies you caught in the second area, where every fly you catch and bring down to ground level turns into a ball and rolls away to be whacked later.
The other thing is that whenever the ball touches the scenery, it plays an almost crystalline musical note, seemingly randomised but possibly based on where about the ball hits the platforms, and it's very pleasant and strangely soothing. More enjoyable than the rest of the game combined, in fact, and if I was offered the choice between playing through Alice in Videoland again or just listening to the croquet ball jingling around the stage for fifteen minutes I would choose the latter without hesitation.


And we're done, Alice in Videoland is over and what a strange ride it was. First off, while calling them "sports" might be pushing it a little, this is yet another multi-event "games" title for the Commodore 64, a genre has almost entirely come to represent the computer in my mind. Unfortunately these kind of games are rarely any good, because you just end up with several half-baked ideas that don't stick around long enough to make an impression, and that's exactly the case here, except the effect is even more pronounced than usual thanks to the barely-interactive feel of most of the game.


There are a few nice ideas in here somewhere, amidst the poor controls and bizarre strobing backgrounds. Actually, those flashing backgrounds at the beginning put me in mind of cult surreal dreamscape RPG Yume Nikki, which I fully recommend you play, but I digress. The chess game could have been interesting had it been more fleshed out and didn't just boil down to "move forwards, sidestep occasionally" and even the pinball/croquet hybrid had some potential, but in the end Alice in Videoland is a tedious game that you don't so much "play" as you do "wade through as though traversing a dense bog or swamp."


Of course, it's unfair to judge a game like this, the product of one person's work, in the same way that you'd judge a title even slightly more modern or with any kind of team behind it, but it just goes to show that all the novel ideas in the world don't mean jack unless they're well implemented and - and this is the killer for Alice in Videoland - fun to play. John Fitzpatrick should have just made an interactive story book, or you know what? He should have just made a musical program based around the croquet ball noises. I would have been much happier with that.


6 comments:

  1. I'm always going to wonder if the guy who made this finished it with a look of satisfaction on his face (presuming himself brilliant) or that half-lidded defeated face you get when you just said "eff it" 1/8 of the way through.

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  2. LSD is one hell of a drug.

    I honestly don't know what to say, except that C64 was host to some weird video game ideas.

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  3. The drugs are gooood.

    It is fun though to look back on these things and revel in their insanity. Sometimes that helps break the monotony of... logic? I don't know. At least worth a good chuckle.

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  4. The two white knights on the chessboard look like ghostly portraits of Alf. That is all.

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  5. If only Christian Slater were there blowing things up. GREETINGS AND SALUTATIONS.

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  6. on level 1, once you are on the floor, the goal is to gather points..going through the doors is achieved by being the same size as the door. Each potion you consume makes you smaller and smaller.. a cake or fan will blow you up to full size. I believe you need the keys from the level before matching the color of the door. There are about 5 or 6 different sizes you can be, as well as the same amount of said size doors. The thing that ends the level is collecting a stopwatch looking item.

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