29/01/2015

MAD SHOW (AMIGA)

Why were there so many multi-event "sports" titles on the home computers of the eighties? Were the developers keen to show off the potential of their chosen system by shoehorning in multiple different genres? Were they an attempt to sell games on a value-for-money basis - buy this game, it's really five games, that kind of thing? Did programmers back then have incredibly short attention spans that left them unable to concentrate on one core concept? I have no answer to this question, only a strange desire to keep playing them. Perhaps some small part of me still holds out hope that I'll find one that rises to a level of quality beyond "mediocre." Well, we all have our foolish dreams, don't we? Anyway, today's offering is the 1988 Amiga cyber-Olympics-em-up Mad Show, from French developer Silmarils.


That's Mad Show as in a mad television show and not your cousin's interpretive dance performance that you were forced to sit through that one time. The whole game is framed as a TV show, complete with a screen border in the shape of a really old television set, or as it would have been known at the time of the game's release, "a television set."
Mad Show is introduced by - although sadly not hosted by - a punk lady and a sentient carnivorous plant, a combination that achieves the almost impossible task of making Richard and Judy look even more worthless than usual. It's a shame they're not around for the game itself, and already Mad Show has fallen into the trap of having peripheral characters that are more engaging than the main cast. I don't care what else happens in the game, I'll always be more interested in the imagined adventures of Punk Girl and Venus Flytrap. They argue a lot, but deep down they really care for each other.


This horrible little gremlinoid is the main host, operating Mad Show's machinery and constantly burbling snippets of nonsensical speech. Alright, so I'm fairly sure that one of them is him saying "mad show" but the rest are gibberish presumably passed off as an alien language. No, I don't mean French, I mean an actual non-human language.
The host also suffers from being overshadowed by the more interesting things around him, in this case the crowd in the background. I don't know if they're supposed to be the audience, the production staff or if the show is being filmed in the waiting area of an interdimensional Accident and Emergency ward, but Marrowhead McCool, the punk endlessly throttling another person and that thing on the right with only a mouth where its face should be are all far more fascinating than a small man in a bad suit. The most intriguing of them all is the seemingly normal human baby that crawls around in the background. It cannot be a normal baby, surely. If only I didn't have these minigames to play, maybe I could unravel the baby's mysteries, but perhaps it is for the best that certain secrets remain undisturbed.


After choosing between training and competition modes, the contestant is beamed in. Beamed right into his clothes, that is, which were already waiting for him in the chair. I hope it wasn't too cold in the green room.
There are four events in Mad Show, and the player is allowed to pick which one they take on. Each time you win an event, that event can be selected again, but at a higher difficulty and with more points on offer for a successful attempt. The only goal, as far as I could discern at any rate, is to accumulate as many points as possible in order to claim a place on the Mad Show leaderboard.


It's a leaderboard containing such luminaries as Mr. Spock, Luke Skywalker and Clark Kent, so I have some stiff competition. As for the other names, I know that Targhan is another game by Silmarils, so I'd guess that's where they come from. Jig le Jogger may be a Frenchified transliteration of "jiggly jogger," a name bestowed upon me by a gaggle of unruly schoolchildren during an ill-fated attempt to get fit, but I accept that's a very unlikely scenario. Anyway, without further ado, let's get on with some gameplay.


No, hang on, I forgot that there is in fact some further ado. Before each round of the competition mode begins, you also have to pick a small demon face from a selection of six. Then the little portal in the middle of the screen opens up and a demon pops out. Here, the player is utterly horrified to see a small demon holding another demon's head on a pike. The severed head is wearing a wizard hat, so I can only assume that this demon was executed by a peasant mob for practising witchcraft (and being a demon). The player is clearly appalled by this brutal display of mob vengeance, as well he might be - there is no way that demon received a fair trial.
It took me a while, but I eventually figured out the point of this sequence: if you pick the demon head that matches the one that comes out of the portal, you're awarded some free points and another shot at Tiny Beelzebub's Roulette-O-Fun. Get it wrong and you're taken straight to the next event. An interesting idea in concept, but the whole process is painfully slow. The cursor selecting the demon moves like a treacle-coated slug, then you have to wait for the portal to spin around for a while, then you have to wait for the demon to appear, and after two or three trips on this satanic merry-go-round you'll never want to see it again.


Event one: Space Swords, where years of scouring the cosmos have finally paid off and a perfectly flat asteroid has been found upon which two men can engage in a lightsaber duel. You might think it imprudent of me to describe a common laser sword with the very specific term "lightsaber," but these swords make the same noise as a lightsaber and produce a blade of light from the hilt upwards when activated. The only way they could be more lightsabers is if they had Darth Vader hanging onto one end.


My opponent wasted no time in attacking, rolling towards me in a low-gravity somersault jump. Assuming that Mad Show (like all home computer games involving the swinging of swords) was controlled by holding down the fire button and moving the joystick, I held down the fire button and moved the joystick forwards. I slashed, my opponent jumped onto my sword.


An easy victory thanks in no small part to my opponent's gung-ho nature, but looking back on it I think prancing around his prostrate body like a kid who's just been told they're going to Disneyland was a regrettable show of poor sportsmanship.


Mad Show's second event caused me to ask some deep and searching questions, such as "where am I?" and "what is my purpose?" and "is that a giant eyeball staring at me from the back of the room?" Some of these questions had obvious answers - yes, that is a giant eyeball staring at me from the back of the room - but others required deeper thought and no small amount of joystick wrangling. In the end, I figured out what I was supposed to be doing through blind luck, when I managed to swing the shield I'm carrying like a club. It turns out that your goal here is to use your shield to smash the small blue robot that scurries around the stage while avoiding the projectiles flying towards you or, even better, blocking them with your shield. Well, it's certainly a novel idea for a cyber-sport, although it's not especially well-implemented: even on the lowest difficulty the robot's random, jittery movements and the need for near pixel-perfect accuracy when attacking make this event something of a chore.


But wait, there's more: after you've smashed the robot (which causes it to waddle away in a fairly adorable manner) you're peppered with crossbow bolts. Thankfully I figured this bit out much quicker than the first half, and the combination of arrows flying into the screen and a giant eyeball in the background made it obvious that those two things should get together for fun times.


Okay, so I got the crossbow to shoot the eye but this, this doesn't look fun. It's sort of disturbing - the colour palette, the deeply felt notion that the eyeball is really, really angry. It reminds me of a scene from Yume Nikki, unnerving in a way that belies the simplicity, even crudeness, of its parts. That's probably just me, though.


Into the sewer-prison for event three. Hey, combining the two saves space, it's a practical idea. This is Sawblade Frisbee Murder. Sorry, Sawblade Flying Disc Murder. Frisbee is a registered trademark of the Wham-O Toy Company and they presumably don't want their name attached to futuristic death-sports.
The goal here is simple: throw your razor-sharp cutting discs into the delicate flesh of your opponent, who is down the other end of the tunnel. The sawblades bounce off the walls and return to you, and if you position yourself - specifically, your big metal hand - in the right place you can catch them and throw them again. Sometimes a helpful inmate / sewer mutant will hand you a sawblade, an act which may not redeem them in the eyes of society or the law but which I personally appreciated immensely.


Weirdly, your opponent doesn't fight back, and on the lower difficulty settings he barely even moves, allowing you to take your time lining up your shots. That's easier said than done, and my enjoyment of this event was definitely punctured by the difficulty I had finding the right position for a successful throw. Some kind of grid painted on the walls that allowed you to see at a glance where you were in relation to the other end of the tunnel would have improved this minigame immeasurably, as would the action moving at a speed faster than "glacial." The basic premise of the game is fine and takes me back to many hours wasted at university playing 3D Pong, but it's too slow and unwieldy to be much fun.


The fourth and final event sees the player placed at the mercy of a giant brain's whims. I'm sure the brain would kill you outright if it could, but luckily all it can do is control the conveyor belt beneath your feet. To win, you have to get directly under the brain and fire your gun upwards to hurt it, which is not always a simple task when the floor is constantly moving you left or right, changing speed and shifting direction seemingly at random. I like that you can see the massive flayed hand operating the conveyor belt's control stick, that's a nice touch. Which is funny, because I definitely don't want to be touched by a massive flayed hand.


There are also small creatures, barely visible behind the scenery, that can take some health off you if they touch you for too long. You also lose health if the conveyor belt takes you off the edge of the screen, and that can feel frustrating because all you can do to get back on the screen is hold the stick to the left or the right to run in that direction. There's no way to gain extra speed by mashing the fire button or anything like that, so there's the potential for it to get annoying if the computer decides it's just going to set the conveyor to full speed in one direction for ages.


Once you clear four events, your health is restored and you can go through another set of four events, repeating this cycle until you either run out of health or get so bored that you decide to stop playing. The latter option is the most likely of the two, quite frankly. The games themselves are passable if not very exciting, but it's the wait between games that really makes the competition mode a slog, especially if you're "lucky" enough to pick the right answer in the tiny demon guessing game a few times in a row and have to sit though the several-minute long animation each time. For this reason I strongly recommend playing the training mode: the games are the same and although it means you can't get on the high score table (a mortal blow to Mad Show's appeal, I know) it also means you don't have to spend nearly as much time not playing the game. This is especially true of the swordfighting and brain-shooting events, both of which can be over literally in seconds. The conveyor belt starts you right under the brain, and it only takes one or two shots to defeat on the lowest difficulty level so you can destroy it before it even starts to move, and the sword fighting... well, you saw how keen the CPU character was to leap onto my sword and turn himself into an astro-kebab.


Things do get more interesting on the harder difficulty levels, although that only makes the earlier rounds feel like even more of a waste of time. In the Space Swords event, for example, your opponent takes more hits to defeat and you can sometimes start the fight standing back-to-back, someone on the production staff having conflated the rules of fencing and pistol duelling.
After spending some time further investigating the lightsaber game, I discovered a couple of interesting things. One is that you can laser-stab your opponent before they've even switched on their sword without fear of punishment, Silmarils having either decided that the player should be rewarded for their aggression or that the guilt the player feels after such a despicable act is punishment enough. I also learned that you can fall off the asteroid and die. I learned this by once again prancing around over my defeated foe's body. I was just trying to get used to the low-gravity jumping physics, alright? It definitely wasn't karmic retribution for stabbing my opponent before he was ready.


The robot-bashing event changes by simply having a million-and-one things shooting at you the whole time, forcing you to concentrate on blocking. Here, I turned to smash the robot only for an extremely accurate laser to immediately shoot me in the neck. I can't help but feel that the tiny robot planned it this way, although if it was an attempt at revenge then I imagine it would have been happier if I'd been killed by one of the spring-loaded boxing gloves dotted around the stage, just for that extra frisson of humiliation.
Mad Show's biggest gameplay flaw is that it's just a bit too slow, and that's never more apparent than during the later stages of this event. If your character was lithe and graceful, able to swing their shield around to quickly deflect with incoming projectiles, it would probably be the most enjoyable game of the lot, but the stiff movements mean you don't have enough time to react and chase down the robot in a way that feels satisfying.


Sawblade Toss remains much the same. You can now collect missiles to fire at your target, which is not as exciting as gaining the ability to fire missiles should be. They're the same as your sawblades, except they don't bounce off the walls. I can't aim the sawblades, which means I can't aim the rockets either. Who would have though that the concept of "gaining the ability to fire missiles" could be so disappointing?


The Brainveyor Belt takes more shots to destroy and becomes ever more twitchy and unpredictable, quickly sifting from "too easy" to "almost impossible" without ever becoming any more entertaining. I should point out that in the screenshot above our hero is not undergoing some Incredible Hulk-style transformation, it's just that one of the flapping creatures has deposited some paralysing lime jelly all over him. Now the conveyor belt can carry him away to whatever health-draining horrors are lurking just beyond the edges of the screen. By now I'd had enough of Mad Show, and so I let his life-force drift away until the game was over.


Mad Show takes the multi-event formula so beloved of eighties home computer developers and does very little with it in terms or gameplay. There aren't enough games, and the ones that it does have are only mildly diverting at best, hampered by feeling of lethargy that blankets not only the events themselves but also the tedium of preparing for each game... and yet I still warmed to it. This is partly because the events are easy to understand and don't collapse into a wrist-destroying gloop of button mashing and juddery controls, but it's mostly because of the presentation. Mad Show has the air of an eighties B-movie, a punk aesthetic that reminds me of films like Return of the Living Dead, and that's something I approve of. It's grotty and almost unpleasant to look at in the most appealing kind of way, so even though the gameplay didn't capture my imagination I'm sure I'll think of Mad Show from time to time. Of course, I'll mostly be thinking "why couldn't the game have been about Punk Girl and Venus Flytrap," but I suppose some things are just too beautiful for this world.

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