It’s gaming with a social conscience here at VGJunk today. Well, sort of. An effort to safeguard public health, promulgated by a tiny man with no arms, whose crusade for human betterment attracts the ire of Satan himself. It’s just like that time Lucifer tried to corrupt Jamie Oliver’s eternal soul because he wanted kids to have healthier school lunches, only with more beeping noises than R2-D2’s rap album. Brought to the ZX Spectrum in 1985 by Atlantis Software, it’s the browbeat-em-up Nicotine Nightmare!
There’s not much of a title screen for this game, so instead here’s the loading screen. I only mention it because that “Gold” logo is making me want to eat a McVities Gold Bar, despite them being sickly-sweet enough that I’d regret it after two bites. I wouldn’t stop eating it after two bites, of course, but I’d be regretful.
Speaking of doing regrettable things to your body, that’s what Nicotine Nightmare is all about, specifically the vile sin of smoking. Yes, Nicotine Nightmare is here to convince you all to give up smoking, although having played the game I’m not sure it had any idea about how to convince people to quit. It doesn’t tell you why smoking is bad, aside from a standard governmental health warning, but it definitely wants you to feel like smoking makes baby Jesus cry. It’s not subtle in that regard: equating stopping smoking and saving the world seems like a bit of a reach. I’m not sure switching to e-cigs is going to have much impact on global warming. I must admit this opening text had me in something of a moral quandary – there was a moment when my answer to the question “do you sincerely want to save the world” was “no, not while there’s a trilogy of movies about goddamn Tetris in the works,” but in the end I had to say yes.
This could be a problem. I’m not good at tests, especially not tests of my strength of character. Having said that, I played all the way through this game so there must be some steel at my core. Also, full disclosure, you’re probably asking the wrong person to stamp out smoking, because I am a smoker and a thirty-year-old Spectrum game isn’t going to succeed where willpower and Nicorette have failed. Why do I smoke? Because I’m a fucking idiot, that’s why, and I don’t need Beelzebub to remind me.
The game begins and the name Nicotine Nightmare starts to make sense, because the concept is reminiscent of a fever dream. You control the small man with the yellow face. He’s trapped in a nonsensical dreamscape of giant cigarettes, but fortunately he’s brought two watering cans with him. It was a choice between gardening tools and trousers, apparently. You can fly up, down, left and right, and your goal is to extinguish six cigarettes by poking them with your watering cans. That’s simple enough, although the twitchiness of the controls means that it can be difficult to line yourself up correctly. You can douse three cigs before your watering cans run dry, and when that happens you have to float back down to the bottom-right and refill them at the water pump. However, the devil is not about to let one of his most finely-crated tools of human misery be destroyed by the less-famous brother of Mr. Chips from Catchphrase, and so the Prince of Lies dashes about re-lighting the cigarettes you’ve put out. He’s a real hands-on kind of boss. Actually, that’s a pretty insensitive thing to say about someone who doesn’t have any arms.
Put out enough cigarettes and the stage comes to an end. Satan, defeated and humiliated, returns to the bowels of Hell and is not seen again for the rest of the game. If I was the devil and I’d just been shown up by a floating weirdo armed with a pair of watering cans, I’d keep my head down for a while too.
Nicotine Nightmare certainly doesn’t go lightly on the bombast, does it? It promises a task somehow even arduous than beating the devil, an assault on the cigarette factories of the world that will take months to complete, the most elaborate case of industrial sabotage in human history. So, how is this going to work? Am I going to be flying over to Philip Morris headquarters and pouring a watering can full of LSD-laced water into the coffee pots?
Never mind, it’s a generic platformer now, like Jet Set Willy but without the precision and strange charm to carry it. Your character, who continues the game’s tradition of not giving anyone arms, can move left and right and jump. That’s it. He has to get into the factory – the extremely well-signposted factory, they must have had some trouble with delivery drivers relying too much on their satnavs – and turn off all the machinery by jumping into the levers dotted around the place. This first screen is extremely simple, with the only complication being that you die if you fall too far so don’t just drop down to the exit once you’ve hit the switch like I did.
The next screen is considerably more difficult. A constant stream of cigarettes rolls down the ramp, and you must hop over them Donkey Kong-style to reach the lever. Naturally, the slightest contact with these cigarettes is immediately fatal to our hero, which makes his decision to take down the tobacco giants either extremely brave or deeply stupid. I look forward to the sequel, where a man with a shellfish allergy decides to punch every prawn in the world’s oceans to death.
So, this is a tough little section at first, until you’ve gotten used to the way your character handles. Everything takes place on an invisible grid rather than the smooth scrolling of something like Super Mario, so each press of a direction key always moves you exactly one “space” horizontally. When you jump, there’s no smooth arc, but instead you travel in a perfect diagonal until you reach the apex and fall straight downwards. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that as a system, especially for a ZX Spectrum game, but the problem is that Nicotine Nightmare requires some precise jumping and it’s completely down to luck whether pressing right and jump will make our hero jump diagonally-right or take one step right and then jump. It’s a small difference between the two things, but the wrong one almost always means death.
Next up: a daring raid on the manager’s office. I suspect the manager feels a little insecure about his leadership position, that sign on his office is so big King Kong could use it as a cummerbund when he goes to the Monster Island prom. Maybe that’s why the manager is so intent on killing our hero, he feels like he’s got to be aggressive in dealing with this saboteur so nobody can question his authority… and yet, the two men are identical, as though the programmers wanted us to understand that anyone could rise up and be the hero that eradicates all tobacco products from the world, if only they’d open their eyes to the evil they’re perpetrating. A cynic might say they’re the same person so the developer didn’t have to draw a new sprite, but I’m going to stick with my reading about the innate potential for goodness that lies within all people.
Okay, now this is just getting weird. Who is this factory making cigarettes for, the Jolly Green Giant? I think our hero has been driven so insane by his anti-tobacco crusade that he sees anything cylindrical as a cigarette and he’s accidentally blundered into a lumber mill. God help him if he ever visits the Parthenon, who knows what kind of prison time he’d be looking at if he knocked that down.
The fiddliness of the platforming really comes to the fore here, because it’s all about jumping from the exact, correct position rather than timing, and as a result it’s kind of a pain in the arse. There are four levers, and they have to be triggering in a certain sequence, only the game doesn’t tell you that sequences so you have to figure out the order before you can plan out the most expedient route. It’s not too bad if you get a bit of luck with the controls, though, and once you’ve hit all the switches it’s a simple matter of jumping over to the giant levitating cigarette and riding it to the exit.
Congratulations, you’ve done it. No-one will ever smoke another cigarette again. I’m sure all the people put out of work by this fact will land on their feet somehow. Maybe they can switch to growing weed instead. What do you mean, you don’t believe this is the end of the game? Do you think they’d let Mr. Lung Liberator stand on the podium at the Olympics if he hadn’t saved the world? Yes, the entire game really is just those five screens. You can complete Nicotine Nightmare in less than five minutes if you know what you’re doing and don’t get distracted by, for example, going for a smoke break. I know this was a budget game, but the pickings here are so slim that if you looked at them from a certain angle they’d be bloody invisible. What is there works in a way that’s occasionally frustrating but no more so than many other Spectrum platformers, but it’s so shallow that to try and come to any kind of conclusion about it is pointless. You might as well try assigning a star rating to a blank piece of cardboard: whatever score you give it, it’s going to feel ridiculous. Getting people to quit smoking is a commendable goal, and I’m sure that whoever created Nicotine Nightmare would say that if just one person was put off smoking by it then it was all worthwhile, but I think that’s very unlikely to have happened. It might have put people off working in a factory, sure – it posits a world where deadly products are allowed to roll around unsupervised and a madman with a grudge could burst in at any moment and destroy your livelihood – but as a smoking cessation tool it’s just like it is as a game: unlikely to leave a lasting impression.
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