At the moment, my brain’s too fried to play a “proper” videogame, but that’s not going to stop me from writing these articles because there are enough – more than enough – ephemeral, barely-there home computer games based on kid’s TV shows to keep me going until 2032 or so. With that in mind, here’s one of them: Bizarre Developments’ 1991 Commodore 64 serial-arson-em-up Fireman Sam!
There’s Sam now, holding his hose while his friend Elvis vigorously pumps it from behind. I’m too tired to play videogames that require skill and reflexes, but not so tired I can’t make double entendres, and for that I apologise.
Fireman Sam, then. It’s a game based on the venerable British kid’s show Fireman Sam, which is about a fireman called Sam. It’s set in Wales, it was originally stop-motion but later series were CG, and as the title screen and the show’s theme tune tell us, Sam is the hero next door (assuming you live next door to the fire station). I didn’t watch the original series much as a kid because I was too obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine, but having regularly looked after my infant nephew I’ve seen a fair few of the newer episodes. It’s exactly the kind of show you think it is: there’s some mild peril or the occasional fire, the team deal with the problem in a calm, level-headed manner and everyone learns a lesson about not pouring water on chip pans or flicking cigarette butts at the cat.
Also, Fireman Sam’s catchphrase is apparently “Great Fires of London!” presumably uttered in the same shocked tones one might say “Great Scott!” or similar. Seems likes a bloody weird catchphrase for a fireman, though, it’s like a doctor reading your test results and exclaiming “holy smallpox epidemic, Batman!”
Always alert to the call to action, Fireman Sam is in fact so quick off the mark that I had trouble getting a screenshot of him sliding down his fireman’s pole. I hope there’s a crash mat at the bottom or something, the pole is providing so little friction that he might has well have jumped out of the second floor window to get to his fire engine.
Ah yes, the fire engine. I think Fireman Sam’s fire engine is called Jupiter? That sounds about right. Anyway, you’ll be sending most of the game in control of Jupiter, travelling the highways and byways of Pontypandy while responding to emergency calls. You drive and steer using the joystick, and while it’s viewed from a top-down perspective Grand Theft Auto it most certainly ain’t. There’s no other traffic on the roads and no pedestrians to introduce to several tonnes of metal, ladders and hosepipes. It’s all precisely as sedate as you’d expect from a videogame based on a kid’s TV show about friendly firefighters from rural Wales. It’s a good job there’s nothing to get in your way, too, because the fire engine is not the most nimble of vehicles. It can only turn at ninety-degree angles, you can see that it takes up both lanes of the road and you can’t go up on the pavement. This all makes turning around rather more of pain in the arse than it ought to be, and I frequently found myself getting stuck like that bloody scene from Austin Powers.
So, there’s a fire at the Old Lane. How unfortunate for them, a misfortune compounded by Fireman Sam not having a map and the game not telling me even a vague direction to be driving in. On the plus side, the game does play an incredible irritating “fire bell” noise the entire time you’re driving around town. Just what we all need to sooth our frayed nerves.
After some wandering around, much of it spent driving in reverse so I didn’t have to go through the rigmarole of turning the fire engine around, I made it to the Old Lane. It’s that thing at the bottom of the screen. The thing that looks like a pile of hay atop your nan’s old bathroom rug. The hay is suppose to represent fire, you see.
Once you reach the fire you’ve got to put it out, something that’s accomplished using the most Commodore 64-y control method of them all: waggling the joystick back and forth. However, it’s not just a matter of pure waggling speed – the faster you waggle, the harder Elvis pumps the water and thus the higher the water pressure, which affects the angle of the stream. This means you’ve actually got some control over your aim, giving the fire-extinguishing minigame slightly more depth than it could have had if it was a simple race to see how quickly you could wreck your joystick. It might be even easier if Sam could aim the hose instead of standing completely still, making you wonder why he’s being paid a wage when he could easily be replaced by a sturdy tripod, but even so it’s not a particularly difficult task.
Once the fire is out, (or you’ve failed and let the building burn to the ground,) you have to drive back to the fire station to get your next assignment. The problem with that was that I’d spent so long driving around looking for the fire I’d completely forgotten where the fire station was. Cue more aimless wandering, although at least that excruciating fire-bell noise has stopped. Usually this is where I’d complain about not being able to make a good mental map of the game world despite it being pretty tiny, but in this instance I decided to forestall those complaints and actually drew myself a map.
Maybe one day writing VGJunk will lead me to discover a hidden talent, but said talent is definitely not cartography.
Sam’s next mission is… to find a kid’s skateboard. Is that really an appropriate use of the fire service? I suppose in a town as small as Pontypandy, where fires – although far in excess of the national average – are relatively rare, the fire brigade has to look like it’s doing something. So, off we go to find a skateboard. The fire bell is constantly ringing during this section, too, so you know finding this skateboard must be important. They wouldn’t subject the player to such a god-awful racket if it wasn’t important, surely?
I did think the red thing in this field, pictured at the top of the above screenshot, might have been a skateboard, but apparently not. Is that thing supposed to be a tractor? It’s hard to tell, this game has messed up my sense of scale.
See? That’s far too big to be a skateboard, it looks more like one of those fancy, expensive go-karts that I’m definitely still not bitter about never owning as a kid. We made our own go-karts out of stolen pram wheels, stolen construction site lumber and youthful stupidity and we liked them that way, by gum. Of course, we rarely managed to build anything that would move and we certainly never built anything with brakes, so all this reminiscing is less childhood nostalgia and more the after-effects of head trauma.
After another identical mission spent looking for a lost hammer – a mission that made me very glad I took the time to draw a map – a fresh call comes in. There’s a kite stuck on the roof of the grocer’s shop! I bet this is Norman’s doing. You know, the same Norman that lost his skateboard. If you’ve never seen Fireman Sam, Norman is one of the characters, someone I’m sure that official Fireman Sam merchandise would describe as “a mischievous young scamp” when in actuality he’s a cheeky little shit whose complete disregard for authority sees him getting into situations that require the fire service to attend roughly three times a week. Norman is a blight on the town, and if he didn’t exist then Fireman Sam would have very little to do with his time.
Sam arrives on the scene, and is immediately beset by killer rollerskates. Okay, maybe not killer because Sam’s a big lad and a simple rollerskate is unlikely to finish him off, but touching them does make him fall over and fail the challenge. Jumping over the rollerskates is key, then, but for a while I didn’t know what else to do beyond that. I really wanted to know, because jumping over rollerskates repeatedly using the game’s slightly awkward controls is the computer game equivalent of re-grouting my bathroom tiles: hardly likely to send me into a spiral of emotional misery, but tedious and unfulfilling.
Oh, that’s a ladder, is it? Good job putting it in the exact spot where it will most thoroughly blend in with the pattern of the brickwork, I hadn’t felt like enough of an idiot recently so it’s good to get my simpleton-o-meter topped up.
There’s a banana peel on the roof. A banana peel that’s been placed for maximum slipability, even. This must surely be Norman’s doing, the nasty little toerag. Oh well, Fireman Sam can simply jump over the banana peel, because hopping around on slippery rooftops is a great message for a show that supposedly teaches kids how to respond in a crisis.
Sam reaches the top of the roof, only to discover that there is no kite, only a crude painting of one that someone’s daubed on the chimney as part of a cruel prank.
Then the chief fire officer manages to lose the keys to the fire station, because the Pontypandy Fire Brigade is an absolute shitshow. Guess what? Sam, being the only halfway-competent person in this entire backwards-ass village, has to drive around until he finds it. Why isn’t Sam in charge around here? Is he just waiting for the Chief Fire Officer to die or retire? Well, I can see that the kite is flying around again, so next time it gets stuck on a roof maybe the Chief should go and recover it. Maybe he’ll have an unfortunate rollerskate-related “accident” and Sam can seize the big chair.
Next up: Norman gets his head stuck in some railings. Oh Norman, you great tit.
There’s a theory about Norman and his near-constant need for the fire brigade to rescue him, and that’s that Fireman Sam is actually his absentee father. Norman – whose “real” father is never seen or mentioned – somehow senses the bond of family between him and Sam, so he gets himself into trouble just to spend time with the man who might be his dad. Take note that both Norman and Sam have ginger hair. Is this theory a complete load of horseshit? Absolutely, but like I said I ended up watching more Fireman Sam than I ever expected and I had to find some way of getting through it.
Getting Norman unstuck sees the return of the joystick waggling. Once the firefighters have placed the rope around Norman’s neck, you have to hang on, is that really the best way to get Norman free? A sideways hanging? Did you not at least try smearing butter around his head first? It’s almost like you don’t want Norman to get free. Oh. Oh, I see. Nice work, Fireman Sam. The hero next door, indeed.
Anyway, waggling the joystick does make the firefighters pull the rope and it must be the correct thing to do because my score was going up, but there must also be another aspect to this that I’m missing because try as I might I could not get Norman free. Maybe there’s a certain rhythm you need to find, or a button needs pressing at the appropriate time, but I couldn’t figure it out because I was too busy violently thrashing the joystick back and forth like some terrible masturbation metaphor. Then I ran out of time. “That will not do at all,” said the Chief as the firefighters gave up and went back to the fire station, leaving Norman stuck in the railings where the villagers can pelt him with all the rotten fruit he deserves.
After this, Fireman Sam rolls around and starts repeating the same tasks over and over again, mostly the driving around looking for lost property ones, until you run out of time three times. At that point, Sam is presumably drummed out of the fire brigade, leaving the smouldering ruins of Pontypandy and Norman’s imprisoned skeleton in his wake.
Well, that sure was a computer game. Just about, anyway. Perfectly acceptable for the kind of very young people who watch Fireman Sam, I suppose, and unlike so many other licensed games based on kid’s TV shows it didn’t suffer too much from feeling like a shallow, cynical hack-job. There’s some attempt at including varied gameplay, at least. It’s not good by any stretch, and becomes boring astonishingly quickly, but frankly that’s what I needed at the moment: a game that even I, a man who recently put his television remote in the cutlery drawer, can cope with. Still, Sam’s no Thomas the Tank Engine, is he?
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