Today’s game is the story of a reluctant father who sets out to destroy his children: it’s Sunsoft’s 1990 Game Boy adventure Gremlins 2: The New Batch!
We all remember the Gremlins movies, right? Maybe not, actually. The first Gremlins was released over thirty years ago, so maybe there’s a generation of kids who’ve grown up with the Gremlins movies in their lives. Wow, what a depressing thought. If you’ve never seen the Gremlins movies, go and watch them now, and if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t take orders from the anonymous writer of a videogame website, here’s a quick recap: The first Gremlins is a horror-comedy about a man who buys a small creature called a Mogwai from a mysterious old man. He gives the Mogwai to his kid, the Mogwai gets wet and spawns an army of the titular gremlins, the gremlins cause mischief and mayhem and occasionally get exploded in microwave ovens.
There’s a Mogwai now! His name is Gizmo, and things have taken a dark turn for the little fuzzball since the end of the first movie. His mysterious old owner has died, and he’s now the prisoner of the Clamp corporation, who operate out of a big tower in New York and are run by an idiot. I’m sorry if you visited VGJunk in search of an escape from having to hear about Donald Trump, but he is one of the main inspirations for the Clamp organisation.
Things are looking up, though: Gizmo’s friend Billy (from the first movie) happens to work in Clamp Tower, so he frees Gizmo and they live together forever in happiness and tranquillity.
Except that doesn’t happen. I’m not saying that Gizmo and Billy’s Happy Smiletime Relaxathon couldn’t make for a good game, but having Gizmo fight a horde of rampaging gremlins is going to be much easier to sell. No, what happens is that Gizmo gets wet, which caused him to spawn gremlins, who erupt from Gizmo’s very flesh in an agonizing mockery of birth. You’ve got three rules with Mogwai – don’t get them wet, don’t expose them to bright lights and don’t feed them during the poorly-defined period of “after midnight.” That last one always bothered me as a kid. When does it stop being “after midnight”? Six AM? Noon? Are Mogwais bound by international time zones? And what constitutes “food,” anyway? If an especially nervous Mogwai bites its fingernails at five past midnight, have they condemned themselves to the excruciating pain of gremlin birth? These were the questions that haunted a ten-year-old VGJunk, who was perhaps a little too serious as a child and didn’t have many friends.
Before we move on, check out that great artwork of Mohawk, the “leader” of the evil Mogwais / gremlins. It’s an excellent piece of pixel portraiture, even if the shadows in the background do make it look a little like he’s being harassed by a group of sock puppets.
The game begins, and you are playing as Gizmo (naturally) and it is a side-scrolling platformer (of course,) which is I’m sure how most people would expect a Game Boy adaptation of Gremlins 2 to play out. Make sure you collect that pencil, because Gizmo is completely defenceless without it. Once you do have the pencil, however, Gizmo can use it as a bludgeon to batter his opponents into submission. I guess the pen is mightier than the sword, but once you get a pencil it loops back around to being a sword again.
Gremlins 2 is an interesting property to adapt into a videogame. Gizmo is not a terribly exciting hero, let’s be honest – he’s small, weak and not particularly fast, plus he fights using a pencil. That doesn’t sound like a great basis for a videogame star, does it? On the other hand, Clamp Center’s various departments, ranging from the TV studio you can see in the first stage to scientific laboratories, give plenty of scope for different stage themes. Then you’ve got the gremlins: a swarm of monsters that make for perfect low-level cannon fodder – plus, in the movie a bunch of the gremlins gain special powers by drinking science experiments, so that gives you a nice selection of more unique gremlins to serve as bosses and special opponents.
Pictured above is a regular, run-of-the-mill gremlin. I could run over to him and smash him over the head with my pencil a few times, but instead I’ve elected to send Gizmo along the top route and avoid the gremlin entirely. There’s a cube up here that makes boxing gloves fly out to the right and left when you stand on it, which might come in useful later if I manage to wear my pencil down to a nub.
It’s not just gremlins that Gizmo has to contend with: there are rats, spiders and some extremely annoying bats to deal with as you progress. This rat is in trouble, though, because Gizmo’s managed to find a toolbox and now he’s invincible. The toolbox lets you run through the stages, smashing into and destroying enemies at no risk yourself. As far as I can tell, the box has a certain amount of “hit points,” and after it’s depleted those hit points by colliding with enemies it disappears. The box is also immediately destroyed if you touch any spikes, so watch out for that. It’s not much of an issue in the first stage, but later levels have more spikes than an all-male Buffy the Vampire Slayer cosplay competition.
Like a lot of things in this game, the toolbox benefits from being completely adorable, what with Gizmo shuffling sideways through the level with his feet sticking out of the bottom. Graphically, Gremlins 2 is off to a very strong start and maintains a high standard throughout, with simple but well-defined stage elements that let you know at a glance how each kind of platform is going to react when you step on it, and plenty of charming, characterful sprites for Gizmo and the gremlins alike.
For example, here’s Greta, the “lady” gremlin. She’s immediately recognisable as such, even in so few pixels. All she wants to do is give Gizmo a kiss and a cuddle, but you should avoid those kisses like you would the ones from a bristly aunt at Christmas, because they’ll drain your health.
As for the platforming parts of the game, they’re just about what you’d expect. Platforms, holes, spikes, that kind of thing. Gizmo’s got quite a lot of control over the height of his jumps and you can move him around a fair amount while he’s in the air, both factors that become much more important in later stages where there are a lot of jumping challenges that feel like you’re trying to thread a Mogwai through the eye of a needle. However, there’s a slight delay between pressing jump and Gizmo taking off, and what’s worse it seems to be an inconsistent delay, especially when you’re using the springboard platforms, and I’d say ninety percent of the non-boss-related damage I took in this game resulted from Gizmo not jumping when I told him to.
On the whole, though, this first stage is good fun. Lots of jumping, a few different routes and out-of-the-way power-ups to search for and a good overall feeling of Gremlinosity. Many of the paths through the stages are quite narrow and ended up reminding me of games like Quest of Ki or Legacy of the Wizard (but more fun than either of those games,) and later in the game these tight paths only increase, giving Gremlins 2 almost a puzzle-platformer vibe.
You might notice than in the screenshot above, Gizmo has a musical note hovering over his head. Sadly this is not because he’s whistling a jaunty tune as he saunters through the stage – it’s because he’s picked up a radio, which gives him a one-time projectile attack where he throws the musical note ahead of him. That gremlin sticking his its head out of the floor is about to get a blast of music thrown into his face, and as the music kills the gremlin on contact I have to assume Sunsoft have somehow managed to weaponise my own singing.
The first boss arrives, and it’s the one time the game’s graphics fall down a little because I can’t tell if it’s supposed to be Mohawk or the vegetable gremlin. You know, the gremlin who turns into a creature made of vegetables because he drank vegetable DNA, ending up looking like a living Arcimboldo painting? Yeah, that guy. Perhaps I’m only thinking of the vegetable gremlin because this boss attacks by throwing tomatoes at Gizmo, because he doesn’t look that vegetable-ish. So let’s say it’s Mohawk, then. It’s a boss fight right out of Videogame Confrontations 101, and provides very little challenge: you avoid the boss’ tomatoes, mostly by letting them bounce over your head, and then get in close. Once you’re right next to the boss, start mashing the “clobber with pencil” button, and if you’re fast enough the boss will be sufficiently stunlocked that you’ll emerge triumphant in a matter of seconds. No wonder Mohawk doesn’t like Gizmo very much.
After the first stage, you’re given the chance to earn an extra life by hitting this punching bag one hundred times. It’s a pretty great minigame, if only because (as you can see above) if you really hammer the button Gizmo turns into a furious, furry jackhammer of a puncher. He’s getting into Fist of the North Star territory by the end, which I’m sure is the Gremlins crossover we all want to see.
Stage two takes place in the science labs. What kind of science are they doing? They’re trying to determine the most dangerous combination of spikes and springboards possible, I think. From here on out there are a lot of spikes to avoid and an amount of springboards that’d make the World High Dive Federation jealous. The screenshot above gives a fairly typical example: you bounce on the springboard, over the tower of blocks, and then have to guide Gizmo past the spikes as he falls. It isn’t an inherently bad type of gameplay, and indeed the beginning of this stage is quite good fun as you’re forced to focus on precision.
These bats can do one, though. They’re by far the most frustrating of the regular enemies to deal with, because as soon as they get near Gizmo they fly towards him and attach themselves to his oversized head, making it very difficult to hit them with the pencil and doubly so when you’re bouncing around on the springs. Oh yeah, the pencil. I hope you remembered to track it down at the start of the level, because you lose it between stages. That’s right, you start each stage completely defenceless again. I know the pencil’s not much of a weapon – I’m playing as Gizmo the Mogwai, not John Wick – and its minuscule range can be frustrating, but it’s still better than literally nothing.
Greta’s back. This time she’s wiggling her hips in a, erm, seductive manner. A tiny part of me has the urge – the same thanatological urge to jump that one might feel when standing on the edge of a cliff – to put “Greta Gremlins” into Google with safesearch turned off. I didn’t, though. I’m not that daft. Plus, I’ve been on the internet for decades now, I’ve got a good idea what’d be out there. That’s why I drink so much.
Boss number two is the bat gremlin, complete with the famous bat powers of flight and being able to secrete smaller, more annoying bats from his body. The bat gremlin mostly flies around at the top of the screen before attempting to dive onto Gizmo’s head, so your strategy is to move out of the way just as he reaches you and then whack him during the brief moment that he’s on the ground. That’s all well and good, a perfectly acceptable boss fight pattern that I’ve encountered dozens of times before, but then he goes and spoils it by throwing the small bats at you. They home in until they’re on Gizmo’s level and then fly horizontally (and very quickly) across the screen, and I never figured out the best way to dodge them. There were a couple of times I managed to avoid them through sheer fluke, my blind, panicked thrashing of the buttons somehow guiding Gizmo to safety, but for the most part the only advice I can offer is to make sure you start this fight with full health. That way you can mostly get away with ignoring the small bats. Oh well, at least the boss’ sprite looks really nice.
I mean, gee, I hope so. There are hundreds of human lives at stake. If I get all the way to the end of the game only to discover that the gremlins cannot be stopped, I shall feel rather aggrieved, especially as by that point I’ll have beaten hundreds of the bloody things to death with nothing more advanced than a 2B.
Next up is the… wherever this is stage. The CCTV monitoring room? I think that might be it. It’s also where Gremlins 2 collapses under the weight of its own bullshit, forcing the player into a nightmare of suffering and degradation. Okay, that last bit was a little OTT, but the game really does get a lot less fun at this point, mostly because the difficulty goes through the roof. Almost every jump from now on requires pin-point accuracy, and the enemies are placed in ever more fiendish locations. For example, take that big chap up there: he’s surrounded by a rotating ring of spiked balls, so you have to time your movements to dash through the gaps, in a narrow corridor where there’s no room to jump to safety. A perfectly viable platformer challenge, I suppose, although it’d feel a lot less aggravating if Gizmo could duck or waddle a bit faster.
However, the thing that really drags Gremlins 2 down is the preponderance of blind jumps and hidden hazards. Take the scene above, for example. There’s a springboard, and a gap in the platform directly above the springboard so hey, you probably have to bounce up there. Except no, there a spike block just above that gap, hidden from view until you bounce up there and give Gizmo a surprise lobotomy. This kind of scenario occurs a lot in this game, especially when you’re falling from a platform and you can’t see that you’re about to land on something dangerous until it’s too late. This would be mostly mitigated if Gizmo could pan the screen around a little a la Sonic the Hedgehog, but of course he can’t. Gremlins 2 is a short game, so maybe this emphasis on memorizing the levels was intentionally included to expand the running time, but that doesn’t make it any more fun. It might have flown back in 1990, a simpler, less demanding time when humanity was so undiscerning that Timmy Mallett was allowed to have a number one single with Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini, but nowadays it makes getting through the last couple of stages a real chore. At least you’ve got infinite continues.
There’s also this pain-in-the-arse of a section where you have to ride a moving block while dodging spikes. Again, it’s a standard-seeming piece of platformer gameplay, but Gremlins 2 manages to make it feel weird by having the block travel slowly for a while and then suddenly accelerate to “your internal organs are now paste” speeds with no warning. It also loops around on the same path a couple of times, just for extra fun. I had real trouble getting past this section until I figured out that I took less damage and had less chance of being knocked into a pit if I just stood on top of one of the spike blocks and waited for the platform to come to me. I think that’s what they mean by “thinking outside the box,” except in this case the box is covered in spikes.
Even the boss battles are getting worse, and while the electric gremlin may look cool – and he is, because he’s a gremlin made of electricity and that is cool – fighting him is about as cool as having your mum bring you your anorak and acne medication in the middle of your first date. The electric gremlin turns into a lightning bolt and bounces around the screen, only pausing for the briefest moment every now and then. This means you have to chase him around and try to be nearby when he lands on the off chance that he transforms back into his whackable state, but between the pencil’s tiny range and the unpredictability of the boss’ movements he’ll land close enough to hurt you most of the time. He lands, you get hit because you were standing a hair too close, you can’t hit him because you’re stunned by taking damage, he flies off again and the whole tedious process repeats itself. The only saving grace of this fight is that there aren’t any spikes.
Now we’re into the final stage, where I was immediately confronted with one of the most challenging parts of the game. I’ve got to use this springboard to bounce up to the platform with the pencil, you see, so that means springing upwards, veering to the right to avoid cracking Gizmo’s head open on the bottom of the platform, and then moving left while still in mid-air to land on the platform. It took me roughly seven hundred attempts to make this jump. I’m still not sure why. I think what happened was that at first I was being overly cautious because I didn’t want to mess up and land on the spikes, but after a while I flipped to being so frustrated by it that I lost my composure. It was a bad time, and no fun was had by anyone. In fact, I think this section may have made any fun I have had in the past less fun in retrospect, and trying to get Gizmo to that bloody pencil has cast a dark taint over my happy memories.
Still, at least the stage has to get better after this poor start, right?
Wrong, dead wrong, super-duper wrong, wronger than all the answers on every maths exam I’ve ever taken. Gremlins 2 saves its most infuriating areas for last, culminating in this wretched excuse for a puzzle. Gizmo is behind those blocks. You have to get him through this maze of platforms, spikes and holes without being able to see where in the flaming hell he is. It’s just… oh, man, it’s bad. So, so bad. A needlessly punishing gauntlet of bad decisions that only gets worse when you miss a jump and fall back down to the bottom or, god forbid, lose a life and have to fight through the entire stage again just to take another crack at it. Did I mention that you can’t see Gizmo? Awful, just awful. I somehow managed to get though it via pure luck and the ironclad determination that I wasn’t going to let it beat me. Later, I did discover a “better” method, however: if you find a radio earlier in the stage and don’t use the projectile attack, when you reach this section Gizmo will still have the musical note over his head – and the note appears in front of the maze, so you can tell where Gizmo is. God bless whichever of humanity’s foremost geniuses figured that one out, because I sure as hell wouldn’t have.
As for the rest of the stage, most of it looks like this. Now we know where Chun Li gets all her spiky bracelets from.
And then, it’s time for the final boss. It’s Mohawk, but he drank the scientific spider juice so now he’s half-spider, half-gremlin. He also has a lovely (and massive) sprite, and I like that as the final stage went on there were more and more spiderwebs on the blocks to give you a hint as to what was coming up. Well, that’s all the good things about this fight covered. It’s all negatives from here on out, folks.
You see, Gizmo has a proper weapon now – a tiny bow that fires flaming arrows. Great! It certainly beats the pencil, but there’s a problem. The bow only fires horizontally, and Spider-Mohawk can only be hurt by shooting him in the face, which is all the way up there. Plus, just like in your most terrifying nightmares, there’s a constant rain of deadly spiders falling onto you. You can just about dodge them while you’re standing on that tiny platform, but doing so isn’t getting the boss killed, is it? So, what to do?
It turns out you have to get Gizmo stuck to that spiderweb, which then carries him on a lazy path up and down the screen, sometimes bringing you level with Spider-Mohawk’s face so you can deliver some scorching hot justice. However, the little spiders are still falling, but you can’t dodge them while you’re on the web. So, your options are a) stay at the bottom, dodging spiders but not hurting the boss or b) climb onto the web for the chance to shoot the boss, but suffer a constant bombardment of unavoidable spiders. That’s right, as far as I can see there’s no way to approach this boss fight without taking damage, and lots of it. In fact, I think the only way to beat the fight is to make sure you come in with full health, get straight on the web and shoot the boss in the face at every single opportunity you get. In that case, the boss might – might – run out of health before you do. You don’t need me to tell you that this is a terrible climax to the game, but I’m going to anyway because it really is awful.
Eventually the gods of fortune smiled upon me and I managed to beat the boss, thus bringing Gremlins 2: The New Batch to a much-anticipated close. There’s not much to the ending – gremlins dead, Gizmo not dead – but as that’s basically how the movie ends too I’ll let it slide.
So then, Gremlins 2 turned out to be a real shame. It started out rather well, with some perfectly acceptable platforming action, excellent graphics and a soundtrack which, in typical 8-bit Sunsoft fashion, is way above average. They also did a good job, perhaps the best job they could have done, of incorporating plenty of elements of the movie into the game so it feels less like a generic platformer with a Gremlins license slapped onto it.
Sadly it all falls apart towards the end, especially if you’re not into memorising entire stages by playing them over and over or, like me, you really hate taking damage from sources you can’t even see. It’s still better than most licensed Game Boy platformers, that’s for damn sure, and with a few changes and a bit more polish it could have been a real diamond, but c’est la vie. At least there’s the NES version of Gremlins 2, which is a very different but far superior game and one that I would definitely recommend you try out.
There’s one final point in the Game Boy version of Gremlins 2’s favour, though: there’s an appearance by the brain gremlin! Sure, it’s only on the Game Over screen, but I’ll take it. When I was a kid I thought the brain gremlin’s whole “we want to be civilised” scene from the movie was pretty much the most hilarious thing ever, so I’m really glad to see him. Having watched that scene again recently… it’s still great, it really is. So, here’s my suggested order for consuming Gremlins 2-related media: watch the movie, play the NES game and then stop unless you’re really into Game Boy platformers.
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