20/06/2017

BARBIE AND THE MAGIC OF PEGASUS (GAME BOY ADVANCE)

After playing Golden Axe last time out, I’ve been left with a desire for more magic, mystery and rideable fantasy creatures. Videogames offer plenty of options when it comes to the genre, but which one shall I play? The reassuringly familiar JRPG action of a Final Fantasy? The epic scope of your Skyrims and Oblivions and such? Well, no. I don’t have time for that, for one thing. Instead I’ve turned to one Barbara Millicent Roberts – that’s Barbie to you and me – with the 2005 Game Boy Advance wand-em-up Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus! 


This being a Barbie game doesn’t exactly bode well. The last Barbie game I covered was the execrable Barbie: Fashion Pack Games, which contained neither games nor fashion but was definitely a pack of something. However, this particular Barbie adventure was developed by WayForward, who are best known for the well-liked Shantae games and Duck Tales Remastered, so I’d be very surprised if this was anywhere near as bad as dreck like Barbie: Fashion Pack Games.


After starting the game and selecting my difficulty – I went with “normal,” because even I have too much pride to play a Barbie game on “easy” - the action begins with the shocking revelation that you don’t actually play as Barbie in this game. Instead, you’re in control of one Princess Annika, and it’s her birthday. Why, her friends and family are even throwing her a surprise party! I must admit, if someone threw me a party and invited a polar bear I’d definitely be surprised. Don’t worry, the bear isn’t dangerous, and it’s very much a Disney-movie-style animal friend. “Disney-style” is right, too: Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus desperately wants to be a Disney product, and it’s full of princesses in ball gowns and animal sidekicks, but of course it’s not the genuine Disney article and as such BatMoP (and the CGI movie of the same name that this game is based on) has the feel of a pound-shop knock-off.


Suddenly, tragedy strikes – everyone at the party (apart from Annika) is turned to stone! Fair enough, that’s the kind of thing you’d expect to happen at a fairytale party that’s been crashed by an evil wizard. The wizard’s name is Wenlock, and while he is evil, he’s also horny. He wants Annika to marry him and has eliminated all the competition to make this happen, but Annika’s having none of it. Instead, she resolves to find the Wand of Light, a sacred magical relic that can undo Wenlock’s foul sorcery and save the kingdom’s inhabitants from an eternity of being shat on by pigeons. Thus begins Annika’s mighty quest to retrieve the wand, and what a legendary adventure it promises to be! We can only imagine the far-flung places and perilous locales our plucky young heroine must traverse. Will she travel the briny depths of a bottle-green ocean? Must she scale the crystal spires of the distant, soaring mountains? Maybe she’ll oh wait, she’s found the wand.


Turns out it was in the same room as the party. That’s rather a stroke of luck, isn’t it? I’ll be honest, I was expecting a slightly more involved quest than that but I guess we’re done here. Annika saves the day, and I’ll see you next time.


No, of course not. Getting the wand was just the beginning, now Annika has to walk up to each statue one at a time and bop ‘em with the wand, reverting them to their usual fleshy selves. You can see this happening above. Pay particular attention to the lady on the right. When I first set her free, I misread her wide, slack-jawed mouth as a black moustache, which when coupled with her green cap and denim-blue dress momentarily made me think I’d rescued Luigi from the wizard’s spell.


Having seen that Annika has almost immediately foiled his plan, the wizard Wenlock makes a personal appearance. He’s still intent on getting Annika to marry him. I think that boat has sailed, buster. You probably should have gone with a “romantic trip to Paris” style of proposal rather than “condemn my fiancée’s loved ones to an agonising fate worse than death.” Also, calling her “dollface” probably didn’t help, although as Annika is a kind of Barbie I suppose it’s technically accurate.
Wenlock reveals that he’s turned everyone in the kingdom to stone, so it’s up to Annika to travel the land, dishing out individual wand-bashings. Oh, and Wenlock turns Annika’s sister Brietta into a pegasus. Erm, thanks, I guess? Even the characters comment that this is very helpful because now Annika’s got a magical steed to travel around on. I’m not sure what Wenlock’s end-game was with the whole pegasus thing.


Now the game proper can begin, and Annika finds herself in the Cloud Palace with a simple mission – find all the petrified people and restore their human forms. To accomplish this, she must perform a bunch of very simple platforming, jumping between the different areas of the (very lightly) maze-like castle and using her wand to set people free and destroying stone blocks that obstruct her path. By combining up or down on the d-pad with attack, you can swing the wand in a low sweep or an uppercut, which is handy for reaching awkwardly-placed blocks.


There are a few enemies knocking about, too. They can also be dispatched with a solid wand-whacking. Presumably they’re the minions of Wenlock, although they don’t seem much concerned about stopping Annika. Mostly they’re just there, and when you take damage from them ninety percent of the time it’ll be because you couldn’t see them before you jumped onto the screen. On the plus side, and admittedly this is the most tenuous of connections, fighting ravens in a castle hallway filled with diagonal staircases and floating platforms gives BatMoP a very slight tinge of the Castlevanias.


There’s not much else to say about the gameplay – hop, wander around, half-heartedly bat aside critters with your wand – until you reach the end of the Cloud Palace’s first stage (of three). There you find a new power for your wand: the “twirl” power, which works as a high-jump with the wand dragging Annika behind it as it soars into the sky. You switch between the two functions of the wand by pressing the R button, and spoilers – this will cause problems later on. For now, though, the twirl power is a welcome addition that provides some variety to the slow-paced platforming.


This being a giant castle, naturally there are secret rooms. If you can find both the key – one of the petrified people always has it – and the door, you can enter the secret room and play a very short block-clearing challenge to unlock a new costume for Annika. So, it’s a secret closet, then? It’s a nice enough addition I suppose, and it’d be weird to have a Barbie game that didn’t involve dressing up at some point. Go on, then, let’s have a look at Annika’s new clothes.


Well, they’re definitely very Barbie.
As I mentioned, there are three stages in each “world,” and while the Cloud Palace does become slightly more complex as you progress it obviously never gets too ambitious. Of course it doesn’t, this is a game designed for young children, and about the most complex part of the Cloud Palace are the moving platforms that travel along clearly-defined pathways. Still, what’s there isn’t bad. Annika controls well, with consistent jumping and sharp hitboxes, and while the stages are somewhat maze-like to facilitate the “hunt for statue people” gameplay they’re never too frustrating in their layouts and you get a counter at the bottom-left that tells you how many people are left to find.


At the end of the Cloud Palace, Wenlock shows up for a boss battle. This really isn’t helping on your quest for matrimony, man. Can’t you just live the life of a regular evil wizard, sitting alone in your mountaintop castle, spending vast sums of money on elaborate candle set-up and binding books in human skin, rather than making me participate in a frankly rather dull boss battle? To win, you use the twirl power to climb on top of the chandelier, which then falls down, hopefully on Wenlock’s head. Do this three times and you’ve won. Wenlock survives, despite having a huge chandelier dropped on his head three times. I suppose I’d better chase after him, then.


These between-worlds flying stages are where you really see the benefit of being on good terms with a pegasus. Sure, you have to overcome the awkwardness of, ahem, mounting your sister, but once you do you can fly around by tapping the jump button to gain altitude, bouncing on top of clouds to reveal the coins they’re hiding. Collect ten coins and win a special prize, namely an extra heart for your life meter and a still from the movie that’s so heavily compressed it might as well be composed of Stickle Bricks.
There’s a flying stage between each of the worlds, all with the goal of collecting ten coins, sometimes by flying through rings or just flying into floating, unobscured coins. It’s a decent change of pace, I suppose, and the developers had to get the pegasus involved in the game somehow.


It’s on to the snowy village for the next world, and already BatMoP has settled into a fixed routine. Find all the villagers in the three stages of each world, collect a new power for the wand and a new costume, beat the boss and ride your sister to the next world.


In this case, the new wand power is a variation on the twirl that carries Annika a longer distance horizontally rather than vertically, and the new costume is the same as the last costume, only green. Turquoise, maybe. Personally, I was hoping for a scarf and mittens. Something seasonally appropriate, you know.
The snowy village is a much more open and expansive place than the Cloud Palace, but fortunately the developers didn’t go too mad when they were hiding the villagers. Normally I’m really not fond of games where you have to collect every single example of something, especially when there’s no indication of where those items might be,  but as long as you remember to look on top of houses you shouldn’t have much trouble finding everyone. It definitely feels like WayForward found a decent balance for younger players, with the statues placed in locations that require some exploration but which are unlikely to become frustrating (partly because the stages aren’t all that big).


The boss battle is against Wenlock’s griffon, which I had trouble getting a decent screenshot of because it spends most of the fight flying around off the top of the screen. The trick here is that you have to bait the griffon into slamming beak-first into the wooden bridges along the path, a la the final fight in Super Mario Bros. 3, and it’s not difficult when you can twirl horizontally to get out of the way. BatMoP makes damn sure that you’re going to do the boss fights correctly – not only does it tell you exactly what you need to do in order to win, but it even removes superfluous wand powers so you don’t waste time, I dunno, twirling upwards when you should be going sideways.


Next up is the Forbidden Forest – although sadly not the fascinatingly bizarre Commodore 64 game of the same name – and Annika’s wand now has the power to turn animals into “plants.” “Plants” is a very loose description for this wand power, and while some enemies like the dangling spiders are transformed into flowers, take a look at the platform Annika is riding. That used to be a small griffon, but our heroine has transmogrified it into a flying log. The log still has a griffon’s face, which raises some disturbing questions about how much sentience remains in the newly-timbered creature.


The main use of Annika’s new flower power is curing goblinism. Some of the people have been turned into goblins, like the one over on the right. He kinda reminds me of the shopkeepers from the excellent SNES adventure Demon’s Crest, but I digress. You’ve got to hit them with the flower wand, which somehow doesn’t turn them into a plant, but rather back into statue that can then be destroyed. It might seem like an unnecessarily complicated extra step in Wenlock’s plan for him to turn these statues into Shrek’s distant relatives, but I’m glad he did – the goblins make grunting noises, so they’re much easier to track down than the other statues.


What else is new in the forest world? Well, there are a lot of tall trees to climb using mushroom platforms, and the flower wand can transform certain plants into springboards for rapid ascents. Unfortunately, they are some of the worst, jankiest springboards I have ever had the displeasure of interacting with in a videogame. When you stand on one, Annika is fired into the air in such a juddering, awkward manner that they feel more like teleporters with severe mechanical defects than springboards, with the “camera” struggling to keep up as Annika moves from one point to another, higher point with no animation or movement in between. They genuinely feel broken, as though someone completely forgot to test them during the game’s QA phase, and it’s especially weird because the rest of the game is technically very competent.
Aside from those things and the new goblin-fixing portions of the gameplay, there are a few new creatures out for your blood. Spiders, mostly. I must admit, it feels a bit strange to be playing as a character that for all intents and purposes is a Disney princess who travels through the forest battering woodland creatures with a stick.


The boss of the woods is Ollie the Giant, and he lives up to his name. By being a giant, I mean, it’s not like he’s kicking out rad skateboard tricks. Ollie’s got a big ol’ sprite, and I’ll say this for Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus – it looks good. Nice sprites that are really well animated and backgrounds that aren’t quite as good but certainly aren’t bad and do their job well without being cluttered and confusing. WayForward definitely went the extra mile on the graphics. I’m getting a bit of a She-Ra vibe from it, which is fine by me. I used to love She-Ra as a kid, which is not something you could really admit as a young male child in the late eighties. But it was basically more He-Man (which I was obsessed with) and it had Hordak in it, so I was bound to love it.
Oh, right, the boss battle. Mini-griffons fly in, you use the flower power to turn them into logs, the giant trips over the logs and hurts himself. I felt kinda bad for the big dope, honestly. He’s just out there in the woods, living his life, until some princess turns out and starts giving him stubbed toes for no adequately explained reason.


The final world takes place in some ice caverns, and fortuitously there’s a power-up for the wand in here that allows Annika to melt ice blocks. Guess what you’re going to be spending most of the stage doing? That’s right, sliding around on slippery floors. Okay, they’re not too bad, because you can use the horizontal twirl to float over most of them.


We’re nearly at the end of the game now, and you know what? On the whole Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus isn’t bad at all. It’s solidly built for the most part, it tries its best to include new features with each stage and I’d say that as a game for young kids it pitches itself at just the right level of complexity. It never gets difficult, per se, but there are some sections that the little ‘uns will have to think about in order to clear, and it never feels patronising or lazily slapped together as so many kid’s games do. There was definitely a fair amount of effort expended on this game, and while you and I are unlikely to be captivated by it I don’t think very small children would have felt cheated had they spent their precious pocket money on it.


It still has its problems, though. There are a few too many blind drops for my liking – in the screenshot above there’s a pool of health-draining water just below the bottom of the screen, and there’s no way to pan the camera down. There were several times when I had to guess that I should be using the horizontal twirl power rather than just jumping, and as I said earlier most of the damage I took from monsters was because I couldn’t see the bloody things before jumping off a platform.
However, the one issue with BatMoP that really set my teeth on edge was cycling through your wand powers. It’s fine early in the game when you only have two or three, but when you’re in the last stage and you have to press R five times to reach the fire power, melt a few ice cubes, switch to the regular wand to free a statue and then cycle back around to the fire power seconds later, it gets frustrating. Any time a monster that I could see damaged me, it was because I had the wrong wand power selected and I couldn’t switch back fast enough – an issue aggravated by the inconsistency of the wand’s powers. The twirling powers will destroy regular blocks but can’t harm enemies, and for some reason the flame wand doesn’t damage enemies either. It’s a real pain in the arse, and what makes it worse is that this situation could have been hugely mitigated simply by having the unused L button let you cycle backwards through your powers. Isn’t this really just an annoying but relatively minor foible? Yes, absolutely. Did it make me emit a near-constant groaning sound during the final stages? Also yes.


There’s a one-off stage right at the end where Annika is chased by a rolling snowball and has to melt the ice barriers that block her path before she’s squashed. It’s pleasant enough, although it’s really only notable for Wenlock turning up just before Annika drops into the icy chute and making a terrible “she’s falling for me” pun.


At last, it’s the final encounter with Wenlock. It’s an odd one, because Annika has already totally foiled Wenlock’s evil schemes. All the people have been freed from the statue curse and it was mentioned right at the start of the game that Annika could easily change her sister from a pegasus back into a human but she didn’t because having a winged horse was super useful. I can’t imagine she’s about to straight-up murder Wenlock, though, so this fight must just be about teaching him a lesson.
It’s a two-part fight. The first part is the same as the chandelier-dropping battle from the first stage, except now there are two chandeliers.


The second half is a three-card monte deal, where Wenlock makes three statue clones of himself and you have to keep an eye on where the real Wenlock is before bashing him with your wand. If you can manage to do that three times – and trust me, you really can, I believe in you – then the game is over and Annika can get back to her opulent lifestyle of leisure and carefree whimsy.


Wenlock finally gets the hint that Annika doesn’t want to marry him. I imagine he’s off to post a lengthy rant on some internet forum about how females don’t appreciate nice guys.


Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus ends as it began: with Annika celebrating her birthday. After she’s turned her sister back into a human, of course. Everyone wants to be the centre of attention at their own birthday party but that ain’t gonna happen if one of the guests is a flying horse.


Well, that was something of a relief, huh? A Barbie game that not only wasn’t terrible on a gameplay level but managed to avoid feeling like a rushed, cynical hack-job. It’s far from perfect, but I think many young Barbie fans would enjoy it without feeling like they’re being patronised, and the graphics are rather nice. Speaking of the graphics, I noticed one Paul Robertson credited for “Character Animation” - that would be the same Paul Robertson who’s a pixel artist famous for his work on (amongst other things) the Scott Pilgrim game, Mercenary Kings and his complex, bonkers promos for Adult Swim. No wonder the game looks nice.
I’m not sure why they called it “the Magic of Pegasus”, mind you. It was Wenlock and Annika who did all the magic. Maybe if the pegasus had a routine where it caught a bullet in its teeth, I could accept that title. I’d have given the game an extra gold star, that’s for sure.

9 comments:

  1. Okay, the shot at men's rights activists toward the end was a treat, and probably more rewarding than actually finishing the game would be.

    One thing that perplexed me... it looked like someone had tied a party balloon to the polar bear's tail, which is very short and uncomfortably close to the animal's anus. Cute comic relief sidekick or not, I don't think a bear would willingly accept that.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It had nothing to do with men's rights activists.

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    2. I mean, it was just a throwaway line, but yes, it obviously did.

      Delete
  2. This is the most PASTEL game I've seen in a long time.

    Also, the game's acronym "BATMOP" sounds like a game with a much more entertaining premise than this one.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Pretty sure the Bat-mop was used to clean up in the Adam West Batcave(may he rest in bat-peace).

      Delete
  3. Now I'm curious about trying the Disney Descendants game for Android.

    ReplyDelete
  4. High five for the young closet she-ra fans.

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  5. It's heartening that they actually put effort into the gameplay and graphical presentation for a property where, as noted, complete throwaway games have been deemed acceptable for so long.

    ReplyDelete
  6. A hidden Paul Robertson Barbie game? Wow!

    ReplyDelete

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