Today’s article is all about the thin line between plagiarism, inspiration and homage, plus walking penis monsters. It’s Time Warp Production and Rainbow Arts’ 1987 Commodore 64 awfully-familiar-em-up The Great Giana Sisters!
Here’s Giana herself, appearing on the game’s loading screen with a Rod Stewart haircut and some of the most confusingly-shaded breasts I’ve ever seen in a videogame. Also, teeny-tiny hands, but she’s still managed to grab a crystal as she flees from a strange assortment of monsters including flying hamburgers and a rather pathetic-looking lizard / pterodactyl thing, a creature that is to dragons as Godzooky is to Godzilla.
Usually I’d show you the title screen, but I can’t in this instance because it’s a huge scrolling image that spells out THE GREAT GIANNA SISTERS and it doesn’t all fit on screen at once. It does, however, spell “Giana” as “Gianna,” so you can come to your own conclusions about what the game’s heroine is actually called. Supposedly, the spelling was originally intended to be “Gianna,” but the artist responsible for the game’s cover art misspelled it as “Giana” and rather than creating replacement box art the developers just went with it.
The game begins, and that game is Super Mario Bros. Yes, it’s a familiar story to almost anyone with an interest in retrogaming, but just in case you didn’t know: Great Giana Sisters is an extremely unsubtle attempt at recreating Super Mario Bros. on the home computers of the time. The name “Great Giana Sisters” might have tipped you off. The similarities are so pronounced that Great Giana Sisters had to be recalled from sale after Nintendo saw it and threatened legal action.
I think it’s safe to say Nintendo’s lawyers wouldn’t have had to work particularly hard to win that case.
Now that you know Great Giana Sisters is Super Mario Bros with a change of gender and the kind of half-hearted, ass-covering changes to intellectual property most commonly seen on unofficial Halloween costumes, you’ve got a good idea of how the game plays. You control Giana, and you must guide her through multiple stages of hop-n-bop platforming action - leaping over crevasses, negotiating large pipes, collecting crystals and defeating enemies (often by jumping on top of them). Here’s an enemy now, a malevolent waddling lump that is this game’s answer to Super Mario’s Goombas. I’m not sure “small, furious owl” is the first place my brain would go to when trying to come up with a replacement for Super Mario’s menacing mushrooms, so clearly I lack the imaginative spark required to be a game developer.
As (in)famous as it may be, this is my first time having a proper go at Great Giana Sisters, and I have to say that early impressions are very promising. The scrolling is nice and smooth, Giana moves around at a fair clip and her jumps are definitely much floatier than Mario’s but not necessarily in a bad way. It’s difficult to explain, but even though she does drift around a bit while she’s in the air you always feel like you’ve got enough control over Giana to make the platforming fun, especially when combined with precise collision detection that allows you to make pin-point manoeuvres such as standing right on the lip of fiery platforms without taking damage.
However, Giana’s similarity to her Italian-American forebears did cause a few problems, especially in the early going. The most immediate of these was the control scheme – this being a Commodore 64 game that’s controlled with a joystick, naturally you press up on the stick to jump. I say “naturally,” but that’s the exact opposite of how it felt for the first, let’s say, hour of gameplay. Decades of playing Super Mario games where you jump by pressing a button means that said control scheme is fundamentally wired into my brain, a mental pathway laid down with the same unflinching certainty as “fire is hot, don’t touch it” or “Piers Morgan’s on TV, find the remote.” Many was the time that I sent Giana skipping merrily toward the edge of a cliff before pressing the fire button, expecting her to jump only to see her fall to her death. It took a lot of getting used to before that sequence of events became the exception rather than the norm, but even after spending a few hours with GGS there were still times when my mind refused to accept the controls.
Also similar enough to Super Mario to cause confusion is the game’s power-up system. Giana begins the game as a small girl with a bow in her hair and a blue line of pixels around her waist that I assume is supposed to represent a skirt. However, you can power her up by finding something the manual describes as a “fire wheel” but which looks like a piece of hard candy. Smash open a block with Giana’s head, find and collect the fire wheel and become bigger and stronger, with the ability to destroy certain blocks by jumping into them from below. So far, so identical to Super Mario’s mushrooms, except Giana doesn’t become “super” - according to the instructions, she becomes “a small punk.” Sadly the game’s soundtrack does not change to reflect this, I’d have quite liked to hear a SID version of the Dead Kennedys or similar.
The thing is, unlike Mario’s super mushrooms, being a small punk doesn’t make Giana any more durable and she still dies in one hit, a design decision that immediately makes GGS slightly more frustrating than Super Mario Bros. On top of that, you can’t defeat enemies by jumping into the block they’re standing on from below, something else that my brain refused to accept as fact and I was still trying to do it in the game’s latter stages.
Giana can still defend herself, though. As I mentioned earlier there are some enemies you can destroy by jumping on top of them, in that most tried-and-true method of platformer combat. Of course, there are some enemies you can’t jump on, but we’ll get to that later.
As well as grinding your foes beneath the heel of your boot, Giana can also collect power-ups that give her a projectile attack in the form of “dream bubbles.” You’d expect these to work in the same way as Super Mario’s fireballs, and to an extent they do before going off on their own tangent. Collect one power-up to throw a single bubble, collect two power-ups for a more durable bubble that stays on the screen longer and ricochets off walls, and collect three power-ups for bouncing death-bubbles that will seek out enemy targets on their own. That last power sounds great, and it certainly has its moments, but it does seem to have a problem tracking the smaller monsters and the bubbles will sometimes just hover near them, preventing you from attacking again because you can only have one bubble on screen at once.
Every four stages or so, there’s a boss battle. You won’t be surprised to learn it’s a very familiar boss battle, except after making your way through the castle and over the final bridge it’s not Bowser you’ll be facing but rather a giant spider. Or is that an ant? Maybe it’s both, nature’s attempt at creating the ultimate picnic ruiner. Whatever it is, you can defeat it in the same way that Mario would defeat Bowser: either by chucking a certain number of fireballs into its face, or by jumping over it and running for the exit. If you’re feeling particularly brash, you can jump over it several times and collect all those crystals. Grabbing one hundred of them gives you an extra life, because of course it does. That seems like something Giana should be doing because a) this is a game with one-hit kills so you’re going to need those extra lives and b) she’s a small punk, and what better way to demonstrate this than by fighting against the authority of the spider-ant overlords?
And so goes The Great Giana Sisters, having firmly settled into a groove of platforming action. You’ve got overground stages, you’ve got underground stages, you jump across holes and defeat monsters. That’s about it, really. Once you’ve cleared the first Bowser-in-an-insect-costume encounter, I’m pleased to say that GGS becomes more of its own thing, and the stage layouts feel more unique as opposed to the opening levels which were almost direct copies of stages from Super Mario Bros.
For the most part, GGS is a pleasure to play. As I said, it’s got smooth scrolling and animation, fast action and controls and physics that might be a little floaty when you’re airborne but which are accurate, precise and fun to get to grips with. While the gameplay never gets shaken up beyond the basics – there are no moving platforms here, no gauntlets to run along bridges patrolled by flying fish or springboard-assisted megajumps of the kind that keep Super Mario Bros feeling fresh – but the developers did a good job with what they had. Levels are assembled to provide a good mix between claustrophobic enemy-dodging and more expansive areas that reward sprint-jumping as fast and as far as Giana’s small punk legs will carry her.
When I reached this section, I thought “maybe Giana can run across single-block gaps like Mario can?” It turns out that she cannot. Sorry about that, Giana. You know what else she can’t do that Mario can? Use enemies as springboards by jumping on them. She just lands next to their shattered corpse, which is rather disappointing. In fact, I’d say that a large factor in how much enjoyment you get from Great Giana Sisters depends on whether you’ve played Super Mario Bros. beforehand. It’s a good game but the missing features you’d find in SMB mean you’ll either see it as an excellent Commodore 64 platformer, or a game that’s SMB but not as good.
Sometimes the boss isn’t a spider-ant, but instead it’s the green dragon from the loading screen. It looks a lot less… unfortunate from this angle, don’t you think? Menacing, even. Not as menacing as a spider / ant hybrid that’s larger than a child, but still. The fight’s still basically the same – either jump over the pterodactyl or dream-bubble it to death – but in this case I’d rather managed to get myself stuck by standing on the collapsing platforms for too long and then jumping up to the top for shelter. With very few places to stand that were both safe and gave me a chance at getting past the dragon, I thought I was going to be trapped up here forever, living out the rest of Giana’s life in a dragon’s attic. Then I realised I had the rebounding dream-bubbles, so I could throw them at the side of the platform on the left and they’d bounce back, hitting the dragon. Not only am I a god-damned genius, but the “good problem-solving skills” section on my CV is no longer a lie.
As much as I like the graphics in Great Giana Sisters – and I do, because they’re crisp, colourful and contain a nice selection of weirdo monsters – it could definitely benefit from a few different backgrounds. So much of it is very gently altered from Mario’s visual style that it can get a bit monotonous: the pipes, the fluffy clouds, the blocks, the unholy black statues erected in praise of some eldritch god that I can only see as the Alien Queen. A bit of variety would have been nice, you know?
In the very first paragraph of this article I promised you penis monsters, and I am a man of my word. At least, they look like penis monsters to me, as they bounce across the screen like a wind-up novelty purchased from the back of a dingy seaside “souvenir” shop. I’m sure Sigmund Freud would have something to say about me seeing these creatures as ambulatory dongs, but then again he absolutely bloody loved cocaine and if you’ve ever had a conversation with a cokehead then you’ll know they’re generally not worth listening to.
I have a bit of a problem with some of the monsters in this game, actually. Some of them can be killed by jumping on them, some can’t, some die by dream-bubble and others don’t – and the problem is that it’s not easy to tell at a glance your chosen method of murder should be. There aren’t that many types of monsters in the game so eventually you’ll simply remember what damages what, but when compared to something like, ooh, I dunno, Super Mario Bros. where monsters you can’t jump on tend to be spiky or what have you, it’s a little annoying.
After much toil, struggle and leaping onto spikes that I thought were part of the background, I’ve reached the final proper stage of the game, and here comes the moment I was waiting for. Whenever I play a platformer, there always seems to be one specific section – one specific jump, even, - that I get stuck on for an embarrassing amount of time. In Gremlins 2 it was the springboard-and-spike bit, in Toki it was the Golden Pipe of Bullshit, and in Great Giana Sisters it’s this screen. All you have to do is jump over / under the leaping fish and land on one of the three platforms available, but as you can see from the screenshot you’re not given much margin for error and I suffered countless deaths because I didn’t quite make it past the fish. Then I died another fifty or so times because I was so frustrated by the fish that I lost my cool and started messing up the basics of jumping, ramming Giana’s head into the ceiling and sending her plunging to her death. Was it miserable enough to make the rest of the game seem less good by comparison? No, thankfully it was not, although I certainly wasn’t having a good time while I was muttering “fucking bastard fish” to an empty room. I made it in the end, though. Aim for the bottom platform, that’s my advice.
With the fish dodged and a few more platforms safely negotiated, I made it to the end of the final stage. Imagine my surprise when bugger all happened. Giana just hit the wall and stopped. There’s nothing up here, and even if I hadn’t eliminated most of the collapsing platforms I couldn’t retrace my steps because the screen doesn’t scroll in that direction. In the end, all I could do was throw Giana into the briny deep and try to figure out what I’d done wrong.
Eventually I found my answer. You see this hole, located half-way through the final stage? Yeah, you’re supposed to jump down there. Once the leaping schlong has moved out of the way, obviously. It turns out this hole is actually a portal that warps Giana to the final boss, despite it being located in the place any platforming hero worth their salt will go out of their way to avoid. I was understandably aggrieved by this, especially because this pit appears before the very difficult double-fish murder jump. I went through all that for nothing. You’d think I’d be used to unnecessary suffering after spending the last thirty years watching the England football team, but it still rankles. There’s a line in the manual that says “Level 32: the straight road is not always the right one...” but that’s hardly the most helpful hint, is it? It sounds more like a fortune cookie message than a gameplay tip.
So I died, went back and jumped down the hole, where I was faced with GGS’ final boss. It’s the pterodactyl again. I was a little worried I was going to get stuck here, what with having lost all my power-ups because I had to purposefully lose a life, but in the end the boss was extremely accommodating and flew close enough for me to jump over him without any trouble. None of the bosses in this game really seemed to have their whole heart in it, you know?
Your reward for victory? A bloody massive crystal. You could align the hell out of your chakras with that thing.
Morning sun vanquishes horrible night, etc, etc. It turns out that the whole game was just a dream – normally a cop-out ending, but appropriate in this case. It feels like a dream you’d have if you stayed up until four AM playing Super Mario Bros. and listening to Black Flag, that’s for sure.
That’s The Great Giana Sisters, then. But is it? Great, I mean? No, I don’t think so – can something ever truly achieve greatness if all it does is ape greatness than has come before it? Probably not, but even if it could GGS doesn’t quite have the chops to make it to the absolute peak of the artform. It’s a little too one-note for that, a touch too repetitive. What it is, though, is a very good Commodore 64 platformer – one of the best on the system, I’d say. A good difficulty curve, some fun platforming challenges and an overall feeling of slickness make it an enjoyable game to play even today. Or, if you don’t have time for that, just listen to Chris Huelsbeck’s excellent soundtrack. I’m certainly glad I’ve played through a game which is, in its own way, a legend, even though I know that every now and then I’m going to think of that dead-end in the final stage and curse under my breath.
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