21/02/2017

CHUCK ROCK (MEGADRIVE / GENESIS)

It’s a shame that most videogame-to-movie adaptations are terrible, because I think a big-screen version of today’s game would be worth making. Of course, that’s only because then you’d be able to use the tagline “Fun is just a stone’s throw away” on the posters. It’s the 1992 Megadrive version of Core Design’s prehistoric platformer Chuck Rock!


Originally released in 1991 for the Amiga and Atari ST, Chuck Rock was soon ported to a wide number of different platforms. So why the Megadrive version? No real reason, it just looks very close to the original but is controlled with a pad with extra buttons.
So, the title screen, then. There’s a band playing. I’m sure we’ve all already made a mental “rock band” pun, so let’s skip that and say hey, the animations of the band are actually synced up to the music somewhat, which is a nice touch. From left to right you’ve got a dinosaur in a wig, a drummer with the Virgin logo on his kit, (because Virgin published this version of the game,) Chuck Rock himself (who is also wearing a wig, as we shall see in a moment) and Chuck’s, erm, buxom wife Ophelia. The Megadrive version goes straight into the action when you press start, although other versions do have an introductory cutscene. The story is that Ophelia is kidnapped and Chuck sets out to rescue her. So far, so exactly the same as 90% of other 16-bit platformers. However, the cutscene shows that Ophelia was abducted by the band’s drummer, whose name is Gary Gritter. Yes, he’s named after and is physically based on former glam-rock singer and current incarcerated paedophile Gary Glitter, making this the second game I’ve played in the past few months to feature the same bit of extremely unfortunate celebrity caricature.


Chuck Rock is a platformer, that much is clear. You jump a lot in this game, as well as avoiding enemies where you can. There are a couple of twists to the formula: for starters, there don’t seem to be any bottomless pits for you to fall into. Some of the pits are filled with lava or spikes, but they all have a bottom. Chuck can also attack, either with a jumping kick or, if he’s standing on solid ground, by thrusting his fat gut at the bad guys. Whether the enemies perish from sheer disgust as a sweaty caveman’s belly rubs up against them remains unconfirmed, but the problem with this attack is obvious: it has almost no range. Like, Chuck’s a fairly chunky chap but even his prodigious gut doesn’t reach as far as his fists would. And anyway, what kind of caveman doesn’t carry a club? You’re a disgrace to the uniform, Chuck.


The look of Chuck Rock is unmistakeably European, isn’t it? Cartoonish without a hint of manga influence, like an alternate version of The Flintstones that started in the pages of The Beano. It’s a good look, though. Nice and colourful, pleasingly solid and detailed sprites, it definitely looks the part.


And now, the secret of Chuck Rock’s title is revealed: he’s called Chuck Rock because he can chuck rocks. Pick ‘em up, set ‘em down, carry ‘em around and throw them at dinosaurs and other dangerous fauna. Rocks: nature’s Swiss Army knife. There are two sizes of rock, small and big, and each kind slows Chuck down either a little or a lot while he’s carrying them. The benefits of carrying a rock, not including “a great upper body workout,” are that when they’re over Chuck’s head they can protect him from aerial attacks, and if a flying enemy crashes into them they will die. Plus you can throw them at things, which is generally much more effective than the gut-bounce. As well as that, the rocks can be used as platforms, either for a little extra height when reaching distant platforms or as a stepping-stone when placed on hazardous floors. It’s a very welcome bit of extra gameplay in what would be a pretty by-the-numbers platforming adventure otherwise.


Not all the creatures are out to kill Chuck. Some of them are actively helpful, like this pterodactyl that carries him across the screen. Now, a confession: I have, in the past, mentioned Sega’s “Cyber Razor Cut” series of TV ads for the Megadrive, and specifically I’ve said that the line “hitch a lift on a pterodac-bird” is one of the worst attempted rhymes I’ve ever heard. However, having listened to the ad again in slightly better quality, I concede that the actual line might be “pterodactyl,” only the pronunciation of the word has been cruelly, viciously mangled in an attempt to get it to rhyme with “world.” It does not rhyme. I think I preferred it when I thought it said “pterodac-bird.”


As I say, the Megadrive version of Chuck Rock is mostly identical to the original computer games, but here’s something that’s different: in the Amiga version, this huge dinosaur tried to take an actual shit on Chuck’s head when he walks underneath it. I remembered this from having played the Amiga version as a kid, and when you are a kid a massive dinosaur taking a dump on your character is the kind of thing that sticks in the memory. Sadly, this does not happen in the Megadrive version, and I can only assume it was removed for reasons of perceived good taste.


And so on you go, guiding Chuck through the jungle setting dispatching dinosaurs with his paunch and occasionally throwing boulders onto crocodile’s heads so you can use them as see-saws to propel you upwards. Unfortunately the crocodiles don’t say “it’s a living!” when you do this, probably because you’ve just dropped a rock on their heads.
It’s all very jolly, and certainly feels as though it’s had a little more craft put into it, a little more love and affection spent, than you might find in the slew of generic run-n-jump platformers of the time. Apart from Chuck having a slight (but manageable) delay on his jumps, it all controls very nicely and hits a good balance of simple, obvious challenges you need to clear in order to progress and hidden areas that require a bit more exploration and boulder-stacking to access. You only really get point items from these side areas, but it’s still fun to see where you can get to.


After a while, Chuck stumbles upon the first boss. It’s an angry triceratops, charging back and forth along the bottom of the screen. There’s a rock down there, too, and your task becomes clear: jump down while the triceratops is at the far end of the screen, grab the rock, climb back up the platforms and then throw the rock onto the triceratops from above like a moronic yob throwing bricks off a motorway bridge onto the cars below. It’s an easy task to accomplish, so it’s a shame that you have to do it a bunch of times to defeat the triceratops. Yes, this fight falls into my least favourite category of boss fight – the one where you do the same basic action over and over. The triceratops doesn’t change its attack patterns or anything like that, so basically the fight is saying “sure, you dropped a rock on a dinosaur once, but can you do the exact same thing ten times?!” Yes, Chuck Rock, yes I can. If I take any damage, it’s because I got bored and my mind started to wander.


Stage two takes place in some caves, every surface covered in slimy, gloopy mud. I sincerely hope it’s mud, anyway. The caves feature many of the cave-based hazards you might expect from a 16-bit platformers, like dangerous stalagmites, falling rocks and scuttling spiders, as seen above. These spiders remind me of the monster version of Drutt from the “Nasty Stuff” episode of classic kid’s claymation show Trap Door, a reference so specific even I’m surprised it sprang to my mind.


Halfway through the stage there’s a lava section, because of course there is. Interestingly, Chuck responds to falling into molten rock the same way Mario does in the 3D Super Mario games – rather than being immediately incinerated, he leaps back out of the magma with a yelp and an accompanying loss of health, furthering Chuck Rock’s status as a platformer that is completely disinterested in killing the platformer by having them fall into bottomless chasms.


There are a few elevators in this stage, powered by dinosaurs running around treadmills, and once you’re off the lift the dinosaurs lie down and have a kip. There are quite a few fun little flourishes like this in Chuck Rock, all of which help elevate it above the average in terms of presentation if not gameplay.


Boss number two is a sabre-toothed tiger. A fearsome foe indeed, made all the more dangerous by the lack of any rocks in the arena that you can chuck at it. This means you have to rely on Chuck’s jumping kicks and belly-bounces, both of which have a range measured in nanometres and are thus ill suited to fighting something with teeth bigger than your head. Most of the damage you’ll take in this fight comes from being unable to halt Chuck’s forward momentum as he attacks, often propelling him straight into the tiger. On top of that, the tiger can also roar, which momentarily freezes Chuck in place through sheer terror. His jaw drops and his skin grows pale, which again is a lovely little touch.
The tiger runs around the arena in a loop, lunging at Chuck when he gets near. My strategy? I didn’t really have one until I managed to get behind the tiger and trap it against that small lip of rock on the left of the screen. Once it was there, I mashed the attack button as far as I could, grinding the tiger to death between a rock and soft, flabby place. A flukey victory, sure, but I’ll take it.


Oh joy, it’s an underwater stage, everyone loves those. A completely different set of physical rules to grapple with, the action rather hampered by the Megadrive’s lack of transparency effects? What’s not to love? Okay, I’m being too harsh there. The swimming portions of Chuck Rock aren’t that bad. It certainly helps that Chuck still moves pretty quickly when he’s submerged, which keeps the game flowing, and half of the stage takes place on land anyway. It’s a lot more awkward to defeat enemies while you’re underwater, as you can probably imagine, but we should commend Chuck for his bravery. He’s not afraid to kick a Portuguese man-o-war to death with his bare feet, whereas I feel queasy if I step on spilled shampoo in the shower.


While the underwater sections aren’t terrible, it’s still preferable to ride over them on the back of a friendly whale.


One annoying facet of Chuck Rock’s level design is that it features far too many blind jumps. Here, for example, the only way to progress was to jump off a cliff (a phrase that looks weird now I’ve written it out) into the water below. The thing is, you can’t see the water below, which is why Chuck’s about to take damage from landing on a jellyfish. Each stage seems to include at least a couple of blind jumps, and the longer I write about videogames the more irritating I find this situation. I like to delude myself that if I can see the danger, I can use my skill to avoid it, even if that’s rarely true.


Stage three follows up some not-especially-inspired level design with an absolutely terrible boss in the form of this plesiosaur. If the Loch Ness monster was a huge dork, this is what it’d look like, snorkel and all. All it does is bob up and down and occasionally blow bubbles at you. These are videogame bubbles and therefore they hit with the force of a .44 magnum round, but they’re still easy to avoid and all you need do to defeat this boss is find the precise distance from which you can float in place and kick it repeatedly without bumping into it. It feels less like a fight and more like synchronised swimming, and even more like a waste of everyone’s goddamn time.


Stage four combines the swimming sections with the almost mandatory ice stage, complete with slippery platforms and frozen enemies. It’s a testament to the overall craft of Chuck Rock that the combination of these two tropes, probably the least-loved of all platformer level types, somehow remains fairly fun to play. It’s not perfect, and in a lot of ways it’s a backward step from earlier areas: there seems to be less emphasis on creative rock throwing, and the increased difficulty level comes from packing more and more creatures into each screen rather than through thoughtful level design. Still, it looks really nice, and I love these ice-crystal backgrounds and the dinosaurs that attack by sliding across the platforms while encased in massive ice cubes.


I also love these snowball-throwing dinosaurs, because they are utterly adorable, slinging their snowballs with a real sense of childlike innocence. It’s a real shame what Chuck’s about to do to it with this large rock, honestly.


This stage also has a brief outdoor section, complete with snowmen that I’m going to assume were made by those same dinosaurs that throw the snowballs. A bunch of them got together and built a snowman, and it’s cute as heck. “If they’re dinosaurs, why didn’t the build a snow-dinosaur, then?” I hear you ask, and the answer is because making a snow dinosaur would be a lot more difficult, especially if you don’t have opposable thumbs, obviously.


Atop a cold and snowy mountain, Chuck faces off against a woolly mammoth in a fight that’s quite similar to the underwater one but vastly improved by taking place on land. The mammoth charges, so you jump up and kick it right in the face. Sometimes it’ll use its trunk to fire snowballs or to suck you towards it, vacuum-cleaner style. I’m standing by my statement that this is a better boss fight than the last one, but it’s still not good, and none of Chuck Rock’s end-of-stage encounters are much fun to endure. They’re the weakest part of the game, that’s for sure, at once boringly simply yet made frustrating by the incredibly short range of Chuck’s attacks.
Let’s look on the bright side, though. All this snow and ice implies that if I just hang around for a while, I won’t have to fight any more dinosaurs. After all, as a giant Austrian once said “what killed the dinosaurs? The Ice Age!


Oh. Wow. I didn’t expect all the dinosaurs to actually die. I mean, I know Chuck’s thrown rocks at a lot of them, but not enough to cause the mass extinction event that makes up the final stage. It really must be the Ice Age’s doing.


There are even dinosaur graves, complete with dinosaur headstones, just in case you though this cheerful cartoon romp was getting a bit too cheerful. Chuck is too respectful of the dead to pick up the gravestone and throw it, which is disappointing because I like the irony of beating someone to death with a tombstone.


As with the previous stage, this boneyard suffers from an overabundance of enemies packed into each screen, which makes progressing just enough of a slog that you begin to wonder whether you’re still having fun. At least the enemies themselves are fun, with rattling skeletons and dinosaur mummies charging around the place, and the enemy designs are definitely one of Chuck Rock’s strong points. I especially like the way basic enemies change as you make your way through the game: for instance, the hostile pterodactyls behave in the same way throughout the game, but in the snowy levels they gain a little scarf and in this stage they’re skeletons, and that goes a long way towards making them feel less repetitive.


Here, Chuck breaks the cardinal rule of the Caveman Code by walking directly into a dinosaur’s mouth. Don’t worry, though, the dinosaur is already dead, or at least extremely unwell. All its teeth fall out when you approach it, so there’s no worries about being chewed to death.


This means the next area takes place inside a dinosaur, which is great even if it is full of these disturbingly cheerful hearts. There are dozens of the bloody things in here, so they can’t be the dinosaur’s heart and are presumably a species of parasitic organism that invades other living creatures until their innards resemble the bins behind Poundland on the day after Valentine’s.
I’ve always loved videogame levels that take place inside a living creature, you know. I think it’s the cross-pollination of the bio-organic settings of my beloved Alien franchise, the NES version of Life Force / Salamander and the “In The Flesh” level from Blood. Chuck Rock gets an extra point from me for including such a stage.


Then, with surprising suddenness, the final boss appears. Notice that I am no longer inside the dinosaur. I assume Chuck managed to leave the corpse via the, ahem, most obvious exit. I think by this point it’s fair to say that Chuck has been through some (literal) serious shit, so a dinosaur wearing boxing gloves and a super-sized version of Sir Arthur’s boxers is unlikely to faze him. I do like the dinosaur’s little crown, mind you.
Anyway, the dinosaur will try to attack you in different ways depending on which platform you’re standing on, either with punches or by biting. You’d think the punches would be the least effective of these attacks, what with the boss having stubby little T. Rex arms, but I had far more success on the top platform. The boss comes in for a bite, Chuck boots it in the snout, repeat until the game finishes. Did I mention boss battles aren’t exactly Chuck Rock’s strong point?


Thus the game ends: Chuck is reunited with his wife, and… hang on, so that dinosaur is Gary? I thought I was after the human kidnapper Gary Gritter? What the heck is going on? In search of answers, I checked out the ending to the Amiga version, where I noticed this:


If you look at the ending image without the text in the way, you can see that someone has been crushed by the dinosaur’s falling body. I guess that’s Gary, then. You can understand my confusion, given that Gary doesn’t appear in the final boss’ room or anything, but apparently he was there the entire time. What a lame ending, made worse by the fact I was momentarily led to believe I’d just fought a T. Rex called Gary only to have such a wonderful notion cruelly snatched away from me.
Before we leave Chuck Rock for good, take another look at the ending text, specifically the line about how “Chuck can not wait to get home and out of his leaves.” A couple of points: for starters, the first time I read it I assumed “get out of his leaves” was a euphemism for getting extremely drunk. You know, “Chuck necked a bottle of scotch and got absolutely out of his leaves, started a fight with a bouncer and dropped his kebab,” that kind of thing. Sadly that’s not the case, “his leaves” actually means the foliage Chuck’s wearing as under (and indeed outer) wear. Also, in the console versions it says he’s going on vacation after this ordeal, which is fair enough. However, in the original versions it’s strongly implied that he’s going home to have sex with his wife, which is also fair enough but apparently far too racy for the Sega Megadrive.


Amid the great morass of cartoony 16-bit platformers, Chuck Rock can stand tall as one that’s distinctly above average, especially for one based on a computer game. Sadly it doesn’t quite reach the top thanks to the dull boss battles, too-frequent blind jumps and a rock-throwing mechanic that’s underutilized in the later stages. Presentation-wise it’s very good, with lots of charming (and charmingly weird) monsters and backdrops, plus an enjoyable soundtrack that’s been expanded from the single tune of the original to a track for each level. I’m especially fond of the eminently hummable and extremely bouncy stage two theme. Overall, then, time with Chuck Rock was time well spent. Okay, maybe not well spent. I could have done a lot of chores instead of listening to Chuck shout “unga bunga!” but it was, mostly, fun. I’m still disappointed that dinosaur wasn’t called Gary, though.

19/02/2017

ACTION REPLAY COVER ART

Back in the days before they generally became easy enough for the idea to become pointless, videogames used to have these things called cheats. Sometimes there were secret passwords or sequences of button presses, but if you needed a little extra help getting infinite lives or giving Megaman the ability to leap right off the top of the screen, you could turn to a cheat device. You plugged them into your console, entered various arcane phrases and they magically fiddled with the game’s code to produce useful, empowering effects or, if you were anything like me, you could enter rude words and reduce your NES games to unplayable screens of graphical garbage. You might be familiar with some of the famous names in this field: products such as the Game Genie, the Game Shark or perhaps even Datel’s Action Replay.


Seen here in its NES incarnation, the Action Replay had a long shelf life, with iterations being released all the way up to the Nintendo 3DS era. Of course, as games became bigger and more complex over the years, the codes required started to become far too cumbersome to be input by the player, so Datel hit upon a solution: they released discs full of the codes for specific games. Of course, the Action Replay is not an official, licensed product. That means that when they were designing the covers for these cheat discs, they couldn’t use official art. They had to draw their own art. I think you all know where this is going. Would you like to see some of that art?

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City


Oh yeah, that’s the stuff. Close enough to the original that you could be momentarily confused if you saw it from the corner of your eye, yet it completely falls apart under any kind of scrutiny. Vector graphics, apparently run through a filter that makes they look like they’re composed from scrunched-up toilet paper. Interesting that the designer went with a grey block of flats for the central picture, an image that truly sums up the neon-tinged 80s hedonism of Vice City. The bottom-middle picture appears to be a killer whale trying to make love to a tyre, and two of the pictures are of the same woman, only flipped and cropped. Then there’s the real star: the bloke at the bottom-right with the expression of weary contempt. I can only image he was the person in charge of approving this cover, and that’s the face he pulled when he saw the finished article.
There are a couple of other nice things on this cover, too: I like “This Is Not A Game” label at the top, because it’s fun to imagine it’s an exhortation to take this cover art really seriously. I also like the promise of “No Police AI.” Having played a lot of Vice City over the years and witnessed hundreds of police cars driving over cliffs and running down their fellow officers, I suspect “No Police AI” is simply an intrinsic part of the game.


Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas


If you prefer your GTA games more Californian, then worry not because the Action Replay has you covered with a San Andreas disc. First things first, that car’s not bad. Recognisably a sports car, and sports cars appear in the game, so that’s perfectly acceptable. Then you get over to the poor lady on the right and it all falls apart. The middle of her body isn’t too bad, I suppose: strangely oily-looking and her right boob appears to have deflated entirely, but not awful. However, when you move away from the centre things start getting worse, so here’s my theory: the artist starting drawing the bit they were most interested in – the breasts – and once those were finished their attention began to wander somewhat. You look up to the face and immediately wish you hadn’t. It’s hard explain exactly what’s so wrong about it without either resorting to complex diagrams or just saying “everything”, but I think the worst thing about it is that half-constructed ski jump of a nose. It looks like something I would draw, and that’s a damning indictment indeed.
Then you look down and get to the hands. “Hands” is a very generous term. “Flesh Mittens” might be more apt. They’re not human hands, I know that much.

Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II


Here’s the magical Dungeons and Dragons fantasy world of Baldur’s Gate, as represented by a woman holding two kitchen knives. Sure, why not? They must have kitchen knives in Baldur’s Gate.  It can’t all be dragon-stabbing, sometimes you need to julienne a carrot.

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess


Huh, I didn’t know Picasso went through a Zelda period. Link’s trying to take a moody selfie in front of a temple, complete with pout. An interesting concept, but unfortunately you’re then forced to look at it and try to figure out the bizarre geometry of Link’s arm and shoulder. Is that supposed to be his shield on his back, or a turtle shell? Have his hair and ears fused into one felt-tipped nightmare of biology? Mysteries about, but none so perplexing as just what’s going on with his eyes. Maybe it’s a perspective: Link’s face is ten feet wide and his left eye isn’t really tiny but is actually really far away.

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater


I give my life, not for honour, but for… helicopters? What, you had to come up with a Metal Gear-themed cover and the best thing you could think of to represent the franchise was helicopters? Not even, I dunno, a snake? I bet those helicopters don’t even feed on tree frogs. I am extremely reluctant to use the phrase “I could do better than that” in any situation, because I am painfully aware of my own limitations in almost every field, but in this case I’m convinced I could have found a stock photo of a snake and slapped a vector filter over it. Damn, I’ve just realised what my dream job is.

Final Fantasy X / Kingdom Hearts


The tragedy of this cover is that whatever terrible thing this doofus is wearing, it’s still better than Tidus’ actual outfit from Final Fantasy X. Yes, even with the stainless steel abdominal lattice and the bedspread knotted around his shoulders to act as a cape.

Final Fantasy X-2


Still, it could have been worse: a character from Final Fantasy X’s direct sequel (Yuna, I guess?) is represented as a human(?) head riding a wave of motion blur, a look that gives the impression of an incredibly fast slug. Don’t let the idea of a flying head distract you from that truly awful haircut, though. Just looking at those straggly bits at the bottom is making my neck itch.

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker


That’s a bit more like it. A large part of Wind Waker does indeed involve Link sailing around on a boat. Not a Roman warship, granted, but it’s a more fitting symbol for the game than helicopters were for Metal Gear Solid 3. Still, that doesn’t explain why Link is sailing across a sea of milk. Unless… oh, I get it, Link and his boat are made of Weetabix. That explains the colour scheme, you see. We’re actually looking at the exciting adventures of a bowl of cereal.

God of War II



Hang on, what? I would never have seen this cover and thought “oh yeah, that’s God of War.” “Muscular bald man” and “monsters” are definitely applicable phrases for the God of War games, so for this cover to include both of those things but still be utterly unrecognisable is kind of impressive. This bloke looks more like the God of Hernias than the God of War, a supervillain whose origin story involves him falling into a vat of synthol. Could the artist have not at least slapped some red tattoos on this Kratos-wannabe rather than just painting his torso black? Oh, I know, you think he’s wearing a vest but take a closer look and you’ll soon realise that there’s no way that’s clothing. I think he was laying in the road and got run over by an asphalt spreader.

Various Super Mario Games


It’s-a me, [Name Redacted]! You can try hiding behind the steering wheel of your kart all you like, Mario, but we still know it’s you, with your (genuinely) iconic cap and your Mickey Mouse gloves. Of course, something has gone horribly wrong with Mario’s body, which might throw you off a little. I know everyone’s favourite plumber is supposed to be a little portly, but here he’s little more than an egg with arms and a head haphazardly bolted on near the top. Perhaps that’s why hiding, he’s overcome with shame. Or he’s worried Sonic’s going to see him and mistake him for Dr. Robotnik.
There is a strange amount of variety in how close these covers get to representing the game they’re intended to work with: this is clearly Mario, and the Twilight Princess cover was a straight-up picture of Link, but the God of War one bears far more similarity to any given 1980 boy’s toy line than, you know, God of War. I wonder why that is? Perhaps some companies were known to be more actively litigious than others, although I doubt it. I think the real answer is simply that no-one making these discs and their cover art really gave a toss.

Nintendo DS / 3DS


It’s a little difficult to see the “artwork” on this one due to the shape of the packaging, but I think you’ll all agree it’s worth the effort just to see what Bowser would look like with a combover. That’s a proper bootleg Bowser, that is: a piece of official art that has been modified just enough to be legally distinct, and in one way it’s even an improvement of the original: Bowser should definitely wear a cape more often. As a bonus, you can see from the right-hand side of the picture that the artists were still having trouble keeping Link’s eyes even roughly the same size, and as a result he looks like he’s having a stroke while trying to do a Dreamworks face.
However, the very best thing about this cover is that it promises cheats for Brain Age. I’m not usually one to tell people how to enjoy the media they consume, but if you’re cheating at a brain training game then surely the only thing you’re cheating is yourself.

Guitar Hero


Don’t get me wrong, I love the Guitar Hero games, but playing along to a rock song with a plastic guitar does take the concept of being in a band and make it look very uncool. It is appropriate, then, that this cover makes playing Guitar Hero look uncool.

Pokemon


Ah, bootleg Pokemon. Now there’s a venerable tradition, bootleg Pokemon have been keeping Chinese knock-off merchants in business for twenty years now. Did I take advantage of Pokemania during my high school years by printing out fake Pokemon cards and selling them to kids at school? Of course not, what kind of terrible person would that make me? Also, its not very financial viable when you consider the costs of printer ink and other materials. Erm, I imagine.
This cover gives us a classic example of some non-official Pokemon, of the kind you’d see adorning market stall goods and news reports about the Pokemon craze that couldn’t get hold of official artwork – slightly altered, enough so that any Pokemon fan would immediately know they’re a) Pokemon and b) not legit Pokemon. So, you’ve got a Piplup with a head so shaggy it looks like it’s attached to a Van der Graaff generator, a Chimchar whose fiery backside won’t prevent it from reading the list of exclusive game codes, a Charizard that’s two levels away from evolving into Pete’s Dragon and a Bulbasaur that’s spent way too long huffing its own spores, if you catch my drift. All in all, some A+ fake Pokemon work.

Metroid Prime


This is my absolute favourite of the bunch, for a variety of reasons. There’s the bizarre proportions, for starters, with a shoulder that attaches directly to the neck and an arm cannon that would reach down to the floor if not-Samus here stood up. There’s the overall look of the thing, a look that screams “Half-Life knock-off” rather than anything to do with Metroid. If you told me there was an early version of Gordon Freeman in that suit, I’d have no trouble believing you. Assuming the early concepts for Freeman stated he was an only vaguely humanoid mass of protoplasmic tissue who didn’t have to worry about bones or joints, that is. The very best component of this image, however, is not-Samus’ pose, the kind of hand-on-thigh, leaning-in pose that makes it look like they’re about to “rap” with the kids about some “heavy issues.” If they made chairs to accommodate such freaks of anatomy, you can bet not-Samus would be sitting in it backwards and saying “hey kids, I know baby Metroids are ‘totes adorbz,’ but there’s nothing adorable about them when they’re siphoning away the life essence of you and your loved ones.”

That’s about it for these Action Replay covers, which is kind of a shame. I’m sure there are yet more wonderful examples out there, but from some unfathomable reason people seem to be reluctant to take pictures of them. Before I go, though, I should point out that these rip-off covers aren’t exclusive to the Action Replay’s later years.


This is the artwork for the Megadrive Action Replay, starring the Techno Kid. I’m guessing the responsible person’s design process was “this product is for massive dorks, so what if we took a massive dork and tried to make him look cool?” They failed, and thus Techno Kid was born. You know how some things are so bad they become good? Well, Techno Kid’s shorts are like that, except they start at bad, go past good and loop right back around to being awful again. Anyway, Techno Kid’s shoes might have clued you in to his secret origin:


He’s copied from this piece of artwork from the first Sonic the Hedgehog. It was the beginning of a proud tradition.

14/02/2017

MAGIC LAND OF LANDLORDS (ZX SPECTRUM)

oday’s article is one of those where I started writing it and then thought “is anybody going to be interested in this? Am I even interested in this?” In the end I decided that I am interested in it, just about, but a more important motivational factor was that I’d already played the game and I wasn’t about to let that ordeal go to waste. So here it is – the 1986 ZX Spectrum game Magic Land of Landlords!


I’ll be honest, I picked this game because of that title. Magic Land of Landlords? It offers so many possibilities. Is it a Valhalla for property owners, where they all sit around drinking mead and exchanging tales of how it took them six months to fix their tenants’ faulty boiler? I’m going to assume it is, a fantastical realm where the rent cheques are never late and you always get to keep the security deposit. But what type of game could hide behind that title? A Monopoly-style property acquisition game, perhaps, although I’m not sure you can, like, own magic land, maaan. Or maybe it’ll be a block-stacking puzzle game, where you have to figure out how many bedrooms you can cram into a student housing property before environmental health come around for a chat.


Sadly, there’s so such imagination on display and MLOLL is a flick-screen side-scrolling platformer starring a wizard. A wizard that looks a lot like a Black Mage from a Final Fantasy game, actually (although this game predates Final Fantasy). A Black Mage with spinal problems and pillow shoved up the front of his robe, sure, but the resemblance is definitely there.
The wizard must reach the other side of the screen to progress, naturally, but barring his path are a floating skull and a blue thing on the ground that I think is supposed to be a hole. Possibly it’s a discarded pizza. It’s deadly to the touch, whatever it is. So is the skull. I’m not sure why contact with the skull is lethal. After all, we’re all touching a skull all the time and it doesn’t kill us, and the skull’s not flying at a high enough speed for it to be death by bludgeoning. I know wizards are supposed to be physically weaker than other classes, but this is taking it too far. We’ll just have to assume it’s a magic skull, what with it flying and being in Magic Land and all.


To get past the hole I’m going to have to jump over it, which is unfortunate because MLOLL's jumping physics are… not good. I’ve had to wrestle with worse when playing other Spectrum games, but MLOLL suffers from that common Spectrum problem of the jumping feeling very choppy, as though you’re moving upwards in a series of small increments rather than along a smooth curve. Couple that with the amount of precise jumps you need to make to get anywhere in this game, and the fact that it’s hard to judge exactly how far you’re going to leap, and you’ve got a recipe for a frustrating (if not atypical for a Spectrum platformer) landlording experience.
I did, eventually and at the cost of two of the wizard’s three lives, make it past the skull and over the hole, rushing headlong into the exciting mystery of screen two…


...where I let the edge of my robe brush up against a hole and promptly died. Good job, wizard, if you even are a wizard and not a collection of easily-startled goldfish with weak hearts who have all crammed into a wizard’s robes in an attempt to explore the surface world.


I persevered, and made it between the holes, basking in the safety of the screen's perineum. Yes, the thing on the right is another hole, but it’s one you can fall through to reach another screen rather than being instant death. I wish the developer had made the distinction clearer. You know, made it look like a hole that leads somewhere rather than a depression in the floor or perhaps a very large coin. Then I might not have spent so much time avoiding these holes and thus missing out on the caves below.


There are also balloons that can carry the wizard up to the clouds. Of all the ways for a wizard to fly, a balloon seems disappointingly prosaic. Could he not have hopped on a dragon or a giant eagle? Or, I dunno, used magic? Okay, so we can scratch that last one. Despite being dressed as a wizard, your character appears to possess no magical skills whatsoever. All you can do – or at least, all I figured out how to do – in MLOLL is jump. I tried everything I could think of, but the wizard resolutely refused to do anything but jump, walk left and right and die the moment anything so much as caused his robe to flutter slightly.


Here we are, wandering around in the clouds. Maybe the wizard does have some magic, then. I don’t think you can walk on clouds otherwise. The first thing that happened when I got up here was an attack by a crawling speech bubble. He looks a lot happier to see me than I am to see him, possibly because the speech bubble knows he doesn't have to contend with the game's jumping controls.


More clouds, more balloons and a blue… thing. A disembodied head wearing a balaclava. Or perhaps, judging by the curvature of its back, another wizard who was bashed so hard on the noggin that his head retracted into his chest cavity. Whatever it is, I’d like to jump over it and move on to the right, but unfortunately every bloody time I tried to do this I ended up accidentally touching the balloon and travelling upwards. MLOLL has a real problem with the cramped and cluttered positions of items, enemies and hazards. I suppose it was aiming for a “pixel-perfect jumping required” kind of feel, but it ends up being a right pain in the arse. Making it difficult to avoid enemies is fine, but making it difficult to move between screens in the direction you want is just bad.


A little further in, the floating head of a witch attacks by dropping squares on the wizard. You might notice that this has bugger all to do with landlords. Magical Land of the Ineffectual Wizard would be a better title for this game, I’m sure you’ll agree.
I did manage to pick up this Omega symbol while I was over here, however. I’m not entirely sure what it does, mind you. I think it might have something to do with the candle on the right, which acts as a time limit as it slowly melts away while you play. I found a few other things while I was exploring, too. There’s a mushroom to pick up on the first screen, for instance, extra lives and even a key here or there. The thing is, I have no idea what they do, either. Okay, apart from the extra lives, even I managed to figure that one out. I certainly didn’t find any doors that looked as though they needed a key, though, and that mushroom remained thrust deep inside my wizard robes for the duration of my adventure, never to be used. Maybe the game ends when the wizard cooks a nice risotto for the final boss or something, but I never managed to get that far.


Into the caves now, where the wizard must negotiate the dangling spiders (fairly adorable) to reach that one-up (also adorable). So, MLOLL gets some points for having that occasional sprite that made me think “aww, that’s kinda nice.” I'm sure those spiders would be blushing if they weren't made of eight monochrome pixels.


These bats do not contribute to the cuteness. I’m not even sure they’re bats. They look more like a set of lungs connected by a trachea. That explains why they’re blue, they can’t get any air into themselves without a diaphragm.


At this point, I’m just wandering around without a clue what’s going on. I picked up a key! I jumped over some monsters! I died a lot, but I’d started using a cheat for infinite lives so that was less of an issue than it used to be – although you get moved back to the entrance of the screen when you die, so it’s still entirely possible to get completely stuck.


Like here, for example. I dropped into this cave, and I couldn’t get out. The only exit is to the right, but as far as I can tell there is simply no way you can jump over the spikes and avoid the spiders and the floating lungs. There’s just physically not enough room for you to get through – the wizard is kind of a chunky sort – without touching something, and touching something means death, and death means re-appearing back on the left of the screen so you can’t force your way through. If I’m on this screen, I ain’t getting out. Now, I tried a lot of things to escape, various key combinations and jumping angles and what have you. I feel satisfied that I exhausted all the possibilities available to me. However, I will also admit that there’s a chance I’m missing something, maybe even something very obvious. A way to use some goddamn magic powers you absolute shit-wizard, even. If you do know of a way to do anything in this game besides jump, please let me know. Feel free to really come at me with it, too. Be as harsh as you like as you explain the very basic concepts of this game that I was unable to grasp. Don’t worry, I just spent several hours trying to play MLOLL, you’re not going to make me feel any more stupid than I already do.


Having been forced to start the whole game again, I avoided the inescapable cave and made my way over to the right where some kind of castle awaits. Finally, a building! There’s got to be a landlord around here somewhere, right? That part of the game’s title has been sorely lacking thus far. I’ve got a key and everything, I’ll just hop over those spikes and run for the door! Well, I’ll jump over the spikes eventually, once I’ve had five or six failed attempts where the spider lightly brushed my hat.


You! Over there! The indistinct lump of blue pixels! Are you a landlord? Who owns this castle? What are they charging for rent? Whatever it is, it’s too much. There are monsters trying to kill me, the floor is an unpleasant shade of yellow and there doesn’t appear to be a toilet. Oh, I get it now. It’s the magic land of the landlords because it’s a land without any kind of rights for tenants, a fabulous world where you can charge whatever rent you like without having to provide indoor plumbing or a roof. Maybe there’s a Magic Land of Builders out there, where every customer is a confused pensioner, or a Magic Land of Astrologers where the populace are just super gullible.


Then I reached a dead end in the castle and that was that. I’m completely out of ideas here. I did manage to find a map of the game, and it seems to imply that you can travel to different sections of the castle when you go beyond that screen with the door on it. I suspect the path you’re placed upon might depend on what keys you’re carrying, but because collecting one of the keys requires you to travel through Bullshit Cavern I never managed to test that theory out.


Supposedly if you do make it onto the correct path in the castle, you’re confronted with this thing. Close inspection has revealed that it’s a face with horns, an upturned nose and a yellow, fanged mouth beneath. However, this knowledge does not prevent me from seeing that mouth as a pig’s snout every time I look at it. Combine this with the stumpy little protuberances at the bottom, and I think the best way to read this sprite is as a front view of a pig. A pig with two snouts, maybe, but a pig none-the-less. Let’s pretend it’s Ganon, taking some time off from failing to defeat a young boy who lives in the woods. There's no Triforce in this magical land, but there are also no battles that turn into sorcerous games of ping-pong, either, so maybe Ganon can find his true level of competence here.
Obviously I never reached this part of the game, so I can’t tell you what happens here. Maybe the wizard finally pulls his wand out of his arse and does some actual wizarding, but I highly doubt it. Judging by the presence of four separate enemies appearing on this final screen, the wizard wouldn’t have survived for longer than half a second anyway, so the game presumably ends as soon as you reach this screen.


“Bravo, you have defeated the terrible landlord,” it says. I mean, I didn’t because I couldn’t figure out what the hell was going on, but somebody did. So the landlord was a pig monster all along, huh? I guess we know the programmer’s feelings on their rental situation at the time, if nothing else. Quite what the defeat of the landlord means for the common people of the Magic Land remains unclear, but I suspect the answer is “Communism.” That’s why the wizard’s wearing red.


Magic Land of Landlords is pretty crappy game in which you do little besides wander about and die a lot, and it definitely doesn’t live up to the weirdness promised by its title, but I find myself unable to be too hard on it. I certainly don’t hate it. It’s not, well, hateful enough for that. It’s like watching your kid’s terrible school play, where the performance itself is bad but that’s not really the point anyway. MLOLL was programmed by one person named Carlo Altieri as part of a “magazine-on-a-cassette-tape” compilation called Load ‘n’ Run, and under those circumstances there’s only so much you can expect from it. And hey, it might not be the best ZX Spectrum game featuring floating skulls, but it has floating skulls and therefore I’m incapable of truly hating it.

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