Today’s game is going to take us where the brass bands play tiddly-om-pom-pom, where the air is thick with the aroma of ocean brine and fried food, where children to gather to watch violent puppet stick-fights. I’m talking, of course, about the Great British seaside, as depicted by Clockwize’s 1989 Commodore 64 swazzle-em-up Punch and Judy!
I’ve seen so many health bars and magic meters over the years of doing VGJunk that it’s nice when something a bit different pops up. As status indicators go, sausage supply, empty bag and tide timetable are definitely different. We’ll get to see how these fascinating variables play into Punch and Judy once the action gets started, but before that let’s receive a little instruction.
Okay, that seems simple enough. Take the tent parts to the beach. It’s always good to have a clear, concise goal, especially in an old home computer game where things can often get a bit obscure. Yes, the tent parts might look like a slice of zebra, but that just makes them easier to see against the sunny, seaside backdrops.
And here those backdrops are, with the first screen of the game. There’s Punch on the right, with his jester’s motley and his face like an anal fistula. That’s who you’ll be playing as during your mission to build a tent on the beach. The setting is Bridlington, which might produce a pang of familiarity in a section of VGJunk’s British readership who may have spent a childhood holiday there. I know I have, along with such exotic east-coast locales as Cleethorpes, Ingoldmells and Skegness. Yes, I am a well-travelled sophisticate and yes, Bridlington is a real place. It’s very much a traditional coastal town that lives off tourism during the summer months, in that it’s got a promenade, a beach and a faint air of grey desperation. One nice touch is that Punch and Judy’s gameplay is framed as postcard, which is why “Bridlington ‘89” is written at the bottom-right corner of the play area.
And off we go, controlling Punch as he makes he way through town. Bridlington is laid out on a grid, so you can go left or right, or up and down at certain spots like the barely-visible gap in the pavement at the bottom of the screenshot above. There are walls that block your horizontal movement in some places, and some screens don’t let you travel up and down so there’s a slight maze-like quality to the town, but it’s not a huge map and once you’ve figured out where certain landmarks are it’s simple enough to navigate. For instance, the beach is the top-right-most screen of the grid, and as long as you know that it’s a simple matter of moving up and right until you get there.
Here’s the first piece of the stage, laying where the pavement meets the sand. Each piece of the stage appears, one at a time, at random in a different part of the map, so there’s the main focus of the gameplay for you: wander around town looking for pieces as fast as you can, because the tide’s coming in and if it gets all the way up the beach then the performance will have to be cancelled unless the kiddiwinks have spontaneously developed gills. Fortunately this first piece is on the screen directly next to the beach and I think the first piece might always spawn here, so that saves you a bit of time.
Here’s the beach. The first piece of the stage has been laid in place, so just another six or seven left to find. It’s all got a rather picture-postcard look to it, as you might expect from a game set at the British seaside. I was a little surprised that this never expanded into the kind of raunchy, end-of-the-pier humour that is so associated with the seaside, especially given the appearance on the beach of the overweight woman / knobbly-kneed, knotted-hanky-wearing bloke pairing that appears in a lot of those “saucy” seaside jokes. I suppose Punch and Judy is (appropriately) shooting for a younger audience.
Now it’s time to wander the beachfronts and back streets of Bridlington in search of the missing stage pieces. There’s not much to say about the gameplay, because all you’re doing is walking Punch from screen to screen, but I’m definitely enjoying the backgrounds. They’ll likely cause a swelling of nostalgia in any British players of Punch and Judy, capturing as they do the essence of the seaside town: amusement arcades, gift shops laden with buckets and spades and, yes, fish and chip shops.
You can even enter some of the chip shops, although sadly you cannot fully recreate the holiday experience by asking for a cone of chips that’s fifty percent salt, forty percent vinegar and ten percent crunchy brown things that may have once been a potato in the distant prehistory of man. These stores act as screens in their own right and can be used to travel “up” or “down” the grid in places, but the important thing to remember is the items you’re looking for can sometimes be found indoors. I mention it because it took me a while to realise this, despite "inside a chip shop" being a really obvious place to investigate during the game's second section.
Of course, it’s not all strolling along the promenade and checking out the back walls of the seedier gift shops, where they keep the replica weapons, “tobacco” paraphernalia and cigarette lighters with naked women on them. Punch has a couple of obstacles to avoid. The first and most persistent is the constable, who you can see chasing Punch in the screenshot above. Given that they have the exact same face I assume they’re related, but the policeman’s adherence to the law will not be swayed by familial ties and if he catches Punch you’re dragged away to the police station. This causes you to drop any piece of the stage you’re holding, which means a run-in with the old bill causes wasted time and allows the tide to creep ever higher up the beach. If you’re wondering what crimes Punch is being busted for, we’ll get to that soon enough.
Your other major foe is, naturally, the crocodile. Punch’s hated enemy scuttles around the game world, and if you come into contact with the crocodile you tide meter takes a big jump upwards, making the crocodile easily the most dangerous impediment to Punch (literally) getting his act together. There are two ways to deal with the crocodile: the first and probably most effective is to simply avoid it, although this can be difficult if the crocodile ends up near the beach itself because there’s only a single path and thus you can’t go around.
The other tactic is to drop a sausage on the ground. If the crocodile touches the sausage it’ll be momentarily rendered harmless while it gorges itself on the reward it has spent its entire existence trying to obtain. The problem here is that the crocodile is so long there’s not much space on the screen to set up your sausage-baited trap, and you’ll often end up accidentally touching the crocodile’s hitbox anyway. Also, you have a limited supply of sausages, although if you run out you can go to the butcher’s shop and buy some more, which is what the coins are for.
Frankly I’m impressed that the developers have done such a good job of incorporating the elements of a Punch and Judy show into the game – when I first found out there was a Punch and Judy game I assumed it would revolve around keeping the sausages away from the crocodile, but this is a much more interesting take even if the actual gameplay isn’t especially exciting.
It suddenly occurs to me that to any non-British readers, the concept of this game might seem completely insane. To those of us who grew up with it, the merry adventures of a grotesque hunchback fighting a crocodile over a string of sausages while a policeman tries to break it up is a familiar one, but I don’t think Punch and Judy shows are widely known outside Britain, are they? Maybe in Italy, because Punch is an evolution of Italian commedia dell’arte. Anyway, here’s a quick overview: Punch and Judy shows are a traditional form of puppet theatre most often associated with the seaside. Mr. Punch is the star, and most of the show revolves around Punch whacking people with his stick, from his wife(?) Judy to the local constabulary to a baby. To be fair, Punch generally doesn’t beat the baby in modern performances. He just subjects it to more general neglect when asked to look after it. Then Punch gets his sausages out for dinner but the crocodile turns up to steal them, the crowd does the old “he’s behind you” bit, they fight, more people get clobbered by Punch’s stick and in the end he emerges as the only survivor. It’s all perfectly acceptable entertainment and definitely not as weird as as I’m making it sounds. Oh, all right, it is weird but of course children think it’s hilarious because it’s about puppets clobbering each other. Like any performance piece that’s been codified over hundreds of years of repeated performance, the Punch and Judy show is full of strange quirks such as the puppeteers being called “professors” and Punch’s trademark voice being produced via a reed instrument called a swazzle that is placed in the back of the mouth. Imagine someone who’s swallowed a kazoo, that’s what a swazzle sounds like: in fact, according to tradition you can only be considered a true Punch and Judy professor once you’ve accidentally swallowed your swazzle a few times.
And that’s Punch and Judy. I swear I didn’t make any of that up. Perhaps you might think, as I did, that there’s not much there to build a computer game around and… well, there isn’t and Punch and Judy is a rather slight experience but as I say, it does an impressive job of incorporating a lot of aspects of the puppet show into what is little more than a maze-chase.
Now that the stage is built, it’s time for… erm, more of the same gameplay, except now the pieces you have to find are the other cast members. Okay, sure. that’s fine. I just need to find Judy, the baby, the dog and whichever of the Punch and Judy show’s stock characters this is supposed to be.
The Clown, maybe? I can’t think who else it would be; everyone else is accounted for, but this character looking nothing like a clown threw me off a little. Whoever it is, they’re coming with Punch as he drags them back to the now-constructed stage. When you first find the characters they won’t follow you, so you have to "persuade" them by pressing the fire button to give them a few whacks from Mr. Punch’s slapstick. Once clonked, they’ll follow Punch around and the game follows the same “avoid the long arm of the law (also crocodiles)” pattern of gameplay as before. However, any clobbered character will soon forget the beating they recently received and will wander away, forcing you to hit them again to regain their attention.
What this all boils down to is that yes, this is a game where you have to corral a baby by beating it with a stick. Imagine me reaching up to a high shelf in my cavernous library, taking an enormous, dusty tome down, dipping my quill into a pot of ink and carefully inscribing “Baby Wrangling (With Stick) at the bottom of the list of Things I’ve Experienced Via Videogames.
Forget the baby, though – the real test of your cudgelling skills is the dog, because it’s faster than all the other characters and even faster than Punch himself, so you have to try to trap the dog in a corner before gaining its obedience by thrashing it and wow, that is one heck of a sentence. Another problem with the dog is that it always seemed to break free of my control when I was right next to an exit to another screen, so the dog kept disappearing from sight the instant it could by running to a different area. Factor in the crocodile having taken up permanent residence on the beach by this point, and getting the dog to the stage ran close to being genuinely frustrating. Then I realised I was beating a dog into submission with a character who is carrying a string of sausages. Come on, man, the solution to your problems is right there in your hand! Or your pocket. Or wherever you’re storing your sausages. Somewhere deeply unhygienic, I suspect.
The tide meter might suggest it was a close call, but the only reason the water level got so high is that I simply ran through the crocodile at the end, while I momentarily had the dog’s full attention. With the cast assembled, the stage built and the tidal waters lapping at the audience’s feet, it’s time for the last part of Punch and Judy: the show itself.
These characters don’t look any more appealing when you get up close, do they? Faces like someone dropped a bowling ball onto a ham hock, yikes. Anyway, the show. Like any good Punch and Judy routine, the goal is to hit everyone with your stick while avoiding the policeman. Judy and the constable wander across the stage – the policeman seemingly having some programming that compels him to head towards Punch but with a lot of random, twitchy movements – and while Punch can slowly move left and right, his main trick is to switch to the other side of the screen by pulling down on the joystick. This makes him pop up in the opposite corner, and he’s invincible while doing so, so the gameplay flow is to keep switching sides until the constable is at the other end of the screen, getting some hits in on your target (Judy, in this case) and then switching again when the constable comes near.
You have to deplete each of the four characters’ health bars – yes, including the baby – while protecting your own solitary health bar from the constable’s blows, but once you’ve realised that the only skill you need to win is patience it all becomes very simple and, if I’m honest, a bit boring. I sure hope I don’t get involved in any legal troubles soon, because “I grew bored of beating the baby with a stick” probably won’t go down well with a jury.
All four characters work in exactly the same way (they walk back and forth) and nothing else changes, so it’s not long before everyone lays vanquished before you and all the kids are thoroughly entertained.
Truly, I am a puppet wonder. Except this Punch isn’t a puppet, he wandered around town without someone’s hand shoved up him, he built the stage himself, he’s a living creature of some kind. A gremlin, perhaps.
I rather enjoyed Punch and Judy, you know. The gameplay’s hardly stellar but it all works nicely enough and very rarely becomes obnoxiously difficult or frustratingly vague, plus the map falls into a nice level of complexity where it’s fairly large but still small enough and consistent enough to be mentally mapped. I appreciate the effort expended in getting the Punch and Judy elements into the game and it’s hard to dislike any game that lets you feed sausages to a crocodile. However, I think my favourite thing about it is the low-res, eight-bit depiction of a British seaside town. It certainly got the ol’ nostalgia centres pumping, and captures that look remarkably well, albeit without the screeching seagulls and complaints about the lack of parking spaces I associate with a British seaside holiday. It gave me the same feeling I always had as a kid whenever we’d go to Scarborough or Skegness or, yes, Bridlington – that it must be really weird to permanently live in a seaside resort town, and now I can’t stop thinking about it. So, good job, Clockwize – it turns out that if you want to get me interesting in your seaside-based Commodore 64 game, that’s the way to do it.
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