C’mon, you must know it. It’s the famous catchphrase of one of gaming’s most enduring icons, a jolly red chap who lives in a cartoon world of brick platforms and turtle-stomping. Why not shout it along with me? Ready? “It’s-a me, Bioman!”
Super Bioman 1, no less; an unlicensed Korean Master System game from 1992 that was (perhaps) developer by a company called Hello Soft. Not to be mistaken for a tie-in with the Super Sentai series Choudenshi Bioman, Super Bioman 1 is the story of what appears to be a pudgy alien child in a red babygrow who must travel the land to save a princess. At least, I assume princess-rescuing is the goal, what with Bioman being a complete rip-off of Super Mario.
A rip-off of the all-time NES classic Super Mario Bros. 3, to be precise. This is abundantly clear when you look at Bioman’s map screen, an image that makes you wonder how awkward it must have been for Bioman’s developers to draw on the tracing paper they’d tacked to their TV screens.
It’s got all the elements you’ll be familiar with if you’ve ever played SMB3 (and if you haven’t, go and play it right now, I guarantee you’ll have more fun than reading this article). Numbered stages in a mostly linear progression, bonus areas like the mushroom houses and a castle at the end – all terribly familiar, even when viewed through the extremely bootleg lens of Bioman’s graphics. But will the gameplay adhere to the same Super Mario formula?
Well, yes, obviously. As interesting as it would have been if Bioman’s Mario map screen had lead into a blood-drenched survival horror or something, what we’ve got here is Super Mario but on the Master System and not as good. Bioman can jump, smash blocks with his head, bounce on enemies, collect coins and all that jazz. Of course, Bioman has its own unique quirks, and we’ll get to those in due course.
For now, just take a good look at this off-brand Koopa Trooper. I know it looks like some mad scientist grafted a plucked chicken head onto an army helmet, but this is what passes for Koopa Troopers in Bioman and you can jump on them and kick their abandoned shells around the stage as you’d expect. That said, every time I kicked a turtle shell in Bioman it immediately ricocheted and killed me. I’ll let you decide whether that was down to karmic punishment or Bioman not controlling as nimbly as Mario does.
And so it goes, all the sights of SMB3 recreated in a copyright-infringing way that I honestly find rather charming. Question mark blocks are replaced by “Q” blocks, the coins are dollars rather than the gold-based economy of the Mushroom Kingdom and super mushrooms make Bioman big and cheerful. It all reminds me of a pound-shop toy line, the kind where sure, The Lion King is a Disney movie but there’s nothing to say that there can’t be a different and legally distinct Little King Lion who sings songs about looking forward to becoming a regent with his friends Tumbaa and Pimon. And hey, if you’re going to rip something of it might as well be the best, right?
Thus the first stage ends just as a stage in SMB3 does, with Bioman leaping up to collect one of the random icons in the end-of-stage box. Collect three for a bonus, collect three matching icons for a bigger bonus. I reckon you could make an interesting psychological survey of the split between SMB3 players that patiently try to match the icons and those (like me) who just run towards the goal as fast as possible. Okay, maybe “interesting” is too strong a word.
Here’s stage two, where Bioman has turned purple. It’s because he’s collected a fire flower, you see, and it’s not like they could make him more red. So now he looks grape-flavoured. I’m still at a loss as to what Bioman is supposed to be, honestly. There’s something... familiar about him. He reminds me of some half-remembered mascot character, although that might just be down to the cutesy, chubby style of a lot of Asian mascot characters. I feel like he should be advertising nappies or baby formula, not stomping on turtles.
The third stage is a bit different, because it’s a boss battle! It’s supposed to be the equivalent of the “fort” stages in SMB3 where you fight the mid boss Boom-Boom, but without the stage that precedes the actual fight. Instead you’re thrown straight into battle with this almost indecipherable thing. I once forgot about a bag of potatoes at the back of a cupboard for a couple of months, and it’s nice to see that bag of potatoes went on to get a job in the entertainment business.
With the power to throw fireballs from Bioman’s hands, I went into the battle feeling confident. Just waltz in, sling a few projectiles, claim the easy victory, bask in the cheers of the crowd and so forth. Except you can’t use fireballs in the boss battles. It’s not even that they don’t damage the enemy, either – you simply can’t throw fireballs at all. Let’s put it down to performance anxiety, and resort to jumping on the boss’ head. If that is a head.
Now we’re back to the regular stages, and you might have noticed a few things. One is that all the stages look the same, and yes, apart from the boss battles they all take place in this strange twilight version of the Mushroom Kingdom, where the only light that reaches the ground is the baleful glow of a distant nebula. Again, it’s a look that I do like, but over the course of a whole game a bit more variety would have been nice.
Another thing is that, for a Master System game, the graphics look a bit... crap. On a technical level, I mean. I don’t know much about the Master System hardware, but I believe Bioman is running on an SG-1000 graphics mode. I’m also fairly sure that Bioman was ported from the MSX. There are Bioman games available on the MSX, and as an extra piece of evidence:
I’m pretty sure the Master System doesn’t have a space bar to press. That said, there was a keyboard for the SG-1000, although that definitely wasn’t the intended control scheme for this game.
This is one of Toad’s bonus game houses by the way, now staffed by one of Toad’s distant cousins from the rural backwaters of the Mushroom Kingdom - the kind of place where they keep things in the family, if you get my drift. It’s a slot machine with items as rewards, but the true reward of this screen is that the phrase “god speed you” reminded me to listen to some Guitar Wolf.
At the end of the world is, of course, the castle. Just like the fort there’s no actual stage here, just a boss battle. Bioman replaces Bowser’s Koopa Kids with a grumpy tomato, and it’s definitely a distinct downgrade. Neither of the characters look like they want to be here. I don’t particularly want to be here. The inevitable stomping has taken on the grim air of duty. The tomato offers little resistance as it waddles back and forth along the ground. It yearns for this to end beneath the heel of Bioman’s bootees. In the end, there is only silence.
Holy shit, a talking chair!
I was actually quite surprised that this first world isn’t all there is to the game, but the princess (told you there’d be a princess) isn’t here so there must be more to it. I’m hoping there aren’t eight worlds. Bioman is running out of steam already, it surely cannot sustain itself for another forty-odd stages. But the talking chair’s unwavering believe in Bioman’s strength gives me the confidence to forge ahead, so let’s see what else the game has to offer.
Well would you look at that, it’s more of the same. I think we all saw this coming.
Now that I’ve cleared the first world, I suppose I should talk a bit about how Super Bioman 1 actually plays. In a word: ehh. Wait, that’s not a word, that’s the noise you make when someone asks you to hang out with people you don’t really know that well. It’s a perfectly suitable noise for describing Bioman, though.
The game works, just about, but it doesn’t work well. There’s a lot of sprite flickering, to the point that it can be difficult to spot enemies sometimes. Bioman himself moves in a fairly slippery manner, often moving a step further than you’d expect when letting go of the directional buttons. Probably the worst aspect of the game is that the left-to-right scrolling is often choppy and sluggish, and not being able to move smoothly from left to right is a real killer for what is essentially a Super Mario game. Weirdly, it never seems to be an issue when moving from right to left, presumably because the game isn’t loading in new sprites and thus slowing things down.
As well as technical deficiencies, Bioman also has some strange quirks in its design. Unlike the set items of Mario games, the contents of each question block are random, which means that if you’re unlucky you can potentially go a long time without finding any power-ups. Then there are changes to enemy behaviour that throw a spanner in the works because I (and pretty much everyone else) am so used to how Mario games work. For instance, in Mario games, if you stand on a pipe that has a Piranha Plant popping out if it, the enemy won’t jump up and bite you on the arse while you’re standing there. Not so in Bioman, and the non-official bitey flowers will keep chomping from right underneath you. Or there are the Boos, which normally won’t move towards Mario while he’s looking at them – but in Bioman the ghosts have overcome their shyness and will move, seemingly at random, whenever they goddamn feel like. Perhaps the most baffling feature is that sometimes the corpses of stomped enemies can hurt you. That’s bad enough, but it gets worse: sometimes harmful enemy corpses will fall out of question boxes, resulting in almost unavoidable death.
If you ever lose sight of what makes the NES Mario games such genre-defining classics, I suggest you go and play a sub-par Mario bootleg. Then you’ll understand. It’s not like Bioman is awful, especially for a pirate game, but there’s enough wonkiness and technical problems to stop it being all that much fun. I do find the graphics quite pleasant in their simplicity and the music – recreations of famous SMB3 tracks, naturally – is quite good.
But by the time I’d reached the end of the second – and as it turns out, final – world, Super Bioman 1 had more than worn out its welcome. More variety would have gone a long way towards keeping things interesting, even if it was just some stages that didn’t take place during an eternal eclipse, but what you get is the same backgrounds, the same simple action and the exact same boss battle before the game limps unconvincingly over the finish line.
I’m glad I got to the ending, though. It’s hard not to be charmed by these thoroughly wrong versions of Mario and Peach. It was kind of the royal jeweller to find such a minuscule crown that wouldn’t draw attention to not-Peach’s tiny, tiny head and hang on, was Bioman supposed to be Mario all along? Or is the plumber just taking all the plaudits for Bioman’s hard work? I say let him have the applause. Judging by the unfortunate shape of his body, iI don't think he's long for this world.
And that’s Super Bioman 1, a Super Mario game on the Master System. It’s certainly something. I’m not the biggest fan of the Alex Kidd games but if you want to stick with those, that’d probably be a good decision.
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