Clowns: greasepainted psychopaths, haunters of children, each and every one of them a deranged serial killer, possibly equipped with dark powers gained through a foul communion with one of the Elder Gods. Or maybe I'm being unduly harsh. There must be some nice clowns out there, a harlequin or two who doesn't want to strip the marrow from your bones, and in the interests of fairness I'm going to attempt to find one in Konami's 1984 arcade big-top-em-up Circus Charlie. Think of it as immersion therapy.
Yes, step right up and experience the thrills and excitement of the circus! See the pointless animal cruelty! Eat snack foods so unhealthy they can stop a man's heart from fifty yards away! Shriek in terror at the cavalcade of pale-faced sons of Satan who exist only to destroy hope and innocence wherever they find it! Okay, okay, that's enough about evil clowns for now, but here's one last piece of clown trivia before we get started. You know the "clown music," the tune that plays in your head when you think of clowns, dah dah dadadada dah dah daaah daah, that one? It's actual title is "Entry of the Gladiators". Imagine that tune being played before two men wage a bloody battle to the death for the pleasure of a ruthless emperor and his subjects. Funny how it has come to be associated with clowns.
Anyway, Circus Charlie is, unsurprisingly given it's got "circus" right there in the title, about various circus acts and the eponymous Charlie's attempts to perform them all.
There's Charlie now, flitting between the six events on offer. There are two versions of the arcade machine, one that allows you to select your event and one that makes you play through all six in sequence. This is the version that lets you choose, but I'm still going to play through them in the suggested order because I am a weak-willed fool who cannot break himself away from his deeply ingrained patterns of behaviour. Plus, the first event has a lion in it and I'm not prepared to wait a moment longer to see what that lion is up to.
Oh, it's a lion race, is it? Charlie has taken his seat upon the king of the jungle, desperately trying to bring it under control before it leaps into the crowd and eats a small child. It's okay, Charlie's got plenty of time before that happens - just look how far away the crowd are, right down the other end of this American Football field that the circus has pitched up on.
You're actually supposed to be reaching the other side of the course by making the lion jump through flaming hoops. It's very straightforward: you can move forward and even backwards with the stick, and you've got a button to jump. You can't go under the big hoops, or at least Charlie can't - the lion could probably make it through, but the bottom of the ring is at just the right height to smash into Charlie's jolly red nose and incinerate him.
"Oh NO!!" says the crowd. Even from that distance, they can make out Charlie's grisly fate, but none of Charlie's colleagues come to help. For them, it's just another vignette in the grotesque tapestry that is the circus.
Don't worry, though, Charlie has extra lives and the will to succeed, managing to leap over the pots of flaming oil scattered along his path and even claiming some extra cash by leaping through the smaller, higher hoops.
The whole thing is rather good fun. Charlie has full dominance over his lion, so your jumps are crisp and predictable. The hoops move towards you, which means you're not just moving forwards and tapping jump but trying to advance as quickly as possible - because more haste means more points, and the whole point of Circus Charlie is to score points - whilst also moving back and forth, waiting for hoops to get into an optimum jumping-through position.
Reach the goal and you're given points based on the time you took and how many hoops you jumped through, as well as being rewarded with something incredibly rare - a non-ironic use of the phrase "far out!"
Riding a lions through rings of fire has already secured Charlie a place as one of gaming's true tough guys. Master Chief may have fought all those aliens, but he was a super-soldier bred for war, not a barely-pubescent clown in baggy trousers. M. Bison may have mastered Psycho Power, but I douby he could tame a big cat given that he's forever having his clock cleaned by a karate hobo. Circus Charlie, then - a true titan of videogaming.
After the excitement of the first event, Charlie catches a break with the next one. It's all about monkeys!
Monkeys, and not falling from the high-wire and down to a grisy death in the centre ring. That's an important element too.
The goal of this event is to reach the other side of the tightrope without touching any monkeys. The apes, safe in the knowledge that they are the masters of this particular domain, charge towards Charlie with mischievous grins and a desire to see our hero plummet to his death. Luckily Charlie's no slouch on the high-wire either, and he can jump over the monkeys and land safely - an impressive feat for anyone and doubly so if each of their shoes are the size of a two-man kayak.
Sometime a purple monkey will appear. They can run faster that the other monkeys, possibly due to the same genetic abnormality that gave them purple fur. They even jump as you jump. No passive bystanders, these lavender apes: they're actively tying to get Charlie killed. Circus Charlie is set just after the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, it seems.
This is even more simple than the first stage. Just move to the right and jump over the monkeys. The faster you escape the Gauntlet of Monkey Death, the more points you get. You also get bonus points for hurdling multiple monkeys in one leap. It's enjoyable in a shallow way, but it does leave you wondering how this act came to be. Did the ringmaster think that people weren't going to be sufficiently excited by the sight of a clown on a tightrope and said to himself hey, let's spice things up with a swarm vicious chimps? Well, he was right. This is much more entertaining, and the addition of the monkeys gives the audience someone to root for.
Okay, next event. Trampolines! Yes, the events do seem to be getting less interesting as we progress. All you need to to is press right to bounce from one trampoline to the next. Sometimes the trampolines with have circus people between them, like firebreathers and these sword-jugglers who look furious about having their act downgraded from a main attraction to a bit-part in the antics of a tumbling fool. They get their revenge by throwing knives into Charlie's nethers as he jumps over them. The circus management tries to pass this off as part of the act, but we know the truth - and the truth is that if you cross a circus person, they will stab you.
So, the goal here is to time your bounces so you pass over / under the projectiles, but you can't hang about too long because after three bounces on one trampoline Charlie gains so much momentum that he smashes his head into the top of the tent.
An elephant looks on, silently judging the proceedings, the contempt obvious in his cold, black eyes. In fact, the elephant has always been there, watching Charlie's trials from the distance. It's kinda creeping me out.
This event, as you can probably guess, isn't much fun. It's okay, I suppose, just a little tedious - aside from avoiding the attacks of your fellow carnies, the only other thing to do his hold your nerve on the high bounces in the hopes of collecting some moneybags for extra points.
The next event is balls, and for that I should thank it for allowing me such an easy, if immature, joke. Big balls! Balls that must not be allowed to come into contact with one another, lest Charlie be violently cast to the ground, the laughter of the crowd ringing in his ears and bringing hot flashes of shame to his cheeks. Suck it up, Charlie, at least a fall from that height isn't fatal.
No, really, all you have to do is leap from ball to ball without falling. It's a little more involving that the trampolines because your jumps have to be more accurate, and it does at least feel like something a clown might reasonably be expected to do, but it's hard to think of anything interesting to say about it. Therefore, I shall just say "balls" again, because I have all the grace and maturity of a seven-year-old.
Alright, this is more like it! Charlie rides a horse towards some springy platforms. Some of the platforms are at head-height, so you have to jump off the horse and onto the platforms lest you take a springboard in the face. Don't worry about the horse leaving you behind - Charlie and his steed have developed an intimate psychic connection over the years, and your horse will always end up underneath you when it's time to land. If you're going to worry about anything, worry about the horse itself.
I think perhaps claiming it's a horse is too generous: at best it's two men in a horse costume, at worst a terrifying mockery of life formed from demonic marshmallows, maybe even the mount of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man himself. No, that's ridiculous. Stay-Puft rides a Harley.
This event's one of the better ones - it's still hardly complex, but it's got a nice pace to it and trying to time your jumps for multiple bounces on the same springboard (and therefore more points) gives you that bit extra to think about.
That said, my favourite part of the horse riding is that it's surprisingly difficult to make the final jump from horseback to the winner's podium, leaving you with a fairly high chance of sailing through the springboard section with ease, only to make a proper tit of yourself at (literally) the final hurdle. No wonder that elephant looks so morose.
This is the last event, and sadly it's also the least fun. Trapezing should not be attempted by clowns. They have special people to do the trapezing, oh, what are they called? Oh yeah, trapeze artists. People who aren't just good at swinging about on a narrow metal bar but who have elevated it to an art form. I don't know what poor Charlie did to piss off his bosses, but by making him swing from a trapeze they're certainly getting their revenge.
Swing back and forth, build up speed and jump from one trapeze to the next - that's the aim of this stage, and it sounds simple enough but that's before you take Charlie's lack of skill into consideration. All the other events have had very sharp, precise controls, but jumping from one trapeze to the next just doesn't feel right and it takes quite a lot of practise to get a handle on the required timing - not a good thing for an arcade title that has already made it clear that it wants you to hurry the hell up. Charlie doesn't so much jump as he does let go of the bar and drop like a goddamn rock, which feels extremely counter-intuitive, and while there are some trampolines at the bottom of the screen that will save you if you land on them, be prepared for a frustrating experience the first time you try it.
As ever, the elephant sees all. He sees the pain, the hurt, the cruelty, the "hilarious" oversized trousers. He sees everything and stores it away in the depths of his unknowable mind for all time, because an elephant never forgets. Never.
So yeah, the trapeze stage is more frustrating than fun, which is a disappointment because up to now Circus Charlie has been a pleasant if not stellar experience. Oh well, at least if you're playing the version of the game with selectable stages you can skip the trapeze... until you've cleared each of the other events six times, in which case you simple play the trapeze stage repeatedly. Or so I hear: I enjoyed Circus Charlie but I didn't stick with it for that long.
Once you reach the end of the trapeze stage, Charlie splits into countless identical clones. It's not much, but it's the closest you're getting to an ending so enjoy it while you can. Normally a clown that can rapidly multiply through cellular mitosis would be cause for a high-intensity firebombing of the area, but I'll give Charlie a break - he's kind of adorable, for a clown. Circus Charlie is pretty adorable all around, with cheerful, vibrant graphics with some charming animations, particular Charlie himself and the horse's goofy, help-my-legs-have-a-mind-of-their-own gallop.
That's about it for Circus Charlie. As I mentioned, you can replay the events again a few times, becoming more difficult with each iteration until you've completed them the maximum amount of times.
"No more," begs the lion. "No more..." The circus, everyone!
Am I cured of my fear of clowns? No, because I'm not actually scared of clowns. I just find them a little creepy is all - as I would find any man who prances around in front of children, slathered in make-up and dressed like an explosion in a pantomime's wardrobe department, to be a bit suspect.
Circus Charlie was fun, though. Limited, yes, but then again it was released in 1984 so you can't expect too much. It's cute, it's mostly simple and to-the-point, it's a good test of reflexes and it even has a few secret ways of racking up points: for instance, if you collect all the moneybags on a lion-riding stage, a bird will appear at the goal and spew coins all over you.
We call this manoeuvre the "Scrooge McDuck Golden Shower."
That's Circus Charlie, then: good clean fun, especially if you like games centered on amassing points or being stared at by a dead-eyed elephant.