Gasp as the crude people of the Stone Age are brought to life in vibrant colour on your television screen! Marvel as primitive man bends the power of the dinosaurs to his whims! Recoil in disgust as you imagine what a caveman's feet must look like after driving their foot-powered cars around for a while! Yes, it's The Flintstones - specifically, Taito's 1994 SNES yabba-dabba-doo-em-up The Flintstones: The Treasure of Sierra Madrock!
Even back in 1994 The Flintstones was hardly a hip, fresh license that all the kids were clamouring to have a videogame based around, but at least they probably knew what The Flintstones was - but how many of this games target audience was going to get the Treasure of the Sierra Madre reference in the subtitle? Personally, I would have gone with For Whom the Brick Tolls or Rubble Indemnity.
The game begins with a glimpse into the sinister Masonic rituals of the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes, rituals that I'm sure mostly revolve around drinking beer and playing cards. All I know is that whenever I see a men's club like this I automatically hear the Stonecutters song from The Simpsons, and I know I'm not the only one.
The set-up for this game is that Grand Poobah, the leader of the Water Buffaloes, is retiring. Instead of naming his successor or holding fair and open elections to fill the positon, the Poobah tells the Water Buffaloes that whoever amongst them finds the treasure of Sierra Madrock will be the new Poobah. Whether this is part of the Order's ancient traditions or just the outgoing Poobah's chance to see his brothers fight amongst themselves is never explained.
Also not explained is why Fred Flintstone is so keen to be the next Poobah. He strikes me as the kind of man who would want to avoid that level of responsibility. Maybe the Grand Poobah gets free Bronto Burgers at the drive-thru. Whatever his reasons, Fred sets out to find the treasure, and Barney Rubble tags along, doing most of the work while Fred takes all the credit because, let's be honest, Fred Flintstone is kind of a dick.
If you're thinking that a Flintstones game on the SNES is going to be a platformer, you'd be half right. Well, maybe a third right. There is definitely platforming involved, of the familiar 16-bit variety. Here, Fred is leaping over some stampeding dino-cattle, and you can stand on their backs. It's like that bit in the first stage of Sunset Riders, only not as much fun because the controls in this game are a little slippery and the soundtrack isn't nearly as good. Fred and Barney have the usual set of platforming skills - they can run, they can jump, and they can attack enemies using their clubs - but the only thing even slightly out of the ordinary in their movesets is that if you hold jump they float in air for a while, whirling their legs, much like Yoshi does in Yoshi's Island.
The platforming stages are very short, rarely lasting more than a minute, but that's because The Treasure of Sierra Madrock isn't just a platformer...
It's really a board game! You control both Fred and Barney separately as they roll the dice and make their way around the board, with each panel you land on leading to a different result. Small stone dots are the platform stages, and they're the most common of the bunch, but there are also shops, places to play minigames, "boss" arenas and a sports stadium. I wonder if The Flintstones' sports carry on the series' tradition of using dinosaur labour to recreate aspects of the modern world? I just want to see a small, fat dinosaur being used as an American football, dryly croaking "it's a living!" as the quarterback throws it through the air.
So, the platforming bits. They're okay. I'd give them a C, maybe a C minus thanks to the slightly woolly feel of the controls. The trouble isn't so much with the mechanics of the game, but rather that there is not a single iota of innovation in the level design, not one part of any hop-n-bop stage that hasn't been done - and done better - in a hundred other platforming games. See-saw platforms, balancing on logs, riding moving ledges, all of which you'll swear you've played before in some other game. The brevity of these stages is their saving grace, however, and because you can blast through most of them so quickly they rarely outstay their welcome.
Without having much idea what I was supposed to be doing, I sent Barney to the space on the board with the big dragon skull on it. That triggered a boss fight against a giant ape, which seemed like it would put me on the right track, because what's more likely to clear a stage in a videogame than defeating the boss? Sadly, The Treasure of Sierra Madrock doesn't work that way, and my time spent learning the patterns of the boss' attacks - he makes coconuts fall from the sky and then throws a coconut right at you, over and over again until you've clubbed him enough times - was all for naught. Well, I learned the valuable lesson that I have no reason to fight these bosses, I suppose. That could come in useful.
Your real goal is to catch up to the Water Buffaloes member who's pottering around the board. Fred has not forgotten that his loyal brothers are also searching for the treasure, and the bonds of fraternity are no barrier to Fred's overwhelming desire to become the next Grant Poobah.
He has no qualms about smashing their heads in to further his ambitions, for example. That's our hero, folks: a primitive man who is quick to anger and prone to violence, a man who will use the bodies of his fallen friends as stepping-stones on the way to glory, a man whose most striking characteristic is his unending selfishness. The look on his face as he tries to wedge a tree branch into the ear canal of a man he once called brother tells you all you need to know.
Having landed on the same square as a Buffalo, Fred and Barney realise that he has a map to the treasure. Desperate to avoid having his skull caved in, Brother Rockhead here challenges Fred and Barney to a race, with the winner taking the map. That'll be what the sports stadium is for, then.
It's Super Flintstones Kart! Hold down the Y button to run around the Mode 7 track, jumping over mud-puddles and trying your damnedest not to bump into Brother Rockhead, because if you do he sends you spinning away, usually into the long grass that'll slow you right down. The race is won and lost in the first few seconds: if you can get past Rockhead at the first corner then you'll coast to victory, but collide with him at the start and he'll build a lead that's extremely difficult to claw back. Still, it's not a massively difficult race, thanks no doubt to all the time Fred has spent pushing a car made of rocks around with nothing but his leg power. Regular running must be a breeze for him.
Once I'd won the race and claimed the treasure map, I sent Barney back to the stadium, thinking it would be a free space now that I'd cleared it. Instead he was entered into a time-trial race around the same course, a race I failed on my first attempt because the game neglected to add any time to the clock when I passed the second lap's checkpoint, making the whole thing impossible and leading to the rather aggravating situation of being told I'd run out of time when I still had 26 seconds on the clock. I guess there's no dinosaur that you can stuff into a watch case to provide accurate time-keeping.
I did eventually beat the time trial, and the reward was well worth the effort as victory granted Fred and Barney the ability to double-jump. Bafflingly, their double-jumps are powered by money, and each time you perform one you lose one "clam". In The Flintstones universe actual clams are used as money because dollars are sometimes called clams, you see. Quite how having a unit of currency fall out from under you - if I was being crude I'd make the point that Fred looks like he's passing a clam he'd swallowed earlier when this happens - makes you jump higher is a mystery, but it does and it can be annoying when you're haemorrhaging cash because you keep double jumping by accident.
I could be using those clams to buy a delicious, health-restoring glass of cactus juice! Although probably not, because I entered the cafe as Barney. For some reason, be it a quirk of fate or my own dislike of Fred Flintstone seeping through, Barney always seemed to have more health but no money whereas Fred was minted but constantly teetering on the edge of death. This made a lot of the later platforming stages more difficult to complete with Barney, because he didn't have the funds to live the extravagantly expensive life of the double-jumper. It also meant I didn't get to see the minigames for ages because Barney always seemed to land on those squares and it costs ten clams to enter. It makes sense to me, though. Barney seems like the kind of person who places little value on material wealth. He doesn't even want to be the Grand Poobah, he's only tagging along to help Fred out.
Anyway, once you've claimed the map the exit opens up and you can leave the first board. The remainder of the stages play out in the same manner - travel around the board completing short platforming stages as you hunt down the Water Buffalo in each area so you can beat him in a race and take whatever useful item they have for yourself. I wonder if all the boards will be build around the usual videogame themes?
Well, here we are in a fiery area called Magmarock so gee I guess so.
Predictably enough, the platforming parts of Magmarock are based around not touching lava, or whatever this brown lava analogue is supposed to be. Boiling mud? Really hot gravy? Whatever it is, just don't fall into it and you'll do fine. My main piece of advice would be that you can climb up the long, thin stalagmites. It took me a while to realise this, but then again I was distracted by trying to figure out exactly what animal's hide Fred's clothes are made of. They're not striped like a tiger, but leopards aren't orange. My current leading theory is that it's an orang-utan pelt that's covered in stains.
Oh no, it's Wilma! My loving and supportive wife who has put up with my years of madcap antics with patience and good humour! Whatever shall I do?
If Fred or Barney bumps into their respective wife, all that happens is that they get dragged along for a few spaces. Both times this happened to me while I was playing the game they dragged me closer to my destination. Betty and Wilma are the true heroes of The Flintstones.
I caught up with Quartz, this stage's Water Buffalo. Fred says he's going to beat him. Fred is forever making these threats and wild boasts, and always with the same smile on his lips. This has the effect of making Fred seem like a bit of a psychopath, especially when he sends Barney out to do his dirty work.
Okay, now it really is Super Flintstones Kart. All that's missing is the ability to throw turtle shells at your opponent, something that would fit right into the Flintstones universe. In practise it's no different to the foot race, and the same rules apply: get in front of the other racer quickly and victory becomes a formality.
As surely as day follows night and a trip to A&E follows my attempts to juggle knives, so is the fire stage followed by an ice world. This is Snowrock, and the compass you need to progress is encased in ice. A friendly eskimo says he'll free it for you, but only if you bring him a hammer and chisel. And who has the hammer and chisel? Why, one of your fellow Water Buffaloes, of course. You'd better get out there and find him, Fred.
The centrepiece of this board is the icy crossroads at the centre, where entering one of the paths will spit you out at a seemingly random destination. For all the grief I've given him, I'll concede that Fred must be pretty tough if he came to the Arctic without any shoes.
Of course, no shoes means no grip, and as you'd expect your character slides along the frozen platforms at a rate that cannot be explained by the presence of ice alone - there must have been some buttering of feet involved. It's hardly game-breaking, though, because by now you'll have gotten used to the large amounts of momentum Fred and Barney have even when they're not running on ice. As I've said, the platforming in The Treasure of Sierra Madrock is generic to the point of parody, but there are some strange quirks to the way your character moves that take some time to get the hang of. One is that when you're jumping up to another platform you often seem to "pop" onto it even if your feet never touch it. My favourite, however, is that if you're running at full speed and press attack your character stops dead, swings their club and then immediately starts running at top speed again. Fairly amusing, granted, but hardly how you'd expect that set of actions to work.
I finally managed to get Fred to land on the Amusement Park square, so now I have the pleasure of sampling a variety of minigames and hopefully gaining a few extra lives. I mean, I already had nineteen lives at this point but a couple more wouldn't go amiss.
The first game, pictured above, revolves around keeping these cheeky monkeys away from your coconuts by bashing the see-saws with your club. This cause the coconuts to fly up and whack the monkeys, sending them back up the tree. I can only imagine Fred shouts something along the lines of "oh, you want my coconuts, do you? Well here, have 'em!" as he does this. Any coconuts left unmolested when the time runs out will grant you a prize.
The second game is bagatelle, and you fire a rolled-up millipede onto the peg board and wait - for an agonizingly long time, it seems - for it to plink into one of the holes. You get the prize pictured above the hole. Nice and straightforward, this one.
Exciting card-flipping, pair-matching action in game three, which is probably the game with the best chance of a big reward, although it is dependant on luck. Fortunately I was very, well, fortunate when I tried it, and I'm not sure how the "Nx" multipliers work but once I'd finished I had thirty-two lives.
Finally, I hope you'll all join me in sniggering at the title "Balls o' Fun". The easiest of the four games, all you have to do is throw your ball that the power-ups as they scroll across the screen. Your balls always move in a predictable way, so you should be able to hit the ones you want without any trouble. Well, unless you're still laughing at it being called "Balls o' Fun", that might throw your aim off a little.
Snowrock's item-harvesting race is ice-skating, and while it's nice that it's thematically tied to the stage it does just work exactly the same as the running race... although it seemed a lot easier. In fact, this game doesn't so much have a difficulty curve as it does a difficulty plateau with the odd hillock of challenge placed atop it, and to me it felt like there was a much wider range in difficulty between stages on the same board than there was between the first board and the later ones.
After collecting the compass, it is immediately stolen by a pteranodon, leaving Fred and Barney stranded in the jungle world of, erm, Junglerock. So we've had Bedrock, Magamarock, Snowrock and now Junglerock. That's some real imaginative work on the names there, Taito.
Junglerock is the least interesting of the five boards, mostly because it looks a lot like the first one and also because there's only one way around the board. The platforming stages have a lot more water to fall into. That's their primary gimmick, and it's not a difficult one to get around so long as you don't play like me, taking blind running leaps through the treetops in an effort to get to the end of this dull videogame before I lose the will to continue.
The mandatory boss fight against the compass-stealing pteranodon gives you something to do, I suppose, but it's very similar to the fight against the giant ape, only you have to wait around longer for the pteranodon to swoop down into clubbing range. I was in much more danger from the relentless timer than the flying rocks, but after my first attempt - an attempt where I "accidentally" drowned Fred - I got Barney to do the hard work. As always, Barney prevailed and the two cavemen could enter the final stage.
It's called Caverock. It's in a cave. There are rocks. I know I shouldn't have expected anything more interesting, but that's still disappointing. Caverock is nothing more than a long, single path of platforming stages, and if you decided to play The Treasure of Sierra Madrock I would recommend you do so on an emulator so you can save-state your way to rolling three (the highest number) on the dice every time. You will miss out on very little by doing this.
Caverock's levels are extremely reminiscent of the underground levels in Super Mario World. The same colour palette, the same murky water, the same moving slabs of rock that you have to progress past by squeezing through gaps. Well, if you're going to copy something, you might as well copy the best.
After far too many stages of "action" gameplay that would have felt stale before the SNES was even on the shelves, Fred and Barney emerge into the sunlight, blinking and exhausted. Fred is so staggeringly dense that Barney has to tell him that the treasure chest has treasure in it. Had Barney not come along, Fred's adventure would have ended three feet away from the Loyal Order of Water Buffalo Lodge's front doors, his head trapped in a postbox or simply sitting in the dirt mumbling to himself. Wilma is either a bona fide saint or Fred is secretly the heir to an enormous fortune.
Oh look, it took the whole game but Fred said "yabba dabba doo." Kudos to Taito for not having him spout his catchphrase every five seconds.
The treasure of Sierra Madrock is finally in our heroes' possession, but what is it?
Wait, I know this one: it's either the diamonds from Reservoir Dogs or Marsellus Wallace's soul, right?
It's the Poobah's medal. There you go, Fred, you're the Grand Poobah. Are you happy now? On the next episode of The Flintstones, the power goes to Fred's head and he falls out with Barney until Wilma and Betty make them come to their senses. Actually, I think that's every episode of The Flintstones.
Here come Betty and Wilma now, justifiably furious that their husbands - men with young children, don't forget - risked their lives just so they could be head honcho of a gentleman's club.
How can I sum up The Flintstones: The Treasure of Sierra Madrock? Fittingly enough for a game so thoroughly familiar, I can describe it in the same way as a great many other SNES platformers - it's okay, but just okay. If it was a pizza, it'd be cheese and tomato. Once you've got a handle on the weirder elements of the gameplay mechanics, the action is passable, even if it is completely lacking in imagination. Scrap that pizza analogy, this game is the Coldplay of SNES platformers - competent enough on a technical level but with no bite, no hook, nothing to elevate it above mediocrity.
It falls to the board game elements to lift this one, and I'd say that they do lift it, even if it's only a little. It gives the game a little more replayability, for one thing, and you're unlikely to play the same set of stages each time you load up the game, so on that front it's a success. A warm round of applause for whoever decided that clearing a stage means you don't have to repeat it if you land on it again, a wonderful feature without which the game would have become far more wearisome than it ended up being. Having a (small) choice of paths in the earlier stages is nice. All in all, a tick for the board game column, a solid two-player mode and some nice graphics mean that The Flintstones: The Treasure of Sierra Madrock could have been something well worth playing... if only the bits that you actually play were more fun. Am I going to finish this article by saying it's a yabba dabba don't? It's sure looks like it. How unfortunate.