Today's game is all about sun, sand, surf, strenuous physical exercise and not wearing a shirt - all of which are anathema to me, so it's a bloody good job I'm experiencing them via a videogame and not in real life. It's time to get radical and / or gnarly in Interactive Design's 1992 Megadrive Aztec-curse-em-up Greendog: The Beached Surfer Dude!
Makes you wonder how he came by the name "Greendog," doesn't it? I doubt that's what's on his birth certificate, and a nickname like that must have a story behind it. Maybe he grew up in the bayou and that's what he called alligators when he was a kid. Maybe he makes a living by painting dogs green and selling "My Labrador Was Abducted by Aliens!" stories to trashy magazines. Any theory you can come up with is valid, so go nuts.
While surfing in the Caribbean, Greendog wipes out and smashes face-first into a sandy beach. Embedded head-down and ankle-deep in the pristine white sands, he is unable to free himself and succumbs to asphyxiation. Thus marks the end of Greendog. He was truly a tubular dude.
No, not really. Instead he pulls himself free only to find that he's acquired a golden pendant somewhere along the way, as though he had surfed through an underwater Elizabeth Duke on his way to the beach. Greendog is appreciative of his new jewellery at first, but then he tries to take it off and he can't. Usually I'd assume that this is down to Greendog being too thick to figure out how a clasp works, but as he's barely done anything yet I should probably hold off on accusing him of being dumber than a sack of particularly dense rocks.
Thanks, Exposition Babe. The Aztec Curse has taken the form of a shapely women in order to reveal its secrets, but even in human form it cannot disguise its glowing red eyes, eyes that burn with the fires of the underworld. Or so I thought, but it turns out this is Greendog's girlfriend and she's called Bambi. Bambi is a learned expert in obscure Aztec curses, and she informs Greendog that the only way to remove the necklace is to collect and reassemble all six pieces of the Aztec treasure. She also says that the cursed necklace will fill any animal or creature that sees Greendog with an unshakeable desire to destroy our hero, and I appreciate the attempt to explain why birds and fish would sooner condemn themselves to death than see Greendog proceed unchallenged. All too often are videogame character beset by the unreasonably lethal contents of a petting zoo for no apparent reason, but "ensorcelled by ancient magics" is an explanation I can get behind.
And so it begins. The bird has seen me and, compelled by the curse, will stop at nothing to forcibly insert itself somewhere into Greendog's body.
The basics, then: Greendog is your typical side-scrolling platformer, for the most part. Later stages mix it up, but the bulk of the gameplay consists of the tried-and-true formula of walking to the right while jumping over obstacles and pits. To defeat the enemies, Greendog can attack them by throwing frisbees.
Here's the frisbee attack, and I will be referring to it as a frisbee for the duration, lawyers of the Wham-O Toy Company be damned. Greendog is trying to eliminate the jumping fish, a fish that I think is supposed to be a piranha but looks more like a goldfish with a mouth full of sugar cubes. I would definitely recommend taking out the fish before jumping across the rocks, because if the fish hits you - or you fall into the water - the fish will attach itself to Greendog and drain his health until you shake it off by thrashing around on the controller. That the fish clamps on to Greendog does make it more likely to be a piranha, I suppose, but just imagine how horrible it'd feel to have a goldfish sticking to your bare skin through nothing more than the power of suction.
Speaking of taking damage, Greendog runs contrary to almost every other platformer by not starting you with a full health bar that decreases when you get hit, but rather providing an empty "damage" bar that fills up as you're attacked until it reaches the top and you lose a life. Why the developers of Greendog decided to have it this way 'round is a mystery. Perhaps it was just to make me think I had way less health than I actually did every time I looked at the bar, the cheeky bastards.
Greendog is the mostly the same old platform-hopping, projectile-throwing action that was so prevalent in the 16-bit era, but that's not necessarily a complaint and Greendog mostly handles the meat and potatoes of the action well enough. Greendog's jumps are a little more floaty than you might expect and if you're like me you'll probably end up overshooting a lot of the small platforms in the opening area, but once you get used to them they're not so bad. What is bad - bad game design, pure and simple - is this section here. Greendog can progress no further unless he grabs onto that bird, which then carries him down the waterfall. The thing is, that bird is identical to all the other birds in the stage, birds that damage you if you touch them. So, I spent a good couple of minutes waiting for a moving platform or something to appear because jumping into the previously deadly birds seemed like almost as bad an idea as traipsing through the rainforest with no shoes on.
I made it down eventually, and my reward was some vine swinging. On this front, Greendog gets a thumbs up from me. I've played plenty of games where swinging from vines / ropes / chains has been an exercise in frustration as the direction my character moved in when I jumped off seemed to be determined by an unseen force spinning a Twister-style wheel, but in this game it works very fluidly.
I have reached an ancient Aztec temple. Did the Aztec empire extend to the islands of the Caribbean? I am fairly certain it did not, but here we are, navigating the much less linear stone corridors of this aged site, jamming our frisbee into the animal heads on the wall. That's what's going on up there, it's not sticking its tongue out, and the animal heads work as switches that activate when you insert your frisbee. As I say, it's a much less linear area that rewards exploration - mostly with fairly useless point items, but also sometimes health refills and special items. The special items, activated with a button press, come in a variety of different flavours: an umbrella hat that protects you from damage, a stopwatch that freezes enemies, a hovering frisbee that mercilessly assaults any enemies it sees. While they're quite interesting - I find frisbee based drone warfare interesting, at least - sadly you don't see them that often and they feel like something of a wasted opportunity.
What else is there in the temple? A variety of traps, for one. There are springs that launch you upwards when you stand on them, usually into spikes on the ceiling, but that's okay because if you're paying attention you can see the springs before you step on them. They're cunningly disguised to look very similar to the regular floor, but they can be spotted in advance. The same cannot be said of the crumbling floors, which are indistinguishable from the regular floors and as such can bite me. Falling through a crumbling floor usually means you have to retrace your steps through an area you've previously cleared, which isn't much fun and only becomes less enjoyable when you make it back to where you were and promptly stand on another completely normal-looking collapsing block. The temple stages are okay, but not nearly fun enough for me to want to memorise the structural integrity of every last paving slab.
There's a boss of sorts at the end, a rotating totem pole where each face fires a different kind of projectile - and can only be damaged - when it's facing you. Straightforward bullets and blocks that fall from the ceiling are the main two, so the battle is really all about standing in the right place and pressing attack. I know you could say that about roughly eighty percent of videogame bosses, but Greendog is not the most dynamic chap in the word and so positioning is definitely emphasised over acrobatic dodging. Or you could sign up for the VGJunk Tips Hotline, where I'll tell you my top-secret strategy: reach the boss with full health and hammer the "throw frisbee" button while ignoring its attacks. Shit, I've given away the secret.
With the treasure claimed, (treasure that looks like a demonic doorstop,) Greendog can travel to the next island through the courtesy of his two feet. That's right, he's got a pedal-powered helicopter. Inspecting it closely, it seems to be made from plumbing supplies, a toilet seat and a taxidermied snake as the joystick. He's currently on the island of Grenada, and he's going to pedal his way to Mustique. According to Google Maps, that is a distance of roughly one hundred kilometres. I'm looking forward to the next stage, where Greendog's decision to spit in the face of physics results in his thighs swelling up to the size of mighty redwoods.
Oh, you're actually going to make me pedal to the next island? I wasn't expecting that. Fortunately it's just the final few minutes of the journey, but even that feels like a few minutes too long, and these pedalcopter section appear between every stage. You have to constantly tap the jump button to stay airborne while either avoiding the enemies or bopping them with the pedalcopter's secret weapon: a boxing glove on a spring. It's not a difficult stage. Nor is it an especially fun stage. It's mostly exercise for your thumb, but it does provide the rare opportunity to punch a fish. I don't think I've punched a fish in a videogame since I played Vampire Savior.
The next area begins, and the developers apparently grew tired of the "platforming" part of the platform genre and removed it entirely. The beach is a flat plane with only enemies to avoid and no holes to fall down, thus excising fifty percent of the gameplay. The fact that one of the enemy types is a strutting starfish in sunglasses that explodes as nonchalantly as it's possible to explode when you get near it goes some way towards redeeming the stage, but not nearly far enough.
There's an even bigger problem with this stage, however. As you may have noticed, there is a dog in this stage. The dog follows you around and is non-hostile, apparently being immune to the pendant's curse, which drives all other animals into a frenzied bloodlust - the dog is clearly, on a deep, spiritual level, too much of a Good Dog to be affected. So, there's a dog. Greendog throws frisbees. However, unless I'm missing something, you can't play frisbee with the dog. Excuse my language, but strong emotions sometimes must be expressed through strong words: what the fuck? I've never been so disappointed. As soon as I saw that dog I assumed you'd be able to play frisbee with it but no, this perfect set-up has been completely wasted and the dog is just there. It is an absolute travesty, and due to this colossal blunder I must break my normal rule about not giving numerical scores and award Greendog a rating of zero out of infinity.
True to his radical roots, Greendog spends the next stage skateboarding through another Aztec temple. It was nice of the Aztecs to fill their temple with ramps and half-pipes, and the inclusion of deadly spikes all over the place fits in nicely with their reputation for brutal bloodsports. Did you know, for instance, that in Aztec times the winner of the X Games had their heart cut out with an obsidian dagger?
I appreciate the attempts to mix the gameplay up, and the skateboarding sections are pretty okay. I wouldn't go much higher than "okay," however, because there are some annoyingly-placed springs that launch you back a few screens, and it's frustratingly easy to misjudge when your wheels are touching the ground. If they're not touching the ground you can't jump, and if you don't jump off ramps you're going to to be enduring a lot of very hardcore acupuncture sessions. At least it's not forced scrolling, so you can take your time and get a feel for what the next section holds.
The next island - I skipped the pedalcopter section because they're all functionally and graphically identical - begins with Greendog showing a deep misunderstanding of how snorkels work by walking around inside a giant fishtank. The silhouetted figure in the window at the back, presumably an aquarium employee, does not seem to care that there's a strange man harassing the fish. Then again, there also appears to be people fishing in the aquarium, so Greendog is the least of his problems.
And then I got eaten by a clam.
This is another completely flat level, and being underwater adds nothing to the gameplay beyond making Greendog's jumps even more buoyant than usual, but this is still one of the better stages thanks to some well thought-out enemy placement that leads to a smoothly enjoyable experience that has you almost falling into a Castlevania-style rhythm of movement. It also looks nice, too, with detailed backgrounds and even a bit of parallax scrolling. Many of Greendog's stages are a touch bland, especially the temples, but this one's much more visually engaging.
Speaking of bland temples, this one's underwater! I have no problem with the idea that Greendog can hold his breath for this long, not after he flew his pedalcopter 100 kilometers across open ocean. He's clearly not human. Not, really, go back and have a proper look at Greendog. He's shaped vaguely like a human, but all the details are wrong. His head is a featureless orb of flesh, his "hair" looks like a hat crudely carved from butter and he's got bizarre dinosaur legs. My theory is that Greendog is the first attempt by an alien race to create an infiltration unit, an undercover operative that can blend in with the hu-mans and learn their secrets. Unfortunately the aliens had only heard poorly-translated, third-hand accounts of what a human actually looks like, and so Greendog ended up resembling a mannequin that's been dropped down a thousand flights of stairs.
Here we are in Jamaica with another skateboarding section. The strange thing is, you can choose whether you do it on a skateboard or rollerblades. Is there a difference between the skateboard and the rollerblades? Not that I could see, so naturally I picked the skateboard, because skateboards are inherently cooler than rollerblades despite me forever associating them with Linkin Park and my younger brother's friends attempts to build ramps outside our house.
This section is littered with parking meters. Touching them pushes you back to an earlier point in the stage. Greendog seems overly fond of this mechanic, from the springs to the pipes that suck you up in the underwater stage to these parking meters, and frankly I grew very tired of it very quickly, to the point that it actually took longer getting through the stages because I was adamant I wouldn't fall into these traps, hamstrung by my own pride once again.
Next is the subway, where I'm being assaulted by tourists who look even less human than Greendog. Those aren't human heads, those are potatoes that have been left on a sunny windowsill for too long.
By the way, I looked it up and as far as I can tell there are no subways in Jamaica. My efforts to fact-check this were hampered by the fast food chain Subway's corporate presence in Jamaica. If you want to Eat Fresh in old Kingston Town, you can. If you want to get around the city, take the bus.
Also in the subway are these women, sitting patiently, minding their own business as they wait for the train... until you get close to them.
Okay, wow. That's pretty goddamn racist, and it completely took me by surprise. Congratulations to the creators of Greendog, I thought it was just another fairly uninspired Megadrive platformer but they managed to find a way of making it so much worse than that. I wouldn't have been so surprised had Greendog been developed by a Japanese team - Japanese attitudes towards non-Japanese people are often what you might kindly describe as "not good" - but there's a Ric Green listed as "creator" in the credits and Interactive Design seem to have been based in California so you can't really mitigate it by claiming cultural differences.
After that ugliness, Greendog gets back to its regularly-scheduled gameplay, with another skateboarding section in a temple and another pedalcopter trip before dropping the player into a treetop village populated by what I'm assuming are supposed to be Aztec warriors. Or Australian Buddhist monks, given the robes and boomerangs. It was nice to return to the vine-swinging and enemy avoidance parts of the game, which are definitely where Greendog's gameplay is the strongest. Maybe I'm simply a little burned out on platformers after years of writing this site and what I'm experiencing as blandness is really just over-familiarity, and I can see how Greendog might well have its fans. It doesn't do too much wrong, I suppose, apart from the traps that push you back and, you know, the racism.
The final island is St. Vincent, and it begins with a trip through some waterlogged caves. The water level rises and falls as you progress, and it's an effective way of spicing up the now familiar action. However, Greendog seems to have mislaid his snorkel - perhaps having thrown it away to reduce weight on his pedalcopter trips - so to fall in the water is instant death.
There's even a proper boss! I was very happy to see him. You know me, I love skeletons, especially after fighting that same totem pole boss multiple times. And what could be more appropriate as the guardian of a lost Caribbean treasure than a skeleton pirate? It's a very simple fight, one of those quintessential videogame battles where you hit the boss a couple of times, jump over it when it gets close and repeat.
Things do get more complicated when the skeleton's legs, tired of the incompetence of their upper half, strike out on their own to give Greendog, well, a kicking.
The placing of the skeleton is sort of weird, though. I expected him to be the final boss, but once you rattle his bones thoroughly enough to claim victory the game continues onwards...
...with another skateboarding / rollerblading section that adds new definition to the phrase "tacked on." There's nothing new or interesting about it, so here's a screenshot of me about to impale Greendog on a wall of spikes. It's my fault, I was trying to get to the end as quickly as possible. You've rolled through one Aztec temple, you've rolled through 'em all.
Having collected all the pieces of the treasure, they reform into... a surfboard. A surfboard that appears to be made of rocks, which is weird because the treasures were clearly gold in their separated state. As rewards go, a granite surfboard feels like a kick in the balls. If BMX was Greendog's extreme sport of choice, would he have received a bike make from wet noodles? Also note that Greendog's half-formed homunculus head appears to be attempting a smile, and it's creepy, as though a black slit has been carved into the malleable putty of his face.
Oh, it's a flying granite surfboard. Well, that makes much more sense. Greendog ends with a sequel hook as Bambi says the power of the "Surfboard of the Ancients" still "needs to be released," but apparently Greendog 2 didn't need to be released and apart from a Game Gear port this was the only adventure of Greendog, the grotesque flesh-marionette. I don't think we'll be seeing one any time soon, either. The time of gnarly surfer dude has rather passed us by. There is no place for totally tubular dude in today's fast-paced modern world.
Greendog: The Beached Surfer Dude is a fairly average game in a well-populated genre, but at times it does feel like it's at least trying to do something different. It's got variety, I'll give it that, but while the platforming stages that focus on dealing with enemies are quite good fun, the pedalcopter and later skateboarding stages balance it out by being extremely dull. In the end you're left with an an unsatisfying melange of gameplay chunks, like a supermarket value-brand can of vegetable soup - watery and not particularly nourishing. Then there's that moment of ugly stereotyping, which soured me on the whole game. So, Greendog does not get a recommendation from me, as much as it pains me to condemn a game that includes a skeleton pirate.