27/05/2016

SWORD MASTER (NES)

Today's game is Athena's 1992 NES poke-em-up Sword Master, and I'll tell you now that the title does not refer to the game's hero. He can stab his sword straight forward and swing it in an overhead chop, and that doesn't seem like it should be enough for mastery. No, he's more of a Sword Journeyman. A Sword Enthusiastic Amateur, if you will. Let's hope basic proficiency is enough to see him through this adventure.


Not much razzle-dazzle in evidence on the title screen - the logo's a little art nouveau and it's on fire, but it's not doing much to capture my interest. Here's hoping that the plot is a little less generic.


It's an evil wizard, communing with a magic mirror. I don't think I'm making too much of an assumption on this wizard's morality, he's wearing a robe made from scorpion parts and my nan's old curtains. You wouldn't see Gandalf in something like that.


Here's the wizard up close. He's grumpy because he ordered his hoodie online without properly checking the sizing chart. He looks like he's performing his dark enchantments from inside a swing bin, and not even wearing his favourite Ninja Turtles bandanna can cheer him up.


Then a young lady, who is has a ninety-five percent chance of being a princess, is abducted so I guess my hopes for a non-clich├ęd plot are cruelly dashed. Oh well, it's not that important. Super Mario Bros. 3 has the same plot as Super Mario Bros. 1, and it's one of the best games ever made. Warning: Sword Master is not as good as SMB3. I'm sure you'd already guessed that, but I didn't want to get your hopes up by accident.


Our hero stands atop a cliff, pointing his sword at a distant castle. "I am going to that castle," his posture seems to say, "and I will stab every single thing that I find there, be it man, beast or hideous man-beast." He's a real go-getter, so he is. I hope he brought some comfortable shoes for his upcoming hike through the forest, though. Maybe a cereal bar or something to keep his energy levels up.


And we're off, with our mighty tangerine-coloured warrior hacking his way through a flock of bats. I know a lot of NES games can be described as walking from left to right and hitting things, but that's an even more accurate description than usual in Sword Master's case because you can't turn around. Always facing his goals with unshakeable conviction, that's our hero. As for the hitting things part, unsurprisingly you use a sword. There's a normal forwards stab, a crouching poke for all your hamstring-severing needs and holding up on the D-pad while you attack performs an overhead swing that does slightly more damage but leaves you a little more vulnerable. You've also got a shield, so often overlooked by videogame knights on a righteous quest, and you can hold it high or low to block projectiles. For now, though, I'm simply using a lot of jumping overhand slashes to kill these bats, bats that don't seem particularly invested in attacking the player. If you ignore them they'll fly right past you, but I didn't start playing a game called Sword Master to not hit things with a sword. Anyway, they're bats and this is a videogame so they're obviously evil, demonic bats and they'll surely be up to no good when they get where they're going. I'm just saving some other poor adventurer from having to deal with them later


A skeleton approaches! It approaches quite slowly, the illusory musculature provided by whatever foul necromancer is animating it being no match for being alive, but here it comes and it's determined to run me through with the breadstick it's carrying. This is something of a mini-boss battle, as the screen stops scrolling once the skeleton appears and won't start moving again until you emerge triumphant. This is the general pattern of Sword Master, then: short sections spent chopping up minor enemies and negotiating some light platforming action, interspersed with a large number of one-on-one fights with tougher foes. Not that the skeleton is much of a challenge. Just bait out his stabs and then bonk him on the head. It's the only way a skeleton will learn.


As our lone warrior makes his way through a dark forest on his way to a castle, while being attacked by bats and skeletons, it's very difficult not to make a comparison between Sword Master and Castlevania. Clearly Athena took some inspiration from Konami's classic when they were putting Sword Master together, and that's fine by me because Castlevania is great and I love a horror-themed videogame. However, where Castlevania's stages are tight, expertly-assembled areas that require players to find a certain aggressive rhythm in order to progress, the constant miniboss encounters of Sword Master make it a much more stop-start affair, and thus the Castlevania influence doesn't extend far beyond the aesthetic. It's a nice aesthetic, though.


Now it's time to fight a big blue chap. I was going to call him a Cyclops, but I can't tell how many eyes he has. He doesn't seem big enough to be a giant, and he's a bit too monsterish to be a barbarian, so I don't know what he is. Apart from "angry," I mean. Fighting him is very similar to fighting the skeleton, although this battle is much tougher because the collision detection on his club is not very good, and you'll keep getting tagged by it even though you're sure you're far enough away. Weirdly, it was only this creature's club that I had problems with on that front, and almost all the other attacks in the game have solid, predictable hitboxes. Let's just pretend his club is surrounded by a foetid aura of corruption. Given that the only place he has to store his club when he's not using it is inside his loincloth, I don't think that's too much of a stretch.


The end of the stage is guarded by a wizard, and his purpose is to teach you how to block projectiles with your shield. He loves projectiles, does the wizard. Horizontal projectiles, projectiles fired diagonally upwards, a rain of projectiles that assault you from above, he's a regular Projectile Master. I'd want to keep the man with the sword as far away from me as possible if I was an old man in a robe, too, and while it was working well for the wizard at first I soon learned that I can crouch-walk forwards with my shield raised and that was the end of the wizard.


Stage two is a village on the castle's outskirts, inhabited by zombies, zombies with no legs that have adapted the breaststroke for non-aquatic purposes and the Lost Souls from Doom, although thankfully they're much less aggressive than Doom's flaming skull-monsters.


There's also some platforming. The village's potholes are running out of control, and to top it off they're being patrolled by these indestructible floating eyeballs because gravity alone apparently wasn't enough of a challenge for a man in full plate armour. It's a little aggravating that these eyeballs are indestructible, mind you. Of all the body parts you'd think could be dealt with by the decisive thrust of a blade, eyeballs would be near the top of the list. They should have been hovering thighs, something with a bit of substance to them.


The village exit is patrolled by a knight, and I'm annoyed that he looks cooler than my knight. I think it's the red plume sticking out of his helmet, it gives him a certain je ne sais quoi that my "medieval advertisement for Tango" look does not possess.
The knight has the same reach as you and is a bit more intelligent than the skeletons, so here's where you need to start paying attention if you want to progress in Sword Master. The one-on-one fights make up the bulk of the game, and they quickly become very challenging - but crucially they (mostly) don't feel too horrendously cheap. There are patterns to be learned and movements to be exploited, and if you're looking for a retro game that demands you take the time to learn you opponent's moves, then Sword Master might just be a good bet for you. As for the knight, I had a lot of success with jumping at him and doing the overhead slash while moving backwards in mid-air, which most of the time put me just outside of stabbing range when I landed.


The knight dropped an icon of a shepherd's crook when I defeated him. Have I condemned a flock of sheep to a lingering death on some distant hillside, uncared for and forgotten now that their owner is dead?


Never mind, it was actually a magic wand that allows our hero to transform into a wizard by pressing the select button. The comparisons between Sword Master and Castlevania grow even stronger, because you can also switch to a white-robed mage by pressing select in Castlevania 3, assuming you recruited Sypha on your travels.
Becoming a master of magic allows for an extra revenue stream when you hire yourself out for kid's birthday parties, as well as letting you launch short-range magical bolts from you hands. You can charge the bolts up by holding down the button, too, although your magic is limited: bafflingly, the amount of magic you have is determined by how full your experience bar is. Defeating the lesser enemies between the one-on-one fights slowly fills your experience bar, which is maddeningly not called you magic bar or mana bar or anything having to do with wizardy. If I didn't have the compulsion to press every button on the pad now and then I might never have realised I even had magic powers, and someone playing Sword Master without the manual to hand could easily go through the whole game without ever realising their hidden power. But what can I use my hidden power on?


Ah, Godzilla, you'll do. He shoots fire out of his mouth, I shoot fire out of my hands, that seems like a fair contest... although I think I would have been better off using the sword. The sword doesn't cost magic - sorry, experience - points and has about the same range as the My First Conjuration projectiles the staff provides you with.


The sword is definitely the better option for fighting this lizardman, because he just kept jumping over my projectiles and kicking me in the head like he'd learned all his moves by playing the Ninja Turtles arcade game. Switching between Knight and Wizard modes is fast, but it's a shame it's not slightly faster: it would have been very satisfying to bait the lizardman into jumping over my projectile, only to find that I'd switched to the sword while he was in mid-air and he's suddenly jumping towards an experiment in determining just how good lizards really are at regrowing severed body parts.


Sword Master is not shy about throwing the same monsters at you over and over again, and in this stage you must re-triumph over the knight and the wizard before reaching the end-of-stage guardian. It's the wizard again, but he's supplement his magical attack with a bloody great axe. An axe that he can shoot magic out of. He's a traitor to every set of fantasy game tropes imaginable. Wizards can't use axes, that's not fair. Was he listening to the the blasphemous tome of the ancient sorcerers on audiobook while he did the strength training necessary to build an axe-wielding physique? I think not.
Complaints aside, I rather like the design of the axe-wizard, and of all the enemies in general. They're clean, bold sprites that have a pleasing fantasy look to them, almost like they're based on action figures from a non-existent "Dungeon Fighters!" toyline. Sword Master is a very competently designed, solidly-built game in many regards - graphically it's very impressive, sprite flicker aside, and it's even got parallax scrolling, a rarity for a NES game. The music is above average, with plenty of high-tempo, driving tracks that are a perfect accompaniment to cracking skeleton skulls, even if they never quite approach the quality of Konami or Capcom's action game soundtracks. There's even a voice clip of your character shouting "Huuh!" when you swing your sword, and it takes a surprisingly long to for it to become irritating.


The next stage is all about jumping, and jumping is something that Sword Master has a strange relationship with. For starters, you sometimes jump higher than usual, and I couldn't figure out why. Apparently there's a line in the manual that states "hitting the jump button consecutively allows you to extend your jumps," but doesn't explain what it means by "consecutively." I tried timing my jumps just as I landed from a previous jump, a la Super Mario 64, and I also tried franticly hammering the button at random intervals, neither of which produced consistent results. In the end I put it down to certain parts of the castle's stone floor being springier than others. Luckily you're never forced to use the high jump.
The other odd quirk is that, especially in the later stages, it's rare that you'll make a jump and land solidly on the other platform. Instead you'll hit the edge and spend a moment or two falling off (and kinda through) the platform, but if you press jump again while this is happening you can become airborne once more and nail the landing. At first it seems that Sword Master simply demands pixel-perfect jumping skills, but scrabbling for purchase on the edges of platforms happened so often - and was so consistent - that I've come to believe it was an intentional gameplay mechanic, a sort of half-hearted effort to include Ninja Gaiden-style wall-jumps into the game, and as such it's much less frustrating that it seems like it's going to be the first time you slide into oblivion despite clearly getting your toes on the platform.


The jumping in Sword Master isn't all peaches and rainbows, however. I was stumped for quite a while on this jump, where every attempt I made ended with me hitting the eyeball and either falling to my death or being knocked back onto the platform I just came from. In the end, I had to look it up. Turns out the solution is that you have to walk off the platform, underneath the ball, and then simply jump up off the thin air you're standing on to make it to the next platform. Of course, why didn't I think of that?! I'm really glad this opaque bullshit is the solution, I'd have felt bad if there was a glaringly obvious way past the eyeball that I just wasn't getting.


Ah, I see it was Satan himself who arranged these accursed platforms! Slow day in Hell, was it? Honestly, I don't think this is the Prince of Lies. All he does is hover around the top of the screen dropping three easily-avoided projectiles at a time. It's more impish than Satanic, and it makes this boss considerably easier than most of the previous creatures I've faced. I'm not complaining: I saw I was about to fight a flying red devil-monster and I had a sudden traumatic flashback to Ghosts 'n Goblins, so the fight ended up being a huge relief.


Things have calmed down a little now our hero has reached the castle itself, and it's back to the usual slaying of bats and mini-boss battles on a flat, open level. This is a good time to mention that I've picked up another couple of spells on my travels, which can be switched between when the game is paused. Their uncharged versions are still projectiles, but the "explosion" power has the notable effect of making a bunch of explosions appear if you charge it up. You'll, erm, just have to trust me that there are multiple explosions.


There's not much to say about this knight with a spiked flail. He's red, he's fast and he loves to merrily gad around the castle like the Prince of the Elven Folk. I was so taken by his rambunctious energy that I too leapt into the air, hoping for a graceful aerial battle between two honourable combatants, but he's a cheating git whose armour is apparently much better than mine, so I ended up waiting on the round and stabbing him pettily in the ankles.


There's also a dragon. It's hard to summon up any enthusiasm for this dragon, because earlier I fought a dragon that looked much more like Godzilla and less like a regular dragon that's learned to walk unconvincingly on its hind legs.


As I entered the next stage and crept past the castle's spike traps and roaming slimes, (do slimes roam? Ooze, perhaps,) I was reminded less of Castlevania and more of the NES port of Dragon's Lair - but a NES Dragon's Lair that isn't a hateful exercise in frustration orchestrated by people who wouldn't recognise the concept of fun if it came up to them, grabbed them firmly by their pubic hair and said "hi, I'm the concept of fun and you have wronged me." I think it's the purple brickwork that does it.


The boss is a barbarian, certainly more of a barbarian than the blue troll from the first stage. Why, he's got an axe and everything! He's also got the power to completely ignore the wall of lightning I sent towards him using my new lightning spell. I'm not even sure it hurt him. He didn't act like it hurt, but I confess I don't know how people usually react when they're stuck by lightning. Say "ouch," fall over, sizzle a bit, not necessarily in that order? Whatever the case, the boss did none of these thing, opting instead to embed his axe into my skull as though he's mistaken me for a good source of winter firewood. It's a difficult battle, as are all the battles by this point in the game, mostly because the bosses now have much larger health bars and you have to concentrate for longer when one lapse will see you lose half your health. Did I mention that he can throw his axe like a boomerang? Because he can. We're going to have to stop using the word "barbarian" to describe thoughtless killers, because the level of aerodynamic engineering needed to produce a boomerang axe is the very opposite of thoughtless.


I couldn't help it. It happened by instinct, instinct honed by years spent trying to beat Dracula to death with a whip. I tried to hit the candle, to see if there was a power-up inside. Never have I felt so completely beholden to the media I consume, so thanks for this grim psychological awakening, Sword Master.


This guy is definitely the Sword Master of the title. His sword's made of fire! He can even turn it on and off like a lightsaber. Which he does, repeatedly, the big show-off. Of course, you don't get the title of Sword Master just for carrying around an oversized sparkler: you've got to have the moves, too, which this boss does. Specifically, he has the move where he ignores all my attacks and attempts to char-grill me from the inside. The old Texas BBQ Enema, that's his MO.


Then there's another knight. This one eschews the golden fripperies and flaming swords of his confederate and instead batters you to death with a chunk of metal on a stick in a manner you'd describe as "workmanlike," if relentless unscheduled trepanation is a kind of work. I tried keeping my distance from the nice man with the whacking stick, hoping maybe we could talk our way through his anger issues, but his mace is spring-loaded and will fire spikes at you if you try to give him some space.


And then there's this prick. Goddamn wizards, man. All I wanted to do was hack at him with my sword but no, he kept creating his own walls of electricity that - guess what - knocked me back when they hit me, a property that my lightning walls most certainly did not possess. If only I had some way to hit him from a distance...


Oh, you like magic, do you? Well then, have all the magic you can eat! I know it looks like I'm throwing spaghetti at you but this is pure magical pain, you old bastard! Sword Master? More like Problem-Solving Master!


Oh hey, it's the wizard from the intro. Overall I've been complimentary about the enemy design in this game, but that's not really good look, is it? Like he graduated from Wizard College only to be immediately crushed by a steamroller. A forlorn Christmas ornament. A bootleg Harry Potter bookmark from a Hong Kong market stall. Not threatening, is what I'm saying, and he's not all that good at fighting. Weirdly enough, when an enemy is flying in Sword Master it puts you at an advantage, because you can walk under them rather than being pinned in the corner by the likes of the knights. Sure, the wizard produces more fireballs than a dragon with hiccups, but you can block them all fairly easily and hit him with a jumping slash when there's a break in the bombardment. What a disappointing way to end the game.


Except it's not the end of the game, and I'm forced to eat my words as the real final boss appears and proceeds to initiate me into an endless maelstrom of death. This demon likes projectiles. Really likes them, and all manner of lightning bolts and fireballs constantly spew from every part of his anatomy that we can see. Presumably they also spew from the parts we can't see and his demonic wang is like a literal fire hose, so I'm counting my blessings that I just have to deal with his head and hands. To damage him, you must attack the mirror on the right of the screen, but you can't get near the mirror when you're constantly being slammed by a wall of dark magic. In the end I had to cheat, which was a shame because up until this point Sword Master had been a tough game but generally a fair one, where learning enemy patterns and adapting your tactics would eventually, with practise, lead to victory. This just feels like a big "screw you," though. Is it doable? I'm sure it is, but only doable by people with far more time and patience than me. So, with Game Genie to the rescue and evil mirror smashed, Sword Master can draw to a close.


Maiden status: rescued, presumed grateful. Time to take her back to wherever she was kidnapped from and eschew any offered reward, for a Sword Master yearns only for the clash of steel in chivalrous combat, preferably in a distant land where people haven't figured out how to throw fireballs. Oh, and maybe some new armour that makes him look less like a mechanical carrot.


Sword Master is a game that demands patience and dedication if you want to make much progress, but is it worth it? I'd say it just about is, final boss excluded. It's a well-made example of the genre, with solid gameplay and a nice look to it. It's not a great game - it's too derivative and stop-start for that - but it can be a fun game, so if you're looking for a retro game to sink your teeth into then that's definitely on offer here. Just try not to think too hard about the Sword Master's relationship with gravity.

21/05/2016

GREENDOG (MEGADRIVE / GENESIS)

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.

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