It's time for a very brief article about a very brief piece of Commodore 64 tat, because that's the kind of game I've been craving recently. I'm not sure why. I suspect it's because I've been playing too many genuinely good games in my non-VGJunk time, and as the human body might cry out for nutrients it is desperately lacking so does my mind yearn for computer games that probably shouldn't exist to provide grist for the mill that is writing about old games. Today's meagre kindling to be thrown on the VGJunk bonfire is the 1990 sports "game"Penalty Soccer, written by David Bradley and released by Clockwize Software!
Released on several home computer formats but presented to you here in glorious Commodore 64-o-Vision, Penalty Soccer is referred to just as Penalty Soccer on the title screen but Penalty Soccer Simulator on the cassette cover. Which is the correct title? I don't know, but plain old Penalty Soccer is definitely the more accurate. This is as much a football simulation as The Sims is an accurate depiction of home ownership.
"A game of skill and reactions," it claims. This is not true, because there is no skill involved unless you're willing to accept "moving a cursor" as a skill and if so I really hope you're the next potential employer to read my CV. Reactions? Well, just about, although they're far less important than you might expect.
Penalty Soccer then explains what'll be happening if, for some unfathomable reason, you decide to proceed with playing the game rather than doing something more interesting like breaking into a bank vault by licking through the steel door. You play as a goalkeeper, and you have to save the penalties that are being fired towards you. There is nothing else to the game. That's right, Clockwize Software took every football fan's least favourite part of the game - the penalty shoot-out - and turned it into a videogame. Except that wasn't quite dull enough for them, so they excised the shooting from the penalty shoot-out, leaving you with nothing but an extremely basic version of one-half of the worst part of football. That is a truly impressive feat of badness. Simply by existing, Penalty Soccer reduces the world's Joy Quotient by several points.
You can choose a difficulty level by selecting which of these (mostly British) football players you want to face off against, from genial, bearded crisp-peddler Gary Lineker to Peter "Quasimodo's Doppelganger" Beardsley and even everyone's favourite cocaine-snaffling, mercurial-talent-having recipient of multiple gastric bands, Diego Maradona. Personally, I'm pleased to see Chris Waddle on the list, because he was one of my heroes when I was a young boy, and one-half of the reason that I always played football with my shirt untucked (the other half being slovenliness). It's interesting that he's on the higher end of this difficulty chart, because probably Chris Waddle's most famous moment in an England shirt was when he missed a penalty in the 1990 World Cup semi-final. I guess we know that Penalty Soccer was made early in 1990, then. One last note on Chris Waddle, because it's such a great story even if you're not a football fan, is that he rode to his first job interview on a moped but couldn't get his crash helmet off and so had to conduct the interview looking like the Stig. He got the job. What a pro. I'll won't be starting with Chris, though. Saving penalties is a tough task for any goalkeeper, so I'm going to ease myself in by facing Kevin Keegan.
Here's the game's one solitary screen, so get used to seeing it. At first it seems like a perfectly normal footballing set-up, but the closer you look the more flaws you see. For starters, your keeper doesn't have a relaxed, ready-to-pounce stance, nor is he trying to make himself look big. Instead, he looks like his shorts are too baggy and he's having to hold them up. The lines on a football pitch are generally painted white, not blue. The goal is nowhere near large enough to meet the FA's size requirements. The keeper was so intent on showing off his biceps that he's gone for a non-regulation sleeveless kit, which makes him look like he's walked in from a side-scrolling beat-em-up. Most bizarre of all is the crowd. Take a look just to the right of the goal. That is a human arse. There's a human arse watching me take penalties. In fact, the whole crowd seems to be made up of buttocks, a fleshy pink sea of rumps who have come to cheer on their team, presumably by farting along to the tune of "Cwm Rhondda" or something. I'm sorry for the descent into crudeness, but it's difficult not to be crude when presented with more arseholes than a UKIP party conference.
I think this animated GIF adequately captures the essence of Penalty Soccer. The balls move towards the goal - with, credit where credit is due, some pretty good sprite scaling - and you have to get in their way. The joystick moves the keeper, pressing the fire button makes him jump. It is very rare that you will need to jump. Save ten shots before the striker scores ten goals and you'll win the round. That's the entire game, folks. Yes, Penalty Soccer was a budget title originally priced at £2.99, but even in 1990 that was about £2.89 too much. About the most positive box blurb you could write for it would be "works as intended," which admittedly puts it above a fair few other computer games of the time, but as I said it does boil down to nothing more than moving a cursor shaped sort-of like a goalkeeper.
Oh, and the game expects you to do this nine more times in order to become The Supreme Goalkeeper. Because each set of penalties only takes about a minute to get through, I thought sure, why not? It should be easy enough, because I've already figured out Penalty Soccer's most glaring flaw.
As depicted in the above image, the computer has the overwhelming tendency to take this shot to the left of the goal, even if the goalkeeper is standing right there. I even left the score counter in this GIF just so I couldn't be accused of showing a loop of the same shot. No, I really did just make the goalkeeper stand there while the computer pinged shots into his brawny upper arms, building up a commanding six-point lead without having to move. This doesn't just happen on the easier difficulties, either, it runs right through the list of strikers all the way to Maradona. Eventually the computer will put a shot somewhere else - I don't think you can win, not consistently anyway, by simply parking the keeper and going off to make a cup of tea - but Penalty Soccer seems to always get stuck in this pattern at least once per round. That's how I knew I'd be able to beat the game on the highest difficulty, so I think I'm definitely ready to make the step up and face Maradona.
Maradona tries to claim victory by constantly taking shot after shot, regardless of whether the keeper is ready or not. This, of course, is cheating, but then Diego has form on that front, doesn't he?
In the end it is of no consequence, because even Maradona can't break himself out of the kicking-it-slightly-to-his-left cycle that has trapped all the other strikers, to the extent that I'm beginning to wonder whether my keeper doesn't have some kind of mostly-useless telekinetic ability. With the five or six guaranteed saves that result from this flaw, I soon managed to claim ten victories and become The Supreme Goalkeeper. With no footballing worlds left to conquer, the keeper moves on to appearing in advertisements for bathroom sealant and condoms, before his ultimate adventure in 20XX when he defended the Earth from alien invaders that couldn't help flying their UFOs slightly to the left.
Penalty Soccer is an absolute nothing of an experience, as though someone digitised a sigh and slapped it on a C64 cassette, but the ending text redeems it somewhat through the sheer force of its sarcasm. I suspect the creators of this game knew full well that it was not exactly built to set the world on fire, and it should be obvious that this is not something that's worth playing. I didn't hate it, but only because there wasn't anything there to hate and hey, it was nice to see Chris Waddle mentioned. So, I'm going to do as suggested and go tell people that I play for England in my spare time. With the current crop of players, it's becoming more believable every minute.
Today I'm going to learn an ancient and honourable martial art by hitting pigs with a piece of bamboo and dodging surface-to-air missiles, because today's game is Taito's 1986 Famicom way-of-the-sword-em-up Musashi no Ken: Tadaima Shugyou Chuu!
This title screen has a cute puppy on it, which elevates it above the vast majority of NES title screens, although don't let the puppy fool you into thinking this is going to be an easy game. It is not an easy game, mostly because deadly objects rain from the sky in great numbers, as though God himself has tipped his kitchen junk drawer upside down to look for a lost Allen key or appliance warranty card. We'll get to that, but first the scene needs setting. Musashi no Ken: Tadaima Shugyou Chuu - which I think translates as something like Musashi's Sword: Training Right Now - is based on a manga, surprise surprise. Musashi no Ken is a manga about a kid called Musashi who learns kendo and does kendo things, like fighting in kendo tournaments and bouncing his way through several stages of platforming action. It was adapted into an anime series that was airing at the time of the game's release, and that's about all I have on Musashi no Ken that isn't specifically about the videogame. Oh, and according to the Wikipedia page Musashi's parents are both former kendo champs, so no pressure there, kid.
It's straight into the action, and Musashi no Ken offers a familiar blend of running to the right while jumping over the yawning chasms that litter the landscape. There's also swordplay to be had, and Musashi can swing his sword to defeat enemies. He's even got multiple different attacks at his disposal, although there's not much to choose between them - you can press attack for a standard horizontal swipe, or combine the attack button with up or down on the d-pad to slice (or clobber, I suppose, because this is a bamboo kendo sword) either diagonally upwards or downwards, but they all cover just about the same range in front of you. You can also crouch and attack, which is handy for dealing with the first enemies you come up against: these yellow blobs. A Super Mario goomba and a slime from Dragon Quest met in a bar, consoled each other over their shared misery at being cannon-fodder enemies who exist solely to be wiped out by the first hero that comes along, they went back to the goomba's place and nine months later they were proud parents to a litter of tiny piss-lumps. The gooey offspring fare no better than their parents, and they're easily brushed aside by Musashi's sword.
Musashi's other goal beside simple survival is to collect as many of these tiny swords as possible, although their use is, for now at least, unexplained. Maybe it's a safety thing, and they'll revoke your kendo license if you leave swords laying around everywhere. And I mean everywhere, because as well as the visible swords I'd say around seventy percent of the other objects on the screen - wooden training dummies, tree branches, cliff edges, graves - contain swords that only appear when you hit them with your sword. You on, desecrate that grave, there's a collectible inside! There are also other power-ups whose effects are more immediately obvious. Rice balls increase Musashi's health, which sort of works on a health bar system but getting hit twice always seems to kill you no matter what unless you've collected a rice ball. There's also a temporary invincibility item and shoes that make Musashi faster. They make him run faster and they make him die faster, because when he's moving at such speeds it's difficult to get any platforming down without falling down holes. For safety's sake, don't collect the shoes. Leave Musashi barefoot so his grasping, ape-like toes can help him gain traction on slippery surfaces.
You can also see the puppy from the title screen running along the bottom of the screen. Turns out it's nothing more than the most adorable stage timer I've ever seen in a videogame, and you simply have to reach the end of the stage before your dog does. Thankfully it's a very slow dog. When I first saw it down there I was worried I would have to protect the dog - worried because I'm terrible at protecting things in videogames and double-worried because I didn't want a puppy's death on my hands - but thankfully the dog is ethereal and can walk through any wall and float over any chasm. It's a g-g-g-ghost dog (not Forrest Whitaker)!
Look there, between the gravestones: it's the angry sun from Super Mario 3, except he's not angry any more! He's coked out of his fucking gourd instead!
Then come the missiles. Someone with access to more firepower than every eighties action movie combined has decreed that Musashi must die, and so our hero must contend with a barrage of deadly ordnance. I did not realise that people took kendo training this seriously. You can swat the rockets out of the air with your sword, something which says to me that Musashi does not need to be training.
Missiles too easy for you to avoid? Well how about a rain of sharpened bamboo that pours from the sky like, well, rain. Deadly, lacerating, fast-growing rain. There's a common theme in Musashi no Ken's gameplay design, and that's enemies and projectiles falling from the sky in an absolute torrent of death, an unending stream of pain that just keeps on coming no matter how many individual droplets you hit with your sword. In many cases, such as here, the best strategy is to move forwards as quickly as possible while constantly swinging your sword over your head like someone trying to use an umbrella to achieve man-powered flight. Most of the time this works surprisingly well, although in some sections you're funnelled towards the top of the screen where there's less space to avoid the incoming enemies. In these situations my advice to you is the same - just keep moving and swinging. You might get lucky and make it through. Hey, I'm not GamePro, if you want ProTips you'll have to look elsewhere.
First bamboo, now falling logs. Whoever is doing this, please stop trying to kill Musashi with lumber because it is not working and you're, like, harming Mother Earth, man. Use a gun! I know Musashi's an anime type and if there's one thing anime has taught me it's that swords are vastly more powerful than guns, but he's not wielding the finest Japanese steel so you might have a chance.
That floating letter G (which presumably stands for goal) marks the end of the stage, by the way. Simply grab it without being buried to death under an avalanche of firewood and stage one is complete!
The second stage starts in another forest, and forget for a moment the impracticalities of trying to defeat living fire by poking it with wood and take a look at the graphics. Musashi no Ken is the most NES-looking NES game I have played in quite some time. If you asked me to draw "an NES game" this is pretty close to what my hypothetical drawing would look like: blue skies, green vegetation, small but characterful sprites. It's a nice look, too. The graphics in this game are hardly a technical marvel, the settings lack some imagination and there's nothing approaching the quality of, say, Moon Crystal's fluid animation, but it's a good, solid example of the style. Musashi's got some fun expressions for when he takes damage, the enemies are cute and that dog is clearly the breakout star of the whole thing.
The gameplay reaches about the same level of success, too. The relentless deluge of enemies can sometimes feel like extremely lazy design, but the game's biggest problem is that Musashi's jumping physics feel just a little bit off. Not game-ruiningly so, but he's more floaty in the air than you might expect and that can sometimes lead to overshooting jumps you'd be certain of making in other, similar games. I guess those big flappy samurai trousers can really catch an updrauft. Other than that control flaw, which doesn't even take that much getting used to, Musashi no Ken is a fun and carefree romp through a world where the universe itself wants a young boy dead for having the audacity to enjoy kendo. Is this game a carefully masked critique on modern technology's corrosive effect on Japanese traditions? No, it is not. That would be super weird.
This is what I meant about getting funnelled to the top of the screen. The bottom route might look a little safer, mainly because Musashi's head is further away from where the enemies spawn, but in this game you can't jump upwards "through" platforms, and if you try to do so Musashi will bonk his head on whatever's above him and fall down. No, it's just about safer up here, as long as I keep moving, however tempting it is to try hitting the tyre swing on the way down to see if there's a tiny sword tucked inside it.
Then, at the end of the stage, a rain of boulders. Or possibly meatballs. No, no, I'm sure they're meant to be boulders. There are mountains in the background. Mountains produce boulders, not meatballs. I have a geography GCSE, I feel confident in this knowledge. Musashi can smash the boulders as easily as he could the logs and missiles and yet again I wonder why he's bothering with training. How much stronger do you need to get, kid? What is your terrifying vision for the future?
In stage three, everything becomes clear: Musashi is a rampaging twelve-foot tall giant, smashing everything he sees in a berzerker rage! I know this because some enemies in this stage are also kendo practitioners, but they're half Musashi's size and the idea that Musashi is a giant rather than that he's beating up martial arts pixies is way more appealing to me. It explains at the rockets and people throwing bamboo spears at him, they are desperate to stop this lumbering maniac before he can crown himself the undisputed, unassailable Champion of All Kendo, ruling over the sport unopposed for the rest of his unnaturally long lifespan.
See? That's the face of a demented lunatic. Someone's whacking him with a bamboo sword and he's loving it. Now we know why Musashi no Ken wasn't released outside of Japan, Nintendo of America would never allow such filth to pollute the minds of innocent young gamers.
In this stage Musashi is also attacked by walking buckets and what I originally thought were very small ice hockey players but are actually people with mops. Two theories: either this game is the result of Masashi taking one too many blows to the head during kendo practise, or this stage is supposed to represent the arduous task of cleaning up the dojo. You get those kind of cleaning scenes, especially floor-scrubbing scenes, in anime sometimes - I think there's some in My Neighbor Totoro - so really this stage is a projection of Musashi's desire to avoid responsibility / back-breaking manual labour.
Not to worry, the Killer Whale foetuses that guard this dojo will not allow such a transgression to go unpunished. Here's an actual tip for Musashi no Ken: if you're near the end of the stage and you can still take a hit or two before dying, you might as well make a mad dash for the goal because your health bar is reset at the start of the next stage anyway. It certainly made timing my jumps to avoid the whales' deadly bubbles - oh, it's always the bloody deadly bubbles in these things - much easier, because I didn't bother. Surely part of a young man's kendo training is learning how to take a hit, I thought to myself as I popped the lethal bubble using Musashi's face
Suddenly it's all change, and Musashi no Ken ditches the platforming for a series of one-on-one kendo battles! That was a surprise. I wasn't expecting there to be actual kendo in this kendo-themed platformer, which seems like a strange thing to say but how often do NES games ever completely replace their gameplay? This one does, though, which is interesting. I've done all the training, after all, and it's time to put it to good use.
The thrilling sound of bamboo clacking against bamboo! The graceful dance of men dressed like ye olde beekeepers! The embarrassment of walking right into your opponent's attack! Yes, Musashi no Ken's kendo section has it all. You have three main attacks - upper, middle and lower - and the combat is heavily focused on precision and managing the distance between you and your rival. Each bout works on a best-of-three system, so you need two clean hits on your opponent to win, and there are five challengers in total. So, I started the battle and realised hey, this is an awful lot like the kendo sections in Taito's very own 1984 arcade game Great Swordsman! That's fine by me, because for a one-on-one fighter from 1984 Great Swordsman is still fun to play thanks to its fluidity and precision. I might be wrong, but I have to assume someone responsible for Great Swordsman also worked on Musashi no Ken, or at least realised they had something they could work with when they acquired the license for a kendo anime.
Sadly, the kendo section is not quite as good as in Great Swordsman, lacking as it does a certain amount of finesse. It's still good, better than I would expect a NES swordfighting game to be, but it doesn't quite have the same amount of tension as Great Swordsman thanks to the hit detection being a little less consistent.
One thing this kendo game does have is special moves, and at last the secret of all those swords I've been collecting is revealed. Your special attacks are high, low and middle dashing attacks that are fast and have great range, and they're powered by the sword collectibles. You can see your totals in the status bar, and for every ten swords you collected in the platforming stages, you can perform one of the corresponding special moves. The upper special attack is the most satisfying, because landing it successfully makes your opponent fall on their arse and go skidding across the arena, but the low attack seems to be the most effective. To help achieve true mastery of the sword, here are some of my ken-dos and ken-don'ts: Don't walk too far backwards because if you step off the mat you forfeit a point, and don't keep using the same attack over and over again because you foe will soon figure it out. Do try to use the low special wherever possible and shatter the other guy's ankles. The judges love that kind of thing.
In a cruel twist of fate, the judges also love silk ties and travel pillows, but as they have no necks they can never experience the joy of that these things can bring.
Five fights down and I still had some special moves to spare. Looks like all that time I spent playing Great Swordsman paid off! Musashi jumps for joy, and now he can claim the trophy and maybe, finally, the respect of his parents.
"They told me I was going to win a big prize, but I didn't think it would be a trophy large enough for me to convert into a jacuzzi!" Yeah, good luck fitting that on the mantelpiece. On the plus side, if Musashi lives in Tokyo he can rent that trophy out as a one-person apartment for a considerable monthly rate when he gets home.
After writing about Prince Clumsy last time and being amazed that such a blatant rip-off of Ghosts 'n' Goblins didn't include a second loop, the universe saw fit to punish me by including that very mechanic in Musashi no Ken. That's right, once you've finished the game you have to do it all again, only it's more difficult and the palette has been changed to a more subdued, gloomy look. At first the faintly sepia tones made me wonder if this repetition was being played out as though it were Musashi reminiscing about his adventures, but there are a lot more enemies knocking about so I guess it is all new. Unless Musashi is telling the story of how he became kendo champ but he's embellishing it like that tedious bloke in the pub who insists on telling you how he stormed Bin Laden's compound with the SAS even though you know he was kicked out of the TA for laziness.
So many enemies. So many tiny kendo men falling from the skies that it's hard not to imagine them being sprinkled down upon you out of some enormous salt-shaker type arrangement by an embarrassed God who reached the ninth day and spent it all making tiny kendo men.
After going through the kendo tournament for a second time - and as far as I could tell it's identical to the first time - then Musashi really, truly becomes the kendo champion and earns the title "Tiger of Iwate." Were you ever named after a powerful big cat, mum and dad? No, I didn't think so. Looks like Musashi's the head of the household now, come back when people start calling you by the name of an animal known for its strength and graceful beauty! You can live in the trophy until you find a new place.
Musashi no Ken: Tadaima Shugyou Chuu! is one of those rare retro games that suddenly changes genre but manages to offer two equally enjoyable experiences, a world away from the usual "dismal shoot-em-up section artlessly crammed in for a stage or two" experience. Neither the platformer or kendo parts are at the very pinnacle of their respective genres, with the platforming especially feeling somewhat generic, but they're both decent enough and for a 1986 Famicom game based on an anime that's nothing short of a miracle. You could call it a hidden gem if the gem in question was quartz rather than diamond, I suppose. And it's got a puppy in it. What more do you want?
I suppose it's time for a game about rescuing a princess, because it's been a while since I covered one of the fifty percent of retro games with that plot (the other half being "rescuing your girlfriend", naturally). At least this time the nobility hasn't left it up to the common man to solve their problems, and instead a brave young heir to the throne charges into the fray. His name is Prince, and he is clumsy. It's Codemasters' 1990 Commodore 64 I'm-sure-I've-seen-this-before-em-up Prince Clumsy!
That's hardly a name to inspire confidence, is it? He's no Mega Man, not even a Super Mario, just some bumbling posho who has suddenly been thrust into into a life-or-death situation that his governesses and public school education could not possibly have prepared him for. Mind you, if "clumsiness" is the extent of his acrobatic failings then he'll still be way more fun to control than many, many C64 characters.
I do like that one of the control options is listed as "Rob Keys," though, presumably the preferred control system of Robert Toone, who handled the game's conversion from the ZX Spectrum.
And we're off! Off to the, erm, graveyard. Well, that's interesting, you don't see many games that start with a knight killing zombies in a graveyard. That's what you're looking at here - Prince Clumsy is the blue-ish armour-clad knight and that purple-and-grey lump is a zombie or ghoul or what-have-you. Some kind of revenant, anyway. Thankfully Prince Clumsy stopped off at Stabby Pete's Bulk Barn of Bargain Blades before he set out, and with an unlimited supply of throwing daggers at his disposal he can make short work of any enemies in his way. Oh, hang on, I looked again and realised that's not a zombie attacking our hero but rather the Grim Reaper himself, or at the very least one of Death's lackeys. Death's like Santa, he has an army of helpers who dress like him to help even out his workload. I realised it was the / a Grim Reaper because I eventually figured out it was carrying a scythe, and at this point I feel I should mention the graphics look a lot better - more distinct, certainly - in motion.
Aside from stabbing Death himself right in the bony mush, Prince Clumsy also features some platforming, which is hardly surprising considering it's an action platformer. It's what I'd call "light" platforming, where the most complicated it gets is jumping from one moving platform to another. There are no obstacle courses or anything like that, but these early jumps did reveal a very welcome surprise: Prince Clumsy is not clumsy at all! In fact, his jumping skills are smooth and responsive, and although there's a brief learning curve while you figure out that it's often more effective to jump straight up into the air and then guide the prince left or right as he falls rather than jumping diagonally, overall it makes for a far more playable game than a lot of the computer platformers from this era that I've experienced in the past. My only complaint about the controls, and this in no way reflects on the creators of Prince Clumsy but is rather an example of how years of playing videogames have trained my expectations, is that you have to press down on the joystick to enter a doorway. That took some getting used to.
Hey look, a treasure chest! But it doesn't have treasure in it, only points. Maybe the real treasure is the experience. I feel like I've really grown as a person after jumping over this small stream, much as Prince Clumsy's thighs must have grown if they're constantly propelling him into the air while he wears full plate armour.
On the next screen is a closed portcullis. Well, it starts open when you enter the screen, but as soon as you do it slams shut as if to really hammer home the fact that it's trying to block the path of the Prince specifically. I assumed that to get past the portcullis I'd need a key, because there's a space for keys on the status bar, although I'll admit I thought I started with a key because that number up there could just as easily be a grey "1" with a black outline as it could a tall, blocky 0. So I looked around for keys, which didn't take long because this is the fourth screen of the game, but I couldn't find anyway. Then I killed a bunch of enemies in the hope that their final act on this mortal coil would be to regurgitate a key, but no such luck. I had reached something of an impasse, then, until my terrible gaming "skills" solved the problem for me: as I was trying to come back over the river in the previous screen, I cocked up my jump and fell into the water. Turns out it's a not a river at all but a small puddle that's mysteriously floating over the opening to a cave below.
See, I'm going to say that's not good game design. In Prince Clumsy's defence, there is a sign next to the river with an arrow pointing downwards, but for me and I suspect many others who played this game, one small and difficult-to-see arrow was not enough to overcome the ingrained notions that falling in videogame water is A Bad Thing, especially when you're wearing a metal suit. And of course, now that we've seen some water that doesn't kill the Prince, later in the game there are identical patches of water that are immediately fatal if you fall into them. I just want consistency, that's all.
The underground caverns are home to these floating faces. They're fairly creepy, appearing out of nowhere and floating towards you wearing an expression of someone who's furious but trying to hide it behind a smile. Still, just like regular, non-floating faces you can stop them with a dagger to the eye socket.
There's the key. The massive, man-sized key. Go on, Prince, use that key like a sword. Pretend this is a Kingdom Hearts game. It'd be nice to have a Kingdom Hearts game with a storyline that doesn't make you feel like your brain is dribbling out of your ears in super-slow motion.
Past the portcullis and halfway up a large and sturdy tree, Prince Clumsy is attacked by a skeleton. Okay, "attacked" might be too strong a word. "Pranced at" by a skeleton. "Transported to a realm of wonder through the power of dance" by a skeleton. Yeah, that feels more accurate. The skeleton's just trying to have a good time, but I had recently collected a power-up that changed my throwing daggers into throwing axes and I've got to test them out on something. Sorry skeleton. I hope the fact that your un-death provided me with valuable axe-related data is a comfort to the loved ones you leave behind, and the results of this data are that axes are only different from the daggers in that they travel in a near-imperceptible arc. They still kill everything in one hit, just like the daggers and every other weapon in the game.
Oh look, deadly water. If only I'd had some kind of warning. Weirdly, Prince Clumsy doesn't drown or even fall of the bottom of the screen if he touches the water, he does the same "comical" death animation as when he runs out of health - he falls over and his helmet rattles around on his head for a couple of seconds, so rather than drowning I guess he's just severely allergic to water.
I saw that ball-and-chain on the floor over there and I thought I'd found a new weapon to collect, but no, it hurts (and stuns) you if you touch it. It's not spinning around or anything, so our hero probably just trips over it. Because, you know, he's not called Prince Graceful.
Maybe that should be his name, though - as I've said, he actually controls well and he's fairly nimble, which is handy because the most efficient way to play Prince Clumsy is as quickly as possible. In common with huge swathes of the home computer action game genre, enemies in Prince Clumsy aren't waiting on each screen when you enter, but instead they quickly and relentlessly tear through the fragile veil of our existence and pour onto the screen from all angles. Endlessly they come, their numbers ever replenished even if you stand in a corner and kill thousands of them, so don't do that. It's the medieval equivalent of trying to get telemarketers to leave you alone by politely asking them to stop calling. Instead, the best strategy is to run and jump through the screens as quickly as you can, because if you're fast enough you can get to the next screen before all the enemies have finished spawning in from whatever hellish dimension they call home. So run, leap and scamper to victory, all the while holding down the fire button to lay down a blanket of pointy death in front of you. It's not an elegant system of generating threats, although in Prince Clumsy monsters don't tend to spawn right inside you like in so many other C64 and Spectrum games, and it's never as much fun as facing well-designed enemies that have had some thought and attention put into their placement, but the action is fast and smooth enough that Prince Clumsy just about stays on the right side of enjoyable.
Prince Clumsy arrives at a small village constructed entirely from grey pebbles and driftwood. It's a little painful to look at, so it's a shame it makes up half the backgrounds for the rest of the game. It's extra unfortunate because all the grey enemies blend right into it, but thankfully I managed to get a screenshot where the ghost on the right is standing in front of the blackness. I wanted to show it off because looking at it's head I think it might be the ghost of a pterodactyl.
There are also a lot of indoor areas. They are infested with giant spiders, which is fine by me because it keeps the giant fly population down. I like that bold design choice of having your dining table and chairs resting on another, larger table that floats in the middle of the room. It's a good conversation piece for your dinner parties, plus if you're good enough you can pull off a really impressive version of the old "yank the tablecloth away but leave everything standing" trick.
Just beyond the village is a platforming section composed of rickety wooden bridge pieces and floating rocks. I suspect this is the village's lame attempt at a tourist attraction. If you liked The World's Largest Concrete Bollard and the Museum of Unusual Carrier Bags, you'll love Shit Bridge Void!
Below the bridges: a deadly expanse of roiling hellfire and a gargoyle that looks like it's struggling with the whole "flying" concept. Don't worry, I put the gargoyle out of its misery by throwing a lance at it. Yes, my weapon has changed to a lance now. What kind of dumbass knight throws a lance? They're for horseback pokin', not on-foot throwin'. Maybe he's called "Prince Clumsy" because he always picks the most cumbersome weapon for the task at hand.
If you unfocus your eyes and stare at this screenshot for long enough, eventually you'll see a three-dimensional image of your optician saying "I cannot, in good conscience, recommend that you keep looking at this."
The rest of the game takes place in and around a large castle, and unlike the disparate elements that made up the rest of the game it has a sense of architecture to it that's quite nice, and as you gradually make your way to the top by walking along the outside and travelling through the inner rooms you do get something of an idea that it's a real, sensible building.
As sensible as any building that uses occasional tables as a staircase can be, anyway. Forget about that, though, and check out those tiny draculas! Oh my stars, they are adorable, scurrying hither and thither, worrying about how they're going to reach a virgin's neck without a stepladder. They could have stood on a table but oh no, we just had to use all of those instead of a staircase, didn't we? I wonder if they turn into teeny-tiny bats? I do hope so. Of course, now I'm wondering if they're undead children and that's rather taken some of the fun out of the tiny draculas but still, they're great.
Once I reached the top of the castle, I was faced with this dilemma - jump off the parapets and collect this mysterious item, or continue along the correct path and avoid having to traverse the entire castle again? C'mon, you already know the answer. I'm a maverick, a risk-taker, and Prince Clumsy doesn't suffer from fall damage so that stick is going to be mine, goddammit.
Turns out that the stick is a magic wand, which replaces whatever weapon you had before and launches multicoloured sparks in eight directions around you when you use it. There are no voice samples in Prince Clumsy, which is a shame because I'm certain the developers wanted the enemies to go "ooh" and "aah" every time you used it. Was collecting the magic wand worth the hassle of going through the castle again? I'm not sure. When I had the wand I did notice I was dying a lot less thanks to always being surrounded by a swarm of deadly asterisks, but the wand was located so close to the end of the game that any benefit that came from it was negligible. If there had been a boss or two to fight along the way then sure, giving them the old izzy-wizzy-let's-get-busy would have been very handy, but there are no bosses in the game and most of the time the Prince has booked it through the room before the regular monsters are solid enough for his hexes to harm them anyway.
Maybe they're not tables. Maybe they're very solid and very helpful ghosts.
There's the princess, locked inside her cell, patiently awaiting rescue. I've even got the key I need to release her, but first I've got to jump up on to the roof and make my way around. I may have magic powers, but apparently Stonewallius Crumbleo is not a spell in the Prince's repertoire.
Once more I am asked to put my faith in the notion that leaping from the castle's battlements is a good and productive course of action. Okay, sure. What other choice do I have? The princess isn't going to rescue herself, more's the pity.
Like the hand of a protective, caring god, the castle extends a rocky appendage to catch the Prince as he falls. Or he lands on a balcony. Look, I'm just trying to inject a little poetry into this not-particularly exciting Commodore 64 platformer, all right? Somebody has to. No, I'm lying, nobody has to but I'm going to do it anyway.
It may look as though the Prince is trapped up here (unless he's willing to jump off the castle again) but this is the true path to the princess. You see that wall to his left? The wall that looks the same as all the other solid, impassable walls in the game? Yeah, you can walk straight through that and it brings you out right in front of the princess. No, I can't really defend it as a design decision. I only found it by accident as I wiggled the joystick around, unsure about whether I wanted to commit to another trip through the castle by jumping over the edge.
"Hello, your majesty! It is I, your other majesty! I assume we're either brother and sister or we're betrothed or something. Pack your bags and walk through this wall, then it's just a simple hop off the side of the castle and we're home free! There might be some monsters out there but don't worry, I've got a magic wand! What do you mean, you'll take your chances in the dungeon?"
So her sister was the villain all along. Huh. Might have been nice had that been mentioned previously or if the evil sister had shown up at all. The princess is also a lot smaller than the Prince. Maybe they call him Prince Clumsy because he's nine feet tall and built like Stallone and Schwarzenegger sitting on each other's shoulders inside a trenchcoat. He's not clumsy, per se, it's just the world isn't built to his scale.
In conclusion, Prince Clumsy is Ghosts 'n' Goblins. I mean come on, just look at it! It wants to be Ghosts 'n' Goblins so badly that I was genuinely surprised when the princess wasn't an illusion and a trap designed by Satan. It feels like each copy of the game should have been bundled with a free pair of heart-patterned boxer shorts. It's not exactly like Ghosts 'n' Goblins - it isn't nearly as difficult thanks to the Prince having a health bar, for one - but I think it's fair to say that it's closer to being an unlicensed port of Capcom's classic than it is to being its own game. It's fun on its own merits, with good controls and speedy action, but it's just Ghosts 'n' Goblins. Play Ghosts 'n' Goblins instead, because Codemasters sure as hell wanted you to.
P.S. Prince Clumsy was also released on the Amiga under the name The Sword and the Rose, just in case you thought it looked familiar but couldn't place it.
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