29/05/2015

RETURN OF THE JEDI (ARCADE)

Has it really been almost four years since I last wrote about a Star Wars game? You'd think with the sheer amount of them that I'd be swinging lightsabers or choking a giant mafia slug to death every other week, but somehow it's been four long years since I visited a galaxy far, far away. Well, that changes today as I gird my midichlorians and dive headlong into Atari's 1984 arcade use-the-Force-em-up Return of the Jedi!


It was a tight fit, but they just about managed to squeeze the title onto the screen, so that's a good start.
Return of the Jedi, then. Star Wars Episode 6, the third film in the series to be released, an epic tale of teddy-bear guerilla warfare and man's ability to redeem his soul thanks to the power of a son's love. There are lasers, things get smashed with logs and the good guys fight the same final boss as they did in the first film. It's all pretty great, even if the Ewoks drag things down a little. We all know the film, and I'm sure many of us love it dearly, so I bet you're all terribly excited to see how the movie was converted into an exciting, coin-guzzling arcade experience.


Before we get into that, I have to select a difficulty level. The Death Star acts as the cursor, and it's a pretty goddamn impressive cursor to have. Does this make Return of the Jedi the only videogame where the player gets to directly pilot the Death Star? I bet you can move the Death Star about in one of the Star Wars strategy games, but I've never played those. As I have established in other articles, I have all the strategic planning skills of a hungry chimp in a banana warehouse.


A large spaceship floats into view. I think it's a Super Star Destroyer. Time was, I would have been able to tell you its exact name and a host of technical details - crew capacity, fuel efficiency, precise location of the public restrooms, that kind of thing - but over the years all the Star Wars minutiae that was packed into my childhood brain has melted away like tears in the rain. Big, nerdy tears. I'm going to count that as personal growth.
The soundtrack to this small scene is a voice sample of Darth Vader saying "leave them to me, I will deal with them myself." As you can imagine, a digital voice sample from a 1984 videogame does not possess a great deal of fidelity to the source recording, but on the plus side it really does sound like the voice of someone who is more machine now than man.


Here we are at the beginning of stage one, (ignore that it says "level 3" up there, that's the difficulty level,) and to the surprise of no-one this Return of the Jedi game starts with the movie's iconic speeder bike chase through the dense forests of Endor. It's up to Leia to hop on one of these speeder bikes and chase down the Imperial scouts in order to kill them before they can tell anyone that she's here. She's not the "wait in the castle" type of princess, our Leia.


The chase itself takes the form of an isometric scrolling shoot-out that feels like it was inspired at least in part by Sega's Zaxxon, although without that game's ability to change your altitude. You manoeuvre Leia's bike through the woods as the screen scrolls by at a fair old clip, doing your best to not crash into anything because at these speeds a collision is understandably fatal. Unless you crash into the Imperial scouts, that is - that's fine, and even recommended because it sends them careening around the screen and hopefully straight into a tree.


Yeah, like that one at the bottom of the screen. Flying towards a tree only to veer away at the last second, causing the stormtrooper chasing you to slam into said tree and explode, is a risky yet deeply satisfying way to eliminate the enemies of the Rebellion, but just like in the movies the stormtroopers are more of a nuisance than a real threat. Sure, they'll shoot you down if you let them get right behind you for a couple of seconds, but your more pressing concerns are not smearing yourself all over a hardy Endorian oak and keeping an eye out for the natives.


Yes, there are Ewoks. Cuddly, deadly Ewoks, unafraid to resort to extreme measures in order to keep their home free of the human pestilence. They make no distinctions between good guys and bad guys, either, and their traps are equally deadly to all. Here, they saw the speeder bikes coming and pushed two logs together. I crashed into them and Leia died. Just to hammer home the point, Atari were thorough enough to include a little animation of Leia being thrown from the bike and landing in a crumpled heap on the forest floor, which was nice of them.


Here, an Ewok bombards the path with boulders from his hang-glider. Quite how the Ewoks managed to make something aerodynamically stable enough to carry a pilot and three tons of rocks out of twigs and tree bark is one of the great mysteries of the Star Wars universe, and like all Star Wars mysteries the answer is probably something to do with that particular Ewok being "Force-sensitive". Actually, given the vastness of the Star Wars expanded universe there's around a seventy percent chance that particular Ewok is secretly an undercover Jedi working for the rebellion who helped steal the original Death Star plans and is totally best buddies with Boba Fett, they hang out all the time, drinking blue milk and playing holo-chess, honestly.


The Ewoks' traps can be made to work in your favour, however. They're only triggered when someone drives through them, so if you keep to the top of the screen with the stormtroopers behind you then you're more likely to set off the traps and avoid them, leaving the stormtroopers to crash into them. Of course, being at the top of the screen means you've got less time to react to the obstacles ahead, making the game that much more difficult. It's a decent bit of risk-and-reward gameplay, but if it's all a bit too dicey for you then you can always lure the stormtroopers up the screen and then suddenly drop back behind them and shoot them with your speeder bike's laser cannon. Sorry, did I not mention that your speeder bike has a laser cannon? Well, it does. It makes short work of stormtroopers, but to use it you have to get behind them and line up your shot and press fire and blah blah blah, why go through all that rigmarole when you can let Mother Nature eliminate your enemies? It's about time she gave something back.


After a few minutes of speeder biking, Leia arrives at the Ewok village where C-3PO assures us that the Ewoks no longer want to murder us now that we're "part of the tribe." The Ewoks represent the most stunning turnaround from "potential devourers of human flesh" to "fuzzy animal sidekicks" since mankind domesticated the dog, but I'm all for it if it means they're not trying to smash me to death with bits of tree.


The second stage, and Chewbacca has crammed himself into a stolen AT-ST walker that is clearly too small to hold him. It's hard to not to imagine the whole scenario as Chewie wearing one of those costumes that make you look like you're riding a dinosaur or an ostrich or what-have-you. It can't be comfortable for the Freak from Kashyyyk, but Chewie's not a complainer and with a "well, what can you do?" shrug of his shoulders he sets off on his mission.


That mission is to walk forwards for a while without exploding, a task that's much more difficult than it sounds thanks to the amazing engineering work of the Empire. Designing your assault craft as a heavy and unbalanced metal box atop two long, spindly legs was a bad idea even for the Empire who, let's not forget, had a vast space-army at their disposal and yet still had to resort to bounty hunters to get the job done.
That said, the gravest threat to your AT-ST is a weapon that the Empire could never have seen coming - heat-seeking logs. These logs roll towards you, and I mean they roll towards you, changing their course to hunt you down with a tenacity rarely seen in untreated timber. Maybe the Ewoks are a species of wood nymph or something, that'd explain a lot. Touching a log results in the immediate loss of a life, so don't touch them. You can shoot them with the AT-ST's cannons (which have the almost entirely useless ability to fire left and right as well as straight ahead) but even that's harder than it should be because the AT-ST's guns have a very short range. Oh, and those piles of logs? They don't move, but they are similarly fatal if so much as brushed against. The walker's body literally drops right off its legs at the slightest contact.


"Lord Vader, we have designed a new scout walker that we believe will prove most useful on the forest moon of Endor."
"Can it walk over logs?"
"No, Lord Vader."
"Excellent, I'll take seven hundred thousand."


Then suddenly it's all change and you're piloting the Millennium Falcon above a Star Destroyer while TIE fighters harass you. This isn't the next stage, it's still part of the AT-ST stage. It's referred to on the arcade flyer as a "Split-Wave," and as an attempt to capture the simultaneous lines of action from the film - Han and Chewie trying to lower the shields on Endor while Lando assaults the Death Star - it's interesting if not entirely successful. It definitely took me by surprise the first time it happened, but each subsequent time you're piloting the AT-ST you'll at least know it's coming up when you hear what I think is supposed to be Leia saying "Han, hurry, the fleet will be here any moment!" in the voice of a sleepy robot with a throat infection.


The Falcon-flying sections are the most "pure," for want of a better word, sections of the game: with nothing to crash into, the action is all about shooting TIE fighters and avoiding incoming lasers. I say lasers, everything in this game spits out tiny red-and-yellow explosions, which is a bit of a shame. It would have upped the Star Wars-iness of proceedings considerably if everyone was firing green and red pew-pew-pew lasers at each other, and what's the point of making a Star Wars game if you're not going to make it as Star Wars-y as possible? I hate to break this to you, Atari, but no-one was playing Return of the Jedi because it provided a vastly superior gameplay experience to other arcade titles.
Another detail of these Millennium Falcon sections is that you start with two X-Wings flying alongside you in support. They move and fire when you do, giving you a little extra protection. They are also completely expendable, and there will be no comeuppance if you, say, use them to ram into TIE fighters that have gotten a little too close for comfort. Not that I would condone such a tactic, because that would sully the memories of great Rebellion heroes such as Biggs Darklighter and Jek Porkins. He was called Porkins because he was fat, you see. No, wait, that can't be right. He was fat because he was called Porkins, then? I suppose you'd get a lot of sarcastic comments if your name was Porkins and you weighed ten stone, so I assume he just leaned into it and successfully applied to get double Rebellion rations.


Back on Endor, and Chewie has stumbled across some enemy AT-STs. They are much, much less dangerous than the stage's proliferation of timber. They even look a bit sheepish in the screenshot above. I recommend running up to one of them as quickly as possible while tapping the fire button, that almost always lets you destroy it before it can retaliate, and you can just walk past the other one at the same time.


Mission accomplished! Chewie destroys the shield generator, the bunker explodes and an Imperial officer calls you "rebel scum" in a defeated tone of voice before wandering off into the forest to await the imminent Force-choking I'm sure he assumes is coming his way. Maybe he'll get lucky and the Ewoks will find him and roast him alive on a spit before Vader catches up with him. It's not looking good for that Imperial officer, let's be honest.


With the shields down, Lando Calrissian takes his chance to fly the Millennium Falcon deep into the Death Star for the next stage. It's a lot like the speeder bike section, the main difference being that this second Death Star is constructed entirely from plumbing. It's pipes all the way down. Red pipes, copper ties, grey pipes that are presumably made of PVC, if you're looking for a videogame with lots of pipes then, well, play a Super Mario game but, you know, this game has a lot of pipes. That's what I'm getting at. It makes sense to me, the Death Star is the size of a small moon and some quick addition of figures from Wookiepedia (you know, the Star Wars Wikipedia, badum-tsh) imply that 2,471,647 people made up the Death Star's crew. All these people needed to expel bodily waste at regular intervals, hence all the plumbing.


As with the first stage you're constantly being chased by persistent but extremely fragile Imperial ships, TIE Interceptors in this case, and as before the best and most satisfying way to deal with them is to force them to crash into their surroundings. In the screenshot above I am doing the exact opposite of that, having caused this pipe to fall down but not moving fast enough to get out from under it before it killed me. Earlier it was Ewoks, now it's shoddy workmanship. The Rebel Alliance just can't catch a break.


If you manage to avoid hitting any pipes or getting shot, you'll eventually reach the reactor core. To destroy the reactor as commanded, simply shoot one laser into the reactor. Well, that was easy. I didn't even need to use that Force everyone keeps banging on about.


Getting out of the Death Star before the huge explosion incinerates the Millennium Falcon? Not so easy. The final stage makes you leave the way you came in while a wall of flame licks at whatever part of a spaceship would be the heels. The backs of the stabilizer fins, maybe? But I digress.
Escaping from the galaxy's biggest firework is a noticeable peak in Return of the Jedi's difficulty curve. Part of that is down to the sudden reversal of direction, and I freely admit that might just be me that finds it a struggle, because I'm not good with sudden shifts in controls. As well as that, I seemed to crash into things a lot more. The reliability of Return of the Jedi's collision detection is difficult to gauge - the game moves so fast that you're not always certain about how close you were to obstacles that killed you, unlike a lot of games with bad hit detection where it's very obvious whether you should have been hit or not. That said, I did seem to crash into more obstacles that I would have avoided easily in previous stages, so who knows? It's definitely not frustratingly inaccurate most of the time, and let's leave it at that.


The Death Star is destroyed, the Empire is defeated, millions of human lives are claimed but most importantly Han Solo gets his beloved Millennium Falcon back in one piece, although I suspect the seat of the captain's chair will need a thorough cleaning.


10,000 points does not feel like a sufficient reward for saving the known universe from the yoke of tyranny. I was going to make a crack about wanting my weight in Space Credits, but then I remembered that Credits are the actual in-universe Star Wars currency.


After that, Return of the Jedi loops back to the start, encouraging players to try for the high score as the difficulty of each stage increases. The game doesn't just get harder by throwing more enemies and more foliage at you, (although it does do that too,) it also adds slightly different features to each area. Here in the speeder bike stage, for example, there are now hollow logs in the road that you can fly through for bonus points. It's quite a narrow fit with no room for error, as you can see in the screenshot above, but I made damn sure I flew through that log at least once. It wasn't even about the points - if a game provides a dangerous yet exciting alternate route, it would be rude of me to not take it on a few times. Plus, zooming through the log throws any chasing stormtroopers into utter confusion, causing them to forget that wood = death, and they are eliminated when they try to get behind Leia despite her being inside a tree. It's like watching a cat trying to walk backwards out of a head cone: they know something's not right but they can't quite figure it out, bless them.


Not much changes in the space stage - the TIE fighters take it a bit more seriously and there are Imperial shuttles that fly across the screen depositing space-mines in their wake, and the walker segments are even less varied. I think there might be more logs. It's hard to tell when there were so many logs in the first place. I did manage to move through the end of the walker stage fast enough to get Chewbacca right to the doors of the bunker, just in time for the explosion to engulf him. Chewie doesn't seem to mind. Maybe his fur is flame-retardant. I hope so, god only knows how bad a singed Wookie would smell.


The most punishing new additions are the forcefield gates inside the Death Star. They're activated by a tripwire, and usually they're covering the only gap through the dense plumbing jungle so if you let a TIE fighter get ahead of you and activate the gate then you're screwed and for me their introduction marked the point at which Return of the Jedi rolled over from "hard" to "annoying" and so I think I'll call it a day here. Apparently there is an ending screen that can be reached if you persevere long enough: Yoda pops out and tells you your Jedi training is over or something along those lines, but I didn't reach it because the last "escape from the Death Star" stage I tried was so frustrating with the sudden instant deaths that I had a good, long think about how I'm spending my time on this Earth and then stopped playing.


In summary, Return of the Jedi is an acceptable but basic arcade title that gets by in large part thanks to its Star Wars theme. The actual gameplay is a mix of the good and the bad - it's fast and smooth, and I used the word "satisfying" more than once to describe destroying enemies by nudging them into the scenery because it really is good fun, as anyone who's played the Burnout games will attest. On the other hand it's very shallow, the hit detection can be dubious and once you get past the first loop it quickly becomes completely merciless. The strangest thing about Return of the Jedi is the presentation, however, because for a Star Wars game it doesn't feel as "Star Wars" as you might think. I mean, it's clear that this is a game based on the movie, but the familiar sound-effects are missing, lightsabers are completely absent and you don't get to play as Luke Skywalker. You don't even see Han Solo or Darth Vader, which is kinda of mind-boggling - certainly these days, it's almost impossible to imagine any other RotJ-themed product that doesn't feature Vader front-and-centre, milking his evil Sith teat for all it's worth. Why did I write that? I wish I hadn't written that.
Anyway, Atari's Return of the Jedi: especially recommended for lovers of garbled digital speech, play it if you like Star Wars but don't expect anything amazing, and remember: for all the Ewoks' faults, "yub nub" is a fun phrase to say out loud.

23/05/2015

SOOTY AND SWEEP (COMMODORE 64)

British people of a certain age, brace for a possible attack of The Nostalgias. Everyone else, prepare to learn a little about British children's television. Every one of us should buckle in for a bumpy ride, though, because today's game is a Commodore 64 platformer based on a beloved children's character and we all know how well that can pan out - it's Enigma Variations' 1989 izzy-wizzy-let's-get-busy-em-up Sooty and Sweep!


There are Sooty and Sweep now, throwing a chocolate eclair back and forth. Well, you have to make your own fun when you're trapped in a featureless black void. Their pastry-based game of catch isn't nearly as weird as seeing Sooty and Sweep with legs, mind you, because usually they're hand puppets.


Sooty is the yellow bear, and Sweep is the grey dog. Sooty is yanking on Sweep's ear because he can be a nasty little shit sometimes, and poor old Sweep is too gentle to retaliate.
A regularly-recurring fixture of British kid's TV for over sixty years now, Sooty was created in 1948 by Harry Corbett, although I and many others are more familiar with seeing Sooty operated by Harry's son Matthew Corbett during the eighties. Corbett played the father figure role to Sooty, a bear whose disposition flits around a scale ranging from "cheeky" to "hurtful." Sooty never speaks, but people can understand him if he whispers in their ear, a behaviour that comes across as sort of creepy now I've seen it written out. Also in Sooty's extended family are Sweep, the dopey dog pictured above. Sweep can talk out loud, although you might wish he couldn't because he speaks in high-pitched kazoo noises. There's also Soo, a female panda with the rare power of intelligible human speech, who occupies the slightly stern and sensible "older sister" role that female characters in kids TV seem to get saddled with a lot of the time. Sooty and his friends get into the usual scrapes and comical mishaps, like soaking people with water pistols and accidentally bashing thumbs with hammers, and most of the time Sooty himself the sweet and loveable face of a more gentle era of children's programming.


This is not the case on Sooty and Sweep's loading screen, where Sooty's face has taken on a disturbing expression, especially around the eyes. He looks like a different puppet wearing a mask made from Sooty's flayed face. Sooty also has a magic wand that shoots out tiny crucifixes (not sure the Church will approve of that, it being witchcraft and all) and Sweep's ears are strangely ragged, as though something has been gnawing at them. Oh, wait, we just saw Sooty pulling his ears, I guess that explains that.


Sweep's character portrait isn't much better. If you're trying to draw a cute puppet dog-face, then beady red eyes are probably not the most appropriate aesthetic choice. He looks like Cujo Junior.
You can play as whichever puppet is your favourite, unless your favourite is Soo. She is in the game, but as a non-playable... I was going to say "character", but "character" implies at least a line of speech or something rather than standing motionless in the background, staring out at the player with her dead panda eyes, which is her role in this game. I'll be playing as Sooty, mostly because I don't want him to get angry and zap me with his Magic Jesus Beam.


Okay, here we go. The game begins, and Sooty has a problem - Sweep has left his "dirty old bones" scattered around the house. That kind of behaviour is more acceptable when you're a cartoon dog than if you were, say, a human drifter with a hook for a hand, but still, no-one wants rotting bones down the back of the sofa and so Sooty takes it upon himself to clean up before Matthew returns home. To achieve his goals, Sooty must run and jump through the house, grabbing all the bones and keys he can find. It was mentioned in the instructions that once you have the bones you have to give them to Soo, who then unlocks more rooms of the house, but because it's impossible to get anywhere without walking right past Soo it's a moot point.


You know what I hate? When you set up a romantic candlelit dinner for two and your idiot dog friend has put a bone on the curtain pole and a frog jumps on the table and the frog is a highly toxic rainforest tree frog that paralyses you if you touch it. It doesn't kill you, though, at least not on the easier difficulty mode, and touching any enemy just causes Sooty to be stunned for a moment. You can still run out of time and get a game over that way, but if you're playing on easy then the worst the enemies can do is make you stand still for a couple of seconds.


What a lot of enemies there are too, most of them insects. This is to be expected in a household that has bones laying around all over the place, and you can't even get rid of them. You can render them temporarily harmless, though, because pressing the fire button makes Sooty launch paralysing sprinkles from his magic wands. It has barely any range and won't hit anything that's even slightly higher up than you, but it's helpful none-the-less. There is no speech sample of Sooty's famous sorcerous catchphrase - "izzy-wizzy let's get busy" - but that doesn't mean Sooty isn't saying it. You just wouldn't be able to tell, because he's Sooty and his enslaved Renfield-style human host isn't around to transmit his soundless words. On the audio front Sooty and Sweep does include a fairly accurate rendition of the theme song from the eighties Sooty TV show played on a loop, which is notable for two reasons: the incredible speed at which it becomes agonisingly repetitive, and the section where the SID chip bleeps in such a way that it starts to sound like it's saying "mammy, mammy, mammy" after enough loops, turning the Sooty theme into the soundtrack for an all-Irish re-imagining of Friday the 13th.


Two points of interest here. One, the staircase in Sooty's house is made from fish fingers. Two, that grey thing on the right of the screen is an umbrella stand made from an elephant's foot. I don't know whether this is common knowledge or not, but making umbrella stands out of an elephant's foot used to be a thing that people did, because nothing says "class" like a severed animal appendage parked next to your front door.


Bloody hell, they've got another elephant's foot umbrella stand? How many umbrellas does Sooty's family own that one elephant's foot is simply not enough to contain them all? Oh well, on the bright side it means that Sooty didn't butcher an entire elephant just to get one umbrella stand. Maybe he even used all of the elephant in various places throughout the house. Now that I think about it, he does have a grey leather sofa.


I should probably talk about the gameplay a bit. Umm, there is some? That's about all I've got. Sooty and Sweep was obviously aimed squarely at a very young market, and as such it's incredibly basic. The enemies all move along very clearly defined left-and-right paths, so all there is to it is timing your movements or wand attacks to get past them (or not, if you're playing on easy and can't be bothered). That said, the controls are above average for a licensed Commodore 64 platformer, with consistent jumping arcs and and responsive movements, and even the collision detection is decent if a shade ungenerous. Overall, better than I expected but my expectations were so low they were in danger of being melted by the heat of the Earth's core.


At last, the age-old question of just where bears shit has finally been answered. They use the indoor toilet, they're not animals. Aside from being bears, I mean. They haven't quite mastered the human rules of bathroom etiquette yet, though. Standing just outside the open bathroom door while I'm in here is a bit weird, Soo.


Sooty and Sweep is a little bit weird all around, if I'm honest. For starters there's the basic premise, with Sooty walking around on his little bear legs that you never usually see, collecting bones instead of getting up to his usual array of mischief and unimpressive magic tricks. Along with that is the slightly creepy vibe that permeates the game: the stark black backgrounds, the off-kilter music, the unpleasant renditions of Sooty's face, it all adds up to an experience that don't feel quite right.


For example, why does the Sooty family own more than one hand sickle? Just how much reaping are they doing, that they would require multiple sickles? Is Matthew going out to work in the garden and dual-wielding them or something? I have so many questions.


Questions like "where did you get this chest full of treasure from, Sooty?" You're probably thinking that it's the proceeds from Sooty's sixty years of working in showbiz, but look closer. It's all grey. That's right, it's more elephant parts. Sooty's just waiting for the right time to turn them into a shower curtain or a set of occasional tables.


"Now the police will never find the evidence."
It did not take long to find all the bones, thanks to a combination of Sooty's invincibility and Sweep's inability to hide them in places less obvious than "right there, right in front of your face you dope." Speaking of Sweep, I suppose I should take him out for a spin.


Hang on, I'm sure I selected "play as Sweep", where the bloody hell is he? Oh, right, he's camouflaged against the sofa. That's not very helpful, especially now that I've turned the game up to hard mode, where there are more (and much faster) enemies and you can actually run out of lives. Sweep plays exactly the same as Sooty - he uses a water pistol instead of Sooty's magic wand, but it's only a cosmetic difference - so I'd suggest you stick to playing as Sooty because there's a lot of grey in this backgrounds and it's pretty easy to lose track of Sweep.


Sooty and Sweep is a computer game, of that much I am certain. Beyond that, what can I say about it? For adults and semi-adult man-children like myself, it offers such a slender, brief gameplay experience as to be almost non-existent, but looking at in context - as a game to be played by five-year-olds in 1989 - it's definitely passable. It's probably hypocritical of me to defend it's simplicity when I have complained about the contempt shown towards the young 'uns by other children's games in the past, but it works well enough and isn't completely without challenge when played on hard mode, so if you were a very young child with a Commodore 64 (or one of the other home computer formats this game appeared on) then Sooty and Sweep would not have been a terrible place to start your gaming career. There's even a simultaneous two-player mode, making it perfect for parents who had more than one child to keep quiet at once. I'm certainly not suggesting that you actually play Sooty and Sweep, I hasten to add; life is short, and there are better ways to spend it than guiding a small bear puppet through a house decorated entirely with bones and elephant parts.

19/05/2015

TIMECOP (SNES)

Timecop is the story of Johnny Time, a tough but honest cop who performs his duties admirably. There's just one problem: he never has enough time, not to bust all the perps in the city and still have room in his schedule for his new wife, Mrs. Cynthia Time. One fateful night, while trying to prevent the theft of Greek antiquities from a local museum, Johnny Time cries out in anguish "if only there was more time!"... but the gods of Ancient Greece were listening, and they are both cruel and capricious. They used their powers to freeze time across the world - apart from Johnny Time, who now has all the time in the world. Can he find a way to reverse his terrible fate and reunite with his beloved wife? The only way to find out is to play Cryo Interactive's 1995 SNES adventure Timecop!


And now join me back in our dismal and joyless real-world universe, where I can tell you that Timecop on the SNES is actually a terrible action-platformer loosely based on the Jean-Claude Van Damme film of the same name. That's the film where JCVD is a cop who travels through time, stopping villains before they can irreperably damage the present by fiddling with the past. The most memorable part of the movie is when Van Damme's character defeats the villainous senator McComb - played by Ron Silver in a manner that suggests the producers really wanted Alan Rickman circa Die Hard - by kicking him into a version of himself from the past, and when the two senators touch they freak out and melt like a slug dipped in salt. This is because "same matter cannot occupy same space," apparently. Look, if you want a movie that features good, solid scientific theory then don't watch one about time-travel.


Rather than following the plot of the film, Timecop: The Videogame goes down the route of creating a sequel, because the world the original movie created was too rich and detailed to be allowed to go unexploited. So, Max Walker, the hero of the movie and not played by Van Damme in this game, is about to retire from the Time Enforcement Commision, turning over his role as protector of the time-tubes to a new system called Timescan. Then Walker notices that some equipment in the lab has a new logo on it, and he uses this information to surmise that history is being altered by one Dr. Hans Kleindast, original inventor of the time-travel process. From what I can tell, Kleindast was believed to have died during the first time-travel experiments, but it turns out he's very much alive. Well, apart for the piece of his brain that tells him how to dress, that's long since perished.


Maniacal dentists... of the future!!  Professor Kleindast, ladies and gentlemen. Fair play to the developers, he definitely looks like a villain from a vaguely-cyberpunkish nineties videogame. He also looks like a proper tit. I can't tell if those are supposed to be mechanical attachments above his glasses or giant Groucho Marx eyebrows. At least he seems to be having fun.


Kleindast's complete mastery over the flow of time means that he's grown bored, so instead of the usual plot of a hero trying to stop a villain for truth and justice and soforth, the set-up for Timecop is actually that Kleindast picked Walker to do battle with throughout the ages as "a worthy opponent on the board of time," and to that end Walker is strapped into a time machine and launched into the unknown. "Let the duel begins!" says Professor Kleindast, who is not a professor of English it seems, and thus begins Timecop.


The first stage is TEC Headquarters in 2005. 2005 was the future when this game was released, but it's the past now and it's the present day in terms of the game's setting, so Timecop really does have time covered in all directions.


TEC Headquarters is a hostile place, patrolled by naval officers in dress uniform whose anger at the constant wisecracks about An Officer and a Gentleman has been channelled into their relentless efforts to see Walker dead. That's Walker in the black, fending off a navy man with the rarely-seen "Drunkard Climbs the Fence" style of kung-fu. Timecop is a standard walk-and-bash adventure for the most part - Walker can kick, punch and fire his gun to defeat his foes, (who are also his co-workers, I guess?) but unfortunately his physical attacks have the range, power and speed of a seaslug who's only taking karate lessons because his parents forced him to, and his gun has a very limited amount of ammunition. Enemies also take multiple hits to defeat however you attack them, but I'll leave it to you to decide whether that means Walker's punches are as powerful as a bullet or if his superiors issued him with pistol that has the stopping power of a gentle kick to the ankle. To help you make your mind up, I should point out that the TEC building runs on steam power, and hazardous gouts of boiling water randomly spray out at you as you traverse the level. Maybe there was a typo and I've actually been sent back to 1905.


Making your way through Timecop's early levels is a simple if not very enjoyable matter of walking along for a while until you find an elevator, punching - or more likely crouch-kicking  - any resistance in your path. Then you ride the elevator up or down to a new floor of the building, where you do the same thing again until you happen across the blinking exit sign. The whole of the TEC building feels like the level designer slapped it together at 5:25 on Friday afternoon, which is at least consistent with the overall quality of the game. After only a couple of minutes playing it is immediately that Timecop is a very bad game and deep down you know, no matter how much you wish it wasn't true, that it's only going to get worse. For starters this is a very ugly game, but I can maybe chalk that up to personal preference because I bloody hate digitised sprites. Then there's the gameplay, which is as smooth and flowing as trying to piss out a golf ball: you plod forwards, stop to fight an enemy, move five for six paces and then stop again to fight, and again, and again. You could try turning around and running in the opposite direction when you see danger ahead, but if you do that Walker flails around and keeps sliding in the same direction thanks to his Wile E. Coyote levels of momentum... but only if you turn around while running. If you just let go of the d-pad he stops immediately. He also stops dead if you crouch. Your attacks come out slow and combat is tedious thanks to a lack of combos and miserly ammunition pick-ups. "Maybe Walker has a special move," I thought to myself, and to my surprise he does. It's an uppercut. Would you like to see it?


Wow. It has less range that your normal attacks with the added drawback of having more set-up than Noah building the bloody ark. I don't think it even does any extra damage, although that is hard to verify because I couldn't hit anything with it.



Also of note: the music in the first couple of levels. I was not looking forward to Timecop's aural delights when I heard the theme on the title screen, which was full of grating guitar samples that gave me vivid, harrowing flashbacks to the Wayne's World game, but this one isn't bad at all. I like the choice of voice sample. "FBI, get on it," it says. I wish the FBI would get on it. Maybe they could close down the TEC and take over my responsibilities so I would have to play this game any more.


After a few stages of elevator action, (but not Elevator Action, which is a far superior game,) the developers got worried that the player might be struggling with the twin concepts of horizontal and vertical movement so they chucked in a stage which is nothing but a single flat room packed with enemies. There are many small robots mixed in with the naval officers now, but that is small comfort, especially when the robots don't look like anything at all. On the plus side the flat layout means I could avoid more combat by jumping over the enemies and running away, and at least here's an in-universe reason for the flatness: this is the launching runway for Walker's time machine.


It is not a cool-looking time machine. Seeing Walker's head framed by the time machine's window like that really lets me appreciate just how utterly characterless he is. The sprites in Sensible Soccer had more personality than this, and they had less pixels in their heads than Walker does in his right foot.


With access to his time-travelling rocket sled, Walker makes his way to the San Andreas Fault circa 1945 to stop Kleindast from mining some minerals or something. Look, I wasn't really paying attention, okay? It's an underwater stage, joy of joys, and having removed any sense of verticality at the end of the last stage the developers go even further by taking away Walker's ability to punch or kick while he's underwater. I'm looking forward to stage five, which at this rate will be Walker standing in an empty black room, completely unable to move. That would be a considerable improvement on this stage, where endless octopus swarms with an unquenchable hatred for time travellers try to strangle Walker while Kleindast's troops shoot at him. When Walker jumps underwater, he does his usual walking animation, which looks as ridiculous as it sounds.


"Hey, I don't care if the playtesters hated them, it took me six months to digitise this octopus sprite and by God I'm going to make sure it sees plenty of use in this game!"


My current theory is that Cryo Interactive actually wanted to make Octopus Slaughter Simulator '95: Tons o' Tentacles Edition, but the outcry from animal welfare groups forced them to pretend they were actually making a Timecop game.


There's even an octopus boss. An octoboss, if you like. It has sad eyes. Probably because I've just killed hundreds of its children.


The final damning piece of evidence that proves Timecop was designed solely and specifically to cause me pain arrives after the octoboss, as you're forced into side-scrolling shooter segment, piloting the dorkiest-looking submarine ever to sink beneath the ocean waves through a sparse field of underwater mines and the final remnants of the now-extinct octopus species. You may have noticed that your submarine is ridiculously large, so you won't be shocked to learn that this is no Gradius-style thrill ride of near-misses and daring piloting manoeuvres between deadly obstacles. It's boring, is what it is. Very, very boring and very, very ugly. Bitter experience has taught me that you should try to avoid saying "I could do better than that" lest someone call you on it, but in this case I am one hundred percent certain that I could design a more interesting submarine than that. I have designed a more interesting submarine than that, I had some Underwater Lego when I was a kid. My Lego submarines will have had fins and rocket launchers and thematically inappropriate decorations taken from the Castle sets, which would obviously be a clear improvement on whatever this thing is supposed to be.


That's more like it: a good, sensible plan to gain vast wealth using the power of time-travel. A little prosaic for a mad scientist named Professor Kleindast who dresses like an alien ambassador from a severely underfunded episode of Star Trek, but reasonable enough. Hang on, New York 1929? This stage is going to be Mafia-themed, isn't it?


I suddenly have a newfound appreciation for Empire City 1931.
Having become tired of running extortion rackets and illegal gambling, the New York mob have returned to what they love doing best: leaning out of windows and taking pot-shots at anyone who happens to be passing. The really lucky gangsters get to lean out of the window of a moving car, which must be terrible exciting for them, their tongues flapping as the breeze ruffles their fur. No, wait, that's dogs. The upshot of facing all these snipers is that I found out Walker can aim his gun upwards. Who knew? Not me, but then again I'd never had a reason to try shooting upwards until I reached this stage.


And what a stage it is, another flat and featureless area packed with enough hard-to-hit enemies to send the fun-o-meter's needle crashing from "boring" to "frustrating." Most of the action takes place in New York's famous newsstand and drugstore district - yes, if you're ever in the Big Apple, make sure you stop by this historic part of the city and you'll never worry again about where your next bottle of aspirin or celebrity gossip magazine is coming for because there's a drugstore or a newstand literally every twenty feet!


After a couple of fairly long stages spent roaming the streets of New York, Walker finds himself in the not-at-all-suspiciously named Kleindast Brokerage Bank. I suppose when you command the very power of time itself you don't need to worry so much about keeping your history-altering plans hush-hush, but Kleindast said he wanted to have a duel of wits against Walker, didn't he? A very small duel, it seems. Like, a thumb war of wits. A game of Snap of wits.
The multi-storied level "design" of the first couple of stages has returned, and it makes a welcome change from the tedium of recent levels in the the same way that developing spontaneous blindness is a welcome change from watching your parents have sex. It at least evens out the wear on the left and right buttons of my d-pad.


There's a boss at the end of the stage - a bipedal robot so ugly that I honestly thought there was a problem with its sprite, a graphical glitch, but no. It's supposed to look like that. I mean, I'm sure the artists didn't intend to create a robot so dorky that even C3PO would beat it up for it's dinner money, but that is how the finished sprite was meant to be displayed.
The robot jumps across the screen and then walks around near you on the off-chance that you'll collide and Walker will take damage, so make sure you duck under the robot when it jumps and crouch-kick it when you get the chance until it explodes. Truly, a duel of wits rarely seen outside the stories of Holmes and Moriarty!


Now Walker finds himself in the Second World War, because every time-travel game has to have a level where you fight against Nazis. Kleindast has gone back to 1944 to help the Nazis win the war, which is a helluva step up on the Ladder O' Evil from getting rich by manipulating the stock market. Kleindast hasn't left himself anywhere to go with that move, once you've become a Literal Nazi it's difficult to become more evil short of destroying the entire planet.
As for the stage itself, the briefing says that Kleindast has given the Germans advanced weaponry. This is a bare-faced lie. The Nazis have the same pitiful guns that fire the same slow-moving videogame projectiles as always, and their mortars are so weak that they barely have the velocity required to reach Walker's chest, never mind enemy lines. So Kleindast is a good guy after all, then? A double agent, a saboteur? Maybe history will vindicate Kleindast in hindsight.


At the end of the stage Walker has to fight a tank, and in this case "fight" means "stand next to and keep firing your gun." You can also use your limited supply of screen-clearing bombs, they can do the boss some damage. As long as you don't stand right in front of the tank's cannon you'll be fine, and I do mean right in front of it - because Walker is short enough to stand underneath the tank's barrel, when the tank fires a shell it kind of... dribbles out of the end of the cannon and falls in a pathetic arc, because that's the only way it can hit Walker while he's standing next to the tank. I never thought I'd know what an impotent tank would look like, but now I do. Thanks, Timecop.


Once your brief sojourn through Nazi Germany is over - and it was very brief, clocking in at about two minutes if you jump over most of the Wehrmacht, as is most expedient - Walker moves forward in time to a future Los Angeles. Kleindast holds the city in his grip thanks to that most cyberpunk-ish of plot devices: the super-drug that is wired directly into the brain. In this case it's called Brainblast, a name that makes it sound as though it comes in a tangy cherry flavour.


There's very little to say about the gameplay here, because it's exactly the same as all the other ponderous single-plane stages. A couple of aesthetic details do stand out, though. For one, it's clear that some people appreciate everything Kleindast has done for the city, because that graffiti in the background says "Kleindast Rules." There's also graffiti that simply reads BRAINBLAST, just like when you see COCAINE or MARIJUANA painted on walls in the real world.
LA is also full of these street punks, which means an actual human person once dressed like that and allowed themselves to be filmed and digitised for inclusion in this game. There is little Timecop could do now that would make playing it a worthwhile experience, but being able to see the original footage of these punks would definitely soften the blow somewhat.


Kleindast ramps up his sinister scheme by building a rocket that will disperse Brainblast (now in Sour Tangerine Zing flavour!) into the atmosphere, causing anyone who breathes it in to become addicted. Walker rushes to the famous Los Angeles Rocket Factory, which is composed of fifty percent conveyor belts and fifty percent killer robots. In a rare flicker of humour - that's how I'm choosing to interpret it, anyway - there are signs everywhere that say "do not step on the conveyor belt." I'm going to imagine that Kleindast put these signs up in the desperate hope that Walker is such a stickler for the rules that he will be unable to disobey them and thus won't reach Kleindast before he can put his plan into motion.


Sadly for the villain, Walker is a maverick who has no problem stepping all over those conveyor belts like this game has stepped all over my desire to play another SNES game ever again, and soon he has Kleindast cornered. I hope I've made it clear to you by now that Timecop is an especially wretched game, but if you're still not getting it then here's the moment that should push you over the edge - Walker does battle with Kleindast, the game's main villain,and  Kleindast fights and behaves in exactly the same way as the regular white-suited minions from the very first stage of the game, only with a bigger health bar. I've played some crap in my time but the lack of imagination shown here is truly staggering. It's like getting to the end of Final Fantasy VII and discovering that Sephiroth is just another Shinra grunt with 99,9999 HP.


Somehow, Timecop lumbers on - Kleindast managed to escape the thorough beating I gave him a moment ago - as Walker makes his way through a half-built skyscraper packed with worksite health and safety violations. Or maybe the swinging girders suspended from ropes are a decorative feature, a brutalist windchime. Whatever the case, it's the same walk right, ride an elevator, walk left, ride an elevator, repeat gameplay as before, only with the added complication of occasionally standing on a piece of wood with a nail sticking out of it. Walker's extreme susceptibility to tetanus represents one of the most ignoble deaths I've ever experienced in a videogame, so at the very least Timecop will be remembered for that.


The climactic battle arrives, and to my surprise it's something different! Walker and Kleindast fight to the death in the manner of the ancient gladiators: while flying around in jetpacks that are heavily affected by momentum. You float around taking shots at each other, and while the fact that Kleindast spends most of the battle hovering off the top of the screen where you can't reach him means I'd hesitate to call the fight fun it is leagues ahead of every other boss battle in the game and as I say, it is at least different. Some effort was expended in coming up with a unique encounter, and for that I am grateful. It's also much easier than the rest of the games "big" fights, and I'm grateful for that too.


Your reward for saving history is a full-screen image of Kleindast's jagged, pixellated mug. Then he explodes. "Reward" may have been the wrong word to use there. "Final kick in the groin" would have more appropriate.


That's Timecop, then: a terrible game that you definitely should not play. It commits every sin that an action game can - the level design is completely lacking in imagination, your character is slow and awkward to control, the boss fights are laughable and it's pretty unpleasant to look at. I don't really blame the developers though, not entirely, because Timecop has the unmistakeable air of a rush-job. I'd be shocked if Cryo weren't given an extremely tight time-frame to get this game made, resulting in it feeling almost unfinished. Still, don't play it. If you're really desperate for a Timecop fix, then watch the original movie, or Timecop: The Television Series, which has the benefit of starring the always-wonderful Kurt Fuller. Hell, you could even watch Timecop 2: The Berlin Decision. Just don't come crying to me if you do.

Search This Blog

Loading...

Followers