Wackiness - the condition of trying to be amusing without including jokes or wit. Just like VGJunk, I hear you say, and your cruel words cut me to the quick. Like any British man I will heal these emotional wounds by going down the pub - a virtual pub, as I'm still a lonely shut-in - and while I'm there I might play a game of darts thanks to Codemasters' 1991 Amiga offering Wacky Darts.
Darts is not a game I associate with wackiness. I associate it with large men with names like Sid and Barry, men whose second and third chins sport a rich, bristly foliage and whose passion for the game of darts is matched only by their passion for supping ale. Their wackiness only extends to giving themselves boxing-style nicknames (because they're still "sportsmen" even if said sport is only a glorified pub game,) and wearing more gold chains than the average city mayor.
One thing Wacky Darts brings to the sport is this Sesame Street Muppet of a host. He certainly looks wacky. Why, his bow-tie is huge! These are tears of laughter, not tears caused by the hideousness of the puppetman's suit. He looks like an alternate universe version of Bert who left Sesame Street to become a used car dealer from the seventies.
Menu screen wackiness levels: low, although there are now two puppet hosts. Just looking at his bulbous yellow head is making me glad that Wacky Darts does not have speech samples.
There's nothing wacky, quirky or even (god forbid) zany about the available options here. You can play darts, either as a single practise match or as part of a tournament. There are even two types of darts rules, the standard 501 game and a simple Round-the-Clock variant. Let's get to the gameplay with a basic 501 tournament, shall we?
Displaying a distinct lack of understanding about how tournaments work, Wacky Darts lets you choose your opponent. As I've got no idea what I'm doing or how the game works, I think I'll take on the guy at the top. He's drunk, according to the host. That should work to my advantage.
Thanks to the profiles available at the title screen, we can learn all about my inebriated opponent. His name is Jockey Pilsner, although the game frequently refers to him as "Jockey the Pilsner," presumably to give him the air of a conquering warlord a la Attila the Hun or Alexander the Great. Presumably named after actual darts player Jockey Wilson, Jockey the Pilsner is an drunkard who likes Carry On movies and as such he reminds me of my dad. I shouldn't imagine he'll be difficult to beat at darts.
Darts, then. It's darts. Throw the darts at the board. As I'm playing by standards darts rules I'll be wanting to hit the treble twenty as much as possible. All I need to do is use the joystick to get my throwing hand in the right position and then press fire to chuck my darts. It sounds simple, and indeed it would be if your floating severed hand didn't jerk about the place like... well, I can't think of a way to describe it without offending alcoholics, Parkinson's sufferers or people who are being electrocuted, so I'll just show it to you instead.
Your hand is always moving, and moving with huge amounts of momentum, so the real gameplay of Wacky Darts is based around trying to nudge your throwing hand into the correct position. It's twitchy, it's fiddly, it occasionally feels like trying to herd a cat into a matchbox using a piece of cooked spaghetti but I suppose it's not so bad - there's a feeling of consistency to it, at the very least. The angle of your hand, however, is a different matter. You can see in the GIF that the hand is constantly flexing back and forth as it wobbles around, and the position the hand is in when you press the fire button determines the flight of your arrows: tilted back and they travel higher up the board, and vice-versa. The problem comes with trying to coordinate the both the position and the angle of your dart, because it's impossible to pay attention to both of them at the same time. My advice is to concentrate on aiming at the right place and assume that the hand is tilted into the central position. The odds are higher that it'll be there than at either extreme, and it seemed to work out okay for me.
When it's Jockey's turn to throw, you're treated to a shot of the pub where this darts tournament is taking place, and what a pub it is too. A red velvet carpet, wallpaper that looks like a Magic Eye picture of a volcano erupting, a bald man with a beard sitting at the bar who is desperate for you to wander near so that he can tell you all about the joys of real ale. The pub has really splashed out on the set-up for the Wacky Darts Tournament, although I'm not sure why the board is flanked by two huge carrots. Sponsored by the local greengrocer, I suspect.
Then there's the crowd, a strange mix of regular humans, more muppets and a row of statues at the front. Hang on, is that a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle?
That answers that question. Raphael has emerged from the sewers of New York and made his way to the East End of London just to witness the majestic spectacle of a pub darts competition.
On goes the darts, and Jockey's drunkenness makes getting into a winning position an easy task. It's difficult for him to catch up when his darts miss the board entirely. A canned laughter sound effect plays each time his darts go wildly off target, but Jockey doesn't care, he's got a can of Special Brew and he can still fit into the bellbottoms he bought in 1973, so he's doing okay.
Those of you familiar with the rules of darts will know that you have to finish on a double to win, and as I've got four points left that'll be double two, then. Unfortunately, two is down at the bottom of the board, and thanks to the vagaries of Wacky Darts' aiming mechanics the lower down the board your target is, the harder it is to hit thanks to the arc of your throws and the fact that your hand is hidden off the bottom of the screen.
In the end I hit the two and then went for double one instead. Much easier.
It's just occurred to me that the hand icon - the sleeve, specifically - seems to suggest that I'm playing as the host. I must be. I can't imagine there are two entities in this or any universe who would be willing to wear that suit.
Matches in Wacky Darts work on a best-of-three basis, so after two victories against Jockey I'm immortalised on the front of the newspaper. This newspaper is clearly supposed to be The Sun, which makes sense because the headline "Killer Jelly Invades Peckenham" is about as likely to be true as any other Sun headline.
Then it's back to choose another opponent, although strangely it doesn't follow the usual "beat everyone in a row" formula. I can't choose to face the hairy fellow at the top-right, for instance, with the cursor skipping straight to the man in the beret. I don't know why it works that way, but if it means I don't have to slog through every single competitor to win the tournament then I'm all for it. You and I both know we've seen everything Wacky Darts has to offer in the gameplay stakes, so let's take a look at the other competitors.
The man in the beret is Baza the Warmachine, and there is no way that Baza here doesn't drive a van, vote for the BNP and have reprehensible opinions on everything from foreigners (kill 'em all) to criminals (kill 'em all) to people on benefits (kill 'em all). I bet Baza reads The Sun.
He uses a rocket launcher instead of darts. Sometimes they veer off course and hit the real ale man standing at the bar, giving him a cartoon "I've just been hit by an explosion" appearance. No, not the racist kind, thankfully.
Baza is not noticeably different to Jockey, aside from his tendency to destroy the board with his rockets. I managed to beat him comfortably, but I did notice that if you win the first leg, the computer seems to play much better in the second, no doubt spurred on by the embarrassment of losing to a disembodied hand.
It seems that tournaments can only include a maximum of three matches, because once I beat Baza I was forced to take on the toughest character in the game: Nigel the Ninja. A ninja called Nigel. I know this is supposed to be "wacky" but there are limits, and I think having a ninja called Nigel is pushing right up against them. Nigel the Ninja is better than all the other characters because his freakishly engorged hand means he can reach over and simply place his projectiles in the board without technically breaking the rules by stepping over the oche.
Oh right, it was the perspective making his hand look massive. That doesn't explain why Nigel appears to be throwing charcoal briquettes instead of the shurikens - sorry, shrurikens - that I was promised, mind.
A much sterner test than the other two, Nigel's accuracy means that most matches will be close unless you can reliably score one hundred and eighty every time, something that's nigh-impossible given the nature of the control method. I did manage to score a few 180s, and I have to admit I was disappointed that the game doesn't acknowledge this in any way. What, you get jeered for missing but not even a cheery voice clip to reward you for making a perfect three-dart score?
That's disappointing, but not as disappointing as the ending, because there isn't one. Beating Nigel gets you another newspaper headline, this one bordering on the nonsensical as well as showing a disgraceful lack of compositional skill. Just look at all that leftover space, so wasteful. Once you've read this badly-constructed headline... What? I'm sorry, but the poor design of this fictional newspaper has triggered some deep emotions within me. Anyway, after seeing the newspaper you're punted back to the title screen and that's your lot, I hope you had fun playing darts. There are still some characters we haven't met yet, though.
Neville the Barbarian, ladies and gentlemen. His age is given as "400 moons" and if a moon is a month that makes him, what, thirty-three years old? That doesn't feel right, a thirty-three year old called Neville. All Nevilles should be dorky children until they suddenly turn into doddering old men overnight.
I try to keep VGJunk from getting too crude, but the first time I read about Neville's "bad habits" I must admit I assumed "slaying the dragon" was a euphemism for masturbation. He gets really enthralled by it, apparently. Well, if you spend your life wearing nothing but furry underpants and the blood of your enemies, these kinds of personality quirks are going to develop.
Neville throws axes, as is a barbarian's wont. He's not very good at it. Even the Ninja Turtle in the crowd isn't impressed, and you think they'd be bang into the creative application of weaponry.
Gordon the A.L.F. clearly takes his name from ALF, the cat-eating alien with a face like one of the more delicate parts of a man's anatomy and star of the TV show that bears his name. ALF's real name (in the show) was Gordon Shumway, hence Gordon the A.L.F. Wacky Darts' Gordon looks nothing like ALF. He looks like a vampire hamburger from a cartoon about spooky fast-food products who has built himself a robot body, the torso of which is shaped vaguely like a smiling face. Unlike all the other characters, Gordon has no "Ambition" listed on his bio. Makes sense to me, where else is there to go once you're a vampire hamburger? What more could you possibly hope to achieve after that particular golden throne has been claimed?
No, Gordon is content to live out his life using his laser-gun to disintegrate dartboards in run-down boozers and trying to stop pigeons pecking at the soft bread of his head.
Daniel is a magician, and there's not really much to say about him beyond that, other than that looks like a really unintuitive way to hold a magic wand. The line at the bottom about Daniel's animal testing raised a smile, and while as a whole Wacky Darts is hardly a laugh riot the humour isn't too aggravating - in fact, for something with the world "wacky" right there in the title it's far less painful on the old funnybone than I was expecting. It does feel very British, mind you, so people from outside this sceptred isle may wonder at some of the references. Of course, the power of the Ninja Turtles spans all divides of race and nationality, so there's that.
I'm sort of disappointed that Daniel doesn't throw playing cards into the board. Miniature lightning bolts are neat and all, but they're not as cool as flicking playing cards at the target.
Finally there's Jeff the Archer, and I'd bet that he was named after British politician Jeffrey Archer. Sorry, that should read "disgraced former politician and subpar novellist Jeffrey Archer". I think you're legally obligated to describe Archer in those terms.
Despite being called Jeff the Archer, Jeff uses a crossbow. No self-respecting archer would use a crossbow, would they? I confess, I'm not a part of the archery world. Is there a lot of contempt between longbow users and crossbow-wielders? There's a plot for your next novel, Mr. Archer - a young boy becomes a self-made man by shooting a bunch of people with a longbow. It'll probably sell hundreds of thousands of copies, more's the pity.
All that time spent crusading across the Holy Land on horseback has done terrible things to Jeff's posture. Just look at his legs, you could drive a bus through there. Jeff has modified his crossbow to fire darts, so I commend him on his effort to enter into the spirit of the competition despite not following the letter of the law. It beats the rocket launcher that Baza uses, at any rate.
Wacky Darts is a title that makes few promises, but this game manages to live up to them. It's definitely wacky, although thankfully not in a way that makes you want to gouge your own eyes out with a spoon, and you can play darts. So, what it all comes down to is whether the darts portion of Wacky Darts is any good, and I'd have to say it's... okay. There's a "but" attached to that judgement however, because it's really difficult to make a fun, engaging darts sim, or a sim of any simple and repetitive physical activity. You either give the player too much control, resulting in a tedious game where you can simply replicate the same actions over and over for the same result, or you try to add variety to the player's motions by introducing a note of randomness. This is the path Wacky Darts takes, and it can be a tricky one to get right - too much randomness and you feel as though you have no control and there's no skill involved - but I think this game gets it mostly right.
I'm sure I got better at it with practise, for one thing, so it can't all be completely random.
Wacky Darts' main failing is that it's just a darts sim. Once you've played a game of darts, you've seen everything the game has to offer, with the two different gameplay modes boiling down to normal (the 501 game) and easy (the round-the-clock variant). If that's all you're after then I'm sure you could do worse, but a stat-upgrading, RPG-elements, strategy-packed adventure this is not.
As a home computer game, Wacky Darts was released on a variety of other platforms beside the Amiga version, so here's a quick look at them before I leave this one behind for good.
The Commodore 64 version is mostly the same, except it boasts this astoundingly un-wacky loading screen. Not so much Wacky Darts as, erm, Darts. The only wackiness I can take from it is that the player looks like he's wearing a bow tie with his nylon bowling shirt, possibly in an attempt to bring a touch of class to the proceedings.
Pictured above is the ZX Spectrum edition, which looks remarkably similar to the C64 version. This makes Wacky Darts an ugly Commodore game as opposed to a good-looking Spectrum game, but to give the Spectrum version credit it plays well and is very smooth to control. The host's boggle-faced expressions have taken on greater depth of hollow-eyed madness in this version, which makes the game just that little bit jollier.
Finally there's the Amstrad CPC port. The most dismal of the lot, it's amber-and-brown colour palette goes a long way towards conjuring the atmosphere of a really unpleasant British pub, the rich hues of nicotine and lager enveloping you in the sense that yes, this is a place where drunken people throw sharp bits of metal at the wall. I can imagine it all so clearly, I can practically feel my feet sticking to the filthy carpet. I suppose that means that the Amstrad version produced the most faithful experience, but if you really, truly want to play darts then just go and buy a dartboard.