27/06/2017

PAC-MAN CLONE COVERS

Good old Pac-Man, eh? Where would videogames be without the little yellow lump? The first mascot character in games, a true icon of the medium and let’s not forget all those budding programmers who got their start by developing knock-off Pac-Man clones. Yes, there are hundreds of the bloody things – dot-munching, monster-swerving maze chases in a vast panoply of themes and settings across every gaming system of the eighties, but especially on the home computers of the time. So, what I’d thought I’d do is take a look at some cover art from these Pac-Man, ahem, inspired games. Frankly, it’s lucky I enjoy cartoon ghosts so much.

Snapper, BBC Micro


When it comes to these Pac-Man covers, there seems to be three main categories: covers that straight-up say “hey, this is Pac-Man,” covers that take the hungry-orb-versus-angry-ghosts angle and twist it a little, and covers that slap on an entirely new theme like “jungle” or “fish.” Snapper falls into the first category. That’s definitely a screenshot of Pac-Man, even if it’s called Snapper and it’s a slightly different game now. In fact, I had to go and check whether that’s exactly the same maze layout as the original arcade Pac-Man. It isn’t, but the differences are so slight it might as well be. Consider this a baseline, then, but don’t worry – they’re going to get a lot weirder than this.

Ghost Chaser, Amiga


Ghost Chaser provides a good example of the second type of cover. A vaguely spherical creature composed of a) a mouth and b) insatiable hunger chases down a creature that could well be a ghost. A slimy, gloopy ghost, certainly, maybe the lingering spirit of a wad of chewed gum, but at least partly ectoplasmic. Then you look closer and realise that this Pac-Man wannabe has a tough, gritty edge – he’s packing a pair of six-shooters! And Sega thought they were being so original when they released Shadow the Hedgehog. They may be oddly-shaped, as though someone described the concept of a revolver to a blind person who then tried to shape one out of modelling clay, but they’re definitely supposed to be guns. Which is stupid, what’s the ghost chaser going to do, shoot the ghost? C’mon, man. On the plus side, the guns do mean I can’t help but imagine the ghost chaser has Revolver Ocelot’s voice. “Six Power Pellets. More than enough to kill any ghost that moves!”

Mazeman, ZX Spectrum


Then there’s the third kind of cover, with no ghosts or Pac-Men to be seen. Instead we’re treated to the comic-book stylings of Mazeman! That’s right, Mazeman. By day he’s wealthy millionaire playboy Theseus Mazeington, but when night falls he leaps into action as the mighty Mazeman, guiding the innocent out of hedge mazes in the grounds of stately homes and helping little kids solve the puzzles on their fast-food-restaurant activity sheets. He’s buff, he’s blonde, he provides a good example of why so few superheroes wear red-and-orange costumes – because they tend to look like walking piles of chicken nuggets and ketchup, that’s why. I’ve never played Mazeman and I don’t intend to, but if Mazeman doesn’t have a kid sidekick called Labyrinth Lad I shall be very disappointed.

Classic Muncher, ZX Spectrum


Speaking of superheroes, here’s the Batman villain Killer Croc, wading through his swampy home while he breaks in his new crocodile-man-sized jeans. Thanks for hiding your reptilian shame, Killer Croc. Of course, the real highlight of this cover is the discordant contrast between a hulking lizardman who uses human skulls as a kicky fashion accessory and the Bubble Bus Software logo. Beep beep, all aboard the Bubble Bus! It’s travelling along the Mini Bus line, stopping at Candy Town, Camp Giggles and Cannibal Monster Bayou!

Gulpman, ZX Spectrum


Gulpman’s cover is a great example of just how much imagination you had to use when playing these old home computer games – the game itself is composed entirely of solid lines and slow-moving ASCII characters, but the cover transports us to an exciting world of lasers, mysterious energy-ghosts and futuristic onesies. Apparently, developers thinking to themselves “you know what Pac-Man was missing? Guns.” was a thing during the eighties.
One thing that does fascinate me about these Pac-Man covers is the many and varied ways the developers chose to draw the “dots” that fill the mazes. In Gulpman’s case, they’ve been rendered as translucent yellow rectangles that are just lying on the floor where any passing Gulpman could trip over them. That’s a compensation lawsuit waiting to happen, that is.

Gulpman, Timex Spectrum


Here’s a, erm, different iteration of Gulpman. Rather than an exciting space adventure with laser battles, this version of Gulpman is all about humanity’s efforts to build the most punchable robot imaginable. They seem to have succeeded in their mission. It’s half Jimmy Olsen, half Gabbo from The Simpsons and all deeply unpleasant to look at. It’s got a propeller beanie, for pity’s sake. My theory is that Robo-Gulpman was designed as a training droid for the bullies of the far future to practice on. The fire blazing in his eyes represents his hatred for his creators, you see.

Maze Chase, ZX Spectrum


I really like this cover, it’s got a kind of “sixties kid’s book” vibe to it and that shark-demon-thing is great. It’s facial expression suggests it hasn’t got a clue why it’s chasing this man down but he can’t stop now, maze-chasing is all he knows. Well, maze-chasing and making finger-guns. Some fruit watches on, but it’s not just any fruit, and the game’s features list them as “magical strawberries” and “high-scoring lemons.” How wonderful.

Pakacuda, Commodore 64


It’s half Pac-Man, half barracuda with the fish-themed Pakacuda, as drawn by someone with only a tenuous understanding of what an octopus looks like. Yes, octopuses do have beaks but no, not like that. That’s more toucan than cephalopod. Still, nice use of green felt-tips to suggest the ocean waters.

Supercuda, Commodore 64


The octopuses are looking a bit better in the sequel Supercuda, but it doesn’t matter – I can’t see anything on this cover beyond the fact that the titular Supercuda has human eyes and eyelashes. Is that to make sure you know it’s a lady fish? That eye is genuinely creeping me out a little. If you look at the eel you can see that the artist had some idea of what a fish’s eye should look like, but they went with the human eye anyway, and as a result the Supercuda can at least get some other work appearing in Maybelline commercials.

Oricmunch, Oric


Something I learned while looking at these covers is that giving Pac-Man teeth makes him roughly one thousand percent more sinister. The tongue isn’t helping, either. I dunno, maybe I just have trouble thinking of Pac-Man as a biological organism. I prefer him as some kind of rolling garbage-disposal automaton, kinda like Wall-E if Wall-E was perpetually haunted by the spectres of the dead. Of course, if Pac-Man isn’t biological then where did Pac-Man Junior come from?

Gobbleman, ZX Spectrum


Ah yes, Gobbleman, the one superhero with a worse power than Mazeman. This is what I mean about mouths - this thing is bloody terrifying, with it’s highly-detailed teeth and lack of eyes. It’s like a xenomorph facehugger managed to impregnate a dodgem, and I hate it. No wonder the pellets appear to be flying into Gobbleman’s mouth as fast as possible, anything to end their suffering faster is gratefully welcomed.

Gobble A Ghost, ZX Spectrum


I’m immature enough that the phrase “gobble a ghost” gets a chuckle from me. I’m not proud about that fact, but when I was growing up the word “gobble” meant two things – the sounds a turkey makes and fellatio. I wish it wasn’t so, but c’est la vie. At least this is a nice cover. You definitely know you’re getting a Pac-Man game with this one, although I can’t tell which way the ghosts are supposed to be facing: are they leaning to the right because they’re moving to the right, or are those black indentations supposed to be their mouths? What do you mean, “no one cares?” I care. No, wait, hang on, I don’t care. Next!

Paccie, Playstation 2


Moving away from the home computer games briefly, just to say that if you are releasing a Pac-Man clone – or indeed any videogame – then maybe you shouldn’t give it a name that’s a homonym for a racial slur. Just a thought.

Hungry Horace, ZX Spectrum


Hey, it’s Horace! The almost-mascot of the ZX Spectrum, star of a series of games that I wrote about a long time ago and a creature who appears to have had every last iota of joy sucked from his being. Is there an emoji for “depression” already? Because if not, hey, I know Horace isn’t doing anything. Well, besides appearing as graffiti around my home town. Whatever your views on the rights and wrongs of graffiti, it always cheered me up to look down near the Porter Brook and see Horace’s grim visage staring back up at me.

Jungle Jim, Amiga


From the cosily nostalgic to the downright nauseating now, with Jungle Jim the hideous explorer. Okay, so the tiger’s not too bad and the snake’s okay, but Jim himself is… ugh. His face looks like Graeme Souness had radical surgery to give himself anime eyes, but why does he appear to be covered head-to-toe in a thick layer of vaseline? He’s just so oily, which somehow makes the fact that you can see the stubble of his leg hairs even more disturbing. Combine that with being dangerously close to seeing right up Jim’s shorts leg and this is a cover that doesn’t bear looking at for long. Then again, even if you only glance at it for a moment, the thought of a greased-up Jungle Jim pressing his slimy body against yours while his enormous eyes stare deep into your soul will not soon leave your mind.

Oh Shit!, MSX


This is probably the most infamous cover on this list, and yes, there really was an MSX Pac-Man clone called Oh Shit! It’s so named because when you lose a life, a screeching digitised voice shouts “ohhhh shiiiiiit!” at you, presumably in an attempt to get you to stop playing Oh Shit! as quickly as possible.
As for the cover, well, the actual game is a straight-up Pac-Man clone with minimal graphical changes, so quite why the artwork shows you playing as Winnie the Pooh’s severed head is beyond me. I think the red things are supposed to be the pellets you’re eating? Nope, I’m sorry, this one has me stumped. All I can tell you is that when I saw the thumbnail for this picture a while ago, my brain decided to interpret the vague white shape as a pair of underpants, with the red bits being the legs sticking out of the pants. Maybe I’m just not getting enough sleep or something.

Shit, MSX


Oh Shit! was also released under the name Shit, the publisher apparently deciding that Oh Shit! is a snappy name but it could be snappier. The lack of punctuation on the word “shit” gives it a really underwhelming quality, don’t you think? “Aww shit, the Satanic force of incomprehensible evil is trying to push its way into our reality again. Honey, fetch me the crucifix, would you?”
Also, as noted over at Hardcore Gaming 101, this artwork is lifted directly from the cover of the horror novel The Howling III. I’m going to guess it’s a much more appropriate image in that context.

Oh Shit!, MSX


But wait, there’s yet another cover for Oh Shit! and somehow it manages to be even worse than the other two! What the hell has happened to this man to make him pull that face? He looks like someone’s just sprayed pure capsaicin up his backside. Or maybe he’s punched the screen of that arcade cabinet out of pure frustration, which would explain his mangled hand. Either way, I’m sure we can all agree that if this chap was a real person you’d see his mugshot below a newspaper headline like “Local Man Attempts Hold-Up With Banana” or “Local Man Steals Quad Bike, Crashes Into Slurry Pit.”

Vacuumania, MSX


“So long, broom, I’ve rendered you obsolete! You hear me? Obsolete!!

Cruncher Factory, Amiga


And now, a section I like to call “Pac-Man Analogue Menaced From Behind by Ghost,” beginning with Cruncher Factory. This Pac-Man’s simple facial features mean he’s not nearly as creepy as some of his contemporaries, but he’s expressive enough to capture a real expression of guilt as he’s caught eating the cruncher factory’s valuable metal ingots. That’s some very half-hearted spooking by the ghost, I must say. And what’s going on with its “hands”? Did it die as a result of a terrible high-fiving accident?

Ghost’s Revenge, ZX Spectrum


“I’ll get my revenge by staring at Pac-Man’s arse, that’ll teach him to eat my friends.”

Munch Man 64, Commodore 64


In which Fake Pac-Man is harassed by the Ku Klux Klan. The ghosts look as though they’re peer-pressuring Fake Pac-Man into trying ecstasy. Don’t do it, Fake Pac-Man, eat that nutritious banana instead.

Monster Munch, Commodore 64


Sadly, this game isn’t based on the corn snacks of the same name. I’m honestly shocked there wasn’t an officially licensed game based on the Monster Munch crisps, you know – the closest thing I could find are these handheld LCD Monster Munch games, and my life is a little brighter for knowing that these things exist.
Anyway, this cover posits the interesting concept of a vampire Pac-Man. It might sound daft at first – Pac-Man doesn’t even have a neck for a vampire to bite, for starters – but eating all those ghosts is bound to have some kind of supernatural effect on Pac-Man’s physiology. I’ve seen the episodes of the Ghostbusters cartoon where they enter the containment unit, and I can’t imagine Pac-Man’s stomach is much different.

Sprite Man, Commodore 64


Oh good god, I could have happily gone my entire life without seeing the unnecessarily detailed soles of a fake Pac-Man’s grubby feet. What is this, Deviantart? The rest of the Pac-Man isn’t any more appealing, with the kind face of face you’d see painted on a carousel vehicle at a carnival run by soul-stealing shapeshifters. The ghost’s pretty good, though, with those gaping, vacant eyes… hang on a minute! Horace, you take that sheet off your head right now and get back to either maze-chasing, skiing or avoiding spiders!

Beetlemania, ZX Spectrum


See, if I were making a game called Beetlemania I’d have gone down the route of having you play as one of the Beatles, picking up gold records while being chased by screaming fans. Instead, we’ve got regular old beetles. Okay, sure, the game’s inlay does describe them as giant homicidal beetles, but still.

Blobbo, ZX Spectrum


Now that’s not the cover I expected for a game called Blobbo. You’d think it’d star some jolly, rotund creature, not a robot so abstract it’s difficult to figure out where its head starts, a robot standing in a rain of crystalline fruit, licking the sun and firing its chest-lights into the gloom. Please note this is not a complaint. I’m all for game art that looks like the cover to a cyberpunk novel about an evil AI that takes over fruit machines.

Munch-Man, ZX Spectrum


I could go on (and on, and on – there are a lot of Pac-Man clones out there) but I think I’ll finish for today with my favourite cover of the bunch. It might not be the most professional, but it’s deeply charming in its simplicity and its basic execution manages to capture some raw emotion – forever pursued by the ghost of a banana, this fake Pac-Man is at the brink of exhaustion, his tongue lolling from his mouth as his stick legs somehow summon the strength to keep him moving, always moving, always searching for the Power Pellet that will save him. There can be no respite, however, and he knows that he is ultimately doomed to become one of the cursed undead. On that slightly depressing note, I’ll bring this article to a close. God speed, Munch-Man.

23/06/2017

ENDURO RACER (ARCADE)

I hadn’t actually intended on writing about today’s game, but the other day I had twenty minutes to while away so I turned to Sega’s super-scaler arcade games of the mid eighties. A pretty decent shout as a time-passer, I’m sure you’ll agree, and the game in question was the 1986 dirt-bike-em-up Enduro Racer. And, hey, I’ve played it now, so I might as well write an article about it. You know, after I’d gone back to it a bit later and put some practise in because it’s very unlikely I’d reach the end of any Sega arcade racer with only twenty minutes of practice.

Here is a dirt bike now, taking pride of place on the title screen. Having said that, motorcycle aficionados would probably tell me that “dirt bike” refers to a specific kind of off-road bike and the one pictured here doesn’t fall into that category, thus exposing my lack of motorcycle knowledge for all the world to see. I’m not worried about that, though. Not knowing what I’m talking about has never stopped me writing these articles before.
Also on the title screen is the titular racer themselves, currently attempting to bunny-hop over the game’s logo. What a great logo it is too, check out that colour palette. I believe it’s what the kids these days would call “aesthetic,” but which I would describe as “kinda like the logo from the old Visionaries toy line.” Oh, and “enduro” is a kind of mostly off-road motorcycle race. Well, I think that’s the title screen covered, I should probably play the actual game.


Vroom vroom, beep beep – in the biggest shock at VGJunk since Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus wasn’t terrible, it turns out that a game called Enduro Racer is a racing game. An against-the-clock checkpoint racer, to be precise, so very much in line with Sega’s other super-scaler racing games like OutRun and Hang-On. There are other motorcyclists on the track, but they’re just there to get in the way and to stop our racer from feeling too lonely: the goal is simply to pass each checkpoint before you run out of time.


When Enduro Racer came out, Sega had already released a much-loved arcade motorbike racing game in the form of the previously-mentioned Hang-On. So, what does Enduro Racer do differently to Hang-On? Well, for one thing you can perform wheelies. Pull back on the handlebars to pop a wheelie, as seen above. It has no practical use when you’re racing on flat ground, but then if practicality is at the forefront of your mind when pulling a wheelie then you’re doing it wrong.


The other thing Enduro Racer has is jumps. In fact, jumps are the games most prominent mechanic besides "driving fast" and the most frequent cause of crashes and accidents. You can see one coming up, it’s the ridge of dirt on the track’s horizon. When you hit it, your bike will fly into the air, but you have two options when it comes to getting airborne.


Option one is to drive straight into them. You’ll hop a reasonable height into the air, but this comes with downsides. The first is that if you don’t pull back on the handlebars to correct your flight, your racer will land heavily on their front wheel and fall arse-over-tit, coming off their bike, flopping at the side of the road and experiencing an unpleasant mix of pain, embarrassment and terror at the huge bike repair bills they’ve just accrued. The other downside is that, as you can see above, when they’re in the air your racer positions themselves in an extremely unflattering pose seemingly based on a splay-legged frog and designed to force the viewer to ponder the rider’s perineum.


The roadside signs promising delicious, refreshing beer serve only to further mock the rider as they lay sprawled on the ground. I have to say, the player character of Enduro Racer does come across as a very ungainly sort, their limbs flailing in the breeze as they make barely-controlled jumps, their mangled body tossed around by each crash and collision in the manner of a ragdoll filled with wet tissue. And here I thought the entire point of riding a motorbike was to look cool.


Alternatively, if you’re pulling a wheelie when you hit a jump, you jump. You launch, you soar, you become a goddamn one-man space program. You also give up any control over your bike for a long period of time, which makes landing tricky, to put it mildly. If you perform one of these huge jumps on a ramp just before a corner, tough luck. You’re going to fly off the side of the course and probably straight into something solid, because you can’t steer in mid-air. However, you can jump over a lot of obstacles this way, which is useful because Enduro Racer’s designers were very fond of placing sections packed with smaller obstacles such as rocks just after a jump. That means you’ve got two choices: do a short jump for greater aerial control but then you have to slalom though the obstacles, or risk the big jump, go right over all the obstacles and pray you don’t land in a roadside tree.


Jumping aside, Enduro Racer is very much what you’d expect from a Sega arcade racer of the time. It’s fast, the super-scaler sprite manipulation gives a great feeling of depth and while the handling on your bike is perhaps not quite as tight as it is in some of Enduro Racer's fellow arcade driving games, it’s still good and there’s a lot of fun to be had as you weave your way through the other riders and see your rider kick their leg out for balance as you scream around a tight corner.


After the gentle green countryside of the first zone, passing through the checkpoint takes our racer into a dusty desert scene of parched earth, boulders and hollow, dead trees that are still just as sturdy as their healthier counterparts in the last scene and will make your bike explode if you ride into them at two hundred kilometres an hour.
Disappointingly, there’s only one route through Enduro Racer, with neither the branching paths found in OutRun nor the different courses of Hang-On. This rather limits the replayability of the game, but what is there looks nice, at least.


Okay, “looks nice” might not be the perfect phrasing when we’re looking at the extreme wedgie suffered by the rider. He’s going to need a motorised winch to drag his leathers out of his arsecrack once this race is over, the poor bastard.


As well as other bikers, there are also jeeps patrolling the course and generally getting in your way. I’m not sure whether they’re supposed to be part of the same race as you or not. They’re definitely driving fast enough to suggest they're part of a race, so maybe there was a mix-up with the local 4X4 racer’s group and the track was double-booked.


Stage three is a watery landscape of bushes and ancient ruins. And, you know, water. It’s also where Enduro Racer’s difficulty starts to pick up, and make no mistake – beating the timer and reaching the final goal is no easy task, even when you fiddle with the game’s dipswitches and lower the difficulty level. Time limits are extremely tight, and collisions – which Enduro Racer seems much more keen about foisting on you than in other Sega racers – eat up a lot of precious seconds. This shouldn’t be too surprising, though. All of Sega’s other super-scaler racers are bloody hard, too. I think it’s fair to say I’ve played a lot of OutRun and I’m nowhere near able to consistently reach the goal on the default difficulty.


It doesn’t help that there’s no clear definition about which bits of the water you can ride on. You can get away with going off the course a little bit, but stray too far out and you’ll sink to the briny depths, ruing the decision to hold a motorcycle race on The Fens.


There are also a few sections where you have to use the wheelie-powered mega jump to clear long stretches of water, and if you don’t make the jump then you’ll slowly trundle through the shallow water as the other bikers sail over your head.
Enduro Racer’s relationship with its own jumping mechanics is a strange one. For one thing, they turn large segments of the game into almost a memory test – can you remember which jumps have enough straight road beyond them to make a big jump worthwhile and which ones have a curve viciously placed straight afterwards that will make you crash if you don’t use the small jump? Sometimes you can make a decision based on the track you can see coming up, but because Enduro Racer’s courses are full of hills and dips it’s not always possible to see what’s coming up. Then there’s the issue of fun. You’re including the ability to perform ridiculously huge jumps in your racing game, but then asking me not to make ridiculous jumps every time the opportunity presents itself? C’mon, man, that’s not right. If there’s one thing I don’t associate with Sega’s eighties arcade games, it’s the concept of restraint.



The next stage goes back to the desert, but there’s a twist: your bike skids a lot more when turning corners, presumably because you’re racing on loose sand. Hey, I didn’t say it was an exciting twist. Okay, that’s a bit unfair, I did actually enjoy the lowered traction in this stage, it mixed up the gameplay a bit in a way that felt appropriate.


Is there anything else to add about this stage? Erm, no, not really. You race, you slide around, you consider a new career as a crash test dummy because at least that way some useful scientific data might come out of you embedding your ribcage into a tree trunk.


Lastly we’re at the beach, that classic staple of Sega’s racing games. The sea is blue, the sand is white, the palm trees sway in the breeze and it all looks rather nice. Enduro Racer is a nice-looking game, especially in motion, and when you combine that with the possibility of playing it on an arcade cabinet shaped like an actual motorbike and mix in a catchy musical theme by OutRun composer Hiroshi Kawaguchi, it’s easy to overlook Enduro Racer’s gameplay failings and enjoy it as a spectacle.


I don’t think this spectator is going to being enjoying the spectacle in about half a second, when I wedge my front tyre right up against his uvula. I was trying to avoid the jeeps, you see, and I may have gone a little off-piste.


There’s the finish line, and happily there’s a jump right before the goal so you can hit it and leap right over the entire thing, clearing the advertising hoardings completely and ending the game as I played most of it: in mid-air.


Rather than ending the game with some special artwork or a brief animation in the vein of OutRun’s endings, Enduro Racer takes a different tack and goes with a heartfelt speech that boils down to “it’s not the winning, it’s the taking part.” Here it is in full:
“Enduro” is a symbolic journey through life via the media of a race. The results are insignificant and what really counts is competing. Of particular importance are the lessons to be learned concerning one’s self from the various encounters you experience along the way. There is no victor or loser in this test of endurance. The only thing that really matters is that you make a commitment to begin the long and trying trek. This game is dedicated to all of the “life riders” who have started out on the solitary trip to find their own individual limits.
Last but not least may we sincerely congratulate you on a perfect run.
I’m surprised it didn’t end with “love and kisses, Sega,” frankly. Maybe it’s just because I’m getting soppier in my old age, but I genuinely found this message heartwarming, because it’s true – who gives a shit whether you’re “good” at videogames? Play ‘em, have fun, find your own individual limits. I found my own individual limit for Enduro Racer, that’s for sure – about half-an-hour’s play at a time, on the lowest difficulty setting.


So, Enduro Racer isn’t quite an enduring classic. It’s a good game, a solid game, a game with issues but one that still provides high-speed racing action in Sega’s trademark vibrant style… but it can’t quite keep up with its contemporaries. Part of that is that familiarity breeds contempt, and if you’ve already played Hang-On then you’ll probably feel that Enduro Racer is more of the same but with the occasionally frustrating jumping mechanics bolted on. Beyond that, though, Enduro Racer is just lacking that certain spark that so many other Sega super-scaler games possessed. It doesn’t have the intensity of Afterburner, the bonkers-ness of Space Harrier or the sheer cool of OutRun – but if that’s the level of game you’re falling just short of, then you’re not doing bad. Speaking of OutRun, according to Wikipedia (so take it with a pinch of salt) both OutRun and Enduro Racer were released on the same day, and if that’s the case and they were being developed concurrently then I can imagine OutRun being prioritised over Enduro Racer.
To return to the beginning of the article: when I was looking for a fun, simple game to fill twenty minutes and decided on Enduro Racer, did I make a good choice? I think I did. It’s not the greatest, but then it didn’t have to be. Did you learn nothing from that ending text?

20/06/2017

BARBIE AND THE MAGIC OF PEGASUS (GAME BOY ADVANCE)

After playing Golden Axe last time out, I’ve been left with a desire for more magic, mystery and rideable fantasy creatures. Videogames offer plenty of options when it comes to the genre, but which one shall I play? The reassuringly familiar JRPG action of a Final Fantasy? The epic scope of your Skyrims and Oblivions and such? Well, no. I don’t have time for that, for one thing. Instead I’ve turned to one Barbara Millicent Roberts – that’s Barbie to you and me – with the 2005 Game Boy Advance wand-em-up Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus! 


This being a Barbie game doesn’t exactly bode well. The last Barbie game I covered was the execrable Barbie: Fashion Pack Games, which contained neither games nor fashion but was definitely a pack of something. However, this particular Barbie adventure was developed by WayForward, who are best known for the well-liked Shantae games and Duck Tales Remastered, so I’d be very surprised if this was anywhere near as bad as dreck like Barbie: Fashion Pack Games.


After starting the game and selecting my difficulty – I went with “normal,” because even I have too much pride to play a Barbie game on “easy” - the action begins with the shocking revelation that you don’t actually play as Barbie in this game. Instead, you’re in control of one Princess Annika, and it’s her birthday. Why, her friends and family are even throwing her a surprise party! I must admit, if someone threw me a party and invited a polar bear I’d definitely be surprised. Don’t worry, the bear isn’t dangerous, and it’s very much a Disney-movie-style animal friend. “Disney-style” is right, too: Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus desperately wants to be a Disney product, and it’s full of princesses in ball gowns and animal sidekicks, but of course it’s not the genuine Disney article and as such BatMoP (and the CGI movie of the same name that this game is based on) has the feel of a pound-shop knock-off.


Suddenly, tragedy strikes – everyone at the party (apart from Annika) is turned to stone! Fair enough, that’s the kind of thing you’d expect to happen at a fairytale party that’s been crashed by an evil wizard. The wizard’s name is Wenlock, and while he is evil, he’s also horny. He wants Annika to marry him and has eliminated all the competition to make this happen, but Annika’s having none of it. Instead, she resolves to find the Wand of Light, a sacred magical relic that can undo Wenlock’s foul sorcery and save the kingdom’s inhabitants from an eternity of being shat on by pigeons. Thus begins Annika’s mighty quest to retrieve the wand, and what a legendary adventure it promises to be! We can only imagine the far-flung places and perilous locales our plucky young heroine must traverse. Will she travel the briny depths of a bottle-green ocean? Must she scale the crystal spires of the distant, soaring mountains? Maybe she’ll oh wait, she’s found the wand.


Turns out it was in the same room as the party. That’s rather a stroke of luck, isn’t it? I’ll be honest, I was expecting a slightly more involved quest than that but I guess we’re done here. Annika saves the day, and I’ll see you next time.


No, of course not. Getting the wand was just the beginning, now Annika has to walk up to each statue one at a time and bop ‘em with the wand, reverting them to their usual fleshy selves. You can see this happening above. Pay particular attention to the lady on the right. When I first set her free, I misread her wide, slack-jawed mouth as a black moustache, which when coupled with her green cap and denim-blue dress momentarily made me think I’d rescued Luigi from the wizard’s spell.


Having seen that Annika has almost immediately foiled his plan, the wizard Wenlock makes a personal appearance. He’s still intent on getting Annika to marry him. I think that boat has sailed, buster. You probably should have gone with a “romantic trip to Paris” style of proposal rather than “condemn my fiancĂ©e’s loved ones to an agonising fate worse than death.” Also, calling her “dollface” probably didn’t help, although as Annika is a kind of Barbie I suppose it’s technically accurate.
Wenlock reveals that he’s turned everyone in the kingdom to stone, so it’s up to Annika to travel the land, dishing out individual wand-bashings. Oh, and Wenlock turns Annika’s sister Brietta into a pegasus. Erm, thanks, I guess? Even the characters comment that this is very helpful because now Annika’s got a magical steed to travel around on. I’m not sure what Wenlock’s end-game was with the whole pegasus thing.


Now the game proper can begin, and Annika finds herself in the Cloud Palace with a simple mission – find all the petrified people and restore their human forms. To accomplish this, she must perform a bunch of very simple platforming, jumping between the different areas of the (very lightly) maze-like castle and using her wand to set people free and destroying stone blocks that obstruct her path. By combining up or down on the d-pad with attack, you can swing the wand in a low sweep or an uppercut, which is handy for reaching awkwardly-placed blocks.


There are a few enemies knocking about, too. They can also be dispatched with a solid wand-whacking. Presumably they’re the minions of Wenlock, although they don’t seem much concerned about stopping Annika. Mostly they’re just there, and when you take damage from them ninety percent of the time it’ll be because you couldn’t see them before you jumped onto the screen. On the plus side, and admittedly this is the most tenuous of connections, fighting ravens in a castle hallway filled with diagonal staircases and floating platforms gives BatMoP a very slight tinge of the Castlevanias.


There’s not much else to say about the gameplay – hop, wander around, half-heartedly bat aside critters with your wand – until you reach the end of the Cloud Palace’s first stage (of three). There you find a new power for your wand: the “twirl” power, which works as a high-jump with the wand dragging Annika behind it as it soars into the sky. You switch between the two functions of the wand by pressing the R button, and spoilers – this will cause problems later on. For now, though, the twirl power is a welcome addition that provides some variety to the slow-paced platforming.


This being a giant castle, naturally there are secret rooms. If you can find both the key – one of the petrified people always has it – and the door, you can enter the secret room and play a very short block-clearing challenge to unlock a new costume for Annika. So, it’s a secret closet, then? It’s a nice enough addition I suppose, and it’d be weird to have a Barbie game that didn’t involve dressing up at some point. Go on, then, let’s have a look at Annika’s new clothes.


Well, they’re definitely very Barbie.
As I mentioned, there are three stages in each “world,” and while the Cloud Palace does become slightly more complex as you progress it obviously never gets too ambitious. Of course it doesn’t, this is a game designed for young children, and about the most complex part of the Cloud Palace are the moving platforms that travel along clearly-defined pathways. Still, what’s there isn’t bad. Annika controls well, with consistent jumping and sharp hitboxes, and while the stages are somewhat maze-like to facilitate the “hunt for statue people” gameplay they’re never too frustrating in their layouts and you get a counter at the bottom-left that tells you how many people are left to find.


At the end of the Cloud Palace, Wenlock shows up for a boss battle. This really isn’t helping on your quest for matrimony, man. Can’t you just live the life of a regular evil wizard, sitting alone in your mountaintop castle, spending vast sums of money on elaborate candle set-up and binding books in human skin, rather than making me participate in a frankly rather dull boss battle? To win, you use the twirl power to climb on top of the chandelier, which then falls down, hopefully on Wenlock’s head. Do this three times and you’ve won. Wenlock survives, despite having a huge chandelier dropped on his head three times. I suppose I’d better chase after him, then.


These between-worlds flying stages are where you really see the benefit of being on good terms with a pegasus. Sure, you have to overcome the awkwardness of, ahem, mounting your sister, but once you do you can fly around by tapping the jump button to gain altitude, bouncing on top of clouds to reveal the coins they’re hiding. Collect ten coins and win a special prize, namely an extra heart for your life meter and a still from the movie that’s so heavily compressed it might as well be composed of Stickle Bricks.
There’s a flying stage between each of the worlds, all with the goal of collecting ten coins, sometimes by flying through rings or just flying into floating, unobscured coins. It’s a decent change of pace, I suppose, and the developers had to get the pegasus involved in the game somehow.


It’s on to the snowy village for the next world, and already BatMoP has settled into a fixed routine. Find all the villagers in the three stages of each world, collect a new power for the wand and a new costume, beat the boss and ride your sister to the next world.


In this case, the new wand power is a variation on the twirl that carries Annika a longer distance horizontally rather than vertically, and the new costume is the same as the last costume, only green. Turquoise, maybe. Personally, I was hoping for a scarf and mittens. Something seasonally appropriate, you know.
The snowy village is a much more open and expansive place than the Cloud Palace, but fortunately the developers didn’t go too mad when they were hiding the villagers. Normally I’m really not fond of games where you have to collect every single example of something, especially when there’s no indication of where those items might be,  but as long as you remember to look on top of houses you shouldn’t have much trouble finding everyone. It definitely feels like WayForward found a decent balance for younger players, with the statues placed in locations that require some exploration but which are unlikely to become frustrating (partly because the stages aren’t all that big).


The boss battle is against Wenlock’s griffon, which I had trouble getting a decent screenshot of because it spends most of the fight flying around off the top of the screen. The trick here is that you have to bait the griffon into slamming beak-first into the wooden bridges along the path, a la the final fight in Super Mario Bros. 3, and it’s not difficult when you can twirl horizontally to get out of the way. BatMoP makes damn sure that you’re going to do the boss fights correctly – not only does it tell you exactly what you need to do in order to win, but it even removes superfluous wand powers so you don’t waste time, I dunno, twirling upwards when you should be going sideways.


Next up is the Forbidden Forest – although sadly not the fascinatingly bizarre Commodore 64 game of the same name – and Annika’s wand now has the power to turn animals into “plants.” “Plants” is a very loose description for this wand power, and while some enemies like the dangling spiders are transformed into flowers, take a look at the platform Annika is riding. That used to be a small griffon, but our heroine has transmogrified it into a flying log. The log still has a griffon’s face, which raises some disturbing questions about how much sentience remains in the newly-timbered creature.


The main use of Annika’s new flower power is curing goblinism. Some of the people have been turned into goblins, like the one over on the right. He kinda reminds me of the shopkeepers from the excellent SNES adventure Demon’s Crest, but I digress. You’ve got to hit them with the flower wand, which somehow doesn’t turn them into a plant, but rather back into statue that can then be destroyed. It might seem like an unnecessarily complicated extra step in Wenlock’s plan for him to turn these statues into Shrek’s distant relatives, but I’m glad he did – the goblins make grunting noises, so they’re much easier to track down than the other statues.


What else is new in the forest world? Well, there are a lot of tall trees to climb using mushroom platforms, and the flower wand can transform certain plants into springboards for rapid ascents. Unfortunately, they are some of the worst, jankiest springboards I have ever had the displeasure of interacting with in a videogame. When you stand on one, Annika is fired into the air in such a juddering, awkward manner that they feel more like teleporters with severe mechanical defects than springboards, with the “camera” struggling to keep up as Annika moves from one point to another, higher point with no animation or movement in between. They genuinely feel broken, as though someone completely forgot to test them during the game’s QA phase, and it’s especially weird because the rest of the game is technically very competent.
Aside from those things and the new goblin-fixing portions of the gameplay, there are a few new creatures out for your blood. Spiders, mostly. I must admit, it feels a bit strange to be playing as a character that for all intents and purposes is a Disney princess who travels through the forest battering woodland creatures with a stick.


The boss of the woods is Ollie the Giant, and he lives up to his name. By being a giant, I mean, it’s not like he’s kicking out rad skateboard tricks. Ollie’s got a big ol’ sprite, and I’ll say this for Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus – it looks good. Nice sprites that are really well animated and backgrounds that aren’t quite as good but certainly aren’t bad and do their job well without being cluttered and confusing. WayForward definitely went the extra mile on the graphics. I’m getting a bit of a She-Ra vibe from it, which is fine by me. I used to love She-Ra as a kid, which is not something you could really admit as a young male child in the late eighties. But it was basically more He-Man (which I was obsessed with) and it had Hordak in it, so I was bound to love it.
Oh, right, the boss battle. Mini-griffons fly in, you use the flower power to turn them into logs, the giant trips over the logs and hurts himself. I felt kinda bad for the big dope, honestly. He’s just out there in the woods, living his life, until some princess turns out and starts giving him stubbed toes for no adequately explained reason.


The final world takes place in some ice caverns, and fortuitously there’s a power-up for the wand in here that allows Annika to melt ice blocks. Guess what you’re going to be spending most of the stage doing? That’s right, sliding around on slippery floors. Okay, they’re not too bad, because you can use the horizontal twirl to float over most of them.


We’re nearly at the end of the game now, and you know what? On the whole Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus isn’t bad at all. It’s solidly built for the most part, it tries its best to include new features with each stage and I’d say that as a game for young kids it pitches itself at just the right level of complexity. It never gets difficult, per se, but there are some sections that the little ‘uns will have to think about in order to clear, and it never feels patronising or lazily slapped together as so many kid’s games do. There was definitely a fair amount of effort expended on this game, and while you and I are unlikely to be captivated by it I don’t think very small children would have felt cheated had they spent their precious pocket money on it.


It still has its problems, though. There are a few too many blind drops for my liking – in the screenshot above there’s a pool of health-draining water just below the bottom of the screen, and there’s no way to pan the camera down. There were several times when I had to guess that I should be using the horizontal twirl power rather than just jumping, and as I said earlier most of the damage I took from monsters was because I couldn’t see the bloody things before jumping off a platform.
However, the one issue with BatMoP that really set my teeth on edge was cycling through your wand powers. It’s fine early in the game when you only have two or three, but when you’re in the last stage and you have to press R five times to reach the fire power, melt a few ice cubes, switch to the regular wand to free a statue and then cycle back around to the fire power seconds later, it gets frustrating. Any time a monster that I could see damaged me, it was because I had the wrong wand power selected and I couldn’t switch back fast enough – an issue aggravated by the inconsistency of the wand’s powers. The twirling powers will destroy regular blocks but can’t harm enemies, and for some reason the flame wand doesn’t damage enemies either. It’s a real pain in the arse, and what makes it worse is that this situation could have been hugely mitigated simply by having the unused L button let you cycle backwards through your powers. Isn’t this really just an annoying but relatively minor foible? Yes, absolutely. Did it make me emit a near-constant groaning sound during the final stages? Also yes.


There’s a one-off stage right at the end where Annika is chased by a rolling snowball and has to melt the ice barriers that block her path before she’s squashed. It’s pleasant enough, although it’s really only notable for Wenlock turning up just before Annika drops into the icy chute and making a terrible “she’s falling for me” pun.


At last, it’s the final encounter with Wenlock. It’s an odd one, because Annika has already totally foiled Wenlock’s evil schemes. All the people have been freed from the statue curse and it was mentioned right at the start of the game that Annika could easily change her sister from a pegasus back into a human but she didn’t because having a winged horse was super useful. I can’t imagine she’s about to straight-up murder Wenlock, though, so this fight must just be about teaching him a lesson.
It’s a two-part fight. The first part is the same as the chandelier-dropping battle from the first stage, except now there are two chandeliers.


The second half is a three-card monte deal, where Wenlock makes three statue clones of himself and you have to keep an eye on where the real Wenlock is before bashing him with your wand. If you can manage to do that three times – and trust me, you really can, I believe in you – then the game is over and Annika can get back to her opulent lifestyle of leisure and carefree whimsy.


Wenlock finally gets the hint that Annika doesn’t want to marry him. I imagine he’s off to post a lengthy rant on some internet forum about how females don’t appreciate nice guys.


Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus ends as it began: with Annika celebrating her birthday. After she’s turned her sister back into a human, of course. Everyone wants to be the centre of attention at their own birthday party but that ain’t gonna happen if one of the guests is a flying horse.


Well, that was something of a relief, huh? A Barbie game that not only wasn’t terrible on a gameplay level but managed to avoid feeling like a rushed, cynical hack-job. It’s far from perfect, but I think many young Barbie fans would enjoy it without feeling like they’re being patronised, and the graphics are rather nice. Speaking of the graphics, I noticed one Paul Robertson credited for “Character Animation” - that would be the same Paul Robertson who’s a pixel artist famous for his work on (amongst other things) the Scott Pilgrim game, Mercenary Kings and his complex, bonkers promos for Adult Swim. No wonder the game looks nice.
I’m not sure why they called it “the Magic of Pegasus”, mind you. It was Wenlock and Annika who did all the magic. Maybe if the pegasus had a routine where it caught a bullet in its teeth, I could accept that title. I’d have given the game an extra gold star, that’s for sure.

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