21/02/2017

CHUCK ROCK (MEGADRIVE / GENESIS)

It’s a shame that most videogame-to-movie adaptations are terrible, because I think a big-screen version of today’s game would be worth making. Of course, that’s only because then you’d be able to use the tagline “Fun is just a stone’s throw away” on the posters. It’s the 1992 Megadrive version of Core Design’s prehistoric platformer Chuck Rock!


Originally released in 1991 for the Amiga and Atari ST, Chuck Rock was soon ported to a wide number of different platforms. So why the Megadrive version? No real reason, it just looks very close to the original but is controlled with a pad with extra buttons.
So, the title screen, then. There’s a band playing. I’m sure we’ve all already made a mental “rock band” pun, so let’s skip that and say hey, the animations of the band are actually synced up to the music somewhat, which is a nice touch. From left to right you’ve got a dinosaur in a wig, a drummer with the Virgin logo on his kit, (because Virgin published this version of the game,) Chuck Rock himself (who is also wearing a wig, as we shall see in a moment) and Chuck’s, erm, buxom wife Ophelia. The Megadrive version goes straight into the action when you press start, although other versions do have an introductory cutscene. The story is that Ophelia is kidnapped and Chuck sets out to rescue her. So far, so exactly the same as 90% of other 16-bit platformers. However, the cutscene shows that Ophelia was abducted by the band’s drummer, whose name is Gary Gritter. Yes, he’s named after and is physically based on former glam-rock singer and current incarcerated paedophile Gary Glitter, making this the second game I’ve played in the past few months to feature the same bit of extremely unfortunate celebrity caricature.


Chuck Rock is a platformer, that much is clear. You jump a lot in this game, as well as avoiding enemies where you can. There are a couple of twists to the formula: for starters, there don’t seem to be any bottomless pits for you to fall into. Some of the pits are filled with lava or spikes, but they all have a bottom. Chuck can also attack, either with a jumping kick or, if he’s standing on solid ground, by thrusting his fat gut at the bad guys. Whether the enemies perish from sheer disgust as a sweaty caveman’s belly rubs up against them remains unconfirmed, but the problem with this attack is obvious: it has almost no range. Like, Chuck’s a fairly chunky chap but even his prodigious gut doesn’t reach as far as his fists would. And anyway, what kind of caveman doesn’t carry a club? You’re a disgrace to the uniform, Chuck.


The look of Chuck Rock is unmistakeably European, isn’t it? Cartoonish without a hint of manga influence, like an alternate version of The Flintstones that started in the pages of The Beano. It’s a good look, though. Nice and colourful, pleasingly solid and detailed sprites, it definitely looks the part.


And now, the secret of Chuck Rock’s title is revealed: he’s called Chuck Rock because he can chuck rocks. Pick ‘em up, set ‘em down, carry ‘em around and throw them at dinosaurs and other dangerous fauna. Rocks: nature’s Swiss Army knife. There are two sizes of rock, small and big, and each kind slows Chuck down either a little or a lot while he’s carrying them. The benefits of carrying a rock, not including “a great upper body workout,” are that when they’re over Chuck’s head they can protect him from aerial attacks, and if a flying enemy crashes into them they will die. Plus you can throw them at things, which is generally much more effective than the gut-bounce. As well as that, the rocks can be used as platforms, either for a little extra height when reaching distant platforms or as a stepping-stone when placed on hazardous floors. It’s a very welcome bit of extra gameplay in what would be a pretty by-the-numbers platforming adventure otherwise.


Not all the creatures are out to kill Chuck. Some of them are actively helpful, like this pterodactyl that carries him across the screen. Now, a confession: I have, in the past, mentioned Sega’s “Cyber Razor Cut” series of TV ads for the Megadrive, and specifically I’ve said that the line “hitch a lift on a pterodac-bird” is one of the worst attempted rhymes I’ve ever heard. However, having listened to the ad again in slightly better quality, I concede that the actual line might be “pterodactyl,” only the pronunciation of the word has been cruelly, viciously mangled in an attempt to get it to rhyme with “world.” It does not rhyme. I think I preferred it when I thought it said “pterodac-bird.”


As I say, the Megadrive version of Chuck Rock is mostly identical to the original computer games, but here’s something that’s different: in the Amiga version, this huge dinosaur tried to take an actual shit on Chuck’s head when he walks underneath it. I remembered this from having played the Amiga version as a kid, and when you are a kid a massive dinosaur taking a dump on your character is the kind of thing that sticks in the memory. Sadly, this does not happen in the Megadrive version, and I can only assume it was removed for reasons of perceived good taste.


And so on you go, guiding Chuck through the jungle setting dispatching dinosaurs with his paunch and occasionally throwing boulders onto crocodile’s heads so you can use them as see-saws to propel you upwards. Unfortunately the crocodiles don’t say “it’s a living!” when you do this, probably because you’ve just dropped a rock on their heads.
It’s all very jolly, and certainly feels as though it’s had a little more craft put into it, a little more love and affection spent, than you might find in the slew of generic run-n-jump platformers of the time. Apart from Chuck having a slight (but manageable) delay on his jumps, it all controls very nicely and hits a good balance of simple, obvious challenges you need to clear in order to progress and hidden areas that require a bit more exploration and boulder-stacking to access. You only really get point items from these side areas, but it’s still fun to see where you can get to.


After a while, Chuck stumbles upon the first boss. It’s an angry triceratops, charging back and forth along the bottom of the screen. There’s a rock down there, too, and your task becomes clear: jump down while the triceratops is at the far end of the screen, grab the rock, climb back up the platforms and then throw the rock onto the triceratops from above like a moronic yob throwing bricks off a motorway bridge onto the cars below. It’s an easy task to accomplish, so it’s a shame that you have to do it a bunch of times to defeat the triceratops. Yes, this fight falls into my least favourite category of boss fight – the one where you do the same basic action over and over. The triceratops doesn’t change its attack patterns or anything like that, so basically the fight is saying “sure, you dropped a rock on a dinosaur once, but can you do the exact same thing ten times?!” Yes, Chuck Rock, yes I can. If I take any damage, it’s because I got bored and my mind started to wander.


Stage two takes place in some caves, every surface covered in slimy, gloopy mud. I sincerely hope it’s mud, anyway. The caves feature many of the cave-based hazards you might expect from a 16-bit platformers, like dangerous stalagmites, falling rocks and scuttling spiders, as seen above. These spiders remind me of the monster version of Drutt from the “Nasty Stuff” episode of classic kid’s claymation show Trap Door, a reference so specific even I’m surprised it sprang to my mind.


Halfway through the stage there’s a lava section, because of course there is. Interestingly, Chuck responds to falling into molten rock the same way Mario does in the 3D Super Mario games – rather than being immediately incinerated, he leaps back out of the magma with a yelp and an accompanying loss of health, furthering Chuck Rock’s status as a platformer that is completely disinterested in killing the platformer by having them fall into bottomless chasms.


There are a few elevators in this stage, powered by dinosaurs running around treadmills, and once you’re off the lift the dinosaurs lie down and have a kip. There are quite a few fun little flourishes like this in Chuck Rock, all of which help elevate it above the average in terms of presentation if not gameplay.


Boss number two is a sabre-toothed tiger. A fearsome foe indeed, made all the more dangerous by the lack of any rocks in the arena that you can chuck at it. This means you have to rely on Chuck’s jumping kicks and belly-bounces, both of which have a range measured in nanometres and are thus ill suited to fighting something with teeth bigger than your head. Most of the damage you’ll take in this fight comes from being unable to halt Chuck’s forward momentum as he attacks, often propelling him straight into the tiger. On top of that, the tiger can also roar, which momentarily freezes Chuck in place through sheer terror. His jaw drops and his skin grows pale, which again is a lovely little touch.
The tiger runs around the arena in a loop, lunging at Chuck when he gets near. My strategy? I didn’t really have one until I managed to get behind the tiger and trap it against that small lip of rock on the left of the screen. Once it was there, I mashed the attack button as far as I could, grinding the tiger to death between a rock and soft, flabby place. A flukey victory, sure, but I’ll take it.


Oh joy, it’s an underwater stage, everyone loves those. A completely different set of physical rules to grapple with, the action rather hampered by the Megadrive’s lack of transparency effects? What’s not to love? Okay, I’m being too harsh there. The swimming portions of Chuck Rock aren’t that bad. It certainly helps that Chuck still moves pretty quickly when he’s submerged, which keeps the game flowing, and half of the stage takes place on land anyway. It’s a lot more awkward to defeat enemies while you’re underwater, as you can probably imagine, but we should commend Chuck for his bravery. He’s not afraid to kick a Portuguese man-o-war to death with his bare feet, whereas I feel queasy if I step on spilled shampoo in the shower.


While the underwater sections aren’t terrible, it’s still preferable to ride over them on the back of a friendly whale.


One annoying facet of Chuck Rock’s level design is that it features far too many blind jumps. Here, for example, the only way to progress was to jump off a cliff (a phrase that looks weird now I’ve written it out) into the water below. The thing is, you can’t see the water below, which is why Chuck’s about to take damage from landing on a jellyfish. Each stage seems to include at least a couple of blind jumps, and the longer I write about videogames the more irritating I find this situation. I like to delude myself that if I can see the danger, I can use my skill to avoid it, even if that’s rarely true.


Stage three follows up some not-especially-inspired level design with an absolutely terrible boss in the form of this plesiosaur. If the Loch Ness monster was a huge dork, this is what it’d look like, snorkel and all. All it does is bob up and down and occasionally blow bubbles at you. These are videogame bubbles and therefore they hit with the force of a .44 magnum round, but they’re still easy to avoid and all you need do to defeat this boss is find the precise distance from which you can float in place and kick it repeatedly without bumping into it. It feels less like a fight and more like synchronised swimming, and even more like a waste of everyone’s goddamn time.


Stage four combines the swimming sections with the almost mandatory ice stage, complete with slippery platforms and frozen enemies. It’s a testament to the overall craft of Chuck Rock that the combination of these two tropes, probably the least-loved of all platformer level types, somehow remains fairly fun to play. It’s not perfect, and in a lot of ways it’s a backward step from earlier areas: there seems to be less emphasis on creative rock throwing, and the increased difficulty level comes from packing more and more creatures into each screen rather than through thoughtful level design. Still, it looks really nice, and I love these ice-crystal backgrounds and the dinosaurs that attack by sliding across the platforms while encased in massive ice cubes.


I also love these snowball-throwing dinosaurs, because they are utterly adorable, slinging their snowballs with a real sense of childlike innocence. It’s a real shame what Chuck’s about to do to it with this large rock, honestly.


This stage also has a brief outdoor section, complete with snowmen that I’m going to assume were made by those same dinosaurs that throw the snowballs. A bunch of them got together and built a snowman, and it’s cute as heck. “If they’re dinosaurs, why didn’t the build a snow-dinosaur, then?” I hear you ask, and the answer is because making a snow dinosaur would be a lot more difficult, especially if you don’t have opposable thumbs, obviously.


Atop a cold and snowy mountain, Chuck faces off against a woolly mammoth in a fight that’s quite similar to the underwater one but vastly improved by taking place on land. The mammoth charges, so you jump up and kick it right in the face. Sometimes it’ll use its trunk to fire snowballs or to suck you towards it, vacuum-cleaner style. I’m standing by my statement that this is a better boss fight than the last one, but it’s still not good, and none of Chuck Rock’s end-of-stage encounters are much fun to endure. They’re the weakest part of the game, that’s for sure, at once boringly simply yet made frustrating by the incredibly short range of Chuck’s attacks.
Let’s look on the bright side, though. All this snow and ice implies that if I just hang around for a while, I won’t have to fight any more dinosaurs. After all, as a giant Austrian once said “what killed the dinosaurs? The Ice Age!


Oh. Wow. I didn’t expect all the dinosaurs to actually die. I mean, I know Chuck’s thrown rocks at a lot of them, but not enough to cause the mass extinction event that makes up the final stage. It really must be the Ice Age’s doing.


There are even dinosaur graves, complete with dinosaur headstones, just in case you though this cheerful cartoon romp was getting a bit too cheerful. Chuck is too respectful of the dead to pick up the gravestone and throw it, which is disappointing because I like the irony of beating someone to death with a tombstone.


As with the previous stage, this boneyard suffers from an overabundance of enemies packed into each screen, which makes progressing just enough of a slog that you begin to wonder whether you’re still having fun. At least the enemies themselves are fun, with rattling skeletons and dinosaur mummies charging around the place, and the enemy designs are definitely one of Chuck Rock’s strong points. I especially like the way basic enemies change as you make your way through the game: for instance, the hostile pterodactyls behave in the same way throughout the game, but in the snowy levels they gain a little scarf and in this stage they’re skeletons, and that goes a long way towards making them feel less repetitive.


Here, Chuck breaks the cardinal rule of the Caveman Code by walking directly into a dinosaur’s mouth. Don’t worry, though, the dinosaur is already dead, or at least extremely unwell. All its teeth fall out when you approach it, so there’s no worries about being chewed to death.


This means the next area takes place inside a dinosaur, which is great even if it is full of these disturbingly cheerful hearts. There are dozens of the bloody things in here, so they can’t be the dinosaur’s heart and are presumably a species of parasitic organism that invades other living creatures until their innards resemble the bins behind Poundland on the day after Valentine’s.
I’ve always loved videogame levels that take place inside a living creature, you know. I think it’s the cross-pollination of the bio-organic settings of my beloved Alien franchise, the NES version of Life Force / Salamander and the “In The Flesh” level from Blood. Chuck Rock gets an extra point from me for including such a stage.


Then, with surprising suddenness, the final boss appears. Notice that I am no longer inside the dinosaur. I assume Chuck managed to leave the corpse via the, ahem, most obvious exit. I think by this point it’s fair to say that Chuck has been through some (literal) serious shit, so a dinosaur wearing boxing gloves and a super-sized version of Sir Arthur’s boxers is unlikely to faze him. I do like the dinosaur’s little crown, mind you.
Anyway, the dinosaur will try to attack you in different ways depending on which platform you’re standing on, either with punches or by biting. You’d think the punches would be the least effective of these attacks, what with the boss having stubby little T. Rex arms, but I had far more success on the top platform. The boss comes in for a bite, Chuck boots it in the snout, repeat until the game finishes. Did I mention boss battles aren’t exactly Chuck Rock’s strong point?


Thus the game ends: Chuck is reunited with his wife, and… hang on, so that dinosaur is Gary? I thought I was after the human kidnapper Gary Gritter? What the heck is going on? In search of answers, I checked out the ending to the Amiga version, where I noticed this:


If you look at the ending image without the text in the way, you can see that someone has been crushed by the dinosaur’s falling body. I guess that’s Gary, then. You can understand my confusion, given that Gary doesn’t appear in the final boss’ room or anything, but apparently he was there the entire time. What a lame ending, made worse by the fact I was momentarily led to believe I’d just fought a T. Rex called Gary only to have such a wonderful notion cruelly snatched away from me.
Before we leave Chuck Rock for good, take another look at the ending text, specifically the line about how “Chuck can not wait to get home and out of his leaves.” A couple of points: for starters, the first time I read it I assumed “get out of his leaves” was a euphemism for getting extremely drunk. You know, “Chuck necked a bottle of scotch and got absolutely out of his leaves, started a fight with a bouncer and dropped his kebab,” that kind of thing. Sadly that’s not the case, “his leaves” actually means the foliage Chuck’s wearing as under (and indeed outer) wear. Also, in the console versions it says he’s going on vacation after this ordeal, which is fair enough. However, in the original versions it’s strongly implied that he’s going home to have sex with his wife, which is also fair enough but apparently far too racy for the Sega Megadrive.


Amid the great morass of cartoony 16-bit platformers, Chuck Rock can stand tall as one that’s distinctly above average, especially for one based on a computer game. Sadly it doesn’t quite reach the top thanks to the dull boss battles, too-frequent blind jumps and a rock-throwing mechanic that’s underutilized in the later stages. Presentation-wise it’s very good, with lots of charming (and charmingly weird) monsters and backdrops, plus an enjoyable soundtrack that’s been expanded from the single tune of the original to a track for each level. I’m especially fond of the eminently hummable and extremely bouncy stage two theme. Overall, then, time with Chuck Rock was time well spent. Okay, maybe not well spent. I could have done a lot of chores instead of listening to Chuck shout “unga bunga!” but it was, mostly, fun. I’m still disappointed that dinosaur wasn’t called Gary, though.

6 comments:

  1. Give yourself 10exp for mentioning trap door :)

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  2. It seems that cavemen games should always have a mandatory "inside a creature" level. Just take a look at Joe & Mac, Super Adventure Island, Congo's Caper, and Gears of War 2.

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  3. Believe it or not, I used to have such a hard time with the third boss as a kid, and I have the SNES version where he actually moves less! Funny I also though the dinosaur was Gary especially with the manual describing him as "tough as stones and a whole lot heavier". Also the boss theme in the SNES version is really rockin.

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  4. Considering the sequel stars his son, I'd say the pre-history human sex is canon.

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  5. Chuck Rock is one of the very few examples of an Amiga Port where I prefer the Mega Drive music over the original. Normally I think that the Mega Drives sound quality is too scratchy, but in this case it fits quite well; the intro music has a certain edge to it on the MD that the Amiga one lacks.

    Oh, and I always believed Gary was the T-Rex endboss! Never realized it was the drummer... thanks for pointing that out! (again what learned...)

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  6. It would have been fantastic if they had just gone outright with "chuck cannot wait to go home, get drunk, and have sex with his wife". Just look at his face. We all know that's what he's thinking.

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