23/03/2017

BOZO'S NIGHT OUT (COMMODORE 64)

In my almost thirty years of playing videogames, they’ve taken me on some pretty wild adventures. I’ve rescued kidnapped princesses, I’ve battled evil space armadas, I’ve battled evil space armadas in order to rescue kidnapped princesses, but there’s one adventure I’ve never experienced before: the adventure of making your way home from the pub after a few too many bevvies. Well, that’s all changed now, because I’ve played Taskset’s 1984 Commodore 64 cirrhosis-em-up Bozo’s Night Out!


Just in case you were wondering about the theme of this game, the logo is made from beer. I suspect Bozo’s night out will not involve a mentally enriching trip to an art gallery.


Here’s Bozo now, finishing up after a session at his local boozer. The vast quantities of alcohol he regularly consumes have done terrible, terrible things to Bozo’s body. When your torso has ballooned into a shape I can only describe as “pointy sphere” then it’s probably time to cut back on the ol’ vino. I’m not sure why this bar has three books standing on the bar, but it feels like the set-up to a joke that I don’t know the punchline for. Alternatively, they’re a crude rendering of beer pumps. That would make more sense.


As Bozo steps out of Gibbo’s Joint and into the crisp night air, the goal of Bozo’s Night Out is revealed: get Bozo home. That’s it. The only controls are the joystick, which moves Bozo around. You walk him through the streets until you reach his house. It is not, at first glance, a game with much depth.


Of course, you do have to avoid the many people wandering the streets – and it’s busy out there, considering it’s past kicking out time. Old ladies ripped straight from the Monty Python “Hell’s Grannies” sketch, the long arm of the law, blokes who look like the Honey Monster if he joined the EDL, all of them will give Bozo a hard time if he bumps into them. They’re easy enough to walk around, though. Bozo’s in full control of his legs, for now.


The other thing you need to avoid are the grates on the floor, because Bozo lives in a town where gaping holes open up in the pavement at random intervals. The reason for this is never explained. You never see any toilets in the game, so maybe they’re trying to cut out the middle-man between people and the sewers. I wish I hadn’t thought of that.


There’s Bozo’s house now. It’s not far from the pub, just ten or so screens away. I assume this is why Bozo bought it in the first place. Now I’ve just got to wait for that skinhead to move away before I can barge in through the front door, put some toast on and let it burn while I’m taking a very long piss, flip the television to an “erotic thriller” and fall asleep on the sofa.


“Safely home,” it says, as Bozo crawls into bed. Bozo has a huge portrait of himself staring down at him while he sleeps, the weirdo. As a reward for making it home, you’re given five pints, adding to the five you start the game with and filling up the pint-o-meter at the top of the screen. Okay, that’s it, game over.


Except of course it isn’t, and Bozo is such a raging alcoholic that he’s straight down the pub the following night, and indeed every night. The structure of Bozo’s Night Out is thus revealed: leave the pub, guide Bozo home through the dangerous city streets, go to bed, return to the pub and repeat until Bozo has completely filled the booze-o-meter or has been grabbed one too many times by the citizenry. Now that I think about it, shouldn’t Bozo be getting the five pints at the pub rather than when he gets home? I can understand him maybe having a nightcap, but another five pints before bed seems a bit much. Maybe he just does so much preloading before he goes out that he doesn’t need to drink at the pub and only goes down there to play the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire quiz machine.


What with all these hostile people clogging the streets and yawning pits waiting to be stepped in, I thought it might be prudent to wait for one of these green doors to open so Bozo could take a shortcut through the park.


This turned out to be a mistake, because apparently this town’s park is where Hieronymous Bosch stores all his rejected monster designs. You might think the monsters are all just alcohol-induced hallucinations, but not – they’re the real deal, and will beat the crap out of Bozo if he touches them. Also, the inside of the park isn’t to the same scale as the streets, so you think you’ve walked roughly the right distance to reach Bozo’s house but once you leave the park you’ll find you’ve overshot your target and ended up back at the pub. Overall, I’d say it’s not worth entering the park unless you’re absolutely pinned down by pedestrians and the open door offers your only escape route.


These are some really great monsters, mind you. Bizarre, shambling freaks with a heartwarming mix of design influences from British kids cartoons and those rubber finger-puppet monsters you used to get out of vending machines. My favourite is the one at the top-left of the screenshot above: I think it’s supposed to be a skeleton wearing a red cape with a piece of popcorn for a head, but I can’t see its body as anything other than a skeleton encased in a cone of translucent red goo. If someone with more artistic talent than me (e.g. anyone, ever) wants to draw this thing, that would be great. I have no reward to offer other than the knowledge that you made me smile.


You can also touch the mushrooms in the park, which makes the colours freak out but doesn’t cause Bozo to lose pints like touching any other hazard does. This makes sense, because Bozo is roughly 85 percent pure ethanol at this point and thus hallucinogens are unlikely to cause him much harm.


By the time Bozo has necked twenty pints are so, you’ll notice that (understandably) his mobility is beginning to suffer. This is the real challenge of Bozo’s Night Out, then: for every trip home you complete, Bozo gradually becomes more difficult to control. At this point, it’s nothing too much to worry about, and the major issue you’ll notice is that Bozo has trouble walking in a straight line. When you hold right on the joystick to walk home, Bozo will gradually drift up or down and you know what? It’s a remarkably accurate recreation of trying to walk about while bladdered, and I love it. The only thing that’s missing is a massively distorted voice sample of Bozo trying to sing “Show Me The Way To Go Home.”


The altered controls did mean I managed to bump into a copper, who immediately threw Bozo in jail. Who wants to bet it’s for trying to steal the policeman’s helmet and then throwing up in it? And so Bozo loses five pints from the pint-o-meter while contemplating his Drunk and Disorderly charge and shouting at the police that they should be out there catching proper criminals.


Whereas if you bump into the big chaps, they simple beat the crap out of Bozo in a cartoon-cloud-of-dust style. You only lose two pints for this, as you also do for colliding with most of the game’s other hazards. This makes sense to me, getting a kicking might be unpleasant but sitting in the drunk tank gives Bozo a lot longer to sober up. What doesn’t make sense is that when you run into the old ladies they appear to repeatedly pat Bozo on the head, as though he was a tousle-haired young rapscallion and not a fat bloke who patterned his life on Oliver Reed. However, they pat him so hard that he’s forced into the concrete, at the loss of two pints. I have no idea what action the animation is supposed to be implying – hitting Bozo with an invisible umbrella, maybe – but it’s definitely painful.


At the fifty pints mark, Bozo reaches the “take off all your clothes” stage of inebriation. Pictured above: a naked, pink Bozo, moments away from threatening to glass that arcade cabinet because it looked at him funny.


Thankfully, that isn’t actually the case. It’s just that Bozo is now so leathered that the game’s sprites have started changing colour – although stripping naked and running through the streets after fifty pints wouldn’t be all that unbelievable. By now, Bozo is so thoroughly kaylied, so monumentally trollied, so completely and irredeemably bongoed that it’s no longer accurate to say that you “control” him. The directions you move the joystick in only correspond loosely to Bozo’s movements, gentle suggestions rather than firm commands, and as I said earlier it’s a very convincing simulation of what it feels like trying to move when you’re drunk. There’s a delay before Bozo starts moving when you push the stick, and once you let go he’ll keep tottering forward for a while. His walk loops and circles around the screen like an overexcited bumblebee, the player frantically hauling the stick around as Bozo lurches towards a policeman or a hole. If he walks to close to a wall or other obstacle, he’ll bounce off it and stagger away in the opposite direction. It’s all absolutely ridiculous, and also rather good fun.


It might seem hypocritical to me to say I’m enjoying a game because it’s controls are uncooperative, because I so often complain about the handling in other games. The thing is, in Bozo’s Night Out the controls are supposed to be bad. That’s the entire point of the game, and it’s all presented in a comical fashion. The idea of a game getting more difficult as it goes on because the controls are getting worse and worse is an interesting one, and Bozo’s Night Out finds the perfect setting for it – a short, arcade-style game with one central gameplay mechanic.
Also, as you can see above, Bozo has started seeing pink elephants. He’s nearing the end of his quest, you see. If you manage to drink sixty-five pints – an extremely difficult task, given that by this point you have about as much control over Bozo as you do over the weather – the game is over. And what do you win for your efforts?


The Bozo Rotten Liver Award. Yes, this is a game where your reward for completing it is being added to the waiting list for a liver transplant. How incredibly grim, and yet also blackly hilarious.


If you manage to get a high score, you’re prompted to enter your name into the high score table. It’s full of beer-related pun names, and rather wonderfully it’s called The Famous League of Inebriates, which sounds like the name of a truly awful superhero team.  Yes, the League of Inebriates, featuring such mighty heroes as The Pisshead, with the power to harass people at bus stops, Pukespreader, the man who can lay magical land-mines cunningly disguised as piles of vomit and dropped cartons of chips and White Lightning, who was kicked out of the group for luring teenagers into playgrounds at night.


You know, I had a lot of fun playing Bozo’s Night Out. It’s not the deepest game in the world – you’ll probably be bored of it after half an hour or so – but when you play it like you would an arcade game, aiming for a high score and having a chuckle as Bozo rolls along the walls like your nan after one too many Christmas sherries, it’s good fun. It also possesses that “why the hell not?” attitude so prevalent amongst home computer games of the time, when any topic or concept was fair game for a videogame adaptation, be it getting tanked up, lawnmower simulation or fighting the cigarette industry. Happily, with more indie games than ever being released these days it’s a trend that’s seeing a resurgence, and the concept of Bozo’s Night Out would fit in nicely on Steam. Imagine if someone made an updated VR version, people would be all over it. Try it out if you get a chance, then. I’m glad I did. I’m also glad I got though this article without once misspelling his name as “Boozo,” because that sounds like a clown that reeks of gin.

20/03/2017

MENACE BEACH (NES)

Having recently experienced something dangerously close to fun while writing about Recalhorn and Bloodborne, I realise that a thorough bout of purifying self-flagellation is in order. Something painful, something viciously unpleasant, something that’s not just really bad but makes you wonder if the people who made it had ever played a videogame before. Oh, I know, let’s have an unlicensed NES game! They’re almost always bloody awful, and today’s game is no exception: it’s Color Dreams’ 1990 why-do-I-do-this-to-myself-em-up Menace Beach!


Oh, I see, you’ve gone for the “extremely unappealing mutant homunculus” look for your main character. A bold choice, admittedly, but one that I don’t think has really panned out. I don’t want to control this kid and experience his wacky adventures, I want to find very large paper bag to put over his distended cranium. Then set the bag on fire. Why has he got slitted cat’s pupils? I have to ask, because having played through the game as this weirdo I can assure you he does not have the heightened agility and reactions of a human-cat hybrid.
Also, I didn’t realise the game’s title was a play on “Venice Beach” until well after I’d finished it. If you saw me in real life – pale and blinking in the light like some troglodytic mole -  you’d immediately understand that I’m not the kind of person who knows about beaches, even famous ones.


When it comes to plot, Menace Beach goes for the tried-and-tested “kidnapped girlfriend” angle. Ignore for the moment that the likelihood of that thing from the title screen going out on the town with a girl and not being banished to a circus sideshow is vanishingly small. This is Bunny, and she’s been abducted and chained up by someone, somewhere. She’s sending out mixed messages about the severity of her situation -  casual disappointment that her date at the “malt shop” has been cancelled, a pun about being “tied up” and finally the subtle threat of violence if I don’t get my skates on and rescue her. And when I say “get my skates on,” I mean…


...get my skateboard on. That’s you, the player character, riding that skateboard. I believe his name is Scooter. I’m guessing it’s an ironic nickname because he really likes skateboards. He likes skateboards so much, in fact, that he spends the entire game riding one. Immediately it becomes clear that Menace Beach is going to be a real test of patience, because it’s a platformer where the main character has wheels. Do these wheels make him slide around all over the place in a manner that would not effect a more sensible, shoe-based platforming star? They most certainly do, and it is dreadful. Imagine a game designer thinking “hey, the kids sure love those ice levels where your character has friction of a knob of butter on a ski jump, so let’s make an entire game that handles like that!” I’m not even off Menace Beach’s first screen and I already hate it.


Then you’re attacked by ninjas. Good old ninjas. Rarely have I taken such an immediate dislike to a game’s protagonist, but as much as I’m rooting for the ninjas to win I’ve committed myself to playing through this game so I’d better beat them up. As well as jumping and sliding off whatever platform you were trying to land on, Scooter can also punch his enemies while he’s on the ground, or he can jump and use a far more effective spinning kick / skateboard clobber attack.
The screen stops scrolling until you defeat the mysterious shadow warrior, which is a shame because I’d have been quite happy to skate past them and on to the end of the stage, but they’re not too difficult to dispatch once you’ve got the hang of the spinning attack’s trajectory. In fact, I would recommend taking some time to get a good feel for the spinning attack, because not only is it good for defeating the bad guys, it also adds a little extra horizontal distance to your jumps, something which comes in very useful in later stages. Not in this first stage, though, because it’s just a flat plane patrolled by ninjas with one rooftop you can jump up to for an energy refill.


That’s pretty much it for the first stage. Move forward, spin-kick a ninja, move on to the next screen, repeat. They’re terrible ninjas, let’s be honest. Plus they remind me of Zool, who at least has the excuse of being from the Nth Dimension to explain why he doesn’t understand the concept of stealthy assassinations.


Also, clowns. Sure, why not. It makes more sense that the clowns would want to harm a child than the ninjas, because they’re clowns.


When you reach the end of the level – I know it says “world” up at the top but I don’t feel comfortable referring to something five screens long as a world – Scooter turns to face the camera and flips the player the ol’ double-bird. This seems like the perfect representation of the experience of playing Menace Beach.


“Meanwhile at Demon Dan’s” it says, so I guess Bunny has been kidnapped by someone called Demon Dan. He sounds like a used car salesman from Texas. “C’mon down to Demon Dan’s! We’ve got hellish hatchbacks, sinful sedans and pick-up trucks desanctified by the blood of a slaughtered goat, all at prices so low you’ll renounce the works of Christ the Saviour!”
As for Bunny, she’s not happy. In fact, she’s really angry that I haven’t saved her yet. I think the word “ungrateful” is what I’m looking for here. C’mon, lady, I’ve only just finished the first stage, so don’t call my masculinity into question. Also I’m playing as a child, telling him he’s not man enough is likely to cause some unfortunate psychological damage.


Stage two takes place in the sewers, where there’s more emphasis on platforms and zero ninjas. Don’t get too excited, though: the ninjas have merely been replaced by an army of Elvis impersonators that judder and flap around the screen in a way that makes a mockery of the grace and dignity of Elvis’ seventies jumpsuit phase.


Then I bumped into a lightswitch and everything went dark. On the plus side I can’t see as much of the game now, but it is making an already frustrating game that much more likely to make me feed my controller into a woodchipper. It’s a strange sort of selective darkness, too, and you can still see the various moving elements of the stage. The thin horizontal white lines are springboards that launch Scooter into the air if he rides over them. The thing at the bottom-left that looks like a tiny corridor leading to a distant light that might offer escape from this misery is actually a spinning… thing that launches Scooter horizontally if he touches it. The frog is a frog. So, what we’ve got here is a level in a videogame that already suffers from poor controls, a level that’s packed with obstacles that further reduce the amount of control you have over your character, a level that’s pitch-black, a level that I would use only mild hyperbole to describe as The Absolute Worst. That is, until you reach some of the sewer stages later in the game which take the same concept and ramp up the difficulty significantly.


Having managed to turn the lights back on, I can now see that there are bombs all over the stage. These bombs become more important later, but for now just know that Scooter can pick them up and throw them, being caught in the blast radius results in immediate death and one of the Elvises wandered too close to one of them and now they’re scouring an area the size of Kent in an attempt to find all his body parts.


Things are not going well for Bunny. Not only is she still chained up and is lashing out at Scooter in impotent rage, but things have taken a creepily sexual turn as her clothes begin to rot off. Hang on, rot off? She’s only been kidnapped for five minutes. What are her clothes made of, stale bread and chicken skin?


It’s back to the surface world for the next stage, where Menace Beach introduces the fearsome sumo warriors. I assume they’re sumos, anyway. You see a fat bloke in a loincloth and your mind immediately goes to sumos, but there’s no other Japanese theme to this game so maybe it’s just a fat bloke in a loincloth. Whoever they are, they really don’t like Scooter (understandable) and will attempt to murder him at any opportunity. They are, to be blunt, a real pain in the arse. They can only be killed by bombs, so you have to grab the bombs that are thrown on to the screen and try to put them somewhere near where the sumo might be at some point and hope. The sumos wander around, not really chasing you but never really leaving you alone either, and between their random wanderings, the fact that a misplaced bomb will kill Scooter in one hit, Scooter’s inability to place or throw the bombs like you’d expect from a normal human person with working arms and their highly damaging attacks, the sumos quickly became the bane of any Menace Beach player’s existence. Oh, and you have to defeat them of you can’t move on. They’re the supermarket own-brand version of Red Arremer from Ghouls n’ Ghosts, except designed without any finesse or charm or fairness, and I hate them. They appear in almost every stage from here on out, too. Fantastic.


More sewers, more sumos, more spinning things that slap the player around the stage. That tiny yellow square is a piston that pushes “out” of the background, poking into Scooter when he rides past and knocking him down to the lower platform. I’ve got to go down there anyway so I can kill that sumo, but I’d like to do it in my own time, you know?


The next stage takes place on a pier, down in the town’s crate district. It’s where they keep all the crates, you see, and also the quarantine zone for the ‘roided-out bodybuilders that replace the ninjas in these seafront stage. They’re pretty much the same as the other above-ground levels, only more annoying because sometimes a seagull will pick Scooter up and carry him back towards the beginning of the stage. These stages do at least contain the one single element of Menace Beach that made me smile – these people who pop out the crates and throw projectiles at Scooter. It’s the face that does it: no matter what the quality of the surrounded game, an expression of such pure goofiness is always going to cheer me right up. Yes, even if they are trying to bottle me like I’m 50 Cent at the Reading Festival. Supposedly Scooter can catch those bottles and throw them at the bad guys, but I’ve gotta say I never bothered. Having spent some time trying to get Scooter to simply move from one place to another, I didn’t fancy testing his dexterity against a glass bottle to the face.


The rest of Menace Beach’s dozen or so stages (aside from the final one) are all variants on these three locales, with the amount of frustrating bullshit ramped up accordingly as the game progresses. To call it “level design” would be woefully inaccurate – it’s more like someone loaded the game’s various enemies and traps into a firehose and blasted it all over the same three generic backgrounds. Menace Beach does get harder as it goes on, but more than that it get more irritating. If the concept of a hangover was adapted into a videogame, this would be it.


I have also come to realise that Bunny hasn’t been kidnapped, and that this is all part of her and Scooter’s kinky BDSM sex games – with a hint of a cuckoldry fetish thrown in, if her warning about Demon Dan preparing to “tickle” her are anything to go by. That’s fine, you can get up to whatever depraved nastiness you like in your spare time but don’t drag me into, all right?


So, did anything else of note happen during the game? Well, there was this time I found a balloon that let me fly over almost an entire stage, removing the need to actually play Menace Beach. That was nice. I enjoyed that bit.


Not so enjoyable was this section during one of the pier stages where I had to try to defeat a sumo while negotiating the small platforms – and just let me remind you, Scooter is still riding a skateboard. The bombs you need are located a couple of platforms away so you have to try to grab them without exploding, drag them over the sumo and throw them down one at a time. It took absolutely bloody ages. I could feel myself becoming a worse person each time I tried it. It’s a good job I don’t own a dog because after thirty attempts at this crap I would have kicked it across the room. No, no, I’m kidding. I would never do that, I love dogs. In fact, maybe a dog is just what I should have had to get through this section. If I could have stroked a puppy after each failed attempt, my blood pressure would be significantly lower.
The “best” thing about this section is that there’s a hole in the platform, and the sumo has no qualms about running off the edge and into the sea to avoid your bombs. This does not kill the sumo, it simply reappears to block your path. If you asked Sisyphus if he wanted to trade his task for this one, he’d say “nah, I’ll stick with the boulder, thanks.” At least that way he’s getting some healthy exercise.


God damn, I love these balloons. See you later, you ketchup-throwing piece of crap.


Unfortunately, there was no balloon available for this section. You’ve got to jump from platform to platform, yeah? But as you can see, there are no platforms available, just the open ocean. It’s a gap of about three screens, and I could not for the life of me figure out how to cross it. I think it’s something to do with finding the right rhythm of jumping, doing a spin-kick and then jumping again to maintain a certain level of horizontal movement that will get you over the gap, but I simply could not do it. Dozens of times I saw the platform I was heading for at the edge of the screen, only for Scooter to fall short. I probably spent more time trying to jump over this sodding gap than I did playing the rest of the game put together. I tried every possible variation of button pressing speed and take-off positions. I looked up video footage of someone else clearing the jump to try and figure out what I was doing wrong. None of it worked. I didn’t suffer through ten stages of Menace Beach’s insufferable bullshit just to be defeated by a large puddle, though, so I reset the game and used a level-skip cheat.


Menace Beach mocks you for using cheats, but maybe if its gameplay wasn’t so shit I wouldn’t have needed to resort to cheating? I feel confident that I have won the moral victory here.


Bunny is down to her underwear now, which conveniently is much more resistant to rotting than her other clothes. She’s also toned down her furious wrath towards Scooter, perhaps because she’s realised that he might actually reach her and if she keeps on calling him things like “dog breath” and “snotface” he might be inclined to leave her to Demon Dan’s tender affections.


This is the final stage, and it’s actually different to all the others! “Thank god for that,” I thought to myself with some trepidation, but it turns out it’s not even that bad! It’s pure platforming, and Scooter must get through the cave as fast as possible because every time he lands from a jump, a stalactite falls from the ceiling at the point where he landed. It’s nothing amazing, and it certainly doesn’t redeem the rest of the game, but the fact that you’re always moving forwards makes Scooter’s lack of friction less of an issue so you end up with a relatively tolerable section of platforming action. In most other NES platformers it would be completely unremarkable, but Menace Beach hasn’t so much lowered my expectations as it has sealed them in a lead casket and dropped them into the Marianas Trench.


It’s time for the final boss and hang on a minute, Demon Dan is an actual demon? A full-on goat-legged, pitchfork-waving servant of evil? I was expecting a Dick Dastardly type, not Satan Himself. Also, I don’t want to defeat Demon Dan. Look at him, he appears to be using his pitchfork as a pretend guitar while doing a duck walk. I bet he’s singing some AC/DC, so all told I felt kind of bad for jumping around to cause stalactites to fall on his head. Get ten or so rocks to fall onto Dan’s bonce and that’s it, Menace Beach is finally over and we can all move on with our lives.


In the ending, Bunny and Scooter go out for frosty chocolate milkshakes. Bunny appears to be significantly older than Scooter, to the extent that if I ran this malt shop I’d be calling the police. Mind you, she was chained up for quite a while, so maybe she’s simply been stretched so much that she’s ended up taller.


Oh, and Demon Dan pops out of a manhole and throws a skateboard onto the screen in the least convincing and least welcome sequel hook I’ve ever seen. Okay, second least, because I’ve seen Silent Hill: Revelation.
I usually do my best to give every game I write about a fair chance, because making a videogame is a difficult process that many people have worked hard on, but there was something about Menace Beach that made me take an instant dislike to it and the rest of the game never did anything to change my opinion. The controls are awful, the levels are awkward messes of lumped-together elements and frustrating, impossible to avoid hazards, it’s repetitive and it’s just not any fun to play. I don’t think it’s quite objectionable enough to get into my all-time top five worst games ever, but I hate it with a pure, unclouded venom nonetheless. Don’t play Menace Beach, is what I’m saying.
Before I leave this article behind, two quick notes: I found out after I’d finished the game that you can detonate any bombs you’ve thrown by pressing the select button. That sounds like it would have made fighting the sumos much less painful, and it does but only by a tiny amount because you’ve still got to grab a bomb and plant it correctly in the first place.
The other thing is that, in 1995, Menace Beach was reborn anew. Wisdom Tree, the Christian games company that was founded by members of Color Dreams, took Menace Beach, changed the graphics a little and re-released it as the God-friendly Sunday Funday. This version is about a kid who’s trying to get to Sunday school. Funnily enough, the scenes of Bunny chained up in her underwear are replaced by a Sunday school teacher (who is not chained up in her underwear). The sumos are also changed to equally large but more casually-dressed regular citizens, because I guess the ancient Japanese sport is judged to be unclean in the eyes of the Lord or something. Sunday Funday ends with the line “Sunday is a fun day when you spend it at church.” I sincerely doubt that any of the kids whose parents bought them Sunday Funday were convinced by this argument.

16/03/2017

EPHEMERA: BLOODBORNE EDITION

It’s time for a brief break from retro games today, because I’ve been playing From Software’s Playstation 4 masterpiece Bloodborne again recently and now I want to talk about it. That’s one of the perks of having a videogame website, I can ramble on about Bloodborne without having to see the glassy stares and hear the disinterested “uh huh”-ing of people who have never played it and never will, once again proving that the internet is vastly superior to real-world human contact. So, it’s another edition of the Ephemera series, I suppose, although I’m gonna make a mockery of that name by talking about major game mechanics as well as small details. Of course, this article’s going to contain lots of spoilers for Bloodborne and its DLC, so if you want to experience it all for yourself then look away now, and if you're planning to play Bloodborne at some point I strongly suggest you do just that. Also, I hope you’re not squeamish about eyeballs.

Scenic Views

First up, something simple. I thought about what my favourite view in the game was. Now, Bloodborne is a beautiful-looking game packed with sinister, detailed-soaked architecture in a style I can only describe as Ultra-Gothic, and thus almost every location is worthy of praise. I’m especially fond of the haunted-village-meets-organ-farm feel of Hemwick Charnel Lane and the Research Hall’s towering maze. In the end, though, I settled on this.


This is the entrance to the Upper Cathedral Ward, and it’s just beautiful. The quasi-Victorian ironworks of the metal railings and the streetlights, looming towers, a fog-shrouded bridge that leads towards a mysterious building glowing faintly with a light that may seem almost welcoming but probably illuminates something that wants to use your spine as dental floss. There are many reasons why Bloodborne is an excellent game, but this aesthetic, this world, is what makes it a game that feels almost as thought it was designed specifically for me.


Also, I hope you appreciate that I took the time to nudge these two corpses into the corner so I could take the first screenshot without their mangled bodies making the place look untidy.

Selfies with Friends

As I’m sure many of you know, Bloodborne is a spin-off of the Dark Souls franchise, and in a lot of ways it’s a Dark Souls game in all but name (plus a change of setting from “medieval” fantasy to 19th Century horror themes.) One thing it took wholesale from the Souls games are the “gestures” - short canned animations that you can use to make your character point at things, wave hello, bow in greeting, that kind of thing. They’re mostly used for communicating with other players during online multiplayer. Pointing out traps, using the “slow clap” gesture when your co-operator walks into said trap, gestures are very helpful. Well, in Bloodborne there’s a gesture called Make Contact, where you stick one arm up and one arm out at ninety degrees. You pick this gesture up from a mummified corpse, who is standing in said pose, and it’s a prime opportunity for some photography.


Just look at the camaraderie on display here, my character’s arm draped across the shoulder of the corpse like they’re two lads staggering from bar to bar during a cheap holiday in Magaluf.


It wasn’t until I went through my Bloodborne screenshots in preparation for this article that I realised I’d posed with this corpse every single time I encountered it, and I’ve played through the game five or six times.


I started a tradition without even realising it. It’s nice that this evolved organically. You know, the, erm, corpse photoshoot. Nice might not be the word I’m looking for. Please tell me someone else has done this. It’s okay to be a weirdo, but not a lone weirdo.

Gun-Kata

The Dark Souls games are famed for being difficult, and so too is Bloodborne. A lot of this difficulty comes from the fact that almost everything in these games wants to make your innards outards, and will take any opportunity to kill you violently and with single-minded dedication. In the Dark Souls games, two of the ways you can defend yourself are by a) hiding behind a shield or b) parrying attacks by deflecting them with a shield and then getting a free attack while the enemy is stunned. However, there are no shields in Bloodborne. Well, okay, there’s one in the base game but it’s essentially useless and is basically included to tell you not to bother with shields (which is pretty great in itself). Instead, you can parry attacks by shooting the monsters in the face.


Dark Souls’s shield parry system is fine, but gun parries are much better for several reasons. For starters, it’s way cooler. Brushing aside an armoured knight’s blows with a shield is cool, sure, but not nearly as cool as stopping a werewolf in its tracks using a blunderbuss. I’ll admit that might be personal bias talking, though, and anyway I wouldn’t want to make such a claim of superiority without some gameplay evidence to back it up. So here it is: in Dark Souls, if you miss a parry you will to find out what it’s like to receive an impromptu root canal from a broadsword. This can discourage those of us with poor reactions, leading us to cower behind our shields and not even attempt to parry attacks. In Bloodborne, though, even if you don’t land the parry your gunfire will usually make the enemy flinch and interrupt their attack, so you miss the chance for a powerful visceral attack but you also don’t get torn to ribbons. This means you’re far more likely to attempt gun-parrying in the first place, and the fact that you can only carry a limited supply of ammunition means it’s not (entirely) feasible to simply hammer the fire button and hope for the best, retaining a suitable level of challenge.
Plus, you seem to be able to parry a higher percentage of enemy attacks in Bloodborne than in the Souls games. This is great, because part of my problem with parrying in Souls games is that you have to learn what attacks you can and can’t parry through trial, error and repeated death. In Bloodborne it all feels a bit more obvious, making for faster-paced combat where a well-timed gunshot can turn the flow of a fight.


As a bonus, here’s a clip of me parrying a boss so hard that he tried to flee back to his home planet.

The Rocks That I’ve Got

One of the items you can collect in Bloodborne are pebbles. That’s not a cutesy nickname or anything, they’re just small rocks. You can throw them at enemies, and they’re best used to get the attention of a single enemy in a group so they’ll run towards you, letting you fight them one-on-one. Then there’s the pebbles’ item description, which contains some of the densest, thickest sarcasm I’ve ever seen in a videogame.


“Quite thrilling” makes me chuckle every time I read it, possibly because I always imagine it being said by a stuffy English professor from the 1930s. The thing is, when you are throwing pebble at a half-transformed man-beast and you do get its attention, that is actually quite thrilling. There are thrills to be had as the ravenous beast realises you’re there and tries to eviscerate you, that’s for sure.


The pebbles also do a teeny tiny bit of damage when they hit an enemy, so if you’re feeling particularly bold – or you forget what item you have equipped and accidentally chuck a pebble rather than the molotov cocktail you were trying to throw, ahem ahem – then you can even take out enemies by flicking bits of gravel at them. That might seem like a terrible idea, but wait: the damage dealt by the pebbles actually increases as you raise your Strength stat! Skipping rocks at the beginning of the game might only cause one or two points of damage, but if you levelled up and invest heavily in Strength then by the end of the game you can be dishing out five or six points of damage with every pebble!

“Speyeders” Would Be The Obvious Pun

While blood is the central theme and driving force of Bloodborne’s plot, eyeballs run it a close second. Yes, eyeballs are very important in the world of Bloodborne, particularly in that certain groups attempt to “see” the true mysteries of the universe by growing more eyeballs. This is an effective strategy, apparently, even though you wouldn’t think it would work. If I want to run faster, growing seventeen more legs is not going to help, you know? Fresh eyeballs are also needed to perform certain blasphemous rituals, to the extent that you can be attacked by enemies with a special tool designed solely for gouging out eyeballs. Have another look at the pebble pictured above, and you’ll see it looks like an eyeball, and so on. Eyeballs are everywhere in Bloodborne, something which is literally true when you reach the Nightmare of Mensis area.


They’re coming, as the late, great Bill Paxton once said, out of the goddamn walls. Here in this alternate universe, the books and magazines browse you! Personally, these eyes are all the more unnerving for the fact they don’t really do anything. They’re simply there, unmoving and silent, possibly dead but also possibly seeing all kinds of things beyond the ken of man.


Then you’ve got these things. Eyeball spiders, I guess you’d call them. The legs imply that they were once mobile, and I think we can all agree that replacing a spider’s body with an eyeball significantly increases the creepiness of said spider, so I hope this image doesn’t give you eye-rachnophobia. Ha ha! Ha…
I’m sorry.
Anyway, these things are wonderful. They’re pure decoration, a mood enhancer, an unsettling thing to see out of the corner of your eye, and one of the reasons they're so great is that they’re not explained at all. You can infer how they came into being from the place you find them and what was going on there, but you’re never told what they are or why they seem to be pinned to the floor with weird organic needles. This is an example of one of Bloodborne’s greatest strengths – it’s a game that takes inspiration from Lovecraft and other cosmic horror, but it never makes the mistake of over-explaining itself. It gives you enough info to get an idea – a startling, horrifying idea – of what’s going on, but many of the specifics are never filled in, giving you the chance to ponder these secrets and develop your own theories. This is true of all the Souls games, as you can see by the large cottage industry of internet videomakers and message boards dedicated to analysing the lore of these games, but for my money Bloodborne is the game where the tension between mystery and fact is most finely balanced.

The Host With the Most

In the same area as the eyeball spiders, you’ll find a boss called Micolash, Host of the Nightmare. I think that means “host” in the sense that one hosts a party, because Micolash certainly seems like he’s having a good time.


What a cheerful chap! Micolash is an interesting boss, because unlike all the other bosses in the game he doesn’t immediately set about trying to kill you when the fight begins. Instead, you have to chase him through a maze, avoiding the skeletal puppet monsters littering the corridors and tracking Micolash down when he teleports around by jumping into various mirrors. Eventually you’ll corner him and you can have a proper scrap, but this completely different style of boss battle seems to upset a lot of people. Many will claim that Micolash is the worst boss fight in the game, which I don’t think it is, but hey, that’s your opinion and I’ll concede that it might not be as exciting as doing battle with enormous were-beasts. Some people also insist that Micolash is the worst boss in the entire Souls series, but in that case they’re objectively wrong, having seemingly forgotten about the intense dullness of the Dragonrider in Dark Souls II, or the utter fun vacuum /  bullshit generator that was Dark Souls’ Bed of Chaos.


Consider this my defence of Micolash, then, because I think this boss battle is really good. It’s a nice change of pace for starters, completely different to every other boss fight in the game, and it’s good to mix things up. The best thing about it is the atmosphere, though. As Micolash runs around he’s constantly jabbering away, spouting a mixture of interesting lore details, mockery and the howling of a madman, as befits someone who performed an arcane ritual that drove him insane and sent him to another dimension. His voice acting is fantastic, too, his dialogue dripping with the conviction that comes from being totally bonkers, coupled with just a hint of pure comedy. You get the impression that Micolash, despite clearly being nuttier than a bag of trail mix, does genuinely have a deeper understanding of the universe than the player does, which fits in perfectly with Bloodborne’s themes of being thrust into world of forces beyond your comprehension. I’ll admit that mechanically the fight has some problems, especially if you die near the end and have to chase Micolash right through the maze again, but for sheer ambience alone it remains one of my favourite parts of the game.

Millinery

You may have noticed that Micolash appears to have his head stuck in an oversized bird feeder. That’s called the Mensis Cage, and one of your rewards for defeating him is that you can take the cage for yourself. Oh yes, just like the other games in the Souls series, Bloodborne is not afraid to give the player a selection of goofy hats to wear. Here are my top three favourite goofy hats in Bloodborne.


Number three is the Mensis Cage itself. Supposedly acting as an antenna to facilitate contact with the god-like beings known as the Great Ones, it also allows the wearer to experience life as a pet canary. Good for headbutting contests, bad for wearing during thunderstorms.


Number two is the One-Eyed Iron Helm (or the Master’s Iron Helm, depending how you acquire it), which is a bucket with one eye hole drilled into it. That’s it. It’s as though Ned Kelly got distracted halfway through making it. The helmet’s description says it only has one eye hole because the original owner likely only had one eye, but that’s no bloody good to me, is it? It’s hard enough to kill all these beasts without having to squint like Popeye the whole time. There are multiple places in Bloodborne called “workshops,” and you’re telling me none of them had a suitable drill for making a new eye-hole? The One-Eyed Iron Helm is completely ridiculous, and that’s why I love it.


My absolute favourite is the majestic shining traffic cone that is the Gold Ardeo. If Pyramid Head had the wealth and taste of a Premier League footballer, this is what he’s look like. No eye-holes is even more ridiculous and thus more appealing than one eye-hole, and the first time I played through Bloodborne I never took this helmet off once I’d bought it. It even wobbles around when you run, as you’d expect a cone perched on someone’s head would. How perfect. All I can say in defence of its design is that it’s the helmet of the Executioners, who did battle with a group of pseudo-vampires led by a charismatic queen. Maybe they wore these helmets to prevent themselves being captivated by the vampire’s bewitching stares. Then again, rather than using swords and guns the Executioners killed all the vampires with massive wooden wagon wheels, so perhaps practicality is not their strongest suit.

Nightmare Pork

Going back to eyeballs for a moment, and one of the enemies you encounter now and again in Bloodborne are giant pigs. There’s one in the first area, a few more in the woods, and you can find them in the optional Chalice Dungeons. Apart from being taller than a man and unpleasantly bloated even by pig standards, they’re just pigs.


See? There’s one now. It’s a pig, but larger. This is one of the final areas of the game, and when I reached this point during my first playthrough I was more than confident about my ability to defeat the same old oversized pig. So I ran up to it, hoping to land a critical blow while its back was turned…


At which point it turned around, revealing that its face was a mass of writhing eyeballs. I was so shocked by this – shocked enough to let out an audible gasp – that the pig was able to trample me to death while I was distracted. Good job, From Software. You totally got me.

This Message I Saw One Time


Immature? Yes. Did I laugh out loud? Yes. Did I rate the message as a “fine note”? Of course I did, I’m only human. I’d like to believe that whoever left this note was in the middle of a difficult boss battle when I gave their message a positive rating, and that the resulting health refill they got saved their life. Rescued from death by a joke about butts, what a wonderful concept.

Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom

And finally for this article – the Boom Hammer weapon’s jumping attack.


For the most part, Bloodborne is a game of subtlety and precision, but sometimes you just want to leap into a crowd of enemies and smash them with a massive fiery hammer. You can do that too. “No mercy for beasts” indeed.

So, that’s a bunch of words about Bloodborne. If you read them all, thank you very much. I had fun writing them. Almost as much fun as I get out of playing Bloodborne, in fact – but not quite, so now I’m going to head back into the Chalice Dungeons for a while. If you summon a collaborator called Slab Beefbroth who’s carrying a circular saw on a stick, be sure to use a friendly Make Contact gesture.

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