18/05/2017

DEATH STAR INTERCEPTOR (ZX SPECTRUM)

Two articles in a row about ancient ZX Spectrum games? Oh, but I do spoil you people. Today’s game also raises an interesting question: namely, when is a licensed game not a licensed game? Well, let’s find out with Software Conversion’s 1985 legal-minefield-em-up Death Star Interceptor!


“System 3 Software Presents: TEXT, the All-Typographical Adventure!”
Clearly the most immediately striking part of this image is, you know, the Death Star. The Death Star from Star Wars, except this isn’t a Star Wars game, except it is a Star Wars game. It’s kind of confusing, like seeing the Death Star hovering ominously close to the Earth. Not a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, then? No, the Death Star is close enough to our humble sphere that the human race will be temporarily distracted from listening to Duran Duran and perming their hair, or whatever went on in 1985. But that is unequivocally the Death Star from Star Wars, and the premise of this game is that you’ll be flying a spaceship with X-shaped wings on a mission to destroy it, which makes the part of this opening text that claims the game is based on an “original idea” seem rather cheeky.
What you may notice, however, is that there’s a credit for John Williams and Warner Bros. for use of the Star Wars theme music - and only the music. More on that in a while.


Just to re-confirm how much of a Star Wars game this is, here’s the default high score table. I have to take issue with this: I know he’s an astromech droid, but there’s no way R2D2 is a better pilot on Chewbacca. Also, good work using the wrong “role” there, chaps.


So the high score table is a clear indication of Death Star Interceptor’s Star Wars roots, but the game’s “Mission Briefing” - as well as the blurb on the back of the game’s cassette inlay – assiduously avoid mentioning any trademark Star Wars terms and phrases apart from "Death Star". The X-Wing is now “StarFighter One,” the Rebel Alliance are the Earth Defence Council and the plot provided tells the story of an evil empire that requires humanoid slaves to work in their mines, extracting a precious substance called “Aix” that prolongs life-spans but is also extremely dangerous and causes mutations, so Death Star Interceptor has managed to rip off a little bit of Dune as well.


Here is the cover art itself. That’s no moon, it’s a space station! And also the moon. Again, it does feel very strange to see Star Wars playing out near planet Earth. Earth must be a very confusing place for Star Wars characters, what with it not being an entire planet made of deserts or jungles or ice. As you can see there’s no actual mention of Star Wars, but that is one hundred percent an X-Wing down there. I might be labouring the point, but the amount of effort that’s gone into keeping this game balanced on a knife-edge of Star Wars / Not Star Wars is genuinely fascinating to me.



The copyright notices on the title screen were true, and John William’s Star Wars theme does indeed appear in the game, playing if you leave the game on the title screen for too long as some kind of aural punishment for not starting the action quickly enough. Despite sounding as though it’s being played on an ambulance siren, I suppose as far as ZX Spectrum music goes it’s not too bad – and it’s recognisable as the Star Wars theme, at least – but then you get to that final drawn-out note and your ears shrivel up and die like a salted slug. While I was editing this music ready for upload, I forgot I’d left the game running in the background until theme started playing while I was listening to the captured audio. Trust me, hearing two instances of this music playing at once and not in sync is a sonic experience you do not forget in a hurry (more’s the pity).


Okay, I’ve put it off long enough, I should probably play the actual game. Death Star Interceptor is divided into three sections, of which this is the first – the take-off. You’re controlling the X-Wing – sorry, StarFighter One – at the bottom of the screen, and your goal is to fly through the very centre of the rings at the top of the screen. Sounds easy enough, right? You pull back on the joystick, the game emits a sound effect akin to Mechagodzilla’s cries of pain after stubbing his toe, and your ship takes to the skies!


Except once it’s moving, the X-Wing randomly wobbles from side to side, often veering all the way over to the far side of the screen. So, you have to use left and right to nudge this buckin’ space bronco back on course, something that’s easier said than done when the target you’re aiming for – the dot in the very centre of the “space gate” - is so goddamn small. If you miss your target, your X-Wing somehow manages to crash into thin air, and you lose a shield. It’s the 8-bit computer game equivalent of trying to guide an extremely drunk friend to their bed, except you don’t even get the reward of photos for future blackmail purposes, just more uninspiring gameplay.


If and when you manage to take off successfully, Death Star Interceptor moves into stage two. You’re flying towards the distant Death Star, while being attacked by the Empire’s space fleet. TIE Fighters fly in from the top of the screen, and you can shoot them. You don’t have to shoot them but you can. On the easiest difficulty setting the enemy ships don’t even fire back, they just try to ram into you. It’s Space Invaders, essentially – although thinking about it, the TIE Fighters’ swooping movement patterns make it feel a bit more like Galaga.


As simple as it sounds, there are a few problems that make DSI’s space combat sections a real chore. The first is that you can only fire one projectile at a time, and your lasers only disappear if you hit something or they fly off the top of the screen. As you can see, you’re often facing multiple TIE Fighters at once, so a missed shot means you’re completely defenceless while you wait for your unfathomably slow laser beams to make it off the screen. The simple inclusion of a rapid-fire weapon into DSI’s gameplay would drastically improve the entire game without making it too easy – there are still a lot of enemy ships, and you can only fire forwards or at a forty-five degree diagonal if you shoot while moving left or right. There is no rapid-fire option, though, and so the combat feels dull and frustrating.


The other thing is the controls. I’ll say this for them, they’re sharp and responsive and you know where your ship is going to be once you’ve used them. On a technical level they’re fine. However, they’re laid out with “aeroplane” controls – that is, you pull back on the joystick to “climb” and push forwards to “dive.” This is all well and good in a more three-dimensional flight game, an Afterburner or a Star Fox, but DSI takes place on a flat black plane with no illusion of depth so it doesn’t feel like your altitude is changing at all. You’re just moving forward and backwards, except you have to push up to move backwards and down to go forwards. You might not have a problem with this, but my brain could just not figure this out at all, so I crashed a lot because I foolishly pressed up to move my ship up the screen.
Oh, and then there’s the noise the TIE Fighters make. You know how in the Star Wars movies, TIE Fighters emit a roaring scream as they fly by? Now imagine that sound as produced by a ZX Spectrum. Yeah. Now stop imagining it, I don’t want you getting upset.


However, all these problems (well, apart from the sound effects) can be negated by this one simple tactic: if you park your X-Wing in the bottom-right corner, nothing can hit you and you can fly to the Death Star unimpeded. Sure, you won’t get a high score, but what’s more important – your personal glory or saving the Earth, you arrogant fool?


Having survived the journey to the Death Star, we’re now into DSI’s final section: the trench run itself. I’m still amazed the game’s creators got away with this, with my only explanation being that Lucasfilm’s lawyers had bigger fish to fry than small British games developers. And they even licensed the music! That must have been an interesting phone call.
“Let me get this straight, you want the license to use the Star Wars theme music, but you’re not making a Star Wars game?”
“That’s correct.”
“So what is your game about?”
“Well, it’s about a war amongst the stars. A plucky pilot must destroy a huge planet-smashing space station by flying down its equatorial trench and firing a missile into its exhaust port.”
“I see. And what’s the name of this space station?”
“The Death Star.”
“The Death Star?”
“Yep, the Death Star. It’s based on an original idea we definitely had.”
“Well, in that case, I don’t see any problems. Good luck with your game!”


As for the trench run gameplay itself, it’s pretty similar to the previous section but with more emphasis on avoiding things. This is especially true of these laser beams that stretch across the trench, and you must slalom your way between them to avoid taking damage. “Hold on,” you might think, (as I did,) “if I can control my ship’s altitude then maybe I can fly underneath the laser beams? It didn’t work in space, but it might here because things are a bit more three-dimensional.” So you push forwards to lower your ship’s nose and descend and… nothing happens. During these laser-grid sections, the game completely disables your ability to move your ship up and down, presumably in a vain attempt to maintain the illusion that you can control your altitude during the other sections. It’s even mentioned in the game’s instruction in bare-faced “we locked your controls for this section” kind of way.  How wonderful.


The real danger of the trench section comes from the wall-mounted turrets. They fire horizontally, and very quickly, making them especially difficult to avoid. You can technically destroy them, but they generally come in pairs with one on either wall, so the odds of blowing them both up before they shoot you are slim to none. One saving grace is that DSI is quite generous when it comes to the amount of damage you can take: you start with four lives and for each life your ship has five shields, so you can take a bit of punishment before hitting the Game Over screen. Most Spectrum games would let you take three hits, tops.


We’re coming up to the end now, and the exhaust port is in sight! What do you mean you can’t see it? It’s right there! You know, the four-pixel-wide oval in the middle of the floor!


Look, here it is a bit closer up. Of course, if the exhaust port is this close to you and you haven’t shot it already, it’s too late. If you do manage to fly past your target without hitting it, the level actually loops around and you’ll get another chance eventually. I missed the bloody thing multiple times, so I have to image the Not Luke Skywalker flying this ship, repeatedly hurtling around the Death Star’s equator ike my nan trying to drive off a roundabout while ruing the fact he didn’t pay attention when that old bloke with the beard was banging on about some kind of force.


I eventually managed to stay on target long enough to deposit the payload, and with that Death Star Interceptor is complete. On the easiest difficulty and after basically skipping the entire second section by hiding in the corner, anyway. You see all these single pixels? Most of them are stars, but one of them is slowly moving from left to right, so I assume that’s meant to be your ship escaping from the imminent explosion.


At least I hope it was, otherwise our hero has been blasted into atomic dust. God speed, bootleg Star Wars man. May your merchandising potential generate billions of dollars of revenue per year forever more.


Aside from its wonderfully entertaining attempts to pretend it isn’t a Star Wars game, is there anything about Death Star Interceptor that makes it worth bothering with? Yes and no. It’s not as bad as perhaps I’ve made it sound, with solid collision detection, good controls (aside from the up / down layout) and a perfectly acceptable core set of gameplay mechanics – I mean it’s hard to mess up the standard Space Invaders-style gameplay, although DSI gives it a good try. It’s one of those games that’s frustrating to play because it’s a whisker away from being a much more enjoyable experience – the addition of a faster-firing, less pathetic main weapon and the removal of the TIE Fighter sound effects would go a long, long way towards making his game something you could spend a fun half-hour with. As it stands, though, DSI is the videogame equivalent of knockoff “Space Wars” action figure from Poundland: that badly-painted Dark Father toy with bendy lightsaber might be amusingly dumb for five minutes, but it’s still a cheap piece of tat.

16/05/2017

SABRINA (ZX SPECTRUM)

The topic of today’s article? Smut, plain and simple. The ever-popular combination of sex and violence comes to the ZX Spectrum with Spanish developer Genesis Soft’s 1989 breast-em-up (and that ain’t a Freudian slip) Sabrina!

Here’s Sabrina’s loading screen, and in the interests of keeping the site relatively family-friendly VGJunk’s unofficial site mascot Satan Goat is pulling double duty as a censor bar. I reckon the breasts on the poster in the background are fine because the nipples are just one pixel, but that’s not the case with Sabrina herself. Let’s just say she should probably go up a bra size or two, because she’s spilling out of the one she’s wearing now.
Aside from that, I rather like this title screen. Sure, Sabrina might have the shoulders of a rugby forward, but apart from that it’s pretty good. A nicely detailed face and a background showing a charming Mediterranean town, all captured in black and white so you’re not subjected to the Spectrum’s occasionally retina-searing range of colours.
As well as this… engaging image, Sabrina’s title screen also features some digitised speech! That’s always impressive to hear coming out of a ZX Spectrum. Okay, maybe not always impressive, because I think Sabrina has the worst digitised speech I’ve ever heard in a computer game. I had to listen to it a dozen times before I realised it was saying “Genesis Soft presenta Sabrina,” because it sounds like Stephen Hawking being slowly fed into a rusty woodchipper.


It turns out that the eponymous Sabrina is not a character created for the game and she is, in fact, based on a real person. Specifically, you’re playing as Italian beauty pageant winner turned pop star Sabrina Salerno. As she was an Italian pop star in the mid to late eighties, I’m sure you can imagine the kind of poppy-funky-dancey music she was releasing, and it seems she was mostly famous for the raunchiness of her music videos. I watched a few of them as research for this article, and that was definitely one of the more, ahem, invigorating research sessions I’ve ever done for the site. You probably couldn’t get away with watching them (or doing a Google image search for Sabrina) at work, let’s put it that way. As you can see from the game’s cover, Sabrina also came with a cassette of Sabrina’s music, including her hits “Boys” (sample lyrics: “boy, boys, boys, get ready for my love”) and “Hot Girl,” as well as a cover of Prince’s “Kiss.” I listened to that version of Kiss, too. I wouldn’t recommend it.


Obviously, if you’re making a game about an Italo-disco singer known for her sex appeal, there’s only one possible genre for it: the side-scrolling beat-em-up. Hang on, really? Not some kind of music management sim or even a “make a music video” type thing? I can understand it not being a rhythm-action game, because the Spectrum’s ability to output bearable music is outdone by a squeaky dog toy tied to a pneumatic drill, but a beat-em-up? Oh well, time to start beating people up, I guess.
That’s Sabrina on the left of the screen, (and also twice at the bottom of the screen, which is perpetually emblazoned with the enormous status bar common to Spectrum games,) and she’s ready to move from left to right across a series of single-screen areas. There’s no scrolling backgrounds in this one, folks, just a series of individual screens. When I say “go from left to right,” I mean it, because that’s really all Sabrina can do. She can’t even jump and it does feel weird to be playing a brawler with no jumping in it at all. Just like in real life, I kept trying to do flying kicks when I very much did not have the capacity to pull off flying kicks.


This being a beat-em-up, naturally there are people for Sabrina to, you know, beat up. For the first half of the game, it’s mostly a repeating cycle of these three enemies. There’s a skinny woman on the right and a less-skinny woman on the left, and they’re presumably out to destroy Sabrina in a fit of outraged moral fervour. Just behind Sabrina is a knife-wielding maniac. You’d think he’d be the most dangerous of the three, but all of the enemies attack in the same manner: they walk into Sabrina and drain a bit of her health, while also causing Sabrina to be frozen in place while bright colours flash punishingly around the edge of the screen and a noise that sounds like a robot with diarrhoea not quite making it to the bathroom in time plays.
So, what moves does Sabrina have at her disposal to deal with these threats? Well, she has three attacks. She can slap at head height, she can kick at shin height – and that does look like it would be quite painful – and she can also do this.


That’s right, she can inflate her boobs and use them to batter people into submission. You’d have to pay certain specialist websites cold hard cash to get video footage of that kind of thing, but with Sabrina on the ZX Spectrum you can experience the effect in all it’s blocky, low-colour glory. It’s a move that’s destined to join Haggar’s spinning lariat and Axel’s Grand Upper in the pantheon of all-time classic beat-em-up attacks, I’m sure.


As you move forward, you’ll quickly realise that there’s a rock-paper-scissors – well, rock-paper-boobs, anyway – relationship between Sabrina’s moves and the enemies that are vulnerable to them. For instance, the knifemen can be knocked aside by a single blow from Sabrina’s ample charms, but the women are unfazed by her breasts and must be either kicked or slapped, depending on the type of woman. It’s an interesting take on the usual beat-em-up gameplay, I suppose, and it gives the action the feel of a memory-matching game rather than a brutal slugfest. I did begin to rue the fact that Sabrina’s boobs didn’t work on everyone, though, because they’ve got the greatest range and the fastest activation of all her attacks.


Then there’s the real danger that Sabrina faces during her adventure: high explosives. Most of the screens beyond the first two or three have a cartoon bomb laying on the floor – in the screenshot above, you can see it just in front of the purple door – and if Sabrina doesn’t get over to them quickly enough, they explode. If they do detonate, it’s an instant game over no matter how many lives you have, so obviously getting rid of the bombs is your top priority. To remove them, you have to punt the bomb off the screen by standing near it and using Sabrina’s kick attack – not part of most bomb disposal manuals, but it works for Sabrina as she has absolutely zero compassion for any innocent bystanders that may be harmed when she hoofs ten pounds of semtex at them.


Getting rid of the bombs isn’t as easy as I’ve made it sound, actually. Part of the problem is the position you have to take to kick the bomb: you’d think you’d want to be next to it, so that when Sabrina kicks the animation clearly shows her foot swinging and making contact with the bomb. That is not the case; you have to be standing right on top of it, maybe even slightly beyond it, in order to successfully kick the bloody thing. The is made more difficult by the frequency with which the bombs are placed directly under open windows, windows from which people will drop flowerpots onto Sabrina’s tousled head. Taking damage freezes you in place for what feels like a thousand agonising years, (actually about two seconds,) during which time the bomb’s countdown is still ticking away. This game isn’t exactly portraying Sabrina in the best light, is it? Not when everyone’s out to murder her for some unexplained reason. Maybe they foresaw that she’d end up recording Blondie's “Call Me” as a duet with Sam Fox in 2010 and were desperate to prevent this grim future from coming to pass.


That’s the general flow of Sabrina, then. You walk onto each new screen, check for bombs and if there is a bomb you rush over it and try to kick it away before it explodes, all while trying to remember which of your attacks are effective against each foe. And trying to remember which key you’d mapped to each attack, in my case. But it is any fun? Sadly, it really isn’t. The hit detection is sloppy enough that enemies you’re sure you should have defeated manage to sneak through, the fact that you’re paralysed by every successful enemy attack quickly becomes frustrating and when a bomb does explode, being kicked back to the title screen doesn’t exactly compel you to reach for the “new game” button. That said, there’s something I find quite charming about Sabrina. Maybe it’s that it took its ridiculous premise and not-very-videogame-appropriate heroine and ran with it, and the boob attack is so dumb it wraps around to being funny. The graphics aren’t bad for a Spectrum game, either, with some nice backgrounds and sprites that are a lot clearer in motion than they seem in these screenshots.


After twenty or so screen of this nonsense, Sabrina comes face-to-face with a lady that I’m going to generously call a boss. Standing here in this desolate alley, the only outcome can be a furious martial arts battle the likes of which Hong Kong cinema can only dream of. Are you ready to see these two mighty warriors locked in mortal combat?


I’m at a loss for words. Nothing I can come up with seems adequate to describe whatever this is. Two shop mannequins trapped in a giant blender? Mechanical soft-shoe dancers caught in a violent electrical storm? No, this fight simply is, and our human minds are ill-equipped to comprehend it. That’s what I kept telling myself when I couldn’t figure out what was going on here, anyway. As far as I can see, the only way to beat this woman is to make sure you start with multiple lives, get right up next to her and start wildly flailing on your attack buttons. With a little luck, she’ll be defeated before Sabrina runs out of lives. Any good will I had towards Sabrina by this point was quickly swept away by this awful, incomprehensible boss battle, so it is with a truly heavy heart that I must inform you it’s time to go through the game again.


That’s right, the boss was merely the half-way point. After flipping the tape over, the second half of Sabrina is revealed, and it looks like this. The gameplay is the same, but the graphics and setting have changed. The cartoon bombs are sticks of dynamite now, the levels have more of a “city centre” feel and there are different enemies. For instance, Sabrina is being chased by a crucifix-waving priest. Maybe he saw Sabrina thrashing around during the boss fight and came to the perfectly reasonable conclusion that she requires an exorcism. You can defeat the priest by whacking him with Sabrina’s boobs, and with that in mind I’m going to flip-flop again and say that Sabrina is actually kinda great.


As I say, the graphics might be a bit different, but the gameplay hasn’t changed any. It definitely hasn’t suddenly become interesting or anything, not even with the addition of the roaming priests and the punk-rock ladies you can see at the left of the screen. I do like their sprites, though. Where’s my beat-em-up about punk rock women with mohawks and switchblades clearing up the city streets? Hmm. They say you should be the change you want to see in the world, so I suppose I’d better learn how to make a beat-em-up.


Here’s an indication of just how loosely Sabrina was holding my attention: I wandered onto this screen and the first thing that sprang into my mind was “‘ayuntamiento’ is Spanish for ‘town hall’” followed by several minutes spent pondering the mysteries of the human mind as this piece of vocab from my GCSE Spanish lessons popped into my head fifteen years later.


“An old woman, a priest and Sabrina Salerno walk into a sex shop...” sounds like the start of an extremely filthy joke. It's a shame I can’t pop into the sex shop, I can’t believe Sabrina’s morally-upstanding potential murderers would follow me in there and I could get a bit of a break.


The second half of the game ends the same way as the first, with an identical boss battle against the flailing woman. At least these battles are over quickly. In fact. the entire game is over quickly: once you've had a bit of practise, you can beat the whole thing in less than ten minutes.


That’s it, the game’s over, and we’re presented with the cryptic message “llegaste al plato.” Obviously my GCSE Spanish lessons weren’t as comprehensive as I thought, because I originally through it was trying to tell me something about acquiring a plate. Then I looked it up and realised it’s probably supposed to say “llegaste al plató” (with accent) which means “You arrived at the set” (as in movie set). That makes a lot more sense, and it gives some indication of what Sabrina was actually trying to accomplish in this game. It doesn’t explain why everyone wanted her dead, though. Her musical output by 1989 wasn’t that bad. There’s also a mysterious code number provided, but I couldn’t figure out what it was for. And why the hell should I? What am I, Hercule Poirot? Someone else can put in the legwork to figure that one out, because I’ve definitely had enough of Sabrina by this point.
So that’s Sabrina, a game so European and trashy I’m surprised it wasn’t presented by Antoine de Caunes. Hold on a minute, just let me check… yep, Sabrina did appear on Eurotrash. Of course she did. If she hadn’t, I would’ve had to find someone who owns a hat so I could eat it.

12/05/2017

FAMILY DOG (SNES)

Pretty much everyone loves dogs, right? I mean, what’s not to love – affection, companionship, works as both a kind of warm, furry footstool and a sentient vacuum cleaner for dealing with spilled food. Dogs are great. Or at least that’s what I thought until I played today’s game, which may have soured me on the entire concept of dogs forever. It’s Imagineering’s 1993 SNES failed-cartoon-em-up Family Dog!


There’s the family dog now, with his curiously pointed muzzle and bat-wing ears that make him look like a minor Jim Henson character with a one-line description on the Muppet Wiki. Family Dog is yet another licensed SNES platformer based on a cartoon, in this case also called Family Dog. The cartoon started as an episode of the American TV series Amazing Stories, before being spun off into its own show. There were some big names involved with the show – Brad Bird wrote and directed the original episode, Tim Burton did some work on it and Steven Spielberg was an executive producer, but the show flopped and was canned before the first season was even finished. It’s the story of the nameless family dog, who lives in a family of a mum, dad and two kids, and the various hijinks he finds himself involved in. In the interests of research, I watched a couple of episodes and it’s… not great. The best description I can give is that it feels like a sub-par segment from an episode of Tiny Toon Adventures. Oh well, maybe the game will be better than the show, he said with absolutely no conviction.


Isn’t it just?


Before the gameplay starts, you’re treated to a brief intro showing the dog enjoying a sunny, carefree morning in the garden, having a nap, scratching around and generally acting like a dog. Then the son of the family sticks his head out of the door and calls for his pet. The dog’s expression immediately becomes one of horrified desperation. The dog is right to be scared. Bad things lurk within that house, and I don’t mean bath time.


So, yeah, it’s a platformer. Take control of the dog and get from one end of the stage to the other, jumping over or otherwise avoiding the various obstacles and hazards, like the family cat, (who is bitter about not receiving his own spin-off show,) bouncing balls and, erm, flying books?


Yep, flying books. Okay, sure, why not, let’s just assume that the family are heavily into blasphemous tomes filled with the darkest sorcery. It definitely seems like the son of the family would be into that kind of thing, what with him being a hell-spawned devil child and all.
For some reason the family home has more shelving than a mid-sized branch of Ikea, stretching upwards over multiple screens, its upper reaches populated by the flying books – although not nearly enough books to necessitate this much shelving, you could fit half of the Bodleian’s catalogue on here.
There’s not much reason to come up onto the shelves, either, unless you’re on the hunt for power-ups. Bones give you extra health, while dog biscuits are ammo. Your weapon? Barking at things, which you can see happening in the screenshot above. The dog’s posture and expression may make it seem like it’s howling after receiving a hefty kick up the backside, but it’s actually barking at the flying book.


While I was bouncing around up there, amongst the bland, featureless storage solutions, the son appeared from behind a shelf and attempted to shoot me, the vicious little shit. More evidence for this being a house of black magic and diabolical sorcery is offered by the kid somehow leaning out from behind the shelf despite it being affixed to the wall. He’s up to some Hounds of Tindalos nonsense.
This seems like a good time to discuss the game’s jumping controls, which are weird. The main issue is that there are too many different kinds of jump. A normal, horizontal, arcing jump – the kind of jump you use most of the time in almost every other platformer ever made – is slow, fussy and has an extremely small range, making it kinda useless. On the other hand, if you jump vertically from a standing start, the dog will leap pretty high into the air – and even higher if you’re holding up on the d-pad – but in an almost purely vertical trajectory. You can get a bit more use out of the horizontal jump by running, but to run and jump in this game you have to hold X to run and then press B to jump, which is a very awkward-feeling system when you consider where the X and B buttons are on a SNES pad. You’re going to end up wasting a lot of your limited barking ammunition by accidentally pushing Y while trying to run and jump. A least, I know that happened to me a lot.


Thus, the real challenge of Family Dog is figuring out how to jump properly. I think it’s fair to say that this does not bode well for the quality of the rest of the game.
In the end, I decided that leaping as high as possible using the vertical jump was usually the best option, because you can move the dog left or right as he’s falling and with enough height you can move him as far as with a horizontal jump. It’s not a great system, let’s be honest, and jumping in Family Dog is a complete pain in arse from start to finish, especially when you discover that most of the smaller platforms have slippery, ill-defined edges. It’s a shame ninety percent of the game is purely about jumping, really.


Here’s part of the remaining ten percent, where you have to run away from the kid while he tries to shoot the dog. What a vile little arsehole this child is, tormenting a poor dog whose only recourse is to run away and occasionally jump over the building blocks in front of him and the kid’s projectiles that come from behind. It’s more enjoyable than the previous, more traditional platforming section, but we’re working with very fine margins here.


The kid shot the dog so much that the dog exploded and died. It’s horrible, just horrible. I cannot remember the last time a character caused such an immediate and visceral loathing in me as this kid does, with his American Dennis the Menace meets Chucky from Child’s Play look and red nose that implies some kinship to the hated clown. You’ll notice the kid’s missing a tooth, and I sincerely hope it’s because another kid punched it right out of his bulbous head.


Okay, back to the game, and now the kid wants to play fetch. What’s he throwing, a hand grenade? As I am playing as a dog, I dutifully waited for the ball to be thrown, then ran after it and brought it back. It is my understanding that this is how the game of fetch works, but unless Family Dog shipped with a SNES peripheral that feels like a drool-soaked tennis ball, can it really be said that we’re getting the true fetch experience? Anyway, I fetched the ball. Then I fetched it a few more times. And a few more times after that. Nothing happened, the kid just kept throwing the ball, and while it’s definitely preferable to him trying to murder the dog it’s still not fun.


Eventually I let the ball roll away, where it hit the daughter of the family. She started crying, which I assume was the son’s plan all along. That’s right, the only way to progress in this game it to make a little girl cry. I hope that by now the people who made this game have dealt with whatever familial issues they were clearly struggling with in 1993.


After the gun chase and another short section that was almost identical to the first area, the dog finds himself in the kitchen. It’s okay, I guess. You can avoid most of the danger by walking around on the countertops, although I must take issue with the idea that toast could be dangerous. Toast! Wonderful, delicious, life-giving toast does not deserve to be besmirched in this way. If it was covered in chocolate spread I could understand why it’d be dangerous to a dog, but not in this situation. To get past the toast, and other hazards such as the blenders that flip their lids at you, you can simply bark at them a few times until they disappear. I would definitely recommend doing this, because you really don’t want to head down to floor level…


The kid is back, and he’s swapped his gun for a vacuum cleaner. He’ll chase the dog around with it if you go down there, and any contact with the vacuum is instantly fatal. I cannot overstate how much I hate this kid. This game shouldn't be called Family Dog, it should be called The Omen But Also There’s a Dog.


I would rather set the dog on fire than have to deal with that kid. It really is the more merciful of the two options, at least the dog’s in control of his own fate this way. Awkward, difficult-to-judge control, sure, but if I don’t manage to jump over the fiery kitchen hobs it's mostly my fault.


After being chased by a psychotic child, fleeing in fear for my very life, I made it to the mother of the household. I thought she might scold her devil-spawn or something, but it seems the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. All the dog did was snuffle around on the floor for a bit, but that was enough to upset the mother. “That’s it!” she cries. She’s had enough of this dog. Everyone’s had enough of this dog. Why do you people even own a dog? Jesus. Also, I’m fairly certain this woman is the sister of the mum from Dexter’s Lab.


Well, this is ominous. This ride isn’t going to end with a trip to the ice cream parlour, is it?


Nope, the family are sending the dog to the “hilariously” named “Kennel of Love.” They’re ditching their family pet in a maximum-security dog prison, for no real reason besides the dog trying to escape from his torment. Is it weird that this set up is bothering me so much? I might be more inclined to forgive it if the gameplay was better, but it’s tedious and completely lacking in imagination. The weird thing is that there’s no humour to it. Like, the show is (nominally) a comedy but there’s nothing even remotely funny here, it’s just horrible people being mean to a dog.


The inside of the dog prison is just as grim as you might expect. Rabid dogs with genuinely disturbing sprites swipe at you from their cages, electrified pools of water cover half the floors and the whole pace is a dark maze of dripping brickwork and cold steel. It’s all laid out as a series of ascending floors with staircases between them, but on the plus side each floor is only one screen tall so there’s much less jumping to do. Any part of this game where you’re spending less time struggling with the jumping controls is welcome, but don’t get too excited – it’s not like they replaced the jumping with some different, more interesting gameplay. It’s mostly just slowly inching forwards and barking at things.
You most pressing goal is to lower a gate that blocks entry to the upper floors. There’s a switch in plain sight, but I couldn’t get the dog to interact with it no matter how hard I barked. I guess I’d better get to exploring, then.


Speaking of barking, there are some dogs chained up in the middle of rooms. I don’t know whether they’re inmates or guard dogs, but they’re definitely mean. They bark at you, you bark at them, it’s a whole thing. I’m sure you can defeat them by jumping over the (mercifully visible) soundwaves of their barks and shooting back with yaps of your own in the gaps, but between the game’s fiddly jumps and the way the barks expand in size as they travel it really is not worth the effort. Instead, I simply stood in front of each dog and barked like a Jack Russell when the postman shows up, hoping that I’d have enough health for the other dog to “die” before I did. It mostly worked. It wasn’t fun, and it meant I had to spend the other parts of the stage carefully avoiding all the other hazards, but it worked.


Oh, so these are the guard dogs. They’re also despicable traitors to their species, and if the family dog goes near them they’ll try to smash his head in with a truncheon. How do they sleep at night, the bastards? Apart from “in a dog bed, with their legs twitching as they dream about chasing down escaping prisoners,” I mean.
However he justifies his actions, it seems like this guard dog has been doing his job for a while; those three chevrons on his arm imply he’s risen to the rank of sergeant, at least. It is only because of the lack of dog-related puns on military ranks – the best I can come up with is “wooftenant,” which doesn’t even work if you use the US pronunciation of lieutenant – that I haven’t planned out the entire hierarchy of the dog army.


The dog prison is also a bird prison. There’s probably some cats locked up in here somewhere, maybe a few sheep. I didn’t see those, though, just dogs and birds, and of course I set the birds free. Not for any altruistic reasons, I was just hoping they’d distract the guard dogs.


As it happens, the birds are the key to activating the gate switch. Once you’ve saved three of them, they land on the lever and weigh it down, which opens the gate. Okay, fine, whatever. Not sure why the dog couldn’t have just done that himself, but the two leading possibilities are laziness or stupidity.


I’ve made it to the outside of the prison, and as you can see it’s a real treat for the eyes, a visual spectacle rarely matched amongst the SNES library. Family Dog is now the greyest game since Battleship Painting Simulator, which is appropriate since it’s also about as interesting as watching paint dry. Family Dog really suffers from having these big, empty stages, where technically you can travel a long way in any direction but why would you? There’s nothing there worth seeing, and making the effort to explore is only ever rewarded by giving you power-ups that you’ll need to replace the health and barking power you lost exploring in the first place, power-ups you wouldn’t even need if you’d stuck to the most basic route. It’s not like moving around in this game is fun enough to be its own reward, either.


As an example, most of this stage involves scaling the walls by using these bulldog gargoyles as platforms. The dogoyles are stacked in long vertical columns, so all you have to do is jump straight up to land on the next one until you reach the top. If you stand on them for too long, they come to life and try to bite you. I suspect they are not stone statues, but rather real bulldogs that have had their heads smashed through the prison’s outer wall as a punishment.


There’s a boss, of sorts. I use boss purely in the “unique enemy at the end of a videogame level” sense, because this man is not the boss of anything. Just look at him, he looks like such a nerdlinger that I bet he takes orders from his own dog-catching net. Yes, Slenderman has fallen on hard times.
You don’t even need to fight the boss. To finish the stage, you just need to bark at the gate’s control box a few times (despite that not being how you opened the previous gate) and you can do so while totally ignoring the lanky weirdo. Don’t worry, I’m sure he’s used to being ignored.


After escaping, the dog find himself in the deep, dark woods. The guard dogs are in pursuit, but now that they’re back in the wilderness and have escaped the influence of man they’re regressing to their primitive, four-legged state. They can still be defeated by barking at them, though. Go figure.
As for the rest of the stage, imagine if Konami gave the Castlevania license to a small-time Western developer with no budget. That’s sort of what it feels like, what with the swooping bats, dangling snakes and bizarre spider-creatures. It’s an improvement over the “outside the prison” stage, I’ll give it that much, because it’s mostly horizontal and obvious where you’re supposed to be going, plus the spooky creatures of the haunted woods are a damn sight more interesting to look at than an endless expanse of grey bricks.


This is the final stage, and it sure is something. It’s a vast expanse of dead trees (about ten screens high and what feels like twelve thousand screens across) with no variation or landmarks or anything but woodland that seems to have been razed by a forest fire. You have to get the dog from one end to the other by making him bounce on the springy limbs of the trees in the foreground, but there’s no “floor” so if you mess up, you’re dead. That’s it, that’s all you do. Bounce from one dead tree to another, an agonisingly boring process made worse – worse, would you believe it! - because you have to wait for the dog to bounce on each branch a few time before he reaches his maximum height.


All you get is trees. So many trees for you to slowly leap between. Just trees. Actually, that’s not technically true. I saw a wasp once. Only one wasp, mind you. I think it was an enemy, but I’d already started bouncing to the next tree when it appeared on screen and I never saw another one. I saw lots of trees, though.


I am struggling to find the words to convey just how awful this stage it. It is, without a doubt, one of the very worst videogame stages I’ve ever suffered through, and if you have a browse through the list of games I’ve written about in the Article Index you’ll know that’s really saying something. Because it’s so completely lacking in, well, anything, it somehow feels worse than any number of other terrible videogame stages that are bad because of extreme difficulty or glitches or poor controls, because at least those stages were trying to do something. Family Dog, on the other hand, appears to have forgotten what videogames even are.


Having somehow escaped from the forest by reaching the far end and jumping into a hollow tree trunk, the family dog falls from the sky and literally lands in the arms of his abusive owners. Congratulations, sucker, that’s what you get for playing Family Dog. I hope you’ve learned your lesson.
Well, that was a dismal experience. The sad thing is, Family Dog could almost have been a perfectly acceptable little game. I really did like the dog himself, he’s well-animated and possesses far more charm than anything else around him, and some of the stages aren’t that terrible, especially the narrower, more pared-down ones. If they’d fixed the dog’s jumping abilities and unified them into a  set of moves that made sense, while also trimming down the more expansive stages, it would have been a lot better. But they didn’t, so we’re stuck with sprawling, empty levels with unpleasant platforming, a final stage that scrapes the bottom of the barrel so hard it turns the barrel into a sieve and that repugnant little boy. He’s reason enough to avoid playing Family Dog, honestly.

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