18/02/2018

PUNCH AND JUDY (COMMODORE 64)

Today’s game is going to take us where the brass bands play tiddly-om-pom-pom, where the air is thick with the aroma of ocean brine and fried food, where children to gather to watch violent puppet stick-fights. I’m talking, of course, about the Great British seaside, as depicted by Clockwize’s 1989 Commodore 64 swazzle-em-up Punch and Judy!

I’ve seen so many health bars and magic meters over the years of doing VGJunk that it’s nice when something a bit different pops up. As status indicators go, sausage supply, empty bag and tide timetable are definitely different. We’ll get to see how these fascinating variables play into Punch and Judy once the action gets started, but before that let’s receive a little instruction.


Okay, that seems simple enough. Take the tent parts to the beach. It’s always good to have a clear, concise goal, especially in an old home computer game where things can often get a bit obscure. Yes, the tent parts might look like a slice of zebra, but that just makes them easier to see against the sunny, seaside backdrops.


And here those backdrops are, with the first screen of the game. There’s Punch on the right, with his jester’s motley and his face like an anal fistula. That’s who you’ll be playing as during your mission to build a tent on the beach. The setting is Bridlington, which might produce a pang of familiarity in a section of VGJunk’s British readership who may have spent a childhood holiday there. I know I have, along with such exotic east-coast locales as Cleethorpes, Ingoldmells and Skegness. Yes, I am a well-travelled sophisticate and yes, Bridlington is a real place. It’s very much a traditional coastal town that lives off tourism during the summer months, in that it’s got a promenade, a beach and a faint air of grey desperation. One nice touch is that Punch and Judy’s gameplay is framed as postcard, which is why “Bridlington ‘89” is written at the bottom-right corner of the play area.


And off we go, controlling Punch as he makes he way through town. Bridlington is laid out on a grid, so you can go left or right, or up and down at certain spots like the barely-visible gap in the pavement at the bottom of the screenshot above. There are walls that block your horizontal movement in some places, and some screens don’t let you travel up and down so there’s a slight maze-like quality to the town, but it’s not a huge map and once you’ve figured out where certain landmarks are it’s simple enough to navigate. For instance, the beach is the top-right-most screen of the grid, and as long as you know that it’s a simple matter of moving up and right until you get there.


Here’s the first piece of the stage, laying where the pavement meets the sand. Each piece of the stage appears, one at a time, at random in a different part of the map, so there’s the main focus of the gameplay for you: wander around town looking for pieces as fast as you can, because the tide’s coming in and if it gets all the way up the beach then the performance will have to be cancelled unless the kiddiwinks have spontaneously developed gills.  Fortunately this first piece is on the screen directly next to the beach and I think the first piece might always spawn here, so that saves you a bit of time.


Here’s the beach. The first piece of the stage has been laid in place, so just another six or seven left to find. It’s all got a rather picture-postcard look to it, as you might expect from a game set at the British seaside. I was a little surprised that this never expanded into the kind of raunchy, end-of-the-pier humour that is so associated with the seaside, especially given the appearance on the beach of the overweight woman / knobbly-kneed, knotted-hanky-wearing bloke pairing that appears in a lot of those “saucy” seaside jokes. I suppose Punch and Judy is (appropriately) shooting for a younger audience.


Now it’s time to wander the beachfronts and back streets of Bridlington in search of the missing stage pieces. There’s not much to say about the gameplay, because all you’re doing is walking Punch from screen to screen, but I’m definitely enjoying the backgrounds. They’ll likely cause a swelling of nostalgia in any British players of Punch and Judy, capturing as they do the essence of the seaside town: amusement arcades, gift shops laden with buckets and spades and, yes, fish and chip shops.


You can even enter some of the chip shops, although sadly you cannot fully recreate the holiday experience by asking for a cone of chips that’s fifty percent salt, forty percent vinegar and ten percent crunchy brown things that may have once been a potato in the distant prehistory of man. These stores act as screens in their own right and can be used to travel “up” or “down” the grid in places, but the important thing to remember is the items you’re looking for can sometimes be found indoors. I mention it because it took me a while to realise this, despite "inside a chip shop" being a really obvious place to investigate during the game's second section.


Of course, it’s not all strolling along the promenade and checking out the back walls of the seedier gift shops, where they keep the replica weapons, “tobacco” paraphernalia and cigarette lighters with naked women on them. Punch has a couple of obstacles to avoid. The first and most persistent is the constable, who you can see chasing Punch in the screenshot above. Given that they have the exact same face I assume they’re related, but the policeman’s adherence to the law will not be swayed by familial ties and if he catches Punch you’re dragged away to the police station. This causes you to drop any piece of the stage you’re holding, which means a run-in with the old bill causes wasted time and allows the tide to creep ever higher up the beach. If you’re wondering what crimes Punch is being busted for, we’ll get to that soon enough.


Your other major foe is, naturally, the crocodile. Punch’s hated enemy scuttles around the game world, and if you come into contact with the crocodile you tide meter takes a big jump upwards, making the crocodile easily the most dangerous impediment to Punch (literally) getting his act together. There are two ways to deal with the crocodile: the first and probably most effective is to simply avoid it, although this can be difficult if the crocodile ends up near the beach itself because there’s only a single path and thus you can’t go around.


The other tactic is to drop a sausage on the ground. If the crocodile touches the sausage it’ll be momentarily rendered harmless while it gorges itself on the reward it has spent its entire existence trying to obtain. The problem here is that the crocodile is so long there’s not much space on the screen to set up your sausage-baited trap, and you’ll often end up accidentally touching the crocodile’s hitbox anyway. Also, you have a limited supply of sausages, although if you run out you can go to the butcher’s shop and buy some more, which is what the coins are for.
Frankly I’m impressed that the developers have done such a good job of incorporating the elements of a Punch and Judy show into the game – when I first found out there was a Punch and Judy game I assumed it would revolve around keeping the sausages away from the crocodile, but this is a much more interesting take even if the actual gameplay isn’t especially exciting.


It suddenly occurs to me that to any non-British readers, the concept of this game might seem completely insane. To those of us who grew up with it, the merry adventures of a grotesque hunchback fighting a crocodile over a string of sausages while a policeman tries to break it up is a familiar one, but I don’t think Punch and Judy shows are widely known outside Britain, are they? Maybe in Italy, because Punch is an evolution of Italian commedia dell’arte. Anyway, here’s a quick overview: Punch and Judy shows are a traditional form of puppet theatre most often associated with the seaside. Mr. Punch is the star, and most of the show revolves around Punch whacking people with his stick, from his wife(?) Judy to the local constabulary to a baby. To be fair, Punch generally doesn’t beat the baby in modern performances. He just subjects it to more general neglect when asked to look after it. Then Punch gets his sausages out for dinner but the crocodile turns up to steal them, the crowd does the old “he’s behind you” bit, they fight, more people get clobbered by Punch’s stick and in the end he emerges as the only survivor. It’s all perfectly acceptable entertainment and definitely not as weird as as I’m making it sounds. Oh, all right, it is weird but of course children think it’s hilarious because it’s about puppets clobbering each other. Like any performance piece that’s been codified over hundreds of years of repeated performance, the Punch and Judy show is full of strange quirks such as the puppeteers being called “professors” and Punch’s trademark voice being produced via a reed instrument called a swazzle that is placed in the back of the mouth. Imagine someone who’s swallowed a kazoo, that’s what a swazzle sounds like: in fact, according to tradition you can only be considered a true Punch and Judy professor once you’ve accidentally swallowed your swazzle a few times.


And that’s Punch and Judy. I swear I didn’t make any of that up. Perhaps you might think, as I did, that there’s not much there to build a computer game around and… well, there isn’t and Punch and Judy is a rather slight experience but as I say, it does an impressive job of incorporating a lot of aspects of the puppet show into what is little more than a maze-chase.


Now that the stage is built, it’s time for… erm, more of the same gameplay, except now the pieces you have to find are the other cast members. Okay, sure. that’s fine. I just need to find Judy, the baby, the dog and whichever of the Punch and Judy show’s stock characters this is supposed to be.


The Clown, maybe? I can’t think who else it would be; everyone else is accounted for, but this character looking nothing like a clown threw me off a little. Whoever it is, they’re coming with Punch as he drags them back to the now-constructed stage. When you first find the characters they won’t follow you, so you have to "persuade" them by pressing the fire button to give them a few whacks from Mr. Punch’s slapstick. Once clonked, they’ll follow Punch around and the game follows the same “avoid the long arm of the law (also crocodiles)” pattern of gameplay as before. However, any clobbered character will soon forget the beating they recently received and will wander away, forcing you to hit them again to regain their attention.


What this all boils down to is that yes, this is a game where you have to corral a baby by beating it with a stick. Imagine me reaching up to a high shelf in my cavernous library, taking an enormous, dusty tome down, dipping my quill into a pot of ink and carefully inscribing “Baby Wrangling (With Stick) at the bottom of the list of Things I’ve Experienced Via Videogames.


Forget the baby, though – the real test of your cudgelling skills is the dog, because it’s faster than all the other characters and even faster than Punch himself, so you have to try to trap the dog in a corner before gaining its obedience by thrashing it and wow, that is one heck of a sentence. Another problem with the dog is that it always seemed to break free of my control when I was right next to an exit to another screen, so the dog kept disappearing from sight the instant it could by running to a different area. Factor in the crocodile having taken up permanent residence on the beach by this point, and getting the dog to the stage ran close to being genuinely frustrating. Then I realised I was beating a dog into submission with a character who is carrying a string of sausages. Come on, man, the solution to your problems is right there in your hand! Or your pocket. Or wherever you’re storing your sausages. Somewhere deeply unhygienic, I suspect.


The tide meter might suggest it was a close call, but the only reason the water level got so high is that I simply ran through the crocodile at the end, while I momentarily had the dog’s full attention. With the cast assembled, the stage built and the tidal waters lapping at the audience’s feet, it’s time for the last part of Punch and Judy: the show itself.


These characters don’t look any more appealing when you get up close, do they? Faces like someone dropped a bowling ball onto a ham hock, yikes. Anyway, the show. Like any good Punch and Judy routine, the goal is to hit everyone with your stick while avoiding the policeman. Judy and the constable wander across the stage – the policeman seemingly having some programming that compels him to head towards Punch but with a lot of random, twitchy movements – and while Punch can slowly move left and right, his main trick is to switch to the other side of the screen by pulling down on the joystick. This makes him pop up in the opposite corner, and he’s invincible while doing so, so the gameplay flow is to keep switching sides until the constable is at the other end of the screen, getting some hits in on your target (Judy, in this case) and then switching again when the constable comes near.


You have to deplete each of the four characters’ health bars – yes, including the baby – while protecting your own solitary health bar from the constable’s blows, but once you’ve realised that the only skill you need to win is patience it all becomes very simple and, if I’m honest, a bit boring. I sure hope I don’t get involved in any legal troubles soon, because “I grew bored of beating the baby with a stick” probably won’t go down well with a jury.
All four characters work in exactly the same way (they walk back and forth) and nothing else changes, so it’s not long before everyone lays vanquished before you and all the kids are thoroughly entertained.


Truly, I am a puppet wonder. Except this Punch isn’t a puppet, he wandered around town without someone’s hand shoved up him, he built the stage himself, he’s a living creature of some kind. A gremlin, perhaps.
I rather enjoyed Punch and Judy, you know. The gameplay’s hardly stellar but it all works nicely enough and very rarely becomes obnoxiously difficult or frustratingly vague, plus the map falls into a nice level of complexity where it’s fairly large but still small enough and consistent enough to be mentally mapped. I appreciate the effort expended in getting the Punch and Judy elements into the game and it’s hard to dislike any game that lets you feed sausages to a crocodile. However, I think my favourite thing about it is the low-res, eight-bit depiction of a British seaside town. It certainly got the ol’ nostalgia centres pumping, and captures that look remarkably well, albeit without the screeching seagulls and complaints about the lack of parking spaces I associate with a British seaside holiday. It gave me the same feeling I always had as a kid whenever we’d go to Scarborough or Skegness or, yes, Bridlington – that it must be really weird to permanently live in a seaside resort town, and now I can’t stop thinking about it. So, good job, Clockwize – it turns out that if you want to get me interesting in your seaside-based Commodore 64 game, that’s the way to do it.

13/02/2018

FIGHTERS OF THE WORLD: BRITAIN

Sure, why not; let’s have another "Fighters of the World" article, where I take a look at a selection of fighting game characters that all hail from the same country and try to discern which crude stereotypes crop up most frequently. This time, I’ll be covering my own noble nation – the green and pleasant land of Great Britain!


Or maybe it's “England” - "England" in quotation marks because, as demonstrated by the above screenshot from the original Street Fighter, many games use the flag of the United Kingdom to denote England. England has its own flag, thank you very much, although it really only gets a lot of public display when the England football team are involved in a major tournament and it has thus (to me, anyway) become a symbol of disappointment and feeble capitulation. A lot of these fighters are described as being from England but appear under the British flag, so if you want to pretend some of these characters are Scottish or Welsh then go right ahead.

Cammy, Street Fighter


Any given nation’s most famous fighter usually appears in Capcom’s Street Fighter series, and Britain is no exception with Cammy. When she first appeared in Super Street Fighter II, she was a special agent working for the British intelligence agency MI6: later games revealed her to be a clone of the evil M. Bison, who brainwashed Cammy into working as an assassin. Now, far be it from me to criticise MI6’s hiring policies, but giving an espionage job to someone who was once under the mental control of the world’s most evil person seems like carries a certain amount of risk. I guess Cammy’s expertise in kicking people to death outweighed the risk that her “mindless slave under the thrall of the deadliest terrorist ever” persona would re-emerge.
As for being British, I suppose the main trait that Cammy shares with most British fighting game characters is that she’s blonde. Lots of British fighting game characters are blonde, although not as frequently as French fighting game characters. I don’t think that’s necessarily a “British” thing, though, it’s just that most of the characters on this list were designed by Japanese artists and they tend to give blonde hair to most non-Asian characters. Cammy also has one of the two main British videogame accents – the “posh” one, rather than the Dick van Dyke-inspired semi-Cockney one. That’s another of the countless reasons that I love Bloodborne so much: it’s one of the few games to feature a knife-wielding plague doctor with a Yorkshire accent.
Cammy doesn’t have much about her that marks her out as being from the UK, then, but I suppose that’s because she isn’t really from the UK, she’s from whatever country M. Bison’s cloning lab was based in. Maybe Capcom’ll release a game set after Street Fighter Alpha where Cammy undergoes a  My Fair Lady-type procedure to gain her accent. I’d play that.

Birdie, Street Fighter


Cammy wasn’t the first English character in the Street Fighter series, though. That honour goes to the hulking bruiser Birdie. I suppose it also applies to moustachioed stick-carrier Eagle, because both characters debuted in the first Street Fighter game. Birdie’s the more interesting of the two, though, with his mohawk and his leather-punk look. But you might be thinking “I’ve played other Street Fighter games where Birdie looks, erm, different,” and you’re not wrong.


Birdie received a makeover in the Street Fighter Alpha games. The most noticeable change is that he’s black now. I say “now,” Birdie was always black. We know this because one of his Street Fighter Alpha 3 win quotes reveals that he looked pale in the original game because he was ill. I have to commend Capcom’s front in saying “oh yeah, this is totally the same guy,” because why the hell not?
Other than the obvious, the biggest change to Birdie’s later designs is that he’s now even more cartoonishly “punk,” swinging metal chains around and advancing mohawk technology to never-before-seen heights by creating a hairdo with a hole right through the middle of it. I must admit, as a kid I spent more time than I probably should have trying to figure out the mechanics of Birdie’s hair. I came to the conclusion that it should be possible in the real world, and seeing Donald Trump’s hair has convinced me that there are people out there who can work such structural miracles. Of course, Birdie exists in the Street Fighter universe, so he can just get a can of whatever hairspray Guile uses and eliminate all the hard work.
Birdie got yet another revamp for Street Fighter V: he’s still a punk with a mohawk, but he’s become a comedy character who eats all the time and is now overweight. I like it. Street Fighter characters have generally had almost no development even after thirty years, so for Birdie to have had three separate “phases” honestly makes him a bit more interesting to me than some of the classic cast.

Dudley, Street Fighter


Finally for Street Fighter characters we’ve got Dudley, the gentleman boxer. So much of a gentleman and so good a boxer that he was knighted by Queen, even. I’m sure he threw some charity work in there too, that’ll always help to get you on the Honours list. Dudley is the kind of British character I was expecting to see a lot more of on this list: the aristocrat, the toff, the upper-crust type who has a butler and everything. Maybe it’s just a British thing to be obsessed with the class divide, but I’m surprised there weren’t more fighters like this, partly because you often hear that one thing other countries like about Britain is that we’re still clinging to something as “charmingly” outdated as a monarchy.
Of course, there’s a good chance Dudley takes some inspiration from real-life British boxer Chris Eubank, a man who used to get lumbered with the word “eccentric” more than probably anyone else in the British public eye. Eubank liked to dress in an exaggerated “aristocratic” manner, complete with monocle, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Dudley was indeed inspired by Eubank… but given Dudley’s moustache, his striped trousers and alternate Street Fighter IV costume and a couple of his poses, I think there’s also a fair amount of Freddie Mercury in Dudley’s design.

Narcis Prince, Super Punch-Out!!


Moving on to Nintendo’s puzzle-game-adjacent boxing series Punch-Out, a franchise where the character roster is almost entirely composed to crude national stereotypes. He’s where you’d think you’d find a boiled-down idea of how certain Japanese games developers imagine British people, but Narcis doesn’t really fit into any particular category. He’s blonde, of course, but other than that his gimmick is that he’s a pretty boy who hates being punched in his face. Turns out Narcis and I have more in common than I thought we would.
Looking at him, and remembering playing Super Punch-Out as a kid, I’d always assumed that Narcis was supposed to be another upper-class posho type, but that’s only because I never managed to complete the game back then. I couldn’t beat Hoy Quarlow, the cheating old bastard. If I had made it to the ending…


...I would have realised that Narcis is, in fact, common as muck. I’m surprised he’s not saying “cor blimey, guv, you’ve punched me right in me boat race and no mistake!” He’s Danny Dyer with a floppy haircut, that’s what he is.

Steve Fox, Tekken


Here’s another blonde boxer – it’s Steve from Tekken! This makes three boxers in a row (although Narcis Prince doesn’t really count because Punch-Out is a boxing game) and I wouldn’t have been surprised if boxing had emerged as a stronger theme amongst these British fighters. The Queensberry Rules did originate in Britain, after all, and for such a small country we’ve had a lot of successful boxers.
Like so many videogame boxers, Steve was a world champion who had to step out of the ring for one reason or another and enter the violent world of street fighting. Usually it’s for a reason beyond their control, because why else would you give up boxing for street fighting? The sweet science may be a brutal game, but at least there’s a referee there to protect you and you’re unlikely to have your head slammed into the cold asphalt of a dingy back alley by a giant Russian wearing tight briefs. In Steve’s case, he refused to throw a fight for the mafia and now they’re out to kill him. Being away from boxing gives Steve more time to explore the mysteries of his uncertain parentage, eventually discovering that his mother, fellow Tekken fighter Nina Williams, had her eggs harvested while she was in cryogenic suspension. As a result, Steve is about the same age as his own dear mum, so they can batter each other into unconsciousness without anyone raising an eyebrow. Fighting games, eh? What wonderful worlds they weave.

Ivy, Soul Calibur


Ivy’s English, huh? I don’t think I ever knew that. Then again, it took me a long time to realise that the initials of Ivy’s full name, Isabella Valentine, are IV and that’s presumably where "Ivy" comes from.
What can I say about Ivy’s design? I mean, what can I say about Ivy’s design that allows VGJunk to remain relatively family-friendly? Not much, that’s what. And the design pictured above (from Soul Calibur II) is one of Ivy’s more restrained looks, if you can believe it. Whichever designer at Namco keeps saying “no, make her sexier. Sexier!” with each passing game needs to settle down a little, maybe take a cold shower or fifty.
It’s probably pointless to look for any common themes of “Britishness” in Ivy’s design. “Busty 16th century dominatrix with a pirate ghost for a dad” is, if nothing else, a very unique concept. Not particularly British, mind you. Maybe if she spent the entire time she was fighting complaining about the weather, that’d make her feel more English. Mind you, in that outfit you’d probably complain about the weather wherever you’re from.

Arthur, Soul Calibur


Another British Soul Calibur fighter is Arthur. If you’re not a big follower of the franchise you might well be thinking “who the hell is Arthur? When I think of Soul Calibur characters, I think of possessed suits of armour, scuttling, knife-fisted gimps and Darth Vader.” That’s a fair reaction, because Arthur isn't really a “proper” character, although he is quite interesting. You see, one of the stars of the SC franchise is Mitsurugi, a very Japanese samurai. Namco wanted to release Soul Calibur in South Korea. This was a problem, because Korea had (and still does, to an extent) strict laws that banned the importation of culturally Japanese entertainment. Soul Calibur was released at a time when these laws were beginning to be rolled back, but either because they didn’t want to take the risk or because they were specifically told that Mitsurugi wouldn’t fly, Namco changed Mitsurugi from a Japanese samurai to a British, erm, samurai. Yeah, Arthur is just Mitsurugi with blonde hair and an eyepatch but hey – the reasons for his creation are interesting, and apparently his bio reveals he’s from Southampton, making him one of a very small number of British fighters who aren’t Cockney geezers born within earshot of Bow Bells.

Billy Kane, Fatal Fury / King of Fighters


The most famous British character from SNK’s fighting franchises is Billy Kane, right-hand-man to the villainous Geese Howard and you guessed it, he’s blonde. He’s also another “punk” character, what with his leather jacket that must chafe his unprotected nipples something fierce and his general nasty attitude. Billy’s a master of fighting with a staff, because his surname is Kane* and that’s what happens when you share a name with a kind of weapon. Perhaps he lays awake at night, cursing the misfortune of not being born to Mr. and Mrs. Uzi. Terry Bogard might have the Buster Wolf, but six hundred rounds of hot lead a minute might make him think twice about using it.
Personally I don’t think Billy seems especially British, but given Billy’s backstory (a British orphan raised in the USA) it makes sense that he’d lean more towards an American feel, which is what I get from him. That bandana looks far more like the Stars and Stripes – well, the stripes anyway – than the Union Jack, and there’s also Billy’s complete and utter hatred of smoking, to the point of battering anyone he catches having a crafty cig. That strikes me as a much more American reaction. In Britain, we’d just tut at then, maybe thrown in the occasional exaggerated cough.
*The Japanese spelling of Billy’s name implies his surname is pronounced “Kon” but that’s not enough to stop nominative determinism.

Axl Low, Guilty Gear


Guilty Gear’s Axl continues the rapidly-becoming-a-theme punk look, although that’s perhaps to be expected from Guilty Gear – a series where many of the characters take their names from rock and metal music, from Slayer to Freddie Mercury. Axl is obviously based on Guns N’ Roses singer Axl Rose, complete with his trademark bandana and, in later iterations, denim shorts. I must say, I didn’t expect to see so many bandanas when I was putting this article together. Top hats, maybe, or bearskins, but not bandanas. At least you’d have a chance of picking Axl out as a British character, what with his Union Jack shirt, although in the game’s story he’s a time-traveller, pulled into the future from the ancient time known as “the late Nineties”. This does nothing to explain the two enormous zippers hanging from his chest. Axl’s from the turn of the millennium, I could understand it if he had a wallet chain or ridiculously oversized jeans that made a sound like a ship unfurling its sails whenever you got up to take a leak, but those zippers? They just look like they’d be a liability in a fight. Maybe that’s why Axl fights using a long-range sickle-and-chain weapon, it keeps people away from his vulnerable nipple-handles.

Bridget, Guilty Gear


Bridget’s another Guilty Gear character, and one you probably already know something about: Bridget is actually a boy dressed as a girl. The reason for this is that Bridget was born as a twin in an English village where twins of the same sex were seen as a grave omen of misfortune, so one of the kids was sacrificed. Bridget’s parents understandably decided this was a load of horseshit, so they raised Bridget as a girl to protect him from the chopping block. Two points of interest are raised here: the first is that England has become a pretty strange place in Guilty Gear’s future timeline if murderous twin superstitions are making a comeback in remote villages. Secondly, I can’t imagine Bridget’s parents were the first to come up with this cunning ruse, so there must have been some very interesting wedding nights in the village.
With Guilty Gear’s character designs being so out-there, I don’t think there’s much British influence you can take from Bridget’s design. He’s blonde, so there’s that, and maybe the huge handcuff around his waist is a tribute to the pioneering police reforms of Sir Robert Peel.

Jack, World Heroes


I covered Jack a while ago in the article about Jack the Ripper, because Jack is Jack the Ripper as seen through the bonkers lens of the Japanese fighting game. Jack the Ripper had a knife and possible medical training? Well, our Jack is going to have four knives on each hand and we’ll replace his surgical knowledge with a bitchin’ mohawk. Oh, hey, I guess this Jack is another punk. I’m happy enough to have Britain associated with punk music. What’s the alternative, a slew of combat-ready Morris dancers?  Hang on, what am I saying, that’d be amazing. You could make a whole game out of warring Morris dancers: the fast, nimble handkerchief users, the mid-range stick-wielders, the slower but more powerful sword dancers of Yorkshire. But, erm, skip the troupes that wear blackface, yeah?

Jack, Power Stone


Again, Jack from Power Stone is also (even more loosely) based on Jack the Ripper and was covered a while back. However, I’ve learned a few things about Jack since then. He hails from “Manches,” which is presumably the Power Stone equivalent of Manchester and thus from now on I will imagine Jack shouting “all right, our kid?” as he hunts down his victims. Also, he’s fifteen years old. A teenager from Manchester who carries out robberies at knifepoint? I think Jack might have been invented by a Daily Mail journalist.

Lola, Dangerous Streets


We’re getting into really obscure territory with Dangerous Streets, a truly abysmal Amiga fighter that seemingly only exists to give Rise of the Robots some competition as the worst fighting game of the 16-bit era. The British contender in Dangerous Streets is Lola. Lola is supposedly a “top model,” so let’s go ahead and say that her outfit is down to the extravagances of haute couture rather than straight-up kink. And you though Ivy was going to have the most revealing costume on this list. Perhaps it’s not surprising that there are a couple of rather dominatrix-y characters here, though. I don’t know to what extent this is still true, but it certainly used to be the case that Britain had a reputation as the land of the masochist, especially where spanking is concerned. One can only imagine a game developer looking at the list of potential traits for a British character, their eyes darting between “punk rock” and “thoroughly enjoys a damned good thrashing.”

David, Battle Arena Toshinden


I didn’t play much Toshinden during the series’ heyday, because I was limited in what games I could get my hands on and Tekken seemed to be the clearly superior option when it came to 3D fighters. I haven’t played much Toshinden since its heyday, either. However, if I’d known one of the characters was a chap in a trenchcoat with a ridiculous chainsaw I might have given it more of a shot. This is David, he dresses like Rick Deckard, he has a gun in addition to his huge chainsaw and, oh yeah, he’s also fifteen years old. Did I miss the British coming-of-age ceremony where you’re given a deadly weapon on your fifteenth birthday or something? All I got were unlicensed X-Files companion books and socks.
David’s backstory is a dark one; he’s an orphan whose parents died in a fire, only to later discover that this was all the plan of an evil organisation. This causes David to black out and slice up a bunch of people with his chainsaw. On his fifteenth birthday, no less! He’s not the first British teenager to black out on his birthday, but David takes it a step further by getting involved in a fighting tournament. I’ve seen people suggest a chainsaw is a terrible weapon to fight with because it’s easily clogged with gore, it weighs a ton and it requires fuel, but these people overlook the psychological advantage you get with a chainsaw. To paraphrase a boxing maxim, everyone has a plan until a teenager in a flasher mac runs at them with a chainsaw.

Midknight, Eternal Champions


Another character I’ve covered before, Midknight was formerly Mitchell Middleton Knight: scientist, CIA operative and jeet kune do expert who accidentally turned himself into a vampire while developing a chemical weapon. As you do. Midknight then dedicated his life to finding a cure and also to not eating people, although obviously he took the time to workshop a few bad-ass vampire names because no-one’s going to take an undead martial arts master seriously if they’re called Mitchell.

Matlok, Fighter’s History


Appearing in Data East’s Fighter’s History series is yet another British punk. So punk, in fact, that his fighting style is apparently listed as “punks.” I’m not entirely sure what this fighting style would entail, but I assume there’d be lots of spitting and safety pins involved. Matlok’s punk credentials are further enhanced by him being supposedly named after Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock. Personally, whenever I see Matlok I can only think of Grandpa Simpson shouting “Maaaaatlock!” and that does little to cultivate the aura of danger and anarchy usually associated with punk music.

Hellstinger, Voltage Fighter Gowcaizer


Finally for today (although this is by no means an exhaustive list of British fighting game characters) is Hellstinger, who appeared in Technos’ Neo Geo game Voltage Fighter Gowcaizer.  Damn, that’s a heck of a title for a fighting game. Anyway, Hellstinger – whose “real” name is the no-less incredible Kash Gyustan – was born to a famous British composer but turned his back on the stuffy world of classical music and became a heavy metal star, complete with prop devil wings and the kind of stage presence that’d make a young Mick Jagger look like Gordon Brown. And then there’s all the fighting he does, for reasons I’m not entirely clear on but hey, he gets to fight using his magical guitar so who cares what the reasons are? These British characters seem to get quite a lot of fun weapons, actually. Killer yo-yos, chainsaws, what appears to be a purple Gibson Explorer, they’re all much more interesting than swords.

When looking at all these British fighters it’s clear that the two strongest themes are blondeness and punk rock, as though Billy Idol was somehow the single most evocative aspect of British culture. The music connection makes sense to me; I’d say that when it comes to world-famous music, Britain definitely punches above its weight. Beyond that, Britain seems to have more diversity in its fighters than some nations, unlike the carnival-beastmen of Brazil or the militaristic Germans. I imagine that’s partly down to the Anglocentric nature of much media and the fact that English is a common second language around the world – or maybe it’s just that the most common stereotypes about Britain don’t translate well into fighting game characters. If I was trying to create a British fighter that encapsulated the nation I know I’d struggle, because you can’t base a combat style around self-deprecation, stiff-upper-lipism and complaining about the weather. There is one type of fighter I’m surprised I didn’t see, and that’s a football-themed character. Then again, given that the first three footballers I thought of in relation to attacking people were Zinedine Zidane, Eric Cantona and Patrice Evra, maybe that character should be French.

02/02/2018

SUPER DUCK (ARCADE)

What makes Superman super? Is it his array of fabulous powers and his invincible strength? Perhaps, but maybe what actually makes him super is his willingness to protect the helpless and defend the innocent. Yes, surely it is Superman’s moral strength that makes him worthy of the title, because he’d still try to save the world even if he could leap tall kerbs in a single bound and the only thing he could shoot out of his eyes was salty water. My point is, please try not to be too disappointed with the powers of today’s game’s eponymous protagonist. It’s Korean developer Comad’s 1992 arcade game Super Duck!


There’s the Super Duck now, looking not much like a duck at all. Barely even bird-like, if I’m honest. If I didn’t already know the game’s title, I reckon I’d have had trouble figuring out that’s supposed to be a bird. It’s all eyeballs and beak! Mostly eyeballs. I can’t help but imagine those swollen eyeballs pressing up against me, and I bet they’d feel like the blister you get when you scald yourself. There, you can have that particular mental image for free.
Okay, so we’re playing as a big-eyed cartoon duck, in an arcade game from 1992. I assume it’s going to be some kind of bog-standard hop-n-bop adventure with a cast of fuzzy-wuzzy woodland creatures, correct? Super Duck saves the inhabitants of Gumdrop Forest from the nasty King Heron by using his rainbow power, and so forth.


Or perhaps not, because Super Duck goes with a real curveball of a plot. An angel and a human woman fall in love, as sometimes happens. She’s attracted to the angel thanks to the innate goodness that comes from being a servant of the Lord God, and she’s willing to overlook both his lack of external genitalia and the fact that he looks like he’s carved from a block of warm lard. The angel is smitten with the woman’s pretty red hair. It’s a match made in… well, not Heaven, exactly. I think God generally frowns on liaisons like this.


Satan is jealous, and kidnaps the woman. Not just any common-or-garden Satan, mind you, but The Satan. He takes her to a terrible Hell, and I’m not sure whether that means an afterlife where the endless torment is particularly brutal or one that’s terrible because they accidentally ordered marshmallows instead of brimstone and it’s all a bit of an embarrassment to the higher-up demons.


“Oh, go on then,” says God. “Go and save her if you must. I don’t want you moping around and bringing the celestial host down. I hope you’ve got a plan to defeat Satan, though.” And the angel does have a plan. Oh boy, does he ever.


He calls down a bolt of lightning that transforms him from an angel into a duck. A super duck, yes, but you’d think he’d do a better job of rescuing his beloved if he had opposable thumbs. The only reason I can think of for this transformation is that a duck, being an animal, is incapable of sin and can therefore enter Hell without being condemned to eternal suffering. Of course there are lots of other animals that the angel could have become, so maybe there’s something about the duck that makes it particularly suited to this mission, like it takes place in a breadcrumb factory.


The game begins, and it’s not quite what I was expecting but it’s not a million miles away either. You’re controlling the angel-duck, and your mission is to clear each stage by collecting all the fruits / vegetables in the stage- in this case, those rather succulent-looking strawberries. The play area is a maze constructed from lollipop sticks hovering over a pond, so as you can probably tell most of the gameplay is going to revolve around jumping. You can only walk on the wooden platforms and you have to jump between them. You can only jump across a gap of one “unit,” if you get me – so the duck will clear the jump he’s attempting in the screenshot above, but if he tried to jump directly downwards from his landing point he’d fall to his death because that gap’s two “units” wide.


Wait a minute, fall to his death? I have two main duck-related issues with this. Number one, ducks can fly. Number two, duck are very good at landing in ponds. If there’s any single animal for which the hazards of this stage should prove negligible, it’s ducks.


Okay, so there are also monsters to avoid. They could easily threaten a duck. There are two main categories of monsters in Super Duck: the ones that pop up and fire a deadly projectile roughly in the duck’s direction, or the ones that run around the level without a care in the world, uninterested in what the duck is up to but still deadly to the touch. Whether by design or coincidence, the monsters often seem to congregate on the outer peripheries of the stage. It doesn’t feel particularly intentional, but there are always a few fruits you need to grab at the edge of the level and those are the most difficult to reach so maybe the monsters are supposed to move outwards and block your path.


Once you’ve grabbed every piece of fruit, the stage ends and you’re whisked away to the next one. There’s a different layout of platforms to contend with and the background usually changes, but other than that the gameplay’s the same, and I don’t think it’d be too harsh to say that if you’ve played one stage of Super Duck you’ve played ‘em all. If I was comparing Super Duck to another game I suppose Pac-Man would be the obvious choice, although because both games are about jumping between floating platforms from a sort-of-top-down perspective, Evil Stone would be a more accurate comparison. Thankfully this game never gets anywhere near as frustrating as Evil Stone.


As a lava dragon that I’m sure I once saw in a Gradius game flies around the screen, I’m reminded that this game is called Super Duck. So far I’ve seen plenty of duck but very little super, and I’m definitely not confident about my chances of defeating this dragon. Can the angel-duck even defend himself? Well, not at first, but there are mysterious orbs that appear on each stage and if you collect one of them you do gain a method with which to fight the monsters. Is it laser eyes? The wrathful judgement of Heaven itself? A pointy stick?


You get farts, that’s what. Once you’ve collected the orb you can fart at the monsters, releasing a cloud of gas that paralyses your foes and also lingers wherever you deposit it so that any other monsters that wander into the miasma will also be stunned. You know what? I’ll take it. It beats being completely defenceless, although I feel weaponised flatulence is rather tarnishing the spiritual perfection of the heavenly host. I probably should have asked Uriel if I could borrow his flaming sword before storming the depths of Hell. I should also point out that your farts have limited ammunition. You’d think that “eating all the fruits and vegetables you can” being the point of each stage would take care of that issue, but apparently not.


Stage five is a boss battle, and Super Duck suddenly switches focus from jumping-based maze game to a top-down shooter than feels a bit like Space Invaders except there’s only one enemy and it’s a huge octopus. Your farts aren’t going to cut it during this battle, but not to worry – the duck can now spit fireballs out of his mouth. Only against bosses, mind you. Yes, we’re all disappointed that the duck can’t breathe fire all the time – a power I would definitely classify as “super” - but it would make the non-boss stages far too easy so I can see why they limited it to the boss fights.
As for fighting the boss, it works exactly like you’d expect it to after seeing the screenshot above. The boss fires downwards at you, you fire upwards at the boss. Try to avoid the bosses projectiles, keep hammering the fire button, grumble under your breath a little because the boss’ health bar is just long enough to take the fight into tedious territory.
At least the boss looks cool. It’s hard to go wrong with a massive octopus monster, honestly, although I’m not sure what the two stars on its head represent. Maybe if you gather another six of these things together you can make a wish.


After the boss it’s back to the regular gameplay, and Super Duck continues in much the same vein for the rest of its duration. Collect the fruit, dodge monsters, boss fight every few stages, try to cropdust as much of the stage with your potent duck farts as possible. It’s not bad, if a little generic. A small amount of new elements are added as you rattle through the levels, the most important being collapsing platforms that crumble away if you don’t immediately jump off them, moving platforms and spikes that are deadly to the touch but can be jumped over (presuming you’ve got somewhere to jump to on the other side).



Like I say, it’s not bad. The developers had a very simple concept and they just about managed to pull it off in a way that I can’t complain about besides the obvious complaint that it’s not especially interesting or innovative. I sometimes had trouble landing jumps going “up” or “down” the screen because the duck’s wide sprite can make it a little difficult to judge whether you’re lined up correctly, and your deadly farts can be awkward to use because obviously they come out of the back end of the duck so you have to turn away from enemies to spray ‘em. Other than those minor issues, though, Super Duck works as intended.


This stage has a background composed of either writhing worms or writhing spaghetti. Pasta or worms, whatever it is it’s definitely writhing so maybe the duck has reached one of the uppermost layers of hell already.


Yep, things are getting hellish, what with the skeleton dragon and the skeleton background. This boss is a lot like the octopus except it fires a spread pattern of bones that are far easier to avoid than the octopus’ bubbles, making this a much easier although no less tedious fight. All the bosses are like this. They sum Super Duck up nicely: repetitive, mechanically competent, sometimes interesting to look at.


A lot of the enemies in Super Duck do look interesting, which is one of the reasons I’ve stuck with the game this long. I’ll cut a game a lot of slack if it has fun monster designs, and holy bouncing skeleton on a pogo stick this stage has bouncing skeletons on pogo sticks. Image the noise these things must make. Boing rattle boing rattle, like someone pouring dominoes onto a trampoline.


Also making a real claim on a special place in my heart are the ghosts that you can see in the bottom-left of the screenshot above. Yeah, the ones with the robot face. Not enough robot ghosts in popular culture, if you ask me. Or cyborg ghosts, if you must insist that there has to be a living component that must die before a ghost can be born. It’s such a weird design that I can’t help but be drawn to it, although my affection for the blockheaded spirits is slightly tempered by the fact that their massive noggins can make it difficult to see what’s behind them sometimes.
Also in this screenshot: a tiny blue man, on the right-hand side of the screen. Those aren’t enemies. They’re... items, I suppose. When you step on them, they jump to an adjacent square. If you chase them around for long enough, copying their movements, eventually they’ll turn into… a points bonus. That’s something, I guess. I’d have preferred a cigarette lighter so I could really put the duck’s farts to good use, but points are nice too.


The boss of the ice-themed world is, of course, a hybrid of man and aeroplane that launches snowballs from its shoulder-cannons. As you do. Assuming that all the bosses in this game are demons from Hell, one can only imagine the thousands of years that this demon spent mooching around the pits of the underworld, waiting for the Wright brothers to get their act together so he could finally confront his demonic kin and say “See? See? I told you this’d make sense eventually but nooooo, you were all like ‘grow some horns, dumbass’! Well, who’s laughing now!


The next set of stages are much the same as all the rest, but I did manage to collect a power-up that made the duck invincible. Not just against monsters, either: he’s also immune to gravity when he’s powered up, so you can simply ignore everything, collect as much fruit as possible and jump across otherwise impassable gaps by standing on empty air. I doubt it was intentional but doing this has a real Looney Tunes quality to it, so that’s nice. Also, here’s my top tip: the invincibility you get after losing a life also makes you briefly able to stand on nothingness, so use that to your advantage whenever a monster manages to bump into you.


High above the barren lunar surface, the duck does battle with yet other boss that fights by firing projectiles downwards. This boss appears to be a floating pile of excrement that went to the barbers and said “give me the Albert Einstein, please.” Amongst all of Super Duck’s weirdo enemies, this thing is uniquely unpleasant to look at, especially in the face. Two thumbs up from me, then. Give this thing it's own spin-off game. You might also notice that unlike the previous bosses this thing isn’t confined to the top of the screen, and will instead move down to your half of the screen. This does add a little extra pressure to the fight, but it also means you can move onto the two “prongs” at the sides of the screen and fire sideways, which is often the best strategy for avoiding the boss’ projectiles.


By the way, between each world the game’s been chucking out these reminders of the whole “angel rescuing his beloved from Hell” concept. All of them are some variation of the hero and his lover looking tense and serious, as well you might if you or someone you care about had been kidnapped by The Satan, but you might be thinking that the “hell” bits of the game don’t really mesh with the “cutesy duck eats apples” motif found during the gameplay. Well, I think I have an explanation for that.


This is the arcade flyer for another game by Comad called Hell Out. Let’s get the obvious facts out of the way first: “valuable experiences of hell!!?” might be the greatest tagline ever, and “too much interesting and funny” would be the entirety of my profile if I ever decided to try internet dating. Those facts aren’t important here, though. Take a look at the screenshot on the flyer and you’ll see that it looks a lot like Super Duck. Lots of small platforms, fruit to collect, and even some of the same monsters… although the player characters are dumpy little humanoids instead of ducks. I’ve seen it suggested that Super Duck and Hell Out are the same game, but it’s almost impossible to find any information about Hell Out that isn’t on this arcade flyer so it’s hard to say for certain, but what I think happened was this: Hell Out was the original version of the game, with the same plot and general gameplay… but the theme was later altered for some reason (possibly because of the Korean ratings board or for an overseas release that might not have happened.) If that is the case, there were definitely some big changes to the gameplay because unlike in the screenshot on the flyer, Super Duck’s platforms conform to a grid and the fruit is always on a platform rather than hanging in mid-air. Or perhaps Super Duck is a prequel / sequel. Who know? Maybe one day more information on Hell Out will surface, but for now it will remain a mystery. All I’ll say is that it’s criminal a title as good as “Hell Out” has already been taken.


Speaking of Hell, Super Duck’s final few stages definitely have the look of a classic Hell-themed world to them. Lots of lava, I mean. Molten rock everywhere, fiery chasms, a smattering of spikes. Just what you’d expect, and I’m happy to report that the gameplay hasn’t become hellish. It’s definitely a lot more difficult than it was at the beginning of the game, but on the whole Super Duck has a far more gentle difficulty curve than most arcade games and for that I’ll give it a lot of credit. There are more fruits placed with only one viable pathway to reach them, and more focus on riding the easily-misjudged moving platforms, but in many arcade games I’d expect the action to reach this level of difficulty around the end of the second stage, not just before the final boss. It helps that (as far as I’m aware) Super Duck doesn’t have a time limit, and in most case a lot of the challenges can be overcome by staying patient and waiting for the enemies to scuttle off to a different part of the map.


And now, the climactic battle against Satan himself. He’s a dragon, which is fair enough. Satan gets called "the dragon" all the time, right? Seems like a perfectly acceptable form for the devil to choose, although given the other monsters I’ve been fighting against it’s a little… bland. I’ve spend a lot of time playing a lot of videogames where I’ve fought a lot of dragons, you know? He’s definitely not as engaging as Aeroplane Man or The Floating Turd. Get to the side of his head wherever possible and use your fire breath over and over again until Satan is defeated. He doesn’t put up much of a fight, honestly. Kidnapping this duck’s human girlfriend was little more than a passing fancy, it seems.


And so the lovers are united. Neither of them look particularly thrilled with this turn of events. Maybe it was better to co-rule in Hell than date in Heaven. At least our hero isn’t a duck any more, although this does mean he’ll have to go back to holding in his farts whenever people are around.
Personally I found Super Duck rather interesting, although I’d fully understand if you did not. It’s a very middle-of-the-road arcade platformer in a style that would probably have felt a little bit dated when it was released. There’s nothing exciting about the gameplay but there’s nothing terrible about it either. But it’s also a tale of ducks, jealous devils and flatulence, with some pleasingly bizarre monsters and a mysterious relationship to other, possibly unreleased game, so it ended up holding my interest for longer than I thought it would. Forty minutes rather than ten, that’s quite the achievement!

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