16/08/2017

THE GREAT GIANA SISTERS (COMMODORE 64)

Today’s article is all about the thin line between plagiarism, inspiration and homage, plus walking penis monsters. It’s Time Warp Production and Rainbow Arts’ 1987 Commodore 64 awfully-familiar-em-up The Great Giana Sisters!


Here’s Giana herself, appearing on the game’s loading screen with a Rod Stewart haircut and some of the most confusingly-shaded breasts I’ve ever seen in a videogame. Also, teeny-tiny hands, but she’s still managed to grab a crystal as she flees from a strange assortment of monsters including flying hamburgers and a rather pathetic-looking lizard / pterodactyl thing, a creature that is to dragons as Godzooky is to Godzilla.


Usually I’d show you the title screen, but I can’t in this instance because it’s a huge scrolling image that spells out THE GREAT GIANNA SISTERS and it doesn’t all fit on screen at once. It does, however, spell “Giana” as “Gianna,” so you can come to your own conclusions about what the game’s heroine is actually called. Supposedly, the spelling was originally intended to be “Gianna,” but the artist responsible for the game’s cover art misspelled it as “Giana” and rather than creating replacement box art the developers just went with it.


The game begins, and that game is Super Mario Bros. Yes, it’s a familiar story to almost anyone with an interest in retrogaming, but just in case you didn’t know: Great Giana Sisters is an extremely unsubtle attempt at recreating Super Mario Bros. on the home computers of the time. The name “Great Giana Sisters” might have tipped you off. The similarities are so pronounced that Great Giana Sisters had to be recalled from sale after Nintendo saw it and threatened legal action.


I think it’s safe to say Nintendo’s lawyers wouldn’t have had to work particularly hard to win that case.


Now that you know Great Giana Sisters is Super Mario Bros with a change of gender and the kind of half-hearted, ass-covering changes to intellectual property most commonly seen on unofficial Halloween costumes, you’ve got a good idea of how the game plays. You control Giana, and you must guide her through multiple stages of hop-n-bop platforming action - leaping over crevasses, negotiating large pipes, collecting crystals and defeating enemies (often by jumping on top of them). Here’s an enemy now, a malevolent waddling lump that is this game’s answer to Super Mario’s Goombas. I’m not sure “small, furious owl” is the first place my brain would go to when trying to come up with a replacement for Super Mario’s menacing mushrooms, so clearly I lack the imaginative spark required to be a game developer.


As (in)famous as it may be, this is my first time having a proper go at Great Giana Sisters, and I have to say that early impressions are very promising. The scrolling is nice and smooth, Giana moves around at a fair clip and her jumps are definitely much floatier than Mario’s but not necessarily in a bad way. It’s difficult to explain, but even though she does drift around a bit while she’s in the air you always feel like you’ve got enough control over Giana to make the platforming fun, especially when combined with precise collision detection that allows you to make pin-point manoeuvres such as standing right on the lip of fiery platforms without taking damage.


However, Giana’s similarity to her Italian-American forebears did cause a few problems, especially in the early going. The most immediate of these was the control scheme – this being a Commodore 64 game that’s controlled with a joystick, naturally you press up on the stick to jump. I say “naturally,” but that’s the exact opposite of how it felt for the first, let’s say, hour of gameplay. Decades of playing Super Mario games where you jump by pressing a button means that said control scheme is fundamentally wired into my brain, a mental pathway laid down with the same unflinching certainty as “fire is hot, don’t touch it” or “Piers Morgan’s on TV, find the remote.” Many was the time that I sent Giana skipping merrily toward the edge of a cliff before pressing the fire button, expecting her to jump only to see her fall to her death. It took a lot of getting used to before that sequence of events became the exception rather than the norm, but even after spending a few hours with GGS there were still times when my mind refused to accept the controls.


Also similar enough to Super Mario to cause confusion is the game’s power-up system. Giana begins the game as a small girl with a bow in her hair and a blue line of pixels around her waist that I assume is supposed to represent a skirt. However, you can power her up by finding something the manual describes as a “fire wheel” but which looks like a piece of hard candy. Smash open a block with Giana’s head, find and collect the fire wheel and become bigger and stronger, with the ability to destroy certain blocks by jumping into them from below. So far, so identical to Super Mario’s mushrooms, except Giana doesn’t become “super” - according to the instructions, she becomes “a small punk.” Sadly the game’s soundtrack does not change to reflect this, I’d have quite liked to hear a SID version of the Dead Kennedys or similar.


The thing is, unlike Mario’s super mushrooms, being a small punk doesn’t make Giana any more durable and she still dies in one hit, a design decision that immediately makes GGS slightly more frustrating than Super Mario Bros. On top of that, you can’t defeat enemies by jumping into the block they’re standing on from below, something else that my brain refused to accept as fact and I was still trying to do it in the game’s latter stages.


Giana can still defend herself, though. As I mentioned earlier there are some enemies you can destroy by jumping on top of them, in that most tried-and-true method of platformer combat. Of course, there are some enemies you can’t jump on, but we’ll get to that later.
As well as grinding your foes beneath the heel of your boot, Giana can also collect power-ups that give her a projectile attack in the form of “dream bubbles.” You’d expect these to work in the same way as Super Mario’s fireballs, and to an extent they do before going off on their own tangent. Collect one power-up to throw a single bubble, collect two power-ups for a more durable bubble that stays on the screen longer and ricochets off walls, and collect three power-ups for bouncing death-bubbles that will seek out enemy targets on their own. That last power sounds great, and it certainly has its moments, but it does seem to have a problem tracking the smaller monsters and the bubbles will sometimes just hover near them, preventing you from attacking again because you can only have one bubble on screen at once.


Every four stages or so, there’s a boss battle. You won’t be surprised to learn it’s a very familiar boss battle, except after making your way through the castle and over the final bridge it’s not Bowser you’ll be facing but rather a giant spider. Or is that an ant? Maybe it’s both, nature’s attempt at creating the ultimate picnic ruiner. Whatever it is, you can defeat it in the same way that Mario would defeat Bowser: either by chucking a certain number of fireballs into its face, or by jumping over it and running for the exit. If you’re feeling particularly brash, you can jump over it several times and collect all those crystals. Grabbing one hundred of them gives you an extra life, because of course it does. That seems like something Giana should be doing because a) this is a game with one-hit kills so you’re going to need those extra lives and b) she’s a small punk, and what better way to demonstrate this than by fighting against the authority of the spider-ant overlords?


And so goes The Great Giana Sisters, having firmly settled into a groove of platforming action. You’ve got overground stages, you’ve got underground stages, you jump across holes and defeat monsters. That’s about it, really. Once you’ve cleared the first Bowser-in-an-insect-costume encounter, I’m pleased to say that GGS becomes more of its own thing, and the stage layouts feel more unique as opposed to the opening levels which were almost direct copies of stages from Super Mario Bros.


For the most part, GGS is a pleasure to play. As I said, it’s got smooth scrolling and animation, fast action and controls and physics that might be a little floaty when you’re airborne but which are accurate, precise and fun to get to grips with. While the gameplay never gets shaken up beyond the basics – there are no moving platforms here, no gauntlets to run along bridges patrolled by flying fish or springboard-assisted megajumps of the kind that keep Super Mario Bros feeling fresh – but the developers did a good job with what they had. Levels are assembled to provide a good mix between claustrophobic enemy-dodging and more expansive areas that reward sprint-jumping as fast and as far as Giana’s small punk legs will carry her.


When I reached this section, I thought “maybe Giana can run across single-block gaps like Mario can?” It turns out that she cannot. Sorry about that, Giana. You know what else she can’t do that Mario can? Use enemies as springboards by jumping on them. She just lands next to their shattered corpse, which is rather disappointing. In fact, I’d say that a large factor in how much enjoyment you get from Great Giana Sisters depends on whether you’ve played Super Mario Bros. beforehand. It’s a good game but the missing features you’d find in SMB mean you’ll either see it as an excellent Commodore 64 platformer, or a game that’s SMB but not as good.


Sometimes the boss isn’t a spider-ant, but instead it’s the green dragon from the loading screen. It looks a lot less… unfortunate from this angle, don’t you think? Menacing, even. Not as menacing as a spider / ant hybrid that’s larger than a child, but still. The fight’s still basically the same – either jump over the pterodactyl or dream-bubble it to death – but in this case I’d rather managed to get myself stuck by standing on the collapsing platforms for too long and then jumping up to the top for shelter. With very few places to stand that were both safe and gave me a chance at getting past the dragon, I thought I was going to be trapped up here forever, living out the rest of Giana’s life in a dragon’s attic. Then I realised I had the rebounding dream-bubbles, so I could throw them at the side of the platform on the left and they’d bounce back, hitting the dragon. Not only am I a god-damned genius, but the “good problem-solving skills” section on my CV is no longer a lie.


As much as I like the graphics in Great Giana Sisters – and I do, because they’re crisp, colourful and contain a nice selection of weirdo monsters – it could definitely benefit from a few different backgrounds. So much of it is very gently altered from Mario’s visual style that it can get a bit monotonous: the pipes, the fluffy clouds, the blocks, the unholy black statues erected in praise of some eldritch god that I can only see as the Alien Queen. A bit of variety would have been nice, you know?


In the very first paragraph of this article I promised you penis monsters, and I am a man of my word. At least, they look like penis monsters to me, as they bounce across the screen like a wind-up novelty purchased from the back of a dingy seaside “souvenir” shop. I’m sure Sigmund Freud would have something to say about me seeing these creatures as ambulatory dongs, but then again he absolutely bloody loved cocaine and if you’ve ever had a conversation with a cokehead then you’ll know they’re generally not worth listening to.


I have a bit of a problem with some of the monsters in this game, actually. Some of them can be killed by jumping on them, some can’t, some die by dream-bubble and others don’t – and the problem is that it’s not easy to tell at a glance your chosen method of murder should be. There aren’t that many types of monsters in the game so eventually you’ll simply remember what damages what, but when compared to something like, ooh, I dunno, Super Mario Bros. where monsters you can’t jump on tend to be spiky or what have you, it’s a little annoying.


After much toil, struggle and leaping onto spikes that I thought were part of the background, I’ve reached the final proper stage of the game, and here comes the moment I was waiting for. Whenever I play a platformer, there always seems to be one specific section – one specific jump, even, - that I get stuck on for an embarrassing amount of time. In Gremlins 2 it was the springboard-and-spike bit, in Toki it was the Golden Pipe of Bullshit, and in Great Giana Sisters it’s this screen. All you have to do is jump over / under the leaping fish and land on one of the three platforms available, but as you can see from the screenshot you’re not given much margin for error and I suffered countless deaths because I didn’t quite make it past the fish. Then I died another fifty or so times because I was so frustrated by the fish that I lost my cool and started messing up the basics of jumping, ramming Giana’s head into the ceiling and sending her plunging to her death. Was it miserable enough to make the rest of the game seem less good by comparison? No, thankfully it was not, although I certainly wasn’t having a good time while I was muttering “fucking bastard fish” to an empty room. I made it in the end, though. Aim for the bottom platform, that’s my advice.


With the fish dodged and a few more platforms safely negotiated, I made it to the end of the final stage. Imagine my surprise when bugger all happened. Giana just hit the wall and stopped. There’s nothing up here, and even if I hadn’t eliminated most of the collapsing platforms I couldn’t retrace my steps because the screen doesn’t scroll in that direction. In the end, all I could do was throw Giana into the briny deep and try to figure out what I’d done wrong.


Eventually I found my answer. You see this hole, located half-way through the final stage? Yeah, you’re supposed to jump down there. Once the leaping schlong has moved out of the way, obviously. It turns out this hole is actually a portal that warps Giana to the final boss, despite it being located in the place any platforming hero worth their salt will go out of their way to avoid. I was understandably aggrieved by this, especially because this pit appears before the very difficult double-fish murder jump. I went through all that for nothing. You’d think I’d be used to unnecessary suffering after spending the last thirty years watching the England football team, but it still rankles. There’s a line in the manual that says “Level 32: the straight road is not always the right one...” but that’s hardly the most helpful hint, is it? It sounds more like a fortune cookie message than a gameplay tip.


So I died, went back and jumped down the hole, where I was faced with GGS’ final boss. It’s the pterodactyl again. I was a little worried I was going to get stuck here, what with having lost all my power-ups because I had to purposefully lose a life, but in the end the boss was extremely accommodating and flew close enough for me to jump over him without any trouble. None of the bosses in this game really seemed to have their whole heart in it, you know?


Your reward for victory? A bloody massive crystal. You could align the hell out of your chakras with that thing.


Morning sun vanquishes horrible night, etc, etc. It turns out that the whole game was just a dream – normally a cop-out ending, but appropriate in this case. It feels like a dream you’d have if you stayed up until four AM playing Super Mario Bros. and listening to Black Flag, that’s for sure.


That’s The Great Giana Sisters, then. But is it? Great, I mean? No, I don’t think so – can something ever truly achieve greatness if all it does is ape greatness than has come before it? Probably not, but even if it could GGS doesn’t quite have the chops to make it to the absolute peak of the artform. It’s a little too one-note for that, a touch too repetitive. What it is, though, is a very good Commodore 64 platformer – one of the best on the system, I’d say. A good difficulty curve, some fun platforming challenges and an overall feeling of slickness make it an enjoyable game to play even today. Or, if you don’t have time for that, just listen to Chris Huelsbeck’s excellent soundtrack. I’m certainly glad I’ve played through a game which is, in its own way, a legend, even though I know that every now and then I’m going to think of that dead-end in the final stage and curse under my breath.

11/08/2017

FOOTBALL GAME COVERS

The world might seem like a dark and dismal place at times, but here’s a golden ray of sunshine to lighten my mood: it’s the start of the new football season! Ah, what a wonderful time of year – the anticipation of seeing how new signings work out, the excitement of laying bets on how long Daniel Sturridge will be injured for this season, the faint glimmer of hope I allow myself as I set up my fantasy football team despite knowing full well that they’ll be relegation candidates by January. Anyway, to celebrate I‘m going to to look at a bunch of covers from football games. A lot of them are from the eighties, so I hope you like short shorts.

2 Player Soccer Squad, ZX Spectrum


Let’s begin with a pretty typical example of the form, at least when it comes to home computer football games. Ignore the fact that a two-player soccer squad isn’t going to have much luck when football teams are supposed to have eleven players each, and instead focus on the charmingly amateurish artwork, making particular note of just how small the player in red’s shins are. That’s why he’s such a good footballer, the reduced distance means nerve impulses can travel between his brain and feet quicker than other players.

Soccer, NES


Look, I know what you’re thinking but there’s nothing in the rules that says a jockey can’t be a football player.

Sean Dundee’s World Club Football, DOS


If you’ve ever wondered who the least famous footballer ever to endorse a videogame is, then Sean Dundee might be the answer to that question. This game is the footballing equivalent of Guitar Hero: Puddle of Mudd Edition. Dundee – whose dressing room nickname was almost certainly “Crocodile,” knowing footballers - had an okay career in the German Bundesliga before moving to Liverpool in 1998, where he proceeded to do bugger all. Astonishingly, he’s apparently still playing today, turning out at the age of 44 for German amateur team VSV Buchig. And, of course, he lent his name to this game, as well as appearing on the cover in a garish yellow and green number that’s giving me a craving for sour lemon sweets. As a minor collector of (especially hideous) football shirts, I’d love to own one of these but sadly I’m 99 percent sure it doesn’t exist: this image has been manipulated and in the original Dundee was wearing Karlsruher SC’s 1997-98 home shirt. That’s the kind of in-depth analysis that I can only apologise for.

Manchester United Europe, Amiga


Blimey, that’s a face and half, isn’t it? It’s as if Richard Nixon appeared in the video for "Firestarter". You’ve got to be careful, gurning like that. One slip and you’ll bite your own tongue off. Maybe it looks a little less troubling in the original photo?


Erm, no, not really. That’s the late Manchester United keeper Les Sealy, by the way. He died of a heart attack at the shockingly young age of 43, so I feel a little bad about pointing out his unsettling face.

Soccer Director, ZX Spectrum


It turns out that Blofeld didn’t die when James Bond dropped him down that chimney – he crawled out, went to a wig shop and asked for the least convincing toupee they had before entering the exciting world of football directorship. “Die? No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to sign a first-team-quality striker while remaining within our transfer budget for the season!” No, wait, that was Goldfinger’s quote, not Blofeld’s. Screw it, I’m sticking with it.

Football Fever, ZX Spectrum


Ah yes, nothing says “I’ve come down with an incurable case of football fever” like a black-and-white image of a stiff-looking footballer standing next to a goal with an interesting take on the concept of netting. I hope you all realise than my mockery is of the most gentle kind, because I really do love these types of cover art. They speak to a time when budding programmers could create and sell a game without necessarily being artists, and without wanting to sound too “wake up sheeple”-ish it’s nice to see game covers that haven’t been painstakingly composed or focus-grouped into blandness. This is especially true of modern football games, which are entirely dominated by FIFA and Football Manager. “What about Pro Evolution Soccer?!” cries a lone voice from the back of the room, but that voice belongs to a Konami marketing employee and thus can and will be ignored.

Football Director: 2 Player Super League, ZX Spectrum


If you thought that the previous cover was dull, wait until you get a load of this one! “Play Against A Friend” is coming across more as a command than a suggestion, I fear. I sincerely hope this version of Football Director was intended for mail-order sales, because as much as I enjoy these low-rent Spectrum covers I don’t think this one is going to catch the eye of anyone browsing the shelves unless they’ve got chronic insomnia and they’re looking for the cure. And yet, this isn’t even the most boring cover in this article!

Football Pools Program, ZX Spectrum


That honour goes to the cover for Football Pools Program, which is so completely lacking in visual interest that I think it might wrap all the way around to being avant-garde genius. I should point out that Football Pools Program isn’t a football sim where you can only play as Liverpool, Blackpool and Hartlepool, by the way. The pools are a time-honoured British tradition - a way of gambling on the football, with the aim being to pick games that end in score draws. Now that I think about it, betting on something but not betting on the winner seems like a very British way to go about things.

Peter Beardsley’s International Football, Atari ST


Here’s English football legend Peter Beardsley, having a kickabout with his clone on the world’s narrowest football pitch while a computer explodes in the background. You know, as you do. While it’s not surprising that Peter Beardsley starred in his own football game - he was an exciting, skilful player, in his day – I am surprised that the artist included not one but two instances of Peter Beardsley’s face on this cover. If you do an image search for “peter beardsley face,” you’ll see why this is an unusual choice. One of Beardsley’s nicknames was “Quasimodo,” after all.
On the subject of Peter Beardsley, I was lucky enough to see him play in person at the tail-end of his career (during his spell at Hartlepool United,) and I’m a little sad that these days top-flight players go straight into punditry or coaching when they retire and don’t spend a couple of years slumming it at fourth-tier clubs. Who wouldn’t want to see Messi or Ronaldo getting lumps kicked out of them by bitter League Two cloggers?

1st Division Manager, Amiga


More famous faces from British football with this one, a veritable Mount Rushmore of eighties and nineties superstars. At the back you’ve got a very relaxed-looking Brian Clough and the mighty moustache of Graeme Souness, who’s posing like a British tourist trying to get the attention of a waiter during a holiday in Spain. In front of them, from left to right, it’s the troubled Paul Gascoigne, John Barnes performing a can-can routine and noted potato snack peddler Gary Lineker. It’s a sign of this cover’s quality that all these people are immediately recognisable, although poor Gazza has definitely come out worst during the illustration process and now has a touch of the Frankensteins about him. Look at his face and tell me he’s not about to ask John Barnes to build him a female companion from reanimated flesh.

Pet Soccer, PC


Okay, two things: who the hell owns a shark or a polar bear as a pet? Also, why is one of these football players a giant gherkin with googly eyes?  That warty green skin texture is genuinely unpleasant to look at, but I steeled myself for long enough to take a good look at that creature and I’m still not sure what it’s supposed to be. I would have said “a snake,” but it has limbs so, I dunno, a dragon? A football-playing dragon that’s also someone’s pet. Okay, sure, why not.

Club Football: The Manager, Amiga


Fig. 1: Testing begins on electrified benches installed in the dugout. Early results are not encouraging.

Multi-Player Soccer Manager, ZX Spectrum


This one doesn’t seem too bad at first glance, but then you catch sight of the player’s arm. That is not a human arm. It looks like to belongs to one of those sensory homunculi – you know, those models that show what a person would look like if their body parts were proportional in size to the amount of sensory input they receive. If it even is an arm, and not a third, vestigial appendage that the goalkeeper’s had grafted onto his nose. It’s unlikely to help him catch any more shots, but it’ll probably do a good job of distracting the opposing strikers.

Jikkyou World Soccer 2: Fighting Eleven, Super Famicom


Just so you know, there are some really good football game covers out there. This one’s for Jikkyou World Soccer 2: Fighting Eleven, better known to non-Japanese players as the all-time classic International Superstar Soccer Deluxe. The same image is used on the European and US covers, but I think the vertical orientation of the Super Famicom box displays it in a much more appealing way.  A more appropriate way, too, given that it’s a painting and as such it benefits from having a bit more space to breathe. Konami’s decision to go with an impressionist painting is surprising but welcome, and I think it captures of the excitement and energy of a football match excellently – and the fact that there appears to be a couple of blokes made from living fire in the background both hearkens to the passion of the sport and introduces a bit of mystery – do the fire-demons from beneath the Earth’s crust prefer man-to-man or zonal marking? Will the Grand Overseer of the Flame-Men stay off the treatment table long enough to guide Searing Maelstrom of Unimaginable Agony FC to the league title? Sadly we shall never know, because ISS Deluxe only stars regular, non-incendiary players.

World Football Manager, PC


This is former Manchester United and Sheffield Wednesday boss and disgraced pundit “Big” Ron Atkinson, photographed moments after realising he’s just destroyed his career by making racist comments on live television.

Marko’s Magic Football, Sega CD


Not all games with a football theme are strictly about playing or managing a simulation of the sport, of course: for example, here’s Marko’s Magic Football, a platformer about a cartoon child with a magic football and the sadistic killers who try to burn him alive with flamethrowers. When there’s a clown on the cover of a game and it isn’t the biggest threat to a child, you know you’re dealing with something truly messed up.

Rick Davis’ World Trophy Soccer


You know earlier when I said Sean Dundee was the least famous footballer ever to have his name attached to a videogame? Well, I’m willing to admit my mistakes. It turns out that Rick Davis holds that particular honour. He played his entire career in the US, apparently, including a spell at a club called the St. Louis Steamers. That, erm, that’s not the most flattering name, is it? I can’t imagine the fans chanting “Steamers, Steamers!” whenever they run out on to the pitch. Not in a positive way, at least.
As for the actual cover art, Mr. Davis appears to have swung his foot at the ball and missed. It’s not the effect I would have chosen when trying to promote my football videogame, but to each their own.

Crazy Chicken Soccer, PC


It’s chickens… and they’re playing soccer! Now that is crazy, he chuckled, while surreptitiously filming the footballing chickens to see if any of them would be worth signing to shore up Rotherham United’s defence. In today’s world of obscenely inflated player wages, it’d be nice to sign a player who’ll work for chickenfeed. No, that noise you just heard wasn’t a rimshot, it was the sound of me beating myself with kitchenware as penance for that joke.
Now, Crazy Chicken Football isn’t a concept that sprang, unique and wholly formed, from the mind of this game’s developers. Oh no, Crazy Chicken has quite the history. German history, to be precise – you see, in 1999 a game called Moorhuhn Jagd (Moorhen Hunt) was created as a marketing tool for Johnnie Walker whiskey. It’s a very basic point-and-click shoot-em-up, where you shoot down moorhens by clicking on them. However, Moorhuhn Jagd became ridiculously popular in Germany, to the point that it was accused of harming German economic production due to the amount of time people were wasting playing it. I suppose the US equivalent would be Elf Bowling, and just like Elf Bowling the Moorhuhn series grew to include dozens of games (including this football spin-off, pinball and kart racing entries,) plus comic books, a TV cartoon and, god help us all, a German tie-in novelty single. The Moorhuhn games are localised as “Crazy Chicken” outside Germany-speaking regions and, well, here we are.

Street Gang Football, Amstrad CPC


Did you really think we’d get through this article without seeing at least one “street gang” themed football game? Hah, fat chance of that, and here it is. They’re a street gang, and they play football on the streets. No rules, vicious tackles made even more dangerous by the plethora of metal studs on their jackets, oil drums for goalposts, that kind of thing. Given that they’re all carrying bats I suspect they thought they’d signed up for a baseball game, but this gang will never back down from a challenge even if they do look like a Poison tribute band that’s gotten in way over their heads.

Lego Football Mania, PS2


Lego Football Mania is the only game featured here that lets you play as a Lego skeleton, and consequently I hereby award it a rating for ten out of ten, five stars, one hundred percent, best football game ever.

Ultimate Soccer, Game Gear


Here’s a cover that’s just a big picture of someone getting kicked right in the face. That’s the kind of thing that usually gets described as “brave defending,” which I’m sure will be a great comfort to this player as he attempts to cough up his own teeth.

Animal Soccer World, PS2


In which the lion from Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks has fallen on hard times.

Spec Soccer, ZX Spectrum


Finally for today, here’s one last amateur ZX Spectrum cover because I do love ‘em. The shadowy shape reaching for the ball implies that this team has put a sea lion in goal, a bold strategy that seems unlikely to pay off unless the opposition team consists of eleven sardines. It reminds me of the things I doodled in my school exercise books, and as much I’m not one to eulogise about the good old days, there’s definitely something rather heartwarming about that.

07/08/2017

3RD PARTY SNES CONTROLLERS

Today I’m going to talk about control pads. Specifically, third-party controllers for the SNES, because when I was a kid I had a SNES that only came with one official controller and I also had two younger brothers who were not exactly gentle with our peripherals. One of them took our NES Zapper in the bath with him, for pity’s sake. So, over the years I was “fortunate” enough to try out quite a variety of third-party SNES pads. I’m sure many of you will share this pain – there’s a reason that “I went to my friend’s house and they made me use the crappy non-official controller” is up there with “blowing on the cartridge” in terms of shared videogaming memories. Well, I was that friend with the crappy controllers. I apologise to everyone that had to suffer through Super Mario Kart this way.

QuickJoy SN ProPad


Let’s start with the pads I actually owned, and this was one of them: the SN ProPad. It’s actually… not bad? That’s how I remember it, anyway, and when an official SNES controller wasn’t available this would be the one I’d go for. It’s pleasingly chunky, durable at a time when the potential anger generated by two-player Mortal Kombat matches meant that durability might be an issue, and as I recall the d-pad was decent, too. The d-pad is so often where these controllers fall down, but I definitely put a lot of hours into Super Street Fighter II with this pad and didn’t suffer for it.
However, the most notable thing about this pad is just how incredibly 90s it is. It could have come from no other decade. The overall shape of it, the transparent plastic casing and most of all the colours of the buttons, colours so much of their time that if the 1990s had an official flag, it would be rendered in those hues.


Yeah, something like that. In an alternate history where Nickelodeon representatives colonised Mars in 1993, that’s the flag they planted at the future site of New Gak City. There were versions of this pad where the buttons were the same primary colours as on an actual SNES controller, but I’m sure we can all agree those are clearly inferior.

Competition Pro


On the opposite end of the scale is this depressing lump of grey misery, which I also owned. Owned twice, even: I had one as a kid, and then years later – I’m talking early-to-mid-2000s, long after the SNES’s heyday – I saw them for sale in a pound shop. Boxed, brand-new Competition Pro SNES pads for the incredible price of one of your English pounds. Obviously I bought one, on the off chance it was an artefact that had somehow travelled here from a parallel dimension. It wasn’t, it was the same old not-very-good SNES pad I’d used as a kid. I recall the d-pad on this one being particularly bad - spongier than a Mr. Kipling factory, frankly - as well as the little turbo-fire switches being both very stiff and quite sharp.
Speaking of the turbo-fire switches, you might notice that there’s one for slow motion. Given that some of VGJunk’s readership is bound to be too young to remember, I should explain how this switch worked: it was just a turbo button for Start. In most games, the Start button is pause, so to achieve a “slow-motion” effect the game would rapidly pause and unpause. It rarely worked well and sometimes didn’t work at all, but its best use was in the original SNES version of Street Fighter II. For some reason, Capcom made the decision to include a sound effect that plays when you pause SFII. “Sound effect” doesn’t quite cover it, mind you – it’s a sample of someone shouting “Hoh hoh hoh hah hah hah!,” plus a cymbal crash at the end. When you unpause, it says “fight!” So, playing SFII using this slow motion function means you’re launching hadoukens and sonic booms while a constant stream of “ho-fi-ho-fi-ho-fi” assaults your ears.
On top of that, this SNES pad is the same shape as a Megadrive pad. You’d think there’d be laws against that kind of thing, or if not laws then at least widely-held social taboos that should never be crossed. I assumed that the reason for this pad’s shape was that there was also a Megadrive version of the pad and the manufacturers were trying to save time and money by re-using the same shell, but while there is a Megadrive Competition Pro pad, it’s a different shape.

Tecnoplus SNES Control Pad


Oh man, I’d forgotten about this one until I started looking up SNES pads. Another controller that I used to own, the Tecnoplus is certainly a game pad. Yep. That’s all you can say about it, really. It’s utterly forgettable, the very image of a generic videogame control pad. Like, if you needed to draw a controller, possibly to advertise the videogaming section of your online shop, there’s a decent chance you’d just end up drawing the Tecnoplus. On closer inspection a couple of details do reveal themselves. One is that the d-pad looks horrendous, which I’m sure it was but obviously I can’t remember because the Tecnoplus pad is so dull it defies the human mind’s attempts at memorisation. The other is that the start and select button have been fused into one unit. That way you only have to make one button. It’s efficient, you see.

Triax Turbo Touch 360


Fortunately I never owned a Turbo Touch 360: unfortunately, one of my friends had the NES version, so I still had to use it a bunch of times. Clearly this controller’s main gimmick is in the d-pad region, where the familiar cross-shaped button has been replaced by an octagonal patch of rubber I like to call the Zone of Failure. The idea behind the Turbo Touch 360 was that the d-pad is replaced by a series of touch-sensitive, erm, sensors, with the aim of creating a control system that requires less physical force to interact with. Makes sense to me, many’s the time I’ve felt the embarrassing glare of my doctor as I explain that I’ve fractured my thumbs yet again by smashing them into the SNES’s unyielding, implacable d-pad.
Okay, maybe that’s a little harsh: apparently the Turbo Touch was endorsed by a surgeon specialising in sports injuries, and I could see this pad being an option for some people with reduced manual dexterity. Sadly, that doesn’t make the Turbo Touch good, and as I recall it has only two states: ridiculously over-sensitive or completely unresponsive. Triax tried to reinvent the wheel and ended up with a sack full of bricks.

Nakitek Power to Perform


I’m not sure whether the controller pictured above is using the same capacitive sensor technology as the Turbo Touch or if it just has the worst d-pad mankind could possibly conceive of. That’s not important, though – the shocking twist with this one is that you can use it on both the SNES and the Megadrive or Genesis! That’s incredible technology right there, but there’s only one drawback: who is this meant for? What kind of mad billionaire owned both a SNES and a Megadrive during their peak years? Maybe it’s just a British thing, but I don’t think I knew anyone who owned a SNES and a Megadrive at the same time until years later when they began collecting retro stuff, not even that one rich kid who got every Nintendo console on release day. Sure, it might look like something Batman knocked up so he could play emulated games on the Bat-Computer, but I have to question its overall usefulness.

“Performance”


Here’s another one that I didn’t actually own but I certainly used at some point: those scalloped shoulder buttons are dredging up some long-submerged memories. We’re back to the most nineties of colour palettes with this one, and on the whole it looks like someone strapped Picasso into a machine that blasted Super Soaker commercials into his face for a week, then kicked him out of the booth and ordered him to paint an angry owl.
This one also seems to have a hole in the d-pad where you can screw in a little plastic nub, turning it into a mini-joystick. I don’t think I ever used a “joystick” like that. Here’s a shocking fact about me: I’m not very good at games that use joysticks, especially fighting games. I much prefer using a d-pad for them, and I’m too old to learn how to use a fighting stick now. Okay, not old. Stubborn. Yeah, that’s it.

Aqua Pad


It appears there was a variant of the previous pad called the Aqua Pad. Isn’t that where Aquaman moved after his divorce? Anyway, the Aqua Pad. It sure is something, and that thing is specifically springs. Why does it have those massive springs in the side? I assume they work with the shoulder buttons, and I’m no videogame control pad engineer but they seem comically oversized to me. If you dropped this pad on a hard surface, there’s a good chance the shoulder buttons would fly off with enough force to punch through six inches of reinforced steel.

Beeshu Jet Fighter


Finally for today, we’ve got this mad thing. I’ve had some kind of connection to most of the other pads I’ve mentioned, but it pains me to say I have never had the pleasure of using the Beeshu Jet Fighter controller. I couldn’t not include it, though, because look at it. More people should be made aware that there’s a SNES controller shaped like a stealth fighter, and if I can be a part of spreading this good news then that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. It must surely be an absolute nightmare to use, but on the plus side if you’re the kind of person who throws their controllers when they get frustrated with a game then the Beeshu could probably travel about four hundred feet with enough air under its wings. Don’t throw your controllers, though. Breathe deeply, relax, see your failures as a path to eventual success. Unless you’re using that Competition Pro pad; in that case, go nuts.

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