Chuck Rock — Issue 48

Mediocre pre­his­toric origins
Dinosaur plat­form­ing mechan­ics does no favors

For what­ev­er rea­son, I used to be enam­ored with Chuck Rock. Maybe it was the col­or­ful graph­ics, or it was the “charm­ing” plat­form­ing. What­ev­er it was, it isn’t here in mod­ern gam­ing and with crit­i­cal hind­sight now, I can safe­ly say it should have rolled back under the rock it slith­ered from.

There isn’t much to the thread­bare bedrock of Chuck Rock. You, Chuck, are a pre­his­toric meat­head who isn’t capa­ble of more than a few words and grunts. You’re tasked with retriev­ing your kid­napped wife, Ophe­lia, from your love rival, Gary. You tra­verse through six stages, gut bump­ing dinosaurs and oth­er crea­tures, lift­ing heavy rocks to solve puz­zles and eat­ing var­i­ous foods to replen­ish your health. Occa­sion­al­ly, you’ll fight a boss who tries to keep you from your beloved and eat you. Just about every­thing is hos­tile and there are many nat­ur­al obsta­cles threat­en­ing you on the journey. 


It seems, how­ev­er, that no one men­tioned that the actu­al game­play was the real threat here. For starters, noth­ing does any­thing well. Chuck is lethar­gic and aim­less with­out a true sense of pur­pose. I get it, he’s a cave­man, but that gim­mick falls flat fair­ly fast. He’s a chore to con­trol in a hop ‘n’ bop that’s aping Super Mario World, and it’s aping the ter­ri­ble parts while try­ing to be cute. 

While the graph­ics are nice, know­ing what’s a haz­ard and what is use­ful isn’t the eas­i­est to dis­cern. Some items blend well, and some ene­mies look like they could be help­ful items. It’s a shame con­sid­er­ing the graph­ics are clean and deeply hued with a com­ic book ink feel. Chuck has a nice sprite and match­es well with the con­cept as do the dinosaurs. How­ev­er, while they look nice, noth­ing nice can be said about the sound­track. It’s monot­o­nous and bor­ing, and there’s noth­ing that stands out. It’s bor­ing and goofy, much like the game­play and the con­cept, which does noth­ing to endear any­one look­ing for a nice sol­id ear­ly Super Nin­ten­do or Gen­e­sis platformer.

What we have here is a fail­ure to cap­i­tal­ize on an estab­lished plat­former. Mario set the stan­dard a year ear­li­er with the excel­lent stan­dard-bear­er Super Mario World. Core should have tak­en a look at that and emu­lat­ed what they saw. They did­n’t, and we’re stuck with some­thing that, while cute, is nigh unplayable in some spots and a chore in oth­ers. Let’s be glad that with a bet­ter dis­cern­ing eye, I learned to leave some games in the Stone Ages.

Harvest Moon (SNES) — Issue 45

Farm­ing life begins with
SNES sim­u­la­tor classic

Leav­ing every­thing behind and tak­ing up the life of a farmer does­n’t seem to be half bad. Sure, it’s back-break­ing daunt­ing work with a large reser­voir of poten­tial fail­ure. But it’s hon­est work and high­ly sat­is­fy­ing. Or, at least that’s what Har­vest Moon wants you to believe. In a tale as old as video game time, the orig­i­nal farm­ing sim­u­la­tor wants you to live that life and suc­ceed, no mat­ter the cost.
Har­vest Moon’s orig­i­nal entry is the stark­est of all in the series. You, the name­less farmer, are tasked with rebuild­ing the fam­i­ly farm and prop­er­ty. There are ani­mals to raise, crops to nur­ture and sell, and — if you play your cards cor­rect­ly — a fam­i­ly to start. You have rough­ly a year to do this before your par­ents come back and judge your efforts. If you’ve suc­ceed­ed most­ly, you’re in the clear. If not, well, you’ve failed and it’s game over. This is the basis for the series that you see today in Har­vest Moon and Stardew Val­ley, and though most­ly unchanged in basis, it’s sim­ple and effective.
The depth comes in learn­ing the game sys­tem. Crop nur­tur­ing and ani­mal hus­bandry are not easy, but once you’ve got the nuance it’s a whole new world of prof­its. The con­trols are sim­ple to pick up and once you’ve built your­self up sta­mi­na-wise, the fruits of your labor are obvi­ous. There’s some­thing super sat­is­fy­ing about work­ing the land, plant­i­ng crops and car­ing for your ani­mals in a day’s work and then reap­ing the ben­e­fits. There is plan­ning involved also, which adds an extra lay­er of depth. Know­ing how to spend your day wise­ly — whether it be tend­ing to the farm or social­iz­ing in town — is impor­tant, and adds to the over­all experience. 
Part of that expe­ri­ence is the pre­sen­ta­tion, and it’s not bad for a SNES game. Giv­en that this is 16-bit, the sprites are bright and pop with the gor­geous SNES palette. Some areas are a lit­tle too brown but over­all, it’s a pret­ty game. The music is slight­ly monot­o­nous but it’s a lit­tle catchy so it does­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly grate the way you’d think hear­ing the same tune would for more than 20 min­utes of farm work and socializing.
Because this is the entry point to the mod­ern series, Har­vest Moon has work to do. Time — though not explic­it­ly shown on screen — runs too quick­ly. Also, the start­ing hand­i­cap of low sta­mi­na and mediocre tools is not fun. This does become eas­i­er in lat­er entries, but this frus­trat­ing mechan­ic began here and does not enhance the series in any way. 
Despite some frus­tra­tions with the game, it’s a nice, relax­ing start to a fun, quirky series. Mod­ern fea­tures may be a draw for the lat­er games, but don’t let the orig­i­nal fool you. There’s a won­der­ful life to be had even in the 16-bit starter.

Batman Returns — 4Q2020 issue

Dark Knight’s sec­ond out­ing a rous­ing adventure

As a Bat­man fan, I hold a spe­cial place in my heart for most of the big-screen adap­ta­tions of the Caped Crusader’s fight to clean up Gotham. Bat­man Returns, despite its prob­lems, is at the top of the list in terms of favorite aes­thet­ics in a Bat­man film. That said, I wasn’t sure if I felt the same affec­tion for the game version.

The sto­ry is the same as the film: You, as the Dark Knight, bat­tle the nefar­i­ous Pen­guin and his equal­ly fool­ish part­ner Cat­woman as they join forces to take over Gotham and wreak hav­oc. Because you are tech­ni­cal­ly supe­ri­or (and rich­er) than your foes, you have an arse­nal at your dis­pos­al that helps you take out the crim­i­nal ele­ment that is doing the bid­ding of the med­dle­some bird man and trou­ble­some minx. Real­ly, if you’ve watched the superb film, you shouldn’t be at a loss here as to what you need to do. It fol­lows the plot exact­ly, includ­ing the encoun­ters that Bat­man has with less­er hench­men. Being a game based on a movie prop­er­ty some­times has its perks.

Con­trol­ling the Dark Knight is much like you would expect from watch­ing the movie. Bat­man is easy to guide around, though there are a few spots where the direc­tions and what to do could be a lit­tle more clear­ly point­ed out. How­ev­er, Bat­man is flu­id and moves quick­ly enough that get­ting around Gotham to take on the Pen­guin and Cat­woman isn’t much of a problem.

Returns, fore­most, is stun­ning visu­al­ly. Much like the film, the game’s graph­ics are top-notch and evoke that well-known Tim Bur­ton feel. The graph­ics are so well done that it almost appears that they were tak­en direct­ly from the movie and insert­ed into the game. The col­ors are rich and pop when nec­es­sary in the game’s col­or palette, though it doesn’t stray far from the movie’s mut­ed col­or­ing too much.

Much like the graph­ics, the sound is also spot on and close to the movie’s back­ing tracks. Of course, there are a few appro­pri­a­tions because you’re not get­ting a full orches­tra with com­pos­er Dan­ny Elf­man on the SNES chip, but the music is suf­fi­cient and gets the job done.

Bat­man Returns is a decent adven­ture set to the tune of the pop­u­lar sequel on the sil­ver screen. It’s a paint-by-the-num­bers sequel with gor­geous, rich visu­als that some­how man­age to do the movie ver­sion jus­tice in the 16-bit era. It’s com­fort­able and easy going, so you’re not miss­ing any­thing if you’re look­ing for the best fol­low up that fea­tures Bat­man. The Bat, the Cat and the Pen­guin have a good adap­ta­tion on their hands with this 16-bit recre­ation of Gotham.

Cool Spot — 2Q2019 issue

A refresh­ing platformer

Every so often there will be a licensed game that’s actu­al­ly worth some­thing. It will have a great sound­track and decent con­trols and not be so obnox­ious­ly unplayable that legions of old­er gamers remem­ber it with a cer­tain hatred that burns deep with­in their soul to be passed down through gen­er­a­tions to come. Cool Spot, licensed from Pep­si part­ner 7UP, is the excep­tion to the norm. If you’re expect­ing a half-baked idea of plat­form­ing sole­ly because it’s a mas­cot, think again. This romp to release sen­tient lit­tle red dots is actu­al­ly not half bad and has genre-redeem­ing qualities.

Cool Spot starts off innocu­ous enough. Spot must res­cue its friends, who are trapped through­out 11 lev­els in cages. Why its friends are trapped, we’ll nev­er know but it’s up to Spot to res­cue them and lec­ture you about not drink­ing dark sodas. Spot’s tra­ver­sal through these 11 lev­els is noth­ing short of amaz­ing despite the ram­pant prod­uct place­ment. It’s sur­pris­ing­ly good, with sol­id con­trols that don’t make con­trol­ling Spot a chore, and com­pe­tent sim­ple mechan­ics that don’t get in the way: It’s most­ly jump­ing and shoot­ing mag­i­cal sparks at ene­mies and barred gates. The life sys­tem — hilar­i­ous­ly denot­ed by an ever-peel­ing and dete­ri­o­rat­ing pic­ture of Spot — is more than gen­er­ous and there are helper pow­er ups galore to get through lev­els. The lev­els them­selves have a lot of depth and are timed just right with enough time to explore or get the bare min­i­mum expe­ri­ence in the search for Spot’s miss­ing friend.

While Spot might be on a prod­uct place­ment-filled jour­ney, it’s a lush­ly drawn trip. Cool Spot is no slouch when it comes to the audio-visu­al depart­ment. The back­grounds are drawn with Spot mov­ing through an obvi­ous­ly human world at about 25 per­cent of the size of every­thing else. It isn’t big at all but the world sur­round­ing it is and it shows in the sheer scale, though my only gripe with the game comes here: The back­grounds, while beau­ti­ful, are recy­cled except for a few stages. At least the first three stages are repeat­ed and reused, just with new stage names and some recol­or­ing in spots.

While you’re soak­ing up the beau­ty of it all, how­ev­er, the sound­track is rock­ing in the back­ground. Cool Spot is one of the best sound­tracks for the Super Nin­ten­do and should be in every gamer’s library. Mag­nif­i­cent pro­duc­tion val­ues, crisp audio and nice, deep bass lines make for some inter­est­ing tracks that don’t sound like stan­dard 16-bit audio. Tom­my Tal­lari­co, pre-Video Games Live fame, put obvi­ous love and care into the audio and it shows. It’s one of the best sound­tracks for its time.

Cool Spot has a lot to offer in the way of good ’90s plat­form­ing. If you can work around the prod­uct place­ment and shilling for the 7Up brand, you’ll find an uncom­pli­cat­ed hop-and-bop with depth and a bang­ing sound­track that’s sur­pris­ing­ly refreshing.