Plok (Super Nintendo)

Thanks, you odd little whatever-you-are.

Everyone and his brother was making video games in the U.K. back during the 1980s. I’m not just speaking metaphorically of the “bedroom coder” boom touched off by affordable domestic microcomputers like the Spectrum and the BBC Micro. I’m talking literally. You had the Stamper brothers (Tim and Chris) founding Rare, the Darlings (David and Richard) over at Codemasters, the Follins (Tim, Geoff, and Mike) composing some of the best chiptune music of the era, and the Bitmap Brothers churning out massive hits like Speedball and The Chaos Engine. Okay, so the Bitmaps weren’t actual brothers. I’m still counting it because this is my review and you’re not the boss of me.

Ahem. Anyway, Ste and John Pickford are yet another set of British brothers with a passion for gaming. Fresh out of secondary school in the early ’80s, they took jobs in the industry as an artist and programmer (respectively) and soon added game design to their portfolios. They’re probably best-known on this side of the pond for their work with Rare, particularly Solar Jetman and the two Wizards & Warriors sequels on the NES. Around 1990, the Pickfords were hard at work on an arcade game called Fleapit that was intended to run on Rare’s upcoming Razz hardware. Unfortunately, plans for the Razz board ended up being scrapped and the mostly finished Fleapit followed suit. Not being ones to let a good idea go to waste, Ste and John moved on to Mancunian studio Software Creations and reimagined Fleapit as the 1993 Super Nintendo platformer Plok.

Who is Plok the Exploding Man? The instruction manual informs us he is, among many, many other things: “The king of the beautiful island called Akrillic, part of the archipelago Poly-Esta…a true hero, with a heart of gold and joints of the highest quality Velcro…a grade-A, first class prime cut.” What is Plok? That’s tougher to say. Whatever he’s supposed to be, he’s got a set of cute cartoon eyes peering out from what looks to be a red executioner’s hood and he’s able to fire off all four of his detachable limbs as deadly missiles. Yes, Plok is a European mascot platformer starring a hero who attacks with his floating projectile limbs two years before Ubisoft’s Rayman. I reckon someone across the Channel has some explaining to do.

Being the (wholly self-proclaimed) king of Akrillic, our boy Plok has quite the healthy ego. You can just imagine the outrage that ensues when he steps out his front door one morning only to discover the giant flag with his face on it he flies from his rooftop has been snatched away in the night by parties unknown. All fired-up by this affront, Plok sets off by boat to nearby Cotton Island to retrieve his flag. There’s no world to save, no princess to rescue, no fallen comrades to avenge, just this absurd, pompous weirdo rambling around the countryside seeking to assuage his wounded pride by any means necessary. Did I mention this game’s humor is very, very British?

The early stages on Cotton Island are no-frills affairs which have you making your way from left to right on the way to a goal, Super Mario style. They function as an elegant tutorial on Plok’s unusual movement and attack capabilities. He has two different jumps, for example, a short hop that allows for shooting in mid-aid if needed and a spinning leap similar to Sonic the Hedgehog’s that offers greater height and distance at the cost of offensive flexibility. The limb shooting mechanic also has its quirks. Successfully striking an enemy will return the limb to Plok’s body instantly, but miss and you’ll have to wait for it to boomerang back on its own. It’s possible to have all four limbs detached at once if you’re too quick on the trigger, leaving poor Plok a sitting duck. Some of the later stages are filled with shifting walls and other obstacles which require you to temporarily relinquish one or more limbs to bypass them. One stage even forces you to play through the majority of it sans legs, which severely compromises Plok’s platforming ability, as you might expect. This adds a bit of a light puzzle element to some portions of the game, as you need to make sure you don’t run out of “keys” (limbs) before you reach the goal.

Beyond these basics, you also have an abundance of power-up items to find. There are seashells that provide extra lives when collected in bunches (think the coins from Mario), gems for temporary invincibility, hornet nests to give Plok a supply of enemy-seeking “buddy hornets” that he can release on command, and a magic amulet which turns his spinning jump into a damaging buzz saw move. The really exciting power-ups, however, are the various special costumes. Each one temporarily transforms Plok into an alternate form with its own unique attack. Some of my favorites include Squire Plok’s Contra-like spread shot blunderbuss, Vigilante Plok’s flamethrower, and Plocky’s superpowered boxing gloves.

After the first boss battle, the victorious Plok returns to Akrillic with flag in tow, only to discover the entire island has been overrun by a pack of giant fleas. Plok hates fleas. At this point, the gameplay shifts gears dramatically. These much larger, more open levels see Plok going into “search and destroy” mode to eliminate every flea in each area before he can move on to the next. This switch-up made me a little apprehensive at first, as it had the potential to slow the game down to a crawl with needless backtracking to find fleas secreted away in cryptic locations. Thankfully, the designers went out of their way to make Plok’s pest control rampage as hassle-free as possible. All of the fleas are in plain sight along the main stage paths, there’s a counter at the bottom of the screen displaying the number remaining, and you even get helpful on-screen arrows pointing you toward your next target. Nice!

Once you beat back the insect invasion, the game takes another sharp turn as Plok descends into the Fleapit to take the fight to the Flea Queen herself. Each of the final eight stages within the Fleapit has Plok piloting a different vehicle. There’s a unicycle, a monster truck, a helicopter, a tank, a flying saucer, and more. Every vehicle has its own control scheme to master and most are too something. Too fast, too slow, too slippery, you name it. It’s going to take you a lot of practice to make it through this final stretch.

In case you hadn’t picked up on it by now, I took a liking to this game straightaway. It’s packed to the gills with clever ideas and throws you a steady stream of curveballs throughout. The novelty of managing Plok’s wayward limbs to strike a balance between mobility and offense would have been more than sufficient on its own to support a typical title, but the Pickfords really went above and beyond the call of duty here. Their commitment to keeping their audience guessing even extends to the aesthetic. At one point, Plok flashes back to the olden days in the form of a playable dream sequence where the player controls the mustachioed Grandpappy Plok. The game adopts a silent movie style for this portion, complete with sepia tone visuals, “old-timey” music, and flickering title cards at the opening of each stage. Flourishes like this really drive home that you’re being treated to an extraordinary effort and not just another cookie cutter platformer.

In fact, Plok’s art and music are fantastic generally. The setting of Poly-Esta is defined by its bright colors, thick black outlines, and psychedelic landscapes, which all give the impression they may have served (at least in part) as inspiration for Nintendo’s own Yoshi’s Island a few years later. I also appreciate the care put into the animation, particularly for Plok himself over all of his many permutations.

Then there’s the music. Oh, the music. I scarcely know where to begin. From the instant Plok greets you on the title screen, whips out a harmonica, and launches into a bluesy opening theme, you know you’re in for something phenomenal. Given the score was created by two of those fabled Follin brothers I mentioned above (Tim and Geoff), I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised. Many of the instruments used here sound so realistic that Nintendo’s own Shigeru Miyamoto reportedly had trouble believing the songs were being generated by an unmodified Super Nintendo console. Plok certainly doesn’t sound at all like I expected it to. Instead of the thin, bouncy tunes of a typical lighthearted platformer, we get a lot of rich, heavy prog rock-inspired numbers. If 7/8 time signatures, spacey arpeggios, and Neil Peart drum fills are your jam, then Plok is the game for you, friend. This is all on top of the other eclectic influences I already mentioned (blues, silent film orchestration). Hell, the boss theme even breaks out the theremin to evoke a 1950s monster movie and every one of Plok’s special costumes has its own musical theme. There were times playing through Plok where the music would segue into some new riff or movement and I just had to set the controller down and go “What!?” It’s that good. It may sound crazy, but Plok’s soundtrack is one of the very finest for the system and belongs on any top ten list right alongside heavyweights like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger. Such a surprise from a relatively unknown title.

Ah. Now, it’s time for me to come back down to earth long enough to actually criticize for a bit. As much as I loved my time with Plok, it can be tricky to actually make progress in. This isn’t due to the individual stages being overly difficult in the traditional sense, though most are certainly challenging. Plok can usually withstand a good five hits or so before losing a life and there are no instant death hazards to bypass his health bar, so the levels themselves are generally of the tough, but fair variety. No, the true difficulty comes courtesy of the continue system. The game has what it calls “permanent continue points” after the first, second, and fifth boss battles. In other words, at roughly the 20%, 50%, and 80% marks. Plok’s quest is a fairly long one, so the amount of play time between these checkpoints can be considerable. The stretch between the second and fifth bosses, for example, can take up the better part of an hour. Dying right on the cusp of a new permanent continue point and having to repeat a half dozen or more very tricky and involved stages can be disheartening. You do have a limited ability to earn special continues (or “Plokontinues,” as the game calls them) by collecting four special red tokens to spell out “P-L-O-K.” Doing this will allow you to continue one additional time between the normal checkpoints, but only from the stage where you actually earned the Plokontinue. For example, if you collect your fourth red token in stage seven and then run out of lives in stage ten, you’ll be allowed to continue once…back at stage seven. Even the game’s hidden warp zones come with strings attached. Just finding them isn’t enough and you’re forced to complete some sort of difficult challenge like a timed vehicle race before you’ll actually be allowed to skip ahead. I tried a few of these without success and eventually gave up on the idea and just played through all the stages in order. Most daunting of all, there are no saves or passwords, meaning Plok must be completed in a single play session. Trust me, once you finally do reach a new permanent continue point after hours of playing and re-playing the same long run of stages, the last thing you’ll want to do is switch off your console and retire for the evening. My secret to beating Plok? I left my system switched on for a week between play sessions! The designers had supposedly intended to include a save battery in the cartridge, but publisher Tradewest balked at the extra manufacturing cost. Alas.

Although these progression woes do mar the experience somewhat, by no means should they deter you from giving Plok a try. It’s an inspired, criminally under-recognized platformer. Leading up to its release, Miyamoto is said to have told the Pickfords that only Mario and Sonic were in its same league. In spite of this high praise from Nintendo’s shining star, Plok sold poorly and would never receive a sequel. Some blame this on the glut of Sonic cash-in mascot platformers flooding the marketplace around the time of its debut, something the Pickfords could never have anticipated back when they initially conceived of the project as Fleapit. I suspect the fact that the first generation of kids to grow up with video game consoles were teenagers by 1993 and gravitating toward more “mature” titles like Doom and Mortal Kombat was also a contributing factor. Fortunately, Ste and John have managed to retain the IP rights for Plok and friends. They revived their Exploding Man in 2013 for a series of Web and print comics that’s still running today. I visited their site intending to check it out briefly before starting on this review and wound up binging all 127 pages they’ve put out to date. The Plok comics are thoroughly entertaining and serve as both a satisfying continuation of the game’s loopy story and a running satiric commentary on the state of modern gaming. It sure is nice being able to end one of these “forgotten game character” retrospectives on a high note for once. Good on ya, lads.

If you have any interest in 16-bit platformers, you need Plok in your life. It plays like a dream, surprises and delights from start to finish, and its presentation is singularly unforgettable. Perhaps best of all, it somehow remains affordable. In an era of hyperinflated SNES prices, this is one cartridge that won’t cost you an arm and a leg. Plok himself should be so lucky.

Silver Surfer (NES)

The bad news is that I feel like I just ran a marathon. The good news is that I feel like I just ran a marathon and finished first.

This is, of course, the infamous Silver Surfer, designed by Software Creations and published by Arcadia Systems in 1990. If you believe the Internet hype surrounding this title, it’s one of the most maddening, scrote shreddingly impossible games ever made and was probably birthed directly from the unwashed bunghole of Satan himself. If you’re a more reasonable sort and actually familiar with the genre, you’re more likely to see it as a pretty average 8-bit shooter bolstered somewhat by incredible music and a singularly strange sense of style.

It’s also only the third non-Japanese game I’ve reviewed, a natural consequence of my primary focus on the 1980s and 1990s, during which Nintendo and Sega lorded over the North American gaming market the majority of the time. This one comes to us out of the U.K., just like the two games from Rare I reviewed over the summer. I’m looking to cap off the month of October with my first review of a U.S.-developed title, though, so stay tuned for that.

Like several others I’ve played recently (Life Force, Axelay, Abadox), Silver Surfer is a hybrid horizontal and vertical scrolling shooter. In the opening cut scene, the Surfer is summoned by his boss, the arch-villain Galactus, and told that unspecified parties from “beyond” are going to destroy the entire universe and that only the “Cosmic Device” can stop them. Somehow. The Surfer’s mission is to recover the six pieces of the Device, each of which is currently in the hands of a different villain. Honestly, it’s all very vague. I’ve never been a comic book guy and I came away from this game knowing exactly as much about the Silver Surfer and his supporting cast as I did going in: Zero. Good thing I don’t play shooters for their stories!

Starting the game proper, you’re faced with a level selection screen, and can thus choose to play the initial set of five levels in any order you prefer before advancing to the sixth and final one, the Magik Domain. Each level is further subdivided into three distinct sections (two horizontal scrollers and one vertical), giving you a grand total of eighteen stages to complete. Be aware that once you pick one, you’re committed. There’s no going back to the level selection screen until you beat the boss, even if you die or use a continue.

Silver Surfer’s gameplay is based very closely on the well-known Gradius/R-Type model: Shoot down everything you can and try your best to avoid touching anything that isn’t a power-up, since the slightest contact with an enemy or a piece of the level architecture will cost you a life and send you back to the last checkpoint stripped of all your precious upgrades. Some degree of level memorization is required, since lives and continues are limited and you’ll have to restart from the beginning if you mess up too much. It’s a demanding, no-nonsense design philosophy to be sure, and while it’s not to everyone taste, it isn’t inherently unfair or unfun. It took me about eight hours of intense practice before I was able to clear Silver Surfer for the first time and I enjoyed myself quite a bit for most of it. There’s something very satisfying about the learning process that’s built into a game like this. Each stage starts out utterly bewildering and seemingly unwinnable, but as I study the patterns and apply what I’ve learned from each death, everything slowly falls into place and the next thing I know, I can routinely finish it with more lives in stock than I started with. Then I get to move on to the next stage and start the process all over. Again, I’m not saying that this type of game is for everyone. If you’re the type that doesn’t like having to pay close attention to every aspect of the game as they play or that gets angry or resentful when they lose, you shouldn’t feel bad about skipping any game like Silver Surfer.

The main point I’m driving at with all this is that despite its scary reputation, Silver Surfer really isn’t any tougher to complete than the games that inspired it. If you can manage a Gradius or an R-Type, you’re more than capable of handling anything that Silver Surfer can throw at you.

This isn’t to say that the game is perfect. One thing that holds Silver Surfer back a bit is the meager selection of power-ups at your disposal. The Surfer’s standard shot is a silver ball that travels forward in a straight line. You can rapid-fire these by tapping the A button. Picking up “F” icons will make the shots more powerful, which is vital for success, but the attack itself never changes in function or appearance. Forget about all the crazy lasers, homing missiles, and plasma waves that you can acquire in other games. It’s just you and your balls. Um. Moving on….

You can also acquire option orbs that will fly alongside the Surfer and mirror each of his shots. These are by far the most important items in the game, as they multiply your damage output and can be manually repositioned with the B button to fire ahead of you, behind you, below you, and more. Once you get hold of one, do your damnedest not to die and lose it. Oddly, the Surfer can utilize two orbs at once in the overhead view stages but is limited to just a single orb in the side view ones.

Next, there are bombs (represented by a “B” icon) and these will allow you to instantly destroy all non-boss enemies on the screen with a press of the select button. These can and will save your bacon, so try not to forget about them or get so obsessed with conserving them that you lose a life when you could have hit the panic button instead.

Lastly, there’s a red “S” power-up that will boost the Surfer’s movement speed and a silver “S” that grants an extra life.

These power-ups definitely get the job done, but they’re not very flashy or fun in and of themselves. I really would have preferred more attack and defense options.

Another issue is the Surfer himself. He’s a very large character by shooter standards, easily twice the size of a typical on-screen avatar, and he moves abnormally slow as well. This makes level memorization all the more important, as you’ll usually need to know exactly where an enemy or other hazard will appear if you want to have any chance of being able to avoid it or get into position to shoot it down. The aforementioned speed boost item also appears all too rarely. Treasure it while it lasts.

These gripes are fairly minor in the grand scheme of things, but one common complaint about the game absolutely rings true: You’re going to be jamming on that fire button. A lot. Silver Surfer commits the cardinal shooter sin of expecting you to be blazing away with your weapon constantly while not giving you any kind of automatic fire option. One tap equals one bullet. I must have some kind of superhuman thumb power to have survived eight hours of this game over two days unscathed. If you’re prone to hand cramps, carpal tunnel syndrome, or similar, do yourself a favor and try a turbo controller. It may be cheating, but it’s better than the alternative if pain would be an issue for you.

The other thing that the Internet absolutely gets right about Silver Surfer is the copious praise heaped on its magnificent soundtrack. We have the legendary Follin brothers, Tim and Geoff, to thank for fifteen of the most mindblowing minutes of music to ever be crammed into a tiny 8-bit cartridge. It’s pure prog rock sorcery and reminds a bit of the band Dream Theater’s output, which is a very good thing. The arrangements are incredibly intricate and far, far ahead of what almost anyone else was attempting on the hardware. The sound is so rich and full that it’s difficult at times to believe that these tunes are actually coming out of an unmodified NES. The songs are not just great by ancient video game console standards, they’re simply great and worth seeking out even if you never play the game.

One element of the game that’s not often commented on is the borderline psychedelic visual style of many of the stages. Possessor’s level has you flying through outer space past what appear to be lime green busts of H.P. Lovecraft perched on Doric pedestals while cannons fire an endless stream of deadly exploding heads up at you. The Magik Domain sees you battling flying top hats, a giant lobster, and the single strangest enemy I’ve ever seen in a video game: An undead elephant head suspended by hooks driven through strips of its flayed flesh. The elephant head drips deadly snot onto a mirror. In space. That’s just…mental, man. I am in awe. Whatever dismembered Hellraiser elephant’s backstory is, I bet it’s a hell of a lot more interesting than the Surfer’s. Maybe I should start reading comics after all.

Can I recommend Silver Surfer? For general audiences, probably not. It just doesn’t provide enough instant gratification to make it seem worthwhile to anyone lukewarm on the genre. For old school shooter enthusiasts? Absolutely. While it’s not full-featured or refined enough to rank as an all-time classic, it’s still an exhilarating, satisfying challenge bundled with some of the oddest visuals around and music that’s guaranteed to rock your face off. You can do better on the system, but you can also do a whole lot worse. As usual, the lesson here is to think for yourself. Don’t base your opinions on hearsay or YouTube videos or even reviews like this one. If a game looks interesting, pop it in and take it for a spin! You never know what “bad” games you might end up having a great time with.

Unless you’re that poor space elephant. He wasn’t having a great time at all.