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 that 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 that 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 that the giant flag with his face on it that 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 that this game’s humor is very, very British?

The early stages on Cotton Island are no-frills affairs that 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 that 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 that grant temporary invincibility, hornet nests that give Plok a supply of enemy-seeking “buddy hornets” that he can release on command, and a magic amulet that turns his spinning jump into a buzz saw move that can damage enemies. 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 that 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 that 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 that 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 that 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 that sound like they could be from the Genesis or Rush catalogs. 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 that 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 that 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 that were 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.

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Double Dragon (NES)

“Fifty thousand? You got fifty thousand on Double Dragon!?”

Technōs Japan had a groundbreaking hit on their hands with the first entry in their Kunio-kun series, 1986’s Nekketsu Kōha Kunio-kun. Also known as Renegade outside Japan, it introduced a crucial element that other martial arts themed action games of the time lacked: The ability for characters to maneuver around the stage both horizontally and vertically in their ceaseless quest to pound the ever-loving crap out of each other.

When it came time to craft a follow-up, producer/director Yoshihisa Kishimoto wanted to advance the genre again while also insuring that the setting and characters would be more palatable to an international audience than the rival Japanese high schoolers plot of the Kunio-kun games. The end result was an even bigger smash in the form of 1987’s Double Dragon.

Introduced here was the now-standard ability to pick up and wield enemy weapons. Even more significant, however, was Double Dragon’s titular two player simultaneous gameplay. As much as we think of games like this as natural multiplayer experiences today, kicking street punk ass side-by-side with a buddy was a new and electrifying concept at the time. Of course, two players at once also meant twice the quarters for arcade operators. It was the start of a beat-‘em-up boom that would persist well into the next decade.

The story was set in a post-apocalyptic future New York City after a nuclear war has resulted in the breakdown of law and order among the survivors. The action follows two initially unnamed twin martial artists (later dubbed Billy and Jimmy Lee) as they take to the streets to rescue their shared love interest Marian from her abductors, the Black Warriors gang.

Home conversions for every console and computer of the time were inevitable. Some were pretty good and some were just dismal. The best-selling, most influential, and weirdest of them all was this one for Nintendo’s flagship machine. I never played it much back in my youth but I’ve been intrigued by it ever since I saw it featured prominently in the very first issue of Nintendo Power magazine.

I might as well lead with the bad news: The trademark two player cooperative gameplay of the arcade original is nowhere to be found on the NES. This was presumably done for performance reasons. In other words, to keep the game running at a reasonable pace. Whether this was really due to insurmountable technical limitations or programmer inexperience is debatable when you consider that both Double Dragon II and III on the NES do allow for simultaneous play. At least the designers actually went so far as to tweak the storyline in order to justify the second Lee brother’s absence as a playable character. In video gaming’s most shocking heel turn since Donkey Kong Jr., it turns out that a jealous Jimmy is behind Marian’s kidnapping in this version and poor Billy is on a dual mission to rescue his sweetheart and put an end to his brother’s evil ways once and for all. Pretty dark there, guys. Or I guess it would be if Jimbo wasn’t alive and a good guy again in all the sequels. Oh, well. I still appreciate the effort.

Technōs threw in multiple new gameplay elements in order to (hopefully) make up for the loss of the game’s signature feature. The most obvious is Mode B, a rather crude stab at an early head-to-head fighting game for one or two players. There are six selectable fighters on offer but each combatant isn’t allowed to choose from them independently, so all fights are “mirror matches” where two differently colored version of the same character square off. With its awkward movement, stiff controls, limited moves, and only six possible matchups, Mode B is certainly no Street Fighter II. It is, at the very least, curiously forward-thinking. Here you have a port of the game that had set the gold standard for martial arts action in its time anticipating, albeit in a very limited capacity, the next title that would come along and do the same thing three years later.

In terms of the main game, a simple experience system has been implemented. Billy starts out with a single heart icon below his health bar and only basic punch and kick attacks. Every 1,000 experience points earned by attacking enemies adds another heart and another move to Billy’s arsenal, up to a maximum of seven. This addition is, again, more interesting than it is enjoyable, as it’s clearly a forerunner of the RPG/brawler hybrid playstyle that would be much more fully realized later on in Technōs’ own River City Ransom. Here, it mostly just functions as a time sink. Since the player has a much better chance in the later levels with a full repertoire of moves, it makes the most sense to run down the timer grinding out experience in the early stages by repeatedly punching and kicking weak enemies without finishing them off for as long as possible. This does add a few extra minutes of uneventful padding to a very short game but that’s about all.

There are four stages total, just like in the arcade. They’re very similar to their original designs, broadly speaking, though stages three and four have been lengthened via the addition of some seriously dodgy platforming segments. Like the rest of the new material in this port, they fail to add anything of substance to the core game. Billy’s jump kick works fine as an attack but it’s terrible for leaping over pits and onto moving platforms. It has a small arc, requires pressing two buttons at once, and seems to be slightly delayed. Here’s a tip: Resist your natural instinct to compensate for the short jump distance by waiting until you’re at the very edge of a gap before trying to leap over. Not only is the aforementioned delay a threat, being anywhere near the edge of a platform also seems to suck you inexorably down to your doom somehow. Once you get used to avoiding those edges and inputting your jumps a split second before you would in most other games, you can pass these sections relatively easily but that learning curve is a killer. A particularly annoying one, I might add, when you’re only given three lives with which to complete all four stages.

If it sounds like I’m down on Double Dragon, I’m really not. Even as a single player experience, it’s still a damn fine action game for its time. While the various extra features may not amount to much, punching, kicking, headbutting, and elbow smashing your way through an endless conga line of dumb thugs is timeless fun. Billy has a ton of moves at his disposal once he’s fully leveled up and most of them are quite effective. This allows you a lot of freedom to experiment with taking out the opposition in different ways. A great game with a bunch of odd, superfluous junk grafted onto it is still a great game.

Double Dragon’s soundtrack is rightly remembered as one of the highlights of the system’s middle years. The songs themselves are taken straight from the arcade but they sound even better played through the NES sound chip. Except for one rather discordant track that plays at the start of the third stage, everything here is legitimately iconic. The graphics are pretty sweet, too. Characters animate well and show a decent amount of expression on their faces as you pummel them senseless. While the backgrounds could have benefitted from a bit more detail and some additional colors in many spots, this was one of the best looking 1988 releases for the console overall.

If you just want the best possible Double Dragon experience on the NES, I would direct you toward Double Dragon II: The Revenge. It has the cooperative play that made the series famous and ditches the tedious experience point system in favor of simply giving you all your moves at the outset. The horrid platform jumping is still there but two out of three ain’t bad! The original is still an ass-whooping good time, though, and is arguably the more essential experience for NES aficionados due to its greater impact on the fan culture surrounding the console as a whole.

Besides, a little fratricide never hurt anyone, right?

Battletoads (NES)

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There is it: The sweetest 10,000 points I ever scored. So ends my first full playthrough of Battletoads: No cheats, no warps, no mercy. And I only needed one continue!

This was…a really difficult game, not just to complete, but to review. After all the hours logged practicing its twelve levels, I’m honestly torn over whether or not Battletoads is ultimately a “good” game. Overall, I really think it is, but I also think that it may not be a good experience for most people.

What can’t really be debated is that this is one of the most wildly ambitious and best presented games for the system. Battletoads came out in 1991, when the core Famicom/NES hardware was already eight years old and had been thoroughly mastered by skilled programmers. It was created by the legendary British development house Rare, who would shortly go on to debut Donkey Kong Country, GoldenEye 007, Banjo-Kazooie, and numerous other instant classics later in the decade. The graphics and music (by celebrated Rare composer David Wise) are some of the best on the system, rivaled only by a select few similarly late releases like Kirby’s Adventure. The game also has a fantastic sense of humor, with Tex Avery-inspired cartoony animations and a ludicrous plot and characters. You do play as two toad men from outer space named Rash and Zitz fighting to save a third toad man named Pimple from what appears to be a dominatrix clad in leather fetish gear after all, so embracing the stupidity fully just makes sense. I especially love how your sultry antagonist the Dark Queen will show up between every level to taunt you with horrendous puns and goofy threats that would make Skeletor proud and that she seems to have multiple bits of dialog for her chosen at random each playthrough to keep this feature from getting too stale. There are so many nice flourishes like this.

The sheer scope of the game is also impressive. Twelve levels is quite a lot for an action-platforming game of the time and you’re literally never doing the same thing twice in any of them. You’ll fight a giant robot from the robot’s point of view, rappel down a cavernous shaft, speed through deadly obstacle courses on land, sea, and in the air, climb giant snakes, have snowball fights with living snowmen, race rats to defuse bombs, and more. The action seems to take every imaginable form and scroll in every possible direction. There’s such dizzying kaleidoscope of ideas at play here that it actually verges on overwhelming at times.

It sounds like a perfect game, but as almost everyone knows by now, it’s also a very difficult one to complete. There are a couple reasons for this. First and foremost, you don’t have unlimited continues here like you do in other difficult games like Mega Man, Ninja Gaiden, Castlevania, and Ghosts ‘n Goblins. You’re guaranteed sixteen lives (four to start and four more for each of your three continues) and you can just about double this if you’re good at scoring points and grabbing the 1-Ups scattered throughout the levels. This may seem like a lot, but it’s really not. At least not until you put in the time to get really, really good. Even though your toad has a six point health bar, most of your deaths in this game will come in the form of instant kills, whether from enemies (bosses and even many common foes can kill in one hit) or stage hazards like spikes, poison gas, or falls. Even the enemies that you can potentially survive hits from normally take 2-3 of your six health points per attack. Lose all your lives and it’s back to the title screen for you, and this hurts a lot more than it does in a game like Contra. A failed Contra run may cost you twenty minutes or so at most, while bombing out of a lengthy Battletoads session can easily consume the better part of an hour.

Unlike games with less variety in their action, the skills you’ll use to pass one stage in Battletoads often won’t carry over directly to the next. The core gameplay is actually so different for each stage that it often feels like a dozen games in one, each of which requires extensive memorization and perfect execution. All these factors combined impose a sort of psychological pressure on the player that most other game developers shied away from. You can laugh off a death in Ninja Gaiden and just try something different next time, but every death in Battletoads feels like a real catastrophe and it takes a lot of focus to not get rattled, lose your cool, and compound it with more sloppy deaths, ending the run. This pressure just keeps on mounting as you progress further and further, too, making Battletoads a very stressful, nerve-wracking game and setting it apart from other tricky titles like the ones mentioned above. Simply put, it’s very tough for me to relax and enjoy myself with Battletoads like I can with other difficult NES games. I certainly don’t think I’ll be playing it much again anytime soon.

But is this a flaw in the game or a flaw in me? That’s really what makes this review so hard to formulate. Few other games put players under the same kind of pressure that Battletoads does and that’s really what gives it its unique identity and why we still remember, play, and discuss it today. Would a less hardcore Battletoads be a better game? I don’t think so. Better for me? Maybe, although the sheer almighty satisfaction of finally conquering it makes even that verdict uncertain. The grim struggle/cathartic triumph cycle is arguably the engine that drives retro gaming as a hobby, after all. Battletoads may push this dynamic to its practical extreme, but hell, if somebody’s got to do it, it may as well be ’90s era Rare, right?

Until next time, stay mad, bad, and crazy! Ribbit.