From the creators of that famous game Fast Eddie (remember Fast Eddie? I reviewed it like six years ago, you should!) comes this fast-paced action shooter! It mostly consists of moving a ship/gun emplacement/whatever through a central column, firing at various baddies on each row. Shoot enough of these, rack up enough kills and/or points, and eventually you’ll move on to the next wave, where ECCAMF. Sometimes an arrow will appear and move through a row; if you don’t kill it fast enough then it turns into a tank (like in the upper row in the screenshot) that can only be destroyed by shooting it from behind. More wicked, however, is the power pellet-like collectible that sometimes appears, stationary, at the end of the row, which you have to physically collect and is worth lots of points. However, if you do you’ve got to make it back to the central column quickly, as a blue thing that looks like two cymbals appears on that same row coming at you from the opposite side that you have to get out of the way for (you can’t shoot it, as your shot goes right through a hole in its middle: see the middle row in the screenshot). And if you don’t collect the pellet, it eventually turns into a high-speed ping-ponging projectile that’s hard to shoot without getting hit, so it spells danger no matter which way you go with one of those things.
Turmoil does what it does well: being a fast-paced shooting game. It doesn’t really do much more than that, however, so I can’t recommend it too highly. It’s just a bit of a time-waster trying to rack up a high score with good hand-eye coordination: typical late 70’s/early 80’s video game fare. Nothing more, nothing less. Also, unlike Fast Eddie, there are no flying fish to collect, so no points for surreality, I’m afraid.
I have a few herpetological questions about this game for any reading this who might be experts in that field. Do frogs climb trees? If so, do they drop apples on unsuspecting passersby? If so, are those passersby usually dinosaurs? Does dropping an apple onto a dinosaur cause an apple to immediately grow back in the tree? Do birds occasionally start chucking the apples out of the tree, much to the frog’s consternation? Does the amount of apples in the tree directly correlate to the time a frog can spend out of the water without drying up and dying? If the tree runs out of apples, does that normally result in the extinction of the nearby frog population? And, perhaps most importantly, do dinosaurs occasionally send invincible killer robots into these trees to murder any unsuspecting frogs who may be lurking in the branches?
Because if any of those things aren’t true, then I’ve got some serious words for whoever made this game.
As you may have guessed, Amphibian is an odd little thing, to say the least. The basic gist is that you’re a frog who spawns in a pond below a tree, then climbs the tree to drop apples on the heads of passing dinosaurs to rack up points. You can only spend a certain amount of time in the tree before starting to dry out and having to head back to the pond to remoisturize. The apples respawn if you hit a dino; however, aim carefully, for if you miss that apple’s pretty much gone forever, and if all the apples are gone (you also lose two or three of them if you bump into an enemy and die, forcing another frog to respawn in the pond) then game over! Occasionally birds will come along that toss down your apples willy-nilly that you have to destroy before you lose too many (hilariously if an apple thrown by a bird hits a dinosaur you still get points for it), and, as noted, sometimes a robot will come along to flush you out of the tree (the key to not being killed is to rush back to the pond the instant you see one of these robots appear). Also, sometimes a fisherman will sweep the pond, forcing you back up into the tree to survive, ensuring that you can’t just hide out in the pond. And finally, on occasion a duck-billed dinosaur (did those exist? Someone tell me those existed, please) will cross the screen, and if you hit it it will sink into the pond instead of being destroyed, and if you then drop down into the pond to touch it before it leaves the screen it’s worth a fair amount of points.
That’s a whole lot of explanation for a game that’s conceptually little more than “kill dinosaurs with apples”, but the gameplay is varied enough that it’s quite fun. Also, the music is pretty fantastic, with a jaunty little tune playing when a frog spawns, and a legitimately tearjerking funeral dirge that plays over the game over screen. Good stuff.
The controls are probably the biggest drawback, though, as in order to drop an apple you’ve got to hold the trigger and pull down on the joystick, which could also potentially drop your frog off the branch he’s on. This is annoying on most branches, but instantly deadly from the lower-right branch (as the drop is too far for your frog to survive) and it may drop you on top of a dinosaur. Also, it gets somewhat repetitive after a while, as there aren’t levels per se, not even levels that just change color and move faster. You just keep going until death, performing the same tasks over and over again while unstoppable forces push you closer and closer to your demise.
Well, now I’m depressed.
The year: 2002. The season: early spring. The location: the small town of Granollers, a windy city about half an hour north of Barcelona in Spain. I had been assigned to work in this city as part of a two-year mission I served for the LDS Church. I was nineteen years old, and it was the first time I had lived more than an hour’s drive away from home. I barely spoke the language, I was assigned a companion that I didn’t get along with too well, and I was preaching a gospel message that most people weren’t interested in hearing. It had been a rough day, filled with rejection, walking, people pretending not to be home, more walking, and also a fair amount of walking. My companion and I were sitting at the train station at early dusk, not speaking much to each other, as usual. I was feeling very alone, and very, very homesick.
That’s when, over the tinny sound of the train station’s PA system, I heard it. A soft melody that whisked my mind back to simpler times, to earlier years when I was surrounded by family in a familiar place, where I could speak the language and didn’t have to spend each day being ignored. A melody that soothed my homesickness and helped me think that, no matter where I was and how far away I was from anything I’d ever known, sometimes something warm would come out of the blue and reassure me that there was still a bit of familiarity even in that faraway land.
It was the lovely, lilting melody….from Pinhead.
Well, OK, it was actually the old classic “Around the World” (most probably the version recorded by Armando Mantovani that I linked to above), but I didn’t know it at the time. Heck, I didn’t even know the real name of this tune until I started writing this review. And, in truth, it was just one of several public domain songs that the makers of Pinhead stole for their silly Atari game (the second level plays “The Entertainer” and later levels play other turn-of-the-century tunes that I didn’t recognize offhand).
But it’s funny the things that you remember, and the things that can suddenly surface after years, just at the right moment.
Enough about musical nostalgia, though, what the heck is this game? Pinhead stars some sort of circus performer who rides a unicycle on a tightrope and pops balloons on his head, upon which sits a hat with a convenient pin sticking out of it, hence the clever title. Three rows of balloons float above you and drop one by one. The balloons are different colors, which determines each balloon’s speed and point value, and you have to ride back and forth catching them on your head to pop them (you can also press the trigger to kick outward if you miss one, hopefully kicking the balloon back into the air, where you get a second chance to pop it). Missing a balloon, however, is apparently so distressing that you immediately commit suicide rather than living with the shame that you failed to pop a balloon that is now careening out of control towards the hapless spectators below, perhaps lightly touching down on the tousled hair of a small, giggling child…oh the horror!
In the first level you pop the balloons one at a time, but in later levels you build a tower of five balloons on your head, which you then pop in a row. Later levels also have crabs that stay permanently on your head (unless you die), which are worth extra points. Other objects, such as diamonds, keys, candy canes, and other random things, also appear in later levels, and are identical to balloons except they are worth more points and often fall faster (the exception is the bucket, which you can’t kick, lest you die a horrible punny death). Occasionally, the game will change things up and have a level where you catch balloons thrown from the side of the screen, avoiding bombs that are also thrown at you, a la Fruit Ninja.
Also, sometimes after a level, Pac-man will appear and eat you. I have absolutely no idea why. You don’t lose a life or anything, it just happens.
Pinhead is a charming little game, evoking circus-based charm with some fun gameplay. The controls can get a little wonky (the timing for kicking a balloon is fairly unforgiving in particular), and it gets ridiculously difficult fairly quickly, but overall it’s memorable and can be fun once you get the hang of it.
(Free tip: Do not, under any circumstances, look up the box art for this game if you ever hope to sleep again.)
Vanguard is the third game on this disk to feature really memorable music. The main theme and invincibility theme evoke a Star Wars or Flash Gordon-esque heroism, while some of the middle-level themes (such as the one for the Rainbow Zone) suddenly turn the game into a goofy circus atmosphere. Fun stuff.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Vanguard is a shmup that has your ship traversing various zones in order to reach the end, where you shoot this bad guy hiding behind laser walls or something (as a side note: what was the first video game that actually had a boss at the end that you had to defeat? Could it actually have been Vanguard? Can you think of an earlier game? Can you? CAN YOU? No, seriously, this is a question I have). Most of the stages consist of flying to the right at a constant speed, while enemies (most often light blue spacecraft that fly around erratically or dark blue fighter jets that only move forward but can shoot) harass you. Sometimes you would come across a glowing “E” tank that would grant you temporary invincibility, complete with great heroic music.
At the end of each zone you would literally fly past a giant sign proclaiming the name of the next zone, most of which were similar “fly-to-the-right a lot” zones with changes of scenery (the first zone somewhat resembled an underground city, the “Styx Zone” had a lot of diagonal lines sticking out of the walls though it was sadly lacking in 70’s hard rock, and the “Stripe Zone” had two pathways through it with varying obstacles and walls made out of stripes, shockingly). The exceptions were the inappropriately-named “Rainbow Zone”, a diagonal zone resembling a monochromatic asteroid field with goofy music playing (these were really easy, as you could just sit in the middle and the blue or pink orbs would never hit you, only being able to move vertically, though about halfway through one of these zones a fifth orb would spawn at the player’s horizontal location, but even then it was easy to shoot down), and the “Bleak Zone”, which scrolled vertically instead of horizontally and resembled…space intestines, complete with intestinal worms? Also, circus music plays? OK, this game just got really weird. (You could latch onto the worms for extra points, though you could only do so three times: attempting it a fourth time just resulted in death for all parties involved.) And finally, there was the aptly-named “Last Zone”, where an alien dude sat behind scrolling lasers and the walls fired bullets at you. One hit on this “boss” and you win the level! Yay!
Vanguard actually had two levels, though the second consisted of the same zones as the first in a different order and with a different color scheme. After you beat the second one, you’d go back to the first with everything moving faster. It also had an onscreen map that wasn’t too useful, since you were just flying at a constant speed anyway, though I guess it did let you know when to prepare for the oh-so-difficult Rainbow Zone areas. It also had a fuel gauge, though instead of shooting a fuel tank to refill your gauge you could literally shoot any enemy to fill it a bit. Since the point of the game was to shoot everything I’m not sure why this was included (possibly so you wouldn’t go get a sandwich during the Rainbow Zone parts, maybe?).
The controls, however, are extremely sluggish. The enemy spacecraft are much faster than your dinky ship and often move in ways that are impossible to avoid, and when the game has one of those erratically-moving light blue spacecraft suddenly dart in your direction and fire off a missile you will almost certainly die without even being able to blink. I suppose that’s why they made continuing laughably easy; after you lose all your lives you continue in the exact same place, not even restarting whatever zone you’re in, with only your score reset. Also, if you die fighting the final boss the game just says, “Eh, screw it, you almost got him,” and tosses you into the next level anyway.
I remember liking this game a lot as a kid, though nowadays I think that that was mostly due to the music. I’d rate it higher if the controls weren’t so ridiculously slow and the game extremely unfair as a result. I appreciate what they were trying to do with it, and due to the different levels and in-game map it nearly feels like a game five years ahead of its time, even if it doesn’t play like one. I’d say play it once to see all the different zones and hear the different music, then put it away, ’cause that’s all you can really do with it.
That’s it for Disk 25, and next time we’ll finish up the last disk that I had planned on reviewing: Disk 26, with Journey to the Planets, Canyon Climber II, Serpentine, and Quarxon. After that, I don’t know what I’ll review, though if you have a suggestion please leave it in the comments. Until then!