Friday, 8 April 2011

New to me: Number 2 - Magic Pockets (Commodore Amiga)

One of the best things about being into classic gaming is that there are so many games that I've never played before which are relatively easy to obtain. "New to me" is the name of the section of my blog in which I review old games that I've never, until now, had the opportunity to play. Some games may be classics that have simply passed me by, others may be hidden gems that I didn't even know existed. And others may be complete turkeys that are better left in the past. My review of the Master System's Captain Silver was the first of my "New to me" reviews. And this is my second.

The game's funky intro screen.
In their day, The Bitmap Brothers were renowned producers of highly polished and technically accomplished games. Although their games were released for a range of computers and consoles, it was through their games for the Commodore Amiga that they made their name. Amongst the classic games that could be attributed to them were Xenon, Xenon II: Megablast, Gods, The Chaos Engine, and perhaps their biggest hit, Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe, which has recently been revived for iPhone, iPad, PSN, etc..... Another game which seemed to be huge at the time, but has largely been shoved to the sidelines of video gaming history, is Magic Pockets. Looking at some of the reviews from the time, it is initially hard to see why this is now the case as it was rated very highly. Amiga Action gave it 93% (October 1991), The One (Amiga) gave it 94% (September 1991) and Zero gave it 90% (October 1991). It also featured in kids TV shows Motormouth and Going Live! as a phone in game. But today, it is largely forgotten about. And after playing the game for a bit, it doesn't take long to figure out why. Basically, it isn't very good. Amiga Power were the only magazine who dared to give this game a more realistic score, giving it 75% in October 1991 and 2 out of 5 in March 1992.
That's one ugly mofo.
I'd get that seen to if I were you.
Things actually start off ok. The Bitmap Brothers were known for showcasing the capabilities of the Amiga and, while the game is loading, you are treated to an impressive digital rendition of Betty Boo's Doin' The Do, together with samples from the songstress herself. We are then freakishly introduced to what can only be described as an ugly baby dressed in teenager's clothing (wearing sunglasses and the obligatory sideways baseball cap - has that ever been cool?) whose pocket bulges when his hand is in it. I know Betty Boo was quite tasty, but something just seems wrong with that. Flashy stars and the game's name end the introductory presentation and everything seems quite promising. And then, the game begins.....
Phwoar! It's Betty Boo! I think. A Google Image search for her name came up with the picture above, and the picture below...

Magic Pockets is a platform game in which you take on the role of the ugly baby character known only as Kid (urgh). Bitmap Kid was apparently his full name, backed up by the fact his jacket says BK on it (either that, or it’s his Burger King uniform). Kid's task is to wander through platform levels, killing baddies with whatever weapon he happens to have in his pocket. His ultimate aim is to get his best toys back from the "Bad People" and teach them a lesson. Along the way, he picks up sweets, milk bottles, toys, and so on. It all sounds quite immature and aimed at a young audience, but this is all quite incongruous to the game itself.

Kid throws a bunch a blueberries at a shocked-looking snail.
Level One is "The Cave". After the introduction's audiovisual spectacular, everything quickly goes downhill. The graphics are well-drawn and defined, but they are just so ugly. They certainly don't appear that they would appeal to the game's target audience. They are dark, moody and metallic. As are the game's sounds. The Bitmap Brothers must have blown the game's audio budget on sampling Betty Boo for the intro, as it seems like they sampled somebody banging on various tin objects to get the majority of the in-game sound effects. In addition to the boings and doinks, Burger King kid makes a quiet tapping noise as he walks along the depressing landscapes. The only music in the game is when you die, or when you complete a level, when you a treated to a short burst of the title music. Of course, graphics and sound don't always make it game. It's how it plays that matters.
Holding down on the TV set lets you see a larger view of the level. Shame it doesn't switch your TV over to a channel with something better on.
Unfortunately, Magic Pocket plays like a dog. Kid, or whatever stupid name he has, slowly trundles his way across the terrain. Press up and he'll eventually jump. Pressing fire will fire Kid's weapon of choice. On level one, he fires what are apparently whirlwinds - although they look more like a bunch of blueberries. His weaponary changes throughout the game. Holding down on fire will power up the weapon although the unleashed arsenal doesn't really appear to do any more damage than the unpowered-up version. Having to stop to power up every now and again also disrupts the flow of the game. It is kind of possible to define the direction of the object being fired, although this isn't implemented well at all. For example, if you're standing near the end of a platform, and there's an enemy below you, you can fire a whirlwind downwards so it falls downwards off the platform, rather than shooting across to whatever is facing you. To do this, you simply push down and fire. As enemies appear to require a seemingly random number of hits, you'd think firing another object to kill it would be a simple case of pressing fire again while you're still holding down. But, you'd be wrong. To repeat the process, you have to let go of down, press it again and then fire. Again this disrupts the game's fluidity. As the direction of the object being fired is determined by which direction key you’re pressing when you press fire, and as this is a platform game which means you’ll be pressing in all directions as you attempt to direct Kid (grrrr) around the levels, it just feels like you don’t really have any control of where you are aiming and the objects just seem to fly in all directions. The attempt to give you more control over your aim actually results in you having less control. Another example of badly-implemented controls is the whirlwind spin jump on level one. To get to some higher platforms, or to kill baddies by spinning up into them, you can hold down, hold fire to power up a whirlwind, release it, step on it and push down. This will then result in you springing upwards in a spinning ball, killing anything in your path. It’s illogical and a pain in the ass to perform. Of course, there was a good intention behind adding this move to the game, to add more controls than just jump and fire, but it just adds to the clunky nature of the game. Another problem with the controls is that they aren't actually that responsive. It looks like the programmers tried to show off by including extra frames of animation (such as when you jump) rather than allow the controls to flow nicely.

A bit of Hubba-Bubba from a bubblegum machine allows Ugly Kid to reach new heights
In addition to the horrible controls are the enemies. Now, all platform games need enemies. And in most platform games, enemies are killed by throwing something at them, jumping on them or spinning into them. As we know, Kid (argh!) can either throw weapons (standard or powered-up) or spin into them, either through the method described above, or by falling/jumping off fairly high platforms, which results in him spinning of his own accord. But, in this game, there is no real way of knowing how many times to fire at them with all enemies requiring ‘several’ hits. None of the initial hits tend to do anything (well, they surround the enemy with stun stars, but the enemy isn’t actually stunned) and as they are quite often approaching you, usually you have to walk away from them, fire at them again from a distance until they die. What you tend to find you do is clear a screen of enemies from a safe distance before walking through that area. And once again, this disrupts the flow of the game. Alternatively, you’ll walk through them, hoping to dodge them or taking a hit from one to gain some temporary invincibility, to get to the next bit. There isn’t much skill required to it all, no requirement for pixel perfect jumps and skilled attacks. Just get rid of everything on the screen and move on. And why does it take 5 or 6 hits to kill every character? What fun is there in that? Standing there firing over and over at them until they die is just tedious and frustrating.

Towards the end of level one, Kid is able to cycle over any nasties in his way.
And then there's the horrific level design. Levels are maze-like, but unlike other superior platform games where they are created in this way to encourage exploration to allow you to find secrets, shortcuts, etc., they are their just to allow you to get lost. Of course, there are secrets and power-ups scattered around the levels, but the game is so lacking in fun that you really can't be bothered to find them, instead you just want to get to the end of the level.

To be honest, I didn't really get too far into this game after a week of battling against it. There appear to be a lot of intricacies to the game's controls, weapons and power-ups, but rather than contributing to the fun of the game, they somehow manage to take the fun out of it. What is quite annoying is that earlier in 1991, Sonic the Hedgehog was released on the Mega Drive. The key to that game's success was its simple and logical controls and fluid gameplay, which didn't require you to be a joystick gymnast to get anywhere on it. Sonic the Hedgehog rewarded skill and was genuinely a fun game to play. Magic Pockets in comparison feels like a chore, and an ugly one too. Maybe I'll come back to it in the future and grow to like it, but for now, it's one that I think I'll keep away from. Well, after I've replayed it a bit to get some screenshots. That should be fun.


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