Digger T. Rock Review

*Review based on Digger T. Rock’s release as part of Rare Replay*

1990’s Digger T. Rock holds a special place in Rare’s history, being the first game developed by the studio once they were re-branded as Rareware (though Solar Jetman was published by them earlier that same year, its development was handled by a separate team of developers). Though many of Rare’s library from the 1990s on Nintendo’s platforms are remembered as classics, Digger T. Rock – despite its placement in Rare’s history – has a little more mixed of a reception. Playing it today, it’s not too hard to see why. Though it’s definitely aged better than the ZX Spectrum-era Rare titles, Digger T. Rock still has a number of dated elements that hold back the overall experience.

In Digger T. Rock, players take control of a spelunking adventurer (who bares the same moniker as the game’s title), who’s traversing a series of caves collecting treasures, all while in search of “The Lost City.”

There are eight caves (stages) total, with the goal simply being to find the exit to the next stage. But there’s a catch to this scenario. In perhaps a bit of inspiration from Rare’s previous Snake Rattle ‘N’ Roll, the player must unlock the exit by standing on a special pillar, which will temporarily open the exit. If the player can navigate the cave and make it to the exit in time, they can move on, with extra points being awarded for treasures collected, and for how fast you can make it to the exit after standing on the aforementioned pillar.

Additionally, Digger can use his shovel to attack enemies and create new pathways. Power-ups also lend a helping hand; such as ladders that can connect higher and lower areas, dynamite which is used to blow apart rocky walls, and throwing rocks as an additional weapon against foes.

This all sounds like decent fun, and I suppose in essence, it is. But there are too many elements at play that prevent it from being the Rare classic it could have been.

For starters, Digger T. Rock is an incredibly difficult game, and yet only gives the player only three lives to start with. Should you lose all three, it’s back to the beginning of the game. With how frequently you’ll be falling, getting crushed by rocks. Not to mention certain enemies – as well as your own dynamite – can deplete almost all of your health in one hit. For a game this difficult, a few extra lives or a password system would have gone a long way.

Another aspect that contributes to the game’s difficulty is the overall sense of control. Obviously, being an NES game, there was only so much to work with. But flipping through your different secondary items with one button, and using them with the attack button can become tedious, not to mention hectic during situations when you’re being swarmed by enemies. Then there’s the jumping, which feels a little stiff; and Digger’s general walking speed, which is much too slow when you need to get away from your suspiciously short-fused dynamite.

The steep difficulty and less-than-ideal controls do feel like products of their time, but there is still some fun to be had with Digger T. Rock. Finding and collecting treasure, and discovering secret warp zones provide a good sense of fun, as does the music by David Wise.

Digger T. Rock certainly isn’t a bad game, but it is one that has succumbed to age. And after R.C. Pro-Am, Cobra Triangle and Snake Rattle ‘N’ Roll, Digger T. Rock feels like a step down for Rare’s NES output, despite its merits.



Cobra Triangle Review

*Review based on Cobra Triangle’s release as part of Rare Replay*

Cobra Triangle is one of Rare’s more fondly remembered NES outings, and it isn’t too difficult to see why. Though at first glance it may appear to be little more than a boat racing game, Cobra Triangle quickly proves itself to be a game of surprising variety.

The first stage of Cobra Triangle is wonderfully deceiving, being a racetrack you may have predicted from the game’s artwork, with controls that are eerily similar to R.C. Pro-Am’s, albeit with a boat instead of remote controlled cars. Your boat also has the benefit of having projectile missiles equipped at all times, as opposed to Pro-Am’s weapons being power-ups.

Once you finish that first race, however, the game starts throwing curveballs at the player through stages that have varying objectives. Soon you’ll be defusing water mines, fighting massive sea monsters, collecting items, and saving swimmers, among other goals. There are twenty-five stages total, with some stages trading places depending on which paths you decide to take in the racing courses.

The sheer variety of ways Cobra Triangle creates with such seemingly simple gameplay is the highlight of the package. As far as NES games go, few titles in the 8-bit console’s library could boast such versatility.

If there is a notable complaint to be found, it’s that the aforementioned “swimmer rescuing” missions are considerably more difficult than the rest of the game, to the point of being frustrating. Enemy ships will come charging at the poor swimmers like bats out of Hell, and your boat isn’t fast enough to keep up with them all. Add in enemy missiles that temporarily stun you, and things get downright stressful. Granted, there only needs to be one swimmer remaining in order to move on to the next stage, but that is much easier said than done (especially when you consider that your thumb might be exhausted, as you have to repeatedly press the attack button to continue firing missiles instead of simply holding it).

While the rescue missions may drain your lives quickly, the rest of the game provides a steep but reasonable challenge. And once a level’s goal has been met, your boat grows a helicopter propeller and flies to the next stage. How cool is that?!

Cobra Triangle also made the best of its 8-bit limitations with vehicle (and monster) sprites that were really impressive for their time. Like a number of Rare’s other early titles, the game is played in an isometric view, which can admittedly lead to some tricky perspectives at times (such as when trying to collect items when jumping off ramps). But from a technical standpoint, the graphics remain impressive for how there can be so much going on on-screen, yet it can manage to keep up with the action of your ship without any notable graphical hiccups.

On top of all that, Cobra Triangle also features a catchy soundtrack by none other than David Wise. Though it may not have the same depth or atmosphere as Wise’s later scores, the acclaimed gaming composer does help bring out Cobra Triangle’s unique charm through its soundtrack.

Cobra Triangle remains a fun game to play today, which is quite impressive for something that, on the surface, may just appear to be an NES boat racing game. The rescue missions may break the pacing of the game a bit with their considerably difficulty spike, and the perspectives can be a little misleading at times. But there’s no denying the fun, variety and ambition that Cobra Triangle brought to the NES.



Snake Rattle ‘N’ Roll Review

*Review based on Snake Rattle ‘N’ Roll’s release as part of Rare Replay*

Snake Rattle ‘N’ Roll has to be one of the more unique games in the NES library, and it’s understandably gained a reputation as one of developer Rare’s classic titles. An isometric platformer that put its own spin on the genre, Snake Rattle ‘N’ Roll is still a lot of fun today, even if some of its elements can be a little on the frustrating side.

One or two players can join in Snake Rattle ‘N’ Roll, with the playable characters being the titular serpents Rattle (a red snake) and Roll (a blue snake). The goal of the game is to extend the snakes’ tails by eating little orbs called Nibbley Pibbleys.

These Nibbley Pibbley’s come in three different colors; red, blue and yellow. Depending on which snake you’re playing as, the red and blue Nibbley Pibbleys will be worth one or two points (two points for eating those that are the same color as your snake, and one point for the opposite color), while the yellow Nibbley Pibbleys grant three points. Every time your snake consumes four points worth of Nibbley Pibbleys, they gain one extension to their tail. When the tail reaches its maximum length for a given stage, the end of the tail begins to glow. When in this state, the snakes are heavy enough to ring a bell on a weighing machine, which opens up the exit to the next stage.

There’s another twist in this scenario, as being hit by enemies will take away the progress on your tail, piece by piece. And you only have so much time to finish a level, so if enemies start chipping away at your tail faster than you can extend it, you’re in trouble. The Nibbley Pibbleys are constantly spawning via Nibbley Dispencors, so you can always potentially regain your tail, provided you’re fast enough.

Before things can become too repetitious, Snake Rattle ‘N’ Roll throws another curveball at the player in that the Nibbleys behave differently in each of the game’s eleven stages. On the first level, they are simply rolling balls, but during the second stage, they begin bouncing around. The third stage sees them growing legs and running away, while on the fourth stage they temporarily melt into the ground, which prevents you from gobbling them up for a short time. It may be a small difference, but the fact that the Nibbley Pibbleys act uniquely to each stage adds a nice touch of variety to the core gameplay, and ensuring that it feels fresh the whole way through.

Considering Snake Rattle ‘N’ Roll was released in a time when every platformer was simply trying to copy Super Mario Bros. (and never replicating its magic), the game was a really fresh take on the genre in its day, and it still feels unique even today. With its genre-defiant attitude, however, come two unfortunate aspects of the game which haven’t aged so gracefully.

The first of these drawbacks is that the isometric perspective can make certain perspectives really tricky, making the platforming of the game often feeling awkward. The second such drawback is that the jumping mechanics can feel a little floaty, with the snakes often seeming like they can only decide where they’re jumping after they’ve already taken to the air. Combine these two elements together, and Snake Rattle ‘N’ Roll can feel infuriatingly intricate with its platforming elements. And considering the stages don’t have outer walls, you can easily overshoot a jump and fall to your death repeatedly due to the floaty jumps and difficult perspectives.

While these elements do hold the game back from being one of the best NES titles, Snake Rattle ‘N’ Roll still remains a highlight in the NES’ library, and something of a turning point for Rare, as it marked the beginning of the cartoonish silliness and wacky humor that would go on to define the British developer for years to come (even the enemies are an odd assortment of vinyl records and sentient feet). And the game has a memorable score by David Wise, taking inspiration from popular music of the 1950s (including, of course, the game’s namesake Shake, Rattle and Roll).

Snake Rattle ‘N’ Roll may not be perfect, due to some tricky and aged mechanics,. But the uniqueness and fun of its concept, two-player co-op, and undeniable charm shine through, making for one of the more memorable NES outings you and a friend can partake in even by today’s standards.



R.C. Pro-Am Review

*Review based on R.C. Pro-Am’s release as part of Rare Replay*

R.C. Pro-Am marked a turning point in Rare’s history, as it’s often regarded as the developer’s first big success on a Nintendo platform. Rare was previously known for their titles for the ZX Spectrum back when they were known as Ultimate Play the Game. But R.C. Pro-Am’s success on the NES lead to a nearly unparalleled partnership between Rare and Nintendo; one which would lead to years of success due to the creation of games like Battletoads, Donkey Kong Country, Killer Instinct, Goldeneye 007 and Banjo-Kazooie.

When playing R.C. Pro-Am today, it’s easy to see what made it so appealing way back when, though it may lack the depth to make it a worthy alternative to more contemporary similar titles.

R.C. Pro-Am is a racing game. A racing game in which you can pick up upgrades and weapons to help to achieve victory. If that sounds a bit like Mario Kart, well, that’s because that’s very much what it’s like. Though with its 1988 release on the NES, R.C. Pro-Am predated the original Super Mario Kart by four years.

Of course, being released four years beforehand, and on a less advanced console, means that R.C. Pro-Am is also a simpler game than Mario Kart. While Super Mario Kart used the SNES’ Super FX chip to give the race tracks a sense of three-dimensional space, R.C. instead went with an isometric view.

The race tracks are small, and only consist of a few twists and turns, and the cars control in a way that feels surprisingly similar to a remote-controlled toy cars. You’ll always race against three other cars, and will have to use weapons to hinder your rivals and boosts to help you achieve first place. Weapons come in a small variety, like missiles which you launch forward, and bombs which you drop behind.

There’s really not much more to it than that, but the gameplay is still engaging and strangely addictive even today. Though there are some drawbacks to the experience.

On the downside of things, each race ends as soon as one racer reaches the finish line. This means you could be in first for the majority of the race, but then potentially fall into fourth place in the last lap, and lose the race as soon as one rival clears the finishing line, thus not giving you a chance to better your placement. This can be particularly annoying because there are only ever four racers at a time. Claiming first through third places will nab you a gold, silver and bronze trophy, but coming in fourth means you lose that race. Lose three times, and you have to start all over. The penalty for the losses is reasonable, but the fact that you can easily get a loss because of one small slip-up is a bit less so.

Another big drawback is that R.C. Pro-Am is only a single-player affair. With its chaotic, combat-heavy races, this is a game that was begging for a second player to get in on the action. Sadly, your only options are to try to beat the computer and better your performances. As fun as the gameplay is, adding a second player to the mix would have given it so much more replay value.

As it is, R.C. Pro-Am is still a fun game, being something of a precursor to the combat-racing and cartoony go-karting genres, and it boasts a fun musical score by David Wise (always a good thing). But, as you may have noticed, I’ve brought up Mario Kart a few times in this review. Considering Mario Kart is beloved for its multiplayer, well, you may find R.C. Pro-Am may make you want to play Nintendo’s iconic racing series after a few short sessions.



Slalom Review

*Review based on Slalom’s release as part of Rare Replay*

Slalom, as its title suggests, is a skiing video game where players partake in a series of downhill slalom runs. One of the first releases under the then-newly rechristened Rare, Slalom was also the first NES game developed outside of Japan. Perhaps both a testament to the NES’ abilities and to Rare’s output after the name-change, Slalom may be a simple experience, but is considerably more fun than most of the ZX Spectrum games Rare made back when they were known as Ultimate Play the Game.

The gameplay of Slalom is simple enough; you choose one of three mountains, each consisting of eight skiing challenges. Snowy Hill is the place to go for beginners, Steep Peak is of the medium difficulty, and the hilariously-named Mount Nasty provides a challenge for experts.

Once your mountain is picked, you must head down the mountain while avoiding hazards, obstacles and other skiers to keep your momentum going. You can pass through flag posts to gain speed, but if you run into a flag, it’s the same as hitting any other obstacle, and you lose speed. You must make it to the goal within a time limit, with extra points being rewarded for reaching the goal faster and for your performance. But, should you fail to make it to the goal within the time limit of even a single challenge, the game is over, and you go back to the beginning.

If that sounds a bit unforgiving, it’s because it is. Though the core gameplay is fun and addicting, Slalom is one of those NES games that will definitely take a lot of patience before you get the hang of it. Expect to throw a few fits of rage when you start failing on the earlier levels of Snowy Hill repeatedly.

It must also be said that a little something is lost in the Xbox One version in Rare Replay, as this is a game tailor-made for the D-pad, but the Xbox One controller’s D-pad is far from ideal. You’re honestly better off with the joystick if playing on Xbox One, but of course that doesn’t feel right either.

Still, if you can muster up the courage for its challenge, then you have a fun NES game on your hands. The re-release’s controls may not be ideal, but they could certainly be much worse. The simple gameplay of going downhill and avoiding obstacles is a lot more fun than it may sound, and the game has a fun sense of humor by peppering the stages with obstacles like snowmen and kids playing in the snow. And, for an NES game, Slalom has surprisingly strong visuals, with the levels moving in such a way as to bring to mind SNES titles like F-Zero and Super Mario Kart.

It may be simple stuff, but Slalom provides some good, challenging, 8-bit fun.



Gunfright Review

*Review based on Gunfright’s release as part of Rare Replay*

Another one of Ultimate Play the Game’s (now Rare) early ZX Spectrum titles, Gunfright used a similar isometric style to Knight Lore. But instead of werewolves and dungeons, we have gunslingers in the wild west. It also abandons the puzzle and platforming elements in favor of “action.”

In Gunfright, the player takes control of the town sheriff, who is on a mission to track down a band of outlaws and gun them down. The game begins with a quick first-person mini-game, in which the player shoots falling bags of money to claim their initial sum of cash, with which they purchase more ammunition every time they use all six bullets in their gun’s barrel, as well as pay a small fee every time they hitch a ride on a horse for extra speed.

After the mini-game, the primary isometric gameplay takes place. Here, you basically just walk around the town, looking for the outlaws (one at a time). There are two kinds of citizens around town: southern belles who run around the place much faster than our hero can move (which proves to be incredibly problematic, as coming into contact with them results in instant death), and bouncing, sombrero-wearing gentlemen, who point to the direction of the current outlaw.

If you shoot these civilians, you have to pay a hefty penalty out of your cash. It took me a good while to figure out that the sombrero NPCs were pointing in a direction and not pointing again. Suffice to say, I was continuously losing dough before I figured that one out.

As stated, coming into contact with these civilians kills you. And like the previous ZX Spectrum games by Ultimate Play the Game, these characters seem to be everywhere, so you’ll often die just because you couldn’t navigate around the civilians quickly enough.

Should you manage to come across an outlaw, one of you has to initiate a duel (it’s easiest if you shoot first – like Han Solo – since the outlaws often just walk around aimlessly even when you’re right in front of them). Once the duel starts, you go back into a first-person view like in the opening mini-game. You have to pelt the outlaw with as many bullets as possible from the get-go, because if you hesitate for even a second, they’ll riddle you with bullets and you’ll have to find them all over again. As you can imagine, it’s frustrating.

Honestly, there’s not much about Gunfright that’s fun (except maybe the initial money bag mini-game). Many of the same issues that plagued Ultimate Play the Game’s previous ZX Spectrum outings are in full force here (too many characters on-screen that run much faster than you and can kill you with a touch, confusing world design, etc.). The repeated sins even go so far as the sound effects, which once again recycle the irritating, plinky-plonky noises of Atic Atac (Ultimate Play the Game sure got a lot of mileage out of those sounds). And now you have even less visual space for the action, as most of the screen is filled up by your remaining cash and bullets, price tags for items, and wanted posters of the outlaws.

Gunfright more or less serves as a showcase of the dated issues and mechanics of its older ZX Spectrum siblings, all wrapped up in a convenient, wild west adorned package.



Knight Lore Review

*Review based on Knight Lore’s Release as part of Rare Replay*

The third installment in the Sabreman series, Knight Lore is often considered a technical milestone in gaming for its use of isometric gameplay making for a much broader adventure than gaming had seen up to that point, and it is widely regarded as a defining moment in British video game design.

It’s also really boring.

Now, I can understand the game’s technical leaps for the industry, and can appreciate the impact in had on gaming history. But that doesn’t change that, in terms of playability, Knight Lore is very much a product of its time. Though it may not feel as fundamentally broken as its predecessor Underwurlde, Knight Lore has definitely felt the affect of aging, and without the historical context, provides very little reason for a revisit.

In all fairness, Knight Lore actually has a pretty interesting premise: series’ protagonist Sabreman has been bitten by the Sabre Wulf, and has now become a werewolf himself. To break this curse, Sabreman must traverse an ancient dungeon and seek out special items to brew the cure he seeks. But he only has forty days to do so, or else he will become a wolf forever.

Knight Lore features a day and night cycle, with Sabreman being in human form during the day, and wolf form at night. Each cycle only lasts about thirty seconds, meaning an entire game day takes about a minute. Of course, this means the game can (and must) be beaten very quickly, but in order to do so, you’d really have to know what you’re doing. Sadly, much like its ZX Spectrum predecessors, Knight Lore doesn’t exactly help the player out, as once again everything seems incredibly cryptic.

The game features a total of 128 rooms in the dungeon, with a nice twist being that you’ll start out in a different room in each playthrough. The player may have to solve puzzles to get passed certain rooms (usually by pushing objects and platforms), or they may have to avoid obstacles and enemies. Of course, that’s much easier said than done.

The only real gameplay difference between Sabreman’s forms is that the wolf jumps higher, and that certain enemies will take a particular disliking to the wolf. So if you thought maybe at least the wolf would have some kind of attack…sorry, no dice.

Another problem arises with the control of Sabreman himself. He moves far to radically, and he always has to move forward whenever he jumps. Combine this with the prototypical isometric view, and the platforming sections are nothing short of disastrous. It’s even hard to navigate past traps and enemies, what with Sabreman’s clunky controls and the sheer difficulty in differentiating the space and perspectives of objects.

“This is as far as Sabreman can go. Just ignore the wide, open space. You can’t go around this wall.”

There’s also a pretty notable graphical limitation in that what you see isn’t always what you get. By that I mean you may find in some rooms you can walk through all available space, while other times it looks like you should be able to walk around something, but just can’t. While some might defend the game as simply being limited due to the hardware, it doesn’t change the fact that the inconsistency really throws off the player.

I have to admit I feel guilty. I can understand the impact a game may have had back in the early 1980s, and knowing a game had such influence makes you want to say nice things about it. But if we’re just talking about a gameplay experience to play today, Knight Lore just isn’t fun. It feels downright archaic in not just its graphics and sound, but in its gameplay.

Knight Lore was released on the ZX Spectrum in November of 1984. For the record, Super Mario Bros. was released ten months later, in September of 1985. The latter is, of course, proof that 80s games can still be a lot of fun today. There’s a night and day difference between a timeless classic and a relic from the past. If Super Mario Bros. is the obvious timeless classic, well, you can imagine what that makes Knight Lore.



Underwurlde Review

*Review based on Underwurlde’s release as part of Rare Replay*

Underwurlde was the ZX Spectrum sequel to Sabre Wulf, and sees players once again take control of the adventurer Sabreman. Only this time, instead of a top-down perspective in the same vein as Atic Atac, Sabreman is now traversing a decrepit castle in a way similar to a side-scroller. But of course, the world Sabreman traverses is as confusing and labyrinthine as ever.

In the first screen of the game, Sabreman can pick up a slingshot as a weapon against the constantly spawning waves of enemies. The goal of the game is to defeat the three guardians of the castle, with each guardian needing a different weapon to defeat (knife, dagger and torch).

Much like Sabre Wulf, you really have no clue as to where to go or what you’re doing. But here, the situation is even worse. At least in Sabre Wulf you could see where a pathway might continue in a subsequent screen. But here, you’re just going left to right, right to left, up to down and down to up in a side-scrolling view, blindly hoping that you won’t run, jump, or fall into anything as soon as the next screen pops up.

There is a little twist here in that Sabreman can’t be damaged by enemies (only falling from a great height can kill him), but instead of being a novel idea, it comes off as more of a curse. Instead of taking damage from enemies, coming into contact with them will send Sabreman bouncing around the place like a pinball! And as stated, the enemies are constantly spawning. There will be enemies filling the screen, careening every which way, and making it nearly impossible to jump forward without getting knocked back all the further.

“See those itty bitty little hills? You need to jump on top of them in order to ride bubbles upward to get to the next screen. But you can’t control the length of your jump, and all those enemies will send you careening all over the place. Why can’t Sabreman just walk on those tiny mounds?!”

It’s not just enemies that do this, either. If Sabreman even lightly nudges into a wall or other object mid-jump, the same thing happens, and our hero will be knocked silly. Sabreman’s jumping controls aren’t fluid, either. You can’t alter trajectory once in the air, and you can’t change the height or length of your jumps. Considering you need to jump even to get on the tiniest bump protruding from the ground, the platforming is nothing short of infuriating. I am not even exaggerating when I say you’ll spend more time watching Sabreman bounce around the place than you will actually controlling the game.

Some of the other ZX Spectrum games made by Ultimate Play the Game (now Rare) that are included in Rare Replay haven’t aged gracefully. But in the case of Underwurlde, I have to wonder how anyone could have enjoyed it even in its day. It’s so fundamentally flawed to control that it brought back bad memories of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Video Game Adventure and Dark Castle. Underwurlde is close to unplayable.

I suppose, at the very least, the Rare Replay version includes the rewind feature, so you can try to rectify your mistakes. The problem is, nothing can rectify the game’s mistakes.



Sabre Wulf Review

*Review based on Sabre Wulf’s release as part of Rare Replay*

Sabre Wulf is considered one of the classic games from Rare’s early years as Ultimate Play the Game. This 1984 ┬áZX Spectrum title – along with Ultimate Play the Game’s previous title Atic Atac – helped influence many adventure games to come, as well as many of Rare’s own games down the line (Killer Instinct even includes a wolf character who bears the same name as this game). Though when playing Sabre Wulf today, it is obvious that it was a product of its time. While Atic Atic may be outdated in many aspects, it at least had some forward-thinking ideas at play that you can still appreciate today. In contrast, Sabre Wulf shares all the dated elements, without any of the “wow, that was clever” moments.

Sabre Wulf uses the same basic structure as Atic Atac, with players navigating a labyrinthine maze world, and collect pieces of a special artifact to beat the game. In this case, the world is a jungle, and the items are pieces of an ancient amulet, with four pieces needed to bypass the guardian of a cave.

Where Sabre Wulf differs from Atic Atac is in its character. While Atic Atac had three playable characters who could each find their own ways to traverse a haunted castle, here players have to make do with Sabreman, an adventure and treasure hunter. Sabreman doesn’t possess the kind of projectile moves as the characters of Atic Atac, and instead fights wild animals with a trusty sabre. Though this melee weapon is far less reliable than the spells and throwing weapons of Atic Atac, as Sabreman swings his sabre so erratically you have to have pitch-perfect timing in order to hit enemies directly in front of you (and even then, some enemies seem to ignore being struck by it, and good luck guessing which ones).

Sabreman can also collect power-ups in the form of orchids, which can have positive or negative effects depending on their color. Blue orchids will make you zoom past enemies, while a red orchid will make you impervious to their attacks. Then there are purple orchids, which reverse the player’s controls.

Honestly, there’s not a whole lot else to talk about. The maze-like world is incredibly confusing, and provides no hints as to what you need to be doing or where to go, thus leaving things to trial-and-error (trial-and-error which, I might add, you can’t even rely on, since the enemy spawns are random). The combat is unreliable and, frankly, pretty clunky. And in all honesty, the plinky-plonky sound effects (which return from Atic Atac) might drive you nuts after a while.

Essentially, Sabre Wulf is like Atic Atac with a different setting. A different setting, and also the absence of the creative spark that makes Atic Atac worth a look for those curious in gaming’s early history. The different characters and modes of travel, and the survival elements of Atic Atac are gone. But the cryptic level design and objectives remain, and the gameplay’s worse.

Maybe in its day, Sabre Wulf was influential. But there’s very little reason to check it out today other than pure curiosity.



Atic Atac Review

*Review based on Atic Atac’s release as part of Rare Replay*

Back when Rare was still known as Ultimate Play the Game, they created the oddly-named but highly influential Atic Atac, which served as an epic adventure in a time before Zelda. Playing Atic Atac today, it of course can’t compete with most of the games it helped inspire, though some of its ideas still impress.

In Atic Atac, players must navigate through a haunted castle in search of the three pieces of the “Golden Key of ACG.” You can take control of either a Wizard, a Knight or a Serf. Each character has their own projectile move (the Wizard casts a spell, the Knight throws axes, and the Serf throws swords). Though all three control identically and the difference in projectiles is merely cosmetic, they do each have their own unique ways of finding shortcuts throughout the castle.

The Wizard, for example, can enter one bookcase to end up in another, while the Knight can do something similar with grandfather clocks. Why Wizards and Knights are only able to travel through such objects is anybody’s guess, but it’s actually a pretty creative way to add variety to the game. For being made in 1983, this is a concept that seems pretty ahead of its time.

There are other methods of traversing the castle, however, with most rooms featuring two or more doors, which will open either when a few enemies are defeated, or after a short time. Similarly, there are colored doors which can only be passed if the player is holding the corresponding colored key (so a green key for green doors, and so on). There are also pits you can fall down, which will take you to a different section of the castle.

Atic Atac was also forward thinking by including a survival element in the game. The character’s health is represented by a roast turkey on the side of the screen. Naturally, running into enemies will deplete health, but as you continue your travels, your character will begin to starve, and will need to find something to eat to prevent the all-important roast turkey from gradually depleting. You can find food pretty frequently, and it comes in a humorous variety of edibles ranging from soup cans to candy canes (finding such things in a fantasy setting seems like the kind of humor you’d find in a modern indie title, so that’s another way you could say Atic Atac was looking ahead).

Despite some genuinely great ideas, however, Atic Atac is nonetheless extremely prototypical, with much of its gameplay feeling shallow and unpolished when compared to adventure games released even just a few short years later.

The most obvious (and frustrating) aspect is the lack of a map. The castle is a labyrinthian beast, and given the primitive graphics, much of it looks the same. It quickly becomes confusing, and without any form of map to speak of, you’ll likely end up completely lost in a matter of minutes.

Another downside are the items you can pick up on your journey, whose uses are notably cryptic. It doesn’t help that you can only hold three items at a time (this includes the aforementioned colored keys), and you’ll frequently find yourself abandoning one item in favor of another (while hoping you can actually remember which room you left it in). But the vagueness of the items just makes it all the more aggravating.

There are certain monsters who are impervious to your normal attack, and require a certain item to be defeated, but you’ll never know what to use or how to use it. I ran across some kind of devil enemy (complete with horns and a hooked tail), and tried to find a way to beat him. I eventually came across a crucifix item, which seemed like an ideal weapon against a devil. So I made my way back, and the only thing I could do with the crucifix was drop it on the floor…which did nothing. I can admit I was probably doing something wrong, but the game really doesn’t give you any idea of how to go about these things the right way, so it’s like a guessing game.

I can forgive the game’s simplistic visuals. Given the 1983 release, you don’t exactly expect the timeless graphics of the 16-bit generation. Though perhaps less forgivable – even when considering the limitations – are the sounds. There’s no music to speak of (again, limitations), but all the worse are the two sound effects that are present. Every on-screen character, whether it’s the player or enemies, makes a constant “plinky-plonk” sound with every step, and the only other sound comes from defeating enemies. They may be all the game had back in its day, but for those use to more pleasing sounds of gaming in the years since, Atic Atac’s repetitious sounds may be a bit agitating.

I kind of hate that I have so many gripes with Atic Atac, because when you look at what it did for its time, it was impressively creative. But when the years have given us so many superior alternatives in the same genres, it’s a bit easy to see just how prototypical Atic Atac is by comparison.

I certainly wouldn’t call Atic Atac a bad game, but it is one where all of its praise will come with the words “for its day.” It can be revisited for historical purposes, if maybe not for the gameplay.