LittleMac’s 30-Minute Retro Reviews!

In the very descriptively titled LittleMac’s 30-Minute Retro Reviews!, LittleMac puts in 30 minutes playing the NES and SNES games on Switch Online so that you can make more judicious decisions about how to spend your retro gaming time!

Whenever there’s a new batch of releases, we’ll cover those! Otherwise, we’re going back to the start and playing through every game in order. For at least thirty minutes. Yes, including Clu-Clu Land.

This week, we have a batch of all-new SNES releases! Let’s dive in to Jelly Boy, Claymates, and Bombuzal/Kablooey.

Jelly Boy (1995)
Developer: Probe Software
Publisher: Ocean Software

This PAL-only release is one of many, many entries into the glutted SNES genre of “colourful mascot platformer with big, meandering levels.” You take on the role of Jelly Boy, who I believe is a Jelly Baby candy who has gained sentience in a candy factory and must escape before he’s put in a package and later consumed by a British child.

In his base form, Jelly Boy has three moves: Jump with B, Attack with Y, and Duck with A (down on the D-pad is reserved for “looking down”). Picking up various fruit in levels confers benefits such as extra time (oranges and lemons), temporary invincibility (avocados and pears), and potential extra lives (cherries and strawberries). The core gimmick of the game is that certain pickups temporarily mold Jelly Boy into a new form (Hammer Jelly Boy can smash otherwise impassable blocks, Umbrella Jelly Boy falls slowly, Cannon Jelly Boy is a cannon).

“So, boss, I was thinking for Jelly Boy’s default attack we just use a basic punch.” “Hmm… I like the ‘punch’ concept, but could you somehow work that into a more upsetting visual?” Source: Giant Bomb

Each world is divided into eight stages. What the game leaves to you to discover is that clearing each world is not simply a matter of getting to the end of each course: you need to find a puzzle piece hidden within each course to unlock the world’s boss (in fairness, this was still the age of the manual, so I’m sure people who actually bought the game were informed of this detail prior to a pop-up message the first time they stumbled on a hidden puzzle piece!).

For the most part, Jelly Boy is the very definition of an “okay mid-90s mascot platformer”: the controls aren’t tight, but they’re manageable, the graphics are bright and colourful, and there’s fun to be had searching the nooks and crannies of the courses (except for the case of courses designed around a very short timer and lots of orange/lemon pickups! It’s actually not fun at all to explore under those circumstances!).

No points for guessing what Pogo Stick Jelly Boy’s special power is. Source: MobyGames

Where the game falls down is the frequent bursts of frustrating challenge design. One stage hides its puzzle piece beyond a narrow tunnel, requiring you to get the Mini Jelly Boy form and then high-tail it from the pickup location through the tunnel on a very short timer with a slower version of your character. Step one after getting the powerup is to drop down a full length of screen, which will land you on some slowly advancing enemies if you don’t know they’re there and avoid them. Oh, and when you do avoid them, they walk into the tunnel you need to traverse, so you need to defeat them in order to make it through. Except taking the time to defeat them guarantees you’ll run out of Mini Jelly Boy time and then instantly die when reverting to full size! I suspect the trick here is to descend in regular form, defeat the enemies, find a roundabout way back to the Mini Jelly Boy powerup location, and then descend, but would you believe me if I said that I didn’t feel motivated to put in the time to test that theory?

Will LittleMac continue with this game after his first half-hour with it?

Not likely! Like I said, this particular genre of mid-tier mascot platformer proliferated on 16-bit consoles, so even if I was in the mood to play a not-as-good-as-Mario SNES platformer, I’d have better options (including another game from this batch of releases!).

Claymates (1993/1994)
Developer
: Visual Concepts
Publisher: Interplay Productions

Remember Clayfighter, the mediocre fighting game that distinguished itself during the mid-90s boom by having really cool claymation-style graphics? Well, Visual Concepts and Interplay were of a mind to chase trends with their digitized clay model gimmick, and thus Claymates, a “colourful mascot platformer with big, meandering levels and a main character made of digitized clay!” was born!

Here, players step into the shoes of Clayton, a young man whose eccentric inventor father has developed a serum that, if combined with clay (?), can transform a person into an animal. Just as the old man’s about to demonstrate his invention for Clayton, a mysterious character in a Tiki mask shows up, kidnaps Clayton’s dad, steals the serum, and transforms Clayton into a ball of clay (that might be infused with the serum?). Clayton vows that he will save his father, no matter how made of clay he is!

Clayton achieves this by moving through great big platformer courses that are filled with little things to pick up. He jumps with B and he attacks with Y. Throughout the level, little clay ball pickups allow Clayton to transform into different animals (Rat Clayton is quicker and has a better attack, Cat Clayton can climb trees). Unlike in Jelly Boy, Clayton’s special forms aren’t timed: instead, you transform back into a clay ball when you’ve taken too many hits. Also unlike Jelly Boy, there’s no “find the one gee-gaw that’s hidden in each level or you cannot advance to the boss” gimmick!

Clayton’s default form isn’t the most exciting design, but it sure does look like he’s a little ball of clay! Source: GameFAQs User Screenshot #69 (nice)

The world map is livelier than in many platformers. Each course is entered via a quicksand pit in an area of the map, and these areas will also be filled with various objects and obstacles, including ones that bar Clayton’s way. When each course is cleared, robots are summoned for some reason, and they’ll pick up the available tools and get to work fixing Clayton’s problem so he can advance. After the first course, the game starts to integrate simple puzzles into these sections, as Clayton needs to clear a path so the robots can complete their task.

The puzzles on the map screen aren’t terribly challenging, but they certainly add some charm to the level-select process. Source: RAWG

For the most part, this is the very definition of an “okay mid-90s mascot platformer-that’s-somewhat-better-than-the-very-similar-Jelly Boy.” The controls are a bit tighter than Jelly Boy‘s, and Clayton’s different forms all have a different feel. There’s a lot less cheapness in the level design, but a lot more meandering: the very first stage opens by presenting you with an entrance to an underground pathway which has an enemy or two at the start, but then just runs the full length of the stage presenting a basic gem pickup every half-a-screen and offering no additional challenges (at the end of the tunnel, you can ascend to the second level of the tunnel and then head left all the way back to the start of the level while picking up a few gems and facing no challenges!).

The graphics are charming enough, although the smaller sprite size and the “real world with minor clay transformations” setting means that the clay gimmick is much less notable than in Clayfighter. The music is bouncy and inoffensive. There’s a lot to like, nothing to hate, and maybe a little to love here.

As a final note, I’ll observe again that the game is built to take advantage of a digitized clay model graphics gimmick. Despite this very “consumer-facing” manifestation of cool technology, the cover art chooses to make no mention of the clay gimmick in favour of hyping the game’s use of blaze processing, a technology that “accelerates characters to incredible speeds,” presumably by strapping a television playing Claymates to the back of a Formula One car while a rival mascot platformer plays on the back of a broken-down old-timey milk truck.

Will LittleMac continue with this game after his first half-hour with it?

I find it much easier to imagine myself returning to this than to Jelly Boy, although even then it would probably be in a “looking for a mindless way to kill time” situation, rather than an “I really feel the itch to play Claymates!” situation.

Bombuzal/Kablooey (1990)
Developer
: Image Works
Publisher: Kemco

Originally developed and released for Amiga and Commodore computers as Bombuzal in 1988, this top-down puzzle game was later ported to the SNES and renamed Kablooey (or Dynamite Kablooey? or It’s Dynamite Kablooey?) when it came to North America (Switch Online uses the PAL box art and the NA ROM, so you, the player, get to decide what the game is called!).

Players take on the role of a horrifying blue character inspired by half-remembered drunken Lolo/Eggerland sessions and proceed through a series of simple stages comprised of floating platforms above a blue abyss. Each stage has some number of bombs in it, and the blue horror’s goal is to destroy all the bombs by stepping onto their platform, arming them, and then stepping to an adjacent platform. When detonated, the bombs destroy the platforms in their blast radius (unless that platform is reinforced), adding an additional wrinkle to the goal: destroy all bombs and still have somewhere to stand!

Our heroic blue horror navigates his first challenge (the first challenge is remembering which direction you’re going to move in when you press the D-pad!). Source: Abandonware DOS

Almost immediately, things get more complicated: there are multiple sizes of the basic bomb, and only the smallest bombs have blast radii that don’t blow up the blue horror if he detonates them manually. So now, you’re trying to figure out how to set off chain reactions using the small bombs in order to blow up all bombs in the stage, still have somewhere to stand, and not accidentally blow yourself up! From there, the game adds in special obstacles (switches! Teleporters! Platforms that crumble after you step off them!), enemies, land mines (bombs that you cannot stand on!), and bomb-destroying robots that you can send to do your dirty work.

In one sense, the controls are simple: hold A or X for three seconds to arm a bomb that you’re standing on, and press B or Y to pick up and put down bombs (which can only be moved if they’re on grooved platforms). In another sense, the controls are the hardest part of the game: for whatever reason, the developers decided to display their 2D, grid-based puzzle game from an isometric perspective, so your movement controls are Q*Bert style! You move on diagonal axes using the non-diagonal D-pad! All while the game shows you a much more sensible (and, frankly, much less ugly) top-down view of each course if you pause it!

Pausing the game gives you a tantalizing glimpse of the viewpoint you wish you were playing it from. Source: Abandonware DOS

Ultimately, a game like this lives or dies on the strength of its puzzles. This might be especially true for Bombuzal, since there’s no storyline to speak of and minimal aesthetic change as you progress through the game. Fortunately, the puzzles in this game are pretty good! The game cycles in new obstacles, items, and enemies frequently enough to keep things fresh, while the core “blow up the bombs but manage the available floor space carefully” mechanic is strong enough to support a good range of puzzles. This isn’t going to make anyone forget Adventures of Lolo (we all remember Lolo, right?), but if you’re a single-screen move-the-objects puzzle game fan, this will help bridge the gap between when you beat Lolo and when Nintendo remembers that they’re joined at the hip with HAL Laboratories and can easily get the rights to the other two Lolo games for NES Online!

As a final note, the developers took a very strange approach to familiarizing new players with the game:

Will LittleMac continue with this game after his first half-hour with it?

As a matter of fact, I already have! This is definitely the winner of this batch of SNES Online releases, even if it breaks the theme of “mascot platformer with goo-based transformations.”