Sunday, September 14, 2014

C64 Review - Congo Bongo (C) 1983 Sega

{thanks Moby Games}

Chuck:  Today we have Sega's not-so-classic, not-such-a-big-arcade-hit Congo Bongo.  Long considered Sega's answer to Donkey Kong (and probably programmed by some of the same people), Congo Bongo is a graphically intense isometric platformer made to stand out in a crowded 1983 arcade market.  

The C-64 port was programmed by Beck Tech, another Berkely/Silicon Valley-type tech startup that sprang up like weeds in the late 70's and early 80's.  Beck Tech has a good track record with me.  Their version of Tapper for the Atari 2600 is an amazing technical achievement and one of the best port jobs in the 2600's library.  Hell, their 2600 version of Congo Bongo's pretty impressive too.  They ported Tapper to the C-64 as well and did a pretty good job of that; it could be because Sega at least let them put that on a disk.  Congo Bongo got squeezed onto a cart and according to one article I read it's cut down to 24k.  It's understandable.  The high cost of memory at the time, manufacturing costs, low C-64 user base... why take a chance?  Why invest time and resources into something that might not sell?

John:  I'll tell you why, because you're charging the same amount of money as you are for every other version of the game.   Let's put it plainly: the C64 got the shit end of the stick.  Regardless of the circumstances, Beck and Sega though this was good enough to release.  It's barely better than the 2600 version, which at least has the benefit of looking great considering the system's limitations.  The Apple II version is better, like a completely different game from this one.  Even the Colecovision port is better.  We got the same version the Atari 5200 did.  It's bad.  It's bad like cancer.

Chuck:  Yeah but I cant get too offended by it.  I think a big part of the problem is the game it's based on, not the technical shortcomings of the port.

John:  I admit I have a soft spot for this game.  I mean the real game, the arcade game.  The whole point of the game is to be a technical wonder.  A 1983 technical wonder, yes, but if you lived the arcade life like we did, when we did, you remember what it was like seeing this game for the first time.  It made a lot of other games look absolutely ancient.  A lot of the game's literature and ads describe it as "3-D" and it really did look that way at the time.  The way the player and enemies interact with the environment, the way the coconuts tumble down the hill on the first level, the way the water appears to flow.. it all adds up to a very cartoon-like, living environment with depth.  It still looks good today, particularly when it's in motion.  And not only was it a more evolved platformer, one of the levels was entirely based on Frogger as well.

Chuck: It's programmed by the same folks that did Zaxxon and uses the same "engine".  The isometric view did look pretty sharp at the time.  This was the era of Dragon's Lair and the Star Wars X-Wing cockpit game, so it was getting harder for traditional raster games to surprise you with graphical fidelity.  The gap between the arcade experience and the home experience was getting wider, also.  

You're right, no other game looked like this.  It was seemingly the next step in platform gaming.  It really looked the part and it was almost irresistably attractive.  That was the whole point.  Like Dragon's Lair it was meant to dazzle you into playing it.  Also like Dragon's Lair you quickly realized it wasnt as playable as you were accustomed to.

There's a trade-off to this perspective.  It's hard to judge where you're jumping to and how far.  So, of course, they make the game entirely about jumping and judging where you're going to land to the point where, as you pointed out, one of the levels is a Frogger-esque jump fest.  It's maddening.  It feels like the game isnt working properly.

Another thing that bothers me, and I feel is an example of another trade-off, is that the game is very short.  The elaborate graphics and environment leave you with little to actually do.  All the levels are very brief point-A to point-B affairs.  To the developer's credit there is variety between the levels but they dont leave much of an impression on their own.  I watched John play the arcade version and he must have rolled through all of the levels at least 5 times.  After the game was over I could have sworn there were only three levels in the game, not four.  The second level is so inconsequential that I didnt even remember it after seeing it multiple times!   The first level, the one that everyone remembers, only has two real jumps.  The level with stampeding wildebeasts and you ducking into holes is pretty well thought out, but lasts less than a minute.  The final Frogger stage is OK, but suffers thanks to the difficult controls.

It's obvious that they had a very cool-looking concept (freeze Zaxxon in place) and they grafted a game onto it the best they could.  It's not horrible or anything but it's more fun to watch than it is to play.

John:  I agree that it's not for everyone and it can definitely be unfair.  It certainly takes a lot of practice.  It's not as immediately accessible as Popeye or Mario Bros, and history shows that this concept was pretty much a dead end.  Mario Bros begat Super Mario Bros and platformers truly hit the next level.  The first 2.5D, axonometric platformer was also pretty much the last, in the arcade anyway.

Enough about the arcade version, let's discuss what we're all here for.  The pile of puke that is the C64 port.

Chuck:  Well, we're both making a point about how we approached the C-64 version.  I wasnt sold on Congo Bongo in the first place, so I wasnt surprised to find that the C-64 port was awful.  I know we played this a lot when we were kids and I honestly dont remember it being this bad.  If you arent at least a fan of Congo Bongo, there is nothing for you here.

John:  And my point is that this game was meant to be a state-of-the-art eye-popper and if you take that away, you arent left with much.  But the C64 version does much worse than simply have poor graphics.  The first thing you'll notice is that the perspective is wrong.  They've "turned" it further.  Merely cosmetic?  Nope, it negatively impacts gameplay.

They've completely botched the game's isometric perpective.  Instead of the nice axonometric Zaxxon view it just looks like a 2D platformer with an extremely poor attempt at field depth.  The perspective the arcade original uses allows you to understand where the coconuts are and where they are going.  The initial coconut volley is supposed to roll down the hill toward your entrypoint (bottom left) and you move left or right as you climb to avoid them.  This version is so screwy that you actually have to move up and down to avoid them.  Because the perspective is off the coconuts move right to left instead of down.   You have to judge if they are in front of you (toward the screen) or behind you (away from the screen).  It's awkward and unnatural.

 When you get to the top you cant really dodge them anymore because you have nowhere to move - they'll either hit your head or your feet.  So you just wait until Bongo's not throwing coconuts to rush up the final steps.  Congo Bongo doesnt make any sense with this perspective.  This isnt what the game is supposed to play like at all.

Imagine if they took Zaxxon and made it a 2D side-scroller but still pretended to be 3-D by trying to fool you into thinking you're moving into and out of the playfield by simply moving up and down.  That's the best way I can describe this mess.  Without sprite scaling there's no way you can have the illusion of going deeper into the screen.  Wouldnt it have been easier to just keep the game's original perspective?  I'm guessing that it wasnt.  I'm guessing that drawing the playfield with right angles was the easiest way to do it on the Atari 5200, and since this is a lazy port we got the same thing.

The coconuts move so slow and choppy it almost doesnt matter anyway, you could be half-way through the stage before the first one drops.  And do they have to be purple??  

Next up is the Hunter.  The player sprite looks awful and if you look closely you can see that he has no eyes, just empty spaces through which you can see the play field.  He's got the red nose but he's too tall and skinny.

The Hunter barely seems to be a part of, or interacting with, the environment and instead appears to awkwardly float over top.  The monkees and the coconuts fare a little better but the way they move reminds me of a Tiger LCD game.  Bongo looks absolutely nothing like he should.  What the heck, Beck-Tech?  I could swear the programmers read a description of the game and worked from that, having never played the arcade game before.  Even the Bongo in the 2600 version looks more like it should!

One moment that sums up the entire game for me can be seen if you move too far to the left while walking on the bridge.  Instead of falling you immediately make a "splat" pose and die right at the edge of the bridge.  That's just pure hackery.

Once you make it through the first level you skip right to the last level which is the arcade's final Frogger stage.  Not much to say about this one except that the horrible jump mechanic really rears it's ugly head here.  Once again the perspective is off but at least it's consistent with the first stage.  Jumping on the first lilly pad is hard to miss.  It doesnt seem to matter whether the lilly pad is large or shrunken.  You might make your second jump, it's pure luck.  Your player sprite is so clunky and blocky you cant tell where you're standing.  When you jump to the next little island it always LOOKS like you made it, but it's 50/50 whether the game give it to you or not.  If you do make that second jump it's very easy to make it to the end.  I dont know why you would try to take an alternate path through the level.

After this you go back to level one with more aggressive monkeys.  That's it.  That's the whole game.  It's a platform game with maybe six mandatory jumps.  

Chuck:  It's not really missing anything by not including the second level with the snakes since that one's a throwaway, but it really could have used the wildebeast stage.  There's no meat to this game.  Again, some of this is because of the original game, but this takes what little was there and cuts most of it out.

John:  And it doesnt even have pretty graphics to fall back on.  This really is a disaster.  Something to note is that a couple years later someone whipped up a new version of Congo Bongo that looks a million times better.  We cant comment on how it plays since we never played it but check this out:

That looks a lot like the Apple II version which is what the C64 version should have been in the first place.

I'll say it again, we got the Atari 5200 version on the C64.  What a shame.  At least it doesnt crash or do anything out of the ordinary.  So at least it's a semi-competent, un-fun piece of crap.

Chuck:  Eh.  Early eighties isometric platforming isnt all it's cracked up to be on any system, but I can still appreciate what a kick in the crotch this game would be to a fan.  Isnt there anything good about Congo Bongo?  The color palette isnt too bad.

John:  The sounds are decent.  Um... the music isnt completely horrible.  Ugh.  Enough of this.  I'm going to fire up MAME and play the real Congo Bongo while listening to the real Oingo Boingo.

Chuck:  Sounds like a party.  A dead man's party, as it were.  Ugh.  Sorry folks.  For everything.