Thursday, September 11, 2014

Shades of Resonance: Fond Reminiscence - Memory Log #9

Jumpman and Jumpman Junior

Wait a minute--Nintendo made Mario games for the Commodore 64? Well, no. Around the same time Nintendo's proper-name-lacking Reainassance man was still barrel-hopping in arcades, Epyx was giving life to a character of the same name (or non-name, I guess) on the Commodore 64 and other computer systems like the Atari 800 and the Apple II. I didn't know for the longest time that Donkey Kong's protagonist had a tentative name pre-Mario, so there was never any confusion on my end. There was only Jumpman--that whacky C64 game-series I was always inexplicably returning to.

Jumpman and its aesthetically identical sequel, Jumpman Junior, were rather simple arcade-like games in the vein of Nintendo's early NES efforts but without any of the restraint or much-needed regulation. Jumpman's action, for instance, moved at a blazing-fast speed and could fall just plain out of control; its shaky, fidgety controls combined with its roughly defined level-design mechanics created instances where you could seemingly miss a jump, instead become lodged in a platform, and somehow still propel yourself upward. I wasn't sure if this was an intended mechanic or if I was cheating. Yet despite Jumpman feeling like a complete mess, I somehow never perceived it as broken and found its style of gameplay appealing even if I couldn't long survive its madness. Also, I might have been mentally deficient.

The objective was to clear a stage by collecting all of its unidentifiable, strewn-about brown pellets, the procuring of which sometimes caused environmental changes like sections of platforms or ladders disappearing. Other times, for "Why not?" reasons, sections of platform would fall on my head immediately upon a pellet's collection, or I'd be instantly dropped to my death without warning, because "Why not?"

You'd run into an occasional enemy (like a ground-crawling critter, a more-mobile bird-like creature, or a speedy Jumpman clone), but the most recurrent foes were these annoying bullets that would float in from random locations before darting toward you according to line of sight. Whenever I played Jumpman, I was always fearful of these obnoxiously stupid bullet "enemies" because they could conceivably float in from the side of the screen right where I was standing and kill me before I could even react. "What were they thinking with that?" I wondered. Or were they thinking about it? I'm not sure.

For me, in fact, death was the theme of the game. The character Jumpman was a lot like the early-years Mario in that he couldn't survive falls of more than a few inches; considering how small the margin of error was, the most common theme was me falling to my death because I couldn't jump in time or because I tried leaping down to a platform that the game decided was too low. It might have been infuriating had I not always gotten a kick out of Jumpman's death animation, which saw him tumblingly pratfall his way down several stories of the stage before splatting, each respective flop accompanied by a comical sound effect and the inevitable punctuation of a sped-up version of Chopin's "Funeral March."

Jumpman Junior was more of the same, but it at least gave you an option to choose between 10 different gameplay speeds, the middle numbers of which made the action more manageable. Still, while Junior added more in the way of stage hazards (fire, shifting ladders, moving walls), it still relied mostly on the exact same formula and particularly an overload of those irritating floating bullets. Even during a time when I didn't know what a true sequel was supposed to be, I sensed something was wrong about all of this. I mean, none of its changes, even if positive, did anything to mask the glaring flaws of the original's gameplay, and I wasn't sure why it needed to exist. Jumpman Junior was pure expansion-pack material--neither better or worse than the original. It was certainly an odd philosophy for the creation of a sequel (well, if you're not EA).

Looking at them in the proper context--mainly the time-period in which they were created--Jumpman and Jumpman Junior are OK games. They're just not among those I can play for too long without having to put the controller down in disbelief and long wonder about the sanity of its creators. As such, they're much more memorable to me for their quizzical eccentricities and their brazen disregard for the rules of coherent game design. And should I fail to make progress, I can always have a lot of fun enjoying the audio and visual components of the Jumpman family's plunging deaths!

Because why not?

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