Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Rediscovered Classics: The Great Giana Sisters (Commodore 64)

So here we are on a rainy October day during my favorite time of the year--that point in autumn when the trees are still flush with color and summer's fleeting influence can still be felt. Light rumblings of thunder fill the air, thoughts of games fill my mind, and the atmosphere is perfect for discovery.

Now, when I talked about Super Mario analogs in my Alex Kidd in Miracle World piece, I neglected to mention The Great Giana Sisters, whose original game had a similar impact on the Commodore 64 scene. Being a C64 guy, myself, you'd think that a game of its notoriety would rank high on my list, but the fact is that Giana Sisters had limited presence in North America and was more widely known in Europe, where it enjoyed its greatest success. Mainly, I never got to play it before a few weeks ago.

Of course, it's no secret that Giana Sisters is generally regarded as a straight rip-off of Super Mario Bros.--or close enough, at least, to where it got Nintendo's attention and allegedly resulted in the company using its clout to discourage retailers from carrying it. But there are those who give Giana Sisters more credit than that; over the years, I've read plenty of reviews and forum posts from self-professed enthusiasts who assert that Giana Sisters is actually better than Mario's launch-pad platformer. 

Do they have legitimate reason to claim as much, or are they simply out of their damned minds? Allow me to list my ongoing thoughts as I finally play past the first stage.

The title screen is certainly unconventional. It features a surprisingly melancholy main theme, but its presentation otherwise works to evoke a sense of liveliness, with the game's name and accompanying credits scrolling endlessly across the screen. The letters comprising the "The Great Gianna Sisters" logo (featuring an extra 'n,' which makes for a strangely unofficial spelling) are made to resemble the breakable bricks from Super Mario Bros.; the logo's embellishment also looks to play upon the player's affinity for Super Mario Bros. with its depictions of toadstools, bushes, gray pipes (though repurposed to spew flames), and those small pools as enclosed by the flexures of the crooked Gs. All of this rapid movement speaks to me that the designers wanted to immediately grab my attention for the sake of advertising that theirs is an advanced, evolved version of a classic.

And, well, it's Super Mario Bros.--at least at first sight. It has that same minimalistic look--solid-blue background decorated with only crude-looking clouds and the occasional toadstool or bush, but there is a bit of differentiation in that its backgrounds scroll. The music commences in a bizarre-yet-interesting way: It starts out with two rounds of what sounds like fierce winds blowing (or the opening to any round in Jeopardy) before segueing into the stage theme proper. I don't know what they were going for with this intro (I immediately expected some type of storm-based mechanic matching the shifting winds as seen in the Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2), but it worked to get me focused early.

The stage theme is actually pretty catchy--it has a pleasant vibe that makes me want to sway my head from side to side as I play, and the tone of it is quintessential Commodore 64, heavy on the synth and rife with those unmistakable chiming notes.

The rest of this opening stage has varying degrees of mimickry: The starting portion is intentionally made to resemble the opening of Super Mario's 1-1 with its pyramidal platform structure and its breakable-brick, prize-block alternating pattern plus nearby pipe. The little red front-facing demons are a horn-trim away from being Goombas, and they as well other various creatures can be dispatched via stomping. Coins are replaced by blue diamonds and function the same way (collect 100 of them to earn an extra life). Also, there are multi-strike blocks that function as expected.

In place of Super Mushrooms are "Fire Wheels" (looking more like rolling mint candies), which seemingly electrocute the sister before transforming her into a scruffy-haired, maniacal-looking version of herself; this transformation, not surprisingly, provides her the ability to shatter bricks (breakable bricks, as struck from below by a depowered sister, don't shift out of place as they do in Mario and are instead locked in place). Lightning Bolts replace Fire Flowers and allow her to toss out equally destructive arcing white orbs called "Dream Bubbles" (as an Internet search informed me). And the sound effects are nothing if not flat-out resampled from Mario

Yeah--I'd say the developers took some level of inspiration from it.

But there are some notable differences: Giana's first stage is much shorter than Mario's 1-1, which I suspect is standard after gauging the lengths of Youtube play-throughs (they measure in at about an average of 30 minutes for a complete 32-stage run). You can't kill enemies by bumping them from below. There's no end-stage flagpole, and you instead exit the stage by simply entering into a cave opening that's somewhat reminiscent of Mario's small castles. And there's a unique addition in the form of disintegrating bridges, which are more forgiving than they appear, as you can stand on soon-empty space for about a half a second after a bridge section has vanished.

Though, there are only two of what I'd call true distinguishing elements: You can't run, which eliminates the means of gaining momentum, and you have to press "Up" to jump due to the C64's control limitations. Also, "Up" is used to control the height of a jump, which proves to be troublesome when you've been hitting "A" to do so for 25-plus years; I often forget that there's no second button and stupidly charge into bottomless pits. Using directional input for jumping causes the action to feel stiff, and it makes precision-based platforming much more tense and precarious than it would be otherwise. Even early on, tackling some of the longer jumps make me feel uneasy as do my attempts to drop onto enemies from heights greater than two blocks; unless I'm giving them too much credit, this would explain why the sprite-detection is so favorable--it's as if the designers are apologizing for their not being able to replicate Mario's smooth and precise controls. 

Also, they don't give you a whole lot of time to complete stages, which I guess makes sense considering how short they are; though, I would have preferred more time just for the sake of exploration and the uncovering of secrets.

Expectedly, the action in stage 2 shifts to an underground area, which closely mirrors Mario's 2-2. Though, it does introduce some unique additions: There's a Double Lightning power-up that adds a rebounding property to Dream Bubbles and a Strawberry that stacks on a homing power. Also, destroying certain bricks leaves behind large rocks, which you can use as boosting platforms. Giana has its own take on warping, too: Since you can't actually go down pipes, which are purely decorative, you can instead locate and strike certain invisible blocks whose uncovering, alone, advances you ahead three stages. However, I haven't actually found any yet (and I wouldn't want to utilize them at this point, anyway, since my intention is to experience the full game). 

Oddly, I haven't yet encountered anything equivalent to a Koopa Trooper--there are only walking eyeball creatures, bees, and green-shelled crabs (which I suppose are close enough). Still, I suspect that the absence of such is due to Giana Sisters not having sliding-shell or point-multiplier mechanics.

While there's no sign that Giana Sisters is ready to give up on tightly clinging to Mario's coattails, its third stage surprisingly breaks the mold, if only by a bit, by ditching the giant-mushroom-platform design in favor of Giana's typical stylings. There's a new graphical element in the form of these industrial-looking towers, and there's a new bouncing pink blob enemy, which can only be momentarily stunned. Introduced, also, are a clock item that freezes enemies in their tracks and a bomb item that otherwise clears the screen of them; the items' effects aren't immediate and instead initiate the next time the attack button is hit.

Stage 4 is of course our obligatory castle level, and it has the game's first new stage theme, which sounds darker and more serious than Bowser's overture and grows more intense and spirited as it elapses. The rousing score nicely builds up to my battle with a ... s-spider-crab thing? Well, it's our Bowser stand-in, essentially, though it's relegated to only charging attacks. It took 14 Dream Bubbles to take it down, and the battle was trickier than expected--a lot twitchier and requiring a higher state of altertness than the average Bowser fight.

From what I've seen so far, I think I have a good sense of what Giana Sisters is going for. My opinion is that it's somewhat enjoyable and fairly challenging, though more so due to the quirkiness of the controls. "So how will the game fare from this point?" I wonder. Well, let's check it out.

I've discovered a few things--some of them by chance. One is that Giana Sisters indeed has bonus-type underground areas that can be accessed by dropping into certain gaps rather than ducking down pipes, though there's nothing in the way of indication (I found one by accident when I walked right into stage 5's first gap because I forgot that there's no jump button); you return to the surface, at the very same dropping point, by riding the elevator to the right. I've also uncovered a Water Drop item, whose effectiveness was initially lost on me; I had to again refer to an online guide to learn that it "protects you from fire." I found immediate use for it in the following stage, which re-introduces the flame-spewing pipes as seen on the title screen.

Freshly debuting is a strange turtle-like creature--this one tinier and speedier than the others--that can catch Dream Bubbles and temporarily hold them hostage if they're fired from poor angles. Like so many of the game's unique elements, this feels so very obscure and random, but, then, that's a microcosm for Commodore 64 development. I wouldn't have it any other way, really. Stage 8 is our second castle level, and the spider-crab is again our main foe; this time, a largely indestructible low-lying ceiling makes the affair more cramped, since it's now tougher to evade its charges.

Giana Sisters is becoming difficult in a hurry. Considerable challenges include having to execute tight, block-edge jumps with enough height to clear expanses filled with enemies, spikes and flames; jumping to and landing on the edges of flame pipes; and a lot of cramped jumps where you have to leap as late as possible so that you don't rebound off the ceiling and plunge directly into a death pit. It's almost ROM-hack-level cruel in some places.

At this point, Giana Sisters isn't wandering too far from the script, but it still occasionally drops some additional content: It introduces some new enemies like invincible tapeworms, jumping piranhas, Spiny-like crawlers, and some rather-unidentifiable miscreants. It dishes more in the way of power-ups whose functionality I haven't yet figured out (there's surprisingly little coverage of the game on Gamefaqs and the like). And it mixes things up by introducing a second castle boss--a pterodactyl that behaves similarly to the spider-crab despite its flight ability. Unfortunately, one of its "surprises" is that it grows difficult to the point of absurdity, often requiring far too many close-quarter jumps in a row. Truly, any single instance of such is enough to drain your entire stock. I had to resort to using save-states just to force my way through these spots, which I only did for the sake of snapping screenshots and completing this piece.

So does it ever break far enough away from the Super Mario Bros. formula to become its own game? Does it do enough to differentiate itself? Well, it does manage to shed its shackles somewhere around its early double-digit stages, but it does so more through its increasingly rough design than by way of its notable eccentricities. That is, Giana Sisters is very much marred by its shortcomings, which include questionable level design and a number of annoying glitches (I'd sometimes fall through ledges even though I clearly reached them safely, and I'd be often killed by enemy corpses and spike-shaped obstructions that were other times harmless).

More specifically, the level design is mostly haphazard, featuring random constructions and enemy placement that hardly promote strategic platforming scenarios (certainly nothing in the league of the oft-studied Super Mario Bros., which is exemplary of intuitive platforming design) and are just kinda there. Also, inexplicably, some warp blocks are placed right out in the open, found accidentally by simply performing basic jumps; this would be a consequential game mechanic if skipping stages cost you, say, the best ending, but here it just shuffles you ahead as if to suggest that the three between-stages aren't worth playing through. And the final stage smacks you with one of those designer traps where you're not meant to actually make it to the end; rather, you have to fall into a specially designated pit mid-stage to access the final "Stage 33," which holds the final boss battle and the game's ultimate prize. Since you can't scroll the screen backwards, your only means of getting a second chance are to kill yourself.

The Great Giana Sisters is Super Mario Bros. with little in the way of finesse, craftsmanship, or restraint. It was quite delightful for a time, but then it hastily abandoned good sense in pursuit of becoming the progenitor to the likes of I Wanna Be the Guy, its focus shifting to the creation of extreme difficulty rather than genuinely interesting stages. As a result, Giana Sisters doesn't come close to Alex Kidd in Miracle World's level of creativity and inventiveness, nor is it as polished as other inspired fare like, say, Adventure Island.

So am I suggesting that The Great Giana Sisters is just another pretender? Well, I wouldn't outright dismiss it as an attempt to cash in on Super Mario Bros.'s success in markets where its penetration was limited or nonexistent, but I also could never give credence to ridiculous rhetoric like "it's better than Super Mario Bros." I'd say that Commodore 64 loyalists (or even those who played it on the Amiga, Atari ST, Amstrad CPC, or MSX) have less right to that claim than Sega fans with Alex Kidd or the DOS crowd with Commander Keen, and such boasts are purely born out of tribalism and system wars.

Now, I can't bring myself to wholly dislike Giana Sisters, because I'm a Commodore 64 guy and have always been in love with platform's history, but I can't see myself ever seriously returning to it--not unless my end goal is to be driven to insanity. But I can appreciate what it is, and I understand why so many are so deeply enamored with it. For me, it's fun to experience other companies' takes on the Super Mario Bros. formula, even if the result in borderline plagiarism. Though, I'm happy that Giana Sisters' rights holders made something more out of series--picking a distinct direction and providing it its own defining personality--and even reconciled their differences with Nintendo in bringing the series to systems like the DS and Wii U.

That I'm not a fan of the original creation doesn't suggest that other Giana Sisters games might not be worth my time, and there's always the possibility that one such sequel could find its way onto my list of gems.

If it doesn't run out too quickly on me, time will tell.

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