Saturday, January 31, 2015

Shades of Resonance: Fond Reminiscence - Memory Log #22

Trolls and Tribulations

Though I started to break out of my comfort zone as I became more and more acclimated to the Commodore 64's brand of weirdness, I predictably gravitated toward known properties early on. If it wasn't taking shelter in the bunkers of Ghosts 'n Goblins, Rambo, The Goonies and Commando (which, as I've discussed, I thought was a video-game adaptation of the Schwarzenegger flick), then I was paddling through the calm waters of safe-sounding games like Bruce Lee, Highnoon and Jumpman

Chief among the latter group was a simple title called "Trolls," whose name caught my attention as I read through the labels on my brother's collection of floppy disks. I was drawn to it because the word trolls immediately brought to mind images of those nasty little green creatures whose mischievous antics I so enjoyed in recently released films like Gremlins and Ghoulies, which were my favorite "mini-monster movies," as I thought of them. 

Well, it was either that or because the title was only six letters long and easy to read, which in my eyes never hurt a game's cause (I thought it was important to have solid criteria, after all). I say as much because "Trolls," as I long acknowledged it, brought into question my powers of observation, since its actual title was Trolls and Tribulations. I mean, it said so right there on the game's title screen, but somehow I missed it; I don't know if it was that I just didn't see the word Tribulation hovering there or if I had a policy of ignoring any big word I couldn't pronounce. It might even have been that I was too trusting of my brother's labeling skills and simply dismissed the game's attempt to suggest otherwise. I can't say for sure, since I was more focused on seeing what the game was all about.

It turned out that Trolls was another arcade-like platformer on a computer system that was surprisingly full of them. Before I'd played the likes of Jumpman, Dino Eggs and Hard Hat Mack, that is, I assumed that computers were mainly associated with nontraditional software like vector-based flight simulators, complex word games, and other perceived oddball concepts that didn't fit in anywhere else. Trolls, which was larger in scope than even the most celebrated arcade clone of Donkey Kong or Mario Bros., served up more undeniable proof that the computer platform, or at least the Commodore 64, was far more versatile than I'd originally given it credit. 

From what I could gauge early on, Trolls looked to be remarkably similar to Mario Bros. and even featured similar mechanics, but further play revealed that there was much more to it. The first stage (one of five "mazes" in the first "level," as the game identified it), for instance, was broken up into two parts: To clear the initial portion, I had to use my ray gun to encase the pesky trolls and then bump them down into the water below before they could break free, much like how you'd knock a Shellcreeper onto its back and then rush to punt it off the stage before it could recover (though, in this game, escaping enemies don't change color or increase their movement speed, the faster red troll instead being a unique enemy that awards bonus points after being disintegrated with a single shot). 

I thought it was rather clever how you were required to replenish the ray gun's energy by returning to the animated starting point and holding down, which added an element of tension (as did the controls, which I'll discuss later) in the early going when I mistakenly estimated that these troll segments were going to be "easy." Though, they weren't manageable too much longer and particularly after the game began introducing inconvenient platform arrangements and indestructible foes like the patrolling buzzards and pursuant skull heads, whence being overwhelmed became a normal stage condition.

The real fun began when I cleared out the trolls and moved into the stage's second portion, which jarringly shifted strictly to platforming. The challenge, then, was to work my way around an actual maze and locate its exit; to proceed through the maze required finding keys to open the obstructing locked doors, but the layout otherwise taught me that I could take detours to collect points-boosting treasures like lamps, pots, wizard hats ("Merlin hats," as I called them), and what I termed "banana peels" (I still have no clue what these are supposed to be). These mazes only grew more labyrinthine over time and soon introduced enemies, including the newly debuting spider, and nasty tricks like breakaway floors. In fact, some stages eschewed the troll segments altogether and presented just larger mazes, which kept the formula from growing stale.

The game's true difficulty, I thought, was born out of its control scheme, which wasn't difficult to grasp but proved troublesome when put to the test. To start, Trolls was the first platformer I played where you had two kinds of jumps--a vertical jump executed by pushing up, and a fixed horizontal leap as assigned to the action button. I'd always forget which was which and become flustered, particularly in the maze areas, where a high degree of precision was required. Since we didn't have a manual, it took me forever to realize that you could also rebound off walls, which was a necessary maneuver if you were stuck facing a wall and there was a gap to your back; never thinking to tap the 2600 controller's lone button, I kept trying to pull off these improvised "quick-turn jumps," which always resulted in plunging deaths (it was an "advanced move that would surely work if I could just master it," I was convinced). The first instance of such a jump was in Level 2, Maze 1, which I remember as being the stage that delayed any further progress for about a week.

There was also the inconvenience of the hero having to first move one space over any time you wanted him to face the other direction, which made it easy to accidentally bump into enemies when your intention was likely to line up to a shot or jump over them; even worse, the enemies had this flaky hit-detection I could never quite decipher, and I was always hesitant to get close to them. Also, the limited input meant that I had to push down to fire the ray gun, which sounds like a recipe for control-conflict freakouts, but I surprisingly never had any real issues with it past that first session.

My only reliable ally was the game's musical score, which was composed entirely of the usual uplifting Classical music pieces. I could recognize them as such, but I wasn't yet learned enough to identify the names and the original composers (Trolls has excellent renditions of Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 16 in C major, K. 545; Bach's Minuet in D Minor, BWV Anh. 132 and Invention 14; and Ellmenreich's Spinnerlied). I started to notice a trend when it came to Commodore 64 games and their soundtracks, many of which featured heavy use of Classical pieces in place of archetypal video-game music. I figured that C64 developers were either lovers of Classical music or they were just plain lazy. I wasn't about to complain, really, since I was of the opinion that its use made the games feel more sophisticated than they actually were.

In time, with a lot of practice, I could make it pretty far into Trolls--to about Level 6, which by the game's measurement is 25-plus mazes--but it got just too crazy from that point forward. I'd meet the same crushing defeat again and again, no matter how much I improved. That didn't stop me from returning to the game regularly with the intention of progressing farther each time, driven by the idea that a game like this might have an ending sequence worth viewing; though, I couldn't even guess as to how far away I actually was from this imagined "final maze." Unfortunately, it got to a point where even getting that deep into the game was turning out to be too much of a time-sink for even a responsibility-free kid, and it no longer seemed worth the effort considering that I was prone to dump all of my lives in those same two or three mazes--the ones filled to the brim with two-block platforms as patrolled by the sizable skull heads. That's when I largely abandoned Trolls, which I'd decided was worth a revisit every couple of years but only for nostalgic quick-plays.

My enduring memories of the correctly titled Trolls and Tribulations entail hair-pulling frustration, fits of anger, and ultimate deflation, yet I still consider it a great game despite all of the hell it put me through. I swore it off, yeah, but I didn't pour dozens of hours into it because I thought it was mediocre; to the contrary, Trolls and Tribulations was too well-conceived and had too much whimsical spirit for me to remember it solely as a source of emotional pain. No--I consider it one of my favorite games on the system, ours an amicable split.

That said, I don't know that I could ever again extract from it the same type of enjoyment I experienced in those early years, since the thought of playing it again fills me with feelings of apprehension. But I can still give Trolls and Tribulations its deserved credit as a game that helped ease me into the wild world of the Commodore 64 while introducing me to the puzzle-platformer, which I've been crazy about ever since. Its creators have my gratitude.

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