Saturday, January 21, 2017

Unearthed Treasures: Puffy's Saga (Amiga)

Oh, Commodore Amiga. I've had my eyes on you for the longest time. For years I've been admiring you from afar. I've been examining and reexamining those persistently surfacing mental images in my attempts to understand why I find you so alluring. I've found myself marveling at your vast library of games. I've watched on with envy as you've strut your stuff in all of those best-of videos and retrospectives. And all the while, I've had to wonder about how it was that our paths never truly intersected. Sure, I've nibbled at your fruit via my play-throughs of the NES ports you've re-rendered with varying results, but I've never taken the opportunity to get to know the real you--to see what you can do when not anchored by the chains of multiplatformism.

You could say that I've been eagerly awaiting the moment when I could push everything else off to the side and focus intently on delving deeply into your world.

It wasn't always that way, you know. Not when I was a kid. Oh, no--for the entirety of my childhood, I chose to ignore you. I mean, I knew that you were there, occupying desktop space in homes all across the country, but I simply didn't care. I'd see you resting there in the corner of my cousins' pool room, flaunting your expensive-looking hardware components, but I'd just as soon disregard you in favor of salivating over their ColecoVision. If was often that you'd show up as a prize on one of those Nickelodeon game shows, but I was always sure to look away when you were on screen.

I didn't feel that you were worthy of my attention. You were nothing more than a Commodore 64 of a different stripe, I assumed--a fancy remodel of a device to which I already had access. I didn't want anything to do with you. I didn't need you. And by the time I realized that you were actually something completely different, it was too late--your era had come and gone. You had nothing more to contribute to the scene.

Or that's what I was inclined to believe.

In truth, that's not how things are. I say this to you, my friend, because I want you to know that I've since rewired my brain, and I no longer adhere to that stupidly outmoded way of thinking. So now here we are. There's no further need to delay our destinies. Let it be the early months of 2017 when I finally welcome you into my life--fully embrace you at a point in time when my more-nuanced view of the medium and its history dictates that there's no such thing as a platform's time "passing." What was will always be, I say, and it's never too late for a platform to shine. So let's start celebrating its relevance!

As I intimated earlier, I have some some experience with the platform via emulation. It was thanks to WinUAE and the like that I was able to play the Amiga ports of Castlevania, Shadowgate and Uninivited (I couldn't get Deja Vu to boot up, though I hope to one day get it running so I can cover it on this blog). I had fun with the games, yes, yet I was more intrigued by the Amiga's operating system, which surprisingly bore resemblance to early versions of Windows. I was expecting that the experience would entail typing familiar commands like "Load '*'" and "List," but there I was, instead, using my mouse cursor to stretch windows and drag and drop icons. I was blown away by this discovery, since I didn't believe that a computer released in 1985 could possess this level of capability, however laggy.

On its own, the presence of this start-up screen--the "Workbench," as it's called--provides the Amiga so much character and such a powerful aura. Though stark in appearance, it's drenched in mystique. Simply gazing upon it fills me with wonder. I can't help but regard its window frames, with their absorbing navy-blue tint, as portals that are waiting to transport me to magical new worlds. I point to this amazingly distinctive attribute as another example of why I love discovering old platforms!

So let's dive into our first portal and explore the world of a little game called Puffy's Saga, which immediately garnered my attention when I saw it in action during Chrontendo Episode 50's computer-game roundup. For the longest while, I'd been looking to find the game that would serve as a fine starting point for my adventure into the Amiga universe; I desired to jump in with a game that was modestly designed--a game indicative of a work that would have appeared on an 1980s computer system during its early years--before moving on to those technologically advanced. And I think I've found my game in Puffy's Saga, which is one of the earliest creations of the acclaimed French publisher Ubisoft (it's also available for the Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum and Amstrad CPC).

From what I've seen of it, Puffy's Saga looks to be a top-down action game in the style of Gauntlet, with Adventures of Lolo-like amorphous blobs starring in place of medieval heroes. Why, simply exhibiting those two qualities was enough to land Puffy's Saga on my "Unearthed Treasures" list! I didn't need to see anything else! 

All I really know about the game is what I saw in those 23 seconds of video. While that small sampling was enough to give me an idea of what's awaiting me in Puffy's Saga, I couldn't guess as to its actual scope.

Maybe it's time we found out. So let's stop yappin' and get to it!

The title image, as likely intended, reminds me of the one I remember so well from the NES version of Gauntlet with its mysteriously depicted maze branches and the threatening creatures who are currently emerging from them. The skyline's fiery cloud cover further stokes the imagination and completes the attractive visual.

Puffy's Saga certainly tops out the "weird" quotient very early on with its peculiar title-screen theme, whose intro consists of a digitized voice matching a series of "Welcome"s--some of them scratched, rap-style--to the opening notes. This leads into a spirited new-wave composition that you could easily mistake for the main theme to an 80s comedy-drama; it sounds like something that Cyndi Lauper would have produced. Also, it makes for a interesting bit of dissonance when the stressful, urgent tone produced by this Gauntlet-style depiction is matched to Puffy's bubbly cartoon aesthetic. I'm don't know what this says about the game's content, but I'm curious to see how and if Ubisoft was able to successfully marry these two disparate qualities.

I press the "Fire" button, as prompted, and up scrolls an onscreen manual that supplies me a lot in the way of general information: our basic goal, tile descriptions, an item listing, enemy types, and the configuration for our keyboard keys, which we can use to activate special abilities. One such ability allows us to instantly switch to Puffy's female counterpart, Puffyn, who may or may not function similarly; the instructions make no distinction, so I'll have to discover any differences on my own. 

This entire display reminds me of how old arcade games, similarly, would give you all of the relevant information up front in a neatly organized table. On the subject: I should note that the ghost enemy looks suspiciously like Blinky from Pac-Man, which I suppose makes sense when you consider the game's sources of inspiration. Its cartoony presentation almost demanded this design convergence.

I'm not particularly thrilled to learn that I'm going to have to use the keyboard in accessory. I've never been comfortable using a keyboard to play video games, which is why I've usually gravitated more towards computer games that offer full joystick control. I'm hoping that the game allows me to activate abilities while the game is paused; otherwise, this could get messy in a hurry.

And, well, it's certainly Gauntlet. The immediate visual similarity is striking--more so than I'd determined it to be when I saw the game in video form. The wall tiles display a comparable brick pattern. The floor's intricate texture-work is reminiscent. The scale and design-structure are a close match. And the blue-and-gray color-scheme further intensifies the connection in how it instantly conjures up images of the early levels of Gauntlet II. If anything, the colors are brighter in tone, which isn't surprising when you consider the game's farcical theme; cute, bubbly characters bouncing around Gauntlet's more dankly rendered environments might have created an offputting sense of discordance.

As it is in the arcade Gauntlets, the HUD information is aligned vertically to the screen's right side. Displayed are your score and a multiple-digit health-total, which as expected begins to dwindle down on its own the moment the action begins--one unit for every second (the health readout is basically a replenishable timer).

Seeing Puffy's Saga up close reminds me again of just how vibrant and clean-looking Amiga games are. I would have been amazed by this level of resolution back in the late 80s. The more I experiment with the platform, the more disappointed I become with myself for having overlooked it. I can bet that I'm going to repeatedly echo this sentiment in the future.

Puffy can spit fireballs, but they don't appear to be very effective; it's either that they fail to inflict damage or they pass directly through enemies. Could it be that only certain enemies are vulnerable? Maybe the enemies' imperviousness is meant to promote a tactically evasive style of gameplay? Is the fireball attack there simply for tradition's sake? I'm not sure what the designers are going for, but I'm not seeing any benefit to engaging the enemies.

I didn't realize until now that the game allows for two-player simultaneous play (I assumed that control alternated between players), though I'm obviously going to be unable to exploit this feature. I'll weigh in on Puffyn-style play a bit later; maybe I'll switch between the heroes whenever I die. If I'm to believe what it says on the box cover as displayed at GameFAQs, the bow-tied Puffyn moves faster than her plainly depicted comrade but ranks below him in terms of projectile strength. (We can see that the heroes' designer had every intention of evoking images of Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man and playing off of the legendary arcade couple's popularly recognized visual contrast.)

I'm disappointed to discover that Puffy's Saga lacks Gauntlet's digitized narrator. His presence is sorely missed. As is, there's no one to enthusiastically welcome me to the labyrinth or commentate on the unfortunate consequences of my having an itchy trigger finger. I mean, I can shoot the food all I want, but what's the point in doing so when it doesn't prompt a narrator to describe my actions with the exasperated puzzlement I so desire to hear?! Also, there's absolutely no musical accompaniment, though I'm not yet sure how I feel about that. There was a part of me hoping that Puffy's Saga would adhere to the sound design of the NES' Gauntlet port, which to great effect used music to imbue its levels with atmosphere--create varying degrees of tension and urgency. Instead, it looks to replicate the arcade original's silent ambiance, which I'll be OK with if the level design is interesting enough to compensate for the lack of musical enrichment. We'll see how it goes.

More pronounced is how the two games differ in terms of character maneuverability: Whereas Gauntlet's elves and warriors can speedily negotiate around enemies and obstacles, the heroes of Puffy's Saga bounce around sluggishly. Also, they can't travel diagonally, their movements instead limited to two axes. As a consequence of these handicaps, Puffy's Saga is considerably slower-paced in comparison to its inspiration. This was no doubt a calculated design choice, Ubisoft obviously intending for its creation to emphasize cautious navigation over chaotic combat. We see this reflected in, say, the enemy design, where the unsynchronized movements taking place within large enemy arrangements encourages you to you bob and weave around their assemblages of patrolling snakes and such; attempting to tank through them--absorb their blows, as you can in Gauntlet--results only in the rapid draining of your health.

And I'm not even disappointed that Ubisoft chose to take this direction. No--this is actually what I was hoping to see from Puffy's Saga. I'd imagined that its action entailed an interesting mix of Gauntlet's labyrinthine level design and the precision-based movement of my favorite Sokoban-style games. If the rest of the game follows suit, I'll be very happy.

As I play through this first level, I'm finding a whole lot more in the way of commonality with Gauntlet: The collectible keys scattered all about the level allow me to clear away thin metallic doors, of which there are a disturbingly large amount. Red skulls, which replace the usual treasure chests, award points. Food items increase health. Potions are displaced by magic goms (blue orbs), which, as the onscreen manual informed us, can be used to activate temporary special abilities like increased speed and extra firepower; they otherwise permit me to recover health, switch to Puffyn, or freely browse the map for five seconds.

Also, every item is designated its own unique sound sample: Keys magically ding. Skulls lightly pop. And the collection of a magic gom prompts a guitar strum. The environments, too, are expressive: If struck with fireballs, metallic doors produce clanking sounds whereas normal walls emit punching noises.

The Fire Power item enables me to spit a larger, more destructive fireball and actually damage enemies, but sadly its effect is temporary. Invisibility pills, on the other hand, don't seem to do anything for me; the enemies continue to fire away and stalk me regardless. Strange.

And as I feared when I noticed that the number of doors far exceeded the available number of keys, it is possible to choose an unfruitful path and become permanently stuck. This must be the "puzzle" element I remember reading about.

You know when you get that sinking feeling early on in a game? Well, this one hit about thirty seconds in. I mean, I understand that theirs is more an order-of-operations-based approach, but haphazardly spamming doors all over the place doesn't make for good particularly good level design. Even accidentally brushing up against a door can cost you a precious key and screw your chances. Of course, I can always try again after exiting out of the level by hitting the Escape key, but will doing so in later levels allow me to restart from where I was? If not, my time in Puffy's world might be cut short.

And I haven't even talked about the enemies yet. Let's see here: We've got those patrolling snakes. Erratically shifting blobs. Pac-Man-lookin' ghosts that function identically to Gauntlet's in how they home in on you and sap your health. Tornadoes likewise gravitate toward Puffy but disappear after inflicting a set amount of damage--a devastating 1,000-point strike. Eyeball creatures give chase when you move within their line of sight, and your shots can only stun them. Angry Puffyn doppelgangers teleport about and breathe equally crippling flame-blasts; from what I can tell, they seem to self-replicate at an alarming rate. Encountering a large pack of them is a nightmarish scenario. If only my fireballs could, you know, hurt anything.

And then there are large dragons, who circle around designated areas. If you move to within a dragon's path, it'll stop moving and roast you with flames. Funny--we didn't see these fellas until the later levels of Gauntlet. I take their early appearance here as another sign that this game is prepared to show me no mercy.

As for hazards and tile types: Clusters of blue diamonds function similarly to Gauntlet's glowing panels in how they clear away certain walls. Stepping onto a gold oblique-patterned tile causes temporary paralysis. Fiery patches drain health. Destructible walls are marked by their dilapidated textures. And shooting helpful items like food and goms penalizes you by transforming them into enemies (ham roasts turn into ghosts, for instance), though, as I discussed earlier, we're unfortunately spared the narrator's valued opinion on the matter. However, Puffy, himself, is nice enough to inform you of his impending death with an inexplicably cheery "You gonna die!" Could it be that death is a joyous occasion in Puffy's world?

I bite the dust several times early on as I attempt to explore Level 1 and drink in the game's atmosphere. I'm lucky if I can last more than a minute. I guess those posters on GameFAQs weren't kidding when they said Puffy's Saga was "brutally tough." If it turns out that the game lacks a level-select feature, I might have to resort to using save-states much sooner than I anticipated I would. Really, I'm not even sure how many levels there are; there's apparently no available documentation for this game, since it's so obscure. Usually these maze-style games measure in at around 99 stages, but I doubt I'll have the patience to play even one-tenth of the way through.

Interesting fact: After the post-Game Over screens fade away, the game provides a series of profiles that kindly detail the enemies' movement patterns and weaknesses (I learn, for example, that ghosts are just about the only enemy who can't see invisibly rendered heroes). What's also cool is that levels are sometimes flipped or mirrored! The dragons were on the level's right side during my last run, but now they're on the left. In another instance, Puffy's starting position was instead the level's upper portion. It's mostly a cosmetic change, but it helps to keep the action feeling fresh.

The first level is quite expansive, but you don't really need to explore it; you can promptly escape from it by munching down the little brown orb found directly across from the starting point. Getting to it is all about the path you choose: Do you want to navigate the side passages, whose challenges entail maneuvering around snakes and outrunning dragons? Or do you want to travel vertically and deal with the game's first unique hazard: a long series of damaging currents as intermittently generated by pairs of electrical conductors. It's up to you to decide if it's worth expending keys and treading upon diamond-shaped tiles--if it's worth opening up the level and setting loose all those aggressive enemies who'll look to hound you as you attempt to stock up on health and goms. Attempting the latter willonly serves to highlight the game's immense difficulty; the seemingly invulnerable enemies will eat you alive, and there's a fair chance that you'll find a way to become permanently stuck.

So those are your choices: Zip to the exit and conserve what health you have, which comes with the risk of being under-equipped and completely unable to deal with the challenges ahead. Or attempt to stock up on supplies and, well, probably get killed. Welcome to Puffy's Saga, everyone!

Level 2 flaunts its green hues and foresty textures. Nice variance in terrain.

This level's design is more straightforward: Its full negotiation entails mowing down waves of enemies, procuring the keys they were guarding, and moving from one section to the next. Another nice touch: Ghosts, which are just about the only enemies you can destroy with your basic fireballs, turn into points-awarding skulls when they're slain. Also, I just noticed that the skulls award single units of health (like the blue potions in Doom) in addition to points.

For the sake of maintaining an adequate health supply, it's a good idea to lead homing-type enemies into narrow passageways and funnel them through one-block-wide openings; this allows you to take them out one at a time and prevent them from encircling and overwhelming you. Well, that's in theory. In reality, there are times when there are so many ghosts onscreen that it becomes impossible to fend them all off--mostly because it takes three or four shots just to kill one of them. And they're relentless; they'll chase you down no matter how far you scroll them off the screen.

And it's as a I feared: There are no continues, so I'm going to have to start back at Level 1 every time! If I'm not able to discover some effective tactics for dealing with these rough enemies, I'll never see past Level 3! And might I point out how obnoxious it is to have to wade through all of these Game Over screens every time I fail. I want to quickly jump back into action, man!

Naturally I failed to notice that the level-ending pellets are placed right in proximity to the starting point. I haven't figured out yet if level-completion requires collecting all of them, like in Pac-Man, or finding one specific pellet.

But this continues to be the game's theme: take the shortest path available and potentially find yourself unprepared to deal with a level-starting ambush, or foolishly attempt to explore the level in pursuit of goodies you'll never get the chance to use. The expanded map is ridiculous, its corridors absolutely flooded with enemies of every type. There's no way in hell I can take them down, outrun them, or tank my way through their voluminous packs. And playing as Puffyn, who is allegedly speedier than her beau, does nothing to improve my evasiveness or survivability (that she takes more damage from enemies doesn't help). The difference in speed and power is negligible at best.

I did live long enough to spy the appearance of two fire-breathing dinosaurs! Had I survived, I might have been granted a wonderful opportunity to not do any damage to them. Oh well.

I'm not trying to be negative. It's just that it's becoming more and more apparent to me that Ubisoft didn't have a clear vision for Puffy's Saga. I mean, I'm in love with the ideas that it promotes, and I do want to continue playing it, but it seems intent on pushing me away with its directionless level design and extreme difficulty.

Maybe the game was built specifically for cooperative play? Is that where its true value lies?

Level 3 is fiery in appearance and absolutely plastered with hazards. Negotiating your way around this mess of expansive flame patches and screens-stretching electrical currents entails treading along the safe tiles and avoiding paths that intersect with enemy hangouts. Because once they catch sight of you, it's all but over. Attempting to tank your way through both them and the level hazards the recipe for a quick and brutal death.

Thankfully the game is nice enough to begin doling out Repellency bands, which help me to temporarily ward off the aggressive ghosts and tornadoes. There are also fire-power items scattered all about, but I'm not interested; I'm all too aware of the fruitlessness of trying to engage these enemies.

I didn't realize until now that button-sensitivity affects how Puffy reacts to input: If you instead tap the d-pad/keyboard arrows, he retains his position and simply turns to face the chosen direction; this allows him to hold his ground and assail approaching enemies without plowing into them.

The challenge here is to stealthily advance to the level's upper portion (or lower portion, depending upon the layout) and then utilize the power of Extra Speed pendants to outrun scores of Puffyn doppelgangers (or Puffy doppelgangers, if you're playing as Puffyn) and offset the paralyzing effects of the oblique-patterned tiles that congest the area. The maze ahead requires that you enter into Pac-Man mode and chomp down rows and rows of pellets until you find and consume the one that grants the you exit.

Not a bad level, all told. Its difficulty is only mildly ridiculous in comparison to those previous.

The inviting baby-blue tones of Level 4 are a mere deception. Taken for what it is, this level is a frightening hellscape whose opening portion is rife with fire patches, dragons, and invisible-wall mazes the lead you not to treasure but instead fiery death. In following I cut across an extended snake pit, its inhabitants' unfavorably synced movements providing me little to no room to bob and weave around them, and a hallway whose embedded Puffyns scorch me with their far-reaching flame breath. I tell you: Puffyns have to be one of the most obnoxiously overpowered minor enemies I've ever encountered in a game; if I happen to slip by a pack of them, it's because I got lucky.

Soon after, I locate the first Transportability talisman, which allows me to teleport through walls as did its springy Gauntlet counterpart. Its power helps me to tactically evade the hordes of dragons and tornadoes that occupy the level's end portion. It appears that its effect doesn't wear off until the level is completed, which is actually bad news because it also prevents me from collecting items! Man--this game is cruel even when it had good intentions.

Really, I don't know how much more of this I can endure. I'm guessing that I might be able to advance maybe one or two more levels. I say this because the game has ceased offering me immediate exit points, and the levels have since forced me into full-exploration mode; thus magnified is the problem of enemies being overpowered, items being largely ineffective, and the puffballs' afforded health being entirely inadequate.

But that's OK--I don't need to see the entirety of Puffy's Revenge. For games of its nature, all I care to do is get a good sense of what they are.

It took me so many attempts--so much trial and error--to reach Level 5, the most visually noisy of the bunch. Its two-tone checkerboard textures are a bit hard on the eyes. They are, however, powerless to steal attention away from the spinning apparatuses seen embedded near the level's starting point. I won't even venture to guess what the hell those are supposed to be. The only question that arises: Are these weird devices meant to be obstacle or decoration?

I don't even get the chance to find out, since the exit-granting pellets are placed a mere three screens up from the starting point. Whatever--I'll find out what they are during my subsequent screenshot-snapping run. (Note: They're grotesquely constructed decorations.)

And my arduous journey brings me to the purple-hued Level 6, whose starting point offers no sanctuary. My health is so depleted that I can't escape from the opening enclosure before the surrounding Puffyn doppelgangers fry me to a crisp. I manage to blast through the barrier in a subsequent attempt, but alas--my health is still so lacking that I can't survive the enemy onslaught ahead. This looks to be the limit of my progression.

And that's fine. The game has made its point. I've seen all I need to see.

I'm going to mess around in the early levels for a bit before calling it quits. I'll put together some final thoughts tomorrow.

Final Thoughts

Well, admittedly this wasn't the best start to my delving into the wilds of the Amiga universe. By saying that, I don't mean to infer that Puffy's Saga is a bad game; no--it's merely average. It's an intriguing creation marred by its inability to restrain itself. It enthusiastically invites you to explore its colorful world of adventure and mystery, but then it beats you unconscious before you can form an understanding of its ambitions. Put plainly: It's just too difficult for its own good.

"But maybe it's easier when two players team up, like you theorized earlier," you suggest. And to that I respond: Nope--not at all. From what I've seen in Youtube videos, the addition of a second player does nothing to ease the pain; it simply creates another traumatized victim.

I was rooting for Puffy's Saga to reach its potential. I wanted it to be the game I was inspired to visualize: Gauntlet with an emphasis on puzzle-solving and Adventures of Lolo-style enemy-engagement. The individual pieces were there, but they never came together to form a coherent whole. As is, Puffy's Saga remains a collection of underdeveloped ideas and unpolished, poorly communicated mechanics. There's a great game hiding somewhere in this clutter, but Puffy's Saga's fledgling creators' lack of know-how sadly prevented it from emerging to the surface.

Now, having said all that, can I still claim that Puffy's Saga is an "unearthed treasure"? Well, of course I can! Quality of gameplay is an important metric, sure, but there are so many other ways in which a game can enrich your life. Its story might stoke your imagination. Its artwork or music might inspire you. It might have an origin you find fascinating. Playing it might evoke a nostalgic memory or two. Maybe it holds some special significance to you (like, say, it was the first game you ever played).

For me, Puffy's Saga provided an opportunity to go back in time and witness the humble beginnings of Ubisoft, which, like so many other upstart companies, was all over the computer scene, scrappily attempting to make a name for itself. Here it is distilled down to its purest form. That I got to play its game on the Amiga, which has shown the ability to make me nostalgic for a scene I still know little about, is the reason I'm not likely to ever forget the where and the how behind my first experience with Puffy's Saga.

As for the Amiga, itself: Consider me utterly fascinated. I can't wait to start digging into its library and playing all of the games that its die-hard fans hold in high regard. There are so many, I don't know where to begin!

What else can I say about Commodore's Amiga? It's an awesome platform. It's the reason I wish I'd paid closer attention to what was going on around me--to what was happening in the broader gaming scene--and taken advantage of the opportunities that were available to me. It's the reason why I so obsess over older platforms' wonderfully disparate attributes.

And it is, above all, the reason why I love learning about the medium's history.

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