Friday 7 March 2014

Snes Review : Krusty's Super Fun House (Game 032)

A simple sprite swap solved a multitude of problems in the 16 and 8bit eras. Contra became Probotector and in so doing potential censorship and political problems were side stepped. Super Mario Bros 2 was originally Doki Doki Panic, but remove the Arabian characters and you have a sequel to a best seller to replace the true sequel that was deemed too hard for the west. There are many many games where the central game is identical but the playable character is different, and when you look at an obscure Amiga game called Rat Trap you realise that Krusty's Super Funhouse is another example of this.

According to Peter Calver of Audiogenic (the company that developed both games) the Amiga game was the original one. Pat Fox and Scott Williams [known by the company name of Fox Williams] designed the game and brought it to Audiogenic - a company that previously had focused on cricket and football simulations). It was this British company that in turn licensed it to the US based publisher Acclaim Entertainment. Having secured the rights to (at the time) a new but already incredibly popular TV cartoon called 'The Simpsons', Acclaim were keen to exploit their lucrative licence. They had already published multiple releases including the most well known 'Bart vs. the Space Mutants' and was in the process of internally developing 'Bart's Nightmare' ready for an American release on 12th October 1992. Needing to keep a constant flow of Simpsons games (to maximise returns on their license) taking an old unknown Amiga game and applying a sprite swap must have seemed like an ideal solution. 

When you compare the two games, it’s actually pretty surprising how identical they both are. Sharing not just the same levels, all backgrounds are identical and despite being re-drawn all enemies remain the same – regardless of how ill-fitting they may be in the Simpson’s Universe. Obviously the main character is now Krusty The Clown (rather than a generic purple haired boy) and The Simpson Family now feature as trap operators, but that really is the extent of the changes. At the time Amiga Format may have said that the identically looking Amiga version of the game “graphically is very, very impressive” but to be honest now it looks dated. There is not nearly enough frames of animation on the characters and there really isn’t very much variety between stages. Variety generally is not something that is on offer in ‘Krusty’s Fun House’ as a whole though and it could be said that once you have played the first stage you have really seen it all.

Playing rather like an inverse version of Lemmings, the goal of each stage is to exterminate a plague of purple rats (now with a Simpsons-esque overbite following the sprite swap). This is achieved by directly controlling Krusty and finding objects (predominantly blocks) that can be placed in the path of the rats and force them into a cruel trap. It reminds me of an old Amiga game called Troddlers, or slightly like the Mario Vs Donkey Kong Minis games.  Consequently, Krusty’s Super Fun House ends up feeling like a fusion of the platform and puzzle genres, and truth told it doesn’t do either very well. As a puzzle game you would prefer to have direct influence over the flow of the rats, rather than having to use an avatar to alter their direction. As a platformer, it’s equally flawed since it’s not clear which platforms you can jump through – horizontal pipes are crossable vertical pipes are obstructions. Enemies inhabiting levels may be a troupe of the platform genre but they are undesirable in a puzzle game. Often physically getting in the way of a solution, the only way to pass most foes is to kill them and the only way to do this is find a projectile to throw. It’s often challenging to figure out how to complete a stage, but this sometimes becomes unnecessarily hard due to enemy placement. In some levels the only way to kill the enemies is to use the bouncy ball, which is also used to solve some puzzles; since it breaks weak blocks. Astonishingly this means that in some stages the player has a choice between being unable to finish a stage (caused by using the puzzle solution to kill a foe) or facing certain death (caused by saving your defensive weapon to solve the puzzles).  

Ironically though, on some stages death is worth seeking out as there seemingly is no other way to restart a level. Like sand trickling through an egg timer, from the second the stage begins the rats start their predetermined march. Far too many times they will blindly stroll en-mass into a section of the map where it is impossible to retrieve them using the blocks available at that time. I understand that in theory this puts a time pressure on a stage, making the pursuit of a solution more frantic and exciting. But the penalty for not being quick enough is too severe. Each time you have to purposely kill yourself to restart an un-finishable level you lose a life of which you have a finite amount. Run out of lives and you have to return to the beginning of the current world, not the beginning of the current stage. Essentially this could mean that not realising what you need to do quickly enough can result in you loosing an hour of game progression. 

Finding this solution is very rarely a simple task as the levels of 'Krusty’s Super Fun house' actually quickly become pretty sizeable. Pipes lead off in complex and confusing ways and each of these have to be quite carefully traced out to understand what is required in each stage. This is made even more complicated when numerous identical pipes mingle and meander together. I was under the impression that the challenge of this game is meant to be how best to use the objects in a level to dispose of the rats. In reality though most puzzling thing is trying to see exactly what makes up the level in the first place, all the time hoping that your rats haven’t walked to a point in a stage where they are trapped.  

Being penalised for lacking skill is of course fine. Being penalised for a level being so confusing that the objective (or the process needed to achieve it) is unclear, feels ridiculous and frustrating.

What’s most annoying is that this central (almost game breaking) problem could so easily be solved with a level map, ideally one that showed where each rat currently is. Even one that is revealed as you explore a level would have made the game a whole lot more fun and less irritating to play. As a player you would become perplexed by a stage, rather than irritated by it. This would rid the need to do explore the environment and gauge the lay of the land and the aforementioned need to restart a level for not being quick enough would certainly be less frequent.

It’s a slightly obtuse game, stubbornly sticking with ideas that just make the game less fun. If the aim of each level is to dispose of rats, why when they are all taken care of must you hunt down every last bonus before the game considers the stage complete? Of course dying during this hunt for point adding bonuses will mean the level resets, even though you have completed what is considered to be the objective. Even after you have found all these unnecessary bonuses just returning to the level entrance to escape can prove frustratingly dangerous. No game should ever punish you for attempting to return to the hub world especially when the primary and arbitrary goals are met and the stage is technically already completed. 

Annoyingly, you can’t speed up the rats in anyway, so a proportion of play time is spent just watching them casually stroll. Additionally there is no way of clustering them, so often many things will have to be repeated as each rat meets a junction on their long walk to certain death.  Though the central premise is a good one, these niggles that litter the game just lets it all down.

Despite all this abundant negativity, I did actually enjoy the game, but it became tiresome much quicker than it should have. With passwords only given at the end of each world, I found myself playing many stages with gritted teeth;  frustrated by the game's flaws but unwilling to quit as that would mean losing the progress I had made so far in that world. Playing on an emulator with its “save states” does avoid this problem, and playing the game in small play sessions certainly makes it more palatable.  

In a frustrating game, the most frustrating thing though is just how close to being great it is. If the original Rat Trap had been actually played by anyone prior to being re-purposed as a Simpsons game, perhaps they would have realised the need for a map is much greater than a need for it to carry the faces of Homer and his family. A sprite swap may make a game more marketable, but it does not make a game intrinsically any better.

Where did I get this game from?
I thought the time of getting Snes games for Christmas were behind me, but December 25th 2013 proved me wrong. I have a family who are supportive of so much I do, and this little blog is no exception. I was given this game in great condition by my brother as a gift. He smiled as gave it, “I think we always wanted this but never got the chance to play it”. 

I just wish I enjoyed it more, but there are many more Christmases coming for him to surprise me! It’s weird that even a mediocre game like this one suddenly becomes so much more significant to you when the process of its acquisition has such nice memories attached.  It may not be my favourite game, but for this reason there’s no way I would be parted from it!

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