Friday 20 February 2015

Snes Review : B.O.B (Game 071)

"I'm significant" screamed the tiny raindrop, as it plunged into the sea in the middle of a thunderstorm. While first person shooting games are now the dominant force on consoles and "match three" titles clutter mobile platforms, in the 16bit era, platformers reigned supreme . It's not hard to guess why. Regardless of console, games that involve a character moving from the left of the screen to the right always seem to attract an audience, especially if there is a recognisable name on the box. It would be wrong to say that all these games aren't imaginative though. Within the deceptively simple run and jump game play often lays incredible creativity.  Despite asking a player to do a similar thing each level, the best platform games can engage someone for hours.

When we think of Super Nintendo platformers we tend to think of the best the genre has to offer. In so doing, we fool ourselves into thinking every other similar game is just as good. The problem is though that these stars of the genre only shine brightly because they are surrounded by dimmer examples. For every 'Mario', 'Donkey Kong', ‘MegaMan’ or even 'Super Star Wars' game, there are dozens of 'B.O.B's. Nice enough, playable games they may be, but not ones you would choose to play if better alternatives are on offer.

Like so many other “action platformers”, ‘B.O.B’ sees the titular cartoon robot navigating big, labyrinthine levels in order to reach each stage's exit point. He jumps, he shoots, he gets hurt by floor spikes and he is a robot. In many ways he could be considered a poor man’s ‘Mega Man’. In order to differentiae the game from other similar titles, the designers of ‘B.O.B’ evidently put their efforts into offering a huge arsenal of weaponry to the player. From the outset the player has a gun (with limited ammo), and the ability to punch as a means to deal with the many enemies. However, pretty rapidly B.O.B can also accumulate a variety of other guns such as flamethrowers, spread shots, and homing rockets.

Alongside the firepower, items that modify the player’s body are one of the more original elements of the game and their correct use can make some levels infinitely easier.  Springboard pickups throw you up into the air allowing you to shortcut some sections, and the helicopter helmet (that allows B.O.B to hover) removes any danger presented by floor hazards.

With a dedicated buttons to swap weapons and abilities easily, correct item use is central to ‘B.O.B’ game play. In fact, without the using the right pick-ups at the right time, the game becomes frustrating and needlessly hard. The back of the NTSC box boasts about "40 grueling levels",
which would be fantastic without the "grueling" part. The many large levels may add game length, but when there’s limited time offered to complete them, unpredictable dead ends become irritating. Opening stages may be short and time limits may be generous, but as the game progresses level size and time given increase at disproportionate rates.  Ultimately this all means that by the game’s end, it is impossible to complete stages on the first go. Every maze like level is filled with too many incorrect routes and with no signposting, luck dictates success. Of course passwords allow you to infinitely retry a stage but these do not keep track of any upgrades you’ve carried over from previous levels. This means, any trampoline or helicopter hat advantage you had on a first try of a level, is lost on subsequent retires.

Challenge is further added by these large levels all looking the same. ‘B.O.B’ only has a few different backgrounds and the game re-uses these over and over. Admittedly, some levels look very nice (such as some of the city backgrounds) but others such as the tunnel or pyramid stages look merely functional.  Background palette swaps present the illusion of more variety, with the colour combinations for the levels often changing, but even with this graphical trick the continuous reuse of wallpaper sprites is obvious. In a game that requires a player to mentally map a level layout, the lack of differentiation between sections of the huge stages makes them all the more confusing.

If a background sprite is worth repeating endlessly at least it looks nice and ‘B.O.B’ is an attractive game.  The animation in particular here is superb and it is certainly one of the more impressive aspects of an undeniably mediocre title. B.O.B is a well defined character that is full of life. Leave the control pad alone for a few seconds and you’ll be treated to multiple idle animations and there are also numerous victory animations for the end of each stage. There’s even a variety of damage animations every time you take a hit, with B.O.B wincing, his antenna standing up, or his eyes widening with shock. “B.O.B is a bit of a different product for us” Mark Lewis, (then Head of EA in the UK) said while promoting the game.
“He’s a character with attitude in the mould of Sonic or Zool.” The problem with this is that he is a deeply irritating character, one that is under the mistaken impression he is irreverent and edgy. He is a robot that’s very much a product of the nineties and tragically wasn’t liked even back then. “Bob?” Super Play’s Jonathan Davis once questioned “more like Nob”.  It’s an opinion that remains true today. There was a time when many said “groovy” under the mistakenly belief it was “Totally” “Rad” to do so. That time has passed and anyone still saying these things feels cringingly embarrassing.
This includes orange robots trapped in retro platform games. The game was even called ‘Space Funky B.O.B’ in Japan, showing just for far developers were willing to go to hammer home that this was a “cool” game, one for funky Nineties hipsters to play while they were rewinding their ‘Austin Powers’ VHS, in between watching ‘Ren and Stimpy’.

Fortunately, striving for the funky has served the soundtrack well and music in ‘B.O.B’ is pretty good overall. Even though funk guitar prevails over atmospheric melodies, there's still some diversity and a few of the tunes are memorable for a few hours after paying the game. This may however be due to repetition. Much like the backgrounds, the music here is recycled endlessly, as are the sound effects, which truth be told are far too high in the audio mix.
Booming explosions are exciting, but B.O.B’s ridiculously loud footsteps on ladder rungs, shouldn’t be what you hear over everything else. That being said, if incidental sounds weren’t so prevalent I may not have heard the incidental sound when my robot avatar hit his head on the ceiling following the misuse of a trampoline. These little attentions to detail are always appreciated, and this, rather than ‘B.O.B’s more explicit attempts at humour, is what made me genuinely laugh aloud.

‘B.O.B’ is fun, absorbing and occasionally a huge laugh” Chris Burton claimed in his Total! magazine review. Perhaps it because it’s dated but I really didn’t find ‘B.O.B’ as amusing as he did though.  There's a several long cut scenes, through the game telling the story of how B.O.B stole his Dad’s space ship and crashed it into an asteroid while travelling to a date.

The problem is, I never found them that engaging or comical and was more irritated by the fact that at no point in the game do we find out what B.O.B actually stands for. Any affection you have built up for the titular orange robot, also is completely destroyed in the games closing. When B.O.B. finally meets up with his his large blue robot date, a slender red female robot flies past them on a space surfboard. Despite having spent ten hours  getting lost in endlessly repeating backgrounds,  with ears being bombarded with the shrill sharp noise of ladders being climbed,  B.O.B. decides "That's the girl for me!" and drives off in pursuit of the red female. To be honest, robust blue robot has dodged a bullet. B.O.B isn’t half as funny as he thinks he is and despite all his efforts to be cool and hip, in twenty years time the world would have forgotten he ever existed.  

Bizarrely, an “average” game is in fact an achievement for developers Gray Matter Inc. and Foley Hi-Tech Systems. 'B.O.B' uses the same game engine as their previous game 'Wayne's World'; a game universally considered one of the worst Super Nintendo platformers ever created. The shared DNA is obvious when you compare the boss battles and sluggish jumping in the two games, even though the graphics look very different. 'B.O.B' may be a forgettable drop in the platformer ocean but at least it isn't destined to be remembered for all the wrong reasons.

An average game is at least a playable game and while there are better games to spend your time playing, the experience won't be unpleasant. As the Total! magazine review said “with all the impressive and varied competition (like ‘Super Star Wars' and ‘Alien3’ ) ‘B.O.B’  needs to offer something a little more special to justify itself”. Should a game be judged on its own merits or compared against its peers? With so many retro games to choose from any significance 'B.O.B' ever had has been diluted over time and sadly it ends up being a game destined to be lost in a wave of excellence.

Why did I get this game?

In a previous post I wrote about how fellow members of a community unconsciously encourage you to buy certain things. I bought ‘B.O.B’ on a whim after watching YouTuber and fellow collector Snestatstic talk about the game. I vaguely remembered the title, but his enthusiasm when initially playing the game was enough to prompt a purchase. It didn’t cost very much, less than £10 but for every minute I played the game I couldn’t help but wish I was replaying ‘Mega Man X’.

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