Friday 15 May 2015

Snes Review : Plok! (Game 081)

A forgotten platformer that came a year to late. A game that proves imagination can do a great many things if left to run riot. 

Developed By Software Creations
Published By Trade West (Not Nintendo!)
Released in 1993.

Anyone in a creative industry has to be thick skinned. Months if not years of your life is invested in something but all too often what’s finally produced is so far removed from what you originally dreamt up, you can hardly compare the two. The input of money men, distributors and publishers unwilling to take risks dilutes the original concept. Their point of view is understandable. Often they have financed the project and do not want to risk a return on their investment by indulging the wild ideas of a creative visionary. Controversy has to be avoided too, to best maintain a company's wholesome image. Sometimes a risk, regardless of its artistic merit, is not worth taking.

Although the costs pale when compared to the budgets modern games require, in the nineties production of a cartridge based game was still expensive. While a Developer needed to demonstrate technical ability and have a stable business before they were even able to create games for a 16 bit platform, there were completely different requirements on the publishers. The most significant thing a platform owner demanded of a publisher was proof they had access to significant amounts of money or credit (in the millions), to fund cartridge manufacture. Indeed, as cartridges had to be purchased in advance of release, there were many otherwise successful publishers who simply couldn't afford to have a number one hit game; they didn't have the cash to manufacture enough cartridges to sell the volume needed to reach the top of the charts.  Very few pure developers had businesses of the scale that could even consider applying to be a publisher. For the vast majority, even if they may have an influence over the form and shape of eventual product, Distribution and Publishing partners were essential.

It goes without saying that for a Super Nintendo game, there was no bigger publisher than Nintendo themselves.  Having them involved in a project would provide access to the largest possible global audience. The Nintendo association would all but guarantee a presence in the gaming press, generating interest and enthusiasm amongst your key audience.  Rather than hamper creativity, Nintendo’s involvement in a project may also enhance it. Being friends with Nintendo meant potential access to a producer universally acknowledged as one of the most creative men in the industry; Shigeru Miyamoto. It was the enviable position The Pickford Brothers had found themselves in.

Ste and John Pickford initially started creating games for the ZX Spectrum, Amiga and Atari ST. However after seeing the games that Rare were making in the early nineties they saw the potential of Nintendo's consoles. Eventually they created 'Ken Griffey, Jr. Presents Major League Baseball'  which according to Ste Pickford "was the first time Nintendo of America had ever contracted a third-party developer to write a game from scratch". While working for Software Creations, they also were behind ‘Equinox’, which was the first SNES game to be developed outside of Japan. 
However, it's much more likely that Nintendo fans will think of 'Plok!' when they think of the Pickford Brothers.  This vibrant platforming game grew in the mind of former comic book designer Ste back in the late eighties. It's an eccentric game where the main protagonist is "an exploding man" that can launch his own limbs at enemies.  

“We developed the game at Software Creations where it was self funded in the hope that this would give us the leverage to get a good deal with whoever we pitched it to” says Ste Pickford.  “We were pitching it to all the top tier publishers, and probably would have been equally happy with any [but] if  Nintendo [had] said yes then that would have trumped anyone else”. Evidently, it was a dream that was close to reality for The Pickford Brothers.  “We’re told that Mr Miyamoto went away to analyse the game, and at a later meeting wrote down the following list on a piece of paper: ‘1 - Mario,2 - Sonic, 3 - Plok.’”  This according to Ste Pickford was the order Miyamoto ranked the best platform games available at the time. Apparently, he then went on to say “‘if I work with you on ‘Plok!’ the list will look like this: ‘1 - Mario, 2 - Plok, 3 -Sonic.’”  Understandably, the Pickford Brothers “were 100 per cent up for this”. However it was not to be.

Ste Pickford believes the reason the game wasn't published by Nintendo was probably because "’Yoshi's Island’ was in development at the time, and perhaps Mr. Miyamoto decided 'Plok!' was too similar". While this certainly had a detrimental impact on the amount of people that would be attracted to the game, the fact that development was self funded meant that the Pickford brothers and Software Creations, could largely do what they wanted with the game. As a result the game has a very British feel to it, avant garde and unusual in ways mainstream titles fear.

At one point for example, Plok falls asleep against a statue of his grandfather. In a monochrome dream sequence the player is then able to relive the past adventures of the protagonist’s forebear. As Jonathan Davis said in his review for Super Play magazine, "there's a continual flood of new ideas and new things to do. Even if your shelves are brimming with cute platform games, there's sure to be room for one more". Super Play magazine even once said that 'Plok!' "manages to lift the trophy for best UK produced platformer". It wasn’t a view shared by the world though.  A French magazine once said that “'Plok!’ is a strange game that does not quite gel with people.” "Weird”, “strange” and “odd” are typically the words that punctuate American reviews.

The story is admittedly quite a deviation from the typical save the princess, save the world fare normally associated with platform games.  Plok is upset to have a naked flagpole above his house and simply wants his prize flag back. As he searches around a 'Super Mario World' overhead map he gets to explore a number of short but intricate levels believing each has the beloved flag he seeks. Of course, its later revealed the flag theft is just a ruse to allow a fearsome advisory to Plok’s home land. To say more would ruin the twist and turns in what is a very enjoyable tale.

It's a game defined by its slick presentation but the audio is on a par. Composed by fellow gaming siblings Tim and Geoff Folin, 'Ploks!' music is filled with fabulous rock tracks, somewhat unusual perhaps in a cutesy platform game. Retro Gamer magazine once said the music "stands out as some of the best you'll hear pumping from a Super Nintendo". Indeed Super Play believed the game's theme music was the best on the Snes. They also gave it the accolade of “best use of a Harmonica in a Snes game”, although this prestigious title was less fiercely contested.

For the most part, jumping and killing enemies will occupy Plok’s time, but thats not the limit of the gameplay.  Various presents found in the levels bestow different powers on Plok, with the character also donning an associated set of clothes; similar to the suits seen in 'Super Mario 3'. Jumping causes Plok to roll into an invincible ball in a manner not dissimilar to the way some blue hedgehogs behave.
He can even drive novelty vehicles around, not unlike acertain underwater agent with a penchant for extendable suits. The Pickfords claim that a lot of these similarities were coincidental, and the flurry of platform games in the early nineties had a big impact on the success that the game deserved. "The great cute-character-platform-game apocalypse of '92 hit us hard!" They write on their website. "The general idea of a colourful, cute character jumping around in a scrolling platform environment, and even some of the specific game play ideas in 'Plok' were no longer as fresh as they were when we conceived them." With limited resources, although creatively free to do as they chose development by the Pickfords was slow.
As a result the game was released after 'Zool' , 'Xandras Big Adventure', 'CoolSpot', 'Super Mario World', 'Sonic the Hedgehog', 'Super Mario All Stars', 'Aero the Acrobat', 'Bob', 'Alfred the Chicken', 'Mickeys Magical Quest', 'Mr Nuts', 'Robocod' and 'Bubsy the Bobcat' to name but a few. 'Plok' was lost in the melee and the game was overlooked by the public. ""Not another bloody cute character platformer," seemed to be the general response", the Pickford Brothers acknowledge mournfully. "Despite some great reviews, I think it was perceived as yet another bandwagon jumping cute platformer and didn't achieve the commercial success we were hoping for.

But while 'Plok!' certainly contains elements very similar to other games released at the time, it also has served as inspiration to later platformers. The fabric-like world that Plok inhabits will no doubt look familiar to anyone who has played 'Little Big Planet', 'Kirby's Epic Yarn' or indeed 'Yoshi's Woolly World'. Levels take place on an island named Akrillic in the magical archipelago of Poly-Esta. Each levels looks like it has been literally stitched together and Plok’s running and jumping is all done across a patch work tapestry. Needles pierce the ground, buttons hold platforms in place and threads are obvious along the platform edges, some even fray and unravel when the player spends too long in one place. It's not something that's gone un-noticed by the Pickford brothers. "We've spotted bits of ‘Plok!’ ripped off here and there in quite a few other games, which is great".

Often, It seems impossible to predict what will happen next in the game, every new stage offers a new game play idea. However, unrestrained creativity is also 'Plok!'s downfall. The peppering of new mechanics across the game's 64 stages leads to unpredictable, unavoidable difficulty spikes. Jonathan Davies disliked "a nasty bit where all these logs suddenly fly onto the screen and kill you, unless you know exactly when to expect them." To make matters worse a lack of native save or password feature means that on the original machine, 'Plok!' has to be finished in a single sitting. According to Ste Pickford, this was “a deliberate decision, and is absolutely something we regret. It was a big mistake.”  As the bulk of the project was self-funded without a publisher The Pickfords simply developed the game based on the assumption a save feature would be available.  

Software Creations approached Tradewest to distribute the game, which according to The Pickfords was “relatively last minute in terms of development time”. However, as is often the case, the distributor wanted changes to reflect the budget they had set aside. ”Battery backup used to cost an extra dollar per cartridge, on top of the cartridge manufacture costs of around $7 or $8 that Tradewest would have had to pay Nintendo” Ste Pickfrod recalls. “Tradewest told us they weren’t prepared to pay the extra for the battery. We argued, and fought back a bit, but they wouldn’t budge”.  A password system was suggested as a suitable replacement, but evidently the Pickford brothers were unwilling to deviate too far from their creative vision. As Ste explains, “We were a bit precious about our game. [We] thought [passwords] would spoil the flow of the game, and the feeling of achievement gained from fighting your way to the later levels, so we put our foot down and refused to allow the password system.” Fortunately a modern gamer, can of course play the game on a Retron5 (or indeed using a Rom) and save the game as was originally intended.

As hard as it is take criticism from distributors or publishers, the biggest kick in the teeth for those creating anything for public consumption is the feedback that comes directly from the target audience. Anyone with a pen or a keyboard can critique your work. They can judge your idea or at least they can judge what has become. Many will like it, some will adore it but a vocal few will loath it. These are the voices that will seem the loudest, impossible to ignore. Worse still they seem to always hate the decisions that were forced to be made, the ideas of the financiers, the censors. If only they could have seen the original version truest to the initial idea, if only there was a way to tell these consumers what could have been and why certain things are the way they are.

The Internet has given the modern games developer a way of replying. True, with the emergence of social media, blogs and forums the volume of criticism has also gone up exponentially but at least the creative minds can answer back if they wish to. Some take things far too far. Phil Fish, Peter Molyneux, and Dennis Dyack(to name a few) managed to become international targets of hate because their pride forced them to defend their criticised works. Most developers though are more reserved.

Twenty years ago, developers didn't have this ability to reply. Although a few magazines would run interviews, those would always focus on the games to come rather than those that have been. For twenty years they have sat silent, unable to respond to criticism, or even thank those who praised their works. However now that retro-gaming has become popular, It must be somewhat liberating for retro-developers to correspond with the new players interested in their old games. Retro focused games magazines and websites are eager to talk to the people behind our favourite cherished games. Luckily, these creative minds are happy to talk and in the main, they are no longer being censored by publishers.

It's always interesting to see what game developers have to say about their games given the gifts of hindsight and reflection. None do it quite as elegantly as the Pickford brothers though. According to John a sequel to 'Plok!' is "often requested by fans", they have instead chosen to create a "weekly-ish" web comic, funded by its readers and drawn by Ste. What is most interesting about Plok's drawn adventures are the subtle insight they offer into the game designing process. Some strips comment on modern games and their obsessions with screen refresh rates and micro transaction.
Plok seems bewildered and confused by the ways in which the video games industry has changed. Perplexed by a time when developers are forced to give their games always for free, The Exploding Man (and by logical extension the Pickford Brothers) yearns for an era when times were simpler. He looks at modern games with a childlike naïveté; quick time events and cut scenes detract from the immersion, motion control gaming is more of an inconvenience than an improvement. Although it's never overtly stated you can't help but think that, like so many of us, Plok believes that technical progression has meant beauty at the expense of challenge.

Other insightful panels focus on the 16bit era and in one comic strip, Plok dies nearly a hundred times overcoming a difficulty spike. If only he had a way of recording his progress, saving himself from having to redo that ludicrously hard sections on a subsequent adventure. It's hard to think that the Pickford Brothers aren't being self referential. 
It's a self deprecating humour that falls in-line with the humour of the Snes game, comedy that seems to have been appreciated by a few but missed by the majority.

It was a shame that so few people chose to play 'Plok!', its certainly one of the better platform games especially amongst those not published by Nintendo. However, I fear Miyamoto was being generous with his praise by saying only 'Mario' was a better platformer on the Snes. Even using an artificial way of saving, 'Plok!' is still at times irritating frustrating. Too many times the player must fail to learn how to proceed which makes the game feel a little depressing to play. There should be a sense of accomplishment when you play a game, however in 'Plok!' this is often masked by relief. But under the frustrations is a loveable attractive and audibly superb game, well worth the comparative low eBay going rate.  As EGM Said at the time “’Plok!’ is a terrific action game, it’s so refreshing to know that there are some game companies out there with a little originality.”

In the modern world of gaming, mobile games can be put on various App stores by anyone. Online digital distribution too has meant that, in theory, if you can make a game you can release it and see it being bought by those interested. Mobile platforms should be a hot bed of creativity, where new ideas are celebrated and find success. Sadly though even a casual glance at what people are playing around you will show that most gamers stick to the same titles, those they recognise and are familiar with. Evidently outside agencies are still needed to promote a game and raise its level within the public’s consciousness. Anyone can publish a game, but with a few rare exceptions it still takes significant financial backing to make it successful. Of course then, as has always been the case, the more people involved in a project the more compromises have to be made. Creativity is once again squeezed out to make room for what's safe, familiar and marketable.

Like an imaginative game on the App Store that's overlooked in favour of the latest 'Candy Crush' clone, 'Plok!' deserved success. It a tragedy that people had grown tired of platform games and would only buy them if a film or familiar face was attached. As is said in the comic strip, it's a game that "came a year too late". ‘Plok!’ shows there's scope in even the most tried and tested genre to surprise a player. Stories don't have to be formulaic (or even be logically water tight), levels don't have to continually be the same. It's a lesson that hopefully producers today will remember when they next demand changes.

Thank you so much to Ste and John Pickford for helping with the finer details of this review and for allowing its publication. I urge you all to read the very amusing web comic and if you enjoy it do support it.

Where did I get this game from?

I often glance at eBay in a quiet moment, usually at what’s about to end. Withe the insane prices Snes games go for I often will take a blind punt on a game if its selling for less than £10 with postage. ‘Plok!’ was without doubt, the best impulse game I have bought. A lost gem on the Snes that I wish more people knew about.  

1 comment:

  1. i remember this game it was actually really good fun!


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