Friday 4 December 2015

Snes Review - Super Putty (Game 094)

One of the few games to have come out on the Sony Vita is a "remaster" of a Snes game called 'Putty Squad'. But when it comes to games where you play as a ball of blue putty, would you be better hunting down the 16bit version of the prequel?

Developed by System 3
Published by US Gold
Released in 1993

Shuhei Yoshida was quizzed recently on the state of the PS Vita, but he didn't leave much hope for the future of Sony's second portable console. During an EGX 2015 developer session, the Sony President said that he was "a huge fan" of the Vita, but smart phone gaming "had created an unhealthy climate in which to launch a successor". "People have mobile phones and it's so easy to play games on smart phones," Yoshida admitted. According to Eurogamer, both Sony's Vita and Nintendo's 3DS have sold less than their predecessors. With global sales for both slowing down, it's unlikely they ever will equal the sales of previous handheld generation, so it’s highly likely that these will be both company's last exclusively portable systems. Games will continue to be portable, but with every gamer having a phone in their pocket, gone will be the need for dedicated game only portable consoles. 

The huge irony of this of course is that the games most people choose to play on mobile platforms have their roots in the consoles of yesteryear. Simple graphics, straightforward gameplay and obvious controls were design foundations necessitated by the limited processing power of the 16bit consoles that they were designed for. 'Angry Birds', 'Cut The Rope', ‘Flappy Bird', all are designed with similar limitations to those imposed on 16bit games; limited because of they are mobile games. As a result, many of the most popular games on mobile devices feel and play similar to games from twenty years ago and the modern taste for pixel art and chip tune music draws further parallels. 

This is all actually good news for those of us old enough to remember these types of games the first time they were in vogue. If popular new games look and feel like old games, then old games should now sit next to new games without uniformed customers noticing a difference. 

Before the mobile gaming boom Nintendo, Sega and Atari were three of hundreds of companies that would resell their older games every time a new platform came out. They sold games on nostalgia, encouraging us to rebuy childhood favourites to relive memories. Now though, while that marketing does still exist, the favourites of yesteryear are also being aimed at those who weren't even born to play them first time around. However, the device on which people play mobile games has very different strengths and weaknesses to the platform the games were originally designed to be played on. Games like 'Sonic The Hedgehog', 'Megaman X' and 'Secret of Mana' have all been ported to mobile devices, with little change from the original. Purists applause this, but new players do not. For games to work on a mobile device they have to be adapted to suit. Gesture based inputs replace button presses and gameplay is done in short bursts. None of these suit 'MegaMan X' but they would be great for 'Super Putty' (rather than its sequel 'Putty Squad'). It's the Snes game which would be perfect for mobile play but it's one which is noticeably absent from digital stores. 

'Super Putty' allows you to fulfil a lifelong dream, provided that dream is to controls a blue blob with eyes. Putty, as he is known, has been banished from his home of Putty Moon by power hungry wizard Dazzledays and his maniacal cat. In order to return home, he aims to round up robots and have them build a tower from a planet to Putty Moon. The story is of course nonsense, but then so is the plot of 'Angry Birds'.

The aim of each stage is to rescue a set number of these robots within a time limit. To do this, Putty has to absorb them and carry them to the level's goal (either a flying saucer or an elevator). Each level in 'Super Putty' consists of four vertical screens with the screen only scrolling up and down. To rescue the robots Putty will have to leap across regular platforms, as well as "solid" ledges that cannot be jumped through. Adding variety to the levels are special tiles including electric platforms and bounce pads. While the size of each level remains constant, the platform layout and complexity varies. In this way each level of 'Super Putty' presents a new puzzle. Since our blue titular hero can only carry one robot at a time, success depends therefore on finding the quickest way to get from the bottom of the level to the top and back down again, as obviously saving the required number of robots will take multiple trips. It gives the game a puzzling racey feeling that is often lacking in platformers. Zy Nicholson noted in his Super Play review that "a good deal of perseverance is required to solve each level. Although it isn't truly a puzzle game, it helps to have a mental disposition towards planning your manoeuvres with economy and precision". 

When System 3 boss Mark Cale first saw the proof of concept he was impressed. "In my mind 'Putty' was unique and different. I've yet to see anything like it before and I've yet to see anything like it since". Although designer Phil Thornton had created a demo on the Amiga, Cale always imagined 'Putty' as a Snes title. "I had the Nintendo market primary in mind at the time". He was so excited by the idea that he wanted Putty to become mascot that would rival Sonic and Mario.  However, to compete with console titles and their established characters Cale insisted that every effort was put into making 'Super Putty' look as incredible as possible. This was perfect for game design Thornton though, as he was a graphic artist prior to overseeing game design.  

According to programmer Dan Phillips, "Phil [Thornton] loved Tex Avery cartoons and enjoyed 'Screwball Squirrel' in particular." He was inspired by these cartoons and wanted to make Putty as cartoon like as possible, which explains why there's quite so many different sounds and voices going on. "The sound effects were something else all together , we really let our imaginations run riot" Cole once confessed to Retro Gamer magazine. "The belching for instance, was great British humour"

When you group together 'Robocod', 'Plok' and 'Super Putty' it's hard to pretend that this British humour infused into platformers isn't surreal and bizarre. Enemies in 'Super Putty' include Terminator Carrots, a Clockwork Orange, Scouse Sausages and sword-wielding spacemen. Most memorable though is a sarcastic cat which bursts through the screen simply to heckle you every time you miss a bonus. He doesn't hurt your character, but his cry of "too bad you just missed it" inspires more shame than 'Duck Hunt' dog's mocking laughter. According to a Cale "all the inventive ideas came straight from Phil's [Thornton] imagination". In fact, if Bitmap Books' 'Commodore Amiga : A visual Compendium' is to believed the bulk of Thornton's ideas actually came to him during a trip to India, when he ate a dodgy curry. "My bowels went China syndrome and I was unable to do much except stand in one place slightly stooped. During the dark days and the disturbed nights I came up with characters and realised I was onto something."

Despite not being a fan of spicy food, Phil Thornton is clearly a fantastic pixel artist. Putty is hugely emotive, despite being a blob of pixels with no permanent limbs and just eyes. The Snes game looked even better than the original Amiga one, with extra layers of parallax scrolling and a larger colour palette. Zy Nicholson believes that Snes "'Putty' is a joy to behold. A radiant gem of a game, slick, humours [with] cheekily well defined sprites". The 6 levels each contain 3 stages and everyone looks slightly different with varying foes on each stage.

However, not many saw the later stages due the games difficulty. According to Dan Phillips, the game starts out hard and just gets more challenging as it progresses. "The first level was pretty brutal, not many players could complete it. So, we had to introduce a training mode". 

The training mode was certainly needed given the number of ways Putty had to attack enemies or to just get around the level. These abilities include being able to stretch out in any direction, which is used to access far-off ledges. He also has the ability to inflate to both catch any falling robots and also to pop; killing enemies on the screen. Like "The Blob" in 'Clay Fighter', Putty is able to form part of himself into a fist, allowing him to punch enemies. He can even melt into the floor, making him invulnerable and also allowing him to absorb regaining his energy in the process.

If this wasn't enough, Putty also is given power-ups which range from simple points bonuses and temporary invulnerability, to the fantastic Uncle Ted. This is, without exaggeration, the most odd and fantastic power up in any 16bit platformer.
Once collected, a man with a Hammond Organ called Uncle Ted appears and plays such a captivating tune, that all enemies in the level freeze. Miyamoto is, by most accounts, one of the greatest visionaries in videos gaming history, yet where was Uncle Ted in 'Super Mario World'? "Its little elements like this in the game that elevate it to the level of near genius" Mark Ramshaw noted in his review of 'Putty' for Amiga Power magazine.

Yet with so much to do with Putty, Zy Nicholson found that "some people have trouble controlling the numerous abilities of the little blue blob". Perhaps this is because 'Super Putty' was originally an Amiga game and so would have been controlled with a joystick. On a Dpad it is trickier to get Putty to move precisely, which is perhaps why many note that 'Super Putty' on the Snes is harder than 'Putty' on the Amiga. It's a shame you can't reach into your screen and stretch Putty like you would in real life. Indeed it's a shame that the game pre-dates touch screen controls, as this would be the ideal way to control the blue blob. Rather than getting frustrated because putty is stretching in the wrong direction you could tap on each platform and if near enough he would stretch automatically to it. 

Now how do I know that touch screen controls would work so well? Because, we've seen them implemented in the Vita port of 'Super Putty's sequel 'Putty Squad'. "But", I hear you ask "why do you crave a mobile version of the first game, when the sequel has been re-mastered for modern consoles including the 3DS and PS4?" The reason is simple; the touch controls are the only good thing about 'Putty Squad Re-mastered'. When developing the sequel to 'Super Putty', System 3 subscribed to the logic that excess equals a better game. The ‘Super Putty’ sequel is a confusing mess of too many pick ups, too many skills and even too many colours on screen. Worst of all though, rather than just scrolling up and down the levels move in too many directions. The original 'Super Putty' works because every level is confined to four vertical screens. It taxes the brain as you can often see the robots but have to figure out how to get to them without being shot to death by a Terminator carrot wearing sunglasses. In 'Putty Squad' someone in the development team had the terrible idea of hiding prisoners across a wide sprawling maze like level. In ‘Super Putty’ spending ten minutes trying inventive ways to get to something is far exciting than spending ten minutes in ‘Putty Squad’ searching a level to find what you need to rescue. System 3 tried too hard by attempting to evolve 'Super Putty' into 'Super Mario World'. The sequel would have been better if they had just left it as a vertically scrolling puzzle platformer. Perhaps this is why the sequel never saw the light of day on the Amiga, since it was only released on the Snes is Europe. Perhaps I wasn't the only one who preferred the original. 

Clearly, my advice for anyone interested in playing a 'Putty' game would be to stick to 'Super Putty'. The Problem is (after the disastrous scores the re-mastered version of the "superior sequel" got) I doubt anyone would bother porting 'Super Putty' to the mobile phones which the game is perfect for. It's a shame as with touch controls it would be unique "new" game for a generation of gamers who waste hours on 'FarmVille' but have no idea who Will Wright is.

 If people are no longer playing games on portable consoles, now is the time to make a bigger deal of older games like 'Super Putty'. We should revisit it not because it's a nostalgic classic, but because the limitations surrounding its original creation now have made it the perfect type of game for a mobile platform. "When you look at games today you realise what people were achieving back then" System 3 boss, Mark Cale laments. "Now games are unoriginal and follow a set formula as a result. You need more games like 'Putty' today and for me, [it] will always be a landmark title."

Where did I get this game from?

Amiga games were a big part of my childhood. However I must admit that with 'X Copy' I didn't pay for most of them. With so many games I didn't play each for long enough to really appreciate them. Although a friend of mine loved 'Putty' I didn't really see the appeal, it looked confusing, claustrophobic and a bit silly. Clearly, I've changed my mind now I've invested some time in the Snes version, which I bought randomly on eBay for £8.00 (including p&p). It's a similar price to what Sony charge to download 'Putty Squad' on the Vita. While I seem to be the only one playing games on the handheld I would much rather play the prequel on a 16bit machine than the awful re-master of the sequel. 

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