Friday 16 September 2016

Mega Drive Review - Chuck Rock (Game 115)

The 16 bit market was flooded with platform games, but is a caveman throwing rocks enough of a novelty to attract an audience?

Developed by Core
Published by Virgin
Released in 1991

The word "unremarkable" is often, incorrectly, attributed to bad things. This doesn't mean that people should say that good things are "unremarkable" either, as the word should only be reserved for mediocre things; something that is bland, not particularly interesting and certainly not original.

 'Chuck Rock' is an unremarkable game. It's not bad, it's not ugly and it's not even boring. The problem is it's not really good, attractive or engaging either. While I didn't regret the three hours spent finishing it, if for some reason, I could never play it again I wouldn't care at all. 

At the time reviewers didn't share my opinion of 'Chuck Rock'. "With a pretty basic platform format it's packed to the brim with original features, well thought out gameplay and nice touches, that make it a positive joy to sit down with" Stuart Campbell once said looking at the Amiga original. According to Julian Rignal 'Chuck Rock' is the best platform game seen [in 1991] and is a game that Megadrive players are thoroughly recommended to grab".   Richard Leadbetter was equally enamoured with the game.  "I'd recommend that you invest your pounds sterling in this game immediately - It's the best platformer [in a long time]" he told Mean Machine Sega readers. They followed his advice, but it wasn't just Mega Drive owners who embraced this caveman romp. 'Chuck Rock' found success on many platforms including the Amiga, CD32, Game Boy, Game Gear, Acorn 32, Master System, Atari ST and SNES to name but a few. 

'Chuck Rock' is a platformer in the truest sense. You'll guide caveman Chuck from the left of the screen towards the right. Dinosaur foes will get in your way, but most of these can be killed with a thrust of Chuck's giant belly. While there are multiple routes through a stage, for the most part there are no dead ends so exploration is minimal. Each level consists of three stages with a boss at the end.  Level two plays very similar to first except for the introduction of pulleys. Level three's unique quirk is the inclusion of water sections, level four is snowy and parts of level five take place inside a dinosaur's body. The look of each level may change but ultimately what you do remains the same. 

However, as Stuart Campbell noticed, "Chuck Rock isn't just our hero's name ,  it's pretty much a description of the gameplay too". Every stage is peppered with rocks which effect the game play in numerous ways. Indeed progression through the 'Chuck Rock' actually depends on the player using the many pick-up-able boulders to solve contextual puzzles. For example they can be used as shield allowing progression through a a dangerous hailstorm. They can become make shift platforms to pass through lava. Unreachable sections become accessible when Chuck drops a weight on a seesaw which launches him into the air. Conversely a rock can also be used as ballast in water, allowing our hero to access submerged passages. Should there be no puzzle to solve, rocks also prove to be an effective weapon; crushing the foes who are impervious to Chuck's mighty belly. 

Critics seem to like the inclusion of the rock gameplay mechanics, with many citing it as a reason that 'Chuck Rock' eclipsed other games in the genre. "Usually, the first mention of puzzles in a platform game sends me away screaming with horror" reviewer Julian Rignal admitted. "But, these ones are logical and enjoyable and don't bog down the action at all. " according to Mean Machines magazine, "most platform games are just a test of your skill, but 'Chuck Rock' is actually something of a brain teaser. Solving all of the mini-puzzles, along with making the best use of your rocks adds a new dimension to the gameplay".

However when you've solved a puzzle once, you're not stumped by it a second time. When you see a seesaw you'll immediately know you need to find a nearby rock. Come across a lava field a second time, off you trot for a rock. It gets to the point where you pick up every rock you see knowing that within a couple of screens you'll probably need it for something. With health restoring power ups almost as frequent as rocks, the levels of 'Chuck Rock' are devoid of much challenge, a criticism Amiga Power had too. "This isn't the toughest platform game we've ever come across with only the huge end-of-level guardians likely to cause most players any real problems". These foes are indeed tough, but not on a par with those found in 'Mega Man' for example. They can quickly kill Chuck, but they also have very obvious repeating attack patterns. In every case beating the boss involves hiding in the safety of a corner while they attack. Then you just fling a rock or kick them when they are retreating, rinse and repeat. 

These end of level bosses do look impressive though, and many critics adored the visuals of 'Chuck Rock'. Game Pro magazine believes "the game is worth the bucks for the graphics alone". According to Stuart Campbell this is thanks to the work of one man. "Lee Pullen [...] has put in some Stirling work on the visuals here, to the extent that they positively leap out at you. The sprites are absolutely lovely, gorgeously coloured and full of character. They're animated with great care and attention too." As is often the case, both the visuals and the somewhat average level music have survived the journey from Amiga original to Mega Drive port. In fact its hard to distinguish the two versions, save for some of the levels having less colourful backgrounds on Sega's machine. 

Critic Richard Leadbetter actually claimed to prefer the Mega Drive version. "Although I liked [the Amiga version] quite a bit, I think it's even better now it's made its way over to the Megadrive. It's just got so much to offer with its superlative audio/visuals and its addictive gameplay." One thing that was cut from the Mega Drive version of 'Chuck Rock' was the animated introduction. Unless they look on the back of the box Sega players will have no idea why Chuck is trekking trough prehistoric locales terrorising dinosaurs and moving rocks around. The excised animated introduction explains that his glamorous alluring wife was actually kidnapped by another caveman called Gary Gritter. Of course this is a name that has become far my villainous since the game's release, given the crimes committed by Gary Glitter (upon who the character is clearly based).
Amiga Version / Mega CD Censorship
Chuck initially isn't too upset that his beloved has been taken by a Punk Rock Paedophile, that is until he realises the washing hasn't been done. This is the motivation Chuck needs and rushes to his wife's rescue, covering his modesty with leafs as he goes. Hopefully Chuck's shocking chauvinism is because he is a caveman with outdated attitudes. I rather hope it's not a reflection of the developers at Core design.  However, you do have to wonder when you see the uncensored introduction sequence that existed on the original Amiga version. With pixelated partial nudity you can understand why the one console version to include the introduction sequence (the Mega CD) actually offered a censored version. Similarly the ending of the Mega Drive version has different text to the Amiga original, something done on the Snes port too. 

Stuart Campbell didn't seem to mind the sexism and sexualisation when he positively reviewed the game for Amiga Power. He believed that 'Chuck Rock' is "a decidedly neat [game] put together with care and imagination. Reaching the lofty peaks of playability only normally associated with the best Japanese games". If he is referring to platform games like 'Super Mario Bros' he is somewhat deluded. This game isn't a patch on the best Japan had to offer.

For me 'Chuck Rock' is the embodiment of mediocrity. While there are glimmers of creativity owing to the rock puzzles they are counteracted by repetitive level design which over use them. The main character sprite looks great, but that's offset by so many dull environments. Levels are too easy, bosses too hard. As GamePro said, "from the standpoint of gameplay it's middle of the road". 'Chuck Rock' is a distinctly average game, not the worst on the Mega Drive but a long way from being the best.  If you have a penchant for platforming or dinosaur related rock puns you'll enjoy it, but perhaps with the lingering feeling your time would be better spent playing many other better games. So while the hundreds of words above may make you think there's much to be said about 'Chuck Rock' ultimately you only really need to read two; "it's unremarkable". 

Where did I get this game from?
When you buy a bundle of games, you get some good, some bad and some you barely even register. 'Chuck Rock' was a game I knew from playing on my Amiga, but I never would have gone back to the game if it wasn't included in a bulk buy. 

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