Friday 22 June 2018

Mega Drive Review - Cosmic Spacehead (Game 164)

Imagine a 2D platform game when your character’s jumps seem to randomly vary in height. Sometimes the agonisingly slow leaps will reach a ledge yet other times you’ll fall short trying to get across the same sized gap. Imagine a platform game where bouncing on an enemy’s head hurts your playable avatar rather than damaging the foe. In fact, imagine a 2D platform game where you have absolutely no attacks and a single hit sends you back to the start. Imagine a platform game where you do the same thing every stage, where no new game mechanics are introduced and your view is limited to a small circle in the middle of the screen. I would bet right now you’re imagining a 2D platform game that no one would ever want to play, and yet despite this ‘Cosmic Spacehead’ may be more than it initially appears. 

Developed by Supersonic Software 
Published by Code Masters
Released in 1993

I’ve made no secret of my love for point and Click adventure games. A great deal of my gaming playing time growing up was spent day at my Amiga 500 lost in the exploits of Guybrush Threepwood and Simon the Sorcerer. It wasn’t until I was researching for an episode of the Maximum Power Up podcast that I discovered that there were a handful of console based puzzling adventure games. Seeing the verbs ‘Look’, ‘pick up’, ‘talk’ on a screen is enough to make me want to play a game it seems, even if there’s no mouse to point and click on them. 

A NES-exclusive in 1992, ‘Linus Spacehead’s Cosmic Crusade’ was renamed ‘Cosmic Spacehead’ the following year, and upgraded beyond recognition. The game’s advertising claimed a player will “Interact with the oddest bunch of characters in over 300 screens of bizarre and freaky locations”. Apparently “it’s cosmically out of this world!” But for someone who has played, particularly, ‘Day of the Tentacle’ the exploration-heavy, item-laden levels mimicked will be very familiar as ‘Cosmic Spacehead’ has mimicked LucasArts forerunners both aesthetically and thematically. It’s hardly “brilliantly original”, despite what Sega Pro magazine may claim. 

A strength of all of LucasArts games is the witty writing and memorable characters. I would find myself choosing every dialogue option in their games just to giggle at the responses. Sadly this is an aspect that Supersonic Software hasn’t stolen. “Interaction in ‘Cosmic Spacehead’ is limited to watching pre-rehearsed conversations, without the ability to choose responses or influence the manner of your queries” pointed out The One Magazine. “There little feeling of character development or game freedom, something sorely missed from the game”. Mega power magazine however felt “the interaction is great”. I am left wondering if we played the same game. 

The story premise does at least seem more in keeping with the works of Ron Gilbert, Dave Grossman, Tim Schafer, and Steve Purcell. However ‘Cosmic Spacehead’ lacks the clever wit and comedic nuance of ‘Full Throttle’, ‘Grim Fandango’ or ‘Sam & Max: Hit the Road’.  
You play as an alien from the planet Linoleum who has returning home after a crash landing on our strange blue and green planet. expecting a hero's welcome, he soon finds out that his fellow Linomen were sceptical of the existence of the so-called "planet Earth" and demands that he return to get proof. You join the game when our hero is broke, and in need of a cosmic car and a camera. According to official documentation “In his adventures, Linus deals himself out of Linoleum (including using a fake ID for Larry Flint to compete in a bumper car contest), quash a robot revolution in Detroitica, gets gas from an abandoned space station before returning to Earth to cause mischief and mayhem”. 

Similar to the games it has obviously been influenced by, progression in ‘Cosmic Spacehead’ (if you avoid Game FAQs) hinges on perseverance and a modicum of luck. Like the best games in the genre a player must repeatedly work out that X combined with Y to activate Z. Admitted, even in the LucasArts games that I adore the specific X, Y and even Z were not always obvious. There’s the famously illogical rubber chicken pulley puzzle in ‘The Secret of Monkey Island’ and the less said about the monkey wrench in its sequel the better! But these are exceptions, in games filled with hundreds of puzzles. Usually you kick yourself when you solve a conundrum simply because the obvious combination of items had been staring you in the face the whole time. ‘Cosmic Spacehead’ however seems to defy physics and delight in the absurd. There’s not even a comic logic at work, you simply just arbitrarily combine random items to get a desirable end result. For example at one stage you are required to explore an area named Dodgey City, however a “near-freezing pool” prevents access. I tried every item in my inventory eventually emptying a bag of sugar into the offending river. It was an item I had picked up half the map away and the only reason it seemed to have frozen the river is because it was “Icing sugar”.
Later, a scary monster blocks my path and it is avoided by making it float away on a tiny helium balloon. This balloon is given to him by Cosmic Spacehead despite the fact that your playable character never floated while carrying it and it was never stated that it could lift heavy things.

People play adventures games for two reasons. They offer a great funny or compelling story or they offer satisfying puzzles that make you feel smug when you solve them. The story in ‘Cosmic Spacehead’ is nonsense and the puzzles are either far too obvious or illogically absurd. I didn’t feel that eager to find out if the unlikeable and obnoxious main character managed to convince his home planet that Earth existed. I also never felt that intellectual getting to that end result, I simply felt relieved that I didn’t have to combine items any more. 

In advertising much was made of the game’s dual nature. “Arcade action and adventure puzzles together for the first time” were but one of publisher Code Master’s wild claims. But sadly, as already noted, everything about the platform stages is terrible. I have absolutely no idea why Peter Williamson would design a game where your defenceless main character will have to traverse screens while lights randomly turn off. How did no one making the game realise that this makes it impossible to see the platforms you’re meant to be jumping between? Collision detection is questionable and depends on which enemy you’re near. As you have no offence, to finish a stage you have to cautiously inch through a stage. Usually times spent just waiting on platforms while enemies follow their pre-set route and then seizing the opportune moment to walk by them. However when enemies lurk on platforms underneath you, there’s a good chance you’ll get killed anyway.
The hit boxes for some foes are limited to just their bodies, yet the whole bodies of others will hurt you. This wouldn’t be so bad if the enemies didn’t pass through the platforms. Too often safe waiting areas seem to be anything but and that means there’s no way to avoid death. You can collect “Cosmic Candy” as you move through the thankfully short levels and gathering enough of these nets you an extra life. But you’d be ill-advised to peruse precarious ones as the number of attempts you get on a stage is limited. LucasArts were applauded for removing random deaths from their adventure games. Every puzzle was solvable using the objects around you, so the only thing stopping you finishing the game was your puzzling ability. While this may be true for the adventuring sections of ‘Cosmic Spacehead’ you can die in the platform sections and often through no fault of your own. 

Critics also questioned the fusion of adventuring and platforming. None were more vocal that Paul Presley who tore into the identical Amiga version of ‘Cosmic Spacehead’. “Can the concept of two totally dissimilar games working hand on hand be a successful one?” Presley asked the readers of CU Amiga. “Of course it doesn’t work. There’s no feeling of cohesion between the two factions, no sense of attachment. It’s as if they were just put together because they could be.” For Presley the failure of the game came from attempting to satisfy two very different types of gamer. “It is the single most frustrating thing in the world to have spent the past half an hour going through the adventure motions only to lose all your work because your reflex skills aren’t up to the job.” It was a pain that reviewer David Upchurch shared. “To die by failing a platform game when you’ve struggled patiently through the tedium of the many adventure segments incurs a feeling of such wrath that nearby grapes would be hitching up their stalks and running for cover”. “There’s no way on this Earth, or any other, that the platform bits could stand up on their own” thought Amiga Format’s Clur Hodgson. “It might have seemed like a great idea at first to combine all these different forms of gameplay. But that isn’t a good enough excuse to skim on the playability of any of the sections”. 

What’s strange is that press releases for the game claimed that “‘Cosmic Spacehead’ is created to suit the younger players market”. “‘Cosmic Spacehead’ is an adventure game you can play as soon as you can read” observed critic Cam Winstanley. “A sort of a ‘Monkey Island’ for the under tens”. I do wonder if children would have the patience to try every item with every object in every location just to see if it led to a desirable end result. While my seven year old daughter may have laughed at the jokes offered when you examine the “Cosmic Spacebook” she also demanded the diabolical music had to be turned off. It’s repetitive, irritating and despite there being numerous tracks they all sound the same regardless of your location. 

Visually it would have been appealing to a child in 1994 at least. Although I wonder if the youth of today will appreciate the homage to 50s style cartoons that have been drenched in 90s neon colours. “It’s like a cartoon, it’s like ‘The Jetsons’ from TV” Amiga Power once claimed. “Indeed the graphics are retro inspired aiming to emulate a 1950s vision of the future”.
What children may not like is the disconnect between control and avatar. True to the genres name in ‘Cosmic Spacehead’ you Point and Click. This would make sense with a mouse but when you’re holding a joy pad it feels peculiar, especially as during the platforming parts you have direct control. “It’s horrid and nasty and annoying” noted Winstanley. “He won’t go through doors even when you point at them. You have to use the command “use door” which is very silly indeed”. 

When playing ‘Cosmic Spacehead’ you can’t help but wonder if the game was originally intended to be simply an adventure game. Were the platforming elements included to either pad the game out or to please the money men? As the game was based on the NES’ ‘Linus Spacehead’s Cosmic Crusade’ it’s important to remember the climate in which that game cane out. Two years prior to its release in 1992, a heavily censored version of ‘Maniac Mansion’ had been ported to the NES. While reviews had been largely favourable, commercial success hadn’t followed and few bought the game. Were platform sections added to ‘Linus Spacehead’s Cosmic Crusade’ to make the game more marketable to a console gamer? By including elements of the console’s most popular genre Code Masters has something recognisable to promote. In fact in the original version of ‘Cosmic Spacehead’ on the NES there was much less visual distinction between the two game elements as both the adventuring and action sections took place on the same flat 2D plane. You explore the environments from a fixed side view, collecting items that then have to be taken to other parts of the levels. It’s all very reminiscent of a ‘Dizzy’ game which isn’t that surprising since that was publisher Code Master’s flagship series at the time. In fact Cosmic Spacehead’ was even later bundled with ‘Fantastic Dizzy’, perhaps to combat reviewer’s claims that it was too short to be labelled a full price game. 

This criticism is fair. ‘Cosmic Spacehead’ feels very much like a budget or even a PD game I would play on the Amiga in the 90’s. These were the sorts of games you could buy for £5 and still have change for your bus fair Home. It’s a game that attempts to please two audiences but in the end pleases no one. The platform sections are awful and their only saving grace is it detracts from the mundane adventuring. Code Masters maybe sold the game as aimed at children but the progress of playing it is so repetitive that no child I know would stick with it. Designer Peter Williamson may have tried to make his own LucasArts style adventure game but ‘Cosmic Spacehead’ is neither funny nor clever.
Since the release of this game we have seen all sorts of platform games that include adventure game elements and we’ve also seen adventure games that have platforming in. ‘Little Big Planet’, ‘Limbo’, ‘Zack and Wiki’, ‘Broken Age’ and the ‘Lego’ games are all titles that immediately spring to mind but there’s dozens more. Clearly the idea of fusing the genres wasn’t necessarily a terrible one, it’s just the execution here was so bad. Evidently, “USE” platform game “WITH” point & click game does not make ‘Cosmic Spacehead’ any good.

Where did I get this game from?
Occasionally I get sent a game from someone who has enjoyed the blog. Receiving this for Christmas was unexpected and very much appreciated. I messaged the gift giver, saying I felt uncomfortable accepting such a generous offer. I wasn’t expecting their reply; “trust me you’ll take it when you play it – its s**t mate!” I’m inclined to agree.

1 comment:

  1. Gosh, that sounds bloody awful!
    Thanks for taking one for the team!


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