Ain’t no doubt, it’s plain to see, a woman like you’s no good for me

He’s a frog, there’s a red cape involved. It’s Superfrog! I sense this might be a short review.

Superfrog was developed and distributed by joint ‘Publishers of the Year 1993’, Team 17, in the same year for all flavours of Amiga, and subsequently ported to DOS by Bubball Systems the following year, where 95% of the code had to be rewritten to make it compatible.

Animator and artist, Eric Schwartz, reveals he envisioned the character as a kind of Daffy Duck persona, brimming with comic pride and unwarranted confidence in his own abilities.

Superfrog is a full screen, 360 degree multi-direction, exploratory platform game renowned for its smooth 50 frames per second scrolling, cutesy 32 colour cartoon quality graphics, and good-natured, upbeat music as provided by legendary composer, Alister Brimble.

The Superfrog sprite and the barrage of foes you encounter were all adeptly brought to life by Rico Holmes using Deluxe Paint Animator, whilst the acoustics were made with Amiga sampled MODs by Alister Brimble. The instrument samples came from his own synthesizers; the Kawai K1, Akai S950, Korg O1 and Yamaha SY77. With the exception of the frog’s croak, which was snagged from the internet, Alister provided all the samples.

While Superfrog (or ‘Chuck’ as he was tentatively christened during development) is an exceedingly technically competent, slick and polished platformer, it’s ultimately unremarkable where innovation is concerned – and some argue – verging on bland. 

It features 24 levels dispersed across 6 disparate themes. The usual suspects are all present and correct; eerie woods, sinister castle, freaky circus, mysterious Egyptian tomb, chilly, slidey ice cavern and hi-tech space station. All a bit ‘platforming by numbers’ if we’re honest.

The plot is so off-the-peg generic you’d be forgiven for assuming it came from Poundland’s fairy tale book section. A devious witch (who was based on the Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz) has captured your beloved princess and – purely out of spite – transformed you into an amphibian. Had she drawn the line at kidnapping you might have chalked it up to bad luck, and logged onto Tinder to find a new bride… but this time it’s personal!

We know from watching The Muppets that frogs lead a vexatious, downtrodden existence so we better nip this in the bud if we want to avoid winding up betrothed to some manipulative swine.

As chance would have it, while commiserating our losses by the ‘River O’ Despair’, a bottle of Lucozade drifts by carried by the current, and whaddaya know? Drinking it confers upon us an array of impressive super powers. How jolly serendipitous is that?

We know all this because it’s helpfully elucidated in the opening introduction (which occupies an entire disk by itself!), animated by none other than Amiga demo scene legend and ‘Amy the Squirrel’ progenitor, Eric W. Schwartz.

If you’re familiar with his work, it may not have escaped your notice that ‘Flip the Frog’ looks as though he could be a close relative of Superfrog. That’s no coincidence. What is lessclear is why the frog in the intro animation looks nothing like the sprite you control in the game itself.

His creations began life as proof of concept, tech demos, though soon evolved into fully-fledged animated vignettes with a witty narrative. Either way, back then we lapped them up and paid real-proper money to have them sent to us by public domain library dealers via mail order. Can you imagine paying Google for a 2 minute YouTube clip these days?

You may be interested to know that Eric later produced an irreverent parody of his Superfrog intro called ‘Superbfrog’. It derides the original’s cute-overload style, hackneyed story, and product placement.

Rumour has it, Eric was last seen being bundled into the back of a novelty marketing van shaped like a monster soft drink bottle, and summarily water-boarded with a sticky, orange fluid of unidentified origin. Police have been unable to determine if the two incidents are related.

In the beginning it was the intention to flesh out Superfrog’s personality with a recognisable celeb voice-over. A few names that were bandied about as possibilities include comedy double act, Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, and Auf Wiedersehen Pet co-stars, Jimmy Nail and Tim Healy who would have endowed our hero with a thick-as-treacle Geordie accent… that would likely have flown over the heads of everyone outside of Newcastle. Cheryl Tweedy (or whatever her name is this week) learnt that lesson the hard way! …and I’ve just learnt Cheryl is a ‘mononymous person’. Give me a break!

[From left to right: Tim Healy, Jimmy Nail & Kevin Whately in the TV comedy-drama centred around seven British migrant construction workers.]

It’s a shame really. I would have loved to have experienced Superfrog warbling away with his rendition of Jimmy’s ‘Ain’t No Doubt’, and have that tied into a more convoluted, tangled country and western style plot involving some deception or other by his beloved princess.

It would have knocked ‘witch kidnaps princess, prince rescues princess’ into a cocked steeple-crowned, pointy witch’s hat! I feel a Kickstarter brewing.

For the title music, Alister Brimble set out to compose a tune that would invoke the Superman theme tune with a flourish of cutesy charm. I think it’s safe to say he ticked that box! It still has the hummability factor nearly a quarter of a century later!

Each area has its own soundtrack totalling eight unique scores, and the game is peppered with felicitous digitised sound and speech effects. Employing Protracker, Alister really went the extra mile to push the Amiga’s hardware to the brink of its capability; all four of the Amiga’s sound channels are utilised with the fourth being reserved for low priority audio that could easily be overwritten with sound effects. It’s this ingenuity that made it possible for in-game music and sound effects to coexist simultaneously… a rarity in Amiga gaming, so not to be taken lightly.

The graphics, all lovingly hand-drawn by the immensely talented Rico Holmes, exude a magnetising appeal that perfectly compliments the enchanting soundtrack. The meticulous attention to detail is evident in every scene, each wide-eyed creature brimming with amiable charisma; it’s practically sacrilege to snuff them out of existence.

After suffering through the gaudy, dizzying busyness of Zool’s aesthetics, something I truly appreciated in Superfrog is the subtle deployment of background graphics. Never do they protrude into the foreground leaving you wondering what’s what. There are no snazzy parallax scrolling backgrounds, or copper gradients in effect, and not the merest hint of any procedurally generated repeating gimmickry. The game actually benefits from their absence, proving that elegantly simple graphics can be just as striking as those that push the boundaries.

Right you, up off your lilly pad, we’ve got business to attend to. We need to kick the living warts out of the witch, rescue the princess from incarceration and restore our Prince Charming persona (by kissing her obviously).

Racing through to reach the end of each level isn’t rocket science, though when you first realise in doing so you’ve achieved absolutely nothing because you haven’t collected enough coins to ‘open sesame’ the exit, it suddenly dawns on you that this game will require more than flooring the accelerator and keeping it depressed until you break through the finishing tape.

This is the nucleus of the game-play unfortunately, and as you can imagine, it soon grows tiresome, especially when you find yourself backtracking to re-check an area for those elusive last few remaining coins for the squillionth time. The later levels can be vast and convoluted so tedious memorisation becomes a necessity if you are to make a success of them, and this can result in an extremely frustrating experience.

Truth be told, artificially extending the longevity of the levels through obligatory coin collecting is a lazy and unwelcome mechanic that tarnishes an otherwise largely enjoyable and engaging game.

At the end of each stage the coins and fruit you collected along the way serve as the entrance fee to a coin-op arcade containing a lone machine; a ‘one armed bandit’ gambling game, not all that dissimilar to the one found in Kid Gloves II. Your coins are made available as credits is essentially what I’m saying, in a round about sort of way.

Given that saving your game isn’t an option, your goal is to play the fruit machine, nudging and holding symbols until you line up a congruous triplet, in order to win level codes that will allow you to pick up where you left off should you croak prematurely. Booby prizes such as extra lives are also up for grabs if the head-liner slips through your grasp. It’s another diversion I wouldn’t have missed in a power outage!

To aid your crusade, an assortment of power-ups can be collected along the way. The wings allow you to delay your descent back down to earth so you can leap and reach distant platforms that would otherwise be out of reach, or more effectively evade nasties upon landing, given that they buy you some extra reaction time. You become one of Wallace’s flying frogs with turbo-charged aerodynamic abilities, that’s the upshot.

What’s odd though is that you already have a cape and super powers having imbibed the effervescent orange elixir, yet you have to wait until you pick up the wings before you’re able to half-heartedly flap your arms and glide a bit – not truly fly, but glide. You don’t get to actually fly until you reach the ‘Project F’ stage, and that’s only because gravity is different in space.

I don’t know about you, but personally I demand more realism from my amphibian superheroes so this just doesn’t cut it. You know, I’m starting to wonder if this Lucozade stuff might not be the mystical gift from the gods Suntory lead us to believe.

‘Glucozade’ as it was known in 1927 was primarily devised as an aid to recovery for people suffering from common illnesses such as the flu or cold, and it was even marketed as such in hospitals.

Once backing up your wild claims with scientific evidence became a legal stipulation, GlaxoSmithKline – the company who owned the rights to the ‘medicine’ at the time – dropped the association with the assumed health benefits and in 1984 re-branded it as an energy drink.

Not that they learnt their lesson; the evidence that Lucozade is any better at improving athletic performance beyond what you could achieve with a cup of sugary tea is flimsy to say the least!

If anyone is in the market for a bucket of snake oil leave me a message and I’ll fix you up at a reasonable rate.

After the Mario-esque head bounce, your primary weapon is the Anthropomorphic Boomerang Spud of Doom ™, and it’s not nearly as deadly as it needs to be. You can only launch it at short range, and only at 90 degree or 45 degree angles to yourself. Any baddies that fall outside this perimeter just laugh at you without flinching. Where’s the respect? They treat you like some kind of primitive organism that might have emerged from a tadpole!

I interrupt this broadcast to bring you a fascinating fact: the whole team were so fond of Spud he was originally going to star in his own game.

Green ‘S’ pills give you an extra speed boost (while the red ones do the opposite), as if that’sgoing to help your cause. Not only do you already travel at the speed of Sonic, these are often placed precisely at the point at which you’d want to slow down, for example, when approaching spikes or cuddly sweet adversaries… that will take your head clean off your shoulders faster than the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog.

Finally, supping bottles of Lucozade will restore your health, which is ironic given that it’s sweetened, fizzy water spiked with artificial chemicals, flavouring and preservatives, concocted in a laboratory by men in white coats with unnaturally capacious foreheads.

Yes, we’ve hit upon another one of those notorious, early nineties product placement games. While Chupa Chups will rot your teeth, the manufacturers did at least try to redress the balance with their ‘suck, don’t smoke’ campaign.

Lucozade on the other hand took to peddling outright lies; it endows you with super-human powers, and will magically heal your frail, battle-torn body! They’ll be telling us next it gives you wings. Come on, it’s not Red Bull!

During the blueprint stage, Superfrog was to draw his special abilities from Newcastle Brown Ale, project manager Martyn Brown’s favourite tipple at the time. While I’d wager anyale is far healthier than Lucozade, it probably wouldn’t have been advisable to encourage kids to drink it!

Not only is Superfrog crammed with a plethora of secret bonus rooms loaded with power-ups, the bonus rooms are crammed full of bonus rooms, leading to more hidden bonus rooms that are chocker with collectable wotsits and thingy-me-bobs.

If you don’t push against each and every wall you’ll miss countless opportunities to replenish your health and super-charge your abilities. Possibly Team 17 went a bit overboard, taking the special out of ‘special bonus room’. 

One extra-special, special bonus level I wouldn’t have wanted them to omit is the ‘Project F’ homage to their highly acclaimed 1992 scrolling shoot-em-up, Project X, invitingly wedged between worlds 5 and 6. In it you don your space helmet and take to the stars to do battle with your trusty phaser gun, and it even incorporates a remixed arrangement of the Project-X soundtrack that was also composed by Alister Brimble along with Bjorn Lynne.

 

[Muppet Gonzo the Great will stop at nothing for the briefest of cameo appearances!]

It’s a welcome injection of diversity, and the exquisitely hand-drawn astrological star-sign animals in the background are a neat touch that adds a sense of depth, as well as flourishing Team 17’s trademark charisma. Well they are 1-bit better than their rivals after all! 😉

While a shoot-em-up adjunct in a platformer is no longer a fresh innovation, when it’s executed with such aplomb, we can forgive the lack of originality. It would be a sad state of affairs if we lived in a world without plombs. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Superfrog is further tinged with jocose Easter eggs that are a joy to discover. In the first world if you keep climbing the trees as far as they’ll take you, you’ll reach the moon. Kind of reminds me of an S Club Seven song, though if anyone asks, I didn’t just admit to that, and I’ll deny it ’til my dying breath.

In a nod to Mario, secret coin caches can be discovered by repeatedly head-butting what appears to be nothingness… until you hear that trademark ‘ching’ and it starts raining moolah! Some can be located by jumping on the clouds in the background, which are actually palpable foreground.

An undefeatable adversary you encounter on the ice level looks uncannily like Sonic the Hedgehog. You know who I think it’s based on?

Superfrog is a game that lulls you into a false sense of security. You begin taking baby steps and breezing through the early levels, tapping away to the jaunty tunes, then in the third level you’re hit with a wrecking ball and immediately have to step it up a gear.

Strangely enough, the difficulty level escalates until you reach the crescendo – your encounter with the game’s ultimate villain, Margaret the witch – and then poof, it’s as though you’re shooting fish in a barrel. She moves so predictably you could defeat her as a non-super frog. Perhaps Team 17 thought you needed a break by this stage.

Along the way there are plenty of blind falls and leaps of faith… more often than not straight onto the insta-kill, gleaming tips of smirking spikes. Once you lose a life, you’ll lose all your power-ups too; it’s an extremely unforgiving game. You’ll even kick the bucket if you collide with spikes from the side, only making contact with the non-pointy parts, and the invincibility cloak prevails over everything except the spikes. How does that work? This isn’t what I was taught in free running classes.

In fact, the spikes are your real nemesis, not the feeble old hag. Gaze averted ground-wards, she meekly doffs her hat in deference towards the almighty spikes as they strut by crooning, “well, you can tell by the way I use my walk I’m a woman’s man: no time to talk”.

Inconsistency is the ribbity one’s next most potent threat. Some enemies you can bounce-kill, others you can’t, and it’s not always apparent where the dichotomy lies. It’s totally arbitrary in some cases so the only way to make a mental list is through trial and error experimentation… and death… lots and lots of death. This isn’t Supercat, we haven’t got the lives to spare!

Our froggy protagonist mustbe super because he has no inertia; he starts and stops instantaneously and always runs at full tilt no matter how precarious a situation he finds himself in. Ripping the headphones away from his ears when a Justin Bieber single begins to play on the radio? 100mph! Open heart surgery on a butterfly? 100mph! It’s all or nothing, he only has one gear!

The usual influence of gravity is no match for the super one either. He ascends through jumps at a constant rate and falls back to earth at the same velocity, determined not to be bound by Newton’s silly laws.

On terra firma he’s a frenzied dynamo, in the air he has all the time in the world to float about taking in the scenery, checking email on his Apple watch and writing his autobiography.

This isn’t how amphibian momentum operates! Last time I starred in the pond-life equivalent of Freaky Friday…

Once you have defeated the world’s most ineffectual witch, Margaret, you are reunited with your delectable princess and waste no time moving in for the crucial rehabilitating kiss. In a twist of epic proportions, rather than you being transformed back into the prince you once were, she becomes a frog too! Spoiler alert!!!

Eric Schwartz wasn’t commissioned to animate this game-closing sequence, though believes it may have been based on some of his earlier work.

The floppy based editions of Superfrog already included some of the most impressive animated cut-scenes ever seen in an Amiga game of this era, so Team 17 struggled with taking it to the next level for what should have been the superior CD32 release. They couldhave plumped for the conventional addition of enhanced red book, CD audio perhaps, but didn’t. It was a one to one duplication of the Amiga 500/1200 versions, leading some critics to dismiss it as shovelware.

Islona Software re-released the Amiga version in 1999 with slightly tweaked box art because… because, erm…

It’s a bit of a head scratcher, though the aim appears to have been to make the game available on optical media so as to be compatible with any AGA Amiga equipped with a CD drive, where the previous CD32 release may not have been.

In 2012 Team 17 made the game available as a Windows-compatible, legitimate digital download through Good Old Games. This is the MS-DOS version released in 1994 and is emulated via DOSBox. Eric Schwartz’s Fantavision introductory animation and the ‘Project-F’ level are absent as they were in the original release.

2013 ushered in the release of an HD remake for modern platforms including PlayStation 3, PSN, PlayStation Vita, Windows, OS X, Linux, Android and iOS. It features all-new, super-slick high definition graphics (there’s a clue in the title), completely reworked level design (though with the original maps available as unlockable bonuses), a ‘Frog Trials’ time challenge mode, cross controller support (you can use the PS Vita as a joypad), a level editor, and the Lucozade bottles have been replaced with generic orange potions.

Over the years Superfrog has put in a few cameo appearances in some of Team 17’s other franchises, most notably Worms Blast and Worms 3D. It’s like Where’s Waldo except with a character you’d actually want to spot.

Superfrog came about as close to console quality platforming action as we ever got for the Amiga so is quite rightly held in high esteem to this day. It’s witty, charming, has gorgeous graphics and a marvellously appropriate, optimistic soundtrack, yet at the same time its potential is shackled by poor, floaty controls, derivative, repetitive game-play and a cruel, mean-spirited difficulty curve.

Even if Superfrog never reached the giddy heights of Sonic and Mario in terms of sales and mass appeal, it says a lot for the franchise when you consider that 23 years after the original release, there remains sufficient goodwill and interest to justify the studio time and development costs of a remastered edition.

My heart doesn’t contain any cockles – that’s just silly – but if it did, I’d like to think they’d be melted by the warm, fuzzy thought that Team 17 are still alive and kicking today, and this is partially thanks to the way Amiga gamers embraced their gorky, but loveable amphibian way back in 1992.

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