Don’t need no credit card to ride this pain

Amiga Format issue 29, December 1992

“Shatteringly good recent release?” Have you been smoking banana peels again recently by any chance, Amiga Format? I actually had a friend who tried that once because he’d read in a copy of the Anarchist Cookbook from the 1960s that you can get high on the stuff. You can’t, and he’s a muppet.

Perhaps your praise was so gushing because a few months later the demo of Top Banana would appear on Amiga Format cover disk 32, and you’d already committed yourselves to being nice no matter how awful the game turned out to be? I noticed you didn’t follow it up with a genuine review you’d have to put a score to. This sort of thing was rife in the gaming press at the time, and still is.

Top Banana is a zany, psychedelic, ecologically-aware poor man’s Rainbow Islands, replete with rising damp, and fuelled by ‘The Power of Love’. Huey Lewis and the News weren’t involved in the production in any capacity, rather it’s an allusion to your one and only ‘weapon’; endless projections of your own overblown heart.

Playing as the protagonist, a young girl known as ‘KT’, these are launched at your adversaries – diggers, suited and booted businessmen known as ‘Corprats’, popstars, chainsaws and other enemies of the rainforest – to avert their dastardly capitalist plot to bring about the downfall of humankind. If that sounds like a plot dreamed up by a stoned 13 year old eco-warrior, you may well be right.

The fruity number was the brainchild of Acorn developers, Psycore, and the London-based multimedia group, Hex Media, composed of artist Robert Pepperell, coder Miles Visman (also responsible for Turbo Trax) and DJs, Coldcut. 

Check out those glowing endorsements on the box! I wonder how much taglines like these would cost? Is there an agency you’d have to go through? I’m currently trying to market a new inflatable dartboard I’ve devised and need all the help I can get.

I did a bit of Googling to see if I could verify any of these quotes. I failed miserably. I managed to find a scan of Micro User magazine from the time of the game’s release, though the only reference to Top Banana I could find in it comes in the form of a full page paid ad.

Your objective in this “stunningly original” game (plucked from the back of the box) is to ascend the level Rainbow Islands style, avoiding the health-sapping nasties along the way. When you reach the top you must play tag with some bizarre creature or other to trigger the disappearance of the platforms. The one at the end of the first level looks like a pinkified, decapitated alien head interpretation of something that wouldn’t seem out of place in Avatar. Touch it and you begin your free-fall descent back to the base of the level, zig-zagging wildly from side to side on route to collecting the menagerie of power-ups on offer.

Hit the bottom and the level ends. Your reward for a job well done is a glib, didactic (or maybe just ecstasy-infused) one-liner taken from one of the following:-

“beware behave”

“recycle the hype”

“get up get down”

Advice to live by no doubt. I’ll be sure to take those sagely aphorisms on board, thanks Hex!

The putrid colour scheme and graphical finesse in evidence is on par with the elephant tail painting eyesore that remains hanging on my living room wall, only so as not to offend Dumbo who gave it to me for a Christmas present a few years back.

That’s the game. I’m not joking!

The sprites have fallen foul of ‘hideous early digitisation syndrome’, though what’s worse are the unpower-ups that reverse your controls and trigger the senseless screen-shudder mode, leaving you more disoriented than an epileptic at the Hacienda on acid house night.

Not content with turning your stomach, later in the game we’re subjected to an x-ray filter that lends your world a bleached, monochrome aesthetic, simulating a nuclear holocaust. No doubt a not-so-subtle cautionary omen concerning the forthcoming apocalypse… should we choose not to, “change a hawk to a little white dove”?

Hex designed the game to use the Amiga’s HAM mode, which allows the hardware to hold the hue and change the luminance by only altering four bits to express the colour of pixels. The upshot being that many more variants could be displayed simultaneously, up to a maximum of 4096.

The ‘Hold and Modify’ technique would largely be employed in the display of digitised photographs and rendered 3D images, not games or animation because the side effects – eyeball trauma and irreversible catatonia – are generally seen as things to avoid.

Believe it or not the game features three layers of that perennial spec-chasing favourite, parallax scrolling, not that you’d notice buried amidst the pick ‘n’ mix blancmange effect visuals.

Some critics have gone so far as to compare the experience to the sensation of rubbing your eyes with a cheese grater or sandpaper. Personally though, I don’t need an image like that prancing around in my fragile mind… and I wouldn’t dream of planting it in yours either. Some people are squeamish you know.

Hex admit on the game’s box that they’ve used ‘sampled’ graphics and sound, as though that gives them carte blanche to nick whatever they like from popular culture. The ‘Corprat’ businessmen are clearly swiped from John Cleese’s Ministry of Silly Walks sketch, as is the bowler hat wearing boss you face at the end of one of the vertically scrolling levels.

Likewise, the buzzer sound effect that heralds the start of each level is lifted (sorry, sampled) directly from the British TV quiz show, Catchphrase. “Say what you see”. ” It’s a good guess, but it’s not right”. ITV, bring back Roy Walker! I miss the craik, and Stephen Mulhern isn’t a Mr. Chips off the old block!

The other sound effects appear to be generic and so are harder to pin down. It’s a medley of dog’s barking, ouches, mooing, Chinese woodblock percussion instruments (or crickets?), and tonal ‘ta-da’ exclamations. Taken together it spells ‘wacky’, and is as grating as a crown of thorns.

There’s no in-game music, that all accompanies the stroboscopic, trippy slideshow intro that will haunt your dreams forever more should you be foolish enough to let it into your psyche.

The soundtrack itself can best be described as happy hardcore techno dance, and is a proper “wicked, wicked jungle is massive”, bangin’ toon. It’s “twistin’ my melon man… call the cops!” Different genres I know, but it all leads to the same thing… Ibuprofen and a dark room! 

Several months after the ECS release of Top Banana in 1992, the ‘Global Chaos’ Commodore CDTV revision followed. In addition to the game, it includes the soundtrack mixed with vocals by American rapper, beatboxer, DJ, and ‘Clown Prince of Hip Hop’, Biz Markie. It’s remarkably rare and insanely pricey these days, probably because only two people ever owned a CDTV (essentially an A500 in a sleek CD player housing), and they had more sense than to buy a garish, screechy Rainbow Islands rip-off.

If you’re feeling particularly masochistic you can download the entire ISO of the disc from archive.org and run it in an emulator. Take that Penfold_t_mole! *spit*

Rumours still circulate the web that Top Banana featured as a video game challenge on a kid’s Saturday morning TV show ala Xenon on ‘Get Fresh’, Magic Pockets on ‘Motormouth’, or Hugo on ‘What’s Up Doc?’. Nevertheless, it’s possible some crossed wires are afoot. I’m not entirely sure crossed wires can be ‘afoot’, but it’s late and I’ve got to be up early in the morning to save the pandas.

There was an ITV jungle-based kid’s TV game show that shared the same name, though it’s unlikely they are affiliated as this only ran for 26 episodes in 1990, a year before the original version of the game appeared on the Archimedes.

Complicating things further, ‘Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday!’ was another ITV kid’s TV show (which aired on a Saturday surprisingly enough) with a bananary connection. It ran between July 1990 and September 1991, and incorporated an animated programme called – you guessed it – Top Banana. The Archimedes version of the game was released right around the time the TV show was winding down, so again I think we’re barking up the wrong fruit tree.

It was reviewed on Gamesmaster (season 1, episode 5). The first of the three critics, commented, “the game has great music and the graphics are absolutely superb, but that doesn’t actually make the game, the playability isn’t there”. Are you having a giraffe? Which game were you playing? The responsive controls and the passable game-play are the only saving graces.

Critic no. 2 said, “the theme of Top Banana is very environmental. It makes for a different game, but all in all it’s just another platformer beat-em-up from the middle” (It’s a what now? Englispeak please).

“We’ve seen it all before really”, concluded critic no. 3.

None of these guys were identified and I haven’t got the patience to go back and match the faces to the names in other episodes. Collectively they awarded Top Banana 65%. Does that help at all? No? Well I don’t know, you try your best…

It has also been suggested that the protagonist, KT (Katie?), is based on the pop-rap artist, Betty Boo, though despite the physical likeness I haven’t been able to substantiate that rumour either. There’s plenty of ‘moo’ in there (each time you touch a collectible), though no ‘Boo’ as far as I can tell.

The game was distributed in a box made from recycled cardboard and included a complimentary 100% cotton t-shirt as if to affirm the developer’s green credentials. On a similar note, the rising water levels are explained by the melting ice caps …yet it can be halted by turning off a tap?

As clumsy as Top Banana is, I do feel I’ve learnt a lot from the experience: never eat fungi you found lying around on the forest floor (drugs are bad kids, even if computer programmers take them), don’t believe anything written on the box of a computer game, if you’re ever a bit peckish, you can spontaneously generate food by lobbing human organs at yuppies, construction vehicles and tools.

The list is endless. I really can’t fathom why the game wasn’t promoted as an edutainment title. Had it been made available in schools, we might now be living in a radically different world. The senseless loss of countless McD’s Big Macs could easily have been avoided. What we need to remember is, bapped double burgers are people too, and each life is precious.

For the sake of humanity and all that is holy, please today make time in your busy schedule to tell just one person about Top Banana. Lives depend on it. All I am saying is, give Hex a chance.

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