DJ FrankenWizkid feat. Jops*

If it’s possible you’re eyeballing Sensible Software’s Wizkid for the first time, “I can understand how you’d be so confused, I don’t envy you”. Unfathomably, it’s “a little bit of everything, all rolled into one”.

“It’s a bitch, it’s a lover. It’s a child, it’s a mother. It’s a sinner, it’s a saint. It doesn’t feel ashamed. It’s your hell, it’s your dream, it’s nothing in between. You know you wouldn’t want it any other way.”

Someone should turn that into a song, it’s chuffin’ genius!

That said, if I were to pigeon-hole it at all, the poor winged rat would find itself extremely fragmented, scattered here there and everywhere. The hodgepodge of ingredients bubbling away in Wizkid’s zany melting pot cauldron would include a sizeable dollop of Arkanoid, a glob of Dizzy, a lick of Asteroids and a sprinkle of Wizball-tinted Gradius.

“We had this definite desire to express a lot of eccentricity but commercially we had to learn how to rein it in. And that’s pretty much how our partnership worked. The best expression of us working together was Wizkid, that was the last game me and Chris really did work on together, just the two of us.”

Jon Hare breaks down the magic in an interview with Retro Gamer (9th October, 2013)

[* officially proof-read and annotated by Captain Sensible, Jon Hare, himself. No, not that one. This one.]

Picking up where we left off in Wizball (Wizkid being the vaguely pseudo sequel), colour has been restored to Wizworld following the nefarious mouse-wizard Zark’s failed scheme to turn it monochrome.

Wiz and his purple phobic pet cat Nifta were “chillin’ out maxin’ relaxin’ all cool” with their respective spouses and offspring when all of a sudden Zark makes an unwelcome return. Up to no good, he starts making trouble in their neighbourhood, kidnapping the whole clan before they have chance to ship out to Bel Air.

As the kid of Wiz (geddit?), it’s your duty to rescue your recently kidnapped Ma from Zark’s castle, Nifta from the – potentially Terry Pratchett’s Discworld-inspired – Turtle Jail and retrieve his eight kittens (making 9 lives in total) that have been scattered throughout the nooks and crannies of your island hangout.

[The footy’s on and Wizkid can’t afford a telly. Good old Rumbelows.]

“Quite simply one of the compulsory purchases for any self-respecting C64 owner!”

– ZZAP! sums up Wizball in their November ’89 review, awarding it a jaw- loosening 97%.

[Start as you mean to go on…]

Did I neglect to mention that your mother is actually the green space sarcophagus from the prequel? Somehow it’s true; you’re the progeny of a union between a wizard and a spherical spaceship Wizball widget. Imagine if your mates at school got wind of that! You’d never hear the end of it. It would be less embarrassing if your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries!

The name ‘Zark’ was possibly taken from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Zarquon – to cite his full name – is an enrobed, weirdy-beardy legendary prophet whose name is often substituted for cursing blasphemy.

I’m at a loss as to the origins of Nifta’s moniker, yet did find that someone had likely named their own pet cat (born in 1992) after the one featured in both Wiz games. Sadly she died in 2012 at the grand old age of 19. Rest in peace Nifta.

(NB: Nifta was named after and modelled on Chris’s pet cat who was always around the first ever Sensible office in the spare bedroom of his house in Chelmsford, Essex).

General B.D. Snail is your guiding light mentor in Wizworld. He introduces you to the game’s mechanics by way of a helpful interactive ‘boot camp’ tutorial.

[Well if Luke Skywalker can take advice from a shrivelled alien newt…]

But why the name? Does ‘beady’ refer to his googly, stalk-mounted eyes? Does it stand for ‘battle dress’? Running with the military theme, stars serve as your energy bar and various country flags represent your life count. Aligned in a perfectly regimented grid they evoke musings of service uniform insignia.

(NB: BD stands for Badly Drawn (he was created in 1992, years before Badly Drawn Boy))

Perchance preoccupation with Cannon Fodder’s development was bleeding through to other projects being worked on simultaneously.

Sheer lunacy knows no bounds where Wizkid is concerned, and wastes no time getting the show on the road. The opening title screen depicts our eponymous protagonist sporting blue dungarees with gold stars conducting an off-stage orchestra that lead in with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

(NB: Wizkid was modelled on Jon’s eldest daughter Emma who was 3 at the time and often wearing said dungarees)

[Wizkid takes centre stage. There’s no punchline …just sayin’.]

Like the original composition, Sensible’s includes a synchronous volley of real cannon-fire, only I doubt very much that this was intended to be aimed over the conductor’s head, or that the stress of the spectacle would result in his climactic implosion. If you’ve ever wondered what constitutes the physiological make-up of a Wizkid, your question is answered right out of the stalls; streams of ball-jointed pink worms!  

It’s all a bit Dusk ’til Dawn really in that you think you’re playing one genre of game until your world is flipped on its head and you find yourself wrestling with the opposite end of a spectrum of bipolar mechanics.

Of course, the only sane way to play is with the ‘Jammin’ option super glued into the enabled position.

For the bulk of the game that took “two bloody years!” to make (Jon Hare, Amiga Format 37), you skipper Wizkid’s disembodied head, wherein it’s your goal to clear each single screen playfield of critters by launching dislodged objects into their path, smushing them into a bloody pulp.

If you can pull off that somewhat tricky manoeuvre with bricks, jewels, TVs (they don’t grow on trees you know… oh), or whatever remaining, you pass with flying colours and you’re whisked off to the next stage.

Fail, on the other hand, and a commiseratory tone signals that you’ll have to revisit the scenario later before being allowed to proceed to the next arena.

[It’s a tall order to dismiss the deliciously kooky irony inherent in decimating defenceless butterflies with the yin-yang symbol! Floats like a butterfly, nutted by a pea. Before you know it, red is the sea.]

Eliminate multiple creatures with the same missile and you’re rewarded with a floating bubble injected with coloured fluid (most likely paint if we can take our cues from Wizkid’s precursor, Wizball). Touch this and it bursts, releasing either a set of thunder chompers, a comedy clown nose, or a musical note of correlating colour.

Where was the Red Nose Day tie-in deal? In a parallel universe Wizkid could have been bundled with Sleepwalker and released as a charity double pack.

The oversized comedy dentures are used to clench, transport and release bricks at will, while the snozzle allows you to juggle and project objects into baddies to destroy them.

Popped music bubbles serve a more vital role, levitating skywards to take their position in the stave framing the playfield. Once you’ve completed the musical sequence, a congratulatory ditty plays, the notes fall from the heavens and transform into collectible coins; a sequence referred to as a “golden shower” in the manual, despite some of them being silver. Plot hole alert!!!

With a bit of luck my excessively cunning use of exclamation marks there averted your attention from my attempt to avoid having to explain the term ‘golden shower’. Oops!

We interrupt this broadcast to insert a scintillating nugget of trivia: the plunging coin tune was originally intended to be played by a centipede as a stringed quartet. However, at the 11th hour the quirky gimmick was hastily cut from the final master owing to the Legion of Royal British Arthropods mounting a legal case against Sensible Software for breach of copyright. The alleged theft hinged upon their spurious claim that Jon’s centipede likeness had been lifted directly from the LRBA logo.

It was all utter hogwash of course, yet as a gesture of goodwill Jon made a £500 donation to their cause, vowing never to buy another centipede as long as he lived.

[Who are you calling a caterpillar?!?!]

This Wizdollar pocket money serves as the game’s currency, wherein it’s used in the next genre-shifting phase. Once inside the shop you are able to purchase all manner of wacky utensils that may or may not come in handy when attempting to solve a series of point and click adventure style conundrums.

To this end, and highlighting the endless ways in which to generate money, deep beneath the waves of the ‘Ahoy Wiz Maties’ stage you can bounce on the gallion’s symphonic shields to release RGB paint bubbles from the poultry-esque nautical figurehead. Feel free to “make your own kind of music, go your own special way.”

[Why is the grass green? How are those bees flying under water? Where do babies come from? Go and pester your mother for a change!]

‘A mixed bag’ would be a fair way to describe the melodies. They’re as jarringly divergent as the game itself, which is precisely what you’d expect from a musician as versatile and masterful as the taken-too-soon chart-topping-superstar-hero, Richard Joseph.

The brief appears to have been something along the lines of ‘go wild and see what happens’. An entirely appropriate way to approach a game that emerged from the same ethos I’m sure.

Some of the level’s theme tunes are too predictably felicitous for their own good. Take for example, off-the-peg selections such as ‘how much is that doggy in the window?’ or ‘what shall we do with the drunken sailor?’ blended with ‘a life on the ocean waves’.

The original pieces are exponentially more captivating. Particularly the bouncy, chirpy map screen blues intermission tune, which leads joyously into an anything-goes honky-tonk riff, seemingly played with whatever instruments were closest to hand, including a duck whistle kazoo.

Of course they’d actually have been Cubase modules, not real, physical instruments. That’s the miracle of digital music production.

Overall, the sentiment infused is one of loony-toons eccentricity. It’s easy to suspend belief and imagine we’re playing a game constructed by a group of mates goofing around on duty when they should be doing something far more Sensible.

One day Chris decided enough was enough and consulted with a dietician to find out why he had a peanut lodged in his ear.

Laying down some new ground rules, she sighed, shook her head and told him, “you need to start eating more sensibly”.

[Throughout the creative process, Chris and Jon munched on nothing but bar snacks. “You are what you eat! Wait, I’ve got more. What’s that, you can’t believe they’re not butter? Oh, be like that then.”]

Continuing the long-standing trope of useless objects appearing in adventure games, Wizkid features a collectable white elephant and a red herring, aside from a variety of less obvious ‘dead weight’ items.

At the underground Sensible Softpawn lucky dip emporium you have the opportunity to exchange these for items more pertinent to the fulfilment of your quest.

Once the possibilities have been exhausted, gifting the spiked coke to the stock-clamped clown vendor results in a jittery-eyed fit. He forgets his ‘only way is up’ lift policy and allows you to descend to the depths of the earth’s core to collect a buried kitten.

(NB: The clown is called Iain and based on Jon’s lifelong friend Iain Freeborn, who shared a house with Jon and ex Zzap 64 journalist Gary Liddon during the making of the original Wizball)

Nevertheless, keep in mind that certain items that at first appear to serve no obvious function are actually critical to your progress. The ‘Turtle Jail’, for instance, is breached with a can opener of all things!

It’s also from within this retail springboard you are able warp to many of the game’s hidden areas, all of which must be visited and conquered in order to complete the game. Wizkid is refreshingly non-linear in this sense; you can choose to play only the oddly numbered arcade levels, or you can mix and match in whatever order you please.

Throughout the legacy of computer games, many end of level bosses have had eyes …because that’s just how the necromancy of vision works. Very often these eyes are their Achilles heel, so to speak – take a pot shot at them and there’s an indication that they’re taking damage and you’re making progress.

Wizkid takes that concept and magnifies it by a multiple of squiddleteen million, making the entire boss a gigantic eye, with two accompanying mini-me satellite eyes for support.

Considering the oddball premise of the game and topsy-turvy logic, remarkably there’s a coherent rationale to the kitten-collecting objective. They’re not just feline trophies – each one occupies a position in the longboat used to traverse the water between your island home and Zark’s castle. If you don’t have the full complement you’ll be unable to row fast enough to stay ahead of Zark who is barely a doggy paddle behind and nipping at your ankles. If he reaches the castle first, he’ll raise the drawbridge and it’s game over.

[Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.]

Your progress map and Wizkid’s ‘The Story of Wizball II’ subtitle strikes me as highly reminiscent of Rainbow Islands. If this is a doting tribute, it’s not the only one; much like Taito’s arcade platformer is only superficially related to its predecessor, Bubble Bobble, Wizkid is ocean’s apart from Wizball. 

The madcap box art is the handiwork of none other than legendary freelance artist, Bob Wakelin, who was often commissioned by Ocean and Imagine to entice gamers into buying their wares. In this case he was heavily inspired by the work of American cartoonist and musician, Robert Crumb. See if you can spot his ‘Waco’ signature.

“I had a great time doing this. I wanted to do the best Crumb-style possible. I liked to try and imitate my favourite artist’s styles occasionally, so I didn’t get bored. Ocean did some great giant card cut-outs of sections of the illustration, which I stupidly used for target practice – shot them to pieces. They’d have been worth money now. Oh well… Anyway, it’s one of my best jobs. I hated the brown paper packaging that was superimposed around the edges of the finished box. Ocean’s art director used to do that kind of thing all the time, fancy borders and stuff, it used to really piss me off. It was drawn with India ink and airbrushed with Dr. Martin’s dyes.”

It’s impossible to die on the ‘Ghost of Wizkid Past’ graveyard stage by conventional means. Instead you have to commit harakiri by rupturing the bombs with your trusty noggin, thereby allowing you to pass through a crack in the mausoleum as a ghost.

[Wizworld laughed so hard even the graves cracked up! *badum tsh!*]

On the Other Side you’ll encounter Dracula who must be dispatched with a flash of the cross you found atop the church spire. One fatal glance and he shatters, leaving behind one of the eight precious collectable kittens (gotta catch ’em all!) …proving that inside every cold-hearted vampire count is an ickle cutesy puddy tat waiting to break loose and love you forever and ever?

[If you’ve ever wondered what Gary Bracey gets up to outside the office…]

In another change of pace and genre, the ‘Wizkid and the Wizball Mystery’ stage constitutes an affectionate throwback to the bonus phase of the shoot ’em up oddity, Wizball. Similarly, Mount Rushmore features prominently in both Sensible titles.

[Why the stony faces? Miserable gits!]

The theme-coordinated ‘Crossword 2091’ word association mini game can be played an infinite number of times until you succeed, earning a tidy $500 bonus reward. This is a blend of scrabble and the traditional crossword puzzle, wherein you must align preselected words with one another so as to intersect at the juncture of shared letter squares.

You don’t achieve anything by guessing how the subsequent word relates to the previous one, so “don’t phone, it’s just for fun!” Could ‘GETTHEMAX’ be a reference to Pepsi Max? The ‘spiked coke’ is a collectable item so it kind of runs along the same lines.

Despite Pepsi Max only being made available a year after Wizkid was released? Zarkin’ muppet!

Who said that? Show yourself!

‘BRACEYBONUS’ is certainly a simultaneous nod towards Ocean’s production director/development overlord, Gary Bracey (who is also cited in the closing credits as “end of level boss”), and Bruce Forsyth’s ‘Play Your Cards Right’ TV quiz show.

[Insert fruity innuendo here. Shame coconuts aren’t.]

Finally released in 1992, 2091 would have been 100 years into the future when Wizkid was being developed so I imagine the number was appended to make the puzzley diversion sound space aged and advanced. A wry dash of oxymoron if you will.

I suppose the more pressing question is, had Word Explorer been effervescing just beneath the surface for 22 years? Is Word Explorer Crossword 2114?

Curiously, Jon’s iOS puzzle game also features Mount Rushmore. What is this, some kind of recurring Dead Presidents homage?

Pumping up the longevity factor, Wizkid is anything but predictable. The way many sequences play out adapts according to your approach. For instance, you are only permitted to enter the ‘Mount Wizimanjaro’ volcano if the number of stars accrued (representing hit points remaining) is even.

This concept kicks off from its opening gambit. Seemingly at random (?) and quite rarely, Wizkid boots into a happy birthday title screen revealing that the little tyke is three years old. If you haven’t had the fortune to experience it serendipitously, you can hold the ‘h’ key as you load the game to trigger it manually.

[Wow, we’ve not spoken for decades! He’ll be 27 now. I wonder if I can track him down on Facebook.]

The ‘Big Wiz Nuts’ packet projectiles appear to be a parody of ‘Big D Nuts’, “Britain’s best-loved pub snack” if you believe their marketing blurb.

[Will you put some nuts on woman?!? That’s obscene!]

Trigon Snacks, the company behind the product are notorious for their risque promotional techniques; behind the bar in pubs, the packets are pinned to a cardboard backdrop featuring a scantily clad beauty who would gradually be revealed as punters bought more peanuts.

Similarly in Wizkid, the wallpaper is exposed as the packets are nutted off screen, only here they are far less bawdy.

Hallelujah, it’s raining portaloos! ‘Sunset Wizoward’ accommodates a yapping dog who viciously blocks your entry into a level-warping little boy’s room. To placate it, you must offer up the newspaper bought from the shop, naturally.

Continuing the canine theme, ‘Wizkid meets Dog Girl’ is so-called for its backdrop depicts a lady who woofs like a pooch in time to ‘How much is that doggy in the window?’.

As her mouth moves in time to the 1953 Patti Page novelty tune she exposes a fiendish looking set of fangs even Dracula would be proud of. The level concludes by exiting through this ostensible suicide portal.

What we all need to know is, who is she exactly? The digitised picture suggests it’s a scan of a real person. An ex-girlfriend or colleague perhaps? Either way, it’s not the most flattering interpretation to say the least. Maybe she did something to warrant the sleight? Inquiring minds demand to know.

(NB: Dog girl was based on a photo of the cousin of Sensible’s Cannon Fodder Artist, Stoo Cambridge)

[What?!? That’s what you call a female dog.]

If you can beat Zark to his remote dungeon hideaway, you strike up a deal to secure the return of your parents by beating his high score in a game of ‘Wizeroids’. This is not entirely dissimilar to Asteroids …in a nudgey-winky cloney kinda way.

[This is how Crazy Cat Lady got started. She was never caught short again after that incident.]

Note that this can also be played on the first level by accessing a secret room beyond the lavatory door warp system. The same rest room where you can trigger a flood using the urinal, flush the loo to unblock a volcano, and inflate a condom to float up, up and away. Toilet humour… literally!

 

You’d hope first-timers don’t stumble across this sneak-peak Wizeroids preview before completing the game; surely it must flatten the surprise upon reaching the finale?

[Free toilet coke! It’s your lucky day! I can’t see why that would be a bad idea.]

At $250 a pop, the coin-op arcade cabinet must be the biggest rip-off since (before surely?) Game’s PlayStation VR shenanigans. That said, it does explain why amassing mulah throughout the game is such a crucial principle of the gameplay.

The curtains finally draw on the proceedings when you crash and burn, regardless of whether or not you have surpassed Zark’s high score, so you may wish to deliberately get overly acquainted with a space boulder once you hit your target.

How would you experience the twist denouement otherwise? It’s revealed that your mouse-wizard hybrid tormentor is actually your own pop in a costume. It turns out he’s been undergoing some unspecified personal issues and staged the whole kidnap scenario to seek attention.

[Motley Crue were rank amateurs compared to this menagerie!]

He can’t stand the pretence any longer, and so breaks down pleading for your forgiveness. Sometimes it’s granted, sometimes not. Either way, that’s all folks. As the credits roll the entire cast return for a congratulatory curtain call.

In January 1993 ST Format pegged Wizkid at 5th place in their ’50 finest Atari ST games of all time’ rundown. It was also ranked 31st best game of all time in Amiga Power’s 1996 top 100 games list, proving that Ocean’s deeply entrenched movie license tie-in shindig wasn’t the only golden goose in town.

How appropriate that this mangled metaphor makes about as much sense as coaxing a donkey into leaping from a cliff top using a carrot on a stick, enabling you to reach the Oxygum machine that will allow you to breathe underwater.

[“Helps you breathe more easily” …or was that Tunes?]

Wizkid is a truly under-appreciated insanity sandwich. Not least because it harks back to a time when it wasn’t considered sacrilege to project onto the small screen whatever psychedelic daydreams your overactive imagination could conjure – and crucially – pixelate.

Publishers weren’t so quick to condemn an off-the-wall original concept since the financial investment required to bring a game to market was nowhere near the astronomical levels reached today.

If a project failed to set the world ablaze they’d have a number of other titles in the pipeline to soften the blow, and one misjudged lemon would be unlikely to sink an entire company.

Straight from the school of ‘make it up as you go along’ game development, FrankenWizkid doesn’t really know what it aspires to be, and make no mistake, it’s all the better for it.

“Wizkid for the space cadet kids who were smoking funny fags behind the bike sheds.”

– Jon Hare pins down the game’s target audience in Retro Gamer 74

Wizkid enjoyed a hospitable reception from the critic fraternity, whilst commercially it was a flop, aptly demonstrating that Marmite games don’t pay the bills despite being a riot to create, and play for those with a penchant for acquired tastes. Perhaps instead the blame can be laid squarely at the publisher’s door?

“Ocean’s marketing was terrible. Parallax, Wizball and Wizkid should all have done much better than they did in terms of sales. Mind you, I am not quite sure how reliable our royalty statements were anyway, but chart positions don’t lie and we were disappointed in the sale of all these games, particularly Wizkid.”

– Jon Hare, The DEF Tribute to ZZAP!64

So is Wizkid’s ultimate destiny to be overshadowed by ‘too cool for school’ hedgehogs and podgy plumbers, fondly remembered only by a select clique of open-minded gamers?

Never say never! Asked which games from his back catalogue he’d love to be see remade, Jon optimistically divulged, “Mega lo Mania, Cannon Fodder, Wizkid are the main three.”

– Arcade Attack interview (23rd November 2015)

When you’re the former co-founder of one of Britain’s best-loved and most highly acclaimed game cranking machines, you no longer need to kowtow to stodgy-minded accountant-publishers for backing. (NB: Oh yes you do)

So who knows what the future holds for our favourite floaty, gooseberry-headed brick-nutter and his Harebrained sideshow entourage? Watch space! (no, I didn’t miss out a word there).

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