Hair today, gone tomorrow

This article was written as part of the Make a Wish Week Amigathon. Donations are now being accepted to help fulfil the dying wishes of terminally ill children.

As obscure comic book license games go, Magic Bytes’ 1987 Clever & Smart tie-in tribute released for the Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, Commodore 64, MSX, and ZX Spectrum is amongst the most ‘out there’ I’ve yet to encounter.

It’s not that the cartoon is particularly bizarre, although it’s certainly ‘of its time’ in that enjoying it requires an appreciation of heavy objects being dropped on people’s heads from a great height, bodily appendages becoming trapped in various kinds of furniture, and playing ‘hot potato’ with ticking time bombs. That and a high tolerance for Basil Exposition, and incessant rapid-fire banter.

What’s really peculiar is that anyone thought a UK release of a game developed in Germany (featuring pidgin English translations and lingering German digitised speech) revolving around a cartoon ‘comedy’ double act borne out of the 1950s in a foreign country that few kids could relate to would be remotely lucrative.

Known in Spain as ‘Mortadelo y Filemón’, the series spotlights the private detectives turned bungling secret agents, Mort & Phil, and their slapstick, blundering attempts to solve cases assigned to them by their cantankerous superior, the head of the T.I.A., ‘El Super’. Unravelling the acronym designates them as Aeroterrestrial Investigation Technicians (Técnicos de Investigación Aeroterráquea), a spoof of the C.I.A., though also of U.N.C.L.E (as in the ‘60s TV series, ‘The Man From United Network Command for Law and Enforcement’), ‘Tía’ being the Spanish word for aunt.

I suppose at a time when flight was still a novelty only afforded by rich VIPs it was worth pointing out that Mort and Phil are ‘aeroterrestrial’ agents rather than just ordinary kerb-stomping ones. Nevertheless, you won’t see them take to the skies on El Super’s budget because he’s a penny-pinching tightwad, except when it comes to pampering himself. I think there’s a joke in there somewhere. Something to do with irony maybe.

Well done if you’re still awake at this point. You’re right, it’s not very funny. It’s not just you.

Believe it or not Mort & Phil became one of the most celebrated comic book franchises and animated cartoons in Spain following its inception in 1958, and has subsequently been exported to two dozen independent countries under omnifarious titles.

Clever & Smart – as the protagonists are known in Germany where the show remains massively popular – is still in production today, and has even spawned two live action feature films, a 3D, CGI, animated movie, and six third person adventure games developed by Toledo-based Alcachofa Soft (one of Magic Bytes’ numerous labels rather than an independent company) and released between 1997 and 2004 in Spain and Germany. Spy vs. Spy which debuted in Mad Magazine in January 1961 is conspicuously similar to the not-so-dynamic duo suggesting one may have directly inspired the other.

Mort – named after the mortadella Italian luncheon sausage, of course! – is the bespectacled, incompetent one blessed with a Pinocchio conk and bedecked in a black frock coat and shirt collar fastened around his chin, making him look like Harry Hill. His trademark is perpetually attempting to pull off one preposterous disguise or another with minimal success and allegedly comic results.

Being the worst ‘master of disguise’ since Freddy Krueger tried infiltrating a nursery school fairy convention, and a clumsy imbecile born with no common sense regularly brings Mort into conflict with his partner, Phil, who is constantly referred to as ‘boss’ because he was back when the two of them ran their PI operation. Working for the T.I.A. they now share the same rank, although the habit prevails.

Ironically, Mort’s chameleon-esque disguises are often superb, regularly transforming himself into various animals so as to blend in with the scenery, yet his cunning plans fall apart at the seams regardless… because it’s funnier that way. Allegedly.

Naturally Phil takes issue with Mort’s failings because he typically finds himself on the excruciating receiving end of his oafish mishaps, miscommunications, misunderstandings, and no doubt a profusion of other miscellaneous misadventures too numerous to list.

Sporting a white shirt with black bowtie and red trousers, Phil is often described as ‘pudgy’ and ‘short’ though is actually hardly distinguishable from Mort in either the height or girth department. Similarly, Mort is thought of specifically as the ‘lanky’, ‘bald’ one, yet Phil who only has two remaining hairs on his head isn’t lumped into the same category. No, I don’t get it either.

Mort and Phil creator, the mostly bald Francisco Ibáñez appears to have been heavily influenced by the buffoonery of Laurel and Hardy, yet forty years after their heyday surely the format would have felt dated even in the late ’50s? Maybe slapstick never goes out of fashion and I’m the one who’s out of touch. I feel a poll brewing.

Together Mort and Phil take their orders from (the also almost completely bald) Superintendente Vicente (known in some countries as ‘Mr. L’) in a vain effort to vanquish a menagerie of villainous cliques represented by more indecipherable pseudo acronyms such as R.A.N.A. (Spanish for frog).

Incidentally, is baldness inherently funny in Spain, or is this Francisco’s personal obsession what with being that way inclined himself? He would have been 22 years old when he devised Mort and Phil. Was he bald even back then? Am I the only one demanding answers to the BIG Questions?

Vicente’s go-between, the blonde battleaxe secretary, Ofelia, serves as a parody of Miss Moneypenny; a role in which instead she spends much of her time chasing the affections of Mort, only to be spurned and scorned with a barrage of jokes poking fun at her sizeable weight problem. Buxom, ever-single, feisty and violent, though unusually showing no signs of going bald.

Irma is the supposedly vivacious (relatively speaking) secretary of the tyrannical T.I.A. general director. Both agents entranced by her charms swoon after her, while their adoration is never reciprocated. Lacking in depth and underdeveloped, Irma rarely appeared as a prominent character in the show, and was also dropped from the comic book series after 24 volumes.

Extrapolated to the small screen, the game is a single player, top-down, multi-genre contrivance that only vaguely compliments the comic beyond the general theme of solving a particularly corny dilemma before the closing credits roll.

“The package gets off to a poor start with some appalling instructions, which aren’t only badly translated from the German, but also fail to explain much about the gameplay. Then the game itself begins, with a couple of jerky, badly animated characters bumping their way around the screen.

Once you’ve worked out aII the controls and what it is you’re actually trying to achieve, you realise that there’s nothing to sustain interest. The sub-games are primitive and seem to bear little relation to the main objective, and the remnants of German phrases and the obscene messages that crop up occasionally are just signs of amateurism. I have to advise you not to bother with this – it’s just badly-produced rubbish.”

24% – Zzap!64 (February 1988)

Your goal is to trudge through a TMNT style urban maze of houses, a kindergarten, restaurants, a prison and shops in search of the shanghaied scientist, Dr Bakterius (aka Professor Bacterio in the comic), a parody of James Bond’s Q, only floundering and inept like the rest of the cast. Rescuing him obliges us to confront the perpetrators of the crime, the “merciles (sic) terrorist organisation O.M.P.”, so we’re informed by Mr. L courtesy of a scroll-carrying messenger-seagull. All the pigeons were busy transcribing the German dialogue!

Funny how the back cover of the box refers to our mortal enemies as ‘O.M.A.’, which makes more sense since ‘oma’ in German translates to granny, whereas ‘omp’ only translates to omp. Actually, “makes more sense” may be over-egging the pudding somewhat; what I mean is that in the original comic strip, the same group are known as ‘A.B.U.E.L.A.’ and ‘abuela’ is grandmother in Spanish. Still none the wiser, eh? That makes two of us!

A smoking, bald (again!) character who looks nothing like Mr. L presides over the ‘action’ in the corner of the HUD at all times, occasionally relaying pearls of wisdom via the telephone boxes situated around the landscape. Every so often – out of the blue – these speech bubbles will offer sweary suggestions as to what to do with Grandma, making you wonder if Micro Bytes got confused, and for a moment there imagined they were working on a Viz game. Despite suffering through a cluster of episodes of the cartoon (for research purposes!), and therefore being cognisant of the nefarious terrorist organisation that has prof-knapped our chief gadget maker colleague, the inclusion of the f-word in a kid’s computer game is no more palatable than if Micro Bytes had been levelling obscenities at their mummy’s mummy.

“Clever And Smart is set firmly in Wally Week land (seen from overhead). Though it is inventive, it falls rather flat without proper instructions. The graphics are ‘blocky’ but passable and the pop-up menus work well. Some of the humour doesn’t translate from its native German, although the overall effect is quite comical.

As I said before, the main problem is that it’s very difficult. I quickly became bored when I realised I couldn’t get any further – a big blow to the addictiveness score! There’s a good game hidden in there somewhere, but you have to dig deep. If you like tricky arcade adventures, this could be for you, but you may find it harder than expected. Clever And Smart is just too smart for its own good.”

50% – Your Sinclair (February 1988)

Although both halves of the clown show tag team embark on the assignment, they are controlled in tandem by a single player, giving you a shared total of three lives. The latter are extinguished through malnutrition or being hit by a passing Micro Machine sanddune buggy, or bomb-chucking terrorist.

Hunger is thwarted by visiting the local Chinese takeaways to sample the ‘daymeal’, ‘rat snail’ and ‘nasigoreng’ (fried rice) delicacies, while there’s not much you can do to avoid those hooning, omnipresent, four wheel merchants of death if you happen to get caught in their path. A fate worse than death, however; Low Men in Yellow Coats and seemingly random events cause you to be ‘out of agents’… whatever that means? You don’t lose any lives so that doesn’t explain it.

Why so many identical, catatonic (bald) men holding walking sticks are dotted about the landscape is anyone’s guess! They don’t help or hinder you in any way, they’re just there, wasting oxygen and making the place look untidy.

Solving the case entails examining everything in your warped perspective – half top-down, half side-on – vicinity including people, buildings and objects to establish the doctor’s whereabouts and how to emancipate him.

Beneath the town lies a labyrinthine sewer accessed via grids in the cobbled street and traversed by following an arrow mounted on a bomb (?). On entering the cesspit (you’ll have to use your imagination because the graphics are barely more intricate than the Spectrum version) Mort and Phil immediately double in size, moving even more like shambling conjoined Siamese twins than previously.

Rats and cats – as seen in the cartoon to no real end – stalk your every Gangnam style trot, the former somehow ramping up your hunger levels on contact unless you’re wearing the rat costume. This is sufficient to fool them into thinking you’re one of the colony, though unfortunately also alerts the cats to your presence.

Each can be seen from the side standing upright (in the top-down maze!), facing towards the right regardless of the direction in which they are travelling because the development team were too lazy to implement a turning animation! It has to be seen to believe this is a 16-bit game you’d exchange money for.

Surveillance cables should be bored into the walls by activating the relevant objects with the space bar, having entered the menu and selected them with the control button. Assuming you’ve purchased them from the right shop beforehand that is. Distribution boxes can then be exploited to tap into phone conversations to uncover clues to assist you in your quest, providing you can connect the cables in the correct configuration.

Sub-games – some of which are even relevant to the spying profession – as well as burglary are engaged in to allow you to accrue enough money to buy food rations, equipment and disguises. Fine purveyors of fun such as joystick-waggle-powered snail racing (Mort posing as one of the molluscs himself, as in the cartoon), coin tossing, cheque forging, cable repair, and bomb defusion are all within your grasp. Even taking these artificial longevity extenders into account, the game can be completed in about quarter of an hour. That should give you a rough idea as to the calibre of production values we’re dealing with.

From the ‘Clevermann Discount’ store you’re welcome to kit yourself out with a boilersuit, uniform, rat costume, apron, kimono, snailcostume (sic) and sailersuit (sic), all at rock-bottom prices, natürlich. Elsewhere, cacti, flowers and fruit can be purchased from the market, and ‘5 electric points’, light bulbs, 50m cable, torches, candles, an ammeter (an instrument for measuring electric current in amperes) and a phone from ‘Annie Volts (sic) electrical shop’.

In “Rust Ltd Scrap” you’ll find nails, a hammer, pliers, a screwdriver and a shotgun, as long as you slip into your boilersuit disguise first (it must be a ‘trade-only’ outlet). I can’t imagine a gun bought from a scrap merchant will be much use in the traditional baddie-shooting sense, though let’s not be too hasty in ruling out the farce potential. You never know, it could backfire into the face of one of our agents, and that would be roll-about-on-the-floor-hilarious! Likewise, a bandsaw, drill and cement mixer can be acquired from the ‘Acme Construct’ shop, assuming you’re garbed in the right threadz, innit. Oh look I’ve gone all ‘street’, which is appropriate.

Alternatively, some useful items can be discovered rather than bought, for instance “an old toolbox and picklock” (sic) can be snagged for your inventory when standing “befor (sic) a strange flat”.

“lt’s very difficult to translate jokes from one language to another, and Clever and Smart painfully illustrates the fact. It might be side-splittingly funny in German, but in incredibly badly translated English it’s obscure and arcane. Playability is almost zero, due partly to the totally confusing plot, and the pathetic instructions and boring gameplay only serve to make things worse. Wandering around the town is a frequently fruitless occupation, since it takes ages to find anything and even longer to actually work out how to utilise them. A couple of sessions was all I
could stomach before switching the computer off.”

24% – Zzap!64 (February 1988)

Ultimately, success is achieved when you’ve laid the final section of cable and are whisked back to the surface of the city… presumably because you’ve managed to snoop on the conversions of the professor’s captors and tracked him down as a result.

Still sucking away on a cancer stick, Mr. L enlightens us, “yeah you have rescued Bakterius” as the (bald) mad scientist in question – alongside El Superintendente and a goat (?) – stands next to you looking like a leprechaun brandishing an award-winning beard. Didn’t we establish that Mr. L and El Superintendente Vicente are one and the same despite looking like two separate people in-game? Who researched this?

A bald worm-man wearing glasses can be seen through a grid in the street giving you a thumbs up, if I’m not mistaken! Other interpretations are available. Masking the area in the GUI where our lives tally used to be is now a yellow alien dog sitting and panting in a golden chalice, or possibly an egg cup. Well why not? It makes about as much sense as anything else in the Mort and Phil universe!

“Clever & Smart is one of the weirdest games I’ve had the misfortune to play recently. It’s difficult to get into, because the documentation is so bad, and once you do work out what’s going on it’s boring. The nice title is about all that Clever & Smart has got going for it – and that’s a shame because the idea is fairly sound, albeit not original.”

27% – Crash issue 49 (Ben, February 1988)

“Clever & Smart is weird – it takes a while to work out what’s going on and I’m not sure the effort is worth it. The graphics are colourful but on the whole very simplistic, and the animation of the two characters is unrealistic, though the sound is effective. Clever & Smart isn’t too hard, but it’s boring.”

44% – Crash issue 49 (Robin, February 1988)

“If you’re a maze-minded maniac this is for you. Clever & Smart is totally maze-oriented, so it isn’t Bym-compatible, and the hyperactive characters don’t add any to the enjoyment. I would find grovelling around in real sewers much more exciting than trying to take bearings on the blank walls in this game.”

65% – Crash issue 49 (BYM, February 1988)

So, who’d have thought a second rate cartoon would metamorphose into such an awful computer game rife with in-jokes that fall as flat as an international secret agent crushed by an Acme cartoon anvil, leaving you scratching your head in utter bewilderment?

Needless to say, the game of the cartoon is neither Clever nor Smart, although the sheer ineptitude of the development team behind it does dovetail neatly with the character traits of its leading stars. Somehow I suspect this was unintentional.

Magic Bytes soon learnt their lesson and no more Mort and Phil, Clever and Smart, Mortadelo y Filemón, Flink & Fummel, or Flip og Flop games appeared for the Amiga…

…don’t be so quick to breathe a sigh of relief though, we haven’t even touched on the 1989 sequel by Animagic for the Amstrad, DOS, MSX and ZX Spectrum! With Dr. Bacterio finally free to let his creative urges run rampant, before we know it the world is plagued by failed genetically mutated hen-horse egg bombers. Don’t ask!

2 thoughts on “Hair today, gone tomorrow

  • August 7, 2017 at 1:14 pm
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    Great, wacky, detailed stuff! By the way, Spain, baldness is NEVER inherently funny!

  • August 8, 2017 at 11:27 am
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    Ha! I better remember to bite my tongue next time I visit then. Maybe it’s a case of laughing at your worst fears to work them out of your system.

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