Pay terrifically close attention and you may be able to detect a slight resemblance between the hero of the eponymous Tusker and a certain intrepid archaeologist explorer. In cahoots with System 3 and Activision, he’s shanghaied his wardrobe, filched his globetrotting daredevil persona and even swiped his signature font.
A lacklustre conversion from the developer’s Commodore 64/Spectrum back catalogue, its 8-bit heritage is plain to see. Little appears to have changed between the conception of the inaugural release in 1989, and its port to the 16-bit home micros in 1990. Tusker is a horizontally scrolling, flick-screen action-adventure marrying Double Dragon’s free-roaming, beat ’em up credentials with Dizzy’s collectable object manipulation mechanic.
Legend has it that located somewhere in the deepest, darkest recesses of Africa lies an elephant graveyard bursting with lucrative ivory remnants commonly known as tusks. Indy Groans Senior dedicated the entirety of his adult existence to the crusade of rooting it out and profiteering from the haul, ultimately to no avail – he’s now MIA, presumed dead. Since he’s shuffled off his mortal coil destined for the great celestial safari in the sky, it’s down to you to carry his flaming torch, literally as we’ll soon discover.
“You’re gonna get killed chasing after your damn ‘fortune and glory’.”
Beginning in the desert – the Sahara I’d imagine – armed only with your wits and flailing limbs it’s your tributary duty to continue your daddy’s, erm… noble cause by scouring the land for clues that might lead you to unearthing the contraband loot, and getting it all listed on eBay, probably.
Rather inconveniently, the local disassembled skeletons have a tendency to rise up from their bone piles and transmogrify into aggressive, cutlass-brandishing Arabs who’d love nothing more than to make strangers of your neatly adjoined head and torso.
With the right timing they can be reduced to rubble by introducing them to the business end of your fists (check out that street brawler’s uppercut!) and industrial strength bovver boots. Until you can acquire a more efficient weapon that is – a knife, machete (isn’t that technically just a knife too?), gun and slingshot fit the bill nicely. Sadly, you never get to play with Indy’s whip.
Weapons are cycled through using the F10 key and some – such as the gun – need to be used in conjunction with accessories like, you know, ammunition. I find that shooty-bang-bangs really excel themselves when complemented with bullets. Top tip would-be assassins! “Trust me.”
Scavenged objects also reside in your inventory, whereas they’re switched between via the F9 function key, both scooped up and deployed with the spacebar. Combining the right items is a matter of standing in close proximity and placing them down on the ground, flexing its point and click adventure pretensions without actually engaging the crucial conversational element. It’s kind of like Fate of Atlantis for stoic, aphasic types.
Puzzling and gathering gold aside, you must manage your four lives, energy level and water resources to survive. The latter can be boosted by stabbing cacti with your knife and draining the fluid into a water bottle, or by drinking water directly from fountains.
Swerving snakes (“Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?”), whirlwinds and inflated Evil Dead grabby hands as you scrabble in the sand searching for the exit you stumble across the entrance to a gloomy, desolate cavern. Until you can track down a torch and matches navigation in the dark is largely guesswork.
“And what did you find?” “…Me? Illumination.”
Emerging from the underground penumbra you step out into the rainforest’s blinding sunlight. Here you’ll encounter vicious, half-naked tribesmen and coconut lobbing monkeys, set fire to an unsuspecting straw man witch doctor to reveal a key, release an incarcerated pink demon slug-monster, dodge man-eating sentient plants, no doubt escapees from Little Shop of Horrors, and flee from a pestiferous pink pterodactyl. All in a day’s work for an industrious Indy impersonator.
I say a day, though actually only ten minutes in and Africana (as he’s known in the 8-bit versions) has already reached the end of his epic imperial quest to exploit dead animals for monetary gain.
For the finale, back in the murky bowels of the subterranean grotto, we place all our gold-digging booty on a set of human-sized scales, which tips the balance and triggers a juddery seismic event, thus unveiling the enigmatic lost pet cemetery, and a half-hearted ‘well done’ screen.
Interestingly, over on the Spectrum and Amstrad (a quick and dirty port from the Speccy), the “original game by Mark Cale” concludes slightly differently. As well as a static wrap up screen there’s a scrolling ticker communique to explain that the vast treasures were traced back to a jungle temple where we uncover “enough gold, diamonds and ivory to live like a king anywhere in the world”, and how we can’t wait to get back home to regale Professor Challenger (who?) with the hair-raising yarn. It even terminates with a joke about not knowing how we’ll ever be able to carry home the monumental spoils. Aside from not being animated, by 8-bit standards it’s a worthy epilogue… even if the moral of the plundering story instilled is clearly on shaky ground.
You know instantly we’re dealing with an imposter because our protagonist hasn’t mentioned once shipping the antiques to a museum, and where’s the preservation order and red tape? Our favourite “Professor of Archaeology, expert on the occult, and how does one say it… obtainer of rare antiquities” would have already arranged the educational school trips by now.
Surely the point of low-rent, hokey imitations is that you cut corners compared to buying the genuine article. System 3 appear to have skipped that marketing class given that they slapped a full price £25 ticket on this thinly veiled wannabe and still imagined it would sell. When three officially licensed Indy games were released in the same year, expecting anyone to give Tusker the time of day really was a “leap of faith.”