Rod dot Land (or is it Rodland or Rod Land? – the title seems to vary depending on the port) is a crepuscular, lurid tale of revenge and retribution, sodden with bloody gore, swearing and nudity… or am I getting it mixed up with God of War again? It’s easily done, and I’m desperately trying to avoid using the ‘c’ word. No, not that one! I mean ‘cute’. Now look what you’ve made me say. I sense the floodgates have opened.
Fairy double act, Rit and Tam, are having a yabba dabba doo time, a dabba doo time, a gay old time revelling in the good life without a care in the world when a naughty demon-monster chap rocks up and spoils the party by kidnapping mummy-dearest. Well, technically she’s snatched by a super-sized eagle who is sure to be on the demon’s payroll and operating at his behest. Still, let’s not split hairs. Bad demon! I’ve said for a long while manners and common courtesy are slipping, and that’s just flat out rude.
Rather than find a substitute from Moms R Us as would be the logical course of action, the twins set out to rescue her from Maboot’s fortified tower prison, exploiting a couple of nifty labour-saving gadgets provided by the village elder, and your perennially helpful pop.
Namely a couple of pairs of ladder-ejecting boots and the almighty Rods of Sheesanomo, the introduction of which should perchance be ushered in with a rapturous crack of thunder and lightning. I’m operating on a tight budget so you’ll have to read on in wide-eyed, bewildered stupefaction and imagine that bit.
The mom and pop Americanisms are a curious addition given that this is a conversion of a Japanese coin-op, undertaken by an English developer. In Japan the equivalent shorthand would be ‘haha’ and ‘chichi’, or mum and dad in most parts of the UK, but what-evs grandad! We have bigger whales to fry.
Random Access, a division of The Sales Curve (who have since been absorbed into Square Enix), are the gifted developers we have to thank for this exceedingly accurate 1991 port of Jaleco’s lesser-known, “so cute it’ll make you puke” single-screen platformer, ori￼ginally released to the arcades just a year earlier.
Jaleco and Japanese artists, in general, appear to be dedicated proponents of Konrad Lorenz’s Kindchenschema in that they’ve taken every opportunity to endear their creations to gamers with a maternal instinct.
Random Access, not wanting to disappoint those enraptured by babification throughout the rest of the world have done their utmost to accurately reproduce the sublime source materials. So if you find yourself yearning to nurture the baddies starring in Rod.Land rather than killing them, you’ll know you’re in good company, and there’s a solid evolutionary principle to explain it.
Ned Langman was the man behind the easel, while Ronald Pieket Weeserik and John Croudy took charge of the coding.
“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
Cutting out the middleman, it was published by Storm, The Sales Curve’s in-house team who also bestowed upon the world SWIV, Troddlers, Indy Heat, Final Blow, Big Run, Double Dragon 3 and Saint Dragon.
One reason the eye (and ear) candy tastes so sweet is that the 16-bit developers had to hand such first-class source materials from which to work. In a highly unorthodox move for the time, Jaleco had the foresight and good grace to provide their licensees with the original artwork, some of the instrumental samples and sheet music, making the conversion a much less arduous process than would typically be expected. The result is a resplendent ECS game that puts many AGA exclusives to shame.
Every inch of it screams ‘attention to detail’. There are no discernible bugs, the hand-drawn, 16 colour sprites are the embodiment of pixelated perfection, and the cycling of the animation frames is as smooth as molten gold. The screen resolution even surpasses the arcade original by a fair margin – 320 pixels measured horizontally versus 286.
It’s hard to imagine replacing Rod.Land’s music with anything else; it feels so appropriate it has become inextricably linked to the jolly, amiability of the game. There’s not a whole lot of it, though what’s there is immaculate.
The rhythm begins light and fluffy as you’re eased into the leisurely pace of the introductory stages. If I close my eyes I can picture the opening scenes of a Mickey Mouse cartoon with the affable rodent swaying back and to in time to the music as he takes in the vista of a distant magical kingdom. Disney would be so proud.
As you would expect, the tempo escalates as the action heats up during a letter-hunt bonus round or a boss battle. Having reached its crescendo, you breathe a sigh of relief and the music is mellow and serene once more.
Essentially it’s reactive – perhaps I should have said that in the beginning and moved on…
Rod.Land – known in Japan as ‘Yousei Monogatari Rod Land’, which translates to ‘Rod Land: A Fairy Tale’ – can be played in loner or simultaneous, two-player cooperative mode. Either way, the onus is on you to clear each screen of village turncoats (through a twist of fate they’ve become the puppets of the chief evil-doer you see) by zapping them with your rhythm stick – I mean magic rod.
There’s an inventive medley of anthropomorphic opponents on duty to test your wits. They include unicorned, yummy scrumptious bunny-wabbits and snakes, cuddly bumble bees, squirrels, lobsters, walking stumpy toffets with dreadlocks, land-lubbing sharks, boomerang-toting starfish (waving feathers and draped in Japanese flags?), and the cheeky chimps who use them as parachutes as a level descending shortcut.
With the first tap of the fire button they slip into a catatonic trance. Hit it again and the fairies lift the critters over their heads, ensnared in a beam of rod-aura, and thwack them to the ground on the opposite side.
Repeat the process a few times and they perish, leaving behind a special weapon for you to detonate on contact to terrorise their colleagues more efficiently. These include bouncing ‘s’ bombs, missiles, a haphazard, ricocheting multi-ball spread shot, fuse bomb, dual-direction plasma curtain (a bit like the one found in Turrican), and flame-thrower.
The ‘s’ bombs explode leaving behind an ephemeral, Batman-style exclamation bubble. It spells out ‘pan’, which translates to ‘bread’, and makes about as much sense as anything else in this game.
Likewise, the missiles conjure up ‘bon’ bubbles on impact. In English this equates to… good? …erm, from the French word. No, me neither.
Last but not least, fuse bombs erupt with a ‘boooom’ – finally we hit upon the international language of textualised comic book sound effects!
If you bump off a baddie with one of the special weapons, before they shuffle off this mortal coil they’ll deposit a fruity pick-up. Scoop up these and you’ll be rewarded with… wait for it… are you ready for this?… points. Oh. Still, you know what points make? That’s right – a higher score.
As tempting as it is, wiping out everything in sight isn’t something to aspire to if you want to progress beyond the first few levels of this 40 screen (10 more than the arcade original) pseudo-puzzle-platformer. You have to approach the challenge more strategically than your average obliteration-fest no-brainer.
The trick is to collect all the flowers, avoiding the baddies as much as possible at this stage. With the last one plucked, the gribblies transform into waddling pink radish creatures (aka Kaburras) that can be duffed up in exchange for one of five letters; E, X, T, R or A. Can you see where this is going? You’re not wrong – collect them all to earn an additional life. Very handy given that you only start out with three and the game doesn’t use continues.
If you fail to despatch them quickly enough they’ll revert back to their former – albeit much angrier – selves, so time is of the essence. In fact, whichever way round you tackle the zombified minions they’ll become more deadly the longer you let them roam the stage unchecked.
On a similar note, pre-transmogrification, the killer corncobs will split in two given half a chance causing you twice as much grief if you don’t nip them in the bud swiftly.
On neutralising the last of them, you’re swept away to take on the next challenge, depriving you of the opportunity to earn an extra life.
DIY insta-ladders can be used to reach otherwise inaccessible platforms or descend from them. Beyond the obvious, they can aid you in escaping from hordes of adversaries if you don’t have the time or space to vanquish them immediately, or even to lure them into a more hospitable position while you collect the flowers upon which they were squatting.
In the absence of any kind of ability to jump, this novel ‘superpower’ is invaluable. While you are limited to rolling out one ladder at a time, this can be used to your advantage to cut loose any gremlins that are following in your wake. An existing ladder will vanish as soon as you erect a new one causing anything climbing it at the time to fall back down to terra firma.
Where your ladders are insufficient to elevate you to really high platforms, helium balloons neatly fill the gap and can be hopped on and off at will like the hi-tech floating platforms from The Jetsons.
With the advent of every tenth stage you’re faced with a looming guardian monstrosity, which of course are as adorably cute as Bambi in a baby grow, much like everything else.
These take the form of a docile-hostile-docile-hostile crocodile regiment (in English: they switch facial expressions on a whim), a fish out of water the size of a… whale, oh, a winch-dangled, nappy-clad, yellow-skinned elephant, and finally the git who whisked away mumsy.
The movements of this quadrilogy of guardians and the mini-mes they churn out follow fairly predictable patterns so shouldn’t pose that much of a threat once you’ve memorised them.
The fourth and final boss is a muscle-rippled, armoured minotaur sporting a cape fashioned from a matador’s capote de brega… which incidentally wouldn’t wind him up as you might expect because bulls are actually colour blind. It’s the erratic agitation that gets their goat and causes them to charge.
He commences his offensive head high to a fairy, yet grows fiercer and more hulk-like with each successive hide-kicking bout. Triggered by the final defeat he shrivels back to his former self, and waves the white flag of submission. Forthwith he’s locked away so he can’t cause any more mischief.
It’s a little known fact that the arcade version of Rod.Land itself harbours a hidden 32 level sequel accessed by entering a cheat-like sequence before you begin the game (insert coin, pull down three times then hit start).
The mechanics remain the same, though the storyline, robotic sprites, music and backdrops are unique.
As fairy folklore has it, an alien pyramid has landed and somehow lured in and extinguished your dad. An evil force of vague origin known as Sequiro is using said pyramid as a base of operations from which to develop a mobile ‘giyadarta’ fortress for reasons that are never really spelt out.
Nevertheless, it all sounds a bit suspicious, and of course, you’ll want to emancipate the spirit of your former pa, so it’s back to the critter-whacking drawing board to begin a new adventure.
The penultimate stand-off entails a fracas with a floating brain suspended inside a jellyfish with ball-jointed arms, terminating in a deuce of formidable claws.
Ignite its fuse-arms and it’ll implode, triggering a chain reaction that results in Sequiro’s pyramid being sucked back into the sky, scuppering his chances of committing various unspecified nefarious acts of depravity… of some sort.
“The pyramid redresened dad’s grave”, and as if by hocus-pocus (and an Obi-Wan Kenobi parody), his effigy appears in the sky to galvanise the twins’ courage in time for their final encounter with Sequiro.
Rather anticlimactically it transpires that the ultimate in end of built-in sequel bosses is nothing more than a series of omni-chromatic neon spheres that levitate a bit and look pretty before the backdrop of a towering minotaur stone sculpture.
Kick him (or it) into touch and it’s goodnight Vienna. Everyone lives happily ever after despite pop still being an unperson.
We’re left with the missive, “see you again”, as if to indicate the sequel’s sequel may be forthcoming. Spoiler: it wasn’t, but Jaleco did release a puzzley spin-off game called Soldam that recycles some of Rod.Land’s core cast.
Regrettably, the sequel is absent from the Amiga port, simply because its programmer, Ronald Pieket-Weeserik, wasn’t made aware of its existence until long after his work was complete. He spotted the extra artwork at the time, though didn’t know how it fitted into the jigsaw puzzle, and not having the source code at his disposal, no clues would be forthcoming from that direction.
This isn’t the only nuance that was dropped from the arcade original as Ronald explains in CU Amiga’s review:-
“The original game was good, but I felt that some areas could be refined to aid the playability. For instance, the original machine allowed you to bump the creatures in mid-air and still kill them. That went for starters along with a few other quirks.”
Rod.Land was ported to a deluge of 8 and 16-bit platforms; with the exception of the Amstrad CPC version they’re all terrifically playable.
The official 1991 Spectrum port from Twilight and Shaun McClure is monochrome, though a colourised fan-hack has since been released to jazz it up somewhat. Both are silky smooth and run at an impressive frame rate, making it a joy to play, even if it is abridged compared to the source material.
In 1991 lucky Amstrad CPC gamers were honoured with a multi-coloured, vibrantly attractive port by way of developers, The Doomsday Machine… one that runs as decrepitly as an asthmatic, geriatric bulldog.
The belated 1993 Game Boy version developed by Eurocom is interesting in that it scrolls so as to expand the play-field beyond the handheld’s tiny 160 x 144 pixels screen resolution. The resulting stages occupy a width of four screens by a height of four screens. Also unique to the Game Boy port is the ability to shoot your rod force field mid-ladder, making for a more leisurely ride.
Atari ST users were treated to a port very much akin to that of the Amiga, except the audio sounds more hollow and tinny as you would expect. Ronald Pieket Weeserik and John Croudy coded both editions so that’s that mystery solved.
The arcade’s luscious background graphics didn’t make the cut in Steve ‘Snake’ Palmer’s 1991 Commodore 64 iteration, where they were replaced with a single, solid colour throughout.
The colour palette in general is subdued, though complaining seems mealy-mouthed considering it plays so fluidly and looks great otherwise.
The rule book was well and truly rewritten for the 1992 NES translation, the handiwork of Simon Pick, Steve Snake et al. It incorporates a profusion of tweakable enhancements, most significantly the ability to jump, a facet that would require the use of an extra fire button had it been implemented for the Amiga port. Of course that would have significantly modified the dynamics given that the up direction is used for ladder-building purposes.
The NES’s range of voice samples further set it apart from the more traditional crowd. Unless you lived in Italy, Spain, the Netherlands or Japan at the time you would have had to import this limited release rendition.
There’s now even an iOS port as of 2011 courtesy of DotEmu. It employs touch-screen controls, features 60 levels and three distinctive endings. I’d recommend using a hardware Bluetooth controller if you’re going to give it a whirl; otherwise the on-screen buttons can be unresponsive and obscure your view when the action heats up in the lower corners of the screen.
So really with so many top-notch ports at your disposal, you have no excuse not to own at least one of them. Of course, it’s sickeningly sweet and cutesy, and encourages you to embrace your inner fairy. Even so, it’s not without a wry sense of offbeat humour to act as a welcome counterbalance. How girly is a bloated alien-tongued, slavering maggot, really? Surely the dainty hair bows alone aren’t quite enough to win over the My Little Pony crowd.
Other critters follow the Werebear modality; superficially butter wouldn’t melt, lurking just under the surface a devious two-faced biting edge. They revel in glorious contradiction, hoisting Rod.Land to an altogether more enticing proposition than at first meets the eye.
Well with my reviewing duties out of the way, all that remains is for me to remove my pink wig, lippy and tutu and put my magic wand back in its holster in time for my day trip to Liverpool. It’s a shame really; I was enjoying getting in touch with my feminine side, and you know how I like to get into character for these articles…
So fairy ‘cross the Mersey, ’cause this land’s the place I love, and here I’ll stay.