Xeroxmorphs in Dittoland: the fifth Gauntleteer?

Way back when, long long before gay people were invented, sometimes games would be released with imprudent titles that might appear derogatory if applied today. Let me introduce Ubisoft’s 1989 top-down maze explorer, Puffy’s Saga, or Super Puffy if you happen to live in Germany. It was glued to the cover of The One’s July 1991 issue so may have surreptitiously breached your quality filter defences via that particular Trojan horse.

Take Gauntlet, add a sprig of Pacman, mash into an Iron Maiden, leave to fester until dank and musty, and what you’re left with is today’s dungeon-dwelling copycat specimen, coded by Fabrice Devaux with graphics and music courtesy of Fabrice Visserot (who was also heavily involved with Flashback). Yep, it’s rooted firmly in the land of baguettes and berets so is naturally a tad off the beaten track. That’s not lazy stereotyping, it’s Amiga law.

Once upon a coin-op heyday, an evil wizard captured two young lovers – Puffy and Puffyn – transformed them into Pacman Brown and Ms Pacman Brown and sequestered them away in his Gauntlet homage theme park. It’s your duty to extricate them from their regrettable plight, and tell me if my Pokemon allusion makes any sense at all in this context. Never watched, never will.

That’s the canonical version of events anyhow. If you ask Tony Dillon of CU Amiga he’ll tell you the plot revolves around the evil ‘Baron Loftus’ who kidnapped the Puffmeister’s chums rather than the happy couple, and locked them up in his castle. There was actually a real Baron Loftus – Charles Loftus, 1st Marquess of Ely, an Irish peer and politician – though I don’t see what he has to do with anything. Unless maybe he had some dirt on Tony and bribed him into inventing a cameo for publicity’s sake? That’ll be it I’m sure.

Complicating matters further, a chap called Gordon something-or-other from Commodore Format refers to “kindly aliens” deciding “to give two of the Balls a stab at excitement – a new concept in Ballsville. They snatched away two young mini-Balls named Puffy (a boy-Ball) and Puffyn (a girl-Ball) to a land of mazes, magic and monsters.”

Regardless, the final screen of the C64 version seems to suggest you’re morphing back into your original human form with no friends or aliens in sight, so my money’s on plot one being the official bona fide prologue.

Your objective – adopting the role of either pill-munching bounder in one or two-player mode – is to guzzle up all the ‘pad goms’ (power dots/pastilles) on each of the 20 levels to open up a portal to the next.

It’s possible to switch between protagonists at will using the F2 key, and also worth noting that each character has their own strengths and weaknesses; Puffy can absorb and inflict more damage, while Puffyn can retain the use of power-ups for longer, and move faster. If you pick up the super shot gizmo, Puffy can fire six of the more potent rounds, whereas Puffyn can fire eight. It’s a welcome mechanical nuance, though lifted straight from Gauntlet of course, much like the level design and theme, and vicious difficulty curve, and enemy AI, and health system, and, and, and… life’s too short to list it all.

Killing everything in sight won’t always be possible, and in any case, isn’t necessary. What is critical, however, is making a sharp exit, as every second spent admiring the decor will result in a decline in health. Your counter ticks down continuously at a consistent rate as a matter of course, though will take a dramatic nosedive whenever you make contact with an adversary or pernicious element of the furniture.

Counteracting the unfortunate trend demands the regular consumption of the lamb drumsticks you’ll find scattered about the stone floor or inside certain chests. I can’t say I’ve ever heard the word ‘drumstick’ being used to describe a joint of lamb before, but what the heck, they’re worth one hundred health points per pick-up so grab as many as you can and bite your tongue. Oh, and make sure you don’t shoot them because they’ll turn into ghosts who love nothing more than inflicting pain, like everything else in the Puffyverse.

Dodging or decimating dragons, ghosts, crocodiles, hurricanes, eyes, insects, acid puddles and male/female ‘Grrs’ (yes, really – it stands for fire-proof satanic monster, somehow), you are at first armed with just your spit. Luckily this can be upgraded to a ‘fire power’ or ‘super shot’ dispenser by collecting blue ‘magic goms’ and trading them in using the function keys.

Normally this mechanic would be implemented along with a shop, though this being a relentless action game we don’t have time to waste by shattering the immersion to push a trolley around Asda (where Jon Hare begin his working life, trivia fans) – just hit a button and it’s back to the bloodshed. A neat touch I thought.

The same dots can be exchanged for non-weaponised power-ups such as ‘insensibility’ (more commonly known as invincibility), a speed boost, invisibility, repellency, ‘transportability’ (allowing you to jump over objects or carry certain items), life points, bombs, or the opportunity to view the dungeon terrain from a zoomed out vantage point (perhaps I could have just called it a map seeing as that’s what it is).

Each of these are only applicable for a limited period so don’t dawdle or you’ll waste them. Geez, this is turning out to be so stressful. All this rushing around, time is money mullarkey feels like being back at work… which is where I plan to head to for a rest when I’m finished here.

Incarcerated in a dungeon, naturally, the gates and chests are locked firmly shut and will need to be opened if you are to make it out alive. Unsurprisingly these can be accessed using keys you’ll find cordially scattered about the ground, probably swimming in lamb grease and rosemary. Up to a maximum of 12 keys can be carried at once. Attempt to collect any more and they’ll be destroyed, leaving you high and dry if a level demands that you employ all of them to succeed. Curiously, in the original Atari ST version, if you had already gathered up your full complement of keys, you simply wouldn’t be able to collect any more until you’ve used one. The unpickupables remain in place as solidly as any wall, creating a blockage to certain areas.

Another string to your navigational bow is to try collecting the diamond-shaped squares, which will re-jig the infrastructure (the paddocks formed with interconnecting walls) allowing you to access new terrain. I say ‘try’, yet it’s not really an optional thing – there are plenty of occasions where you’ll find yourself completely hemmed in unless you shift some of the obstacles.

Playing Puffy’s Saga is analogous to being stalked in The Running Man’s game zone, set in 2017 incidentally. Everything is out to get you, even the pulsating beams that electrify the floor. Anything that can move, does so either at the same pace as yourselves or faster, so once a horde of critters is on your tail there’s literally no escape, and no time to turn around and blast them.

Your only hope of survival is borne out of running, running and doing a spot more running, and where’s the fun in that? Even Forest Gump stops for the occasional box of Cadbury’s Milk Tray, and Sonic the Hedgehog finally calms down once he reaches the Marble Zone. Puffy on the other hand is a merciless onslaught of marauding zombie droves…. sprinting Dawn of the Dead remake zombies too, not the traditionally sedate, shambling ones from the original movie.

You’re only permitted to move up, down, left and right, not diagonally, and the controls feel quite stodgy for an action game that calls for lightning-fast reflexes. Imagine if The Walking Dead cast comprised geriatric ghoul-bashers who struggled to muster the energy to lift a crossbow. That’s precisely what shunting Puffy and his better half around the screen feels like… and it certainly doesn’t help that it’s possible to injure one another in two-player mode. Fun in Golden Axe, not so much here.

Presentation-wise Ubisoft have really gone the extra mile; the avatars in the sidebar react with expressively animated emotion in accordance with what’s happening on screen. They pant when you’re Space Hoppering for your lives, smile contentedly while collecting a power-up, and grimace when in pain. It’s just like having a Tamagotchi in your pocket.

Digitised speech samples also accompany the frenetic action so, for example, you’ll be helpfully informed, “Puffy, you will die” whenever your chances are looking slim, snarl “you gonna burn” when unleashing your deadly fire breath, or exclaim “yeum!” when eating ground grub… mmm, tasty sawdust with rat dropping appetisers.

In a similar attention to detail vein, all your foes’ strengths and weaknesses are revealed in title screens displayed when your game ends, allowing you to pick up tips and improve your technique next time round. In addition to the unusually comprehensive manual, leading into the game, another title screen illustrates how everything works, and which function keys to use to activate special abilities, so there’s no excuse at all for being confused.

Not that any of it will help you eschew dying over and over and over and over again. I’ve not seen anything quite this unforgiving since that hell-spawn of a torture device, Yolanda. And that’s where Puffy’s Saga comes apart at the seams; it’s mean, it doesn’t want you to enjoy yourself or ever emerge from your claustrophobic prison to once more feel the sunlight on your ashen face.

According to its coder, “To my knowledge, this game has never been finished by anyone but me”. I know, shocking isn’t it. He does go on to say that this is because people are approaching it like Rambo, rather than a prudent battle tactician. Nevertheless, the same challenges can be attributed to Gauntlet I and II, and lots of veteran players would have conquered those by now had it not been for their lack of a final level. They were originally designed as coin-op cabinets where gamers would be encouraged to chase hi-scores rather than any hope of completion – their never-ending nature didn’t become an issue until they were translated to home systems, and money was no longer a limiting factor.

Perhaps Puffy’s 8-bit ports or the Atari ST master are more serene affairs. He put in an appearance on all the 8-bit platforms as well as DOS and the ST, so it’s not quite a lost cause yet. In the C64 version meat pick-ups are worth 100 health points as in the Amiga game, yet you only begin with 500 health points instead of 2000. Not a promising start!

Commodore Format didn’t specifically mention the difficulty curve, though weren’t overly enamoured with the frustrating controls and “unfriendly collision detection” when they reviewed the game in October 1990. Issuing a final score of 59%, they decreed, “For all its cuteness, Puffy’s Saga doesn’t have the staying power to merit much attention”.

Even less blown away were Crash who plumped for a 50% bottom line in December 1989. In summary, they advised, “A couple of games is all it takes to realise this is a Gauntlet style ‘solve the puzzle of the maze’ game which honestly bored me within a few minutes play because I’ve seen this game type so many times before. Graphically it’s okay with sprites monochromatic but fairly detailed. Sound consists of a twee little tune that soon annoyed me, and some barely understandable speech”.

In May 1990 Amstrad Action swung in entirely the opposite direction arriving at a healthy 85% verdict. In their opinion, “Puffy’s Saga is an extremely polished maze game. The graphics and sound are superb and alone are enough to lift it above the crowd. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but if you enjoy exploration games then get puffin’.”

The line from their review that really caught my eye, however, was this beauty: “The music on the title screen bears a curious resemblance to the Ghostbusters theme tune”. It certainly does too – whoever composed the music for the Amstrad version has done their best to mash it up, yet the spectral influence is unmistakable. YouTube retro game showcaser, petsasjim1, confirmed it for me by kindly recording some video extracts from the game. Much appreciated, Jim! Thanks.

The inaugural Atari ST version was released in 1988, and isn’t a patch on the Amiga revision – that followed a year later – in terms of graphics, sound and execution. It’s blighted by mid-screen flick scrolling, whereas the Amiga’s is smooth. Furthermore, the graphics are far more primitive, lacking detail and a varied colour palette. Even so, Atari ST User awarded it an impressive 9 out of 10 overall score in January 1989, concluding, “Puffy’s Saga is a game that can be tackled in a variety of ways … Whichever route you choose, I can guarantee that you’ll be playing for a long long time”.

Over on the Amiga platform appraisals were divided to the extreme. If I were to collate them for your delight and delectation, the extracts would look a lot like this…

Amiga Format (57%) – “Perhaps the programmers have tried to detract from the lack of game content by going overboard on the peripheral presentation. Well, I’m sorry guys, but it doesn’t really work! There’s a lot of levels and they won’t be easily beaten but this sort of game looks decidedly dated now”.

CU Amiga (82%) – “A brilliant variation on a worn theme. In time it will get boring, but it’s still worth buying for the cute factor alone.”

TGM (81%) – “If you’ve seen other versions – and liked what you saw – you’ll like this version even better”.

The One (69%) – “Although it looks good and sounds good, it plays quite tediously. Simply plodding around a maze, getting lost and resetting your computer in frustration isn’t my idea of fun.”

Amiga Power (55%) – “Somewhat dated-looking mazey-collect-’em-shoot-’em-up that’s fun to play in parts. In other parts, you move in fits and starts and get horribly annoyed”.

Its heart’s in the right place, I’ll give it that. It’s just a shame the execution doesn’t live up to the concept; on paper, it looks like it should be a step up from Gauntlet in the fun department with its endearing flourish of humour and off-the-wall novelties. Yet playing it for yourself, all notions of Puffy being an addictive and amusing arcade romp rapidly dissolve along with your sanity.

I suppose if you detest sitting around in a queue at the hairdresser’s salon, tearing your hair out playing this might not seem like such a wrench. There, that’s the ‘pros’ box filled in, sorted. Publish.

4 thoughts on “Xeroxmorphs in Dittoland: the fifth Gauntleteer?

  • April 6, 2017 at 2:15 am

    It’s pronounced Puff not Poof though so I don’t get it?

    • April 6, 2017 at 2:38 am

      A Puff by the way is what a Fictional Dragon does where it fires it’s fire and also what a person does if they are dirty smokers.

      • April 6, 2017 at 2:39 am

        Does explain the puffing of fire as a weapon if his name is Puff though. lol.

  • April 7, 2017 at 1:03 pm

    Don’t get me started on smoking again! I feel quite strongly about that. 😉

    With hindsight I’m not sure I get it either, LOL. I think this was a case of wanting a joke to work so much that I stretched it to fit where I really should have just scrapped the line and started again. A comment was made a while back that my articles might benefit from being given the once-over by an editor… this would be the perfect evidence for the prosecution! 😀

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