Stick a red nose on your conk, and let’s stonk

If you’re reading this from the fiery depths of Satan’s underworld it’s probably because you pirated the charity Comic Relief game, Sleepwalker, back in 1993 and are currently serving a sentence of eternal damnation to repent for your sins.

£4.32 per copy for an estimated 100,000 unit sales forecast was to be donated by Ocean to support life-saving enterprises in poverty stricken Africa, and help the underprivileged in the UK get back on their feet. By my reckoning that’s £432,000… which isn’t to be sneezed at, however you frame it.

Commodore also got on-board, packaging the game with a special edition Comic Relief Amiga 1200 bundle – for the first time released worldwide – to coincide with the annual marathon fundraiser broadcast on live TV in March 1993. For each of the 25,000 systems sold, Commodore pledged to donate £10 to the worthiest of third world causes, typically backed by every celeb with a moral compass.

“Call me a miserable stingy old git if you will, but I used to find all those 24-hour TV charity shows such a drag. Nothing but an endless stream of boy scouts singing ‘Ging gang gooly’, and bank managers presenting giant cardboard cheques, all to the constant raucous applause of a hyped-up studio audience. That was before Comic Relief came along and showed us all how it should be done. Swap Judith Chalmers and Michael Aspel for a bunch of the country’s best comedians, scrap the boy scouts and replace them with quick-fire comedy sketches, and cut out all that depressing music on the serious bits. The cash they raise speaks for itself. For this year’s event, as well as the T-shirts, splats and noses, Comic Relief have teamed up with Ocean to release Sleepwalker.”

CU Amiga (March 1993)

Naturally it was reviewed – mostly favourably – by every one of the major Amiga publications at the time, who were all keen to be seen to support the initiative, yet still I believe delivered honest assessments of the game’s merits. We’ll save the finer details of those verdicts for later, however.

Sleepwalker was lionised for its originality when first unveiled, though it strikes me as more of a supercharged evolution of reLINE’s Pink Panther released five years earlier, covered in great depth by myself elsewhere at Everything Amiga. Odd then that none of the critics picked up on the resemblance to that embryo of the guided sleepwalking proposition then, or since, despite the vintage title having been scrutinized by six popular gaming press publications upon release.

Of course it’s remarkably easy to be smug in 2017 when you even have the internet built into your lawnmower. Fun too!

Even more germane, in 1991 Zeppelin developed a Spectrum/Commodore 64 game called… wait for it, ‘Sleepwalker’ of all things. It may have had an influence on the Comic Relief tie-in game at hand, maybe not. If one of the coders were to be asked we may get the lowdown, so stay tuned trivia hounds.

In Zeppelin’s take on the concept your goal is to escort your Uncle Silas around his mansion abode assisting him to avoid treacherous obstacles by taking the hits yourself, eventually steering him safely back to bozies before the timer runs down.

“Sleepwalker is one of the best ever platform games released for your ST. It’s fast, funny, furious, original and incredibly frustrating with stunning graphics and gameplay. Ocean have finally managed to come up with a game worthy of the hype and for once you don’t have to sit in a bath of cold baked beans to do something worthwhile for charity. If you haven’t bought Sleepwalker yet, go and do it now.”

92% – ST Format (June 1993)

It’s tricky to determine if CTA – Sleepwalker’s developers – were inspired by, or even cognisant of, the Pink Panther license game when designing their own puzzle-platformer. It was and still is fairly obscure after all.

“Despite a couple of graphical glitches, a scraggy-looking Ralph sprite and a few less than awe-inspiring backgrounds, it’s a brilliant game which twists and turns constantly, never gets dull and challenges all your game-playing skills to their limits. It’s one of those truly original games that you come away from thinking, ‘Why can’t they all be this good?’”

90% – Commodore Format (C64 version, June 1993)

Luckily for us, unlike Lee, CTA weren’t found to be napping on the job; the talented team comprised coders, Dave Pratt and John Scott (Tubbs), graphicians, Nick Harding and Richard Cheek, and musicians, Dave Newman and James Veal.

A sizeable chunk of the profits being redistributed towards good causes, there was no shortage of offers to lend a hand to boost the funny factor. As such Comic Relief co-founder, screenwriter, producer and film director, Richard Curtis, chief executive of Comic Relief, Kevin Cahil, musician, writer, and TV presenter, Roland Rivron, and author, Michael Baywater are all credited for their contributions.

“Games that try to include various licensing touches usually end up substituting gameplay and originality in a bid to make them recognisable. Fortunately, Sleepwalker manages to combine excellent characterisations with beautiful animation and intricate backgrounds for a game that will appeal to all ages. Go on, buy it! It’s for a worthy cause!”

92% – ST Action (March 1993)

In Sleepwalker you play as Ralph the dog (voiced by comedian Lenny Henry) who is one night rudely awoken with a bare foot in the eye as his somnambulistic master – Lee – steps out of bed and proceeds to embark on a suicidal exploration of the local vicinity.

 

As his devoted bipedal wonder pet it’s your duty to shepherd him around an interminable barrage of mortiferous obstacles, across six environmentally diverse stages to ensure he gets back to bed safe and sound, remaining fast asleep at all times. For we all know that waking a sleepwalker is catastrophic for their health… or is it?

No, actually it’s a myth that they will succumb to a sudden heart attack, brain haemorrhage or some other cataclysmic event. They may, however, autonomically belt you, having been unexpectedly jolted from a deep, pleasant slumber, and that would be very bad for your well-being.

So in effect we could have simply shaken Lee gently awake, tucked him back under the duvet, nailed the window shut, and returned to the land of nod ourselves. That would have saved an awful lot of hassle, albeit not earned Comic Relief quite so much mullah in donations. Incidentally a topic that was hotly debated back then; how was the figure of £4.32 arrived at?, and why wouldn’t the whole of the retail price be contributing towards buying critical medical equipment, water filtration systems and so on? Gary Bracey – Ocean’s former software development director – candidly addressed these issues in an interview with Amiga Power in their March 1993 issue:-

“The first thing to point out here is that things are happening this way at the insistence of Comic Relief themselves. The reasoning behind their attitude is that if people are doing something for nothing, they’re unlikely to make their best efforts. If everyone who gets behind this is still making money from it, albeit at a heavily reduce rate, then the product will do a lot better. A percentage of the profit from a real effort will be at least as good as the total profit from a half-hearted one.

We’ve never tried to pretend we were breaking even on Sleepwalker. People are still making some money from it, but why shouldn’t they? Sleepwalker wasn’t a game specifically designed for Comic Relief, it was a top-quality product that we’d already spent two years developing and had high expectations of making lots of cash from. We could have just re-released Shadow Warriors or come up with a compilation of old stuff, as happened before with Soft Aid, but we put up a really good game that we could have sold normally. The programmers have to eat, we have to pay for our company overheads, the distributors and retailers take their cut, and of course there’s £4 in VAT coming off straight away.

Everyone’s doing this in good faith – we’re not releasing anything else at the same time to compete with it, we’re not sticking plugs for ourselves all over the game, everyone’s margins have really been hammered. And anyway, the more money we make, the more money Comic Relief makes.

At the end of the day, we’re hoping to raise at least half a million quid for Comic Relief. The reality of the question is, ‘is it better to do it than not to do it?’ and I think there’s an…” [Text cuts off, oops! Actually I think that was a joke – look it up]

Ultimately, Ocean donated £4.32 per copy of Sleepwalker sold, which is precisely £4.32 more than any other development/publishing house was prepared to offer so it seems petty to quibble over the figure.

“It has been excellently put together and it plays dreamily, and the tone is just right too – you really begin to feel for the poor put-upon pooch, and the dream sequences where he imagines what he would like to see happen to Lee if he was not there to stop it are really sweet. I like this game, and if it can help save a few people from starving to death, then so much the better.”

“A smashing little game, and one that’s definitely worth having in its own right regardless of the Good Cause. It’s not really one for the easily frustrated though.”

84% – Amiga Power (March 1993)

Nocturnal wandering myth notwithstanding, we’re here now, so let’s assume Lee still needs our help to survive and hit the start button. We’re thrust into our body-guarding obligations with a digitised “Comic Relief or summin’” voice-over from sketch comedian Harry Enfield in Dave Nice cheesy radio personality caricature mode. In keeping Lee out of harm’s way we begin in Kipsville, progress to the zoo, graveyard, building site, factory and finally back home to the city centre.

 

We’re invulnerable, Lee not so much. How easy would that be? Each collision with a trap or assailant as we traverse the deadly assault course chips away at his sleepometre; should it reach zero he wakes and loses a precious life (or ‘attempt’ as the manual diplomatically puts it, possibly for kiddy nannying reasons). Whilst you have some to spare, you recommence close by to where you awoke, yet run out completely, and you must start the level again from scratch.

As such it’s worth absorbing the blows yourself to trigger the traps long before your clueless charge arrives, monitoring his movements at all times to ensure he’s not about to plummet to his doom. Alternatively, you can deploy your ‘bobby on the beat’ style truncheon to set upon, for instance, a giant anaconda, or nightclub bouncer (modelled on comedy sketch show duo Hale and Pace’s ‘The Management’). You’ll need eyes in the back of your head!

Smoothing the path for your human Lemming entails bridging gaps with your spanned arms (dog’s have those, right?), sealing manhole covers to stem the flow of oozing effluent, holding, pushing or kicking him in the desired direction at the key moment to, for example, steer him onto a floating, rolling barrel to cross a stretch of water, over a set of bouncing telephone lines, or delay him long enough to disable a raging furnace or elephantine mincing machine. Quite the versatile pooch then.

 

Lee saunters along at a fairly sedate pace giving you chance to accelerate beyond him in time to anticipate his next feebleminded dalliance with self harm. Fortunately you do this at breakneck speed, your legs morphing into a Sonic-like blur as you rapidly gain momentum. Moving this quickly, however, the main drawback is that it’s far too easy to end up at the opposite end of one of the enormous maps to your millstone, er… I mean best friend, with no clue which brick wall he’s currently bashing his brains against.

Another nod to Sonic can be seen in certain swinging platforms that rock back and forth in a shallow arc. Why else would logs be dangling from totally unconnected ‘linking’ rings? Magic chains like these only work in Sonic the Hedgehog’s playground, and now Sleepwalker too apparently.

Pulling down on the joystick when in push mode switches the direction in which Lee is facing, while the fire button can be deployed to punt him into orbit. At all times the screen focuses on chaperone, Ralph, as Lee goes off and does his own thing totally oblivious to the danger he’s in. Resolutely comatosed, perilous impediments such as electric eels, traffic, piranhas, and water-squirting elephants fail to phase him. It’s alright for some!

In the meantime, keeping him alive entails pulling out giant plugs to drain troughs of water, blocking raging furnaces with slabs of stone, disabling heavy machinery, and stalling car commuters by dumping a lollypop lady disguised as transvestite, Dame Edna Everage, in their path.

In the process we’re fried, swallowed whole, cremated, electrocuted, dog-napped by a pugnacious canine catcher, and squished by falling 10 tonne weights or Monty Python’s Foot of Cupid, all in loving homage to slapstick cartoons in the spirit of Tom and Jerry.

True to form, the animation harks back to that eternal-chase-farce comedy-infused era popularised by the likes of Wile E Coyote. Ralph does double-takes, his eyes popping out on stalks. Teeters on the edge of precipices. Leans on walls in exasperation as he catches his laboured breath, and levitates in mid air for several seconds before it dawns on him that he’s about to fall, before dropping like a lead weight, yet analogous to the ‘toons, never to his death because Ralph doesn’t believe in that kind of nonsense.

“Despite the occasional annoying bits it is fun to play, and there’s a genuine feeling of satisfaction when you finally reach the end of a level. The bonus levels are a good idea too, and make for a much-needed change of pace.

Although the graphics tend to be a bit dark and drab, the animations are superb. In places Sleepwalker feels more like a Tex Avery cartoon rather than a computer game, especially when Ralph gets whacked on the head and waddles around like a walking pancake. All in all, Sleepwalker is a fine game; it’s just that you can’t help thinking that with a few tweaks here and there it could have been a classic, rather than just very good. Still, at least it’s all for charidee…”

84% – The One (February 1993)

This being a Comic Relief license game, as you would expect it’s chock-full of rib-tickling silliness, some of it that doesn’t aid your mission at all, though in an Easter egg sort of way is fun to discover. Drinking from a bottle found in a waste bin like a wino, for instance, which will leave the pair of you in a slumped stupor for several seconds.

“Games like this don’t come round very often: Sleepwalker is original, playable and good-looking, with superb sound effects and music, and large enough to keep you playing
for ages – I’m gobsmacked. Buy it, but don’t borrow it or steal it – that’s cheating. Remember. it’s for charity, mate.”

91% – Amiga Format (March 1993)

A secondary challenge is posed by collecting letters written on red noses that spell out ‘comic’; the key to accessing the five bonus stages you tackle sans Lee. Here your objective is to gather up words or syllables in the right order, along with the plus or minus symbols used to modify them to create other words or phrases.

For example:-

  • man + keyhole – key = manhole
  • pig + eo + ns = pigeons
  • dust + bin + man = dustbin man
  • poodle – oo + ud = puddle
  • lookout + bellow – l = lookout below

The significance is that these phrases form the basis of Ralph’s daydreams concerning what he’d like to do to his nuisance of a human sidekick, “if he wasn’t such a nice dog” the manual informs us. For each phrase solved we’re treated to an animation depicting his acts of revenge slapstickery…

  • guiding him into a lamp post
  • letting him fall down an open manhole
  • sprinkling bird seed on his head so pigeons will peck away at Lee causing his clothes to disintegrate, leaving him naked
  • stuffing him in a bin which is then emptied by a refuse truck
  • driving through a puddle next to the kerb in a car to splash him

None of it’s very charitable of course, then this is just a dream, and if you enjoy Laurel and Hardy style humour I suppose it’s funny to turn the tables on Lee.

If you can solve all the puzzles on each bonus level within the allotted time frame you’re awarded the maximum ‘comedy bonus’ percentage score and are treated to a special surprise at the end of the game… and if I ever manage to accomplish this I’ll be sure to let you know what that involves. Don’t hold your breath… unless you’re a Looney Toon.

Certain special power-ups can be collected along the way to boost the odds of Lee making it back to bed in one piece. You can inhale helium from a canister, inflating your dogsbody like a balloon to float skywards and reach higher ground, whereas whoopee​ cushions bestow Lee with invincibility for a short while. Note that as we’re already untouchable it would be a waste for Ralph to grab it for himself.

Custard pies come into effect for bridge building over water, the dunce cap will reveal the entire territory depicted on your map (normally you can only view the area you’ve already explored), and novelty red noses grant Lee extra lives (sorry, ‘attempts’).

Ear muffs restore Lee’s sleep bar, false beards provide a clue as to the whereabouts of secret bricks, whilst another opportunity is made available in the bonus levels to earn extra lives by collecting 20 balloons.

No time limit is imposed, although you do accrue further bonus points for finishing the levels faster so there’s a slight incentive to keep on the move, aside from the fact that clubbed baddies are only temporarily stunned. You didn’t expect to see any terminal violence in a kid’s charity game did you? Ralph isn’t the Terminator, you know. Causing a vampire to disintegrate before he can envelope you in his cloak, transforming you into a bat, doesn’t Count.

“It would be easy to call Sleepwalker a Lemmings clone. There are a lot of similarities, but here you get much more of a feeling of involvement. The only real problem I can see is the longevity potential. It boils down to a game of trial and error, so you end up going through the motions for each level, until you get to a new section. Despite this, Sleepwalker is a good laugh, and should keep platform addicts amused for a while.”

81% – CU Amiga (March 1993)

Our journey concludes upon projecting Lee back through his bedroom window, landing safely in your dog bed rather than his own. You use a remote control to release a tomato onto the still snoozing child’s bonce, and are invited to enter your name and take a photograph of the final score assessment screen for posterity… with an actual camera no less. Remember those? No doubt the idea was to wave the photos around in the playground, or submit them to magazines to be published for bragging rights. Something Vic Reeves would know nothing about judging by his dismal performance on GamesMaster. Though to cut him some slack, it’s a tough game of which few people will have witnessed the finale.

Graphically Sleepwalker is exquisite, the animation as polished as a top-drawer TV cartoon. Piping sweet, tasty icing onto the cake, it’s proficiently coded with tight, responsive controls and silky smooth parallax scrolling.

Aside from during the intro, no music accompanies the in-game heroics, only suitably goofy cartoon caper sound effects. The AGA Amiga 1200 edition sought to address this shortcoming, while the CD32 version goes a leap further by incorporating a subtly rousing 45 minute CD audio soundtrack. Each of the AGA renditions furthermore ratchets up the colour palette count as you’d expect.

Gameplay remains the same of course, and that represents Sleepwalker’s core weakness. It’s all a bit samey from one level to the next, and aside from the bonus stages, all of the frustrating ‘protect the clueless numpty’ nature. Having little control over the characters in computer games isn’t something anyone really strives for, and as that’s the crux of Sleepwalker’s premise, it’s no wonder it divides opinion with such vehement Marmiteification.

In 1994 Ocean/CTA re-skinned Sleepwalker, releasing it as ‘Eek! the Cat’ for the SNES, putting to effective use their newly acquired license to the American-Canadian Fox Kids/Savage Studios cartoon of the same name.

You play as the eponymous cat, this time with a medley of dependent foils to safeguard, rather than the single dozy Muppet in a human boy suit found in Sleepwalker who causes you so much ‘Misereek’.

Granny, your stunning girlfriend Annabelle, kiddie owners Wendy and Elizabeth dressed in a headless chicken costume for ‘Halloweek’, Pierre from ‘The Squishy Bearz Rainbow of Enchanted Fun Minute’ kid’s TV show (a parody of Care Bears), and Little Orphan Joey all require your chaperoning expertise in order to survive… or merely save Christmas in the latter’s case by delivering a present that has gone astray following Santa’s collision with a Boeing 747.

Eek’s altruistic motto is “it never hurts to help” – considering that the exact opposite is true in Sleepwalker, the whimsical irony makes for the perfect alliance. Somehow I doubt this was a coincidence that was lost on Ocean, and despite the pain, Eek enjoys ‘A Wonderful Nine Lives’.

Leave a Reply