Two years on from spraying unruly insects into oblivion in Bug Bash, everyone’s favourite ladybug made a dramatic comeback with a few novel tricks up his sleeve, and a new dilemma to remedy. True to the one-man-studio developer’s penchant for bright, cartoony graphics and not so common or garden creepy-crawlies, Doodlebug likewise plays to his now established trademark. In a co-starring role, the protagonist’s pernicious bête noire – the ‘Evil Slug’ – makes an unwelcome return to run amok.
Our eponymous hero, contrary to first impressions, isn’t a German V-1 flying bomb devised by the Luftwaffe that shot to fame courtesy of the second World War. In fact, the latest brainchild of ‘Team Adrian Cummings’ circa 1992 is an arthropod who happens to use coloured pencils to draw his way out of platforming peril, hence the sagely advice “doodle, don’t dawdle”. It was the first of his creations to be published by Core Design, who initially wanted to call it ‘Pencil Kid’. All of which makes me wonder if one-series-wonder ‘The Adventures of Penny Crayon‘ cartoon broadcast on BBC in 1989 was the inspiration behind it.
If I gave you three guesses as to what the plot might entail, you’d nail it in one. Yes, you’re spot on. A loathsome, maleficent overlord has abducted the daughter of the King of Cartoonia, who now seeks a clueless mug – I mean fearless Samaritan – to step forward risking life and limb to rescue his beloved Princess Lady-Bug.
Well no-one else is going to volunteer so we may as well give it a whirl. Our selfless assistance greatly appreciated, the king presents us with the sacred magic pencils and eraser to supercharge our liberation mission of mercy. Each is colour-coded and can be used as a javelin-like weapon, or to conjure up one of five special tactical manoeuvres, selected by pulling down on the joystick. A power-up system that Adrian would revisit and tweak for his next game, Tin Toy Adventure. Any pencils missing their target, or that are deliberately thrown into the ether, automatically transform into the previously selected power-up so are never wasted.
The umbrella allows us to drift down the level at a safe pace to avoid deadly falls, the balloon carries us skywards in order to reach otherwise inaccessible areas, while the magic potion confers a temporary gyrating ring of invulnerability. Clocks freeze time and baddies, and the creme de la creme of artistic assault weapons, the smart bomb eraser, explodes unleashing a star-bursting trio of lethal projectiles.
If all else fails you can fall back on your Sonic-style jump-spin of doom. Congruent with his kindred blue spiky spirit, Doodlebug can’t bounce on enemies without incurring damage unless he’s rotating at the time. Sega’s bigwigs must have been choking on their sushi! Should they let rip you can top up your energy by snagging red heart icons.
When you’re not wreaking havoc on the deceptively cute local inhabitants it’s fun to spot the graphical touches that plant us squarely in the territory of ’90s gaming Zeitgeist; Mega Drives, hedgehogs and mushrooms standing in as enemies, slanted Mario podiums, and Superfrog’s ricocheting arrow blocks. A list – in spite of the full stop – I sense we’ll be returning to very soon.
“Overall, this is a capable platformer. However, Doodle is seriously deficient in the originality stakes. Many of the game and plot features are close copies of, if not blatant ripoffs from, many better and slicker console games. If you’re really desperate for a console-type platformer you’d be better off investing 25 quid in Zool.”
70% – CU Amiga (November 1992)
There are five distinctly themed levels to explore, each split into three sub levels. Reminiscent of Robocod, specific vehicles become available depending on the current stage and the status of your collectable funds, helpfully supplied by a colourful cast of supporting characters.
Visiting toy world, for 10 gold coins the Beatles’ yellow submarine can be yours courtesy of a loan shark. He is too, literally. In the city you’ll find a flying saucer enticing an adventurous joyrider to take it for a spin, assuming you have a spare 100 gold coins with which to bribe the alien owner.
“There is a bug in this game (no pun intended) on the last level in Capital City, where you can get in the flying saucer and fly directly up and diagonal through the map to the last door in the game that leads to the final boss heh… Core Design thought at the time that it made quite a good feature I recall, and as we were about to master the disc I left it in due to time constraints – bet you didn’t know that one then.”
Adrian Cummings, Lemon Amiga (February 2005)
A chopper-peddling duck awaits in the icy wilderness; it’s powered by traditional fuel not feet, Fred Flintstone style, just to allay any confusion. The Doodlebug equivalent of Castle of Illusion’s forest zone introduces buggy-assisted transport, whereas a wizard’s pet dragon can be added to your shopping cart in the fortress. If he has a name it’s likely ‘Yoshi’.
“Stolen ideas left, right and centre, addictive gameplay and cute visuals are all part and parcel of Doodle Bug. It’s a charm to play, just as any other accomplished platform game is, but if I had to spend over £25 to play it, I’d definitely think twice. It’s just too uninspiring in the originality department. If the graphics were more sophisticated and it equalled the technical brilliance of Zool, the choice would be yours. But the bottom line is, there are finer platformers on the shelves.”
76% – Amiga Action (November 1992)
A la Mario, blocks can be headbutted from beneath to dislodge bonus items, or broken from above to drill down into the scenery. Larger blocks can be pushed over spikes to create a bridge between ledges, or shifted out of the way to reveal new pathways analogous to, well, loads of games really. Starting as it means to go on, Doodlebug snaffles platforming mechanics and tropes from the most popular console and computer titles of the era and kneads them all into one neat, well-presented, parallax-nourished package. Though if it all strikes you as a bit too pretty you can always flip into the cheeky Atari ST mode via a cheat to switch off the backdrops. Incidentally, there was an Atari ST port converted by a friend of Adrian’s, Rob Brooks. A Game Boy edition was bandied about, yet never got off the starting blocks because Adrian wasn’t comfortable with programming for the system at the time.
It’s a shame there isn’t another one to eliminate all the tedious floppy disk chugging too. Then that hardly matters here in the futuristically impossible year of 2017 where we all have new-fangled emulators, NASA PCs, or at least exotically expanded vintage hardware. Actually, it would be churlish to even mention it, so I won’t.
“It’s not really up there with Zool and The Addams Family, but it’s not that far behind either. It reminds me of Fire And Ice, and it’s good fun in a not-at-all-dissimilar sort of way.”
83% – Amiga Power (November 1992)
Simultaneous music and sound effects there is, hmm. Adrian being a talented Renaissance man, he was also responsible for these. Diverse and befitting they are too; there’s none of that incessant three-chord looping nonsense you must endure with rushed games where attention to detail is way down the list of priorities.
In toy land the music is jaunty and tame, lulling you into a false sense of security, though naturally transitions into a slightly more sinister-toned composition in time for the boss showdown. On the niggle front, I could really have lived without a jumping sound effect, triggered every time our sprite leaves the ground. That rapidly becomes irritating and tiresome.
An enigmatic, foreboding lilt becomes evident in the audio as we progress into the more hostile territory of a spooky forest and ungenial castle. Accompanied by appropriate weather effects the two meld together in perfect synergy.
Control over our sprite feels solidly reliable as with Adrian’s other work, yet also perhaps a bit too unwieldy. As in Tin Toy Adventure it’s as though our doodling pal is struggling against gravity a bit more than is ideal for a responsive platformer. Still, once you get used to the slower pace it all feels intuitive, and natural enough.
“Does your ST really need another cutesy platformer? Yes. While Doodlebug offers nothing new, it’s still great fun to play. It’s addictive and packed with playability. If you’re a hardened game player, however, you may find you can finish it too easily. The concept and execution is hardly original, but even if you already own all of the ST’s previous cutesy incarnations, you’re going to find this one hard to resist.”
83% – ST Format (April 1993)
Thwarting your passage to the next world at the end of each scenario is a gargantuan boss guardian. In Toy-Land, having dispatched a menagerie of walking footballs, band camp drummer boys and clowns, you tango with the googly-eyed, top-hatted, Mr Clockworks. If you’ve fought the judge in Addams Family this guy will be remarkably familiar. Aside from his eyes he stomps you into submission with zero frames of animation, his entire static body bounding about the screen as a whole. Unlike the judge, there’s no salvo of gavels or shells of any kind, rather favouring the golf spikes under his boots to turn your skull into a colander. Upon destruction, the devious blighter detonates leaving behind a selection of fruit and cakes, much like in Rainbow Islands.
Wart-Nose the Witch is boss numero deux. She’s not French, I just wanted to sound cultured and clever. This time nothing is animated as she flies back and forth throughout the Forbidden Forest on a broomstick with her faithful puddy tat, dipping and climbing as she spits out ballistic pulses.
In the Fortress of Fear we dodge skeletons, Frankenstein’s monsters, fork-wielding devils, and minotaur flame spitters likely inspired by Gods, before reaching the axe-hurling Black Knight. He’s another frozen rigid stomper much the same as Mr Clockworks.
The slippy-slidey Crystal Cavern is presided over by The Thing, and patrolled by an entourage of Eskimos, penguins, snowmen, and walruses. Our prime nemesis is a cross between Slimer and the abominable snowman. With probing eyes that eject alternately from its head on stalks (some animation at last!), it launches mini one-armed Things at you.
Capital City is all a bit urban and Switchbladey, yet is home to a chrome R2D2 primed for a Comic Relief marathon. It’s also crawling with walking letters, capital letters of course. I think that’s the joke.
The cigar-smoking Evil Slug boss gangster brandishing the Mafia’s best friend, a Thomson sub-machine gun, is the final obstacle standing between you and the princess. Kick his slimy butt and you’re home free, the king is proper chuffed to have his darling daughter back, the two of you fall in love (you and the princess, not her dad, that’s a different game entirely), and everyone lives happily ever after.
Unless our ladybird chum morphed into a Tin Toy following the wedding, Doodlebug never did return for another sequel despite his optimistic promises.
I won’t bitch about quickie, cliche endings because that’s getting stale now, and even I’m sick of the sound of my own voice. Especially given the sum of Doodlebug’s parts tot up to such a solid, competent platformer replete with radiant visuals, personality-injecting animation and an appropriately hummable, bouncy soundtrack.
Perhaps a bit long in the tooth gameplay-wise by 1992, but then how many titles from the same genre can you name that were truly innovative? Fans knew what they liked, and were often happy to buy more of the same with a marginally divergent twist… attested to by the positive reception with which the official iOS HD remaster was met upon release in 2011. Doodlebug ticks all the boxes with a chunky red crayon, and is so good-natured you’d have to ransack a sweet shop and overdose on Bah! Humbugs! to stoop to cynical Scroogery.