Console gamers would take great delight in laughing at Amiga developer’s efforts to create console-style platformers. That was until Ruff ‘n’ Tumble landed at the tail end of 1994. At least it would have silenced the gloating critics had it made so much as a blip on their radar. As it was, the ultra-violent, cutesy run ‘n’ gun only put in an appearance on the Amiga, and at a time when the system was well beyond the brink of a meltdown. More of a red and white chequered puddle.
Brought to life over the course of two years and finally released in October 1994, Wunderkind’s one release wonder – unabridged title Ruff ‘n’ Tumble in the Fantasy Forest – is in a league of its own. Renegade certainly recognised its potential, even this late in the day. They wouldn’t have bestowed Ruff ‘n’ Tumble with the ultimate endorsement by publishing it otherwise.
By graphic artist, Robin Levy’s own admission, “The game itself is reasonably plotless; and if we do have a plot, it’ll probably be contrived and really tongue-in-cheek.”
Flimsily plotted as it is, Ruff ‘n’ Tumble suffers not one iota in the playability stakes. You assume the role of the semi-eponymous hero, Ruff Rodgers, “a normal, happy-go-lucky eight-year-old, with a spring in his step and a penchant for shiny marbles”. Tumble must be on vacation because he or she is nowhere to be seen.
Originally conceived by the boss of graphics artist Robin Levy – a Canadian bond broker and part-time cartoonist – Ruff had already undergone four revisions by the time he was previewed in early 1994. Robin subsequently embraced the level design and graphical duties, while Jason took care of the coding. What’s remarkable – one of the things that’s remarkable – is that so few people were involved in Ruff n Tumble’s creation.
One evening Ruff is out exploring the local park when he stumbles across a mysterious hole invitingly signposted “want to play?”. To ascertain the likelihood of it swallowing him whole and never letting go (or meeting Chucky down there) Ruff tosses a marble into it.
Just then the ground erupts and collapses into a cave where he finds a gun and a note from the devilishly dastardly Doctor Destiny. It reads…
“Master Rodgers, I’m afraid I’ve had to confiscate your marbles, dear fellow. I’m incredibly evil, you see, and I need them to power my supreme machine which will help me take over the world! Ha ha ha!”
After a theatrical thunderclap to establish the requisite mood, the note continues…
“But because I’m a sporting kind of chap, I’ve decided to allow you a chance to get your marbles back. Grab the gun, climb into the teleporter, and you’ll be taken to my secret netherworld. Of course, you’ve got no real hope: even if you get all the marbles, I’ll just have to kill you.”
Having seized the remainder of your marble collection DD scatters them across the four worlds under his jurisdiction. Quite literally Ruff has ‘lost his marbles’; a British phrase you may not be familiar with. Substitute marbles with sanity and you’ll get the gist.
Shockingly it’s your remit to recover them, obliterating the doc’s robo-foe Tinhead Army in the process before they can swamp you with bullet-hell ammunition. Quite a tall order for a pre-pubescent Milky Bar kid you may imagine, until you consider that he’s been “transformed into a ruthless, sadistic killing machine” who’s even immune to drowning. What a stroke of luck.
On each of the sixteen levels you must snag a predetermined number of different coloured marbles until a trio of RGB ‘OKs’ signal the opening of an exit. These are always to be found at the far right, whisking you to the next stage to continue your pursuit of the megalomaniac marble pilferer. Whilst rare, ‘magic marbles’ can be found that immediately reduce the countdown tally of a particular coloured marble to zero, drastically condensing your task.
Speaking of which, when previewed twenty-four levels spread across the four worlds were outlined, yet somewhere along the line these were whittled down to the sixteen on offer in the (still enormous) final game.
When the hurly-burly’s done, when the battle’s lost and won, it’s a traditional platformer with firmly rooted ‘collect stuff for points, find keys to open doors, duff up the end of level boss’ mechanics. What makes it stand out from the crowd is the meticulous attention to detail lavished on the presentation, and the exquisite fine-tuning of the code that ensures RnT plays as divinely as it looks.
Glancing at the screenshots it’s hard to believe that Robin Levy’s glorious pixel art visuals were all produced with a palette of only 32 colours, and the game crammed onto two floppies that run on a humble 1mb OCS/ECS Amiga. Out of all the games he’s worked on, Robin counts RnT as one of his favourites unsurprisingly. On the Amiga he had Fuzzball, Myth, and Putty to choose from, while his C64 highlights were Armalyte and Last Ninja 3 (despite sometimes being credited for the Amiga version).
Originally the intention was to follow up the vanilla release with enhanced AGA editions for the Amiga 1200 and CD32. These would have featured 256 colours, and Dolby Pro-Logic surround sound audio where the CD version was concerned. Sadly no further releases materialised likely due to insufficient demand from the deflated Amiga market. Instead, we had to ‘make do’ with the A500/600 version, which looks, sounds and plays as well as any AGA title. Poor us.
Coder Jason Perkins’ master plan was to devise a kind of platform-based interpretation of Defender, if you can wrap your head around the concept. What transpired was an oxymoron of charmingly cute and frenetic metallic-themed mayhem and bloodshed… oilshed surely? The closest analogue for the Amiga would be Turrican, though in terms of style and execution it resembles Metal Slug to a greater degree.
The team first developed a custom map editor that allowed them to almost cut and paste attributes, tilesets and so on. This was then cunningly deployed in constructing their ‘Fantasy Forest’, ‘Underground Mine’ “where you’ll need to cope with slippery crystal surfaces and pools of hot molten lava”, ‘Tinhead Factory’ “where the good Doctor manufactures his metal army”, and ‘Dr Destiny’s Castle’.
“Be careful as you tread the cold stone floors of his castle, because they’re littered with hidden traps and loads of nasty metallic beasties. Keep a special eye out for the wicked Whizzard who can teleport around the screen to avoid your fire; and the Knight in shining armour with a glint in his eye and a smile as sharp as his sword.”
Each more expansive than the last, charitably they can be skipped between via a level code system for practice purposes. Completing the game, however, still demands that you tackle each stage in sequence.
Restore points – delineated by depressible chevron posts – are available, allowing you to keep progressing, yet you’re transported back to the beginning of the level once you lose all your lives. A single continue is offered to help you get back on track.
Each life comprises a number of hit points represented by heart-shaped containers as in The Addams Family. Red heart power-ups replenish your stock, while the white ones grant access to an extra container so you can absorb more damage before Keeling over. Collecting more hearts than you have allocated space in which to store them brings on a heart attack. Well it would if I hadn’t just made that bit up to fulfill my stupid joke quota. It actually does nothing so it’s advisable to conserve hearts for later whenever you’re healthy.
Rather than leaping across passively mobilised platforms, which Jason felt were a bit too tropey in platformers for their own good, you navigate the levels by shooting switches that cause ladders to unfurl.
Again to avoid genre cliches, dispatching enemies is accomplished through brandishing heavy-duty artillery in place of the hackneyed head bounce. Your stock weapon is an infinitely ammo-ed machine gun with a built-in auto-fire function. Holding down the fire button clips off a barrage of bullets that trails off as the firepower bar depletes. Release the button and it’s automatically revitalised a la Walker’s overheating protection mechanism.
Collecting ‘P’ icons boosts your weapon’s potency or recharges the annexes with limited ammo. Some of these add-ons will double your rate of fire, whilst others upgrade your assault rifle to a smoke-trailing rocket launcher, laser bolt lancer, or flamethrower. The latter being the creme de la creme of droid demolishers. However you embellish it, Ruff’s death-dealing hardware is nearly as big as he is, dialing up the absurdometre to off-the-scale.
Special weapon appendages drain at a steady rate whether they’re in use or not so the optimal technique is to go berserk blasting away like an Expendable for as long as permitted. There’s nothing wrong with succumbing to a psychotic rampage every once in a while to let off steam. That’s what my dear departed gran always used to say after a Saturday night ruckus. Bless her cotton socks.
Whichever weapon you land, the drawback is that you’ll struggle to shoot bots approaching via slopes because you’re incapable of aiming at the right angle so that your projectiles track the contour of the slope. Eight-way firing is possible – even when stationary – though what we really need is sixteen to take account of the 60-degree ramps. A ‘work-around’ is to get up close and personal and shoot them in the scalp (or toes).
Other pick-ups include energy top-ups, coins, speed shoes, skull and crossbones smart bombs, a temporary shield and Ruff heads (extra lives), as well as computer paraphernalia just for points. More still can be found hidden behind force fields you’ll need a colour-coded key to deactivate.
A gold coin is awarded for each droid dismantled, and any marbles remaining once you’ve met the target transform into coins. Collect 100 and you can swap them for an extra life.
Finally, killing a succession of Tinheads rewards you with power-ups, motivating you to stand your ground and fight rather than fleeing.
Whichever option you choose, your flouncily animated blond quiff remains intact, sounding the ‘neat touch’ alarm with aplomb. Some games have the odd moment that makes you smile like that. RnT is one long neat touch.
There’s the realistic inertia, the way the Tinheads get knocked backwards and then fall over on their backsides when you blast them, and the juxtaposition between old and futuristic tech. On that note, check out Bobby with his blunderbuss.
Wait, I’m not finished yet. Climbing ladders Ruff ‘holsters’ his rifle… erm, on his back, to free up his arms so he can hold on. As the giant drilling screws come crashing down to the floor the whole cave trembles from the aftershock.
Depending on who you ask, RnT is variously a ruthlessly difficult, or effortlessly easy game. What can be agreed upon is that it’s perfectly fair. If you die, 99% of the time it’s because you screwed up, not because the game is badly designed. As such, you’ll kick yourself for being a Dumbo, but never the game.
No time limit is imposed and enemies don’t respawn (except for the piranhas), so once the pulsating baddie generators have been exhausted (watch for the light being extinguished), you’re free to take your time to avoid making daft mistakes. Not that the overwrought, pounding soundtrack does much to induce a sense of requiescence.
Baddie AI is consummately crafted engendering competent killer bots that become more intelligent and can withstand extra shots as you progress. Well, that makes a refreshing change.
To lend you a helping hand each Tinhead comes equipped with their own signature ‘tell’ that amiably tips you off as to when they’re about to attack, giving you the opportunity to take evasive action. Moreover, as bots tend to be recycled within the same worlds, you’ll soon become familiar with their foibles, strengths and weaknesses.
Each world wraps up with an inventive boss battle, the first of which is a fully animated, swooping mechanical owl that puts me in mind of Bubo from Clash of the Titans.
Whilst demonstrating a WIP preview of his creation, Jason – previously responsible for Thing On A Spring, Monty On The Run and Apocalypse – had this to say on the subject…
“We toyed with the idea of setting these things up, so that when you blow their heads off you find a Tinhead inside controlling it and moving it around, but I’m not sure if we’ll do that now.”
Spoiler: they didn’t. Boo! Nice idea all the same.
Our second super Tinhead adversary is a sort of sabre-toothed scooter/hoover, erm, thingy-wotsit known as The Crawler. Technically a mining machine, it flings mechanical eggs that hatch into hopping flat-headed micro-droids, periodically sitting up to reveal a laser cannon that’s all too pleased to make your acquaintance.
Leading up to boss three are a number of ED-209 style mechas that could be mistaken for bosses, except they’re very easily dispatched. The real deal is a hovering half-dome UFO that ejects Mini-mes.
Fourth and last in the line-up is Mr Big Bad Nemesis Himself, Dr Destiny, who manifests as a robot flying a rocket-launcher-packin’ helicopter with a shark grin nose.
Bosses can at first appear adroitly fierce, yet once you’ve learnt their attack patterns you realise they aren’t so tough after all. You can even duck behind them and lay into their unguarded backsides, or lodge yourself on an unreachable perch before discharging your munitions. Upon kicking the bucket they explode into a paroxysm of bouncing gold coins, which is all jolly amicable of them given the circumstances of their pyrotechnically spectacular departure.
If you’ve played a few platformers or shmups before you’ll know that bosses tend to have an Achilles heel. Entirely logically – and comically – in RnT Brainiac’s is his grey matter. Nuke that and he immediately becomes stoo-peed ensuring he’s child’s play to slay. At least that was the plan. Unfortunately, the character failed to make the leap from the drawing board to the final cut floppy, much like the T-1000 spoof known as Molly, then Polly.
Unusually for a platformer released during the Amiga’s twilight years, RnT doesn’t engage any sort of parallax scrolling. This was a decision made to ensure the frame rate didn’t suffer, as well it might in such a frantic, high octane game designed to lunge from 0 to 60 at breakneck pace.
Standing in is something Jason terms ‘non-parallaxing-parallax’; a nimble technique that blurs backdrops as you distance yourself from them to impart the illusion of depth. It’s especially conspicuous in the cave stages. You’ll also find it employed in System 3’s Putty, another of Robin’s pixel art gaming projects.
Another unorthodox technical feat RnT can add to its roster is blind jump elimination facilitated by its ‘auto-scroll controller’. What this means for the player is that whenever you can’t see where you’d end up if you dropped down a shute or leapt beyond the edge of the screen, it will automatically scroll to expand your view.
RnT is what you might call ‘off the beaten track’ in the audio department too. Fire and Ice/Putty Squad soundsmith Jason Page composed the music, and it falls into the hardcore techno and industrial metal genre. It’s loud, heavy, obnoxious, nerve janglingly irritating, and thankfully it can be disabled from the options menu.
“I was asked by Jason Perkins (who later worked at Sony before I joined, small world…) to write something that had a hard guitar type sound. I was listening to a lot of Rage Against The Machine at the time, so this one was heavily influenced by them (I actually sampled some of the instruments from them).
This was one of the first games I wrote music for when working freelance with Richard Joseph. Good times. I don’t really remember writing the music though. Writing so much music, I rarely got emotionally involved with any of it. I’d write it, and move on to the next. If you fall in love with your own work, and then a publisher tells you that they hate it, you get frustrated or miserable. So, remembering that it is a job that you’re doing is also important. It’s only now, years later, that I actually appreciate what I wrote! Weird..”
Jason Page (Lemon Amiga interview, February 2017)
We knew from the outset Ruff would be a niche product due to its limited release, targeted towards a dwindling audience. Nevertheless, it did reach no. 13 in the Gallup sales charts in March 1995 and was extremely well received by the critics.
Amiga Power awarded it 88% expounding it’s “A brilliant game that’s clearly been put together by people who care about getting it right. You’ll get angry with it, but all you’ll be able to do is wag your finger at it and say, ‘You… you… Oh, all right then. My mistake’.”
The One enjoyed it even more, dishing up a 91% bottom line and a glowing appraisal. They concluded, “Everything about it hangs together brilliantly; the graphic style is perfect, the gameplay finely-tuned, and the pumping soundtrack requires two huge speakers and sympathetic neighbours to show it to its best. Yes, I know it’s a bit embarrassing, and I’m sure you’re aware of how much I like to moan, but Ruff ‘n’ Tumble really is the apex of platform pleasure. In short, it’s fab.”
87% was Amiga Format’s verdict, culminating in the precis, “A classy platform shoot-em-up, Ruff ‘n’ Tumble cleverly combines the skills of jump-and-move with some great blasting action. Not wildly original, but smooth and playable.”
More complimentary still, CU Amiga stamped the “absolutely stunning game” with their ‘Super Star’ seal of approval and a 92% score. Wrapping up they eulogised, “At the end of the day, Ruff ‘n’ Tumble is an excellent game, one that shows the genuine effort that has gone into creating it. A true Amiga platformer it tips its hat to the simple playability of yesteryear’s machines, with the sort of sound and graphic content that sits firmly in the modern-day. I guess what I’m trying to say is, shucks, just go and buy it will you?”
RnT came so close to being the perfect corollary to Metal Slug that nothing else on the Amiga measures up in terms of polish and solid controls. Practically all that lets the side down is the juddery scrolling, lack of an HD installation option, and the usual ‘up for jump’ complaint that handicapped single fire button titles in general. Mercifully the latter two caveats can today be circumvented via the magic of emulation.
Unveiling Ruff to the critics Jason energetically proclaimed, “We want to give Ruff a bit more character than you find in most games”. I think it’s safe to say he hit the bullseye. Ruff is certainly a fiesty “little fella” brimming with personality who manages to pull off a number of tricks not often associated with ‘inferior’ Amiga games. In fact, it’s all so SNESy that playing Ruff ‘n’ Tumble almost feels like a betrayal.