Things Ain’t Working Out Down At The Farm (a multimedia review)

If I said ‘Lupo Alberto’ to you, would it ring any bells? How about the English translation, Alberto the Wolf? No? Not even one of those teeny-weeny novelty thimble-sized bells with a weedy little clapper that hardly makes a jingle?

Well, allow me to fill in the blanks. Lupo Alberto is the name of an Italian comic strip created by Guido Silvestri (aka Silver) in 1974. It’s set at McKenzie farm and revolves around a cast of anthropomorphic talking farmyard animals. You know, all the kinds you’d typically expect to find in and around this sort of environment… pigs, ducks, turkeys, a sheepdog, bulls, rabbits, hens, and a lone wolf.

Alberto is the star of the show, his earliest story-lines focusing on ‘stealing’ his willing girlfriend, Martha the hen, so they can enjoy some private intimate time. Moses the sheepdog is the one who throws a spanner in the works, forcing the happy couple to sneak around behind his back to maintain their covert affair. What troubles the meddling anti-Cupid is that wolves and hens don’t normally get on, what with one usually being preoccupied with snacking on the other.

What two consenting adult animals get up to in their own time should really be no-one else’s business, so why Moses doesn’t just get a hobby and leave them to it is anyone’s guess. Anyway, that’s the origin of the humour. I didn’t mention this is supposed to be funny did I? Come on, it’s hen-wolf love, how ironic is that? Go on, gimme a grin… just a little smirk?

First published in an Italian kids magazine, the strip evolved into a series of books issued on a monthly basis beginning in 1985. As Alberto’s popularity grew he was adopted by the Italian Ministry of Public Health to front an AIDS awareness campaign aimed at educating teenagers on the importance of safe sex and contraceptives. Ultimately the morally and socially responsible ‘toon agent was in 1997 transformed into an animated role model commissioned by Warner Bros. You can probably even buy condoms with his face on them by now.

At what I suppose would be the height of Alberto’s fame, our lupine protagonist was drafted in to star in his own eponymous Amiga, Atari ST and Commodore 64 game. Digiteam – also responsible for the Cattivik and Sturmtruppen games, based on other popular Italian comics – were the little known development team behind the title. In 1991 their handiwork was published by Idea, the same outfit who brought us the cute shoot ’em up, Bomber Bob.

Cutting to the chase (ha-ha?), Digiteam’s spin-off is quite a primitive Super Mario Bros clone, replete with head-bouncing, power-ups and bonus point hoarding. You can choose to play in two player co-op mode, or by yourself embodying either Alberto or his much cherished chick (sorry), Martha. Either way, your goal remains the same; to find a safe, private place in which to, erm… bond.

This is all very liberal for a kid’s cartoon isn’t it? Practically Shakespearean even. I wouldn’t put it past the crafty Bard to have modelled Romeo and Juliet on the tragic dramedy of Alberto and Martha. Star-crossed true love derailed by familial meddling, the overwhelming raw power of passion, inevitability of fate and the battle of individuality versus societal convention. Silver nailed all the major poetic themes of romance against the odds duality!

Standing between you and your various hidey-holes you face an assortment of characters from the cartoon. There aren’t quite enough to go round so you’ll encounter multiple doppelgangers of each on the screen simultaneously, even duplications of your arch nemesis, Moses.

He’s not the final boss as you might expect, and wouldn’t be even if he was because there aren’t any. Bosses that is. You meet and defeat him fairly early into the game, and then again, and again. And a bit more for good measure later on.

Many enemies take a few hits to kill. Following the first head-bounce they teeter over, clinging precariously by their fingertips to the edge of the nearest platform. Give them a few seconds to recover and they’ll claw their way back to safety, ready to harass you once more. Delivering another blow is usually sufficient to finish the job, sending them dive-bombing off-screen.

When baddies kick the bucket they leave behind a variety of pick-ups. These include fruity bonus points, a helmet allowing you to attack from beneath platforms, turbo-charged running shoes, and springy boots to help you vault higher than you would typically.

In terms of additional weapons you can upgrade to projectile boxing gloves, impersonating Data from The Goonies, and Fred Flintstone’s favourite toy, bowling balls. Finally, grabbing the monster diamonds will detonate the screen, clearing everything in sight.

I can’t tell if any of this alludes to the cartoon source material because all I’ve seen of it are two short clips, the only ones I could find in English on YouTube. For a cartoon translated into English, very little has been written about it, so I can’t imagine it ever took off here to the extent it did in Italy. Apparently Alberto is still going strong today over the pond, if having your own official web site is anything to go by.

Despite visiting eight-way scrolling environments as diverse as caves, African villages, a desert island, and sewers, the gameplay remains extremely bland and unchallenging throughout.

Graphically too Alberto is just about passable as a commercial release, each sprite’s animation comprising only a handful of frames. They are quite endearing in a rudimentary sort of way, evoking the line drawing origins of the comic strip, so it all feels appropriate and deliberate. I noticed Alberto bites his protruding tongue whenever he jumps to convince us of his determination. That’s a neat touch.

Alberto and Martha handle slightly differently, the controls in either case being reasonably well tuned, albeit a bit sluggish. When both characters are on screen simultaneously the scrolling often struggles to work out how to tackle one lagging behind the other. Then you could argue that’s a wrinkle for the players to iron out by improving their synchrony.

Speaking of which, you don’t often see developers making an effort to dovetail the manual’s content with that of the game. Nevertheless such an idiosyncracy can be found in Lupo Alberto, providing gamers with an extra incentive to progress. At the back of the manual are a series of comic strips with the punchline missing. It’s not a printing error – each time you complete one of the ten levels you’re rewarded with the final cell, and a hearty laugh, allegedly.

It’s a great idea (and a subtle anti-piracy device I suppose), or it would be if the jokes were remotely funny, or even made an iota of sense. Some work just as well (or badly) if you swap one punchline for another. With others the best reaction you can hope for is, “oh, I see what they’re getting at there.”

Feeling charitable I’m going to assume they’re hilarious in Italian and something has been lost in translation. Alberto must have survived for 44 years for some reason? Any suggestions from Italian speakers are now being taken by my secretary. You can ring the free phone hotline on…

As a gratis PD game I’d be singing Alberto’s praises, however, for a premium price commercial product it falls well short of the competition. It’s acutely mundane, offers nothing unique aside from the comic strip ‘carrot on a stick’, and if it wasn’t for the cartoon connection I certainly wouldn’t be writing about it now.

What’s intriguing to me is that Alberto the game is extremely well regarded by fans of Alberto the cartoon. It just goes to show how easy it is to disguise a dud by wrapping it in a recognisable license. A shining example of familiarity breeds affection?

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