I was minding my own business crossing the river earlier today when I was struck by a log… sized thought. Stopping dead in my tracks to address it, I was immediately lost in the moment. Why do so few games exist that let you play as a beaver? I pondered as the extremely rude alligators, turtles and water snakes swerved around me honking their high-pitched horns at full blast. They could easily have caused an accident driving so irresponsibly like that! There should really be a ranger to police these hazard hot-spots.
Having conducted extensive research into the subject (it was a particularly slow day at work), the list I’ve managed to compile includes a not-so-whopping six entries, and most of these only just qualify. There’s the ‘madcap’ Robocalypse: Beaver Defense tower combat extravaganza, Chip aka Uomasa from Animal Crossing, Bonzo the beaver of Beaver Builder ‘fame’ courtesy of Beaver Interactive, Joustin’ Beaver from the litigious, eponymous Justin Bieber parody game, Sharky the Beaver as featured in Sphero’s Augmented Reality Engine, and Grandslam’s Amiga and CD32 platformer, Beavers, starring prince of pop, Jethro. He’s also a beaver in case that wasn’t crystal clear.
Could it be that publishers don’t think it’s appropriate for them to be associated with a euphemism for women’s private bits? There, I’ve said it. Beaver – in Britain – is slang for the ‘lady flower’. You know, the ‘cha-cha’. Now we’ve got that out in the open. I mean, now we’ve let the puddy tat out of the bag we can all be mature and sensible about it and move on. Teehee. Sorry.
As for the origin of the word, since we’ve already sunk this low, why not keep digging? Common wisdom and folklore teaches us that ‘merkins’ – that is pubic wigs – were first worn by prostitutes in the 1450s, having shaved off their ‘lady gardens’ to rid themselves of pubic lice. Nether region wigs – often made of beaver pelts – were a more hygienic substitute for the genuine article, and as an added bonus, would help to conceal signs of sexual diseases such as syphilis.
Fast-forward one or two centuries and anthropomorphic animals began appearing as unlikely video game mascots. By the early nineties, the Amiga gaming pantheon had presented us with the opportunity to play as a frog, owl, dog, wolf, lion, wasp, alien ant, robofish, quartet of turtles and an army of arthropods.
It wasn’t until 1993 that the humble beaver managed to shake off its rather embarrassing raison d’etre to enjoy its fifteen minutes of fame. Now was the time of the beaver; an eager beaver at that. Eager to rescue Mrs Beaver from the clutches of the scheming rabbits who had kidnapped her to blackmail Mr Beaver – aka Jethro – into retiring the band.
Well yes, obviously he’s part of a band of beavers, the band at the forefront of a new movement. Beavermania is currently sweeping the nation, stealing the limelight from any rabbit groups desperate to break into the music biz. Any similarity to Beatlemania is purely coincidental.
You can’t blame the rabbit uprising I suppose – those beavers hog all the best venues, and much to their parent’s chagrin, the kittens can’t get enough of their unique beavery pop. For far too long now it’s been warping their tiny wabbit minds, brainwashing them into building dams when they should be reproducing and propagating myxomatosis. Someone had to make a stand.
Nevertheless, we’ll be approaching the stand-off with a beaver’s eye view as we attempt to prolong our star turn, and no doubt nibble away at the musical top spot. Our task then is to explore 20 environmentally diverse levels in search of our cottontail tormentor, confront him to buck the current trend of bunny-based bullying, and rescue our missus. In time to return home for a swift Nesquik before our next gig gets underway.
Beavers was the handiwork of Arc Developments, who in June 1993 joined forces with publishers, Grandslam, to flood the Amiga landscape with colonies of furry oversized rodents. Arc weren’t newcomers to Amiga gaming, having previously been responsible for McDonald Land, Bart vs. The Space Mutants, Bart vs. The World, and WWF European Rampage Tour to highlight their most notable titles. In this case, the team comprised coder, Julian Scott, graphician, Jon Harrison, and musician, Andrew McGinty.
Having committed to our acoustical preference – sound effects or hillbilly banjo music – our crusade begins with an exercise in keeping pace with an automatically scrolling screen, forcing us to run and bound over a range of environmental obstacles to reach the Davy Crockett hat that will allow us to exit the level. Apparently this is a present to be given to the kids to motivate them to continue helping you. I hadn’t noticed they had been. Did I miss that? I suppose it makes as much sense as collecting pink elephants, Oscars, or whatever else first sprang to mind during the pub brainstorming session that gave rise to the game in the first place. Hunting headgear is essential to our progression. That’s as much as we need to know.
It’s a harsh introduction to beavering, and one that’s not a whole lot of fun to play. With that hurdle leaped, the screen stabilises and the next level is a more traditional affair, allowing us to explore at our leisure. What follows is a series of stages spread across forestland, spooky caves, and slippy-slidey, inertia-plagued snowscapes, unfortunately, interspersed with more forced-scroll levels. We can at least be grateful for the provision of level codes issued following every sixth stage that guarantee we’ll never have to repeat a particularly irksome area once ticked off the checklist.
Our sole weapon is a tailspin attack with limited reach and effectiveness, activated by pulling down on the joystick. Swiped enemies – those that are susceptible anyway – dissolve into the ground whenever we make contact. Again, it’s perhaps best not to ask too many questions.
Feeble as it is, you’d be far better off avoiding enemies entirely unless it’s absolutely necessary to whack them into submission. And it will be when it comes to tackling the giant, acorn-hurling teddy bosses. Spinning at the key moment allows you to deflect their tree-borne bombs right back at them without requiring any projectiles of your own. Unless its rocks our assailants happen to be pelting at us – these are out of bounds presumably because they’re as hard as, well, erm, rock, and so would lead to a broken tail. For the same reason, scenery-blending rock monsters should also be avoided.
Aside from raccoon skin hats, you’ll need to gather enough ‘charisma stars’ in order to maintain your popularity in the forest; we can’t leave an area until we’ve acquired the prerequisite total. These also serve as a convenient means of topping up our energy – eight stars equals one extra unit. Red stars, on the contrary, will boost our life count, though we’ll only need to grab three to claim our reward.
Other pick-ups are on hand/paw to help us. Spanners, for instance, can be employed to operate machinery that activates lifts or releases steam to allow us to ascend the levels. Pushing up on the joystick, doors can be entered, or switches flicked to affect the environment to our advantage, rather than engaging the fire button as is usually the case. Here that’s reserved for jump.
Assistance to reach higher ground also comes in the form of bouncy rubber leaves, and certain clouds that look identical to any others can be stepped on. Dropping mushroom seeds wherever we need to climb to an out of reach platform serves the same purpose – a toadstool immediately grows where it lands, creating a makeshift ledge.
It’s making blind leaps of faith down into the unknown that will cause us more of a headache, especially when the end of the line involves water. Newsflash: water kills our pal, Jethro… unless we find ourselves navigating a swimming level. Then it’s perfectly safe.
Jon Harrison’s simplistic, yet charming graphics are reminiscent of Tearaway Thomas, particularly in the way the cutesy, cartoony styles are juxtaposed with eerie gravestones, Frankenbears, and bear skull candle holders. When you go down to the woods today you’ll be sure to find bears of every kind in fact. There are armed, suited and booted Mafia teddies, bears that crouch down, turning into ticking time bombs, and all three bosses too are gargantuan bears.
The second is mostly a facsimile of the first, only he’s white to match his arctic playground, and lobs snowballs rather than acorns. Even so, he’s to be defeated in exactly the same way.
Our final challenger is – surprise, surprise – another bear, albeit this time sporting a DIY, strap-on joey pouch. Inside is a rabbit armed with a shotgun, while the bear himself chucks acorns.
Dispatch Mega-bear numero tois and you’re home free. We’re reunited with Mrs Beaver and a message informs us “Jethro has got his Beaver at last”… followed by a knowing wink. Yes, I suspect the developers were in on the joke.
Hardly the most enthralling platformer ever, whimpering to the finish line with an anti-climactic fizzle rather than the explosive finale we might have anticipated. Our nonchalant whistling idle animation is more apt than intended it seems.
As the Amiga’s only representative from the beaver world, it should really have been something more special. A decent weapon wouldn’t have gone amiss for a start. Sadly the result, whilst controlling competently and appearing enticing, is bland, offering nothing novel, or especially entertaining.
What happened to the band isn’t explained so I’ll make up the rest myself: the Beavers learnt a valuable lesson in not getting too big for their boots, bought some comfy slippers and retired, leaving the rabbits free to storm the charts. Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers spied a gap in the market and went on to dominate the music industry one sampled, synth-pop hit at a time.
As for rabbity gaming, that went from strength to strength beginning with Sam & Max: Hit the Road. Tiny Toon Adventures picked up the mantle and hopped with it, leading to the emergence of Bugs Bunny Rabbit Rampage, Jazz Jackrabbit, Quik the Thunder Rabbit, Bugs Bunny in Double Trouble and Toxic Bunny. Altogether there are 156 known rabbit-themed games swamping the industry across a variety of platforms. Showing no sign of abatement what this demonstrates is that the only thing to breed faster than rabbits are games starring rabbits.