Let’s get physics-al

One is a devious masochist and eldest son of The Addams Family, the other a brown, misshapen alien Space Hopper sprouting waywardly vacillating antennae jostling for an independent career. With Pugsley currently busy filming next year’s animated revamp of everyone’s favourite clan from the crypt, let’s instead take a look at Travellers’ Tales’ lesser-known puzzle-platformer, Puggsy.

Following a lucrative publisher-fishing excursion to a computer exhibition in 1989, what began life as a public domain rolling animation was adopted by Psygnosis and transformed into a fully playable, premium price game.

“Lee Carus and Alan McCarthy decided to form Dionysus and I went back to being part of J.B.I. One day they asked me to come see a demo they were working on called ‘Puggs in Space‘. I loved the animation and ended up creating the sound effects and music for the demo. The Puggsy demo was created to showcase our talents with the ultimate goal of getting a deal to create a game.”

“Later that same year, we went down to a London computer show to have meetings with game companies in the hope of snagging a contract. We met with all the big names, and although they liked the Puggsy demo, none of them were convinced it would make a good game.

We had all but given up hope, until we managed to get a last minute meeting with Psygnosis, which we almost decided not to bother with, as we were all so disheartened! We met with Ian Hetherington who watched the demo and then picked up a box (I think it was something like Shadow of the Beast or Menace) and tossed it down the table and said something like, “I’m tired of this… you guys have got what we want – something fresh and new” and our jaws just dropped.”

– Tim Wright, ‘Music Generator: CoLD SToRAGE Interview‘, conducted with 1up.com (29th May, 2012)

“So basically I went down to, it was called The Computer Trade Show, and I don’t even know what year it was, I think it was BC actually at this point. I was a spotty teenager, I think I was 17, and I went down there with a bunch of guys and we called ourselves Dionysus, because that was dead cool and edgy. We met with a chap called Ian Hetherington, who ran Psygnosis. We came with this idea for a demo and we went down and we pitched a demo. He loved it and he signed it on the spot. I’ll never forget, we then went back up to Liverpool to meet them on the docks, so it was a couple of miles away from here, and Ian sat me down in the room afterwards and he said, “Lee, if you’re lucky in another couple of years you could be earning eight grand a year.” And I was thinking, “Oh my God, no way am I ever going to be on that sort of money!”

– Lee Carus, ‘Interview: From Psygnosis to Persistence – Reassembling Studio Liverpool into Scouse Scares‘ (July 2018)

Originally scheduled for release in February 1991, Dynoysus’s brainchild had already been under development for a year and a half when Psygnosis decided to steer its design in a totally different direction.

In contrast to the Little Big Planet style adventure Lee Carus, Alan McCarthy and Tim Wright had envisioned, their demo evolved into a Dizzy-esque puzzle platformer. This dramatic shift was chiefly the result of transferring its production to an entirely different creative team. One comprising Jon Burton, Andy Ingram and Matt Furniss aka Travellers’ Tales. Their redux was rewritten from scratch over the course of its 16 month development cycle, much of that time dedicated to constructing the Mega CD’s additional levels, bosses and FMV sequences.

 

 

“The contract we had with Psygnosis to produce the full game was short-lived. They didn’t really ‘get’ where we were going with the game and eventually they took Lee and Alan in-house to work on other titles and gave the job of creating the game to Traveller’s Tales who already had an existing game engine they could use. This gave them a quicker route to market and I guess less risk in terms of gameplay.”

– Tim Wright, ‘Music Generator: CoLD SToRAGE Interview’, conducted with 1up.com

Puggsy – as it was re-christened – first emerged as a Mega Drive and Mega-CD title in 1993 and was subsequently ported to the Amiga a year later by The Dome. Responsible for coding the Amiga rendition was Francis Lillie, also known for his solo contribution to PGA European Tour. Also working alone on the graphics was the artist responsible for Last Action Hero, Roy Stewart.

Asked to transpose Matt’s SEGA audio, Dynoysus musician Tim Wright was granted a reprieve, thus joining the Amiga conversion team. It wouldn’t be the last time Tim was drafted in to rehash another musician’s work; the track he composed for Puggs in Space was later included in the Lemmings soundtrack, Tim having been instructed to supplant the music created by Brian Johnston that would likely have unleashed the copyright dogs thanks to his sampling of famous theme tunes such as that of Batman.

Dynoysus “needed music and sound effects for their demo, and I also made a few suggestions about the storyline too. I saw it as a great opportunity to showcase some of my musical and sound effect creation talents, so I spent many hours getting it just right. Back then, we didn’t have the tools to place sounds within an animation, so I had to create a ‘song’ for the part where he’s fixing his spaceship. That took a LOT of tweaking to get right, because I’d make a change to the sound effects and have to watch the animation from the start again to make sure it was OK.”

“This would be the tipping point for me, as the demo was picked up by Psygnosis and turned into a game. This led to me writing more music for Psygnosis, and the rest as they say is history!”

– Tim Wright, interview with retrovideogamer.co.uk (17th February 2015)

None of Matt’s music included the tune Tim wrote for Puggs in Space so he saw to it that this oversight was corrected when Puggsy was reworked for an Amiga audience as a nod towards the game’s heritage. The balmy, calypso-themed opening track is the most memorable of all, dovetailing the scene immaculately, evoking avid daydreams of exotic beach holidays in far-flung tropical climes.

“Ironically, the music for the game ended up being written by Matt Furniss and I was tasked with creating cover versions of his tunes for the Amiga version. He hadn’t used the Puggsy demo theme in any of his tracks, so I inserted it into the tail-end of one of his pieces. His songs were really well written and fun to convert to the Amiga, so there were no bad bones.”

– Tim Wright, ‘Music Generator: CoLD SToRAGE Interview’, conducted with 1up.com

Lee Carus and Alan McCarthy cite Rainbow Islands, New Zealand Story, classic Walt Disney cartoons and Tom and Jerry as their inspiration. Which sadly had absolutely no bearing on the game’s design or aesthetics since Dynoysus’s interpretation would never materialise.

“I think it was a bit beyond the guys who created the demo, so in the end, Psygnosis asked us if we could create a game using the character. The only thing really retained from the demo was the design of the main character. However, he was red in the demo and we changed him to orange as the consoles would suffer from colour bleed from the colour red.”

– ‘Playing Catch Up: Traveller’s Tales’ Jon Burton‘, interview conducted with Alistair Wallis for Gameasutra.com (9th November, 2006)

Seeing as Travellers’ Tales already possessed an existing engine in which to retro fit the walking yam that came to be known as Puggsy, as Jon says, only the protagonist made the transition. A strange decision then for Psygnosis to buy the rights in the first place you might imagine, especially given that Puggsy isn’t your typical heroic star attraction, dripping with ’90s attitude. A critical factor which may partially explain why the sales figures were so poor, and the incomplete SNES port was canned before hitting the shelves.

“Looking back now, I can see that our version was going to be more like Little Big Planet and the version that T.T. created was more of a standard platformer. There were some favourable reviews, but it got badly panned by the popular Amiga Format and Amiga Power Magazines, so sales weren’t brilliant as a result. As I recall they had loads of Sega MegaDrive cartridges left over in the warehouse too. Even though we had the development taken away from us it was still really empowering to have Puggsy featured in a real game.”

– Tim Wright, ‘Music Generator: CoLD SToRAGE Interview’, conducted with 1up.com

“We really wanted to compete with Mario, but the game got lost in the wave of Mega Drive titles. It was generally received well by people who spent more than ten minutes playing it. Megatech gave it 90 per cent, MegaDrive Advance Gaming gave it 90, MM Saga gave it 89 and Console+ gave it 91 per cent. It didn’t sell well, but I think the price was reduced so all the copies ended up in gamers’ hands.”

– Jon Burton, ‘The making of Puggsy’, Retro Gamer issue 74

Anyone seeking a deep, engrossing story-line wouldn’t have been too thrilled either. Puggsy on route back to his unspecified home planet crash-lands 15 light years short of his destination. Stranded in foreign territory, the raccoon rulers hijack his plunger-powered spaceship and refuse to give it up without a fight. Your task is to recover it, kick their butts and evacuate.

A fun sub-task entails establishing how one of these raccoons escaped from Puggsyland and ended up playing Klawz the cat in his eponymous PD game in 1994.

You’d never guess this was the work of the same team who produced Leander; a game introduced via a yarn approaching novella length proportions. That was two years earlier so maybe the feedback suggested it was overkill? Most people I know never read the manuals, let alone the plot if it extended beyond ‘princess is captured, prince must rescue her’. So it was perhaps wise not to waste time on devising anything more sophisticated than the homesick alien narrative that sets the scene in Puggsy.

Judging by one of the game’s earliest previews published in CU Amiga issue 12 dated February 1991, this isn’t a million miles away from the original scenario.

“Puggsy comes from a peaceful planet in a far-away solar system. Having cobbled together a rudimentary spacecraft he sets out to contact the four nearest planets and get the inhabitants to sign a peace charter against aggression.

The game is set over four levels, each with 40-60 screens, and features a number of game styles. The first level is an arcade adventure set in a giant’s world, the second a shoot ’em up and the third a platform game. Each world features a different alien race who have to be persuaded to sign a peace contract.

The fourth level has yet to be designed but will probably be set on a robot planet. Originally, Puggsy was going to visit Earth, but Alan has decided to shelve this idea. If the game’s a success in the soft-shops, he may use the idea as the basis for a sequel.”

Two years on, the multi-genre ethos still permeated Travellers’ Tales twist on Dynonysus’s source material. Contrary to its appearance as a straightforward platformer, much of Puggsy’s gameplay revolves around the manipulation of objects. Thus enabling us to open chests to reveal clues, unlock doors, flick levers and solve other conundrums that culminate in the discovery of the exit to each of the 51 levels.

Unlike Dizzy we have no inventory system to juggle; it’s only possible to carry a single object at once unless you can manage to stack them on top of the item currently held… easier said than done!

More plausible we find ourselves solving puzzles sequentially, fetching and deploying individual objects before turning our attention to the next missing piece of the jigsaw. This does of course demand that we remember where everything is located and how to reach it.

One especially novel way to approach such shopping trips is to take charge of a remote controlled white raccoon and let him do the heavy lifting for a change.

Just one of the many nuances hidden deep within this deceptively simple genre-blurring escapade that tends to go unnoticed by casual observers.

Documenting all the Easter eggs and secret areas alone could easily be spun off into a separate article. And it already has been – that’s what walkthroughs are for.

Boasting an all-encompassing ‘Total Object Interaction’ system it’s possible to pick up and engage with any item within your environment. This aside, what sets Puggsy apart from the crowd is that himself and the objects with which he interacts are subject to an authentic physics engine that allows you to predict their behaviour in accordance with your real world experiences.

In effect, objects can float in water, ascend into the sky like helium balloons, be thrown a predetermined distance contingent on their mass, trigger switches, or be employed to weigh down our spud-faced hero in the face of oscillating fans.

Accordingly we find that our ability to jump is stymied whenever holding an object, though this is counterbalanced by the provision for acting as grappling hooks, allowing us to cling onto ledges and haul ourselves up to areas otherwise inaccessible. It’s reminiscent of Prince of Persia in that regard.

“I loved Super Mario World on the SNES and loved the fact you could pick up and throw the springs and the turtles. I thought there was loads of potential with taking that a lot further, so I set out to try and create a Super Mario World type game, but with all the puzzles being based on lots of physics objects and them all having loads of different properties like buoyancy, weight, friction etc.”

– ‘Playing Catch Up: Traveller’s Tales’ Jon Burton’, interview conducted with Alistair Wallis for Gameasutra.com (9th November, 2006)

If you can maintain your grasp on these objects long enough they can be carried – stacked if you like – through the raccoon effigy portals to earn extra bonus points.

Golden variants of these level exits transport us to a number of inventive bonus stages. These incorporate various classic game parodies such as Asteroids, Space Invaders (known appropriately as ‘Puggsy in Space’), Arkanoid and Lunar Landing, as well as some that celebrate Travellers’ Tales’ own back catalogue.

On that note, clearly evoking the milieu of Wiz ‘n’ Liz, we can exterminate wascally wabbits with an unlimited ammo gun (normally our Flintlock pistol, Uzi and so on is restricted to half a dozen shots).

Likewise, Puggsy makes a cameo appearance in Wiz ‘n’ Liz – in the Splat! mini-game and elsewhere. As does Leander in Puggsy, albeit as a statue (see 35:00 minutes into the longplay).

 

 

 

In addition to our gun we have a number of other death-dealing options at our disposal. There’s the traditional head bounce made famous by Mario – useful as long as you remember to pull down on the descent and ignore the fact that no indication of you doing so is offered (as seen in Castle of Illusion for instance). Otherwise you make no impact, whilst leaving yourself vulnerable to the loss of a hitpoint. Enough to kill Puggsy unless he’s wearing shades or a pair super-speed trainers at the time. Incidentally, why are they called ‘sneakers’ in a British game? Never mind.

Practically anything can be turned into a projectile weapon – if you can pick it up, it can be hurled at enemies, retrieved, and recycled. To fine-tune your aim it’s possible to jump to just the right height to align yourself with a target by tapping or holding the fire button. Puggsy’s bouncy castle effect mechanic will also stand you in good stead for reaching seemingly off-limits areas.

While carrying an object Puggsy can also raise and lower his arms to match the requirements of the task at hand. Usually though you’ll be plonking items on top of interactive scenery to activate it rather than positioning them precisely. That catches out many newcomers. Who’d have thought lobbing a match at a cannon would be the best way to ignite it? Elsewhere you extinguish path-blocking fires with a water pistol by squirting it in their direction, which makes much more sense.

We face six end of level bosses in total, each gargantuan, each requiring a different approach to neutralise them. When entering their lairs we acquire a hit-point metre, as do they. Our challenge is to whittle this down by exploiting the environment or their own attacks, turning the tables on the freaks of nature, ultimately bringing about their downfall.

In the first boss battle for instance, this entails kicking floundering fish into the path of the blunderbuss-wielding ‘Polly Pirate’ while the Jolly Roger rocks sickeningly back and forth in the deep blue yonder’s billowing curlicue.

Another boss – aptly named ‘Flour Power’ – can only be killed by catching his flour bag ammo with a mechanical grabby arm operated with levers, and depositing them on his head.

“The art style was very much based on the Japanese console games of the time. We jammed the game with innovative tech. Apart from the ‘never before seen’ physics system, we had boss levels which showcased full-screen rotation, full-screen scaling, a full particle system, a 3D filled vector graphics system and a system to smoothly morph objects between various shapes – all on a standard Mega Drive. They were all firsts…”

– Jon Burton, ‘The making of Puggsy’, Retro Gamer issue 74.

Oddly, if you die during a boss skirmish you’re obliged to repeat the last puzzle you cracked immediately before engaging with the enemy. This is particularly jarring since normally you’d respawn in exactly the same place you kicked the bucket, as is the preferred method.

What will also test your patience is the overly cumbersome password system. Why on earth it was necessary to make these 27 characters long is anyone’s guess. Still, it was a necessary evil given Puggsy is such an expansive, not entirely linear game that you wouldn’t want to restart from scratch every time you booted it up.

On the Mega Drive the scenario is identical. Travellers’ Tales could have employed more user-friendly save states except the SRAM normally dedicated to this function was already assigned to executing the game’s cunning anti-piracy measures.

If you play Puggsy via an emulator (without disabling the SRAM function) or cartridge backup system you’ll only be permitted to get so far as level five before the game performs an SRAM check and locks up, suggesting that you try again using a genuine cartridge rather than a “silly copy”.

That wasn’t the only ‘gotcha’. Everything may seem in order at first glance, except the code knows you’re playing a pirate version and so silently instructs the engine to make subtle changes to the way in which the mechanics operate. Puggsy’s jump for instance is stunted, making it difficult to reach areas that would normally be effortless.

Certain objects also become defective if you’re up to no good. One pertinent example is the match used to ignite the cannon, enabling you to access a secret area. Playing via a dodgy copy the fuse simply fails to light without informing you that you’ve been rumbled.

Similar changes were implemented in Leander as detailed in my earlier retrospective article – Travellers’ Tales evidently felt strongly about being ripped off, motivating them to become one of the few developers that managed to devise a reasonably effective ‘thinking outside the box’ solution to combating piracy.

That’s them through and through, going the extra mile was in their blood. Evidenced in particular by the inclusion of unnecessary, but very welcome nuances such as idle animations. Leave Puggsy alone for a few seconds and he taps his feet and crosses his arms with indignant impatience. Damn! Scratch that. I’m getting mixed up with the original draft. Shame that was dropped. Well that was a wonderful example to illustrate the point. Oh well, I’m sure you can play Puggsy for five minutes and think of ten better ones of your own.

One to get you started is the optional tutorial training mode aimed at easing you gently into the action one stepping stone at a time. An appropriate analogy seeing as objects can be stacked seemingly infinitely to form teetering ladders to higher ground.

“The training levels at the start were added very late in the day in response to publisher input, and the result was that a quick play on the game would give the impression of a basic platformer, when in fact 4 or 5 levels in – out of 69 levels – is where we originally wanted the player to start. It was just deemed too complicated for beginners, so the training was added.”

– ‘Playing Catch Up: Traveller’s Tales’ Jon Burton’, interview conducted with Alistair Wallis for Gameasutra.com (9th November, 2006)

Targeting a younger audience was the aim right out of the gate according to Steve Riding, Product Manager at Psygnosis. In February 1991 he divulged to CU Amiga, “Obviously, something like Shadow of the Beast would be very hard for a young child to play, so we’ve decided to diversify into more child-orientated products. It wasn’t really a conscious decision – the games just happened to come along at the right time. We’re always on the look out for interesting titles.”

On route to market then the game must have gradually become more tricky, until it dawned on the production team that they’d lost sight of the core objective. ‘Puggsy 101’ I suppose was the corrective surgery required to remedy the lapse.

The Mega Drive version even came accompanied by a complimentary inflatable Puggsy! All that really lets the side down is the inordinately stubborn controls that insist on you being perfectly aligned with an object in order to pick it up, and later implement it in a puzzle.

Well, that and the excessive disk swapping that grinds the momentum to a standstill, abruptly breaking the immersion. Puggsy was delivered on four floppies, accessed in a non-sequential manner, so unless you had three external disk drives or a hard drive, running it on original hardware is always going to be a bit of a chore.

Complete the game and the finale raises our hopes for a comeback sequel. One that never came to fruition due to the first game’s underwhelming performance at the ‘box office’ and the market’s shift away from 2D platform games.

“The game ends by saying ‘Puggsy 2 coming soon’, but due to poor sales etc, etc. We also completed a SNES version of the game but it never got released. I am still trying to find a copy of it so we can put it out into the public domain.”

– Jon Burton, ‘The making of Puggsy’, Retro Gamer issue 74

Harking back to the days of simplistic action adventures like Dizzy, Travellers’ Tales were always going to run the risk of Puggsy being dismissed as a bit of an anachronism; out of its time, appealing only to a niche audience.

With an engine capable of replicating real world physics – albeit in a cartoon world – Puggsy certainly racks up kudos points for its technical prowess. Fail to match engineering wizardry with that eternally elusive playability factor, however, and you can guarantee you’ll be accused of producing nothing more than an elaborate tech demo. Ironic, for had that been true, Puggsy would have returned full circle to its roots.

Amiga Power’s Steve McGill stopped just short of exhorting the latter, despite being easily the most scathing of all the reviewers to examine Puggsy under a microscope.

“It’s RUBBISH, CRAP, TEDIOUS and BORING beyond belief. And that’s just the good points. Why anyone would subject themselves to the torture of playing this game unless they were getting paid to review it is beyond me.

The character (Puggsy) looks like a crudely shaped piece of plasticine with a crap antenna on top. He doesn’t so much move as plod. He looks extremely dumb and, unless of course you’re Bubba from Bubba ‘N’ Stix, that’s a bad thing in my book.

The objects that this dumb blob picks up and moves around apparently behave in a manner akin to Newtonian physics i.e. they suffer from inertia and mass.

Fine, you might think. But let me tell you this. Wait until you’ve just about built enough wooden barrels up so that you can reach a previously out of reach platform. Unless you’re really careful, it’s just about a sure fire bet that you’re going to knock barrels off and have to start building again – Aaarrrggghh!

In all the months that I’ve been here at AP, this game came the closest to making me lose it. You know, lose it? Lose the rag, the head, the place. And remember, it was me who reviewed Snapperazi and still managed to retain an attachment to sanity.

So, the advice I’m going to give you is simplicity itself, avoid Puggsy at all costs, even if it puts your life at risk. There are some fates worse than death.”

Harsh and just a smidgen hyperbolic perhaps? How do you top that when a genuinely terrible game arrives on the door step in a Jiffy bag printed with your name in uppercase permanent marker?

In any case, Steve’s 40% bottom line sealed the deal, while at the polar opposite end of the spectrum, writing for CU Amiga, Lisa Collins blessed Puggsy with a 90% grade and a ‘Super Star’ award. Extolling the virtues of its alternative gameplay – which she saw as the antidote to the machismo and bloodshed that typically accompanies the genre – she wrote…

“Puggsy was a hit on the Mega Drive and SNES, but is it going to belt off the Richter scale on the Amiga also? In short, yes. Puggsy, complete with dely-bopper hairdo, kept me completely captivated as he bounced, jumped and ran his way through 51 levels, battling against evil adversaries, including five end of world guardians and, finally, the requisite end of game big baddie.

As you puzzle your way through the sections with names like The Star Fall Lake, The Cove, The Beach and The Red Woods, you can’t help being blasted by the superb sprite graphics, which include underwater raccoons in diving suits, cute-but-dangerous knights, evil starfish and deadly birds.”

“One of the fab things about Puggsy is that it makes you use your noodle, and lord knows, with all the mindless violence around these days it’s a welcome change (Oh shut up Lisa – Ed). For example, on one of the levels in the Star Fall Lake section the only way to continue is to put out the flames that block your path, so you have to find something to put them out.

But it’s not that simple. I quickly found a water pistol, but before the fire had been completely quenched the pistol ran out of water. So I had to troop off and look around for another way to fill the pistol up.

There isn’t always one answer to any problem and this adds to the fun. While you are busy working out your next move, you have to watch out for nasty raccoons and all manner of evil aliens which pop up out of the ground unexpectedly.”

This vast chasm that divided critical appraisal I believe can largely be explained by the dissonance between expectation and experience. Not all platform mascots suffered from Sonic-envy; some rare breeds were even comfortable in their own skin!

If you launch into Puggsy geared up for a rapid-fire romp with no brakes, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Other gamers prefer a more plodding pace (where even underwater there’s no need to rush!), fewer explosions, and an endless stream of intricate, quirky puzzles to unravel… even if thinking does give you wrinkles.

2 thoughts on “Let’s get physics-al

  • August 10, 2018 at 4:52 am
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    There are platform games with puzzle elements and there is Benefactor. Puggsy falls into second category, for me it will always be a puzzle game with platform elements. I prise it for all that cool stuff You can do with different items, but I have never had enough time to dive into it. I wonder, becasue I hear gossip that this game was first developed in AGA version and was downgraded before release into ECS version. Was it true? I am sure if there was A1200 version it could look identical to Mega CD minus rotation effects on different elements. Anyway great article and work on gathering all those interviews ^^

  • August 10, 2018 at 10:07 am
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    I don’t recall reading anything about a separate AGA version. Puggsy was developed at a time when everything was shifting away towards the consoles so I’d imagine it was considered false economy to target the smaller A1200/CD32 market while the audience in general was in decline. It’s plausible that Puggsy originally featured AGA-exclusive elements that were later diluted so as not to exclude potential customers, though I’m only guessing. I suppose we were lucky to get an Amiga release at all at that stage.

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