PL Gold

Tonnes of gold bullion is mysteriously disappearing from Europe’s Mega Bank vaults. Despite the RGB’s best efforts, the case remains unsolved following 6 months’ worth of intensive investigation. Close circuit TV footage exists, capturing the precise moment the stacks of gold bricks vanish, revealing absolutely nothing. They’re there one second and gone the next, so something even faster than Nicolas Cage is clearly afoot. Has The Flash gone rogue?

Given that the RGB are as flummoxed by their acronym as we are, we shouldn’t expect the halfwits to get to the bottom of the phenomenon alone.

Obviously the way forwards is to draft in a fortune teller (with an indecipherable accent) and assign her to randomly select a hapless teenager from the phone book to take on the case single-handedly. Definitely not to exploit her unique soothsayery capacities to predict the future, or use any critical information acquired to arrange a sting operation that would definitely identify the culprit of the gold thefts.

Step up to the plate Mark Hooper, your five minutes of fame starts now. Looking conspicuously like an understudy to Bill or Ted, draped in a baggy t-shirt and stonewashed jeans, jazzed up with gaudy red trainers and a back to front purple baseball cap, no-one will suspect for a second that he’s a covert government (?) agent.

Playing as the eponymous hero we’re not so much recruited for the ‘privileged’ role as Shanghaied into it by the chief’s overzealous goons (I assume that’s what’s meant by ‘nervous’ when their boss apologises for their heavy-handed behaviour). Keeping us motivated it’s suggested that “secret agents get all the girls”, since we’re not remotely interested in patriotism, upholding the law, and so on. You could say they’re dangled a bit like Bond girl bait on a stick, wearing a carrot costume. Except that would be really weird, so I’ll keep it to myself. No promises mind you, so we’ll need to complete the necessary training in order to find out if Mark (Marek in the Polish version) reaps the rewards in the end.

This entails passing a three-step trial to demonstrate that we’re fully equipped to become James Bond junior. It’s a lot like the process of becoming a Mighty Pirate on Monkey Island, although entirely different. Otherwise it might seem a bit odd that we’re…

1. Incarcerated in a prison cell and instructed to pull off a Houdini impersonation with little more than an exposed light fitting to hand.

I got chills, They’re multiplying, And I’m losing control…

2. Ordered to tie-up our mentor and wheedle a password out of him by any means necessary (even tickling, bribing him with a copy of Soldier News, and spitting in his eye!).

3. Beat him at a game of hide and seek, revealing the officer’s position by poking him in the eye through a hole in a beer barrel.

If all this seems a bit absurd in a diluted Monty Python-ish kind of way it’s because it is. If that’s not your thing you may be better off playing something that takes itself more seriously. Teenagent is often accused of being chock-full of illogical puzzles that can only be fathomed out through systematic trial and error, yet in reality they’re no more bizarre than those found in similar titles. Plenty of them actually seem quite rational once the connection between the objects and what to do with them has been established.

For example, you need to get granddad out of the way so you can rummage through his house while he’s otherwise engaged. He will only take his grandchild to the zoo as a reward if he can score a basketball hoop. Unfortunately the boy is too feeble to throw the ball high enough and too honest to lie about achieving the goal, so is destined to repeatedly miss until the cows come home.

What’s the solution? To distract him by pointing out that the legendary ‘lady in the lake’ is waving her sword about behind him. Then when his back is turned, adjust the height of the hoop using a screwdriver found in granddad’s toolbox. Luckily he’s too stupid to question why his skills have suddenly improved so much.

This one involves a bit of lateral thinking, simultaneously parodying Monkey Island’s three-headed simian scene. Icing the cake, the boy replies that the lady in the lake surfaces every summer so it’s no big deal. Nevertheless, he takes a peek just to humour us.

Other puzzles require many more steps, yet should not be considered uncrackable seeing as we know what we’re ultimately trying to achieve, and we’re fed not-so-subtle clues regarding how to approach them.

Some of the more dubious puzzles include…

– Using whisky as a substitute fuel to fire up a chainsaw to cut down a tree branch that looks like it might snap in a strong breeze. This along with some superglue allows us to fix a broken boat paddle. Rowing out to the island we recover some flowers. These are gifted to Anne and her grandmother to help persuade them to offer Mark a ribbon and feather duster respectively.

– Applying the ribbon (given to Mark by Anne in exchange for a heart-shaped chocolate) to the snapped rake to repair it. Raking the grass reveals a nut thrown by the squirrel, which is swapped with a fake apple in grandma’s house. This is offered to a hedgehog in exchange for the pine-cone on its back. In turn it forms the body of a DIY dart destined to be chucked at a bee’s nest to attract a bear. While they’re all distracted, Mark opens a valve beneath the tree enabling us to access a trap door leading to an underground tunnel. This brings us out right in front of the mansion we need to access and its uncooperative guard… an area we could already reach and have previously visited. It’s a red herring you see, although as it’s essential to go through the motions to progress to the next stage, our time isn’t totally wasted.

– Clearing our path to a cave entrance using a scythe we push a mouse through a hole in the wall, then plug the gap with a rock and superglue. The mouse burrows its way loose via an opening at the base of the wall, simultaneously freeing a gold nugget. Bribe the guard and he’ll happily pocket the spoils… without budging an inch on the matter of granting you permission to enter the mansion.

– Once inside (via entirely different means), opening a fridge reveals a quivering Eskimo. Close then re-open it, and he/she will have vanished, leaving behind more traditional fridge contents e.g. a hunk of veal, vital to solving the next puzzle. How many of us would have tried the same thing twice if it achieved nothing on the first occasion?

Obscure and anarchic as certain puzzles seem, I could easily rattle off several more extreme examples from some of the very finest point and click adventures. Polish developers, Metropolis Software (all 13 of them in this case), didn’t rewrite the rule book when they released Teenagent for the PC, Mac and Amiga in 1995. It’s actually as formulaic as any of the classics in the same genre, albeit with a simplified (improved even) interface, that requires no persistent controls to linger on screen.

Our inventory drops down from the top of the screen when we approach it with the cursor, and slinks away again when no longer required. Objects are simply dragged and dropped onto one another, or into the environment. Left-clicking an object looks at it, while the right button operates every other command normally found in a more typical, fixed verb menu, such as walk, talk or use.

Polish box art, CD vs floppy disk release. Why does Mark look like a middle-aged lumberjack in the one on the right? And where was the helicopter in Teenagent? Maybe it’s a Last Action Hero homage.

This late in the genre’s life-cycle, in addition to the 6 disk standard floppy iteration, accordingly, a fully voice-acted CD-ROM edition was made available, yet only in Polish. It was the first game in its homeland to have made this technological breakthrough. Initially released as a three part shareware package, Teenagent was later re-issued in its entirety, and is sufficiently well regarded to have made a dramatic comeback in 2009, courtesy of a ScummVM compatible ‘Good Old Games’ promotion. Teenagent was distributed freely, representing the outfit’s 100th release, quite rightly considered an honour by the authors.

Falling well short of the kind of quality we’d come to expect from the likes of LucasArts and Adventuresoft, Teenagent still splits opinion straight down the middle. It’s plot is remarkably thin, the graphics and sound amateurish by comparison, while dialogue occasionally gets lost in translation leaving befuddled players scratching their heads, or smirking in bemusement. I couldn’t say how well the Czech version made the transition. Hopefully more successfully than the horrendous box art!

Czech Republic vs American box art. The former reminds me of those charity Christmas cards designed by kids. Awful, but you buy them anyway because it’s for a good cause.

What it does have going for it, nevertheless, is an innocent, good-natured charm that makes Teenagent a joy to play for youngsters, whose parents needn’t worry that they’ll be exposed to anything they’d rather they didn’t see. While British and American developers were pushing towards edgier, more mature plots and risque language to capitalise on the controversy, Metropolis went down the politically correct route to bring us an adventure that wouldn’t ruffle any feathers.

Any allusions to content that might cross the boundaries of acceptability are merely that; subtle suggestions that leave you to fill in the blanks, or go right over the heads of minors. Mostly the groundwork is laid then we’re left hang…

Depending who you ask and what their nationality is, the script is both humourless and hilarious. We can live with primitive graphics and sound (why else would all those Sierra typing adventures have sold so well?), yet if the dialogue isn’t witty and memorable you may as well skip the game store shelves and dump your point and clicker in the nearest landfill site.

Personally I think it translates very well, barring a few grammatical or spelling mistakes.

Well, he might be I suppose. That’s never really addressed.

On only a few occasions did I find myself chalking up a cryptic line to being a Polish dialect issue.

Ah, he’s young. There’s still time to learn that you don’t have to share every single thought.

Otherwise the humour feels universal and accessible. We can all identify with pop-culture references to Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana, Another Brick in the Wall courtesy of Pink Floyd, ID’s Doom video game, and the movie White Men Can’t Jump. There’s a goldfish in a bag up for grabs for anyone who follows the more obscure reference to Jason Lee’s pineapple style hair-do. You’d have to have been a football fan back in the ’90s.

Other comedy arises from the slapstick department, and is much funnier than simply relying on the recognition of a popular franchise and sticking a ™ on the end. Jokes work much better if the audience has to put in a bit of effort to arrive at the punchline. How else are we supposed to feel smug at having ‘solved’ the riddle?

Partly, what makes jokes effective is rubbing the ego of the recipient by rewarding them for shrewdly tapping into the psyche of the teller. Being on the same page so to speak. Who doesn’t enjoy explaining a joke to someone who clearly doesn’t get it, so they can enjoy watching the expression on their face change as all the ducks fall inline and realisation dawns? It almost becomes your joke that you personally invented and delivered on a velvet pillow.

What I like about Teenagent when it’s on top form is that it flips back and forth between real world logic and ludicrousness without warning. For instance, in one scene we use a real grenade to open a locked drawer, taking cover to avoid the blast radius, as you would if you’re averse to painful mutilation or death. So much for best-laid plans.

Later we coat a wild potato with soot transferred from a feather duster to create a substitute grenade. Although you wouldn’t guess that’s what it is since we’ve already stumbled across the genuine article and used it in a, erm… reasonably logical way. We’ve been there, done that, and moved on.

Nevertheless, we need to shift a bird from the hollow of a tree to be able to climb it. If you throw the spud-bomb into the opening it will be returned as though it’s a deadly explosive. Mark retrieves it, nothing happens. Try repeating the process and this time when Mark picks it up it explodes in his face just as you’d expect from the real thing, leaving him bewildered and charred. Actually a lot like a blacked up Minstrel or Golliwog, but I’ll pretend I haven’t noticed that because it’s not very PC these days. Mark even looks to the camera as if to seek some sort of explanation from the player. Bugs Bunny et al would love it. Me too.

Elsewhere we acquire a spring and deploy it in leaping over an impenetrable wall to reach a shovel on the other side. Then it emerges that we could have simply walked around it, evidenced by the much easier return journey, pushing aside a flimsy plant to clear the path. All very Laurel and Hardy or Charlie Chaplin, and it would work equally well without any dialogue at all. If that appeals, try Curse of Enchantia; it’s one of the few point and click graphic adventures to feature virtually no speech or text at all. You wouldn’t think it would work… er, and it doesn’t really. But in small doses…

Examining the same brick wall we’re informed that the bricklayer was likely a fan of Pink Floyd, which is barely a joke really since a brick wall being constructed with bricks isn’t especially unusual. That’s just weird. Hmm. Maybe if Mark found an abnormal brick in a wall comprising bog-standard ones, we look at it to find out why it’s different and are told “it’s just another brick in the wall”? It could be an anomaly that serves no purpose whatsoever, other than to make us question it. That makes more sense… although is still about as funny as finding out your child has been diagnosed with a neuroblastoma.

Demonic eyes? I’ve told you before, this is why you have to keep taking your prescription.

Granny won’t give us the fake apple in the fruit bowl we need to solve a puzzle unless we listen to one of her never-ending, meandering stories of yesteryear. She tells us resolutely, “no story, no apple”. We choose the latter and walk off in relief feeling like we’ve had a lucky escape. This would have been funny whether she was a stereotypical OAP or not since being forced to listen to long-winded, rambling monologues is an adventure game trope fans of the genre will all be familiar with.

Mark has managed to tick all the RGB’s boxes and jump through the necessary hoops. Now it’s time to solve the case. Would you Adam and Eve it? The RGB’s top bloke in charge right at that moment receives some crucial intelligence on the identity of the gold pilferer. Reports advise that local top hat wearing curmudgeon and already loaded mansion-dweller, John Noty, has been flagged to the security services as a ‘person of interest’. It’s believed he may be the benefactor of a recent, inexplicable windfall since his spending habits have become so erratic, with all purchases made in cold hard cash. Also suggesting skulduggery, he’s been spotted stockpiling ridiculous quantities of borax for no logical reason. Borax is a commonly used ingredient in detergents. Noty wasn’t planning to launder money was he by any chance? 😀

Mr Noty? Does that sound like ‘naughty’ if you say it with a Polish accent? As in “he’s not the Bond villain, he’s a very Noty boy”. Never mind, it looks like the RGB have solved the case without Mark’s intervention. Though seeing as Mark’s now in possession of his super-sleuth membership badge and certificate I expect they reason that he may as well see the job through to the end. After all, he should really get some sort of payback for being shot in the head and kidnapped to be hauled in front of chief commander big shot of the CIA, MI6 or whatever. How did he survive that anyway? Stun gun? And what was the stick of dynamite for? It came from off-screen before Mark made an appearance and then didn’t do anything at all.

Next stop then, John Noty’s mansion. After multiple botched WB cartoon style efforts to breach its defences we finally seal the deal by rage-kicking our way past the only guard on duty. A soldier-wannabe who failed the intel… I mean physical entrance exam because he couldn’t land squarely on a moving horse having somersaulted into the air from a tree to catch a flipped coin. I think that was the gist, and overwrought, convoluted cover story for being thick. Come on, that deserves a LOL surely? Well I appreciated it.

The implication being that she shouldn’t worry about eating chocolates and getting fat. A reference to the French comic, Asterix.

I should point out that Mark is so wound up because he’s just found out that Noty tried to buy the affections of Anne, a girl he met five minutes ago and has fallen homeboy cap over Nikes in love with. It turns out that you wouldn’t like Mark when he’s angry. Short of turning green and bursting out of his t-shirt he’s a one-man battering ram Trojan horse. We spent hours trying to discern how to inveigle our way into the mansion when all we had to do was become infatuated with a stranger, and learn that some scuzzy pimp has been leering at her.

A Latin reference to Emperor Nero’s urine tax. In English, ‘money isn’t tainted by its origins’. In this context, ‘buy yourself a walkman with my dirty money and leave me alone’. Nothing to do with peculiar omelettes then.

Once inside Mark establishes that the gangster-rappin’ Rastafarian robot safe is harbouring something important, possibly incriminating evidence. Bamboozling his way in with falsified credentials Mark discovers John’s diary, which helpfully relays the events leading up to the recent spate of bank heists.

‘The Proud Robot’ isn’t one of Teenagent’s finest moments, bro.

In a long flashback cut-scene we learn that Noty has a barmy scientist inventor on his payroll who one night while intoxicated hit upon the recipe for a pill that speeds up the passage of time by a factor of one thousand for whoever swallows it (a tribute to Galloway Gallegher, an alcoholic gadgeteer who features in ‘Ex Machina’ written by the late sci-fi, horror and fantasy novelist, Henry Kuttner). His time-warping concoction is only effective for mere seconds, yet long enough to commit devious, undetected crimes and then flee the scene. Mr Inventor suggests by way of an example that you could deploy his wonder-pill to get into the cinema without buying a ticket. Noty, however, is a tad more ambitious. No prizes for guessing what his master-plan entailed.

All that remains to be done is to apprehend Noty as he attempts to abscond… obviously by walloping him over the noggin with a chilli pepper (a red hot one I expect). Don’t worry, despite all the red goo, no vegetables were harmed in the making of this game. I can’t vouch for the absence of animal abuse. Ssshhhh, don’t tell PETA.

Have you met my size nines? Fore!!!

While Mark is patting himself on the back for a job well done, he’s informed that he did in fact have a bit of help, and the RGB have been observing his every move via a camera hidden in his cap. One of the local inhabitants who aided him was paid to be useful, while Mark’s beloved Anne is actually an undercover RGB operative. Seeing as she’s already moved onto her next assignment, to continue seeing Anne, Mark’s only option is to join the RGB as a permanent employee, suggesting that we’ll be joining him again soon for his next daring mission.

Only we didn’t. Metropolis’s next gift to the world of gaming touched down to earth two years later in the guise of a DOS-only, futuristic, side-scrolling shooter known as Blaster, or Katharsis in Poland. What became of Mark, and the shell-shocked wildlife he left in his wake is a mystery that only a fortune teller with a phone book could possibly unravel.

While Teenagent is unlikely to leave you breathless, perched on the edge of your seat, it does retain a certain unmistakable, gormless charm that’s difficult to pin down in the cold light of day. He says as he has a stab at it anyway.

It’s that naive, unsophisticated fable-like quality and quaint animation that draws you in, even if the rose-tinted nostalgia factor isn’t relevant because you’ve only just made its acquaintance. The cute hedgehog’s reaction to being conned with a plastic apple is priceless!

Well he’s not Robert Redford. Budgets are tight when you’re living on pocket money.

What Metropolis (no doubt accidentally) managed to do was produce a commercial game with a home-brew feel. You forgive any drawbacks because they’re counteracted by the wholesome vibe engendered… brushing under the carpet any allusions to bondage, prostitution, premeditated electrocution, eye-poking, food and drink spiking, hen-kicking, and the torture of helpless animals. That’s quite an achievement!

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