Czar and away

Having entirely coincidentally-by-accident saved the world’s riches from the magpie-like tendencies of no-name-the-villain in Nippon Safes, Doug, Donna and Dino are back for another intercontinental escapade courtesy of obscure Italian developers, Dynabyte Software. Five years on, the troika of misfits find themselves mixed up in another nonsensical series of disjointed mini-quests so Big and so Red that their new Adventure can only take place in Mother Russia, this time delivered on the shiny new, talky medium of compact disc.

Hang onto your ushankas honorary Russkies, this is going to be another rip-roaringly raucous, rollicking riot of …erm, exceedingly lame jokes that miss the mark like a vodka-swilling, sozzled Spetsnaz SSO sniper, but you endure anyway because new Amiga games released in 1997 were rarer than rocking horse deposits. Power Computing must have been off their own rockers to publish it. Core Design who brought us the original DOS version two years earlier had wisely bowed out at this stage. They still existed, however, being acquired by Eidos Interactive in April 1996 could well have altered the course of their investments.

Let’s have a peek at the Big Red Book – more commonly known as an instruction manual – and hope they at least drafted in a better translator and a half-decent plot this time round.

“In the old Russia there was Communism, queues, the Kremlin, Lenin, the KGB, queues, Karl Marx, the Cold War and queues…

But in the new Russia things have changed. Now there is Capitalism, KGB TV, Burger Czar and Trotsky Interactive Games…

 

Oh and queues (some things never change)…

Embroiled on this seething cauldron of cutthroat competition and cruel commercial Cossacks, we find the beginning of our adventure – A BIG RED ADVENTURE that spawns an entire continent.

In a story of truly epic proportions we are taken on a crazy, off-the-wall flight of fancy, from the snowy streets of Moscow, slipping and sliding across the icy steppes of Zerograd, along the route of the famed Orient Express and into the deep red heart of a secret so weird even David Lynch could never match it…

BIG RED REVOLUTION!

In spite of the benefits of Perestroika, not everyone is happy with the decline of the Soviet state.

In a secret meeting place somewhere in Moscow, a few old men in faded Red Army uniforms hark back to the days when Marx was called Karl and not Groucho or Harpo. They formulate a cunning plan to return Mother Russia to Communist rule – only, they didn’t reckon on a trio of foreign adventurers accidentally getting in on the action…”

Ah, a refreshing change that it’s written in actual fair-dinkum English and shows a basic awareness of the political and socio-economic climate at the time, the impact of Trotskyism, Stalinism, and so on. Well, at least they inject many of the right keywords to set the scene. Shooed away are the pidgins, gone is the dodgy grammar and spelling! Perestroika can literally be translated as ‘restructuring’. It was a political movement that took place in the ’80s and ’90s spearheaded by Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. Drastic reformation within the Communist Party ensued, contributing to the downfall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Zerograd is a Russian mystery film released in 1989, and also a location in the game.

While Doctor Virago – for that is the name of the chief scoundrel – conspires to resurrect Lenin, turning back decades of progress, we – initially embracing the role of dodgy geezer and electronics wizard, Doug – embark on a nefarious scheme of our own… to steal the Russian Czar’s royal crown from a museum, and flee from Moscow via the Orient Express.

 

Dr Virago is, of course, an allusion to the 1965 movie, Dr Zhivago, an epic romantic drama starring Omar Sharif as the eponymous lead. Likewise, you’ll find that Big Red Adventure is bursting with puns, faux-Cyrillic fonts, nods and winks towards popular Russian culture… or at least an outsider’s interpretation of it. Not because they’re particularly clever or relevant, just because that’s the theme. Even the intro features a parody of Battleship Potemkin, a Soviet silent film released in 1925. Who these were aimed at is anyone’s guess? Definitely not typical westernised ’90s teenagers, that’s for sure.

We later switch protagonists from Doug to Dino and Donna (I hope the triple D thing wasn’t a bra joke), though not until the game is ready to allow us to progress. Aligning with more traditional point and click adventures, Dynabyte opted to drop the much-vaunted ‘parrallaction’ system that defined BRA’s (teehee etc.) precursor, Nippon Safes. Instead, the acts are tackled in isolation and in a linear fashion.

Misleadingly we are teased with a fully voice-acted, animated introduction, suggesting that the entire game will be of the talking variety, as was the trend from 1993 onwards for CD drive owning adventurers. Where Sam and Max, Day of the Tentacle and Simon the Sorcerer et al led the way, BRA chickened out, falling back on a text-only dialogue mechanism for the core game. Consequently, all subsequent conversations take place within comic book style speech bubbles. Typically we’re given a selection of three responses or questions from which to select, allowing us to steer the proceedings to achieve a given goal or sub-goal. Even if the latter don’t appear to be immediately pertinent to the main story arc.

Nippon Safe’s talented artist (and saving grace), Massimo Magnasciutti, chose not to return to lend his unique bravura to the sequel. Rather, two artists were handed the baton – Alessandro Bell and Gabriele Zucchelli – who steered the aesthetics in a wholly different direction, not an altogether positive one in my estimation.

Pixel art backdrops were relegated to the past, shunted aside to make way for digitised drawings. Unfortunately, they look so grainy and washed out they might as well have been drawn in PVA craft glue and then dipped in sand. They’re reasonably OK in a passable sort of way initially, gradually deteriorating in quality as we progress. By the time we see Doug doing his Indiana Jones impression on top of the Orient Express, the scenery looks like a kids school project. Maybe we (or the critics) were never expected to reach this point?

Superimposed over these are our heroes and the sprites with which they interact, seemingly drawn via the old school method of manipulating pixels directly in Deluxe Paint, or its equivalent. They’re expected to scale as the characters move in and out of the screen, only it doesn’t really work because the outlines separating them from the backdrops tend to dissolve, making them look ill-defined and warped. Scrolling is similarly shoddy in that once ‘pushed’, it judders across to the next scene rather than gliding smoothly as you’d hope. Compounding the sense of disorientation, the sprites don’t quite keep pace so appear to jitter like aggravated Mexican jumping beans.

Whenever we engage with an inhabitant, a head avatar pops up – also apparently comprised of pixel art – to demonstrate who is currently talking. Surprisingly the discord between the two divergent techniques doesn’t look too jarring, while adding expressions to the faces, providing visual cues to suggest the tone of the responses, is a nice touch.

In harmony with Nippon Safes, this cartoony vibe pervades throughout, leaving us in no doubt that we’re in for a parody-fuelled ride to a region of the world the developers may well have never personally visited. We can expect cheap, crude, mildly offensive stereotypes that ‘snowflakes’ would consider racist today. For a game set entirely in Russia, it’s perplexing that gormless, squinty-eyed, Japanese, snap-happy typecasts feature so prominently. You’d think Dynabyte would have already squeezed that gimmick dry given Nippon Safe’s locale.

Speaking of trotting out re-hashed jokes, two of the game’s bantering developers make cameo appearances. Aside from our interaction with them being crucial to progression, they serve to promote their own gaming back-catalogue and drop nerdy programming jokes that touch down like 10t anvils. Ironically without leaving much of an impression. You probably had to be there. And work for Dynabyte.

 

Thanks to the massive data capacity boost offered by the CD medium, Big Red Adventure is almost entirely accompanied by theme-appropriate music. Reactively acclimatising to the settings in which we find ourselves facilities the requisite tone and atmosphere, while falling short of threatening to ruffle our hair with memorable orchestral pieces. Where the notion of ‘peril’ is heightened I suspect that musician, Marco Caprelli, was attempting to evoke the piratey monkeyshines of LeChuck. Close-ish, but no cigar.

Meanwhile, mooching about between the Ritz hotel, Moscow Central Station, Circus Square, Drunken Whale Inn, Red Square, the quayside…

…Gorky Park, a KGB TV studio…

…and the Kremlin museum, Doug goes about the mundane business of robbing a priceless heirloom, and Dino searches for work (again). As Bolshoi-ballet-dancing-superstar-diva, Donna, flounces and preens, the warbling starlet is kidnapped by Dr Virago’s goons. Two of the Marx Brothers no less, Harpo and Groucho.

 

 

He needs a virgin, you see, to take part in the rehearsal of his reanimation experiments to revive Lenin. Why he picked Donna I don’t know.

A cliched chorus of ‘damsel in distress’ alarms ring out into the bleak dusk, vying with a perpetual, Eastern snow blizzard, alerting the attention of Doug and Dino, who must then set out to rescue her.

But not before Dynabyte have hit upon several conspicuous excuses to flaunt her underduds. She’s nicely animated, I’ll give them that.

Trailing the shrill screams we wind up in the basement of Dr Virago’s villa lair where he has Donna and Lenin firmly strapped into his resuscitation invention.

Lenin is miraculously revived, yet to Dr Virago’s utter horror he’s no longer the communist Marxist he once was, having been lured to the dark/light side (delete as applicable) by the temptation of a lucrative TV contract.

Capitalism suddenly doesn’t seem like such a bad proposition when you’re at the top of the tree, rolling in moolah. Thus, all Leninist ideologies instantly fly out the window as the Soviet revolutionary signs on the dotted line… to become the new host of the Russian Doll Show. Consider Dr Virago’s gob well and truly smacked. Now, where did we leave that Molotov cocktail?

Like Nippon Safes, Big Red Adventure gets off to a weak start, forgoing the usual exposition routine whereby you clue in the player as to what it is they are supposed to be doing, and why. Lots of vaguely related, convoluted puzzles pad out the bulk of the offering, and then the (iron?) curtain closes on a devious major plot twist that leaves us with the erroneous impression that we’ve been playing a better game than we truly have. It’s genuinely funny in a deliberately anti-climactic sort of way. In a generous mood, we can even forgive Dynabyte for ripping off Day of the Tentacle’s mad scientist, Dr. Fred Edison, albeit demonising him as the protagonists’ nemesis. To be fair though, it was hardly a fresh idea to begin with. Deranged physiologists conducting human experiments were particularly popular in stories involving Hitler and his Nazi cohorts, though date back much further.

 

Yes as it happens, despite the teaser. There was no sequel to the sequel. Dynabyte were taken over by Virtual Edge in 1997. Perhaps they didn’t think it was feasible to keep flogging a dead camel?

 

Hmm, it’s not a terrible way to while away 10 minutes of your life I suppose… assuming you watch the intro on YouTube, cringing all the way through the crackly, slipshod voice-over, before hastily fast-forwarding to the saving grace of the denouement. Washing it down with a Vodkacola or three. Any meandering fluff and politically incorrect encounters that occur in-between can just as easily be concocted to suit your own mood, saving you the supreme endurance test of working through the tedium of the actual events, without risking an intercontinental rift.

Huh! Is this a Greyhound I see before me driving erratically on a collision course with Alexander Calder’s Flamingo Sculpture? Is that Arnie in the driving seat with a parakeet on his shoulder? And why’s it snowing out of that prosthetic leg he’s waving? This might be fun after all! 😉

Leave a Reply