Plumbing the depths

We’re all familiar with the curious case of ‘Great’ Giana Sisters versus Nintendo. You can’t go cloning a lucrative, exclusive property like Super Mario Bros. without inciting the blocky, bleepy wrath of the Big N’s pixelated army of lawyers, or their trained attack turtles. Giana Sisters was voluntarily withdrawn from sale to placate such vociferous IP guardians and so would have been a commercial flop.

Oh well, all a bit cheap and tacky wasn’t it? A holy grail, eBay record-breaking title today, though only because people like to chase what they can’t catch.

It stands to reason that lessons would have been learnt and no-one would dare repeat the same mistake. Of course, publishers would keep shooting for that elusive, captivating gameplay that is so intimately entwined with the plumber double act. So how far would you have to deviate from this model to capitalise on its success without being sued?

In 1989 – a year after Giana Sisters bit the oversized, anthropomorphic comedy bullet – GrandSlam decided to find out precisely how far they could push their luck. ‘Terry’s Big Adventure’ was the result; you could say it’s a rip-off of a rip-off.

Published under the label ‘Shades’ to cement its cool credentials, the platformer was developed by Gametec. Neither entity would ever be heard from again. Not because Nintendo pushed the Big Red Button, nuking them out into orbit. There’s no indication that TBA even blipped their radar, so it must have been considered sufficiently independent for the similarity not to matter. And it is I suppose.

Mario’s signature head-bounce manoeuvre isn’t an option. Instead, the eponymous sproglet wields a yo-yo as his main weapon, yet can also gather up a limited number of rocks to be used as projectiles. Whilst the mechanics and aesthetics are all very familiar otherwise, this was enough to swing the balance. Sadly the obligatory compromises also had the adverse effect of making it less fun to play, especially since Terry’s yo-yo suffers from a customarily irritating recoil that often results in him stumbling backwards into enemies or down gaping chasms.

It’s hard to say if this ruins the game or not because it’s not particularly exciting to begin with. If this was an episode of Sesame Street, ‘bland’ would be the word of the day. In accord with Giana Sisters, TBA’s Amiga rendition looks and plays no better than its extremely basic C64 counterpart, albeit with the addition of an improved soundtrack courtesy of Alister Brimble. He composed the music for the C64 version too. It’s excellent as far as it goes, the problem being that it amounts to a ten-second ditty that loops incessantly throughout, so naturally has been known to drive gamers to throw themselves off clifftops to escape insanity.

“Though still short, Commodore sprites are nearer standard size than the ST’s but still keep the Super Mario flavour. They’re drawn and animated well but, though smooth scrolling, backgrounds are blocky and have few colours. Music is better than the ST’s but still irritating, and there is no sound effects option. Not quite as good value as the ST but still a good buy.”

The Games Machine (74%, C64 version, December 1989)

Unevolved as the graphics are it’s no surprise that the in-game sprite looks nothing like the character on the box cover. He reminds me of the ‘too cool for school’ Bitmap Kid, star of Magic Pockets, although of course, he wouldn’t exist for another two years so it’s not as if Gametec were aiming to replicate him.

Possibly they were influenced instead by Aardvark Software’s Frak! (their exclamation mark, not mine – it’s a sweary euphemism). A 1984 platformer starring a caveman known as Trogg who – way ahead of his evolutionary status – yo-yos his way out of trouble.

It’s not a common weapon in gamesville – aside from Flair’s Trolls released in 1992, I can’t think of another title where one features this prominently.

There are 12 – not especially smoothly – scrolling levels to explore, patrolled by various bouncing and flying baddies following predictable trajectories. Fluorescent green grubs, geriatric, bipedal yellow hedgehogs…

…an assortment of mutant Furbies…

…and pink and yellow polkadot slugs to name just a few of the quirky varieties.

Between stages, we are automatically thrust into a collectathon bonus round, whereas other areas are only accessible with a key shaken loose from a flunky, no doubt sent by the non-existent antagonist.

Travelling from left to right we must contend with the forces of inertia whilst swerving dripping acid, poisonous green mushrooms, and lightning bolts, betwixt riding on hovering platforms on route to the exit tower. Locked, though only by a key hanging directly above the door – a facsimile of the flag-jumping exercise at the finish line of each level in Super Mario Bros.

 

More of an impediment is the necessity to hold down the fire button and push in the desired direction to spin out Terry’s yo-yo as this introduces a slight delay to his attacks that needs to be overcome if he’s to lindy loop another day. Collecting letter bubbles to spell keywords helps a fair bit, as in all those old Japanese coin-ops, Bubble Bobble in particular, obviously. ‘Terry’ equates to temporary invulnerability, whilst ‘extra’ triggers the prize of a bonus life.

Catching rings or mushrooms that bounce on the spot is the recipe for extending our time limit. White mushrooms merely boost our point score, though collect enough (20,000 – points, not mushrooms, that would be silly) and we’re rewarded with an additional life. Flags serve as score multipliers so those should help us to reach the target sooner.

Lives are in short supply from the outset, though it hardly matters given that it’s possible to resume where we left off upon each restart, effectively granting infinite continues. Consequently, if we can be bothered, sooner or later the game is defeated almost by default.

Valiantly risking life, limb and yo-yos we ultimately return home to wearily put a tick in the ‘mission accomplished’ box. Surely riches and adoration beyond our wildest dreams await in reward for our heroic feat of bravery in the face of extreme adversary? I can’t contain my excitement in anticipation of discovering how Gametec decided to commemorate the miraculous event. Fanfare, fireworks and a wild party go without saying. This is going to be awesome!

Alternatively, it could equate to some anonymous dude asking “what kept you?”. You can’t blame Terry for breaking the fourth wall to peer out of the screen at us in utter, incredulous bewilderment. Even a mid-priced £15.99 offering should warrant a passable finale, Super Mario Bros. rip-off notwithstanding. Instead, it’s all a bit ‘whatever, that’ll do’. In spite of the lack of effort generally, TBA was reasonably well received by the gaming press when assessed in December 1989. Games Machine awarded it 78%, while Zzap! were astonishingly even more impressed, culminating in an 82% verdict.

“Nintendo refuse to licence-out Super Mario Bros and clones such as the ill-fated Great Giana Sisters haven’t escaped their watchful legal eye, so it’s only variants such as this that can provide similar action. It’s not as fun or addictive as the original, but if you haven’t got a Nintendo it’s currently the next best thing.”

“The sprites are really remarkably small but still contain reasonable detail in their compact design and are animated simply yet amusingly and effectively. Backgrounds are colourful and neatly drawn, scrolling smoothly, but the background music Is awful; luckily a few little effects can be selected. Great value at 15 quid.”

The Games Machine (78%, Atari ST version, December 1989)

“Being a fan of the Super Mario Brothers style of game I found this instantly playable. Terry is a little slow for my liking and the rebound effect of hitting nasties is rather silly but other than that it all plays well enough. Terry’s Big Adventure isn’t anything new over Giana Sisters but it’s well presented and nicely priced.”

“Quite why GrandSlam has decided to put on the Shades for this one, I don’t know. We received Terry’s under the impression it was full price and thought it was pretty good; at mid-price it’s even better. Presentation is only okay, but the familiar platforms-and-ladders gameplay is compulsive, making this very good value for money.”

Zzap! (82%, C64 version, Christmas special 1989)

I have a theory regarding the origins of the name which neatly sums up my own personal views. Before a title was settled upon the game was known as ‘to be announced’. Then because it didn’t have a plot or any kind of personality someone at GrandSlam (conveniently called Terry) decided to create a backronym for TBA. With as much imagination as was injected into the rest of the project, it emerged that he’d be the protagonist and embark on an adventure that lasted a good while. Ping! The presses began to roll!

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