Monday, 8 January 2018

Game Review: Snake Rattle 'n' Roll (Nintendo Entertainment System)

Developed by Rare and published by Nintendo in 1990

In my ongoing mission to broaden gaming horizon, I've been delving into some games for the original Nintendo Entertainment System, a system I coveted as a child but never got to own.

The first time I saw Snake Rattle 'n' Roll was in Debenhams (department store for non-UK readers) on a demo unit  in the run up to Christmas. As I recall, it was right next to a Sega Mega Drive running a copy of the original Sonic The Hedgehog and, as I only had a C64 at that point, I stood in awe of both machines in front of me, desperately waiting for the other kids to get of the damned things and let me have a go before my parents came to collect me; I couldn't have been more 8 years old at that point, but it's funny the memories that stick with you.

Developed by Tim Stamper and Mark Betteridge at Rare, the game is a curious blend of arcade and platforming action starring a pair of snakes, the titular Rattle and Roll. The game is comprised of 11 levels of increasing difficulty, all of which are viewed from an isometric perspective and chock full of hazards, platforms and obstacles to overcome in order to reach the level's exit door. The door is locked shut at the start of each round and the only way to open it is to ring the bell on a weighing machine located somewhere near the exit. In order to ring the bell, your snake must have found and eaten enough pellets (referred to as Nibbley Pibbleys in the manual) in the level to increase his tail size, giving him enough weight to ring the bell.

Pellets can found underneath manhole covers in the ground, or being fired out of pellet dispensers in the scenery. To eat a pellet, the player must tap the B button to make their snake shoot out their tongue in an effort to catch the pellet and gobble it up. Each pellet eaten earns the player a certain number of points, depending on the colour of the pellet, and increasing their tail size. In a 2-player game, eating a pellet the same colour as your snake will increase tail size by 2 segments, so there's a competitive element to see who can snaffle the most 'pibbleys and earn the most points before the level ends. Actually catching the Nibbley Pibbley pellets becomes progressively more difficult as the game progresses, however, as they'll sprout legs and even propellers in a bid to evade you - this  forces you into chasing after them atop the most precarious of places, usually resulting in your snake falling over a cliff edge in the process.

Grab pellets using your tongue!

Your serpent's forked appendage can be used for more than simply grabbing pellets, however, acting as your primary form of attack. With your tongue, it's possible to, quite literally, give most of the game's enemies a real licking - be warned that your foes will regain strength if not dispatched quickly, so you need to hit them multiple times in quick succession if you want to dispatch them.

Conceptually, the closest analogy I can make is that Snake Rattle 'n' Roll plays similarly to Atari's Marble Madness, but the ability to jump around means that there's much greater scope in terms of level design. Right from the off, you'll spy collectable items and power-ups situated on ledges that appear to be completely out of reach, but there's always a way to get to them if you look hard enough; working out how to get to these places is all part of the fun, of course, proving that the level designers weren't able to outsmart you.

Watch your footing (slithering?) in the ice levels

Whilst the game might look cute and fluffy on the outside, it has a core as hard as steel - this is one tough game to be sure! This is game that demands complete mastery of the controls, gravity and character physics in order to over the nightmarish obstacle course ahead of you. The jumping in this game is particularly devious since it's possible to apply after-touch to alter the direction of your snake whilst in mid-air; many of the levels are designed so that you have to master this skill in order to reach certain platforms. Not only this, but you have to become a master of landing a jump as well - your snake's body has momentum and it's all too easy to overshoot the end of a platform you landed on if you didn't apply the brakes soon enough.

Original cover art
The isometric viewpoint was popular throughout this time because it provided unique art style and game mechanics, but without the CPU cost of trying to render 3D objects in real-time. However, it can become a source of frustration if the physics/collision detection don't correspond with what the player can see - I've played similar games where you character falls off the edge of platforms because the game's code dictates that's what happened, but the visual cues said otherwise. Fortunately, I didn't encounter any such issues with this particular game thanks to competent coding by the developers, as well as the decision to include shadows underneath your snake, which provides a useful guide as to where you'll land. That's not to say I didn't spend a ridiculously lengthy period of time falling off cliffs or disappearing over the edge of waterfalls, because I did - it's just that most of these were because my fat, sausage-fingers simply weren't quick enough to react!

Toilet seats...a typically British sense of humour?

The game's soundtrack was contributed by long-time Rare collaborator and musician, David Wise. It features some great tunes that appear to be inspired by rock-n'-roll era tunes. The C64 SID chip will forever be the best-sounding 8-bit machine as far as I'm concerned, but I will concede that the NES could belt out some great tunes, given the right talent.

If I have one complaint with the game, then it would be with the directional control scheme. The console's D-Pad has controls for left, right, up and down, but these need to be extrapolated to an environment where you move through angles of 90 degrees relative to your character's position. For example, I would expect to press up AND left on the D-Pad to move diagonally up and to the left (which I think makes sense). However, the control scheme in this game is such that pressing a left on the pad actually moves diagonally up and left, pushing up moves diagonally up/right and so on - pressing a vertical and horizontal direction simultaneously produces very strange results (e.g. down and left actually moves horizontally). I suspect that this was done deliberately to accommodate the fact that the NES controller is has a four-way (not 8-way) pad, so it would have been extremely difficult to press horizontal AND vertical directions at the same time.

Whatever niggles there may be, I still have to give this games the thumbs up. Snake Rattle 'n' Roll is a highly polished, not to mention fiendishly addictive game that will have you shouting in frustration and grinning with equal measure. If you're up to the challenge then this is one game that you should definitely try.

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