Friday, September 28, 2007

The All-but-forgotten Adventures of Rattle and Roll

I don't remember how I originally heard of it, but one of my favorite games for the NES was Rare's obscure classic Snake Rattle n Roll. Maybe it was seeing the quirky box art (see below) at Toys R Us or reading a positive review in Nintendo Power that did it, but something told me I wanted this game. If I remember correctly, it was Christmas morning when I received it.

Like the kid in my last post, I was fortunate enough to typically get a few video games for Christmas when I was a kid. 1990, the year Snake Rattle n Roll was released, was no different. I don't remember the other titles I got that year, but that's only because they might have seemed irrelevant compared to Snake Rattle n Roll.

To put it simply, Snake Rattle n Roll was one of the first games I remember that defied video game conventions in a way that provided the player with a truly unique game experience. From the moment I pressed the START button, I was whisked away to a another world filled with geometric computer landscapes, unusual enemies resembling toilet seats and detached feet, all set to a catchy MIDI soundtrack.

In the game, you played as Rattle the snake. A second person could play co-operatively as Roll. You had to navigate the 3D isometric levels shooting your forked tongue out to catch these colored balls called Nibbley-Pibbleys. Rattle and Roll started out with a pathetically short tail trailing behind them. As you continued to eat Nibbley-Pibbleys, Your tail began to grow in segments. Eat enough of those little spheres and your tail would grow to full length. At that point, your snake would be heavy enough to use a weight scale that triggered the level's exit door to open.

Each new level introduced an interesting new color scheme along with another infectiously catchy tune. Adding to the game's difficulty, each new level would introduce a new type of Nibbley-Pibbley, each more elusive than the last level's. In the first stage, the Nibbley-Pibbleys would simply roll around on the ground. Later stages would have you trying to catch winged Nibbley-Pibbleys, Nibbley-Pibbleys with legs, and bouncing Nibbley-Pibbleys on springs. After eating Nibbley-Pibbleys with appendages, an in-game animation would show the snake spitting out the inedible parts.

Reading the game's article on wikipedia, I was surprised to see that it was criticized for a couple of issues that had never been much of a problem for me. The article makes a brief mention that the game sold poorly "possibly a result of its high difficulty and unintuitive controls." I may claim to know a lot about video games, but I can't say that I'm a particularly skilled player. The only reason I'm good at any games is because of practice. This may be the reason I was never put off by Snake Rattle n Roll's controls or difficulty. I must admit that I never actually beat the game, with or without the use of a Game Genie. The last boss is next to impossible to beat, but I can't claim to have beaten many NES games in my lifetime as it is. I never even finished the first Super Mario Bros. game! And yet, this game was extremely challenging, but I was able to make some headway through various levels.

As for the controls, I can understand why they would be called "unintuitive." Isometric games usually had this weird control scheme where pressing down would make you walk diagonally in a down-left direction. Pressing left would make you move in a up-left direction. The console version of The Immortal had a similar control scheme. It's disorienting at first, but becomes second nature after playing for a bit. Just make sure you know which direction to press during platform jumping sequences like the one pictured below.

The artwork and visual presentation of Snake Rattle n Roll was one of the most stylized for video games at the time. It was sort of reminiscent of early 3D computer animation from the 1980's with all it's bright colors and rounded edges. Fans of this type of animation might remember a video demo made by Robert Abel and Associates in 1982 called High Fidelity (pictured below). Canadians might also remember a show on YTV called Short Circutz which was basically a series of computer animated shorts and demo videos. Similar art styles have been used in other video games since Snake Rattle n Roll, including games like Relentless: Twinsen's Adventure and, to a lesser extent, Rayman.

High Fidelity

Over 16 years later and I am still a big fan of Snake Rattle n Roll. You could say that the game profoundly impacted my interpretation of what good gameplay means to me: a completely original (and weird) gaming experience with artfully executed presentation. As long as some games dare to venture beyond the norm, video games will continuously take steps towards being considered a legitimate art form.

Here's a video review I found on youtube. Props to the reviewer paulisthebest3uk...