Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Game Review: Taz-Mania

  • Publisher: Sega
  • Developer: Recreational Brainware
  • Platform/Release: Genesis, 24 December 1992
  • Genre: Action, Platformer
  • Players: 1
  • Rarity/Cost: Common (US$3-10)
Back when I declared that Rollerblade Racer on the NES was the worst video game I ever played, I was referring mostly to how little thought had been put into it.  Although it's certainly a broken game, it's not quite as unplayable as other titles out there.  As such,  I don't hate Rollerblade Racer quite as much as those as other more frustrating games, even if they don't make as many pointless decisions like having ways to clear levels unscathed.  However, one game on the Sega Genesis has a rap sheet of other mistakes as long as my arm... depending on how big the font is.    Brace yourself, because I'm talking about Taz-Mania.

As the name suggests, Taz-Mania stars the Tasmanian Devil of Looney Tunes fame.  The first thing you are treated to when starting the game is a one-screen cutscene in which some old relative of Taz explains the plot.  He regales you with a legend of giant prehistoric seabirds who used to rule the island of Tasmania and laid eggs big enough to feed a family of Taz's ancestors for a year.  Apparently, they must still be around, because Taz sets off on a quest to find one of these eggs.  The environments you'll go through aren't that special; a desert, jungle, mines, and an ACME factory.  The problem lies within these biomes.

Taz hates bombs.  So will you.
Taz-Mania has some of the worst level design I have ever seen in a video game, so I'll focus on that for now.  In the first level alone, you'll be forced to cross pits of quicksand, jump over indescructible rock monsters, and ride up waterspouts or else suffer the spikes below.  Aren't first levels supposed to ease you into the game's mechanics, not throw challenging gimmicks at you right off the bat?  As if all that weren't enough, the play control seems designed to get in your way at every step you take.  Holding the B button (controls can be customized from the options screen) sends Taz into a whirlwind spin he can attack enemies with, and pressing Left or Right while doing so keeps him moving at high speed in that direction until you change direction or let go of the spin button.  Unfortunately, you can also knock helpful items, like life-giving food, fire-breath chili peppers, extra lives and continues, off the screen while spinning.  And yet there are also bombs which will take off half your lifebar if you eat them unless you spin into them or scramble with the action and/or spin buttons to let them go.  Both things can happen frequently if you spin just to move along faster, and the limited space you have to see in front of you often renders you unable to react to what you need to.  You know how a lot of the good 2D platformer games out there, the Marios and Sonics of the world, let the camera hang back so you can see more of what's in front of you?  Yeah, that would have been nice.  Occasionally, enemies stand nearby items, rendering your spin attacks worthless if you care about nabbing the goodies, and although it is possible to take them down by jumping on top of them, Mario-style, you have to be exact in order to pull this off.  The floaty, imprecise jumping mechanics don't help matters in the least.

The levels, of which there are 17 in all, show their true colors mid-way through the game, and you will curse it for them.  In the first jungle level, you must make many blind leaps over bottomless pits, where you can't see the other ledge until you are already in the air.  In order to gain more distance, you can spin while in mid-air, but doing so could send you off the other edge of the platform to your death.  In this level, there's a 1-Up next to a checkpoint; the funny thing is when you die and respawn in this game, all the items you picked up reappear, so if you keep getting the 1-Up after restarting at this checkpoint, you'll essentially have infinite lives for the following segment.  Normally I would complain about this bout of thoughtlessness, but given the frustrating nature of spinning off all those platforms, I suppose I shouldn't look the gift horse in the mouth.  Shame we won't be getting any similar TLC from here on.

The two mine stages.  Be afraid.
After two more relatively easy stages in the jungle, you've got a mine cart ride ahead of you.  You can speed up, slow down, and raise the cart to avoid obstacles, but like the rest of the game, it's way hard to react to it all.  I'll be honest, I haven't cleared this level without using the slow function on my controller.  But just because the next level is done on foot doesn't mean you'll get a break; very much the opposite, in fact, it will present you with yet another wall of difficulty.  It's also set in the mines, but with elevators you manually control, some which move on their own, and others which bounce up and down like those drums from Sonic 3.  The hardest part comes when you have to jump across a couple of quickly-moving platforms over an instant-kill floor which only barely looks like it's covered with spikes.  It's hard enough finding the first one, since it's off-screen once you first get up to the spot where you have to board it, but the very next platform presents the hardest jump in this game, as well as a whole bunch of other games.  The problem is that this second platform moves insanely fast in the opposite direction as the first, so if you wait until the first platform is at its farthest right before jumping, the second platform will fly out of your reach and cost you a life.  Can this be pulled off with practice?  Sure, but it's not worth the aggravation!!

The level after this marks the end of the hump in terms of difficulty, but it's still a doozy.  Back in the jungle area, there was a level where you traveled along a river by jumping between logs and islands.  The catch is that the logs traveled along several horizontal rows, so you'd have to hold Up or Down to move in this pseudo-3D space.  This mechanic will seem broken at first, but you'll get the hang of it after practice.  A lot of practice.  Well, the two mine levels are followed up by another one of these rivers, without the benefit of islands to give you terra firma; you'll have to memorize the patterns of logs and rocks.  Falling in the water deals damage and bounces you back up until you can make it to some sort of platform or you're drained completely.  Oh, and should you be foolhardy enough to try playing on Hard mode, one dip means an instant loss of a life.  Having to deal with all that while wrestling with a barely-functioning mechanic?  What were they thinking!?  The good news is that upon clearing this level, everything else is straightforward and, dare I say it, easy.

I do have to give a wag of the finger at one of the later levels, which is an almost exact repeat of one from two stages before, except that the goal is in a different place.  Yeah, this is the level of creativity we're dealing with here.  For one, the graphics aren't terribly exciting; the backgrounds are undetailed, using only a handful of colors.  The worst example of this is the cave levels; apart from some blue rock patterns, the background is completely black!  On the other hand, the sound direction is... interesting.  Most levels don't have any music, or at least it's very minimal and quiet.  Nearly every action in the game, be it you jumping or an enemy walking on-screen or whatever, plays some sort of sound effect.  This was done to evoke the Looney Tunes cartoons, and I can appreciate that, but in many cases it's just annoying, especially the woodpecker-like ticks of mouse enemies which take an eternal-seeming minute to get out of my head.

They really had no excuse to make Taz-Mania so terrible.  There were good games out on the market before its release in late 1992: two Sonic the Hedgehog games, four Super Mario games, heck, even the (early) Pitfall! series succeeds where Taz-Mania fails.  While all those other series I listed present a worthy challenge, Taz-Mania frustrating for all the wrong reasons, namely barely-functioning control mechanics and some of the worst level designs you or I will ever see.  Oh, wait... it's based on a cartoon property.  That's a fine enough excuse.  But it still doesn't save this game from my wrath; I hereby declare it as my new worst video game I have ever played.

Graphics: 2 cartoon bombs out of 5
Sound: 1 cartoon bomb out of 5
Control: 1 cartoon bomb out of 5
Design: 1 cartoon bomb out of 5
The Call: 15% (F)

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