Step-ember: Movement in Games

Being a visual art form, one of the first things you’ll notice when playing a game is how your character moves while you control them. Are they zooming through a level like Sonic the Hedgehog? Can you imagine the ground shake as you land a jump with Donkey Kong? Maybe you feel the lightness of your hang glider while soaring through a stage in Pilotwings. These animations can help you to feel connected to your character. So, when something looks weird, you take notice! This month, take a walk with me while we explore the top ten games that may or may not have the moves.

10) Kablooey (SNES 1990)

Player one, get ready.

Before we even get started, take a look at the original title and cover art for this game:

What happened!? How did we go from this explosive-obsessed super villain to a blue blob with googly eyes and a single tooth? Kablooey was one of the weirdest games I ever had the pleasure of owning as a child. As you wobble across an isometric grid, you must strategically set off different-sized bombs without blowing up yourself or walking off into the void. It’s a simple puzzle game, and the animation never really bothered me… However, the music is atrocious. I know this is an article about animations, but I *have* to talk about this music. As you begin each stage, an electronic female voices tells you, “Player One, get ready.” Then, a hyper-active drum kit fills into a repetitive bass groove while a synthesizer pads the music with held chords. After looping for some time, the voice suddenly comes back. “Get get get get get get get. Get get get ready. Get get get ready. Ready ready. Get. Ready. Get ready.” When I heard this for the first time, I seriously thought my game was broken. Is that really the music? The music NEVER changes the entire game and this….breakdown…completely ruins the flow of what’s supposed to be a slow-paced puzzle game. Years later, I looked up the game on YouTube just to make sure that it wasn’t just my copy. Nope, that’s just the way it is.

Get ready at 3:10.

9) Road Runner (NES 1989)

Don’t ACME, bro.

Tengen, the maker of Road Runner, was known for making unlicensed games for the NES (i.e. they didn’t have the official Nintendo “seal of approval,” and they used a special chip in order to actually make games playable on the system). You could recognize a Tengen game immediately because of their black, rounded cartridges that stood apart from Nintendo’s grey cartridges. Needless to say, there were court cases. We won’t get into it.

I always loved the Road Runner cartoons as a kid. I secretly always rooted for Wile E. Coyote and thought certainly that the Road Runner would eventually be caught. When our family rented the Road Runner game on NES, I thought for sure that I might have my chance! But…after popping it in, I quickly learned that I wasn’t playing as Wile E. Coyote. I was the Road Runner trying to flee the grasp of the cunning canine. Accompanied by a soundtrack that included classical pieces like the “William Tell Overture,” “Flight of the Bumblebee,” and “Sabre Dance,” Road Runner’s movement mimicked exactly how he was pictured on TV with his legs forming a circular blur of motion. Except….in the game, he really didn’t move that quickly. And, you are constantly forced to go out of your way to collect “seed” so you don’t….die from starvation? Most notably, instead of moving from left-to-right like EVERY GAME EVER, Road Runner moves from right-to-left. Why?! Even in the cartoon, the characters are generally depicted as moving to the right (exhibit A: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jd_41tM6H2Y). More annoying yet is that your character only scrolls the screen when he is nearly all the way to the left edge of the picture, leaving little room to avoid oncoming obstacles. It seems the animation is about the only thing the developers actually got right.

8) Summer Games (Atari 2600 1984)

Go for the Gold!

Ah, the Atari 2600. Those were the days. All you needed was a joystick and a single button for hours of endless entertainment. I remember playing Summer Games with my sister (and being highly competitive about it). My favorite event was the sprinting competition because it involved waggling the joystick in every direction as fast as possible (predating joystick-destroying Mario Party games by 14 years!). It was the only game that actually made me feel like I had run 100 yards after I had finished playing it. I loved that most all of the events incorporated some sort of clever control scheme to match the animation. In rowing, you’d move the control from left and right to match the motion of the oars. In swimming, you’d time your button presses with the arm of the athlete to increase your speed. During the vault event, you’d rotate the joytsick to correspond with the circular swinging motion of your fellow olympian. In a world where most 2-player Atari games involved either spaceships or simply passing the controller off every other death, Summer Games was a welcome change of pace.

7) Karate Champ (Arcade 1984/NES 1986)

Begin! Point!

What do you get when you take a mediocre arcade game and try to port it to the Nintendo Entertainment System? Complete trash! The NES version of Karate Champ is clunky, awkward, and slow. The controls were so bad that….well, if you look at the screenshot above, that foot sweep made by Mr. Purple was the only consistent move that I could accomplish. Furthermore, it was nearly impossible to get your character to turn around so if you ever somehow ended up on the other side of your opponent, then good luck trying to face the other direction. Not to mention, the more enjoyable mini-games from the arcade game were not included in the NES port. I’m pretty sure we acquired this game for $5 at a thrift sale just down the street. My friends and I would spent about 10 minutes with it before the frustration kicked in. We’d be better off battling with our Lego men.

6) Cool Spot (SNES 1993)

Get cool, boy.

Coming in at #2 of Top Two games based on soda is Cool Spot (#1 being, of course, Pepsiman). Did you know this game had a plot? According to the original SNES manual, “SPOT and his friends, SPOT, SPOT, SPOT, SPOT, SPOT, SPOT, SPOT, SPOT, SPOT, SOPT, and SPOT are in trouble and they need help…FAST!” It goes on to say, “For years, Wild Wicked Wily Will has been trying to capture a real life SPOT to prove to the world that they really do exist. (Up to date, they have never been ‘spotted’!)” I’m positive we never see Wild Wicked Wily Will in the game. We need to know more about THIS guy! I always appreciated the way Spot would saunter around as if he’s the hippest cat in the club. And then when he stands still, his idle animation is for him to snap along to the beat of the soundtrack. I mean, the game opens with Spot surfing on a 7up bottle to a midi version of “Wipeout.” We only ever rented this game, but I definitely enjoyed my time with it.

5) Lester the Unlikely (SNES 1994)

I totally have that hoodie.

Watching this game gives me a backache. Upon looking up Visual Concepts, who developed Lester the Unlikely, I noticed that they’ve delved heavily into the sports genre since 1996 and have stuck with it even to this day. Interestingly, they’ve made some other pretty great games like ClayFighter and Claymates. But then again, they also made incredibly mediocre games like the Nickelodeon Guts game. It’s unlikely that anyone would ever want to play Lester the Unlikely. It controls like a Prince of Persia game but stars a teenage dweeb who gets lost on an island after accidentally being loaded onto a cargo ship that becomes hijacked by pirates. I’m pretty sure the last type of character I want to control is one that identically matches my 13-year-old self. Get out of here, Lester!

4) Laverne from Day of the Tentacle (Mac OS/PC 1993)

Lets do the time warp again.

Described as a “deranged medical student,” Laverne attempts to return to her own time from a future where purple tentacle has successfully taken over the world. I’ve already talked extensively about Day of the Tentacle in my Blarch article, but since playing this game over break last Thanksgiving, I still can’t praise it enough. Laverne stands out from Bernard (your typical nerd) and Hoagie (a music roadie). Every word spoken seemingly comes from an empty shell of a mind, and she is fascinated with the bizarre. In the scene below, she becomes excited at the thought of being cut open by her tentacle doctor and even offers her own scalpel for the process. Her walk reminds me of a child who constantly has a nursery song stuck in their head and thus, they can’t control their body while they dance their way to the nearest object that catches their attention. Of course, this animation fits the B-movie tone of the game perfectly. Fun fact: Laverne was actually based on an ex-girlfriend of one of the developers. I wonder why they broke up…

3) Toejam & Earl (Sega Genesis 1991)

We got the funk.

The early 90’s was a weird time to be alive. The first live-action Ninja Turtles movie came out in 1990. Ren & Stimpy joined Nickelodeon along with The Adventures of Pete & Pete in 1991. Meanwhile, Bryan Adams was topping the pop charts with “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You.” And then we have Toejam & Earl – a game starring alien rappers who roam the Earth(?) to recover the wreckage of their ship after crash landing…all to the fresh sounds of jazz-funk euphoria. One aspect that stands out to me in this game is the multiplayer mode. You start with both characters on the screen but if you get too far away from each other, the screen automatically splits so you can follow the action of each character separately. I don’t think a multiplayer experience like this existed on a console at the time, so being able to explore the world independently allowed for a unique opportunity for freedom and communication between players. The game was juuuuust weird enough to hold the attention of edgy pre-teens at a time when MTV was still a thing. Honestly, without the soundtrack, I don’t know if this game would have worked. Without your limited powerups, it’s a surprisingly slow slog around the overworld. But, grab a friend and you’ll both be bopping to the a mad jamz of Toejam & Earl.

2)Octodad (Mac/PC 2014)

Ope, let me just squeeeeze right past ya.

Here’s a new game to me: Octodad! I had no idea this game existed and it looks…well…look at it! This game could have easily gone on my Odd-gust list last month, but I wanted to save it for this month because the movement is absolutely ridiculous. You control Octodad with the mouse. The left button raises his left “foot” and the right button raises his right “foot.” Then you move the mouse in the direction where you want your feet to go and release the buttons to lower the feet back to the ground. What’s the goal? You are an octopus posing as a human who is trying to not raise the suspicions of his family while avoiding a Japanese chef that wants to cook you. Who comes up with this stuff!? I actually have an answer for that – college kids! The game was created by students at DePaul University for a showcase at the 2011 Independent Games Festival. Apparently they were doing something right as the students ended up becoming one of 8 winners to be awarded for their work at the festival. So, next time you’re doing homework, remember, you could have been designing a game about an octopus who thinks he’s a person.

Honorable Mentions:

Ward from Final Fantasy 8 (Playstation 1999)

Casually using a giant harpoon as a weapon.

Banjo Kazooie’s Talon Trot (N64 1998)

Next stop: the chiropractor.

Eddy Gordo from Tekken 2 (Playstation 1996)

He’s got legs and he knows how to use them.
  1. QWOP (Browser 2008)
::”Chariots of Fire” starts playing::

Bennett Foddy, who also created Getting Over It, didn’t want to work on his philosophy dissertation, so he decided to bless the world with QWOP. It is as crazy as it looks. Using just the four letters in the game’s title, you control the runner’s thighs and calves while trying to reach a distance of 100 meters. If you could get past 10 meters, you were considered a god at this game. I seem to recall that I’d get my runner to either hop on one foot toward the goal, or he would be sort of down on one knee just shuffling forward until ultimately falling on his face. I never reached the goal. An even more impossible version of the game now exists for mobile devices. Additionally, a two-player edition released in 2012. QWOP even made an appearance on an episode of The Office where you can see Toby playing the game at his desk. Let’s be thankful for procrastination or else QWOP may have never existed.


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That’s it for this month! Can you think of any games where characters have memorable movements? Leave me a comment. Also, you can now SUBSCRIBE to my blog via e-mail Enter your address at the bottom of my Bonus Stage page to get posts sent directly to your inbox. Thanks for reading, and keep your eyes peeled for next month’s post!

Published by erichagmann

Arranger / Pianist / Vocalist / Educator / Gamer

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