As, ahem, ‘gamers’, certain bits of knowledge are inherent within us. As soon as we pick up that very first controller, it seems, certain inalienable facts are bored into our brains, never to be questioned or erased. “There’ll never be just one videogames format, and this is A Good Thing” is a classic. “Rare haven’t made a good game since they left Nintendo” is, annoyingly, completely true. The nugget we are here to discuss today, however, should be obvious. It’s the biggie. The one fact every ‘gamer’ knows. Here we go. “Every game based on a film (with the exception of Goldeneye) is terrible.” Surely there can’t be any cases where this isn’t true? (except Goldeneye) Surely, the very nature of a tie-in game, the rushed production schedule, the film company breathing down your neck to make sure the game doesn’t alienate any potential ‘markets’, means that whatever comes out the other end is never going to be pretty. Right? WRONG. On this occasion. (And the occasion of Goldeneye.) Ladies and gentlemen, I present, for your consideration, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Game Boy Adventure.
Tricky platforming, but still pretty straightforward.
I hate to use the old “It’s a bit like X, and a bit like Y, so if you like those, you’ll like this” trope that you often find in articles such as this, but Bill & Ted on the Game Boy is a bit like Manic Miner, and a bit like Chuckie Egg, so if you do like those, you may like this. (What do you mean you’re too young to have played either? So am I! Never stopped me. Emulators, people. Emulators.) But Bill & Ted goes further than either of these games ever did. Released in 1990, you could easily argue that the single screen platformer was already dead by the time Bill & Ted came onto the scene. On the Game Boy especially, Super Mario Land (the first Mario game a large number of UK gamers played, considering the relative lack of success the NES had over here) had moved platform games on considerably in terms of structure, compare the two games side by side and it’s shocking that SML came first. Bill & Ted innovates in a remarkably different way. Within the restrictive confines of the single screen platform game, Beam Software have made a game which consistently surprises players and redefines itself. Putting on my arty-farty conceptual hat for a second, you could even call it an elegy for the single-screen platformer. A last hurrah for a sub-genre already pretty much confined to the history books. Right, that’s quite enough pretentious nonsense, let’s have a look at the game itself, and what makes it a forgotten classic.
Bill & Ted consists of 50 levels split into 10 worlds (each set in a different ‘Time Zone’) of 5 levels each. As in MM and CE, you have collect all the flashy/shiny things in order to finish the level, but unlike these games, Bill & Ted, rather than just make platforms smaller and enemies faster and more numerous, changes as you play it. On most levels a new enemy or power-up which works in a different way to everything previously seen is offered to players. The fast-paced nature of the game in unison with this creates a sense of excited panic, “Argh! A new thing! This new thing will kill me argh” being the main thought crossing players minds as they reach a new level, which is, of course, the way such games should work. The skills you acquire early on almost by accident; being able to ‘guide’ your jumps and falls, messing around with disappearing platforms to drop enemies down bottomless pits and so on, become essential in later levels as the difficulty curve ramps up and the game really starts ‘messing with the format’, so to speak. What starts out as a run of the mill game where you time your jumps to reach platforms and avoid enemies slowly transforms into something much more complex, where you need to work out and then implement a specific strategy and path around the screen, not just to complete the level in as fast a time as possible, as with other platform games, but to be able to complete the level at all, as certain keys make new platforms or power-ups appear, while others make them disappear, rendering the level impossible to complete if you haven’t gone about it the right way.
Err… yeah. Good luck with this one.
This may seem incredibly cruel, and if Bill & Ted was released today, gamers would be up in arms about the games constantly shifting expectations of its players, and the fact that strategies that seem air-tight on one level can be utterly useless on the next, probably with some degree of justification. But like I said before, Bill & Ted is an anomaly. A relic on the day it was released. It’s a fun game to play, of course it is, but that’s only part of the reason I’m telling you about it. I love single-screen platformers. They’re probably among my favourite games of all time. And with Bill & Ted, Beam Software created such an odd, idiosyncratic love letter to a genre I adore, that I can’t help but blabber on about it whenever I get the chance. I’ll get off my soapbox now, but hopefully I’ve instilled you with at least some of my love for this mad, brilliant thing. It’s proper cheap on eBay, too.