Recently, I had the chance to sit down and work my way through Puggsy, a Mega Drive game, near and dear to my heart. I have no plan to talk about the gameplay in detail, but I wanted to write a short piece exploring my personal relationship with the title. As part of my research for a yet unreleased freelance article, I played through the entirety of the Mega Drive version twice, the Mega-CD version once and briefly flirted with the strange, clunky Amiga port (which hit store shelves almost an entire year after the original version). It was a valuable experience in many ways, to get to cast a critical, informed eye over a game that had an almost mystical quality for me. You see, Puggsy was always that weird platformer my cousins had about the sentient orange space-hopper, the one I never really got to play, but got to watch played. It was the game where you fell into the icy cavern to fight a huge dragon, where you solved complex puzzles in ancient pyramids, and where every item seemed to react (at least to a child’s mind) like it would in real life. These moments, made quaint by the passage of time, were powerful imaginative stimulants. Puggsy has that bizarre, but genuine early video game quality where anything goes — only a mascot platformer of the 90’s could have seen fit to make its central character a rotund, bumbling alien that fires pistols at woodland creatures. The surreal imagery of the game, complemented by the truly ahead of its time physics engine, made for a heady concoction for any five-year-old.
For a little context, I turned five in 2000 and had already developed a taste for retro gaming, begging my older cousins to show me their Mega Drive and SNES games. They seemed confused that I didn’t want a go on the newly released PlayStation 2, which provided the incredible choice between Wild Wild Racing and Fifa 2001. Relenting they popped in Puggsy and I sat in awe for the next few days as I watched them slowly work their way through the devious puzzles and platforming on offer. The neurons in my infant brain almost short-circuited at the sight of Puggsy speeding through the levels, using barrels and blocks to create makeshift stairways and bridges, even occasionally using said items to scale walls and hoist himself over ledges. I’d never seen a character move and interact with the world like that before, it was like reexperiencing Super Mario 64 all over again, but in 2D (a feat that not even the actual Super Mario World had managed to invoke). Puggsy was indeed (as the questionable advertising strip from British adult comic Viz quite neatly claimed) ‘the bollocks’.
While I did end up tracking down a Mega Drive II and my own copy of the game around the age of 11, last week was the first full playthrough of Puggsy I had experienced in many years. For the necessity of providing screenshots for the article, I used Kega Fusion to emulate the game. The hazy, CRT Puggsy I was so used to appeared uncannily pixel-perfect, the alien made further alien. Through emulation, the game did lose some of its nostalgic magic, but I still found an awful lot to appreciate upon replay. The familiar, upbeat, sunny theme of the first few levels is intoxicatingly charming; a real earworm. Indeed, the entire OST (composed by Matt Furniss) is exceedingly good and perhaps the one component of the game that has aged best. Music, I find, is always the one thing that I never paid much attention to as a child and only learned to appreciate in my mid-teens. The play by play, on the other hand, is the same as it has always been. You breeze through the first third of the game, struggle with the middle levels and relax back into a battle-hardened groove for the last few areas. Puggsy is not an insanely difficult game and is fairly forgiving for the most part, but like most now-retro titles, the player is expected to conform to the developer’s instated rules. Jump giving you too much trouble? Go grab a power-up from another level and trek back to where you need it. Tough luck if you get hit and lose it on the way. These occasional, unforgiving spikes always unlock some primordial, long-forgotten memories within me. This game can be frustrating, and amongst all of the positively associated, high concept remembrances, there are pockets of space dedicated to the negative. I suddenly recall my cousin’s frustration at the obscure secret exits, the dodgy collision detection and the need to reinput a painfully long passcode upon restarting the game. In this case, perhaps Puggsy was elevated by being observed, removed from the immediate challenge of playing it.
Conversely, the controller-throwing difficulty of another personally formative Traveller’s Tales game never did much to negatively impact my opinion of it. Toy Story for the Super Nintendo was, and is, a great favourite of mine. Depending on your experience with this title and your susceptibility to the influence of video game YouTube review ‘funny men’, you may or may not have just vomited into your hands. While received well by both critics and fans upon release, Toy Story seems to have fallen into that strange taxonomy of the posthumously mocked (a little like the current trend for hating on Shenmue and the first Sonic Adventure, both of which still, unequivocally and for lack of a better term, whip sack). Big, fuzzy Donkey Kong Country-style sprites zoom around the screen as SNES renditions of Randy Newman tunes blast through your speakers. Woody traverses every location from the movie, including a stealth sequence based on ‘Pizza Planet’ and an entire 3D alien collect em’ up created in the style of the original Doom. The whole thing, even divorced from nostalgia, is triumphantly ridiculous, infinitely charming and tough as nails. Players who experience the game within a modern context clearly find a lot to criticise, and an equal amount to mock. In some ways, that’s okay — Toy Story is a huge, well-known, well-loved franchise. Part of me is just worried that one day I’ll see my dearest Puggsy in one of those thumbnails, sunglasses in hand, funky font over his head that reads something along the lines of ‘I played the WORST Mega Drive game of all time!’. Even if that day comes, at least I’ll always have the memories.