Saturday 17 April 2010

Fairy Godmother

Back in the day my neighbours obtained a DOS games compilation on CD. I used to go around to their house and play it, and it was the bee's knees as well as the bee's thighs, shins and ankles. Problem is the disc was never mine, and as it held something ridiculous like 250 titles on it, there are loads of games I played as a child that I simply can't remember. I've recovered and potentially liberated Onesimus, Oscar and Llamatron 2112 from the depths of obscurity but my work is not done.

So now for another entry from the days of old. Fairy Godmother, or "FGodMom" because as you can see, not much thought was put into title screen space. Since we last met, old Fairy Godmother has been withered by time and has become a fairly unpleasant experience to work with, but it's not so much the graphics and sound that define a game, it's how it plays... and FGodMom hasn't lost its magic in that department just yet.

I'll be making a lot of references to Lode Runner, a 1983 game published by Brøderbund for dozens of old computers and consoles. "Official" sequels to this game have been released over the last twenty-five years but the formula has never really changed. You're a bloke after gold who can climb up ladders and dig holes. It was a milestone in 2D gaming. Numerous attempts have been made by third parties to mimic the formula or improve it (personally my favourite is the 1993 DOS game Jetpack), and FGodMom is one of those games.

In FGodMom the playable character, "Fairy Godmother", has developed a strong dislike against the establishment and has decided to take her vengeance on the executable she is trapped in. To achieve her violent acts of video game cruelty, she has two moves which allow her to break the level designs. Ctrl will allow her to copy the tile she is facing, while Alt will allow her to transform the tile she's facing into the tile she's just copied.

So basically, if you copy a ladder, you can turn any tile into a ladder (apart from specific ones marked in grey). You can copy and change the walls (allowing you to pass through them), the enemies, even things like the coins and level exit. It's only a temporary thing though, and the effects will wear off after a short while, which means you can't cheat. Though you can turn things into coins, they'll only count as coins for a short period, turning back into whatever they once were when your time is up (so don't be picking up walls). You'll be needing a certain amount of Abe Lincolns to trigger the level exit, and you have to be careful that you don't get yourself in a situation where you can get trapped.

To make your life difficult, the levels contain GIANT ENEMY CRABS, which will haunt you endlessly. They're fairly stupid and are overcome by turning them into ladders for a bit, but they can't be ignored and even if you do manage to get rid of them permanently, they'll respawn. Unfortunately these guys aren't the best as pathfinding unlike the enemies found in Lode Runner and Jetpack - they'll only move in your direction, and won't attempt to find other routes if their normal route is blocked.

The copy and pasting of level tiles is something that I've not seen in a video game since. Lode Runner and Jetpack allow you remove walls for a short period of time, but the level designs aren't quite as clever. For example, in some situations FGodMom requires you to turn ladders into coins, pick up the coins, and make sure the coins turn back into ladders in a different location so that you can then climb up and reach new areas. As you can probably guess, it's not the easiest thing to explain with words, but it does allow the player to literally rebuild levels and you don't get that in games today... much.

Unfortunately for FGodMom the years have not been kind. It's let down slightly by the 16-colour EGA graphics, as though it operates on a higher resolution than most games of the era, these days there's a lot of sprite flicker due to conflicting refresh rates and the colours tend to go a bit wacky when two or more sprites overlap.

Another big issue is the sound, as everything is handled by the built in PC speaker. Though this little speaker has been known to produce great things in the past, in FGodMom it's only used to produce squeaky and annoying noises and it's not a nice experience. Had it been released a year later when Adlib sound cards were the norm, this may not have been a problem, though it is worth pointing out that there were bug-fixing revisions in the coming years so these modes could have been added.

But though it may not be as appealing as it once was, FGodMom still has some great ideas and it's a shame that they've not been brought into a more modern age. It's also freeware, small in size and as usual DOSBox emulates it perfectly, so there's no excuse not to be able to give it a go.


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  3. I have released a new version of the game, F.Godmom, The Fairy Godmother, for iPhone, iPad & iPod touch.

    -- John Blackwell