Monday 25 October 2010

Fire & Ice (Master System)

The Winter months are drawing near, and according to Procter & Gamble of Pringles crisps fame, the Christmas season starts in September now. So time to don your woolly hats and play something slightly festive.

It's Fire & Ice... for the Sega Master System. Why haven't I gone for the Amiga copy? Because I have no interest in messing with WinUAE on this laptop. Fire & Ice is one of those games I've known about for most of my life, but haven't had the urge to sit down and play until now. As with many games that originated in the first half of the 90s, you just expect they're mediocre platformers attempting to fit the gap which Nintendo were best at filling.

Upon release, Fire & Ice saw loads of review scores in the region of 80-90%, but I have to raise the question that if it truly is just a few points from perfection, why does nobody know of this game? Why isn't it actively discussed on message boards across the net and have its own dedicated fanbase? Could it be that those scores were misplaced? Surely not!

The Master System copy is a half-cancelled product. Originally due for a European release, the game was scrapped for a short while before being picked up by Sega's Brazillian distributor Tectoy. Followers of this blog or those who have done their research will know that Tectoy were fans of Brazil, and populated the country with various exclusive Sega Master System games well after the system should have expired. Fire & Ice ended up being one of these games.

The reasons for a European cancellation aren't quite known, though it's suspected that by the time it was due for release (about 1994-ish), there simply wasn't a market for Sega's 8-bit machine anymore. The Sega Saturn was on the horizon and most Sega fans had invested in a Mega Drive (and maybe even a Mega CD or 32X) by this point.

Its original Amiga implementation wasn't too bad, but I personally wouldn't have given it more than about seven out of ten. There wasn't much the game did wrong, but at the end of the day it was a bog-standard platformer among many other bog-standard platformers, and it failed to stand out from the crowd. It certainly wasn't revolutionary like Sonic or Mario, but it was a fine game in its own right.

When brought to the Master System, predictably some features would be cut, so to make up for it the team behind this version gave the game brand new levels. Nevertheless the game still stars the "blue-but-not-Sonic" character, COOL COYOTE throwing snowballs at enemies in an attempt to find pieces of an Ice Key (yep six years before Banjo Kazooie). Once the key is built, the door to the next level is opened. Rinse and repeat.

The Amiga copy of the game was loved for its use of background transitions and graphical effects. The gradient behind you would change from "hot" to "cold" in real time, and this was fairly funky stuff in 1992 (especially seeing as there was a history of having no colours to play with). When brought to the short-lived Amiga CD32 a few months later, these backgrounds were replaced with 256-colour parallax scrolling ones - the sort of quality you'd expect from a games console at the time.

So it'll make you happy to know that the Master System has none of that. The graphics have been reduced in both colour counts and detail (to compensate for the small resolution), and the once blue Cool Coyote is now equipped with green overalls. My theory is it was to make him look less like Sonic, but I admit it's a fairly hollow one.

Whereas the core gameplay was left mostly in-tact, your little helper things from the Amiga copy had to be axed. The world is a much blander and dismal experience as a result, but you honestly can't expect much better from a Master System conversion. Nobody's entirely sure how "complete" the game was when it was put on sale - we don't know whether Tectoy added anything or whether it was "done" before being scrapped in Europe.

There are, of course, problems. The camera takes some time to get used to for example, and the physics are noticeably poor. I suspect originally on the Amiga this would have been counter-balanced with stiff joysticks or other hardware problems, but on the Master System it makes the game far more slippery than it should be. Especially when ice is involved.

And this is a concern because Fire & Ice has one hit kills, so accidentally running into a penguin while attempting to navigate platforms can lead to extra unneeded frustrations. The weapon upgrades were brought over from the Amiga version, but most of the time they're fairly useless or no better than your regular firepower.

Unlike the Amiga version, pieces of ice key tend to live in floating boxes, and levels are generally more linear. They're also a bit drab in comparison to the Amiga version of the game, as because the backgrounds don't change colour, you're treated to the same white/blue tilesets for the first few levels. Granted, things do diversify some more later on, but getting to those levels requires persistence through the repetitive ones, and that's not generally a good thing.

The music takes a blow for obvious reasons, and of course the Master System version is clearly the worst copy of the bunch (Fire & Ice was also ported to the Atari ST and DOS computers, as well as the Amiga and Amiga CD32). Yet for some reason you can't help but have admiration for a Master System game released in 1996, a good half decade after it should have stopped selling. There were plans for a Mega Drive version, but this never sufraced, and so this is the only console version of the game around, and that must count for something... right?

Unfortunately, Fire & Ice fails to leave a lasting impression, and although reasonably good by Master System standards, fails to be as worthwhile as the Amiga version or any self-respecting platformer built since. It's a bit unpolished and by no means as great as other versions, but it's worth buying if you somehow manage to find the cartridge in a shop selling for a couple of quid. Having said that, its rarity and import prices mean that's not likely to happen and is therefore probably not worth your time, and if you're looking for the true Fire & Ice experience you're not going to find it on a 256kB Master System cartridge.

Still, it's nice to finally be acquainted with a game that's haunted me for a decade and a half.

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