Sunday 22 July 2012

Spitting Image

Such is the life of Squirrel that this is the second fighting game involving Mrs. Thatcher to cross my path... but the first not to display all its text in Korean.

Erm yes, look, another comedy sketch show turned video game for the Amiga. This one's a fighting game, made in the days before we knew how to make fighting games. What such productive lives we lived in the late 1980s.

Set sometime "in the next seven years" (between 1989 and 1996?), Spitting Image on the Amiga has you fight world leaders to damage their reputation, thereby avoiding World War III or something. Satire! Ever since I've had a reasonable grasp on domestic politics I've toyed around with a parliament-branded fighting in my head, but I can't say I have the heart to deal with the balancing, control and AI issues which would arise. Seems like I'm not the only one.

Some folks at Domark and Walking Circles beat me to my grand plan a few months before I was born, but with a 1989 release, they also succeeded before Street Fighter II emerged from the womb to set some respectable standards. I suppose alarm bells should be ringing from the fact it's an Amiga game - Amiga joysticks only have one button, so in order to perform different attacks you have move the joystick while pressing it. Doesn't that sound like fun?

Obviously this control scheme nullifies the idea of attacking on the move, which presents big problems straight out of the box. You can't perform any sort of combos, and the awkward setup causes every action to be delayed. But hey, don't worry, latency between the user's actions and the on-screen character's animations isn't wasted - opponents will use this period to avoid danger zones and render your attacks futile. Combined with the fact there is no heads up display to speak of (health is just a guessing game), and that there's no time limit, you're left a very broken experience indeed.

Spitting Image's biggest claim to shame is its atrocious AI. The tactic for all computer-controlled characters is to walk towards you, punch if you're within range, and jump backwards if you try and attack. Get too close to your opponent and you'll bee unable to inflict damage, so leave the game alone and the AI will spend its days shuffling around the player not being able to hit anything and wasting CPU cycles. Apparently this is good inspiration for a team name though.

Spitting Image does have one other feature, which is to call upon a "sidekick" to launch a projectile from one side of the screen - the AI is a fan of this move and executes it constantly, inevitably ending your game. For the player, this is an action mapped to the keyboard's numerical pad, meaning that yes, you're forced to use a combination of inputs on a real Amiga system. This was conscious choice by the developers - they didn't think to map everything onto the keyboard like normal people would - joystick-keyboard combos are the future!

As far as characters go, we have Prime Minister of the UK Margaret Thatcher (left office in late 1990, lost seat in parliament in 1992), US president Ronald Reagan (left office in early 1989, diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 1994), the USSR's Mikhail Gorbachev (left office in 1991), P. W. Botha of South Africa (left office in August of 1989), Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran (left office in mid 1989, died shortly after) and Pope John Paul II, representing the 17% of the cast which still had a reputation to damage in 1996. The satire on display here was already washed down for the kids - but because events in politics happen so quickly, half the cast were irrelevant less than a year after this game's launch. Well done.

Aside from some jingles, the game is music free, and though the graphics are adequate, as a video game based on the TV show, it vastly misses the point. Spitting Image involved puppets which served as caricatures of famous faces - the Amiga's colour and resolution restrictions cause the effect to rub off, to the point where many of the fighters just look as if they were badly rendered by the artists. Perhaps they'd be better off not trying to mimic the Spitting Image look at all.

Needless to say this is a half-baked cash-in, which sucked in 1989, and continues to suck in 2012. Once again it's a release spread across multiple platforms - perhaps the Commodore 64 version is more worthwhile (don't place bets), but aside from the novelty value, this Amiga version is one solely for the history books.

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