Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Cosmic Spacehead

System(s): Mega Drive, NES, Game Gear, MS-DOS, Amiga, Master System

Genre: Adventure/Platformer

Developer: Codemasters
Publisher: Codemasters

Release Dates:
North America - 1993Media:GamePro US 036.pdf
Europe - 1992


Note: Screenshots are taken from the Mega Drive version


Budget gaming is not something likely to rouse too much enthusiasm in the current days of expensive, complex video game development, but up until the end of the 16 bit era, game development was undertaken by much smaller teams at lower cost. This resulted in a large number of interesting budget titles that otherwise flew under the radar and were picked up by unsuspecting consumers in bargain bins. One of these particular games was Cosmic Spacehead's Cosmic Crusade. Cosmic Spacehead was the sequel to Linus Spacehead, a game featured on the Codemasters NES cartridge collection Quattro Adventure that also featured much loved mascot Dizzy, a happy-go-lucky anthropomorphic egg, who was as beloved a character as Sonic or Mario in the computer loving regions of Europe such as the UK, Codemasters country of origin.


Sadly, Linus was not a flagship mascot or a character remembered by many people. While his original adventure featured tough platforming and was confined to the NES on a four-in-one cart, Cosmic Spacehead added point and click gameplay, a rarity on consoles at the time, as well as the offbeat humour that so often accompanied that style of game. In addition, it got a graphical update and a release on the Mega Drive, as well as home computers such as the Amiga. Some later versions also featured a 2 player mode called 'Pie Slap' that involved two spaceships throwing custard pies at each other.

The plot of Cosmic Spacehead follows the first game, but no knowledge of it is required. Linus is back on his home planet of Linoleum after having escaped planet Earth, but nobody believes he has been there or such a planet is anything but a myth. Linus' goal is to find a spaceship and return there with a camera to take photos and prove he was really there. It's a simple concept, and really just serves as a McGuffin to set you off collecting items and avoiding hazardous enemies. The level design is okay, and although there is some expected oddity to the scenery, nothing is too outrageously 'alien' about planet Linoleum. Some inspiration was obviously taken from real civilisations on Earth, as Linus has a cousin Linochev from Linograd, an obvious parody of Soviet Russia, although the scenery in Linograd features upside down pyramids as a reference to the fact you literally dug through a hole from the other side of Planet Linoleum to get there. Cosmic Spacehead is not lacking in subtle humour, in addition to some of the more offbeat wackiness.

The gameplay is simple enough, you start in the point and click sections, but moving off screen to a new area will trigger a platforming stage. Naturally, controlling Linus during the point and click stages is a bit stiff with a controller, but it's something you pretty much just have to get used to. Cosmic Spacehead uses a variant of the SCUMM engine, so you have your usual commands such as 'Look at', Pick up', 'Give' and so forth, leaving you to figure out how best to collect and use the items you need to progress. It's not as tricky as many other similar style games, and in fact is comparatively pretty easy until you get to the last stage, which is just a large space station. To be honest, it's a bit of a boring, empty and disappointing final stage lacking in character, considering the rest of the game is so full of it.

The puzzles and game engine also lead to some funny moments, such as choosing the 'Talk to' command when confronted with the 'Big Scary Monster' in the wilderness area, prompting Linus to tell us "He says Rrrrrroooooar." Really Linus? We would never have guessed.....but it gets better. Give him a helium balloon and the monster will float off into space, appearing on the map screen floating above the surface for most of the game. As you can see, some of the puzzles are strange and the solutions obtuse, such as using a bag of sugar to cross a frozen pool. To be fair though, it's not something you wouldn't find in any other point and click adventure game.

The platforming stages are more traditional. You jump from one side of the screen to the other to avoid pits and enemies while collecting chocolate bars. Manage to collect all ten in a stage and Linus will get an extra life. This can be tricky, and often they are placed in areas that are just as likely to cost you a life. Worse still, Linus can't jump very high (his cape obviously isn't very aerodynamic) and can't change direction in mid-air. This makes certain 'leap of faith' jumps utterly terrifying. The enemy design is what you would expect from a generic, run-of-the-mill Amiga or NES platformer, although there are one or two more creative designs, such as the Q-Bert lookalike that explodes in a shower of debris. Overall, the platforming is probably one of the weakest elements in Cosmic Spacehead.

There are a couple of neat surprises in Cosmic Spacehead in the form of the aforementioned 'Pie Slap' multiplayer mode and the in-game section that most likely inspired it. At one point in the game, Linus needs to enter a competition to win a bus ticket to Detroitica, surely a fabulous prize by anyone's standards..... but to do so, he needs to enter a race. This race features four cars competing, but they all control like manure, so it naturally leads to a fun and tense race with cars slipping and sliding everywhere. There is also a wall that periodically drops to form a shortcut, although it is a risky option. I felt this was one of the most enjoyable portions of the game, and the fact it's radically different from the rest of the game helps it stand out.

Graphics are the one area that really sets the 16-bit versions (Amiga, MS-DOS and Mega Drive) apart from the 8 bit versions (NES, Master System and Game Gear). The 8-bit versions have their own style to cope with technical limitations, and early cover art mirrored that style very well. Releases on 16-bit systems, however, dramatically changed the art style, including the box art and title screen, to accommodate the greater capabilities of those systems, but in doing so, I feel like it lost some of the charm the 8-bit version had, although I will say the 8-bit map looks awful. The 16 bit versions look like something from the Cartoon Network, so it has it's own style. The animation and graphics are surprisingly decent for the 8-bit versions and the yawning animation Linus does when the player leaves him idle for too long manages to be both cute and condescending. The graphical limitations also make Linus look more like he's wearing pyjamas than a jumpsuit, which actually adds to this effect. Ultimately it's a matter of preference which version is better as they did a masterful enough job that the 8-bit versions don't feel too different.

The music varies, particularly during some of the point and click areas. Music during these segments can either be headache inducing or catchy as hell. The platforming music seems to be mostly consistent though. Again, the 8-bit versions are surprisingly competent, but I suppose you could expect that when they were the original platforms the game was built for before they were ported to 16 bit systems.

It's unfortunate that Cosmic Spacehead is such a short game with a lacklustre ending stage. I enjoyed a great portion of the game, but the imagination couldn't last once Linus left his home planet. Cosmic Spacehead is a good way to spend a few hours if you enjoy point and click games with a wacky style and humour, but apart from the multiplayer mode it won't hold your interest for too long.


Summary

+ Amusing dialogue
+ Eclectic mix of gameplay
+ Car race and multiplayer are simple, but great fun

- Too short
- Minimal replay value
- Platforming can be frustrating
- Loses steam toward the end


Overall Score

5/10