Monday, April 13, 2015

Review: Frogger 3D (1997)

    Frogger, as a game in general, hardly needs introduction to most gamers around today. Konami developed the arcade hit in the early 80s, and Sega (then its publisher) granted the rights to port it to various companies, including Parker Brothers and Sierra. Seemingly every video game and computing platform of the era soon received official ports, most notably the Atari home consoles. Unquestionably a hit, the game made a lasting impression throughout the decade, and was granted a sequel (ThreeeDeep!) for several home consoles in 1984. Time passed, and Frogger largely fell out of the public eye for the majority of the 90s, occasionally being granted a reference in assorted media, and even a brief animated series - until, suddenly, Frogger started showing up in a whole slew of video games in the early 2000s. Showing up on the then-current home consoles and the Game Boy Advance, Frogger underwent a huge revamp of sorts, seemingly out of nowhere, and rode into the millenium on various expansions, ports, and the like. But, in truth, the revival started a little before Y2K came about - with a 3D game, in 1997.
    Branded as Frogger: He's Back!, the 1997 Frogger was a 3D remake of the arcade game for the PlayStation and the PC, developed by SCE Cambridge and published by Hasbro Interactive. It was an instant success, selling nearly a million copies in the first four months. It didn't gather the warmest of critical reception, but the game made a decent fanbase for itself and is generally remembered fondly by its players.
    At least, at first.
    Frogger '97 starts off pretty well. It has a number of interesting levels (which are divided into nine Zones; more on that later), has a pretty catchy soundtrack, and gives Frogger three neat powerups that spice up the gameplay. The visuals, while a bit simplistic for their time, are colorful and kind of charming, and they get the job done. The controls respond pretty well (although the camera rotation takes some getting used to), and the level design at times incorporates a feel of exploration, keeping the experience from growing stale as you progress through the game and hunt for the baby frogs.
    But that's where some of the problems start to come in.
    What belies Frogger's cheery presentation and simple starting difficulty level is a brutal, merciless game. The level timer is the first component - although it gives reasonable time limits in the PC version, the PlayStation version's timer stalks the player like a crocodile eyeing his next helping of frog's legs. While the game does offer powerups that grant extra time, over half of the later levels give you naught but a few seconds' leeway to nab your next baby frog; a few even start you off with less than the barest minimum necessary to grab the farthest frog, forcing you to eat time flies every time you set out for the next baby.
    Similarly, the design of some of the levels tends to pile on the stress when it comes to racing against the clock. Frogger Goes Skiing is egregious in particular, thanks to its atypical sliding mechanic - the directional buttons merely steer and adjust Frogger’s speed. Touching any enemy, or any side of a jump ramp, kills the poor frog. Falling down a hole or off the side kills him. All the while, the timer is counting down, and the overhead light is constantly diminishing - a gimmick of the Zone in which the level resides - so swift completion is mandatory. Other levels rely on obstacles like mazes (Web Caverns and - in a sense - Lava Crush) or astoundingly tricky enemy patterns (Big Boulder Alley, for instance) to stall for time and kill the player from all sides. Without any mode for free play or exploration, it may take dozens of tries to learn any given level’s layout or patterns, swiftly leading to frustration. The only show of mercy that the game offers is that this kind of difficulty is almost exclusively saved for the later levels of the second half of Zones; while earlier levels are tricky, they are beatable with a little practice.
    One of the game’s gimmicks is that, in one level of each Zone, there’s a Golden Frog hidden somewhere. A few are out in the open, requiring minimal effort to locate and reach; while others are cleverly tucked away in spots one might have to go out of their way to search for - that is, if they weren’t already doing so to complete the level, thanks to some of the placements of the baby frogs. Thankfully, once a Golden Frog is found, it stays that way - even if the player Game Overs on the level. Each Golden Frog appears on the side of its Zone’s block on the level select screen; they also unlock new Zones, one per frog. Finding all nine of them grant the player a bonus ending when they clear the final level - but it boils down to a short, rather uninteresting video clip whose content is almost a non-sequitur. It's a task best suited to a player that enjoys the hunt, rather than the reward.
    But rest assured, it will be an interesting hunt. Frogger has a handful of new moves and power-ups to navigate the Zones: a powerful Croak to help locate the babies, Marco Polo style (it also triggers a burst of light in the cave levels); a long-reaching tongue, used to pick up items such as Auto-Hop and Time Flies; and a Superhop, used to leap over obstacles, climb the terrain, and maintain some hangtime when jumping off a moving platform. The Zones themselves come in a variety of settings to test these abilities - including the classic “retro” stages, a riverside highway, a beehive and some deep woods, a lava-coated factory (in which Frogger will sometimes wipe his brow), dank caves, the sky, a desert, grime-infested sewers, and a jungle.
Items are present, too, in the form of edibles - namely, fies. Most flies give points, but there are flies that add time to the timer; flies that extend the reach of Frogger’s tongue; flies that let him auto-hop at top speed; flies that increase his hopping speed; and flies that outright grant an extra life.
The game has a decent soundtrack, with two level themes for each Zone. the Retro Level themes have a timeless feel with a positive vibe; the Lily Islands themes are light and a bit jazzy; and Lava Crush’s theme is a punchy romp through the factory, to mention a few. The end credits feature a nice melody that combines tracks from all the Zones, and it feels particularly nostalgic.
    Overall, Frogger 3D is a nifty package, and it can keep dedicated gamers busy for several weeks as they clear the courses and aim for higher scores. It’s tricky, and requires a lot of practice to clear the later levels, but in my opinion the feeling when one finally beats a tough stage is worth it. If you can find a copy, give it a shot!
This review was originally fermenting as an article planned for Hardcore Gaming 101, but I decided to tweak it a bit and post it here.