Clu Clu Land review
Swing around and around...
Nintendo have come up with some strange concepts over the years, and especially on the humble NES. Chances are few are any stranger than Clu Clu Land. The idea that a red (or green) bubble with arms flies around arenas uncovering gems while dodging or defeating spiky blobs is odd enough one its own, but its the execution of the gameplay that really goes against the norm.
However, I'm getting ahead of myself. Cluc Clu Land gives you control of Bubbles, for whom using the term 'an oddball character' as a description would be an understatement. You're dropped into an arena where the goal is to uncover gems on the floor by flying over them, and only by finding all of them can you move on to the next stage. The gems (which look suspiciously like the rupees from the Legend of Zelda) aren't just randomly scattered though. These items are sat between posts in the arena, effectively linking those posts in layout. In addition, the overall layout of the gems forms a sort of crude picture, such as glasses. The basic idea is to try and work out what the picture is and use that knowledge to uncover the remainder as quickly as possible.
Getting Bubbles around each arena is quite confusing at first. When you first play it's tempting to simply press in the direction you want to go. After all, isn't that how games normally work? You'll soon realise that it doesn't work, and that is because of how the game controls. Bubbles moves forward by herself, requiring no action by the player for that. Turning isn't as simple as pressing a direction. Rather you must hold left or right to get Bubbles to hold out her left or right hand. This allows her to latch onto the various poles and spin around. From there it's a case of letting go to fly off in the direction you're facing.
This setup takes some getting used to, especially since the directions on the D-Pad relate directly to Bubbles orientation and not the player's. No doubt early exits will be caused by not being able to manage this. With some fair practice it's possible to adjust, which makes it a rather interesting aspect of the gameplay and adds to the challenge.
On every stage there are spawning pits. By themselves these pits are death traps if you fly over them, unless you manage to cleverly swing over them. However, the main concern is that these pits will spawn enemies onto the field. Generally these enemies are not on the same level as something from the later levels of Mario or Zelda, but when you're trying to focus on the puzzle they can prove to be quite the deadly distraction.
Like a lot of NES titles the game operates on a one hit kill setup. Bubbles can unleash a stun attack (which kinda looks like a sound wave), but this only renders the enemy harmless for a few moments. To defeat an enemy the game has the rather unique mechanic of the player pushing the stunned enemy into one of the walls. It's certainly an interesting alternative to simply blasting or bouncing on baddies. Be aware that this is not a permanent solution though, as the spawning pits will create new enemies to replace defeated ones. In fact, unless you're trying to score more points then it is often easier to just stun enemies when needed and then ignore them until they recover.
As you progress through the game a few extra features will make themselves known. At level 2 rubber bands make an appearance. This are invisible until you first hit into them, and will cause you to bounce back the way you came. A tricky obstacle if an enemy is chasing you or a mild annoyance as you're fighting against the clock but nice to break up the usual play. Level 3 presents the concept of interlinking sides. Unlike previous levels that are completely closed in on all sides, the left and right sides of level 3 have open paths and level 4 has completely open sides, and flying off one side will have to emerge from the other side. A shame that these extra features don't play more prominent roles.
For the high scorers amongst you there are some extra ways to gain points other than the gems and defeating enemies. At times fruits will appear on the stage that offers points when collected (inspired by Pac Man?) and every so often you get dumped into a bonus stage. Devoid of lethal obstacles this stage gives you points for the number of gems you can uncover in the time limit (and yes, this means the timer here is not there to kill you but simply to end the stage).
Possibly the biggest obstacle in the game isn't something on the stage itself but sat above it - the timer. Each stage pits you against the clock to reveal the hidden picture, and it is this that gives the biggest challenge of the game. The time given is often very tight, and often you'll find the timer running out before you clear the stage. The consequence isn't massive, as it is merely a lost life and the timer resets, but those lost lives can mount up, especially if you're having difficulties in figuring out some of the more obscure shapes.
For gamers looking for a challenge this game offers it. Figuring out the shapes can be rather difficult and the timer will always be putting pressure on the player. As you progress Bubbles starts moving faster, to the point that at times you'll react on instinct alone as she zips around the different arenas. The response to flying over the gems also changes, like you might have to pass over them twice or you might rebury them if you pass over them again. If anything, the later stages seem a bit much, but since there's no real end to the game other than losing all your lives then that isn't too bad.
The biggest problem with the game is just how repetitive it all is. There is only a mere 6 stages (and one of them is the bonus stage), and after clearing the last stage you start at the second stage again, only moving faster (the initial first stage is only ever played once on any given playthrough). This also means that some things, like the warping sides of level 4, don't come around anywhere near often enough. The gameplay doesn't really have the addictive quality to allow for this either. There is initial fun at figuring out the different shapes, but again there's not enough variety to these shapes either, so it grows old when you start seeing the old shapes appearing again.
You can spice things up a bit by getting a second player to join you in the action as a green Bubbles. Naturally, having two players zip around the arenas to jointly complete the puzzles and compete for the points on offer is nice, but this doesn't make things any less repetitive.
In terms of the visuals Clu Clu Land isn't too impressive. The character sprites and the gems look fairly nice, with minor details helping to shape them, as you might expect from a top-down NES titles. The rest tends to look too much on the simplistic sides. Animations in the game is pretty basic, colour usage isn't much of a focus and the arenas themselves are basically black blocks filled with circles for the poles.
I can't say the audio is all that great either. The limited music is the kind that tends to irritate more than anything. Ironically matching the gameplay, the music is repetitive and the quality isn't all that good. The sound effects aren't too bad but I'm not about to praise them either.
Clu Clu Land is best described as different. It's something to try if you want an unusual gaming experience, but its repetition hinders the gameplay a lot and it's a fairly difficult setup to get accustomed to. It's worth a look for the concept though and definitely very challenging if that's what you're looking for.