He’s a strange-walking Plok with a heart full of napalm


Plok (1994)

Genetics struck my birth and development without mercy, my friends. Obviously I was blessed with a few positive features to give myself some chance of passing on my cursed genes to the next generation and fulfilling my one purpose on this doomed carbon rock we call Earth. Namely, a beautifully chiselled face, a model’s poise, wonderfully shaped feet and so on. The usual pluspoints possessed by any man who has any hope.

But there had to be compromises somewhere, and so it was that I was stricken with the inability to walk. I don’t mean I’m an invalid or anything like that. Well, I actually can’t do what most human beings would term “walking”. I can move my legs at awkward angles and sort of lamely shuffle almost horizontally from A to B, but that doesn’t exactly qualify me for the catwalk (a shame, given the model-like poise I lied to you about earlier).

So you can imagine my delight when I finally learned about a protagonist in gaming who suffers from the same walking infirmity as myself. And not only that, but he shares more than one other of my “lovable” traits as well. Meet Plok, an odd sort of animated pile of clothes glued on to a gelatinous creature.

Plok is an angry island dweller in fair Akryllic where we lay our scene. And what is immediately apparent about Plok is that he’s funnily coloured, like me, and he dresses staggeringly poorly, like me. His dress sense is so bad that he can scarcely wait to throw his boots and gloves off – quite literally, for throwing his own limbs at the enemy is Plok’s primary method of attack, pre-empting that goon Rayman by a number of years.

We’ve already spoken about my own tragic inability to walk, but to actually see my telltale gait immortalised on the big screen by a bona fide gaming hero was a special moment for me. On my first time playing this colourful side-scrolling platforming game, after I’d finished gushing and calmed down, I thought “Well, if this mildly disabled wide-eyed pile of clothes with detachable limbs wasn’t meant to be my gaming idol, then I might as well give it up now”.

You talk about “relating” to characters in works of fiction, something which I could never do. Which luckless gaming character out there was modelled with me in mind? Final Fantasy VIII’s Squall almost got there for me, especially when he was at his most arseiest, but I was still happy that there were clear differences between us (not the least of which being the San Andreas fault running down his grill). But Plok? If only he (or even his grandpappy) were real. We’d be inseparable, unstoppable. In fact, I already regard Plok as a great friend of mine because we have so much in common.

Next on the list of traits we share, it has to be said that Plok is a most angry young… blob, just like me. The game starts with his grandpappy’s heirloom, some tatty flag, being stolen. This infuriates Plokzy (we have nicknames for each other because we’re bros, yeah?) so much that he travels to the next island over to get it back. After many red herrings, each of which winds Plok up even more than the last, he’s left pumping his fists and looking permanently angry.

And I love that, I love that a gaming character could sell anger so easily. Plok’s been diddled again! He even looks incandescent on the game’s boxart and cartridge label, which is just beautiful. You’d think he’d look all happy and cute and cuddly on the cover, wouldn’t you? To appeal to all ages and that? That’s what that harlot of a plumber does, after all.

But not Plokzy – he looks as furious on the cover as you will be playing this game. I say this because, unfortunately, the difficulty in this mother is just about unassailable. Now, speaking as a bottom-feeder in gaming, for me to say that you’ll be furious playing this game because of how hard it is, well, that must be terribly insulting for you.

It’s like, you’re the main man like Sonic, and I’m some egghead like Tails trying to snipe at you. Well, put it this way: there’s two difficulty levels in the game – Normal and Easy. Except the Easy mode isn’t even called that. It’s called Child’s Play. That sort of sums up how this game likes to treat you, which is fine by me – I’m always on for some masochism.

But then this is one of those games where playing on Easy Mode doesn’t even finish the game. By all accounts, you skip most of the bosses, some of the tougher levels, and just before you get to the final few levels, a rotten, patronising screen pops up and tells you to man/woman up and play on a real difficulty setting. Alright, you’ll know the next time, won’t you?

So you play on Normal mode, and you’re out of your depth terrifyingly quickly. The enemies now move faster, take more hits I’m sure, you get spat on by rocks and lumberjacks throw lots of logs on you from on high. You’ve got more and more levels to take care of, tough bosses to throw arms, legs and the kitchen sink at, and Plok can’t take an awful lot of hits before he lets out an echoing squeal and you lose another life.

And you know what happens when you lose your terribly limited stock of lives? Well, if you’ve picked up a continue (forgive me, a Plokontinue), you have a sort of one-time save state to continue from, which is obviously an awful lot of help if you got your last Plokontinue a few stages back – enjoy battling through them again.

Alright, so the difficulty is high, but why would that stop you? But then, the flaw of the game sadly becomes prevalent – you can’t save your progress, and there isn’t even a password feature to record your progress through the games dozens of levels. Better than that, aside from those Plokontinues, losing all your lives means you must start the entire game again, and not mess up so badly this time, moron. I like a challenge, but what are we, dunderheads? You’d definitely have to doff your hat to anyone who can legitimately beat this effort.

It’s a pity, because this game really does have very positive points. What’s usually recognised as the strongest aspect of the game is its banger of a soundtrack, a real prog-rock inspired effort with elements of ambience too. I have to say, it’s the wrong attitude to take, but even a rank average game can be indulged quite a lot if it happens to have an immense soundtrack – like suffering a gorgeous woman even despite her toxic personality. Plok’s soundtrack continues to impress – it gets a lot out of the SNES. Perhaps the lads who composed it were also charged with creating a save system, but were too shagged out after their musical efforts to get around to doing it?

I must warn you, the game really does look for all the world like the most generic, cutesy, Mario copycat of a platformer in existence. You know the ones, the typical ‘collect 100 trinkets for an extra life, three hits and you’re dead, easy as pie, colourful graphical nonsense’ efforts. In that right, this game looks so offensive that you’d almost be turned off right away; gaming sauerkraut.

But when you play the game, you’ll quickly discover that it may indeed look generic, but it’s far too tough for a scrub like you, and there’s a nice unique selling point in the way Plok’s limbs are used for puzzles. As you start making headway through the game though, and you have to track down all the fleas and vanquish them, the game does become hard work – especially when you have to occasionally sacrifice limbs to coat hangers in order to progress, and it becomes a bit of a headache.

Later on, you’ll have to commandeer vehicles as well, particularly at the end of the game, and the less said about controlling these vehicles the better. I hate to be talking so much about this game’s bad points, because it is actually quite a bit of fun, but not in large doses.

It all wouldn’t be so bad, if you could save your progress somehow, even via a password system. There are ways of warping through levels, but even those can be messed up by the player. I do take great pity on the kids who had to try and get through this beast when it was initially released. But give it a go these days, now that you can arm yourself with save states and rewinds – you’ll need all the assistance you can get. Once you’ve done that, why not take the training wheels off and try to beat this for real? If nothing else, felling the Flea Queen will be a proud achievement for any gamer.

29 July 2014

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