Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Adventure of the Week: Putt-Putt Enters the Race (1998)

I've been working my way through Humongous Entertainment's Junior Adventure games every now and then, and we're up to the fifth game starring the company's mainstay character, Putt-Putt the anthropomorphic purple car.  In this 1998 adventure, Putt-Putt Enters the Race, Putt-Putt... well, I guess the title is a bit of a giveaway, plotwise. 

The Humongous games use the classic Lucasarts SCUMM game engine, which founder Ron Gilbert licensed from his former employers, and the animation, music and voice acting are plentiful and of high quality.  These games are definitely aimed at children, and there's not much challenge here for seasoned adventurers, but they are true adventure games, and I suspect the recent resurgence in the genre's popularity owes something to players who grew up with Putt-Putt and friends.

The entire Humongous library remains commercially available at reasonable prices via Steam, and interested adventurers are encouraged to sample at least one of these titles; they don't take long to play, and while the stories are unsophisticated, some of the gags and characters are genuinely funny.  As always, my goal here is to document these titles and my playthrough experience in detail, so there are certain to be...

***** SPOILERS AHEAD! *****

As the story gets underway, the mail truck arrives to deliver an invitation from Redline Rick to Putt-Putt, inviting him to enter the Cartown 500 race.  (There's a funny bit here as Putt-Putt's dog Pep sniffs around the mail delivery truck's tires, causing her to hasten on her rounds.)  Pep climbs into Putt-Putt's interior, we have nothing else in the inventory trunk, and we're off to the races! 

I notice that Putt-Putt's voice actor has changed, likely because the original child actor was sounding too old by 1998.  I didn't recognize the voice at first, but our hero is now voiced by Nancy Cartwright of Bart Simpson fame.  Putt-Putt Enters the Race continues the publisher's tradition of including lots of funny little incidental animations and sounds, as Mr. Gilbert had noticed that children too young to follow the story of his classic The Secret of Monkey Island still enjoyed clicking around with the mouse.  I'd be lying if I didn't say I tend to do the same thing on most screens, even though, unlike some of the Humongous titles aimed at older children, the truly useful items in the Putt-Putt series tend to be obvious and explicitly mentioned in dialogue.

A recurring motif of the Putt-Putt games, some kind of animal blocking the road in the early going, manifests in the form of an armadillo.  Putt-Putt has to think of a way to get the critter to move, and of course, his horn does the trick... oh, wait, no it doesn't!  It just scares the armadillo briefly into a ball, but then he uncurls and hasn't really budged.  Calling on Pep does the trick, though, with some impressively fluid hand-drawn cartoon animation.

We're at the Cartown Speedway in no time, and Redline Rick gives Putt-Putt a list of four things he needs to round up in order to participate: a triangular flag with the number 5 on it, high-octane gasoline, speedy radial racing tires, and a safety helmet (for Pep.)  Our objectives are established, and it's time for Putt-Putt to get to work exploring the map and solving some puzzles.

Clicking on a yellow car at the left side of the raceway screen triggers a substantial Beach Boys-style musical number, fully animated (though not full-screen) as the other cars encourage Putt-Putt to race and recap Putt-Putt's basic objectives.  Humongous was never hesitant to invest in this kind of optional but fun content, and I hope most kids discovered this little diversion.

As in earlier Putt-Putt games, Cartown is oriented around a central hub map, with seven directions we can explore.  I'll work through these in clockwise order, just to make sure I don't miss anything.

The toy shop offers some free batteries, so we'll grab those.  There's a racing-themed pinball game we can play here for fun -- the old-fashioned kind, where a ball drops down through a field of pins into scoring buckets or the drain at the bottom.  The proprietor is a matronly bumper car who likes to play with all the new toys, and she confirms that the batteries are free for the taking.

A feature from the first Putt-Putt game returns next door -- we can spend coins acuired in our travels at Cartown Color to get our protagonist a new paint job.  But I'll keep him his usual purple for now.

Smokey the Fire Engine at the fire station doesn't have a lot to say besides some cheerful, peremptory small talk.  There's an empty bottle sitting here, and Smokey asks Putt-Putt to do him a favor and get it recycled.  That's easy enough to handle, I guess.

Heading up the road north of town, we meet Pick-Up Chuck, a wrecker who's blown a tire of his own.  He's trying to pump it back up, but there's a triangular hole in the rubber and his efforts are futile.  He asks Putt-Putt to retrieve a tire patch kit from his auto parts shop, and cut it into the right shape to fix his flat.

Continuing down the road past Chuck, we find a more residential hub area.  Outback Al has added a new aardvark to his collection, but the poor little fellow is hungry and Al has forgotten what he eats.  Putt-Putt offers to save the irresponsible Australian zookeeper by finding something appropriate for the little guy.  I'm guessing ants, maybe?  Al has a triangular racing flag he doesn't need, but Putt-Putt is too nice to take it despite his offer without helping him first.

Mr. Fender-Bender is having problems with his cat, who won't obey his commands.  We can get another bottle to recycle here.

We can travel west from this part of town to a construction site, with a big "Nailers Wanted" sign posted.  The path is blocked by a load of heavy pipes -- Pete Crane here has lost his hook, so if we can find it we can probably get past this point to something new.  Inside the walls of the site, we can play whack-a-nail for fun, though it's not all that entertaining.  Still, if we finish at least one round, Betsy Bulldozer will give us a safety helmet the right size to fit Pep.  One item down!

The library is our next stop, where an encyclopedia of animals tells us aardvarks like termites, ants, and green grapes.  There's a good chunk of optional educational content here -- we can learn about 26 different Australian and African animals if we spend some time flipping through the book, and Putt-Putt reads a short poem about each animal aloud if we click on the text, a nice feature for learning readers.  There are some safety scissors here as well -- we can't take them along, as they belong to the library, but Putt-Putt says he can use them to cut things out so we will probably be back here with the tire patch material.

Heading north out of the residential hub, we find a pay phone that we can't really use aside from snagging a coin from its coin return, and another bottle to recycle. We can pass through a dark, narrow tunnel -- we have to honk before entering, per local traffic custom, lest we have a head-on collision with traffic coming the other way -- and run over something clunky we can't make out in the dark, so we need to come back here with a light source.

Next we arrive at a farm, where Torville Tractor lets us have his flashlight.  It's "broken" because it has no batteries, so we can readily fix that and return to the tunnel to acquire Pete Crane's missing hook.  I'll continue down the road this way, though, before we go back to Pete.  The farm road leads into an agricultural maze, where we can pick some green grapes in the northwest corner.  I can't figure out if Torville is supposed to be Swedish or Irish, his accent is a little ambiguous.

Pete is happy to have his hook back, and he moves the pipes, so now we can visit yet another little hub -- this game has a bigger map than the earlier Putt-Putt games, though it seems there's less to do in each location.

At the ice cream shop, we can acquire another recyclable bottle.  The proprietor is Rover, the lunar vehicle we rescued in Putt-Putt Goes to the Moon, and he gives us some milk or a milk shake free, though Putt-Putt just consumes the treat and we don't get to keep it in inventory.

The car parts shop has the radial racing tires we need, but the shop is closed while Chuck is out of commission.  Fortunately, there's a tire patch kit just sitting here for the borrowing, with Chuck's earlier permission, so we should be able to work this situation out.

We'll visit Mr. Crankcase before we proceed -- he has a bunch of junk in his front yard, which fell off some shelves when he bumped into it and "almost twisted my lugnuts."  We can fit the stuff back into place based on the shapes of the items and the available slots; a gas can is left over, which Putt-Putt is allowed to keep.  We can also recycle our bottles here, earning a coin for every three bottles we run through the machine.

Cutting a triangular tire patch at the library -- the interface here is nicely interactive, we have to find the triangle pattern and then cut from vertex to vertex -- we return to Chuck to fix his tire.  He gives Putt-Putt a deal on the racing tires when we meet him back at his shop -- one coin apiece, half price, but we only have three coins at this point so we'll need to earn some more.

I haven't visited Mrs. Airbag yet -- she has another bottle for recycling.  And we'll stop back by Outback Al's to give the green grapes to the hungry baby aardvark, and take the racing flag, though we still need to put a number 5 on it.

Back at the main town hub, we visit Mr. Baldini's Grocery Store.  He gives Putt-Putt a job -- going out to the farm and picking an orange, a zucchini, and a head of lettuce, for pay of two coins.  Perfect! (Cartown apparently has no child labor laws.)  We can do this again to earn more coins, but my priority right now is to buy the radial racing tires.  Chuck measures Putt-Putt's tires, a slightly uncomfortable moment for our hero:

How are we doing on our checklist?  We still need high octane gas and a number for our flag.  We can visit the gas station in town -- the gas is available, and apparently free.  We can fill Putt-Putt up -- he visibly vibrates and starts moving a lot faster than usual, apparently this stuff is quite a rush -- and we can also fill up the gas can so we have enough for the race.

What about that number 5?  It seems like we've solved most of the puzzles here.  There are some numbers on the activity table at the library, but they only seem to include 1, 2, and 3... ah, there are more once we take a closer look.  This "puzzle" is clearly aimed at younger players -- we just need to identify the number 5.

Now we're all set to enter the race!  This is actually an arcade-style event, where we steer with the mouse and the SCUMM engine is pushed pretty hard to present a simple 3-D race track with obstacles and fellow racers to beat.  The track is pre-rendered, spooled animation, I believe, but the oil slicks, ducks, and fellow racers are scaled sprites that work pretty well in motion, though they occasionally drift out of place compared to the background animation.


If we don't win the race, we can try again until we do, or we can choose to accept our best effort and end the game happily.  Putt-Putt and Redline Rick rightly point out that it's not all about winning.  And it's not actually all that easy to win the race, due to some rubber-band AI and sluggish steering.  But it is possible, and after several tries on my part, victory is ours!

Putt-Putt Enters the Race bears a strong resemblance to Putt-Putt's debut game Putt-Putt Joins the Parade, with some of the same characters and similar simplicity of design, and it doesn't feel as fresh this time around.  There isn't much of a plot here, nor anything really at stake beyond our hero's desire to enter the race.  But it's still a pleasant little children's adventure game, and there are a few more Putt-Putt titles we haven't covered here yet, so I'll happily continue with this series when the mood strikes.

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