Thursday, May 13, 2010

Cheap Thrills: Jungler (1981)

A downloadable game I've been playing recently is Konami's Jungler, available via Microsoft's Game Room retro arcade environment.  I have never seen this one in an actual arcade, but there was a licensed conversion released for the Emerson Arcadia 2001, a short-lived early-80's console that arrived just in time for the industry crash and was heavily discounted almost immediately.  I wish Konami had followed Atari's example and recreated the Jungler coin-op cabinet for the Game Room version, instead of putting it in a generic conversion cab, but Microsoft has opted not to impose any standards in this area.

Fortunately, Jungler is a pretty good game for three dollars.  It's an old-fashioned 2-D maze chase with elements borrowed from Pac-Man and Centipede.  The player is cast as a long, multi-segment white snake who must chase enemy red snakes through a maze and blast them away.  When the requisite number of snakes have been destroyed, the level ends and a new one begins.  There are complications, of course -- the player can only shoot enemies from behind while they are red; head-on collisions are fatal until the player has scored enough rear-action hits to turn them green.  Strawberries occasionally appear in the maze, which when eaten turn all of the enemy snakes yellow, making them less dangerous and easier to attack.

The maze layout changes as the levels progress, and the AI isn't bad for its time -- whether it's truly dynamic or pre-programmed, the enemy snakes become smarter and better at using the maze to their advantage as the levels progress, and there's some randomness to their movement, breaking the pattern strategies that worked so well in Pac-Man.  They also move just fast enough that the player really has to chase them -- it's not possible to launch a volley of shots and take out an entire snake from behind.  The enemy snakes are also armed, even when they're green, and are capable of taking the player out in the same fashion, whittling the player's snake away segment by segment.  A short snake is short-lived in the world of Jungler.

This was a fairly early Konami game, and Jungler's graphics are very simple even compared to games released a year or two earlier -- the maze is blue, the strawberries tiny masses of red, white and green pixels, and the snakes solid-colored aside from their eyes.  There are no attract mode hijinx, intermissions, or persistent scoreboards, though in this emulated incarnation, the Game Room leaderboards pick up the slack.  There are odd dead-end icons in the maze whose purpose I was never really able to understand -- they seem to be fatal to the enemy snakes that run into them, but not immediately; the snakes appear to nuzzle the cold fingers of Death for several seconds before exploding and vanishing, and can be attacked while they're so occupied.

The Game Room medal standards for Jungler aren't too hard to beat, but do require mastering the basic gameplay.  I had no problem with the survival medals, because I tend to run scared a lot of the time in maze games, so running up the clock is not a problem.  The score medal was more challenging, though I managed to beat the gold standard a couple of times while putting in the play time required to earn the associated Time Spender medal.

Jungler is no classic -- in that I can't see a remake getting much traction in today's market -- but it's a competent and playable game from the early 80's, and one I would probably never have encountered if not for Game Room.  It's a reasonable deal for three dollars if you're looking for a fresh vintage experience.

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