Friday, March 16, 2012

Of Import: Skweek (1991)

From a Western perspective, the 8/16-bit videogame era was dominated by Japanese design and publishers; it's easy to forget that it was a two-way conversation, and games from the West were often converted for Japanese platforms.  Such a game is Skweek, a French Amiga arcade puzzle game published by Infogrames/Loriciel in 1989, and converted to the PC Engine in 1991 by Victor Musical Industries.

The game's bright graphics, compact level data and bouncy musical score were a fine fit for the PC Engine's HuCard format, although the music suffered a bit in translation.  The game is simple -- borrowing a key element from Q*Bert, our fuzzy orange hero (okay, two elements) Skweek has to turn blue squares on the playfield pink, while dodging enemies and, er, not falling off of the map accidentally:

Skweek is not powerless -- he can fire a ball in four directions to vaporize enemies, although they respawn after a few seconds.  There are various powerups available -- sneakers to run faster, freeze-drops to enable elimination of fire-based enemies -- and tiles with special effects, like one-way arrows, slippery surfaces and teleporting short cuts.  Some enemies are capable of turning tiles back to blue, or converting other types of tiles into blue tiles, forcing the player to backtrack and clean up the mess.

When all of the blue tiles have been turned pink (or otherwise eliminated from play), the level is over.  Skweek looks slightly evil when he finishes his work, giving the impression we are unwittingly aiding and abetting:

And that's about all there is to Skweek.  There are multiple levels, with some variety to the powerups and enemy characteristics.  But the basic mechanic doesn't allow for much strategic variation -- we just have to find the most efficient way to traverse all the tiles, being careful to eliminate or avoid enemies and pitfalls.  It's the sort of challenge that modern gamers are accustomed to handling in combination with more complex objectives, and two decades later this game's initially appealing simplicity wears thin quickly.  In fact, as the level designs become more complex, the player's available paths and options feel more constrained; the game actually becomes less interesting as we begin to master its rules.  After a handful of levels, I was very much ready for the inevitable (feel free to steal my Level 6 password if you like):

Skweek feels like an early-1980s coin-op arcade game design updated with Amiga-era graphics, and the mechanic just isn't particularly compelling; while I can understand Victor's interest in porting the game, I can also see why NEC's US offices elected to leave this one out of the TurboGrafx-16 library circa 1991.  Skweek and Super Skweek did appear on a number of handheld platforms, including the Atari Lynx, so perhaps the franchise will resurface someday on the iPhone, where its short-span play may be more appealing.

I can't really recommend Skweek as I write this in 2012, but if you're looking for it, it might be available here.

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