Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Adventure of the Week: Putt-Putt Joins The Parade (1992)

I've always meant to sample the children's adventures created by Ron Gilbert (Maniac Mansion, The Secret of Monkey Island, The Cave) during his post-Lucasarts years at his own company, Humongous Entertainment.  The company's first published game launched a long-running series --aimed at children 3-8, Putt-Putt Joins The Parade stars an anthropomorphic young convertible named Putt-Putt and was the first of the company's Junior Adventures line.  I'm playing the game on a Windows PC using the ScummVM interpreter.

Gilbert licensed the SCUMM engine he helped create from Lucasarts, and it's interesting to see the same toolset put to use for a younger audience.  Putt-Putt Joins the Parade is a true adventure game, with puzzles and inventory, but it also provides plenty of simple interactive fun for kids.  Almost everything in the world is clickable -- many objects just produce a little sound or animation and have no role in the story; there are puzzles and other activities that don't have to be solved or completed; and some interaction is handled semi-automatically to keep the interface simple.  For instance, in the opening scene, clicking on the box of Tire-O's fills Putt-Putt's breakfast bowl immediately, and many of these actions can be repeated just for entertainment's sake.

The animation is full-blown cartoon style, colorful and fluid in 320 x 200 VGA, and if you're wondering how an automobile functions as an adventure game protagonist, Putt-Putt has a little arm that emerges from his trunk to manipulate objects.  The game also features a MIDI-based score and full voice-over acting, with optional on-screen text.  To aid pre-readers, Putt-Putt will read any signs encountered out loud, and characters are happy to repeat instructions and plot points.  Trying to use objects where they don't work produces a generic "That doesn't seem to work" response, probably to minimize confusion and red herrings for the younger set, and clicking on Putt-Putt himself usually reminds us what's going on -- "Maybe I'll go downtown and talk to Smokey."

I always encourage interested readers to sample the games I write about here before reading my playthrough notes; these games were fairly popular and I often run across them in thrift stores, and some of them have been ported to the iPhone in recent times.  But as Putt-Putt Joins The Parade is not exactly a challenging game, I understand completely if you simply want to sate your curiosity by proceeding into the...

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

Putt-Putt was created by Humongous Entertainment co-founder Shelley Day, but as the sun rises, it looks suspiciously like Ron Gilbert:

The setup involves a Pet Parade happening today in Cartown, which we learn about (automatically) on Putt-Putt's car radio.  But Putt-Putt doesn't have a pet, so that will probably be a project.

First our hero has to get ready to go, brushing his teeth and eating some Tire-O's cereal (with oil instead of milk, naturally.)  There's a frog hidden behind the curtains of Putt-Putt's garage home, and a fly buzzing around; we can open the curtains and click on the frog to get him to consume the buzzing fly, but all of this is completely optional.  The car radio will play a little jingle promoting Toothpaste -- no brand, just the concept, which fits Putt-Putt's intentionally old-fashioned universe.

The design is full of little animations that don't advance the story -- the weathervane arrow on top of the garage can be made to zoom wildly around the screen like a rocket, apples on a tree have individual animations as they bounce or rocket or turn into juice boxes before disappearing into a barrel on the other side of the road, flowers kiss, fish leap, and caterpillars cocoon and turn into butterflies.

The first real puzzle involves an obstructive cow in the middle of the road on the way to Cartown.  All we have to do is honk Putt-Putt's horn to get her out of the way.

Smokey the Fire Engine (somehow that name seems untrustworthy in a fire prevention official) informs Putt-Putt that he'll need a carwash before he can join the parade, and he'll need to bring a balloon and a pet (Putt-Putt has a puppy in mind.)  To raise money to get himself washed, it's suggested that Putt-Putt can mow lawns and deliver groceries for Mr. Baldini.  Smokey loans Putt-Putt his lawnmower and tells him lawn work is probably available on Red Street.

Exploring town a little bit, Putt-Putt suspects that the Cartown Toy Store may have a balloon for sale, but the Irish-accented proprietress says she sold the last one to Mrs. Airbag, who has taken her infant Baby Beep to the drive-in movie.  Lots of the toys in stock can be played with for optional entertainment, including four riddle-telling animal puppets.  There's also one of those mix-and-match tile puzzles, with a fanfare when an entire picture is correctly assembled:

We can mess around with a pachinko-style pin ball game that can be rearranged for fun.  Putt-Putt can also recover his lost magnet and place it into inventory.  The toy store's window features a toy monkey band that plays and goofs around, and a mouse can be tempted out of his hole with gumballs from the machine, yielding several different short and funny animations.

Mr. Baldini's grocery store has free birdseed out front, of which Putt-Putt happily avails himself.  Some groceries need to be delivered to Tami Torpedo at number 3 Green Street.  A few birds are blocking the way to the customer, but Putt-Putt's horn comes in handy (the bird seed also works here, a kid-friendly design that allows multiple solutions but avoids frustration if that detail has been missed.)  The British blue car at #4 doesn't need his lawn mowed, nor do the neighbors at #2 or #1, but Putt-Putt earns a coin for his delivery trouble at #3.  The lawn in front of #2 features a robot that tells time based on the system clock, a neat little touch.

There are nails strewn across the road leading to Red Street -- odd in a town where all the inhabitants are cars, but maybe this is a bad neighborhood.  Putt-Putt can clear them up with his magnet.  Lawn mowing consists of a mini-game where we must traverse all the unmown squares on a grid, and we'll discover a useful inventory item in the process -- a bone which is likely to come in handy.  We also earn a coin for each completed lawn, collecting four cents from the lawnmowing ordinance scofflaws on Red Street.

Cartown Gas & Tires offers windshield washing equipment and (apparently free) gasoline.  The Car Wash only requires two coins, and as Putt-Putt has never had a carwash before (eww!) we have to figure out how the "shower" works.  There are four steps with point-and-click triggers -- soap, rinse, scrub, and dry -- before Putt-Putt is all clean and can get back on the road.

We can do a few more grocery delivery jobs, taking some to #3 Red Street and #1 Blue Street.  Some marching band mice are blocking the entrance to Blue Street -- the horn yields only a snippy "Beep beep yourself!" but turning on Putt-Putt's radio gets them marching right offscreen.  4 more lawns can be mown here for another four pennies in the glove compartment.  (We only needed the two cents for the car wash, really, but extra money can be spent to change Putt-Putt's color at the paint shop in town.)

A dark cave to the east outside of town contains a frightened puppy, who will happily jump into inventory for a bone.  Putt-Putt decides to name him Pep (as opposed to Manny, Moe, or Jack, I suppose.)

No comment is made about the irresponsible pet owners who abandoned this poor little dog in a scary cave, but Cartown is apparently rife with such people, as we learn when we visit the movies, where a distraught Mrs. Airbag has lost Baby Beep inside the darkened theatre.  She hands Putt-Putt a photo to use in identifying the lost child, making one wonder if this otherwise well-prepared mother is up to something nefarious, especially because the theatre is actually well-lit.  It's a simple matter of color and shape matching to identify Baby Beep, earning Mrs. Airbag's balloon for helping her escape the wrath of Cartown Social Services.

Now, without much ado after all, Putt-Putt Joins The Parade!  The story wraps up quickly with an interactive, highly clickable survey of all the cars and their pets, after which everyone rides off into the Ronset.

We see a brief preview (just a logo and character animation) for Fatty Bear's Birthday Surprise, another early Humongous Entertainment release, before the credits roll.

This first entry in the Putt-Putt series is charming -- very simple as adventure games go, and just a few hours' worth of gameplay even with note-taking and screen-capturing.  But the game has a lively sense of kid-friendly fun and humor, coupled with quality animation and storytelling.  I enjoyed this little adventure, and I'll have to check out some of the other Humongous Entertainment series when I have a chance.

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