Benefactor is not the game of the story of a kindly old man who bequeaths a fortune to some unsuspecting soul or charity. It is the game of the story of a kindly young man who happens to be an interplanetary do-gooder, an expert deep space survivor, and the owner of the naffest tracksuit and trainers combination seen this side of Rocky 1. Ben E. Factor is his name (and an original one at that - it ranks up there alongside D. Fens) and helping helpless people is his game.
And the people of Lullyat are in dire need of help. Known collectively as the Merry Men they are a happy race of souls whose tranquil life has been ruined by hostile neighbours (the Miniatians) who have imprisoned some of their leaders on the six moons of Minniat and stolen their most precious and joy giving icon, the Rainbow Machine.
A one-player game, Benefactor can best be described as a cross between Prince of Persia and Lemmings.
The main sprite, although small, is reasonably detailed (you can see his goofy tracksuit) and he moves smoothly. Running, jumping, climbing and rolling are all executed in a manner reminiscent of Prince, while the main object of the game - rescuing the Merry Men on each of the six moons - is the bit that's reminiscent of Lemmings.
On each level there are several Merry Men to release, but getting the sequence right is very important. Merry Men can fix ladders and winches, chop their way through levels and operate mechanisms, all of which are designed to help you free others or help the little grey men get to the colouring machine. There is a map function which allows you scan the entire level and this helps you locate keys, Merry Men and enemies.
Most Merry Men are well-rounded individuals, and this is reflected in their bright colouring. But there are a few who are more trouble than they're worth - the grey ones mentioned above. Naughty devils to a man, these little lads need to be whisked away to a colouring machine pronto, before they send you to an early grave.
Like sleepwalkers, grey Merry Men will keep going until they either walk over the edge of a precipice or are smartened up with the colouring machine. Thus you have to keep a close eye on them, picking them up and depositing them back to safety every now and then. In fact this game sounds as though Benetton should have sponsored it: simply by making Merry Men more colourful life immediately improves. Art mirrors life, eh? Or something.
No game would be complete without enemies and the moons of Minniat are absolutely swarming with them: though moon men they ain't. It would appear that the Minniatians have kicked every single nasty creature of their planet and on to these moons in order to make Ben and the Merry Men's life a misery. Ghosts, slugs, birds of prey, walking bees, bats and strange bendy monsters are but a few of the creatures in the way, while all sorts of platforms, ladders and mechanical winches (which need the right components to work) also conspire to hold up the hero. In this respect the Merry Men can be very useful, standing on buttons and pulling levers to make you more mobile.
There is an energy bar along the bottom of the screen and under normal circumstances it's quite difficult to kill yourself, however, fall through one of the trapdoors or run off the edge of a tree without bouncing first and you'll end up dead as a dodo. Another way to finish the game quicker than Lindford Christie in the l00m dash is to allow one of your Merry Men to stray off the edge of a platform or fall into some water.
As mentioned before you have to watch them carefully and carry or throw them to safety when necessary. As well as the usual walking and running routines Ben can crouch, roll for ward, jump short or long distances, pick up and store or drop objects. Creatures or shots that can't be avoided one way can usually be jumped past by other means, and brain power is just as important as fast reactions here.
HANDS UP, IT'S A PICK-UP
Picking up objects is also very important. There are the usual power ups to aim for but the most essential things to pick up are keys (which open doors and cages) and Merry Men (yes you have to carry them around too if you want to get things done quickly). Other objects of note are: cogs (which, in the hands of the Merry Men help fix ladders and mechanisms), axes and weights.
Basically, although Ben is fast and strong, he can't do any fixing or fighting himself so rescuing Merry Men is really a two way thing - you need them as much as they need you.
There are six moons, each of which has several zones that inevitably get progressively larger and more difficult as you go along. Strange climates and scenery abound in Benefactor and during the game you will encounter everything from forests to castles, stopping oft along the way for some Egyptian action and a chilly encounter on the ice moon.
Planning a release strategy is essential for completing each level so the mini map on the bottom left hand side of the screen is useful as it gives you some indications if your location and that of the Merry Men. However, by pressing the M button on the keyboard you can scroll around the full size map at your leisure - which is highly recommended. Pressing the fire button returns you to play mode again.
WELL, IT'S GOOD THEN EH?
I must say, when I first started to play Benefactor I was mightily disappointed. I couldn't manage to get my little man to jump far enough, so he kept dying. I also didn't really see the point of rescuing those little Lemming lookalikes, I mean, come on where's the fun? Things soon changed. The first problem was remedied when I changed joysticks - I suddenly found that Ben could jump twice as far, and all those platforms were, after all, well within reach.
The second problem was remedied after I had played Benefactor with my new 'stick for an hour or two. Once you actually get the Merry Men working for you, anything becomes possible. They have a lot of Lemmings cuteness and each level poses new dangers and opportunities for them. You just can't stop sitting back with smug smile on your face when you've set one of them up to winch Ben to safety after you've bungeed him into a difficult spot.
The colourful background graphics work really well; my only real criticism being that it can be difficult to tell where a platform begins or ends on some levels, or indeed if that enemy is actually going to hit you. The sprites are cute (if a tad small) and, once you get used to the various moves, you can really get down to the business of enjoying the game.
It might not look very special when you first load up, but if there was ever a prize for games which improve with playing time, Benefactor would definitely be shortlisted, and would possibly win it. An incredibly addictive cross between platform and puzzle action that will take a while to finish, but will keep you entertained all along the way.