When a couple of kids straight out of university decide to sit down, write a game, and hopefully become insanely rich overnight, you have to reckon on them making a right hash of things. After all, a thousand optimistic hopefuls have tried before, mostly armed with little more than a programming manual and ludicrous dreams of Porsche 911s and vacations in St Lucia - only to end up driving Minis and holidaying in Weston Super Mare.
That's not always the case though. Methinks that Paul Oglesby and Damien Slee - aka Nirvana Systems - have a rather better chance of dragging themselves out of the quagmire of mediocrity than most. Judging by their first project, Elf, these boys are going places.
It's bursting at the breeches with gameplay and weird humour
SO WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT THEN?
Well, it's one of those arcade adventure 'romps', which just happens to be bursting at the breeches with gameplay, nice characters, wicked bad guys and some wonderfully weird humour. We're talking eight levels of running, umping, collecting, killing, and puzzle solving fun.
The so-called story has the main character Cornelius (he's the Elf) separated from his woman by one Necrilius the Not Very Nice Guy - the rest of the game is spent wading through forests, castles, labyrinths and mountainscapes I search of his babe. Yes, plot-wise it's as corny as they come, but - hey! - at least it only took me 50 words to explain.
The first level is set in a wildly green and busy forest populated by pets and herbs (which you must collect) and wicked animals, spooks and monsters which you must shoot. Immediately, you'll notice something about the game's movement which differs from many of these platform things. Instead of the normal platform things. Instead of the normal smooth scrolling, it's all burst scrolling.
Each screen (and there are about a hundred on every level) acts as a little puzzle in its own right, and when you reach the end of the screen it shifts quickly (or in a burst) so that your character is moved into a whole new picture.
At first this effect is ever-so-slightly unnerving, but soon enough it feels perfectly natural. To add to the tension there's a time limit on each screen. Overstep your time (or indeed get killed any other way) and it's onto a wonderful death screen in which your cute character goes to the guillotine, and loses his marbles (literally).
As you run and jump through the forest you'll see lots of little characters rolling around or buzzing about. On the whole it's obvious what's a pet and what's a pest. You can pick up endless goodies and trade them in for extra lives, stronger powers, or vicious weapons at any of the shops, normally easy to find.
It's quite useful to buy invincibility ratings which, while they only last a few seconds, can get you through quite a few sections in no time at all. Or you can change into a wolf for falling great distances without hurting yourself. One nice touch is the availability of free hints in the shops. You'd think these would be there to help you get through the game, but really they're little anti-smoking messages or good living ditties. Yes, I know it sounds dreadfully self-righteous of the programmers, but it's been pulled off with sufficient tact and with to make these bon mots a nice diversion.
It doesn't have the instant appeal of something like Rainbow Islands
FOLLOWING IN AN ELF'S FOOTSTEPS
At first you're running and jumping across brooks and obstacles, heading for moving platforms and negotiating paving stones or submergable river trees. But further into the game you can buy wings (which are really a pair of shorts strapped to your back!) and with their aid get around the place much more efficiently.
Above and beyond all the romping, there is an element of adventure involved. To get form one level to another you have to interact with someone - usually a wizard - in order to talk him out of a key or whatever.
You are presented with a number of options like talk, take or attack, and it's up to you to make the sensible moves. The solutions range from the painfully obvious to the infuriatingly obscure, but either way, it's all to the good.
There is no straight route in Elf. It really is a case of explore and backtrack until you find out exactly where you need to go. The landscape goes in every direction, and on each level there's no shortage of things to do. In fact, at first it seems that there is rather too much going on, but (fussy graphics aside) it's not nearly so complicated as it first appears.
So what about some criticisms? Well, although each level is obviously set in a different place (forest, mountain or castle), it's sometimes easy to forget where you are - there really isn't enough variety between the different sections.
And, while the gameplay is more than satisfactory, it doesn't have the instant appeal of something like Rainbow Islands. Many people will have some difficulty with the cluttered look of the whole thing, and sometimes it's nigh impossible to understand what the hell is going on.
That said, I can't help feeling that it's all the little touches, tricks and extras which make this such an engrossing escapade. New creatures with funny faces are forever popping up, and if you quite enjoy these fantastic creations, it's all very holly. My only fear is that those more interested in hard core gameplay will find it all a bit twee, a bit frilly, a bit over the top.