Why do we bother? Month after month, year after year, we sit here desperately trying to help people make better Amiga games, because better Amiga games are all what we want. We point out obvious stupid flaws, we try to offer constructive criticism and practical suggestions, we stomp viciously on the metaphorical faces of games which fallow bellow the desired standards. But does it do any good? Do you lot actually wait the review of WWF European Rampage/Epic/Microcosm or whatever before you rush out and buy it? Do any programmers actually go ever go 'Oh right, I'm going to get roundly abused big-time if I don't do something about this control system, better sort it out'? Does anybody, in fact, ever listen to a word we say? Obviously not.
Elfmania is a game that we'd originally expected to see before last Christmas, but that's been delayed more than once while the programmers tried to crowbar some gameplay into it. The graphics, which we saw for the first time way back in issue 31, haven't changed at all, which is to say that they're still absolutely lovely. All of the backdrops are extremely pretty, with several layers of smooth parallax scrolling, and some of them have a real feeling of depth and atmosphere.
The impressive speed's the same as eight months ago. But hang on. "The gameplay's not quite there yet", said Cam in his preview feature, "the sound needs beefing up and the characters need levelling out a bit and maybe a few extra moves would improve the gameplay." So, Terramarque took the chance of a bit of friendly advice and came up with a game that we'd find it impossible to criticise, yes? Obviously not.
Elfmania is a beat-'em-up, but it's a beat-'em-up with a difference. The difference is that when you hit your opponent, there's no sound. You glide weightlessly towards them with your arm sticking out (there's none of the kinetic force that so characterised Mortal Kombat, or even Amiga Street Fighter 2), your sprites overlap for a moment, then the other sprite recoils away with a pained expression and a coin appears from nowhere and starts bouncing around.
What happened, did you pick their pocket? There are no impact sound effects worth speaking of whatsoever, and it's completely ridiculous. The reasoning behind it is apparently that the game's supposed to be more light-hearted and funny than most beat-'em-ups, but if that's the case then why not have some comedy impact sounds - horns parping or cymbals crashing of something?
Most of the time in Elfmania you're simply not sure if you've scored a hit or not, and that's clearly a bit of a problem in a fighting game. But at least Terramarque put the other problems right, yes? Hmm. Look at the score. Obviously not.
Does anybody ever listen to a word we say?
At this point I'm going to have to diverge a little and explain how the game works, because it's a little different to the beat-'em-up norm. The objective is to win the game by completing a straight line of victories from one side of a 6x6 map to the other. You don't nominally fight in the various battles yourself, but hire a 'champion' from a maximum of six available according to how much money you've got.
You start with only enough cash to hire the three wimpiest characters, but you make money from successful fights until eventually you can hopefully take control of the huge fat king wit the dangerous sledgehammer. You have to be careful, though, because every hit you take costs you money (the bouncing coins previously mentioned) and if you win a bout but get badly beaten up in the process, you may well not be able to afford a good fighter again next time round.
You can either blow all your cash or hiring the hardest character for each fight - which means that if you lose, it's Game Over - or you can use a weaker one who'll obviously be harder to win with, but will leave you enough money to try again if you lose. It's a novel system, but you have to ask, is it a good one? Obviously not.
And here's why. For a start, the price of each character changes according to how much cash you've got, which is a bit of a cheat. The prices are fiddled so that if you choose a lesser character, you've always got an exact multiple of 50 coins left (50 is the increment between characters), which means it's possible to save up a few quid and get the chance to have a half-decent fighter in reserve in case you lose. Secondly, the difference in stamina and hit power between the characters is so great (another thing that Cam pointed out in his preview) that if you lose against them with a half-decent player, your chances of then winning with your crap back-up fighter are so tiny as to be non-existent - you might as well just quit the game and start again. So is there any point? Obviously, as they say, not.
Er, did I mention the graphics? They're really nice.
This pretty much kills the one-player game. If you're a weedy character fighting a hard one, you can score a dozen good hits and barely affect their energy bar while they wipe out half of yours with two good smacks. It's a waste of time.
However, most beat-'em-ups sell on the strength of the two-player game, so is Elfmania's up to scratch? Well, if it had been I wouldn't have embarked upon this ungainly literary device for ending the paragraphs of the review, so clearly the answer is 'obviously not'.
For the reason behind this, we have to look at the heart of any beat-'em-up, the special moves. Elfmania's special moves are accessed by repeating one of the character's six attacking moves several times in succession. This is all very well if you're playing the computer (although with some of the characters, especially the ones where the relevant move is on a joystick diagonal, it's pretty tricky to actually pull off), but against another human the system means that you're telegraphing your intended move anything up to six or seven seconds in advance, which obviously renders it useless.
The remaining half-dozen moves (or a couple more if you include doing them in the middle of a jump, which isn't as easy as it sounds either) don't give much scope for exciting 'combos' (as I believe the young people these days call them), or indeed anything else. Lots of two-player fun, then? Obviously not.
So what else has Elfmania got going for it? Er, did I mention the graphics? They're really nice.
A press release which comes with Elfmania details the 'huge difficulties' encountered by the programmers through the various delays, and talks in dramatic capitals about how trying to create the right control 'became a NIGHTMARE', before breathing a sigh of relief at the end and informing us that 'We feel that the NIGHTMARE has turned almost like NIRVANA'. All you Seattle grunge pop fans out there who play Elfmania will almost certainly agree.