Pets Rescue C16/Plus/4

When launched in 1984, it’s fair to say that the Commodore 16 and subsequent Plus/4 home computers didn’t exactly set the world on fire.

Envisioned as successors to the Commodore 64, the machines were hobbled by a bout of cost-cutting that saw many of the C64’s greatest assets – hardware sprites, scrolling, the iconic SID chip – dropped in favour of lower-cost alternatives.

Unsurprisingly, the majority of the games written for the machine, for want of a better word, sucked. There were some exceptions to the rule, but support for the machines had all but evaporated by the middle of the decade, and the C16 and Plus/4 were quickly discontinued.

All of which begs the question, why would anyone try to write a new video game for a system so patently unsuited to the task?

That’s a question which +4 All Stars, a band of plucky coders, graphicians and C16 fans, is best-placed to answer. The group released Pets Rescue for the Commodore 16 and Plus/4 just over a year ago, and it’s one of the most remarkable new retro titles to be released in recent times. We’ll admit that we’re a little late to the party in reviewing PR, but there isn’t exactly an abundance of quality software released for the system, so I guess it’s case of better late than never!

And it’s strangely fortuitous that we come to review the game now, particularly with the buzz surrounding the recent release of the impressive conversion of Super Mario Bros. for the C64 still fresh in our minds.

Having seen any of the promotional material, videos and artwork for the game available on the web, the reason for mentioning Super Mario Bros. will become apparent. Pets Rescue is a game that, at it’s core, shares much of the same DNA as Nintendo’s classic platformer, a title that practically wrote the rule-book on how to create a slick, engaging platform game for the 8-bit generation.

Given the shortcomings of the Plus/4, trying to create such a game for a machine with such limited gaming qualities should surely be an impossible task?

The answer, as it turns out, might surprise you.

But before we dive in, it’s worth mentioning that for those readers looking to play on physical hardware, the game is available and should run on a stock Plus/4 without issue, but will require a 64K RAM pack to run correctly on the C16.

For those who favour convenience, emulation makes things significantly easier. The Plus/4 emulator included in Vice wouldn’t run the game, so we opted to use Yape for the purposes of this review.

The game opens with a wonderfully animated intro sequence, introducing players to Dr Andrea “Dree” Brown, the game’s protagonist. Dree runs a successful veterinary centre, a place where she works tirelessly to restore sick and injured animals back to full health.

Unfortunately, such a charitable outlook is not shared by Dr Edward Vil, Dree’s assistant.

Possessed with an unhealthy fascination with gene-splicing and mutating animal DNA, Vil’s latest experiment goes awry when his unwilling test subjects metamorphosize from their normal, fuzzy selves, into a myriad of mechanical meanies!

Not one to sit idly by, Dree sets off on a mission to round up the errant pets, and to teach Dr Vil a lesson into the bargain.

Beyond the introduction, the first thing you’ll notice about Pets Rescue is just how amazing it looks. One of the few improvements that the C16 line had over the C64 was an improved colour palette, something that becomes apparent from the outset.

Equally remarkable is just how smooth the scrolling in this sequence is. Lets not forget that the C16 series had about as much pixel-pushing power as your average potato, so it’s especially impressive to see a game that looks as good as Pets Rescue.

Things are equally impressive in the audio department too.

Although the TED chip could never hold a candle to the SID in terms of quality or richness, the bubbly, energetic tunes that accompany Pets Rescue’s gameplay are a welcome addition, most certainly a cut above anything I’d previously experienced on the system. The game even goes so far as to include simultaneous music and sound effects, something that a lot of C64 titles failed to manage.

As for the game itself, 24 surprisingly expansive levels await you, packed full of platform-leaping action, enemies, coin blocks, monsters, and all manner of traps and obstacles to overcome.

Controlling Dree is simple and straightforward, with left and right moving in the corresponding directions, whilst pushing up on the joystick will cause Dree to jump. Holding down the fire-button whilst moving will cause Dree to sprint, enabling her to traverse levels more quickly, as well as leaping both higher and longer than usual.

In a trope that has long become a staple for the genre, enemies can be dispatched by leaping into the air and using one’s posterior to bounce off your foe’s head, freeing said pet from its monstrous form, and the accrual of additional bonus points.

As with any good platform game, there’s usually more to each of the game’s levels than first meets the eye. Many of the game’s levels contain hidden blocks, which will often yield a bonus coin when struck, and regular platform tiles may also yield treasure when hit from underneath.

There are also Mario-esque warp pipes scattered throughout the place, some of which conceal portals to bonus levels or hidden rooms elsewhere within the level. Pushing down on the joystick will cause Dree to enter one of these pipes, although you should be mindful that some of these contain fireball-spewing enemies as well – you have been warned!

Once you dive into the game proper, you’ll being to notice all manner of fine details and neat touches, including parallax scrolling, and background and incidental animations that wouldn’t look out of place in a 16-bit title, let alone a game for the Plus/4. My pet-rescuing escapades were regularly interrupted, as I stopped to admire the tiny, pixelated birds flapping among the clouds, or watching a gout of flame belching forth from a nearby pit-trap. There’s even a short animation showing rescued pets flying – or burrowing – away to safety!

So the game is an undeniably impressive technical achievement, but there are one or two problems worth mentioning.

Firstly, the smooth scrolling witnessed during the title screen falters somewhat during actual gameplay, which I suspect is due in part to the the parallax scrolling and other graphical details.

As a result, the slight jerkiness as the character and play-field moves around can make it difficult to time jumps, or react to enemies quickly enough. It’s never so bad as to be unplayable, but it does become difficult to exercise the level of fine-grained control necessary to navigate some of the game’s more devious traps.

Then there’s the fact that the size of the active play-field is about 1.25 times the height of the visible play area, requiring a degree of vertical scrolling to reveal the rest of the screen.

There were plenty of occasions where I found myself running along platforms located at the top of the screen, only to find myself in uncharted territory, with no way to see what was below me. The only way forward is to take a leap of faith into the unknown, praying that there’s not gaping chasm or fire pit underneath (which there invariably is), turning some levels into a case of trial and error than actual skill.

Even if you can work out where solid ground is located, there’s a good chance you’ll land right in front of a patrolling enemy still outside the visible play area, which proceeds to cannon straight into you before have sufficient chance to react.

Despite the game’s apparent similarity to Super Mario Bros., the end result is something more cautionary and slower paced than Nintendo’s parkour plumber; not necessarily a bad thing, but it does take a little while to train yourself to assess the situation before pressing on, rather than trying to blast through levels in super-quick time.

Fortunately, the developers have included a number of features that help to mitigate some of these frustrations, including mid-level checkpoints, unlimited continues, plus an excellent password system, which awards a code to the player each time they manage to beat a level. The game still offers a substantial challenge, but these quality-of-life improvements help make the game accessible to more casual players as well.

In bringing this review to a conclusion, it’s impossible not to be impressed with Pets Rescue. Not only is the game a a testament to the abilities of +4 All Stars, it’s also a loving tribute to a pair of machines that, for many, would be the first home computers experienced by an entire generation of video games fans. I myself owned a Plus/4 back in the mists of time, but I’d never have considered something like Pets Rescue even remotely possible.

And while Sam’s Journey might have wowed the 8-bit crowd a couple of years back when it launched on C64, the limited hardware of the C16 and Plus/4 platforms mean that, in many regards, Pets Rescue is an even greater achievement.

It might not be perfect, but it goes right to the top of the pile as one the best – if not THE best – games for the system, and demonstrates that, in the right hands, both C16 and Plus/4 are capable of some truly remarkable things – highly recommended!

Download: Pets Rescue
Plus/4 World: Pets Rescue


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