Monday, March 2, 2020

Game 155: Smurf: Rescue in Gargamel's Castle

I’ve never played a ColecoVision game before. Coleco, a major American toy manufacturer, withdrew from the video market before I really got into video games. I hadn’t heard of the system at all until video game Internet communities sprung up in the late 90’s, and until now I never bothered to retrospect it through emulation. I don’t know if this is something I should feel bad about – on one hand, it’s the most powerful second generation home console by a length. On the other hand, it seems like most of its well-known titles are coin op conversions, and by the time I cared about these old games, I figured it was better to just play the original versions on MAME, even though in multiple cases, the fact they were ported to ColecoVision is likely why I even heard of them at all (e.g. Exidy’s and Universal’s libraries). It wasn’t a long-lived system, having been released right on the cusp of the video game crash of ’83.

This is, however, the second game about Smurfs featured on this blog.

It’s (almost) a side-scrolling platformer. At first, that doesn’t sound especially remarkable – we already had multiple games by 1982 that played like genre prototypes, each with their own quirks and ways of anticipating things to come. Donkey Kong, of course, is a direct ancestor, being the design of Mario’s Shigeru Miyamoto, but the stages are all single-screen courses and are light on actual platforming. Jungle King features smooth scrolling, and stages that introduce new themes and obstacles throughout the game, but lacks any consistent set of gameplay rules. Pitfall has its large, multi-screen game world, but little sense of progression or difficulty curve as you explore its handful of repeating room types, each containing the same largely passive hazards.

Smurf Rescue has all of the ingredients of the genre except for the scrolling, relying on page-flip style screen movement like Pitfall, and feels much closer in style to Super Mario Bros. than any game before it that I’ve seen. I’m not sure that it has any more types of hazards than Pitfall does, but there is a sense of stage progression, with new background graphics and new things for you to jump over introduced as you march ever rightward to your goal. Music plays a role too, with cheerful, public domain ice cream truck music playing as you hop over fences in the friendly Smurf village, transitioning to the first movement of Beethoven’s 6th upon your arrival in the countryside, and to a cutesy-creepy track when you enter Gargamel’s dreary, spider-infested castle.

But there just had to be something odd about this game, and it’s the controls. First of all, you press up to jump. No big deal, right? But Smurf Rescue does not respond to diagonals; if you’re walking to the right and want to jump forward, you might naturally shift the stick into the upper-right position and expect Smurf to jump forward. He will not, the game will just ignore the jump command entirely, and instead walk right into the thing you were trying to jump over.

To jump forward, you have to first be walking forward, then stop, and then push the joystick directly up, with none of this diagonal nonsense. I don’t know if this control scheme makes any more sense with a real ColecoVision controller, but it isn’t an emulator issue; other ColecoVision games handle smooth 8-direction joystick motion just fine.

And it gets weirder. If you stand still before jumping, then you’ll jump straight up. Why might you want to do that? Well, if you jump a second time immediately after landing from the first, you’ll perform a higher forward jump, necessary to clear some obstacles. The first one doesn’t have to be an in-place jump, but this is the easiest way.

But you need to be standing still for a good second or so. If you press jump and the game can remember a time when you were moving forward, you’ll do a short hop forward, probably right into the tall obstacle you were trying to vault over.

Why, Coleco? I know platforming controls hadn’t exactly been standardized by 1982, but there are fourteen buttons on your stupid controller. Two of them are generic action buttons. You could have had used one for jumping forward, and another for jumping straight up. The game would have played the same, except without the risk of killing yourself by doing one kind of jump when you meant to do the other.

Anyway, there are four difficulty levels, but none of them are all that difficult. Harder difficulties make the stages run longer, the more difficult obstacles appear more frequently, and your energy drain faster, with the hardest difficulty ensuring you face an enemy in every single room except the very last one, which ironically makes Gargamel’s castle the easiest stage in the game. You never have to face Gargamel or his mangy cat. I beat the hardest setting on my first try, only losing two lives in the process.

GAB rating: Below Average. Bonkers jumping controls aside, and this is no small thing to overlook, Smurf Rescue is just an unsubstantial game. It looks nice for the time – you just didn’t see big multicolor sprites like this on the VCS – and the music is pleasant enough, but it takes less than three minutes to see everything there is to see in this game. Donkey Kong was good in spite of its small size because of its great level design and high difficulty. Pitfall made the most of its limited capacity by having a large, secretly non-linear game world, with the meta-challenge of figuring out how to traverse it quickly enough to snag all of its treasures in only 20 minutes. Smurf Rescue has no such value-adding qualities, and is saved from a “Bad” GAB rating only by the merit of not overstaying its welcome.


  1. I get the feeling that the game is meant for much younger audience. But then that makes the awkward jump controls even more inexcusable, since kids for whom this level of complexity would be appropriate lack in manual dexterity. So having to perform sequence of inputs to jump (right -> (optionally stop) -> up -> right) should be a big no-no.

  2. For some reason my family only ever got the Colecovision as a console, but it made up for it's rarity by having a plug-in that allowed for playing of Atari and Intellivision games.

  3. That first screenshot of the smurf walking out of his mushroom house was absolutely mouth-watering to a 2600 owner in 1982.


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