The first generation of home computers were great, and had a charm all their own but they still had a way to go before they could produce the, for me, quintessential platformer, Kid Chameleon.
It wasn’t until the start of 1989 (or 1990 in the UK) that we were able to recreate the complete majesty of arcade-standard games at home, with all of the sixteen bit deliciousness that was: The Sega Mega Drive.
Right from the off you had amazing games like Altered Beast or a bit later on with Sonic The Hedgehog that were every bit as good as anything you might find in an arcade, with the added bonus that it didn’t cost you every time you wanted to play.
It was the long awaited revolution in home computer gaming, and the catalogue of excellence eventually grew to over nine hundred games!
Of course I was fully enjoying the sheer profusion of games available (this was in the days when you could hire games from the local video store), but in the summer of 1992 a game came out that blew me, and the competition, away. It was, of course, the totally awesome Kid Chameleon.
The games premise was unusual (and pretty ahead of it’s time for 1992) because it was about a virtual reality arcade game that starts keeping the children that lose prisoners.
A local video game champion, called Casey, enters the game with the intention of rescuing his fellow gamers. So straight away, you’ve got the Inception-like set-up of playing a computer game about a kid playing a computer game and having to treat said game as reality because the Boss is trying to kill him for real.
The only thing you have to do is stay alive and touch the flag at the end of the level to progress to the next, but there are bonuses for doing so with style. Not being hit, for example, or finishing under a time limit.
You get an extra life for every fifty thousand points you earn, and a bonus for not using power-ups, but this is just icing. The real joy is in the many and varied helmets that Casey finds dotted about each level inside little boxes marked ‘p’ (presumably for prize), which are utterly fabulous!
Each one gives you different abilities, handles differently (has different physics), has its own cool little sound effects, and a fanfare when one falls on your head. Here’s a list:
Iron Knight – Heavy but tough, he has five pips of life (so can take five hits) and can climb up walls. Beware though, when he falls from a certain height he will smash straight through most blocks (and keep going no matter how thick the band of blocks!), which is usually counter-productive.
Red Stealth – A cross between a samurai and a ninja, he jumps very high and has a sword with which he can attack monsters. It is barely longer than the character himself though, so you’ll need to be very close to do any damage. He can also point his sword downwards when in the air, helpfully. Very nimble and quick.
Maniaxe – Creepy axe wielding lunatic, in the style of Friday the Thirteenth nutter Jason Vorhees. Maniaxe throws three axes per second, scything through most opponents in moments, although oddly he cannot walk down slopes and will always slide. He has the standard three pips of life. One of my personal favourites.
Berzerker – The rhino helmet, he just wants to charge! After a couple of steps he will be up to ramming speed, putting his head down and then anything he hits is destroyed. Quite powerful, a lot of monsters are instantly killed by him and he can break most blocks, including prize blocks, unfortunately.
Eyeclops – Looking like an eco-friendly X-man, this helmet is actually pretty rubbish. He has a ray gun which reveals any hidden blocks, prizes or otherwise that are within the wide area of the blast. He has three pips of life and slides down slopes. You can make his ray gun a death ray by using two diamonds, but that gets expensive.
Juggernaut – This is the rarest helmet in the game, and even when you can find it, it’s very hard to keep hold of. It stays horizontal all the time so it doesn’t like slopes (up or down) and it fires non-stop, crazy, laughing skulls that bounce and gibber around the screen causing chaos. Sort of like an undead nazi tank commander. Great fun.
Micromax – A tiny human/fly hybrid. He sticks to walls, well, sticks and slides really, so you have to keep jumping, but can also fit into crawl spaces. Being so small, he can access areas that none of the other characters can, and is hugely fun to control. He has the standard three pips of life, which is odd because the kid with no helmet on has only two.
Skycutter – A dude on a hoverboard that can reverse gravity, flipping upside down and riding on the roof of the level. Sounds cool, right? Wrong! He’s an absolute pig to control because the anti-gravity aspect of the hoverboard means that you can’t stop him moving, and if you don’t constantly re-adjust he picks up speed and rams himself into something nasty.
Cyclone – A pink winged helmet that gives you a pink ski suit and the ability to fly. The absolute best helmet in the game. You must continuously tap the special button tom maintain altitude (exactly as you do in Joust, an arcade classic circa 1982). This allows you to skip lots of levels easily, as you can skim along the top, missing all the pitfalls. Nice!
The prize boxes are everywhere, in every level, sometimes hard to reach and sometimes invisible. They contain all sorts of goodies, such as single diamonds (which can be paid to enable special attacks with each different helmet), multiple diamonds, Helmets, clocks (for extra time in speed levels), little silver ankhs (extra lives), gold coins (extra continues) and ten thousand points (super rare).
There are four main stages, each containing around twenty levels with an end of stage Boss. So far, so normal. The thing is, there are also thirty two ‘Elsewhere’ levels that exist outside of the linear progression of the ‘normal’, flagged levels.
These secret levels are usually accessible from hidden areas, sometimes only available to specific Helmets, and can be used as shortcuts, if you know the path. If you don’t then you can end up going round in circles or actually being put back. Also, some of these levels are dead-ends.
Altogether there are a staggering 103 levels in this beast of a game, though if you make a wrong turn you can end up having to do a section again, so theoretically you could keep going forever.
Every level is meticulously crafted, a perfect exercise in logic and puzzle solving. There are ‘themes’ running throughout the stages, like Woods, or Desert, or Mountain Pass but no two are alike (and there are twenty five themes). Some levels require multiple play-throughs with different Helmets to fully harvest all that they have to offer.
The exquisite detail is truly humbling, I mean, there are fourteen types of blocks, each has a different function and behaves in a different manner, ranging from rock blocks (smash ’em), to rubber blocks (bouncy), to ice blocks (slippery), even ghost blocks (that disappear the very instant you touch them).
Also, as if all that wasn’t enough Kid Chameleon is set to a high energy, 80’s synth-heavy soundtrack that is ridiculously catchy and somehow fits in with the sound effects. Like whenever Kid Chameleon gets hit, you hear ‘Ow!’ and ‘Bummer!’ simultaneously, and it’s always on the beat!
Likewise when you get killed and hear a throaty ‘Die!’, not to mention the dozens of monsters battle cries and sound effects, it’s just sublime.
Plus the game plays lightning fast, is super responsive and really, incredibly difficult in places. I regularly used to play this for eighteen, twenty hours straight, and I only know one person who has completed it. It took him a day and a half and nearly killed him, now that’s dedication!
That’s the final reason that this game is an all-time solid gold classic: There was no save function. You played it until you finished it or you died, just like Kid Chameleon had to.