B-Bobs is a single-screen platformer that takes some inspiration from the arcade game Pang and adds a cranial twist to it. Quite fittingly, it eventually becomes a bit of a headache to play.
The title screen is a showcase of how C64 games tended to present themselves in the early 90s: Sleek fonts (if sometimes hard to read), lots of color cycling, and an enjoyable tune to top it all off.
I've been pondering how the initial double 'B' in B-Bobs is supposed to be pronounced. Like in bebop, the jazz style? Or rather like in Bob-omb, the walking explosive from various Mario games? Does it matter? No, but I'm glad this is a written article and not a video where I would have to say the name out loud.
This screen also contains the entirety of the game's backstory. Since the multicolor font can be a bit of a challenge to decipher, I have reproduced the text in its original form here:
BEHEAD YOUR WAY THROUGH
THE MYSTERIOUS WORLD
OF THE DANGROUS
THE MYSTERIOUS WORLD
OF THE DANGROUS
Um... okay? What does that even mean? Is this a retelling of the French Revolution in an alternate reality?
Pressing space calls up a hint screen that may shed some light on what the game is about:
Or it may cause further confusion, seeing how the text calls the same object a helmet and an umbrella. B-Bobs still insists on you beheading stuff like a mad executioner.
This game contains some mild nudity that is probably not worth warning against except that it is drawn rather awkwardly and should not be used as a reference for correct anatomy.
Let's just start the game and see what it actually wants us to do...
It wants us to die, apparently.
Let me try that again.
That's better! The goal of each level is to bump your head against bouncing objects until they explode. Naturally, this job requires protection, namely a hard hat that floats into the level disguised as an umbrella. Until you have collected said helmet, you must avoid any and all objects, as the merest touch instantly kills you. Even with the protective headwear in place, you can only touch an object from below. That last rule is implemented in a rather fiddly way and represents one of the game's main frustrations. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
When an object explodes, it can spawn a collectible symbol that slowly rises. This can be either a points bonus (spanning from 250 to 1000 points) or a question mark. What the question mark does is determined randomly from the following list of effects:
- The player becomes invincible for a brief time.
- Coins start raining down from the sky.
- The level immediately ends.
- The player temporarily gets to fly a jetpack.
- An extra life starts floating down the screen.
- The player can't move for a brief while.
- More objects appear that must be smashed.
As you can see, not all of them are positive. Especially the last effect is very likely to kill you immediately, as the new objects spawn right on top of you. For this reason, I'm always a bit hesitant to touch any question marks.
With the first level done, this pretty starfield, along with a pleasant melody sweetens the waiting time while the next stage is loading.
Finishing the first level already earns you a bonus stage. The goal is to collect as many coins as you can while avoiding the pit in the center. I managed to bypass the stygian abyss but I totally forgot about the lasers. There are two countdowns to the right. Whenever one reaches zero, it fires a deadly beam across the stage. You need to keep an eye on both counters and make sure you are well out of the way when either one is about to trigger. The safest bet is to just remain where you are at the beginning of the stage. You won't get as many coins that way, but the level lasts for quite a while, and you may still end up with more points.
Thankfully, when you die in a bonus stage, you just move on to the next regular level and do not actually lose a life.
The second stage features one large boulder and some devious platforms. Try figuring out why I died there. The collision detection is a bit sensitive, shall we say.
Hm, this background art reminds me of something...
Indeed, both B-Bobs and The Yawn feature graphics created by Michael Detert, which explains why some parts got copy-pasted from one game to another.
Guess what happens if I hit the large boulder often enough.
In the style of Pang, it bursts into several smaller objects that also need to be head-butted into oblivion. In the above animation, you can see me deftly evading the lower beam and then getting murdered by some jumping goblin-thing right at the end of the stage. That monster appears whenever the game thinks the player is taking too long to finish a level. Let me tell you, B-Bobs is not very patient in that regard.
This is the point where the game rips off the training wheels. Right at the start, I have to leave where I spawn or I get crushed by a huge gem before I can even grab the hard hat. What's more, due to their pointy shapes, the gems are significantly harder to hit. I also have to mention the controls: Most egregiously, jumping is mapped to the joystick's up direction, even though the fire button does not have a function at all. The player character, let's call him Bob, has two jumping heights: If I keep holding the joystick up, Bob first jumps normally and then, when he has landed on solid ground, performs a second, higher jump. This is awkward to handle, to say the least.
Judging by the background art, we've stumbled right into a Middle Eastern folk tale where a genie just fulfilled a poorly-worded wish, leading to some hilarious and slightly raunchy results.
The real problem manifests as soon as one of the gems gets smashed. The number of hazardous objects on the screen suddenly multiplies. I need at least another pair of eyes to keep track of everything jumping around at different speeds. Of course, that's also the ideal time for the goblin to appear and promptly end my existence.
Eventually, I manage to complete the level by smashing one big gem and removing all smaller objects before aiming for the second gem. I even get a snazzy jetpack out of it which is nice, albeit a bit useless at that point.
Coming up is another bonus stage, so let's just skip to the next proper level:
This stage also wants to slay you right at the start, so you basically need to know in advance where to stand to avoid the initial hail of objects. It helps to know that there are two easy to overlook blue platforms that can be used as a shelter. Eventually, you have to get on one of them to survive the lower beam.
This is probably my favorite background of the entire game. I especially like the coloring and dithering of the moon. If you are wondering why it looks more like an egg, it's because I'm displaying screenshots with perfectly square pixels. On an original C64, the screen would be slightly squished horizontally and make the moon appear more spherical, like so:
I wrote a short blog entry on the topic here: Pixel Aspect Ratio
While playing this level I stumbled over an interesting bug: When Bob is standing at the far right side, he can't be harmed by the goblin. I can only guess why this would be the case, but evading green death this way is totally fine by me. I retroactively tested this "feature" in previous stages where it works as well.
Once the large object explodes and the resulting fragments don't kill Bob immediately (which happened to me more than once), finishing the stage becomes a relatively simple affair.
Did we accidentally transition into a strip poker game? Or is this the Arthurian Lady of the Lake, but instead of a sword I get handed a giant skull?
As soon as the skull bursts into many smaller skulls, the level becomes much more frantic. I recommend staying in the center of the stage and trying to anticipate the skulls' trajectories.
One thing I haven't shown so far is that when you die, you respawn and remain invincible for as long as you stand still. Unfortunately, the umbrella does not appear until you start moving, and it takes a second or two for it to spawn. If there are a lot of objects jumping around, it is very difficult to survive for long enough to get another hard hat. Just witness this disastrous series of deaths:
I'm a bit reminded of Konami's early Gradius games where losing a ship (and thus all weapon upgrades) practically meant a Game Over.
The sixth stage features these... things for you to smash to bits. I'm not sure what they are supposed to represent, or if they are related to the game's backstory in any way. Considering how rather disjointed the level backgrounds have been until now, I don't think any of B-Bobs creators had a clear narrative structure in mind.
This level's challenge mainly comes from the large pit in the center and the platforms located above it. It is rather easy to misjudge a jump, and you also have to be careful not to get hit by objects coming from below at awkward angles. I barely avoided getting sandwiched by the two smaller objects here.
While I am not playing with an infinite lives cheat or disabled collision detection, I make extensive use of save states. Without them, I probably would not have made it past the third level. As I mentioned before, just dying once can spell doom for an entire playthrough.
Behold, the legendary Bird of Uncertainty and its jumping Roman numeral! Because why not?
I don't like the platforms in this stage, as they look wider than they effectively are. I keep on slipping off them and end up losing a life, as you can see above.
Even the goblin isn't a fan of this level's layout and promptly jumps to its death.
The penultimate stage plays dirty and kills you right away without as much as a warning. You basically need to know in advance that you have to get off the starting platform if you want to survive.
Presumably, we are back at the lake, and this time it is the Silver Swimmer who emerges from the waters, calling down a torrent of referee cards.
AROONS GASP (?)
The grand finale starts with a baffling stage name and then introduces the villain, Aroon, as a massive, disembodied head. I have to admit, despite its oddity, this revelation fits the game's heady theme rather well. Aroon jumps around and occasionally shoots projectiles at Bob who thankfully spawns with a hard hat already strapped on.
If you head-butt the wizard's noggin often enough, he bursts into six tiny versions of himself.
And that's the end of Aroon. I even got a bonus life out of his demise, even though there are no more levels to play.
To me, that life container always looked like the elongated head of a one-eyed robot sticking out its flashing tongue. I suppose, if one plays B-Bobs for long enough, everything starts to look like a head. Wait, what am I even waffling about? I've just finished the game, and we are about to find out if it has a proper ending!
Good news, there is an ending, and it comes with a pretty picture! The game clearly expected me to play in two player mode, seeing how there are two people sitting on the bench. Oh well, I can always imagine the other person was cheering me on from each level's sideline.
The text message makes the story, as little as there is, only more confusing: I've reached the surface again? Does this mean those moons and planets I saw were somehow located underground? What?
If anything, the game is heavily biased against the wizard Aroon, even though we have no idea what exactly he did that was so horrible and reckless that it justified murdering him and conquering his conquerable world. Maybe he was responsible for the level design which would explain all the hatred he received...
But wait, there's more! Maybe we get to know Aroon's motives after all!
But then, maybe not. The game quickly loses any interest in the story and starts handing out recreational advice instead. The music by Thomas Detert is indeed pleasant, but this ending sequence is just playing the title tune again.
My attempts to enter the cheat code in the title screen were not rewarded with any success. It is possible that I have to type the phrase somewhere else, but I am not sure which part is supposed to be the intro. It does not matter anyway, as I completed the game with save states instead.
If you feel like trying B-Bobs for yourself, be warned that I probably made it look easier than it is. Even though you can see me die about nine times in this article, I omitted the countless situations where I either had to restart a level or gradually savestate my way to victory. The bouncing objects can be very unpredictable, and sometimes just barely grazing one can cost you a life. What's more, losing a life usually makes the stage much harder to complete, as you have to avoid all the projectiles flying around while waiting for another umbrella to drop down. The edges of platforms are poorly defined, causing Bob to fall off even though there is clearly still something under his feet.
Just to remind myself of the game's real difficulty, I tried playing it legitimately and did not make it past the third level. The fourth stage is about as far as I ever got without cheating.
In the graphics department, the game certainly gets significantly higher marks. B-Bobs runs in Multicolor Bitmap Mode, allowing for more color variation across the screen. This shows in a lot of stage backgrounds where almost all of the C64's colors are used at once. I especially like the science fiction-themed images, like the nebula in level 1 or the moon setting in level 4. While human anatomy wasn't necessarily the artist's strength, he still managed to pixel an impressive giant bird. I'm still not sure why there is a giant bird, but that does not prevent me from enjoying the pixel art.
As usual, Thomas Detert's music is also worth mentioning, even though most the tracks are pretty short. There is no in-game music, but I like the design of the sound effects. Different projectiles make different sounds when they hit a surface, and they go well beyond simple 8-bit beeps.
Due to the aforementioned platform issues, the joystick controls feel very slippery. I also do not understand why the fire button wasn't used for jumping, as it has no function otherwise. That alone would have made the game easier to play, I think.
All in all, B-Bobs is just a bit too hard and frustrating to get a full recommendation from me. Maybe the challenge becomes more feasible with two players, but I did not have time to fetch myself a voluntary second player. In any case, the game could have used some more playtesting. And some proofreading as well.