When Creatures arrived in 1990 it instantly gained a legion of fans who were drawn to its captivating gameplay, bizarre torture scenes and brilliant looking visuals. We speak to John Rowlands about his controversial, but utterly superb game.
Frenetic shoot-’em-up action, tricky platform sequences and a trio of gory torture screens – Creatures has it all. Its variety of play, including varied interfaces for controlling the main character, along with the lush visuals and stomping soundtrack led to the game being hailed as a success in the early Nineties and its current position as a firm favourite of Commodore 64-owning retro-gamers.
The game went into development shortly after developers, John and Steve Rowlands, had completed work on sci-fi blaster Retrograde. “Having spent two years working on space-based shoot-’em-ups, we needed to keep the design process fresh, and needed a style we’d not worked with before,” recalls John. “The cute-’em-up was the obvious choice.” A back-story was developed, with furry creatures (‘fuzzy-wuzzies’) from outer-space crash-landing on an island inhabited by miserable demons. The demons took offence to the noise made by the cheerful, partying fuzzy-wuzzies and also at their audacity in naming the island ‘The Hippest Place in the Known Universe’, and so tricked them into attending a party, whereupon the fuzzy-wuzzies were kidnapped and placed in the demons’ dankest dungeons. When developing the concept, the brothers’ sense of humour led them to integrate slapstick violence. “It occurred to us that this mixing of extremes had the potential to raise both smiles and eyebrows. We realised that humorous violence was the way forward, and so the torture screens were born.”
Devised primarily as a diversion from the platform elements, each of the three torture screens finds hero Clyde Radcliffe desperately trying to save one of his buddies from certain, gory and bloody death. The screens are reminiscent of cartoons, with the demons using elaborate contraptions and set-ups to execute the fuzzy-wuzzies, and you making use of cunningly placed items to stop them. Design-wise, John recalls that the ideas typically started with the ‘device’ that may eventually kill Clyde’s captured friend – from there, it was a case of placing a set of puzzles around the potential victim. As for the number of torture screens, John says: “We didn’t have time to develop the three that Creatures contained, never mind additional ones! The three screens in Creatures were the only ones we designed at the time, so everything made it into the final game. It wasn’t until Creatures 2 that we expanded our collection of torture screen concepts.”
But what did publisher Thalamus think when it became apparent that Creatures’ cute exterior was actually hiding a game more bloodthirsty than most shoot-’em-ups? “All we had to do was talk about cutting up cute animals, and they were hooked,” claims John. “If an idea made us laugh, and was also technically possible, it made it into the game.”
However the platform action forms the bulk of the game, with Clyde’s journey progressing through meadows, caverns, dark forests, graveyards, a castle and, finally, dungeons. “The progression from day to night – more specifically, from sunny day to dark dungeons – was intended to make the player feel increasingly on edge,” explains John. “Although the humour within the game was obvious, notably in the torture screens, we wanted to take things the other way, too, in order to make the player feel slightly frightened, if possible. This is why the castle and dungeons play host to ghouls and ghosts, complete with your buddies hanging in chains.”
From the beginning, the Rowlands brothers were keen to encourage variety, not just from a graphical standpoint or via the dynamic soundtrack, which changes depending on your location and circumstances, but also in terms of how Clyde was controlled. Initially, you walk from left to right, zapping demons with your flame breath, and can leap about, to reach higher platforms. Soon, however, you come across a seemingly impassable body of water; leaping on to it sees Clyde zip along on a lily pad, powered by what appears to be a handheld fan. Elsewhere in the game, this device is used to surf down waterfalls, and Clyde can also go scuba-diving in ponds full of hostile marine-life, and, in later levels, fly through the sky on a broomstick. “We liked the idea of multiple player interfaces and came up with those ideas fairly quickly,” says John. “They provided a break from the norm, and enabled us to further challenge the player, because the sprites normally used for Clyde’s firepower were used for the alternate transport. This meant that when his control method changed, he didn’t have access to his weapons.”
Control methods aren’t the only splashes of variety within Creatures: enemies often evolve and mutate as you battle them (“a simple feature to develop, added to keep the player on edge,” explains John), and end-of-level battles ensue with tough bosses. “The end-of level enemies somewhat lack a big-boss presence, hence the 64-sprite bosses in Creatures 2,” says John. “Nevertheless, we wanted to test the player at the end of each stage, so we ramped up the challenge. Most of the arcade games we were playing at the time had bosses, and it was only natural that these games influenced what we created.” Luckily, Clyde isn’t powerless against these mighty adversaries – the games that influenced the bosses also in part gave rise to Creatures’ power-up system. During each stage, Clyde can collect ‘magic potion creatures’, which can be swapped at a between-stage shop for more powerful weapons. Wardner inspired the ‘droopy’ shot, while R-Type provided stimulation for Clyde’s flame breath. “The ability to build a collection of weapons and select one on the fly was pure Apex, though,” exclaims John, who admits that while most weapons had a defined purpose “some just looked cool”.
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