Growing up in the 90s and more so in South Africa, I missed the Nintendo bus completely. Yes, I was lucky enough to have a Game Boy Color in 1998. However, when it came to the NES and SNES, the closest I got to any of those consoles were games on the Golden China. Sadly, the selection wasn’t as vast as I’d liked. Thus, Nintendo releasing NES titles once again on another generation of console is more of a treat for me rather than the monotonous cash cow, we often feel it is from Nintendo. What’s more, is that it’s always nice to see “new” titles added to the library of the Nintendo Entertainment System on the Switch.
Released in the early 80s on the Nintendo Entertainment System, Clu Clu Land follows the journey of a blowfish named Bubbles. Bubbles is tasked with retrieving the stolen treasure. A task that is much more difficult than it sounds, with spiky enemy sea urchin patrolling every corner. The premise of Clu Clu Land is actually quite intriguing. However, if you were without the internet, or perhaps had a vague idea of what the game actually was, you may have started it, dropped it, and just never thought about it ever again.
Not a Pac-Man clone
Jumping into Clu Clu Land I found myself extremely frustrated at first. What seemed to me at first glance and first play, a Pac-Man like title, I soon found was nothing of the sort. Yes, the level or stage layout may resemble that of a Pac-Man level, and you may have enemies patrolling across the screen to catch Bubbles, but Clu Clu Land is nothing like the yellow gobbler or the ghosts. In fact, I would say that except for the level layout with its enemy patrols and the fact that Bubbles is in constant motion, there isn’t much like Pac-Man here. So, with that out of the way and also my entire impression now changed, the first obstacle or rather challenge was controlling Bubbles. See, unlike most arcade titles where players hit the directional buttons to move into that specific direction, up, down, left or right, Bubbles uses her hands to change direction by grabbing onto poles (hypothetically poles, as they look like dots from the top down perspective) and swings herself into the lane the player intends to travel through. This, however, is much more difficult than it sounds. Not because you won’t travel up if you hit up but you have to be facing the direction of up or hit a wall to rebound, which then allows Bubbles to make a U-turn.
What’s more, is that if you want Bubbles to go right and start swinging her hand out…yep this Blowfish has a hand or perhaps you can think of it as her clasped fin…you’ll need to hold that direction for a short period of time until Bubbles is within that lane or direction you want her to go in. Hold the d-pad or joystick for too long though and Bubbles will literally just hold onto the pole and spin around and around in circles. This can sometimes be a good thing to help avoid an enemy if you’ve moved into a lane mistakenly. However, it can also be a problem if you were already being pursued by the enemy and just wind up back into the enemy’s clutches. Bubbles isn’t completely helpless though. She has the ability to stun the enemy with a sonar wave blast. Once stunned, the enemy can be pushed into the wall and disappears for a short period of time. This of course only works when the enemy is in front of Bubbles, hence why being pursued by an enemy is never a good thing.
So, with the controls mastered…I use this term very lightly…I started putting some distance between Bubbles and the enemy. The next step is to obviously recover the treasure. A treasure which I first thought is spread out across the entire screen. Yep, like the pellets in Pac-Man. However, I soon realised that there isn’t only a pattern that I have to uncover to reveal the golden lines also known as the treasure, but the treasure is in fact hidden in this specific pattern within the level. A level which also has a timer running and when it reaches zero grants Bubbles an untimely death. This is an additional challenge thrown at the player that just frustrates the player even further. Accepting the challenge, I found success after what seemed to be my 50th death. Death, incurred by not only the spiky devils but also the timer and another obstacle within the levels, a black hole. And if avoiding those obstacles just isn’t enough, the level also taunts players with bonus items that appear throughout the levels. Fruit items that increase score, and even a clock that freezes the enemy in place for a short period of time.
All in all, Clu Clu Land is a real ‘blast from the past’. The sentiment this time though meaning, a blast that left me exhausted at the best of times. Truly, I grew up in a phenomenal time of gaming with titles like Contra, Ninja Gaiden, Ghosts and Goblins. But the more and more I play these titles in the current day, I wonder to myself, what were we actually possessed with back then to be able to finish the games growing up. Nintendo and other video game development companies back in the 80s and 90s were cruel, cruel people and made incredibly challenging titles that we both loved and hated. Clu Clu Land is possibly one just title. Super rewarding when you complete its levels and nightmarishly difficult when you’re just starting off at ground zero with the game. This is definitely one title that everyone needs to try out and give a chance at least once in their lives. And with a multiplayer option that allows a second Blowfish to play simultaneously alongside Bubbles, the fun or perhaps challenge depends on how you look at it, increases even further.