Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Retro Review - Mean Arenas (Amiga / CD32)

The Running (Pac) Man

Top down Maze games are one of the oldest and longest running video game staples. When Pac Man sent everyone maze-crazy in 1980, there followed a decade long tsunami of clones, rip offs and cheap imitators, especially for the home computer systems of the time. With the advent of the 90's, it seemed that these simple arcade eat-em-ups had become stale and developers moved on, but there were a few notable exceptions. While the 16-bit consoles only received a few Pac Man inspired games; such as Zoom and Mr Do, Commodore's Amiga got its mitts on a fair few, thanks to its more homebrew nature, and cheaper disk based format. Most notable of these Pac Man spin-offs is Mean Arenas, which blends dot collecting and enemy avoiding with a deadly game show theme 'borrowed' from cheesy 80's action flick, The Running Man, or Robotron 2048 follow up, Smash TV.

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past 30 years, the words Pac Man inspired game, will automatically give you an idea of what to expect. A top down maze view, filled with collectible items and enemy characters that must be avoided on pain of death. That is essentially what Mean Arenas is about, but with new mechanics and some vaguely original ideas of its own. You play the part of a game show contestant, who must navigate the maze.. sorry, arenas, collecting all of the gold coins. Once you have obtained them all, you move onto the next stage. Simple huh? Well not quite, as these arenas are filled with enemies, which spawn from set positions, as well as a multitude of traps and hazards designed to really ruin your day. 

The first few arenas are fairly simple, but they soon become far larger and more intricate, as well as being filled with progressively more brutal hazards such as wall mounted flamethrowers, rocket launchers, spikes, lava and toxic sludge pools, land mines and electric barriers. Keys and gems need to be obtained in order to gain access through the appropriate door or gem wall blocking your path, and teleporters or shuttle platforms can be stepped on to whisk you to another part of the arena. Later stages are multi-tiered too, with staircases taking you to another floor filled with more coins, and enemies. 
There is also an element of puzzle solving too, with certain arenas containing floor panels that, when stepped on, change the surrounding maze layout, revealing more coins or access routes in the process, and wall mounted switches must be flicked to remove obstructions blocking your path. One stage even requires you to locate floppy disks, which give you directions for navigating a maze of teleporters. These fairly simple puzzles are a welcome addition and add variety to proceedings.

Unlike most maze games, you are not defenseless, with power-ups awarding you with some offensive and defensive capabilities such as; a fireball shot that sprays out in all four directions, a smart bomb that clears the screen, and a protective layer that turns the tables on your enemies, enabling you to chase them down and destroy them on touch, much like the power pill in Pac Man. There are also a plethora of bonus items to nab on your travels too, such as bank notes and presents that award extra points, to bonus letters that award an extra life upon completion of the words 'Bonus Credit'. 

Visually the game certainly won't blow you away, but the sprites are fairly decent, if a little basic, and the environments are colourful, yet plain enough for you to be able to see what's going on - an essential quality in a maze game filled with so many items. Unfortunately, there are only a few different environments, such as the robo zone, dungeon zone, rainbow and starship zones, which are repeated throughout the game. But the arenas themselves do change considerably, so it's forgivable. The enemy types, which include humans, tanks, balls of electricity and strange shapes, are a little bland, but, again, they are easily visible. The game kicks off with some catchy music on the title screen, but there's no in-game music, which I actually prefer as it allows you to concentrate on the action. Far less appealing are the awful game show parts, with two poorly drawn hosts, voiced by what sounds like a 14 year old kid putting on a stupid 'adult' voice. They are painfully unfunny and really pissed me off. Thankfully they can be turned off in the options screen, leaving you with only a handful of tolerable speech samples during gameplay (and don't think I didn't notice the sample of Red Dwarf's Rimmer, shouting "Marvellous" at the end of each stage).

Presentation gripes aside, Mean Arenas was never a game that pushed the Amiga graphically, but it does offer some really addictive and enjoyable arcade action. It's pretty exciting stuff, with a fast pace keeping you on your toes, and a great risk vs reward system that encourages you to swipe everything you can before nabbing the last coin and finishing the level. It's a very challenging game, but it possesses a fair difficultly curve that introduces new elements as you progress, allowing you to improve your skills before hitting the more difficult arenas. There is also a handy password system that allows you to continue later - providing you find the disk item in the arena in question. I came to Mean Arenas expecting very title, but discovered a game that I will certainly be coming back to until I finally beat the 26th, and final, arena. It may take its inspiration from one of the oldest game genres in existence, but it expands on that initial idea and offers something far more engaging and rewarding, and thus I recommend you enter the arena and try it out for yourself!

Title : Mean Arenas
Developer : Nite Time Games
Year : 1993
System : CD32
Also on : Amiga