So I had intended my next review to be Loom, and that is coming, but having just got the new domain up and running and noting that we were in October 1990, I saw an opportunity to cover something a little more personal, a game ST Format never bothered to review (there was a brief paragraph in the news section at some point but that’s it) but which somehow ended up in my collection somewhere in the early 90s.
On the face of it, Mad Professor Mariarti is a fairly simple platform game. It was released by Krisalis who are otherwise known on the ST for some mediocre football games, Rogue Trooper and a squash game. Its developer (Shaun Hollingsworth) previously made Pac-Mania and Toobin but has no other significant ST credits, while graphics artist Dave Colledge mostly worked on things for Krisalis. All of that screams mediocrity, there’s no reason for anything outstanding to come from them. And yet, for me, it did.
My love for the game is probably as much personal as much as it is for the game itself. Maybe it wouldn’t have grabbed my attention quite so much without that personal connection, but it’s there and I can’t write with honesty if I skirt the issue. Growing up was shit. My dad was a drunk who solved his problems with his fists. He also had frequent issues with drugs, as well as the odd legal run-in. The end result of this was that much of my childhood was focused on keeping out of the way to avoid his drunken mood swings. My Atari ST was my escape from a real world which was frequently miserable, with school often little better. Quite how I ended up with one is anyone’s guess, given his loathing of me – fuelled as much by the drink as by the disappointment that at 11 I had yet to get anyone pregnant or steal a car.
Mad Professor Mariarti was part of that escape from reality, and yet it was more. It was one of two games (the other was Mouse Trap – a game which is quite clearly shit but for some reason is also compulsive) which managed to get some level of human interaction and communication with my dad – a bit of ribbing about missing the jump or getting stupidly killed, figuring out the puzzles, and actually working together to solve a problem. No, there was no two player mode, but we’d gather around the Atari ST and the crappy portable TV and that would be our interaction, taking it in turns to die.
It’s actually quite an unusual game in some ways as while it is notionally a platform game it borrows more of its structure from adventure games than something like the Mario games. The platforming itself is fairly routine with each flip-screen only containing a handful of jumps and platforms. That platforming is hampered by a mediocre jumping mechanic – where many platform games allow some mid-air movement despite the laws of physics as a means to allow the player to vary the length and height of their jump, MPM gives you a fixed trajectory. This has its issues but you soon learn to work around them and they do have the benefit of making some routes uni-directional – platforms where you might drop from one to the next on the way down cannot be navigated on the way up if they’re too close together and narrow. In general the platforming is not particularly fiddly, never asking you to deal with moving platforms and rarely expecting you to negotiate tiny platforms, because that’s not where the game’s focus lies. Movement is simply a means to get from place to place in MPM where in the Mario games the movement is the goal in itself, the joy comes from making those jumps from moving platform to moving platform while avoiding mobile enemies. Instead, the emphasis is on exploration and puzzle solving. Let me explain.
One of the puzzles sees a massive speaker behind which lies a switch to shut down the laboratory and complete the level. To reach it you need ear protectors. To get to them, you need to drop down from a conveyor belt, but it’s stopped. If you try to jump while it’s stopped you’ll miss the platform on which the headphones are located. So you see the machine powering the conveyor belt and it’s missing something. In this case, it’s missing a microchip, but there aren’t any microchips around. However, there is some sand. So you go find a bucket of sand and pour it into a vacuum chamber, where it becomes a microchip. However, to get to it, you need to find a diver’s helmet to get into that chamber. Now you can retrieve the microchip, fire up the conveyor belt, get the ear protectors to get past the speaker and shut the level down. Another level sees you looking for milk and cereal to put into a microwave to make a meal hot enough for you to go into space. It’s silly logic, no doubt, but it’s fun.
That fun extends to the design of the enemies which is absolutely wonderful. One level is computer-themed so you find yourself dealing with joysticks, floppy disks and mice walking around. Another is science-themed so you have flasks on legs and walking molecules. Another is biologically themed. Each area has enemies themed for its environment, and the environment itself decorated to match that theme. Now the enemies are simple patrollers walking back and forth between points, or for others flying between points, but they look awesome with large detailed beautifully-drawn sprites. Now there’s no jumping on heads (indeed you can’t jump high enough to clear them) so you initially throw spanners at them. There are coins which you can spend at a vending machine to get better projectiles with which to knock out your foes but this offers only temporary reprieve with exploded enemies returining after a set time and stunned enemies waking up.
Music is just chip tune stuff as per most of the ST’s library, and yet it’s remarkably catchy. Or maybe it just sticks in my head due to the memories, who knows. Still, they stick, and they are actually pretty decent. Other than that there’s some basic chip sound effects for firing weapons, etc.
In theory this is just another platform game. On a technical level it’s nothing special – flip-screen platform games aren’t anything new at this point in gaming history and one could argue that perhaps this is a game which owes some debt to the ancient but still brilliant BBC platformer (by this I mean it came out on the BBC micro 8-bit computer, not that it was made by the British Broadcasting Corporation) Imogen. That should be noted as high praise as Imogen is a genuine retro classic, and what both game have in abundance is charm. It’s an impossible thing to quantify, and something increasingly lost in the modern age of corporate cookie-cutters, but MPM had an abundance of it, and that charm is what separates it from the crowd.