Tina Milan thinks Howard might go down with the littlies. Is she quacking up?
It's been a long time since the last Activision product, and those of us who miss the excellent David Crane (Pitfall II, Ghostbusters, Little Computer People, etc) will be looking forward to this latest batch of imports with some enthusiasm. 'Howard' arrived in some impressive packaging and had all the hallmarks of a real winner - I broke into my belated Christmas present with uncustomary glee.
First, however, a bit of history: Howard the Duck was a Marvel comic in the mid-Seventies that attracted a cult following, ran for a few issues, and then disappeared. Legend has it that the great American kid, weaned on a diet of real sentimentality and real violence, found the flippant approach of the comic less than attractive.
Howard The Duck (later re-titled "Howard - A new kind of hero") was also a potential blockbuster movie in the mid-Eighties with a cult following. Unfortunately, the cult caught up with it and kicked it into little bits. Just about everyone has now dubbed the film a disaster of biblical proportions and George Lucas must be longing for the old breed of hero that made him a fortune in Star Wars and Indiana Jones.
The sad truth is that here, as in the comic, the joke about a wise-cracking duck that smokes cigars, likes girls, and reluctantly fights crime wears thin in no time at all. What's left is a poorly drawn image that lacks most of the charm of better known cartoon ducks.
Don't, however, avoid this game because of the adverse publicity surrounding the film. Beautifully presented, and well programmed, it rates as one of Activision's better recent releases and deserves consideration outside its unfortunate tie-in.
The plot is to overthrow the Dark Overlord (obviously you must find him first) and your task is split into phases that attempt to cover all of Howard's fictitious abilities. At the start you parachute onto the island, and your first hassle is to recover the backpack that was obviously thrown clear in landing.
The island is really several strips of land separated by water, Mutant Slime (more of this later) or foliage, and it is revealed to you in a pseudo 3D, bird's eye perspective as you move around its surface. Howard himself is truly duck-like, with a slow waddle and a comical Quack-Fu kick when confronted by enemies.
These take the form of sprites which pop up from mounds in the ground and home-in on you as you move. One kick sends them spinning, and thus helpless, and a second kills them. On later levels they are immobilised for less and less time and come at you in greater and greater numbers. You may, however, destroy their source by jumping on the mounds themselves, although if you're not quick you will find yourself surrounded and trapped.
The game has four levels, which unfortunately have to be accessed separately from disk. Level 1 involves finding your backpack (you can cross water after this) destroying all the mounds on the island, and then crossing the rope-bridge. Scattered around are patches of Slime that an only be leaped over (I found the animation on this a bit weak) and you may walk or swim (sort of...) in one of four directions. Level 2 takes you to the top of the volcano using the micro-lite aircraft you found in the backpack (handy, eh?).
Level 3 takes you through the volcano, dodging cravasses and falling stalactites as you go, and finally the last level lets you use your Neutron gun to shoot the Overlord himself. Then you just have to get out again before it all blows.
On the four levels, the second was dull - little more than left, right and up until you hand, and the others were passable sub-games in themselves. The graphics were always colourful and generally well designed, and in making sense of a film licence Activision have once again shown the others how. Taken all together, however, I felt the slowness of the gameplay less than addictive.
The cute waddle that gives your hero his immediate appeal soon becomes tiresome, and the fighting sequences were not varied or fast enough to keep me involved. For the younger player I cannot recommend Howard highly enough but I fear the seasoned gamester will play it twice and never return again.