Mountain Panic, the latest in a range of professional releases from Retro Software, is a colourful Mode 2 graphic adventure for the BBC Micro. You play a cuddly-looking explorer, wrapped up in a fur coat, on a mission to collect up four stars located in various locations and, in some cases, on various ledges. You have to avoid a mixed assortment of artic-themed nasties, such as bouncing snowballs, penguins and some weird green monster things.
This premise is mostly standard arcade adventure fare - yet the big surprise of Mountain Panic is that your character cannot jump. Instead, he needs to throw a rope, which flies out diagonally northeast or northwest, latching on to a ledge it is aimed at. You then hoist yourself up on it and haul yourself towards the ledge and finally climb up onto it. This is a clever idea, and very reminiscent of games such as Indiana Jones and Batman for the Amiga 500. I've never seen it implemented in a BBC Micro game before - and I love it.
I also love all of the nice aesthetic touches to the game. It practically oozes atmosphere. It has a very film-style introduction; the big Retro Software logo followed by a Pappa's Gong (the programming team) logo, and finally an amazing loading screen complete with an atmospheric narrative setting the scene (even though it doesn't actually mention that you need to collect the four stars!). Once the game proper starts, there is snow that floats down across all overground locations and which collects in the base of the cave screen. Throughout all of the early stages of the game, the palette used is mostly cyan, blue and white; all 'cold' colours that enrich the atmosphere of the game. Nasties too, are themed.
To ease you into the game, there are no nasties in the first few locations. You start off outside your tent and without too much exploration will discover the rope, which is absolutely essential to progress. After you have descended into the mountain, you'll start to encounter more challenging screens with nasties to avoid.
The nasties are seemingly in possession of two different 'types' of intelligence. Some of them patrol a set route on each screen no matter what you do, whilst others pretend to patrol a set route but attack you when they notice you. To those nasties that patrol, the skill of the game seems to be to either use the rope to clamber out of their paths, and then drop back to earth behind them - or to find another way through the caves to get around them.
You lose energy by coming into contact with any nasty, or by falling into the pits of spikes that are placed about the adventure. Otherwise, you can fall any distance without a hit, and don't lose any energy by simply standing around. The energy bar at the bottom of the screen gives you a generous amount of energy to complete the game, and it can be topped up a little by collecting rations. Some of the skill of the game is not only to avoid the nasties but also to ensure you only eat rations when you need to.
This is particularly the case in relation to the nasties that are intelligent enough to 'home in' on you. If you use the rope to clamber out of their way, they frequently buzz about semi-randomly just below where you want to drop. You then have two options - either to 'wait them out' and hope that they move just out of range so that you can drop without touching them, or to think the hell with it and gamble on not losing too much energy, and then to go ration-hunting, when you drop into them.
Mountain Panic is a flick-screen graphic adventure, so as you exit a screen on the right, you appear on the left of the next one. Unlike games such as Baron and Palace Of Magic, if energy is being depleted quickly, you are not automatically transported back to the point at which you entered the screen. So there are some locations where a wrong move will see you deposited into a pit of spikes and back to the title screen after a few seconds! Sound is limited to a few steps as you plod around, plus a 'chink' noise when your rope hooks onto scenery.
The four stars are scattered around, as are some items such as the rope, two gems and a lamp. The author has cleverly created a layout where you can see the next star but often cannot reach it, giving you a clue that you should explore elsewhere and then come back. The rope, for example, when you first collect it, can only be flung a short distance. Explore further however and you will find a second rope, and a third. Each additional rope extends the distance you can fling your rope, meaning that by the end, you will be able to reach each star. There are also puzzles in relation to the lamp, which illuminates the catacombs, and a mysterious gate which leads to a wholly different part of the game.
Now, if I gave games ratings in my reviews, I'd put this at 95%. Quite simply, it's brilliant. But there is something I want to say in relation to Retro Software and that is that their release schedules are getting longer and longer... Repton The Lost Realms took nearly three years and goodness knows when, if ever, we'll see Treasure Island. Mountain Panic has taken more than 42 months development, with each development step, and the release of a number of playable demos, recorded on the Retro Software web site. Whilst I understand the strategy of getting feedback on early versions of a game, and then adapting it to suit, I often wish that people wouldn't actually announce games until they were at least 75% complete. I always feel that there's a danger that, when you get 'design by committee', and a release then takes an inordinate amount of time to come to fruition, that the potential audience for it can get so fed up reading about yet more changes and yet more development that by the time the game is actually released, their enthusiasm for it has been somewhat dampened simply by the passage of time.
The game is available for the BBC Micro and BBC Master Compact as either a disc image for emulators and/or a 5.25" or a 3.5" disc with professional packaging and inlay. The original media should make it an instant collector's item and therefore it should do very well, notwithstanding how long it has actually taken for it to reach market. The graphics, animation and presentation are slick and the game is intriguing, bold and surreal. To make this so, it's not actually all that big; probably the trade off the programmers had to make. It is however, tough, simply because of how easy it is to make that one disastrous move that sees a whole swathe of energy wiped out.
You're unlikely to feel any disappointment about how long you've had to wait for Mountain Panic, simply because the time that has been put into it has resulted in one of the most gorgeous-looking graphic adventures ever created for the BBC Micro.