Clu Clu Land (Famicom Mini 12)Jeremy Parish
The word "classic" has suffered terrible abuse over the years. For instance, some people refer to any car that's more than 25 years old as "classic." Were it still alive, my very first car (a 1981 Buick Estate Wagon) would be reaching that vaunted age in a couple of years. But it could never, ever have been deemed a "classic," even if it hadn't burst into flames one night long ago. "Vintage," yes. "Old," definitely. But classic? The mere thought cheats the word of its integrity.
So it is with video games. Nintendo has created a lot of truly classic games over the past 25 years. But not every game the company has made in that time has been a classic, no matter how old it may happen to be. Few things drive that point home quite as clearly as the GBA port of Clu Clu Land.
Those who don't remember the NES era may be familiar with Clu Clu as an unlockable bonus game in Animal Crossing -- specifically, the one everyone was sad to uncover, because it meant they weren't getting something cool like Excitebike or Donkey Kong. It's not painful so much as deeply forgettable, providing little in the way of actual substance. Beyond its single distinguishing feature -- the strange pivot-based control method for which it was named -- Clu Clu Land does nothing to distinguish itself from the dozens of similar maze-chase games already on the market by the time of its original 1984 release.
Clu-Clu Land could approximately be described as a cross between Pac-Man and Bionic Commando (though of course it came several years before the latter). One would be forgiven for thinking, "Those are awesome games, so they must be even more awesome together!" Sadly, that's not the case. Perhaps, somewhere in another universe, someone was able to take the basic elements that comprise Clu Clu Land and work them into an experience that lived up to their potential; unfortunately, what Nintendo put together seems more like half an experience.
Like most Pac-Man-esque games, Clu Clu Land occurs entirely within a single screen. And like Namco's ravenous yellow puck, the hero of the game is constantly in motion -- once you make your first move, he refuses to stop. The unique twist for the game is that you can't actually exert direct control over the character's movements; instead, you press the D-Pad to grasp tiny rods spaced evenly throughout the playing field. These are seen as simple dots from the game's top-down perspective, but the idea is that you're grabbing poles and swinging around them; once you release the controller, you go shooting off in the direction you're currently facing. It's actually an interesting control scheme, and as with other games which are built around grappling through the environment (rather than based on the main character's innate mobility) it has a steep learning curve -- getting about is frustrating at the start, which makes mastering the technique all the more satisfying.
Clu Clu Land could even be great if Nintendo had built more of a game around it. Unfortunately, the overall experience is pretty threadbare, and what little substance can be found seems haphazard at best. Each "maze" is cleared by passing over specific points which hide gems, all arranged in randomly-determined geometric patterns. Once all the gems are located, you move to another randomly-selected screen full of poles. There are no walls within the "mazes," although occasionally trampoline lines will appear out of thin air, generally just in time to send you catapulting back into a bad guy. Oh yes, Clu Clu Land has its share of bad guys: two per maze. But unlike Pac-Man's devious multi-hued monsters, the monsters of Clu Clu Land make no effort to track down the player; they just sort of putter about the screen, occasionally getting in your way. But thanks to the odd interface, that aimless drifting is perfectly challenging in its own right. It speaks volumes about the game that the control scheme is so unconventional that enemies are dangerous without even trying.
Clu Clu Land is better than a lot of early NES and Famicom games, but as a full-priced stand-alone release twenty years later it leaves a great deal to be desired. It's the sort of oddity that works much better as a dusty, disused menu selection in a large retro collection. And all the deluxe packaging in the world can't change that.
Copyright © 2004 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in 1UP.