Saturday, January 30, 2016

Retro Discoveries: Benny Hill's Madcap Chase (1985) - ZX Spectrum - DK'Tronics

To say that there was more to Benny Hill than tits and arse is a bit like claiming that you only read Fiesta for the articles. It would be easy to make out that my fondness for all things Benny is down to some sort of ironic, postmodern deconstruction but I would be lying. I just like slapstick. And innuendo. And boobs.

But to be fair to old Benny, some of his finest moments were completely flesh-free. My favourite is his sketch involving a pompous film critic interviewing an arrogant French director. It poked fun at Media Studies long before it had a name, and the phrase "I would like mussel soup" always springs to mind when any ironic, postmodern deconstructing rears its ugly head.

Yes, Benny Hill was misunderstood. I even found proof in a vintage games shop.

Benny Hill fan or not, it would have been hard to resist anything featuring a pixelated version of the Thames Television logo on the cover. But everything you need for a good time is featured on the sparse packaging - a slightly jaundiced Benny Hill, an irate Copper and a large pair of underpants. We're going to have some fun!

If, like me, you're the kind of person who likes to just jump into a vintage game with no regard for the controls or story, Benny Hill's Madcap Chase initially comes across as something that Codemasters probably would have called Dirty Old Man Simulator.

Yellow Benny starts on the aptly named Hill Street with an empty basket of clothes. Guiding him through a typical British setting - Victorian lamp-posts, red phone boxes, roadworks - you eventually reach a washing line full of knickers, bras, trousers and some sort of wrap. Benny will then grab one item and you must guide him back to place it in his basket. BUT! Did you see that Fifties Housewife leaning on her wall? She doesn't take kindly to people stealing from washing lines. And who can blame her? I wouldn't like it if Benny Hill - or anybody for that matter - jumped over my back wall with the intention of stealing my smalls. So she rightly takes matters into her own hands and thus, "WATCH OUT!", we have a madcap chase.

At this point, I simply had to read the instructions to find out why Benny was stealing women's underwear. These days, that sort of crime would be small-fry compared to the things you get up to in Grand Theft Auto. The Daily Mail would probably be relieved if they could blame a game for inspiring teenagers to go out and perform random knicker grabs. But I like to know a character's motivation if I'm to help perform his dirty deeds, and it was at this point that I discovered that I had got Benny all wrong. I felt terrible.

The Fifties Housewife and I had jumped to the wrong conclusion. Benny wasn't stealing those clothes, he had actually offered his neighbourly services to close friend Mrs. Harras, who had popped to the shops. Benny agreed to bring her washing in before she got home - perhaps he sensed rain. Ignoring the fact that Benny could have made life a little easier on himself by putting the washing basket in front of the line, rather than at the end of Britiain's most cluttered street, everything now makes perfect sense. But in his haste to avoid the forthcoming rain shower, Benny doesn't have time to explain this misunderstanding to the Fifties Housewife and thus, the madcap chase continues.

The simple controls are actually very responsive. I used a Kempston joystick which allowed me to move Benny up, down, left and right - simple as that, in theory. But in practise, things are a little more complicated. All of the obstacles are arranged like Photoshop layers, and it's up to you to judge their depth and perspective. It works surprisingly well, but when the Fifties Housewife gives chase and things get tense (which they do!), you'll find yourself splatting into the nearest lamp-post. It's like trying to walk down your local high street during the early stages of a migraine - all sense of depth perception is lost and you can't make out anything through the bright visual disturbances. Thankfully, the game is a lot more fun than that.

Once you've mastered the chaos, it's easy to get complacent. It's at this point - inches from the washing basket - when the Fifties Housewife will walk herself into a phone box. You'll laugh at her facial expression and breathe a sigh of relief, before distraction will send you flying into the roadworks. Where there's blame, there's a claim. Not that Fifties Housewife will give you a chance to process any thoughts of litigation. She'll catch up with you, jump on top of you like the dirty old man she thinks you are, and flash her bloomers in your face for good measure. Benny will grimace - whether from pleasure or pain I cannot say - and it's back to the washing line for you, because the stolen item has miraculously found its way back, and pegged itself on securely.

As if all this is not hard enough, there is also a time limit. You start off with 100. They're not seconds or minutes, just random beeps every few seconds. We'll call them Bennies. One unit of Benny Time is equivalent to six Earth seconds, so you've got about ten minutes to finish your errand. After half a dozen attempts, I've still not managed to do it. I got close once, but got caught by Fifties Housewife just before I could dump my trousers in the basket. We've all been there. As such I have not had the pleasure of the other two levels featured in the game.

Oh yes, there's more. Despite his bad experience, Benny's charitable nature has not dwindled. Benny will subsequently offer his apple-picking services to Mr. Bramley (who has gone away on holiday) and his jumble-collecting services to Mrs. Bargin (who seemingly just can't be bothered). You can see where this is going, plus you'll have to contend with the policeman from the cover screenshot in the later stages. What a farce!

Benny Hill's Madcap Chase is reminiscent of other collect-and-avoid games of the era. Both The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Munsters required you to collect items and take them to a central location without being caught by an unbeatable boss - Meat Loaf and a zombie, respectively. I love the challenge and suspense that comes with such situations, and have fond memories of my best friend screaming at the top of his voice whenever the zombie from The Munsters appeared on screen. Honestly, it was my friend.

I'm not sure who wins in a battle of scariness between a zombie and a Fifties Housewife. It's a bit like that American kid who kept Instant Messaging me on AOL in 2001, asking who would win in a fight between Resident Evil's Nemesis and Mr. X. It's my belief that nobody is a winner once you get into conversations like that. Suffice to say, you'll hoot and howl just as much whilst playing Benny Hill's Madcap Chase.

Perhaps the biggest omission from the game is the classic Benny Hill theme tune. Even a digitised version would have added to the suspense and hilarity. It's one of those tunes, like the theme from CBBC's Bitsa, that makes you do everything faster. Try doing anything to either piece of music and you'll end up with the ultimate definition of "more haste, less speed." Alas, as it's only a 48K game, Benny is accompanied by nothing more than solitary beeps and crunchy sounds. A shame, but a minor regret given the limitations of the machine.

It would be easy to say that a game like this wouldn't be made today. But when you think about it, is it really that far removed from Metal Gear Solid? After all, both Benny Hill and Solid Snake wear a beret. Imagine a modern day version of Madchap Chase, having to use stealth techniques to avoid Fifties Housewife, only to walk into a lamp-post after sitting there for ten minutes waiting for the prime opportunity when she's turned away to light a cigarette. Throw in the theme tune and you've got a winner.

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