I’m so Dizzy my egg is spinning – Retrospect

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For all the bad eggs in my world there is one I cannot dislike, and that egg has a name – Dizzy.

 

To start with, a culinary confession: I hate eggs. I despise them. I can see their applications, sure; I don’t mind eating cakes or omelettes when the occasion is right. And I love a bit of chicken, for which the egg is obviously required at some stage, depending on your philosophical outlook. But the bit I dread of any cooked breakfast is the prospect of boiled, poached, scrambled or fried egg appearing on the plate and polluting all around it with bad taste.

For all the bad eggs in my world, however, there is one I cannot dislike, and that egg has a name – Dizzy. He wears red boxing gloves and boots, loves a game of cricket and is the star of some of the greatest videogames of the 1980s.

In my ZX Spectrum-toting youth, Dizzy was king. I had a +2A, one with the built-in tape player. It was even more awesome than all the girls thought their 80s poodle perms were. Games took hours, nay, days to load, while we tripped out on the modem-like noises and coloured stripes, poring over the tiny screenshots on the cassette box, or the latest issue of Your Sinclair.

Cheats were hard to come by – I recall having to load POKES on cassettes first, then running the game tape to achieve infinite lives. Forget this modern up, down, circle, square nonsense – back then you really had to try hard to cheat. And have an entire afternoon spare.

My top spec machine boasted a huge 128k of RAM; you could barely fit your CV on that these days. Still, back then people managed to entertain me royally by utilising their coding genius to squeeze the maximum performance out of the computer. At Codemasters, however, there was a pair of great minds – the Oliver twins, creators of the Dizzy series.

The use of an egg-shaped sprite was, in truth, most likely borne from technical limitations – much as Mario ended up with a cap and a moustache, Dizzy ended up an egg because it was an economical way of creating identity for the character. Phillip and Andrew, fresh from success with Grand Prix Simulator, created their own graphics software enabling them to rotate sprites – at this early stage simple sprites were all the software could handle and so they settled for the enigmatic ovoid.

The premise was simple – Dizzy would set off on some sort of adventure, usually trying dutifully to rescue his demanding damsel-in-distress Daisy, or thwart the nefarious plans of his arch-enemy, the wizard Zaks. Along the way we’d encounter friends (known as the Yolkfolk), foes and a plethora of puzzles – brainteasers that more than once had me considering demolition of my beautiful black keyboard.

The game was assembled on a screen by screen basis, rather than scrolling like later platform games. This sometimes led you to cross screens right into lethal danger. you could wander around, dodging dangers and moving items around to the right place to use them – for instance, a raincoat to stave off the downpour, or tweezers to take the thorn from a lion’s foot.

The first game in the series, Dizzy – The Ultimate Cartoon Adventure, was fiendishly difficult – although you did have five lives to stave off killer birds, acid rain and the evil wizard Zaks himself. The action was much more platform and hazard based than the games that followed, although this meant that the inventory allowed you to carry only one item at a time which led to agonizing decisions over what to pick up and what to drop.

This initial success was followed by Treasure Island Dizzy. This relocated from the somewhat drab ice caverns and prehistoric villages of the first game to a sunny island somewhere in the middle of a wide ocean. This cheery relocation is countered by the increase in difficulty – that’s right, they went from fiendish in the first game to nigh-on impossible in the second. Obviously having felt that five lives were way too generous, they broke four yolks and left you with merely one.

However hard though, this game was one of the best in the series, with improvements in size, animation and environment – the haunted mines, the beach, a huge treetop section and even the series’ first underwater adventure, courtesy of the snorkel. It also has the best title screen of the lot, an aghast Dizzy among lapping waves, probably hoping all the salt in the seawater doesn’t boil him on a hot day.

The next installment, Fantasy World Dizzy, restored the player to having three lives, a welcome easing up of the difficulty level. It was also the first adventure to feature the rest of Dizzy’s clan – Daisy, Dozy, Denzil, Dylan and Grand-Dizzy. Legendary exploits included using a rope to tie the vicious crocodile’s jaws together to enable you to use him as a stepping stone, while the balance between puzzle and platform hazards was more equally balanced.

It featured a number of memorable scenes, including planting magic beans in cattle manure to grow a beanstalk, which rose to allow you to navigate a network of fluffy white clouds up to the magic castle in the sky; plus dragons, beastly dogs, bottomless wells, and egg adventurers – what’s not to like?

Well, I’ll tell you one thing. This game featured a ‘hole’ that you could pick up and put in your inventory. The snag being it meant you dropped all the other items you were carrying. It was one of those uncomfortable moments as a child (I think I was about 8 at the time) where some existential dread takes over and the unanswerable questions run riot. ‘How can I carry an absence of matter? What if I came across such a thing in the playground? Should I pick it up? Aaargh!’

Fourth in the series, Magicland Dizzy was the first not to be developed by the Oliver Twins, who instead ceded control to Big Red Software, who did a cracking job. In many franchises this hands off approach from the creators can be the prelude to decline, but not so for Dizzy. In this title you had to rescue each of your hapless Yolkfolk family from their enchanted entrapments, courtesy of the evil Zaks (once more).

Enemies included bats, sharks, goats, ghosts and vampires, and the huge size of the game map! This game was definitely made when the team was on a roll, and takes significant influence from Alice Through The Looking Glass, featuring a ‘Drink Me Potion’, the Red Queen and a hair-raising section where the left and right controls were switched to make things extremely perilous in the latter stages. I think this may be the pinnacle of the series, where the lessons learnt by the Oliver Twins are able to be built upon by a third-party, resulting in the most satisfying egg-related gaming experience yet.

The confidence built up by Big Red’s excellent Dizzy debut meant the Oliver twins were happy to entrust the fifth in the series to the same team, who pulled out all the stops and developed Spellbound Dizzy, which featured the largest map of any Dizzy game yet. The animations were further improved with the addition of swimming via the aqualung, and dizziness once you fell from a height. This feature was much-maligned in the end though – health was lost when falling from heights, which had never previous worried our intrepid egg-venturer.

This took some of the reckless fun out of the game and was removed for subsequent editions. It did however feature a ZX81 as a pickup, along with other puzzling oddities such as garlic seaweed, an ear trumpet (for the hard of hearing Grand Dizzy), the pepper pot and the sharp dagger. This last item I never found a use for, and managed to complete the game without it, which begs the question – was there a use for it, or were the programmers just messing with us gamers?

The same year, Dizzy Prince of the Yolkfolk dropped and I enjoyed it even more than Spellbound, it has to be said, although perhaps due to it’s rather more child-friendly difficulty level. This included puzzles that were rather more logical than making a whale sneeze, such as cutting thorns with a scythe or giving the motor to the ferryman though, having said that, an earlier puzzle with the ferryman involved giving him some nougat.

I don’t know if Charon would ferry dead souls across the River Styx for half a Double Decker instead of his usual cash but hey ho, who am I to argue with the mighty puzzle setters? It also featured a very strange encounter with a doppelganger, who mirrors your movements and ultimately takes a spike through the shell for his troubles. I think it also had the cutest cover art, featuring Dizzy looking compos mentis for a change (often he had crossed eyes like a village idiot) and being crowned by a funny fellow in purple tights.

Sadly, Yolkfolk proved to be the final highpoint of the series. The Oliver Twins had had less and less involvement even at the executive stages of the process, as their eyes wandered towards starting Interactive Studios.

A fundamental change in the character of the game had ruined the atmosphere – it felt like the programmers had not given it their all, with rough edges more noticeable given the increased RRP – and the introduction of passwords and increased frequency of lazy puzzles spelt the end of my love affair for the series. Of course, I haven’t yet mentioned any of the peripheral titles using the same set of characters – the excellent madcap Pacman-style Fast Food Dizzy and Kwik Snax and the scrolling fun of Dizzy Down The Rapids.

There’s also Seymour Goes To Hollywood (basically a Dizzy game bar the main sprite and the real world setting) and the cancelled Dizzy The Adventurer on the short-lived Aladdin Deck Enhancer platform to take into account.

When looking back, it is easy to see the cracks emerging and the white going sour. The eggy smell lingered on for a short while with Fantastic Dizzy emerging on the NES, Master System and eventually MegaDrive, but soon the character was gone, his prospects scrambled among the fancy breakfast feasts of Sonic’s golden onion rings and fried Mario mushrooms. At least his legacy lives on, as last year’s iPad makeover attests.

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