Trolls and Tribulations is one of the earliest games I remember being fascinated by. In my early days as a “gaming journalist”, in elementary school, the teacher gave us a free essay theme so I decided to do a full write-up about the game, my (pirated) copy was called “Mario e i mostri” (Mario and the monsters). Somehow, I was drawn in by the idea of going into the sewers to clean up monsters and get treasures.
My teacher, one very early adopter of the “videogames are made by the Devil to entice children” philosophy, showed her distaste for the topic but she was forced to give me an 8 (or A) in the end, since there were no errors. HA!
So, 35 years later, is there a reason to still venture in the underworld? Let’s find out.
HEY! TEACHER! LEAVE THOSE TROLLS ALONE!
Trolls and Tribulations was released in 1985 on Apple II, Commodore 64 and Atari 8 bit, developed by Jimmy Huey, who will go on to work on several (definitely) more famous titles, among them the original version of the platformer Shantae on Gameboy Color. T&T seems to be basically the same game on all three platforms, so I’ll just focus on the C64 version cause it’s the most familiar.
Reading from the game box, apparently the whole subplot of “disguising as a troll” to go down into the sewers to retrieve the treasures was lost on nine year old me. Still, I don’t think it makes much of a difference, especially cause the main character’ sprite looks pretty human to begin with. Graphically the game did not tax the C64 much, it looks okay as a 2D platformer: the enemies design is well done though, they look kinda goofy but menacing at the same time. Huey also added some pretty nifty touches like the doors with skulls that slide open at the start of each level
Music is also pretty basic with a few classical tunes (Mozart, Bach, etc) that do their job, the main theme is obviously “March of the Trolls”. The sound effects are very well designed and fit the game perfectly.
So, let us proceed to the meat of Trolls and Tribulations: the game design.
Water the trolls, watch them fall
Gameplay differs slightly from that of a classic 2D platformer: almost every stage is divided between two different approaches to the genre’s classic gameplay style.
In the first phase “Mario” shoots water, by pressing down, at the “cretins” coming down the platforms. Each time one of them gets sprayed, they’ll turn into an egg that will have to be chucked into the dirty sewer water. Getting rid of them won’t be so easy, since the gun can only hold a limited amount of water and every once in a while, the grey square will have to be used to recharge. This phase is a pretty classic single screen arcade gameplay of the early eighties, similar to the arcade Mario Bros or Burger Time.
At the start, the protagonist is also invincible for a potential unlimited time, until a button is pressed. Still, even this familiar stage of gameplay holds some surprises, like the odd red cretin that runs like crazy. Later levels will also include even more dangerous enemies, like the buzzards that randomly change direction without any warning.
The second phase of the stage is more “adventurous”, there’s a whole other section of the sewers to be explored in order to reach the exit while grabbing treasure and gold. All collectibles are only there for high score purposes, since to complete the level Mario will have to find keys and open doors, thus the whole level must still be explored.
This section plays differently: not only all enemies are now invincible, but the control of the character becomes central to the gameplay. Imagine the whole screen divided into squares: every time the joystick is moved left or right, the hero advances one single square. By pressing up, he jumps vertically one square, by pressing FIRE he jumps one square over to the next, depending the direction he’s facing.
This allows the player to execute perfect jumps over enemies but it also means you’re locked on a grid, thus have much less freedom than a platformer like Donkey Kong or Super Mario, which incidentally came out the same year.
It’s that particular kind of stiff “train controls” – not tank controls – that leaves no room for error, but allows for extreme precision.
Your biggest weakness might be your greatest strength
Wait, is this a life lesson too?
Trolls and Tribulations is designed in a deceptively simple manner, appearing to be easier to master than it actually is. The levels starts off in classic arcade style but get difficult in a manner of minutes, even though most of its difficulty will be in adapting to the “train tracks” way of controlling our troll disguised hero.
Here lies the great design choice made by Huey: the exploration levels also present puzzles to solve, mainly because of how the draconian control scheme influences the character’s movement. The player will have to find out how to cross platforms with different altitudes without falling into the water and bumping into walls becomes a basic trick just to turn the character around.
What could have easily been the game’s biggest weakness, becomes one of its strenghts. Game design at its finest and, perhaps, a lesson that might easily be applied to our daily lives too. T&T is a pretty entertaining and varied platformer, perhaps not one of the most memorable titles around, but one that was very well executed and brilliantly designed, especially for the Commodore 64 that was rarely remembered for the quality of its platforming games.
Trolls and Tribulations is one memorable platformer which merges different approaches to the platform genre while adapting a control scheme which has to be mastered in order to win the game. It still is solid, while it might require some time adapting to its control scheme, the result will definitely be worth one’s time and efforts.
Apparently many people still have fond memories of the title, some of which have been shared with me while working on the article, citing it as – for example – the reason they got into classical music. There is also a 16bit style remake for Windows that upgrades the graphics/sound while retaining the gameplay, it also adds some funny C64 easter eggs… Did I mention it’s also free?