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, showing her distaste for the topic but still 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 into the underworld? Let’s find out.
Hey! Teacher! Leave these 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 because it’s the most familiar to me.
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, since the main character’s 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 especially interesting, they look appropriately 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, like theatrical curtains.
Music is also pretty basic with a few classical tunes (Mozart, Bach, etc) that do their job, with the main theme obviously being “March of the Trolls”. The sound effects are very well designed and fit the overall schemes 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, performed by pressing down on the joystick, 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 player will have to step on the grey square at the center of the level, in order to recharge the gun. This phase looks and plays like most classic single-screen arcade titles of the early eighties, similar to the arcade Mario Bros or Burger Time.
At the start of each arcade level, the protagonist will be invincible for a potentially unlimited time, at least until a button is pressed. Still, even in this familiar stage of the gameplay, the developer introduced several small surprises, like the odd red cretin that runs like crazy and, potentially, will be the most dangerous enemy to face. Later levels will also include even more dangerous foes, like the buzzards that randomly change direction without any warning.
The second phase of the stage brings the style of gameplay closer to that of a platformer: there’s a whole other section of the sewers to be explored, in order to reach the exit while grabbing treasure and gold along the way. All collectibles are only there for high score purposes, since to complete the level Mario’s main objective will be finding keys to open doors. The design of the level is both tricky and baroque, forcing the player to often explore the whole level in order to progress.
But the overall differences do not stop at the gameplay flavour, it also introduces several new concepts. Despite the level being the same as before, all enemies in the platforming sections are invincible and, above all, the way the character is controlled 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 over to the next, depending on the direction he’s facing.
This allows the player to execute perfect jumps over enemies but it also means being locked on a grid, thus having much less freedom than a platformer like Donkey Kong or Super Mario Bros, which incidentally came out the same year. It’s that particular kind of stiff “train controls” (a tank would not be a good example here) that, while leaving no room for error, does allow for extreme precision. But it is a great change in the style of gaming, going from being able to shoot and defend oneself, from being at the mercy of enemies that can’t be killed.
Two flavours, one game
Jimmy Huey designed the title in a deceptively simple manner, appearing to be easier to master than it actually is. The levels start off in classic arcade style, usually with a pretty relxaed rhythm, but tend to 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 the developer: the way the control scheme is designed actually introduces puzzle elements to the platforming action gameplay. The player will have to find out how to cross platforms with different altitudes, without falling into the water; bumping into walls in order to change direction without moving a single square becomes a basic trick just to turn the character around.
What could have easily been the game’s biggest weakness, becomes one of its strengths. Game design at its finest and, perhaps, a lesson that might easily be applied to our daily lives too. While, perhaps,not one of the most memorable titles around, Trolls and Tribulations is still an entertaining and varied platformer, one that was very well executed and brilliantly designed, especially for the Commodore 64 that was rarely remembered for the overall quality of its platforming games.
A memorable arcade action title which merges different approaches to the overall platforming genre while implementing the rare control scheme which has to be fully mastered in order to win the game. While it might require some time to adapt to the way the character controls, the results 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 16 bit 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?