Welcome to “Diamonds in the Rough,” a feature in which I will be looking at a few lesser-known and under-appreciated titles of the past. These are games that were fun and original, many of which I fettered away hours of my young life with, but for whatever reason just didn’t get the credit they deserved.
We’ll start off with Plok, a bizarre platformer released in an SNES-era inundated with furry mascots hopping from block to block. On one hand, this may well explain the game’s lack of commercial success – the market was simply flooded with platformers, and there was a new IP trying its hand at the genre at every turn. However, there are a few things that make Plok stand out from the usual crowd of the day. The first is the general atmosphere: its graphics are both slightly psychedelic and surreal, and also reminiscent of Saturday-morning cartoons. The enemies are goofy and memorable (though the plot was vapid and forgettable), and this art direction, combined with a killer soundtrack, has a tremendous amount of character. The game also throws a few curve balls at you, such as the series of levels on legacy island, a flashback sequence in which you play as Plok’s “grandpappy.” These levels are presented in the style of a silent movie, complete with a grainy, black-and-white filter, old-timey music, and a pause screen that displays the word, “Intermission.” This playfulness and attention to detail is a large part of the game’s unique charm.
The game’s soundtrack is again fantastic, especially for the technology that the designers were working with. Usually upbeat and at times eerie, its synthesized beats emulate everything from electric guitars to the harmonica. The music reminds me a lot of Banjo Kazooie’s, and it’s enjoyable for the same reasons: great melodies, whimsical choices of instruments, and a feel-good nature. But really, why bother explaining it when we can use hyperlinks?
The gameplay itself is pretty standard action-adventure stuff done well on its own but with a unique hook: Plok’s primary means of attacking his enemies is by launching his limbs at them. Under normal circumstances, they return like boomerangs, leaving you with unlimited ammunition and full mobility as long as you don’t blow your entire salvo at once. However, most switches will take your limbs upon activation and deposit them on hangars elsewhere in the level, leaving you disarmed (pun not intended, I swear) until you can reach the restocking point. This leads to some great puzzles and high-pressure moments as you try to figure out how to fight with only your legs, or how to get around and evade enemies without any limbs.
Unfortunately, Plok also has some major flaws. The biggest problem is one shared by many of its contemporaries (though this is a meek excuse at best): the lack of both battery-backed saving and a password system. This means that if you want to beat the game, you’d better have the time to do so in one sitting. However, given the brutal difficulty of the latter half of the game, this is easier said than done, and even pros will likely have to play through a few times before achieving total victory (something I was sadly never able to do). The vehicle sections that compose the bonus stages at the beginning and the tough-as-nails levels in the final area are also widely hit-or-miss, the vehicles being by turns fun and frustrating to control. Because these vehicles are absent from the majority of the game, this lends a sense of unfairness to these last levels, as though they were pulled from the different and more poorly designed game. However, despite these flaws, Plok was a great game that I think still stands the test of time today.
What games do you think were tragically underrated? What hidden gems do you fondly recall from your own childhood? Let me know in the comments!