Written by: Rik

Date posted: June 10, 2012

Welcome to another of our discussion reviews. Last time I picked the game while Rik took the duties for directing the conversation and turning it into a coherent document afterwards, so for this one we swapped roles.

The topic for today is Bio Menace. In case that name doesn’t ring any bells, this was a platform game from the Apogee stable, released in 1993. As always for Apogee games, it was divided into a few episodes, with the first given away freely as shareware.

As proud mullet-bearer Snake Logan, you must shoot your way past lots of mutants and cyborgs, rescue hostages and then fight… a mad scientist or something? As we will establish I might have skimmed on reading the plot.

Stoo: So then, what prompted you to choose Bio Menace for our latest discussion?

Rik: Nothing more than a vague memory of playing it a long time ago and wanting to revisit it. Oh, and the fact that the main guy has a moustache and mullet.

Stoo: Yes, he’s very much a hero of his time,

Rik: Although the game isn’t as old as I thought. 1993?

Stoo: I believe it was almost all done by one guy (albeit with an existing engine previously used for Commander Keen 4). So I guess it must have taken him a while, hence it maybe it looking slightly older than it really is.

Rik: Hm, okay.

Stoo: I have a huge fondness for these old Apogee games so was certainly looking forward to trying it. Was interested to see how this compared to the likes of Keen.

Rik: I never played any of the Keen games, I don’t think. In fact, my platforming experience in general is fairly negligible. Why this one stuck out, I don’t know. Perhaps my earlier answer re: the mullet.

 

Ruined cities and EGA gibs

Stoo: Okay so first, the aesthetics. There’s one thing I find odd. The enemies are these cutesy-looking mutant things, but they explode in chunks of gore when you kill them.

Rik: Which look like chicken drumsticks…

Stoo: Yes! I found it oddly jarring.

Rik: It didn’t occur to me, but yeah, you’re right. I guess the cutesy stuff is more out of place than the gore, though? I expect gore from a game called Bio Menace.

Stoo: That’s actually a good point. I mean the first level is a ruined city with crashed planes, hostages etc. There’s a bit of a post-apocalyptic vibe.

Rik: So why are there purple jumping blobs?

Stoo: Indeed, with little cartoon “angry” faces…

Rik: …instead of, I don’t know, half mutant/robot hybrids (or something). The blobs seemed more like Keen enemies (says the man who hasn’t played Keen).

Stoo: You are quite right.

Rik: I really liked that first level though. I thought it was a shame there wasn’t more stuff outside in the city.

Stoo: I like how some levels have a relatively real-world effect. As in, tower blocks instead of abstract floating platforms etc.

Rik: Later there’s more descending into underground labs etc.

A stroll in the forest.

Stoo: That’s true. I liked the forest levels too, tho…

Rik: Ah, now I have to disagree. My notes say…[consults notes]…“Tree level – F.O!!!” [Edit: That’s actually what I put – don’t ask why I censored myself, or used quite so many exclamation marks]

Stoo: Ah, was it ‘cos of those enemies that suddenly drop down from above?

Rik: I think it’s the precision jumping on branches that I didn’t like. Or it could be that it brought back memories of another nightmare tree level from another game, a long long time ago. It was called Viking Child on the Atari Lynx [Edit: also released on home platforms, and known as Prophecy 1: The Viking Child]. I quite enjoyed that game to begin with, but there was a bloody treetop level that was impossible due to the amount of precision jumping. So perhaps that’s to blame.

Stoo: Well, I did sometimes jump, see an enemy, panic and end up falling right down to ground level again.

Rik: Yeah, that the kind of thing I mean. One jump goes wrong and you’re down to the bottom. But, you were saying you liked the forest levels…?

Stoo: Well, for the same reason as the city levels. I find that a more interesting and engaging environment than yet more tunnels and labs. Okay running and jumping on branches isn’t all that realistic.

Rik: I think realism is kind of out of the window here. But there’s still a point there that certain environments are more interestingly realised than others. Overall, though, I was happy with the look and sound of everything.

Stoo: It loses that slightly-isometric view of Keen, for some reason, and EGA was getting a bit long in the tooth by 1993. But I agree, its standards are up to the requirements I walked in with and it has that early-90s Apogee charm.

Rik: There’s some catchy music, too, which I missed first time around due to lack of a sound card. Good machine gun noise, which is always nice. I realise that makes me sound about 12 years old.

Stoo: Well I have a soft spot for that squelchy adlib sound. No soundblaster so the sound effects just have to be approximated with synthesised…squelches.

Rik: The graphics have a bright and bold charm, too.

Stoo: They do, although that sort of leads into the monster-gibbing incongruity I mentioned.

Rik: I also liked the little dialogue boxes that popped up to show a conversation between Snake and the hostages.

Stoo: You get a good look at the mullet.

 

A tale of a hero called… SNAKE

Rik: It’s worth mentioning another Apogee hallmark, the telling of the backstory within the help file – a few pages of (ludicrous) story, illustrated with occasional pics.

Stoo: A mad scientist has let loose some mutants. And robots. Or something?

Rik: “You are Snake Logan, a top-secret operative for the CIA, ordered to complete missions that others would regard as suicidal.” Etc. Yes, something about investigating a rampage in the city caused by monsters. For some reason, you go alone. Perhaps that’s the bit about
accepting missions that others would consider suicidal.

Stoo: It’s all very “jotted down one evening whilst watching tv”.

Rik: But still, it’s good that some effort has been made. I’m sure Blake Stone did something similar. I used to quite enjoy reading those story bits in the help file.

Stoo: Well the whole “one elite agent” thing sort of explains why he’s going alone, I guess.

Rik: It doesn’t warrant major analysis…

Stoo: There’s slightly more story than Doom anyway.

Rik: I think he’s supposed to fly over the city and see what’s happening. But then his plane gets shot down and he lands in the middle of it all.

Stoo: Aha! I wasn’t paying attention… *shamed*

Chicken Drumsticks?

Rik: Shame on you, not reading the plot of a platform game! Context is vital! “Why am I shooting these aliens? Perhaps I’m the bad guy…”

Stoo: One mulletted maniac destroys an entire colony of cuddly mutants?

Rik: That’s the director’s cut, perhaps.

 

Pampered modern gamers versus old platformer

Stoo: So, moving on, how challenging did you find it?

Rik: Well, I only played the first episode, on easy. Because…well, just because I’m a wimp, basically. Although I get the impression that you just get more health, it doesn’t make the game easier per se. It flows pretty well; the main difficulties involve falling off things (such as branches) and having to re-trace your steps. Or falling off a platform to your certain doom. Or forgetting to pick something up and re-tracing your steps. (And any other combination of the above). There are so many keys and doors, you stop paying attention after a while.

Stoo: I was playing on normal, thought I was progressing okay…

Rik: …but…

Stoo: Then I hit that level in the sewers with all the bottomless pits, and things shooting at you from off the side of the screen. I thought that was a real spike in difficulty.

Rik: I muddled through that one and filed it under ‘finished by accident’. Some levels you manage to explore fully, kill all the baddies, get all the pickups. On others, you just seem to stumble through to the end.

Stoo: Maybe I’d have had it easier on, well, easy. But that wouldn’t help with the falling off things.

Rik: I guess falling off things is one of the staples of the genre. Shoot things, jump over things… That’s pretty much it. Although one nice touch is the way you can note down a coloured code in a level and then use it to unlock some goodies.

Stoo: There was also that level that’s a total warzone. I never did find a proper strategy for fighting the giant tank-robot things . Just sorta throw yourself at them.

Rik: Stand well back, throw grenades. Keep clear when it explodes. Those were my tactics…

Stoo: …why didn’t I think of that? Unless I was just out of grenades.

Rik: One annoying thing is the way there doesn’t seem to be any way to cycle your grenades. So sometimes you’d have those booby-trap style ones, and you’d be laying them on the floor, but what you’d really want was a traditional thowing grenade.

Stoo: Right, the game forces you to use your strongest weapon until it runs out. It also decides the mines are “strongest”.

Rik: And yes, for ‘booby trap-style’, read ‘mines’. And for ‘Rik’ read ‘someone who can use the English language!

Stoo: Well I used the term mulletted, which may not actually exist.

Rik: I think that’s acceptable on FFG. Our readers will be familiar with the term. Not to say that they have mullets! You’d better edit that out.

Stoo: Note for editing, “Rik implies our readers have mullets”…

Rik: Well, we are retro, after all.

Stoo: Anyway…I thought I had a handle on the Normal difficulty level but realised halfway through, I didn’t so much.

Rik: Generally, I didn’t have too much rage, which is normally a good sign. It wasn’t that I necessarily wanted an easy ride, more that I knew I’d never get to the end, and that these things tend to be quite unfair anyway. Generally my experience of platformers has been of the first couple of levels! Especially those console efforts that didn’t let you save your game.

Stoo: Well Commander Keen feels much more relaxed. Probably because it (or the later ones at least) does indeed let you save anywhere.

Rik: It appears as if you can save anywhere here, but in fact a reload takes you back to the start of the level. I’m not even sure those mid-level beacons work with the saves.

Stoo: Nope. On the bright side, if you die, stuff you killed stays dead.

Rik: No respawning, thank God.

Stoo: I realise plenty of old platformers were pretty solid. I think I was underestimating what was coming. Also I realise that I’ve less patience nowadays for trial-and-erroring some difficult segment.

Rik: There’s still some enjoyment to be gleaned from beating a tricky bit. But then you realise there’s probably 10,000 other tricky bits to go.

Stoo: If it was 1993 I’d probably play the hell out of this until I got it right. But now… I have 648 other games demanding my attention, not to mention Real Life. So basically I ended up cheating several times.

I hate this level.

Rik: How so?

Stoo: There are god mode cheats out there. I am shamed, again.

Rik: I looked, but couldn’t find any. So I failed at cheating. Regardless, though, while there’s enjoyment to be had from a game like this, for me there’s just not enough to go traipsing through 35 odd levels. The boss levels in Episode 1 were fun, but otherwise there’s just not a lot of variety.

Stoo: I played through the second episode and it doesn’t do much different. There is one bit where you turn into one of those blobby mutants. Which is neat. Also there’s some super-annoying queen bee boss.

Rik: Blimey! I hope you’ve got screenshots.

Stoo: I think so. [Edit – I don’t]

Rik: Most of mine involve Snake jumping, as Ctrl is jump as well as capture screen on DOSBox.

Stoo: That’s why all my mid-90s-shooter writeups have me firing in the screenshots.

 

Roundup

Rik: I never played a lot of platform games back in the day, partly because at one point they were kind of ubiquitous. And virtually every potentially interesting film or TV tie-in seemed to be made into a generic platformer. I think that’s why graphic adventures appealed to me more, because they actually told a story. Nowadays story and action can be blended together more effectively.

Stoo: I didn’t play a great deal of platformers; I was PC only and there wasn’t a great selection. Apogee probably produced amongst the best native offerings.

Rik: Also, I have to say I do like the complete lack of street-cred with PC platformers. Monumentally uncool when compared with the Sega and Nintendo big-boys. But actually they stand up quite well.

Stoo: Oh yeah, Commander Keen is dorky as hell. Duke Nukem wasn’t cool until he went 3d and started going to strip clubs.

Rik: You’re right, Duke Nukem was a cheesy parody before he turned into…whatever he’s turned into these days. Bio Menace could have been cool, except the main guy looks like Jesse Ventura with a perm . Or Charles Bronson. With a perm. Actually, scratch that – it would never have been cool.

Stoo: We didn’t have the best lineup, but we had our few highlights. Keen was probably the greatest IMO.

Rik: So, how does this one stack up against Keen then?

Stoo: Harder…well, I think there’s a danger I’ve been sounding all wahhh this game is too hard.

Rik: I don’t think so.

Stoo: Really my point is more, my skillz don’t match up old-school platforming, and maybe it caught me off-guard because I had a picture in my head of Apogee games being relatively relaxed?

Rik: I didn’t expect to get anywhere much. They’re not generally forgiving games. I remember playing Batman: The Movie and really wanting to get to the Batmobile level. But never getting past the first platform bit because it was SO HARD. Anyway…is there more variety in Keen?

Stoo: Well Keen 4 has a good variety of level styles. The gameplay has a different focus, it’s less shooty. Oh also you can climb up ledges, and there’s the famous pogo stick that improves your jumping but is harder to control. I’d say Keen is the greater game overall. He’s probably the nearest we ever had to a platformer mascot.

What a guy.

Rik: Him and Snake Logan second, perhaps.

Stoo: So overall how would you sum up your experience of this one?

Rik: I got what I wanted from the experience, perhaps a little more than I expected. I enjoyed the first episode, but that was enough. I had a little go on the second episode but I’d had my fill by then. I don’t think I’d have shelled out for the registered version back when it was shareware. But without being a genre connoisseur, I’d say it was fairly well put together.

Stoo: I was basically reminded that whilst these old platformers can still be fun, a ham-fisted gamer like me might not be able to cruise through to the end on nostalgia alone. I’d have to either put in some commitment, or swallow my pride and switch to easy mode.

Rik: You have to enjoy the challenge of a platformer to keep going, and enjoy doing more or less the same things over and over again. Otherwise, it’s a fun blast of nostalgia while it lasts.

Stoo: Of course some other platformers were much harder, and you cite a good example. Otherwise, well, this is fairly enjoyable example from the small scene of native PC titles.