Saturday 16 November 2019

Savage Pond (Atari 8-bit review)

Developer: Gwyll Jones
Publisher: Starcade Software
Released: 1983

Savage Pond is an edutainment game that was also included on the Compilation C tape (1987, Atari 8-bit).

You have three lives and the objective is to evolve your tadpole and build up a colony of frogs. To do so, you must eat amoeba and eggs before they hatch, while avoiding deadly hydra at the bottom. Occasionally, worms fall into the water and if eaten they provide temporary invincibility against the hydra, as well as allowing you to level-up your tadpole once you've downed five of them. The controls take a long time to become accustomed to and remind me of the awkward momentum-based turn scheme used in Clu Clu Land (1985, NES). However, the saving grace here is the fire button which allows you to stop on a dime to change direction or catch worms / eggs with greater ease. It's at this point that the game becomes highly entertaining and I love how you're always given a choice of what to do next, constantly strategising and trying to use each precious second wisely before another worm or egg appears. This freedom is a great hook that tricks you into believing this is a living, breathing world you're taking part in. The progression system is also great and new things (such as deadly jellyfish, or radioactive waste lining the edges) are gradually introduced to further challenge the player. What's interesting is that while it is an action game at heart, it shuns pretty much all of the standard Arcade ideas of the time, namely bite-sized levels and fast-paced gameplay. Here, everything is a more peaceful, laid-back affair despite the constant, lurking hazards being thrown your way. It's gloriously serine and panic inducing at the same time which nails the premise perfectly! On a critical note though, the collision detection can be hit and miss, and the lack of any ambient noises does dampen the atmosphere.

Savage Pond is unlike anything you'll play in your entire life and once you learn its nuances it's a game that's as relaxing as it is intense. It's rare that a game manages to be genuinely educational and enjoyable at the same time, and the constantly evolving nature of your tadpoles and the surrounding pond is surprisingly addictive.

Random trivia: Gwyll Jones was also the developer of Up, Up and Away (1983, Atari 8-bit), which also appeared on the Compilation C tape.

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