Reposted Review: The Great Giana Sisters

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Move over Mario Bros. it’s the Great Giana Sisters

(Originally posted on Blistered Thumbs forums, then Retro Retreat.)

 

Twin sisters use the Mario bros. template without permission.

PROS: Nearly spot on gameplay, and stage design.

CONS: The key word is “Nearly”

WTF?: The cliché’ paragraph ending.

Super Mario Bros. is synonymous with Nintendo, and console platform games. Nintendo’s series has been one of, if not the most popular line of games ever made. Featuring likeable characters, challenging gameplay, and well crafted level designs. Even when Mario misfires (Sunshine anyone?), it’s still a really good game.

There have been many, many other companies with their own mascots trying to invade Mario’s turf, each with their own level of successes or failures (But mostly failures). Sega has Sonic of course, but before Sonic came Alex Kidd. Accolade tried ripping off Sega AND Nintendo when breaking out Bubsy. Over time we saw Aero, Bonk, Joe & Mac, Sparkster, and a myriad of licensed characters including those from Viacom, Disney, Warner Bros., and Television Networks. What’s so different about The Great Giana Sisters? Pretty much that it’s not very different from Super Mario Bros. Creator Armin Gessert came to a conclusion back in the mid 1980′s. Nintendo would never port it’s first party NES games to computer platforms. As such, there were no real rival platformers in that vein available for any competing console or computer. Sure the Sega Master System had Alex Kidd, but Alex would never come close to dethroning Mario. Armin instead made a Super Mario Bros. Clone that would satisfy Commodore 64 owners who didn’t have an NES. It was published in the UK by Rainbow Arts, and touted “The Brothers are history!”. It was a huge hit, and saw ports to Amiga, Atari ST, Amstrad, and MSX2. But it wasn’t long before Nintendo of Europe would take notice, and sue Rainbow Arts. Rainbow Arts lost the case, and all copies went out of production. A Spectrum port was canceled, and today boxed copies fetch a high price among collectors.

This history lesson isn’t exactly new for many people. With the proliferation of Youtube, Bliptv, and a lot of independent internet review shows out there, there’s a good chance you’ve seen the footage. But for those who haven’t I’ll continue on with the review.

The Great Giana Sisters starts out with a really iconic chiptune by famed video game music composer Chris Hulsbeck. When you start the game it opens almost exactly the way you remember the original Super Mario Bros. In fact, here are screen shots of the first screen of GGS, and the first screen of SMB.

But from there, the cribbing begins to slow down. Gameplay is very similar to SMB. Giana goes from left to right, jumping on enemies, over chasms, and utilizing pixel perfect timing to get past obstacles within the allotted time.  But there are nuanced differences. In SMB Grabbing a mushroom will turn Mario into a giant, grabbing a flower gets him fireball shooting. Getting hit shrinks him down again, and if hit in small size, Mario dies.

In GGS, Giana grabs a beach ball, which gives her a mohawk, and the ability to smash blocks. Lightning bolts allow her to shoot fireballs. Double lighting bolts get her balls to ricochet. There’s also a clock that freezes the timer, and bombs that clear enemies. 1UPS are rare, but come up as lollipops. Getting hit by any enemy in this game will kill you instantly no matter how many power ups you have acquired. Upon the next life you go back to normal losing any upgrades nabbed before dying.

Like SMB there are also warp zones to skip ahead, but these are also executed differently. Instead of hidden areas with warp pipes, there are invisible blocks (Like the first 1up block in World 1-1 of SMB) that will warp players ahead. (There is also a cheat where holding certain keys of letters in Armin Gessert’s name will warp players.). Levels are also structured much differently. Instead of 8 worlds broken up of 4 levels, GGS throws that out the window, and calls each level a world. So all 32 levels are in essence, stages.

Stage designs are eerily similar to SMB in some spots, and completely alien in others. There are some underground coin areas in some stages but instead of going down a pipe, Giana rides a hidden platform. Another major thing of note that many people gloss over is the fact that there are no underwater stages in GGS. Some stages float above the ocean, but none involve swimming, or sea enemies.

Enemy variety is also pretty akin to SMB. Owls look suspiciously like Goombas. Clams look close to the Buzzy Beetles. Bullet Bills are replaced with bees. Some of the “Fake” Bowsers are replaced with giant spiders, and Bowser is replaced with a dragon. There are other enemy types that are wholly original creations though, like the jumping suction cups, bouncing pink balls of doom, and these tiny blue monsters who can only be defeated by landing on their heads. (Any other part is instant death.)

Graphically the game is very much in line with SMB. The color palette is similar, featuring a lot of blues, reds, and greens in over world stages. Shades are used fairly closely to SMB in dungeon stages as well, a lot of white block textures, black backgrounds, go a long way to bringing that feel to the game. Musically the Commodore 64 version shines. With only 3 songs, the game still comes together well with the music lending itself in the right way. The overworld song while, not as iconic as the music in SMB, will likely play on loop in you mind long after you’ve stopped playing. The dungeon theme gives the game a more serious, perilous tone than the known music of SMB’s World 1-2.

With everything else being nearly equal is GGS a flawless masterpiece? Well, no. The game does have some minor control problems due to the floatier jumping in it, and also because of it’s reliance on a one button control scheme. During the 8-bit era most computer games did not take advantage of two button pads or joysticks because not many people had them. As such, GGS maps the jump function to moving the joystick up. The fire button is only ever used to shoot fireballs when you manage to get them. Because of this, you’ll likely blow an otherwise great round from an unintentionally botched jump. The game also has a couple of glitches in it. For instance, firing the fireballs around level exits can sometimes corrupt the background graphics, and Giana to fall through the play field, and die. To be fair one usually has to try to make that happen, but when it happens on fluke it can be really irritating.

The Great Giana Sisters is one of those knockoffs that leave the impression it was done right. So often when a successful game is cloned ad nauseam, those trying to outdo the original don’t even come close. But GGS hits all of the most important notes, leaving one to wonder why more of them fail to get anywhere near the target. Never mind the fact that this game grabbed the attention of Nintendo. If you ever do get the chance to play this classic gaming example of cribbing I suggest you take it.

Final Score: 8.5 out of 10 (Buy it now! [If you can afford it])

(Some worthy notes of post review info) After the game was pulled way back in 1987 it ended up on some public domain catalogs, where a group of people modified the sprites to Mario characters. From there it slowly faded into obscurity. Arimin Gessert stayed in the game industry after GGS. In fact he went on to found Spellbound, makers of the Desperados series. He died of a heart attack in 2009 however. Ironically his last game was a Great Giana Sisters game for the Nintendo DS. It was only published in Europe initially.

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