There’s an expectation old arcade games will have an OK-ish port you already own, a decent port you’ll have a realistic chance of buying if you’re fond of the game in question, and a mythical best port spoken of in great reverence by people who will never own it, its existence only vaguely confirmed by scraps of Shift-JIS encoded text found lingering in broken fansites abandoned twenty years ago. Whatever this release is you’ll probably need a Japanese computer to play it, and you’ll need to sell body parts to be able to afford it.
Rod Land is the happy exception to this sad scenario, and it’s my pleasure to tell you the budget-priced iOS port is the most arcade-accurate home release of the game ever made and even includes the second story – the rarely-seen adventure filled with mechanical monsters and featuring Tam (blue) and Rit’s (pink) deceased dad. It wasn’t perfect – but it was dangerously close. The main problem with this port is that thanks to a lack of updates on the game’s end and Apple’s inexorable march towards the future it doesn’t work on anything any more, and is now only fit for use as a sobering reminder that even legitimate purchases on active digital stores are in the long run like so much dust in the wind.
[Edit: The arcade version of Rod Land – second story and all – is currently available on a variety of modern formats thanks to Hamster’s Arcade Archives series]
And we’d have to stop talking about Rod Land there if it hadn’t had a viable alternative to the mayfly-length lifespan of the portable port released on the Amiga all the way back in 1991, just a year after the arcade game’s debut. Floppy discs willing, or at least back ups of floppy discs willing, or possibly an image file of floppy discs willing, this version of Jaleco’s charming single-screen arcade platformer will be with us forever… even if the price we have to pay is seeing its gorgeous colourful style is well hidden behind hideous Trolls-style box art (a decision that I begrudgingly accept as making perfect commercial sense at the time). These days you’ll probably know Rod Land best as the origin of Soldam’s vivid style or as a brief cameo in the background of one Game Tengoku’s stages but back in 1990 this game was… OK it was never a big deal but “A bit like Bubble Bobble” used to be a major selling point in thirty years ago and this game was one of many quality titles that hoped to emulate Taito’s success. The basics are the same as many in the genre: (adorably) kill everything that moves, collect anything that doesn’t, and try to grab the things that spell out a specific word when they appear to give yourself some sort of bonus. New enemies are introduced often and all have different attack patterns and chasing behaviour, and with the exception of faceless tube-monster with teeth at both ends and a bow on its head (take a look at the pink thing in the screenshots above if you dare) you’ll feel terrible for making them cry (yes, that actually happens).
After all of that standard-issue design comes The Twist: Bubble Bobble had bubbles, Rainbow Island had rainbows, Don Doko Don had… anyway Rod Land gifts Rit and Tam a magical rod and a pair of ladder-creating boots each, and as in all good arcade design these deceptively simple items give the game a lot of depth – and unlike many similar titles there are no upgrades whatsoever (although you can obtain single-use offensive items, such as a large bomb that erupts with a comical BOOOOOOM, from defeated enemies), so you face every single scene and boss with the full range of our fluffy-haired fairies’ abilities every time. As with genre trendsetter Bubble Bobble the rods of “Sheesanomo” don’t directly deal damage to standard enemies but instead allow you to grab one of these meanies and lift them overhead before whacking them hard into the ground, and it’s this impact with the floor that causes them harm (this also has the added life-saving side-effect of stunning anything nearby as well). In the arcades this side-to-side slapping could happen anywhere there was room, even if that meant monsters were thwomped down on… thin air. The Amiga version dares to alter this behaviour, removing air-bopping entirely and replacing it with a new rule: Any enemies the fairy duo slam down into an area without any floor beneath them will be released and fall to the ground, unharmed. Now this seems like the perfect spot to sit down and engage in a bout of but authenticity! complaining but this small change makes perfect sense and it adds a new strategic option to the game as well, enabling you to manage the position of any pursuing baddies within their environment rather than routinely grab and destroy them wherever you are without any attention paid to the stage’s layout. It’s simply a good idea and it fits in so well it feels more odd to not have it in the arcade original than it does to have it in this home conversion.
Rit and Tam’s other skill it to create one magical ladder of a fixed sized anywhere you like so long as you’re standing on solid ground, and this structure will last until you choose to make another. As dull as ladders (even ones conjured out of thin air from magical rainbow shoes) that may sound there are a few clever things you can do with them, such as using their ability to go through straight through otherwise impassible blocks to access parts of the screen you wouldn’t be able to reach, or climbing them to gain the extra height you’d need to float over to a ledge on the other side or to avoid the tiny mini-monsters the bosses throw out (there’s no jumping in Rod Land). Again the Amiga release adds a genuinely useful new feature here, giving you the ability to use your rod even when you’re halfway up a ladder – and as with the change to the rod-slam this tweak doesn’t break the game or make it an unrecognisable mutation of its original self, it’s just another common-sense enhancement that’ll probably save your life a few times on the way to the final battle and the parent-rescuing that comes afterwards.
You’ll be especially grateful for this extra assistance as there are no continues for home computer players – you can use as many lives as you’ve got, but once they’re gone that’s it (unless you use the infinite lives cheat code…). The good news is Rod Land’s “EXTRA GAME” bonus time makes earning extra lives not just possible but likely – all you have to do is collect every flower on the stage (and there are only a handful of stages where doing so is more trouble than it’s worth), which then turns all the remaining monsters into a unique enemy for a short period of time – disposing of this critter will create an orb that rotates through the letters E, X, T, R, and A – collect them all (which can be done over as many stages as you need) and you’ve got an extra life! The balance here is absolutely spot-on: collecting the orbs takes some skill and forward-thinking, but it’s never so hard to pull off it feels like it isn’t worth the effort. I didn’t think I’d hear myself say this but on this occasion not being able to continue honestly does feel fair – only those who engage with the game in good faith and take the time to learn how to play it will make it to the end, but at the same time it’s never so punishing a one-credit-clear under these conditions is an unrealistic goal.
To think you’ve read all that only to discover Rod Land’s still not finished dishing out authentically-inauthentic changes…
Enemy behaviour in this game broadly falls under one of threes categories: Patrol, pursuit, and attack. In the arcade release an enemy changing from patrol (wandering the stage) to pursuit (actively chasing the player) would speed up and that’d be it – but in this Amiga port a bunny will actually pull a carrot out of the ground and give it a little nibble before they go into high-speed “Oh heck I’d better watch out for this one” mode, and all the other monsters have similar visual tells too (my favourite is the way the yellow blobs – “Spuds” according to the Amiga manual – look back to check on their new friend when they split in half). Best of all these “new” graphics aren’t something pulled out of thin air by an over-enthusiastic Amiga artist but restored sprites taken directly from files Jaleco sent to the port team (see page 41 in the link) before they started work – sprites that would have otherwise never seen the light of day.
Inevitably there are a few differences that are just different, as would be reasonably expected from the home release of an arcade game that was barely a year old decades ago: The life-giving EXTRA fairy is the one used in the arcade machine’s second story (the original one is shown in some pre-release features, although only as part of a spread of freshly-converted sprites), the last boss doesn’t leap around in their largest form, and some levels are either slightly altered versions of their arcade counterparts or completely brand new (these are in addition to the original’s stages). These changes are all either so well integrated or so subtle this Amiga game feels like a remixed version of the original rather than the more typical questionably unfaithful European computer release – the extras and changes aren’t ever “Amiga hard” and if you weren’t already incredibly familiar with the arcade version (highly unlikely at the time… and admittedly awareness of Rod Land isn’t much better known now) you’d have to compare each level side-by-side to see the differences… so long as we’re not talking about Rod Land’s second story.
Clearing the arcade machine’s thirty-one stages (nine less than this version) would reveal a button combination that when entered on the title screen would allow you to play through a whole new story – essentially the game’s sequel – with new graphics, new bosses, and even a whole new ending. This second game is completely absent here. In a modern release – a time where knowledge of arcade games that existed for one location test twenty years ago on another continent is just a few mouse clicks away – such an omission would be a disaster but here, in this time capsule of 1991? A time where seeing a Rod Land arcade machine at all, never mind playing the game to completion, would have been a rarity? Nobody knew there was anything to miss, and when judged purely on its own merits this forty stage game with beautiful event art and numerous screen-filling bosses feels like a complete experience with a satisfying conclusion.
It may not have the esoteric depth of Taito’s classics – there are no secret warps or weird items that have less chance of appearing than I do of sailing across the Pacific Ocean in a boat made of pink wafers – but on the other hand this does mean it’s a game that can be wholly understood simply by spending time with it and observing all of those oh-so-cuddly beasties as they cheerfully bounce around the screen. And this Amiga port specifically? It’s not the forever-available arcade accurate release I still hope to own one day, but it’s the Rod Land I have spent almost thirty years adoring and it’s the one I will always come back to with a smile on my face.