The humble platformer was a staple of the 8 and 16-bit eras, progressing from its basic, blocky beginnings to levels of detail and complexity that could barely have been imagined way back in the early days. Unfortunately this meant that the market often felt over-saturated, and for every good game there were at least half a dozen mediocre ones. Fast-forward 30-odd years and enter The Bear Essentials, the platformer may have fallen slightly out of favour in modern gaming, but for developers still supporting the old micros it remains a very popular choice, and as such it takes a lot to stand out from the crowd. It’s a delight, then, to discover a game that doesn’t just stand out, it puts on a rainbow wig, drapes itself in flashing neon lights and blows a trombone down your ear-hole.
Developed by Graham Axten and published by Pond Software, ‘The Bear Essentials’ is a colourful flick-screen adventure in which you guide Bear to collect fruit for his family. To get through the winter he’ll need a mighty 326 apples, and these are scattered liberally around the six areas that surround his home. Unfortunately the rest of the forest creatures are also out foraging for food and will kill him instantly if he touches them, so it takes a skilful touch to successfully navigate and clear each screen.
Bear can traverse the environment by moving left and right and jumping, and can choose to clear each area in any order he pleases except for the mines, which only open when all of the others have been completed. The numerous screens which make up each area are linked together in a relatively complex manner, which means you’ll need to wear your best exploring hat, too – especially as some apples can only be collected by coming back to a screen later from a different direction.
Right from the off, The Bear Essentials is a polished and beautiful game and you’ll often forget that it’s running within the constraints of 35-year-old hardware. The large and varied sprites are depicted in a cuddly cartoon style which oozes character, and both Bear and his enemies are superbly animated (Bear’s charming idle animations being particularly endearing). The backgrounds are also excellent, and each area has its own graphical theme and background tune; this breaks up the game nicely into chunks and helps to prevent the map from becoming too difficult to navigate.
The controls are both simple and tight, and rather pleasingly it’s possible to change Bear’s direction in mid-air; this allows you to pull off more complicated moves and as a consequence the screen layouts are more varied and complex than many games of its type. Exploring and collecting the apples is both challenging and fun, and although it can be tough at times it never feels unfair – if you die (and you will) you’ll always know it was because you were impatient or foolhardy. A series of continues and passwords are provided to help you reach those later stages, and the game feels perfectly pitched to encourage you back time and again, getting a little further on each attempt.
With so many platform games already in the bank, it’s difficult to bring something new to the table; The Bear Essentials doesn’t redefine what the platformer is, but it does take a well-worn template and execute it to an impressively high standard. While it won’t win any awards for originality, it’s a gorgeous, fun and addictive game, and one of the best examples of the genre in a long time. A superb title, which deserves a place in anyone’s collection.
The Bear Essentials can be downloaded for free from the Pond Software web site and a disk-based version for real hardware will be available to buy shortly.
With so many platform games already in the bank, it’s difficult to bring something new to the table; The Bear Essentials doesn’t redefine what the platformer is, but it does take a well-worn template and execute it to an impressively high standard.