Titus, it’s fair to say, is not one of the most fondly regarded names in classic gaming — though a fair amount of their work was at least memorable for one reason or another.
That doesn’t mean it was a company completely incapable of putting out a good game, however. And in fact, when Titus was on top form, they actually made some really good titles that still hold up very well today.
One of those games is Prehistorik Man, originally released for Super NES and now brought to a whole new audience as part of the Interplay Collection 2 cartridge for the Evercade retro gaming platform. Let’s take a closer look!
Prehistorik Man was first released in 1995, and is the third installment in Titus’ Prehistorik series of platformers, which began on the 16-bit home computers in 1991. It is part of a trend in the early- to mid-’90s where game developers collectively had a bit of a fascination with cavemen and the prehistoric Earth, and sits comfortably alongside its contemporaries such as Core Design’s Chuck Rock and Data East’s Joe & Man, both also released in 1991.
With the Prehistorik series, Titus gradually developed and refined a formula that seemed to work well. In the original game from 1991, the player had to collect a certain amount of food before they were allowed to progress to the next level; in the 1993 sequel, food simply provided a bonus at the end of a level; and in Prehistorik Man, this remained the case, but each level tended to have its own objective to accomplish besides simply reaching the end point.
Perhaps more notably, Prehistorik Man made a significantly stronger effort with story and characterisation than its predecessors, featuring a recognisable cast of characters who had dialogue over the course of the game. For the most part, this dialogue provided a means of helpfully introducing various game mechanics or hints to the player, but it also provided a strong sense of the game taking the player on a distinct “journey” over the course of its 23 stages. This aspect of the game went on to be one of its most well-received aspects, with numerous reviewers at the time singling out the sense of ongoing narrative — however simple that narrative was — as a particular highlight of the game.
In Prehistorik Man, you take on the role of a caveman named Sam, who has discovered that all his village’s food has been stolen. His village chief encourages him to go on a great journey to seek out a legendary dinosaur graveyard. While it might not seem obvious how this would help the food situation, in the world of Prehistorik Man, bones are a unit of currency, and as such finding a pretty much unlimited supply of them would see Sam’s tribe pretty much set for life.
The game unfolds as a linear sequence of stages in the Euro platformer mould — that means that in most cases, rather than simply taking a straight route to a finish line on the far right, there are often multiple routes to explore, each concealing their own secrets and collectibles. These range from health and extra lives to that all-important food the village can add to its stocks. At the end of a level, the village chief shows Sam what percentage of the food and treasures in the stage he managed to find, and a running total of this across the whole game allows you to earn an extra life for every 100 units acquired.
In many ways, the emphasis on exploring levels to track down hidden collectibles makes Prehistorik Man feel quite a lot like a 2D version of what we would later come to regard as the “collectathon” platformer. In fact, when you take into account aesthetic elements such as the excellent animation, the delightfully colourful pixel art, the slick and smooth parallax scrolling, the cheeky visual humour and the use of digitised gibberish in place of actual recorded dialogue, one could almost mistake this for a 16-bit era Rare game, were it not for the fact that Rare were well into their “pre-rendered” phase at this point in history with the Donkey Kong Country series.
Where Prehistorik Man shines is in its level design. Evidently picking up a few lessons from Nintendo, many of the game’s levels are designed in such a way that they will introduce you to a particular mechanical concept in a relatively safe context before requiring you to make use of it under more dangerous circumstances.
A great example comes with a sequence that involves blocks that drop off the screen if you stand on them for more than a moment; the first of these blocks is safely over another platform, so you won’t die as it drops off the screen, and you’ll get a chance to see how it behaves. As you proceed, however, you’ll have to negotiate a number of these dropping platforms suspended perilously above a bottomless pit — but you’ll know what to expect, because the game has been good enough to show you explicitly what these things do.
This is far from an isolated example, either. A level primarily themed around using hanging vines to get around acts as a suitable primer for the following stage, where you have to contend with an erupting volcano and use vines to get yourself off the flaming ground at regular intervals. Several stages place collectible items in seemingly dangerous locations such as spike pits before providing a convenient turtle or spider to stand on and retrieve them safely. And the various characters you encounter over the course of your journey offer helpful advice and guidance without ever feeling like they’re talking down to you or being patronising.
The stage design also helps with the aforementioned feel of a progressing narrative, too. Rather than featuring abrupt jumps in scenery from stage to stage, each new level brings gradual changes to the overall aesthetic, be it a simple, slight shift in colour palette for the rocks as Sam gets further from home, or a change in backdrop to denote the fading light of the evening as he enters a mysterious forest. While the first couple of stages may look relatively similar, the pace at which these visual changes occur accelerates as you progress through the game, highlighting the fact that with each new milestone on his journey, Sam is entering territory that is more and more alien to him.
This solid design is accompanied by some solid mechanics, too. The controls are tight and responsive, and the decision to put Sam’s ability to run “like a dog” on both the attack button (a la Super Mario games) and angling the D-pad upwards allows for bursts of speed when swinging your weapon would be undesirable — such as when standing on an enemy’s back. It’s a game that clearly had a lot of time, effort and love ploughed into it, and the result is an absolutely lovely 16-bit platformer that I suspect not a lot of people have played.
Prehistorik Man was a thoroughly pleasant surprise that I’d not encountered before trying it on the Evercade. While for many players the two Interplay Collection cartridges for the Evercade are perhaps more interesting as historical curiosities than compilations of games you’d actually want to spend a lot of time playing, Prehistorik Man is a genuinely good title that holds up very well to modern scrutiny.
And it’s yet another example of the Evercade doing what it does best: bringing new life and attention to games that perhaps didn’t get the love they deserved on their original release for one reason or another, and allowing you to enjoy those games both on the go and on your TV. Thumbs up for that. And thumbs up for Prehistorik Man. Eekum bokum, or something.
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