The Oliver Twins are an important part of British gaming history, and Super Robin Hood is a particularly noteworthy title — its original incarnation on the Amstrad CPC was the duo’s first commercially successful game, and the first of many games Codemasters would publish for them.
The version of Super Robin Hood we find on the Oliver Twins Collection cartridge for Blaze’s Evercade retro gaming system is a substantial reimagining of this game rather than a note-for-note remake. The original Amstrad CPC version came out in 1986 while the twins were still at school, whereas the NES incarnation found on the Evercade cart hit the market in 1992. This was after the boys had decided to do this programming thing full time — and after they’d really figured out a few things about what makes a solid game from a design perspective. At least their poor old CPC didn’t have to work 23-hour days any more!
While the twins’ myriad Dizzy titles are their more well-known work, there’s a lot to like about Super Robin Hood — particularly this later reimagining. So let’s take a closer look!
In Super Robin Hood you, unsurprisingly, take on the role of Robin Hood, legendary forest-dweller and the main reason good-aligned Dungeons and Dragons players prefer “rogue” to “thief”. It’s your job to sneak into the castle the Sheriff of Nottingham has commandeered from the absent King Richard, recover a bunch of treasures for a bit of impromptu wealth redistribution to the needy of the realm — and, of course, rescue Maid Marian, who has managed to get herself locked up. Again.
The game unfolds as a side-scrolling platform game in which you control a rather cheerful looking Robin Hood as he proceeds through his adventure, accompanied by a joyously cheerful and enormously catchy soundtrack by Gavin Raeburn. Our hero can run, jump, duck and fire arrows, and there are a few interesting twists on all these controls which distinguish Super Robin Hood from many of its contemporaries. Success in the game is dependent on getting to grips with these.
For starters, our Rob accelerates as he continues to run in one direction, allowing him to make longer and higher leaps if he gets a bit of a run-up first. There’s not quite as much momentum as there is in your average Super Mario Bros. title, but it does give the game a distinctive feel, particularly when you find yourself in a suitable situation to let the lad run full tilt.
Getting a bit of speed up can be quite important, as pushing down on the D-pad to duck causes Robin to slide along on his knees for a short distance, which allows you to pass through gaps that are too low to walk normally through. There are also a fair few situations where a running jump is required to clear a gap; looking carefully at the environment surrounding an obstacle is just as important as observing the obstacle itself. If there’s a long, flat corridor, chances are you’re going to need to take advantage of it!
In terms of combat, Robin is a bit limited. He can fire arrows, but these aren’t an instant-response thing. Instead, holding the B button causes him to nock an arrow, then releasing it fires it. Thankfully, you can continue moving with an arrow nocked, so you can prepare for enemies ahead of time — but you also can’t fire while jumping or ducking, so proper positioning is critical, and this limitation also means that certain enemies can never be shot. You’ll have to figure out a way to avoid them instead!
Most of the enemies you can take out with arrows are troll-like guards who fire crossbows at you. Each guard has its own distinct “rhythm” of firing pattern, so you’ll need to find an opening in this in order to attack without taking damage. As the game progresses, guards will also start firing at different heights, so you’ll need to determine whether you can avoid their incoming shots by ducking, or if you’ll need to jump over them. Different guards also take different numbers of arrows to take out; this is indicated by the colour of their armour, which changes as they take damage. When they’re in red, the next shot will take ’em out for good!
Pleasingly, there’s a sense of persistence to the game. Take out a guard and he’s gone for good; grab a treasure and not only is that considered “acquired” for your whole playthrough, but it also acts as a checkpoint should you find yourself losing a life. In this way, the game strikes a good balance between allowing you a certain amount of “brute forcing” your way through difficult parts of the game while you’re first learning them, but making more solid, consistent progress will require you to memorise the patterns of the enemies and the ways you need to go in order to get through without injury.
Herein lies one of the nicest things about Super Robin Hood from a game design perspective; it feels like an open-structure 2D platform game, but it’s actually constructed in such a way that there’s always a clear, linear path to follow. Your way is inevitably gated by keys which, when acquired, affect the environment in some way. Sometimes they open doors, sometimes they lower ladders, and sometimes they do something a few screens away. They’re always critical to progress, however, so you can’t really “miss” anything.
Because of this clever design, you won’t find yourself getting “lost” like in some other European takes on the platformer from the late ’80s and early ’90s — and there’s no need to scribble out a map on paper. At the same time, the fact you’re always moving in different directions as the game subtly guides you rather than simply progressing from left to right gives a satisfying, exploratory sense to the experience as a whole. And consequently, reaching new areas — or perhaps finding a route to another part of an area you’ve visited before — always feels like a significant achievement.
In some respects, Super Robin Hood feels very “old school”. It’s a game highly dependent on memorisation and understanding your character’s capabilities, and it’ll take a while for even skilled players to get through. At the same time, the solid, interesting level design and the fact that it never feels “unfair” — unlike certain sequences in some of the Dizzy games! — means that it still feels surprisingly fresh and enjoyable to play today. It helps, of course, that a variety of modern games favouring the concept of “play, fail, learn, repeat” have proven to be very popular — but it also goes to show that solid design truly is timeless.
Certainly a pleasant surprise, then — and with the release of the Oliver Twins Collection on Evercade, Super Robin Hood and its peers can now find their way to a whole new audience who might never have come across them before. Hooray for curated game collections and a commitment to preservation, I say!
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