Three years after the well-received The Killing Game Show first hit home computer screens, Martyn Chudley and friends were back with a new title, this time for both Amiga and Mega Drive. I give you Wiz ‘n’ Liz: The Frantic Wabbit Wescue.
Having gone by “Raising Hell Software” for their previous game, some alleged behind-the-scenes trouble with Sega forced the team that would eventually become Bizarre Creations to go nameless for a period; the introductory screens for Wiz ‘n’ Liz credit Chudley and his co-designer Mike Waterworth directly by name rather than attributing the game to a company. The actual name Bizarre Creations would appear for the first time with their next game — but more on that next time!
For now, let’s take a look at Wiz ‘n’ Liz which is, by all accounts, a thoroughly strange game, but another beautiful example of how Chudley and his team were consistently capable of creating exceedingly attractive, highly addictive games that would constantly keep you coming back for more.
In Wiz ‘n’ Liz, you (and optionally a friend) take on control of one or both of the titular wizards, who live on the planet Pum. Wiz and Liz love making potions, but one day they left a potion bubbling away while they went inside to check if they’d left the kettle on the hob, and when they came back something had gone horribly wrong. The potion they were making had created some sort of mysterious magical energy — and said magical energy had spirited all of their pet Wabbits away!
From here, it’s up to you to guide Wiz and/or Liz in their quest to retrieve their lost pets — and perhaps defeat a few big slobbering monsters along the way.
The main gameplay of Wiz ‘n’ Liz involves entering a level, collecting roaming Wabbits and then collecting the letters they drop in order to spell out a magic word at the top of the screen. In the early stages of the game, all you have to do then is exit through the magic door that appears in order to progress to the next round of the level or complete the level as a whole; after you’ve cleared a few stages, however, the game will require you to save all the Wabbits on a level before proceeding.
After you’ve created the door — regardless of whether or not it’s open — subsequent Wabbits you collect will drop one of several items: letters of the word “bonus”, which can take you to a bonus stage after the round is complete; fruits and vegetables, which when collected in sufficient quantity will be added to Wiz and Liz’s “homeworld” for use in spells; and clocks, which add a small amount to the time limit, but only once the round you’re on is complete.
That latter point is absolutely key to the overall structure of Wiz ‘n’ Liz, and it’s one of the things that gives the game a distinctive arcade-style feel — for both better and worse.
Wiz and Liz are against the clock to rescue the Wabbits. Run out of time and they lose a life; outside of being defeated by the very occasional boss enemies, this is the only way for you to “lose”, since the game is otherwise devoid of foes. To make matters more difficult, though, you don’t get any additional time added to the clock just for completing a round — and in fact, the timer doesn’t reset to its full original value when you start a whole new level, either. Consequently, collecting as many time powerups as possible is absolutely essential to progress, lest your session grind to an inevitable halt after a particular number of levels.
The game does throw you a lifeline every so often, but it’s a bit of a crapshoot: get down to just ten seconds left on the clock, and one of the Wabbits in the stage will drop a glowing orb when you rescue them. Collecting this orb immediately adds thirty seconds to the timer, which is often enough to finish off the round you’re on, but on the whole it’s near-impossible to “break even” on the timer from round to round — let alone enjoy any sort of net gain.
All this provides the game an extremely frantic feeling — particularly on its default “Taxing” difficulty, where the pace of the game is already very high. But it also makes the game feel like it’s taking great pains to ensure that you fail inevitably at some point; the amount of extra time you gain from the clock pickups feels woefully inadequate, and the fact that the timer doesn’t reset at the start of a whole new level is an absolutely infuriating design element.
This is what I mean by the negative side of Wiz ‘n’ Liz feeling like an arcade game; it almost feels like it’s intended to be a credit-feeder coin-op, but given that the game was designed exclusively for home systems — and has no conventional “continue” system anyway, instead relying on passwords — this just feels like an altogether baffling way to put the game together.
On the flip side of all this, the high speed, beautiful visuals, smooth scrolling, inordinately catchy music and immensely satisfying sound effects tickle all the same pleasure centres in your brain that the very best coin-op titles do. So even though the timer mechanic in the game is absolutely infuriating and will make you want to curse the names of Chudley and Waterworth for the rest of eternity, you’ll find yourself playing again. And again. And again. And each time, you might make it a little further as you try a slightly different approach.
The game’s long-term appeal is provided both by this addictive nature, and its spellcasting system, which makes use of the aforementioned fruits and vegetables you collect throughout the stages. Pop two collected items in the cauldron and it will produce an effect; these effects are fixed and can be learned, and you have no obligation to cast one between every level if you don’t want to — or, more importantly, if you’re waiting for a particular key ingredient. Those ingredients don’t last forever, though; after three levels they’ll disappear, so you need to make sure you use them up.
There are a huge variety of effects you can trigger, ranging from simple point bonuses to entire minigames you can play to get bonus rewards. There are unlockable shops that allow you to buy and sell fruit and obtain hints, there are stupid jokes to fall prey to — there are even some sly little references to other Psygnosis games in there. There’s a surprising amount to discover, and one gets the impression Chudley and company had a huge amount of fun trying to see precisely how much hidden bonus stuff they could squeeze into the game.
Is it worth playing today, though? So long as you go in with the appropriate expectations, yes. It’s very interesting to see what a high-speed, arcade-style, (mostly) non-violent platformer from 1993 looks like, and to be honest the game is worth playing for Matt Furniss’ absolutely wonderful soundtrack alone.
There’s nothing else quite like Wiz ‘n’ Liz out there — and that, more than anything else, makes it worth your time, even with its frustrating elements!
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