I thought about the right title for this review for a long time. Only to realize that it doesn’t need any. Sam’s Journey is probably the most talked about Commodore 64 game of the recent years. It dares to inject console gaming principles into 8-bit gaming. Checkpoints. Game saves. Level scores. Loads of content. And who hasn’t heard of the authors’ gamble and their developing the game not in their spare time but sometimes as a half-time, sometimes full-time job? Unlike some other reviewers, 8-bitstuff.com played the game from start to finish, so we base our review on the full experience.
Biggest 8-bit jump and run of all time. 30 hours of captivating content. Zero bugs. Buy it. Play it! Love it!!!
NOD TO THE SISTERS
A little boy named Sam wakes up in the middle of the night (or does he?) to some loud noise and bright light leaking through the door of his wardrobe from the inside. He opens it, and a giant claw appears, grabs him, and throws him into a strange land.
If it sounds kinda familiar, it sounds right. Sam’s Journey is one giant nod to the legendary The Great Giana Sisters, from collecting diamonds to getting rid of enemies by jumping on their heads and the advert saying “The Sisters Are History” (deeper than some might think, as Giana’s slogan was “The Brothers Are History”). Except that Sam’s Journey scrolls in 8 directions (Giana just left to right), offers almost 60 huge (think Turrican level size) maps, and countless enemies.
BEST OF BOTH WORLDS?
Each circle on the path stands for a level consisting of 2-3 big maps.
The game’s coder, Chester Kollschen, and graphician, Stefan Gutsch, are no novices to game making. Ice Guys are still cute after all those years, Stroke World doesn’t stop amazing with its crazy story and the main character animated in some 170 sprites, Bomb Mania is still many a party’s favorite multiplayer game. They chose to take take the classic 8-bit cuteness and playability, and up it with the good bits the modern-times gaming brought, like more content and less frustration.
Concerning content, there’s tons of it in Sam. 27 levels, all of them multi-load (2 or 3 maps), 3 boss fights, and a lengthy animated intro and end sequence.
Long games sometimes run the risk of overstaying their welcome. It’s happened to me too many times on the PC that I was totally ready for a game to end, but it still threw more of the same at me. It’s not the case of Sam though. Sam is perfectly aware of that, and the authors do their best to make the game as variable as possible.
TWO WAYS TO PLAY
Basically, you can play Sam two ways: either just find the exit and get out as soon as possible or try to collect all of the 40 diamonds, 10 coins, and 3 trophies that are placed in each level. A diamond counts as 1%, a coin is 3%, and a trophy counts for 10% in the level score (don’t ask me why a coin is more valuable than a diamond of roughly the same size), adding up to 100%.
SEVEN DIFFERENT SAMS
By the way, before you start playing Sam, you should really read the manual, otherwise you might not get the most out his seven forms. Yes, seven! Apart from his little boy persona, he can collect “costumes”, as the game calls them, that give him special abilities. Pirate Sam has a sword with which you can dispatch most of the enemies, Ninja Sam can cling to walls, Pitcher Sam can throw objects fast and far, Space Sam has a jetpack that allows him to make double jumps, Disco Sam (whom I promptly dubbed Elvis) twists in the air, allowing him to stay airborne longer (a feature that looks like it’s escaped from Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams), and Vampire Sam (aka Dracula in my personal vocabulary) can change into a bat and fly for a while.
Left to right, up to down: Boy (default) Sam, Pirate Sam, Ninja Sam, Pitcher Sam, Space Sam, Disco Sam, Vampire Sam, and flying Vampire Sam
If all you want to do is enjoy the game and see all the levels, you should stick to Dracula, as flying will help you to make a lot of shortcuts and avoid most of the enemies. Only in very few levels you will need the Ninja to get you through a high vertical passage. If you want to reach 100% score in every level, sooner or later you’ll need the other costumes too. Here a coin is hidden in a chest that you’ll need to open with a sword, there only the Ninja can climb up a chimney, or the Pitcher throw a rock so that it will hit an otherwise inaccessible diamond. The Pitcher is the least useful–you’ll really need him only twice, I think, but he’s also pretty good when it comes to boss fights. But as you don’t need him otherwise, you probably won’t practice with him enough to really utilize him against the bosses. Anyway, the best way to enjoy the game is not to try to stick to one particular costume, even if you like it best, and just enjoy the variability as you go through the level.
Any costume also serves as an extra life. If an enemy hits you and you’re wearing a costume, you lose the costume and go on as Sam the boy. If you’re hit in your boy form, you can either return to the last checkpoint or restart the level as a whole. After completing a level you can save your game. And you can always restart any of the levels you’ve been through before to improve your score there.
As I mentioned the manual, there’s one sentence there that’s very easy to overlook: “Some switches are portable and can be moved to more useful locations.” Remember it when it looks like you can never reach the portal before the switch with a timer switches back.
LIKE A SWISS WATCH
There’s one 8-bit quality that’s hard to in the PC world–stuff working out of the box. I haven’t met a single one bug in Sam’s Journey, and only maybe two or three times a sprite flickered in a different y position when being multiplexed.
As Sam’s playtime is longer than that of many PC AAA titles, this disproves at least a part of the PC developers’ excuses that you can’t get rid of all bugs prior to release because of the vast complexity.
MULTITUDE OF MONSTERS
Where the game deserves a lot of credit is the area of monsters. Not just that there are many of them, but the authors took a lot of care to make each one an original in their behavior. So there are monsters that patrol their platform by walking on it end to end, others that jump down to lower platforms if they can, some change their speed if they’re hit, some leave fiery footprints, some fly horizontally, others vertically, some just hop, others throw stuff at you, and then you get a whole new set of movement patterns from the fish in water levels.
The graphics are colorful and cute.
The price you sometimes pay for the variability of the graphics is that when you enter a new environment, it’s not quite clear what’s a platform that will support your weight (or a wall that will block your progress) and what is just background. Especially climbable stuff I often discovered by sheer luck.
The monsters are beautifully drawn. Not the style (Stefan, aka Big Users, has always had his own) but the mood of the graphics reminds me of another timeless Commodore classic: the Creatures series. All of the monsters are absolutely lovable, most of them smile … and are happy to tear you apart if they get the slightest whiff of a chance to do so.
There are nearly 40 minutes of original music by Alex Ney (also known as Taxim in the scene) in Sam, split into 18 tracks, each about 2 minutes long. And now comes the strange thing. When you spend 40-60 minutes in a level (which is about the time you need later in the game to find all the secrets and finish it with a 100% score), you hear the tune 20-30 times. I usually hate short tunes in games, but not a single one in Sam’s Journey turned out to be annoying. My musical experience with Sam’s Journey was oscillating between the tunes just being a part of the overall thing and me sometimes deliberately stopping to enjoy the tunes that I liked more.
When you throw tons of content at the players, they’re bound to have issues with a few grams of it. There are three bits I would change in Sam if I had the power.
The first one is a trivial controls issue: “enter the door” is the same direction as “jump” (up). What’s the problem with that? You go through a door and end up in a new location. What I often did was try to jump up to get a better initial idea of the level layout… and of course went back through the door (often meaning waiting for the previous location to load, then go back through the door immediately and waiting for the new location to load again). It kept happening to me even toward the end of the game; I never got used to it. If the going through doors was assigned to the down direction (or up+fire), the problem wouldn’t exist.
My second gripe is about the things that happen automatically. Even the game’s manual advises that it’s not always advantageous to activate a checkpoint. The thing is, you activate it by just passing by (or landing on it when jumping from above etc.). So sometimes you store your position even if you don’t want to, especially if you’re trying to get a score of 100%. Same goes for autocollecting the costumes. Too many times I ended up with a costume I didn’t want to use.
And finally, in their effort not to play all their trump cards too soon, the authors didn’t put too many secrets and new enemies into the first levels. Between perhaps the 6th and 8th level I initially thought, “Is that all Sam’s got to offer?” Boy, am I glad that I persevered and played on!
What I’ll remember for quite a while will be Sam’s Dracula, Spaceman, and Elvis personas, and countless monsters with their various movement patterns. The funny caterpillars, the hilarious elephants, the fireballs with fiery footprints, the… And the second boss. I loved the second boss, even though I had to play against him maybe 60 times to get it right!
The fireball, as I called him. Ain’t he beautiful?!
As the physical edition comes with the game’s soundtrack on a CD, I converted it to mp3s and tunes like The Green Hills, Under Deck, The Ice Caves, and Desert Sands are now in my playlist.
The secrets. Especially in the advanced levels, you often end up looking for the one last, very well hidden coin. And it’s always “Ah, there it is!”, not a “Bah, so it’s there…”
The end sequence. No spoilers, but Knights of Bytes know how to make a nice ending to a game. Loved it.
And then there’s the elusive quality called “playability” that can turn even a soundless game with ASCII graphics into a killer. Sam’s Journey woke up the passionate player in me. Because before writing this review, I finished Sam twice. The first playthrough was about 18 hours, which might be how much the game will take a casual player to finish. And then I decided that I want to see and know it all. I went for the 100% score. 30 hours, more or less. I doubt that in the last ten years, I sunk about 50 hours in one 8-bit game over the course of some two weeks.
Talking about Sam in the 8-bit community, one could hear all kinds of opinions, from that it can’t really be that good because it’s new to people taking offence at hearing that not everything in Sam is perfect.
So, what’s 8-bitstuff.com’s position?
Biggest 8-bit jump and run of all time. 30 hours of captivating content. Zero bugs.
The best C=64 game since the commercial death of the 8-bitters in mid-1990s? Totally!
The best C=64 jump and run of all time? Yes.
The best C=64 game ever? No. But it’s up there in my top X.
Buy it. Play it! Love it!!!
As a bonus, we give you a gallery with one screenshot from every level, except for boss fights, so that we don’t spoil the surprises for you:
Happy Grassland. The pink monsters are called Roamers, and Sam is soon going to be called Ninja Sam.
Deep Woods. The hornets are invincible. If you jump into a gun, it will shoot you somewhere where you otherwise couldn’t get.
Forest Cave. What will you find in the old mine?
Ice Flowers. Pirate Sam climbing up a liana. The penguins have a funny pattern: they fly a short distance and then slide on their belly.
Frozen Land. If I had collected the violet T-shirt, I would have become Elvis.
Arctic Plains. Panic mode on, I’m under a penguin attack!
Cold Castle. If the lightning-throwing mummy comes just a bit closer, my spaceman will be able to hit it with a stone. That’s what I call eclecticism.
Beaver Bridge. Another reference to Giana here.
Desert Heat. Ancient statues spit fire, a gun moving left and right, and you have to shoot it at the right time to avoid the fire and hit the other gun. I wouldn’t mind my desert a bit colder.
Mystical Pyramid. The first really complicated level with a lot of secrets. Need to time my jump for the coin so that the wasps don’t sting me.
Underground. After you dispatch the first boss, you go underground. When the ghosts are transparent, you can run through them. When they are white, they can harm you – but also you can harm them. And what if one of them drops one of the three trophies scattered around the level?
Deep sea. The underwater parts of Sam are like a second game within the game. New physics, new monsters, new patterns.
Glittering Cave. Snowmen roll snowballs at you. The balls get bigger and bigger as they roll. Nice touch.
Spiky Tower. A kinda pop problem. Do I want to get Elvis if it means risking getting (a) Sting?
Flower Shore. You can climb these nets. So climb to the top, jump up to get the diamond, jump diagonally over the wasps, jump up to get the second diamond, jump back…
Pirates Ahoy! The pirate/ship levels are some of the best fun in the game. Not easy, not at all. But totally fun anyway.
Elephant Tree. Don’t ask me how that elephant got onto the platform. It’s just there and you’ll have to deal with it.
Wet and Dry. A lot of underwater action going on. Who would have thought that pearls can be used as ammo?
Platform Hell. So you thought that if you get rid of the second boss, the game will give you a break? Wrong! Platform Hell is exactly what the name suggests, especially if you want the 100% score. In this part of the level, I have a bit of a hope: if I make the jump for the red T-shirt and don’t collide with the bat, I’ll get the Dracula form, which will make my life among the moving platforms a bit easier because I’ll be able to fly.
Highlands Gate. Welcome to the Highlands. Fancy being flattened by a giant granite cube?
Sunken Ship. Is that a turtle throwing an axe?
Waterfalls. Alright, so that’s a lobster shooting its claw at you, while you’re carrying a huge key to the door to unlock it. Getting keys to doors is often difficult because while carrying them, you can’t use your special abilities.
Fungus Lake. While other enemies have their steady movement patterns, the jellyfish always goes after you.
Cloud Runner. Having a treasure chest and not being able to open it is unfortunate. Luckily, it also opens if it hits an enemy (while taking care of it too).
Foggy Treetop. Hear the words of wisdom: never ever jump between two angry elephants. I bet you’d never figure that out on your own!
Sky City. So, after I leave the net, I’ll collect the key, jump over (on onto) the two caterpillars, and then–should I or should I not exchange my Elvis outfit for the green Pitcher outfit?
Chilly Challenge. Climb and grab and slide and jump and fly and avoid and… After all, this is the final level before meeting the final boss.
End of the Journey. Now let’s assume you have defeated the final boss. If you want to know what happens next, you’ll have to play the game to deserve it. Have fun!
The playtime is about 10 hours more than I actually spent with the game, as once I forgot to turn off the computer and the game ran overnight. The score is accurate though. Try to equal it!