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Paperboy (Sega Master System) artwork

Paperboy (Sega Master System) review


"Many Sunny Sundays in my adolescent years were spent at friends' houses after a sleepover just playing games on the Commodore 64 all morning. (Don't worry, I'll get to the MasterSystem in a moment.) You could wag your finger at me and say my friends and I should have been outside enjoying this sun, but such days often reminded us too strongly of the chart-busting Rick Astley song 'Never Gonna Give You Up'. We invented the term 'Sunny Sunday' to describe the smile-plastered lollypop-coloured exis..."



Many Sunny Sundays in my adolescent years were spent at friends' houses after a sleepover just playing games on the Commodore 64 all morning. (Don't worry, I'll get to the MasterSystem in a moment.) You could wag your finger at me and say my friends and I should have been outside enjoying this sun, but such days often reminded us too strongly of the chart-busting Rick Astley song 'Never Gonna Give You Up'. We invented the term 'Sunny Sunday' to describe the smile-plastered lollypop-coloured existence envisioned in the video clip for that one-hit wonder. The main effect of Sunny Sundays was to remind us that tomorrow was Monday and school again, which was a feeling we hated and sought to avoid.

Paperboy was one of those games I'd always pick out of a friend's disk box on a Sunny Sunday and throw on for about five minutes before being reminded once again of just how obnoxious it was, and frisbee-ing the disk into the reject pile. But Paperboy was all the rage in the game magazines I bought at the time. It was a Top Ten seller on the C64 and Spectrum (these were UK magazines) and there were endless screenshots and reviews, and an awful lot of hype in the decade before truly crushing hype existed.

The problem is not with the game's idea, which is great! You ARE the Paperboy. You must ride your bicycle up isometrically presented neighbourhood streets, lobbing newspapers into the letterboxes (or onto the doorsteps) of your subscribers. At the same time you must encourage non-subscribers to join your protection racket by smashing their property up with the same rolled-up wads of hard newsprint. The catch is that the neighbourhood is alive with fatal hazards - cars, scootering kids, angry dogs, breakdancers(!), even the grim reaper himself.

Unfortunately, I just think the core design of this game was always rotten. The isometric presentation is the reason that Paperboy looks terrific in almost any version - and the MasterSystem is definitely the most attractive of the 8-bit versions I've seen - but it's also the reason why Paperboy plays like crud in every version.

Most of the time you've only got a %20 diagonal streak of the screen available in which to ride your bike around in (the bottom-right corner, scrolling to the upper-right). Sure, the houses rolling by in the remainder of the screen area look fabulous. Multiple storeys, garages, driveways, doghouses, lights, flowerbeds, garbage bins, intensely green lawns... But all you can do is jiggle around in your small area, aiming tiny newspapers at tinier targets while the insane hazards are thrown at you. Dogs, scooter kids and cars zip in from the left, unicycling punks shoot down from above, there's a division between road and sidewalk further limiting movement, and if you do go on the road you'll usually just smack into a sewer grating or a car - or maybe another mohawked unicyclist. It's the ultimate in cheapness. True, you could learn and memorise the position and timing of every single element of this game if you wanted to. BUT YOU WOULDN'T WANT TO!

There's just so much to crash into. Any element of the houses is death: The letterbox, the signpost with the housenumber, the fencing, the garbage bins, the doorstep, the big dumb house itself. You can accelerate and decelerate but you can never stop. Thanks to the stupid design, you're guaranteed to miss the bundles of extra newspapers (in case you've lobbed all of yours away) if they happen to appear on the other half of the screen to yourself; on the sidewalk when you're on the road, or vice versa.

On the soundtrack, Paperboy's bopping themetune has more or less stayed the same across all versions of the game. It bumps along with good urgency once again on the MasterSystem, which is lucky since it pretty much carries the whole audio department. The high-pitched warble when you smash someone's window is a lousy effect, and the squall of success (when you deliver a paper) is just bland.

If you survive the paper round you get to tackle an obstacle course (free from the threat of death if you crash - HALLELUJAH!) where you can smack archery targets with newspapers for bonus points, and make Excite Bike jumps over ramps and rivers. Frankly this is a lot more fun and a lot less stress than the paper round itself, and with a more interesting racing tune behind it. The most promising moment of Paperboy is when you make it through the obstacle course and skid home into a dirty arena ringed with a few stands of seating. Some stray cheerleaders seem to be up there holding 'I Luv U' signs to demonstrate support for your antics. Strangeness aside, this scene just has a good weary and sweaty end-of-the-day quality about it.

But then stupid duty calls anew. Your schedule is updated, subscribers won and lost and you're tipped headfirst into the next day of paper delivering videogame crapness. I don't think I've persisted to survive past Wednesday on any of the three difficulty settings which are actually different streets: Easy Street, Middle Road and Hard Way.

It's surprising that a game with such a cute concept, zany and clever ideas and those cool graphics which really seem to evoke a bopping 1980s American neighbourhood could turn out to be such a DOG every time it rears its head. I've hated Paperboy for years but it just keeps hanging around, renewing my complete lack of faith in it every time I try it out in any form. They've even dragged its corpse out for the Nintendo 64. So I'm here to perpetuate and re-emphasise the aura surrounding Paperboy, and that is: It stinks. The MasterSystem version is graphically the most fluid and attractive I've seen, but you can never get away from that lame duck 'twitching around in the corner of the screen gameplay' while things are thrown at you. Even the glorious sight of Death swanning across a summery lawn can't save this.

Maybe way back in the beginning, the handlebar controls of the arcade version covered up the game's inadequacies... but those handlebars have been off for over a decade now. What does Paperboy's longevity represent? The staying power of quirky concepts? Or just the stubborn power of one game to remain a bastion of irritating crap?

-- Paperboy -- 3/10 --

Rating: 3/10

bloomer's avatar
Community review by bloomer (February 06, 2004)

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