Serpentine (Commodore 64) review
"There are people who consider the idea of worms crawling around a maze trying hard to eat or be eaten quite revolting. Serpentine is not for them. For this is game that brings us to the bare basics of ''survival of the fittest'': you take control of a blue worm in a PacMan-like maze (minus the cute little edible dots), and as you enter each level, so do three big, hostile red worms. They will try to eat you, and your goal is to do the same to them. Eating enemies is done by nibbling away at thei..."
There are people who consider the idea of worms crawling around a maze trying hard to eat or be eaten quite revolting. Serpentine is not for them. For this is game that brings us to the bare basics of ''survival of the fittest'': you take control of a blue worm in a PacMan-like maze (minus the cute little edible dots), and as you enter each level, so do three big, hostile red worms. They will try to eat you, and your goal is to do the same to them. Eating enemies is done by nibbling away at their tail, which will require you to maneuver around them and then close in from behind, or if the enemy is smaller than you are, attack them head-on for an instant kill. These same rules apply to your enemies as well, and being outnumbered, you will need clever, quick movements to succeed in Serpentine.
Every worm in the game, friend and foe, consists of two to eight segments. The front segment is the head, and everything behind that is the tail. Worms are reduced in size when the enemy attacks them from the back or the size, biting off the part of the tail that is touched. If two worms collide head-on, the smaller one is instantly defeated and out of the game. If you do this to an enemy, that means you have only two left to deal with, and if they do it to you, you lose a life. It's really that simple. The maneuvering involved with getting on each other's tails is not so simple, though, because you can't stop your worm or turn around in place. Your worm is ever going forward, and it's up to you to round corners at the right time. Worms can grow larger by eating frogs that periodically jump through the maze, and so victory depends on being able to divide your priorities between eating a frog now and then and keeping up the pursuit of your enemies - your worm is slightly quicker, but that's the only advantage you have. The three red worms are quite intelligent, and frequently try to surround and corner you. As you advance through levels and the mazes you move through get more complicated, it gets harder and harder to outsmart them.
At first Serpentine doesn't look like much. The mazes basically consist of a bunch of thin purple walls, and the worms are just long blue and red serpentines moving through it. The appearance is deceptive, though, because despite its humble presentation, Serpentine is a deep game that requires not only swift joystick motions, but also a lot of planning ahead to succeed at. Beginning players will likely lose their lives very quickly at first, taken by surprise by the devious AI of the enemies, who also happen to have all the advantages against you: numerical superiority, starting out bigger than you, and winning a head-on if you and the enemy have the same size. From level 2 on all enemy worms start at the maximum size and that means that no matter how many frogs you eat, you won't be able to grow large enough to take them head-on without having to nibble at their tails a bit first - and since you are only a little quicker than your enemies, that requires a lot of chasing around through the maze, all the while keeping an eye on each of the enemies to make sure they aren't outflanking you. Two eyes, three worms. Not an easy task.
An extra dimension added to the game is that the worms frequently lay eggs. Enemy worms lay eggs when you have defeated one or two of them, and these eggs hatch in a few seconds, creating a small replacement worm. You'll need to grab the eggs or quickly take care of the newly spawned worms before they can eat enough frogs to become a menace again, or you'll never finish the level. You, too, will lay an egg from time to time, involuntarily, and this can be dangerous because you lose some of your size in the progress. Imagine moving in for the head-on kill, then being forced to break off because you're about to lay an egg and lose your size advantage. When your egg is in the maze, both the enemy worms and the frogs that you prey on will attempt to eat it. If you manage to protect the egg until you defeat the last red worm and the level ends, it will spawn into a badly needed and well deserved bonus life.
It doesn't look like much, and the sparse sound effects are a collection of annoying beeps, but Serpentine is one of those surprisingly deep Commodore titles that can provide long hours of entertainment (though not without frequent pauses in between - the graphics do cause headaches after extended play). The game is rather difficult for beginners, holding back slightly in the first level by giving the enemy worms only half of their maximum size, but going into full force from the second level on, and becoming ever more difficult as the mazes become more complicated and more treacherous. But experience and planning will get you through all that, and allow you to play long sessions and set good scores. It remains a hard game, though, and requires you to stay fully concentrated throughout. If that sounds appealing, this is going to be your kind of game.
Although the gameplay is solid, Serpentine does have a few annoying problems that keep me from giving it more than a 7. I mentioned the lackluster graphics and sound effects before; obviously no Commodore game can measure up to today's standards on either but this is below average even for this system. Sound effects should be functional, not annoying, and graphics should not induce headaches due to poorly chosen colours and contrast. When all worms are on the screen and near their maximum size, the game has significant slowdown as well, and it visibly speeds up as you start cleaning up the enemy worms. These speed differences do impact the game, and can throw off your timing and cause you to miss corners. One missed corner can easily be the difference between a brilliant attack and instant death in Serpentine, so this is a problem that has to be mentioned. A final problem occurs when the three red worms pass over each other, and in the later mazes they do this frequently: it becomes impossible to distinguish the individual worms and their heads, and you might suddenly crash into a worm's head that you didn't even see. The solution to this is just not to attack when the worms are in one space together, but in the later levels they bundle together more often than not.
All things considered, Serpentine has its problems but it is definitely a fun and challenging title to play. Another example of a game that puts simple components together and makes something good out of them, although it could have been better if its flaws had been addressed. As it is, it still ranks above average, and is well worth checking out.
Community review by sashanan (June 19, 2009)
Sashanan doesn't drink coffee; he takes tea, my dear. And sometimes writes reviews. His roots lie with the Commodore 64 he grew up with, and his gaming remains fragmented among the very old, the somewhat old, and rarely the new.
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