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Circus Caper (NES) artwork

Circus Caper (NES) review

"I felt little guilt replaying through it with cheats on, and I recommend anyone who wants to check it out do the same...But fortunately the cheap deaths will fade away much sooner than the bears on unicycles and such instead."

A while ago, Psycho Penguin said I would really enjoy looking at Circus Caper. And I did. It was another game to check off for GameFAQs's FAQ completion project, it wasn't too long, and the nice bits were very entertaining indeed. Unfortunately, the game--about a boy, Tim, who rescues his twin sister Judy from evil Dr. Magic--wasn't always kid-friendly, unless kids these days are much better at platforming than I was. Writing the guide helped lower my blood pressure after the various inane deaths I encountered. It was a sort of catharsis, a way to express disappointment that a well-imagined game would be as nasty as Circus Caper.

It's got all the good bits you'd expect from a platform based on a circus--colorful enemies and background, and even side games based on the circus--but after a brutal beginning, it never really comes together. There's a forced introduction which takes a while. As a story, it's good, describing how Tim and Judy are offered free tickets but only Judy gets one, and Tim waits for the show to end. But it's just a huge chunk of time before the action starts, and the game doesn't have passwords--just a continue feature. And quite frankly, I needed a break to cool down after some levels. Especially the first.

You see, Tim has a health-meter where he can get hit about twenty times. Each enemy he kills throws out a random power-up or food to restore health. Tim can and will get hit until he has the best ones. They include a soccer ball you can roll at opponents, a block you can jump on to get to the high parts, a throwing hammer and a protective spinning ball. Once you have the spinning ball, which lasts a few seconds after a punch, you can pretty much run into enemies and kill them. That gets you more power-ups, which gets you more chances at a spinning ball.

It's by far the most powerful, and with it you can spend chunks of time in the less unfair zones where monsters pop up at a safe enough distance that you can ram them. But this kind of cuts into the whole idea of an action platformer, especially when some of the power-ups fly off the top of the screen when you hit an enemy. This doesn't make you invincible, of course, since failing to jump over various holes kills you. This includes the later levels where falling down one of the many holes kills you. This can happen when an enemy materializes by you during your jump, making you fall down. It doesn't matter if the enemy is something cool like a bear balancing on a ball or various mimes and clowns that are a lot more fun when you figure how to punch them out.

Thankfully, the developers were merciful and didn't make you walk too far in any one level. That's especially nice in the sixth and final one, where you have a sort of maze to get to Mr. Magic. Before, doors just led to mini-games more practical (the enemies are cleared when you return) than fun. Here, you need to use them to warp between four very similar looking levels and also avoid a ghost who, if he catches you, makes you go left when you meant to go right, and vice versa. As a kid's nightmare, this is great. As a game control gotcha, it's just really annoying. Tim's kicking action deserves honorable mention. You can either punch or kick, and some enemies, like the snakes or midget elephants, require you to execute an awkward kick which is at the same height as Tim's punch. It took me a while to figure out you needed to punch the flying plates, too. I'm still not sure why.

But it's not like the game doesn't try. The least effective bit is a fairy who drops down when Tim's health is low. Sometimes she even gets to Tim before it runs out. Tim gets to choose if the dice she rolls will come up even or odd, and if he guesses right, he recharges, but if not, "NO GOOD." Sometimes she also comes into the picture after Tim has missed a jump and there's no hope anyway, and her uselessness is kind of funny that way. Also, the mini-games are cute the first time, as Tim and a dancing bear jump over flames, or you're in a road race where you pick up certain items and avoid others. I'd have avoided them without an emulator, which is too bad, because all four are rather cute. The game forces you to a final one before Mr. Magic where a kangaroo challenges Tim to a scavenger hunt that heals Tim before the big fight.

And the cut scenes when you defeat a boss are funnier than our poor fairy, and for the right reasons. You get a few pictures of a defeated enemy crying and telling you the next guy took him. I haven't seen too many crying lion tamers or tigers, and their crying is appropriate given their ridiculous ease compared to the rest of the game. You just have to get near them and sock them. It's sort of the reverse of how you can get frozen and hit multiple time, so it's a sort of revenge, I guess. But it wouldn't have been as much fun without the cut-scenes.

Circus Caper is, in conclusion, a game with enough charm to rescue it from some wretched controls and design. I felt little guilt replaying through it with cheats on, and I recommend anyone who wants to check it out do the same. Apparently the addition of the circus elements was new for the American release, and this leaves me absolutely no desire to play the original. But fortunately the cheap deaths will fade away much sooner than the bears on unicycles and such instead. So despite its rating, I'm glad Psycho Penguin suggested this game to me. I'm reminded of that Philip Larkin poem line "all that remains of us is love" and how that might be for stupid reasons. But it's still true, and I'm glad it is, here.

aschultz's avatar
Community review by aschultz (April 28, 2012)

Andrew Schultz used to write a lot of reviews and game guides but made the transition to writing games a while back. He still comes back, wiser and more forgiving of design errors, to write about games he loved, or appreciates more, now.

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