Binary Land (NES) review
"How did penguins and spiders even end up in the same place?"
Binary Land doesn't have much in the way of a setup, but if it did, that setup would be a love story. A love story about penguins, to be precise, and who wouldn't love a penguin? They always look so dapper in their little tuxedos. Sadly, the story here is that tuxedoed penguins Gurin and Malon have somehow become separated, and had their love stolen. Now they must traverse semi-dangerous mazes to earn it back.
Each stage in Binary Land starts with Gurin and Malon positioned in the lower right and left corners of the stage, respectively. Each stage is actually a maze, with the goal being a caged heart at the top center of the screen. The maze itself is split down the middle, with the only path from one half to the other bringing you past the cage. The unique twist is that you control both Gurin and Malon at the same time. You choose which penguin to control directly, and the other penguin will mirror its moves. If your lead penguin moves up or down, so will the other. If your leader moves to the left, the other will move to the right, and vice versa.
This interesting control dynamic takes some getting used to, but it will start to feel natural soon enough. The key to playing Binary Land is knowing when to focus on which penguin. There are enemies and traps to watch out for (spiders and their webs, with the occasional fireball thrown in for fun), but it's uncommon for both penguins to be in danger at the same time. Each penguin has a short-range death ray that can be used to blast spiders and webs, meaning it's not too tough to simply clear out one half the screen before shifting focus to the other, despite the fact that every stage has a time limit.
Both penguins must reach the cage at the top of the screen at the same time to end the level. The mazes are asymmetrical, meaning sometimes one penguin will be walking into a wall while the other is moving. This means part of the challenge is maneuvering your characters in a way that allows them to reach the cage together (If one arrives at the cage early, he'll simply walk past it.) Ideally, neither penguin will ever have to cross over into the other’s side of the maze, but one will have no choice but to cross the border to rescue a friend who might become stuck in a spider web. Crossing the stage is discouraged, though, as having the penguins touch too much will result in a baby penguin being born right there in the maze, in front of the player and the spiders and everyone. The baby penguin will wander off and do its own thing, and you'll lose a life if your offspring happens to be eaten by a spider. Just like in real life, kids are nothing but liabilities. Binary Land teaches abstinence.
Along with life lessons, there also are a few collectables to be found. Sometimes a piece of cake or an umbrella or some other random thing will appear, which can then be collected for points. One wall tile in each stage contains a hidden item (sometimes an extra life) that will appear if you manage to shoot the tile with your beam. There's also a tile with a whale on it that will grant both penguins invincibility and super speed, provided one of them manages to grab it before it disappears.
For a game from 1985, Binary Land contains a decent number of levels: 16. Some stages are just bonus stages, which are free of enemies and filled with collectable heart tiles. One penguin will be trapped in a web from the start, and must be freed before the level can be cleared. Overall, Binary Land is a fairly easy game. It's very possible that you'll be able to finish all 16 levels on your first try without running out of lives. After that, the levels repeat until the game ends at level 99, with no credits or ending story scene. It's a bit anticlimactic.
Binary Land is visually on par with other games from 1985. The sprites are cute but there's not much visual variety within levels. Stage floors are pure black, and walls are built from a single type of tile. Graphical variety is mostly limited to the fact that the wall tile changes colour in each new stage. The soundtrack is limited to one song and one jingle, both of which are public domain. You're probably sick of hearing Ode to Joy everywhere, but you'll hear a snippet of it every time you clear a stage. More welcome is the song that plays during the stages: the beautiful Je Te Veux (translation: “I Want You”) by classic French composer Erik Satie, which loses a little something in the transition to a chiptune, but is still nice to hear during the game while perfectly fitting the game's theme of love.
Binary Land isn't very deep, nor is it especially difficult once you grow accustomed to the controls, but it's a unique and interesting twist on the maze game. No, it won't blow anyone's mind with its graphics, and its soundtrack (though nice) could hardly be more limited or less original. Still, the end result is a pleasant little experience in the end. While it falls short of being a must-play Famicom classic, it's certainly still worth a look.
Staff review by Rhody Tobin (June 13, 2013)
Rhody likes to press the keys on his keyboard. Sometimes the resulting letters form strings of words that kind of make sense when you think about them for a moment. Most times they're just random gibberish that should be ignored. Ball-peen wobble glurk.
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