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Clu Clu Land: Pac-Man's weird cousin

Clu Clu Land is a strange game. I never heard of it until I played NES Remix. It's kind of similar to Pac-Man. You control a fast-moving blowfish with hands (apparently named Bubbles) that turns by swinging around through a grid of poles.

Moving Bubbles is frustrating. After a couple hours of play, I'm still not even close to having mastered controlling her. You can't just push ← to go left or ↑ to go up. You have to press and hold the absolute direction you want to turn in (up, down, left, or right--not her left or right like turning a car). As long as you hold the button, she extends a hand in that direction and will grab the next pole and start swinging in that direction. For example, if you're moving upward, you could press ← to grab a pole, then release it to make a 90 degree counter-clockwise turn. To make a u-turn, hold it down a little longer till she's passed the first turn, then release. At the higher levels, she moves quickly, so it gets tricky. 

So what's the goal? In Pac-Man you're trying to eat all the pellets, but it's almost the opposite in Clu Clu Land. The grid starts empty except for the poles and outer walls. Whenever you pass between two poles, an ingot (identical to the rupees later used in The Legend of Zelda!) may appear there. To clear the stage, you must find them all. They form a design, such as a heart, mushroom, or face, so once you've revealed a few, you can infer where the rest are. This is the most interesting part of the game, trying to figure out which ingots you're missing to finish the design before the timer runs out. As in Pac-Man, fruits appear for bonus points. A clock will briefly freeze the enemies and timer (and second player, if applicable!). A white flag will net you an extra life, which is crucial to survival.

While trying to navigate this speedy mutant fish, you have to avoid a couple sea urchins (apparently called Unira). These are like the ghosts in Pac-Man but less aggressive and slower. They look like the Octoroks from The Legend of Zelda without mouths. There are no power-ups for Bubbles, but you can press A to shoot some sort of short-range sonic wave straight ahead. When you shoot the Unira, they temporarily curl into inert balls, which you can then push into a wall and destroy. However, they re-spawn a few seconds later. The real problem is when you swing around a pole right into one without an opportunity to shoot it.

There are other obstacles, too. Each level has a couple black holes that you can safely move over only if Bubbles is swinging past it while holding a pole. You can't just avoid them since there are often ingots right next to them. In such situations you have to be careful to swing by rather than run right over them. I died a lot this way. Each stage has hidden rubber bands beween certain poles, which only appear after you run into them the first time. These make it harder to get all the ingots and force you to go around them in ways that expose you to the urchins and black holes.

Like most 80's games, when you run out of lives (you start with five), it's Game Over. After a couple hours, I've only been able to make it to the fifth stage (orange).  If I ever beat it, I'll reach the bonus round, where every space has an ingot. You try to reveal them all within 30 seconds. After that, like in arcade games, the game loops, but with a twist. You skip the first stage (pink), advancing staight to the second (green), but with a different pattern to uncover. Each stage has four patterns, so four cycles through is 21 stages (including the bonus rounds). At that point, the game starts over at the green stage, but now the ingots have to be discovered, then passed over a second time to make them shiny. If you go over an ingot a third time, it reverts to dull, necessitating a fourth pass! This sounds very hard, as you would have to carefully avoid the ingots you've already finished while trying to get the rest. I doubt I'll ever make it that far. All told, there are 41 stages to complete, at which point the game loops.

Like arcade titles in the 80's, this type of looping game was points-based. The goal wasn't to "beat" the game (strictly speaking, impossible) but to set a high score, which is displayed on the title screen until the system is turned off. (On Switch, 3DS, and Wii U, the high score can be preserved via save state, which is nice.) According to Twin Galaxies, a high score of 1,022,300 was set by Tom Votova in 2005. He says the run took less than three hours, and you can watch the end of it on YouTube.

One nice feature is that it has simultaneous two player, and the two players bounce off each other if they collide. Having a second person to play it with makes it a little more fun. My daughters only lasted a few minutes playing it with me, but the 10 y.o. said she'd play it again and gave it a generous B. The 8 y.o. was more critical, giving it a C+.

Clu Clu Land is interesting and definitely has replayability, but in my opinion it's just not very fun. Like 80's arcade games, it's an endless grind, though at least it has level variation, unlike, say, Pac-Man. I'm not sure I'll ever even reach the bonus stage, let alone stage 22 or farther. Replaying it for hours and hours is not my idea of a good time, and I suspect the situation wasn't much different in 1985. It was probably one of those games you would sometimes play for a few minutes as a change of pace, till you remembered how frustrating it was and shut it off again. I give it a C-.

Linked Reviews
"As one of Nintendo's earliest NES games, there's still a decent amount of fun to be had out of Clu Clu Land, but, unfortunately, the finicky controls and steep difficulty curve result in a game that can only be recommended to the most skilled of retro gamers."

"I doubt I would throw Clu Clu Land on my regular playlist today, but it’s nice to revisit Nintendo’s humble origins from time to time."

"It’s a little unconventional, and it doesn’t faff around with storytelling or context. Instead, you get a challenging, fast-paced, highly technical take on the maze game, not so friendly—definitely a game that demands practice and mastery."

"This is a fun game, but it can get a little awkward having to spin around each post to get the coins to appear."
— Pat Contri, Ultimate Nintendo, 3.5/5


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