Why I Love Snake Rattle n Roll
Let's Snake Rattle n Roll!
Platformers were everywhere during the NES era. While there were many different types of games on the console, no genre was more prevalent than the ones centered around characters running and jumping. There were plumbers, superheroes, children vaguely endorsed by McDonald's, anthropomorphic frogs, basically if you could dream it up, it was probably starring in its own 8-bit platformer. However, as broad as the genre was, every once in a while a platformer found a way to go against the grain and really stand out. One such game came from the wizards at Rare, who were extremely adept at making the NES do some pretty wonderful things. All this particular game needed was a pair of sneaky snakes, a rockin' soundtrack, and a pseudo 3D perspective.
Snake Rattle 'n Roll is a brilliant NES platformer that does things pretty differently than most other games on the system. It was released in 1990, and literally turned the concept of a platformer on its side. Most games from this era played out from either a 2D side view or top down perspective. Rare though, had a tendency to do things differently. Games like Battletoads and Wizards & Warriors took the more traditional side scrolling approach, but many of their biggest hits took on a very specific 3D perspective. As demonstrated in games like Cobra Triangle, RC Pro Am, and even their excellent NES port of Marble Madness, Rare had the programming chops to make this unconventional angle work in their games, which isn’t as easy a feat as it seems. Creating a platformer using this perspective, especially on the NES, could go very wrong in the wrong hands, but Rare was one of those developers that really knew how to bend the NES to their will. They also had expertise in games using his perspective from back in their ZX Spectrum days, so it all came together nicely.
The Challenges of Another Dimension
One of the prime ingredients of any well made platformer is level design. While still pretty easy to get wrong, the process of creating intuitive levels on a 2D plane was made easier by the lack of variables. The rules are simple to understand when you're only dealing with one axis. You move left or right, and in some cases up or down, and that’s it. Adding a third dimension changes everything. The more freedom you give players, after all, the more opportunities there are for things to go terribly wrong. Snake Rattle n Roll doesn’t nail everything all of the time, but what is here works extremely well, and comes together to form one heck of a memorable game.
Besides being a kinda 3D platformer, Snake Rattle 'n Roll also has a very unique premise. The game stars a pair of snakes, and can be played either solo or in co-op. The point of every level is to make it to a door at the end, but first you have to unlock it. In lieu of a key, the level-ending door is unlocked by use of a scale. You have to get your snake's tail to be long enough so that your mass will weigh down the scale with enough force to set off the alarm and open the door. How does one fatten up a snake? By eating Nibbley Pibbleys, of course! Scattered throughout each level are manhole covers. If you flick your tongue (your primary attack/item collecting tool) while on top of one, it will open, revealing power-ups, traps, enemies, and the aforementioned Nibbley Pibbleys. These little balls come in a multitude of flavors and forms. The more Nibbley Pibbleys you eat, the longer your tail grows.
Speaking of power-ups, this game has a ton of them, and not all of them are actually helpful. There's a crank that, when collected, screws into your snake's head, making him go faster. There's also invincibility, tongue extensions, and extra lives, but beware of the reverse icon! It switches your controls around and temporarily makes everything far more difficult!
Then we have the game’s enemies, which are varied and incredibly weird. There's the dreaded Bigfoot, which is literally a disembodied foot that will jump around and squish you, Jaws, which is a deadly fish creature that will chase you whenever you are in water (complete with this game’s version of the Jaws theme), and out of control toilet seats that flap their lids at you. IS it off-putting to see toilet seats trying to eat you? Absolutely. But it works with the game’s overall off-kilter nature.
Back to the Nibbley Pibbleys, their many forms are quite fascinating in action. The basic variety is the Pib-bal, which simply rolls around. But there are also Pibble-bats that sprout wings and fly around, Pibble-splats that bounce around and splat on the ground in small puddles, Pibble-joggers that grow legs and run around like crazy, and Pibble-Boings that form springs and bounce away. Depending on what you eat, your snake will spit out the unwanted parts after chewing. For example, when you eat a Pibble-Copter, you will eat the Pibbley, and spit out the copter. It's a very quirky animation, and it really helps make the whole thing feel alive. Add to that the excellent David Wise soundtrack inspired by 1950's rock 'n roll, and you have yourself one heck of a memorable gaming experience.
A Rare Situation
Like most Rare games, this title is unlikely to ever see the light of day on a Nintendo platform, but it is currently readily available on Xbox via the excellent Rare Replay. That though is just this specific iteration. There was a 16-bit port on the Sega Genesis that featured a completely unique soundtrack (also by David Wise), as well as a pseudo-sequel in the form of the somewhat mediocre Sneaky Snakes for Game Boy. Still, this gem never really gained the mainstream acceptance it deserves, which is kind of a bummer because I’d love to see more modern sequels to this game someday. There really aren't too many games out there that managed to pull off good platforming mechanics with this perspective. The graphics and animation are some of the best on the system, and the soundtrack's awesomeness can not be understated.
If you're looking for a good, tough co-op platformer, and you've already beaten Contra, track this one down. If you're up to the challenge, you'll find yourself eating Nibbley Pibbleys until the break of dawn.