Lost in Time: Frogger (PSX)

Frogger is one of the all-time great arcade classics. It's easy to play, difficult to master, and fun for all. There was a sequel back in 1984 for home consoles that tried to take the Frogger gameplay to the next level, but it never managed to recapture the magic of the original. However, in 1997 Hasbro Interactive struck gold with the hapless frog protagonist and spawned a string of retro revivals in the process. Frogger had returned, and it was great.

He looks worried. He should be...

He looks worried. He should be...

Before we get into Hasbro's retro themed successes, it's important to note one other piece of history. In 1994, Nintendo decided to revitalize one of their dormant properties, Donkey Kong, in a couple of ways. One was the immensely popular Donkey Kong Country franchise that took the titular ape and made him into a platforming star akin to Mario or Sonic the Hedgehog. The other was with a game simply called Donkey Kong for Game Boy. Often referred to as donkey Kong '94, this game started off as what appeared to be a simple remake of the original Donkey Kong arcade classic. However, players quickly discovered that it was far more than that. After finishing the first 4 stages, instead of rescuing Pauline from DK's clutches, the ape gets back up, grabs the girl, and runs off to the city. It's at this point that the game blows wide open, and the following 90+ stages take Mario on a journey that plays out like an actual evolution of the original arcade game, while still maintaining a strong connection to what made Donkey Kong great in the first place. It was massively successful at what it was doing, and as a result sold pretty well. I can't prove this, but it's my suspicion that someone at Hasbro Interactive took notice of this game and decided to see if they could recreate its success themselves. 

A familiar (and very dangerous for frogs) scene

A familiar (and very dangerous for frogs) scene

Frogger was their first attempt, and it follows the Donkey Kong '94 template very closely. I don't mean that as a slight. Nintendo's Donkey Kong revival was a stroke of brilliance, and applying that formula to other simple arcade-style games held a tremendous amount of potential. Fortunately for Hasbro, it paid off big. First, it plays the nostalgia card very smartly. When you start the game, you're treated to a delightful CG intro that begins with actual gameplay from the arcade original. Then the camera spins around, and everything morphs into "modern" 3D images, and you get a feel for the colorful new art direction Frogger has adopted. Once you actually get to the game itself, those nostalgia strings are plucked again as the first set of stages play just like the arcade original, all while looking like a shiny new (for the time) PlayStation game. 

The first thing Frogger veterans noticed was that Frogger himself moved just like he did in the original. Traversal was always done hop by hop, essentially making your movement grid-based. A tap of the D-pad moved Frogger one square in any of the 4 cardinal directions (no diagonals here!), and that was all you needed to beat the first set of stages. However, adventurous players who decided to mash on all the buttons would come across a series of new moves at Frogger's disposal, including a superhop that still only moved you ahead by one square, but made Frogger jump very high in the process, and a tongue flick that made a long red tongue pop from his mouth. These new moves didn't do much to help you cross the familiar street and river, but it was cool to know there were there. Especially once you finished the "retro" levels.

That tongue wound up having a sort of homing capability that was perfect for grabbing flies without breaking your stride. I mean hop.

That tongue wound up having a sort of homing capability that was perfect for grabbing flies without breaking your stride. I mean hop.

Upon finishing the first set of stages, just like in Donkey Kong, the world opens up big time. It's here where the genius of the game is on display in full force. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel like Pac-man did with the Pac-man World series, they followed the DK '94 model and expanded on the original gameplay in subtle and clever ways, creating the sequel to Frogger we never knew we wanted. Levels added verticality, new traps, secrets to find, and more all while maintaining the same basic hopping mechanic that made Frogger work in the first place. Since the new game was polygonal, the camera could move around, following your movements through some very complicated stages. Those first few levels that were based on the arcade classic became more like a tutorial to prepare you for the challenge ahead, and there was plenty of that.

Frogger for PlayStation was hard. Partially due to some design flaws, but mostly due to some devious level design. The camera can be a problem in a lot of stages because of how zoomed-in it is, but on the whole, the challenge always felt right. You were never meant to feel empowered in Frogger. You're a little frog in a big world, and everything can kill you with ease. This revival is no different, except that now instead of just cars and alligators, there's boulders, lava, traps, birds, and more. It's a bit on the stressful side, but it does a few things right to keep you going.

First, it's got humor. This is an absurd game, really, and making Frogger look as pitiful as he does was a stroke of genius. He was always happy, but he also had a sense of expendibility to him. Whenever he died, the animation was just hilarious and pathetic. It didn't try to turn Frogger into a hero or even much of a character. He was a frog. That's it. And that's all they needed. Second, the music was outstanding. From the moment you start the game, your ears are treated to some very cool beats. It's all very drum heavy, with just the right amount of catchyness thrown in for good measure. The tunes don't loop all that much, and they're all just the right amount of fun. Seriously, give some of this a listen. It's just about as perfect as background music can be, and it fits the mood of the game like a glove.

Climbing extremely vertical stages like this one was where the superhop ability game in handy.

Climbing extremely vertical stages like this one was where the superhop ability game in handy.

Frogger was a tremendous hit, and as such, Hasbro tried their very best to capitalize on it, with varying degrees of success. They snatched up as many retro game licenses as they could and started pumping out new retro revivals as quickly as possible. Some worked surprisingly well, like Pong which added some simple powerups while retaining the original's intense vs matches, and Q*Bert who's gameplay was very well-suited to rapid expansion. Others, like Missile Command and Centipede didn't fare so well. Frogger, on the other hand, started getting sequels faster than you can say "cash grab", but none of them lived up to the original. While this game was developed by SCE Studio Cambridge, best known for creating the MediEvil franchise, the immediate followup was developed by Blitz Games who has the Burger King exclusive Sneak King on their resume, so you can imagine how that went. But it got even worse for our green hero, as Konami acquired the rights to Frogger and began pumping out awful 3D platformers starring a newly redesigned (and hideous) Frogger who now walked on his hind legs and became fleshed out as a character, complete with backstory, a supporting cast, and voice acting. 

Things eventually calmed down for Frogger, and he can now primarily be found on mobile devices starring in very simple, arcade style games. It's not all that glamorous, but it's at least more in tune with what made the franchise fun in the first place. But this original revival, to the best of my knowledge, hasn't been re-released anywhere, which is a real shame. It doesn't try to be anything it doens't need to be. It's simple, challenging, and fun. What more could a frog ask for?