Saturday 16 August 2014

Circus Charlie (Konami, 1984)

Released for the arcades and MSX by Konami in 1984.
Released for the Commodore 64 by Parker Bros. / Konami in 1984.
Released for the Nintendo Famicom by Soft Pro International in 1986.
Further details are so far unknown in all cases.



Like the arcade flyer says, Circus Charlie has long been claimed to be "the first authentic circus game in history!" Well, it's a circus game - that's all the authenticity it perhaps is claiming for, but how would you count it? If you count games like Exidy's Circus from 1977 (a breakout variant), Channel 8's Circus from 1983 (a text adventure) or Funtastic's Big Top from 1983 (a platformer), then it's clearly not the first circus themed game. If you're looking for the first circus themed collection of mini games in the vein of Track & Field, then we're on the right tracks.

Konami, as they did for many genres, once again defined a certain type of a game that would be the one so many other game developers would draw their ideas from, and try to enhance on it. This time, the theme is performance arts under the bigtop. Curiously, it never became that big of a hit as I always wanted to believe it did, but it certainly does have its place in the history of arcade and home video/computer gaming.

I haven't been able to trace any old reviews of the game as of yet, but that shouldn't be much of a surprise, since even the current ratings are fairly hard to come by. At Lemon64, 22 voters have given the C64 version a total score of 7.1; 92 voters at Generation-MSX have given their version two stars out of five; Arcade Museum's strangely named KLOV/IAM 5 Point User Score is currently 3.87 from a total of 5 votes, and a Nintendo rating could only be found from MobyGames, which is now 3.1.



Also developed by Konami, Track & Field was arguably the first arcade/video sports game to feature the "collection of mini games" setting around some sort of a theme. In a sense, Circus Charlie was little more than an extension of this idea. However, instead of making the player to mash buttons or destroy joysticks with frantic waggling, Circus Charlie was clearly developed with controller longevity in mind, with the focus now being on precision of performance.

The original arcade game has six main events, and a bonus event, which plays after every ten completed levels. The levels involve riding a tamed lion through flaming hoops, walking on a tightrope while jumping over monkeys, jumping across a series of trampolines while avoiding projectiles, walking and jumping on man-sized balls, jumping hurdles on a horse, and traveling on trapeze. The bonus event is merely a special version of the trampoline stage. Not once during the game are you required to control Charlie up or down, so the controls should be simple enough. There are hidden bonuses in the game, as you would expect from a classic Konami arcade game, but I will not be getting into them - StrategyWiki exists for that sort of thing.

I wouldn't call Circus Charlie anywhere near the best of the circus-themed multi-event games out there, but since it is most likely the progenitor of that sub-genre, it easily earns the respect it deserves. Circus is not a very overused theme in video games, never was. MobyGames only lists 40 games  under that particular theme, from 1977 to 2010 - the last of which, by the way, is a Finnish product. Anyway, if you have a fondness towards circus attractions, and happen to be a retro gamer while at it, Circus Charlie is a good, fun title to spend a few lazy afternoons on. Now, which version should you pick, if you were to choose one?



Since the C64 version is the only one to having been released on a format that you need to wait while it loads in, the need for a loading times comparison doesn't exist. The availability of each game, on the other hand, might be a lot more troublesome an issue, but let's not get into that.

Circus Charlie's basic idea and style of execution should already be quite clear from the above, so now we take a look at the levels in the original ARCADE order. To begin with, the game can be played in either a one player mode or a two player mode, but since the two player mode is played in turns, it offers no proper difference to be worth talking about. Strangely, though, the arcade version is the only one of the four in which you can choose your starting level, once you have started the game.

Level 1 is an Easy level, in which your job is to ride a tamed lion and jump through fiery hoops and over obstacles, and collect bags of money while at it. When you reach the other end of the level, you need to jump on the designated platform. The same goes for all the other levels.

Level 2 is a Normal level, in which you walk on a tightrope across the big top, jumping over a line of monkeys. Occasionally, a differently coloured monkey will run and jump over the other monkeys, so you need to time your jumps carefully.

Level 3 is another Normal level, in which you have to jump across a number of trampolines while avoiding knife throwers and fire breathers, and collect money bags from the ceiling for bonus points. I'd rather call Level 2 closer to being Moderately Easy, because what makes Level 3 slightly more difficult is that you only have four jumps on each trampoline before you jump through the roof, and the final obstacle can be a real pain in the back for a beginner.

Then we get to the Hard levels on the 4th one, which could be called Ball Walk or something. You start by walking on a big ball, and more balls will come at you, which you need to jump on and over, and continue this until you reach the ending platform.

In the logically Harder Level 5, your mission is to ride on a really fast horse, and jump on trampolines that don't necessarily make much sense in any three-dimensional sense. The trampolines are places rather randomly on three different layers, and are of various different sizes, and mostly come at you in pairs.

Level 6 is truly the Hardest of the bunch, and your mission in it is to swing and jump through a series of trapezes and trampolines, if necessary. Because all the other levels have been mostly fast action and the control has been mostly on the player, the relative slowness of the event only adds to the difficulty, because you have to readjust yourself into the new rhythm.

There is also a special bonus level, which comes after successfully getting through 10 levels. This is a modified version of Level 3, in which the trampolines are now placed over a flooded circus ring (or more precisely, an aquarium inside a circus tent), and instead of knife throwers and fire breathers, you are faced with killer dolphins, who jump over every other trampoline and swim under the others.

Unlike the StrategyWiki article claims, I have never witnessed the trampoline level to be part of the COMMODORE 64 conversion. Not in easy mode, and not in hard mode either. In easy mode, you first get only to play four levels before the game loops from the beginning with a slightly higher difficulty setting. The levels are, according to the arcade version: 1, 2, 4 and 5. The second loop adds level 6 to the set, which makes the second loop nearly impossible to beat, due to the trapeze level being horrible to control and requires for the player to die at least once before reaching the end due to what seems like a bug regarding the trampoline placements. It doesn't help that Charlie sometimes responds completely irrationally to your controls while on the trapeze and while in the air. The hard mode is already much harder from the beginning, and goes all the way to the trapezes in the same sequence as the second loop in easy mode. Other than the problem with the trapeze level, the game plays fairly well, although it requires some getting used to the slightly differently performed jumps. Singularly, the easy level starts off VERY easy indeed - there are no faster monkeys or vases of fire on the first playthrough, for example, and the more familiar pace gets picked up after the first four levels. This does allow for a practice round for unexperienced gamers, but for veterans, it only serves to annoy and bore you more quickly. Happily, however, if you happen to find yourself in want of a challenge, the game offers further difficulty levels once you get past the second loop, so you hardcore gamers are in for a treat.

The NINTENDO version is the one I've played the most, due to it being on the 52-in-1 pirate cart I've mentioned before (although on the pirate cart, the game has been listed as "Circus Troupe"). Just as the C64 version, it is missing the trampoline level, but the order of levels is 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6 already on the first playthrough. For better or worse, this one only has two distinctive difficulty levels, which can be called easy (A) and medium (B). The harder levels are hard enough for a beginner, but if you happen to be a veteran, you could easily loop this game for ages. Level A is happily more difficult than the C64 counterpart, but level B is not really difficult enough to give the Nintendo version of Circus Charlie too much replay value. At its most difficult, you are put against double flame-hoops, double jumpy monkeys, more balls, shorter horse-level platforms and trapezes without a safety feature.

I found the MSX conversion to be a surprisingly interesting one. Unsurprisingly, this version skips the trampolines level as well, just like the other home conversions, but otherwise, there are quite a lot of differences. For starters, you cannot select a difficulty level - instead, you are given the choices for
keyboard and joystick controls for one or two players. The first level plays as well as it should, even the infamous MSX screen update problem has been somewhat conquered in this game. Level 2 offers a surprising change in accuracy of conversion - this one actually gets closest to the arcade original in that while you walk forwards and backwards, the screen scrolls along with you in a slightly disorienting manner. Also, at this point, it should be noted that the MSX conversion has been blessed with a controllability feature, which can not be found in any other versions: you have two different jumps, high and low, both utilised with the same button (space bar or the joystick's fire button), by tapping the button quickly or pressing it for a longer time. In the ball walking level, this feature becomes more important, since you can easily make wrong jumps if you don't know it. The horse level is radically different, and this time not for the better. Changing your horse's speed does not happen instantaneously in this version, making it a completely different experience, and requires complete readjustment to the event. Unfortunately, the final level is pretty much a disaster. The scrolling is awkward at best, the trampolines randomly appear, the trapezes move slightly with the screen with no regard to the ceiling attachments, and the end level platform is buggy as hell and might send you off to the opposite direction if you land at all awkwardly, which it is certainly not supposed to be doing. All in all, there are some slight enhancements to the original in this version, but there are more unwanted features here as well.

Clearly, the Nintendo version is the most accessible one of the lot, but it doesn't offer you the whole deal. The C64 version plays just fine until you get to the trapeze level, which is frankly even worse to play than the MSX version, and that is saying a lot. Also, it doesn't offer you every level either. Neither does the MSX version, for that matter, but it offers completely different gameplay elements. Too bad not too many of the new elements can be considered improvements. As good as all the home conversions are, none of them have all the levels that the arcade original has, and the arcade version can also boast of a unique level selection screen, as well as a high score list, which is what all good old arcade games should have.

4. MSX



Back when the arcade games still ruled over the home conversions, every aspect of the games were better in the arcades by default, with some few rare exceptions. Circus Charlie is not one of the exceptions - it is as unparalleled in graphics as it is in content. The quality and amount of detail in all the graphics was simply inconceivable on home computers and consoles at the time. I can only show you screenshots, but I have a suspicion that it should prove the point well enough.

Screenshots from the arcade version.

The screenshots collage above shows pretty much the entire set that the game offers. Just to be clear as glass, here in the order of appearance, from left to right are - in top row: title screen, level selection screen, level 1, level 2 and level 3; in bottom row: level 4, level 5, level 6, bonus level and high scores table. The other versions will try to follow this pattern as far as possible.

Screenshots from the Commodore 64 version.

Even for Parker Bros' standards, the C64 conversion feels like a proper underachievement. The sprites are big, blocky, lacking in colour and ugly, but at least the game plays very smoothly (at least up until the trapeze level, which is slow, flickery and slightly glitchy), probably because they left the details and quality out of the equation. Even the horse from the horse level is missing from the conversion - you ride the lion again instead. Graphically, the most interesting feature in the game is the main menu scroller, which doesn't scroll very well, but is strangely colourful and offers something that isn't in any other version.

Screenshots from the MSX version.

The MSX conversion is definitely closer to the real thing than the C64 effort, at least in terms of graphics quality. The colouring is not much better, though - my main problem with the it is that instead of having a green (or even blue) ground colour, you get black. I suppose this must help with the scrolling issues somehow, which is the more preferable way to go, but it still makes the game look unnaturally dark and unhappy. Still, most of the graphics are as good as I have ever seen in a classic MSX game, and the (mostly) very good scrolling helps to give a good impression. Even if I don't really agree with the horse level getting a new control style, the scrolling method has been handled very nicely in it. The trapeze level has the dubious honour of making my head ache due to insane amount of flickering and strange scrolling, as well as some serious occasional glitching.

Screenshots from the Nintendo Famicom version.

Based on the graphics alone, one could argue that Circus Charlie was developed in such a way that it would be best represented on the NINTENDO, if it were to have home conversions. It truly is very good and faithful to the original, even though it does miss a lot of the little details and flourishments that only the arcade was able to produce at the time. The scrolling is perfect in every other level, except for the tightrope bit, and the animations and details are as close to the original as you could ever want. Of course, the developers had done two years of work before the Nintendo version got released, so perhaps a couple of more years would have done wonders for the other conversions as well?

3. MSX



All the tunes featured in the original ARCADE game are very circus-like, but apart from the excerpt from Strauss' "An der schönen blauen Donau, Op. 314", commonly known as "the Blue Danube", I have no idea if they are old school carnival music or written specifically for Circus Charlie. They fit the theme so well, that I'm almost certain that they are rearrangements from old carnival tunes, but if
they are indeed original work, even better. The game features five main songs, plus a short melody for losing a life. The tunes for levels 1 and 2 are also played in levels 5 and 4, respectively, and both are very upbeat. Level 3 tune is a funny polkaesque tune, and is also played when you enter the high scores list. The Blue Danube is played during the trapeze level, and there's another upbeat tune for the level selection screen. All in all, a very fitting soundtrack, and has just enough variety to keep your interest up. In addition to all that, we have a nicely wide selection of sound effects, from the coin insertion effect through all happy bouncing and money-collecting bonus sounds, to the failure sounds and entering initials on the high score list at the end.

In the COMMODORE 64 version, we only get cheap renditions of the Blue Danube and level 1 and 2 tunes, as well as the failure melody. What I mean by cheap, is that all the tunes are made in two simultaneous voices to make room for the cheap single-voice sound effects, all of which are performed using the same harpsichord-meets-glockenspiel type instrument. It is adequate, but awfully underwhelming.

Interestingly, the MSX and NINTENDO versions have Frank White Meacham's "American Patrol" in levels 1 and 4, and I'm suspecting Konami ran into some copyright trouble with the tune featured in the original version. If anyone knows better, do tell us. The rest of the tunes are as they should be. Happily, the tunes are also much nicer to listen to than in the C64 conversion, even though the amount of voices used is exactly the same - the instrumentation is more ear-friendly and logical. Both of these also have some nice crowd cheers and other sound effects missing from the C64 version, so I'm afraid the SID will have to lose this time. There are some slight differences between the MSX and Nintendo versions, such as tonal quality and amount of sound effects played in certain times. For this reason, the MSX will have to settle for the third place.

3. MSX



Update! 6th of January, 2019:
Long overdue update of another video link, courtesy of Gaming History Channel. In this video, you can see all four original versions in action, as well as two straight MSX ports to the Colecovision and Sega SG-1000, and the two latter-day releases of the arcade original on Sony PlayStation and Nintendo DS on Konami Classic Series Arcade Hits compilations.



As another attempt to balance out the comparison list's winning numbers, Circus Charlie makes a good example of arcade superiority, as well as the priorisation of certain game developers' release platforms. Konami has well been known for using the MSX as a testing ground of sorts, implementing some ideas to its games that might not necessarily be in any other version, and this game is no different in that regard. In all honesty, it's a wonder anyone ever bothered to convert the game for the C64, particularly with such little knowledge of the hardware. I do believe this one would call for a retro remake for retro platforms. The Famicom version is really the only one of the home conversions worth playing, and somewhat ironically, it's made by a third-party developing team.

1. ARCADE: Playability 4, Graphics 4, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 12
2. NINTENDO: Playability 3, Graphics 3, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 9
3. MSX: Playability 1, Graphics 2, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 5
4. COMMODORE 64: Playability 2, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 4

By a stroke of luck, the newest issue of the RESET magazine arrived just in time to remind me of a Game That Wasn't, which us GTW-followers already have known about for quite a while, but I surely would have forgotten about it otherwise. Alligata Software had commissioned Stephen Kellett to program a Circus Charlie clone in 1985, and Games That Weren't website does have a somewhat playable preview to try out, but us less capable folks won't be able to make it through level 1 due to some really bad bugs. Judging by the screenshots at the website, the conversion would have been more thorough than the Parker Bros. conversion, had it ever been finished, but Alligata didn't like what they saw in the first preview and pulled the plug. However, it could be possible that we will yet be able to see a fixed and more playable preview of Circus Fun!, so I for one am keeping my fingers crossed for that one.

I've got a feeling that I will be covering more circus-themed games this year in some way. There are a few really good games out there in that genre, that I might as well dig into it when I find the time. Next time, however, I will be starting a new series, the subject of which I shall keep to myself until the first entry is finished and released.

That's all folks, hope you enjoyed it!
Thanks for reading - leave a comment if you please!


  1. The 1st stage tune in the arcade version was a rendition of the Rose Marie Polka,also interesting to note is that the level select music is Washington and Lee Song

    1. Oh, thanks for the info! Been wondering about that for ages. =)

  2. In NES clone (familicom) version, first tune was "american patrol" a glen miller's song

    1. Yes, American Patrol was mentioned in the "Sounds" chapter. Glenn Miller made a brilliant version of it, for sure, but as I said, the tune was originally written in 1885 by Frank Meacham, a couple of decades before Glenn Miller was even born. =)