Retrospective - Kid Cameleon - Sega Mega Drive - Level Up Gamer Wear

Retrospective - Kid Cameleon - Sega Mega Drive

The front cover of Kid Chameleon has really stuck with me, I believe it’s one of the best of the Mega Drive era. It’s not particularly original, it’s got the obligatory pseudo realism that afflicted many video game covers at the time, but it has been forever etched in my memory and always manages to make me smile when I see it. I come from a working class background and my parents couldn’t afford to buy me games regularly, so it was down to the trusty local video store to satiate my lust for new video game experiences, so a game like Kid Chameleon, with its variety of kooky protagonists on the cover, really stood out and made me take notice. The Kid himself is an amalgamation of Cory Matthews from the American sitcom Boy Meets World and The Fonz, complete with jeans and black leather jacket. It’s shamefully 90’s and totally charming.

The simplest way to describe Kid Chameleon is Super Mario Bros if it was created by Tim Burton, but it lacks the finesse of Miyamoto’s classics and it isn’t immediately engaging. You will die a lot, and from the get go you are treated to a plethora of things that want to kill you. Fire breathing dragons, dripping slime, moving drill bits, and all this on the first level, I’ve not even mentioned the overbearing factor of time, which counts down regardless of what is happening on screen, it’s not very lenient either and gives little room for exploration, and if you’re like me you will want to head bounce every block on the level to satisfy your borderline OCD, so time will also kill you more often than not. This becomes a major problem later on in the game when time is so short, you will literally need to sprint to the exit, in a blaze of bashed blocks, squished baddies and uncollected gems.

And that’s only part of the heartache because herein lies wickedness that only retro games (and the odd indie game) can afford, the dreaded permadeath. Once your lives have been depleted its game over, back to the start you go a quivering wreck, because naturally, Kid Chameleon doesn’t include a save function or password system for its 100+ levels, so the only way to beat the game is to finish it in one sitting without losing all your lives. Losing a life is playfully mocked by the designers with an audio accompaniment of ‘DIE’ as you succumb to the games many obstacles. My friend and I attempted to conquer it but ultimately failed, what was our tactic I hear you cry? We kept the Mega Drive switched on for about a week, returning every night after a day’s hard studying only to be punished over and over. Of course later iterations of the game, on compilations and what not, did include a save function thus helping maintain the mental health of its players.

It WAS fun though, it was the sort of instant gratification you get from half an hours play through, one that keeps you coming back for more, the rabid collection of gems akin to that of Mario and his coins. There is also a good variety of levels, some deviating from the usual genre tropes such as a beach level, street levels and some set in the fiery pits of hell, but I’ll come to that in a moment. What really differentiated Kid Chameleon was the heady mix of helmets you could collect to power up the old Kid and give him a new persona. This was genuinely original and much fun was derived from collecting new helmets and discovering new powers. There were the general common-or-garden helmets that transformed Kid Chameleon into, what can only be described as Jason Voorhees, with hockey mask and throwing axes a standard, a samurai, and my personal favourite, fly guy. Other helmets that appeared less often were a tank that fired skulls and others that gave you the capabilities to shoots lasers and transform into a flying whirlwind. A motley crew that was fun, creative and very leftfield and each helmet was accompanied by its own joyful sound to denote your transformation.

The levels that held all this madness together were equally as deviant. That one ‘misplaced’ bouncy block that sends you plummeting to your death is the work of a sadist. And it happens throughout, obstacles that will test your reflexes and skill, some levels will be won by pure luck, others will be wrought with precision jumps and unpredictable enemies that make reaching that end level flag a genuinely rewarding experience. Each handful of levels would give way to a boss fight – a collection of three fireball spewing heads skewered on a spike that would float around the level, disturbing and infuriating in equal measures. And of course, who could forget the drill wall levels, these required you to think fast and act faster as the wall closed in on you.

They don’t really make games like this anymore, although there have been some great examples of taking old game design and reinvigorating it for a contemporary audience, Spelunky is a good example. Unfortunately these games would never reach the market penetration of an AAA blockbuster but they will happily lie undiscovered by many, and loved by the hard core elite that will cherish and master them for years to come. Now that’s the sign of a great game.

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