Frogger Returns Review
Posted by Sean Aaron
The return of an arcade legend.
It cannot be denied that Frogger is one of the original arcade hits. It was ported to pretty much every 8-bit console and computer system in the world, bootlegged numerous times and even immortalised in song on the seminal "Pac-Man Fever" LP by Buckner & Garcia. It's the only Konami arcade game from the early '80s that's been kept alive as a franchise property (unless you regard Gradius as a direct sequel to Scramble or Super Cobra) with numerous titles released during the past console generation. Frogger Returns stands out as the first follow-up in the past decade that really tries to be faithful to the gameplay of the original arcade game and should satisfy old-school fans.
Frogger started out as a simple game played with a 4-way joystick wherein the goal was simply to get a frog through various hazards from the bottom of the screen to one of 5 different lily pads at the top, repeating the journey until all five were filled before starting afresh with increased hazards. Sequels in the 3D era starting with the Sony Playstation were noteworthy for attempting to update the graphics and gameplay, but sadly these came with mixed results. Frogger is more of a free-form maze game than a platformer, and many of these games were plagued with camera issues and confusing level layouts. Frogger Returns is a refreshing entry in the series because it's faithful to the original game structure, yet it provides some interesting new gameplay that makes it more than a mere graphical face-lift of the original.
The menus for the game have a nice, but graphically sparse look with a bug-eyed frog looking around warily whilst the odd car whizzes by against an empty white background. There are choices for Single Player and Multi-Player games, Options (just music/sound effect volume levels or viewing staff credits) and viewing High Score tables. Purists should note that the original arcade game is not included in any shape or form, which will mean there's still a market for it if and when it appears on the Virtual Console Arcade service.
There are four different single player modes which are the meat-and-potatoes of the game. Arcade mode is the pure arcade experience (duh): you have four lives and a limited time in which to navigate Frogger through hazards to reach the five home spots at the end. You play through four different levels which gradually increase in difficulty and repeat until all lives are lost at which point you enter your initials on the high score table - if you're any good.
Time Trial and Score Attack modes allow players to play any of the four levels individually or run through all four to get the top score on the board. In the Time Trial there are unlimited lives; the goal is to complete the level (or series) in the least amount of time possible. Score Attack is similar to Arcade in that there's a time limit and four lives, but the game has a fixed ending with bonus points awarded for the number of lives and time remaining. Both of these modes have separate leaderboards for each of the levels and also for the full run meaning there are a total of 11 leaderboards for the high score junkie - though these are only local boards so you'll have to break out your camera for internet bragging rights. There's a fourth single-player game mode which has no time limit, unlimited lives and no score which sees you playing through the four levels and then getting a screen congratulating you for your efforts; this mode is aimed at "casual players," whatever those are.
Visually the game is very different from its sprite-based ancestor; the graphics are all 3D polygons and while the objects look like brightly coloured, slightly chunky Playstation-era models in screenshots, they're quite pleasingly animated in motion. The zoomed-in camera means the screen scrolls vertically as you hop towards home, and the game is presented with an isometric tilt, but otherwise the structure is the same as the arcade original: start out at the bottom and make your way through hazards to reach one of five lily pads at the top using only the to guide you.
The levels are quite well designed and present interesting variations on the hazards of the original game. The opening city level sees you dodging traffic to reach the banks of a river where you must avoid bulldogs with bulging eyes, then ride familiar logs and turtles to reach the other side where you need to get past a couple of conveyors with crates to get home (don't forget to give the pink lady frogs a lift for bonus points!). There are later themed levels in a subway where you dodge and surf the tops of trains whilst avoiding rats, a sewer where you're riding barrels floating on lanes of waste, dodging rats and steam-venting pipes, and finally a swamp level with more nods to the arcade classic in the form of snakes and alligators to dodge and ride.
There are a few more references to the original game in the audio department with similar twangs for the frog jumps and splashing sounds for water deaths or "boooooms" for car deaths, but sadly the original music is absent with the only nod in that direction being the insert coin sound being heard at the Channel screen before launching the game. New in-game music is inoffensive but forgettable, though new sound effects for car traffic, barking dogs and squeaking rats are well done.
The biggest change to the gameplay from the arcade is the presence of power-ups and event triggers in some of the levels. Power-ups appear in the form of crates which either add time to the clock (you only have 60 seconds to reach goal which resets every time you succeed or lose a life in the Arcade and Score Attack modes), temporarily freeze all enemies on screen, temporarily reverse the flow of traffic (cars, dogs, rats and snakes - according to the level) or grant limited invulnerability that even allows you to hop on water. Note that frozen enemies are still lethal to the touch, and even an "invulnerable" water-walking frog will still die if he's so much as one pixel to either side of the home gate when he makes that final leap! In addition to the power-ups that show up randomly (they become a lot less common after the first level) the city and subway levels have big green dots that will stop traffic or cause trains to run, respectively, should you decide to trigger them.
Whilst the vertical remote orientation might seem awkward it's actually quite comfortable (probably due to not having to use any buttons), which is a good thing because despite the Wii Shop listing the Classic Controller as one of the control methods, it's not actually supported. Some interesting choices have been made in relation to collision detection which might seem like bugs, but actually faithfully echo the experience of the arcade classic. Anyone who's spent any time with the original arcade game will be familiar with the experience of a car's near miss resulting in death or thinking you landed on the edge of the turtle only to drop in the drink, so it's really the "fun" kind of frustration that's nice to see for a change.
More annoying is the fact that you're able to see a bit beyond the edge of the playfield which is only subtly indicated with a slight colour change or some kind of background marker like a barrel. This means that riding anything which will take you off the edge of the screen (which naturally results in death) to hit that last lily pad is a lot more dangerous than in the arcade since you'll die before reaching the edge of the screen. The amusing death animation of your frog's ghost flying up to heaven by flapping his back legs will only slightly mollify you, but you should be able to adapt.
The isometric camera angle works well for the most part, but you can be forgiven for jumping to your doom because you forgot there was actually a lane between the riverbank and the turtles due to the gap falsely appearing to be narrow enough to jump across. Whilst there are no options to set for number of lives or difficulty (the former at least would have been nice) anyone fearing that the inclusion of power-ups will make the game too easy should rest-assured that the natural hazards included the game make it quite challenging and the speed of enemies and platforms increases within each level every time you bring a frog home. Anyone who can get past level 3 during an Arcade Mode game will certainly have this reviewer's respect!
The multiplayer game modes look more like the arcade game, having a pulled-out camera that is more top-down in angle and presents the entire play-field on one screen. Multiplayer games all take place on a variation of the city map which removes the bulldogs from the riverbank and replaces the conveyors at the top of the single-player game with the lily pads of the arcade. Multiplayer games are limited to two players with an unlimited number of lives in variations on two games presented as four different modes.
The first two modes see players trying to reach lily pads with the goal being to occupy the most at the end of the game. In the first variation on this "race" theme whichever player has the most lily pads after all five are occupied wins. In the second one there's a time limit of 5 minutes and players are able to take each other's lily pads, so it's a race to reoccupy lily pads to ensure that you still have the majority at the end of the time limit.
Referencing a bonus item from the original arcade game, the other two modes focus on eating flies for points. In the first of these games you need to collect flies and then return to a lily pad. A count is kept of the number of flies collected, but all will be lost if you die before you reach the lily pad. Flies come in three colours, each a different point value. After all lily pads are occupied the highest score wins. In the second fly collection game all flies are worth 1 point each and players just hop about for five minutes trying to get as many as possible. Points are scored immediately and lily pads are irrelevant; in fact trying to jump on one just gets you dead!
The multiplayer games are okay as extras, but honestly aren't that much fun. The power-ups from the single-player game make an appearance (the traffic-reversal one has implications for cutthroat play) and players can kill their opponents by jumping into them providing a little bit of competitive flair, but they're limited in entertainment value and pale in comparison to the stronger single-player offering.
Frogger Returns makes a welcome addition to the WiiWare line-up. It features good old-fashioned gameplay which remains faithful to its arcade ancestor whilst providing interesting new levels that enhance the experience: a hallmark of good retro game design. It's let down by limited options and lackluster multiplayer modes, but if you're a fan of classic arcade games it's definitely worth your 500 points.