Clu Clu Land is one of those unassuming early Nintendo Entertainment System releases that seems to show up all the time these days, from cameos in Super Smash Bros. to minigames in NES Remix, right alongside classics like Mario and Zelda. Even if you didn't grow up playing Clu Clu Land, most Nintendo fans are at least familiar with the name. These D-list NES titles Nintendo loves to promote can be hit-or-miss... Urban Champion comes to mind. At first glance, Clu Clu Land is another to toss onto the pile, but if you allow yourself to get into its gameplay flow it's a quirky little time waster.
Clu Clu Land was originally released in 1984 in Japan. Players swim through a maze of poles to unveil all the hidden gold ingots on the board, while at the same time trying avoid deadly black holes and sea urchins; you can also turn the tables and kill the urchins for extra points. As you pass over the invisible ingots, they appear onscreen to form familiar shapes like hearts and mushrooms. As you progress later levels add extra challenges like ingots that need to be run over twice to be revealed, rubbery blockades, and multiple black holes to deal with at once.
You play as a fish named Bubbles. Or at least it's supposed to be a fish; it's spherical red fish with arms and legs. The entire experience is reminiscent of Pac-Man, which was one of the most popular games in the world at the time of Clu Clu Land's release. Both games feature bright, circular protagonists navigating around a black single-screen maze while fleeing from multiple enemies that the player can attack for bonus points. Both games even feature onomatopoeia in their titles.
With its "reveal the simple fun shapes" concept, Clu Clu Land is in a way the progenitor of the popular pixel art puzzle games we see today on 3DS, like Pullblox and Pictobits. What really sets Clu Clu Land apart, though, is the controls. Instead of simply moving up, down, left, and right with the D-pad, Bubbles turns by reaching out and spinning on the grid of poles covering the levels. Send her off in one direction, then press the D-pad in the direction of the pole you want her to spin from to adjust her trajectory. Bubbles moves much quicker than Pac-Man or Mario, so it can be hard to keep up with her — it seems unwieldy, but it's exhilarating to speed around the maze once you finally get the hang of it.
Clu Clu Land's controls are difficult to master partially because it's an unusual approach to game control. Most action games of the 1980s feature the "directional pad to move, press A to interact" convention, which becomes second-nature shorthand to gamers. If you know how to control Mario, it's fairly easy to learn how to control Samus or Simon Belmont; those games all have the same basic control setup with minor differences. But Clu Clu Land is an entirely different control paradigm. Modern games do the same thing: if you know how to control Call of Duty, you know how to control the vast majority of first-person shooters. Left analogue stick to move, right stick to move around, right trigger to fire, and so on. Learning to play Clu Clu Land is similar to grasping the unique controls of Mirror's Edge. Awkward at first, but once you make the paradigm shift, Mirror's Edge controls fluidly and intuitively. Clu Clu Land isn't as refined, but it's the same control concept — two decades earlier.
The game has a steep difficulty curve, and once you get accustomed to the controls, Clu Clu Land's replay value comes mainly from trying to beat your own high score. Two-player mode is available through the 3DS' download play feature, where you and a friend can work together to find the golden ingots. It's hectic fun, but you won't be playing for hours and hours. Clu Clu Land is a game best enjoyed in short bursts, as there's not much depth to keep you going much longer than a few minutes at a time. The pick-up-and-play style makes it perfect for 3DS.
Graphics are not Clu Clu Land's strong suit, but it's forgiveable for such an early entry in the NES library, and it actually looks better on the 3DS' small screen than blown up to its full-size with drab colours on Wii U. The art design is most notable for its ingot sprites, which would go on to become the model for rupees in The Legend of Zelda. The 8-bit era is known for its iconic soundtracks, but Clu Clu Land's score is not among them. Its music is short and forgettable.
Unless you grew up playing it or you're a hardcore Zelda fan who wants to see where rupees come from, Clu Clu Land is probably not worth its relatively hefty price tag. It's a shallow experience with little replay value outside beating your high score. If you've got $4.99 (or £3.49) burning a hole in your pocket, though, Clu Clu Land is a fun arcade-style action puzzler and a look into the early days of NES game development. The unconventional controls can be frustrating, but once you get the hang of it, it's an addictive little time sink.