Before Splatoon, before Pikmin, Nintendo had Clu Clu Land.
PLAYERS: 1-2 simultaneous
RELEASE DATE: October 1985
Before the NES, Nintendo was known for their fun, quirky arcade games and their Game and Watch Series. Like most games before Super Mario Bros., the goal for Nintendo’s games wasn’t to beat the game: it was to achieve the highest amount of possible points before you lost all of your lives. Simpler times, to be sure, and with the exception of Super Mario Bros., Nintendo carried this arcade tradition of “points or bust” over to many of the first NES games. Clu Clu Land is one of these point-driven games that feels tailor-made for an arcade: it’s fast, it’s difficult, it’s both time-based and point driven, and its play style is definitely unique. While I wouldn’t cry out for Clu Clu Land‘s resurrection, I can appreciate the originality behind this early, oft-forgotten game.
Clu Clu Land‘s gameplay distinguishes itself from the other early game releases of the day by being so downright strange. If I had to pigeonhole it into a genre, I’d say it’s an action-puzzler, but it really is just its own game. Each stage has a series of pivots that you, a fish/lobster hybrid must navigate through and grab onto. Some pivots hide golden coins that can only be revealed by swinging around them; the amount of coins in each level is shown at the top of the screen. Once all of the coins are exposed, they form to make a picture and the level is complete. While you try and expose the coins, green blowfish and whirlpools try and stop you. There are also pink bouncy barriers that pop up every now and then – while not directly an enemy, the barriers do a good job of thrusting you places you don’t want to go. There’s also a time limit for extra flavor and difficulty.
The gameplay in and of itself is fairly simple, but the controls take some getting used to. You steer your fish/lobster around the pivots using the D-pad. This can get tricky because the divots are all spaced closely together and, when I played, it seemed that my character didn’t always respond as quickly as he himself was traveling. In other words, I’d be trying to twist him around a certain pivot and he’d be moving so fast, he would either biff the grab entirely, or be halfway down the screen and twisting around a different pivot. It makes for some frustration, but unlike most frustrating NES games, Clu Clu Land’s challenge feels like it can be conquered with practice and patience. Once you get the controls down, you just need to deal with the increased speed frequency of each successive level and you’ll be good to go.
Truth time: I had never played Clu Clu Land before yesterday. It’s one of the few early NES games that I had yet to try and, as expected, it impressed me. Before there was such a thing as a console launch, Nintendo really provided a wide array of genres and games for their very first system. Look at this list: 10-Yard Fight, Baseball, Clu Clu Land, DK Jr. Math, Duck Hunt, Excitebike, Golf, Gyromite, Hogan’s Alley, Ice Climber, Kung Fu, Mach Rider, Pinball, Stack-Up, Super Mario Bros, Tennis, Wild Gunman, Wrecking Crew. Not all of those games are classics or fondly remembered today, but there’s such variety there! Even the games considered overly simplistic by today’s standards – Kung Fu, Ice Climber, Pinball, among others – still have a modicum of fun to offer, and in 1985, were absolutely groundbreaking. I doubt I would throw Clu Clu Land on my regular playlist today, but it’s nice to revisit Nintendo’s humble origins from time to time.