During the early days of gaming, there were many titles out there attempting to ape the success of popular arcade hits by either providing new twists on an existing formula, or simply reskinning an existing game.
Sometimes, these clones were pretty shameless, with little reason to play them over and above the original and best. Sometimes, the clones ended up being better than the home ports of their source material.
And sometimes, like in the case of Russ Wetmore’s Preppie!, released for the Atari 8-Bit computers in 1982, they did enough to distinguish themselves from their inspiration to become great games in their own right.
Wetmore may not be a household name in gaming now, but Preppie! made him pretty famous back in the day — and the story of how the game came about is an inspiring one. Originally working as an author liaison at Scott Adams’ Adventure International outfit — a company which primarily specialised in early text adventure and interactive fiction titles — Wetmore had a strong desire to get into game design, driven partly by the fact that he had been tinkering with computers since the late ’70s, when his father had brought a Tandy TRS-80 Model 1 computer home.
Adams, who had originally hired Wetmore primarily due to the fact that he liked him, his personality and his sense of humour, loaned the aspiring developer an Atari 800 to get him started — Wetmore had felt the lineup of Atari computers were “most viable” at the time for what he wanted to achieve. Keen not to disappoint his friend, mentor and boss who was already a living legend in computer games, Wetmore did his very best to ensure that his first commercial project would not disappoint. And it most certainly did not, being extremely well received by press and public alike.
You can’t get away from the fact that Preppie! is clearly inspired by 1981’s Frogger, given that its basic screen layout involves an area on land in the lower half of the screen, and a watery area with a physically improbable current in the upper half. Beyond this, the setup is rather different, though.
In Preppie! you take on the role of Wadsworth Overcash, a spoiled little rich kid (the titular preppie, a term which, as a Brit, I wasn’t particularly familiar with when I was growing up) who is tasked with retrieving golf balls from a series of increasingly perilous locations. This is where the main twist on the Frogger formula comes in; the goal in Preppie is not simply to get to the top of the screen, but rather to reach all the golf balls, collect them and return them to the bottom of the screen.
At the start of the game, you are retrieving one at a time, but as the game progresses, you are tasked with recovering more in a single level; unlike Frogger, which replenishes its time limit with each new frog you send out on its adventure, in Preppie!, you have a single bar of time limit in which you must recover all of the balls, meaning you will also have to plan the most effective order in which to tackle them.
Hazards in Preppie! consist of lawnmowers, golf carts and bulldozers in the lower half of the screen — these perform the same function as the cars and trucks in Frogger, being fatal to the touch — and boats, alligators and logs in the top half, which act as platforms of varying perilousness.
Another contrast from Frogger comes in how you negotiate these obstacles; whereas Frogger had you moving in predictable “tiles” around the screen, in Preppie! you have relatively free four-directional movement while on land, contrasted with a jump that has a short wind-up time while moving between the waterborne platforms. Experienced Frogger veterans will have to adjust to this because it gives the game quite a different feel — particularly the delay between telling your character to jump and him actually doing it while on the water.
Given the game’s emphasis on precision — particularly in the higher levels, where the obstacles start moving very quickly indeed, requiring you to carefully “thread the needle” on your way to and from your destination — it’s fortunate that the controls are responsive and easy to understand once you get a feel for how the jumping works. The early levels give you ample opportunity to get used to how your character moves and responds to various situations before things really start picking up the pace around level 5 or so; beyond this, you’d better bring your A-game if you want to survive.
The game’s presentation is very solid, particularly given what a relatively early title it was. Critics of the time lavished particular praise on its excellent use of the Atari’s sound chip to produce a convincing four-part harmony rendition of Dvořák’s Humoresque No. 7 in G-flat Major (Op. 101) — a pleasingly pastoral-sounding accompaniment to the game’s rather understated action, emphasising the substantial contrast between it and the popular spaceship shooters of the time.
The graphics are nice, too; the packaging proudly boasts of the fact the game makes use of a mighty 28 colours from the Atari’s palette of 256, and for sure this is a pleasing game to look at, making use of bright, contrasting colours and ensuring that obstacles and your character are clearly distinguishable from the background. While the resolution the game runs at precludes the main character sprite from having very much detail, he nonetheless has a certain degree of personality about him and is definitely immediately recognisable as a distinctive character, even were he to show up in a completely different context, as he eventually did in the game’s maze-based sequel from 1983. (Rather pleasingly, Wetmore acknowledged the original game’s clear inspiration by making the antagonists of Preppie! II giant frogs.)
Ultimately Preppie! remains one of the Atari 8-bit computers’ great games from its early days. Combining a familiar formula with new twists and presentational flourishes that helped set it apart from its contemporary systems, it’s still an immensely solid game today — and for my money, just as enjoyable as the classic on which it is based.