Tail ‘Gator and Speed
Often, action games have a really interesting relationship with speed. There’s the fact that the more you play a game, the easier and faster you beat its earlier stages, getting in a groove, which is the basis of the design of most arcade games or “arcade-y games” that will always throw you back at the beginning of the game once you turn it off or lose your lives. There’s also the natural push-and-pull of trying to do things fast — being in a hurry can lead to sloppy play, but being fast often means also trying to play perfectly, since mistakes can cost you time. There’s also the great ascension of popularity of video game speedruns, with huge events like Games Done Quick being based entirely around beating games as fast as possible.
It’s easy to forget due to all that, that not all games are about speed — speeding through isn’t the main goal of the vast majority of games, or even the way to best enjoy most games fully, and that skill can mean a lot of things rather just than knowing the way to fastest beat a game and executing it. That’s obvious because of the existence of puzzle games, tactical games and RPGs that are about doing a series of single slow highly calculated actions, rather than winging it, which is the kind of play that fast-paced action games lend themselves to. But should all action games be about that?
This is where this small action platformer comes from. Tail ‘Gator is a 1991 game made by Natsume for the Game Boy. It’s a platformer where each stage is a small room in which you have to find the key to open its exit to clear it. There are several treasure boxes scattered throughout, and the key is always located on the last treasure box you open, meaning you can do them in any order you’d like. You can move right and left, jump, and attack with your tail to open boxes or defeat spawning enemies. Very basic stuff. What I think was most impressive about Tail ‘Gator to me is that it does so much with so little, and most of all, it knows what kind of game it is, and it’s a game that deliberately tells you, with all of its mechanics, to not hurry up.
For starters, let’s look at the items and power-ups that Tail ‘Gator rewards you with. You have Hearts, which gives you health. There’s the Bomb, which will destroy all enemies on screen when picked up and give you a big bonus depending on how many of them you got, which requires careful timing as to catch enemies on your explosion that are constantly on the move or are respawning. Then, you have the B-item(which I’m guessing stands for Bonus), which will give you at first a hundred points. If you keep collecting B-items without getting hit, the points it gives you get exponentially higher, with 10000 points as the ceiling. Once you get hit, it’s back to 100. And finally, you have the Power item, which will keep increasing your Power bar. Once your Power bar is full, you get a non-permanent tail beam power-up which allows you to hit enemies from further away. At first, it looks like it’s a time sensitive power-up as you notice the bar dropping down, but it’s actually not: The bar goes down the more you use it, meaning it’s more of an “ammo” bar rather than a “countdown” bar. This, alongside the other items, and the lack of any score bonuses or incentives to clear levels faster, perfectly frame the game as one that’s concerned first of all of whether you’re doing mistakes or being sloppy, and lets you play it at whatever pace that’s most comfortable to you. It’s more about careful timing rather than blazing through.
This slower, more deliberate pacing, and levels that can feel slightly maze-like with small tricks to them that require you to not act thoughtlessly, makes Tail ‘Gator feel like a very interesting “lost link” between action platforming and puzzle that you don’t see much nowadays. I don’t call it a puzzle game because there’s never anything that requires more than a handful of seconds for you to figure out what is it that you have to do, or that it demands too specific solutions; However, Tail ‘Gator’s pace make it feel somewhat puzzle-like. It has slow-moving and extremely predictable enemies that you can see where they’re going from a mile away, but on the hardest levels, if you’re not careful and forward-thinking enough, can totally put you in a situation where you have no other choice but to eat damage.
It makes sense; Handhelds, and most of all, the Game Boy itself was considered by developers as a casual system that brought in many people who weren’t all about video games with Tetris, and that sort of framed the system as the one stop for more puzzle-esque, casual, and slower paced games. Perhaps another contributing factor was the hardware itself, the Game Boy screen is extremely hard to see without any backlight and the screen ghosting doesn’t help much, so it feels reasonable to not demand too much reflex out of it and look for other ways to properly bring challenge.
It shows how carefully designed Tail ‘Gator is that the vast majority of its mechanics are directly in favor of a more careful, slower kind of play, without ever getting too monotonous or tricky. Another good example are these cloud platforms that appear on several levels — they slowly sink you down until you fall right through them, but you can always do a small jump and it’ll position yourself right at the top of them. On harder levels, it can sometimes require very careful timing and a small amount of patience so you won’t drop from them right onto an incoming enemy. Enemies are so clockwork-like, however, that you can totally predict the timing of when you should start sinking without having to re-adjust, and it feels really good to do so.
Levels are really creative with the simple pieces that compose them, the music is giddy and cheerful, and the difficulty curve is tastefully quick without feeling sudden. All in all Tail ‘Gator is a very well thought and polished small game. If there’s one criticism I have is that some levels require you to really see them fully to really understand what is going to be the optimal way through them, which leads to a lot of realizing halfway you should’ve gone the other way or that doing this or that would’ve been faster or easier— it’s not unfair, mind you, I never got damaged because of that, it’s just a bit time wasting and I think it could feel really good to figure out the whole level just from observation before you actually start tackling it. In some games like this, you can just pause the game and move the camera around when paused to scout the whole level, and I think Tail ‘Gator could benefit from that.
Tail ‘Gator wasn’t played in original hardware, .gifs produced by the author on the same way she used to play the game. Palettes also produced by her just for your viewing pleasure.