The Retro Chronicles… Dizzy II: Treasure Island Dizzy

DIZZY II: TREASURE ISLAND DIZZY

Release Date: 1988/1989

Genre: Puzzle-platformer

Developer: The Oliver Twins

Publisher: Codemasters

Available: Originally on ZX Spectrum, ported to Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, Amiga, Atari ST, NES (Quattro Adventure), Amiga CD32 and Windows. Review copies played on ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64. Freely available online via emulator (Abandonware).

So, I was sitting here wondering what to do for my first retro review on Gaming Respawn, and then I thought, “Why not go back to one of your earliest retro memories?”

It’s as good a place to start as any, so here we are – the mighty Dizzy; an anthropomorphic egg that wears boxing gloves and that is apparently on a severe caffeine high.

No, really, that’s the main character.

First, a retrospective. Dizzy was the creation of the Oliver Twins, brothers from 1980s Britain who took advantage of the bedroom coder boom of the era to make highly successful video games for the burgeoning home computer market. In the UK there was no “Video Game Crash of 1983” – sure, we had Atari and the likes, we liked it, but the home computer was where it was at; namely Sir Clive Sinclair’s ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64. This was because the price point was much more reasonable for the system itself, and the games were generally dirt cheap as well – especially when compared to NES cartridges (you could often buy a dozen games for a ZX Spectrum for the same price as just one NES game).

Instead of major developers making titles, you had publishers who hired one or two coders to make the game for them. So, when Atari went and “E.T.’d” the gaming industry into oblivion, we still had the home computer to game on, and it progressed to become a true Golden Age of gaming all the way through the decade.

Why an egg for a main character? Well, simply put, it was easier to animate than other concepts for the purposes of jumping and rotating. Why boxing gloves? They stood out from the body and added character. Why was he shaking like he’d just hooked himself up to a drip containing the finest Colombian espresso? No idea!

As for the game itself, it presents itself as a 2D-platformer from the outset, with the titular Dizzy roaming side-to-side from screen to screen, jumping to navigate dangerous pitfalls and so on as he tries to obtain a boat to get back home to the Yolkfolk after being stranded on a desert island. But in truth, Dizzy is very much a puzzle game. A brutally difficult one.

You see, you can die easily – and you only have one life. It’s like Dark Souls, but with an egg in it. If you mistime a jump and slightly graze a torch, you’re a fried egg. If you go under the water without a snorkel, you’re poached. This wouldn’t be too bad if it weren’t for the inventory system, which – whether intended or not – makes this a fiendishly difficult and cryptic puzzle game.

You have three inventory slots that rotate – once you pick up a fourth item, you automatically drop the first one you picked up. This doesn’t sound too unreasonable until you realise that if you don’t pick the right things up in the right order, you’re screwed.

For example, you pick up something called “An Endangered Species” to unveil a coin that you collect. However, that item then has no purpose whatsoever, but it’s impossible to know that without trial and error. So, if you keep hold of that or a similar item, then go underwater when you have the snorkel (yes, the egg needs a snorkel to breathe underwater, why not, eh?), you’ll see an item you need to pick up – but if you do, you’ll drop the snorkel and instantly die (because eggs can drown, obviously). Yes, it’s that cryptic.

Graphically, the Dizzy games as a whole are some of the most vibrant titles on any home computer system. The series uses the limited palette range to the fullest, with colour popping off the screen and doing an excellent job of helping to build the world. Sure, Dizzy will colour clash with objects as he walks and jumps past them, but that is par for the course with this era. Particularly for the ZX Spectrum, as well as being a true indie title, this is top drawer stuff.

Speaking of the world, it really does sell the concept of being on a desert island, with tooltips combining with the odd thrown-in bit of narrative to give an excellent sense of discovery and adventure throughout. The tree village feels like it fits right into the environment, and when you first set foot underwater, bubbles fly up the screen from your character, coral reefs litter the ocean floor, and jellyfish float on by; it’s a real sense of journey and a fantastic achievement given how limited the hardware they had to work with was.

Is Treasure Island Dizzy a good game, I hear you ask? Yes, it really is. Or, to be more accurate and brutally honest, it was. In the modern era, it hasn’t stood the test of time (like a lot of games back from those days – we are talking close on 30 years ago, after all), but at the time this was a ground-breaking title. In the UK Dizzy was every bit as iconic as Mario was in North America and Japan, because it was one of the first really popular attempts at a mascot character game for the home computer system – Dizzy is arguably only second to Alex Kidd in terms of fondest early computer game character memories. The series eventually spanned nine titles over a period of five years, but never quite made the successful jump to the console – despite a port of Treasure Island Dizzy to the NES and Fantastic Dizzy being released to a mediocre reception on the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis.

I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to play it, but it’s an interesting bit of platforming history – if nothing else, you should give the title tune a listen, either for the C64 or ZX Spectrum; it’s a fantastic example of 80s gaming sound design, and just one of many masterpieces by composer David Whittaker, who also worked on the likes of Shadow of the Beast and Speedball.

Dizzy, along with the likes of Saboteur!, Ghouls n’ Ghosts and Jet Set Willy, is one of those games I credit with giving me a lifelong love of gaming, and for that reason alone it holds a special place in my heart. Despite being a game that can be beaten in 20 minutes if you know what you are doing, for most players going in it is dauntingly difficult and can easily keep you playing for 10+ hours – that’s the sign of a fantastically designed game of logic. If you want to give it a bash yourself, I recommend grabbing it online and playing via an emulator – it is Abandonware and completely legal.

VERDICT: 60%

Treasure Island Dizzy is a classic, but not one that holds up now. However, you can see just why it was so successful in its era – it has charm by the bucketload, with expressive colour and, against all odds, a fascinating protagonist that fizzes with character.