Developer: Core Design
Also Available For: Amiga, Atari ST, Archimedes, Commodore 64, Game Gear, Master System, Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), Game Boy, Mega-CD, CD32
A Brief Background:
Founded in 1988 by former employees of Gremlin Graphics, Core Design was a Derby-based videogame developer who produced a slew of Amiga titles back in the late-eighties and early-nineties in a variety of genres, from shooters to adventure games and, of course, platformers. Years before taking the gaming world by storm with the voluptuous Lara Croft, Core Design crafted their own slapstick platforming franchise in the form of Chuck Rock, which aimed to standout from the ever-growing number of platform titles by focusing on zany, cartoonish humour and graphics and taking place in prehistoric times. At the time, Chuck Rock was lauded for its colourful graphics, humour, and unique rock-throwing mechanics; while contemporary reviews aren’t quite as forgiving regarding the game’s pace and appeal, it did spawn a sequel and even a spin-off back in the day. For my part, I remember playing the Master System version and have always considered Chuck Rock a must-have game for my Mega Drive library so I was keen to see if it delivered under close scrutiny.
So, as I mentioned, I first played Chuck Rock on the master System; it was one of the first home console games I ever played in that regard, and I’ve longed to add the 16-bit version to my gaming library simply because it’s one of those early Mega Drive titles that I consider synonymous with the system. The game is a pretty straightforward platformer; you’re placed into the Cro-Magnon role of the titular Chuck, an ape-like prehistoric man who can send enemies flying with a thrust of his considerable belly. You perform this “belly butt” by pressing B, though its range is pretty limited and some enemies move quite quickly or erratically, meaning you often take a hit when using it. Thankfully, Chuck can also jump with C; it’s not especially high, just like Chuck isn’t especially fast or nimble, but you can perform a mid-air kick by pressing B in the air. Oddly, the A button does absolutely nothing and there are not options to switch around the controls, which means you have to press down and B to pick up rocks; these can be flung as projectiles or held overhead to protect from enemy bombardments but are primarily used to help you reach higher ledges and areas or safely cross thorny obstacles and acid/lava pits. Chuck can also swim, in the loosest sense of the word; he kind of flails about when underwater, with his offense limited to his kick and the toss of a rock.
The game is comprised of five levels, each with three to five “Zones” in each; this is an elaborate way of saying five levels with three to five screens as, when you reach the end of a Zone, you spawn in a new area and continue on to the right as normally. There’s a strong emphasis on platforming and exploration is often awarded with a cache of goodies to increase your score and bring you closer to the 100,000 points needed for an extra life or hearts to refill your health. Chuck can take quite a bit of damage, but there’s very little invincibility frames so it’s easy to get spam-hurt to death from hazards; he’ll also drown if you stay underwater too long, as helpfully indicated by his face on the heads-up display turning blue when submerged, though thankfully there’s no arbitrary time limit to complete the stages. While a variety of dinosaurs and cavemen will dog your progress, some will actually help you; you can use bat-like Pteranodons to cross gaps and you can cross acid and lava pits on the backs of Brachiosaurus’and water on whales. Your only real in-game options are to turn the music and sound effects off, but you should leave both on as Chuck’s battle cry of “Unga-Bunga!” is quite adorable and the game is bolstered by a catchy soundtrack that works well with the cartoonish visuals. Unfortunately, the game is pretty slow going; Chuck has a weight to him that makes avoiding enemies or precision platforming difficult to nigh-on frustrating, and your progress is restricted not just by a paltry three lives but also limited continues and no password or push-button codes to help you get further into the game.
My memories of the Master system version of the game are limited but I know I never finished it, and I don’t recall getting much further past the first boss. When I fired up Chuck Rock, I was ready for a fun, quirky little platformer and was sure that the thirty-odd years of experience would serve me well. Unfortunately, I didn’t account for the game having limited continues; this is a trope of this era of gaming that never fails to irk me, and I don’t really understand the logic behind it, but it absolutely derailed my progress. Things started off pretty well; I made it through the jungle stage marvelling at the detailed backgrounds and the fun use of foreground elements and using rocks to protect myself from thorns, boulders, and toss at crocodiles to spring myself up to higher levels. As I progressed into the cave level, I was happy to see the pick-ups change with each stage, with meat featuring in the first stage, root vegetables in the second, and starfish and the like in the third. The cave also introduced extendable snake platforms, fireball-spitting lava pits, and invincible mud monsters; the water stage proved to be quite hectic, with the waters teeming with enemies to whittle away your health, though you can make use of frogs to ascend to the slightly safer coral platforms.
As is to be expected of any platformer worth its salt, Chuck Rock includes a number of enemies to contend with; there’s mallet-swinging caveman, coconut-tossing enemies hiding in trees, and a range of dinosaur and prehistoric baddies, from little Triceratops’ who split into smaller enemies when attacked, to mud-spitting lizards, to jellyfish and swordfish. Each stage ends with a boss battle against a far bigger prehistoric enemy, though these often look more intimidating than they actually are. The first one you face is a massive Triceratops that mindlessly charges across a small, enclosed arena trying to trample you; however, you can safely stay out of range on the raised platform and it’s not especially difficult to dash into the area, grab the rock, jump to safety, and toss it at the charging dinosaur. The second stage ends with a fight against a far faster and more versatile sabretooth tiger; however, while this furry, sharp-toothed cat dashes around the arena at speed, I was easily able to accidentally trap it in a corner and beat it to death with Chuck’s belly without taking a single hit! Sadly, the same wasn’t true for the third stage boss, the Loch Ness Monster herself, Nessy (complete with diving headgear!) Nessy not only spits bubbles at you and is accompanied by some annoying little crab minions, but she’s so big that he hit box is massive, meaning it’s pretty hard to land a hit without taking one yourself and, as the bosses take quite a few hits to defeat, this was where I exhausted my lives, continues, and patience. It’s a shame, too, as there was only two more levels to go and a battle with a woolly mammoth and a Tyrannosaurus rex wearing boxing gloves to look forward to!
There’s a lot to like about Chuck Rock; the game looks really good, especially for an early Mega Drive title, has a fun, slapstick presentation, and the music and overall presentation are really great. I enjoy the gameplay mechanics or smacking enemies with your belly and tossing rocks as projectiles and boosts, but the execution is a little clunky. Chuck is so slow, his hit box so big, that he’s often at a disadvantage against his more nimble and versatile foes; he can take a few hits, but it’s far too easy to get repeatedly hit by attacks or hazards and lose a life since Chuck has little recovery time and there are no power-ups to help even the odds. The game is somewhat relenting in that it will respawn you at the start of the last stage you played, or in the boss room, when you die, but the limited continues really hurts the replay value and makes it unnecessarily more difficult than it needs to be. I do think it’s beatable, to be fair, though I get the sense that later levels would ramp up the frustration with more, far cheaper enemies and obstacles. I definitely think it’s a must-have game for your Mega Drive library, but it’s a bit disappointing that the Mega Drive version is apparently the only version of the game not to have any push-button codes to help make things easier. Regardless, I’d love to know if you’ve ever played, and beaten, Chuck Rock and your thoughts on the Neanderthal’s rock-tossing adventure so feel free to share these down in the comments or on my social media.