And they say online petitions never work. In your FACE, They, and a great big thank you to the literally thousands (approx.) of people who signed up to support the return of Jambo! Safari. SEGA could not ignore the cry of our united voices and now the classic arcade game is making a comeback. YES WII CAN.
For those who aren't familiar, Jambo! Safari originally appeared in arcades in the late nineties and quickly established a reputation as the best videogame ever made. Eager fans would queue for minutes at a time just to have a go, especially when the Thrill Drive machine was broken. They knew that for just 50 pence - less than the price of a can of Tab Clear or a B*Witched cassette single - they could be transported to the majestic plains and sweeping savannahs of the Masai Mara.
There they got to chase terrified wild animals round in circles while driving a massive jeep. Giant emoticons hovered above the animals' heads to denote whether they were happy, angry or, best of all, scared. The arcade cabinet's steering wheel was ideal for careering around with no regard for shrubbery, while the gearstick thing was perfect for throwing lassoos round animals' necks. You then had to tow them in gradually without letting the rope snap - think SEGA Bass Fishing but with giraffes instead of trout.
If you did really well, i.e. managed to play the game for 38 seconds without having to put another 50p in, you were invited to "Complete the Special Research". There was never any explanation of what this research was for, or why it was special. But completing it involved throwing a crate over some rhinos.
Yes, all right, the original Jambo! Safari doesn't stand up well in the context of today's animal welfare standards. But remember, this was the late nineties, a time when badger-baiting was legal and every Harvester in the country had a bear pit. In those days it was acceptable to leave the odd bloodstain on the mattress of the cradle of civilisation, especially if it came from a zebra.
But times have changed, as Alex Humphries - associate producer on Jambo! Safari for Wii - admits. "Due to the time the original arcade game was made it was a lot more cheekier than you can be today," he says. "For example, I was playing the arcade game recently and one character calls someone a moron. That's not really appropriate for us."
You can't even call someone a moron these days? Why, in case you offend someone from the planet Moro? "Well, you could, but it's not right for our target market. We're going for young children so we don't want to go down that road." You probably don't want to say "we're going for young children" in the current climate either, but that's by the by.
Specifically, Jambo! Safari for Wii is aimed at seven to 12 year-olds. This is worrying as only adults educated to degree standard or higher could ever have appreciated the subtlety, sophistication and complex narrative structure of the arcade game. However, Humphries assures us the team has been conscientious in staying true to Jambo! Safari's core artistic and aesthetic values, and you can still tell which animals are the best because they have a crown.
"We've had the original creator of the arcade game giving us feedback as we've gone through the project," he says. "He's had a lot of input into the actual controls and how it feels to play, to make it just as good. There's still a lot of tweaking to be done in the next few months, but the idea is it will have the same feel and playability as the arcade game."
You won't play it with a steering wheel and gearstick though, of course. Instead the Wii nunchuk is used to drive the jeep and rope in animals, while flicking the remote launches your lassoo. At the start of our hands-on demo the steering feels awkward; the controls are over-sensitive and it's easy to swerve out of control. But things get easier after a few minutes and besides, Humphries says, improvement of the jeep handling is at the top of the development team's to-do list. At least the lassoo mechanic works well; it's a perfect fit for the Wii remote.
The visuals look pretty much as they did in the original game and your mission, in Arcade mode at least, is the same: capture seven different species of animal before the time runs out. However, SEGA has thrown in a bundle of new stuff too. "The arcade game was a huge success, but it was in an arcade cabinet," says Humphries. "To make the full game we decided we'd add more content, giving it more longevity with the Story mode and things like that."
In Story mode you work your way up from trainee ranger to fully-fledged Dr Doolittle, completing a variety of missions along the way. Some of these involve healing animals in the reservation's animal enclosure, as Humphries demonstrates. He introduces us to a lioness called Sue who's had a row with a thornbush. Using the remote like a pair of tweezers, Trauma Centre-style, he plucks the thorns from her fur then rubs in some antiseptic cream. Which is all very nice if you're an eight year-old girl, but it's hardly wrangling an angry hippo with a flashing rope is it?
Anyway, time for the feeding mini-game now. The lioness is back in her stall and food is scrolling along on a conveyor belt. Humphries chooses from the selection of fruit, vegetables and meat, dragging and dropping items with the remote to feed the lioness. Yes, it's just like the best videogame ever made since Jambo! Safari, Fruit Mystery. Except Zookeeper Steve doesn't get angry if you give the lion banasas or stratberries and it gets a bowel instruction WELL DONE MATE. "Now I've bonded with Sue I can go and visit her in the wild and take photographs," says Humphries. Bit bottom of the barel.
There's also a Photography mode where you're given specific assignments and graded as to how well your shots turn out. Much like Afrika, then. But can you run over a lion and break its legs off? "No. You cannot." How disappointing. "You do have the emotional states of the animals like in the original game, so if you're trying to lassoo them and they're angry with you, they will try to ram the jeep. But no broken ones, only the ones you heal in the enclosure."
A Wii game just wouldn't be a Wii game without a few derivative mini-games, and there are four in Jambo! Safari. Jamble involves trying to score goals with your jeep - "It's similar to Top Gear football," says Humphries. Stone Skipping is self-explanatory, while Meerkat Madness is "a puzzle game very similar to Chu-Chu Rocket". Then there's Ostrich Racing, in which you get to "be" the ostriches rather than ride them, disappointingly. All the mini-games can be played by up to four players. There's also a two player drop-in, drop-out co-op mode, where one player drives the jeep while the other controls the lassoo.
But the solo Arcade mode still looks like the most fun, and is the element most true to the original game. The question is, can you complete the special research? "Obviously we're not dropping crates on rhinos and that sort of thing, but there are Story missions where you have to help people do research and capture animals for research and so on." But is the air of mystery still there? "Yes, the game doesn't actually tell you what the special research is."
That will surely come as a relief to Iain Soutar, James Bagshawe, Tom Preston, Dr Bonsu, Chris Rodd, Eric Lowe, JayKwon and everyone else who signed the Bring Back Jambo! Safari petition. It's hard to believe that just 19 people have enough power to win SEGA over in just 18 months. And that's because they don't. "This game was actually already in production in February last year," says Humphries. "But it's nice to know the support's there."
Ah well. The important thing is Jambo! Safari is coming back, and if they can sort out that steering it will undoubtedly be hailed by every critic in the world as the best game of the 21st century. Now then, how about Thrill Drive for Xbox 360?
Jambo! Safari is due out for DS and Wii in the second half of 2009. Ellie is no longer allowed out.