In the early days of the Game Boy, one of the biggest challenges facing developers was the question of how ambitious to make their games. Portable gaming, new and untested a format as it was, posed a dilemma, especially on the decided limited Game Boy hardware. Should these works aspire to the scope and substance of console titles? Was it better to aim small? And at what point did elaborate design break down on a screen with four shades of blurry grey? How much content did a game that cost 60-75% as much as an NES game need to offer?
While the platform would ultimately play host to any number of console-scale creations, many of the finest releases for Game Boy demonstrated a different philosophy altogether: They focused on doing just a few things well.
(There were also plenty of Game Boy titles that did just a few things poorly, but let’s not dwell on those.)
HAL’s Revenge of the Gator could practically be the poster child for the advantages of keeping things focused. It’s a single-table pinball game — nothing more, nothing less. Old-time Nintendo fans may well be reminded of NES Pinball as they play Revenge of the Gator, and for good reason: HAL helped Nintendo produce Pinball. That fateful connection didn’t simply seal a lasting relationship between the two companies, though; it also created the template for Revenge of the Gator. Admittedly, a mostly forgotten Game Boy title probably isn’t as significant in the long run as the alliance that would give Nintendo its future CEO, but hey. Sometimes the little things count, too.
With its inexplicable alligator motif and extremely limited gameplay, Revenge of the Gator would seem a far cry from a portable classic. And yet! The tremendous amount of love and care that HAL invested into Gator really sets it apart from its portable contemporaries. Everything about the game sings of quality.
Yes, it’s just a pinball game. But it looks great. The physics, though not perfect, are excellent. The interactive elements of the board demonstrate remarkable care and attention. It features excellent music and sound effects. There’s even a silly little dancing alligator ditty on the title screen. I can’t find any information on why this game turned out the way it did — seriously, why alligators!? Nothing in HAL’s catalog echoes this game’s motif, and it doesn’t appear to be based on any sort of licensed property. It’s simply a pinball game designed in the style of classic tables, which would inevitably have some random theme. Like the old mechanical amusements of the classic arcade, Revenge of the Gator doesn’t need a reason to be what it is. Also unclear is what, precisely, warrants these gators avenging themselves on player.
In terms of design, Revenge of the Gator is a four-screen board — though it’s presented in five. The main board spans two screens, with an intermediate “linking” view providing a midpoint between the top and bottom screens to help keep the ball centered on-screen and prevent the transitions between the two from being too abrupt. Above the main board are two bonus screens, which loosely resemble Breakout. (Or Alleyway, if you must.)
And at every turn, there are alligators. When you die, the ball drops into the gutter to be consumed by a massive gator with huge eyelashes; when you activate the safety bumpers, they take the form of gators. Gators occupy the center of the playing field, their mouths constantly flexing to create vortices the swirl the ball away to other parts. Gators dwell at the left edge of the screen, waiting for the ball to flatten their schnozzes. When you reach the Breakout bonus screen, you’re trying to destroy the ground beneath a wandering gator to send it plummeting into the gutter. It’s weird, but at least it’s thorough.
Revenge of the Gator moves quickly; the ball tears around the screen, and a fraction of a second can make the difference between success and the ball being gobbled up by that huge gator at the bottom. Everything animates smoothly, though, and despite having direct influence only over a couple sets of flippers, the action always feels within your control. Revenge of the Gator could have included more designs, a more elaborate board, or any number of other features. But instead, HAL stuck to a limited selection of elements and polished each to excellence.
Japanese title: Pinball: 66 Hiki no Wana Daikoushin • ピンボール 66匹のワニ大行進
Release date: 10.18.1989 [JP] | 2.1990 [US] | 3.1990 [EU]
Super Game Boy: No enhancements
Previous in series: N/A
Next in series: N/A
Similar titles: Pinball [Nintendo, NES, 1983]; Pokémon Pinball [HAL/Nintendo, Game Boy Color, 1999]