What is a Lightfoot, anyway?
In the five years that I have primarily been a retro gamer, I have not only enjoyed rediscovering old games of my youth, but also discovering games I either never owned as a kid, or finding those rare hidden gems that fell through the cracks of various systems. Ardy Lightfoot, a charming platform-adventure title for the Super Nintendo, is one of those hidden gems. It was released in 1994, right in the middle of the "animals with attitude" craze. I talked about this a little in my review of Rocket Knight Adventures that I did last year. After Sonic the Hedgehog became a gaming sensation, it seemed like every company had to release a platform game starring an animal mascot who was "cool" and had attitude. Memories of Bubsy the Bobcat, Aero the Acro-bat, Awesome Possum and the like still linger.
Ardy, an anthropomorphic creature of unknown origins (I have heard some say he resembles a cat, and others say a fox), is a bit more laid back than some of the other animal icons that tried to take the video game world by storm back in the day. He doesn't really have "attitude", looks like he shops for clothes at the same store as Super Mario, and seems to live more for adventure rather than showing the world how cool he is. Maybe that's why his game never caught on back in the day. I vaguely remember seeing Ardy on store shelves when it came out, but never paid it much mind. But, when I recently came across it at a used game store, something about the cover art grabbed me. And when I looked up video footage of the game on my phone at the store, it immediately drew me in with its anime-style graphics, varied gameplay and unique storytelling. Ardy Lightfoot lives up to those early expectations. Even if the game has a few flaws that holds it back from being one of the greats, it still doesn't deserve to be buried and forgotten as it largely has been.
Ardy Lightfoot was published in Japan by ASCII Entertainment, and brought to America by small French publisher, Titus. At the time, Titus was mostly known for a series of bizarre and very bad games based on The Blues Brothers that they seemed to release on every console in existence back in the day. Later, they would be known for unleashing one of the most famously awful games of all time - Superman for the Nintendo 64. But before they became infamous for tarnishing the Man of Steel, they would occasionally quietly slip out some quality Japanese platformers. Ardy is a quiet and laid back game that probably would have never made it to our shores if Titus hadn't brought it over. And so, while the now-defunct publisher did have more than their share of duds, I am thankful for their efforts here.
Ardy and Pec discover the tablet in the opening level
Ardy's story is fairly standard for a game of its era. Set in a land of anthropomorphic animals known as Prism, Ardy is an adventurous creature who likes to explore caves and ancient tombs with his friend Pec, a blue blob-like creature who follows him wherever he goes. While the two are exploring a cave, they discover an ancient tablet. They take it back home to the village Elder, who reads it and informs them of a legend describing a rainbow that once covered the land and held great power. When the power was threatened with corruption, the rainbow was divided into seven colored pieces that were scattered all over the land. Whoever regains all seven pieces and forms the rainbow will have a single wish granted. Hearing this, Ardy and Pec immediately set out to find the pieces, and join them together.
The attack on Ardy's village.
Unknown to our heroes, at that same moment, an evil being named Visconti (a massive frog who kind of resembles Wart, the villain from the American Super Mario Bros. 2) is also seeking the seven pieces so that he can have his own evil wish of world domination granted. He somehow learns about Ardy finding the tablet, and sends his minions to raid Ardy's hometown in order to find it. His evil forces stage a massive attack on the town, dropping bombs and setting many of the buildings on fire. Once Ardy and Pec are able to save their home, they realize just how high the stakes are, and must try to track down the seven mythical pieces before Visconti's evil forces can get their hands on them.
The mysterious Don Jacoby will help Ardy throughout the adventure.
So, like I said, nothing really new in terms of plotting. What Ardy does try that is somewhat unique is to tell its story almost like a silent movie. Aside from some scrolling text at the beginning of the game when the Elder is reading the ancient tablet, the game's entire story is played out through in-game cinematics where the characters act out the story. The programmers were going for movie-style storytelling here, with a somewhat evolving plot that goes deeper as the game goes on. Heck, the game even opens with cinematic-style opening credits, and during those credits, refers to itself as "An Ardy Team Film" instead of a game. You encounter a wide variety of characters, such as Visconti's minions who will attempt to thwart your efforts, and even some friends along the way. Most notable here is Don Jacoby, an Indiana Jones-like adventurer who will show up and assist Ardy throughout the game, often saving his life or helping him get out of a fix. Even the Elder and Ardy's girlfriend, Nina, will help out.
Even if the story is nothing groundbreaking, the gameplay is what makes Ardy stand out. While a platform game at heart, the game also includes plenty of puzzles and traps to solve, giving the game more of an adventure feel. Ardy has two main attacks at his disposal. In one, he can launch his friend Pec at enemies, where the strange little creature will promptly eat the obstacle in your path. Pec is quite the valuable ally, as he also serves as kind of Ardy's hit points. When you are hit, you lose Pec. Take one more hit, and Ardy will lose a life. However, if you lose Pec, you can find him in treasure chests throughout each level. In this sense, the game is similar to Donkey Kong Country, where you would lose your partner if you got hit, but you could get them back by smashing open specialized barrels. There are even certain points in the game where Pec can help you in other ways. In one instance, you can find air tanks that will inflate Pec, and allow you to ride him and float over large areas filled with spikes. Another power up in one level makes Pec massive, and allows you to throw him at certain walls, which he can knock down, clearing your path.
Ardy's other main attack is a "tail jump" move. Here, when Ardy jumps with a press of the B button, if you press B again while in mid-air and hold it down, Ardy will coil up his tail, placing it below him, and when he lands on an enemy's head, he will not only bounce harmlessly off of it, but will also usually take out the enemy. If you've played DuckTales for the NES, you will be familiar with this attack, as it's not far removed from Scrooge McDuck's "pogo cane jump" in that game. There are parts of the game where Ardy will have to use his tail jump to pass certain areas, such as one part where there are a series of enemies on a pit of spikes, and you must jump off their heads in order to pass safely. This move does take a bit of practice to get the hang of, but it's vital to completing the game, so it's best to try to master this move early on.
Ardy and Pec explore the inside of a monster that just swallowed them.
Ardy's adventure takes him through 17 levels (18 if you count the short prologue level that opens the game), and most are built in the traditional platform game mold of going left to right, collecting stars along the way (which act like coins in Super Mario, as obtaining 100 will earn Ardy an extra life), and reaching the end. However, there is a lot of variety and locations to keep things interesting. The wide range of locations that you travel through include caverns, abandoned mines, historic temples, a forest village, a pirate ship, and even the inside of a monster after Ardy and Pec get swallowed up by a giant worm-like creature at one point. To keep things interesting, there are some puzzles and traps that you have to solve. These include blocking a beam of sunlight in a temple in order to open a locked door, to blowing out walls with bombs that you find scattered along the ground. In one memorable sequence, Ardy finds himself at the bottom of a large vertical shaft where arrows are being fired out of stone statues above him. Ardy must use those arrows as platforms, and make his way up the long shaft, jumping from one arrow to the next, until he's at the top. Easier said than done for sure, but a fun challenge nonetheless. No two levels in this game are alike, and there's a lot of invention in many of the areas you explore.
Equally inventive are the boss battles in Ardy Lightfoot. While the first boss you encounter is your typical "bounce on the head" type that you find in just about every platform game, just about every one after that has some kind of unique quality that I haven't seen in a game before. In one battle, you fight a female fox who's allied with Visconti. You battle her at the top of a towering tree, and for some unexplained reason, this particular tree comes equipped with giant multi-colored switches. When you jump on a colored switch, a corresponding spring-loaded boxing glove of the same color will pop out from the side of the walls. In this battle, both you and the villain are leaping upon the switches, trying to strike each other with the giant gloves that spring out. Since the enemy can read your movements and quickly figures out which switch you're heading for, she will try to counter by going to a different switch that will activate a glove right next to you. In this fight, you have to keep moving, and be extremely fast, as the boss is particularly quick. It's a hard sequence to describe in words, but it's extremely fun to play and figure out the best strategy. In yet another boss battle, another one of Viscanti's soldiers will bring a giant stone statue to life, and will start controlling it, sending lasers down upon you. Ardy must pick up a small mirrored piece that is lying nearby, and use it as a shield, having the laser bounce off, and strike the enemy instead. Pretty much all of the boss battles in this game require patience and strategy, and may take a while to figure out.
All of this is brought together with some incredibly strong presentation. The graphics are beautiful, done in an anime style, and with large, detailed character sprites with a lot of animation and personality. All of the characters have different expressions and reactions depending on what is happening in the level, which helps out a lot with the game's cinematic storytelling approach, and lets you know what a character is thinking, since there is no text or dialogue except for one brief scene. And while none of the music will get stuck in your head, it perfectly matches the action and is always pleasant to listen to. The soundtrack is very symphonic in nature, using synthesized instruments representing violins and trumpets, giving the game an appropriately movie-like tone. I wouldn't exactly call this one of the standout games for the SNES in terms of graphics and sound, but it definitely has a lot of charm and is an overall quality presentation.
With its inventive levels and play mechanics, you can tell that the programmers had high aspirations when making this. However, they unfortunately oversaw a few programming quirks that holds the game back from the greatness it obviously strives for. The key fault to be found is the control on Ardy. While it's not unplayable, it's certainly not as tight as it should have been. It can be hard to make split second jumps or movements, and certain areas where Ardy must jump continuously or use his previously mentioned "tail attack" are not as responsive as they should be. Your character also has an annoying habit of picking up too much speed as he walks, which can lead to running face-first into obstacles if you're not careful. I've found the best strategy is to go slow, as the game likes to surprise you with enemy attacks out of the blue, and if you're just cruising along, it's far too easy to accidentally get hurt. There are also certain spots where speed is a necessity for making a long or difficult jump, so this is definitely a trial and error game, where you have to memorize the level and what's coming up in order to clear most of the levels. Obviously, this is nothing new, as many games of the time relied on memorization and repeated playing to perfect a level. It's not a huge issue, but if you're easily frustrated, I can see this being somewhat of a trying experience. Fortunately, the game does alleviate this somewhat by being generous with extra lives, and also with a password system that allows you to save your progress, and is simple to use.
What bothered me a bit more is that the game is fairly short, and the levels vary in length. Some levels are decent in size, and hold some secret areas to explore, while others seem to be over almost as soon as they begin. Case in point - At one point early in the game, there is a level where Ardy is riding in a mine cart. I prepared myself for a particularly challenging level, as mine cart levels have always been notoriously difficult in most games. Imagine my surprise when I found out the level was only a minute long (and that's being generous), and with no real obstacles, other than one point where Ardy must duck under a low hanging wall. To call this a disappointment would be an understatement. I don't know if they had different people working on the levels, but there is just a sense of inconsistency here. Most of the levels are wonderfully designed and just plain fun, but then there are some that seem like they were rushed, or not completed. With twice as many levels, and with a more consistent length for them, this game could have been a masterpiece. As it stands, Ardy (enjoyable as the game is) at times feels like a missed opportunity.
But this certainly does not mean that the game is not worth your time. Far from it, actually. While I wouldn't go so far as to say that this is one of the great ones, it is very good, and definitely deserved to have been more successful than it was. In fact, a sequel is hinted at the very end of the game with a "To Be Continued..." message appearing after the end credits. But, obviously, no sequels ever came, and this was the only game to feature Ardy. The game has more or less become lost with time, and to my knowledge, has never appeared on the Virtual Console for any of Nintendo's recent systems. Despite its flaws, this really is a fun little platform game with some good ideas, great graphics, and an overall sense that this should have been more than what it turned out to be. Maybe a sequel could have fixed some of the issues. I would have loved to have seen what these programmers could have done with these characters in a lush 2D game for the original Playstation or Sega Saturn, for example. Playing the game, you can see a lot of potential for true greatness, and it's kind of sad that it never got to be a series and improve on itself.
Should you want to try Ardy for yourself, you will sadly be faced with obscene prices, due to the game's rather obscure and rare nature. Glancing at eBay while I write this, I see prices ranging from $240 for a complete in box copy, to around $60 for just the cartridge alone. Heck, I see one seller who is just offering the instruction manual (the manual, no game included) for $72! Such is the current state of retro gaming, sadly. Inflated prices abound. I actually have seen some copies of the Japanese import that sell for much cheaper online, and would probably recommend that, as the game holds little to no text, and tells its story through action instead of dialogue. It's easy enough to track down or modify a 16 bit device to play imports anyway.
Regardless, I do recommend that if you are into platform or adventure games that you give Ardy a chance. You may be surprised by how well constructed it is at times. Don't let the Titus logo or their history of terrible games scare you away from what is a flawed but still beautiful hidden gem in the Super Nintendo's massive library.
Until next time, fellow Retro Junkers, keep the past alive.