It's hard to tell whether Bigtop Barney is supposed to be one of those blatant knockoffs of Konami arcade game Circus Charlie. It shares more than a few coincidental stage elements for me to be convinced otherwise. Funnily enough, I actually played Bigtop Barney a good number of years before I even encountered Circus Charlie in the arcades, so for a while, I actually thought it was the other way around.
See, Bigtop Barney (much like Circus Charlie) puts you in control of a clown. And not just any clown, but one of many talents. Each of the four stages has you perform quite the daredevil feats to entertain your audience. The first stage have you walking a tightrope while jumping through flaming hoops and over monkeys. Some of the more dangerous jumps does yield bigger bonuses (by... levitating moneybags?) but can be safely bypassed if you don't feel up to it. The second stage tasks you with picking up balloons scattered around a multi-floored platform constructs while avoiding the clown-hating strongman and the ball juggled around by the seals. On this stage, our hero Barney can jump up one floor, but has to contend with the stairs or the pieces of floor that phases in and out of existence to get down again.
And then it's time to get on that unicycle and jump on bouncy platforms for the third stage. This sounds simple enough, if not for a couple of facts. One, ramps to the chest or head hurts. And two, by universal clown law, you are obligated to land on a ramp before returning to your unicycle, or... you'll crush your testicles when you land. No, it doesn't make any sense to me either. But Barney's final trial is the most harrowing of all; he needs to pick up six keys in an arena of trampolines, flame bellowers and swinging vines so that he can free his... pet cat or something. This might be the most perilous stage of all, because Barney have to make sure not to get singed, squashed into the ceiling (you might not want to spend too much time bouncing on one trampoline) or running out of time. An animated show I once watched about circus life (Kaleido Star) told me that one of the most difficult things to be at a circus is the clown, because they had to master everything. And nobody knows this more than our poor friend, Barney.
Blatant plagiatry though it may be, Bigtop Barney is still an infuriatingly (well, for the creators of the Commodore conversion of Circus Charlie anyway...) well-made game. Does it feel a bit condensed with its four stages compared to CC's six? Yes and no. Whether you feel shorthanded is one thing, but Bigtop Barney never feels crowded or unbalanced. It's a game to learn and master, and therein lies the reward of playing it. It's not a question of reflexes. It's a matter of timing and learning what works best for each situation.
That being said, Bigtop Barney can still be an infuriatingly tough game. The third stage -- the unicycle one -- is downright aggravating. I don't think I've ever managed to complete a stage in it, and the damning fact that you can't jump and land directly back on said unicycle is what makes it all the more difficult.... and frustrating. I'm also going to go out on a limb and call the second stage for being kind of dull compared to the others -- and, if not for the ball-bouncing seals -- one that doesn't really feel all that circus-y at all.
There's also the time limit set for each stage. They're not bad by themselves, but they kind of make little sense. On the tightrope stage (and presumably also the unicycle stage), you can't really control the speed of which you progress through the stage, so you're basically reaching the end with a few seconds to spare to get on that platform. I don't know what happens if that time runs out -- I didn't test that -- but you do get a bonus for whatever time remains, which makes it all the more odd that you can't control how fast you go through the stages like you could with Circus Charlie. Then again, I'm against ludicrously large end-of-stage bonuses myself, so the fact that your skills and actions are what will contribute to your overall score is fine with me. For the second and fourth stage, however, you WILL die if you run out of time (or energy, as is the case of the second stage), so there's that. And the game isn't being particularly generous with that time, so don't you dawdle now.
Despite its frustrating moments, Bigtop Barney is actually a whole lot of fun. Yes, it's hard, and yes, it's frustrating, but this is one of those games where perserverance really pays off. Funnily enough, the tightrope analogy is actually quite apt in Bigtop Barney's case: the stages last quite a good bit longer compared to its older arcade brother, and dying here places you straight back at the beginning. But keep at it, space crusader. Who knows? Maybe one day, you'll be standing on that scene after a particularly harrowing unicycle ride, basking in the ovation of the audience. And that's going to feel pretty damn good.
|GRAPHICS - 4/10|
|The graphics of Bigtop Barney isn't much to write home about. Our main hero is a simple designed sprite that has taken its animation cues from the running animation of a certain Miner Willy, and his complexion is also rather... purple, which makes him hilariously appropriately named. Most of the background consists of simple, single-colored art that, in stage 1 and 3, scrolls by. However, in said stages, you can see the audience applaud you each time you perform a trick, like jumping through the hoops or over the monkeys, or land back on your unicycle after a platform bounce, and that's a rather nice touch in its simplicity. The game also sees fit in giving you a nice title screen and an equally nice stage select screen, and that sort of work is also very much appreciated.|
|SOUND - 5/10|
|Bigtop Barney's very circus-y themes are actually quite catchy and well made. OK, so they don't measure up to your favorites, not even by far, but they suit the game quite well, lending it oodles of atmosphere. As far as sound effects go, on the other hand, there's not much to be had. The audience cheers for you when you complete a stage, and... that's about it, I think.|
|PLAYABILITY - 7/10|
|As soon as you get used to the stages, you'll find the game controls quite well. It's responsive and simple, suiting an arcade game of its stature. Of course, there is the matter of a few logic-defying issues, like the aforementioned fact that landing directly back on your unicycle after a jump is strictly forbidden. On the other hand, don't think you can replay the same stage over and over again, because the game will up the difficulty on you if you choose to do so, which I also think is a nice touch.|
|OVERALL - 8/10|
|OK, hands up everyone who thought that being the clown means being the loser, the joke, the nobody. Because if you held that hand up high, Barney is here to slap it down again before forcing you to give this game a couple of goes. (An action that will bitchslap your pride good.) Aside from the lightly absurd second stage, Bigtop Barney pretty much feels like a circus event, and you are the only one who can see our hero through to the end. And though tightrope walking, monkey-jumping, flaming hoop-somersaulting, unicycle-riding, trampoline-bouncing, flame-hopping madness will you finally understand the plight of the clown. It's a harsh lesson, but you will walk out on the other side a better man.|