Retro Review: Sabrina: The Animated Series: Zapped! Review

…Wow, that’s a long title!

Also, I must apologise over the continual retro reviews. This week, there just wasn’t anything that grabbed my interest on the free video game front. I’m well aware that this is not an excuse for not doing these reviews, though, so I’ll make sure there’s an actual free video game review next week, even if I have to review an MMO or a horror game!

Anyway, some of you may be wondering why I’m covering this particular game. After all, considering my fondness for metal music and lack of any real indication of being a fan of this sort of thing, you’d expect me to have absolutely no interest in Sabrina the Teenage Witch. To an extent, you are right: nowadays, Sabrina the Teenage Witch is something that I have about as much interest in as watching paint dry. However, you might be surprised to find that, in my childhood, I actually liked the live action show. I wasn’t an avid watcher, by any measure, but what I saw was a lot of fun to watch and I even played a couple of games based on the franchise as a kid (which I might cover in the future if I can find copies of them online to play). I never saw the animated series at all, but, from the sound of things, I probably would have enjoyed it quite a lot.

Now, here’s where I will probably blow a lot of minds: when I was researching this game, I was VERY surprised to learn that Sabrina the Teenage Witch was actually a far bigger franchise than I thought it was. In fact, Sabrina the Teenage Witch started out as a comic book in April 1971 (with the character having first appeared in Archie’s Mad House #22…which was published in October 1962!) published by Archie Comics which has had two runs so far (the first from April 1971 to January 1983, the second from May 1997 to January 2009, broken up into two volumes). While there has been no indication of a return to a full run of the comic any time soon, the character still appears in Archie every now and then and there has been a series called Chilling Adventures of Sabrina being published by Archie Horror which has put out four issues since it started in October 2014. So yeah, you could make a case that Sabrina the Teenage Witch was among the most successful franchises of the 90s and 2000s that was based on a comic.

…I’m still not entirely sure what to make of this fact myself, but I’ll leave you guys to process this information for yourselves! In the meantime, though, let’s start talking about this video game…right after another small digression. Don’t worry, this won’t take long!

Being honest, this game is among the first video games I ever remember playing. Some people who might remember my blogging days will remember that, just under a year ago, I talked about the Rayman game on Game Boy Color. During that review, I mentioned that this game was one of the games that I grew up playing as a kid, originally because my sister was so bad at it that I pretty much ended up having to play the game for her and then because I actually took a liking to it. For a long time, I thought my copy of the game was long lost to the mists of time, but, in a happy twist of fate, I recently got given the copy of the game back from my mum (alongside Buzz Lightyear of Star Command and Wacky Races, two other games I had on the system which I thought had been long lost), who turned out to have kept it for nearly a decade after a lot of stuff in my home life which would have meant throwing it out would not have been entirely unjustified.

…No, I didn’t cry at that. But I was very touched by that discovery and it was indirectly responsible for my decision to start streaming games, because those three games have so many good memories to them that I finally felt willing to properly embrace my gamer side again. After just over four months of doing video game reviews and feeling like I couldn’t enjoy gaming because of all of the drama going on in the scene, it was this one discovery which made me realise that the important thing with gaming, at the end of the day, is not the systems you play games on, the dramas going on in the scene or even the people you play the games with (although having good people to play games with is certainly a great way to make the experience better): it’s the quality of the games themselves. Nostalgia might be a powerful thing in my case, but that discovery and remembering all of the good times I had playing those games just made me realise that I was focusing so much on what I disliked about the modern gaming scene that I’d forgotten to have fun with games. Games have come a long way since I was a kid, but they still seek to do the same thing they did when I was a kid: to entertain their audience.

…God, I’m a sentimental sod sometimes. Let’s actually start this review now!

A quick little detail that might be of interest to some people is that this game was one of the first games developed by WayForward Technologies. This is not a name that will ring a bell with most people, I imagine, but fans of the Shantae series of games will be pretty surprised that this was one of the first games they did before they…well, OK, they didn’t hit it big with Shantae, but it certainly proved that the company were capable of genuinely great things. Honestly, looking at this game with the knowledge of Shantae in mind now, I can actually see a few of the things which ended up being in that series and part of me is genuinely sad that I was not made aware of Shantae until I was a grumpy 21 year old rather than when I was an ever optimistic 9 year old, as I get the feeling that I would have absolutely adored the game had I played it back then.

Anyway, this game…I don’t think it holds up as well as I was expecting it to, if I’m honest. It’s a fun enough game and, considering when it was made, the console it was made for and the fact it is a licensed game, it actually is better than you might expect it to be on paper, but, when I cast a critical eye over it, I do spot a few bugbears which drag it down a bit. Nothing that I feel makes the game absolutely unplayable, but which certainly make it a less enjoyable game than it could have been.

Let me get the negatives out of the way at the start of the review before I start with the gushing. The first problem I have is that the game is VERY short and fairly easy. I played the game for an hour on a stream and, by the end of that hour, I had beaten three quarters of the game with only one continue needed (and that was because of at least two deaths from me doing dumb things than because the game did anything really unfair). Now, admittedly, handheld games (with a few exceptions, like the Pokemon games) tended to be shorter than console games in those days (still are, generally), so the length complaint is a bit more excusable for me, but I do think the difficult complaint is a bit more valid, since there’s very little challenge to the enemies themselves: one jump on the head completely stuns them (for the most part: the bosses and some enemies in the final level require three jumps on the head) and most of the water pits which cause instant death are easy to avoid if you don’t do daft things. Really, the biggest challenge in the game is finding the enemies in the first place, and that’s not too big a challenge if you check everywhere!

Secondly, I think that Salem’s movement is too fast. Salem moves VERY quickly, which makes some degree of sense when you consider he’s a cat, but it also means that it is very easy when running with him to run directly into enemies because you weren’t able to react fast enough to avoid them. He also continues his momentum if he jumps or falls while running, which can make him hard to control. It’s not the worst controls ever, I’ll admit, and he controls fine when you don’t run with him, but it’s certainly an issue that I find can be problematic.

Lastly, I don’t like the fact that you have to reobtain your special abilities at the start of every stage rather than keeping them when you get them. I could MAYBE buy Sabrina not knowing these abilities at the start of the game (she’s a half-witch, so maybe these abilities are just spells she stumbles across while trying to transform her friends back to normal), but not forgetting them at the start of every level! It also just ends up adding unnecessary time onto the game as you search for the abilities again, which ends up just padding the game out to me. This might be a standard gaming trope for some people, but I honestly just don’t like it, as there’s little reason to have it, especially since you nearly always end up having to find all of the available abilities to beat the levels in this game anyway!

Still, those are my main nitpicks about the game. Beyond that, I find this a decent game!

The story of the game is pretty simple, but it sets up the game nicely enough. Sabrina is doing an act in a show which is going badly wrong, so she decides to use a spell to try to make the crowd go wild for her act (…like you do) and it does indeed make the crowd go wild…literally, as it transforms them into animals! Sabrina and Salem go out to find everyone who has been transformed and changes them back, travelling throughout her school, across the beach, through a shopping mall and through a zoo to hunt down her old classmates. Not a bad setup, all told: it isn’t a deep story at all, but it gets the game going without any difficult questions being asked. If you’re not familiar with Sabrina the Teenage Witch at all, you’re not going to get an explanation on everything here, but it does what it needs to do, so I can’t complain too much.

The controls (beyond my complains regarding Salem when running) are fairly easy to get the hang of. The core gameplay is to jump onto the heads of enemies to stun them and then zap them to transform them back. Nothing too complicated and, if you hold down the zap button while moving, you can run. There’s a few occasions where you have to swap to Salem to have him destroy blocks for you or progress through gaps which Sabrina can’t fit into while Sabrina’s abilities allow her to access parts of stages that Salem can’t or open up new areas for both of them to look into. I think my only criticism is that you share life between both of them, which is a decision that I find very strange, but understandable, as having one of the characters just run out of health would mean that you have no guarantee of finishing the level with just the other one and there would be no guaranteed way of reviving them, which could have easily ended up making the game unwinnable. There’s a slight glitch which means that, if you press the zap button while in the air, bounce off the head of the enemy and then land next to them while still holding down the zap button, they will be transformed back (and some of them transform when you bounce off of them), but it’s not a big complaint for me.

The graphics and sound aren’t anything special by the Game Boy Color standards, but they’re certainly not too bad. The graphics manage to represent the characters from the series surprisingly well and the animals definitely look like actual animals rather than a collection of pixels vaguely representing animals like some games could only manage to achieve while the sound of the game has some decent enough music to it to make it worth checking out. There’s not a lot of other sound to the game, but what is there is certainly respectable. Really not a lot to comment on here, if I’m honest: it gets the job done and there’s nothing really wrong with it!

Ultimately, this game has some flaws and it hasn’t stood up to time especially well, but, all things considered, it’s really not that bad a game. It’s the sort of game that you’d play once or twice, have fun while playing it, then move on to something else later. Nothing bad at all, but more good as a time filler than anything to play a lot due to the lack of any replayability.