Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Adventure of the Week: Putt-Putt Travels Through Time (1995)

Thanks to a recent Steam sale on the entire Humongous Entertainment library, this week I'm tackling Putt-Putt Travels Through Time, published in 1995 as third in the Putt-Putt series of Junior Adventures.  Humongous founder Ron Gilbert licensed the Lucasarts SCUMM engine for his children's games, and as these titles were being produced for some time after Lucasarts got out of the business, it's interesting to see the framework continuing to evolve here.  This entry features nicely airbrushed backgrounds and smoother animation than the earlier Putt-Putt titles, along with a digitized (non-MIDI) musical score and full voice acting.

Putt-Putt isn't much of a character -- he has a basic niceness about him and that's about it -- so most of these games depend on plot and simple puzzles for entertainment.  In this case, Putt-Putt wants to show his friend Mr. Firebird his Smokey the Fire Engine lunchbox, calculator, and history report, but we suspect the journey to school may become a bit complicated; it's not called Putt-Putt Travels Through Town, after all.

This one is pleasant and brief enough to play through easily -- it's available from Steam, and an iOS port was released a few years ago.  It's cheerful and straightforward, with a bit of painless educational content and simple inventory and conversation puzzles.  You might want to play it with a youngster to get the most out of it.  For those with more curiosity than time, feel free to proceed into the remainder of this post, where there are certain to be...

***** SPOILERS AHEAD! *****

The Humongous Entertainment games always provide lots of non-essential clickables onscreen, just for fun, with brief, comical animations to keep younger players engaged even if the plot eludes them.  Clicking on Putt-Putt's dashboard radio does set up the story a little bit, as the announcer mentions Mr. Firebird's new time portal.  We can take a coin from the workbench ("I'd better not leave home without it") and nearly run over the semi-traditional cow in the road on the way into town to visit Mr. Firebird's lab.

Mr. Firebird is about to fire up his portal for the very first time (these being the most ominous words in all of science fiction) -- it's meant to show images from other times, not support actual time travel.  He needs a coin to start the washing machine that drives the contraption, providing a simple inventory puzzle we can readily solve.

Of course, things go wrong, and all of Putt-Putt's possessions as well as his faithful dog Pep are sucked into the portal.  Mr. Firebird's vision of his own creation is, it seems, a bit myopic -- his viewing window is just a piece of glass placed over an actual time portal.  And he can't close the portal until Putt-Putt retrieves everything that's been sucked in, for some reason.  After we retrieve our stuff, Firebird plans to close the portal for good, which seems a bit of an overreaction if you ask.  But that's the plot at hand, so into the time portal we go!

We find ourselves in a void with four individual portals to different time periods (and locations, it appears, suggesting that the old world-rotation conundrum of time travel may be accounted for in some way here.)  Clicking on a small group of talking props in the lower left hand corner provokes an elaborate musical number that sets up the game's structure -- we'll visit prehistory, medieval times, the old American West, and the future, seeking to retrieve Pep and a handful of belongings.  We're free to pick any of the four portals, and travel back and forth between them.

I'm going to start by visiting the Old West.  We find ourselves in the town of Tire Flats (get it?), where Putt-Putt can acquire a triangular rock on the hillside and then visit several locations in town.  An old barn is occupied by a horse who mentions the gold rush is in progress; he lets Putt-Putt take some hay.  Putt-Putt can also acquire a rope here, a rare case where he doesn't ask for permission.

The General Store sells Chewy Fruity Wagon Wheels for a nickel, which Putt-Putt doesn't have (and seems like an outrageous luxury in the Old West economy, where a pound of bacon could be had for a quarter.)  Humongous' Pajama Sam makes a cameo appearance as a jack-in-the-box toy if we click on the shelves above the counter.  The storekeeper, a covered wagon named Lurleen, seems frustrated by her game of solitaire, but it seems we can't really interact with her to help out.

Visiting the Train Station confirms that Putt-Putt's universe anthropomorphizes all forms of transportation.  The engine, one Tobias T. Train, is seeking to hire a Junior Conductor -- the job pays a nickel.  Putt-Putt's first duty for the elderly engine is to -- erm -- "oil me up," but there's a traditional oil can here so the moment is saved by literalism.  The old train is grateful for the assistance, and pays Putt-Putt a nickel for this service, letting him keep the oil can.

Toby also needs help filling himself up with water, and asks Putt-Putt to find something to pull the water spigot down to where he can work with it.  The rope serves the need, and Toby tells us that -- ahem -- "I'll give you a ride you won't soon forget" any time we choose to claim it.  He apparently has a drinking problem too -- "I've chugged all over the West!" 

We can ride Toby to several locations -- the Gold River, the Desert, a Rock Mine and Hubcap Hill.  An old prospector is panning for gold at the river -- but he's hard of hearing, so we can't really talk to him.  He does turn up a set of old rusty keys, though, which may come in handy.

In the desert, we spot animal tracks leading past a series of dry watering holes -- it's a bit of a maze, but we can just follow the tracks to find the only interesting location.  A prairie dog seems to be the only living creature around, and he doesn't talk, though Putt-Putt gives us a little bit of information about the species.  Maybe we'll have to bring him something later on.

The ghost town of Hubcap Hill contains Putt-Putt's lost calculator, perched precariously on a rotting timber.  A friendly critter tries to retrieve it, but drops it and gets it locked in an old steamer trunk.  We have to choose the right key to open the star-shaped lock, and in short order we have one item retrieved!

We'll visit the old Rock Mine, but there seems to be nothing to do here.  I stop to buy a wagon wheel candy from the store before we go back into the time void; Putt-Putt eats the candy immediately, though, so we'll assume this is just a little side activity.

The age of the dinosaurs greets Putt-Putt with a roadway blocked by a large brachiosaurus tail.  She's non-plussed by the appearance of a talking machine in her world, and provides some facts about the era.  We can acquire a round-shaped rock here, which Putt-Putt exchanges for the triangular one he picked up in the Old West; apparently he has only so much room in his trunk for rocks.

We can't get around the brachiosaurus' tail, either, but all we need to do is ask her to move it.  There's a pentagonal rock here, so it seems we may need to do some shape-shifting.  Up the road we find a talking rock wheel who's trying to push a stack of rocks over to bridge a bubbling tar pit.  Putt-Putt helps push it over, but we need a round rock to plug a prominent hole in the new bridge.  Not a tall order, that; I left it behind just a moment ago while picking up the octagonal stone, and the bridge is quickly completed.

Wheel invites Putt-Putt to his home and offers him some primordial soup (har har); we get to keep the stone bowl.  A bird perched on a nearby crag offers an optional game of "Follow the Volcano," basically a version of Simon/Repeat with belching color-coded volcanoes that we can play until we get bored.

A hungry triceratops can't stop eating long enough to chat, as a friendly compsognathus explains.  We can feed him some hay in several chunks, exhausting our supply but eventually luring him off of something he's standing on -- Putt-Putt's history report!  Two retrievals down.

A scaredy-cat allosaurus cowers behind some stone slabs and sounds a bit like Ed Wynn.  He offers a game of picture jumble using the stone slabs; it's a simple, slow-paced, linear tile rearrangement puzzle.  There's no reward for completing the picture, but maybe it provides a clue?  It depicts -- I think -- several snake-like creatures in the jungle.

To the west, an apatosaurus suffers from a bad itch -- Putt-Putt offers to drive down his back and scratch it.  Following his instructions for several turns earns his thanks, and free passage to drive over him anytime, allowing us to reach a pterodactyl's nest and observe the mother feeding her nestlings, though there seems to be no real reason to come here.

I think we've done what we can here for now, so we'll head to the Medieval Times portal next.  Putt-Putt won't pick up any more rocks -- apparently the round rock was the only stone-based puzzle -- so the rectangular stone near the portal here can be ignored.

We soon meet a fancy coach, Princess Chassis, who is trying to repair her manservant Woodward, a lumber wagon that's lost a wheel.  We need to help them re-mount the wooden wheel, which is just a matter of offering to do so and lending an extra hand.  The Princess invites Putt-Putt along, but the castle gate won't open because recent rains have rusted the gate shut.  Fortunately, we still have the oil can handy, and we can join the castle's residents for story time.

We'll visit the local blacksmith first, though, to observe him working on a beautiful shield for King Chariot; he has an in-house dragon for keeping the fires stoked.  We can also meet the wizard Merlin, a garishly painted medicine wagon who recognizes that Putt-Putt is from the future.  He assures us that we'll find everything we are looking for, and his workshop has lots of fun, magical stuff to click on.

We might as well attend story time now, to hear King Chariot reading from the Royal Joke Book... as soon as he selects an appropriate passage.  The jokes are simple puns with kid appeal -- throwing a glass out the window to see "water fall," a cat having "mittens" after swallowing a ball of yarn -- along with more traditional medieval riddles about mirrors and such.

Venturing further into the courtyard, we spot Pep stranded high on a ledge on one of the castle walls.  Putt-Putt can't reach him with his manipulator arm, so we'll need to find some way to get him safely down.  We can't seem to take any of the banners flying around the kingdom to use as a net, so we'll have to venture elsewhere to see if we can come up with something useful.

We can't take any more hay from the Old West, so I'll go into the future.  It's a world of conveyor-belt roads and flying machines.  We can see a Spy Fox constellation through a telescope before we press a button to reverse the direction of auto-mover, allowing us to go downtown.

An auto shop run by a pink hovercar named Miss Electra offers paint job changes, batteries, and other accessories.  She gives Putt-Putt a balloon maker absolutely free, and we can help operate the battery-making machine, really a simple addition game where we must punch a series of digits in the range 1-6 to meet a specified target (e.g., we need to produce a 7 volt battery, so we hit 1 and 6, or 3 and 4, etc. to reach the correct total.)

We might be able to use the balloons to rescue Pep, but he's safe enough for now so we'll explore the future a bit more.  A hovering platform puzzle allows us to teleport from place to place using trial and error, until we reach an arcade machine offering an optional game of "Squoosh," a 3-D Pong contest that reveals images from the game as we hit tiles.  It starts with 4-piece images, advancing to 6 at the fifth level, but I stopped at that point.

A Pet Food machine provides a bag of... something.  Maybe we'll need this to help lure Pep down?  I guess not, because Putt-Putt immediately uses the food to feed a hungry looking cat hanging around the shop.  Ah -- we can set the type of animal we wish to feed using a series of buttons, matching the head, torso and legs on the display.  We can't set it up for dog food, but we can set it up for cat food -- the cat happily eats, then turns into a penguin.  Hmmmm.  Maybe we can take some food to the dragon in the blacksmith's shop?  Nope, and the former-penguin-now-monkey turns green when he tries to eat it.  We can't seem to use the stone bowl we picked up earlier to catch the food, so there's no apparent purpose to this; it's just something to play around with.

Let's visit the local library.  Besides a bunch of punny titles like "Gone With the Windshield" and "Moby Pickup," we can see Mr. Firebird's autobiography -- but it seems we can't read any of the electronic books on offer, so we won't be gaining any insight into our own era.

There's also a museum, featuring artifacts from the ancient past -- including Putt-Putt's lunchbox!  The curator, Art T. Fact, disputes our ownership claims and will only exchange it for another ancient food container -- handily, the stone bowl suffices.  Three down!

Now let's see if we can rescue Pep using the balloon machine.  Yes!  Now that we've got everything rounded up, we automatically return to Cartown to tell Mr. Firebird about our adventures.  He fails to see the value in his discovery and chooses to close the time portal with a big, simple padlock.  Putt-Putt makes it to school in time to deliver a very vivid history report to his classmates, and victory is ours as the credits roll!

The Putt-Putt games are aimed at very young adventurers, obviously, and the puzzles barely qualify as such.  But there's a charming, uncomplicated sense of fun about these games, and I find myself coming back to them from time to time just to appreciate the music, animation, and silly, kid-friendly sense of humor.  It will be a while before I return to Cartown, but I will. 

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