When you’re writing a review of any older game that you remembered fondly as a child you always get “the fear” that you’re perhaps going to taint fond memories. Not everything ages well, and through the naive eyes of childhood almost every game has an element of fun to it.
One of my all-time favourite games – when I was a kiddywink – was Benefactor. Now, it’s one I suspect a good number of you won’t have heard of, so here’s a brief synopsis. Ben E. Factor is a space cadete and all-round good guy hero who receives a distress message from the suspiciously Lemming like “Merry Men” – a tribe of people who have been kidnapped by evil space aliens called the Miniatians. There’s a little more to the story than that – but ultimately I never played the game to find out what happened next as a youngster, as you never really found out. There was story at the start, and (I presume – I was never good enough to reach this point) the end, but it was pure gameplay other than that, no cut-scenes or even text to progress the plot.
So if it’s a game that relies on gameplay, and it’s nearly 20 years since Benefactor was out, there’s a real chance that its age could ruin fond memories, after all, there has to be a REASON why absolutely nobody talks about it or looks back at it, right? Right??
Well, when I popped Disk one into my Amiga drive and nervously sat at my monitor I was rather pessimistic. I’m a big retro gamer so I can’t really justify why, that’s just how I felt. As I waited for it to load the intro played and I really started to feel nostalgic. I’d not played this game since the mid-90s, and here I was, reunited with a piece of my childhood once again.
And what a piece it was. When the game finally started I was immediately struck by how small the sprites are. It’s not something that I even considered “back in the day” but now it really stood out to me. Think Knytt Stories, and that’s the sort of size we’re talking here – except more noticeable. But heck, it didn’t make an iota of a difference – the game is still phenomenal.
The aim, as you’d suspect, is to save the poor, imprisoned Merry Men. What you’ve got is a sort of puzzle-platformer, and it’s certainly not like any game I’ve played before or since. I suppose you could compare the ambling nature of the Merry Men (once you’ve released them they can be used to help solve puzzles) to the DMA Design classic Lemmings, but that’s a bit of a stretch.
Ben has to watch his Merry Men like a hawk though, and throw, carry and utilise them to help solve some of the rather taxing puzzles dotted around this intriguing world you find yourself in. As you progress you’ll discover “evil” Merry Men – they’ve had the colour zapped out of them by the bad guys and when they’re released simply walk aimlessly like mindless zombies (or…erm…Lemmings) – you have to help restore their colour using a special machine before they do themselves some damage, and your game comes to an abrupt end.
The game has sixty, sometimes sprawling, levels of varying content – there’s the Underworld, an underground sort of place where you begin, there’s an Egypt themed stretch of levels, a haunted house section (which I could never get past as a child), a futuristic themed batch – all in all slightly Crystal Maze-esque I suppose.
If you have an Amiga, this shamefully forgotten classic is something you should really go out of your way to find. It’s available for pennies on eBay, and there’s a CD-32 version of the game too if that’s your sort of thing. The small sprites would make it a difficult game to play on an Iphone or Ipad, but it would work well on XBLA, for example. It’s addictive, compelling, and strangely emotional – you become weirdly attached to the slightly kamikaze-mentalitied Merry Men. Do yourself a favour, and play this incredible game.