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Thomas The Tank Engine

Part 3 of the Alternative Comedy series.

Children's television was strange. As bonfire night approached, little more than an hour could separate Thomas The Tank Engine and body horror shorts. Despite fuss over video nasties, similar film styles aimed at children were acceptable, because education.

Fireworks, electricity, cars, and fire were all shown to kill or maim the unwary. Also, trains, which were already intimidating enough without screams and fast cuts. Thomas piled on further tension, characters like the Troublesome Trucks ensuring that some accidents were unavoidable. Play Safe, but die regardless.

With good proportions, accurate colour, and smart highlighting, this is nearly the best loading screen. However, Thomas seems rather boxed in by dead space and logos, and his face looks more dirty than shaded. Postman Pat is creepy, but part of a better composition, so consider this a tie for first place. Sound effects match Sooty's, though the brasher theme music suffers less in translation.

The Fat Controller has entrusted Thomas to complete seven tasks, setting the scene for a jolly little game consistent with the show. There is a choice of Easy or Normal mode.

Thomas must be directed through a left-to-right sequence of flick screens, pausing to collect cargo on the way. This can be anything from passengers to a tractor, though disappointingly, the same carriage graphic is used each time.

On Easy, each level can be completed in about one of the seven allocated minutes, even hitting the occasional dead ends. Other trains only appear if hesitating, which seems harsh on computer novices, while anyone who can keep moving will complete this first go.

It looks good enough, slightly gritty, though far less so than Postman Pat. Sooty has neater screen redrawing, but there's no tearing while in motion. The scenery is similar on each route, but the final destination screens are distinctive. There's a novel visual timer, a nice level selection screen, and the Fat Controller wags his finger at you for each mistake.

The trouble is, there's not much to do other than move from left to right, hurried by the threat of rogue trains. With the addition of signals, level crossings, and shunting puzzles, this could have entertained children for much longer. Perhaps Normal mode is the true challenge.

The Finishing Line, though not strictly a public information film, is my second favourite. Rather than generic builds to bangs, which taught me to fear safety education, the style is mostly dispassionate, more trusting of the audience to think for themselves.

It recognises that vandalism, trespass, and similar transgressions are thrilling. It's a fine study of the group dynamics behind such behaviour, how posturing peers collapse under pressure. In this fantasy, it's normal for children to break fences, play chicken, throw stones, and explore railway tunnels. Casualties are common, not cause for drawn-out screaming, so the quiet aftermath leaves space to understand what has been shown.

The difference between participating in The Finishing Line, and Thomas on Normal mode, is that you have a small chance of surviving the former. Thomas introduces random rubble, occasionally on the only route forward, which is the least of your concerns.

Other trains now appear much sooner, often before you can cross a screen. Their direction is random, and they always travel at full speed, so half the time you must rapidly reverse or die. Collision detection only considers graphical interference, so it's possible to get hit when on a different section of track. Each incident randomly sends you back two screens or to the start, even after collecting children destined for the seaside.

Rubble changes position each time the screen is redrawn, so you have to flick back and forth until a path is clear. Releasing the movement keys stops Thomas dead, so having relocated rubble in your favour, a train may ram you from behind before you can reach full speed again.

Travelling at full speed causes random derailment on bends.

The Fat Controller is only in control of an attempt at constructive dismissal. Rather than suspend operations, clear the tracks, and enforce signalling, Thomas is held entirely responsible for anarchy on the railways.

A glitch prevents loss of speed when changing direction, triggered by holding two keys before releasing the first, yet I still couldn't complete a single level after two painful hours. At least I discovered noteworthy similarities between the theme music and Are Friends Electric?

If you can beat one level on Normal, then you are either remarkably persistent or lucky. Even with superhuman reflexes; random rubble, trains, and derailments will probably fall in your favour on less than one in ten attempts.

Because failing one level means Game Over, completing all seven seems impossible within human lifespan. Perhaps the creators wanted to prove that their paymasters performed only cursory checks of music and graphics, ignoring all else. They could have at least warned players by calling this mode Cruel and Unusual Punishment.

This game is both ridiculously easy and impossible. Loading and theme tune included, it provides fifteen minutes of fun then centuries of pain. Still, better than Count Duckula 2.

The series concludes, for now.

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Published 23-04-2018.