I'LL TELL YOU a tale, lads. A tale of a toad, a fighting toad, hopping to the rescue of a toad-queen. A toad of distinction, battling the vile squelchings of the Rygellian Slime Things to rescue his lady from the Sludge Saw which threatens to slice her warty loveliness from web to web.
A tale of the greatest hero of his race, the tale of the Cosmic Wartoad.
Alternatively, we could describe the latest line in software from Denton Designs via Ocean, and leave the amphibian fantasies to the cassette blurb.
Cosmic Wartoad is a mix of arcade and strategy, as we've come to expect from the programmers of Enigma Force and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. But it's a much lighter effort than those two soft operas, and really represents an effort to tie several standard shoot-'em-up concepts together within a long quest.
Play takes place across an 8x8 grid of time nodes, through which you move one at a time. Each node is occupied by one or more waves of slime monsters, which you have to defeat to progress. There is also a network of roads 'to nowhere and somewhen' which allow you to jump several nodes at once if you have collected the keys which open the roads.
To reach the queen and rescue her from the Sludge Saw you must traverse the grid from top right to bottom left - a minimum of 14 moves, according to Denton Designs. But you can't disable the hideous machine without collecting eight items of a cosmic tool kit along the way. Those include stellar fish, a chronosynclastic Stanley knife, and a Zippo lighter - funny once, completely irrelevant twice.
The graphics are smooth, competent and moderately fast-moving, but since the game falls into fairly simple sections anyway, they are not particularly breathtaking. The toad itself is large and fun to look at, and the monsters are different in behaviour and appearance.
First there's the Slime Master, which produces small slime pawns to protect itself. Those home in on you, but shooting them with your Constant Recoil Alpha-Pellet Gun is not much use as you'll only win by zapping the big slime itself. Touching it is instant death, although all other monsters simply reduce your energy, and you have to hit it many times to destroy it.
Then there's the Sludge Slug, a set of squidgy space invaders which drop gobbets of muck on you like a flock of mutant pigeons. You can only move along the bottom of the screen - draw the slugs into attack and then run, turn and fire.
Finally you must deal with the Frenzied Flies, Galaxian-type nasties which come at you four at a time, homing in like the slime pawns. The cassette blurb says they are particularly dangerous adversaries, but I found them a doddle compared to the Slime Master.
Defeating the monsters is done on a sort of tug-of-war basis. A bar chart or similar indicator goes up if they hit you and down again if you hit them, so it's not just a question of killing a specific number to move on to the next level. Each monster comes in four tasteful colours. Red is the most dangerous, then purple, yellow and white - and you have to go through each shade to win. For example, if you get lumbered with the purple Slime Masters, and manage to defeat them, you then get the yellow ones and finally the white ones before you are given a new monster to fight or put back on grid to make a new move.
Apart from your gun you also get Times Ultrasonic Robotic Defenders which look like small eggs deposited by your toad every time you score a thousand points. Those operate on the Slime Master and Frenzied Fly screens, and any pawns or flies that collide with them are stuck until the defender decays. In keeping with the Tug-of-War style play, there are two scores - toad points for you and slime points for the computer. The difference between the two scores affects the lasting power of the defenders.
You get three lives with which to cross the grid, but the game is not over if you lose them all - instead you are sent back to the beginning again. Meanwhile the Sludge Saw has descended closer to the body of the toad queen, and the points totals are carried over - you have 90 minutes of real time before the saw reaches the queen. That is an unusual feature of play, and gives you an opportunity to explore the grid quite thoroughly.
The final feature concerns the gun, which eventually runs out of ammunition. That can be replenished on certain nodes, and your path will have to include several of those if you have any chance of finishing the game. Thus you progress, playing sets of simple arcade games - though by no means easy to win - and trying to discover a reasonably safe route across the grid as you go.
The ridiculously over-the-top scenario and blurb is almost like a satire on those space games where the over-hyped cassette covers bear virtually no relation to the game itself. Surprisingly, Cosmic Wartoad is extremely playable, pleasant on the eyes, and thoroughly addictive - proving once again that you don't need 500 locations and state-of-the-art 3D megawotsits to make a good game.
Programmers: Denton Designs
Joystick: Kempston, Sinclair, cursor