Putt-Putt Joins the Parade flashback review
Humongous Entertainment was established over two decades ago (co-founded by Ron Gilbert, creator of the popular Monkey Island series) to provide educational adventures for children of various ages, including series such as Freddi Fish, Pajama Sam, and Spy Fox. Now much of the company’s back catalogue has been re-released, opening up the genre to a whole new generation of kids. The characters and themes are sure to still resonate with children today, and the games provide experiences that are fun while slyly teaching them things like maths or manners.
The first game Humongous produced was Putt-Putt Joins the Parade in 1992, aimed at players aged three to eight. Many of the studio’s design principles are already on display in this debut, such as the fully interactive environments and jolly anthropomorphic characters, but it’s clear in retrospect that this game was created before the studio really found its stride. The art is colourful but is pixelated and lacks the smoothness of later games, and some of the gameplay leaves a lot to be desired. Later Putt-Putt adventures went on to offer a superior experience, while Joins the Parade provides enough fun to hold the attention of any “juniors” seeking point-and-click adventure.
Putt-Putt is a purple car with a permanent grin fixed to his grill and a pair of wide eyes above. He oozes enthusiasm and it’s impossible not to find him endearing. His chirpiness is infectious as he zooms around Cartown being friendly and helpful to everyone he meets. He’s a charming character that young children are sure to love controlling. In this first adventure, Putt-Putt aims to join the titular pet parade, but before being able to march (…or drive) he’s instructed by Smokey the fire engine that he needs to get a wash or new paint job, own a balloon and acquire an animal companion.
Suitably, nearly every character in Cartown is – you guessed it – a car. Although they’re all designed and voiced differently, the trouble is that the majority of them are entirely forgettable due to how little time you spend with any of them. There are loads of cars whose homes you can knock on and get one line out of, but any actual interactions are woefully limited. Mr. Baldini has a curly moustache and owns the grocery store, and Mrs. Airbag is pink with big eyelashes and has lost her son. Beyond them and Smokey, it’s hard to remember anyone else. In actuality, though, the underwhelming supporting cast might not be that problematic. Children can still enjoy their fun designs and Putt-Putt is the main star here.
Putt-Putt is voiced by child actor Jason Ellefson, and is performed very well. There’s an innocence to the voice that suits the character well, and it’s an inquisitive, energetic performance that doesn’t grate. Smokey sounds warm and fatherly, while Mr. Baldini has a terrible Italian accent. From what little you hear of it, the voice acting of the secondary cast is mostly decent, but it’s hard to judge from just a few lines at most. The residents in their homes all have different voices (or varying accents, at least), which helps distinguish them.
In order to get clean, Putt-Putt first has to earn some money to slot into the car wash machine. Handily, Smokey gives him a lawnmower and advises him that some of the local residents would gladly give a coin in exchange for a mowed lawn. There are three coloured streets that can be visited, and Smokey will inform you as to which wants its lawns mowed. Asking uninterested residents will just yield a varied response of “thanks, but no thanks”, which comes across as lazy. It would have been fun for these folk to say something more interesting – a quick story, joke or riddle just to keep the experience fresh.
The actual mowing is presented in a birds-eye grid view, with players clicking to move Putt-Putt around. As he progresses, the grass behind him changes texture to show that the lawn has been mowed. Each yard has a different design, with stone tiles displaying a unique pattern (like a smiley face), but the actual mechanic is dull. Mowing the grass in real life is more fun than it is here. There’s no challenge, nor does it stimulate the brain. In fact, you don’t even have to mow the whole lawn to be rewarded with a coin, although the game never signposts this fact.
Helping out is the basis of most of the puzzles for Putt-Putt in his quest to join the parade. One moment sees the purple convertible locating a lost child amongst a group by referring to a picture to recognise him. Another has Putt-Putt delivering groceries to a local resident or helping a scared dog out of a cave using an item to lure it. The puzzles are very simple, but they’re fun and suitable for the game’s younger age group, although those pushing the top end of its suggested age range will likely find it a bit too obvious. There are times when Putt-Putt announces when he has something in his inventory to solve an onscreen problem, and there is one occasion when he gives away the solution outright. It’s spoken as soon as you arrive at the scene, which removes most of the challenge.
There are a number of side distractions that can be accessed inside the local toy store. These amusements appear small on the shelf, but clicking one will take you to a full screen experience. My favourite was a line-up of four different animals that can be clicked individually, posing jokes to their friends when selected, with the next animal clicked determining who answers. The jokes are amusing and there is a big supply of them. I sat there for a long time enjoying myself before I ever heard a repeat. Elsewhere is a 6x6 grid displaying a fairy tale scene. Each tile can be changed to alter the picture, and although there are many different ‘correct’ images to create, the grid is designed in such a way that you can mix and match the elements to create something more unusual. These two activities are charming diversions from the main game. There’s a third experience involving a ball bouncing down a corkboard, with you placing boards in the way to change the ball’s direction, but I found little entertainment there.
Besides the toy store, the town is host to a number of different locales, including a cinema and a grocery store. Everything is colourfully created in pixelated art, but the more exaggerated bright, zippy Humongous style hadn’t quite been established yet here – perhaps due to technology limitations. Nevertheless, each area is pleasantly but basically designed, like the toy store’s group of performing monkeys in the window and the glowing interior of an old cave. I’d have preferred to see more background objects, as some scenes look a bit minimalistic with limited scenery. Sometimes the only thing to look at is shrubbery, which is a shame.
Travelling around Cartown, players can click on almost everything and get some sort of reaction. Flowers will dance, fish will jump out the water, and a duck will poke its head from behind a bush. Although these interactions aren’t quite as inventive as they would become in later Humongous games, it’s still fun to click on everything and watch it burst to life. Oftentimes repeated clicks lead to a different response, rewarding those who thoroughly check out everything on offer. There are some locations that provide no actual purpose, often en route to somewhere else, so children are sure to appreciate the experimentation offered.
It’s also a great way to get them used to the simple point-and-click interface. Left-clicking handles all the work (click to talk, move off screen, etc.) and you never need to manually direct Putt-Putt’s movements, so children should have no problem getting to grips with the controls. Putt-Putt’s dashboard remains fixed to the bottom of the screen, showing his speedometer, petrol gauge, horn and radio, some of which are needed to solve puzzles. There’s also an inventory, which houses things that Putt-Putt picks up along the way. There are never many items gathered at once, nor any combining required, with an item simply needing to be clicked once to be used in the current scene. It’s an effective interface, and presenting it as a car dashboard is a neat touch.
As you’d expect in a children’s game, the music is cheery and blips along at a merry pace. It’s nothing memorable, but it sets a jolly ambiance and makes everything feel a bit friendlier. Surprisingly, it doesn’t get repetitive or boring, which is commendable since it’s playing all the time. The sound effects are great, especially when clicking things in the environment that make silly noises as they move. Whether it’s the “that tickles!” of a melon, the whirl of a flower or the giggle of dice (you read all that right!), this is a world that sounds just like a cartoon.
It only took me forty minutes to play through the game, ensuring I experienced absolutely everything on offer. Of course, that’s not indicative of the time it’ll take young children, but the content does feel rather limited, and a little more interaction with others or bigger areas to explore would have gone a long way. There’s no replay value either, like the alternative paths with different objectives offered in other Humongous series. Nevertheless, this game was a noble first effort from Gilbert’s then-fledgling studio and even now does a decent job of introducing its likeable car star. Although the gameplay is dull at times, and the six follow-up adventures in the series all improved on the formula established here, Putt-Putt Joins the Parade has an appealing, light-hearted tone that children are sure to enjoy even if the experience never reaches top gear.