It will take you 8 minutes to read this review.
When free games get an HD commercial remake, the question that’s always necessary to ask is whether the remake is worth buying when you can just play the original for free. This was in the back of my mind when I played Alasdair Beckett-King’s Nelly Cootalot: Spoonbeaks Ahoy! HD, an enhanced version of the 2007 freeware game of the same name. Having played through both back to back, I can safely say that yes, the remake is better than the original in every way and easily worth the budget purchase price. This is a soulful update that keeps the original’s hilarious script intact but now with cleaner visuals, fully voiced dialogue, redone music, and slightly streamlined gameplay that any fan of classic-styled adventures can enjoy.
Our story begins inside a dingy ship, where Nelly is taking a nap. Suddenly, out of the depths appears the ghost of Captain William Bloodbeard, a pirate who is the (self-described) ‘Scourge of the south seas, and champion of all creatures sweet and defenceless’. He explains to Nelly that she is now to inherent the title, and that the isle known as the Barony of Neeth has seen its population of Spoonbeak birds mysteriously vanish. Nelly gladly accepts, as she’s a fan of Spoonbeaks, and with his final phantasmal moments, Bloodbeard conjures currents to send Nelly towards her destination. As our heroine reaches shore, she proclaims “It’s Nellytime”, and thus her swashbuckling outing begins.
The tone of this adventure is continually lighthearted throughout. Even during the more sinister moments of the story, the stakes feel much like a cartoon, where you know everything is going to be fine. Contributing most to this amusing atmosphere is the dialogue, which is the strongest aspect of Nelly’s journey. The script is filled with charming puns and modern day references that range from clever (like the drunk pirate named “Captain Rehab”) to so-bad-they’re-good groaners such as Nelly calling a wall-mounted fish “The Da Vinci Cod” or an alluringly new yet extremely pricey pirate hook called the “iHook”. While there is an expectedly strong theme of high seas piracy throughout the story, you’ll spend your whole journey as a landlubber, using Nelly’s quick thinking and weird interactions with other characters to carry a straightforward but nonetheless entertaining narrative.
It’s the merry crew of island inhabitants that bring much of the wonderful script to life, with such favourites as the Baron Widebeard, who loves hearing himself talk; Sabastian the posh-sounding former bird companion to Bloodbeard, who acts as a guide to Nelly on being his successor; and Hortense, the elderly but sassy leader of the Dignified Ladies Association, who have been tasked with building a flying machine to circle the earth in mere seconds (nothing could possibly go wrong there!). Many others end up impeding Nelly’s quest, as most don’t seem to mind the Spoonbeaks being gone and will only help Nelly if she helps them first, like picking the right pirate tattoo to prove you’re a real pirate or counterfeiting Bloodbeard’s signature. Even the more diabolical characters aren’t completely hateable; the Baron and his wife still had me laughing with just how obnoxious their egos were. For an island this small, it has a strong and varied cast that makes you want to keep playing just to see where it all leads and to meet more zany islanders.
Nelly herself is also quite the endearing protagonist. She’s a pirate, so she’s obviously not above the usual skullduggery and occasional lie to get her way if it means saving the Spoonbeaks, of course. Yet she’s also quite cheery and always politely introduces herself when given the chance. It’s a fun dichotomy for her character, in which she can take advantage of the elderly and their poor eyesight one minute and complain that a carnival game is rigged the next. Despite her courteous tendencies, she also has a witty but not-so-polite comment about every NPC or item she comes across, and she especially doesn’t mind making fun of the Baroness, with quite a number of jokes coming at the expense of her (admittedly large) behind. Nelly manages to find that sweet spot of having the usual adventure hero sass, but also come off as a genuine person who’s willing to help people and mostly do the right thing.
The controls work quite simply, using the left mouse button to interact with people and items and walk around 2.5D environments, while the right button is used to have Nelly offer a comment. The inventory (which is appropriately named ‘booty’) is conveniently hidden at the top of the screen in a drop-down menu. The island is segmented into six different medium-sized areas, with three being available from the start and the rest added as you progress. Near the beginning you get a map, which can be pulled up from any location for fast travel to one of the other major locations. Though Nelly has a moderate walking speed, thanks to the small areas and map feature, backtracking never feels like much of an issue. An optional highlighter usually marks all hotspots on-screen with a classic pirate map-styled ‘x’ for a few seconds before disappearing. This is quite a handy feature, as a few objects have a habit of blending into their backgrounds.
Most of the puzzles follow the familiar path of finding and having the right item for the right place, occasionally after combining them first, but they’re done creatively and end up serving more to make you laugh than test your problem-solving skills. Some of the best examples involve constructing a makeshift flag and cat burgling the Baron’s home. A couple instances also have Nelly “disguise” herself, complete with a bad Italian accent and nothing but a scrawny mustache stuck to her face, an absurdity trick that entertainingly fools more than one person. A handful puzzles take a more complex turn and require patience, such as decoding a special pirate code known as “piraglyphics” and successfully operating a rather intricate lever sequence. They’re far from brain-melting but ended up keeping me on my toes and were a welcome change from the standard (if outlandish) inventory formula.
Second only to the tightly written script is the delightful visual presentation. The landscapes and people of Neeth are stylized in a simplistic yet boundlessly charming art style. The backdrops look like they’ve come straight out of a treasure map, with sketch-like line art that looks personal, filled in with slightly washed-out colours that purposely go outside the lines. Each of the six major areas looks unique, my personal favourites being Widebeard’s tower on the hill and the comfy charm of Market Street with its three working shops. The human settlements look slightly rundown, but plenty of greens, greys and browns represent the natural beauty of this island’s sandy shores and lush tropical landscape. This aesthetic matches the game’s tone to a tee – as the world and its rules are non-conforming, so is its whimsical design.
The character models are slightly more detailed, with smoother lines, exaggerated shapes and more colours to help them pop from the locales they inhabit. The cast is diverse and each character is memorably distinct: no-nonsense shopkeeper Mme Leatherette has a bonnet-like ‘50s hair style that demands respect when you’re in her domain; the vaguely Norse-sounding weapon dealers Bjorn and Olafssen have horned helmets and thick beards to match their thick accents; and the blind tollbooth operator Jimmy Thimble appropriately wears sunglasses, carries a banjo and sings small bits of bluesy lyrics if you stick around long enough. Nelly’s red lair, eyepatch and long dress ensure that you never lose track of where she is.
Most characters don’t move much but all have unique idle gestures, like captain Rehab taking swigs out of his mug and Jimmy tuning his banjo. Nelly is given the most animation, of course, though most of the time she’ll face away from the camera and either kneel to pick something up, or just simply turn away for a few seconds while an appropriate sound effect plays to give the illusion that she’s doing something. It’s a clever way to cut down on animations without making it look cheap, and it never felt jarring in my three-hour playthrough.
The audio is also well done, with most significant locations and even some individual rooms having unique music, such as the beachside Barnacle tavern and the tollgate area, where you’ll probably only remain for about five minutes. Each theme carries a nautical or tropical motif, with the beach area featuring steel drums to evoke the feeling of a hot and humid but upbeat locale, and the Market Street using a mix of brass and woodwind instruments. What’s good about the score is that instead of consisting of short, repetitive pieces, they can go on for at least a minute or longer before looping, and all are catchy to varying degrees. Widebeard’s Tower roof is my personal favourite track thanks to its incorporation of chimes and wind into the music that really makes you feel like you’re high in the sky.
The sound effects are clean and deliver just the right amount of impact for more comical moments. The ambience is quite fitting too, with the squawks of seabirds and waves crashing onto the shore. Nelly even gets specific footfall effects when trudging through sand, hardwood floors, stony landscapes, and grassy fields. It’s a small thing, but such attention to detail could’ve been easily, and its presence shows how much thought went into the audio design.
As for voice acting, when starting a new game the developer himself appears in a video to explain there are only two actors for everyone, himself and “the real Nelly”, and that if you don’t like it, you can turn it off at any time. Despite the self-deprecation, the comic delivery by both actors is spot-on, and each does a great job of providing a wide range of voices. I honestly forgot a bunch of NPCs were performed by the same person while I played. The best voice work comes from Nelly herself and Sabastian the bird, who sounds really dignified and is a treat when he deadpans his answers to Nelly’s weird or stupid questions.
The game ran fine for the most part, with a few minor exceptions. A couple of audio glitches occurred when entering an area for the first time, and the intro video with Alasdair also stuttered the first time but worked every other time. There were also a couple places where Nelly got stuck in the background and couldn’t move, but this was easily fixable by fast traveling to another area. So, while not entirely polished, I certainly didn’t encounter any problems that threatened to ruin the journey.
There’s no question that Spoonbeaks Ahoy is a fun point-and-click adventure that any adventure game fan should play. But for those who already played the original version, we must return to the first question: is the remake worth buying to enjoy it again? Well, the script and puzzles remain unchanged, but there are some notable differences in presentation. While the actual artwork is the same, the HD edition supports high resolution, which means clean lines rather than the pixelated upsized graphics of its predecessor. The audio is also another big improvement, with the remake having higher quality music than the original’s MIDI-style sound. The interface has been slightly streamlined too, replacing the earlier verb wheel method for interacting with hotspots. And then there’s the excellent voice acting, which is an entirely new addition to the commercial remake. To me the updated visuals and sounds are worth the very reasonable price of admission alone, but the interface change is also a welcome addition.
Whether playing again or for the first time, overall Nelly Cootalot: Spoonbeaks Ahoy! HD is a short but highly entertaining adventure that is chock full of witty humor, fun characters, and creative puzzles. The remake wisely keeps what made the original so enjoyable while enhancing an already impressive cartoon-styled presentation, making it look and sound better than ever. You can still play the original for free, but so much is improved that it’s worth buying this time around, supporting a talented indie developer in the process.