Gearheads: Finally 25

Sometimes this blog fulfills the opposite of its purpose. I made a three posts a couple of weeks ago about Gearheads, a game that I own on physical media and that therefore qualifies as a true element of the Stack, but I stopped playing it after those two posts, and it’s partly because I doubted I’d have anything more of interest to say about it. It’s cute, and it launched a couple of successful game design careers, but it’s not very deep strategically, and it has no plot. Its whole attitude is that of old coin-op arcade games: you can pick up what it’s about in a second, and that’s not conducive to lengthy analysis.

The controls, too, are arcade-oriented, or perhaps Atari-2600-oriented: it’s clearly designed for each player to have their own four-direction joystick with one button, and the fact that it plays from a keyboard instead can only be attributed to it having been released at an awkward time for PC joystick support. The vertical axis switches which lane you place your toys on — the movement of toys isn’t constrained to lanes, but their initial placement is, which can be awkward when you’re trying to place blockers. The horizontal axis is used to cycle through your toys. Searching through your toy collection this way takes valuable time, which motivates the player to stick with one sort of toy for a while before switching. Which is exactly how the AI plays in One Player Tournament mode, thank goodness. I imagine it would be very difficult to play against an opponent who switches tactics more frequently.

Now, in a normal One Player Tournament level, you get a random assortment of four toys to use. This means the time spent cycling through your collection is never too bad, even if every second counts. But levels 10, 11, 22, 23, and presumably 34 and 35 (which I haven’t reached yet) give you access to all the toys. And despite how good that sounds, it’s basically a bad thing, because it means you can spend a lot more time searching for the toy you want. Maybe the solution is to voluntarily limit yourself to a span of four consecutive ones. Would that work? I don’t know. I only just got through level 23 today, and not by doing that.

Mainly I feel like I pass levels by luck, and finally getting through the second twelvesome of levels was just a matter of playing until all the dice fell in my favor. That is, there definitely is some skill involved, consisting of the rapid application of learned responses to changing circumstances, but there’s a lot that goes on that’s chaotic and unpredictable and beyond your control. Except, that is, in those puzzle-like special levels where both sides are limited to one toy. Not coincidentally, these are definitely my favorite levels.

Level 24 was a particularly good one: it gives the player Krush Kringle and the opponent Orbit. Winning this match-up isn’t so much a matter of getting your guys across the screen as of deflecting the opponent’s toys back, but you have to get the timing and spacing of the Kringles just right to accomplish this. Once I finally reached this level, it took me two tries — and, since I can now start from level 25, I never have to do it again. In other games, I’d take the ability to skip solved levels for granted, but here, I’ve had to restart from level 13 so many times.

And to be clear, that’s a self-imposed restriction. The game lets you start from level 25 whenever you like. But what kind of completist would I be if I didn’t play through all the levels?


1 Comment so far

  1. Thorin N. Tatge on 4 Aug 2023

    You say that Gearheads didn’t have any deep strategy or plot, and there wasn’t much to say about it. Well, I don’t know! Okay, not deep strategy maybe, but it had middling strategy. I’m thinking of times when there was a huge cluster of things on the screen slowly working its way toward one side, and then they got caught in a portal or ice floe or something that complicated things, and I would have to decide whether to try and plow through with heavy hitters to win the race, punch through the dead toys with Kanga, and try and sneak through some quick Orbits or Ziggys or Handys. (Man, a rocket at those moments was a beautiful windfall!) Times when I would carefully watch the clock and release a toy at exactly eight o’clock (or whatever) in order to get a slow, progressive numbers advantage against my opponent doing the same thing. Times when I would be desperately trying to hold back a tide with Disasteroids that would instantly burn out, leaving the field charred full of corpses, and then switch to launching the occasional fully launched toy. And so on.

    Okay, I was just a teenager, but I found it strategically interesting. I even went so far as to make a table on graph paper of 1-on-1 matches to see how many I could win. Something like 80% seemed to be winnable, including some unintuitive combinations!

    As for the game having no plot… sadly true. So I remedied that. While I was working my first job in the college dining hall, waiting for juice machines to need refilling, I started thinking of the game’s cast as a tiny society living in a vast mechanical wasteland, who got along and ran things with their different interests and abilities as best they could… until they started getting murdered! In a world where there are only twelve people (plus assorted chicks that hardly count), who would be so depraved as to start killing them off?

    In my spare time at college, I wrote some of this murder mystery out in as literary a voice as I could muster at the time. There were even special flashbacks for each third chapter, as a parallel for the bonus levels. Let me know and I’d be glad to share what I’ve still got.

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