Like most anything with a person’s name as its title, you’re going need to have some foreknowledge or predisposition of the films of the 1920s and the comedy of Charlie Chaplin to get much out of his game. You’ll miss the inherent charm if you’re not familiar with the silent comedies the game mimics. But before you rush out and rent his greatest hits to prepare yourself, I should mention that the game won’t offer much in return. Its premise far outclasses its execution.
You play as a producer for U.S. Gold Pictures, with Charlie in your stable. Scripts pass your desk, which you look over and agree to produce by “signing” the last page. Scripts list props for each scene and the text for the cards between them, allowing you to get a general idea of the extremely simple plots of these extremely simple films.
The picture’s content really doesn’t matter though. Like a real producer, all you care about are the total number of scenes and how they hit your bottom line. You have a limited pool of starting funds to work with, and films with more scenes require more cash to produce. This effectively limits you to smaller, 3-4 scene pictures in the beginning, with the idea being that you will eventually become a mogul and pop out Chaplin epics to the adoration (and flowing moolah) of his ardent fans.
The trouble is that the game appears, at first, more complicated than it actually is. Despite the illusion of planning and financial strategy, you only ever affect one thing about the movie – Chaplin’s performance – as it’s the only aspect you directly control. Your skill in comedic timing results in an undisplayed rise in the quality of the film. Get enough successful “laughs,” and your film will be declared a hit, with box office returns that reflect this. Do poorly, and your initial pool of cash quickly starts bleeding away. This is fine in theory, and sounds like a fitting Chaplin sim on paper. Unfortunately, what the game considers comedy is restricted to very limited platforming attacks.
Once you sign to produce a movie, the previous script pages open up for filming. You select a scene and are immediately taken to the completed set with actors already in place. You control The Little Tramp with the numpad arrow keys, and trigger an action with the numpad 5 key. You’ll never need to read the script, as every scene breaks down into the same general mayhem of Chaplin being chased by cops, jealous boyfriends, haughty socialites, or dodgy ne’er-do-wells. The 5 key swings a punch or kicks them in the shin, with the actual attack decided at random. When ladies are involved, the 5 key slips them a kiss.
The idea is to run around, whapping bad guys and kissing ladies as many times as you can get away with (both which raise your film’s invisible score) while avoiding getting hit by bad guys and knocked down (which lowers your film’s score). That’s it. No, really, that’s it. Every scene in every film is the same free-for-all chaos that looks like kindergartners chasing each other round and round a table.
Despite all the filmmaking and 20’s Hollywood trappings, this is just a simple reflex-based action game. You hit approaching people before they hit you, or you lose. The only additional challenge from the multi-scene pictures is that you’re required to have expert timing more consistently (as you have more scenes). Each scene has to be a hit for the movie to make money, and there’s surprisingly little leeway in what the audience will tolerate.
Despite the fact that I think cops knocking Charlie on his duff is pretty goddamn funny, it does not sit well at all with the audience. Again, you never get a clear indication of what they respond to and how strongly (not even auditory or visual laughs during the screening) so you really have to guess this part out on anecdotal evidence. Getting hit by enemies seems to lower your score drastically. Kicks and kisses seem to raise it marginally. So avoiding blows won’t do it alone – you have to rabidly kick and punch everyone in sight too. For the scene to be a hit, you’ve got to land A LOT of kicks, maybe 20+ in 60 seconds, without ever getting tagged yourself. Multiply that times however many scenes your script calls for, and you’ve got an idea of how difficult this game can be.
Every scene runs automatically for 60 seconds before being cut. Using the rules above, you’ll have an idea of how well you did right away. If not, an “editing” option exists to allow you to review your performance. No actual editing is involved, you simply shuttle back and forth through the scene at variable speeds (still a neat trick for an ’80s game). Realize you fell too many times, or feel like you didn’t land enough kicks, and you can opt to re-shoot the scene. This gets pricey, considering you pay the same cost for each attempt. It’s still better than letting weak scenes through. I’m serious, you won’t at least break even unless Chaplin’s throwing his feet and fists around expertly in every single scene.
When you’re satisfied, or simply out of money, you bite the bullet and release the film. The title appears on the marquee of the theater, and you take a seat for the opening night screening. All the scenes of your film play for your audience just as previously “filmed” (again, pretty neat), and you then read as your film inevitably gets panned on the front page of Variety. The headline will give you a vague idea of how well you’ve done, and the accounting page with box office returns on the next screen gives something more concrete. Despite my best efforts, I only got a “New Chaplin Film Ok,” and even that stuck me with a $300 loss. If it’s any comfort, it at least means the game is no pushover, and the ability to save your progress after a winning flick helps the longevity of trying for a successful career. It’s just a shame that the game offers a challenge in everything but the interesting sections of making and producing a film.
I do have to admit that the game’s a winner in both graphics and sound. Sets look like those from Chaplin’s Keystone days, with film titles to match. The entire game is rendered in black and white to replicate the period films – very nice touch. And Chaplin’s animations are excellent. He waddles around with his signature walk, spins his cane, and has the look down right to his slightly oversized shoes. I especially love how, when you quit the game without making a Hall of Fame score, he strolls out, gives an “oh well” shrug to the camera, and toddles on. Audio is limited to some simple effects to mark hits or falls, but you get some period-esque MIDI tunes during the final screening.
The game really does an excellent job of recreating the look and spirit of Chaplin’s films, but it’s disappointing that the gameplay consists solely of endlessly performing the exact same routine. Even accepting this isn’t a movie production sim, it would have been great to have Chaplin do more for laughs, or play up the slapstick with interactive props to trip and stumble over. Unquestionably, Chaplin kicked a few shins and kissed a few women on the silver screen, but that wasn’t all he did. Unfortunately, it’s all you’ll do in his game.
Visually, a great tribute to Chaplin’s films. Pretty original concept.
Movie production simulation aspects are very limited. Silent comedy is reduced to only one action-friendly gimmick.